Friday, May 21, 2010

Happy Buddha's Birthday

In Korea, Buddha's birthday is celebrated today, May 21. It is a national holiday and celebrated in much the same way Christians celebrate Christmas values.

Buddhist monks in Korea are for the most part celibate, so celibacy is a value that Koreans have little difficulty in accepting. Ascetics play a major role in the training of a monk, and there is no end to study and devotion to one's faith. Meditation on greed, on suffering and the nature of the self, and the impermanence of material things is an important part of their life. Integrity and simplicity are stressed. These are values that most religious people acknowledge.

In a recent interview in a daily newspaper, a well known monk was asked, Why did Buddha come? "We have within us," he answered, "unknown to us, a treasure house of jewels which allows us to live a truly full life. In the West, there is the separation of the 'you' and the 'I', the separation of God and humanity. In Buddhism all is one, all connected, the past, present, and future, the big and the small, existence and non-existence, good and evil, the strong and weak points, we do not distinguish. With this teaching, the Buddha came to bring us happiness." Quotation marks are used even though the translation-interpretation may not have fully captured the intent of the monk's words. However, the monism that is apparent here is quite different from the views of Christians.

Reading the interview I was attracted to much of what was said until coming to a section in which the interviewer mentioned that the monk was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998. He conquered it with prayers of penance and devotion to his faith. The disease was retribution, he thought, for some fault in a past life, a karmic debt that must be paid. With his penance, it has disappeared and he doesn't think of it any more. As Christians, we would have difficulty accepting his explanation.

The monk recalled an incident that happened to him as a child. He had the job of preparing the porridge for those visiting the temple that day. While he was preparing the porridge,
a centipede fell into the pot. What was he to do? It was lunch time, and he couldn't throw the whole pot away. Not knowing what to do, he asked the head monk who told him to remove the centipede and bring the porridge to the table. It was eaten not only by the visitors to the temple, but by the head monk, who thanked the young boy for a job well done. A humble person has a big heart and can accept anything that happens, were the concluding remarks of the head monk. This consoled him and gave him strength to continue with the training.

The relationship of Catholics and Buddhists in Korea is harmonious. There are visits and exchanges during the year at each others' big events. Today, the archbishop responsible for ecumenical matters will visit one of the temples to give his greetings. In matters that relate to life and in caring for nature, they will continue to work together as closely as possible.

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