Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Buddha's True Face II

In Buddhism Buddha statues are expressions of devotion of the artists who make them and aids to contemplation to those who worship them and therefore it is not correct to say that “Buddhists worship idols”. That this is not a new idea, a modern rationalization, is amply proved by the writings of Robert Knox who, in the 17th century, described the Kandyans attitude to Buddha statues thus: “As for these images, they say they do not own them to be gods themselves but only figures representing their Gods to their memories, and as such, they give them honor and worship”. Nonetheless, the Mahabodhi Image was sometimes worshipped as if it were the Buddha himself, food was offered to it and devotees would drape robes over it. The Chinese monk, I Tsing, who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th century wrote. “Afterwards we came to the Mahabodhi Temple and worshipped the Image of the True Face of the Buddha. I took bolts of thick and fine silk which had been given to me by the monks and laymen of Shantung, made a robe to it the size of the Tathagata and myself offered it to the image. Many myriads of small canopies which were entrusted to me by the Vinaya master Huien of Pu’, I offered on his behalf. The meditation master teacher An Tao of Ts’ao asked me to worship the Image and I did this in his name. Then I prostrated myself completely on the ground with my mind undivided, sincere and respectful. Firstly, I wished that China might experience the four benefits and that those benefits might prevail throughout the whole universe. Then I expressed the desire to be reborn under the Naga tree so that as to meet Maitriya and practice the true Dhamma and realise the knowledge not subject to rebirth”. A Chinese inscription found to the north of the Temple written by the monk Ko Yun in 1022 says of the image, “The great hero Maitreya out of compassion for all beings left them the real likeness — The image is respected by the heterodox, cherished by the discerning and although 2000 years old its face remains new”. The inscription also tells us that Ko Yun and his companions draped the Image with a robe made of silk that they had bought with them all the way from China for the purpose. This practice of putting robes on the statue in the main shrine of the Mahabodhi Temple continues even today. As time went by the image was even believed to be able to speak perhaps such a belief should not surprise us too much. Many people in the theistic religions believe that their god talks to them in dreams or in prayer. In fact, one of the last references we have to the Mahabodhi Image mentions it speaking. In 1300, the Tibetan Tantric adept Man-luns-po travelled to Bodh Gaya and made a vow before the Mahabodhi Image to neither eat or drink until it spoke to him. After waiting eighteen days he got his wish when the statue said. “Oh son of noble family! Proceed to Mount Potala and there practice in the manner of Bodhisatvas in the presence of Avaloktesvara”. The details of Man-luns-po’s subsequent journey suggest that that he did actually go to the sacred mountain in Kerala.Being as it were the most lifelike symbol of the Buddha, the Mahabodhi Image attracted the attention of devoted Buddhists but also those who hated and wanted to destroy Buddhism. The most notorious of these was the fanatical Saivite Bengali king Sasanka. Early in the 7th century, his minions attacked Bodh Gaya with the intention of destroying the Mahabodhi Image. Hiuen Tsiang relates what happened. “King Sasanka wished to destroy this image but having seen its loving expression his mind had no rest or determination and he returned homeward with his retinue. On this way he said to one of his officers. ‘We must remove the statue of the Buddha and replace it with one of Mahesvara’. The officer having received this order was moved with fear and sighing said.’ ‘If destroy the statue of the Buddha I will reap misfortune for many kalpas. If on the other hand I disobey the king he will kill me and my family. I am doomed whether I obey or not. What then shall I do? "On this, he called to his presence a man who was a Buddhist to help him and sent him to build across the chamber and in front of the Buddha statue a wall of brick. Out of a feeling of shame at the darkness placed a burning lamp in with the statue and then on the wall drew the figure of Mahesvara. The work being finished he reported it to the king who was suddenly seized with terror. His body became covered with sores, his flesh rotted off and after a while he died. Then the officer quickly ordered the wall to be pulled down and although several days had elapsed the lamp was found to be still burning”. In the 13th century Bodh Gaya came under attack again, this time by Muslim invaders, and the monks used a similar strategy to save the Mahabodhi Image. Dharmasvamin tells us, “They blocked up the door in front of the Mahabodhi Image with bricks and plastered it, near it they places another image as a substitute. On its surface they drew an image of Mahesvara to protect it from the non-Buddhists”. Dharmasvamin was also told that formerly the Mahabodhi Image had two beautiful gems in its eyes that emitted a light so bright that it was possible to read by it. During a lightning raid a little before his visit a soldier had put a ladder against the image and prised the eyes out. As he was climbing down he slipped and fell, dropping the gems and smashing them, after which their light grew dim. The Tibetan historian Taranatha tells us a legend he heard about the origins of these gems. He relates that when the man who had built the Mahabodhi Temple had placed the statue in it, he happened to find a wondrous self-illuminating gem. When he expressed regret that he had nor not found the gem earlier two holes a suddenly appeared in the statue’s eyes. As he prepared to cut the gem in to two, so he could put it in the statue’s sockets, a second gem miraculously appeared.The Mahabodhi Image had a considerable influence on art in India other parts of Asia through copies of it which were taken to various Buddhist countries. Baladitya’s huge temple at Nalanda had a life size copy of the statue in as did the main temple at Vikramasila. When the Chinese pilgrim I Tsing returned home in 698 he brought with him a picture of the statue and presented it to the Fo Shou Chi Monastery. The Chinese envoy Wang Hiuen Ts’e made four separate trips to India, visiting Bodh Gaya during two of them. He returned from his last trip with a model of the Mahabodhi Image which he deposited in the Imperial Palace. He also found himself flooded with requests from people in the capital for copies of the statue. The Tibetan monks Chag Gar-com (1153-1216) is said to have made a copy of the statue and enshrined it in a temple especially built for the purpose. He first saw the original during a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya where each day he would buy flowers in the market and strew over the statue. A Buddha statue the same dimensions as the image was installed in the great stupa at Gyantse in Tibet in 1421. The measurements for this copy were obtained from Sariputra, the last abbot of Bodh Gaya, when he passed through Tibet on his way to China in 1413. This copy can still be seen in the topmost shrine on the east side of the great stupa of Gyantse. In the 19th century, a Buddha statue in the earth witnessing gesture was found near the Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura, the only such statue from ancient Sri Lanka. Although I have no proof I suspect that this also was a copy of the Mahabodhi Image. Nor was sculpture the only art form influenced by this famous statue. The origin of one ancient India style of painting pictures of the Buddha was traced back to an impression made by smearing the Mahabodhi Image with yellow sandalwood paste and pressing a cotton cloth on it.When the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin was in Bodh Gaya in 1234 he said the Mahabodhi Image was still attracting devotees. He wrote of it, “One is never satiated to behold such an image and has no desire to go and behold another. Even people of little faith when standing in front of the image feel it impossible not to shed tears”. The last reference to the Mahabodhi Image is an inscription from about the 15th century carved on a stone railing around the Mahabodhi Temple. It was written by a Buddhist pilgrim from “the mountainous country of Parvata” named Jinadasa and specifically mentions that he had come all the way from his home to gaze at the Mahabodhi Image. After that the statue was lost to the world, perhaps it was destroyed by Islamic iconoclasts although there is no record of this. For nearly 500 years the asana inside the Mahabodhi Temple stood empty. In 1877, the embassy sent by the king of Burma to repair the Mahabodhi Temple installed a statue inside it but this was a rather unattractive image made out of old bricks and plaster. Then in 1880, Joseph Beglar was commissioned by the Indian government to repair the Temple. His unofficial adviser in this task was the great archaeologist Alexander Cunningham. After work on the Temple was finished the two men felt that there was still something missing, a fitting statue in its main shrine. Numerous Buddha statues were lying all around Bodh Gaya but on examination they were all found to be unsuitable, either too small, damaged or of Bodhisattvas rather than of the Buddha himself. Finally a statue was located in a small shrine in the Mahant’s residence, the Hindu monk laid claim to own Bodh Gaya village and its temple. The statue was undamaged, with fine feature and just the right size, neither too small so as to look insignificant in the shrine or too large, so as to make it appear cluttered. The fragmentary inscription on the base of this statue says that it was commissioned by the Chhindha Purnabhadra in about the 12th century. When Cunnimgham asked the Mahant if he could have the statue he refused. But he was a resourceful man and he finally was able to pry it from the Mahants grip. What promises, flattery or threats he used we do not know. Today this statue sits in the Mahabodhi temple, its serene and being gaze looking down on those who come from all over the world to worship it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Buddha's True Face I

