Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Buddha Of Kurunegala

Kurunegala is a town in central Sri Lanka about 94 km north of Colombo. The town itself is situated on one side of an enormous hummock called Ethagala Rock some 4 km. long and 316 meters high at its highest point. It’s not a collection of rocks but a single lump of rock, or at least that’s what it looks like, without a fissure, a crack or joins in it. In my travels around Sri Lanka I sometimes used to pass through Kurunegala, look up at the smooth sides of the rock and think to myself, ‘Anywhere else in the Buddhist world, in ancient China, Afghanistan or India, someone would a carved a cave temple or a giant Buddha out of that rock’. Then some years ago someone constructed a Buddha statue on the top of the rock so that now Kurunegala joins quite a few other Sri Lankan towns in having an ugly, square-featured Buddha statue gazing over it. Recently a local monk Ven. Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera, has began decided to do exactly what I had thought about all those years ago. At an estimated cost of Rupees 25 million he is having a gigantic Buddha carved out of Ethagala Rock. The president of Sri Lanka has most generously donated Rupees two million five hundred thousand of the taxpayer’s money to the project and of course with the economy in a mess, violence in the streets and nearly a million displaced people in the country, a second Buddha statue right next to the earlier one is exactly what Sri Lanka needs right now. However, this scheme might just end up being different from all the other ‘Lets build another useless, artless, giant Buddha’ projects which seem to be such a feature of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Ven. Amaramoli has commissioned the Indian sculptor Padmasri Muttiah Stapathi and his team of helpers to both design the image and carve it. The results so far are very impressive. Hopefully the people of Kurunegala will soon have a beautiful Buddha image, the sight of which will inspire and uplift them as they go about their daily affairs.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

How To Find A Sutta

I have long felt that at this stage in the development of Buddhism beyond its traditional homelands that it is very important to distinguish between the words of the Buddha himself and those of the ancient commentators, between concepts derived from the Buddha’s words and those derived from popular beliefs and traditions. This is not to say that one is of value and the other not (although I do think this is often the case), but the failure to understand which is which only leads to confusion. If a theologian wrote ‘According to Jesus…’ and then quoted Aquinas, someone who lived over a 1000 years after Jesus, his collogues would scandalized and accuse of him of trying to pull a swifty. If a study of Freud’s psychology used dozens of quotes of Jung while attributing them to Freud, the book would be condemned as inauthentic and dismissed as useless – and rightly so.
But this is exactly what many, many books on Buddhism do. I recall once listening to a talk by S. N. Goenka in which he said that his meditation would allow the meditator to actually experience individual atoms (mahakalapa) arise and pass away and that this is exactly what the Buddha had said. In reality, the theory of mahakalapas does not occur in the suttas or even in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and only developed many centuries after the Buddha. This is not to say that this idea is therefore wrong. But if it is attributed to the Buddha and then is found to be wrong, or if a skeptic considers it a bit fanciful, the poor old Buddha gets the blame.
Come on people! Excellent translations of the suttas are now available. Let’s familiarize ourselves with them. Hundreds of generations of dedicated monks have cherished these writings and carefully passed them on so that we can have them today. Let’s study them. I often tell my Chinese students about how Huien Tsiang walked all the way from China to India, without money or maps, crossing some of the highest mountains in the world, fording swollen rivers and dogging bandits, just so he could get authentic copies of the suttas. Then I add, ‘If he was prepared to risk his life to get the suttas, should we not read them?’
It is for these reasons I often quote the Buddha’s words and as much as possible give their reference from the Tipitaka. Occasionally readers of my blog ask me what the references I give mean and I have answered these questions before. Alessandro asked this question in a comment on the post for 28th January so I will take this opportunity to answer him fully for his and future readers benefit.
I always use the Pali Text Society’s editions of the Pali Tipitaka as it the most easily available of all the editions of the Tipitaka, it is the only one in Roman script and it is (I think) as accurate as the other editions. These are the PTS abbreviations for the main Pali texts.
A = Anguttara Nikaya
D = Digha Nikaya
Dhp = Dhammapada
Dhp-a Dhammapada-atthakatha
Ja = Jataka
It = Itivuttaka
M = Mijjhima Nikaya
Mil = Milindapanha
S = Samyutta Nikaya
Sn = Sutta Nipata
Th = Theragatha
Thi = Therigatha
Ud = Udana
Vibh = Vibhanga
Vin = Vinaya
Vism = Visuddhimagga
Often after an initial will be a Roman numeral which refers to the volume number of the PTS edition of the book. Of course, Dhp, It, Sn, Th, Thi, Ud and Vism will not have a Roman numeral because they are in one volume. These initials will have a number after them which will represents the verse number in the case of Dhp, Sn, Th and Thi, and the page number in the case of It, Ud and Vism. If I use the Apadana (Ap), Buddhavamsa (Bv), Kathavatthu (Kv), Petavatthu (Pv), Vimanavatthu (Vv) or other more obscure works, I will try to remember to give the full reference, i.e. no initials.

Hears an interesting bit of sociological information for you. After finishing this post I put ‘sutra’ in my image search hoping to get a picture of a Buddhist sutra. All I got were sexual images related to the Kama Sutra, hundreds of them. So then I put in the Pali equivalent ‘sutta’ and all I got was pictures of an actress named Jessica Sutta. In the end I settled on this picture of Huien Tsiang carrying copied of the suttas back from India.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The One-eyed Yellow Idol

I stopped off in Kathmandu for a few days on my way back from my recent trip to Tibet, the first time I’ve been in the city for years. How things have changed? So many of the beautiful old houses have been torn down and replaced by cement blocks. There used to be farm houses and fields between Bodhinath and the city now its built up all the way. Anyway, my brief stay reminded me of J. Milton Hayes quaint old poem about Kathmandu which my mum used to recite to me with appropriate dramatic facial expressions and hand gestures.

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.
He was known as "Mad Carew"
by the subs at Khatmandu,
He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;
But for all his foolish pranks,
he was worshipped in the ranks,
And the Colonel's daughter smiled on him as well.
He had loved her all along,
with a passion of the strong,
The fact that she loved him was plain to all.
She was nearly twenty-one
and arrangements had begun
To celebrate her birthday with a ball.
He wrote to ask what present she would like from Mad Carew;
They met next day as he dismissed a squad;
And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do
But the green eye of the little Yellow God.
On the night before the dance,
Mad Carew seemed in a trance,
And they chaffed him as they puffed at their cigars:
But for once he failed to smile,
and he sat alone awhile,
Then went out into the night beneath the stars.
He returned before the dawn,
with his shirt and tunic torn,
And a gash across his temple dripping red;
He was patched up right away,
and he slept through all the day,
And the Colonel's daughter watched beside his bed.
He woke at last and asked if they could send his tunic through;
She brought it, and he thanked her with a nod;
He bade her search the pocket saying "That's from Mad Carew,"
And she found the little green eye of the god.
She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet;
But she wouldn't take the stone and Mad Carew was left alone
With the jewel that he'd chanced his life to get.
When the ball was at its height,
on that still and tropic night,
She thought of him and hurried to his room;
As she crossed the barrack square
she could hear the dreamy air
Of a waltz tune softly stealing thro' the gloom.
His door was open wide, with silver moonlight shining through;
The place was wet and slipp'ry where she trod;
An ugly knife lay buried in the heart of Mad Carew,
'Twas the "Vengeance of the Little Yellow God."
There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

