Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cermonies For The Departed

Brahmanism at the time of the Buddha taught several contrasting, even conflicting ideas about what happens to a person after they die; that they go to heaven, that they are dispersed among the elements, that they become plants or that they join their ancestors, the fathers (pitamaha), in some kind of shadowy afterlife. All these notions are mentioned in the Vedas. The last of them was probably the most widely accepted as it is the one mentioned most frequently in the Tipitaka. During the Buddha’s time there seems to have been only the beginning of an idea that one’s postmortem state, whatever it might be, was determined by one’s moral or immoral behavior while alive. Everyone, it was assumed, went to the world of the fathers. Some days after the funeral the oldest son, directed by a brahman, performed a ceremony called the sraddha (Pali saddha, A.V,273; D.I,97) in which small balls of dough (pinda) and other food were offered to the departed person as this invocation was made: ‘May this offering benefit our ancestors who are dead and gone. May our ancestors dead and gone enjoy this offering.’(A.V,269). The belief was that this food would be received by the departed and help to sustain them. Gifts were then given to the brahmans directing the ceremony. Only a son could perform the saddha rite, which was one of the main reasons people so strongly desired to have a son (A.III,,43). Performing this ceremony was one of ‘the five offerings’ (pancabalim) every person was expected to make (A.II,68). Evidence of the enduring nature of Indian spirituality is that this ceremony, little changed, is still done today by Hindus. If you visit the Vishnupada Temple in Gaya you can see this ceremony being done. In the last decade or so Hindu pilgrims have started doing it at Bodh Gaya.
As with many other contemporary beliefs, the Buddha ethicized Brahmanical ideas about the afterlife, and shifted the practices associated with them from the material to the psychological. He reinterpreted the ‘fathers’ (pita) as the ‘hungry spirits’ (peta) and said that only greedy, immoral or wicked people might get reborn as such unhappy beings (A.I,155). A good and kindly person, he said, would probably be reborn as a human or in heaven, rather than the world of the fathers. When the brahman Janussoni asked if it were really possible for the departed to receive and benefit from the material offerings made to them the Buddha replied that this could only happen if they had been reborn as a hungry spirit (A.V,269).
However, it seems unlikely that the Buddha would have believed the rather primitive notion that material offerings could actually be conveyed to another dimension. More likely the Buddha was using skillful means, adopting or taking into account the questioner’s standpoint in order to speak to him or her in terms they could understand. In this case he probably did so because although he would not have accepted that material things can be conveyed to another world, he could see that Janussoni’s desire to do so was based on good intentions -love, gratitude and concern for his departed ancestors. When the Buddha was addressing his instructed disciples he would say that the best way they could give their departed relatives something that would benefit them would be to lead a good and moral life here and now. Once he said: ‘If a monk should wish, “Those departed relatives and ancestors of mine who I recall with a calm mind, may they enjoy great fruit and benefit,” then he should be one who is filled with virtue, who spends time in solitude, dedicated to meditation and calmness of mind.’ (A.V,132). The Buddha’s idea seems to have been that if you wish to give happiness to your departed loved ones lead a life of kindness and integrity.
In keeping with this interpretation the Kathavatthu specifically denies that the departed can receive or benefit from material things offered to them (Kv. XX,4).
In traditional Buddhists countries today people will do good deeds, usually making offerings to monks, and then in a simple ceremony dedicate the merit they have created to their departed loved ones. Although people are told by monks and often believe that they actually ‘transfer the merit’ to their departed loved ones this is a misunderstanding of Buddhist doctrine. See http://www.buddhisma2z.com/ under Merit and Transference of Merit. The picture shows a supposed ‘merit-making’ ceremony.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Important New Dhamma Course

Some of my readers will have heard of Venerable Analayo, a German monk who embodies a rare balance of impeccable scholarship and solid meditation practice. Although Analayo is most well-known for his book Satipatthana; The Direct Path to Realization he has over the last few years, also produced a steady stream of extremely interesting articles on various aspects on the Dhamma. Unfortunately many of these articles are published in academic journals where they are not easily available to the average Buddhist reader. The good news is that now Ven. Analayo will be conducting an E-course on Buddhism. The main purpose of the course will be to introduce central themes of Buddhist thought from an historical-critical perspective through the medium of a comparative study of the early discourses. Extracts from the Madhyama Agama preserved in Chinese will be made available in English translation to participants, so that these can be compared with their Pāli counterparts, which mostly, but not exclusively, are found in the Majjhima Nikāya. The course will follow the order of the discourses in the Madhyama Agama so as to give the participants an opportunity for a first-hand impression of this collection, so far not available in translation in any European language. The coverage of the first chapters of this collection during the course held in 2011 will alternate between brief surveys of some discourses and in-depth studies of other discourses (see below for the discourses selected for this term). Anyone taking an intelligent interest in the Dhamma is bound to benefit from this course. Online registration starts on the 15 February 2011. For more information go to http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/index.php?id=121&L=0

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Writings Of The Great D. D.

Born in rural Goa in 1876, Dharmanand Damodar Kosambi (not to be confused with his equally brilliant son Damodar Dharmanand) came under the spell of the Buddha’s teachings during his adolescence. As described in his long autobiographical memoir, at an early age he set off on an incredible journey of austere self-training across the length and breadth of Britain’s Indian Empire, halting to educate himself at places connected with Buddhism. His sojourns included living in Sri Lanka to master Pali, in a cave in Burma, and in some viharas of North India - begging for his food all the way - as well as in Nepal and Sikkim which he reached after arduous, sometimes barefoot, treks. During these itinerant years Dharmanand acquired such mastery of the Pali Tipitaka that he was variously appointed to teach and do research at Calcutta, Fergusson Collage, Baroda, Harvard, and Leningrad. His Bhagwan Buddha (1940) remains to this day the most widely-read account of the Buddha’s life in Marathi. Two of his other great achievements were his editions of the Visuddhimaga and of the Subhasitaratanakosa which he did together with V. V. Gokhale. My own teacher, Ven. Matiwella Sangharatana, knew D. D. quite well and I distinctly recall him saying that he was one of the few Indian Buddhists he knew ‘who could think’ which might be a bit unfair. As a thinker Dharmanand blended Buddhist ethics, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of truth and non-violence, and the ideals of socialism. He exchanged letters with the Mahatma, worked for his causes, and most extraordinarily, ended his life in the traditional Jain manner by voluntary starving himself to death at Sevagram ashram in 1947. The process took 30 days. Arguably, no Indian scholar’s life has been as exemplary as Dharmanand’s, or has approximated as closely the nobility and saintliness of the Mahatma’s. Despite his mastery of several languages, Dharmanand chose to write mainly in Marathi because of his strong region-specific commitment. Consequently, very few today even in India are familiar with his copious output in Buddhist studies, and fewer still with his contribution to social and political thought. By translating and marshalling his most significant writings, Meera Kosambi, shows the manifold dimensions of Dharmanand’s personality, and the profoundly moral character of his intellectual journeys. Her Introduction also contextualizes the life, career, and achievement of modern India’s greatest scholar-savants. The book includes for the first time a translation of Kosambi’s long autobiographical essay Nivedan.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

