Understanding a Religion: Buddhism


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by Jacqueline Yeo

Did you know that Buddhism consists of more than 120 sects, each of them similar to, yet different than the original tenets of Buddhism? So, for non-Buddhists, it is perfectly alright if the idea of Buddhism can be confusing and difficult to understand. After all, have you ever wondered how the concept of asceticism and the God of Fortune could co-exist? Or why Shaolin monks practise Kung Fu? Here are 5 interesting facts about Buddhism that might surprise you.

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   1. The Buddha is NOT a god

The Buddha is regarded as a teacher who preached the Eightfold Path (8 behaviors which lead to cessation of suffering) and encourages his followers to look for their own paths to enlightenment. In fact, the Buddha himself did not want his followers to worship him and as a result, the sculptures in the temples were only meant for the remembrance of the Great Teacher. Unfortunately, this idea may have been misconstrued by later generations.

   2. Asceticism with God of Fortune??

If asceticism encourages Buddhists to renounce the world as much as they can, where does the God(s) of Fortune come into the story? Actually, they aren’t supposed to come together. As confusing as the concept title seems to be, these ideologies are meant for two different groups of people: monks and the masses, and of people from different sects of Buddhism, such as the Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism which have God(s) of Fortunes. Not surprisingly, many laymen would deem the strict life of monkhood undesirable, so the idea of the God of Fortune emerged and is meant for the non-monks who can more comfortably earn their Karma by providing materially for the ordained – thus helping themselves to achieve nirvana easier in their next lives as monks, supposing they find monkhood more appealing by then.

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Shaolin monks

 3. Why is there Kung Fu anyway?

It is commonly understood that the philosophy of Buddhism is to be kind and to have compassion, so why is it that Shaolin monks have been pictured hitting themselves with bricks or balancing on swords? It turns out that those martial arts movies might have been portraying true Buddhism in the wrong light – no, it is not for them to join in conflicting sects to fight against one another. The original intention of Buddha inventing the Kung Fu (yes he created Kung Fu) was to keep his constantly sick and physically weak followers healthy. It was only later that the theatrical stuff got added in.

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Private jets for you? Or perhaps, a white horse?

4. Awkward rumours of some sect leaders

Interestingly, some Buddhist monks are ridiculously materialistic while some have had multiple allegations of sexual misconducts. Wiraphol Sukphol, a Thai monk, owned assets including a private jet and luxury cars  which were later seized by Thai authorities. Elsewhere, the founder of the True Buddha Sect, Sheng-Yan Lu, had been sued, albeit unsuccessfully, by a former disciple over accusations of sexual misconduct.

5. Buddhists are everywhere – Especially Hollywood…

Over the ages, Buddhism has attracted a wide range of converts. Far from the image of an ascetic monk with their begging bowl, these include everyone from Brangelina and casino owner Steve Wynn, to swashbuckling Orlando Bloom and golfer Tiger Woods – and even surprisingly the most bad-ass Buddhist of all time – Kublai Khan! Who would have thought that, eh? While it may be hard to reconcile his conquering armies with the precepts of Buddhism, it was his mid-life conversion to the religion that lead to it being spread across Asia today.