Friday, March 25, 2011

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Puxian)

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra/Puxian
(Image: Painting by Dharma Master Yilin 依林法師繪)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Birthday of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (普賢菩薩聖誕) is observed on the 21st day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month. Samantabhadra’s name in Chinese is Puxian (普賢 Universal Worthy). In Chinese Buddhism, Samantabhadra is known as the Bodhisattva of Great Action (大行菩薩 Daxing Pusa) because of his Ten Great Vows of Action (十大行願 Shida Xingyuan) which are taught in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Adornment Sutra) (華嚴經 Huayan Jing) in the Chapter on the Vows of Action of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (普賢菩薩行願品 Puxian Pusa Xingyuan Pin). These Ten Great Vows were pledged by Samantabhadra when he embarked on his spiritual journey to Buddhahood. They are accepted as ten practices that all Buddhists of the Mahayana tradition should follow and observe. They are listed as follows:

1. To practice veneration and respect to all the Buddhas (禮敬諸佛)
2. To praise all the Buddhas (稱讚如來)
3. To make extensive offerings (廣修供養)
4. To repent one’s karmic obstacles [that arise from past misdeeds] (懺悔業障)
5. To rejoice in the merits and virtues of others (隨喜功德)
6. To request the turning of the Dharma Wheel [to request Buddhist teachings] (請轉法輪)
7. To request the Buddhas to always remain in the world (請佛住世)
8. To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times (常隨佛學)
9. To always accommodate and benefit all sentient beings (恆順眾生)
10. To transfer all merits and virtues to universally benefit all sentient beings (普皆迴向)

Poster of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra/Puxian
with the Ten Great Vows of Action written on both sides
(Image: Source unknown)

Samantabhadra is usually seen in a trinity with Vairochana Buddha (毘盧遮那佛 Piluzhena Fo) and Bodhisattva Manjushri (文殊菩薩 Wenshu Pusa). The three together are known as the Avatamsaka Trinity or Three Holy Ones of the Avatamsaka World (華巖三聖 Huayan Sansheng).

In traditional Chinese Buddhist iconography, Samantabhadra is depicted in female form, similar to Guanyin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara), and seated on a white elephant with six tusks which represent the Six Paramitas/Perfections (六波羅密 Liu Boluomi).

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra/Puxian
(Image: Source unknown)

Homage to Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Great Action (南無大行普賢菩薩 Namo Daxing Puxian Pusa)!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Supreme Venerable Sovereign (Laozi)

The Supreme Venerable Sovereign, also known as Laozi (Lao-tzu)
(Image: Source unknown)

According to the Taoist tradition, the Birthday of the Supreme Venerable Sovereign (太上老君聖誕) is observed on the 15th day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month. The Supreme Venerable Sovereign refers to Laozi (老子), also spelled Lao-tzu according to the older Wade-Giles romanization system. He is a semi-historical semi-mythical figure of Chinese culture who is said to have lived in the 6th century BCE and is sometimes popularly referred to as the founder of Taoism, although strictly speaking, Taoism can be traced even further back to an earlier period in China’s prehistory. He is traditionally regarded as the author of the Daodejing (also spelled Tao Te Ching) (道德經 Scripture of the Way and its Virtues), a famous classic on Taoist philosophy. Laozi is also considered as a divine avatar of the Dao (also spelled Tao) ( Way) which can be defined as the undifferentiated ground or origin of all universal phenomena. As a divine manifestation, his honorific religious titles are The Supreme Venerable Sovereign (太上老君 Taishang Laojun), and Heavenly Venerable of the Way and its Virtues (道德天尊 Daode Tianzun). He forms a part of the sacred Taoist trinity of supreme deities known as the Three Pure Ones (三清 Sanqing) and is also known as the Grand Purity (太清 Taiqing). He is always seated to the left (from our vantage point) of the Celestial Venerable of Primordial Beginning who is the central figure of the Three Pure Ones (mentioned here).

Porcelain statue of Laozi

Some scholars and academics are of the opinion that the figure of Laozi may be an amalgamation of several different persons and that the Daodejing may be the combined work of many different authors. However, according to popular legend, Laozi was born to a virgin mother who carried him in pregnancy for 62 (or 81) years. He was born under a plum tree and his name was Li Er (李耳) or Li Dan (). When he was finally born, he was already an old man with a white beard and eyebrows. The name Laozi can be translated as Old Child. He is said to have been a contemporary of Confucius and was either an official in the Imperial Archives or a grand historian and astrologer. Later in life, he grew tired of the moral corruption in the world and decided to leave China to live as a hermit. He traveled west riding on a water buffalo and when he met the sentry guard at the frontier border, he left with him a copy of the Daodejing. Some tales elaborate that he went west to teach in India and that he became a teacher of the Buddha or that he even became the Buddha himself.