J. P. Vogel's Photos

Anyone who, like myself, takes an interest in the archeological history of Buddhist places in India will know the name J. P. Vogel. The Archeological Survey of India reports dating from the early 1900s onward contain numerous articles and reports written by him. He excavated, amongst other sites, Kusinara and Savatthi. Although I have long been familiar with his name I have never known anything else about him. The other day I stumbled upon a book called A Vision of Splendor, Indian Heritage in the Photography of Jean Philip Vogel, 1901-1913 by Gerda Theuns-de Boer, published in 2008. This really is a discovery for me. It contains numerous beautiful black and white photos of so many Buddhists sites and artifacts taken by Vogel. How fascinating it is to see what these places looked like just before or while they were being excavated. Here, for example are two photos of the Buddha statue at Matha Kaur in Kusinara.The first is of the statue after Vogel dug it up, and the second just before he built the structure around it and in which it sits to this day (note the freshly-mortared bricks behind it).
The Buddha identified three types of craving – craving for sensual pleasures (kamma tanha), craving for existence (bhava tanha) and craving for non-existence (vibhava tanha). When I see beautiful publications like this one I am convinced that the Buddha overlooked one type of craving – craving for books (potthaka tanha).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The 5 Regrets Of The Dying

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying. It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called "comfort" of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is your life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly.
By Bronnie Ware

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dhamma Tour In Sumatra

I have just returned from a five-day Dhamma tour of northern Sumatra in Indonesia. I traveled to six locations and spoke to big crowds, the largest being a 3500 audience at the Grand Aston City Hall in Medan itself. It is really good to see the level if interest in the Dhamma in this somewhat isolated part of Indonesia.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Doubly Interesting

Here is a blog and a video news item, both of them worth watching by anyone interested in the good Dhamma. The first is about the Swiss nun Venerable Ariya Nani who understands that offering help to others need not necessarily hinder your meditation. It is a rather inspiring example of what we need more of in Buddhism – metta with its sleeves rolled up. The video is a brief examination of the progress of the Dhamma is the USA.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The True Hero

Some time ago a reader asked me an interesting question. When the Bodhisattva was struggling to attain enlightenment he said he would be prepared to let his body become emaciated, to die even, in order to realize his goal. Isn’t this, my reader asked, extreme? Does it not contravene the idea of the Middle Way? I have been reading William Manchester’s account of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, A World Lit Only By Fire, Little Brown 1992. Williams takes the lives of Erasmus, Luther and particularly Magellan as illustrative of the spirit of this time. Of course I know about Magellan’s achievements but I, at least, never knew the sheer audacity, the incredible courage, the super-human determination that it involved. Magellan was a real hero and Williams describes the inner workings of a hero like this -
‘The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth, love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge…Guided by an inner gyroscope, he peruses his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejection, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude. Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations – of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man of towering strength of character can suppress them.’
This perhaps gives some idea of what might have been going on in the Bodhisattva’s mind when he renounced his wife and child and when he drove himself with deprivations and austerities. And in this sense Siddhattha Gotama and Magellan were similar – they were both determined to go where no one had even been before, one spiritual the other terrestrial. And I imagine this is the reason why one of the epitaph the early Buddhists gave the Buddha was Great Hero (Mahavira, e.g. S.I,110; 193; III,83).
Incidentally, A World Lit Only By Fire is a great read. Apart from being a hang-on-tight romp through a world long gone, it also offers page after page of evidence for the point I made in my post of 25th October, that religion does not necessarily make people better. As Williams points out, the Middle Ages was not just a time when everyone believed, even the possibility of doubt or skepticism didn’t exist. And yet it was also a time of appalling cruelty and savagery, of unrestrained and unapologetic avariciousness, and in politics of treachery, double-dealing and perfidy that would even make the tyrants of our times gasp - all existing together with a rock-like faith. It was a world where everything was sacred and yet nothing was sacred.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Island Of Peace

I would like to share with you a few pictures I took recently of the Siong Lim Temple which is within walking distance of my place. It was built in 1902 and although is now in the midst of a housing estate and has a major freeway right next to it, it has managed to maintain an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Does Religion Make People Better?

I have just read for the umpteenth time that ‘morality only become meaningful with religion’ and that ‘without religion anything becomes permissible’, and of course the word ‘religion’ is almost always used to mean belief one or another deity or god. I have long had trouble with these claims, not because I dislike religion but because I like and take an interest in history. I know of few historical facts demonstrating that religious devotion made people better or that being non-religious made people worse. I have just read parts of Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself – letters he wrote and notes he made during his long incarceration. Some parts are this absorbing book are painful to read. The loneliness, the separation from his family, the isolation and the physical hardship caused him, as you would expect, terrible distress. That he didn’t give in to despair as the long years, the slow decades, rolled by says something about his incredible conviction. But it also made me question even more the often-repeated and widely accepted claims mentioned above.
Just a few facts. Apartheid, one of the more wicked and inhuman ideologies of the 20th century, was the brainchild of a group of deeply religious people, the Afrikaans. According to Wikipedia, and I’ve read the same claim elsewhere, Afrikaans have long had the highest rate of consistent churchgoing of any group of people in the world. D. F. Malan who set up the apartheid system in 1948 had studied theology and was an ordained Protestant minister. His successor Hendrick Verwoerd had doctorates in and theology and psychology cum laude and was likewise a conspicuously pious man. Even those Afrikaans who had no part in establishing apartheid were happy to benefit from it, endorse it and vote for those who implemented it – as they regularly attended church – churches that were racially segregated after the Churches Native Laws Amendment Act of 1957. And as apartheid met with more and more resistance from people like Nelson Mandela, pious Afrikaans lied, bribed, fixed elections and stacked courts in their favor; they beat, tortured and murdered their opponents to keep apartheid going. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission even established that P. W Botha, another deeply religious man, had ordered the bombing of the South African Council of Churches headquarters in Johannesburg.
To dismiss Malan’s, Verwoerd’s and the others’ piety as insincere and self-serving would be to ignore facts. Even their most bitter opponants acknowledged that they were staunchly religious men who prayed and read the Bible regulary. In fact, it was probably their firm, albeit it misguided, belief that they were doing what God had ordained that made them so determined to uphold apartheid. Oh, and just so one particular religion doesn’t get all the thumping, it is equally true that other South African Christians opposed apartheid with a similar determination, and   I know of deeply religious Sinhalese Buddhists who excused and justified some of the worst cruelty of Sri Lanka's civil war.
Nelson Mandela on the other hand, who is quite irreligious, stood up to apartheid long before it was popular to do so, endured decades of cruel imprisonment (and they really were cruel to him) and emerged from this martyrdom seemingly without any  rancor or ill-will and with a readiness to engage with and forgive his former tormentors. So does ‘morality only become meaningful with religion’ and is it true that ‘without religion everything becomes permissible?' I see no evidence for this. People can be deeply and devotedly religious and commit great evil. Likewise, someone could be without any conventional religious conviction and yet have the highest standards of morality and integrity. So it’s not just religious conviction that makes the difference but something or some things else. What?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Atisa's Tomb

