Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Body

The Body
The body (kaya) is the physical structure of the individual. According to the Buddha’s analysis, the body is one of the five constituents that make up the individual together with feelings, perception, mental constructs and consciousness, and consists of the elements of solidity, fluidity, caloricity and space (D.II,294). He describes the body as “material, made of the four elements, derived from mother and father, maintained on rice and gruel, impermanent, liable to injury and abrasion, being broken and destroyed, bound up with consciousness and dependent on it” (D.I,76). Following the medical theories of the time, he identified 31 significant body-parts - hair of the head, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, muscle tissue, ligaments, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, body oil, saliva, nasal mucus, lymphatic fluid and urine (M.I,57). Later commentators added a 32nd part, the brain. The body was also said to nine orifices (nava sota); the two eyes, ears and nostrils, the mouth, anus and urethra (Sn.197)
The Buddha said that physical attractiveness is a blessing (A.III,47) and who could argue with him. First impressions are important and being good-looking always creates a favourable impression. The Buddha saw a relationship between physical beauty and goodness, saying that one of the vipakas of virtue is good-looks (M.III,204). I must say, I have serious doubts about this but there it is! The five types of human beauty are beautiful complexion, beautiful hair, beautiful muscle structure, beautiful teeth and the beauty of youth (Ja.I,394). In the Buddha’s world a complexion which was “not too dark and not too fair” was considered the most desirable (M.I,88).
The Buddha recommended sometimes contemplating the unpleasant aspects of the body. This was not because he believed that the body is disgusting, but to balance the general tendency to regard only its pleasant and desirable aspects. A more complete and balanced understanding to the body can help lessen personal vanity and cool sexual desire. Many Westerners really recoil from the idea of the body as having an unpleasant aspect, let alone of thinking about it. If you are one of these types of people do this. Next time you go the pharmacy or the supermarket get a carry bag and put in it every item on sale meant to clean the body. Starting from the top of the head you would have - ordinary shampoo, anti-dandruff shampoo, facial cleaner, pimple cream, shaver and shaving soap, tissues for the nose, cotton buds for the ears, toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, perhaps a tongue cleaner, body soap, under arm deodorizer, perfumes, toilet paper, the various things women need for their monthly period, shaver for the legs, cutters used to cut and clean under the nails and foot deodorizer. When I was waiting to for a connecting flight at Frankfurt Airport I saw in a pharmacy a can of ‘men’s intimate deodorizer’ but I’ve never seen it anywhere else so you will probably not find any either. The body needs all these cleaners because it has an unpleasant side and sometimes it can be salutary to contemplate this.
The Buddha also recommended occasionally contemplating death, that is, the inevitable fact that the body will sooner or later cease to function, either because of sickness or old age, and then rapidly disintegrate. I have always found that those who are really enthusiastic about doing this contemplation are the very ones who shouldn’t and the ones who shy away from doing it should. Again, this contemplation can be a healthy balance to the ordinary thoughtless living.
Because of the close connection between body and mind, anyone practising meditation has to take into account the state of the body. The Buddha said that “bodily discomfort scatters the mind to externals” (S.V,156). He also said that “when the body is tired, the mind is distorted and when the mind is distorted it is far from concentrated” (M.I,116). Consequently, a relaxed comfortable body is an important prerequisite for successful meditation.
Appreciate your body but remember that one day you will have to leave it behind.
Treasure and maintain your health because one day it may go.
Enjoy your partner’s body but keep in mind that the highest joys are of the mind.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Square One

Back to Square One
Happened to see a copy of the Catholic Encyclopedia the other day and naturally turned to see what it says about Buddhism. Quite a shock! And not a very pleasant one. The Encyclopedia is a publication of the Church so presumably it represents the official Catholic position on Buddhism and everything else it covers. Anyway, its nice to know what they really think away from the protestations of mutual respect during inter-religious conferences. Buddhism is, it seems, just one of several similar religious movements that began in India in the 5th cent BCE. “These movements started with the same morbid view that conscious life is a burden and not worth the living, and that true happiness is to be had only in a state like dreamless sleep free from all desires, free from conscious action.” Buddhism is full of contradictions but that is hardly surprising because “Logical consistency is not to be looked for in an Indian mystic.” “The fundamental tenets of Buddhism are marked by grave defects that not only betray its inadequacy to become a religion of enlightened humanity, but also bring into bold relief its inferiority to the religion of Jesus Christ. In the first place, the very foundation on which Buddhism rests—the doctrine of karma with its implied transmigrations…is gratuitous and false. This pretended law of nature…is a huge superstition in flat contradiction to the recognized laws of nature.” “Another basic defect in primitive Buddhism is its failure to recognize man’s dependence on a supreme God. By ignoring God and by making salvation rest solely on personal effort, Buddha substituted for the Brahmin religion a cold and colourless system of philosophy. It is entirely lacking in those powerful motives to right conduct, particularly the motive of love, that spring from the consecration of religious men and women to the dependence on a personal all-loving God.” “Another fatal defect of Buddhism is its false pessimism. A strong and healthy mind revolts against the morbid view that life is not worth living, that every form of conscious existence is an evil. Buddhism stands condemned by the voice of nature the dominant tone of which is hope and joy. It is a protest against nature for possessing the perfection of rational life. The highest ambition of Buddhism is to destroy that perfection by bringing all living beings to the unconscious repose of Nirvana. Buddhism is thus guilty of a capital crime against nature, and in consequence does injustice to the individual.” “The cultivation of music is forbidden. Researches in natural science are discountenanced. The development of the mind is limited to the memorizing of Buddhist texts and the study of Buddhist metaphysics, only a minimum of which is of any value.” “Buddhism has accomplished but little for the uplifting of humanity in comparison with Christianity.” “Wherever the religion of Buddha has prevailed, it has proved singularly inefficient to lift society to a high standard of morality...It has shown itself utterly helpless to cope with the moral plagues of humanity. The consentient testimony of witnesses above the suspicion of prejudice establishes the fact that at the present day Buddhist monks are everywhere strikingly deficient in that moral earnestness and exemplary conduct which distinguished the early followers of Buddha.” The Encyclopedia goes on like this for several pages.
When the present pope was Cardinal Ratzinger he described the Orthodox Church as “a diseased limb of Christianity” and as pope in 2007 he reiterated the Catholic position that Protestant faith communities “are not true churches.” So I suppose these comments about Buddhism are hardly surprising. But they are also rather sad. I often meet Catholics prelates whose openness convince me that the Church’s arrogance, triumphalism and prejudice belong to the past. Then I read things like the Catholic Encyclopedia and its back as square one.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Monkey Mind