In the Dhammadayada Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha says, “Monks, be heirs of my Dhamma, not heirs of material things”. Obviously the Buddha wanted his disciples to give more attention to his liberating teaching than to things like his bodily remains or personal possessions. Nonetheless, after his parinirvana his disciples felt deeply his absence and longed for some form of closeness to their beloved teacher. In time, this led to the cult of relics. If also led to a great interest in what the Buddha looked like. There are many references in the Tipitaka to the Buddha’s personal appearance. In the Anguttara Nikaya it says, “It is wonderful, truly marvelous, how serene the good Gotama’s presence is, how clear and radiant his complexion”. In the Sonadanda Sutta, he is described as being “fair in color, fine in presence, stately to behold”. Although these and other passages from the suttas make it clear that the Buddha was extraordinarily handsome, they are only descriptions. Devotees wanted more than that, they wanted to actually see the Buddha’s face. Consequently legend gradually developed that several very ancient and exceptionally beautiful Buddha statues were not just artists impressions of the Buddha but actual portraits of him. The most famous of these statues was at Bodh Gaya.The earliest Buddha statue found at Bodh Gaya and now in the Indian Museum in Calcutta dates from the year 383 CE. Although much damaged it is still an impressive piece of sculpture, the facial features in particular showing serenity yet determination. In about the first half of the 5th century, a statue was installed in the then newly built Mahabodhi Temple and within a very short time the belief arose that this statue was a portrait of the Buddha. It came to be known as the Image of the True Face or more commonly, as the Mahabodhi Image. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th century has left us this detailed description of the Mahabodhi Image. “He (the statue) was facing the east and as dignified in appearances when alive. The throne on which he sits was 4 feet 2 inches high and 12 feet 5 inches broad. The figure was 11 feet 5 inches high, the two knees were 8 feet 8 inches apart and the two shoulders 6 feet 2 inches. The Buddha’s features are perfectly depicted and the loving expression of his face lifelike. The statue stands in a dark chamber in which lamps and torches are kept burning, but those who wish to see the sacred features cannot do so by coming into the chamber. In the morning they have to reflect the sunlight onto the statue by means of a great miror so that the details can be seen. Those who behold them find their religious emotions much increased”. The story concerning the statue’s origins as told to Hiuen Tsiang is as follows. The Brahmin who built the Mahabodhi Temple wished to enshrine a statue in it but for a long time no suitable sculpture could be found. Eventually, a man appeared who said he could do the job. He asked that a pile of scented clay and a lighted lamp be placed in the temple chamber and the door be locked for six months. This was done but being impatient the Brahmin opened the door four days before the required time. Inside was found a statue of surpassing beauty, perfect in every detail except for a small part of the breast which was unfinished. Some time later, a monk who spent the night in the chamber had a dream in which Maitreya appeared to him and said that it was he who had moulded the statue. Six hundred years later the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin was told a story about the image’s origins reminiscent to this one but differing from details, indicating that the legends were constantly evolving. According to Dharmasvamin, three brothers fell into an argument about which religion was the best. On being told that Buddhism was inferior to others the youngest brother went crying to his mother. She called the three boys and told them to go to the Himalayas and ask Mahesvara for his opinion. Mahesvara of course confirmed the younger brother’s belief in the supremacy of Buddhism and all three brothers decided to become monks. The eldest built a monastery at Veluvana, the second built one at Isipatana and not to be outdone, the youngest brother decided to make a Buddha statue for the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. In a dream he was told to get material consisting of one part precious substances, one part fragrant substances and one part sandalwood paste, place it in the main shrine of the Temple and to keep the door closed for a particular period of time. This was done but he opened the door before the appointed time and inside found the statue complete except for the little toe on the right foot. The mother of the three boys who had known the Buddha when she was a young girl, declared that the statue was exactly like the Buddha except in four respects. Where as the Buddha’s usina was invisible, it could be seen on the statue, the Buddha moved but the statue did not, it could not teach the Dhamma and it did not radiate light.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More Than A Little Baksheesh

A bribe (lannca) is something of value offered, given or solicited to influence a person in a position of responsibility to act contrary to his or her duty. A corrupt official would be dscribed as a ‘bribe eater’ (lanncakhadaka, Ja.II,196) in ancient India. The giving or receiving of bribes often means breaking the second and the fourth Precept and always involves cheating, greed, injustice and law-breaking.
All traditional Buddhists countries scored very poorly on Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perception Index. Out of 180 countries, Bhutan was the least corrupt Buddhist country at 45, next came Thailand at 80 and Sri Lanka at 92. Laos was 26th from the bottom and Cambodia 11th. The second most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International was Burma.

Monday, December 28, 2009

I Metaphor

The art of living is more like that of wrestling than dancing; the main thing is to stand firm and be ready for an unexpected attack.

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow there, firm as weeds among stones. Charlotte Bronte

A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions has goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks, or does is without consequences. Norman Cousins

No fathers or mothers think their own children ugly; and this self-deceit is yet stronger with respect to the offspring of the mind. Miguel de Cervantes

Experience is a good teacher, but her fees are very high. W. R. Inge

Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic. William E. Gladstone

Whenever nature leaves a hole in a person’s mind, she generally plasters it over with a thick coat of self-conceit. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The self is merely the lens through which we see others and the world. Anais Nin

Humor is the shock absorber of life; it helps us take the blows. Peggy Noonan

I found these quotes in Mardy Grothe’s very entertaining I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


It is said to rain (vassa or vutthi) when drops of water fall from the sky. In a mainly agricultural society as existed during the Buddha's time, rain was extremely important. This is reflected in the Buddha's observation, `Rain sustains both slack and bold, as a mother nourishes her only child. The life of all earth-bound creatures is sustained by the falling of the rain'. (S.I,44). Simple people believed that rain was caused by sky spirits called vitthibhuta, although gods like Sakka and Vassavalahakadevaraja, Rain Cloud King, could also make it rain (Ja.I,330).
The Buddha spoke of different types of clouds which in some ways correspond to modern meteorological classification of cloud formations. The five types he mentioned are cool clouds (sita), warm clouds (unha), storm or thunder clouds (abbha or thaneti), wind-blown clouds (vata) and rain clouds (vassa, S.III,254). He observed that rain falls in at least two different ways – in large drops (thulla phusitaka) as during a monsoon downpour, and in small scattered drops (ekam ekam) as when it is spitting (A.I,243; S.I,104). He said that the failure of the rains could be due to such things as heat, wind or the clouds being blown out over the ocean (A.III,241). The ancient Indians believed that widespread immorality or an unjust ruler would also disrupt rainfall, a belief the Buddha also subscribed to. The Jataka says, `It rains at the wrong time and doesn't rain at the right time because of the bad king'. (J.II,124). A drought (nidagha or viññhidubbuññhi) was considered a disaster that could lead to famine and anarchy. Some ascetics preyed on peoples' anxieties about the rains by claiming to be able to predict good or bad rainfall (D.I,11).The ancient Indians recognized the weather as a factor in disease (Vin.I,199) and this was particularly true of the rainy season. The cool gusts, high humidity and water lying everywhere meant that fevers, skin complaints and water-born diseases were very prevalent during that time. It was during the rainy season that the Buddha contracted the illness that eventually led to his death (D.II,99). In northern India it usually only rains during the monsoon which occurs between June and September. For centuries before the Buddha it was the tradition amongst the different sects of wandering ascetics to stay put during this time, simply because muddy roads, flooded rivers and sheets of water everywhere made travel difficult. The Buddha adopted this custom and it gradually developed into a firm rule amongst monks and nuns. Keeping the Rains (Vassam Vasati, Vin.III,10) usually began on the day before the waning moon of the month of Asaëha with a formal ceremony in which monks vowed to stay in a selected location for the proceeding three month and the surrounding lay people promised to provide for their needs. A ceremony called Kathina was held at the end of Keeping the Rains during which lay people gave monks new robes and things they might need for the coming nine months of wayfaring. In Theravadin countries monks still Keep the Rains and the ceremonies marking the beginning and ending of this period are important events in the Buddhist calendar.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Greg Lake At Christmas

