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.