Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Monday, December 29, 2008
The Buddha’s funeral was arranged by the Mallas, the people of Kusinara, and was conducted very similar to they way royal funerals are described in the Ramayana and other later literature. The Mallas erected tents and awnings and spent several days honoring the Buddha’s body with incense and garlands and to the accompaniment of music and dancing. After six days of this, they washed their heads, dressed in new clothes and then put the body in an iron coffin, smeared it in oil and wrapped it in several layers of fine cloth (D.III,161-4). Then body was taken through the town, out through the gate and then cremated. The ashes or eminent people were usually then interned under an earthen mound (thupa) often situated at a crossroads (catumahapatha). In the case of the Buddha, his ashes were divided into eight, each portion being placed in such a mound.
Today, different Buddhist cultures conduct their funerals in different ways – from simple and dignified as in Sri Lanka or elaborate and colorful as in Thailand. In China, Vietnam and Tibet, the bodies of esteemed monks are sometimes mummified and in Tibet the bodies of ordinary people are sometimes dismembered and fed to vultures.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Friday, December 26, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
I think that the commercialization of the festival has robbed us of something special and meaningful and made our lives just that little more colorless. When we banish the spiritual dimension from religious festivals like Christmas our need for the nourishment they give forces us to 'invent' fake festivals like Moomba (in Australia) Chingay (here in Singapore) or Macys Parade (in New York) in an attempt to evoke something beyond just 'having a good time.' And such fake festivities are a poor substitute for celebrations like Christmas which have a 2000 year tradition behind them.
When someone says to me 'Happy Holidays' at Christmas I feel like hitting them over the head with my umbrella. Apparently this 'neutralized' and 'secularized' excuse for a blessing is ejaculated so that 'non-Christians will not feel excluded' or so they will 'not feel offended' by Happy Christmas. If you feel offended by someone wishing you happiness at a time they are happy, then I think there is something seriously wrong with you. And if you can't join others in their celebrations, even if the theology behind it does not correspond with yours, then I think you lack mudita. As usual, the Buddha had something to say that is relevant to this issue. He said that the sage would happily participate in Brahminacal sacrificial festivals (yanna) and traditional family celebrations (yajanti anukulam sada) where nothing against the Precepts was involved (S.I,76).
I wish all my readers and Christian friends and their families a most happy and joyous Christmas.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Friday, December 19, 2008
The Tipitaka often says that the Buddha was ‘welcoming, friendly, polite and genial’ towards everyone who came to see him (D.I,116). One of the traditional duties of a lay person was to make the fivefold offering, one of which was providing food, accommodation and help to guests (atithibali), a practice the Buddha approved of and encouraged (A.II,68). When a monk turned up at a monastery he asked the resident monks to go out and meet him, prepare a seat for him, bring him water to wash his feet, prepare accommodation for him and do other things to make him feel welcome. The Buddha considered failure to reciprocate hospitality to be very bad form. He said, ‘Whoever goes to another’s house and is fed but does not feed them when they come to his house, consider him an outcaste’ (Sn.128).
Today, with hotels and rapid transportation hospitality to travelers as practiced in the past is less relevant and less necessary. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to welcome and help strangers. It is always a bit daunting being a newcomer to the Buddhist group, the office or the neighborhood. Befriending such people, showing them the ropes and introducing them to others is an expression of kindness.
A type of indirect hospitality common in the Buddhist world until recently was making provisions for travelers and pilgrims. People would build rest houses (avasatha) on the edge of villages or towns or along roads where there was a long distance between villages. Other devote folk would undertake to supply these rest houses with firewood for cooking and water for drinking and to keep them clean. The Buddha said that planting tree (probably along roads), building bridges, digging wells, building rest houses and providing water for wayfarers were meritorious deeds (S.I,33). This last custom is still very popular in Burma. Groups of friends form what are called water-donating societies (wainay ya thukha) and undertake to place water pots along roads for the convenience of passersby.
I have come to know that this lovely old custom continues to linger on even in modern urbane Singapore where you can buy a Coke or a Pepsi on every corner. The Thong Teck Temple just down Balestier Rd from me has a water stall in front of it (left picture). Burmese workers and students in Singapore congregate at Peninsular Plaza on the weekends. I notice that one of the Burmese shopkeepers there has put a water stall out in front of his shop (right).
