Sunday, April 13, 2014

Animal Love

In my blog post of 17th March I said something about love towards people have towards animals. But it is also interesting to consider that animals, at least higher animals, are not just recipients of love, but that they can express towards humans and in ways that humans can sense. And gratitude, helpfulness and warn familiarity. Occasionally we read in the papers stories of dogs that saved their owners in some way, of cats that alerted their owners of fires in the house, or   even of dolphins who saved or tried to save floundering swimmers. I know from personal experience that there is some basis to stories about relationships between people and wild animals.
Once I stayed for a few months in a Sri Lankan forest hermitage, the abbot of which was a noticeably kind and sage old man. Every day after breakfast he would go to a certain nearby tree and feed several dandu lena, a type of large squirrel. These animals would always come to meet the abbot, climb all over him, snuggle under his neck or in his robe and act in other clearly affectionate ways. That the squirrels’ fondness for the old abbot went beyond the food he gave them was demonstrated by the fact that for several weeks after he died, they would come when the other monks tried to feed them but take no food from them nor climb onto them. It looked very much like they felt a sense of loss at their friend’s absence.
Next to the leopard the most feared creature in the Sri Lankan jungle is the bear, a creature notorious for attacking without provocation. Once I visited the hermitage of a group of nuns, where the smiling abbess invited me into their small refectory, offered me a seat and then went into the kitchen to get me some water. As soon as she disappeared, I heard her sternly rebuking someone. Her tone contrasted so much with its benign gentleness of just moments before that I got up and peeped around the corner to see what the trouble was. There was the abbess wagging her finger at a huge bear. “I have told you before that you are not allowed to come in here,” she said in mock anger. “Now go home and come again after lunch.” She sternly pointed to the kitchen’s back door and the huge animal lumbered out and disappeared into the forest. When the abbess brought my water, I asked her about the bear. She told me the bear had been the nuns’ friend for several years and even came to show them her cubs when she had them. She occasionally raided the kitchen but this was more than compensated for by the fact that the woodsmen who used to lurk in the forest around the hermitage, and steal from it, stopped doing so. They were too frightened of the bear.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

All Is Burning!

In the Buddha’s famous and dramatic Fire Sermon he says: “All is burning.”  Last Sunday I had a lesson on this very theme, and not just intellectually but very much in the material domain. Moments after our Sunday morning meditation someone in the congregation noticed flames on the far side of the our second floor courtyard. I got up and looked and as it didn’t seem too serious I and a few others went upstairs to get the garden hose. While they attached it to the bathroom tap I climbed out the refectory window and began hosing the flames. Meanwhile, the congregation quickly filed downstairs and left the building. Unbeknown to me and the three others who were helping me the fire in the ground floor restaurant was already burning fiercely and spreading quickly. Within five minutes I was being showered with burning ash and choked by smoke and as the flames were clearly becoming a conflagration I decided it was time to leave. I ran (no time for mindful walking!) up to the third floor where my room is to shut the windows in the hope that my large library  might be saved, and ran down to the main hall to find it dark, the lights having gone out and no light coming through the by now smoke-blackened windows. Padma, Vincent and Nam Kin were looking  grim and close to panic. “We’re surrounded!” Nam Kin said. We ran to the library and then to the computer room, both facing the main road, but only a menacing red  glow was coming through the windows. The stairwell leading downstairs had been completely filled with smoke only five minutes before, but when we looked again we saw that someone who had ran through it  earlier had left the door  open and the draft had now cleared some of the smoke. We decided to make a dash for it. We emerged to a much relieved crowd, some of whom were in tears thinking that we had all perished. The police were already on the scene holding back the crowds and questioning us as to whether there was anyone still in the building. Held up by the traffic jam  on Balestier Rd the fire brigade only arrived after we had emerged from the flames.
Given that these events only happened a few days ago and we are occupied with police reports, getting mail redirected, insurance matters, etc we  have as yet have given  little thought  to the future of our society, the BDMS. Let’s see how things unfold.
It only remains to thank the many friends and even many strangers from as far away as Germany, the US, Australia and India for their concern, sympathy and offers of help. On behalf of the BDMS thanks very much.   

