Friday, July 31, 2009

Buddhism In The Netherlands

Buddhism has expanded in the Netherlands into the third religion after Christianity and Islam. The growth is so strong that as well as Islamisation, it is possible to speak of Buddhisation of the Netherlands, argue researchers Marcel Poorthuis and Theo Salemink in De Volkskrant. The Netherlands now has an estimated 250,000 Buddhists or people who feel strongly attracted by this religion, largely white Dutch. In 1998, there were only 16,000 including just 4,000 Dutch natives and 12,000 Buddhist immigrants from Asia. While Islamisation is often seen as a threat by politicians like Geert Wilders, and associated with violence and collectivism, Buddhism in the Netherlands is seen as an individualist faith that stands for non-violence and pacifism. But this idea is doubtful, concludes De Volkskrant. Poorthuis, a lecturer in inter-religious dialogue, considers it “odd” that “nobody is concerned” about the strong growth of Buddhism. “Buddhism apparently has a much better image than Islam.” Poorthuis and Salemink, both University of Tilburg scholars, argue in a just published book, Lotus in the Low Countries, that Buddhism also has other sides. “For example, the Kamikaze pilots in the Second World War had Buddhist teachers. And the Dalai Lama can also not avoid conflict due to Tibet’s difficult political situation, even though the Netherlands wants to make him into an unworldly pacifist,” says Poorthuis. Many Dutch people call themselves Buddhist without knowing exactly what the religion consists of, according to Poorthuis. The teaching is also sometimes commercially misused, as in management courses. “Instead of raising the question of whether the credit crisis was caused by greed, Buddhism has been used to optimise production processes.”
From the Internet.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Visit To Borobudur

Never been to Borodubur? Well now you can go in the discomfort of your own home. Venerable Anandajoti has just published the photos he took during his recent trip to Java. Being a Buddhist and a masterful and sensitive photographer, he has managed to capture the subtle beauty of this great Buddhist monument. Don’t rush through the pictures. If you contemplate each one, looking at the calm and smiling faces, the fluid forms, each bird, animal and plant, and in particular the images of the imperturbable Buddha and the gentle bodhisattvas, it will be a meditation for you. All the movement will seem to be in slow motion and in silence. The pictures are arranged according to the books they illustrate – the Gandavyuha, the Jatakas, the Divyavadana and the Lalitavistara (telling the life of the Buddha). This I site really is the next best thing to actually going to Borodubur.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Japan Jesus

Of course all this is nonsense. Everyone knows that Jesus survived crucifixion and went to India and died there. See my posts of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of February 2009.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Recollection On Peace

I sit now before the Buddha and contemplate that by seeing the aggregates as empty He attained great peace. It is His unmoved stillness and sorrowless compassion that shall be my inspiration. Those who are angry at injustice, impatient for change, despairing at tragedy, elated today and depressed tomorrow, are soon exhausted. But those whose minds are always still and who abide in peace, are abundant in energy. They, like the Buddha, are islands of peace in a sea of turmoil and a refuge to all beings.

Therefore, I will seek peace and quiet, avoiding always the loud, the noisy and those who wish to argue.

I will strive to restore harmony to those who are at odds.

I will speak without abuse or harshness, gentle always, with words sweet and true.

I will strive to be conciliatory and yielding, and never be a source of conflict for others.

May all who live in turmoil find the peace they long for.

May my heart be free from agitation of defilements.

May my abiding in peace help in the freeing of the heart.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Building Bridges