Laozi riding on a water buffalo and carrying the Daodejing

Laozi in meditation
(Image: Unknown source)

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Parinirvana Day of Shakyamuni Buddha

Statue of Lord Buddha in the reclining Parinirvana posture
(Image: Fanyun Enterprise Co, Ltd 凡云企業有限公司)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Parinirvana Day of Shakyamuni Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛涅槃日 Shijia Mouni Fo Niepan Ri) is observed on the 15th day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month .

To understand the concept of the Sanskrit word Parinirvana (Pali: Parinibanna), we should first know the meaning of its root word Nirvana (Pali: Nibanna) (涅槃 Niepan). The term Nirvana is usually translated and understood as meaning Enlightenment. However, Nirvana literally means to extinguish or to blow out and refers to the complete ending of suffering due to the extinguishing of greed, hatred, and delusion. In Buddhism, the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are what keeps sentient beings in the endless cycle of transmigration (e.g. the continuous cycle of death and rebirth). As long as one is not enlightened, one is bound to transmigration and will always eventually experience pain and suffering. Only when enlightenment is achieved and Nirvana is attained is one totally free from pain and suffering. The state of Nirvana is described as the highest happiness and peace because the root causes of desire and aversion are completely destroyed.

Parinirvana (般涅槃 Bo Niepan) then is the Final Nirvana that is attained upon the death of the physical body. Parinirvana is also sometimes called Maha-parinirvana (大般涅槃 Da Bo Niepan) which means Great Final Nirvana. Therefore, this day is commemorated as the day that the Buddha physically died and entered the final state of Parinirvana (or Maha-parinirvana). The day is also sometimes called The Buddha’s Day of [Final] Extinguishment [of the causes of suffering] (佛滅日 Fo Mie Ri).

The Buddha about to attain Parinirvana
(Image: Unknown source)

The Buddha had thrice mentioned to his attendant Ananda that a Buddha had the ability to remain alive until the end of an aeon. However, Ananda did not understand the significance of this and failed to request the Buddha to remain (in the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha always granted a request if it was asked of him three times). When Ananda later realized his mistake, he implored the Buddha to stay longer but was refused. On the day before his passing, the Buddha was offered a meal from Chunda, a pious metalsmith. The Buddha accepted the meal offering, but instructed that nobody else should partake of it because the food was contaminated. The food caused the Buddha to become fatally ill, and Chunda was overcome with guilt and remorse when he learned that his offering would probably lead to the Buddha's demise. The Buddha consoled him by saying that the one who offers the Buddha's last meal acquires great merit that is equal to the merit from an offering made to the Buddha right before his attainment of Enlightenment.

The Buddha about to attain Parinirvana
Depicted in attendance are his community of monks and also the devas (heavenly gods)
(Image: Unknown source)

It should be emphasized here that the Buddha was not accidentally poisoned and that he knew very well that the food was bad. This is evident in the fact that he instructed that nobody else should eat it and that any leftover should be buried in the ground (so that nobody can accidentally consume it). As a fully enlightened being, the Buddha would of course immediately see the true nature of all things. The reason why he accepted it then was because, firstly, he did not wish to deny anyone the merit of making an offering to the Buddha; and secondly, he was already eighty years old at the time and he wanted to show as a lesson to everyone that all living beings without exception are susceptible to impermanence and death.

There has also been some confusion as to what the Buddha actually ate at his last meal. Some early translators of Buddhist literature had translated the food offered by Chunda as being “pork” or “pig’s feet.” However, some other better informed translators translated the food as “pig’s truffles.” In all likelihood, the Buddha’s last meal probably consisted of truffles (underground mushrooms) that pigs dug up with their feet to eat. This would possibly explain the translation of “pig’s feet.” It is unlikely that the Buddha was offered pork or actual pig’s feet as a meal. The reasons are because, firstly, a pious layperson would know not to offer animal flesh as food for the Buddha, especially when ahimsa (non-harming towards all living beings) is a basic tenet and also the basis for the very first precept of Buddhism. Secondly, Chunda was a metalsmith so he belonged to the Vaishya caste of ancient India and members of this caste adhered to a sattvic diet. Sattvic foods are those that have the qualities of promoting clarity and balance of mind. These foods include cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, dairy, and honey. Meat and alcohol are avoided. Followers of a sattvic diet would not eat pork. Therefore, Chunda would not have prepared pork in his home as a meal offering for the Buddha. Therefore, in all probability, the Buddha consumed some kind of truffles or mushrooms that were contaminated or poisonous, and that was what led to his fatal illness.

