Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year Reading

If you need a bit of feel-good reading right now (and who doesn't?) please have a look at which is really well worth reading and thinking about. And did you know that two Buddhists have just been elected to Congress in the US? Read about this and the controversy surrounding it at

Monday, December 29, 2008

Final Farewell

A funeral (matakicca) is a ceremony related to disposing of the body of someone who has died. Funerals for ordinary people at the time of the Buddha were fairly simple. Four men would carry the body to the charnel ground (susana) followed by a procession of relatives and friends who would be carrying torches and weeping and wailing (Ja.VI,464; Sn.580). The usual way of disposing of the body was by cremation or exposure to the elements. If the first of these was done the body was placed of the pyre (citaka), flowers, incense and garlands were placed on the body, the participants circumambulated the pyre three times and then it was ignited. On the 12th or sometimes the 13th day after the death the saddha ceremony was held where food, clothing and other gifts were given to brahmans in the name of the deceased (D.I,97). If you go to Gaya even today you can see pilgrims doing the saddha puja for their parents, probably not much different from how it was done at the Buddha's tome.
The Buddha’s funeral was arranged by the Mallas, the people of Kusinara, and was conducted very similar to they way royal funerals are described in the Ramayana and other later literature. The Mallas erected tents and awnings and spent several days honoring the Buddha’s body with incense and garlands and to the accompaniment of music and dancing. After six days of this, they washed their heads, dressed in new clothes and then put the body in an iron coffin, smeared it in oil and wrapped it in several layers of fine cloth (D.III,161-4). Then body was taken through the town, out through the gate and then cremated. The ashes or eminent people were usually then interned under an earthen mound (thupa) often situated at a crossroads (catumahapatha). In the case of the Buddha, his ashes were divided into eight, each portion being placed in such a mound.
Today, different Buddhist cultures conduct their funerals in different ways – from simple and dignified as in Sri Lanka or elaborate and colorful as in Thailand. In China, Vietnam and Tibet, the bodies of esteemed monks are sometimes mummified and in Tibet the bodies of ordinary people are sometimes dismembered and fed to vultures.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hot Bods

When I first heard this term recently I misheard it as 'hot rods'. Then I noticed it in the newspaper in the sentence 'the beach was crowded with hot bods' and thought it was referring to sunbathers, you know, as in 'odd bods.' Finally someone filled me in. It's a term for sensuous, desirable or if you like, sexually stimulating, human bodies. In Rubin's time that meant being pale and slightly flabby, for the Edwardians it meant having high breasts, a wasp-waist and huge buttocks. Today it means being muscular, tanned and having as few clothes as possible without getting into trouble with the law. That's okay. It fits well with our overly-sexually stimulated pleasure-dominated, body-oriented society. Related to this, just the other day I found this comment on a local Buddhist's blog which I thought rather useful - 'A hot bod is definitely nice, but a cool head and a warm heart is far more important. However, there is no reason why a hot bod cannot contain a cool head and warm heart. I just must not loose sight of the fact that even a hot bod is nothing more than a "stinking skin bag" to contain the heart and mind'.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Aborted Exhibition

Almost exactly a year later and the dust has still not settled and the ill-feeling and disappointment have still not faded. On the 25th December 2007, after four years of negations, signed protocols and agreements, the government of Bangladesh suddenly canceled its collaboration with the Paris' Musée Guimet to hold an exhibition of art from Bangladesh. It was discovered that somewhere between the National Museum and the Dhaka Zia International Airport, two 1500 year old statutes of Vishnu which were about to be transported to Paris had disappeared. The government demanded the immediate return of the 143 other pieces which had already been sent to Paris on 1st December. At a loss of thousands of dollars to itself, the Musée Guimet had to cancel the exhibition which was to be called 'Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta, Collections of Bangladesh Museums' and which was to have opened on the 9th January this year. After the statues disappeared the airport was surrounded by police and 15 people were arrested. Some months later the stolen statures were found in a Dhaka rubbish dump. Being too hot to handle, the robbers had smashed them up to hide their identity before disposing them. The proposed exhibition had already led to demonstrations in Bangladesh where there was great fear that these national treasures once sent to France may never come back. This typical paranoia about the wicked West is interesting given that the theft and the numerous other problems that had plagued the organization of the exhibition all took place in Bangladesh and under the of auspices of Bangladeshi officials. It was also revealed that the items to be transported to Paris had not been properly identified, that some had no accession numbers and that the French list of artefacts contained fewer items than the Bangladeshi list. Anyone who has ever seen the shabby and neglected state of Bangladesh's museums and archaeological sites will not be surprised by any of this. Bangladesh is a basket case. So much so that it can't even organize a museum exhibition. And whose fault is that? Someone else's! As a result of all this the French and the wider European public have been deprived of seeing some of the most exquisite and little-known examples of South Asia's Buddhist heritage. Other museums will be wary of ever dealing with Bangladesh's Dept of Culture and so such an exhibition is unlikely to ever to take place outside the country. What was them Gauda or Bangala, then Bengal and now Bangaladesh was once a great centre of Buddhist civilization. Atisa, the great reviver of the Dhamma in Tibet was a Bengali. The most we can do now is flick through the recently published catalogue of the aborted exhibition.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Picture Of The Month