One Way To Help Others

Those for whom you have sympathy, those with whom you communicate - your friends, intimates, kinsmen and relations - all should be told about, grounded in, established in the Four Limbs of Stream-Winning. What are these four? Faith in the Buddha, faith in the Dhamma, faith in the Sangha, and virtue that is dear to the Noble Ones and conducive to concentration of mind. S.V.364

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Of Relics And Rascals

Relics are important. They tell you a lot about people. Take Buddhist relic worship for example. It implies a focus on the external and the material rather than on the internal and the spiritual. And of course it is also evidence of a naivety almost completely divorced from reality. No old piece of junk is large enough or weird enough to be accepted as a ‘genuine’ relic. An organization in Tibet holds a relic exhibition every year here in Singapore. It’s a really big thing; advertisements in all the papers, held is a huge conference centre and thousands attending. One of the relics in last year’s exhibition was a dirty-white crystalline-like object about a meter long, as thick as my wrist and labeled ‘Buddha’s Finger Relic’. I asked one of the organizers, ‘How do they know it’s the Buddha’s finger? It could be a section of his femur or perhaps even his penis’. He didn’t laugh. A relic museum has just opened in Thailand which displays over a million relics which, together with all the other ‘genuine’ ones in the world, mean that the Buddha must have had an enormous body. But of course this plethora of relics is easy enough to explain. Any pious Buddhist will assure you that relics have the ability to multiply. Such is the intellectual state of Buddhism in the 21st century – happily frolicking in the 13th century.
And the weirdest thing about traditional Buddhism’s divorce from reality is that it is highly likely that real fragments of the Buddha’s material body actually do exist. The bone fragments found in the Piprahwa stupa in 1898 look like burnt human bone, they have not been touched since they were placed there in perhaps the 5th/4th century BCE and an inscription found with them mentions that they were placed there by the Sakyans, the tribe of people the Buddha belonged to. Of course, none of this has attracted much attention or excitement from traditional Buddhists. They are too busy worshipping any one of the 240 Buddha’s teeth in circulation, the ‘flesh’ relics that look like brightly-colored glass balls as big as a gobstopper and the white, meter long, thick as your wrist, Buddha’s finger relic that can multiply.
Charles Allen’s new book, The Buddha and Dr. Fuhrer, is the full story about the Piprahwa relics and the events surrounding their discovery. Allen has spent the last 30 years chronicling the history of the British in India but as I discovered when I met his in 2003, he has more than a passing interest in the Buddha’s Dhamma. He has written probably the best book on Mt. Kailash (A Mountain in Tibet, 1982), on the enduring appeal of Tibetan culture and religion (The Search of for Shangri-La, 1999) and the beginnings of Buddhist archeology in India (The Buddha and the Sahibs, 2002). His new book is in a sense a continuation of this last one. It tells of the search for Kapilavatthu, the discovery of the Asokan pillar marking the Buddha’s birth place, and the discovery of what are very likely to be the only genuine relics of the Buddha. It’s a complicated story, including as it does, high adventure, idealism, professional jealousy, nationalism and even fraud, but Allen unravels its many tangled strands and makes it clear. He also tells, I think for the first time, the full story of the notorious Dr. Fuhrer who committed a series of blatant frauds in his desire to win recognition as an eminent archeologist and glory for discovering the lost city of Kapilavatthu. It’s a great story and I sat up all night until I’d finished reading it.
If you want to know more about the Buddha Relic Museum have a look at
And if your planning to visit you’ll be pleased to know that there is ample free parking.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Classes In Kindness

It’s true that most of the news is bad. But sometimes you read something that really makes you feel good and makes you happy. Like this thoroughly uplifting news item about kindness classes. Should be more of it.

Monday, January 25, 2010


To fast (upavasa or anasana) is to go without food for an extended period. Fasting is practiced for religious, for health or for medical reasons. It has also sometimes been used for political purposes as Mahatma Gandhi and IRA prisoners did. Scientific research has shown that regular fasting for brief periods can be good for the health, although long fasts (more than three days) can be dangerous. Those preparing to undergo certain medical procedures are often asked to abstain from food. Fasting or one sort or another and for one period or another is practiced in most religions. Jains practice several types of fasting including what is called Santhana, fasting to death. Muslims are supposed to abstain from all fluids and food between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan. Fasting is frequently mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Acts 14,23; Luke 2,37; Matthew 6,16; etc.) and Jesus once fasted for 40 days (Matthew 4,2). Fasting, even extreme fasting, formed a part of the self-mortification (attakilamathana yoga) practiced by ascetics during the Buddha’s time. During the six years the Buddha (or more correctly, the Bodhisattva) was learning from other teachers and experimenting with various ascetic practices he to underwent long fasts. Some of these as described by him in the Mahasihanada Sutta included eating only once every seven days, eating only one kola fruit a day (M.I,78). The kola is the fruit of Zizyphus jujube, a small fruit with limbeted nutritional value (see picture). As a result of these and other fasts the Buddha’s body became extremely emaciated. ‘Because of eating so little my ribs stuck out like the rafters of an old hut, my eyes sunk into their sockets and their gleam looked like the gleam in the on the water in a deep well, my stomach touched my back bone so that when I tried to touch my stomach I got my backbone and when I touched my backbone I got my stomach, all because I eat so little’ (M.I,80). The famous Fasting Buddha in the Lahore Museum is based on this passage.

After attaining enlightenment there is no record of the Buddha fasting himself or recommending fasting. Monks and nuns are expected to abstain from food from noon to sunrise the next day, a too short to be considered fasting. Also, during that time they are allowed to take fruit juices and other liquids. Milk is included in the prohibition against food at night but for some unaccountable reason Thai monks ignore the fact that cheese is made out of milk and eat it in the evenings. The Vinaya also stipulates that monks and nuns can eat honey, sugar, oil and ghee in the evening if they are ill (Vin.III,51). Sri Lankan monks participating in all-night chanting will consume a mixture of these four substances. This mixture is called catumadhura. Lay people keeping the uposatha will also abstain from food from noon to sunrise the next day. The Buddha’s recommendation to monks and nuns to abstain from food at night seems to have been entirely for reasons of health. He said, ‘I do not eat in the evening and thus am free from illness and affliction and enjoy health, strength and ease’ (M.I473). Long fasts such as are recommended by certain ‘health’ practitoners are not good for health and would contravene the Buddha’s concept of talking a middle way (majjhima patipada) and avoiding extremes. Ashvaghosa in his Saundaranandakavya gives this sensible advice about eating, ‘For the sake of your meditation and your good health, be measured in your eating. Too much food restricts the breathing, causes sloth and sleepiness and destroys one’s energy. Too little food drains the body of its solidity, its healthy color, its usefulness and its strength’.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Where The Buddha Walked

I have just stumbled on a most interesting website done by an Indian gentleman named Mr. Suresh Bhatia. It’s interesting firstly because it’s not your usual Indian effort (badly organized, full of factual errors, atrocious English, links that lead nowhere, etc). Rather, it is well done and carefully researched. And secondly it’s interesting because it is all about one of my favorite subjects and one of my favorite places – Bihar. This north Indian state can rightly claim the titles of both the cradle and the funeral parlor of Indian Buddhism. Buddhism started there, at Bodh Gaya, and the last Buddhist monasteries and temples hung on there until their destruction by the Muslims in the 13th century. Mr. Bhatia’s website contains excellent pictures of and info about some of the lesser known or almost unknown Buddhist sites in Bihar. The only serious errors he has made is in the article on Bihar Sharif. The second statue is of Suriya, the Hindu sun god and the ruins are all, without exception, from the Islamic period.
I was amazed to see the pictures of Gurpa. I can honestly say that it was I who brought this place to public notice after re-discovering it in 1992 and publishing an article about in the Middle Way in 1998 (February). During my second trip there Ven. Ananda from Bodh Gaya accompanied me, later he informed some Taiwanese pilgrims about the place, and now it has changed from a quite hill in the jungle to an essential tourist stop – all in just 15 years. I was also delighted to see that the Bihar State Government has finally got around to ‘improving’ Vikramasila. Do have a look at Mr. Bhatia’s website, it is really worth a visit. It’s called The Buddhist Heritage and it’s at
If you would like to read about my recent visit to Kuvadol (Kawadol) have a look at And if you would like to read more about little visited ancient Buddhist sites in Bihar read my Middle Land Middle Way, details in the side bar.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cultural Clash And Buddhist Nuns