During my first visit to Tibet I missed it. In fact, I couldn’t find anyone who had even heard of it. So before my most recent trip I did all the required research about Atisa’s tomb and even that proved more difficult than I had expected. Gyurme Dorje’s popular Tibet Handbook has much to say about the nearby Nyetang Dolma Lhakhang but is silent about the tomb. Most other guidebooks proved to be equally unhelpful. Nonetheless, I eventually found it. Nyetang Dolma Lhakhang is on the main road about 20 miles out of Lhasa heading west and it seems most tourists stop to have a look at it judging by the large car park in front. If you cross the road and walk down a dusty track for about half a mile you come to a small, rather shabby village not far from the banks of the Kyi Chu River. Locals stared opened-mouthed at us but when I said I would like to see ‘Jowo Jey’ someone ran off to get the key and on his return we entered what looked like a very ancient but recently renovated temple. There, in the middle of the main hall, was a large stupa, drum-shaped on a high square base – the actual tomb of one of the last great Indian Buddhist pandits and the man who had an critically important role to pay in the revival and spread of Buddhism in Tibet during the 11th century. Atisa is still lauded in Tibet, his works are still studied but his tomb is neglected and little-known. Sir Charles Bell’s The Religion of Tibet has a photo of the tomb as it appeared in the 1920s (page 58) but even at that time, as he attests, it was rarely visited. At that time the drum of the tomb was painted, as the old photo shows. Now it has been recently whitewashed and is covered with plastic, apparently to protect it from water leaking through the roof. During the height of the Cultural Revolution it is said the Bangladesh Government quietly let the Chinese know that they would appreciate it if the tomb was not destroyed, Atisa still being famous in that country. I and my companions circumambulated the tomb and then chanted the Metta Sutta in honor of this remarkable son of the Buddha.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Bet You Didn't Know

I bet you (i.e. you Singaporeans but maybe other readers too) didn’t know that one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Buddhism in S.E.Asia is to be found in the vicinity of Singapore. The Indonesian island of Karimun Besar lies just 30 k south-west of Jurong. On a small hill on the tip of the island, from where Singapore can easily be seen, is a rock with an inscription on it. Usually called the Pasir Panjang Inscription, this brief document dates from around the 9th century and is in Sanskrit in Devanagari script. It says that the small depression next to the inscription is the footprint of ‘the venerable Gautama’ i.e. the Buddha. The depression looks like an actual footprint although it has been carved out of the rock.
Who carved this inscription and its ‘footprint’? We have no idea. Very likely it was done by a devote passenger from a passing ship – the island is right in the middle of an important shipping route. Or perhaps it was carved by a monk hoping to encourage passing ships to stop and visit the ‘shrine’. Whatever the case, it is very inspiring to think that Buddhists have been living on, in or near Singapore for so long. Perhaps some of our local Buddhists should make a trip to Karimur Besar and visit this important place. The Pasir Panjang Inscription was discovered at the end of the 19th century and translated sometime later, I think by a Dutch epigraphist. However, several words in it are obscure and Ian Caldwell and Ann Hazlewood have made an attempt to give a clearer translation in their paper ‘The Holy Footprint of the Venerable Gautama; A New Translation of the Pasir Panjang Inscription’ published in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land en Volkenkunde in 1994. I have not read this paper but look forward to doing so.
The above pictures are courtesy of The Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog at http://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Good Start

In a world increasingly dominated by a secular and materialistic mentality, there is a real need for the world’s faith communities to stand solidly together. Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism participates in promoting such a stance. As the “logos” or revealed Word in the Islamic tradition is the Qur’an, Muslims abide by doctrines therein and have taken care to avoid what is not stated clearly in their own scripture. As the name of the Buddha was not specifically listed among the prophets sent by God which are mentioned in the Qur’an, and because Muslims have assumed Buddhists to be atheistic, there has hitherto not been much dialogue between these two august traditions. This volume represents a historic change of course. After a number of meetings in Jordan between HH the 14th Dalai Lama and HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a true and profound “Common Ground” between Islam and Buddhism has been formally recognized. This follows a previous initiative by Prince Ghazi, entitled A Common Word, which has entailed meetings and conferences between a large number of Islamic clerics with the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and gatherings held at both Yale and Georgetown Universities over the last two years. These gatherings have become the basis for a new educational effort in both the Christian and Muslim world. But now we have this groundbreaking publication, authored by Reza Shah-Kazemi, introduced by contributions from the Dalai Lama and Prince Ghazi, and the renowned Islamic scholar, Professor Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali. The opening words by the Dalai Lama set the stage:
"This is an important and pioneering book, which seeks to find a common ground between the teachings of Islam and of Buddhism. It is my hope that on the basis of this common ground, followers of each tradition may come to appreciate the spiritual truths their different paths entail and from this develop a basis for respect for each others' practice and beliefs. This may not have occurred very often before, because there has been so little opportunity for real understanding between these two great traditions. This book attempts to set that right...From a Buddhist point of view, the practice of Islam is evidently a spiritual path of salvation".
From here the respected Islamic scholars go on to make an earnest attempt to help Muslims to see Buddhism as a true religion, or dīn, and Buddhists to see Islam as an authentic dharma. Although Buddhism is clearly non-theistic, the ultimate Reality affirmed by Buddhist thought, and the supreme goal sought by it, is proposed to correspond closely with the Essence (al-Dhāt) of God in Islam. Seemingly divergent issues are resolved in terms of the underlying principial realm. For example, one would imagine that the Buddhist doctrine of Karma/Reincarnation is irreconcilable with the Abrahamic Judgment Day. But, as Dr Shah-Kazemi explains:
Nonetheless, the incompatibility between the two perspectives pertains to the operation of the principle of accountability, and not to the principle itself. In fact, one observes within Islam both modes of operation. The theistically conceived ‘Judge’ can be seen, from a Buddhist point of view, as one way of expressing the objectivity of the principle of cosmic recompense; while karma can be conceived, from a Muslim point of view, as one way of expressing the principle according to which the Judge evaluates all deeds. Moreover, as will be seen in the section on compassion, in both traditions there is a principle which transcends the cosmic chain of cause and effect, and this is divine mercy.”
Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism presents a series of reflections attempting to interpret some “central principles of Buddhism in the light of Islamic spirituality, doing so in a manner which we hope will nourish a spirit of mutual understanding and enriching dialogue between the adherents of the two faiths”.
From a review by Elena Lloyd-Sidle, Yale Divinity School in Parabola Magazine,2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Asita, The Sage

Asita, also known as Kanhasiri, was a sage who lived in the forest in the Sakyan country. He is described as wearing matted hair (Sn.689). One day he noticed that the gods were wildly celebrating and he asked them why they were so happy. They replied, ‘A Bodhisattva, an excellent and incomparable jewel, has been born in the Sakyan town in Lumbini, for the welfare and happiness of the human world. This is why we are so happy.’(Sn.683). Anxious to see this child Asita went to Kapilavastu where Suddhodana welcomed him and gave him the child to hold. Being accomplished in the art of ‘signs and mantras’ (lakkhana mantra, Sn.690) he examined the baby and proclaimed that he would ‘attain complete enlightenment’ (Sambodhi), reach the ultimate purified vision’ (paramavisuddhidassi), and proclaim the Truth ‘out of compassion of the many’ (bahujamhitanukampii, Sn.693). Then tears welled up into his eyes. Noticing this and being worried by it, the Sakyans asked Asita if he had foreseen some misfortune in the boy’s future. He replied that he was sad because he knew that he would pass away before this all happened (Sn.694).
The name Asita literally means ‘not clinging’ while Kanhasiri means 'dark splendour'.
This is the only mention of Asita in the Tipitaka. According to some scholars the story about him is purely legendary and it may be. However, there is little in it that is inherently fantastic or unbelievable. It would have been quite common in ancient India for a monarch to invite a local holy man to bless and perhaps name his new-born son. Likewise, it would be normal for the holy man to ‘predict’ that the king’s son would grow up to be a great man.
Later re-tellings of the Asita story, and there are many of them, each more detailed and elaborate than the earlier ones, often say that Asita predicted than the baby prince would become either a universal monarch (cakkavattin) or a fully enlightened sage (Buddha). This ‘either or’ prediction is absent from the Tipitaka story.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Let The Dhamma Shine Forth

