The Christian Passion is a dramatic story touching on powerful emotions. Is there a similar drama in the Buddha’s story?
Pause for Thought, BBC Radio 2, April 2013
A highlight of my holiday in Southern Spain last Easter was seeing the parade in Malaga. The whole town turned out to watch and my three year-old son was entranced as the bands marched by, followed by men in white robes and hoods alarmingly like the Ku Klux Klan’s. Then came the images. “Who’s that?” he asked, eyes widening in amazement, when a golden figure of Mary was carried past. “It’s the Queen”, I explained. When Jesus came by he cried, “Look, it’s the King!”
My son’s fascination grew as the Easter story unfolded in the processions we saw in the subsequent days. “They’ve tied up the King!” he shouted on Good Friday. “Who did it?” “The baddies,” I replied. Devastatingly, Jesus dies; and, joyfully, he comes to back life.
Seeing the power of the Easter story to galvanise a community and capture a child’s imagination set me thinking about the Buddha’s story. I have to admit, it can’t compete with Easter for sheer drama. In place of a man dying in agony we have a figure who just sits there, peaceful and happy. Something amazing happens to him, Buddhists believe: he gains Enlightenment and becomes the Buddha. But what that means is less clear and vivid than dying and rising again.
Buddhist tradition gets round this through elaborate legends. As Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was sitting in meditation, we are told, a fierce monster rises up before him: Mara, lord of death. With him comes a vast army of demons who attack Siddhartha and hurl their weapons at him. But when those weapons enter Siddhartha’s aura they magically transform into petals that fall at his feet.
My son loves this story. I tell him about the demons in bloodthirsty detail and act out the various twists in the story. “And then Siddhartha changed.” I say. “He became the Buddha: very kind, and very clever”. “Is he a superhero?” “Yes, I think he is.”
The Buddha’s story has a latent drama because it touches universal conflicts. It touches a child on one level while adults can discover more and more layers of meaning. That’s the power of the really great religious stories