A friend sent me this article written by Steven Evans, a former monk and a long time resident in Thailand. I find it sensible and balanced and so I decided to share it with you. I take issue with Steven’s statement that there would be no Buddhism without the Thai Sangha (what about the Sri Lankan and the Burmese Sangha?) but this is a small point. But I certainly endorse his conclusion – do what’s best for the development of a Western Buddhism and let traditional Asian Buddhists work on their own issues.

All the attention given to the women’s ordination-Achan Brahm-Wat Nong Pa Pong fracas, but especially the tenor of the attention, is getting a bit irritating. At the very least, the spectacle of rank new-comers to a 25 hundred year old tradition, or if you prefer, 13 hundred or so in Thailand, bashing its caretakers and transmitters, without whom there would be no tradition for us to be newcomers to, because they fail to conform to our own very modern, very Western, ideals, leaves a bad taste. Don’t get me wrong. I am very much in favor of full ordination for women—on an equal basis with men (which, of course, will require some creative reinterpretation of the garukadhamma), and I am excited about the ordination at the center of the controversy. The burning issue, however, should not be the injustice of severing Achan Brahm’s official ties to Wat Nong Pa etc., but how to proceed with building a Western Sangha in a way that remains true to the tradition even as adapting, even radically altering it for the West. From that perspective, indeed, the “excommunication” of Achan Brahm and his monasery is a gift. He, at least, and those who are with him, need no longer worry themselves over the approval or disapproval of the Thai Sangha. But that is what all this is about. There has been no excommunication. No one has been forced to disrobe or barred from the pursuit of nibbana. What has happened, rather, is that the Thai hierarchy has distanced itself decisively from an act that it is not ready to condone. Don’t be fooled. Whether or not the monks at Wat Nong Pa genuinely want to take the punitive actions they have been taking, the hierarchy is leaning on them, to the extent necessary forcing them, to do so. Take proprietary control of “Thai” monasteries abroad run by Western monks? That’s the hierarchy speaking, even if it is presented as a request by Wat Nong Pa. And if the monks refused to comply (I’m not saying that they would refuse, I don’t know that, only supposing if), they would risk their monastery losing its legal status, its lands appropriated, the monks expelled.
We need to understand first of all, that the Thai Sangha is not a democracy, nor a loose federation of monasteries and monks, or whatever ideal form we may have read (rightly or wrongly) into the Vinaya. It is a rigid, tightly controlled hierarchy, modeled, quite explicitly, on a combination of monarchy and military dictatorship. For the hierarchy to remain silent in the face of a forbidden act at a monastery and with the approval of a monk that might be considered part of the hierarchy would imply tacit approval, and, at best, that the chain of command had with impunity been breached, at worst, turned on its head. It would imply condoning not only women’s ordination, but also crass insubordination. Better, from their point of view, to make it clear that the monk and monastery are not part of the hierarchy.You will retort that insubordination is precisely in order here, that the chain of command should, must, be breached, turned on its head. I’m very much inclined to agree, but does not insubordination by definition come from within? Achan Brahm should have sponsored the ordinations. The Thai hierarchy was perfectly, if disappointingly, within its rights in dissociating from him and his monastery. But what about demanding property rights to “Thai” monasteries abroad? Or else... what? Or else you are not under the Thai hierarchy. So be it.
It’s time Western monasteries were on their own. (When the Thai Sangha re-established Buddhism in Sri Lanka a couple hundred plus years ago, how long did the Sri Lankan’s continue under Thai sovereignty? When will the Thai’s start demanding that Sri Lankan monasteries built with Thai help be returned to Thai ownership as punishment for ordaining women?) But there is something deeper at work here. All the hand wringing over the Thai reaction strikes me as culturally blind. To the extent that they are paying attention, and I’m not aware that they are, it must strike the Thais as a demand that they begin ordaining women forthwith. Silence, again, implies approval, approval in a rigid hierarchy is capitulation: let the ordinations begin! But from within Thai life and culture, the male-only Sangha makes perfect sense (bear with me). This is a largely matriarchal society, perhaps excepting, for example, the Chinese minority, and the Sangha as a men’s only club makes sense as an escape from female domination, and as a compensation for the day-to-day humiliation men suffer at their wives’ hands. Lay men can, and do, point to the Sangha as the proof of men’s superiority even as they do their wives’ bidding, much as they threaten a return to the wholly imaginary good old days when a wife was her husband’s slave with no rights whatsoever. That those days are imaginary is borne out by what survives of some early Thai popular literature. Here’s how it works: the wives do all the thinking and planning and organizing, while the men sit around drinking—and sneaking off and whoring—waiting for their wives’ orders, “Plow!” “Plant!” “Harvest!” “Buy!” “Sell!”, with which they generally and meekly comply. Now, none of this is to deny the horrible problems with abusive, even murderous, husbands. To be fair, there are abusive and murderous wives as well, I’ve seen women beat their husbands in public. But the men more often get away with it: the law is largely in the hands of males glad to get back at females. It’s much more complicated than this, of course. The point is simply that to project modern Western ideals of gender equality into Thai society and to insist that Thai institutions conform to those ideals makes no sense whatsoever.
But doesn’t banning women’s ordination at least symbolically ban women from nibbana? No Thai I have ever queried (including monks) believes that only monks can achieve nibbana, and there are probably more Thai women than monks meditating seriously and hoping for enlightenment. But there is more. Thai monasteries cannot simply start ordaining women—some would if they could—not only because of the Sangha hierarchy, but because the Sangha, as are the Christian and Islamic hierarchies (the law requires a hierarchy), is under the direct supervision and control of the state. Women’s ordination is thus a national, secular political and legal issue, as much it is as a religious issue, and Thailand, you may have noticed, is in the midst of much more pressing political and legal issues just now. You will no doubt have noticed that Thais do not hesitate to march in the streets (or occupy government house, shut down the airport, shut down Bangkok) to demand change. The country is currently in a state of near paralysis as a result of these opposed factions making demands. And women’s ordination does not figure in those demands. There have been no marches demanding women’s ordination. There is no movement for it to speak of, though there are women’s movements for women’s safety, a much larger concern. I suspect that one thing that is operative on the Thai side is resistance to imperialism. It seems that every time you allow Westies to become involved, they begin redefining and redesigning and restructuring everything according to their own (obviously better) understanding. A Western man subordinates himself to the Thai Sangha, accepts Thai ordination and gaining the trust of the Thai Sangha, becomes a well-known teacher of Thai Buddhism and abbot of a monastery in the Thai tradition—then bodily drags that tradition into something that is totally foreign and contrary, at least on the surface. Forces a crisis (and such it is). This feels like a breach of trust; or like imperialism. Remember that Thailand was never colonized, and is proud of that heritage. Not that Thailand is anti-west or anti-modern, but it has adopted and adapted Western ways at its own pace and volition, picking and choosing as it would. It will continue to do so, to work out its own destiny, to be sure, in engagement with the West, as with Chinese civilization, and Indian and Islamic civilizations, but it will not be dragged, kicking and screaming into anything. Women’s ordination? It’s coming.
Ten years ago I said to a very senior monk that Thai bhikkhuni ordinations would be routine within 20 years. Five, he retorted, believing he and others could make it happen. He’s behind schedule, but it is coming, just a bit of awkwardness getting over all the years of refusal. But this: they will not be dragged into it, or allow even the slightest appearance of bowing to imperialist pressure. Thus the expulsion of Achan Brahm etc. Thus, relax, move on into the new world of an independent Western Sangha—remember our Thai progenitors and revere them as appropriate, but do what seems best for the new Western Sangha and let the Thai’s work through their own crises.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another Way Of Healing