Assembling the material and writing it out has taking three years, designing the web site, checking and fine-tuning the material has taken nearly another year and now it is ready. A Guide to Buddhism A to Z aims to provide the reader with concise, accurate and wide-ranging information about every aspect of Buddhism – doctrinal, cultural and historical. Every month for as long as I can think of something to write about I will add a new entry. I may also supplement some of the existing entries. As of October there are 500 entries.
I would ask all my readers to let as many people know about A Guide to Buddhism A to Z and do anything you can to promote it. Anybody is welcome to reproduce the material without asking for permission; just give the link to the source.
The address to this new Dhamma web site is http://www.buddhisma2z.com/
Let the Dhamma shine forth!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Batchelor And Buddhism

In his long career Stephen Batchelor has moved from Buddhism, to skeptical Buddhism, to complete skepticism and now to something that isn’t Buddhism at all but which, for unaccountable reasons, he is still insists on calling Buddhism. I can quite understand why Batchelor initially revolted against the closed system of Gelupa scholasticism but in his book Buddhism Without Belief he pretty much made a break with Buddhism as a Buddhist would usually recognize it. Pity really. I read his earlier books with interest, having a bit of a skeptical streak myself, but after Buddhism without Belief I decided not to bother with his writings any more. So I have not read his most recent offering, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, but here is a review of it by Allan Wallace which includes (to me) a thoroughly sensible critique of Batchelor’s so-called Buddhism.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burn The Buddha???

Now that one part of the world has calmed down a bit and another part is breathing a sigh of relief, I thought it might be appropriate to say something about the Dhammic response to criticisms or insults to Buddhism or the desecration of objects of special significance to Buddhists. In the Digha Nikaya the Buddha said, ‘Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Sangha you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did you would not be able to recognize if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me the Dhamma or the Sangha you should explain whatever is incorrect saying, “This is not correct”, “That is not true”, “We do not do this”, “That is not our way”’. (D.I,1-3). And the saintly Santideva had this advice on how to respond to even stronger attacks on Buddhism. ‘Hatred towards those who speak insulting about or damage sacred images or stupas in inappropriate. The Buddha did not get angry at such things.’ And a quick tour through Google Image turns up plenty of thoughtless, insensitive and insulting uses of the Buddha’s name and image. Nonetheless, the Buddha’s instructions and Santideva’s advice still holds good.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yasodhara, The Invisible Woman

Everyone knows the story about Yasodhara, the Buddha’s wife - you know, the beautiful young maid, the competition to win her hand, her happy life with Prince Siddhattha, her slumbering with Rahula as her husband left the palace at night and, when the Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu, her telling Rahula to approach the Buddha and ask for his inheritance. What most people don’t know that Yasodhara is not mentioned by name anywhere in the Tipitaka and that none of these stories, except the last one, appear there either. And even this last story, ‘Rahula’s mother’ as she is called there, makes only the briefest appearance (Vin.I,82). All the rest comes from the later Buddhist tradition; a bit from the Pali commentaries and much more from other ‘Hinayana’ literature. And while Yasodhara is literally a non-person in the Pali Tipitaka and little more than that in the commentaries, there are many legends about her, some of them quite interesting, in later Sanskrit literature.
The great Buddhist scholar Andre Bareau has written a most fascinating article on the Yasodhara legends which is now available at http://www.buddha-kyra.com/wife.htm Kyra Pahlen, who translated this article from French did a rather poor job - Kathmandu instead of Kapilavatthu, Mahavasti instead of Mahavastu and even Solomon instead of Suddhodana!!! But don’t let these and a few other clangers put you off this most interesting bit of research.
The top picture is a sculptural representation of the Kapilavastu incident from Amaravati (4th cent.). The Buddha is represented as an empty throne. The next picture is of a painting of the same story from Ajanta (7th cent.) while the last one is a 19th century Thai painting.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Few More Books

On Sunday the 5th of September our group, the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, held a book launching ceremony for my new publication To Eat or Not to Eat Meat. In it I argue that while the Buddha did not advocate vegetarianism, avoiding eating meat is more in harmony with the Buddha’s teachings of care and compassion for others. A large crowd turned up and after my usual Sunday morning sermon I spent time signing copies of the book for people. Already someone has offered to reprint 2000 of the book.
Then on the afternoon of the next Sunday (i.e. the 12th) some friends and students accompanied me down to Peninsular Plaza to distribute 100 copies of the Burmese translation of my book Good Question Good Answer. Peninsular Plaza is the main meeting place for Burmese working and studying in Singapore and large crowds gather there on weekends. Several shops in the Plaza have small lending libraries and one Buddhist group has a small drop-in centre with a lending library. It also distributes books for free and occasionally organizes weekend talks. This is the third time we have distributed the Burmese Good Question Good Answer amongst Burmese expatriates and apparently it is proving to be very popular.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


India! Accommodating, nourishing, welcoming, confusing, spiritual India.
A road sign in Himachal Pradesh.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Panikkar Passes

On the 26th of last month Raimon Panikkar passed away at the ripe old age of 92. Panikkar was probably Catholicism’s most well-known, most learned and most articulate proponent of ‘dialogue between men of living faiths’. Over the decades he wrote dozens of books and countless articles urging Catholics to dialogue with and learns from Eastern religions, mainly Hinduism and Buddhism. In some ways he was uniquely placed for this endeavor having had a Hindu father and a Catholic mother and being educated at Benares Hindu University. Some of his more notable works are The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (1989), The Unknown Christ Of Hinduism: Towards An Ecumenical Christophany (1981) and Espiritualidad Hindu: Sanatana Dharma (2006). One of his oft quoted sayings is, ‘I left Europe (for India) as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian’. I can’t say I ever read anything by him that suggested that he was a Buddhist, although many of his ideas did sound like Christian (or perhaps better ‘theistic’) concepts wrapped up in Buddhist terminology. Inter-religious dialogue is a good thing if it takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect and if the benefits are shared by all parties. But myself, I sometimes have trouble shaking off the impression that another strategy lies behind dialogue, at least for some people. In her obituary of Raimon Panikkar published in Time (20,9,2010) Amy Sullivan writes, ‘Some Catholics saw (Panikkar’s) work as dangerously radical. But to his students and many admirers, Panikkar was a prophet whose teachings helped Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the non-Western world’. Now I’m not sure I would agree that Christianity is growing that fast, but it certainly is in the ascendant in Asia, including in traditional Buddhist countries. Could this be the unspoken rationale behind some dialogue?
Whatever the case, Panikkar was a deeply spiritual man and a very warm, open one as well. And he could be most interesting to listen to. Here is parts of a dialogue he engaged in on the subject of love.

