Tag Archives: Buddha

Buddha’s Death – Myth


There are many, many stories about Buddha and many variations on each story. My mother told me one such story about his death – by poison. 

In Burmese culture, Buddhist monks do not have possessions or any source of income. They are meant to be separate from society and free of worldly attachments. However, this means that if they want to eat they must often beg for offerings from Buddhist civilians. They travel around the streets with a special offering bowl and eat whatever people put in it. They must eat everything to show their thanks and to avoid waste or greed. Buddha himself also abided by this rule, and on one particular day was offered a meal of rice, cakes, and mushrooms (or some other sort of vegetable). Buddha had some inhuman powers because of his enlightenment, and was able to immediately tell that the mushrooms were poisonous. Buddha ate the entire meal anyways because he had to as an enlightened being. He died, but it is not seen as a tragic event. Buddha knew he was ready to die and willingly accepted the poison.


My mother learned a great deal of Buddha stories from her grandmother. This was the primary way she was instructed to live her life, and the primary way in which she was taught Buddhism. My mother no longer practices Buddhism to the same extent that she did when she was younger, but she did teach my sister and I how to properly pray and how to be good people (based on Buddha’s teachings). My mother related this story to the monks that we used to see at Burmese temple – we would always donate food to them when we visited. 


I believe this story has more close ties to Burmese culture than some other Buddha stories. It incorporates an element of Burmese culture that might be uncommon in other cultures. I think it also helps Buddhists accept death when it finds them, whether it is of old age or of something more sudden. It also might help them forgive people who make mistakes or who have malicious intentions. It carries the message that if one is prepared to die, death is not a tragedy. Furthermore, it is more important to live an enlightened life than it is to live a long life.

Buddha’s Birth Story – Myth


This story comes from Burmese Buddhist teachings. My mother learned it from her grandmother.

Before Buddha’s birth, a white elephant came to see his pregnant mother. My mother could not remember the significance of this, but did remember that Buddha was not born naturally – he magically emerged from the side of his mother’s womb. The “natural” way was seen as impure, and this was a sign of his enlightenment. As soon as he was born, he was able to walk. He did not cry or act like a baby. Instead, he walked across a lake to sit by a lotus flower and meditate. 

There are other versions of this story, and the more complete telling involves a dream of Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya. In the dream, the white elephant carries a lotus flower and strikes Maya on her side. Then, Brahmin monks were called to interpret the dream, and advised the king and queen to let their son leave the home so he could become Buddha. If he stayed, he would become a world conqueror.


My mother heard lots of religious stories from her grandmother. This was the main method that Buddhism was taught to her – from parables about Buddha’s life. My mother is no longer very religious but the morals that she learned from these stories have stuck with her for her whole life. Despite marrying a non-Buddhist, she taught my sister and I how to properly pray and sometimes used examples from Buddhism to teach us how to be good people. My parents wanted us to be exposed to both Christianity and Buddhism so that when we were older we would have a solid foundation if we decided to practice either.


I always found Buddhism interesting because even though there are some deities that vary throughout different types of Buddhism, the main recipient of prayer is someone who was still a human. My mother always emphasized that Buddha was just a human who achieved enlightenment. She made it seem that technically, anyone could become a Buddha. It certainly wouldn’t be easy, but it would be possible. This belief may not be common to all types of Buddhism. Anyways, this origin story seems like it undermines that belief. Buddha had a more “pure” birth than the rest of us so we’re all already all off to a rough start. This story lends Buddha a lot of mythical elements, which I think helps make him a figure worthy of prayer. I also don’t think the point of Buddhism (for most people) is to fully achieve enlightenment, even if that is technically possible – it’s just to follow in Buddha’s example and have a positive impact on the world and people around us.

Wonhyo and the Skull Water

Main Piece:

The following was transcribed from a conversation between the interviewer and the informant.

Informant: Korean culture is built on Confucianism and Buddhist teachings are very common. So a lot of proverbs, old sayings, and things like that nature are based on these concepts. A very famous story that’s even relevant today is Wonhyo. Wonhyo was an early Buddhist monk, a scholar, and a philosopher in Shinla dynasty, which is around like during the 600s. The story goes that he was on his way to China for essentially a study abroad. One night on his journey, he found a cave to take shelter in and decided to spend the night there. Inside the cave he found a bucket of water, and because he was thirsty he drank it all and it was delicious- tasted like water. Next morning, we woke up and realized that it was actually a human skull not a bucket, and the water was actually like some remnants from the brain basically. He learned from that incident that everything is up to your own beliefs, because like he believed the water to be good and his body in part made him to believe that, you know, so he decided not to pursue the study abroad and came back to Shinla (Korea).