Monday, March 24, 2014

Digging Up Telahara

Amongst some people at least, tourism has a bad reputation – crowds, ware and tear on the site, spoiling the locals, the commercialization of cultural treasures, etc. But it does have its positive sides. The Indian state of Bihar, the heartland of Buddhism, is covered with ancient Buddhist sites most of which have been pretty much neglected until recently. Now there is a concerted effort by the  state and central governments to upgrade already well-known sites and explore and excavate the neglected ones. The desire for pilgrimage/tourist dollars is partly responsible for this change. The latest site to be excavated is Telhara near Masaurhi which in turn is some 20  miles west of Nalanda.
I went there in the early 80s and was amazed by how large the mound was, indicative of how grand the monastery under it must have been. It is very likely that Talahara is the Tiladhaka Monastery that the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang  visited when on his way from Patna to Bodh Gaya. Hopefully the ongoing excavations will find evidence to confirm this. During Xuanzang’s stay there were 1000 monks in residence and he described the monastery in detail (see Li Rongxi’s translation The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, page 235). The excavations so far have exposed extensive ruins of impressive size.
But Talhara is only one of many sites the excavation of which will render a more complete picture of Buddhism of in Bihar, and hopefully allow us to identify some places visited by the Buddha and mentioned in the Tipitaka. The ones that I hope are on the top of the list are Kurkihar, Punawan, Kawadol and the twin sites of Tetrawan and Gosrawan. Here are a few  pictures from these sites. The bronze  statue is one of several hundred accidently discovered at Kurkihar in 1930.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Love Of Animals

People can have deeply felt relationships with animals, their pets or even with animals in general. There is no particular word for the love of animals in any language. In the Buddhist scriptures the feeling and attitude we should cultivate towards animals is usually called compassion (karuṇā). All Indian religions, but particularly Buddhism and Jainism, have long recognised that a tender kindness to animals is not just legitimate but actually a sign of a more all-inclusive love. If not actually love and compassion for animals, then at least some consideration towards them goes back a long way in human history. The Old Testament dictated that even working animals were to rest on the Sabbath. A farmer was not allowed to muzzle the ox treading out his grain so as to allow it to nibble the straw as it laboured. Such ideas probably had their origins in the fondness rural folk sometimes develop towards the animals that share their hardships and help sustain their lives.  In India during the Buddha’s time people were generally kindly to animals. One stark exception to this were the Vedic sacrifices at which sometimes large numbers of animals were slaughtered. The scriptures record one such sacrifice at which “five hundred bulls, five hundred steers and numerous heifers, goats and rams were brought to the sacrificial post for slaughter”. (A.IV,41) The Buddha repudiated the killing of animals at such religious rituals, the felling of trees to make the sacrificial posts and the threatening and beating of the slaves as they were driven to do the preparations with tear-stained faces”. (A.II,207-8) In time protests from Buddhists and Jains led to animal sacrifice being phased out of Hinduism. In the West until fairly recently the welfare of animals was given little importance other than for economic reasons. Animal fights and sports such as bull and bear baiting, in which animals were abused and tormented, were popular entertainments well into the 19th century. The first advocates of laws to protect animals from such cruelty were looked upon with ridicule. Such behaviour has never been acceptable in places where Buddhism and Jainism have had an influence.
The Buddha considered animals to be inferior to humans in that they did not have the mental capacity to comprehend the Dhamma and that they exhibited only a rudimentary moral sense. Under monastic law murder is an offence entailing expulsion from the Sangha, while killing an animal has a much less drastic punishment. (Vin.IV,124) But this does not mean that animal welfare is unimportant. On the contrary, animals’ inferior condition in such ways makes them extra worthy of sympathy and protection. They are as liable to pain as we are. The Jātakamāla highlights both of these points when it says: “Because animals are dull by nature we should therefore have sympathy for them. When it comes to desiring happiness and wishing to avoid pain, all beings are the same. Therefore, if you find something unpleasant you should not inflict it on others.” (Jāt. 25, 25-6)   The Buddha recognised that cruelty, whether to animals or humans, sprung from the same defilements - callousness, spite, vengeance, and lack of empathy - and that it would have similar negative kammic consequences.  