I would like to share with you pictures of two Buddhist sculptures that I have always deeply admired. The first is of a pensive and meditative Maitreya from Korea. The second is of Avalokitesvara from Sri Lanka. He is depicted as a beautiful youth, strong but not vaulting, relaxed but not soft, masculine but not macho. This exquisite statue was found near Kurunagala just a few years ago together with two equally beautiful golden statues of the Buddha. From the 1st of January I will be looking at the issue of euthanasia (mercy killing) from the Buddhist perspective. This subject has been hotly debated in Singapore of late but as is often the case the Buddhist position got exactly one line in the press, whereas other faiths got much wider coverage. I am not sure there is a clear 'Buddhist' stand on euthanasia but I would like to contribute some Dhammic thoughts on the subject.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas

I have long thought of Christmas as one of the most beautiful of all religious festivals. It has everything one would need to delight children and perhaps even get adults to be temporary moved by a sense of wonder - a mother and her new-born child, innocent animals and simple shepherds looking on, three wise men bringing treasures from the East, a dusting of snow on the hills and presiding over it all, a beautiful twinkling star in the black velvety sky. The fact that the story is a myth is irrelevant. It’s the imagery and the atmosphere it helps create that counts. And if the people stop for even a while to think about the Christmas blessing 'Peace on earth, good will to men' it might even soften a few cynical and hard hearts. It is for these reasons that I always celebrate Christmas, not with binging and boozing but with quiet, joyful reflection.
I think that the commercialization of the festival has robbed us of something special and meaningful and made our lives just that little more colorless. When we banish the spiritual dimension from religious festivals like Christmas our need for the nourishment they give forces us to 'invent' fake festivals like Moomba (in Australia) Chingay (here in Singapore) or Macys Parade (in New York) in an attempt to evoke something beyond just 'having a good time.' And such fake festivities are a poor substitute for celebrations like Christmas which have a 2000 year tradition behind them.

When someone says to me 'Happy Holidays' at Christmas I feel like hitting them over the head with my umbrella. Apparently this 'neutralized' and 'secularized' excuse for a blessing is ejaculated so that 'non-Christians will not feel excluded' or so they will 'not feel offended' by Happy Christmas. If you feel offended by someone wishing you happiness at a time they are happy, then I think there is something seriously wrong with you. And if you can't join others in their celebrations, even if the theology behind it does not correspond with yours, then I think you lack mudita. As usual, the Buddha had something to say that is relevant to this issue. He said that the sage would happily participate in Brahminacal sacrificial festivals (yanna) and traditional family celebrations (yajanti anukulam sada) where nothing against the Precepts was involved (S.I,76).
I wish all my readers and Christian friends and their families a most happy and joyous Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Because it is Christmas tomorrow I thought it appropriate to do something from the Christian tradition. To my mind one of the most beautiful passages to be found in any sacred scriptures is St Paul's comments on love which he wrote to the Corinthians. I have presented the slightly modified version of the King James Version because of the beauty of its language But it is the meaning of the words that makes this passage so special. Read it thoughtfully and slowly for best effect.
'Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I can move mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profit me nothing. Love is longsuffering and kind; love envies not; love does not vaunt itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices the truth; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abides faith, hope and love, there three; but the greatest of these is love.'

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Buddhist Christian Cooperation

When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the 6th and 7th centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion; Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India’s monasteries and temples. In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. One story from those times in particular suggests an amazing degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang’an, with a large collection of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist books. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued. These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang’an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these several of these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop. For more on this interesting topic have a look at From the internet.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Three Kings

I love relics, not because I 'believe' in them (if you ask me, 99.99 % of all relics are fake) but because of what they tell you about how people used to think, and in some cases still think. The piety and the incredulity, the devotion and ghoulishness, the mite of the simple folk and the crass commercialism of the clergy have always fascinated me. So naturally, when I was in Cologne with a two hour wait for my connecting train I nipped out of the station and into the cathedral to see the famous Shrine of the Three Kings, the Magi which legend says came from the East to offer gifts to the baby Jesus. St Helen is supposed to have found the bones of the three kings during her famous pilgrimage to Palestine (She found the True Cross too. How's that for luck!). She had them deposited in Hagia Sophia from where they were later moved to Milan and later in 1164 Fredrick I had them transferred to Cologne. It was the influx of pilgrims to the shrine that turned Cologne from a town into a city and the donations they made built the cathedral, the biggest (and if you ask me, the ugliest) in Europe. I spent 20 minuets gazing at the exquisite golden coffins, then I sat back and observed the other visitors. How things have changed! Once pilgrims from all over Europe came to reverently worship the kings' bones and go away with their faith rejuvenated, and often healed of prolonged sicknesses into the bargain. Now tourists in T-shirts and shorts gawk, take photos and laugh at the idea that the bones could be genuine and that people were once so naive that they could feel devotion in the presence of dusty old skulls, tibias and fibulas. That’s the trouble with conventional religion - it raises you up with one hand and lets you down (if you can't 'just believe') with the other.
And admittedly a list of the relics that used to be revered in Christendom is enough to make you laugh - there were two tombs of the three kings (the other was in Saveh near Tehran), a tip of Satan's tail, a feather from the Archangel Gabriel's wing, a crystal vial containing the Virgin's milk, another vial containing Jesus' breath, six heads of John the Baptist, five arms of the Virgin Mary and of course we must not forget the Holy Prepuce, of which at one time there were eight. If you don’t know what a prepuce is look it up in the dictionary.
And if any of my Western Buddhist readers are feeling a bit smug they might like to put down their copy of the Kalama Sutta and be informed that there is a temple in Thailand enshrining what is known as Phra Singanig, the Holy Snot. That’s right, the Buddha's nasal mucus!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Footprints In The Court

