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A true taste of Buddhism

Posted May. 03, 2014 06:11,   


Sentences in Buddhist scriptures always start with the opening line "Evam me sutam," a Sanskrit expression meaning "thus have I heard" in English.

Why did they start with the words? In the early days of Buddhism, teachings were passed down only in chants. Therefore, people of later generations needed to see if their chants match each other`s. There were four rounds of such matching in about 200 years after Buddha`s death. Old monks who chanted Buddha`s teachings began their sentences saying, "Thus I have heard…"

Like all other religions, Buddhism attached the greatest importance to the words of the founder. The problem was that reciting nearly 50 years of Buddha`s teachings from memory resulted in differing versions. While there are four Gospels of the New Testament, agama, or the original teachings of the Buddha, has nearly 2,000 different versions translated in the Chinese characters. The 10 chapters are divided into the Sutta Pitaka containing Buddha`s teachings, the Vinaya Pitaka explaining the rules of discipline for monks and nuns, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka, a collection of systematically arranged, tabulated and classified doctrines of the Buddha.

Remember Buddhist monk Xuanzang in "Journey to the West"? He is modeled after Tang dynasty monk who wrote the "Great Tang Records on the Western Regions." However, Xuanzang is not a proper name but an honorific for an elderly monk who mastered the three major Buddhist scriptures.

Originally, Buddhism attached importance to Buddha`s teachings and their interpretations – a Buddhist tradition that disappeared in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. The tradition of scripture studies and heated theoretical debates was lost in the Korean Buddhism, which was dominated by Zen Buddhism that emphasized intuitive enlightenment.

Jeong Sang-gyo, the author of the book "Department of Buddhist Studies at University of Tokyo, was born in a Buddhist family but thought that Buddha`s teachings were similar to those of a foul-mouthed old lady running a neighborhood tavern. At the age of 31, he entered a university to learn about Buddhism. He was admitted into one of the four Buddhism departments in Korea, tempted by an offer to give him an opportunity to study abroad. After shockingly surprising encounters with Buddhism that was different from the religion in his notion, he has immersed himself in studying Buddhism, learning Sanskrit and Tibetan languages for the seventh year at the Graduate School of Indian Philosophy and Buddhist Studies at University of Tokyo in Japan.

The description might lead one to think that the author is an extraordinary intellectual. But he is not. He craftily explains Buddhism from the viewpoint of ordinary readers with only superficial understanding of the religion. He even makes a caricature of himself who plunged into the study of Buddhism with a view to living an easy life but ended up toiling in learning the Chinese, Sanskrit, Pala, Tibetan and Japanese languages. He also criticizes the realities in Buddhist studies dominated by European and Japanese scholars rather than Indian, Chinese and Korean ones.

Jeong explains various Buddhist terminologies and the history of Buddhism. His interesting account of his cousin who became a monk who was once a troublemaker and a womanizer makes this book a page turner.

This book is recommended to those who want a real taste of Buddhism that embodies tight logics and the ethics of mercy in which one sacrifices himself for others, not a "fake Buddhism" for rising in the world and gaining fame.