The Monkey Mind
The ‘monkey mind’ or ‘monkey-like mind’ (kapicitta) is a term occasionally used by the Buddha to describe the agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behaviour of ordinary human consciousness (see for example Ja.III,148; V,445). Once he observed: "Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night" (S.II,93). Anyone who has spent even a little time observing their own mind and then watched a troop of monkeys will have to admit that this comparison is an accurate and not very flattering one. On another occasion the Buddha said that a person with uncontrolled craving "jumps from here to there like a monkey searching for fruit in the forest" (Dhp.334). In contrast to this the Buddha asked his disciples to train themselves so as to develop "a mind like a forest deer" (miga bhutesu cetasa, M.I,450). Deer are particularly gentle creatures and always remain alert and aware no matter what they are doing.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Highest Limb

The Penis in Buddhism
The penis (angajata, linga, muttakarana, pullnga, purisa vyanjana or subha lakkhana in Pali) is the long fleshy appendage in males used for urination and reproduction and several other things which need not be mentioned here. According to the Tipitaka, one of the 32 Signs of a Great Man is that “the cloth-hidden is encased in a sheath” (kosohitavatthaguyha, M.II,135). This was interpreted to mean that the Buddha’s penis could be drawn into the body and remain there as with some animals like horses, bulls and elephants. The Gandhavyaha, a Mahayana work, says of the Buddha: “His genitals were ensheathed, well hidden, deep in the body as with a thoroughbred elephant or stallion. Even when naked, any woman, man, youth or girl, old, middle-aged or young person, whether lustful or potentially lustful, on seeing him would not have even the least desire”. Many of the Signs of a Great Man seem strange to the modern mind. Others however, including this one, probably had their origins in the ancient Indian concept of idealized beauty and auspiciousness. So for example, the banyan tree was considered sacred and the Buddha is supposed to have had the proportions of a banyan tree (nigrodhaparimandala), i.e. the length of his outstretched arms equalled his height. He is supposed to have had long curved eye lashes (gopakhuma) and a very long tongue (pahutajivha), both of which are features of the cow, an animal the Indians greatly revered.
Like the Greeks and Romans, the ancient Indians were great admirers of the human form including all aspects of the male physique. According to the Rg Veda, an attractive penis would be big and thick like a club. The Atharva Veda has a prayer to make the penis long and hard like a taut bow and also contains spells to make it as long as that of the wild ass, the elephant or the stallion. The Ramayana by contrast, describes the auspicious man as having a slender, short penis with a smooth glans and drooping testicles. The Kama Sutra classifies the human penis into three types – the hare, the bull and the elephant, without saying which of these types is best. The Buddha seems to have had an aesthetic appreciation for this part of the male at anatomy too. When referring to the penis he usually used the common polite words but sometimes used the more poetic term “the highest limb” (uttamanga, Ja.V,197). It seems probable that like the ancient Greeks, the Buddha’s contemporaries considered having a penis whose foreskin (kosa) remained over the glans (makula) when either flaccid or erect, to be a sign of beauty and nobility and that at a later period this physical characteristic was attributed to the Buddha. The Greeks called this anatomical particularity akroposthion and they considered it to be both attractive and decorous. The Greeks it seems, really did have a word for everything. It is worth noting that even some unenlightened men are mentioned in Buddhist literature as having a penis like this (e.g. Ja.V,197; Mahavamsa VI.11;57; Sn.1022).
According to the Lakkhana Sutta, a late addition to the Tipitaka, all the 32 Signs of a Great Man were physical manifestations of good deeds done in former lives. So for example, as a result of always speaking kindly and gently the Buddha was reborn with a long tongue. Because as a teacher he helped his students quickly understand what was being taught he was reborn with legs like a swift-running deer. And because he united long lost family members and friends “so that they rejoiced greatly” he was reborn with an ensheathed penis (D.III,161).
The ordinary penis, its function, its secretions and its ‘misuses’ often gets a mention in the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic rules. Some of these references are so explicit that when I. B. Horner translated the texts she left all of these references in the original Pali. The most important references to the penis concerns the four Parajakas. A monk or nun will be expelled from the monastic order if they commit four offences - (1) if they have sexual intercourse, (2) if they steal anything worth more than a few cents, (3) if they murder someone or (4) if they falsely claim to have any spiritual attainment. So that there can be no ambiguity as to exactly what constitutes sexual intercourse (methuna), this behaviour has to be exactly defined - and it is. According to the Vinaya, sexual intercourse is deemed to have occurred if the penis enters either the vagina, anus or mouth of any being, living or dead, even for the length of a sesame seed (tila phala, Vin.III,28), i.e. slightly less than 3 centimetres. Other types of sexual behaviour, while serious offences with specific punishments, do not entail expulsion from the Sangha.
From the Kushan to the Gupta period, Indian sculptors often depicted the Buddha or the Bodhisattva (i.e. Prince Siddhattha before his enlightenment) with his penis covered with but not hidden by his robe or dhoti. They must have done this because they considered this sign of a Great Man to be particularly important.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Waste Land