The Buddha about to attain Parinirvana
Sakra and Brahma are also depicted in the assembly (green and white deities, respectively)
(Image: Unknown source)

The Buddha, in spite of the pain from his illness, continued to walk with his group of monks towards the city of Kushinagar (拘尸那羅). Kushinagar is today identified with the modern village of Kasia in eastern Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Shortly before his passing, the Buddha went into a grove of trees on the banks of the Hiranyavati River in Kushinagar. At a spot between two unusually tall sala trees, the Buddha reclined on his right side in the lion posture. He then asked his followers if they had any last queries. Everyone remained silent so the Buddha then gave them his last instruction: Now, monks, I declare to you: All conditioned things are of transient nature; Strive on untiringly with diligence. The Buddha then entered Maha-parinirvana - the great, final, and ultimate state of everlasting peace attained by an enlightened being at the moment of physical death.

The Buddha attains Parinirvana

Homage to the Root Teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha (南無本師釋迦牟尼佛 Namo Benshi Shijia Mouni Fo)!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Tiger Spirit

Chinese color ink painting of a tiger
(Image: 峨嵋畫廊

According to popular Taoism and popular folk religious tradition, the Birthday of the Tiger Lord (虎爺誕辰 Huye Danchen) is observed on the 12th day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month. The Tiger Lord (虎爺 Huye) is an honorific name for the Tiger Spirit (虎神 Hushen). It is also known as the Tiger General (虎將軍 Hu Jiangjun) and its formal Taoist religious title is The General of the Lower Altar (下壇將軍 Xiatan Jiangjun).

An artifactual effigy of the Tiger Lord
(Image: National Museum of Taiwan History)

A contemporary statue of the Tiger Lord manufactured for religious usage
(Image: 佛山軒佛具店)

The Tiger Spirit represents the raw power of courage and strength and is regarded as a protector spirit. It is also traditionally seen as the animal mount or vehicle of several independent Taoist deities. In their traditional iconographies, the deity is depicted as sitting on a tiger.

An example of a tiger serving as the mount of a Taoist deity
This picture shows the famous Ancestral Patriarch Zhang Daoling (張道陵祖師),
founder of the Way of the Celestial Masters (天師道 Tianshi Dao) school of Taoism
(Image: Source unknown)

In ancient times, it was believed that locality gods like the earth god, mountain god, or city god controlled the tiger spirit. Therefore, an image of a tiger is sometimes seen next to, or under, the image of a locality god in his shrine. The tiger spirit is an assistant to the locality god in protecting the people and livestock in the area under his jurisdiction. It is also believed that the tiger spirit possesses the powers of inviting wealth and prosperity, expelling plagues and epidemics, and suppressing demons and negative forces. Due to its popularity, it is also not uncommon to see a tiger image near that of other gods and deities as well.

An auspicious protective poster depicting the Tiger Spirit
The top of the poster reads The Tiger Lord Suppresses (Protects) the Residence (Home)
(虎爺鎮宅 Huye Zhenzhai)
(Image: Taichung Tun District Art Center 臺中市立屯區藝文中心)

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Commemoration Day of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Renunciation

Lord Buddha
also known as Shakyamuni Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama
(Image: Source unknown)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Commemoration Day of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Renunciation (釋迦牟尼佛出家紀念日 Shijia Mouni Fo Chujia Jinian Ri) is observed on the 8th day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month. Shakyamuni Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛 Shijia Mouni Fo) (c.563 to c.483 BCE) refers to the historical Buddha. He was also known as Siddhartha Gautama (悉達多·喬達摩) before his attainment of supreme enlightenment. He spent his early life in the kingdom of Kapilavastu (Kapilavatthu) as a prince, oblivious of all worldly suffering. His father, Shuddhodana, was king of Kapilavastu. As a youngster, Prince Siddhartha exceeded all his teachers and surpassed everyone in every field of knowledge and sport that he was taught. He mastered all the worldly arts, both academic and physical. He was heir to his father’s kingdom and was suppose to become its next king. One day however, he ventured outside his palace and saw the Four Great Signs of an old person, a sick person, a dead person, and an ascetic spiritual practitioner.