Described by some as a literary masterpiece and others as processed cheese, the poem Footprints in the Sand is one of the most popular piece of writing in contemporary Christian pop culture. Royalties from reproducing it on cards, posters, in diaries and books, runs into millions. Now four people or their estates are locked in a fierce legal battle over the ownership of the poem, each claiming to have composed it. They are Mary Stevenson, Carolyn Joyce Carty, the traveling evangelist Margaret Fishback-Powers and Ella Scharring-Hausen. An unsympathetic observer of the legal wrangling described the claimants as 'three liars and one fifth-rate poet.' I can't reproduce the poem here as I don’t want to get sued for infringing copyright (the litigants are in a bad mood right now) but it goes like this. A man dreams that he's walking along the beach with Jesus who reveals to him all his past life and tells him that he has been with him in good times and bad. The man looks over his shoulder and sees both his and the Lord's footprints in the sand but notices that at the places where he had crisis in his life there is only one set of footprints. He said to the Lord, 'Where were you at that time?' and the Lord replies 'I was carrying you.'
I wonder which of the four the Lord is carrying during the court hearings. Perhaps they would do better to relinquish Footprints in the Sand and read the Prayer of Serenity, the Desiderata or even the Dhammavada instead. Personally, I hope Mrs. Fishback-Powers wins. At least it would be some compensation for having such a strange name.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sacred Footprints

I went to Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, specifically to take this picture of the Buddha's feet for the cover of my new book Sacred Island - A Buddhist Pilgrim's Guide to Sri Lanka (see Oct 14). As it happens, the editor had different ideas and a more predictable, less beautiful picture ended up on the cover. So I thought I would share this picture with you in the hope that it might inspires you as much as it did me.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Hospitality (atitheyya or sakkara) is the act of being welcoming and helpful to guests (atithi) and travelers (addhika). Throughout the ancient world hospitality, at least towards members of one’s own tribe, religion or class, was held in high regard. In India it was, like so much else, restricted by the strictures of the caste system. For example, the Manusastra, the most important Hindu law book, says that a brahman should only offer hospitality to other brahmans and that he should neither greet nor return the greeting of monks or ascetics of unorthodox sects.
The Tipitaka often says that the Buddha was ‘welcoming, friendly, polite and genial’ towards everyone who came to see him (D.I,116). One of the traditional duties of a lay person was to make the fivefold offering, one of which was providing food, accommodation and help to guests (atithibali), a practice the Buddha approved of and encouraged (A.II,68). When a monk turned up at a monastery he asked the resident monks to go out and meet him, prepare a seat for him, bring him water to wash his feet, prepare accommodation for him and do other things to make him feel welcome. The Buddha considered failure to reciprocate hospitality to be very bad form. He said, ‘Whoever goes to another’s house and is fed but does not feed them when they come to his house, consider him an outcaste’ (Sn.128).
Today, with hotels and rapid transportation hospitality to travelers as practiced in the past is less relevant and less necessary. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to welcome and help strangers. It is always a bit daunting being a newcomer to the Buddhist group, the office or the neighborhood. Befriending such people, showing them the ropes and introducing them to others is an expression of kindness.
A type of indirect hospitality common in the Buddhist world until recently was making provisions for travelers and pilgrims. People would build rest houses (avasatha) on the edge of villages or towns or along roads where there was a long distance between villages. Other devote folk would undertake to supply these rest houses with firewood for cooking and water for drinking and to keep them clean. The Buddha said that planting tree (probably along roads), building bridges, digging wells, building rest houses and providing water for wayfarers were meritorious deeds (S.I,33). This last custom is still very popular in Burma. Groups of friends form what are called water-donating societies (wainay ya thukha) and undertake to place water pots along roads for the convenience of passersby.
I have come to know that this lovely old custom continues to linger on even in modern urbane Singapore where you can buy a Coke or a Pepsi on every corner. The Thong Teck Temple just down Balestier Rd from me has a water stall in front of it (left picture). Burmese workers and students in Singapore congregate at Peninsular Plaza on the weekends. I notice that one of the Burmese shopkeepers there has put a water stall out in front of his shop (right).
When I was in Taiwan I arrived at a railway station and was met by the people I was to stay with. Just as we were about to leave the station it began to rain. My friends went to a stand near the station entrance, got three umbrellas from it and we went out to the car park. ‘Where did you get the umbrellas from?’ I asked. My friend replied, ‘Here in Taiwan some Buddhist organizations arrange to have umbrellas put at train and bus stations for the convenience of travelers.’ I was very impressed by this practical and thoughtful act of kindness. But when I thought a bit more about it I could see that there could be a problem with it. I said, ‘But if people keep taking umbrellas the Buddhist organizations must continually have to keep providing umbrellas.’ ‘Oh no’ said my friend, ‘people who use the umbrellas always return them.’ I was even more impressed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rain Cloud Of The Dhamma

