Is the four-faced buddha, a buddha?

A quick answer: No and probably nothing to do with Buddhism or Buddhist teachings.

How did the “four-faced buddha”, so popular amongst some Singaporeans (and Thais, needless to say) who goes religiously to Erawan Shrine in Bangkok to “pay back wishes” and to worship, become confused with “a buddha”.

Firstly, when I say buddha (in small), I am talking about a being who is enlightened, full of wisdom, and had escaped the cycle of rebirth according to Buddhist teachings. Whereas the “Buddha” is the founding teacher of Buddhism. More importantly, a buddha:

  • does not require your worshiping (he/she is not a god)
  • does not grant you wishes, no matter how much you pray or offer
  • does not require you to please him/her nor to return any promise for wishes you think you were granted
  • he/she does not get angry, punish you, gets pissed off for offending him or not keeping your promise or not paying respect to him/her
  • most important we don’t fear a buddha for one is loving, kind, compassion, joyful and generous.

If anyone describes a buddha with these characteristics, he/she is describing a petty deity, not a buddha or the Buddha.

Who is the four-faced buddha then?

The most probable explanation is that he (I used he for sake of convenience) is Brahma (the Hindu/Vedic  creator god) or one of the Brahmas as described in Buddhist texts occasionally. Why would he be confused as a buddha?

Thailand has long been practicing some form of Brahmanism (what we call Hinduism now) long before the arrival of Buddhism. Brahma, although usually worshiped, forms the trinity of creator, preserver and destroyer. Brahma is, of course, often depicted with four-faced and 4 pairs of hands. Over time in India and with the demise of Buddhism in India, the Buddha was somehow assimilated into Hinduism as they claimed that Buddha is just another avatar of Vishnu. Cross fertilization of teachings and worship introduced forms of Buddhism with Brahmic influence arose. So the practice of worshiping various deities also arose in later Buddhism. This mixed form of religion probably got into Thailand through the trade routes, together with the confusion of Brahma as a buddha. Over time, later Buddhism began to worship various Buddhas and deities and Brahma probably became one of the worshiped buddhas. This also explains why amulets and talisman and spells are so commonly associated with Buddhism in Thailand, mainly due to Hinduism and its local religion.

That said, it does not mind that Buddhist teaching have no mention of Brahma. In Buddhist teachings, Brahma is sometimes associated with wisdom or a sublime state of being. We must not forget also that during Buddha’s time, the Vedic tradition is very popular and sometimes teachings have to be explained using the language of the time.

In one text, the story goes that when The Buddha gained enlightenment, he could not decide whether to teach it to the rest of the people because its so difficult. Then Brahma appeared and convinced him to start teaching. Personally, I don’ t think that we can ever take these stories literally; rather, its probably explains the arising of the wisdom within the Buddha to see the benefit of teaching the Dharma to the masses. In the famous text called Brahma Vihara or the abode of Brahma, the Buddha teaches fellow Brahmans that they should develop the states of  loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity which will allow them to transcending into the abode of Brahma.

However, we must know that the idea of Brahma as the idea of a creator god concept, is rejected by Buddhist teachings as incomplete and incorrect.  In Buddhist view, a creator god is just a being who have lived for so long that they have witness the birth of this universe and thought that they had created it. Some of born together with the universe and its life span is tied to it and hence thought themselves as creator. These “creator gods” being still have a life span, albeit very long, and are subject to the same laws of rebirth and when their life span is up and they will too be reborn; and only a rebirth as a human (a bit chauvinistic, I must say) can one then be able to gain enlightenment, liberation and a way out of the rebirth cycle.

As such, I sometimes find it strange that some Hindu traditions can claim the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu because a lot of Buddha’s teachings is directly against the teachings of the Hindu’s idea of a soul and rebirth.

Anyway, Buddhist teachings are considered only a guideline for a lay person. So whether or not you are Buddhist or not or whether you do follow the guidelines or not, it does not offend or anger anyone or any Buddhas. However, as a Buddhist it is important to know that the worship of the four-faced Buddha is not a Buddhist teaching and neither is the entity a “buddha” in anyway. No one, though, will or should stop you for worshiping it at Erawan or any of its shrine, neither should we show disrespect or disgust for Buddhism encourage respect towards other’s believe systems as long as it does not bring harm to oneself or others or does not cause a Buddhist to get the wrong idea of Buddhist teachings.

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