Do you remember this Christmas song, one of the few that eschews sentimentality and takes a clear-eyed view of the world at Christmas? I think it’s from about 1975. We were just emerging from the Vietnam War then. In my earlier incarnation as a lay person I used to really like Greg Lake.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Peace On Earth, Goodwill To All

The early Christians, all of whom were Jewish, in keeping with Jewish custom did not celebrate any birthdays, including that of Jesus, considering it to be a pagan practice. Jesus instructed his followers to celebrate his death (Luke 22:19) but not his birth. Not until several hundred years after his life was Jesus’ birth celebrated. According to the new Encyclopedia Britannica, some early Christians ‘wished the date to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”’. This festival was celebrated with gift giving and feasting as is done today. Interestingly, several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus. One of these, Cyprian, wrote ‘Oh, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born...Christ should also be born’. St John Chrysostom commented sourly, ‘They call it the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord’. The Bible gives no hint of the date of Jesus’ birth, but in about AD 200,Clement of Alexandria wrote that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Pachon which is the 25th of May. The early church father Tertullian does not mention Christmas as an important religious feast day for the church in Roman north Africa. However, in Chronographai, a reference work published in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox, for the first time popularizing the idea that Jesus was born on December 25th. De Pascha Computus, a calendar of Christian feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the nativity. In 245, the theologian Origen wrote that, “only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod)” celebrated their birthdays. In 303, Arnobis ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, which suggests that Christmas was not yet a feast at this time. One of the earliest reference to the date of the nativity as December 25 is in the Chronography compiled in Rome in 354. In the East (Byzantium) early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus as part of Epiphany (January 6), although this festival emphasized celebration of the Jesus’ baptism rather than his birth. It wasn’t until the early Middle Ages that the 25th of December became firmly established as the date of Jesus’ birth but even then it was still not a widely celebrated feast. Most early Protestant reformers were hostile to Christmas celebrations, condemning it as ‘pagan’ and as ‘the trappings of popery’. In 1647 the Puritan Christians in England actually banned Christmas. They were particularly critical of people meeting together to sing carols. The ban was not lifted until 1660 although for decades after celebrations were subdued and few people went to church. Christians in the American colony of Boston outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1659 and although the ban was lifted 22 years later. It did not really become a popular celebration until the mid 1800’s.Nowadays Christmas, which is a lovely celebration, is severally threatened, not by being banned but by commercialism. The beautiful imagery of the young mother and her husband, the child in the manger, the barnyard animals gathered around, the three wise men and the star have been almost completely taken over by Santa Claus and plastic Christmas trees. The cheerful ‘Happy Christmas’ has been ‘politically corrected’ to ‘Happy Holiday’ and the blessing ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’, has been replaced by ‘I want the new Nintendo game!’.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tours Through Magadha

Here are a collection of photos by a group of Indian car enthusiasts who have been to places in Bihar (ancient Magadha) that I haven’t been to or in two cases, haven’t even heard of. Some of the photos will give you some idea of the Indian countryside that would have been familiar to the Buddha

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vandals In Sandals - And Robes

Recently two Sri Lankan Buddhist monks led an unruly crowd to the Jesus Never Fails Good News Centre in Battaramulla on the outskirts of Colombo and after a noisy protest, proceed to smash the place up (see video). The monks were, (I will not use the honorific ‘Venerable’) Athraliye Ratana and Ellawala Medananda, both of who also happen to be members of the Sri Lankan parliament. What on earth, you might ask, are Buddhist monks doing sitting in parliament and inciting vandalism? Well, some monks in Sri Lanka are quite literally ‘looking for a role’. They want to retain all the respect and privileges due to monks while having all the advantages of being lay. They find Dhamma study dull, sermon-giving not very lucrative, they have no interest in meditation, and social work would involve a bit of self-sacrifice so of course that’s out. So politics is a way of making a ‘role’ for themselves and it has the added advantage of being exciting as well. Most Sri Lankans were appalled when Ratana, Medananda and another monk, Sobitha, stood for election and even more so when they actually won. They were elected on an anti-Tamil, pro-war ticket which was, admittedly, quite popular with a lot of people. But now the war is over they are stuck with the problem of finding another role for themselves. So now they have turned their attention to the evangelical Christians. Since the 1980’s evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have literally pored into Sri Lanka, sensing that they can take advantage of the disruption and despair caused by the war. As in other places, they are aggressive, insensitive to local customs and norms and make no secret of what they think of other religions. This, and their practice of offering ‘inducements’ to win converts, has made them rather unpopular, including amongst more long-established churches in Sri Lanka. So now Ratana and Medananda are trying to win support for themselves by posing as saviors of Buddhism. In the process they are betraying the longstanding and noble Buddhist tradition of gentleness and tolerance. Unruly behavior, provocative language, flinging accusation, let alone vandalism, goes against everything the Buddha ever taught. As if to emphasize his complete repudiation of any ill-will for any reason whatsoever, the Buddha said, ‘Even if bandits cut you limb form limb with a double-handled saw if you aroused hatred in your mind towards them you would not be my disciples’ (M.I,129). And how about this? ‘Earth, water, fire and air cannot make the good Dhamma disappear. But foolish men right here might make it disappear’ (S.II,224). Could those ‘foolish men’ (mogha purisa) right here have the names Ratana and Medananda?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Season Of Giving

Well, the season of giving is upon us again. Over the next few days those living in the West or in Westernized societies like Singapore are likely to spend at least a few hundred dollars, perhaps more, on gifts, cards, food, drinks, outings, get-togethers, Christmas decorations, etc. But here is a question for you. If you could forgo the gifts and celebrations and so on, in order to save one human life, would you? Think about it for just a minute and then read on.

Peter Singer, perhaps the most accessible, brilliant, not to say controversial (Well! He is Australian!) contemporary philosopher, has recently launched a project which you might find useful according to how you answered the above question. Please read and then have a look at