The Waste Land
T. S. Eliot was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century and his poem, The Waste Land, is considered his most important work. We ‘did’ it at school but it all went over my head. Filled with obscure historical, literary and mythical allusions and intricate patterns of symbolism, it portrays the modern world as empty and bereft of spiritual meaning. The third canto of The Waste Land is called The Fire Sermon after the Buddha's famous third discourse of the same name, the Adittapariyaya Sutta (S.IV,19-20). At the end of this canto, Eliot paraphrases the Buddha’s words repeated many times throughout the discourse, “Oh monks, all is burning” (Sabbam bhikkhave adittam) as “burning, burning, burning, burning!” By this the Buddha meant that the ordinary person is obsessed with sense pleasure and imagery and is burning with desire, hatred and delusion. For Eliot, these words were a powerful and unflinching comment on the vacuous way many people live.
Elliot had a deep appreciation for the Buddha’s teachings and had even studied some Buddhist scriptures. According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot, his “...attraction to Buddhism was not simply a philosophical one. Nirvana is extinction - the annihilation of desire, the freedom from attachment - and there was, as can be seen from his poetry, an over-riding desire in the young Eliot to be free.” If Eliot was stirred by the Buddha’s depiction of ordinary mundane existence, he must have been equally moved by the promise at the end of the Adittapariyaya Sutta that it is possible to rise above this way of being. “Seeing this, the well-instructed noble disciple turns away from the senses. Turning away from them his passions fade, with the fading of the passions he is free and when he is free he knows he is free.”
It is interesting to note that Eliot may have even taken a cue from the Buddha when he named his famous poem. The Buddha often described certain negative psychological states as being “a mental waste land” (cetokhila, e.g. A.V,17; M.I,101; S.V,57).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Island in the Stream

Venerable Piyapala, Viraj and I left Bodh Gaya at three in the morning and spent the next ten hours bumping over the pot-holed back roads of Bihar to get there. Other than those who live there and pilgrims from the surrounding area, few people go to Sultanganj, a small market town on the southern bank of the Ganges. While the town itself has nothing to recommend it and is miles from anywhere, it is the stop-off place for one of northern India’s most remarkable temples. Pilgrims come to the Ajgaibinath Temple at Jahangira and carry water from there all the way to Deoghar. One sees them in the streets, dressed in orange and carrying a pole on their shoulder with a brass water pots hanging from each end. My interest in Jahangira dates from the time when I began wondering where Vethadipa might be. Vethadipa is mentioned in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta as one of the eight places where the ashes of the Buddha were enshrined after his parinibbana (D.II,167). The name occurs nowhere else in the Tipitaka or in any other Buddhist literature as far as I know. Although it was obviously an island, (dipa means island) the land where the Buddha lived and taught is 800 miles from the sea, so the only other possibility is that Vethadipa was an island in a lake or a river, probably the Ganges. Although every monsoon flood creates sandy islands in the Ganges, there is only one permanent island along the whole length of the river, Jahangira.
We drove through Sultanganj’s narrow dusty streets, parked the car and made out way to the bathing ghats. As we came out of the lane and into the sunshine there it was – a cluster of huge boulders in the middle of the river with small temples and shrines perched on and around them, their whitewashed spires pointing up into the clear blue shy. It is quite a sight! We took a small boat over and had a look around. The temples themselves are ugly modern constructions, grimy and pokey. But the boulders that make up the island are covered with some of the finest sculptures to be seen anywhere in India outside a museum. There are lingams with Siva’s face on them, various Hindu gods and heroes, several statues of Ganesh and numerous images of Siva and Paravatti embracing and with the most ethereal smiles on their faces. The Buddhist sculptures are on the boulders on the southern side. The largest of these, a standing Buddha about 1.5 meters high and almost identical to the statues from Sarnath, has its right hand in the gesture bestowing blessings and a halo behind its head. To its left of the image is a small kneeling figure, probably the person who paid to have the image carved, and on its right is a niche with a smaller Buddha image in it. Nearby is a much-worn image of Tara holding a lotus. This and the Buddha image date from the 5th century and most of the other sculptures date from this same period and up to the 10th century. A little south of Jahangira is a rocky promontory called Murli Paha jutting out into the river. Here too the boulders are covered with fine sculpture, although the whole area is used by the locals as a toilet and stinks to high heaven. Despite its historical and artistic importance, the only archeological description of Jahangira was written by Rajendralal Mitra in 1864. I recently leafed through Dilip Chakarbarti's Archaeological Geography of the Ganges Plain expecting that such a meticulous and thorough archaeologist as Chakarbarti would have something to say about the place. But no. He mentions it but gives no new details. The place has been passed by, forgotten. But is Jahangira Vethadipa? The Buddhist sculptures there and those found in Sultanganj itself show that it was an important Buddhist centre from an early period, probably before it began being shared with and later dominated by the Hindus. Beyond that it is impossible to say. But one thing is certain. Jahangira is a an unusual and interesting place well worth a visit by those interested in seeing Bihar’s Buddhist heritage.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vimala Thakar