In due time Kisa Gotami became pregnant and after ten lunar months she gave birth to a son. But the child died as soon as he was able to walk. Kisa Gotami had not known death before and when they came to remove the child's body for cremation, she refused to let them do so, saying to herself: "I will get medicine for my son." Placing the dead child on her hip, she went from house to house, pleading: "Do you know a cure for my son?" Everyone said to her: "Woman, you are completely mad in seeking medicine for your son," but she went away, thinking: "Truly, I will find someone who knows the right medicine for my child." Now a certain wise man saw her and thought to himself: "I must help her." So he said: "Woman, I do not know if there is a cure for your child, but there is one who will know and I know him." "Sir, who is it who will know?" "Woman, the Lord will know. Go and ask him." So, she went to the Lord, paid reverence to him, stood at one side and asked: "Venerable sir, is it true as men say that you know a cure for my child?" "Yes, I know." "What then do I need?" "A few mustard seeds." "I will get them, Venerable sir, but in whose house?" "Get them from a house where no son or daughter or any other person has ever died." "Very well, sir," Kisa Gotami said, and having paid reverence to the Lord, and having placed the dead child on her hip, she went to the village and stopped at the very first house. "Have you any mustard seeds? They say they will cure my child." They gave her the seeds, and then she asked: "Friend, has any son or daughter died in this house?" "What do you ask, woman? The living are few and the dead are many." "Then take back your seeds, for they will not cure my child," she said, and gave back the seeds they had given her. In this way she went from house to house but never did she find one that had the mustard seed that she needed. Then she thought: "Oh! It is a difficult task that I have. I thought it was only I who had lost a child, but in every village the dead are more than the living." While she reflected thus, her heart which had trembled now become still.
Dhp. a. 242

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Two New Books

I am happy to announce the availability of two of my books, one in Vietnamese and the other in Sinhala. Buddha Vacana – Daily Readings from the Sacred Literature of Buddhism has been translated by Mr. Nhu Quang in the US. The book is available at this address; NHA XUAT BAN TON GIAO 25 - TRAN DUY HUNG, HANOI. Or you can read it on line at Mỗi ngày một câu Phật ngôn (Ngày 5 & 6 tháng giêng) The other book, Mahakarunikakatha, is a comic book on the life of the Buddha for children. It is only available in Sinhala and can be purchased from the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

There'll Always Be Someone Who Doesn't Like You

The 15th was Dr. Martin Luther King Day, which I usually try to remember but forgot this year, until just yesterday. Here is a brief but moving reminder of something very important he once said. It reminds me somewhat of the Buddha’s observation from Dhammapada 227-8; ‘They blame the one who sits in silence, they blame the one who speaks much, they even blame the one who speaks in moderation. There is no one in the world who is not blamed. There is not now and there will never be, someone who is wholly blamed or praised’. In a funny way this observation can be a consolation when one does face blame or dislike.

Sometimes you can hardly believe your ears! This morning I read the news item about the arms contractor who puts a coded message from the Bible (John 8,12) in all the weapons parts it makes for US forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that the founder of this company, Mr. Glyn Bindon, was a devote evangelical Christian. Apart from playing into the hands of Muslim extremists who claim that the so-called war against terror is really a Christian crusade against Islam, one can only wonder how Mr. Bindon understood his religion. After reading this news item I took out my Bible, stood it on edge so that it fell open randomly. Then I perused the page it opened at and I found this passage. ‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment, because in this world we are like Him…If someone says, “I love God” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, who he has seen, cannot love God, who he has not seen. And He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must love his brother’ (I John 4, 16-21). How Mr. Bindon was able to square this with making gun sights to efficiently kill his brothers is anyone’s guess.
In his Future of an Illusion Freud says that religion is a type of delusion and that religious people are, in a sense, insane. There is more than a scrap of truth in this claim. This is what my experience over the years tells me. There are six ways people are religious. (1) Most people have a shallow belief in their religion and other than practicing a few ritual requirements it has little effect on their behavior. (2) Some people have a relatively strong belief, carefully practice its ritual requirements and make some attempt to modify their behavior according to their religion’s teachings, at least where it does not go against their wishes. (3) Some people have an unshakable belief in their religion, strongly practice the parts that suit them and just as strongly ignore the parts that don’t. (4) Some people bring to their religion their pre-existing obsessions, prejudices, complexes, cravings and psychoses and interpret and practice their religion through them. (5) Some people were ‘normal’ before becoming religious and then their religion actually made them obsessive, prejudiced, psychotic, etc, to the degree than they are ‘abnormal’. (6) A small number of people genuinely and sincerely try to practice all the teachings of their religion in such a way that they end up becoming psychologically healthy, happy and well-balanced.
My experience is that most Buddhists would fall into 1, with a good sprinkling 2, 3 and 4 and a small number of 6. But I have very rarely come across the 5th type amongst Buddhists and I think this is due to the contents of the Dhamma. I know many Sri Lankan monks who enthusiastically supported the war in their country and who claimed that it was justified in order to ‘save Buddhism’. But there was nothing in the Buddha’s teachings, not a sentence, not a word, not a letter, that could be twisted or stretched, quoted out of context or paraphrased, to justify such an attitude. If your crazy you'll probably interpret the Dhamma in a crazy way. Hopefully, some of the Buddha’s wisdom will be able to penetrate your craziness and help you become sane, or at least a bit more sane. But if your ‘normal’ Dhamma won’t send you crazy. And if you have an innate common sense and/or a skillful teacher, there is a good chance that the Dhamma will transform you into a truly happy and psychologically healthy person.

