Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: the Boy Buddha

Ram Bahadur Bomjon recently reappeared from the Nepalese jungle and made a minor splash in the news. Some are convinced that he is the Buddha reincarnated, while others – including himself – maintain that he is lower on the spiritual ladder of Buddhism. He has called himself a rinpoche (teacher) and others have suggested that he may be a boddhisattva. If nothing else, he’s an 18 year old boy who spends his time in deep meditation, purportedly without food or water for months on end.

The incredulous West smells a scam, or perhaps a young man starved for the monetary benefit of his handlers. The Discovery Channel produced a documentary about Ram in 2007, voiced over in hushed tones about all the nefarious possibilities and with frequent breaks to a British doctor giving scientific explanations for why it is impossible for Ram to go without food or water. Unfortunately for her, the crew managed to film Ram in meditation for four full days and never caught him eating or drinking. She insisted that he would be dead, but wiggled a bit and wondered if maybe he was urinating a little under his robe. Clearly, the West has much to learn.

Ram is not the Buddha. For one, placing a definite article in front of the word “Buddha” is misleading. The man we refer to as the Buddha (aka Sakyamuni, aka Siddharta Gautama) was/is the Buddha for this age, but there have been an incalculable number of Buddhas and there will be an equal number in the future. A better name, and the one which Gautama used to refer to himself, is Tathagata. Unfortunately, the meaning of Tathagata is ambiguous. Depending on how the translater wants to break the word apart, it can mean “one who sees reality as it is”, “one who has gone to suchness”, or “one who has arrived at suchness”.  Suchness can be replaced with “thusness” if that clears things up for you.  And sometimes the whole grammatical issue is end run by translating Tathagata as “one who abides in suchness/thusness”.  The ambiguity is intentional and, i would argue, fundamental to Buddhist philosophy. More importantly, Gautama reached enlightenment, meaning that he liberated himself from samsara (the cycle of birth and death) and the maya (illusion) of this world. In other words, he would not reincarnate.

He might be a tathagata, but it is generally assumed that there is only one tathagata in each age…which is defined by the length of time that the last tathagata is remembered.  Again, tough luck for those who want to make Ram into a buddha.  However, he could well be a bodhisattva.  Ram is Nepalese, making him a Mahayana Buddhist.  There are two classical schools of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana (sometimes Theravada is referred to as Hinayana, but only by Mahayana Buddhist and it is a term of disparagement “maha” means greater and “hina” lesser, with “yana” being vehicle/raft).  Theravada is an individualized path: if you want enlightenment, go out and find it for yourself.  The Mahayana has an element of self-sacrifice for the greater good.  When one is on the cusp of enlightenment, one takes the bodhisattva  vows.  In essence, the vows mean that the bodhisattva will delay his full enlightenment until all sentient beings reach enlightenment.  That’s a pretty tall order considering that every blade of grass is a sentient being.

Poor Ram is going to be caught up in all kinds of doctrinal differences if he keeps up his feats of wonder.  The Theravada school will, at best, call him a buddha to be.  Even if we discount them, there are varying interpretations of Mahayana doctrine, each with a slightly different take on what it means to be a bodhisattva (enlightenment being). The Tibetans maintain that one could not delay enlightenment, and that the supreme act of compassion that would be delaying enlightenment for the sake of others would actually push one that much closer to full enlightenment. A Tibetan bodhisattva is basically a buddha, without calling the person Buddha. The 14th Dali Lama is considered to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion. Much, if not most, of the iconography and statuary of Buddhism concentrates on bodhisattvas rather than representing Sakyamuni.