Meeting Vimalaji
I’ve met lots of them – Sai Baba, Ramesh Belsakar, the16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Amma Amritananda, Sakya Trizin, Guru Bhava, Achan Yantra, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Krishnamurti, Namki Norbu, U. Pandita - and the one who impressed me most was Vimala Thakar. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh were close runners up while the others were strung out at various places down the line. The Karmapa was last. Now that he had divided himself into two reincarnations, I’d have to meet both halves before I could revise this impression. What do you call the two new Karmapas? His Holiness the ½ 17th Karmapa and His Holiness the Other ½ 17th Karmapa? I’m just a simple monk so I don’t understand the protocol of Tibetan monastic hierarchs.
I had gone to Mt Abu to meet Vimala Thakar and after a bit of looking around I found her house. I knocked on the door, her secretary appeared and when I asked if I could see Vimalaji, she bid me to wait and disappeared back inside. Reappearing shortly afterwards, she ushered me in and led me to a room where Vimalaji was sitting in a large easy chair. Vimalaji rose as I came in and greeted me warmly. She was short, of stout build, with grey hair and wore a wispy pure-white sari. She also had a slight but serene smile on her face and dark, alert but restful eyes. I introduced myself and after giving her greetings from mutual friends in Sri Lanka, we has had a discussion that went for about an hour and a half. As to what she said I will deal with some other time. It very similar to Krishmamurti’s teachings but without his double-bind ‘if you ask how to do it this shows you don’t understand’ and was delivered without his emphatic, impatient tone. Vimalaji was clear, consistent and gave the impression of speaking ‘as one who knows.’ While I was deeply impressed by what she said I was equally impressed by what she was. Unlike nearly all the other ‘great’ teachers I have met Vimala Thakar was natural, unassuming and completely without formalities. In many ways she was rather ordinary - which probably explains why she never had the high profile or celebrity aura of many other teachers. She didn’t even have a fancy hat like the Karmapa. I, a nobody, turned up unannounced at her door and was immediately able to see her. She gave herself completely to me while we talked and it was I, not her, who brought the discussion to a close. She was content to let me ask my questions for as long as I wanted. When I left and Vimalaji’s secretary accompanied me out to the gate, I noticed on the right a large banyan tree with a circle of seats around it. ‘If you are having discussions would it be okay for me to join?’ I asked. The secretary replied, ‘The discussions are finished for the year. In fact, Vimalaji is quite ill and is leaving tomorrow to go down the mountain. She was packing when you came.’ I apologized for interrupting Vimalaji’s departure plans. “Its perfectly okay” the secretary said with a smile. “Vimalaji is happy to speak with anyone who comes.”
In the Vimamsaka Sutta the Buddha encouraged the prospective disciple to carefully examine a teacher before committing oneself to him or her and to carry out this examination over a period of time. The purpose of such examination is to allow the disciple to see if the teacher has the attainments they claim to have and that they practice what they preach. It is increasingly difficult to do this with most teachers nowadays. Most are surrounded by (or surround themselves with) an ‘inner circle’ who jealously guard their position by trying to keep everyone else in the ‘out group.’ Should you penetrate this barrier you are made to think how privileged you are to have been able to meet ‘His Holiness,’ ‘Guruji,’ ‘The Master,’ ‘Rimpoche.’ Long before you even see the teacher or hear him or her speak, slick brochures, personal endorsements and grandiose titles (my favorite is ‘an emanation of Manjusri’), sets the tone. So when the big moment comes, you don’t know whether you are experiencing what’s there or what you were told would be there.
All my study of the Tipitaka gives me the impression that the Buddha was, in this respect, not unlike Vimala Thakar. He was accessible to anyone, nothing was concealed and no image was projected. What you saw was what was there. His presence was not magnified by golden thrones, silk brocade or hats made out of dakini’s hair. You didn’t even have to buy a ticked to hear him teach the Dhamma. Like I said, Vimala Thakar was the most impressive teacher I have ever met and I was able to learn something from her simply because I was able to meet her.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Blue Lotus