Imagine somewhere in the world, on the mountains, along a river bank, in a valley or on a plain, that there are growing plants, trees, bushes, groves and medical herbs of various types, with different names and a variety of colors. Then imagine that a great cloud spreading over the world pours down rain equally everywhere. Its moisture would equally nourish those plants with their small, medium-sized and large roots, stalks, twigs and leaves. From the rain of this one cloud all these different plants grow each according to their own nature. From the same soil moistened with the same rain, they put forth different flowers and diverse fruits. The Tathagata is like this. He appears in the world like a great rain cloud and he extends his message over the world of gods, humans and asuras…and numberless beings come to hear the Buddha’s Dhamma. Then, observing the natures of these beings – smart and dull, active and passive – the he teaches them the Dhamma according to their capacity so that they rejoice and benefit.
From the Sadharmapundarika Sutra

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Although they are unlikely to have ever read it, most people probably know that the Ramayana is one of the two great Indian epics and is considered a sacred texts by Hindus. It tells the story of Rama and Sita, their exile and their triumphant return. What most people do not know is that there is no one texts called the Ramayana but many of them. The most well-known is the one composed by Valmiki in 24,000 verses. This is considered the Ramayana, the standard one, the one by which all the others are judged. But there is no good reason for doing this other than that Valmiki’s Ramayana is the most widely known version in northern India, that its contents are the most detailed and interesting and that its language is exceptional. Valmiki used an earlier Ramayana, perhaps several of them, as the basis of his own great work. Some of the other versions of the Ramayana are the so-called Southern, the Western, the Southern and the North-Western Recensions. Then of course there is the Jain Ramayana, which other than following the rough outline of Valmiki’s is an entirely independent work. The Thai Ramayana differs greatly from the Indonesian one, not just in what it says but in its story line, and both are very different from Valmiki’s. And when I say different, I mean really different. In one version Ravana is the hero, not Rama. In some versions Sita is Rama’s sister, not his wife. The Malay Ramayana, Hikayat Seri Rama, and the Lao version, Phra Lak Phra Lam, make Lakshmana the hero and Rama his sidekick.
None of this detracts from the Ramayana’s, or more correctly, the Ramayanas, importance, their influence has been enormous. They have left their mark on nearly every aspect of Indian life. Tulsi Das’ rendering would easily be the most widely read book ever written in Hindi, It could be plausibly argued that the Indonesian Ramayana has had more influence on that country’s art, sculpture, architecture and literature than Islam has had. And Thailand? Go to Wat Phra Keo, the most important Buddhist temple in the country, and it is not the life of the Buddha that is depicted on the walls of the passageway around the main shrine but scenes from the Thai Ramayana, the Ramakien. The former capital of Thailand was named Ayodhya, after Rama’s home town, not Kapilavatthu. All kings of the present ruling dynasty of Thailand take the throne name Rama, not Siddhattha, Suddhodana or even Buddhadasa. What the Bible is to Europe, the Ramayanas are to India and wide areas of south-east Asia.
Now this is a Buddhist blog so what am I doing going on about the Ramayana? Well, here is another fact that I suspect you didn’t know. The earliest version of the great epic is the Buddhist one, the one found in the Jatakas (No 461). It’s called the Dasaratha Jataka, Dasaratha being of course Rama’s father. Now although the Dasaratha Jataka is immediately identifiable as a version of the Ramayana it differs greatly from most other versions. For example, Rama and Sita are siblings, not husband and wife; Dasaratha does not banish them but sends them away to protect them from their jealous step-mother; they are exiled to the Himalayas, not to Dandaka in the Deccan; there is no reference to Lanka or Ravana; Rama and Sita return to Benares not to Ayodhya after their exile, and somewhat uncomfortably, they then marry.
Now reading Valmiki’s Ramayana (and I confess to not having read it all) one discovers little bits of Buddhism popping up here and there throughout it. For example, the story of King Sibi giving his eyes to the blind man (Jataka No 499) is there. I strongly suspect that the exile of Vessantra as told in the Vessantra Jataka (No 549) was the inspiration for Rama and Sita’s exile in Valmiki’s Ramayana, although I don’t know what scholars say about this. Having said all this, it is also true to say that the Dasaratha Jataka is not a literary masterpiece and Valmiki’s Ramayana definitely is. It is nowhere near as long (is any poem?), it lacks its narrative charm and excitement, and its didactic elements are much more limited. If you are interested in reading the Ramayana (and you have 6 month to spare) have a look at where you will find the Sanskrit text and a word by word translation of it with notes. I have not been able to find the Dasaratha Jataka on the internet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


