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.