The Salsa Dancer Revisits Buddha
[originally printed by Ricebitz emagazine 2004]
I was dancing salsa and was struggling with the lead, being a bit tense and tired. Assuming my Asian and proud dance partner understood Buddhist theories, I joked that I would try the exercise of clearing my mind. Isn’t Buddhist meditation about making yourself soft and flexible to external forces to help us work with the world rather than in constant conflict? Unfortunately, he hadn't heard this theory before and thought I was more tired than he realized and had better let me get some rest.
I asked a few people, Asian and Non-Asian. “Off the top of your head, what do you know of Buddhism?” I asked.
“If you’re a good Buddhist, when you get cremated you should turn into a white pea.” Julie Wong, underwriting assistant, said.
“….. a big fat man,” Randy Napenas, senior accountant, said slowly. “And if you rub his belly, you can make a wish.”
The IT guy, from my day-job, volunteered his story about his friend, in martial arts, who decided to have the Chinese character of Buddha etched into his sword. “I just turned to him and said, “guy, maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t Buddhism suppose to be about peace and non-violence?”
“Buddha! The funky Buddha! Buddha!” a lyric from a Reel 2 Real song sung by an anonymous friend. He added the special “running man” dance move to compliment the song, with some side shuffles.
My main recollection of Buddhism is as a myth. A boy sits by a tree and meditates and during that meditation is tested with every kind of distraction including fires, storms, ants, fiery dragons, etc. Buddha maintains his meditation and at the end of the trial reaches nirvana. My mother took me to strange smelling temples as a child. I saw stone (some freakish looking) statues and worshippers whose worship looked more like mourning. As I grew older I saw my mother’s long list of rituals and types of prayer as something more out of habit and superstition than out of reason.
I stumbled upon Buddhist ideas again in my twenties. A post-University, desk-job reality was weighing on my nerves. I was resorting to all sorts of ‘stress management’ and ‘writer’s block’ cures. I probably wasn’t the only one. Ying/Yang symbols were popping up all over the place. Tai Chi, Yoga and Pilates were making a comeback as the fashionable forms of exercise. Finally, a friend recommended the book, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.
So, time to look a little deeper. I started with my favourite resource. The Internet.
Buddhism was founded by an Indian man named Siddhārtha Gautama, roughly 500 BC, and spread throughout every Asian country becoming the dominant religion, for a time, and adapting itself to the existing older religions of Hinduism (India), Taoism, Confucianism (China), Shinto (Japan) and animism (Asia).
Its mythology is based in animism and shamanism. In China, the myth of the Monkey King is a reflection on how they dealt with the differences between Taoism and Buddhism. Check out these links for some info on Asian mythology:
As a religion and philosophy, after the death of Buddha, Buddhism broke into many variations and various leaders such as Zen, Pure Land, Theravada and Mahayana. Even with the coming of Christianity and Western science and technology, Buddhism is still one of the largest religions in the world. Despite being assimilated into older and newer ideas throughout the years, Buddhism’s core has always been the pursuit of happiness, peace, love and compassion.
Check out the following links for more info on the different variations:
“Before the end of the Vietnam War, I asked Venerable Thich Nhah Hanh whether he would rather have: peace under a communist regime that would mean the end of Buddhism or the victory of democratic Vietnam with the possibility of Buddhist revival, and he said that it was better to have peace at any price. He told me that preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries, or rituals. Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated toward peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts of human beings."
"In all of Buddhist history, there has never been a holy war. Surely Buddhist kings have waged war against one another, and they may even have claimed to be doing so for the benefit of humankind or the Buddhist religion, but they could not quote any saying of the Buddha to support them. The Buddha was quite clear in his renunciation of violence: "Victory creates hatred. Defeat creates suffering. The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat ... Anger creates anger ... He who kills will be killed. He who wins will be defeated ... Revenge can only be overcome by abandoning revenge... The wise seek neither victory nor defeat."
I wanted some feedback on this new info from living groups and individuals outside of me. I sent out queries to dancers, musicians, writers, magazines, Buddhist and religious communities. I was very surprised at the amount of silence my questions received. I began emphasizing that 1) they didn’t need to be Buddhist to answer my questions and 2) they didn’t need to be afterwards either. Silence.
Some people did answer that they couldn’t answer because the topic was too personal. Too individual. One person said it was too controversial. Why? What harm can come from talking about ideas? Where would Buddha or any religious/philosophical leader have been if there weren’t people back in the day ready to discuss these things with him? Why don’t we want to talk about something as benign as peace and compassion? Hell, can’t think of a better time in history to be open to such topics.
Even my own father had little to say to me. He told me that he and his family were Buddhist but not because of anything he was taught or particularly practiced. He just was and then looked at me funny if I tried to get more details. I asked an old childhood friend, whose roots go back to the south of China, for her insight. She has asked to be known only as Wendy. She told me that her family and most likely much of that region of China PRACTICE Buddhist rituals as a form of salvation from life and death but they do not learn the philosophy. She personally didn't care to. Her concerns as a Buddhist were that she cultivated a place for herself in the afterlife and that she honour the traditions of her culture. She added that there is a vast difference between people who are born into a faith and those that find it later in life.
So history is telling me that Buddhism is rooted in ideas older than Buddha but also adaptable to anything that our century is willing to ‘believe’ in. This is a rare religion where the idol started out no more godly than you or I (although being born a prince didn’t hurt). How is this possible? What makes an idea(s) that good? Seems to me that Buddha was somebody who chose to remind us and rework, into ourselves, some ideas that we already knew and wanted to hear again.
And if we should find today that we are in need of another kind of reminder, we’ll have to start with what to do with silence. It’s hard to dance without a song – so says this salsa dancer.