Interviewer: Can you give me examples of how this story has become modernized? How do people nowadays use it?

Informant: It’s mostly like for comedic, or funny situations. Like for example, I saw this post on Twitter that basically this girl who works at Subway ran out of salt, so whenever a customer would ask for more salt she’d had to shake an empty salt shaker just to front. But apparently one customer complained that there was too much salt in their sandwich. In that situation, Koreans would describe it as the ‘skull salt shaker’, it’s like you add skull in front of the object in question, that makes the joke.

Interviewer: Why and how do you think a story that old stayed relevant even till this day?

Informant: I think with stories like these, the older the better, because they’re so distanced from any time specific things that it makes the story almost universal. And it’s just a relatable morale, everything depends on how you decided to look at it, that’s something that people can think about, no matter what year it is.


The informant is a student living in Seoul, Korea. She’s finished all her general education (from elementary to high school) in Korea, and now currently goes to a college in Seoul. She describes that the first time she read about the story of Wonhyo was through a history text book in 5th grade. Even though the informant isn’t a practicing Buddhist (she describes herself as atheist, like most Koreans), these beliefs and teachings are widely accepted and used disregard one’s religious beliefs.


The conversation took place over the phone, while the informant was alone in her college dorm, in a safe and comfortable environment.

My thoughts:

Upon doing some research, I learned that there are a few different versions of the story of Wonhyo. In the Japanese telling, Wonhyo went inside a cave only to learn next morning that it was actually a grave (so the water and skull is absent in this version). In another telling, it’s the combination of the two- he went inside a grave and drank the skull water. No matter which version of the story is the most faithful to what actually happened, the central morale of the tale remains the same.

Chinese Buddhism Myth

Informant: “The story is that Buddha is sitting under a tree and this eagle comes to him. The eagle is not normal eagle but is like a monster. Buddha sees that this eagle is evil and hungry, so he starts to cut flesh off his body and feed it to the monster. The monster is still hungry so Buddha cuts more flesh off of him. Eventually he has no more of his body to give to the evil eagle who is now full. He gave his body to stop the evil eagle from eating other people.”

Collector: “What do you take that to mean?”

Informant: “It is basically stating to be compassionate and always give. In Buddha teaching you should give away your body for other people and to always help other people.

Collector: “Why do you think it is an eagle and not a snake or any other animal?”

Informant: “I’m not sure. *laughs* Maybe like birds that eat old flesh? I don’t know.”

Context: This myth was gathered after a lecture at USC on Buddhism and its derivations in western culture. The informant was from China, attended the lecture, and had learned this myth reading many years ago while still living in China. Her English was broken which perhaps may alter the translation of this myth.

Collector Analysis: The mythology around the Buddha is complex and varied. There are many stories that this myth mimics like the story of Buddha throwing his body off to hungry lions for similar reasons as this myth. Although there are many different types of Buddhism, it is common belief that the poisons in humanity revolve around clinging/desire, rage, and ignorance. Each of these poisons are related to animals. The clinging relates to a bird, rage relates to a snake, and ignorance relates to a boar. This story which shows Buddha releasing his body to the evil eagle perhaps parallels to birds representing the poison of clinging. It may show that people should not cling to their bodies vainly, and to give it to the benefit of others.

Dreaming of Buddha

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: This is the story of an accident that happened to my roommate’s mother when she was young.

Dialogue: Um… I don’t remember how old she was, probably between, you know, 10 and 13. Um, she was playing hide and seek, and was in a two-story house, um, and she really wanted to be tough to find, so she climbed up out on the balcony, on the railing I think, and held on to the opposite side of the railing. Um… After that she accidentally let go and fell two stories and… landed on the ground, uh…

What happened after that, when she was unconscious. She had this dream where… uh, it was completely dark. She was looking around, and she could see these demons coming up everywhere, um, including the Devil I think, and so, her reaction was like, “What do I do, there’s demons all around me, there’s total darkness?!?” And then this light appears. I think it’s supposed to be the Buddha, is what she said, and it says, “Hey, uh… Don’t go towards those demons! Come towards me, that’s what you should do, that’s gonna be good.” Uh, so she goes on, she, you know, runs past those demons, heads to the light, and when she comes to, um, her whole family is, like, around her cuz she fell two stories, and they say she is completely unharmed. She gets back up, like, good as new, and, um… ever since then she’s been quite a bit more religious.

Analysis: I debated whether or not this deserved a “miracle” tag based on the fact that a two-story fall resulted in absolutely no injuries. I’m impressed by the fact that a single dream brought about a life-long change, but I suppose it is because views on religion in America and views on religion in Vietnam are different. It would be interesting to hear the dream told from the mother herself, though, just to get as much detail as possible on what happened while she was unconscious.