Friday, September 17, 2010

'Animal Release'

‘Animal release’ (fang sheng) is a term used by Chinese Buddhists to refer to the practice of purchasing animals that are due to be slaughtered and letting them go. While the rationale for this practice is the Buddha’s teaching of kindness and compassion to all creatures, even the most humble, the earliest evidence of the practice actually comes from the Pali Tipitaka. According to the Vinaya, a monk once came across a pig caught in a hunter’s trap and feeling compassion for its plight he released it. By the convention of the time he was guilty of theft. When the matter was brought to the Buddha’s intention he said that from the perspective of the Dhamma the monk had committed no offence because he had acted ‘out of compassion’ (karunnena, Vin.III,62).
The Chinese Buddhist tradition of animal release has its origins in the Suvarnabhasottama Sutra (Chinese Jin guang ming), composed in the early centuries of the Common Era. According to this work, a merchant’s son named Jalavahana, while traveling through a forest wilderness during summer, came across a pond in which the fish were struggling to survive in the rapidly evaporating water. All around the pond crows, cranes and jackals had gathered waiting to snap up the unfortunate fish. Moved by compassion and determined to save the fish Jalavahana cut some foliage and placed it in the pool hoping to shield the water from the sun and prevent its evaporation. When this proved ineffective, he traced the empty stream bed that had provided water to the pool and found that the water had been diverted from it by a great hole that appeared in the bed of the stream. Unable to block this hole himself he approached the king, told him of the situation and asked for some elephants, which the king gave him. Jalavhana’s ingenuity and efforts eventually paid off and he was able to fill the pond with water and save the fish.
When the Suvarnabhasottama Sutra was translated into Chinese the story of Jalavahana in particular had a powerful influence on people’s attitude towards animals. Soon, rather than releasing animals on an individual basis the custom developed of releasing large numbers animals in elaborate public ceremonies. The first person to organize such events was the monk Chih-I (538-97). In time, many temples came to provided ponds where people could release fish and tortoises, lofts for pigeons and pastures for goats, cows and horses.

Sadly, today ‘animal release’ practice frequently takes the form of a mere ritual more destructive to life than life-saving. In countries with significant Chinese communities a whole industry of capturing wild birds simply so they can be released has developed. The birds are taken from their natural environment, shipped to the cities and set free in the ‘concrete jungle’ where they often soon die. Temple ponds are commonly so crowded that the fish and tortoises lead diseased and miserable lives. According to environmentalists the two leading threats to the Asian Temple Turtle (Heosemys annandalii, so-called because it is favored by Chinese Buddhists for ‘release’) are the restaurant market and the temple trade. Several of the more progressive temples here in Singapore now try to educate the Buddhist public about the proper way to practice animal release or even prohibit the practice within their premises.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Hole In The Heart

Please read this and see what you do think you can do to help.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guess Who's Meditating?

The following is part of the transcript of the interview Seth Mydans had with the former long-time prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune on 1 September 2010.

Mr Lee: “Thank you. When you are coming to 87, you are not very happy..”
Q: “Not. Well you should be glad that you’ve gotten way past where most of us will get.”
Mr Lee: “That is my trouble. So, when is the last leaf falling?”
Q: “Do you feel like that, do you feel like the leaves are coming off?”
Mr Lee: “Well, yes. I mean I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality and I mean generally every year when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that is life.”
Q: “My mother used to say never get old.”
Mr Lee: “Well, there you will try never to think yourself old. I mean I keep fit, I swim, I cycle.”
Q: “And yoga, is that right? Meditation?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Tell me about meditation?”
Mr Lee: “Well, I started it about two, three years ago when Ng Kok Song, the Chief Investment Officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, I knew he was doing meditation. His wife had died but he was completely serene. So, I said, how do you achieve this? He said I meditate everyday and so did my wife and when she was dying of cancer, she was totally serene because she meditated everyday and he gave me a video of her in her last few weeks completely composed completely relaxed and she and him had been meditating for years. Well, I said to him, you teach me. He is a devout Christian. He was taught by a man called Laurence Freeman, a Catholic. His guru was John Main, a devout Catholic. When I was in London, Ng Kok Song introduced me to Laurence Freeman. In fact, he is coming on Saturday to visit Singapore, and we will do a meditation session. The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts. It is most difficult to stay focused on the mantra. The discipline is to have a mantra which you keep repeating in your innermost heart, no need to voice it over and over again throughout the whole period of meditation. The mantra they recommended was a religious one. Ma Ra Na Ta, four syllables. Come To Me Oh Lord Jesus. So I said Okay, I am not a Catholic but I will try. He said you can take any other mantra, Buddhist Om Mi Tuo Fo, and keep repeating it. To me Ma Ran Na Ta is more soothing. So I used Ma Ra Na Ta. You must be disciplined. I find it helps me go to sleep after that. A certain tranquility settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping. I miss it sometimes when I am tired, or have gone out to a dinner and had wine. Then I cannot concentrate. Otherwise I stick to it.”
Q: “So…”
Mr Lee: “.. for a good meditator will do it for half-an-hour. I do it for 20 minutes.”
Q: “So, would you say like your friend who taught you, would you say you are serene?”
Mr Lee: “Well, not as serene as he is. He has done it for many years and he is a devout Catholic. That makes a difference. He believes in Jesus. He believes in the teachings of the Bible. He has lost his wife, a great calamity. But the wife was serene. He gave me this video to show how meditation helped her in her last few months. I do not think I can achieve his level of serenity. But I do achieve some composure.”
Q: “And do you find that at this time in your life you do find yourself getting closer to religion of one sort or another?”
Mr Lee: “I am an agnostic. I was brought up in a traditional Chinese family with ancestor worship. I would go to my grandfather’s grave on All Soul’s Day which is called “Qingming”. My father would bring me along, lay out food and candles and burn some paper money and kowtow three times over his tombstone. At home on specific days outside the kitchen he would put up two candles with my grandfather’s picture. But as I grew up, I questioned this because I think this is superstition. You are gone, you burn paper money, how can he collect the paper money where he is? After my father died, I dropped the practice. My youngest brother baptised my father as a Christian. He did not have the right to. He was a doctor and for the last weeks before my father’s life, he took my father to his house because he was a doctor and was able to keep my father comforted. I do not know if my father was fully aware when he was converted into Christianity.”
Q: “Converted your father?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Well this happens when you get close to the end.”
Mr Lee: “Well, but I do not know whether my father agreed. At that time he may have been beyond making a rational decision. My brother assumed that he agreed and converted him.”
Q: “But…”
Mr Lee: “I am not converted.”
Q: “But when you reach that stage, you may wonder more than ever what is next?”
Mr Lee: “Well, what is next, I do not know. Nobody has ever come back. The Muslims say that there are seventy houris, beautiful women up there. But nobody has come back to confirm this.”
Q: “And you haven’t converted to Islam, knowing that?”
Mr Lee: “Most unlikely. The Buddhist believes in transmigration of the soul. If you live a good life, the reward is in your next migration, you will be a good being, not an ugly animal. It is a comforting thought, but my wife and I do not believe in it. She has been for two years bed-ridden, unable to speak after a series of strokes. I am not going to convert her. I am not going to allow anybody to convert her because I know it will be against what she believed in all her life. How do I comfort myself? Well, I say life is just like that. You can’t choose how you go unless you are going to take an overdose of sleeping pills, like sodium amytal. For just over two years, she has been inert in bed, but still cognitive. She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night. She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favourite poems.”

