Over the years I have been contacted by various individuals as to the compatibility of Buddhist thought and its seemingly non-theist philosophy to that of Freemasonry, two seemingly opposite traditions that when looked at closely are more similar than most could imagine.
This seemingly opposite philosophy, Buddhism, is something I have addressed in the past and surely will again in the future has to do at it's core the western concept of 'God', a 'God' the Buddha spoke nothing of, and even if he had it would not of been the Judaic concept of Deity, a problem for some brothers that believe Freemasons must believe in a 'personified' Judaic god, a mistake I believe that has caused the Tradition of Freemasonry a great many exceptional candidates. It should be noted that even as I write this in the State of Florida the Grand Master has sent out an edict banning certain individuals because of their seeming different belief systems from what he perceives Freemasons should adhere, a slippery slope indeed.
But we'll save that discussion for another time, for now let's look at a little harmony and avoid division.
Allow me to share an interesting passage from 'The influence of Buddhism on primitive Christianity' by Arthur Lillie, 1883 (written during a time when Freemasons still explored alternative philosophies).
"In modern Masonry it is feigned that Hiram Abiff, the architect of Solomon's temple, made three efforts to escape from three assassins. These are plainly Old Age, Disease and Death."
All Buddhists have heard the story of the Buddha and what some call 'The Four Sights', the cause of the Buddha's search, for those Masonic brothers unfamiliar with the story of the Buddha allow me to share a lite version: when Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha to be) was a few days old, a holy man prophesied the Prince would be either a great military conqueror or a great spiritual teacher. His father, King Suddhodana, preferring the first outcome prepared his son accordingly, a conqueror he should be. The wise king at the same time fearing the Prince could become a holy man attempted to cover his butt by raising the boy in great luxury and opulence shielding him from knowledge of religion and human suffering, a futile attempt.
The Prince reached the age of 29 with little experience of the world outside the walls of his opulent palaces.
One day, overcome with curiosity, Prince Siddhartha asked a charioteer to take him on a series of rides through the countryside. On these journeys he was shocked by the sight of an aged man, then a sick man, and then a corpse. The stark realities of old age, disease, and death seized and sickened the Prince.
Finally, he saw a wandering ascetic. The charioteer explained that the ascetic was one who had renounced the world and sought release from fear of death and suffering (you could say he was searching for light, the quest of all Freemasons). The future Buddha's heart was stirred.
Question the candidate for Freemasonry is asked in the first ritual: Where were you first prepared to be made a Mason? The answer: In my heart.
"The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart."...Buddha
Now let's look at another passage of Arthur Lillie's 'The influence of Buddhism on Primitive Christianity': "(speaking of Hiram Abiff the author writes) he sought to evade the first (assassin) at the east of the temple, in the same way that Buddha tried to escape by the eastern gate. The second and third flights of Hiram and Buddha were to the same points of the compass. Then Buddha escaped the lower life through the Gate of Benediction, and Hiram was killed."
What are these gates Arthur Lillie is talking about and where could they be alluded to in Freemasonry?
In the design of the Masonic Lodge Room we find these cardinal points of the compass emphasized with the chairs of the Lodge officers, except the north, the darkest portion of the sky. It's only fitting that the Buddha end his journey in the north, according to Buddhist philosophy after enlightenment the Buddha is no longer stuck in the cyclic existence, birth, old age, sickness, and death.
We can clearly see the path of the future Buddha alluded to through the symbolism of the gates. The east, also symbolic of spring, is the beginning of the Buddha's journey, the south gate represents the summer, the west fall, and the north winter the end of the Buddha's journey.
This same journey is played out in Freemasonry, albeit with a different ending, yet maybe passing on the same message.
In Freemasonry we find the candidate progressing through the gates, east, south to west, only to loose his life to be reborn into the 'light'. As you can see a similar journey, a similar outcome,
the Buddha achieves 'enlightenment', the Freemason seeks 'light', coincidence in the vernacular? I think not.
"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture."...John 10:9
Just a little note for those interested in Buddhist philosophy, Buddhism teaches that there is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and that the process is according to the qualities of a person's actions. This constant process of becoming ceases at the fruition of 'enlightenment' at which a being is no longer subject to causation, karma, but enters into a state that the Buddha called amata, deathlessness.
Spend a little time brother contemplating the Mandala above, you just may find the similarities yourself.
Those who have followed my blog know that I strongly believe the Masonic Lodge Room symbolic of Mandala, a Sanskrit word that means "circle". Yes I realize our Lodge Rooms are really rectangle in design, but our rituals are done in a circular fashion, and the center of the Lodge Room is also considered to be the symbolic point within the circle.
In the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions their sacred art, shrines, and temples are often mandala in form. At the center of most Hindu and Buddhist mandalas we find a 'square' with four gates containing a circle with a center point, no different than the basic layout of the Masonic Lodge Room.
In the Masonic Lodge Room we find these gates spoken of as north, south, east, and west, similar to the directions used in the Buddhist Mandala.
Mandalas are constructed from the center outward, beginning with a dot in the center, very much the same way the initiate in Freemasonry begins his journey from the center of the Lodge outward.
With the placement of the center dot, the Mandala is consecrated to a particular deity. In the case of the Masonic Lodge Room we usually find the Scared Volume of Law at the center symbolic of the deity of one's choice. This center in Buddhism is a symbol. it means a 'seed', 'sperm', 'drop', the salient starting point. It is the gathering center in which the outside energies are drawn and, in the act of drawing the forces, the devotee's own energies unfold and are also drawn. Thus it represents the outer and inner spaces. Its purpose is to remove the object-subject dichotomy (our typical dualistic view of life).
In its creation, a line materializes out of a dot. Other lines are drawn until they intersect, creating triangular geometrical patterns. The outlying square symbolizes the physical world moving in four directions, as we have seen represented by the four gates.
Mandalas are seen as sacred places that reminds us of the presence of sanctity in the universe and their own potential. In the context of Buddhism, the purpose of a Mandala is to put an end to human suffering, to attain enlightenment and to attain a correct view of Reality. It is a means to discover divinity by the realization that it resides within one's own self, no different than the goal of the initiate in Freemasonry.
If you would like to see a little more comparison between the mandala and the Masonic Lodge Room check out my previous blog 'Welcome to the Mandala of Freemasonry'.