Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The shrine of the Buddha's footprint, Pra Puttabat, Saraburi, Thailand.

"We might urge that evil consists in existence, and good in non-existence; that therefore the sum-total of existence is the worst thing there is, and that only non-existence is good. Indeed, Buddhism does seem to maintain some such view. It is plain that this view is false; but logically it is no more absurd than its opposite." Bertrand Russell

Buddhist monks in 18th century Siam thought that lunar eclipses were caused by a dragon swollowing the moon and that, indeed, the world was flat. Hence the miracles associated with Buddha must have seemed to them real and quite believable. This is made clear by an entry in the 'daily register' recorded by Theodorus Jacobus van den Heuvel, koopman in the service of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) at Ayuttaya. The occasion was a journey to Prabat (Pra Puttabat), where pilgrims went to venerate Buddha's footprint, which he had been ordered to traverse in the King's trail.

I am not denigrating the Thai monk for his beliefs, which were no more credulous than Christians before the Enlightenment, then sweeping over Europe. Even van den Heuvel got some of his facts wrong! The point is that Buddhism has a wagonload of myths and miracles as part of its baggage which it carries even to this day.

From In the King's Trail An 18th Century Dutch Journey to the Buddha's Footprint; Theodorus Jacobus van den Heuvel's account of his journey to Pra Puttabat in 1737.

Saturday 16th March 1737.

This day having passed in receiving several mandarins who came to our tent, as well as in awaiting the king at the usual place, we went at 8 o’clock in the evening to the supreme talpojer named pra-tjau, who had invited us and who we found to be a polite, talkative, and very inquisitive man, and we had a long discourse with him about European buildings and the lifestyles of the people in that part of the globe, but just then an eclipse of the moon occurred and he inquired after our opinion about it, whereupon we told him that it was caused by the world standing more or less perpendicular between the sun and the moon, according to the proportion in which the occultation appeared, and thereby deprived the moon, which is a dark body and which receives all its light from the sun, of that sunlight and kept it from shining. “Well,” he then asked, “and what about the sun when it eclipses?” We answered that then the moon stood between the world and the sun in such a manner as when the world stood between the sun and the moon, and that this furnished definitively strong evidence that the moon consisted of a dark body and that nothing was accidental in this eclipse, because these bodies took their course in such a manner that such [eclipse] surely had to occur at fixed times, which could be calculated and verified by persons who are knowledgeable about it and have studied it. But this venerable old man could barely comprehend and believe this, nor the principle of the antipodes or people down under, and the discourse ended up with our attempt to demonstrate to him that the earth was round, and entirely surrounded by the air like a yolk in the white of an egg, and that this air was powerful enough because of the equal distribution of its strong pressure, expansion, and force, to carry this entire globe without the slightest deflection and to hold it in the center, of which there was no clearer evidence than to see something material fall down, whatever its substance, after being thrown upwards, in whichever part of the world one might be. [Apparently van den Heuvel hadn't heard of gravity!] His reply was that the Brahmins too were able to calculate the eclipses of the sun and moon, but that the Siamese not only believed this darkening of both bodies to be accidental and to be caused by a dragon who wished to swallow them when he stumbled upon them, but also that the world was square and stood on a firm foothold, because—and at this point the prince tjau fa Wat-pothaij, who is popularly called the foolish prince, intervened—if it were not so, how could the world have carried our god, who was so heavy that even a hundred thousand men could not lift him, to which we as well as the talpojer responded with a grin. Then after having chewed some betel and having drunk a cup of tea that was offered to us, we bade farewell and departed.

This eclipse indeed took place on 16 March 1737, late in the evening or at almost midnight. Although the first part of the discourse is a fairly accurate account of eclipses, Galileo's theories--or Newton's, for that matter--do not seem yet to have entirely pervaded the knowledge of van den Heuvel.

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