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Life Of Nyanatiloka Thera

Autobiographies and biographies have never been a significant literary genera in Buddhism or in Asia in general. Even biographies of the Buddha were rather late in coming and even then were more hagiographies or romances than sober accounts of the lives of their subject. The same is true of modern Asian and Western Buddhists - except for the Dalai Lama of course; one autobiography, at least a dozen biographies to date, one by his brother, another by his sister, one about his family, etc. He’s a very well-documented individual. So far, Western Buddhist writers have focused mainly on explaining Dhamma rather than writing about their experiences of being Buddhists. However, a new book by the Buddhist Publication Society is such a work. The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera – The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer is a long overdue account of the most important of those special individuals who helped the Dhamma get established and accepted in the West. And it is absolutely fascinating reading. Although made up of six quite separate parts, each written by a different author, the editors have put the book together in a readable and flowing manner. The first part is a history of Buddhism in Germany from the beginning until 1931. This is followed by Nyanatiloka’s autobiography which only goes up to 1926. Helmuth Hecker’s carefully researched Biolographical Postscript takes it from there to Nyanatiloka’s passing in 1957. This is followed by Bhikkhu Bodhi’s biography of Nayanaponika, the subject’s most influential disciple. Then comes Nyanaponika’s assessment of Nyanatiloka’s literary legacy and a bibliography. Equally useful is the last Appendix, The Monk Disciples of Nyanatiloka, giving brief biographical details of all the people who ordained under the great man. And finally there are the notes, a whopping 59 pages of them, some of them two or three pages long. Generally I dislike long notes or too many of them. However, most of these notes provide important background to Nyanatiloka’s times and details about his many interesting acquaintances, admirers and helpers. A few notes seem superfluous. Do we really need one telling us that Jawaharlal Nehru was leader of India’s independence movement and the countries first prime minister?
For a monk, Nyanatiloka had a very eventful life. He traveled through China alone and with very little money in the 1920, he worked as a university professor, was twice imprisoned as an enemy alien, was an acquaintance of many of the European avant garde and survived the great Tokyo earthquake. Such was his impact on Buddhism in Sri Lanka that he was given a state funeral.
The thing that emerges most from Nyanatiloka’s life is his apparent quite, patient and uncomplaining determination to live the monk’s life no matter what obstacles were put in his way. And lots were. One is also amazed that despite exile, imprisonment, official harassment and frequent homelessness (or actually 'monsterylessness) his literary output was enormous and of the highest standard. He translated numerous Buddhist text and wrote dozens of books and articles, many of them of enduring value. Although there have only been a few Western Buddhist monks and nuns their contributions to the Dhamma have been out of all proportion to their numbers. But none yet have exceeded the inspiring example, the dedication, the courage of Nyanatiloka.
Having said all this The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera has a serious downside. The editing of this otherwise terrific book is truly abysmal. There is hardly a paragraph which does not contain spelling mistakes, syntactical errors and stylistic peculiarities. The editors’ unfamiliarity with spoken English is painfully obvious. ‘Silananda did not know the exact whereabouts of Ananda Metteyya’s address’, ‘the food was very one-sided’, ‘Venerable Vappa was ‘an expert in the field of food’, ‘I decided to find my luck further south’, ‘the cosmopolitan crow is not absent here too’, ‘There were six of them, as high as a man’s height’, ‘I would then go back to my homemade sleeping bag with my feet full of mud’. ‘The ship’s engine was working so hard that the turbines caused waterfalls’, ‘The winter appeared to be over soon’, ‘this countryside was the ever-same yellow color’, ‘it turned out to be a great piece of good fortune for us’, ‘He reported about the keystones of the teachings explained to him by the German Buddhists’, ‘you have been thinking for years of the thought of naturalizing in Ceylon’.Some sentences are hopelessly awkward or far too long. ‘My father died in 1931, two days after an operation for cancer, and truly peacefully so, while my mother sat on his lap, and was discussing with her and my sister a journey they were planning to take to Switzerland’. ‘Coming back from the Galduva monastery that Robert de Soysa, the former supporter in Matara, had donated to me, I was arrested in Ambalagoda by a detective, just as I was standing in front of de Soysa’s house wishing to say goodbye to him before catching the last train to Dodanduva’. ‘Moreover, also without exception, including Buddhist and Christian monks and priests, everyone had to clean the toilets, which were used by the Australian soldiers as well’. ‘One evening, after a theater performance, all the inmates – including those inmates who had been acting and were still wearing their costumes – left with their travelling suitcases, and so on, through this tunnel, but when the leader reached the exit of the tunnel and had to throw out his suitcase in order to follow himself, there were gunshots outside’. Some phrases indicate the editor serious lack of knowledge of English usage. ‘(T)he Police President’ probably should have been the commissioner of police, ‘vegetable tins and milk tins’ probably meant to be tinned vegetables and tinned milk. We also have ‘snow sliding’ instead of tobogganing, ‘gong music’ instead of ‘the sound of gongs’, ‘guards with bayonets affixed’ instead of ‘with fixed bayonets’, ‘departure meal’ instead of ‘farewell meal’, ‘fore-mountains’ instead of foot hills, ‘Supreme judge’ rather than high court judge, ‘SMS Sydney’ instead of HMAS Sydney and scholastism’ instead of scholasticism, to name but a few. The meaning of some other words and phrases can only be guessed at - ‘my ears froze and then burst open’ ‘an acquainted waiter’, ‘disrobals’ and ‘churchly’ being some of the more humorous one. And what are we to make of ‘romantic necrophiliac’ on page 227?
The book has also been very poorly produced. In my copy pages 242, 243, 246 and 247 are blank and the cover came unstuck after the first reading. Also, while some of the pictures in the book relate directly to the text, others seem superfluous. Was it really necessary to have a picture of Kaiser William, the Yangtze River and an unnamed temple in Chungking? Such pictures have left too little room for the rare and more relevant ones. The picture of Sister Upalavanna is a minute 3 centimeters square and one plate has 10 separate pictures crammed onto it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buddhist Minimalism

Buddhism as it exists in Asia is extremely conservative, or perhaps better, set in its ways. Of course, I wouldn’t mind it were set in the Buddha’s ways. Problem is, it is all too often set in ways that evolved many centuries after the Buddha. This resistance to innovation expresses itself in architecture as much as anything else. Temples are generally built is in traditional styles to the degree that it is possible. Here in Singapore at least one temple has ‘broken the mold’, Poh Ming Tsu, on Bukit Tima Road. The original Poh Ming Tsu was built in 1934 but after the death of its long-standing incumbent, a new young and dynamic lay committee decided, in 2006, to demolish the old temple and build another one that would reflect a more contemporary outlook. The new temple was finished earlier this year. For the last few months, on my way back from the polytechnic where I teach every Wednesday, I pass Poh Ming Tsu and always admire it. Then last week I was invited to speak there, giving me the opportunity to have a really good look at the place. The whole atmosphere of Poh Ming Tsu is what I would call Buddhist minimalist, its surfaces and lines are simple and functional giving the place certain quietness. It has lecture rooms, a beautiful library and a shrine room that invokes stillness and silence as soon as you step into it. Only the uplifting pitched roof hints of traditional Chinese architecture. In keeping with Poh Ming Tsu’s more contemporary form, the new committee is encouraging more Dhamma teaching and less ritual activities invited speakers from all three schools of Buddhism. We need more modern temples and we defiantly need more modern Buddhism.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories

It was about my two favorite subjects, Buddhism and animals, so of course I just had to get it. Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories is one of the loveliest books for Buddhist kids to come out for some time. Mark W. McGinnis has rewritten 44 Jataka stories and illustrated each with an absolutely beautiful picture. I have always wondered how an artist could illustrate stories told by the Buddha and include an African elephant. Although it would not detract from the value of this book if it were otherwise, McGinnis has done his research carefully and only depicted animals native to India. Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories is published by Weatherhill so the printing, paper, binding, etc are all of the highest order. Oh and incidentally, I’m nearly 60, by no means a kid, and I have enjoyed reading it too. And no! I don’t get a free copy or a discount for plugging particular books – although I wish I did.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as: Knowing when to come in out of the rain; Why the early bird gets the worm; Life isn't always fair; maybe it was my fault. Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge). His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition. Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children. It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion. Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses, and criminals received better treatment than their victims. Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault. Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement. Common Sense was preceded in death, by his parents, Truth and Trust, by his wife, Discretion, by his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son, Reason. He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers; I Know My Rights, I Want It Now, Someone Else Is To Blame, I'm A Victim. Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone. If you still remember him, pass this on.
From the London Times

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Human Rights Day

Human rights is the concept that a person is entitled to be treated in certain ways and to have certain things simply because they are human. The most basic human rights are the right to life, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and the right to be treated equally before the law. The concept of human rights developed in Europe from the 18th century onwards and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The concept of human rights grew out of three ideas; (1) that human laws and institutions are man-made not God-made and thus can be changed, (2) that all humans are equal and (3) that all humans possess a quality called dignity. The first of these ideas is explicitly mentioned in the Agganna Sutta where the Buddha argued against the idea that the prevailing social system was divinely ordained (D.III,92). It is also mentioned in the Jataka where it is stated that people are justified in overthrowing unjust or cruel kings. The second of these ideas is explicitly mentioned in the Vasettha Sutta where the Buddha argues against the caste system and says that `the differences between humans are insignificant' (Sn.594-611). The third idea is not explicitly stated by the Buddha but is implicit in his teachings of the preciousness of life, that all beings are worthy of love and the idea that all have within them the ability to attain enlightenment.
Despite this, Buddhist civilisations never developed the concept of human rights, probably because from an early period they adopted Hindu political theory in which the king is considered divine. Until recently Sri Lanka had a fairly good human rights recourd although it has declined abmisably in the last 20 years. Now that the civil war is over it can only be hoped that it begins to improve. The standard of human rights in most other traditional Buddhist countries - Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Bhutan – range from poor to appaling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Transgendered People And Buddhism