For those who may not know, Father Laurence Freeman is head of The World Community for Christian Meditation, which teaches a meditation adapted from Hindu and Buddhist techniques and the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Visit To Vikramasila

From about the 8th or 9th centuries onwards a new type of Buddhism began to develop which later became known as the Tantrayana, the last of the three great 'vehicles' of Indian Buddhism. In the beginning this new interpretation met with disapproval amongst the more traditional monks and nuns, so King Dharmapala (775-812) founded a monastery named Vikramasila especially for its study. One Tibetan source gives us this description of the monastery. ‘Sri Vikramasila was built on the bank of the Ganges in the north of Magadha on the top of a hill. At its centre was built a temple housing a life-size copy of the Mahabodhi image. Around this were fifty three small temples for the study of the Guhyasamaja Tantra and another fifty four ordinary ones, all being surrounded by a wall. Thus the number of temples was one hundred and eight. He (Dharmapala) also provided requisites for one hundred and eight pundits.’ From other sources we also know that there was a huge courtyard big enough to hold 8,000 monks, that at the entrance to the main temple were two statues, one of Najarjuna and another of Atisa, and that the monastery’s perimeter wall had six gates. At the main entrance there was a dharmasala to accommodate those who arrived after the gates had been locked at night. What the monastic universities at Valabhi and Bodh Gaya were to early Buddhism and Nalanda was to Mahayana, Vikramasila was to Tantra. Some of the monasteries ‘gate keeper scholars’ were amongst the greatest names of this twilight period of Indian Buddhism. They included Santipa, Jetari, Ratnavajira, Jnanasrimitra and the great Naropa. Vikramasila’s first abbot, Buddhajnanapada, was the author of some 14 works and was described as ‘a great pundit learned in many fields of knowledge.’ The monastery’s greatest son however was the Bengali monk Atisa (982-1054). Apart from being a brilliant scholar and prolific writer, he also developed a new curriculum for the university, built more rooms for its monks and invited some of the best pundits of the time to come and teach there. The colophons on several of Atisa’s works state that he wrote then ‘while residing at Sri Vikramasila Mahavihara.’ At its height during the reign of King Ramapala at the beginning of the 11th century there were 160 teachers and 1,000 students. They are known to have come from all over north India as well as from Kashmir, Java, Nepal and Tibet. Vikramasila's connection with Tibet is of course well known, its connection with Sri Lanka less so. However, Tantra flourished in Sri Lanka for about 300 years and teachers from Vikramasila were sometimes invited to the island. The Caturasitisiddhapravritti says that Santipa, one of the greatest of the legendary 84 siddhas and a teacher at Vikramasila, visited Sri Lanka at the invitation of the country’s king and stayed for three years. Nor was the movement one way, Lankajayabadhra, famous for his expositions of the Guhayasamaja Tantra was one of the great Sri Lankan Tantric scholars who taught at the monastery. Some Tantric practitioners had a bad reputation for unconventional behaviour, but such things were not tolerated at Vikramasila. It is recorded that a monk named Maitrigupta was expelled for bringing wine into the monastery. As was the custom, he was ejected over the wall rather than being allowed to leave through the main gate.
At the beginning of the 13th century Vikramasila met the same fate as all Buddhist centres in India. One Tibetan source says that the monk Prajnarakshita prayed to a Tantric deity and the Muslim soldiers who were about to attack Vikramasila were scattered by a great rain storm. The reality was rather different. As the invading armies pushed further east, the king hastily fortified several of the larger monasteries including Vikramasila and stationed soldiers in them. But it did no good. In about 1206 Vikramasila was sacked, its inmates were killed or driven away and its foundation stone was tossed into the Ganges.
Towards the end of the 19th century European and Indian scholars began speculating about where Vikramasila might be. Silao, just south of Nalanda, Sultanganj near Bhagalpur and Hisla south of Patna were all suggested as possibilities. In 1901 Nundalal Dey suggested that it might be at Patharaghat where there were several huge mounds and fragments of Buddhist statuary near a hill overlooking the Ganges. One ancient Tibetan source says that the monastery was situated ‘where the holy river flows northward’ and indeed the Ganges does turn north at Patharaghat. Although Dey’s suggestion is now widely accepted as correct, excavations at Patharaghat have so far failed to find a single inscription or seal actually mentioning the name Vikramasila.
Today Patharaghat is one of the most interesting Buddhist sites in north India and yet at the same time one of the least known and least visited. At first it seems to be somewhat out of the ancient heartland of Buddhism but in actual fact this is not so. Nearby is Champanagar, the Campa of old, visited by the Buddha and the scene of several of his discourses. Abhayadatta, who wrote the biographies of the 84 siddhas was a native of Campa and so were several of his subjects. To the west is Munger, a town that is believed to derive its name from Moggallana, one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples. The Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsiang spent a year in this town studying with Tathagatagupta and Kshantisimha. At Sultanganj there are the ruins of another huge Buddhist monastery. A magnificent bronze Buddha statue recovered from these ruins is now one of the great treasures of the Birmingham Museum. The fact that a few local village temples have ancient Buddhist statues in them now serving as Hindu gods, also attests to the fact that Buddhism once flourished in this region. But that was long ago. Today Bhagalpur district where Patharagahat is situated is perhaps the most poverty stricken and lawless areas in India.
Getting to Vikramasila promised to be a long and grueling trip but our visits to Don, Hajipur and Kesariya had all been tiring but also worthwhile so we decided to go nonetheless. We hired a four wheel drive in Bodh Gaya and set off. After hours bumping over dusty pot-holed roads we got to the Ganges and began to follow it towards the east. We arrived in Bhagalpur around sunset, booked into the town’s only hotel, a truly seedy and rundown establishment, and fell into bed exhausted after the long drive. The next morning when I went into the bathroom to wash I found that a rat had eaten half my soap. Leaving Bhagalpur early we arrived at Patharaghat in about two hours. Patharaghat itself is a hill with its rocky north side washed by the Ganges and its top offering a commanding view over the river. The first thing we noticed were a series of caverns dug out of the side of a rocky water-filled depression. Local lore says that these mysterious cavern were the result of mining in ancient times but their real origin and purpose are unknown. At the foot of the nearby banyan tree is a beautiful statue of the Mahayana bodhisattva Tara, some votive stupas and other pieces of sculpture. The Tara is now being worshipped by locals as a Hindu goddess. A little further on along on the side of the hill is the Bodhesvaranath Temple. Just inside the main gate are a collection of ancient statues of the Buddha, Tara, Avalokitesvara and other bodhisattvas. The first shrine has another statue of Tara at its entrance. Right next to this is a cave with two chambers cut out of the side of the hill and outside the temple’s back gate is a similar one. About a hundred yards beyond the temple is yet another cave, large, finely cut and with a paneled ceiling. Another Hindu temple is situated right besides the water and all the rocks nearby have ancient carvings on them. Patharaghat is a very picturesque place and the many caves and Buddhist statues in the area suggested that it used to be a popular meditation retreat with monks and siddhas from Vikramasila. I once read an old text mentioning that Naropa used to stay in a cave near Vikramasila and it made me wonder if one of the caves we had seen might have been sanctified by his presence. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang came to Patharaghai in the 7th century and wrote of it. ‘By cutting the rock, houses have been made; by leading the streams through each there is a continuous stream of water. There are wonderful trees and flowering woods; the largest rocks and dangerous precipices are the resort of men of wisdom and virtue. Those who go there to see the place are reluctant to return.’ Nor has the place lost its appeal. We met half a dozen wandering swamis staying in the temple and under the banyan tree.