It going back a while ago now, but years ago a group of students from the NSU came to be saying that they would like to ask me some questions about Buddhism. I sat with and they asked away and while they did I distinctly recall thinking how simple, and in some cases how simplistic, their questions were and that they had been unable to think of answers to them themselves. Later I learned that Singapore’s education system (at least at that time) tends to have this effect on young minds. Anyway, this prompted me to write some of these questions down, add a few more that I am often asked and turn it into a booklet. That was in 1987 and now, 21 years later over 153,000 copies of Good Question Good Answer have been printed, it has gone through dozens of editions in at least nine countries and it had been translated into 19 languages, most recently Polish, Laotian and Serbo-Croatian. Selections from the book have been reprinted in numerous magazines, newsletters and web sites, one Sri Lankan monk has plagiarized parts of it while an Indian writer had included a barely disguised paraphrase of nearly half of it in one of his publications without any reference to the original. I'm flattered. There are also three different Burmese translations, the translators of each informing me that theirs is better than the previous ones. I am happy to take their word for it.
On one hand I’m happy that something I have written has found such a wide readership and done so much to introduce people to the Dhamma or help them understand it better. On the other I'm a bit frustrated that this book rather than some of my other far more ‘mature’ ones is so popular. It is after all, a very basic, simple and apologetic piece of writing. When I was invited to address the Buddhist group at Cambridge University I literally cringed when I was introduced as ‘…and the author of that wonderful book Good Question Good Answer.’ At Cambridge University for goodness sake! Nonetheless, I am intrigued by why it is so popular. I often ask people why they like it so much and they all pretty much say the same thing – easy to read, catchy analogies, complex ideas simply explained and answers to ‘the very questions I had been asking myself.’ Sadly, it’s a formula I have been unable to repeat in any of my other books.
If you haven’t read it and want to have a look at it go to If you read Serbo-Croatian have a look at the new translation into that language at

Monday, December 15, 2008

Female Monks

I received a long and appreciative letter the other day and it happened to refer to the former Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now ordained as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, as 'a female monk'. Now I don’t think I am particularly fussy about words or word usage but this term and its ugly sister 'female priest' annoys and baffles me. I can well understand why Christians use the term female priest; the proper usage 'priestess' sounds just a little too pagan. But why do we Buddhists refer to nuns as 'female monks' when the correct, universally understood, still not dated, without negative connotations and seven-letters-shorter word 'nun' is available? We readily refer to someone being an actresses, a princess, a seamstresses or an heiress, so what's wrong with calling someone a priestess, or if they are a woman ordained in the Buddhist tradition, a nun?
I suspect that that insidious American disease political correctness is at work here and indeed it is mainly in American Buddhist publications that I see these terms. But if it is political correctness then it is a poorly considered expression of it. 'Female monk' clearly still tips the balance towards the masculine gender; you are merely a female version of the male. If you genuinely wanted to redress the gender prejudice and add a bit of affirmative action language as well, you should actually start calling priests male priestesses and monks male nuns.
The picture shows a female bull. I wanted to add some pictures of a male hen, a female ram and an anatomically complete eunuch but I thought I had already made my point.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

One Taste

Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so too my Dhamma has one taste, the taste of freedom (Ud.56)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Fire Fly Mission

'Together we light up the world.' So goes the motto. Members of the Fire Fly Mission (FFM) liken themselves to fireflies, though each emits only a small spark of light, when grouped together, they believe that they can help to light up some of the dark corners of the world. This is the aspiration of the FFM in its humanitarian work. It aims to bring aids and monetary support to the people who live in the poorer areas in countries around the Singapore region. FFM started out as an offshoot of the Buddhist Fellowship with the intention of undertaking overseas humanitarian work. Its first mission was a health and community welfare project in Myanmar in the year 2000. It went by the name of 'Song of Apsaras.' In 2003, it adopted the name “Fire Fly Mission” and became a registered society on 1 October 2005. It’s stated objectives are -
To bring love, peace and happiness to the self and the world at large.
To assist and facilitate the building of a favorable environment for basic health and education for the less fortunate.

Members of the FFM are primarily Singaporean Buddhists who join in as volunteers to participate in its projects, contributing their time, money and energy. They come from all walks of life and of all ages. The humanitarian projects undertaken by the FFM now cover Myanmar, Thailand, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The projects focus on three main areas - health, education and social welfare. In the area of health, FFM has provided medicine, medical equipment and ambulances where they are needed. It has also financed the building of clinics and hospitals. In education, it has provided funds for the construction or upgrading of schools and students’ hostels in several villages in southern Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It has donated books, school uniforms and computers, and paid for teachers’ salaries and student bursaries in Myanmar, Thailand and Nepal. In social welfare, it has donated a variety of things to meet people's needs. These include blankets, sewing machine and food supplies. It has provided funds for the building of orphanages and community halls in several places. It has also donated substantially to monasteries and temples in theses countries.
When Cyclone Nargis hit the delta regions in Myanmar on 2nd May 2008, the FFM quickly went into action to organize disaster relief. Members opened their purses to make donations. Essential food and medical items were purchased and arrangements were made for a team of volunteers to get to the disaster areas. On 17th May, four volunteers were on their way there. It was to find that it was the first civilian non-medical group to make it to ground zero. It went to work immediately to distribute medicine and food to the victims. That first team distributed some 500 kg of medical supplies and 20 tons of food items such as rice, lentils and cooking oil. With the help of the local partners, it was able to quickly assess the most urgent need in the rehabilitation programmed. It immediately provided funds for the repairs to schools, orphanages and monasteries which served as relief centers. Since then, three more teams of volunteers have been to the disaster areas to continue with the relief work. FFM will continue its efforts to bring help to the cyclone victims. Programmers for mid-term and long-term rehabilitation have been drawn up. They include rebuilding of schools, orphanages and clinics.
The FFM has over the years set up a network of local partners in the countries where it is active. Most of the local partners are well-respected Sangha members and they help to oversee its projects at the ground level. It has proved to be a good, practical way to ensure local cooperation and proper coordination as well as accountability for the funds disbursed to them. The FFM observes a strict accountability for all donations it receives from members and well-wishers. It adopts a zero cost policy for overhead so that every cent received from donations goes towards funding of its humanitarian and disaster relief projects. There is no permanent office and meetings are held in temples or members’ homes. Administrative and travel expenses are borne by members/volunteers out of their own pockets even when they travel out of Singapore. For more information on the Fire Fly Mission, visit its website:

Friday, December 12, 2008

Parting Shots

The English-Australian monk Abhinyana died on the 14th of April this year at his sister's home in Nambour, Queensland. In the ten days before his passing we exchanged several emails each day. In one of these he asked me to write a short introduction to Parting Shots, his last book, which he was then finalizing and I agreed to do so. I have just received a copy of it. This is what I wrote.

The book you hold in your hand is written by someone who has reached that time which we will all come to sooner or later - where the portion of life is about to end and a new one begin. For some, that time will be brief and comfortable, for the writer it is proving to be drawn-out and difficult. Like so much in life, we cannot chose which of these two we will have. There is however, one thing we can choose - how we spend that time. The Buddha said; ‘Train yourself like this, “Though my body be sick, my mind shall not be sick.’ ” I know that Abhinyana’s body is sick, very sick, ‘in the grip of an octopus’, as he puts it. But reading this, his summing up, it is obvious that his mind is still as clear and sharp as ever. And as always, he writes with honesty and directness. He clarifies the Dharma and urges his readers to give up the superstitions that infest so much traditional Buddhism and return to the simple, straightforward and commonsense teachings. That old piquant sense of humor is still there too, poking fun at others’ foibles as well as his own. What is missing is regret, maudlin reflections and ‘if onlys’. I assume this is because Abhinyana doesn’t have any. If you can face your end as you lived you life then you are doing okay. Abhinyana and I first met years ago, our paths diverged, met again and again went off in different directions. Now we have come together once more, this time via the internet, and are soon to part for good in this life. I don’t know if he will take with him anything I was able to give him. But I do know that I will long retain some of the things he gave me - an uproariously funny story, a barbed-comment that brought me back down to earth, a new angle on one of the Buddha’s sayings, genuine if sometimes difficult friendship. To all of us he gives these ‘parting shots’.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Blind Men And The Elephant

To my mind, of all the people who have retold the story of the blind men and the elephant since the Buddha, none have done better than John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) in his poem of the same name. Read and enjoy.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, quoth he;
'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a rope!

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Purblind And The Pachyderm

The parable of the blind men and the elephant is probably the most widely known and the most loved of all the world's parables. By far the earliest version of this parable is to be found in the Udana, one of the books of the Buddhist scriptures where it is attributed to the Buddha (Ud.67-9). There seems no good reason to doubt this attribution for while the blind men and the elephant is a most memorable one, it is by no means the only cleaver parable attributed to the Buddha. The parable's appeal is due to how well it makes its point, its striking juxtaposing of man and beast and its gentle humor.
The background to the Buddha telling this parable goes like this. Some monks in Savatthi noticed a group of non-Buddhist monks quarrelling with each other about some philosophical or theological issues. Later, they mentioned what they had seen to the Buddha and he said, 'Wanderers of other sects are blind and unseeing. They don’t know the good and the bad and they don’t know the true and the false. Consequently they are always quarrelling, arguing and fighting, wounding each other with the weapon of the tongue' Then the Buddha related his famous parable. 'Once here in Savatthi, the king called a certain man and said, "Assemble together in one place all the men in Savatthi who were born blind." Having done as the king commanded, the king then said to the man, "Now show the blind men an elephant." Again the man did as the king commanded, saying to each as he did, "Oh blind man, this is an elephant and this is its head. This is its ear. This is its tusk. This is its trunk. This is its body. This is its leg. This is its back. This is its tail. This is the end of its tail." This having been done the king addresses the blind men saying, "Have you seen an elephant?" and they replied "We have sire." "And what is an elephant like?" he asked. And the one who had touched the head said, "An elephant is like a pot." while the one who had touched the ear said, "An elephant is like a winnowing basket." The one who had touched the tusk said, "An elephant is like a plough pole" while the one who had touched the trunk said, "It is like a plough." The one who had touched the body said, "It is like a granary" and the one who had touched the leg said, "It is like a pillar." The one who had touched the back said, "It is like a mortar", the one who had touched the tail said, "It is like a pestle" while the one who had touched the end of the tail said, "An elephant is like a broom." Then they began to quarrel saying, "Yes it is!" "No it isn’t!" "An elephant is like this!" "An elephant is like that!" until eventually they began fighting with each other.' Having told this story the Buddha summed up its meaning in a terse little verse -

Some monks and priests are attached to their views
And having seized hold of them they wrangle,
Like those who see only one side of a thing.