A bridge (sankama or setu) is a structure built to allow persons or vehicles to proceed over obstacles like rivers, valleys or gorges. The Buddha mentioned building bridges for the public good as an example of a meritorious deed. He said ‘Those who lay out a park or garden, who construct a bridge, a watering place or a well, or who build a rest house, their merit increases both day and night’ (S.I,33). In the Kulavaka Jataka, the Bodhisattva is depicted as a civic-minded villager who removes large stones from the surrounding roads, cuts down trees that might strike wagon or chariot axles and who constructs bridges, watering places and rest houses for the convenience of travellers (Ja.I,199). Ancient India, unlike Rome or ancient China, was not a bridge building culture and no bridges from ancient times survive. The Tipitaka mentions a bamboo bridge (Tha.7) and what it calls ‘a reliable bridge’ (dhuvasetu, Vin.I,106) which the commentary defines as one strong enough for a caravan, elephants or horses to cross.
As crossing a river is frequently used as a metaphor for the spiritual endeavour in the Tipitaka, building bridges, paying for their construction or repairing them, seems to have had a particular attraction for early Buddhists. A dozen or so Mahayana sutras mention the virtues of building bridges. The Sarvagunapunyakshetra Sutra for example, mentions seven ‘fields of merit’ (punnakhetta), the fourth of these being ‘maintaining ferries to help people cross rivers’ and the fifth ‘constructing bridges so that the ill and weak can cross rivers’. As Buddhism spread it took this expression of practical kindness with it.
That versatile genius Thangtong Gyalpo (1385-1464) built over 50 chain suspension bridges throughout Tibet and Bhutan. Several of his bridges in Tibet were still in use until the middle of the 20th century, and two in Bhutan are still used. Records show that building bridges as a religious practice became very popular in China and Japan. The ‘Technical Skills’ section of the History of Song, mentions a monk named Huaibing who constructed a pontoon bridge moored by eight anchors. Another work, the Sichuan tongzhi, reports a monk saying: ‘At first I thought that the greatest source of merit came from carving wooden statues and clay images of the Buddha. But one day I realized that the true ‘ladder and boat of merit’ was to help other people and other beings’. After this, the monk embarked on a program of building bridges. Chinese sources that refer to bridge construction by monks or devote lay people frequently mention that they did it out of ‘pity for the difficulties of the people’ or out of compassion ‘for people who drowned in boats attempting to cross the river’.
The Japanese monk Dosho (629-700) was famous as a road, dam and bridge engineer. One of Japan’s most famous pre-modern bridges, the elegant Spectacle Bridge’ in Nagasaki, was designed and built by the monk Mokusunyoujo in 1634. This innovative structure was the first stone-arched bridge in Japan and is still in use today. It was given its name because when its two arches are reflected in the water it looks like a pair of spectacles. I have been unable to find any records, ancient or modern, of bridges being built as an act of merit from Theravadin countries. Can anyone help?
The information about bridge building Chinese monks which I have given here is only some of that mentioned in John Kieschnick’s fascinating The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture published by Princeton University Press, 2003.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tying The Knot

A wedding (avahamangala) is a ceremony marking the marriage of two people. The first Buddhists adopted the wedding ceremony current at the time. However, wanting to distinguish their own from Brahmanical practices, they left out the part where the bride and groom circumambulates the sacred fire (yajana) seven times, and instead of a brahman priest officiating, the elders of both families did.
It was considered good for the bride and groom to be the same age (tulyavaya), ideally 16, although the Kama Sutra recommends that the bride be three years younger than the groom. Usually the groom went in procession to the bride's house, bedecked in garlands and accompanied by music and dancing, although sometimes it was the bride who went (A.II,61). The essential feature of the ceremony was when the father of the bride took her left hand and with a pot with his right hand poured water over her hands, a ritual marking the giving away the bride to the groom (A.IV,210; Ja.III,286). In the Jataka the Bodhisattva gives this wedding benediction: ‘May your friendship with your beloved wife never decay’. (Ajeyyau ea tava hotu metti bhariyaya kaccana piyaya saddhim, Ja.VI,323).

In ancient India the bride's family sometimes paid a dowry (dayajja) and at other times they gave her a dower (nahanamula), although such customs seem to have been practiced mainly by the wealthy. Some features of the ancient ceremony still prevail in Theravadin countries, although mixed with local customs. According to the Buddha, monks and nuns should not get involved in ‘the giving or taking in marriage’ and thus they have never been wedding celebrants (D.I,11).

Saturday, July 25, 2009


I found this image the other day. It is of two ancient Indian wrestlers and it is interesting for several reasons, the main one being this - ancient Indian art only very rarely depicts everyday life beyond dancing, warfare or court life. While Egyptian, Roman and other art often show butchers, bakers and candle maker, vintners and ox herders, working or going about their trades, such scenes are uncommon in Indian art. This means that those (like me) who wish to know something about daily life in ancient India have to depend almost entirely on literary sources. Indians have always looked upon work, particularly manual work, and even just physical exertion, as demeaning. (There are well over a billion Indians and how many Olympic medals have they won?) The Vinaya's prohibition against almost any type of manual work reflects this same attitude.
The depiction of the two wrestlers and their appreciative onlooker is a fragment from a larger sculpture and dates from about the 10th century. Wrestlers (Pali malla, Hindi mall) and wrestling (nibbuddha) are occasionally mentioned in the Tipitaka as is boxing, literally 'fist fighting' (mutthiyuddha), and wrestling matches (uyyodhika). Monks and nuns were not supposed to watch wrestling matches (D.I,6) and I agree with this restriction entirely. Anyone who can sit through an episode of World Championing Wrestling on the TV needs counseling, if you ask me! The Ghata Jataka actually describes a wrestling match. It was held in a wrestling ring (yuddhamandala), their were tires of seats around the ring and the wrestlers came out 'strutting, jumping, shouting and clapping their hands' (Ja. IV,81).
Today, traditional Indian wrestling is called Kushti or Pehlwani and is a mixture of the wrestling done at the time of the Buddha and elements introduced by the Mogals from Persia. BBC just happens to have a program called Last Man Standing which includes scenes of traditional Indian wrestling. Have a look at

Friday, July 24, 2009

Being Misquoted

I apologise for not blogging for the last two days. But I finally threatened my computer with an axe and it started working again.