Ram, who’s Buddhist name is Palden Dorje, probably doesn’t care about all the doctrinal hairsplitting. His story goes that he was born in 1989 or 90 and was different than his peers at a very young age. He entered Buddhist training as a young boy, which is not uncommon but often temporary in Asia. After going on pilgrimage to Gautama’s birthplace, he continued his studies but later informed his mother that the monks could not teach him what he needed to learn and he began his meditation. (note: there are some differences in his biographies, but i believe them to be immaterial)

He began his meditation in May 2005, saying that he would need six years of kachen duba (severe meditation) to achieve enlightenment. He has moved and disappeared into the jungle on several occasions, but for a long time, his favored spot has been under/in a pipal tree. One can hardly blame him for disappearing and moving his place of meditation. He draws throngs of devotees and the curious. Barbed wire rings have, in the past, been set up around his sitting spot to keep people back. It seems strange at first glance, but if you’ve ever practiced meditation you will understand: imagine trying to maintain superhuman levels of concentration in the midst of human activity directed at you…tourists bussed in to get a glimpse of you, reporters with cameras, etc. His last known residence was a specially constructed pit deep in the jungle. I would submit that if your goal is fame and fortune rather than enlightenment, you would not disappear.

I cannot question Ram’s motives. To watch any video of him with some knowledge of Buddhism and meditation is to see a startling and amazing sight. Obe won kanobi would say, “The Force is strong in that one.” A teenage boy has sat motionless for the better part of four years, most of us would have difficulty making it to three hours. Meditation is difficult. Try sitting and counting to ten – count one for inhalation and one again for exhalation – without thinking about anything but counting to ten; if a thought other than the number you’re counting enters your head, return to one and start over. You can’t do it…and neither can i. Meditation can be described as self-mind-control. In the yogic traditions, the goal is to “calm the mental whirlwinds” (chittimatra). Bodhi mind like a still pool of water; this world is maya (illusion) that arises from the mind, so to see through the illusion requires stilling the mind.

Scientific studies have shown that Buddhist monks in meditation can slow heart rate, respiration, and metabolism to a point where brain activity is somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. We all know the strange happenings of the brain during sleep, so perhaps we need to accept some rather strange possibilities for a person who can access their subconscious while remaining “awake”. For a Buddhist monk, this is the state of true wakefulness. It is how one sees reality as it really is. But we should also keep in mind that this technology is as old as humanity itself. The shaman of the paleolithic (and right through to modern times) induced trance that enabled him to complete amazing feats and enter the world of spirits. He could communicate freely with plants and animals, and it should be noted that bodhisattvas also have this ability. What, exactly, occurs during deep meditation and what it enables the practitioner to do cannot be described or categorized scientifically; by definition it is beyond the bounds of rationality and reason.

We can be incredulous concerning Ram’s supposed ability to exist without food or water because it contradicts our reason, but that doesn’t mean that he is not capable of the feat. His compatriots are amazed by his ability, but they come from a tradition thousands of years old that accepts the possibility of such acts…though does not suggest that they are common or easy. Yogis have long claimed the ability to live for hundreds of years eating nothing more than a single grain of rice, once per year. Psychic travel, the ability to be in two places simultaneously, and subsisting off the energy of the sun are just a few of the feats that are accepted as accomplished. Provable?  No.  But in discussing these things we are in a realm beyond what is demonstrably provable…and, frankly, that’s the point.

Whether Ram is capable of shooting flame from his chakra points or remaining healthy without nourishment (and he is clearly healthy) is somewhat beside the point. He is very capable of intense meditation which is a feat in and of itself. He has spent nearly four years with only his mind, something that would drive the majority of us crazy. He has learned to control both his mind and his body in ways that are unfathomable to most of his fellow humans. For us to attempt picking his deeds apart on technicalities says far more about us than it does about him.

Unfortunately, Buddhism doesn’t have Messiahs or saviors. (excepting Pure Land Buddhism) Ram cannot save us from the misery, death and destruction of the world we inhabit. He can only be, as the Zen saying goes, a finger pointing at the moon. He can show us a path towards a more enlightened existence, but it will remain our personal decision to walk that path. Enlightenment comes from within where it resides eternally. Buddhism posits that every sentient being possesses buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha). It is not something gone to, but rather regained by removing the karmic defilements that cloud it. Right action and meditation are the means for cleansing the inherent buddha-nature so that it is all that is left. Ram has chosen to do so, and to become a vessel of compassion for all living things. What effect a man who chooses to sit quietly will have on a world dominated by distractions remains to be seen, but people like Ram do not come around every day. His specialness is evident in the knowing, peaceful smile and the twinkling eyes of the monks who have come close to him.