At times like these, as the world watches a horrible tragedy such as the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath play out, one of the questions people inevitably ask is ‘Why does God allow things like this to happen?’ The BBC has thought it appropriate to ask a professional philosopher to give his thoughts on this question. Have a look at

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Scripture For The Man In The Moon

MIAMI (Reuters) - As international aid agencies rush food, water and medicine to Haiti’s earthquake victims, a U.S. faith-based group is sending Bibles to Haitians in their hour of need. Not any Bible. These are solar-powered audible Bibles that can broadcast the holy scriptures in Haitian Creole to 300 people at a time. Called the ‘Proclaimer’, the audio Bible delivers ‘digital quality’ and is designed for ‘poor and illiterate people’, the Faith Comes By Hearing group said. It added 600 of the devices were already on their way to Haiti. The Albuquerque-based organization said it was responding to the Haitian crisis by ‘providing faith, hope and love through God’s Word in audio’. With tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents living outdoors because their homes have collapsed or they fear aftershocks from Tuesday's quake, the audio Bible can bring them ‘hope and comfort that comes from knowing God has not forgotten them through this tragedy’, the group said on its website. ‘The Proclaimer is self-powered and can play the Bible in the jungle, desert or ... even on the moon!’ said the group’s website
By Anthony Boadle, editing by Pascal Fletcher

One of the many groups who are not taking advantage of the misery in Haiti to make converts is The Tzu Chi Foundation. Have a look at

Monday, January 18, 2010


Since my post of I have been inundated with links to sites on Jainism that people have sent me. The best of these is which shows pictures of Palitana which is a major Jain pilgrimage site and one of the most fascinating places in India.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Vedas II

The Vedas are the most ancient and most important of all Hindu sacred literature. There are four Vedas, although only three are mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures (M.II,133). They are the Rg Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, all composed between the 20 th and 7 th century BC, and the Atharva Veda, included into the sacred canon only several centuries after the Buddha. The Vedas are believed to be an eternal (sanatana) revelation (sruti) of divine origin (apauruseya). Those who deny the authority of the Vedas are said to be `impure' (nasitaka). The Buddha said that nothing is eternal, he considered revelation to be an unreliable means of knowledge and he rejected the idea of a supreme god as unconvincing. He also cast serious doubts on the claim that the authors of the Vedas had divine knowledge. Once a brahman asked him what he thought of the claim that the authors of the Vedas had direct experience of the divine. The Buddha replied, `What do you think about this? Is there one brahman who says, "I know. I see. This alone is true, all else is false" ? '
`No Gotama.'
`Did any of the teachers of the brahmans or even their teachers going back through seven generations ever say that'?
`No Gotama.'
`Then what of ancient brahman sages who composed the Vedic hymns, who chanted, uttered and compiled them and which the brahmans of today still chant and recite, just repeating what has been repeated and chanting what has been chanted? Did they ever say "We know.We see. This alone is true, all else is false"?'
`No Gotama. They did not.'
`Imagine a string of blind men each touching each other. The first one does not see, the middle one does not see and neither does the last. The claim of the brahmans is like this. The first one does not see, the middle one does not see and neither does the last. So it seems that the faith of the brahmans turns out to be groundless.'(M.II,169-70).
The Buddha dismissed the worship of the sacred fire (aggihotta), the central sacrament of Brahmanism, as `an outlet to failure' (apayamukhani, D.I,102). The practice of animal sacrifice, the efficacy of rituals, the caste system, the belief in an eternal soul and indeed nearly all practices legitimized by the Vedas, were similarly rejected by him. Those who say that the Buddha was a Hindu or that Buddhism is a reformed version of Hinduism are seriously misinformed.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Vedas I

Understanding what the Buddha said requires looking at your mind, your motives, feelings and behavior. Understanding the language the Buddha used (turns of phrase, similes, analogies, etc), the subjects he discussed and how he chose to approach them, requires knowing something about the world he lived in. Take the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Brahminism. At least some knowledge of the Vedas makes more sense of how and why the Buddha presented some of his teachings the way he did. Vedic Brahmins used to keep three sacred fires burning and worship them. In reference to this the Buddha spoke of the need to extinguish the three fires (i.e. greed, hatred and delusion). A brahman was considered accomplished if he knew (i.e. was able to recite from memory and to explain) the three Vedas. For the Buddha, a person was spiritually accomplished if he has realized the Three Knowledges (tevijja); arising and passing away of beings according to their kama, and the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements (A.I,165). According to the Vedas, the brahmins were the apex of humanity because they were born of or created from Brahma’s mouth. The Buddha said his enlightened disciples were the apex of humanity because they were ‘born’ of the Buddha’s mouth, ‘born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma’ (It.101). And of course the Vedas taught that one could only be a brahmin by being born of brahmin parents. For the Buddha, one became a brahmin by acting the way a brahmin was supposed to act (tam aham brumi brahmanam, Dhp.397-411). The brahmin sages spoke of the blissful, eternal Self (atman. In later Upanasadic thought sat, chit, ananda) while in contradistinction to this the Buddha a taught dukkha, anicca and anatta. These and dozens of other aspects of the Dhamma mirror in one way or another Vedic concepts, the Vedas being the basis of mainstream religious thought during the Buddha’s time.
Another important aspect of the Vedas that influenced Buddhism was how they were preserved and passed on. The old canard that critics of Buddhism always raise is that in being orally preserved for several centuries the records we have of the Buddha’s teachings must be very reliable, worthless even. In reality, long before Buddha, the brahmins had evolved ways of remembering and passing on the Vedic hymns with an extraordinary degree of accuracy. Many of the Buddha’s disciples were brahmins and they bought to their new faith the skills they had been schooled in as part of their education, and used them to preserve the Buddha’s words. There is an excellent article on Wikipedia called ‘Vedic Chant’ which explains how this was done. The article ‘Vedas’ is very informative too.
Quite apart from all this, at least some familiarity with the Vedas is a good anyway. They are amongst the most beautiful religious literature ever written. If you want to do this I would recommend Wendy Doniger’s (she of the new Kama Sutra translation, and numerous other excellent works) The Rig Veda published in Penguin Classics and available in most bookshops. Doniger’s translations are readable, clear and not overloaded with notes. Her selection and arrangement (108 hymns altogether) also offers a good introduction to this wonderful literature. All the old favorites are here – The Hymn to the Water, the Gambler’s Lament, the Hymn to Creation (Nasadiya), In Praise of Generosity, and my favorite, The Croaking of the Frogs. Some of this must have been familiar to the Buddha and he must have sometimes heard the melodious and hypnotic sound of the Vedas being chanted.
If you’ve never heard Vedic chanting have a listen to these two examples of it. This first one is a slightly modernized rendition of Vedic chanting
This second example is the real thing, done as it was done at the time of the Buddha. Brahmins can do this for hours at a stretch – with perfect intonation and without error.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Metta And Making A Difference

Last night my meditation was better than usual. My mind settled down quickly and for most of my sitting I was filled with a deep sense of peacefulness and ease. So, as is my habit, after about three quarters of an hour I decided to switch to metta bhavana, which I did for the next half an hour. During most of that time I extended and radiated metta to the people of Haiti. I aroused pictures in my mind of the dazed, grieving and pain-filled faces I have seen on the news and imbued them with metta. This morning on the BBC World Service there was a report of severely injured people lying amongst corpses on the floor of a hospital in Haiti and saying that aid is very slow in coming, both from the government and the international community. This set me thinking. Does my metta, does the metta radiated by all the people who might be doing it, make any difference to the victims of, in this case, this terrible tragedy? Whenever I extend and radiate metta to another, does it make any difference to that person? Having thought about it for a while this is what I concluded. It is possible that positive mental energy directed towards someone may affect them; at least I’d like to think it does. But if it does, how close to them do you have to be? Do they have to be ‘receptive’ to the metta radiated to them or does it influence them anyway? I cannot say. I know of no research suggesting that we can be influenced by other people’s thoughts or emotions – except through their body language, etc, if we can see it. Then, reviewing everything the Buddha says about metta I could not think of anywhere where he says that metta directed to another has some effect on them. Perhaps that is significant.
My experience tells me that radiating metta towards others, those I love, those I usually don’t think too much about, those I don’t like (Yes, there are one or two of those!) effects me. It gradually s makes me more appreciative of those I love, it make me notice a bit more those I usually don’t bother too much about, and it gradually sooths any resentments I have towards others. When I radiate metta to the sick, the distressed, the dying, etc. it may or may not benefit them directly. But it certainly makes me more sensitive to the distress of others, it prevents me from suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’ and therefore I am more likely to do what I can to alleviate the suffering of others.
The Chinese Character reads 'Metta'.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Earth-shattering Disasters

