Thursday, October 1, 2015

Chartres,Faith And Reason

My readers would have noticed that I had not blogged for over four months. I was in much need of a break and so I did a three month retreat in the jungle – the concrete jungle of Paris, where I have access to a very small flat in a very quiet suburb, my only companion being the neighbourhood moggy who came to visit me each afternoon. During my time there, almost the only time I went out was to Chartres Cathedral on a day trip. It would be difficult for anyone of any religion not to be moved by this architectural masterpiece of the Age of Faith. Quite apart from the delicate sculptures, the glorious stained-glass windows and the souring spires and flying buttresses, the thought that simple, folk devote contributed their few pennies, their sweat and their creative skills to build this cathedral has to fill you with amazement. And the millions who trudged from all over Europe, mostly on foot, to  go there to worship the Virgin’s veil is a testimony to the power of faith. The only other place where I have ever been similarly moved is at the great Shwedagon Pagoda, and for much the same reasons – a heightened aesthetic sense mixed with mudita for other people’s
faith, devotion and spiritual aspirations. But it’s good not to be too carried away by feelings, not to let exaltation seduce the thinking   mind into sleep. As I stood in the front of the cathedral’s portals I saw one of the local street people try to solicit money from a small party of Chinese tourists, and that when they refused him he let them have it in the best French. This reminded me of my readings of medieval history and particularly about religion in the Middle Ages, when the faith that raised the cathedral would likely have been mixed with clerical skulduggery, pig-ignorance, the terror of hell, a hatred of the Jews and perhaps an occasional auto-de-fé in the town square, and that back then the portals would have been flanked, not by one street person, but by hordes of hideously deformed and leprous beggars. Likewise, the serene delight I felt at Shwedagon Pagoda and the appreciation of the simple faith of the devotees there, did not make the three strands of the Buddha’s hair said to be enshrine in the pagoda any more real to me. It is possible to have a regard for, sympathetic understanding of and even be moved positively by other people’s beliefs while ‘keeping your head.’     

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Few Good Books

Plenty of popular books on Buddhism come out nowadays, not all of them necessary very good. But the range and general high quality of academic books published on the subject each year is very impressive. Here are a few titles that have caught my attention, several of which I have been able to acquire.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Buddha And The Bomb

I think it’s true to say that Buddhism generally is and is for the most part thought of as being a peaceful religion. Given this it is curious how often the poor  old peace-loving Buddha has been associated in one way or another with instruments of death. The earliest known depiction of a gun is to be found in a painting of the Buddha being attacked by Mara’s army from Dunhuang (10th century) in China. In the top right-hand of the painting is one of Mara’s minions pointing a ‘fire lance’ (Chinese huo giang) at the Buddha. The fire lance was the prototype of the gun. Moving to our own times, in 1944 India initiated research into nuclear technology. One of the first parliamentary decisions of the newly independent country was to pass the Atomic Energy Act 1948 for developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but of course with an eye on building bombs. Mahatma Gandhi was safely dead. In 1954 the nuclear weapons program got into full swing and by 1974 the first bomb was ready for testing. The building and testing of this bomb was codenamed, somewhat eerily, “Smiling Buddha”.