The key to understanding the meaning of the parable is in the last line of this verse; seeing only one side of a thing (ekanga dassino). This is but one example of where the Buddha gives advice about how to form a more complete, a more accurate view of reality. Here he is suggesting one important point - that we should not mistake the part for the whole. In other places he advises keeping personal biases out of the way when assessing views, taking time to form opinions and even when having done so, keeping an open mind so as to be able to consider other points of view.
I notice that the Wikipedia article on this famous parable says that the blind men touch eight pachyderm parts while K. N. Jayatilleke (usually a very careful scholar) says there are ten. In fact, there are nine. I really love the Buddha's comparisons. You can see women using winnowing baskets (sup or supli in Hindi, suppa in Pali) is any Bihari village even today and they do look just like an elephant's ear. The elephant's tail and the broom is a good comparison too. The back with the pestle is less obvious. Could it be referring to the long ridge of the backbone which can so easily be seen under the elephant's skin?
After the Udana, the earliest mention of the parable of the blind men and the elephant is to be found in the Syadvadamanjari, a Jain work where it is used to illustrate the Jain doctrine of relativity of truth (anekantavada). This doctrine states that 'every view is true from some standpoint (naya) or other and in general no view can be categorically false.' Boy! Wouldn’t New Agers love this one if they knew of it! After this the blind men and their elephant run all over the place. They appear in Brahmanical and Hindu works, in some Persian collections of stories and even in one of the works of the Turkish Sufi mystic Rumi. Today there are numerous children's books about it or which include it. If you would like to see a careful and accurate word by word translation of the whole sutta in which the parable of the blind men and the elephant appears have a look at Venerable Anandajoti's

Thank you Lord Buddha, for giving the world this wonderful story. May we not forget its message.
The picture is an 18th century Japanese illustration of the parable.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Physics Of Hell

The following is an actual question given on university of Washington chemistry mid term paper. The answer by one student was so ‘profound’ that the professor shared it with colleagues, via the internet, which is, of course, why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well. 'Bonus question – Is hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?' Most of the students wrote proofs based on their individual beliefs and using Boyle’s Law (gas cools when it expands and heats when compresses). One student however, wrote the following -

First, we need to know how the mass of hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect that the souls in hell to increase expeditiously. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in hell because Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the volume of hell has to expand to stay the same the volume of hell has to expand proportionally as souls are added. This gives two possibilities; (1) If hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase and all hell will break loose. (2) If hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in hell, them the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over. So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, 'It will be a cold day in hell before I sleep with you' and take into account the fact that I did sleep with her last night, then the number two must be true, and thus I am sure that hell is exothermic and has already frozen over. The corollary of this theory is that since hell has frozen over, it follows that no more souls are going there and it is therefore, extinct, leaving only heaven, thereby confirming the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting 'Oh my God!'
The student received an A

That pretty much exhausts the subject or hell and purgatory. From tomorrow I will move on to more important and useful subjects.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Go To Nirvana, Go Directly To Nirvana, Do Not Pass Go

Friends of mine have just developed an interesting Buddhist board game. In this challenging game, players move around the Wheel of Life by answering questions based on Dhamma, the life of the Buddha, and Buddhist history. The first player to complete the circle is the winner. The questions are grouped into four levels of difficulty, with 36 questions at each level. Questions are determined by a roll of a die. The game is ideal for Dhamma classes, English-as-a-second-language classes, families, and any group interested in learning about Buddhism. Have a look at it at

Going Willing To Hell

According to Mahayana, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has made a vow not to attain enlightenment until all beings have managed to get out of purgatory. To this end, he descends into purgatory and experiences all its pain and suffering just so he can teach the Dhamma to the beings there. In the Far East, Ksitigarbha is depicted as a monk with a gently smiling and serene countenance holding a kakarakkha (wayfarer's staff) in one hand and a wish-fulfilling gem in another. Images of him are often to be seen in cemeteries.
In Thailand and Laos there are many stories about an arahat named Phra Malai who is supposed to have come from Sri Lanka. According to popular legend, Phra Malai uses his supernormal powers to go into purgatory to teach the Dhamma with the same motives as Ksitigarbha. Generally I don’t have a very high opinion of popular Thai Buddhism but this is one of its manifestations that I do appreciate. It is interesting to consider the difference in the mentality and culture that produced the legend of the wrathful deity who condemns beings to eternal hell without hope or reprieve, and the ones that gave rise to the legends about Ksitigarbha and Phra Malai.
A study of the Phra Malai legend has just been published called Thai Telling of Phra Malai-Text and Rituals of a Popular Buddhist Saint by Bonnie Brerton. It is not particularly interesting (all anthropology, no Dhamma), but it will give you some idea about the beliefs and stories surrounding Phra Malai.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