The terrible Haiti earthquake has been in the news for the last few days which has stimulated me to have a look at what the Buddha says about these terrifying and destructive occurrences. Earthquakes (bhumicala) occur all over India but particularly in the north and the ancient Indians made various attempts to explain their cause. The 10th century Adbhuta Sagara says earthquakes are caused by the movement of sea monsters while the Brihat Samhita, written in about the 6th century, says they are caused by flying mountains dropping to earth. Another theory was that they happen when the great elephants that holds up the earth sigh. The oldest explanation, in the Rig Veda, says that Indra, the god of thunder, agitates the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – and that this makes the earth quake. The ancient Greeks believed that earthquakes occurred when Poseidon got angry and threw his trident on the ground. The Bible attributes plagues, droughts and other natural disasters to God’s vengeance for mankind’s sins. The well-known TV evangelist Pat Robertson has just said that the Haiti disaster is God’s punishment for the Haitian people doing a pact with the Devil.
The Buddha said that earthquakes occur when eight things happen. “This great earth is supported by water which is supported by air which is in turn supported by space. When a great wind blows, this stirs up the water and because of the stirring-up of the water the earth quakes” (D.II,107). Although the Buddha was mistaken in this matter, he was clearly attempting to give a naturalistic explanation for the phenomena. However, he also said that gods or even humans who had developed certain psychic powers could cause earthquakes. And finally, he said that earthquakes can occur when a bodhisattva is conceived, is born, attains enlightenment thus becoming a Buddha, teaches the Dhamma for the first time, decides to die and then passes into final Nirvana; although he did not explain why they coincide with these events. Probably, like many people at the time, he assumed that ‘earth shattering’ events should have an earth-shattering manifestation. Interestingly, the Bible says that an earthquake occurred just as Jesus died (Matthew 27, 51).
If you would like to read my understanding of natural disasters and kama from a Buddhist perspective please go to
then read this commentary on different religious reactions to the earthquake from the New York Times

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Until just recently Mustang is the last pocket of Himalayan Buddhist culture relatively untouched by the modern world. Enjoy this fascinating documentary about Mustang, somewhat incongruously called ‘Lost Treasures of Tibet’.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Which Of The Four Am I?

'There are these four types of persons found in the world. What four? Those who are concerned neither with their own good nor the good of others, those who are concerned with good of others but not their own, those concerned with their own good but not that of others, and those who are concerned with both their own good and the good of others. Just as a stick from a funeral pyre, burning at both ends and smeared with dung in the middle, serves no useful purpose as fuel in the village or as timber in the forest- using such a simile do I speak of the those concerned neither with their own good nor the good of the others. Those concerned with the good of others but not their own are more excellent and higher than this. Those who is concerned with their own good but not that of others is more excellent and higher still. But those who is concerned with both their own good and the good of others - they are of these four persons the supreme, the highest the topmost and the best. Just as from a cow comes milk, from milk cream, from cream butter, from butter ghee, and from ghee the skimming of ghee, which is said to be the best, even so, those who are concerned with their own good and the good of others are, of these four persons, the supreme, the highest the topmost and the best.' A.II.95

This is a typical example of the profundity of so many of the Buddha’s discourses. He starts by pointing out the obvious – that some people think of no one but themselves – and then he calls into question a commonly held assumption – that to help others and not yourself, being totally self-sacrificing, is the most noble thing you can do. This point can give rise to some very interesting thoughts and considerations. As can the words ‘for the good’. And with his usual skill the Buddha rounds it all up with a most appealing analogy, the extracting of the essence of lovely, creamy, warm, nourishing milk. Just one point. What is the skimming of ghee (sappimanda)? When you make ghee you will notice little bits of butter milk, water and maybe one or two cows’ hairs or dirt in the bottom. When you skim off the golden-colored ghee leaving this residue behind, that is the skimming of ghee.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Gentle Faith

Whenever there is a discussion on religion it’s the ‘Big Four’ that are always given most attention – Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, usually in that order. Of late, Islam is getting even more coverage in the media than before as Muslims and others attempt to explain what ‘real Islam’ is about. When religion in general is being discussed Buddhism is usually relegated to a few short sentences or a foot note in keeping with the assumption that that all religions are a matter of different ways of thinking about God. If Buddhism is in the ‘also ran’ category, Jainism rarely ever get a mention. This is a pity because after Buddhism, Jainism is probably the most humane, rational, complete and noble of all religions. Of course, if they threw bombs around, hijacked planes, threatened violence or formed aggressive political parties, the media would be full of articles explaining what Jainism ‘really’ teaches. But of course Jains don’t do such things. They don’t push their faith, they don’t demand special treatment, they don’t try to influence politics, they just quietly do their own thing with a ‘live and let live’ outlook. If there were 3 billion Jains, or even 300 million, rather than just 3 million of them the world would be that much more peaceful. Have a look at this interesting BBC site on Jain charity and a video on Jain temples. The news item about the Jain practice of santhara is also interesting. Now I do not agree with santhara which is why I am not a Jain. But killing yourself is still better than killing others.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Blind Turtle

"Imagine that the whole earth was covered with water, and that a man were to throw a yoke with a hole in it into the water. Blown by the wind, that yoke would drift north, south, east and west. Now suppose that once in a hundred years a blind turtle were to rise to the surface. What would be the chances of that turtle putting his head through the hole in the yoke as he rose to the surface once in a hundred years?"
"It would be very unlikely, Lord."
"Well, it is just as unlikely that one will be born as a human being. It is just as unlikely that a Tathagata, a Noble One, a fully enlightened Buddha should appear in the world. And it is just as unlikely that the Dhamma and discipline of the Tathagata should be proclaimed. But now you have been born as a human being, a Tathagata has appeared and the Dhamma has been proclaimed. Therefore, strive to realize the Four Noble Truths." (S.V,456)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Brahmavamsa, Sujato And The Nuns