When I was in Taiwan I arrived at a railway station and was met by the people I was to stay with. Just as we were about to leave the station it began to rain. My friends went to a stand near the station entrance, got three umbrellas from it and we went out to the car park. ‘Where did you get the umbrellas from?’ I asked. My friend replied, ‘Here in Taiwan some Buddhist organizations arrange to have umbrellas put at train and bus stations for the convenience of travelers.’ I was very impressed by this practical and thoughtful act of kindness. But when I thought a bit more about it I could see that there could be a problem with it. I said, ‘But if people keep taking umbrellas the Buddhist organizations must continually have to keep providing umbrellas.’ ‘Oh no’ said my friend, ‘people who use the umbrellas always return them.’ I was even more impressed.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
From the Sadharmapundarika Sutra
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Now this is a Buddhist blog so what am I doing going on about the Ramayana? Well, here is another fact that I suspect you didn’t know. The earliest version of the great epic is the Buddhist one, the one found in the Jatakas (No 461). It’s called the Dasaratha Jataka, Dasaratha being of course Rama’s father. Now although the Dasaratha Jataka is immediately identifiable as a version of the Ramayana it differs greatly from most other versions. For example, Rama and Sita are siblings, not husband and wife; Dasaratha does not banish them but sends them away to protect them from their jealous step-mother; they are exiled to the Himalayas, not to Dandaka in the Deccan; there is no reference to Lanka or Ravana; Rama and Sita return to Benares not to Ayodhya after their exile, and somewhat uncomfortably, they then marry.
Now reading Valmiki’s Ramayana (and I confess to not having read it all) one discovers little bits of Buddhism popping up here and there throughout it. For example, the story of King Sibi giving his eyes to the blind man (Jataka No 499) is there. I strongly suspect that the exile of Vessantra as told in the Vessantra Jataka (No 549) was the inspiration for Rama and Sita’s exile in Valmiki’s Ramayana, although I don’t know what scholars say about this. Having said all this, it is also true to say that the Dasaratha Jataka is not a literary masterpiece and Valmiki’s Ramayana definitely is. It is nowhere near as long (is any poem?), it lacks its narrative charm and excitement, and its didactic elements are much more limited. If you are interested in reading the Ramayana (and you have 6 month to spare) have a look at http://www.valmikiramayan.net/ where you will find the Sanskrit text and a word by word translation of it with notes. I have not been able to find the Dasaratha Jataka on the internet.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
On one hand I’m happy that something I have written has found such a wide readership and done so much to introduce people to the Dhamma or help them understand it better. On the other I'm a bit frustrated that this book rather than some of my other far more ‘mature’ ones is so popular. It is after all, a very basic, simple and apologetic piece of writing. When I was invited to address the Buddhist group at Cambridge University I literally cringed when I was introduced as ‘…and the author of that wonderful book Good Question Good Answer.’ At Cambridge University for goodness sake! Nonetheless, I am intrigued by why it is so popular. I often ask people why they like it so much and they all pretty much say the same thing – easy to read, catchy analogies, complex ideas simply explained and answers to ‘the very questions I had been asking myself.’ Sadly, it’s a formula I have been unable to repeat in any of my other books.
If you haven’t read it and want to have a look at it go to www.goodquestiongoodanswer.net If you read Serbo-Croatian have a look at the new translation into that language at http://www.yu-budizam.com/lib/dhammika/dhammika.html.
Monday, December 15, 2008
I suspect that that insidious American disease political correctness is at work here and indeed it is mainly in American Buddhist publications that I see these terms. But if it is political correctness then it is a poorly considered expression of it. 'Female monk' clearly still tips the balance towards the masculine gender; you are merely a female version of the male. If you genuinely wanted to redress the gender prejudice and add a bit of affirmative action language as well, you should actually start calling priests male priestesses and monks male nuns.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
To bring love, peace and happiness to the self and the world at large.
To assist and facilitate the building of a favorable environment for basic health and education for the less fortunate.
Members of the FFM are primarily Singaporean Buddhists who join in as volunteers to participate in its projects, contributing their time, money and energy. They come from all walks of life and of all ages. The humanitarian projects undertaken by the FFM now cover Myanmar, Thailand, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The projects focus on three main areas - health, education and social welfare. In the area of health, FFM has provided medicine, medical equipment and ambulances where they are needed. It has also financed the building of clinics and hospitals. In education, it has provided funds for the construction or upgrading of schools and students’ hostels in several villages in southern Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It has donated books, school uniforms and computers, and paid for teachers’ salaries and student bursaries in Myanmar, Thailand and Nepal. In social welfare, it has donated a variety of things to meet people's needs. These include blankets, sewing machine and food supplies. It has provided funds for the building of orphanages and community halls in several places. It has also donated substantially to monasteries and temples in theses countries.