After seeing everything we took the road about 3 kilometers south-east to the ruins now identified as Vikramasila. A broad processional path leads up to the monastery’s main entrance. The remains of the huge stone pillars that once supported the roof of the gatehouse can be seen on the left and right. One of these pillars is nearly 4 feet square. Passing through the gate we entered a vast quadrangle surrounded by monks cells. The thickness of the walls suggest that there may have been in two or even three tiers of these cells. According to the archaeological report, up to 6 inches of ash was discovered in some of these cells, proof of the monastery's fiery end. In the middle of the quadrangle is the immense main temple, built on a cross plan, rising in three terraces and with shrine on each of the four sides. Circumambulating the temple we noticed numerous terracotta figures decorating the sides of the terraces but most were now badly weather worn. When Dey came here he found Buddhist sculptures scattered all over the place. In the home of an Englishman living nearby he saw ‘...some votive stupas, a big statue of Avalokitesvara, a large seated figures of Buddha... and some broken statues. These statues were exquisitely sculptured.’ He was also told that some years before his visit another Englishman digging in the ruins had found ‘a beautiful lotus made of silver, containing eight petals, which could be opened and closed by means of a spring.’
I didn’t see a single piece of sculpture so I asked the watcher who was hovering around hoping to get some baksheesh. ‘Are there any statues?’ ‘Yes’, he said. ‘In the museum.’ ‘Museum!’ I exclaimed with excitement. ‘You mean there is a museum here?’ He nodded his head and we followed him through a grove of mango trees to a rundown building, its rusty iron door firmly fastened with a huge padlock. My face fell. I already knew the answer to my question but I asked him anyway, ‘Do you have the key?’ ‘Oh no’, he said cheerfully, ‘That’s kept in Patna.’ I gave him his baksheesh and we walked back to examine the other ruins scattered around the main complex, most of them still unexcavated.
The archaeological report on Vikramasila makes it clear that the ruins are very large but even this did not prepare me for the sheer massiveness of the main temple and its cloisters. In its heyday it must have been the most magnificent Buddhist monastery in all India. In one ancient account of Vikramasila it says that as a delegation from Tibet approached the great monastery they were ‘greatly thrilled to have the first distant glimpse of its golden spire shining in the sun.’ The golden spire is long gone but anyone interested in the later history of Indian Buddhism will still find Vikramasila a fascinating place to visit.

I wrote this article in 2000 and it was published in Sri Lanka’s Daily News 17th, 10, 2001. Later, a slightly different version of the same article was published on Mandala, the magazine of the FPMT, http://www.mandalamagazine.org/archives/mandala-issues-for-2001/december/vikramashila-ancient-seat-of-tantric-buddhism/ Of late the AIS has gone a bit of gardening around Vickramasila and tidied it up a bit. To see some views of what it looks like today go to

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A 911 Contemplation

You might like to have a look at this contemplation on the victims of the attack of New York’s Twin Towers on this, its 9th anniversary.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hillel And Buddhism

I first became acquainted with Rabbi Hillel through the writings of Walter Kaufmann and took a shine to him straight away. In the years since then I have occasionally ‘bumped into him’ again and just recently found this article about him at Dhammawiki and thought I’d share it with you.

Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE) was a famous Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school for Tannaim (Sages of the Mishnah) and the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood at the head of the Jews living in the land of Israel until roughly the fifth century of the Common Era. Like the Buddha and Greek philosophers, Hillel taught the Golden Rule well before the time of Jesus. When asked to recite the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel stood on one foot and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” He is also known as the author of two popular sayings: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Although not a Buddhist, Hillel had teachings (such as the above) and a calm demeanor that was very Dhamma-like. The exhortation to love peace emanated from Hillel’s most characteristic traits - from that meekness and mildness which had become proverbial, as is seen from the saying: “Let a man be always humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai” (Shab. 31a; Ab.R.N.xv). Hille’s gentleness and patience are illustrated in an anecdote which relates how two men made a wager on the question whether Hillel could be made angry. Though they questioned him and made insulting allusions to his Babylonian origin, they were unsuccessful in their attempt. Hillel often debated with Shammai and on several issues, Hillel demonstrated a more open and compassionate mind: Admission to Torah study. The House of Shammai believed only worthy students should be admitted to study Torah. The House Hillel believed that Torah may be taught to anyone, in the expectation that they will repent and become worthy. Hillel wanted Judaism to be open to converts and Shammai wanted the faith open only to those born into the ethnicity and religion. Judaism tended to be more accepting of Shammai on this issue. In general, the House of Shammai’s positions were stricter than those of the House of Hillel. On the few occasions when the opposite was true, the House of Hillel would sometimes later recant their position; similarly, though there are no records of the House of Shammai as a whole changing its stance, a few individuals from it are recorded as deserting a small number of the more stringent opinions of their school, in favour of the viewpoint of the House of Hillel. http://www.dhammawiki.com/

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Homage To Kwan-yin

This exceptionally fine essay was written by Francis Story and published in a Buddhist magazine here in Singapore years ago. I reproduce parts of it here hoping that it moves you as much as it does me.

IT is said that when Avalokitesvara who is supremely compassionate, wanted to reveal the divine nature of mercy to mankind he took birth as a woman. So it comes about that in Chinese are we have one of the most beautiful concepts of art East or West, the figure of Kwan-yin
Even those who do not know her, the gracious figure of Kwan-yin, in painting, sculpture, metal work or delicate porcelain, conveys something of the spiritual meaning that like an aura of infinite love surrounds her name. It is present in every flowing line of the robe that clothes her, in the graceful shape of her hands, the serene yet tender expression of the oval face, even in the slender, naked feet, one of which rests on the open lotus that is her throne. The whole figure is serene and full of repose, yet at the same time instinct with life, and a soft light seems to spread all about it, as though the rays of compassion are kindled within, to suffuse the world of living beings.
Generations of artists have found inspiration for their noblest work in the figure of Kwan-yin; generations of craftsmen have expended their patient skill on the loving creation of her form; and for centuries men and women have turned to her image as the embodiment of their longing for a better, purer life. Lovely and gracious as her figure is, there is nothing in it of sensuality; it seems to be pure spirit, radiant with an ethereal beauty, its form and substance a transmutation into something finer than the gross materials on earth.

She, who is mercy incarnate, shed no tears. Her compassion is not that of an emotion or a passing mood; it has its being in the profound stillness of the heart, where dwells knowledge and understanding. The tranquil face of Kwan-yin reflects the nature of infinite peace, of she who has no desire but to remove the distress of others must herself be undistracted. She lives in the world, suffers with the world, but does not depart from the eternal Void.
Yet there is something awe-inspiring in the thought of a compassion that is completely undiscriminating, a compassion that looks upon all alike – the judge and the criminal, the executioner and the executed, the torturer and the man undergoing torture – and sees them all in a clear and equal light as victims of a self-created situation. Can that godlike dispassion in compassion be likened in any way to the pity that we know, the human pity mixed with hatred of the cause of the suffering? Or is it that we, who have never looked upon injustice without anger, have never known what true compassion is?
Ah, All-merciful One, teach us the love that does not hate! Teach us the pity that does not destroy! Teach us the wisdom that does not scorn! And if man, infatuated by the Ten Thousand Things, cannot learn, let us look upon your image and know that there is hope for the world.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The End Of The Road?