Prince Siddhartha sees the Four Great Signs:
An old person, a sick person, a dead person, and an ascetic spiritual practitioner
(Image: Source unknown)

Prince Siddhartha kneels upon seeing an ascetic spiritual practitioner for the first time after
witnessing the sights of an old person, a sick person, and a dead person. The sight of the spiritual
practitioner awakens a deep respect within Prince Siddhartha for the life of spiritual pursuit.
(Image: Life of the Buddha-Burmese Edition)

After seeing the Four Great Signs, Prince Siddhartha deeply pondered the problems of birth, aging, sickness, and death that eventually occurs to all living beings without exception. At age 29, after much burning thought and consideration, he decided to leave his home to go forward for the homeless life as a spiritual practitioner in quest of answers as to why such pain and suffering existed. At midnight, Siddhartha quietly left his family and slipped out of his room. His charioteer, Chana, saddled Siddhartha’s horse, Kanthaka, and took him to the bank of the Anoma River. There, Siddhartha cut off his own hair and exchanged his royal garments for the robes of a wandering ascetic. This event in the Buddha’s life is called the Great Renunciation.

Siddhartha leaves his palace riding on his horse Kanthaka
and accompanied by his charioteer Chana
(Image: Source unknown)

The demon Mara attempts to stop Siddhartha from his renunciation but is unsuccessful.
The gods in the heaven realms above witness the great event.
(Image: Life of the Buddha-Burmese Edition)

In this painting, Siddhartha (the future Buddha) cuts off his hair and throws it in the air as a sign of his renunciation of worldly life. Sakra (left), king of gods and ruler of the Trayastrimsa Heaven, appears
kneeling next to Siddhartha. Siddhartha’s charioteer, Chana, and his favorite white horse, Kanthaka (right)
at first refused to leave, but were eventually convinced to return to the palace.
(Image: Life of the Buddha-Burmese Edition)
Siddhartha then spent 6 years learning from many different spiritual teachers and practiced extreme asceticism in the forests. However, none of those teachings led him to enlightenment and he eventually abandoned them. He then decided to go alone and practiced mental introspection by himself. He eventually achieved supreme enlightenment at age 35 and became the Buddha known as Shakyamuni.

Homage to the Root Teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha (南無本師釋迦牟尼佛 Namo Benshi Shijia Mouni Fo).

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Monday, March 7, 2011

Imperial Lord Wenchang

Imperial Lord Wenchang holding a ruyi scepter

According to Taoist tradition, the Birthday of Imperial Lord Wenchang (文昌帝君聖誕 Wenchang Dijun Shengdan) is observed on the 3rd day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month. Imperial Lord Wenchang (文昌帝君 Wenchang Dijun), also known as Imperial Lord Zitong (梓童帝君 Zitong Dijun), is the Taoist god of literature and academic success.

Wenchang was originally the collective name for a group of stars located in the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation. According to the ancient Chinese constellation system, the six Wenchang stars are included in the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (紫微垣 Ziwei Yuan) group of stars that are located in the sky near the north celestial pole. In this system, Wenchang means administrative center and stands for six governmental departments or officials. The six stars are named as follows: Highest General (上將 Shangjiang), Assistant General (次將 Cijiang), Noble Premier (貴相 Guixiang), Controller of Destinies (司命 Siming), Controller of the Middle (司中 Sizhong), and Controller of Fortune (司祿 Silu).

There has always been a tradition in Taoism of venerating stellar deities (star gods) that were divine personifications of the stars, planets, and celestial bodies because the ancient Taoists envisioned the presence of a spirit in all things in nature. Later, the Wenchang stars were somehow associated and unified with the identity of a syncretic god that was originally a serpentine mountain spirit called the God of Zitong (梓潼神 Zitong Shen). This snake spirit lived atop a mountain called Seven Bends Mountain (曲山 Qiqu Shan) located near the town of Zitong (梓童) in Sichuan province. The inhabitants of the town worshipped the snake spirit because it controlled thunder and rain that affected the local area. Later, it is said that the snake spirit went through many successive human and divine incarnations in its spiritual evolution. These incarnations and their stories were recorded in a 12th century revelatory text called the Book of Transformations of Imperial Lord Zitong (梓潼帝君化書 Zitong Dijun Huashu) which was revealed through spirit-writing (扶乩 Fuji). Among his incarnations, many of them were human figures surnamed Zhang. They included a filial son who sliced off his own flesh to make medicine to cure his ailing mother; a benevolent and enlightened government administrator; a minister who became a fallen war hero; and other lives where he performed good deeds to bring benefit to people. Among his many divine incarnations as a god, they included those where he intervened into human affairs to bring aid to the needy; to stop natural catastrophes and disasters; and to punish wrong-doing and evil. His long succession of human and divine incarnations culminated in his final post as the heavenly supervisor of academic success and promotions. He became in charge of the Orange Osmanthus Record (丹桂籍 Dangui Ji), a heavenly register that records the merits and demerits of all those in the academic and scholarly fields. The register is ever-changing, and is based on the continuing actions and conduct of those involved. 