When Cyclone Nargis hit the delta regions in Myanmar on 2nd May 2008, the FFM quickly went into action to organize disaster relief. Members opened their purses to make donations. Essential food and medical items were purchased and arrangements were made for a team of volunteers to get to the disaster areas. On 17th May, four volunteers were on their way there. It was to find that it was the first civilian non-medical group to make it to ground zero. It went to work immediately to distribute medicine and food to the victims. That first team distributed some 500 kg of medical supplies and 20 tons of food items such as rice, lentils and cooking oil. With the help of the local partners, it was able to quickly assess the most urgent need in the rehabilitation programmed. It immediately provided funds for the repairs to schools, orphanages and monasteries which served as relief centers. Since then, three more teams of volunteers have been to the disaster areas to continue with the relief work. FFM will continue its efforts to bring help to the cyclone victims. Programmers for mid-term and long-term rehabilitation have been drawn up. They include rebuilding of schools, orphanages and clinics.
The FFM has over the years set up a network of local partners in the countries where it is active. Most of the local partners are well-respected Sangha members and they help to oversee its projects at the ground level. It has proved to be a good, practical way to ensure local cooperation and proper coordination as well as accountability for the funds disbursed to them. The FFM observes a strict accountability for all donations it receives from members and well-wishers. It adopts a zero cost policy for overhead so that every cent received from donations goes towards funding of its humanitarian and disaster relief projects. There is no permanent office and meetings are held in temples or members’ homes. Administrative and travel expenses are borne by members/volunteers out of their own pockets even when they travel out of Singapore. For more information on the Fire Fly Mission, visit its website: http://www.fireflymission.org/
Friday, December 12, 2008
The book you hold in your hand is written by someone who has reached that time which we will all come to sooner or later - where the portion of life is about to end and a new one begin. For some, that time will be brief and comfortable, for the writer it is proving to be drawn-out and difficult. Like so much in life, we cannot chose which of these two we will have. There is however, one thing we can choose - how we spend that time. The Buddha said; ‘Train yourself like this, “Though my body be sick, my mind shall not be sick.’ ” I know that Abhinyana’s body is sick, very sick, ‘in the grip of an octopus’, as he puts it. But reading this, his summing up, it is obvious that his mind is still as clear and sharp as ever. And as always, he writes with honesty and directness. He clarifies the Dharma and urges his readers to give up the superstitions that infest so much traditional Buddhism and return to the simple, straightforward and commonsense teachings. That old piquant sense of humor is still there too, poking fun at others’ foibles as well as his own. What is missing is regret, maudlin reflections and ‘if onlys’. I assume this is because Abhinyana doesn’t have any. If you can face your end as you lived you life then you are doing okay. Abhinyana and I first met years ago, our paths diverged, met again and again went off in different directions. Now we have come together once more, this time via the internet, and are soon to part for good in this life. I don’t know if he will take with him anything I was able to give him. But I do know that I will long retain some of the things he gave me - an uproariously funny story, a barbed-comment that brought me back down to earth, a new angle on one of the Buddha’s sayings, genuine if sometimes difficult friendship. To all of us he gives these ‘parting shots’.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, quoth he;
'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a rope!
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The background to the Buddha telling this parable goes like this. Some monks in Savatthi noticed a group of non-Buddhist monks quarrelling with each other about some philosophical or theological issues. Later, they mentioned what they had seen to the Buddha and he said, 'Wanderers of other sects are blind and unseeing. They don’t know the good and the bad and they don’t know the true and the false. Consequently they are always quarrelling, arguing and fighting, wounding each other with the weapon of the tongue' Then the Buddha related his famous parable. 'Once here in Savatthi, the king called a certain man and said, "Assemble together in one place all the men in Savatthi who were born blind." Having done as the king commanded, the king then said to the man, "Now show the blind men an elephant." Again the man did as the king commanded, saying to each as he did, "Oh blind man, this is an elephant and this is its head. This is its ear. This is its tusk. This is its trunk. This is its body. This is its leg. This is its back. This is its tail. This is the end of its tail." This having been done the king addresses the blind men saying, "Have you seen an elephant?" and they replied "We have sire." "And what is an elephant like?" he asked. And the one who had touched the head said, "An elephant is like a pot." while the one who had touched the ear said, "An elephant is like a winnowing basket." The one who had touched the tusk said, "An elephant is like a plough pole" while the one who had touched the trunk said, "It is like a plough." The one who had touched the body said, "It is like a granary" and the one who had touched the leg said, "It is like a pillar." The one who had touched the back said, "It is like a mortar", the one who had touched the tail said, "It is like a pestle" while the one who had touched the end of the tail said, "An elephant is like a broom." Then they began to quarrel saying, "Yes it is!" "No it isn’t!" "An elephant is like this!" "An elephant is like that!" until eventually they began fighting with each other.' Having told this story the Buddha summed up its meaning in a terse little verse -
And having seized hold of them they wrangle,
Like those who see only one side of a thing.