A person described as transgendered or transsexual usually identifies as, and desires to live and be accepted as, a member of the sex opposite to that indicated by their body. Thus some individuals have a strong feeling that they are female despite having male genitals or that they are a man despite having a woman’s genitals. Such people often say that they feel they are ‘in the wrong body’. Ancient Indian literature contains numerous myths about people who spontaneously changed sex, usually as a result of having desire or sometimes even just admiration, for someone of the same sex. Several such stories are also found in Buddhist sources. The commentary to the Dhammapada (5th century CE ?) includes a story about a man named Soreyya who changed into a woman after becoming entranced by a particular monk’s beautiful complexion. Later he married and bore two children (Dhp. A. I,324). The ancient Indians seem to have seen considered gender to be a rather fluid thing. This subject is well covered in Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s in-depth and well-informed Same Sex Love in India – Readings from Literature and History. The Tipitaka mentions several different types of transgendered states and individuals – the man-like woman (vepurisika), sexual indistinctness (sambhinna), one having the characteristics of both genders (ubhatovyanjanaka), etc (Vin.III,129). The interesting thing is that such states and individuals are taken for granted in the scriptures with little or no moral judgments being attached to them.
Various theories have been posited to explain transgenderism – that it is a psychological or hormonal abrogation or that it has genetic or environmental causes. The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth could help explain why some people are transgendered. A person may be reborn as, say, a woman in numerous successively lives during which time feminine attitudes, desires, traits and dispositions become strongly imprinted on their mind. This would determine that they were continually reborn into a female body or that their consciousness would mold the embryo into a female form - whatever factors are responsible for the physical characteristic of gender. Then, for either kammic, genetic or other reasons they may get reborn into a male body while psychologically remaining 'female' . If this or something like it, is the cause of transgenderism, it would mean that this condition is a natural one rather than a moral perversion as most theistic religions maintain.
Transgenderism has presumably existed in all Buddhist societies as it does everywhere else, although I have never even heard of it in Sri Lanka during my 20 years there. However, transgendered people seem be particularly visible and common in Thailand. The Thai word kathoey is used loosely for effeminate homosexuals, transvestites but particularly for transgendered people. Although such people are largely accepted in Thailand, probably because of the tolerance encouraged by Buddhism, they still face numerous social and legal difficulties and often end up as prostitutes. A jurisdiction in which the Dhamma was genuinely applied would recognize transgendered peoples’ specific needs and allow them to legally change their gender if and when they undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Violent Films And Games

In a reply to my post of September 10th Celestial Horizon asked whether watching films or videos or playing games which include violence or killing would be wrong from a Buddhist perspective. It’s a good question. The Buddha says that one thinks (or intends) and then acts, but this is clearly not always the case. Sometimes I feel like killing my neighbor’s continually barking dog, but I never have and never will. My understanding is that research so far has not found a link between watching violent movies and developing a proclivity to violence. However, I suspect that a large amount of such ‘entertainment’ might harden one to violence and thus inhibit compassion or at least make one less shocked by violence, and thus make one more tolerant of it, at least in some people. Others could argue that such ‘entertainment’ allows people to vent their violent impulses in a harmless way. So until further research comes in perhaps we could say that while films and games with violent content may not be ‘wrong’ they are hardly ‘skillful’.
After writing this post I put ‘Violent Video Games’ into my image search and this was the first picture that came up. Many of the others were even more graphic. I have never seen this type of material before and while I have heard of these types of games I had no idea they were so violent, graphic and gruesome. One can only wonder how people could find this sort of stuff entertaining! But it also raises a few questions. Here’s one. If violent films and games don’t encourage aggressive behavior then surely the depiction of ethnic minorities as stupid, dirty, cruel, etc must not encourage discrimination against such minorities? If violent films and games have no negative effect then surely cultural activities like art exhibitions, opera, recitals, poetry readings, etc, must have no positive effect either; in which case why should governments feel it worthwhile to promote such things? I’m just a simple monk but I think there needs to be more research into these matters.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Darwin, Evolution And Religion

Christianity, or at least mainline Christianity, has changed so much in the last 150 years that it is difficult for most of us to imagine the impact that The Origin of Species had when it was first published. It literally overturned some of the most fundamental principles of the faith and in the succeeding decades Christianity was compelled to re-adjust and reinterpret its teachings to fit into the new truths of evolution. Those who oppose evolution today are fighting a rearguard action.
Darwin’s book had almost no impact on the Buddhist world. Few Buddhists knew English and could read it and even fewer had any scientific knowledge to be able to appreciate it. When it did become known amongst Buddhists, mainly amongst the English educated elite in Sri Lanka, it has had a curious effect. English speaking Sinhalese were quick to see how they could use evolution in their struggles against Christian missionaries. They began proclaiming that Christianity was at odds with science and this did have some influence on Sinhalese tempted to become Christian because it was perceived to be ‘Western’ and ‘modern’. And secondly it encouraged them to look at their own origin myths. When they did this they discovered, or more accurately, rediscovered, the Agganna Sutta, a text that had traditionally been given very little attention and was certainly completely unknown to the average Buddhist. With relative ease, the Agganna Sutta was interpreted to fit into the findings of evolution and this gave previously desperate Buddhist apologists an enormous boost in confidence.
Have a look at David Attenborough’s fascinating documentary on Darwin, evolution and religion.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Groan! Groan!

Making a record in Sri Lanka's election history, the Buddhist monk Venerable Battaramulle Silaratana will run for the president in the polls scheduled to be held next January, party officials said on Saturday. He will be the country’s first Buddhist monk to contest presidency representing his own political party Janasetha Peramuna under the party symbol of tractor, officials from his party said. Contrary to the popular demand of the opposition - abolition of the executive presidency - the Buddhist monk wants the executive powers to remain with the president as he believes that the unity and stability of the country depend on executive powers of the leader. The posters of Silaratana Thera have come up on the walls around Colombo. The Buddhist monk said both the ruling alliance led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the opposition led by former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka have approached him but would only support those who agree with his policies. Among his main pledges are giving the Buddhism foremost place, guarantee the equal rights of all communities (Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other ethnic groups), making Sinhala, Tamil and English state languages, as well as implementing an economic policy based on agriculture. Fonseka, who was silence about the monk’s entry into politics, has confirmed that he would be the opposition’s common candidate in the forthcoming presidential polls. He said he would announce his future plans at his first media conference on Sunday. The presidential candidates increased to four with the decision of the New Leftist Front leader Wickramabahu Karunaratne to run for president. The presidential election will be held on Jan. 26 next year.
From the Internet

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blood Sports

Blood sports are games or entertainment that draw animals’ blood, either by injuring or killing them. They can involve animals, either of the same or different species, fighting each other, or a human being hunting or fighting animals. Cockfighting, bear bating, fox hunting and falconry would be examples of the first of these, while bull fighting would be an example of the second. The enjoyment of blood sports is derived partly from betting on the combatants and partly from testing one’s skill or courage against the animal. For some people at least, a perverse glee in inflicting or watching pain being inflicted is part of the attraction of these activities. Some of the blood sports popular during the Buddha’s time and mentioned in the Tipitaka included elephant, buffalo, bull, ram, cock and quail fights. Fighting quails may sound rather curious but male quails are very pugnacious birds and fight furiously when they encounter each other. It seems likely that at least of these fights did not involve the animals being killed. For ordinary people, the most common blood sport was cockfighting (kukkutayuddha) which seem to have been a feature of fairs and village gatherings. The Karma Sutra mentions the rules of cockfighting. In their natural state cocks do not kill each other. Only when humans attach sharp metal daggers to their spurs does this happen. I can find no reference to this being done in ancient India. The Buddha said that monks and nuns should not watch animal fights because they were considered a vulgar entertainment and because they involved cruelty (D.I,6). For monastics and lay people participation in blood sports would be against the first Precept which requires that we have ‘care, kindness and compassion to all living beings’ (D.I,4) There is no tradition of blood sports in Sri Lanka that I know of, and I understand that there is none in Tibet, Korea or amongst Chinese Buddhists either, probably because of the influence of Buddhism. Cockfighting to death is popular in both Cambodia, Burma and Thailand. How someone calling themselves Buddhist could derive enjoyment from watching animals kill each other is very hard to understand.
The picture shows an elephant fight in Baroda, India, in the 19th century.

