An interesting little piece has been making the Buddhist-news rounds this week about a teenager named Ram Bahadur Bamjan in southern Nepal who has apparently been sitting around in mediation, not eating or drinking water or even sleeping, for years on end. I guess he said he was going to be in mediation for a lot longer, but decided to come out of the jungle this week to address his followers.
They say he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha.
I can’t help but feel like something very important is being lost in the translation of the few articles I’ve read on this subject. For starters, who claims he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha? Has he claimed that? And quite apart from whatever he claims, and quite apart from the whole miraculous not-eating-for-years-on-end thing, Buddhas are supposed to have thirty-two marks of enlightenment. Where’s his top-knot? Where’s his webbed fingers? His taut, antelope-like calf muscles? His, erm, perfect member concealed in a sheath?
There’s really a lot here that I could comment on. But I think I’ll stick with the reincarnation bit. This month over at the DharmaRealm podcast, Harry and I are actually talking specifically about reincarnation, so the Buddha Boy’s appearance is pretty timely. (Thanks!) Reincarnation is one of those bits of Buddhism that seems hard to reconcile with our modern, rational, scientific minds. And, the truth of the matter is, reincarnation can be hard to reconcile with the core Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or “no self.” (If there’s no self, what gets reincarnated?) There’s also the tricky matter of the Theravada belief that the historical Buddha ain’t coming back. Once he passed into parinirvana (that is, once he died after attaining nirvana or enlightenment), he’s off the hook in regards to the whole coming back bit of reincarnation. The very definition of parinirvana is the end of rebirth.
But, of course, there’s another basic Buddhist belief in the “future Buddha,” Maitreya, who will be reincarnated in this world at some point in the distant future to spread the Dharma. Unfortunately, Maitreya isn’t supposed to come back until the Buddha Dharma has completely died out in this world. Which, obviously, it hasn’t.
So it’s a conundrum. You can see why I feel like there’s something lost in translation here. “Buddha reborn in eighteen-yead-old Nepalese kid” makes a good headline. But something tells me there’s more going on here that we’re not getting in the English press.
Regardless. What difference does it make? Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this (what I believe to be a false) dichotomy we have in Western philosophy and religion between “belief” and “action.” Think back to good old Descartes and his famous cogito (I think therefore I am). We place a high premium on the “thinking” side of our lives. Religious beliefs get all the press. Bill Maher makes fun of people’s beliefs. Based on our beliefs, millions of dollars are spent to deny other people their rights. And so on.
So, beliefs have consequences. But only because of actions. A bunch of people believe this kid is the reincarnation of the Buddha. So what? What are they doing about it? Or, perhaps more importantly, what is he doing with his presumed spiritual authority?
Sometimes I wonder. I wonder, does it really matter what people believe? Or does it matter more what they do? I don’t really care if all those Christians think gay folks are going to hell. Their belief doesn’t make it a reality. I do care, however, when they act on that belief. Just I like I don’t care that Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco thinks some first century Jewish magician came back from the dead. But I care a whole helluva lot that they give food and clothing and shelter to the least among us.
So. The Buddha Boy is back. Some folks think he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha. The real question is, now what?