The Blue Lotus
Its only a small point but I’ve always liked small points. Because of their diminutive size they are usually overlooked but if noticed they sometimes reveal something of interest and occasionally something of importance. The small point I am talking about here is the blue lotus. Lotuses of whatever color have quite a high profile in the Tipitaka. There are at least seven names for the lotus in Pali - aravinda, bhisapuppha, kamala, paduma, pokkhara, pundarika, and mulapuppha. The Milindapanha describes the flower as “shiny, soft, desirable, fragrant, liked, sought after, praised, unsoiled by water or mud, adorned with petals, filaments and pericarps, frequented by bees and growing in cool limpid water” (Mil.361). Lotuses grow best in still muddy ponds and when mature put forth exquisite blossoms which rise above the surface. This characteristic is often mentioned by the Buddha as being analogous to the enlightened person who lives in the world of ignorance and craving and yet rises above it to become pure and beautiful (Th.700). The Buddha also often compared the way drops of water slip off the lotus leaf to the way the enlightened person remains unaffected by the temptations and vicissitudes of the world (Dhp.401).
The botanical name for the lotus is Nelumbo necifera or sometimes the older name Nelumbium speciosum is still used. Botanists like giving plants two, three, four or even more names to a single plant; it helps confuse the lay man. In the same family as the lotus, i.e. Nympheaceae, is the water lily, Nymphaea lotus, a name which of courses further ‘muddies the water.’ Thus the lotus and the water lily are often confused despite the distinct differences between the two plants. Firstly, the lotus plant is much bigger than the water lily. The lotus has rounded concave petals, the water lily long narrow pointed ones. Lotus leaves have are slightly cone-shaped, have a powdery look and rise above the water while water lily leaves are flat, shiny and float on the surface of the water. The receptacle of the lotus looks something like an upturned cone with the seeds clearly visible in it while the water lily’s receptacle is hidden by all the golden-yellow pistils.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that in many translations of the Pali suttas you get sentences like, “Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses…” (e.g. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p.261). Now the problem is that there is no blue lotus. A blue lotus is a botanical chimera. No such flower exists or ever has. Lotuses a can be white and they can be pink or pink going on red, but they are never blue. Water lilies can be blue though. In the sentence quoted above the word translated as blue lotus is uppala while the two other words are paduma and pundarika. The Hindi word for the blue water lily is uppal. Indian Buddhist iconography usually (although not always) makes the distinction between the two flowers. The top picture of Padmapani (Lotus in Hand) depicts him holding what is clearly a lotus. The other picture, of Tara, shows her with what is unmistakably a water lily. Is this so important? Not really. Like I said, I just like small points.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Kingdom of the Mind

The Kingdom of the Mind
This beautiful little poem was written by Sir Edward Dyer (1543-1607). There may not have been Buddhists in Elizabethan England but is it clear that even without the Dhamma’s gentle and benign influence there are always a few people who ‘get it’ nonetheless. On the left is a manuscript with a sample of Sir Edward's hand writing.

MY mind to me a kingdom is;
Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
No shape to feed a loving eye;
To none of these I yield as thrall;
For why? my mind doth serve for all.

I see how plenty surfeits oft,
And hasty climbers soon do fall;
I see that those which are aloft
Mishap doth threaten most of all:
They get with toil, they keep with fear:
Such cares my mind could never bear.

Content I live, this is my stay;
I seek no more than may suffice;
I press to bear no haughty sway;
Look, what I lack my mind supplies.
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring.

Some have too much, yet still do crave;
I little have, and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have,
And I am rich with little store;
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I leave; they pine, I live.

I laugh not at another’s loss,
I grudge not at another’s gain;
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
My state at one doth still remain:
I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;
I loathe not life, nor dread my end.

Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
Their wisdom by their rage of will;
Their treasure is their only trust,
A cloakèd craft their store of skill;
But all the pleasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind.

My wealth is health and perfect ease,
My conscience clear my chief defence;
I neither seek by bribes to please,
Nor by deceit to breed offence:
Thus do I live; thus will I die;
Would all did so as well as I!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Snakes and Ladders

An 18th century Moksha Patanu board.