A Few Blasts From The Past

Here are a few YouTubes and one web site with interesting images mainly from Buddhist Asia. Some of the narration is a bit arcane but the pictures speak for themselves. Varanasi in 1931 Tibet in 1932 Nepal in the early 1950’s Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the 19th century

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deepak Chopra's Buddha

The recent bestseller "Buddha" by Deepak Chopra follows a long literary tradition of fictionalized accounts of the Buddha's life story which really go back at least to the Buddhacarita of Ashvaghosa. In modern times, the genre starts with Matthew Arnold's "Light of Asia" and continued through Hermann Hessa (Siddhartha) and Thich Nat Hanh (Old Path, White Clouds). No doubt there have been many others. It is not unusual for such authors to use the character of the Buddha to voice philosophical ideas of their own. Matthew Arnold's "dew drop slipping into the shining sea" owes more to the Upanishads, perhaps by way of the Theosophical Society, then anything found in the Buddhist canon. Even Thich Nat Hanh rewrites quite a bit of the story and teachings, for instance putting a somewhat laboured feminist slant onto the story of the founding of the bhikkhuni order.
Deepak Chopra is certainly no exception. The literary enterprise of crafting a fictional life of the Buddha is not in itself illegitimate. Of his early life, we really have very little solid information. Even the well-known account of the Siddhattha's life as a prince, with his father Suddhodana attempting to keep him hidden from the realities of sickness, old-age and death is mostly an early post-canonical gloss. Some elements of this story are improbable, for one thing we know from canonical sources that the Sakyans at that time had a republican government. The early and unknown teller of these tales should perhaps be credited with founding the genre of fictional Buddha stories.
While we may grant Mr. Chopra and the other authors some literary license for inventing details, it is fair to take them to task when they distort the known history and especially the teachings. If the Buddha's early life is very sketchy, his subsequent career and doctrines are very well documented in the Pali Canon.
For example, for whatever reason Deepak Chopra seems intent on making one of the Buddha's principal teachings to be the freeing of Indian civilization from a superstitious belief in the gods. In the introduction, he says the Buddha "never mentioned miracles or the gods, and had a doubtful view of both." Oh my. To cite just one counter-example among many, when the Buddha was asked point blank whether there are gods he answered, "It is known by me to be the case, Bharadvaja, that there are gods." (Majjhima 100)
So, Deeprak Chopra writes out the moving story of the Brahma Sahampatti begging the newly enlightened Buddha on bended knee to teach for the benefit of "those with little dust in their eyes." Instead, the event which moves the Buddha to get up from his Bodhi seat is a vision of the face of his wife Yasodhara! In passing, it should be noted that Chopra is not the only modern author to dismiss poor Sahampatti. Stephen Batchelor writes him off as "the ancient way of saying, an idea." This sort of thing seems to me a shame. Our modern taste is quite coarse, and seems unable to appreciate grandeur and high tragedy.
Curiously though, while there are no gods in Deepak Chopra's book, there is one devil. Mara is quite definitely personified. But he seems to my taste to be modeled much more on the Christian Satan than on the Mara of the Pali Canon. It is an odd cosmology that admits the demonic while denying the divine.
There are a few other incidents that appear to show Christian influence. In the middle section of the book, corresponding the period of the Bodhisatta's austerities and quest, at one point he is travelling with another "monk" (the term Chopra uses for samana) when they come across a farmer's cart over-turned in the ditch. Siddhattha proceeds to help the farmer push it out and in his mind he is critical of the other monk who seems to "have forgotten the monk's vow of service." Service in that sense was never a part of the Indian yogic tradition, either pre-or post-Buddhist. In addition, Siddhattha in his wanderings heals the sick and at least apparently raises the dead.
It is the last section, the Buddha after his enlightenment, that represents the greatest distortion though. Deepak Chopra's Buddha bears more resemblance to Keanu Reeeves in the Matrix movies than to the Buddha of the Pali Canon. He ends a war by striding into the battlefield and snatching the flashing swords away with his bare hands. And in another telling episode, he returns a weeping woman's dead husband by turning back time time so that his murder never happened. (Didn't Christopher Reeve save Margot Kidder in one of the Superman movies this way?) Compare this to the canonical Buddha and the story of Kisagotami.
The philosophical underpinning of this New Age Buddha seems to be quite close to the ideas expressed in "What the Bleep Do I Know?" and other New Age sources; that this world is essentially a phantom or a dream and that enlightenment is a kind of lucid dreaming. It is not transcendence of the world, but mastery over it.
What is perhaps worse, is the scene where the Buddha is re-united with Suddhodana and they hug one another and weep like sensitive new age guys. Why is it that the modern taste seems to want a weeping Buddha? What part of making an end of suffering don't we get?

I also have some historical and literary criticisms of Chopra's "Buddha." Historically, I think his portrayal of the religion of the Brahmins is totally anachronistic. He has the head priest of the Sakyans sacrificing to Shiva, which belongs to much later period. The brahmins of the Buddha's time were still following the original Vedic Aryan religion and would have prayed to Indra. In general, his picture of Indian beliefs, customs and mores seems to be that of several centuries later than the time the book is ostensibly set in.
On the literary side, several of the characters in Deepak Chopra's book are much less interesting than the originals known from the canon and commentaries. Suddhodana, for example, is quite one-sided; a simple bloody-minded tyrant rather than a basically good figure with the one tragic flaw of ambition. The oldest sources are a rich mine of fascinating character studies, very human people with a mixture of noble qualities and vices. This seems to be lost in translation, and most of Chopra's characters are more like one-sided cartoons. Surely in a literary treatment with pretensions to the novelist's art, the complexities of the characters should have been enhanced and explored, rather than written out.
It should be said that Deepak Chopra in his last chapter does a reasonable job of summarizing some of the main points of the Buddhist teaching, including a fair summary of the Three Characteristics and of the Eightfold Path. However, he does end the book on a false note, in the very last sentence misrepresenting the goal of the path. "[the Buddha] promised that the end point would be eternity." This is no better, and perhaps worse, than "dewdrops slipping into shining seas."

By Ven Punnadhammo, from Used with author’s permission.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It's Getting Hot!

The Copenhagen Conference on global warming has just opened. Let’s hope they can put aside short term interests and do the right thing. And if they can’t I suggest you start taking swimming lessons. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha talked about the end of the world which he says will be brought about by dramatically increased heat. In the early stages of this process ‘all the seed-bearing plants, herbs, grasses and trees will wilt, dry up and disappear’. Next all the streams and creeks will evaporate, then the great rivers, and finally the great lakes and even the ocean will dry up. According to the Buddha, all this will occur as more and more suns appear in the sky, which may be another way of saying that the sun’s increasing radiation will bring about our end, an interesting, plausible and scary prediction (A.IV, 100-1).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How About A Complete Stay