Last year someone bought me Bart Ehrman’s enthralling Misquoting Jesus – The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Someone (I can’t remember who) asked me for a lend of it which I agreed to, they have never returned and I have lost a very good book. I am not a happy monk. In his book Ehrman not only gives an early history of what is probably the world’s most important book, he also tells of his own journey from Bible-belt certainty, to wavering, through doubt and finally to the abandoning of faith. Anyway, as something of a compensation, someone just sent me a link to a lecture Ehrman gave at Stanford University. Please look at it, you’ll find it absolutely fascinating. Very little he says is new but he says it in a way we laymen (and women) can understand. Some of what he says would apply to the Tipitaka, although to a much less extent. Few Buddhist doctrines are based on a single phrase or word and as the Buddhist scriptures are so large and contain so many repetitions, a mistake in one part can be corrected from another part. Ehrman’s lecture is also interesting from the Buddhist perspective because it pretty much neutralizes the old argument that the Tipitaka must be unreliable because it was not committed to writing for some centuries. Ehrman shows that, at least until the invention of printing, writing things down did not guarantee that they were accurately recorded.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Buddhism Is Best

Over the last few days I have received about 35 messages, mainly from friends and acquaintances but also from a few people unknown to me, informing me that Buddhism has been voted the best religion in the world. I opened the first of these messages which had a link which I didn’t bother to open. I deleted all the other messages without opening. It must be the way I was bought up or something, but my first reaction of hearing this news was to think ‘By who?’ and my second was ‘Best for what?’ To me a statement like ‘Buddhism is the best religion in the world’ is on a par with statements like ‘Men smoke Drum’, ‘Prayer never fails’ or ‘Choice of a new generation’, i.e. it’s meaningless. And even if it were made as a result of a survey of religious leaders (and I couldn’t imagine Islamic, Jewish, Hindu or Christian leaders voting for such an idea. After all, if they believed that, they wouldn’t be Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Christians) it wouldn’t particularly move me one way or another. I’m a Buddhist because I have found the Dhamma to be a complete, humane, convincing and practical philosophy of life that suits my disposition and needs perfectly, not because it won a straw poll. And even if 500 Nobel Prize winners voted it the worst religion in the world that wouldn’t shake my conviction one millimetre. This morning I received two messages headed ‘Buddhism Best A Hoax’ and these I did open and read and got the full story. Apparently, this ‘Buddhism is Best’ claim was supposedly issued by a ‘Geneva-based’ organization called the International Coalition for the Advancement of Religion and Spirituality. God! A name like that should have been enough to make anyone suspicious. You know the old adage ‘the bigger the name the smaller the group’. And if not that, then ‘Geneva-based’. Geneva? Isn’t that where all those shady banks operate out of? So now the word on the street is that the ICARS doesn’t exits, that no vote was taken and that the whole thing is a hoax.
I wonder how many Buddhists got caught out?

Monday, July 20, 2009


I always take an interest in any modernization trends within Theravada Buddhism. It sure needs it. However, the Dahmmakaya movement, one of the few examples of religious modernization in Thailand, makes me feel decidedly uneasy. Have a look at
Buddhist puja meets Nuremburg rally.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lust And Enlightenment?