From the very beginning Christianity taught that to be saved from hell it was necessary to be baptized. Although this was clear enough it gradually dawned on theologians that this doctrine gave rise to some very troubling questions. The most serious, not to say most embarrassing of these, was the question of what happened to babies who died at birth or soon after without being baptized. And of course this was not just a theoretical matter; until recently infant death was very common and many isolated farmhouses and remote villages did not have access to a priest who could perform the baptism. By the 13th century theologians developed (i.e. thought up) the idea of limbo. The word limbo comes from the Latin word meaning ‘edge’ and the place itself was believed to be near hell but not in it, where babies existed in a sort of state of suspended animation without experiencing the tortures of hell or the bliss of heaven. This never became an official doctrine of the Church but not having the ‘official’ stamp of approval probably didn’t make much difference to the average person. It was widely taught and most people believed it. One can only imagine how this idea compounded the grief and distress of already distraught parents whose child had just died and they had failed or not been able to get it baptized.
But now we know that all this grief and despair were unnecessary because the Church has recently announced that in fact there is no such place as limbo. In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger, then in charge of the Vatican’s board of doctrine and now Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he was ‘personally’ in favor of scrapping the idea of limbo, which he termed a mere ‘hypothesis.’ In April 2007 he approved of a 41 page document drafted by the International Theological Commission which suggested abolishing the idea. It had taken the Commission two years to conclude their deliberations and announce their recommendations. ‘We cannot know with certainty what will happen when an unbaptized baby dies’, said Paul McParthian, ‘but we have good grounds to hope that God in his mercy and love looks after these children and brings them salvation.’ Mmm. Interesting. It seems to me that this solves one problem but creates another. If all unbelievers and even Christians who sin can be condemned to hell, but babies who die at birth are saved, then surely it would be better to die early than to survive infancy and perhaps be brought up as a Buddhist or become a sinner. Better still I suppose would be to be aborted before birth. I’m just a simple monk. I just don’t understand theology.
The picture above is, I believe, of limbo as imagined by a Baroque artist. It doesn't look too bad does it? But I wonder how that teenager snuck in. And what are those cats doing there? Perhaps some cold-hearted person drowned them before they were baptized.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Petavatthu

As we are talking about hell I thought it only fair to have a look at the Petavatthu, the seventh book in the Khuddaka Nikaya which is the fifth collection of the Sutta Pitaka, one of the three divisions in the Tipitaka, the Buddhist scriptures. This text and its companion text, the Vimanavatthu, is easily the least interesting book in the whole Tipitaka and one can only wonder how it ever got included in it. The title means ‘Story of Ghosts’; peta = ghost + vatthu = story. It consists of about 814 verses embedded in prose stories. Only the verses are canonical. There are four chapters containing 12, 13, 10 and 16 stories each. The exact number of verses is unclear because it is sometimes hard to tell where the story ends and the verse begins. The stories tell of the mean, nasty or immoral things people did which led them to being reborn as a ghost. Without exception these stories are dull, rather puerile and even without literary merit. Winternitz commented, ‘The truly great and profound doctrine of kamma…which has found expression in…Buddhist texts in so many beautiful sayings and legends, is most clumsily explained by means of examples in little stories, whose metrical form is their only poetical attribute.’
And what about ghosts? The Rg Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, speaks of the ‘realm of the fathers’ (pitarah), a sort of shadowy world where everyone went when they died. In later centuries this term fused with the term preta, ‘departed’ and led to the creation of the word peta and the idea of a ghostly realm or existence (Pali pettivisaya, later petaloka ‘ghost world’). Brahmanism later developed the idea that making offerings to ghosts could raise the quality of their gloomy existence. The Buddha mentioned that one of the reasons people wanted a son was so he could make offerings to them after they had died (A.III,43). A brahmin mentioned to the Buddha that he made saddha offerings to the departed (A.V,269), a practice you can still being done in Gaya to this day. The Buddha seems to have taken this belief for granted or at least saw that it might grow out of kindly motives and he encouraged some people to make offerings to the departed. Typically, he added an ethical dimension to the belief, saying that not everyone, but people who had been immoral might get reborn in the ghost world. He said, ‘By knowing his mind with mine, I have known a certain man who because of his behavior has taken such a path so that after the breaking up of the body he will be reborn as a ghost and will experience much painful feelings. It is just like a tree growing on rocky ground with sparse foliage and casting an uneven shadow. One man might see another, exhausted by the heat of the day, weary, parched and thirsty, going on a path that leads directly to that tree and later he would actually see him sitting or lying in the shade of that tree experiencing much discomfort’ (M.I,75). It seems that the early Buddhists incorporated the existing Brahminical belief in the ghost realm into their cosmology and then had to distinguish it from purgatory. They did this by saying that the committing of prolonged evil would result in rebirth in purgatory, lesser evil or evil associated with craving, longing and wanting would result in rebirth in the ghost realm.
Interestingly, the Buddha considered ‘talk about ghosts’ (petakatha) to be unedifying and unbecoming for serious Dhamma practitioners (D.I,8). The Petavatthu would by any interpretation qualify as ‘talk about ghosts.’ It is also interesting to note that the Thai Sangha has never recognized either the Petavatthu or the Vimanavatthu as canonical. All scholars who have examined the Petavatthu – Rhys Davids, H. S. Gehman and Prof. Abhayanayaka – ascribe to it a late date. Winternitz wrote that it ‘probably belongs to the latest stratum of literature assembled in the Pali Canon.’
The pictures are of petas as imagined by medieval Japanese artists.