 For the Buddha gentleness and kindness to all was a fundamental moral principle as well as being an essential step in an individual’s spiritual growth. The first requirement in the Buddhist code of moral discipline, the Five Precepts, is to “abstain from killing, to lay aside the stick and the sword and to live with care, kindness and compassion for all living creatures”. (D.I,4)  Anyone who wants to be a wayfarer on the Noble Eightfold Path is asked “not to kill, encourage others to kill or approve of killing”. (A.V,306) For the Buddha love and compassion were incomplete if they were not extended to all sentient beings. He even suggested that in certain circumstances kindness to animals might take precedence over human laws. Once a certain a monk found an animal caught in a trap and, feeling pity for it, released it. Customary law at that time considered a trapped animal to be the property of the hunter who had set the trap, and this monk was criticised by his fellows for theft. However, the Buddha exonerated him, saying that because he had acted out of compassion he had not committed any offence. (Vin.III,62)  
While the Buddha considered animals to be on a lower spiritual plane than humans, he was observant enough to notice that they can sometimes set an example humans could do well to emulate. When a group of monks were quarrelling over some petty matter he remonstrated with them saying: “If animals can be courteous, deferential and polite towards each other, so should you be.” (Vin.II,162) On another occasion he observed dryly that an old jackal that was howling before sunrise had more gratitude than a particular monk he knew. (S.II,272) A young man named Pessa, an elephant trainer, once made an interesting observation on the difference between humans and animals. He said to the Buddha: “Humans are a tangle while animals are straightforward. While I am training an elephant, in the time it takes to go to Campa and back again it will try every trick, ruse, stratagem and dodge. But our slaves, messengers and servants do one thing, say another, and think something else.”  (M.I,340) The Buddha agreed with this observation and one can imagine him shaking his head with sadness as he did so.
Pessa’s words are very true. While we can be very good at disguising our real feelings or faking feelings we do not really have, animals are quite open. If a dog does not like you, the curled lip that exposes his fangs leaves you in no doubt about it. If the cat has had enough of being stroked the twitching end of her tail or her low growling lets you know. Likewise, when our pets love us, they do not hold back in showing it. What could be more gratifying after coming home from a difficult day at work, your partner too busy in the kitchen to say anything more than a brief “hallo”, the kids so glued to the TV that they do not notice you, and then having the family dog rush up to you wagging his tail, jumping up on you and wanting to lick you? This is one of the reasons some people find it easy to love their pets, sometimes as much as they love other people, because they display their affection so unreservedly, so undemandingly, and so spontaneously. Loving animals and being loved by them in return can be as healing and nourishing as loving other human beings. Research has shown that giving animals to look after to inmates of nursing homes and mental institutions has measurable positive effects on them. Even violent prisoners seem to lose some of their aggressiveness when they are given pets to look after. Animals are not just passive recipients of human love and affection; some species can sense it and respond to it. Newspapers occasionally feature stories about dogs that save drowning children, cats that alert their sleeping owners to fires in the house, or dolphins that rescue floundering swimmers. There are also stories of pets who mourn for their dead owners. Such stories are so common and widely reported that some at least have to be taken seriously. There is even some evidence that animals normally dangerous to humans can become mild if they sense that the human means them no harm or is unafraid of them. Several incidents of this type are recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, the most famous being the story about the aggressive and unruly bull elephant Nalagiri. The Buddha’s jealous and unscrupulous cousin Devadatta schemed to have the Buddha killed by arranging for Nalagiri to be released into his path as he was out walking. Trumpeting and flapping his ears, Nalagiri charged. The Buddha radiated love towards it and, sensing this love and lack of alarm, the huge animal lost his aggressiveness and suddenly calmed down. He approached the Buddha, picked up some dust from the ground with his trunk and then sprinkled it on the Buddha’s head. (Vin.II,195-6)
Hearsay and folklore also tell us that animals are capable of gratitude towards humans. The early Buddhist scriptures contain several stories about people who helped animals that then helped the people in return. One such story is the Amba Jataka. Once, the Bodhisattva was born as a Brahman who, after he grew up, renounced the world and became the leader of a group of ascetics living in the foothills of the Himalayas. A terrible drought occurred in the mountain country so that all the water dried up and the animals suffered terribly as a result. Seeing this and moved by compassion, one ascetic cut down a tree, hollowed it into a trough and filled it with any water he could find. The animals came in droves to drink and the ascetic had to spend all his time finding water to keep the trough filled. Heedless of his own needs he toiled for the benefit of the forest creatures so much that he had no time to gather his own food. Seeing this, the animals met together and agreed amongst themselves to provide food for the ascetic and his fellows. Each time they came to drink they brought mangos, rose apples, breadfruit, and other wild fruit until it equalled to many wagon loads, enough for all the ascetics with some left over. (Ja.I,450) Of course the story is legendary but it almost certainly grew out of real experiences of animal gratitude.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Death And Dignity

