Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled “Why I Am A Five Precenter“, by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book is an exploration of a little known American religion called the Five Percenters,1 which began as an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, but grew into a movement in its own right even after the founder, “Allah” was assassinated. Quite a few hip-hop artists and songs have hidden Five-Percenter messages in them,2 for example, so while it’s not well-known, it’s surprisingly influential in Black-American culture and increasingly in American culture as a whole.
Anyhow, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t comment on the content though I will say it’s been very enlightening. You can read a summary by the author here. What I did want to share though was this quotation from the book:
It’s a common religions prejudice. We often assume that all of the genuine wisdom and useful stories rest in the old scriptures, while the new scriptures contain only made-up nonsense. When old scriptures seem unreasonable, we search for the deeper meaning, the buried esoteric truth; when new scriptures give us trouble, we dismiss them as the gibberish of lunatics and charlatans. When I mentioned the Nation of Islam to a Sunni [Muslim] friend, he mocked their bizarre myths such as the Mothership, an advanced spacecraft that would someday release drone ships to bomb the white devil’s kingdom off the map. His tone surprised and disappointed me; this Sunni kid’s religion, after all, had its own share of the strange.
“But you believe that the Prophet flew into heaven on the Buraq,” I answered. The Buraq was a creature commonly depicted as a flying horse with a peacock tail and a woman’s head. “Isn’t that counterintuitive?”
“It’s allegory,” he said. “It was the Prophet’s soul that ascended into paradise, not his body.”
“So why can’t the Mothership be allegory?”
For some reason, this rarely occurs to people.
This passage really struck me because I see that same religious prejudice in myself. For me, the older the Buddhist teaching, the more authentic it is, and therefore has heavier weight, but many of the early Buddhist sutras contains fantastical stories or non-sensical explanations of cosmology, etc. So, when newer generations of Buddhists composed things like the Mahayana sutras and such, I wonder if they were trying to rehash or repackage earlier teachings in a more palatable way. Perhaps they struggled with the same contradictions a modern 21st century Buddhist has, and solved it in their own way, just as we’re doing now.
Anyhow, something to think about for any religious person, not just Buddhists. 😉
1 The name derives from the notion that:
- 85% of the people are blind to the truth.
- 10% know the truth but teach lies for personal gain.
- 5% are the humble teachers who preach the truth to save the masses.
2 A couple examples: the term “peace” used by hip-hop artists often refers to the standard greeting that Five Percenters give one another (essentially an English translation for the Arabic-Islamic greeting). Also, the term “G” originally did not mean “gangster”, but instead meant “god”, in keeping with the Five Percenter doctrine that all Black Men are gods and masters of their own Universe.