I notice that the Wikipedia article on this famous parable says that the blind men touch eight pachyderm parts while K. N. Jayatilleke (usually a very careful scholar) says there are ten. In fact, there are nine. I really love the Buddha's comparisons. You can see women using winnowing baskets (sup or supli in Hindi, suppa in Pali) is any Bihari village even today and they do look just like an elephant's ear. The elephant's tail and the broom is a good comparison too. The back with the pestle is less obvious. Could it be referring to the long ridge of the backbone which can so easily be seen under the elephant's skin?
After the Udana, the earliest mention of the parable of the blind men and the elephant is to be found in the Syadvadamanjari, a Jain work where it is used to illustrate the Jain doctrine of relativity of truth (anekantavada). This doctrine states that 'every view is true from some standpoint (naya) or other and in general no view can be categorically false.' Boy! Wouldn’t New Agers love this one if they knew of it! After this the blind men and their elephant run all over the place. They appear in Brahmanical and Hindu works, in some Persian collections of stories and even in one of the works of the Turkish Sufi mystic Rumi. Today there are numerous children's books about it or which include it. If you would like to see a careful and accurate word by word translation of the whole sutta in which the parable of the blind men and the elephant appears have a look at Venerable Anandajoti's www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Texts-and-Translations/Udana/6-Jaccandhavaggo-04.htm
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
First, we need to know how the mass of hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect that the souls in hell to increase expeditiously. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in hell because Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the volume of hell has to expand to stay the same the volume of hell has to expand proportionally as souls are added. This gives two possibilities; (1) If hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase and all hell will break loose. (2) If hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in hell, them the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over. So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, 'It will be a cold day in hell before I sleep with you' and take into account the fact that I did sleep with her last night, then the number two must be true, and thus I am sure that hell is exothermic and has already frozen over. The corollary of this theory is that since hell has frozen over, it follows that no more souls are going there and it is therefore, extinct, leaving only heaven, thereby confirming the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting 'Oh my God!'
That pretty much exhausts the subject or hell and purgatory. From tomorrow I will move on to more important and useful subjects.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
In Thailand and Laos there are many stories about an arahat named Phra Malai who is supposed to have come from Sri Lanka. According to popular legend, Phra Malai uses his supernormal powers to go into purgatory to teach the Dhamma with the same motives as Ksitigarbha. Generally I don’t have a very high opinion of popular Thai Buddhism but this is one of its manifestations that I do appreciate. It is interesting to consider the difference in the mentality and culture that produced the legend of the wrathful deity who condemns beings to eternal hell without hope or reprieve, and the ones that gave rise to the legends about Ksitigarbha and Phra Malai.
A study of the Phra Malai legend has just been published called Thai Telling of Phra Malai-Text and Rituals of a Popular Buddhist Saint by Bonnie Brerton. It is not particularly interesting (all anthropology, no Dhamma), but it will give you some idea about the beliefs and stories surrounding Phra Malai.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
But now we know that all this grief and despair were unnecessary because the Church has recently announced that in fact there is no such place as limbo. In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger, then in charge of the Vatican’s board of doctrine and now Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he was ‘personally’ in favor of scrapping the idea of limbo, which he termed a mere ‘hypothesis.’ In April 2007 he approved of a 41 page document drafted by the International Theological Commission which suggested abolishing the idea. It had taken the Commission two years to conclude their deliberations and announce their recommendations. ‘We cannot know with certainty what will happen when an unbaptized baby dies’, said Paul McParthian, ‘but we have good grounds to hope that God in his mercy and love looks after these children and brings them salvation.’ Mmm. Interesting. It seems to me that this solves one problem but creates another. If all unbelievers and even Christians who sin can be condemned to hell, but babies who die at birth are saved, then surely it would be better to die early than to survive infancy and perhaps be brought up as a Buddhist or become a sinner. Better still I suppose would be to be aborted before birth. I’m just a simple monk. I just don’t understand theology.
The picture above is, I believe, of limbo as imagined by a Baroque artist. It doesn't look too bad does it? But I wonder how that teenager snuck in. And what are those cats doing there? Perhaps some cold-hearted person drowned them before they were baptized.