A few days ago Sherwin B. Nuland died. Some of you may know him as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling book How We Die, published in 1994. Nuland sought to dispel the popular myth that most deaths take place the way they do in the movies – a few poignant, funny or enigmatic last words, then the eyes closing and then a peaceful and swift slipping away. As a doctor Nuland knew that only a few have the good fortune to end like that, and he did not flinch to describe in detail what it is often really like. It is for the most part pretty much how the Buddha described it – dukkha, sometimes extreme dukkha. Nuland added to this that modern medicine sometimes actually adds to the dukkha  by prolonging it. Only recently I read an article in the local newspaper about the death by cancer of a Singaporean personality. The writer commented approvingly that “she fought it to the last”. This unhelpful attitude, so widely promoted nowadays,  is also  a cause of a great deal of pain and suffering in the months or weeks leading to up to death. The old idea of having the wisdom of knowing when your time has come, accepting it, and letting the process take its course, doesn’t accord with the  popular insistence of putting a positive spin on everything. Nuland wrote: “If the classical image of dying with dignity must be modified or even discarded, what is to be salvaged of our hope for the final memories we leave to those who love us? The dignity we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.” Nuland was 83 and he died of can prostate cancer. I hope it was for him a peaceful and easy end.       

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Best Dhammapada

Just the other day  someone gave me a book that proved to be yet another   translation of the Dhammapada. On seeing it my  first thought was: “Here we go! Probably another rehash of an earlier rehash.” I was  tempted to put it aside and not even bother flicking through it. But the blurb  on the back about the translator (Ph.D in Sanskrit from Harvard, associate professor of religion, and meditation teacher at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies) made me think that it might be worth at least a quick look. Recently I wrote a review of the truly awful - one couldn’t in all honestly call it a translation or even a rendering – a massacre might be a better description, by Tai Sheridan  which is everything a Dhammapada shouldn’t be. See
Glen Wallis’ Dhammapada; Verses on the Way, is not only everything this little Buddhist classic should be, I would go so far as to say it is the best Dhammapada presently available.
Someone once said poetry translated from another language is like a desired woman; if its beautiful its not faithful and if its faithful its not beautiful. Well, Wallis seems to have managed to achieve both. His translation has a cadence that reads exceptionally well, and given Pali’s stylistic and grammatical particularities this is quite an achievement. And just as important, it is as faithful to the original as you could want.  At the end of the translation Wallis has just over 100 pages of notes, but don’t let this put you off. These notes  include a learned  but accessible account of  the history, grammar and meaning of the Dhammapada and its place in Indian Buddhist literature. His comments on some of the similes and his numerous quotes from the suttas illuminate the verses in a way that really gives them depth and increased understanding.  Of course one could quibble (and so I will). “Unbinding” seems to be a rather odd translation/rendering of nibbana. But such minor things are more than made up for his truly informative comments on other technical terms. See what he says about bodhi on page 135.  From now on I  think I will stop using the terms “enlightened” and “enlightened one” and switch to “awakened” and “awakened one” instead. If you want a 100% word-for-word accurate translation of the Dhammapada get K. R. Norman’s The Words of the Doctrine with its 174 pages of notes on grammar, syntax, consonant groups, variant readings,  the eastern form of am, etc, and do your best to keep awake. If you want an accurate, readable translation with helpful notes that is true to the Buddha’s Dhamma get Wallis’ The Dhammapada; Verses on the Way. I couldn’t recommend it higher. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Where Is The Indasala Cave?

The Indasala Cave was the setting for one of the Buddha’s most profound discourses, the Sakapanha Sutta (D.II,263). In the discourse the Buddha addresses Pancasikha who is playing his harp and Sakya, also known as Indra.  The  discourse must have been a popular one in ancient times given how many depictions of the cave with the Buddha in it and Pancasikha standing nearby  have survived to today. The stone railing at Bodh Gaya, the oldest surviving Buddhist art (150 BCE ?), includes a depiction of the scene. 
Following Cunningham, I located the Indasala Cave in 1986,  included it in my 1992 book Middle Land Middle Way; A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India and since  then pilgrim’s have started visiting  the place again. But now a website called Nalanda Insatiable in Offering  (from now on NIO) is claiming another location for the  cave. Don’t let NIO’s strange name put you off; it is a  carefully researched and informative resource on the lesser known sites associated with the Buddha.   According to NIO the cave is actually on a hill named Pawati some 20 k north-east from Giriek  at the very end of the Rajgir hills. I visited  Pawati  during one of my journeys through Bihar years ago but failed to see the cave. It is a rather attractive place but is its cave the Indasala?  NIO’s claim is base mainly on the fact that Pawati a steep-sided hill rising suddenly out of the surrounding plain and Xuanzang’s account of his visit to the cave says that it was  on the side of  “an isolated hill”.  NIO has followed Samual Beal’s 1884 pioneering but inaccurate translation of Xuanzang’s travelogue. Unfortunately, the original Chinese says nothing about the hill being “isolated”, as Li Rongxi’s more accurate translation of 1996 shows. This, I think undermines NIO’s claim and thus we can still consider the earlier (Cunningham’s and my own) identification to be the true Indasala Cave. So if the cave on Pawati Hill is not the Indasala  what is it? According to Udana 39 there was another cave near Rajagaha called Kapotakandara, the Pigeon’s Cave. Now another word for pigeon in Pali/Sanskrit is paravata which becomes parawa in Hindi. I suspect that Pawati is a contraction of parawata and that the cave on Pawati Hill is actually the Pigeon’s Cave.
You can find the NIO website at
The top photo  is of Pawati Hill and the second is of me in the Indasala  Cave in 1986
Below are some ancient depictions of the Buddha delivering the Sakapanha Sutta. The  last  sculpture has some wild animals charming over the rocks around the Indasala Cave; a delightful touch.