The end of the road? Well, not quite yet. But it’s approaching. A few days ago I bought my air ticket to Europe. I will be going for six months at the end of the year so I can have access to research material I need to complete my Dictionary of Flora and Fauna in the Pali Tipitaka. I also hope to have time to go into retreat for at least a month or two. During that time I plan to stop blogging, something I have been doing for nearly every day for about three years and four months. Goodness, how time flies! Non-blogging, not giving talks every week, doing no counseling and not having to talk to people who come to ask questions about the Dhamma will, I hope, refresh and rest my mind, so I can re-start blogging with renewed energy on my return.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Buddha And Trees III

The ancient Indians believed that trees would give their bounty on condition that they were treated with a degree of respect and the Buddha told a story to illustrate this very point. Long ago, the mythical King Koravya had an amazing banyan tree in his realm which bore fruit of exceptional sweetness. Everyone in the realm enjoyed the fruit freely and so there was no reason to guard the tree. But one day a man ate his fill of the fruit then broke a branch and went away. So angry was the spirit of the tree by this ingratitude that it caused the tree to bear no more fruit (A.III,369-70).
As an act of public service the Buddha also encouraged the planting of fruit trees along roads to offer both shade and food for travelers (S.I,33, something that King Asoka was to do in later centuries. It also became a custom amongst the early Buddhists to repair roads by filling in pot holes, removing large stones and cutting down the trees that might strike the axles of passing chariots and carts (Ja.I,199).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Buddha And Trees II

Some of the most beautiful passages in Buddhist literature relate to trees. The Buddha said of a kindly hospitable person that he was `like a great banyan tree growing on the side of roads that welcomes weary travelers with its cool shade and soothes their tiredness' (Ja.VI,526). The Milindapanha says that the diligent disciple should try to be like a tree. `As a tree makes no distinction in the shade it gives, like this, the meditator should make no distinction between any beings, but develop love equally to thieves, murderers, enemies and to himself or herself.' (Mil.410). The general Buddhist attitude of respect for trees is expressed in these words from the Jataka. `Of the tree in whose shade one sits or lies, not a branch of it should he break, for if he did he would be a betrayer of a friend, an evil doer...of the tree in whose shade one sits or lies, not a leaf of it should he injure, for if he did he would be a betrayer of a friend, an evildoer.' (Ja.V,203). The Buddhacarita compares spiritual practice to a tree `whose fibers are patience, whose flowers are virtue, whose boughs are awareness and wisdom, which is rooted in resolution and which bears the fruit of Dhamma.' The Mahavastu says: `The meritorious person grows like a banyan tree, while the person of little merit becomes stunted like a tree planted in the roadway.' In his Bodhicariyavatara, the poet Santideva wrote of his pining for the peace of the forest life in these words: `The trees do not speak harsh words nor do they try to please by artifice. When shall I have the opportunity to dwell with those happy to live with the trees?'

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Buddha And Trees I

The Pali words for tree are rukkha, duma, jagataruha 'earth grown', padapa, 'foot drinker' and vitapin (A.III,43; II,43; Bv.9,28; Ja.I,216; VI,178). The Jataka says: 'It is called a tree because it has branches. Without branches it's just a stump' (Ja.IV,483). The Tipitaka mentions many types of trees, a good number of which can be identified. Trees in general are also frequently mentioned. Some of the structural components and other parts of trees referred to include the roots (mula), the trunk (danda or khandha), the periderm or outer bark (papatika), the phloem or inner bark (taca), the sapwood (pheggu), the heartwood (sara), branches (sakha), twigs (pasakha), leaves (panna or patta) and crown (agga, M.I,193-6). There were still large forested tracts in northern India during the Buddha's time. The Mahavana or Great Forest, extended almost unbroken from the outskirts of Vesali to the foothills of the Himalayas. Once, the Buddha stayed in a forest near the village of Parileyya where an elephant looked after him (Ud.42). Other forests visited by the Buddha were the Dark Wood near Savatthi (S.I,130), the Forest of Offering at Kusinara (A.V,78), the Gosinga Forest at Vesali where many sal trees grew (A.V,134) and the Cool Wood to the west of Rajagaha near the city's charnel ground (A.III,373). Very large and majestic trees were sometimes called vanaspati, `forest lords' (S.IV,302; Vin.III,47). The Buddha encouraged monks and nuns to seek solitary lodgings in the forest (A.II,250), 'at the roots of trees, mountain slopes, a glen, a hill cave, a cemetery or a woodland grove' (M.III,3). He said: `The one who wears rag-robes, who is lean, with protruding veins and who meditates alone in the forest - him I call a true Brahmin.' (Dhp.395). Some monks tried living in hollow trees and in the fork of trees (Vin.I,152). A forest-dwelling monk was advised not to settle down at the foot of a tree on a border, one used as a shrine, one from which resin or fruit was collected, one in which flying foxes roost, a hollow tree and one growing in a monastery (Vis.74). However, forests could also be frightening places; they were the abode of dangerous animals and bandits and travelers could get lost in them (A.I,153; Ja.I,320; S.I,181; III,108). The Buddha commented that when he lived in the forest before his enlightenment sometimes at night `an animal would prowl around, a peacock would snap a twig or the wind would rustle the leaves' and he would be filled with terror (M.I,210). Villagers living near forests sometimes acted as guides for those wanting to travel through them. (Ja.II,335). Those entering the forest had to be careful of what fruit they ate as some were poisonous (Ja.III,200). Some forested areas were thorny, unpleasant and difficult to walk through without getting cut or scratched (S.IV,189).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Buddha On Conflict Resolution

If, in an argument, the accused and the accuser do not practise honest self-examination, you can expect that it will lead to drawn out, bitter, contentious strife and no one will be able to live in peace. And how should the two parties practise strict self-examination? The accused should reflect: "I have committed some wrong and that other person saw me. When he saw, he got annoyed and said so. He rebuked me and I got annoyed and went and told the others. So, it is I who am at fault." And how does the accuser practise strict self-examination? The accuser should reflect: "This person has committed some wrong and I saw him. Had he not done it, I would not have seen it, but as he did it, I saw it. When I saw, I was displeased and I told him so. He got annoyed and told the others. So it is I who am at fault." Thus it is that if in an argument the accused and the accuser both practise strict self-examination, you can expect that all will be able to live in peace. (A.I.53)

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Far Is It To India?

The full story of Buddhist pilgrimage to India is still to be told, although I have made some contribution to it in my books Navel of the Earth: The History and Significance of Bodh Gaya and Middle land Middle Way: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha's India. I’m always on the lookout for information that all to the story and the other day I stumbled across another fragment in a rather unexpected place – a book about Japanese Buddhism, Robert E. Morrell’s Kamakura Buddhism.
Apparently in 1202 the Japanese monk Myoe Shonin (1173-1232) decided to undertake a pilgrimage to India. As part of his preparations for this seemingly impossibly difficult undertaking he tried to calculate the distance involved and the time it would take if he set out from Ch’ang-an, the Chinese capital. The calculations are to be found in Dainihon shiryo VII, pp. 427-8, apparently in his own handwriting. ‘I am unable to contain my affection and longing for India, the land where the Buddha was born, and so I have drawn up plans for the journey thither. Oh, how I wish I were there! If I walked 7 long ri a day, I could reach India in 1,130 days, arriving on the 20th day of the second month of the fourth year of my travels. And if I walked 5 ri a day, I could at long last arrive on the 10th day of the sixth month of the fifth year, a total of 1,600 days’.
Myoe was not making a complete stab in the dark, he had carefully studied Fa-hien and Huien Tsiang accounts of their pilgrimages to India and had at least some idea of what was involved. Nevertheless, his calculations were highly unrealistic and as it happened he never even set out on this would-be journey. But what determination, what faith, what courage these pilgrim monks of old had! What an inspiration they were.
The picture is of Japanese pilgrims in the 19th century.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Seminar In KL

I have just returned from Kuala Lumpur where I participated in a seminar which was part of the 4th anniversary of Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda’s death. I shared the stage with Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusama, the first properly ordained nun in the Theravada tradition for over 1000 years. Together we took questions on a wide variety of subjects from a large and attentive audience.