Friday, December 5, 2008
And what about ghosts? The Rg Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, speaks of the ‘realm of the fathers’ (pitarah), a sort of shadowy world where everyone went when they died. In later centuries this term fused with the term preta, ‘departed’ and led to the creation of the word peta and the idea of a ghostly realm or existence (Pali pettivisaya, later petaloka ‘ghost world’). Brahmanism later developed the idea that making offerings to ghosts could raise the quality of their gloomy existence. The Buddha mentioned that one of the reasons people wanted a son was so he could make offerings to them after they had died (A.III,43). A brahmin mentioned to the Buddha that he made saddha offerings to the departed (A.V,269), a practice you can still being done in Gaya to this day. The Buddha seems to have taken this belief for granted or at least saw that it might grow out of kindly motives and he encouraged some people to make offerings to the departed. Typically, he added an ethical dimension to the belief, saying that not everyone, but people who had been immoral might get reborn in the ghost world. He said, ‘By knowing his mind with mine, I have known a certain man who because of his behavior has taken such a path so that after the breaking up of the body he will be reborn as a ghost and will experience much painful feelings. It is just like a tree growing on rocky ground with sparse foliage and casting an uneven shadow. One man might see another, exhausted by the heat of the day, weary, parched and thirsty, going on a path that leads directly to that tree and later he would actually see him sitting or lying in the shade of that tree experiencing much discomfort’ (M.I,75). It seems that the early Buddhists incorporated the existing Brahminical belief in the ghost realm into their cosmology and then had to distinguish it from purgatory. They did this by saying that the committing of prolonged evil would result in rebirth in purgatory, lesser evil or evil associated with craving, longing and wanting would result in rebirth in the ghost realm.
Interestingly, the Buddha considered ‘talk about ghosts’ (petakatha) to be unedifying and unbecoming for serious Dhamma practitioners (D.I,8). The Petavatthu would by any interpretation qualify as ‘talk about ghosts.’ It is also interesting to note that the Thai Sangha has never recognized either the Petavatthu or the Vimanavatthu as canonical. All scholars who have examined the Petavatthu – Rhys Davids, H. S. Gehman and Prof. Abhayanayaka – ascribe to it a late date. Winternitz wrote that it ‘probably belongs to the latest stratum of literature assembled in the Pali Canon.’
The pictures are of petas as imagined by medieval Japanese artists.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
A man claiming to be God and wanting recognition of his divine status on Thursday failed to get the judicial endorsement he had sought. The Bombay High Court rejected 30-year-old Dharmendra Mishra's application, saying it was not in its jurisdiction to respond to his prayers. 'I am Vishnu, Buddha and Christ. I know everything that goes around,' said Mishra, who also pleaded with the court that he should be given the reins of the country and the UN as he was God. The matter came up before a division bench of acting Chief Justice J. N. Patel and Justice S. C. Dharmadhikari, who dismissed Mishra's plea. Mishra, a resident of Kurla who works in a call centre, claimed in his petition that he had written to the President, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterji, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Chief Justice of India K. G. Balakrishnan about his divinity. He stated in his petition that his wife is Laxmi, and that she recollects her previous births. Mishra also told reporters that he was ready to undergo a cyanide test and claimed he would not die. From The Times of India.
I reckon they should give him the job. He couldn’t make a bigger mess of it and if he really is God he might become very nasty if he doesn't get what he wants.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
But this set me thinking about the similarities in religions when it comes to mythology, symbolism and imagery. Take holy beings with animal features. A very popular Christian saint used to be St Christopher Cynocephalus who is always depicted with a dog’s head. The reason for this is a fascinating one but you’ll have to look it up for yourself. Of course there are no Theravadin or Mahayanist bodhisattvas or Buddhas with animal features, despite my Christian visitor’s opinion to the contrary.