Image of Imperial Lord Wenchang holding
a writing pen in his right hand and a book in his left hand
(Image: Source unknown)

In ancient China, students, scholars, and those that planned to take the imperial civil service examinations always prayed to Imperial Lord Wenchang without exception. There are many tales from pre-modern China telling about how praying to Imperial Lord Wenchang brought examination success either through signs and revelations in dreams or through some other indicating factors. Even today, many Chinese students in Asia still flock to temples to venerate Imperial Lord Wenchang right before exams and other academic undertakings.

A writing brush and book are the symbols of
Imperial Lord Wenchang that stand for academic success

It should also be noted that Imperial Lord Wenchang is not only a god that is strictly concerned with matters related to academic and examination success, although that is his special area of jurisdiction. He is also very much a deity that encourages good moral conduct and the performing of virtuous deeds. In the morality tract called Text of the Hidden Good Deeds of Imperial Lord Wenchang (文昌帝君陰騭文 Wenchang Dijun Yinzhi Wen), there are many examples of different meritorious deeds and the karmic rewards that they bring. Therefore, Imperial Lord Wenchang is actually a deity that embodies benevolence and moral virtue in general, and academic and scholarly success in particular.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Earth God

The Earth God

According to the Taoist tradition, the Birthday of the Earth God (土地福德正神聖誕 Tudi Fude Zhengshen Shengdan) is observed on the 2nd day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month. The Earth Land God (土地神 Tudi Shen), or simply Earth God in English, is the ruler of a local area of land in the heavenly bureaucratic system of the Taoist religion. He is generally portrayed as a benevolently looking elderly man with a white beard and wearing a robe and hat. He is also affectionately called Grandfather Earth (土地公 Tudi Gong) and is sometimes depicted together with an elderly lady as his wife called Grandmother Earth (土地婆 Tudi Po). The formal title of the earth god is the Righteous Spirit of Fortune & Merit (福德正神 Fude Zhengshen) because he is also a wealth deity and is sometimes depicted holding a ruyi scepter and gold ingots.

Statue of the Earth God depicting him holding a ruyi scepter
in his right hand and carrying gold ingots in his left hand
(Image: Jin Xiang Yuan Handicrafts Manufacture Co Ltd)

There isn’t just one earth god but many, because there is an earth god for each different area of land on the earth. The earth god is a minor ranking bureaucratic deity in the spirit world and is analogous to being the landlord of a particular piece of land property. His duty is to protect the inhabitants on his piece of land and to distribute fortune and happiness to them.

The practice of worshipping the earth in China goes back to antiquity where it was already mentioned in the Book of Rites (禮記 Liji), one of the five classics of Confucianism that was compiled probably between the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE. The earth was seen as the giver of birth to all things and the provider of all things necessary for life. Animals and livestock are reared on the earth and vegetables and grains are harvested from the soil. Therefore, the earth held a venerable place in the minds of the people. Altars and shrines were established in all the cities, towns, and villages to venerate the earth. Later, it was believed that famous local heroes and those that died for the welfare of the people became the earth gods of the places where they had extended their beneficial influence. In both Taoist and Buddhist theory, those people who have accumulated a certain moderate amount of spiritual merit can also become locality gods like the earth god after their death if their karma is of such a predisposition.

Statue of the Earth God
(Image: Source unknown)

The earth-land god (i.e. earth god) is not to be confused with the land-host spirit (地主神 Dizhu Shen) who is a different entity. The two are often confused with each other. The earth god is a spirit in a bureaucratic position recognized by the higher deities as being the ruler of a certain area of land, while the land-host spirit is in actuality any miscellaneous spirit that has taken up residence, without any official permission or recognition from higher deities, in the space of a single home or residential unit.

A spirit-tablet depicting the Earth God

It is very common to see the spirit-tablets (spirit-plaques) for both the earth god and the land-host spirit in traditional Chinese homes. The spirit-tablet for the earth god is placed on the ground just outside the home, while the one for the land-host spirit is placed on the floor inside the home, usually under or near the home shrine beneath the images of higher deities and/or the ancestor’s spirit-tablet. It is customary to offer incense and food at least twice per month on the new moon and full moon days (the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month). In pre-modern China, each and every village had a common shrine dedicated to the local earth god.

A small space dedicated to the Earth God
commonly seen just outside a home or business

A public outdoor shrine dedicated to the Earth God

Text © 2011 Harry Leong