So, coming to Sri Lanka, I expected the Buddhism as practiced here to be largely focused on just those ideas that one finds in the earliest texts, and to be mostly free of later ideas like the focus on the godlike presence of Bodhisattvas one finds in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Imagine my surprise on opening to page one of the "Guide to the Study of Theravada Buddhism, Book 1" to find the tale of Gautama's previous life as Sumedha, where he makes a pledge to a previous Buddha, Dipamkara, to seek Buddhahood himself, and receives the previous Buddha's affirmation! Eventually, the kids are expected to memorize 24 such pairings of previous lives of Gautama with the previous Buddhas who affirmed his Buddhahood.
One of the most important aspects of Buddhism from my perspective is that the Buddha was a human who used his human faculties to understand his situation and provide an example that any of us could follow. Even this book states that Gautama "was born as a normal human being" (p.23). But that statement is hard to take seriously when combined with the discussion of Buddha's choosing his parents and place of birth, knowing that his mother would have to die within months of giving birth (since it would be improper for her womb to hold another child after the Buddha), and stepping out of his mother's womb at birth and announcing:
I am the chief of the world
I am the most senior of the world
I am the supreme in the world
This is my last birth
Hence there is no rebirth for me.
Not many humans that I know of can walk and talk at birth, let alone have lotus flowers appear under their feet as they do so. And while I recognize that these stories are indeed in the Canon, it seems a shame to me to focus on them to the detriment of the more 'democratic' tendencies of the early teachings. If you're a 10-15 year old, which will make a greater impression on you, stories like the above, or the passing mention that the Dhamma is "to be realized by oneself... approached and investigated... [and is] capable of being entered upon" (p.26)? Especially when you're just asked to memorize the Pali terms that these descriptions define.
This isn't really all that surprising, and although I didn't expect the prevalence of Bodhisattva references, the general presentation of the Buddha as an extraordinary individual seems on par with teaching the religion to children. However, I am disappointed that the kids all look at me like I'm crazy when I ask if any of them seek to be Buddhas. Not that I myself expect to reach the level of insight attained by the Buddha, but I do believe that is not categorically out of the question. Whatever he achieved is achievable by other humans as well. I would have liked to see the kids learning something that looked more like the open, experiential Buddhism that I have come to know, rather than learning to worship and deify an exemplary 'other' that seems in many ways even less human than Jesus.