And what about the multi-headed thing? My inquirer was probably unaware that her god often used to be depicted with three faces which looks no less strange than the four-faced Shiva or Brahma. The three-faced God was how medieval artists attempted to represent the Trinity. Then take the guardians of the four directions (catummakarajika deva). According to Buddhist cosmology, each of the four cardinal directions are presided over by a god or spirit; Kuvera in the north, Virulaka in the south, Dhatarattha in the east and Virupakha in the west (D.II,209). The gates of ancient Indian Buddhist temples and monasteries always had images or paintings of these gods on them, a custom that continues in China and Tibet. Beyond this, these deities have no doctrinal significant in Buddhism. Now in the Book of Revelation from the Bible (a veritable treasure house of rich symbolism) it mentions ‘four angles standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree’ (Rev.7,1). The only difference between this and the Buddhist myth is that the early Christians thought the earth was rectangular whereas the Buddhists knew it to be round or spherical. In the corners of European world maps until well into the 18th century these angles were commonly depicted, usually blowing air across the landscape. I would have to admit that Buddhism has no equivalent to the Bible’s seven angles with their trumpets (Rev.8,6), Michael fighting the dragon (Rev.12,7) or Jesus with eyes like blazing fires, a sword coming out of his mouth and dressed in a robe dripping with blood (Rev.19,11-15), but this is no less strange that the 32 Signs of a Great Man. One person’s symbols are another person’s devils.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
In the meantime have a look at this. This picture really has nothing to do with the Dhamma but I liked it so much I just had to share it with you. Contrary to common opinion, not the South American Anaconda but the Indian Python, Python molurus is the world’s biggest snake. In Pali they were known as ajjakara, literally ‘goat-eater’ and some are indeed big enough to swallow goats, calves, dogs and small deer. In the Jataka it says ‘pythons are not poisonous but they are very strong. They wrap their coils around any human or animal who comes near them and crush them’ (Ja.VI,507). Last time I visited the Lucknow Zoo (known in the animal world as ‘the Belsen of the East’) they had one that was absolutely enormous. The men in this picture look Latino so I assume the snake they are holding is not an Indian Python. Nonetheless, it’s a very impressive reptile.
Friday, November 21, 2008
From the 1st of next month I will be having a no souls bared - eh! sorry, that should be 'no holes bared' - look at hell, the subject that no one likes to talk about. I hope you'll log on for it.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
One of the most interesting parts of the program dealt with how Buddhist manuscripts came into vogue among the collectors, and it was implied that in this respect too scholars had become pawns in the games of the market-makers. The investigators managed to interview a London-based smuggler, who said that when the manuscripts started to come on to the market in 1993 and 1994, there was hardly any demand for them. The situation changed when the British Library acquired a number of manuscripts. When announcing the acquisition, the manuscripts were hailed as a sensational discovery and comparable in significance to the Dead Sea scrolls. The program interviewed Graham Shaw, who is responsible for the Asian collections at the British Library, and who said that the manuscripts were first brought to the Library ‘for advice on conservation’. This sounds like an innocent motive for bringing texts to a library, but in the program it was suggested that the real reason for making this material known to the British Library was more sinister. It may have been a marketing strategy, based on the calculation that an acquisition by such a prestigious institution would stimulate the market. Regardless of whether the British Library was deliberately manipulated or not, the news of its acquisition aroused the interest of collectors. Among the collectors who were now eager to acquire this kind of material was Martin Schøyen, who in 1996 made his first purchase of Buddhist manuscript fragments from Sam Fogg. By 1998 he had bought 10,000 manuscript fragments. When the NRK interviewer suggested to Shaw on screen that the British Library, by its act of acquisition, had stimulated the market and started off a looting campaign, Shaw did not seem very happy. He said he refused to answer such a ‘totally unfair question’, stood up, took off the microphone, and walked off. The program did not give further details on how the manuscripts were acquired by the British Library, but an article in The Art Newspaper reported that '…the scrolls had been sold by Robert Senior, a coin dealer who is currently based in Somerset. The purchase price has never been disclosed, but it has been suggested that the texts were purchased and donated to the library by Neil Kreitman, a specialist in Gandharan art and son of the late Hyman Kreitman, chairman of Tesco supermarkets.' According to this article, the manuscripts are believed to have been looted near Hadda in Afghanistan in 1992. Another article reports that the purchase price was ‘a five-figure sum’. The British Library defended its acquisition by arguing that the manuscripts were in need of urgent conservation work and that the Library wanted to make them ‘available to the international scholarly community’. Clearly there is a moral dilemma when material of great scholarly value but with uncertain provenance is offered on the market. Any scholar may instinctively feel an urge to rescue the material by acquiring it, especially if it comes from a war-torn country where there are no functioning institutions able to take care of it. Yet, in the case of the manuscripts acquired by the British Library, the alleged price throws some doubt on the notion that the British Library saved them. Does not the five-figure price suggest that there were other prospective saviours available and that the Library was in competition with them? Why did the British Library have to compete with them? Which collector, willing to pay a five-figure sum, would have refused to make the material available to scholars? Collectors do not hide away their collections. Collectors want their collections to be studied as it enhances their own social status, as well the collection’s economic value.