Snakes And Ladders
I have always liked the Jains. During my travels throughout India every Jain I have met without exception has been respectful, helpful and generous. When I visited Palitana in Gujarat the only problem was that they wouldn’t let me leave, so intent were they on offering me their hospitality. Now that I have discovered that the Jains invented Snakes and Ladders I like them even more. As a child, my older sister and I and the kids next door used to play this game all the time. I can still remember the snake’s head in the square Pride and its tail in the square Fall. Tradition says that the Jain saint Gaydev invented Snakes and Ladders in the 13th century to teach children the cardinal virtues. This story is perfectly plausible. Anyone who has ever stayed with Jain monks will know how diligently and creatively they minister to the lay community. The great Indiologist A. L. Basham thought that one of the reasons why Buddhism disappeared in India and Jainism didn’t was because of the attentiveness of the Jain monks towards the laity. It’s an interesting theory. The Jains call Snakes and Ladders Moksha Patamu, Liberation and Decline, which would be Mokkha Patana in Pali. I wonder if the Buddhists of ancient Gujarat played Snakes and Ladders too. The most ancient version of the game have 72 squares and the virtues are faith, reliability, generosity knowledge and simplicity. The vices are disobedience, vanity, rudeness, theft, dishonesty, drunkenness, debt, killing, anger, greed, pride and lust. The last square on the top left is Nirvana. What a delightful and fun way to teach children basic goodness! I suspect that young kids today would be bored stiff by Snakes and Ladders. It wouldn’t have a chance against video games. But to me the game brings back fond memories of a more simple and innocent time.

Misquoting the Buddha

Misquoting the Buddha
Just browsing through the internet really brings home to you just how much misinformation there is about Buddhism. On non-Buddhist websites I have seen enlightenment described as “the highest state of God-consciousness,” the Buddha himself called a ‘Nepalese’ and of him attaining enlightenment under a banyan tree. One website shows a brahman with a caption saying ‘Buddhist monk.’ And of course all this is besides the usual and by not firmly entrenched nonsense that Buddhism is a branch of/originated from/is the same as Hinduism, that the aim of Buddhism is to destroy the ego and that the Buddha really did believe in God but understood that the Divine cannot be described in mere words. Yawn! Yawn!
Another pervasive form of misinformation is attributing to the Buddha things he never said. I harvested these spurious saying in less half an hour on the internet. Apparently the Buddha said “Not this! Not this!” (actually from the Upanishads); “Look within. Thou art Buddha” (really penned by that old fraud Madam Blavasky) and “Protect the Earth and be kind to all living things” (how comforting to know that the Buddha was actually a politically correct greeny). One web site called Timeless Quotes had two dozen ‘sayings’ of the Buddha several of them authentic, most of them spurious. This one “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it” makes the poor old Buddha sound like a forerunner to Norman Vincent Peel. And what about this one? “Unity can only be manifested by the Binary. Unity itself and the idea of Unity are already two”!!! One of those ‘Buddhism and Christianity are the same’ web sites claims that the founders of both religions called themselves “fishers of men.” The Buddha compared himself to an elephant trainer, a chariot driver, a potter and even a nanny (A.II,110; M.I,395;M.III,118, etc). But a fisherman? For me, this one really takes the booby prize! These and numerous other fake sayings infiltrate the general discourse on Buddhism, circulate for decades and are quoted as authoritative. Sad to say we Buddhists ourselves are partly responsible for this. Way back in the early 70’s Danial Goldman wrote a paper for the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology called The Buddha on Meditation and Higher States of Consciousness which was later republished by the Buddhist Publication Society. Problem is, almost nothing in this article/booklet was spoken by the Buddha. The bulk of it is from the Visuddhimagga, a work composed in Sri Lanka some 900 years after the Buddha. Very often I have heard or read that the Buddha said “All ordinary people are mad” (Sabbe putujjana umattaka). It’s an astute observation on the human psyche but the Buddha never said it. In fact, I have never been able to find out where it really comes from. Can anyone help? The wed site of an organization called the Buddhist and Pali College has these quotes attributed to the Buddha – “Ambition is like love, impatient both for delays and arrivals,” “Do not speak unless it improves on the silence” and “All know the way but few actually walk it.” I would be most interested if one of the pundits at the Buddhist and Pali College could show me where these cheesy gems come from. Ven. K. Sri Dharmmananda often use to quote these words as having been spoken by the Buddha, “A man should accept truth wherever he finds it and live by it.” In fact it was one of his favorite sayings and he often used it in his sermons. When he was compiling his book The Treasury of the Dhamma he asked me to find the reference from the Tipitaka for this saying. Immediately I tensed up. I knew he did not like being contradicted or shown to be wrong. As tactfully as I could I told him that these words were not from either in the Tipitaka or the commentaries. There was a thunderous silence for a few moments, then he cleared his throat and said. ‘Its there somewhere. I’ll find it myself.’ When his book finally came out I was relieved to see that this saying was not included.
Admittedly, most of the sayings passed off as being authentic Buddha Vacana show the Buddha in a good light. Even so, there is something mildly disrespectful about attributing to someone something they never said, quite apart from the fact that it shows lack of care, shoddy scholarship and a disregard for and an ignorance of what they did say. I can understand why non-Buddhists do this – they know no better and in many cases they have got their skewed quotes from we Buddhists. “Look within. Thou art Buddha” is cited as being from the scriptures by none other than Christmas Humphries in his Wisdom of Buddhism. But why are we Buddhists so careless about quoting our master? Amongst traditional Buddhists it almost certainly because they are so woefully ignorant of the sacred literature. In traditional Buddhists countries very few people ever read the Tipitaka and that goes for monks too. The Dhammapada usually gets a fair showing but that’s about it. Another reason could be the prevalence throughout much of Buddhist Asia of the attitude reflected in the Thai saying “Mai pen rai.” There is 1 ¾ million child prostitutes in the country. “Never mind”. There has been another coup. “Never mind.” Thousands of people left homeless by the tsunami are still without shelter. “Never mind.” The Buddha didn’t actually say that. “Never mind.” Sometimes one gets the feeling that shrugged shoulders rather than the anjali should be the archetypical Buddhist gesture. In the case of Western Buddhists it may be that just as we grew out of Theosophical gobbledygook we grew into New Age flimflam and we have never entirely succeeded in freeing ourselves from the influence of either. Whatever the case, its time we stopped misquoting the Buddha. The bulk of the Buddha’s words, at least as preserved in Pali, are now easily available in Walsh’s translation of the Digha Nikaya and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s accurate and readable translations of the Majjhima Nikaya and the Samyutta Nikaya. So if you are going to quote the Buddha quote him properly and give the source.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Olympics