For the first time ever in Singapore the High Court has granted a prisoner on death row a stay of execution. The prisoner, Yong Vui Kong, 21, was found guilty of drug trafficking. At a High Court hearing just days before the execution was due to be carried out Justice Woo Bih Li allowed the stay pending a hearing before the Court of Appeal to be held this coming Tuesday. Yong’s petition for clemency was rejected by the President on November 20th.Representing Yong, Mr. M. Ravi, argued that executing Yong before his appeal was heard violated his constitutional rights. The Court of Appeal have yet to hear Yong’s case, as it was withdrawn by his previous counsel, who had been assigned by the State. As the Court of Appeal is currently on vacation and unable to convene Mr Ravi asked the High Court to grant a stay of execution for Yong, until his application for an extension of time and a full appeal can be heard. After hearing arguments presented by both the defense and the prosecution, Justice Woo accepted Mr. Ravi’s request.This case has drawn attention to executions in Singapore which, together with Japan and the US, is the only fully developed country to retain the death penalty. It has created some interest within the Buddhist community also because Yong has converted to Buddhism during his time in prison. That his conversion is genuine is suggested by statements of contrition and his willingness to take his punishment.
Capital punishment is called brahmadanda or dandavadha) in Pali. The Tipitaka describes a number of gruesome ways criminals were executed during the Buddha’s time (M.I,87). It also records for us the words of a judge condemning a thief to death. 'Tie his hands behind his back with strong rope, shave his head, parade him through the streets to the sound of a harsh drum, take him out by the south gate and chop his head off!' (D.II,322). Horrible and heart-rending scenes were common at the places of execution. We read of a monk pleading with an executioner to dispatch a criminal quickly so as ‘to put him out of his miser’ (Vin.III,86).
The Buddha objected to capital punishment mainly because it involves cruelty and killing, thus contravening the first Precept. He said that judges who hand down cruel punishments, tormentors and executioners all practise wrong, literally ‘crue’l livelihood (kurura kammanta) and create much negative kamma for themselves (S.II,257).
Buddhism would also say that it is better to try to reform criminals and turn them into productive members of society rather than execute them. A king in the Jataka says of a wrongdoer: ‘I punish people according to justice but also with sympathy’. (Ja.III,442). This same point was made by the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna in the 1st century CE: ‘Just as a son is punished out of the desire to make him worthy, so punishment should be inflicted with compassion and not through hatred or greed. Once you have judged angry murderers you should banish them without killing them’. This approach would seem to be more fitting with modern society.

Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Barack Obama, albeit he doesn’t seem to have done anything to contribute to world peace. Well, that may be the reason why a German Nobel laureate on a brief visit to Taipei is planning to nominate Venerable Cheng Yen for that prize next year.Dr. Harald zur Hausen, director of the German Cancer Research Center at Heidelberg and winner of last yea’s Nobel Prize for Medicine, wants to recommend Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen for the peace prize for her compassionate work around the world. Professor Hausen, who won the prize for his discovery of human papilloma viruses that cause cervical cancer, came to Taipei last Thursday for a lecture tour at the invitation of the Sayling Wen Cultural and Education Foundation. He took time out to visit Hualien, where the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, founded by Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen in 1966, has grown from its original 30 housewives to over five million members in 45 countries over the past 43 years. He was so greatly impressed by Tzu Chi’s contributions to the promotion of social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan and around the world that he announced he would nominate her for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize.The work Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen has done rivals that of Mother Teresa, whose Society of Missionaries has spread all over the world, including the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Her followers provide effective help to the poorest of the poor in a number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They undertake relief work in the wake of natural catastrophes such as floods, epidemics and famine, as well as for refugees. The order also has houses in North America, Europe and Australia, where shut-ins, alcoholics, homeless and AIDS sufferers are taken care of. Tzu Chi has done all this and more. Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen has erected a chain of hospitals in Taiwan and elsewhere. A university of medical sciences in Hualien trains thousands of doctors, nurses and technicians. Her foundation has also established a marrow donor and stem cell research center in Taiwan. It manages one of the world’s largest Asian marrow donor and stem cell tissue registries. The Tzu Chi International Medical Association is made up of more than 5,000 medical professionals worldwide who volunteer their expertise and time to provide quality medical services, both in their own communities, whether urban or rural, and worldwide.Like the Society of Missionaries, Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen’s foundation started from scratch. Its first 30 members were housewives who saved two cents from their grocery money each day to help the poor. If anyone deserves the prize it would be Bhikkhuni Cheng Yen, so let’s hope it happens.
From the Internet

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Alternative Values?

The Anglican archbishop of Singapore, John Chew, has caused a bit of a stir with comments he made the other day about Singapore’s declining population. Yes I know. In most countries when an Anglican prelate says anything people are usually not listening or if they are they either yawn or laugh. Not in Singapore, where the Anglican Church is large, strongly evangelical and fundamentalist. According to Chew, “If Singaporeans do not produce enough babies, the danger is that the mainstream population, its socio-cultural norms and ethos, will dwindle and diminish down the generations… The breaking down of families, and the changing of classical family norms, makes all this more aggravated”. And who is behind the declining population and the breaking down of norms? The gays of course. Chew urged his 10,000 strong audience to unite against ‘alternative values’ and particularly homosexuality. All the sociological studies show that the decline in Singapore’s population is due to more people choosing to remain single and to have smaller families, but I suspect the archbishop gets all his information from just one book.
Well, I happened to dip into that book just the other day and these were some of the things it says about ‘family values’. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters…he cannot be my disciple” (Luke.14:26). He also said, “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother’…a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew.10:34-6 ). He denied his own family (John.2:4; Mark.3:31-3), never got married himself, and promised his disciples a hundred-fold reward if they renounced their homes and families? (Matthew.19: 29). Wow! This must be where some Singaporeans are getting their ‘alternative values’ from!
These new ‘enthusiastic’ clergymen are not to my liking. I prefer the old-style ‘traditional’ ones with theirkindly, innocuous sermons, like this one.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Another Aspect Of The Third Precept

The Wikipedia entry on incest, and what Buddhism says about it, states ‘Incest (or any other detail of human sexual conduct for that matter) is not specifically mentioned in any of the religious scriptures’. It is very disappointing that some of those writing and contributing the Buddhist martial to Wikipedia have such scant knowledge of the Tipitaka. If anyone knows who this person or people are perhaps you could ask them to contact me. The Parajika section of the Vinaya mentions (and describes) almost every kind of sexual behavior you can think of and a few you can’t, or at least wouldn’t want to (Vin.III,1-40). Likewise, incest is referred to in the Tipitaka. The Pali word for incest would be agammagamana, literally ‘going to what should not be gone to’. In his Digha Nikaya translation, Walshe renders adhammaraga (D.III,70) as incest, which would seem to be quite legitimate (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, 1987, p.401). Buddhadatta gives vyabhicara and natimethunayatta for incest although I can’t find either of these words in other dictionaries. The Buddha describes incest as not taking account that a sexual partner is ‘a mother, aunt, mother’s sister-in-law…or one’s father’s wives’ and says that such promiscuity is of the type that prevails amongst animals (D.III,72). In the Udaya Jataka the Bodhisattva is a prince who is compelled to marry his half-sister. Although the two sleep in the same room for many years they remain celibate (Ja.IV,105). In the Dasaratha Jataka the princes Rama and Lakkhana marry their sister (Ja.IV,130). As with many ancient peoples the Sakyans, the tribe the Buddha belonged to, had a myth about their origins which included brother-sister incest. When the Koliyans were involved in a dispute with the Sakyans they taunted them by sayings that they ‘cohabite with their sisters like dogs, jackals and other animals’ (Ja.V,413). During the Buddha’s life there was an incident where a nun became infatuated with her son who was a monk and had sex with him, an offence entailing expulsion from the Sangha (Vin.III,35). When this was brought to the Buddha’s attention he said, ‘Does not this foolish man know that a mother shall not lust after her son or a son after his mother?’ (A.III,67-8). Perhaps referring to this incident the Buddha also said, ‘These two states, shame and fear of blame, protect the world. If they did not protect the world it would not be clear who was one’s mother or mother’s sister, one’s uncle’s wife…and the world would fall into confusion. The promiscuity seen amongst goats and sheep, fowl and pigs, dogs and jackals would prevail’ (A.I,51).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tibetan Reading

In the two months before visiting Tibet I read up on the country and its culture, its religious and political history and on Mt. Kailash. I always like to know what I am seeing and the background it. If you ever intend in going there or just wish to know about this fascinating country you might consider having a look at some of the books I read. I recommend them all although some with reservations. Our main guidebook to Tibet and Mt. Kailash was Lonely planet’s Tibet and Prichard Jones and Bob Gibbon’s The Mount Kailash Trek. I recommend the first and although the second contained all the information one would need to circumambulate the sacred mountain it contained too much irreverent info which tends to obscure the essentials. I think the authors could be accused of padding.Charles Allen’s A Mountain in Tibet and John Snelling’s The Sacred Mountain are both excellent for all the background, cultural, spiritual, geographical and historical, on Kailash. And of course, if you can get a hold of the indomanentrable Swami Pranavananda’s Kaliash Manasarovar its almost the next best thing to actually going there.
As for the background to the present situation in Tibet I read Melvyn Goldstein’s A History of Modern Tibet, vol. 1 and 2, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, and The Struggle for Modern Tibet. Goldstein just tells it as it is – objective, factual, non-romantic and detailed, although romantic Western Tibetan Buddhist will find it very different from what they have been lead to believe about the old theocracy. Tom Grenfeld’s Making of Modern Tibet is another story. He is a professional historian but I get the impression that he is just a little too soft on the communists and a bit too hard on the Tibetans.
Tubtan Khetsun’s Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule offers a rare and chilling first-hand account of what the communists did during the Cultural Revolution. Because there are almost no visual records of what happened then, its true horror doesn’t have the impact it would have otherwise – an ancient traditional culture suffering the full force of a brutal totalitarian, ideologically-driven state determined to completely transform it. But one photo, from Chinese sources and which I reproduce here, gives at least some idea of that terrible time.