Looting will only come to a halt when collectors refuse to purchase unprovenanced material. Of course, even without a market, chance finds would still be made, and it could be argued that if the objects appearing this way were devoid of monetary value they would be destroyed. A case in point would be the above-mentioned Zargaraan manuscripts which started to blow over the countryside after a landslide. Still, any acquisitions of material of great scholarly importance from another country should only be made by, or on behalf of, an internationally-recognized body, with the purpose of keeping the material in trust until conditions permit its return to the country of origin. The only acceptable forms of acquisition are by donation or, if purchase is absolutely necessary, by payment of modest sums that will not spur further looting. Public information about acquisitions has to be worded so as not to stimulate commercial interest in the type of material in question. Acquisitions should not be made by public or private collectors who confuse a desire to enrich their own collections with protecting the world’s cultural heritage, and who directly or indirectly inject large sums of money into the trade.
This truly shocking and excellently produced program made an impact in Norway and abroad. Two days after the broadcast of the first part of the program, Oslo University decided to put a halt to research on the manuscripts. The same day, the Pakistani ambassador to Norway demanded the return of the Gilgit manuscripts to Pakistan. Schøyen, apparently taken aback by the media attention, quickly replied that he agreed to repatriate them, and in March 2005 they were handed over to the Pakistani embassy. He also offered to return the manuscript fragments stolen from the Kabul Museum. However, what he intends to do with the remaining Afghani manuscripts in his possession is uncertain. Afghanistan’s Minister of Culture, Sayyed Raheen, had already in 2003 made a claim for restitution. Schøyen refused to give them back at the time and there is no indication that he has changed his mind since. In view of Schøyen’s indifference to the Afghan request, it might be worth quoting the words of Sayyed Raheen, who was interviewed in the program. Raheen recalled the calamities which had befallen Afghanistan, with 1.5 million dead during 23 years of conflict, and said: ‘I hope everyone will think about the moral duty they have regarding the people of Afghanistan, and I am sure no man with clear mind and heart will take advantage of our disastrous situation.’ As a result of the program, the Afghan government have now also requested the return of the scrolls in the British Library. A spokesman for the British Library has said that ‘the library would be willing to consider a claim’, but the outcome of this consideration is not yet known. UCL has launched an enquiry into the provenance of the magic bowls, though it has not yet reached any conclusions. In March 2005 Braarvig declared he would resign from his position as coordinator of research and publication of the material in the Schøyen collection. In April 2005 the program was awarded a prize for excellence in investigative journalism by the Norwegian Foundation for Investigative Journalism. From the internet. The picture shows an ancient Buddhist carving in Gilgit recently defaced.
As unscrupulous as they can be, without dealers and buyers all these manuscripts would have been used to boil water for tea. My feeling is that it was a mistake returning these priceless Buddhist treasures to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries have consistently shown themselves unable and even uninterested in preserving their pre-Islamic heritage.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
In 2001, the year that the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, Martin Schøyen made the headlines. In newspaper articles and radio interviews he revealed that he had in his possession a large collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts and manuscript fragments that had been saved from the Taliban regime. In a radio interview Schøyen related the following story about the origin of the manuscripts: Buddhists in Afghanistan, seeking refuge from the regime and hiding in caves had discovered the manuscripts. The Buddhists sent out requests for help to save these ancient manuscripts and Schøyen mounted ‘a rescue operation to save a part of the world’s cultural heritage, which otherwise would have been destroyed’. According to Schøyen, the manuscripts were smuggled out of Afghanistan by refugees as they were perused by the Taliban. Schøyen also related that he had in his possession all the fragments of a book that, he claimed, had been below the hand of a Buddha statue the regime had blown up. Having rescued these manuscripts, Schøyen wanted them to remain in safety in Norway. He hoped the collection would be purchased by the Norwegian government for the National Library and placed in a new, specially-constructed building. Schøyen’s asking price for the collection is not known, but in 2003 he turned down an offer of over $110 million. In short, according to Schøyen’s testimony, he had saved an important part of the global cultural heritage from certain destruction, and his implication was that for this altruistic ‘rescue operation’ he deserved public gratitude and a monetary reward. Yet, the NRK investigators asked: what were the exact circumstances of Schøyen’s rescue operation? Were the manuscripts really saved from the Taliban? Where and when were they actually found? To answer these questions, the NRK team went to Bamiyan where they met with the archaeologist Kazuya Yamauchi, who was working at the site. Yamauchi explained that he had never found any manuscripts in the caves at Bamiyan, and that the caves had been thoroughly looted long before the Taliban came to power. But Yamauchi also told them that when he had visited the town of Zargaraan, east of Bamiyan, he had heard that in 1993 a landslide had uncovered a cave and a strong wind had blown manuscript fragments across the countryside. Yamauchi believed that Zargaraan could be the true find spot of the manuscripts in the Schøyen collection.
