October 13, 2011

Buddha Buzz: An Inglorious Columbus and a Royal Buddhist Wedding

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Then he landed in the Bahamas and proceeded to enslave and massacre the local people. Despite Columbus' well-documented reign of cruelty and violence, Columbus Day is still celebrated as a federal holiday in most parts of the United States (kudos to such places as South Dakota, which celebrates Native American Day instead, and Santa Cruz, California, which celebrates Indigenous People's Day). As we know, Columbus was not the first European explorer to reach the Americas—that distinction belongs to Leif Ericson. But did you know that there's a theory—first proposed by French sinologist M. De Guignes in 1761—that argues that Chinese Buddhist monks may have been the first travelers from the Old World to the New, reaching Mexico in A.D. 499? Edward Payson Vining, a nineteenth-century railroad manager, was so captivated by the theory that he wrote a book about it, An Inglorious Columbus; Or, Evidence that Hwui Shan and A Party of Buddhist Monks from Afghanistan Discovered America in the Fifth Century A.D. At 800 pages, it might not work as that light before-bed reading you've been looking for, but just in case, it's available as a free e-book here. And for the faint-hearted among us, myself included, a summary is available here. This theory may be right or wrong, but as Rick Fields wrote in his book How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, if it is true, "Buddhism in North America may have had a far longer history and a far more profound effect than any but a few visionaries have dared to guess."

And in another case of American occupation, one not quite as old but perhaps as controversial, Occupy Wall Street has spread to 1,453 cities, according to occupytogether.org. (More information about Occupy Wall Street is available here.) As the 99% assert themselves all over America and the world, Zenju Earthlyn Marselean Manuel has written a beautiful post on her website, "Un-Occupy the Land," about the need to un-occupy instead: she writes,

I am feeling the need to un-occupy. To un-occupy would be to let go of possession, to let go of taking over, without knowing what such a mind/heart will lead us to. I am not saying to not protest—we must.  After all it is money we all earned. But can we act differently than the money-handlers, to not take. If it were 'Un-occupy Wall Street' everyone would have to go.

And this is the over-arching question—How can we un-occupy this land we have over-occupied?

The United States, beseiged by economic woes as it currently is, might do well to look to Bhutan, a country that since 1972 has been focusing on its country's Gross National Happiness instead of its Gross Domestic Product. There may have been a recent spike in national happiness, as Bhutan has just celebrated a royal Buddhist wedding: the king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, got married this week in a Buddhist ceremony to a 21-year-old Bhutanese student, Jetsun Pema. There are some beautiful pictures of the event here.

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