In a comment on yesterday’s post NO mentioned that he vaguely remembered a story from the Tipitaka where a monk attained enlightenment motivated in part by sexual desire. No asked me to correct me if he is wrong so I will.
Nanda was the Buddha's half brother. In the Tipitaka he is depicted as something of a Buddhist Adonis. He was ‘finely formed, beautiful and handsome’ (A.IV,66) and even after he became a monk `he pressed his robe on both sides, painted his eyes and walked around with a beautiful shiny bowl' (Vin.IV,173). I suppose we would call him a metrosexual nowadays. He was pretty much dragooned into the Sangha but after becoming a monk he could not stop thinking of his lover who had said to him on leaving: ‘Come back soon, young master’. Informed of this problem, the Buddha took Nanda by the arm and transported him up to the a heaven realm ‘where the nymphs have feet like doves’. Pointing to these nymphs, he asked Nanda: ‘Which is more beautiful, these nymphs or your girlfriend?’ ‘Compared to these nymphs my girlfriend is like a mutilated monkey’, Nanda replied. With this new and more beautiful image in his mind Nanda began meditating diligently in the hope of being reborn in the company of these nymphs. When the other monks heard of this, they smirked and laughed at Nanda’s motives, calling him a ‘day labourer’, i.e. someone who works for meagre wages. In Buddhism, seeking rebirth in heaven is considered more lofty than rebirth in purgatory, but decidedly inferior to attaining Nirvana. This teasing made Nanda feel somewhat ashamed of himself but eventually this was replaced by self-respect and the determination to practise for the right reasons. Living diligently and in solitude he eventually became enlightened (Ud.20 ff). So very clearly Nanda did not attain enlightenment by means of lustful desire but rather by being shamed into meditating with the right intentions.
It is interesting how half understood, second or third hand versions of stories or sayings from the Buddhist scriptures are used to justify all sorts of odd-ball ideas. NO did not do this; he merely mis-remembered the story. But I have certainly heard Nanda’s story told in such a way as to justify the idea that lust and desire can lead to enlightenment. The motto of the story? Go back to primary sources!
Incidentally, a new translation of Asvaghosa’s delightful retelling of the Nanda story, the Saundaranandakavya, has been published in the Clay Sanskrit Library. It is a beautiful little hardback volume with the Sanskrit text and the translation on opposite pages. A treat to read.
The picture shows is of a Gandhara sculpture showing Nanda looking back at his girlfriend as he is lead away by the Buddha.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sex And Spirituality

Several religions include the idea that sex has some spiritual dimension or even that it is an essential element in spiritual development. Catholicism sees marriage a sacrament which is incomplete without intercourse. Indeed, a marriage can be annulled if sex does not take place. Apparently it is even considered a sin to enter into a marriage with the idea of not having children. Most Protestant churches do not consider marriage to be a sacrament but most teach that sexual gratification is ‘a gift from God’. Thanks for that God! Certain movements within Buddhist and Hindu tantra teach that sexual license is proof of complete detachment from social norms or that the orgasm can be a means of attaining Nirvana. What is passed off as ‘tantra’ by some New Age proponents is actually just good old-fashioned sex with a bit of gimcrack philosophy thrown in.

There is a growing body of literature by Western Buddhists anxious to convince us that the more nooky you can manage to get, the more likely you are to attain enlightenment. I haven’t read Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire – Embracing a Lust for Life yet, but the title suggests it might be in this genera.(Why do we always have to ‘embrace’ the subject under discussion?) Jeffrey Hopkins’ The Tibetan Arts of Love - Sex Orgasm and Sexual Healing, certainly is. The fascinating thing about such books is that they focus almost entirely on a minority movement within Buddhism, tantra, and even fail to mention that the dominant Tibetan sect, the Gelupa, teach an attitude to sex almost identical to that of early Buddhism, Theravada and mainline Mahayana. But of course, as the advertising industry learned long ago, there is nothing like sex to attract the attention.
Completely against the majority opinion, some ascetics during the Buddha’s time thought it consistent with the ascetics’ to indulged in sex with ‘those female ascetics who wear their hair in a topknot’. They would say ‘What future disadvantage do these good monks and priests see in sensual pleasures so that they speak about understanding and renouncing them? The velvety-soft arms of a female ascetic are pleasant indeed’. The Buddha contradicted this view in the strongest terms (M.I,35). When a monk named Arittha got it into his head that ‘those things (i.e. sensual pleasures) the Lord calls obstructions are not really obstructions to someone who indulges in them’ (M.I,130), the Buddha was quick to both rebuke and to correct him. ‘Foolish man! Have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma like that? Foolish man! In many talks have I not stated that sensual pleasures are obstructions that obstruct the one who indulges in them? I have always taught that sensual pleasures give meager gratification, much trouble and frustration and embody great danger’ (M.I,132).
The Buddha talked about sex within two contexts – the Precepts and celibacy (brahmacariya). Following the third Precept assists the preliminary stages of the Noble Eightfold Path, as do the other Precepts. (On the third Precept see my post of August 12th 2008) Thich Naht Hanh’s expansion of the third Precept is helpful in suggesting how sex within the bounds of the third Precept can help one’s spiritual growth. ‘Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, family, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct’. But even lay practitioners are encouraged to abstain from sex on certain days, i.e. full moon days, in preparation for gradually freeing oneself from sexual desire. Monks and nuns, whose lifestyle is designed to ‘fast lane’ spiritual realization, undertake celibacy because it helps greatly in this endeavor. The Buddha taught that a person can attain the first stage of enlightenment (sotapati) while being married and having normal sexual relations. Attaining the second stage (sakadagami) requires sexual restraint and probably for many people, celibacy. To progress beyond this point to full enlightenment in the present life, requires a complete detachment from all sensual desire. Or perhaps it might be more correct to say that one will attain full enlightenment when all sensual desire has faded away. ‘Sexual intercourse must be transcended, the Lord has spoken of breaking down the bridge of sexual intercourse’ (Methunasambhuto ayam bhagini kayo methuno ca setu ghato vutto Bhagavata, A.II,145). The fading of passions (viraga) precedes freedom (vimutti, S.II,30). This is the position of all schools of Indian Buddhism until the emergence of the tantric movement, which, it should be noted, was always a minority movement and one strongly criticized by all other Buddhist schools.
While mentioning tantra, I might offer a brief reflection on the origins of this movement within Buddhism. It is a complex and difficult problem, some areas of which are dealt with brilliantly by Ronald Davidson in his Indian Esoteric Buddhism - A Social History of the Tantric Movement and David Snellgrove in his Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, but I suspect that the betrayal of monastic celibacy in some quarters had at least something to do with it. When the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang was in Sindh in the 7th century he noticed that the monks there were ‘mostly indolent and with corrupt characters’ and that the few good monks kept apart from them, living in the forest. The people ‘shave their heads and ware the robes of monks, whom the resemble outwardly, while they engage themselves in ordinary life’. Reading between the lines we can get some idea of what went on in Sindh. As religious fervor declined, some monks began cohabiting with woman, probably in secret at first, but as such behavior became more widespread and ‘acceptable’ they started to do so openly. Their sons inherited the monasteries and their attached lands and supplemented their incomes conducting pujas and doing ceremonies for ‘ordinary’ people. Of course, it would have been necessary to justify such compromises and a body of literature grew up which did just that. We know of similar cases of monks gradually evolving into married priests – the Kandyian Kingdom in the 15th/16th centuries and in Japan in the 19th century.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Prisoners Of A White God