Perhaps it would be best to close with Ram’s own words:

Murder, violence, greed, anger and temptation have made the human world a desperate place. A terrible storm has descended upon the human world, and this is carrying the world towards destruction. There is only one way to save the world and that is through dharma (spiritual practice). When one doesn’t walk the righteous path of spiritual practice, this desperate world will surely be destroyed. Therefore, follow the path of spirituality and spread this message to your fellows. Never put obstacles, anger and disbelief in the way of my meditation’s mission. I am only showing you the way; you must seek it on your own. What I will be, what I will do, the coming days will reveal. Human salvation, the salvation of all living beings, and peace in the world are my goal and my path. “Namo Buddha sangaya, Namo Buddha sangaya, namo sangaya.” I am contemplating on the release of this chaotic world from the ocean of emotion, on our detachment from anger and temptation, without straying from the path for even a moment, I am renouncing my own attachment to my life and my home forever, I am working to save all living beings. But in this undisciplined world, my life’s practice is reduced to mere entertainment. The practice and devotion of many Buddhas is directed at the world’s betterment and happiness. It is essential but very difficult to understand that practice and devotion. But though it is easy to lead this ignorant existence, human beings don’t understand that one day we must leave this uncertain world and go with the Lord of Death. Our long attachments with friends and family will dissolve into nothingness. We have to leave behind the wealth and property we have accumulated. What’s the use of my happiness, when those who have loved me from the beginning, my mother, father, brothers, relatives are all unhappy. Therefore, to rescue all sentient beings, I have to be Buddha-mind, and emerge from my underground cave to do vajra meditation. To do this I have to realize the right path and knowledge, so do not disturb my practice. My practice detaches me from my body, my soul and this existence. In this situation there will be 72 goddess Kalis. Different gods will be present, along with the sounds of thunder and of tangur, and all the celestial gods and goddesses will be doing puja (worship). So until I have sent a message, do not come here, and please explain this to others. Spread spiritual knowledge and spiritual messages throughout the world. Spread the message of world peace to all. Seek a righteous path and wisdom will be yours.

I want to make clear that my Buddhist doctrine is a little rusty, more so my working knowledge of Sanskrit.  This was meant for those with little or no prior knowledge of Buddhism and should not be taken as an authoritative lecture on the finer points of Buddhist philosophy, cosmology, and doctrine. I chose to sketch rather than detail because detailing Buddhist doctrine would require a book rather than a blog post.

*photo credit: Jeff Riedel

9 replies »

  1. Lex,

    That was a very well written and informative article. In fact, it’s one of the best articles I’ve ever read at S&R ever.

    Thanks for improving my day, and teaching me a life lesson.


  2. Thank you for this informative article. For more information about Palden Dorje and to join in on a new community following his story click my name!


  3. While Ram sounds like he’s on his way to realization, I would just like to caution readers that serious Buddhist teachers frown on extended fasting. To get to where Ram is, a student of meditation needs his strength and health. Once there, less so apparently.

  4. Jeff, while i would humbly disagree with your assessment i thank you for the compliment. Though i’m not a Buddhist (but if you forced me to choose a major religion to adhere to, Buddhism would be it), i’ve long been fascinated by it…particularly the philosophy.

    Mu, thank you. I nearly linked the site in the post, but decided against it only because it comes up on the first page of a Google search for Ram.

    Russ, being neither a serious Buddhist nor a teacher i certainly would not suggest anyone walking directly in Ram’s footsteps. He is not average by any means. I would not even suggest that anyone become a Buddhist, though practicing some form of meditation certainly wouldn’t hurt most of us. Prayer can be meditation and meditation can be wholly secular. And one certainly doesn’t need to fast in order to meditate.

  5. Palden Dorje thanks you for this article. His meditation is not for everyone, and he does not advise other people to attempt it at this point in time. Sakya Buddhism recognises the potential of the meditator to go for even fifty years without sustinence, however only Palden Dorje has exhibited such success. His meditation has reached millions of people now who cannot but be affected by his intense vibrations of love. Each and every one of those people feel the urge to go and recieve his blessing which he is only too glad to give.

  6. It just goes to show that the thirst for the wests knowledge will bend and shape it the way it wants it, Ram doesnt need us we need him.