A member of the Chinese Communist Party learning about politics.

The Olympics
China says that the Olympic Games should not be about politics. I’m just a simple monk and I’ve probably got it all wrong but I always thought that Communism says that everything is political – history, art, social relations, education, economics, work, and especially in China, what you say and even what you think. They also insist that no one should interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Again, I’m just a simple monk but as I recall, throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s China financed and encouraged Communist insurgencies in Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and a few other places. But probably my memory is faulty. They keep saying that Tibet is a part of the sacred Chinese motherland and never under any circumstances will they compromise on this matter. But the documents of the Communist Party of China show that from the very beginning two of the Party’s agendas were to ‘liberate’ Tibet and Mongolia. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 Stalin told Mao in no uncertain terms to drop the Mongolia ‘liberation’ thing and he did. But there can be no doubt that all those documents were forged by ‘hostile outside forces.’ I have always found Mao’s famous saying that Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and what is now Arunchal Pradesh are ‘five fingers on the hand of China.’ really quite catchy. I can’t understand why such a memorable little saying doesn’t get much of an airing nowadays. But then I’m just a simple monk.

Patriotic Chinese protecting their priceless cultural heritage with guidance from the Party.

Sea Monsters

Who Says There Is No Such Thing As Sea Monaster?

The great ocean is the home of mighty creatures such as timi, timigala, timirapingala, asuras, nagas and gandhabbas. Some of these mighty creatures are one, two three, four or even five hundreds yojanas long.
The Buddha, Ud,54.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Walking on the Water

Walking on the Water
When the Buddha left Pataliputta (now Patna) during his last journey, he had to cross the Ganges in order to get to Vesali. Today the river at this point is nearly a kilometer wide and it probably just as wide in ancient times too. The townspeople who had come to bid him goodbye began walking up and down along the bank of the river looking for a ferry or a boat to use to cross the river. Some even began binding reeds together in an attempt to make rafts. Then, according to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, ‘as quickly as a strong man might stretch out his arm and draw it back again, the Buddha and his monks vanished from this bank and reappeared on the other bank of the Ganges' (D.II,89). Those who believe in an essential unity between Buddhism and Christianity often site this incident as being a parallel to the story about Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6,45-52). The comparison is, however, a spurious one. Whoever wrote the story about Jesus walking on the water believed it to be literally true and presented it as proof of his divinity. Many Christians still accept it as such. The story about the Buddha crossing the Ganges does not have him walking on the surface of the river but rather disappearing from one place and reappearing in on another. In the Christian story Jesus walks on the water while his disciples look on in amazement, emphasizing his divinity and their limited humanness. In the Buddhist story both the Buddha and his disciples disappear and reappear, suggesting their equality, at least as far as psychic abilities are concerned. But more importantly, the Buddhist story is not meant to be taken literally, although some people may well have done so. It is an example of a didactic embellishment - a story meant to hold the attention and then make an important point - a literary device often used in the Pali Tipitaka and other Indian literature. The point being made with this story is that no matter how difficult attaining enlightenment may seem, the fact that others have done it should give us the encouragement and determination to attain it too. This is confirmed by what happens at the end of the story. The Buddha looks back across the river, sees the people still running up and down along the river bank and says: ‘When they want to cross the ocean, the lake or a pond, people build a bridge or make a raft but the wise have already crossed over.’