The ‘Ajahan Brahmavamso nuns’ ordination’ saga continues. Until recently the discourse on the matter has been forthright although civil. But now things are starting to turn nasty. Recently several Bangkok tabloids have covered the issue, making false charges against Brahmavamso, accusing him of mismanaging his monastery in Perth and even going so far as to call him ‘an idiot monk’. Now it seems monks in Thailand are ringing Thai people in Perth encouraging them, not to distance themselves from Brahmavamso, but to dismiss him as abbot and take over his monastery. Brahmavamso for his part is maintaining a dignified silence. Ajahan Sujato on the other hand is fighting back with articulate and cogent arguments. On his blog recently Sujato has convincing rebuttals to the accusations made against Brahmavamso and said what he really thinks about the Thai Sangha - in the bluntest possible terms (although some of his more ‘blunt’ comments seem to have been deleted since I read then a week ago). ‘Education is a big challenge, one which Theravada has, so far, failed dismally. Yet it is not the heart of the matter…The problem lies deeper. It goes to the heart of how the Sangha is imagined, desired, in Theravada. We want our monks to be ignorant, inarticulate. We want them to repeat them same bland platitudes again and again. We loathe any deviation, any innovation, that might suggest that something new might be valuable.’ This is only partially true. The influence of monks in Theravadin societies is enormous. It is they who set the tone for everything to do with religion. It is they who have groomed the laity to be content with just ‘making merit’, to passively listening to dull sermons, to consider it ‘disrespectful’ even to ask questions, let alone correct or disagree even respectfully with what a monk might say. On the rare occasions when a lay person takes a deeper, a more inquiring interest in the Dhamma it is usually the monks who try to disparage and discourage them.
I’m struck, again and again, at the vast gap that exists between how the Sangha is seen and the reality of what it is.’ I was too, about 30 years back. But I eventually recognized this problem and pointed it out. But the only response I got was to be accused of being unfair, biased and of ‘letting the team down, including by Western monks. ‘As a monk, I am all too aware of how I offer a field for projection. Wrapped in our ochre robes, with shaven heads, we monastics deliberately strip ourselves of personal identity… We are removed, separated, distant, surrounded by layers of formalities, rituals, and taboos. For the Buddhist lay community we are the ‘other’, forever inaccessible. The things we surround ourselves with – robes, bowl, and the rest – retain little of their original functionality, and serve primarily as symbols that associate us with the lineage of the Buddha. We don’t just offer ourselves for projection, we positively invite, almost demand it.’ No Sujato, you and most of the other monks, but especially those in the Thai forest tradition ‘demand’ special attention – I don’t and a few other modern monks I know don’t either. You deliberately ‘offer a field of projection’ to the lay community, you choose too, indeed you insist on surrounding yourselves with ‘formalities, rituals and taboos’. As I have pointed out many times before, the first thing one is instructed in when one goes to a Thai temple on in the West and especially one in the Thai forest tradition, is all the ‘formalities, rituals and taboos’.
Sujato points out that the accusations of mismanagement in Brahmavamso’s monastery is not just untrue but also hypocritical, given the widespread corruption in Thai monasteries. One can only wonder why senior Thai monks are so concerned about supposed mismanagement in the Perth when they do nothing about the pervasive corruption closer to home. ‘In the forest monasteries you will constantly hear stories of how corrupt the city/village monks are: the monks who set up a still to brew the leftover sticky rice from alms-round – and then tried to sell the liquor back to the villagers; the monastery that was running a brothel out the back; the use of temple boys to pleasure the monks; the monk who had an affair with a novice, and then when he got jealous, murdered his unfaithful lover; the tudong monk who stayed overnight in a village monastery, only to wake up with a naked monk in his bed; the village who got so sick of their monks’ behavior they took their Buddha image to Bangkok, dumped it and declared they would no longer be Buddhists; the monastery that was so jealous when a nearby monastery actually started teaching meditation that they accused the meditation teacher of being a communist spy; the monks who salt away all the temple money for years, then disrobe and retire rich; selling drugs from monasteries; or the claim by the Thai Religious Affairs department that 10% of Thai monks were addicted to methamphetamine. And on it goes.’ Only 10%! I always assumed it was much higher than that. Oh no, wait a minuet, I was thinking of alcoholism.
The notion that there are a set of ‘uniform rules’ that ‘effectively govern’ monasteries in Thailand is utter nonsense. Mainstream Thai Buddhism is rotten to its core. You don’t have to take my word for it, look at the actions of Phra Mongkut, or Ajahn Mun, or Ajahn Chah. They all operated under the quite reasonable knowledge that mainstream Thai Buddhism was bereft of any genuine Dhamma, and that only by reforming or living on the margins of the system could one live with integrity. Things have not improved since their times. On the contrary, it has got much worse. The past generation has seen unprecedented wealth pour into the coffers of the Thai Sangha. There is precious little oversight and no proper policies on how to deal with this. Everyone agrees that the existing system is inadequate at best and needs overhauling, yet no-one has been able to do it. So it just lurches along from scandal to scandal.’
Sujato goes on to reveal quite a few more home truths about Thai Buddhism, most of them equally true of Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. So now it seems that finally, at last, late in the day, but eventually, it is becoming mainstream to tell the truth about Theravada. It’s not a pretty truth but unless it is told we Western Buddhists run the risk of copying all the arcane practices of Asian Buddhism and thus ending up with all their problems.
For more of Sujato’s comments go to and have a look at ‘Sooner of Later We’ll have Female Monks Everywhere’, Dec. 28, 2009; ‘Reform – A Challenge’, Dec. 17 2009.
All this has prompted me to consider republishing on this blog my Broken Buddha, something I wrote 10 years ago about my assessment of the problems of traditional Theravada, the cause of these problems, and the need for Western Buddhists to distance themselves from Asian Buddhism and evolve a Buddhism for the 21st century West. Look out for it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Not So Bright

Tiger Woods has for some time been America’s most high profile Buddhist, not that he paraded his religion as tends to be the norm with American celebrities who ‘accept the Lord’. Now that he is in the news beyond the sports page, unfortunately not for anything particularly noble, this has focused attention on Buddhism. One commentator recently said, “I don't think that faith (i.e. Buddhism) offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”’ These words have created something of a stir amongst American Buddhists and others, although I don’t know why. The person who said it is a commentator on Fox News, and Fox News is to objectivity and integrity what a demolition gang is to an architectural firm.
I don’t know to what extent Woods is a Buddhist. In an interview in 1996 he said, “I believe in Buddhism. Not every aspect, but most of it. So I take bits and pieces.” This could point to careful consideration of the Buddha’s teachings and an inquiring that is ongoing but not yet complete, and this would be quite in keeping with the spirit of the Dhamma. Or it could point to that disgusting and dishonest old copout “I practices those parts of my religion I like and ignore those parts that don’t suit me.” Woods’ other comments about Dhamma does not suggest a deep faith in the Dhamma. “I don't believe that human beings can achieve ultimate enlightenment, because humans have flaws.” If you do not accept the possibility of human enlightenment then that pretty much reduces Buddhism to little more than a system of self-improvement. However, to what extent Woods understands the Dhamma and takes it seriously I cannot say. I hope his knowledge of it is deep and his commitment to it is strong, despite his recent failings. If it is, it will certainly help him recover his balance after his recent problems and to learn from them. I wish him well.
On the recent comments of Woods and his religion have a look at

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Buddha's Peace

It is said that the Sakyans and the Koliyans dammed the waters of the Rohini River between Kapilavatthu and Koliya and cultivated the fields on both sides of the river. During the month of Jetthamula, the crops began to wilt, and the workers employed by both cities assembled. Those of Koliya said: "If the water is diverted to both sides of the river there will not be enough for both of us. As our crops will ripen with a single watering, let us have the water." But the Sakyans replied: "After your granaries are full, we will not be able to face taking our valuables and with basket and bags in hand, go begging from door to door from you. Our crops will ripen with a single watering, so let us have the water." "We will not give it to you." "And we will not let you have it." Talk grew bitter, one person struck another, the blow was returned, fighting broke out, and as they fought they cast aspersions upon the origin of the two royal families. The Koliyans workers said: "Take your brats and go where you belong. How can we be harmed by the elephants, horses, shields and weapons of those have slept with their own sisters like dogs and jackals?" The Sakyan workers replied: "You lepers, take your brats and go where you belong. How can we be harmed by the elephants, horses, shields and weapons of miserable outcasts who live up jujube trees like animals." Both groups went and reported the quarrel to the ministers who were in charge of the work, who in turn reported it to the royal households. The Sakyans prepared for battle, saying: "We will show them the strength and power of those who have slept with their sisters." The Koliyans prepared for battle, saying: "We will show them the strength and power of those who live up jujube trees." As the Lord surveyed the world at dawn he saw his kinsmen and thought: "If I do not go, these people will destroy each other. It is my duty to go to them." He passed through the air to where his kinsmen were gathered, and seated himself cross-legged in the air in the middle of the Rohini River. When the Lord's kinsmen saw him they put down their weapons and worshipped him. Then the Lord said: "What is this quarrel about, great king?" "We know not, reverend sir." "Then who would know?" "The commander-in-chief of the army will know." When asked, the commander-in-chief suggested the viceroy might know. Thus the Lord asked one after the other with none of them knowing the cause of the quarrel, until the workers were asked. They replied: "The quarrel is about the water." Then the Lord said to the king: "What is the value of water, great king?" "Very little, reverend sir." "What is the value of a warrior?" "A warrior, reverend sir, is beyond price." Then the Lord said: "It is right that for a little water you should kill warriors who are beyond price." They were all silent. Then the Lord said: "Great kings, why do you act thus? Were I not here today, you would cause a river of blood to flow. Your actions are unworthy. You live in hatred, given to the five kinds of hatred. I live full of love. You live sick with passions. I live free from sickness. You live chasing after the five kinds of sense pleasures. I live in contentment.
Dhammapada Atthhakatha 254