Please watch this rather distressing documentary. It tells but part of a story that is being played out all over Asia, including in various Buddhist communities. Perhaps the saddest thing about this situation is that it is made possible in part by generous, well-meaning people, Christians and non-Christians, in Western countries who support ‘aid’ organizations without making the effort to find out whether or not they have a ‘hidden agenda’. Organizations like World Vision get a significant percentage of their funding from Taiwan and Hong Kong, where most of the donors are Buddhists.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buddhism In The Philippines

I found this interesting article on Wikipilipinas and reproduce it with acknowledgement.

Buddhism, particularly Vajrayana Buddhism, gained a foothold in the Philippines with the rise of the Indianized Buddhist Srivijaya Empire centered in Sumatra in the 7th century. Archaeological finds in the Philippines include a number of Buddhist images common to Vajrayana iconography that dates back to this period. These include a number of Padmapani images and the Golden Tara found in 1917 at Esperanza, Agusan. Evidence of the extent of cultural and religous influence from the Srivijaya empire can be seen in the so-called “Laguna Copper Plate”, which is written in the Kavi (old Javanese) alphabet in a mixed vocabulary of Tagalog, Old Malay, and Sanskrit in the year 900AD.
"Long Live! Year of Saka 822, month of Vesak, according to Jyotisha. The fourth day of the waning moon, Monday. On this occasion, Lady Angkatan, and her brother whose name is Bukah, the children of the Honourable Namwaran, were awarded a document of complete pardon from the Commander in Chief of Tundun [modern day Tondo in Manila], represented by the Lord Minister of Pailah [Paila, Bulacan], Jayadewa. By this order, through the scribe, the Honourable Namwaran has been forgiven of all and is released from his debts and arrears of 1 Katî and 8 Suwarna before the Honourable Lord Minister of Puliran [Pulilan, Pampanga or Pulilan, Angat, Bulacan], Kasumuran, by the authority of the Lord Minister of Pailah. Because of his faithful service as a subject of the Chief, the Honourable and widely renowned Lord Minister of Binwangan [Binwagan, Pampanga] recognized all the living relatives of Namwaran who were claimed by the Chief of Dewata, represented by the Chief of Medang. Yes, therefore the living descendants of the Honourable Namwaran are forgiven, indeed, of any and all debts of the Honourable Namwaran to the Chief of Dewata. This, in any case, shall declare to whomever henceforth that on some future day should there be a man who claims that no release from the debt of the Honourable..."
Vesak is the Buddhist name of the month - though now it’s shortened to a single day - which celebrates Buddha’s birthday and enlightenment. Vesak or Vesakha (in Pali) is the holiest month in the Buddhist calendar and is usually the time when debts are forgiven and festivals held. Swasti is also a very traditional Sanskrit-Buddhist greeting (similar to the modern Thai, sawatdee). The Laguna copper plate therefore indicates that the areas mentioned - Pampanga, Tondo and Bulacan - had already adopted Buddhism.
With the advent of Spanish colonialism in the 16th century, the Philippines became a closed colony and cultural contacts with other Southeast Asian countries were restricted. In 1481, the Spanish Inquisition commenced with the permission of Pope Sixtus IV and all non-Catholics within the Spanish empire were to be expelled or to be “put to the question” (tortured until they renounced their previous faith). With the refounding of Manila in 1571, the Philippines became subject to Spanish law and the Archbishop of New Galicia (Mexico) became the Grand Inquisitor of the Faithful in Mexico and the Philippines. In 1595, the newly appointed Archbishop of Manila became the Inquisitor-General of the Spanish East Indies (the Philippines, Guam, and Micronesia) and until 1898, the Spanish Inquisition was active against Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. As was the case in Latin America and Africa, forced conversions were not uncommon and any attempt to resist the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was seen as both rebellion against the Pope and sedition against the Spanish King, and was punishable by death. Buddhist practices, festivals and iconography had to be converted and adopted to Catholicism if they were to survive Spanish persecution. A good example of this was is the saniculas biscuit of Pampanga that has its roots in Buddhism. Syncretism (the blending indigenous religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and indigenous folk religions) became necessary. This can be seen instantly with statues of the Virgin Mary, including the depiction of the halo, hand poses, and rainbow-arches, look almost identical to statues of Tara especially in Binondo and other areas.
Buddhism seemed to have virtually disappeared during the 400 years of Spanish rule. With Revolution of 1896 against Spain and later with the coming of the American colonial regime in 1898, religious freedom was instituted. Mahayana and Zen Buddhist temples began to be built in the 1920s and 30s. Davao, due to the large number of Japanese residents, and Cebu, due to the large number of Chinese settlers, had the largest Buddhist populations in the Philippines. After World War II, most Japanese were expatriated to Japan and the Chinese and Chinese-Filipinos became the predominant Buddhist ethnic group. In the 1960s, Vietnamese refugees arrived and established a temple in Palawan. At the same time, Japanese Buddhist temples and organizations began to re-emerge such as Sokka Gakkai International. Today, Buddhists account for about 1-3% of the Philippine population. Currently, only the Mahayana and Zen are present in the Philippines. Theravada Buddhism is now confined with nationals from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, as well as Cambodia and Laos. However, the linguistic influence left its most lasting marks on every Philippine language throughout the archipelago with the following Buddhist and Hindu concepts directly from the original Sanskrit. About 25% of the words in many Philippine languages are Sanskrit terms:

From Tagalog.
budhi "conscience" from Sanskrit bodhi
dukha "one who suffers" from Sanskrit dukkha
guro "teacher" from Sanskrit guru
sampalataya "faith" from Sanskrit sampratyaya
mukha "face" from Sanskrit mukha
laho "eclipse" from Sanskrit rahu

From Kapampangan
kalma "fate" from Sanskrit kama
damla "divine law" from Sanskrit dharma
mantala "magic formulas" from Sanskrit mantra
upaya "power" from Sanskrit upaya
lupa "face" from Sanskrit rupa
sabla "every" from Sanskrit sarva
lawu "eclipse" from Sanskrit rahu
galura "giant eagle (a surname)" from Sanskrit garuda
• laksina "south (a surname)" from Sanskrit dakshin
laksamana "admiral (a surname)" from Sanskrit lakshmana

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Genie With The Light-fingered Flair

Sometimes you can hardly believe your ears. I suspect the people doing this can hardly believe their luck. Apparently police in Bangladesh have been alerted to a widespread scam in which crooks get a few personal details about people, ring them on their cell phones claiming that they are genies. Genies (jinni in Arabic) are invisible supernatural beings mentioned in the Koran and Islamic theology. They are capable of great powers which they can use for good or evil. These ‘cell-phone genies’ threaten their victims with disaster unless they pay up large amounts of money and, this is the astonishing part, many people actually believe them and hand over the money. ‘It has become an epidemic here’, said Farhad bin Imrul Kayes, police chief of Govindaganj district. ‘In the last three months alone we have arrested twenty four of these so-called ‘kings of genies’, some of whom have even become rich in just a year’, he told AFP. ‘Many of the these cheats are illiterate but they are very smart’, said sub-inspector Abdun Nur, who led several clandestine operations against the fraudsters. There is a wonderful old Chinese saying that goes, ‘The sky has a limit and the ocean has a limit, but human stupidity has no limit’.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dhamma On Wikipedia