Schøyen refused to be interviewed for the documentary, but Jens Braarvig, professor of Religious Studies at Oslo University, and the person in charge of publishing the Schøyen manuscripts, admitted on camera that there is no reason to believe that the manuscripts are not from Zargaraan. If this is the case, the investigators concluded, then it means that the story about the manuscripts being saved from the Taliban is false. The investigators uncovered more disturbing facts. During the civil war in Afghanistan the National Museum in Kabul was looted and lost over 70% of its collection, including its collection of Buddhist manuscripts. The NRK program revealed that two, probably six, manuscript fragments in the Schøyen collection came from the National Museum. This fact had been known to Schøyen, Braarvig and other scholars publishing the manuscripts since 1998, but they had not made it publicly known, nor had they informed the Kabul Museum that they had the fragments. It was not until the NRK investigators started to make inquiries that Schøyen wrote a letter to the Afghani authorities and offered to return the fragments to the Museum. But there was more. The investigators discovered that many manuscript fragments in the Schøyen collection were not even from Afghanistan. It appears that, after initial purchases from Sam Fogg and other London dealers, Schøyen attempted to cut out these intermediaries and to buy closer to the ‘source.’ The program alleges that Schøyen started to deal directly with the smugglers.
The place where the objects were said to have been dug up is not named, but the investigators concluded that it was probably the town of Gilgit in northern Pakistan, which is known for its archaeological remains. The fact that the Schøyen collection contains material from Gilgit was confirmed by one of Schøyen’s suppliers, Bill Veres. Veres did not want to be interviewed, but in conversation with one of the NRK investigators (recorded with a hidden microphone) he said that in 1998 he had sold Schøyen a manuscript from Gilgit. The price paid was equivalent to £13,000. When interviewed, Braarvig reluctantly admitted that there were ‘a few leaves (from Pakistan) which had crept into the collection’. After the broadcast of the first part of the program, Schøyen confirmed that his collection contained between 200 and 300 manuscript fragments from Pakistan. To find out more about the source of the manuscripts, the NRK team travelled to Gilgit. After a long journey, passing through Peshawar, the main trading centre for drugs, arms and antiquities from Afghanistan, they eventually reached Gilgit. Here they met with Muzaffar Ali, a representative of the local administration. He related that for ages the ruins of monasteries and other archaeological remains had remained untouched because they were considered to be haunted by evil spirits. The situation changed one night in April 1994. That night a group of looters arrived. They started digging in the ruins and found books and other antiquities. After the looters had left, the poor people from the neighborhood also tried their luck in the ruins. Among them was the shepherd Mohammed Iqbal, who told the NRK team that he had dug up a book with several hundred pages and later sold it for R. 270,000 (£2500), equal to about 10 years income for him. He was later told that the book had been sold in Peshawar for a price equivalent to £40,000. Its later whereabouts are unknown, but according to Bill Veres it may well have been the book he sold to a Japanese collector for a price equivalent to £200,000. Schøyen had been offered the book first but did not bid more than £80,000.
At Gilgit, the NRK team documented ample evidence for the destructive consequences of looting. The site was littered with pottery fragments. The Pathan looters had found the manuscripts stored in jars and in their hurry to retrieve them they had broken the jars into pieces. This violent treatment had also damaged the manuscripts. The investigators were told by Iqbal that when he arrived at the site he had found around some 500 manuscript fragments spread over the area. Believing that these were ‘bewitched Hindu texts’ and apparently unaware that small manuscript fragments could also be sold, Iqbal and his friends used them as fuel when making tea. At the site the NRK team was shown a shallow Buddha relief on a mountain slope around which the first group of Pathan looters had drilled holes for explosives. They had planned to detach the Buddha with dynamite, but aborted the attempt. The investigators could only conclude that the true circumstances of the origins of the Buddhist manuscripts were less flattering for Schøyen than the saga he had told. The manuscripts were not saved from the Taliban in a rescue operation. They had come into his possession through a totally unrelated route. They had been bought on the art market, sometimes directly from smugglers. Some of the material was not even from Afghanistan. These facts had been known to Schøyen and a number of scholars for years, but they had kept the information to themselves.