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Right! Thats It! No More Nostalgia

Eventually in 1985 I moved to Singapore where I worked with Ven. Dhammaratana at the Buddhist Library while also working for the Education Department’s Curriculum Development Institute. I also went into ‘international Buddhist conference’ mode, a life choice I would not recommend unless you wish to hear yourself saying the same old things or listen to others say the same old things. This is me with my very good friend Ven. Piyadassi during one of his several trips to Sri Lanka. And this is me in Ladakh at a nunnery that our society supported at that time. And that's defiantly enough nostalgia. Tomorrow, back to the Dhamma.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What! More Nostaliga!

After I became a monk I decided to try to retrace some of the Buddha’s journeys. The longest and most wonderful of these was the walk I did from Bodh Gaya to Rajgir and back again. The these two places are about 100 km from each other and are linked by a line of rugged, treeless mountains. I walked along the south side of the mountains on the way and returned walking along the north side. I begged for my food all the way, slept in the open and bathed in irrigation tanks and villages. The knowledge that I was walking where the Buddha had, in a manner similar to the way he did and through countryside he would have recognized, filled me with such elation bordering on, that I did the whole trip in an almost dream-like state. Thinking about it now, I realize how much danger I was in, this part of Bihar being infested by very ruthless bandits, although I had no sense danger. And everywhere, villagers were kindly, generous and helpful to me. The only difficulties I had were with village curs, buffalos (for some reason Indian buffalos always freak out when they smell Westerners) and nosey jackals at night. I have no pictures from that time because I had no camera.
During my time in Sri Lanka I often visited India and did other journeys –from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath, from Allahabad to Kosambi, and the longest, retracing the Buddha’s last journey from Rajgir to Kusinara. Here are some photos from some of these journeys. This is me in some Bihari village with a jatila, a matted-hair ascetic. These guys are often mentioned in the Tipitaka as dialoging with the Buddha, and of course three of the Buddha’s early disciples, the Kassapa brothers, were jatilas. It looks like someone is pointing a rifle at him, ‘OK swami! One move and I’ll blow your head off!’ Actually it is the handle of the village pump.Once I passed through a village in UP and half the population came out to stare at me. The local school teacher, who spoke some English, stepped forward to welcome me and then informed me that outside the village under the local sacred tree was an ancient Buddha statue. This is it. The villagers begged me to stay with them which I did for three days; blessing them and their children, listening to their problems and concerns, telling them about the Dhamma, and they shared their meager food with me. Peasants in this part of India must be amongst the most neglected, the poorest and most exploited people in the country – but this does not stop they from being very hospitable to strangers and respectful to swamis. This is me wading across the river near, I think Wazieganj, a village roughly between Gaya and Nawada in Bihar. There are ancient Buddhist ruins at the foot of the mountain. Here I am with Venerable Chandraratana Nayaka Thera, the High Priest of north India, and the then vice-president of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma, at the opening of the Nava Jetavana Mahavihara at Sravasti in, I think, 1987.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Bit More Nostalgia

After several years of wandering around India I ordained as a samanera at Sravasti in 1976 with Venerable Matiwella Sangharatana who had been general secretary of the Mahabodhi Society at Sarnath for many years. Although Ven. Sangharatana had been educated at Shantinekatam by Rabindranath Tagor, was proficient in Sanskrit and could speak fluently in Pali, he was not a scholar by disposition but rather a practical man, a doer. But his most pronounced characteristic was his intense and total dedication to the Triple Gem, a characteristic I hope I inherited from him. Ven. Sangharatana passed away on the 31st December 1983. This is him and me in 1976. Goodness, I was thin in those days! There was chronic food shortages in India in the 70’s and we didn’t have that much to eat. Later I went to Sri Lanka and lived there for nearly ten years. During my early years in Sri Lanka I went through an ‘ascetic’ phase – using no money, eating only what I begged for, living in caves, wearing no sandals, etc. This is me with Kushan Manjusri, son of the famous painter Manjusri. At one time Kushan and I shared a cave and went carika together. Kushan later disrobed and went on to become a renowned painter himself. Later he had problems with depression and died fairly young just a few years back. We met for the last time at the 100 anniversary celebrations of Manjusri's birth. Amongst the people I got to know in Sri Lanka was Mr. Richard Abhayasekera and Venerable Nyanaponika of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy. This is me, Ven. Nyanaponika, Ven. Sumana and several other monks at the opening of the new BPS headquarters in 1983 ? Here is me examining a very old palm leaf book at the majestic Lankatilaka Maharaja Vihara in Gampola.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Bit Of Nostalgia

The New Year is always a time for neuralgia – sorry, I mean nostalgia – so I thought a few old photos might interest some of my readers. The first picture is of me in Bangkok in October 1973 where I went with the intention of becoming a monk. Please note the hair and the bell-bottoms. As it happens Thai Buddhism and the Thai monasteries I stayed in were not to my liking so I decided to move on to Burma. In Burma I stayed at Kabaye Pagoda in Rangoon and learned meditation under U Pannadipa, an experienced and skillful teacher and a pleasant and sagacious person. U. Pannadipa only died a few years ago. In those days foreigners were only able to stay in Burma for seven days so I went back and forwards between Bangkok and Rangoon several times learning meditation for seven days at a go in Rangoon. This is me and U Pannadipa just before I left r Rangoon for the last time heading for India. I ended up staying in India for several years, growing to love and hate the place, although I did and still do love it more than hate it. This is me and friends from Lahaul who I stayed with in Delhi during the summer of 1975. This is me during my first trip through the Himalayas. As you can see, living in India was starting to take its toll on my appearance. Tomorrow I will share with you some pictures of me as a young monk in India.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Buddhist Blog Burnout?

I started this blog on the 15th of April 2008 and so now it officially goes into its third year. During that time I have blogged every day except during the times I was out of Singapore or when my computer failed to work. Between November 28th and December 28th 2009 I had 9951 visits with 16633 page visits. The top eight countries from which my visitors came from were Singapore, USA, Australia, Germany, UK, Canada, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. I even got ten visits from Mongolia and one from Saudi Arabia. In the coming year I hope to continue blogging every day but my psychiatrist tells me ‘I’m suffering from a condition known as blog burnout. But actually its just lack of time. Nonetheless I will continue blogging for as long as I have something meaningful to say. I hope you will keep reading.

I will start the New Year tomorrow with something really different.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

For the pure every day is special. For them every day is holy.
The Buddha, M.I,39

I would like to wish all my readers the blessings of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha in the coming year.