I occasionally look through Wikipedia. It’s a bit like browsing through a good bookshop or library. Last week I decided to go through it thoroughly to see how Buddhism is presented. This is what I found. A few of the entries that directly relate to Buddhism; e.g. Nirvana, Dharma, Bodhisattva, Dalai Lama, etc. are well-done, while most are too brief or superficial. Perhaps the entry ‘The Miracles of the Buddha’ is indicative of most of those directly related to Buddhism. It has only one reference to the Tipitaka and no actual quotations. It makes no mention of the earliest, the early and the later traditions but lumps them all together as if they were all equally authoritative and valid. It casually confuses ‘popular tradition’ with scriptural teaching. It does not explain the Buddha’s attitude to the subject in full. At its best it is a superficial overview, and at its worst incorrect. When it comes to subjects not normally associated directly with Buddhism in the popular mind, but about which the Buddha often has something pertinent, even important, to say, most entries rarely even mention the Buddhist position, although the Jewish, Christian and or Islamic are usually well represented. (I notice the Mormon ‘take’ appears in just about ever entry. No doubt they have a well-organized committee making sure their beliefs are well represented) Take ‘Marriage’ for example. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic positions on this subject are given in full, as you would expect. The section on ‘Buddhism’ directs you to ‘The Buddhist View Of Marriage’ which has six lines on the subject with no references to or quotes from the Tipitaka. The bottom of this entry directs the reader to ‘Buddhist Ethics’ which gives a brief and very superficial account of the subject with only one quotation from the Tipitaka, from the Dhammapada. All other citations are from secondary sources. If we look at ‘Forgiveness’ the Islamic, Jewish and Christian views are detailed and well-referenced while the section on Buddhism is again scant and with only one quotation, again from the tired-old Dhammapada. In many Wikipedia entries, if Buddhism is mentioned at all, it is lumped under ‘Dharmic Religions’ or ‘The Indian Tradition’. Reading Wikipedia you would get the impression that Buddhism is definitely in the ‘also ran’ religious sweepstakes.
The entry on ‘Capital Punishment’ claims that there is a difference of opinion amongst Buddhists on the subject without mentioning that the Buddha’s opinion on killing of any kind is unambiguous. It also has two quotes from, you guessed it, the Dhammapada (God I hate the Dhammapada! Or more correctly, I hate the unimaginative lazy writers who can’t be bothered consulting any of the other 16,000 pages from the Buddhist scriptures) and neglects to quote what the Buddha says about executioners and judges who hand down cruel punishments. The section on Buddhism in ‘Altruism’ goes on about ‘the chain of cause and effect’ without even mention the word ‘altruism’, let alone addressing or explaining what Buddhism say has to say on this important subject. In the entry ‘Animal Rights’ (an exceptionally well-written article incidentally) there is a section on ‘The Status of Animals in the Ancient World’ which is empty as yet. Someone could write about the ethical and philosophical foundations in Dhamma in relation to animal rights – but no one has. The entry on ‘Woman in Buddhism’ by contrast, has been contributed by a someone well-versed in (I could say ‘biased towards’) Vajrayana and quotes June Campbell, Susan Murcott, Diana Paul, Shugsheb Jetsun, Rita Gross, Miranda Shaw, Tenzin Palmo, indeed just about everyone except the Buddha. The few quotes from the Tipitaka are mainly ones that support the position that early Buddhism is anti-feminine, which seems to be the main point of the article. This is summed up by Bernard Faura’s (whoever he is!) statement that ‘Buddhism is relentlessly misogynistic’. I would say that Bernard Faura is relentlessly ill-informed. If anything, the entry on ‘Alms’ is even worse. It is quite detailed but it has obviously been contributed by a monk from the Thai forest tradition. One can tell this because the writer only feels it necessary to mention giving alms to monks – the poor, the needy, travelers, etc are of course not worthy recipients for generosity.
After I read these last two entries I started to think that perhaps it is just as well that Buddhism is not mentioned very much in Wikipedia. But it has also made me think what can be done to improve and expand Buddhism’s presence on this otherwise excellent, widely read and, I assume, increasingly influential resource. Two things came to mind. (1) Continue with my (which will soon be corrected and enlarged) and forget about Wikipedia. (2) Organize a group of well-informed and energetic Buddhists to write better entries and submit them to Wikipedia. This second option would require some discussion of the required structure and form of the proposed entries. Just off the top of my head here are a few of the things I feel should be considered.
(A) All articles should aim to present the Dhamma as a viable, practical and all-embracing philosophy of life perfectly relevant to the modern world.
(B) All articles should be founded on scriptural material and give references.
(C) Every subject that Buddhism has something relevant to say about, no mater how brief, should be dealt with. For example, the Wikipedia on ‘Body Piercing’ has a section on Religion which includes a Christian and the Mormon perspective on the subject. Why shouldn’t there be something on what Buddhism might have to say on this subject?
(D) A historical-chronological approach should be taken, distinguishing between early material and later developments.
I would consider the two entries ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Luminous Mind’ in Wikipedia to be good examples of articles based on the principles I am suggesting. Both are well-written, accurate and detailed. Am I correct in saying that both these articles have been written by Bhikkhu Thanissaro?
The problem with this second of the two option I was considering would be of course, trying to overcome ‘Buddhist indifference’. What do you think?