I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.
Albert Camus

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Buddha and Jesus

I found this image on the internet the other day. Artistically it is rather pleasing. Concerning the meaning it tries to convey I not quite sure. I notice that the pronouncements about the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity have become quite the fashion of late. There are even at least four books currently on the market devoted to this theme. The picture here seems to be a visual representation of the idea that the Buddha and Jesus would have seen each other as ‘brothers’ had they met. I have no idea what the Buddha would have thought about Jesus and his Gospel and I am not going to be so conceited as to put imaginary ideas into his head or words into his mouth. However, the Tipitaka might give some idea about the Buddha’s attitude to other teachers and their teachings. The Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, known in the Tipitaka as Nigantha Nataputta, were contemporaries. Objectively, an examination of Buddhism and Jainism will show that these two religions are very similar, and not just in terminology but in ideas as well. I find it interesting that the two never met despite the fact that they both lived at the same time and in the same area. There is no record in the Tipitaka of the Buddha ever trying to meet Mahavira or regretting that he was unable to do so. I also find it interesting that on the several occasions that the Buddha met some of Mahavira’s disciples he proved to be highly critical of their beliefs and practices. See for exampleM.I,272-278. These criticisms are measured and politely stated but they are criticisms nonetheless. And all this despite or perhaps because the Buddha’s Dhamma and Mahavira’s Dharma have so much in common. No mutual hugs, no shared smiles, no exchanged complements, no ‘dialogue between men of living faiths’. Although I have not read them, I believe that the Jain scriptures likewise contain many criticisms of Buddhism.
What would have Jesus thought of the Buddha had he met him? I am pretty certain the would have been utterly horrified by the Buddha’s rejection of God and the soul. I think he would have found the idea dependent origination completely incomprehensible. And if they had had a chat together I think he would have been infuriated by the Buddha’s probing questions, his demand for evidence to back up his claims and his polite but firm refusal to surrender to a simple trusting faith. Jesus’ attitude to other religions and those who teach them is succinctly summed up by his claim, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me’
But just because the Buddha and Jesus would have found little to agree about this does not mean that we, their latter-day disciples, cannot have mutual respect and agreement on some matters. It does not mean that we cannot work together and help each other. True tolerance is not watering everything down until it all looks the same. It is respect and acceptance despite differences.
The Buddha and Jesus
The Buddha and Jesus were probably the two most influential figures in history. Their teachings have had a profound and positive effect on the cultures which adopted them. There are also interesting parallels between the two men. Both were homeless wandering teachers and both were skilled in using parables and stories to make their ideas understandable. They each attracted a band of disciples and sent them out to spread their teachings. The Buddha saw himself as the most recent in a line of enlightened Buddhas (S.II,106) and Jesus believed himself to be a successor of the great Jewish prophets of old. But it is in the two men’s ethical vision that we see the most important similarities. These similarities are well-known.
The Buddha and Jesus even shared a similar fate after their deaths in that both were eventually deified. On discovering that a certain monk was entranced by his physical appearance, the Buddha admonished him, ‘Why do you want to see this dirty body of mine? See the Dhamma and you will see me’ (S.III,120). Nonetheless, during the third Council some participants asserted that the Buddha was so perfect that even his faeces was fragrant-smelling. The Saddharmapundrika Sutra, which dates from about the 1st century CE, claims that the Buddha has existed since the beginning of time! When someone addressed Jesus as ‘good teacher’ he immediately corrected them: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’ (Luke 18,19). Disregarding such evidence, within 20 years of Jesus' death Saint Paul was already claiming that he was God incarnate.
But despite these and other similarities, the lives and particularly the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus also differed in many respects. The Buddha was from the ruling-class family while Jesus was born into humble circumstances. Jesus never married; the Buddha was both a husband and a father. Although the Buddha taught everyone his message resonated most with scholars and intellectuals. Jesus directed his message mainly to simple folk. The Buddha lived in a time of relative peace and steered clear of politics, whereas Jesus’ mission was inextricably mixed up with the volatile politics of the day. The Buddha taught for 45 years, Jesus for a mere two or perhaps three.
The two men’s understanding of the wider reality has almost nothing in common. The Buddha did not believe in a creator God and Jesus did. For the Buddha, the Absolute was a non-anthropomorphic ‘Unborn, Un-become, Unmade, Un-constructed’ (Ud.80). Jesus saw God as distinctly personal and human-like; he sometimes even addressed him as ‘Abba,’ a term of affectionate intimacy equivalent to ‘Daddy.’ The Buddha saw his Dhamma as liberating from samsara; Jesus saw his Gospel as saving from hell. Following from this, the Buddha meditated, directing his attention inward to his mind while Jesus prayed, directing his requests outward to God. For Jesus, man’s ultimate goal was to be reborn in the presence of this God, for the Buddha heaven was an end decidedly inferior to Nirvana. The Buddha gave no special attention to his own tribe and taught all clans, castes and classes. Jesus believed he ‘was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ (Matthew 10,5-6; 15,24), God’s chosen people. While Jesus believed that God would soon destroy the world in an apocalypse of brimstone and fire (Matthew 10,23; 16,28), the Buddha had little interest in predicting the future and would have found Jesus’ grim prediction rather puzzling. Jesus felt he was justified in sometimes getting extremely angry, especially at those who doubted or scorned his message (Matthew 23,33-35; John 2,15). Such ‘righteous indignation’ would have raised eyebrows amongst those who knew the Buddha. Thus a complete look at these two great teachers reveals intriguing similarities and distinct differences, commonalities and contrasts, both of which need to be acknowledged if we genuinely want to understand these men and the religions they founded. Nonetheless, when Buddhists and Christians meet as friends, their encounters will be more harmonious and fruitful if they remember these words of the Buddha: ‘Those things about which there is no agreement, let us put aside. Those things about which there is agreement let the wise bring up, discuss and examine’ (D.I,164).