While things are bad for the Tibetans its not all bad, according to Goldstein and Kapstein’s Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet, the religion is undergoing something of a revival. And this despite constant restrictions and interference by the Chinese. Lets hope it holds out at least until the situation improves.
I finish with this picture of Rombuk Monastery near the foot of Mt. Everest taken in 1903 which I compare with my picture taken two months ago. And with this posts about my trip to Tibet finish. Tomorrow back to Dhamma and Dhamma-related posts.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mountain Vastness

Traveling through Tibet is like being in a gigantic akasa kasina. Everywhere you look you see space, vastness, infinity. The mind easily falls into a state of clean, peaceful emptiness. Maybe this is why the Tibetans had such a strong tradition of meditation. Here are a few of the pictures I took of the mountains. The first picture is of the breathtakingly awesome 8027 meter high Shishapangma (Sanskrit, Gosainath) viewed from across the beautiful kingfisher’s wing-blue lake at its foot.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Funny Money For The Dunny

The Kathavatthu mentions that in the early centuries of Buddhism there was a sect of monks who believed that the Buddha was so pure and holy, that even his feaces was fragrant-smelling (Kat.XVIII,4). I’ve often thought that a lot of Thai monks have such a high opinion of themselves that they think their feaces has a lovely smell too. Now news arrives that might well confirm my impression. Last week Thai TV ran a story about the well-known Wat Bang Phli Ya Nai not far from Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport, which has just built a couple of toilet at a cost of 5 million Bhat, that’s approximately US $150,000. The toilets have all mod cons – automatic doors, air-conditioning, the most expensive tiling, an indoor garden, a fountain, piped music and beautiful lighting. Optical sensors mean that you only have to wave your hand to flush the toilet or to turn on the hand dryers.

Rumor is circulating that toilet-users wipe their bums with silk cloth, although this has yet to be confirmed. Wat Bang Phli Ya Nai’s fabulous wealth which has allowed it to build such luxurious toilets (the monks quarters are even more opulent), is derived from the temple’s Buddha statue. Called Luang Pho To, it is believed that tipping water over this statue will protect one from dangers. The interesting thing about the media’s presentation of this news item is that there was no suggestion that it might be inappropriate for monks to be so rich that they could spend vast amounts on a toilet. Far from it! The general tone was, as it usually when reporting anything connected with the Sangha, one of admiration and pious respect. Thais love to pamper their monks and the monks of course have no objections to such treatment. Believing in the protective power of tipping water over a piece of cast metal also fits well with most Thais’ understanding of Buddhism, because that’s the sort of thing many monks teach them. And while the Thai Ecclesiastical Council will fight hammer and tong to stop women from becoming nuns, it is indifferent to the scandal of millionaire monks, their luxurious toilets and the superstitious nonsense they encourage.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Two Catholic Missionaries In Tibet III

After a three-month stay at the great monastery the two missionaries were ready for to undertake the final long journey to Lhasa. They headed south and for a while traveled with a huge caravan which consisted of 15000 yaks, 1,200 horses, the same number of camels and 2000 men. On the 29th of January 1846, after a grueling 18 months on the road the weary but elated missionaries finally arrived at their goal — Lhasa. The golden spires of the Potala Palace, the richness of the Jokung Cathedral and the color of the pilgrims and merchants from every part of Central Asia were all overwhelming. But they had not come to sight-see and as soon as they found accommodation they began planning to conquer for Christ this citadel of paganism. When the authorities knew their presence they received an order to appear before the Regent, ruler of Tibet until the young Dalai Lama came of age. Full of trepidation and hope they obeyed. The Regent happened to be an urbane and deeply religious man and as soon as he was satisfied that the strangers were not spies but genuine men of religion, he became friendly towards them. When he asked why they were in his realm they told him that they had come to convert the Tibetans the one true religion. Far from being perturbed or angry, the Regent was delighted. Hue recorded his words; "All your long journeys were made for a religious purpose. You are right, for man’s business in life is religion. I see that you French and we Tibetans are one in this. But your religion and ours are not the same so it is important to find out which one is true. We shall therefore examine them both carefully and sincerely. If yours is true, we shall adopt it. Indeed, how could we not? But if ours is found to be true, I hope you will be reasonable enough to adopt it yourself". The missionaries could hardly have wished for a more positive reception. It seemed that all their prayers had been answered.
In the following month the three men met often, had long discussions and gradually developed a genuine respect for each other. The Regent arranged for them to learn more Tibetan so they could more clearly explain their beliefs, found them more comfortable accommodation and purchased their horses at a very generous price thus giving them much needed extra cash. As at Kumbum, curious and interested people began visiting them, some of them on a regular basis, to find out about the new religion. But just when it looked like all the missionary’s prayers had been answered, disaster struck. The Chinese ambassador had been trying for some time to have the missionaries expelled but the Regent had put him off, found excuses to do nothing or used delaying tactics. Now Chinese pressure became intense and the Regent and his government finally had to give in. After a friendly farewell from the Regent and an invitation to come again at a better time, the two men left the Forbidden City and headed east towards China.
Huc and Gabet arrived in Macao in October 1846 full of plans to establish a mission in Lhasa but their dreams were soon to be dashed. They learned that the Vatican had granted the Society des Missions Etrangeres the exclusive right to preach the Gospel in Tibet and they were not prepared to let Lazerists or any other Order poach on what they now considered to be their turf. As it happens, the Society des Missions Etrangeres was never able to get around to organizing a Tibetan mission and indeed no Catholic or even Protestant missionaries were ever to step foot in Lhasa again. Thus ironically it was not Buddhist resistance but ecclesiastical rivalry and polities within the Catholic Church which prevented the Gospel being preached in the fabled Forbidden City. Father Gabet went to Rome to plead to be able to return to Tibet but was unable to reverse the decision. He was eventually posted to Brazil where the friendship he had cultivated with Tibet’s regent, the language skills he had learned in China and Tibet and his knowledge of the region were all wasted. He died of yellow fever in 1853. Father Huc remained in Macao for two years writing an account of the mission. In 1852 he returned to France but never really recovered from the hardships of his long journey and he died in 1860 worn out at the age of 47.
This three-volume travelogue attracted much attention in academic circles, being the only first-hand account of Lhasa to appear during the whole of the 19th century. It went through several editions and was translated into English. Huc’s account of the Tree of Ten Thousand Images in particular created much interest. The idea of such a tree sounded so improbable and yet in all other matters Huc seemed to be a careful and objective informant. Further, as a Catholic missionary hostile to all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, he had no reason to say anything positive about it. Unfortunately, the truth about the wonderful tree can now never be known for certain. The British traveler Peter Flemming saw it in 1935 but it was autumn and it had shed its leaves. Andre Migot saw it in 1946 but by then it had been enclosed in a temple and he was unable to examine it carefully. Communist Red Guards destroyed the Tree of Ten Thousand Images in the 1960’s.