Monday, July 13, 2009

By The Light Of The Moon

The uposatha are the days of the full moon, half moon and the two quarter moons of each month in the ancient Indian calendar. In pre-Buddhist times the upavasatha was the fasting day preceding the Vedic sacrifice. This Sanskrit word and its Pali equivalent means something like ‘fulfilled’. In some ways the uposatha is similar to the Jewish and Christian Sabbath, except of course that one is not obligatory to observe it.
However, the Buddha certainly recommended lay Buddhists use these holidays to ‘purify the soiled mind in the right way’ (upakkilittassa cittassa upakkamena pariyodapana, A.I,207). He encouraged them to pay homage to their parents on such days, to do good works, spend time in quiet contemplation and abide by the eight Precepts (A.I,143; 207). To use the uposatha for such activities was, he said, like polishing a tarnished mirror with oil, ash and a hair brush (A,I,209). He praised reserving the uposatha days for such activities in these words: ‘Pearl, crystal, beryl and gold are not worth a sixteenth of the uposatha made whole with the eight Precepts. Nor is it outshined by the moon and the celestial bodies’ (A.I,215).
Until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in most Buddhist countries, the uposathas were public holidays. In Sinhalese they are called poya, in Burmese ubot nei, and in Japanese roku sainichi. Monks and nuns use the full and half moon uopsathas to chant the Patimokkha in congragation.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

And A Woman Shall Not Be Subservient

The other day someone asked me what the Buddha had to say about the relationship between husband and wife. ‘I suppose it’s the usual “and the wife shall be subservient to her husband” my questioner said. I wasn’t able to answer straight off because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer. So I checked it up and this is what I found. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha comments than one of the onerous things about being a woman is that she is always subservient to a man (S.IV,239). This was not said by way of approval but only as an observation on how things are (or were), a ‘suffering’ (dukkha) for women.
When he was addressing his disciples he did speak of how he felt that it should be. In the Sigalovada Sutta the Buddha speaks about the duties a husband and wife should have towards each other. ‘He should honor her, not disparage her, not be unfaithful to her, give her authority, and provide her with adornments…She should organize her work properly, be kind to the servants, not be unfaithful, protect the family wealth and be skillful and diligent in all she does’ (D.III,190). I think the two most important things here are that both should be faithful (naticariya) to each other and that the husband should give authority (issariya vossaggena) to his wife. In the Buddha’s day that probably meant authority within the household. I think it would not be at all unreasonable to interpret this as applying to many more areas of life. When Nakulapita was critically ill his wife Nakulamata nursed him with great devotion and kept up his spirits with constant encouragement and . when the Buddha came to know about this he said to Nakulapita, ‘It is a gain, a great gain for you in having Nakulamata full of compassion for you (anukampika), full of love for you (atthakama), as your mentor (ovadika) and teacher (anusasika, A.III,298). For someone to mentor and teach you, they have to be your equal or superior, at least in some areas. You need to be open enough to take their advice and they need to be confident enough to give it. Again this does not suggest a woman being in a passive or subservient position. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha speaks of four things whereby a family prospers and endures. One of them is that they put in authority a virtuous woman or man (silavantam itthim va purisam va adhipacce thapenti, A.II,248).
The word adhipacca which I have here translated as ‘authority’ means, according to the PTS Dictionary, being overlord, supreme rule, lordship, sovereignty, power. The only thing I can find that the Buddha said suggesting that a wife should be subservient in at least some way to her husband is in the discourse where he talks about the seven types of wives, the last four of which he seems to approve of. These four are the mother-like wife, the sister-like wife, the companion-like wife and the slave-like wife (A.IV,). One of the qualities that the fourth of these should have is that she is ‘obedient to her husband’(bhattu = husband, vasa = under, anuvattana = comply with, go according to).
So that’s it. All this together is hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea that a woman must take an inferior position in marriage and render authority to her husband.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Logical Deductions

In the Milindapanha the question is asked as to why the sun's rays seem to shine more fiercely in the Winter than in the Summer, the opposite of what one would expect. The answer given suggests an ability to make accurate deductions from observing natural phenomena. The reason is, the text says, because Winter follows from the monsoon when rain the has washed all dust from the atmosphere. In the Summer by contrast, gusts of hot wind have filled the atmosphere with dust particles and these block the sun's rays (Mil.274).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

MJ And Popular Culture

Now that the funeral is over I would like to make a few comments on the death of Michael Jackson. Some aspects of the whole business illustrate some interesting trends in popular culture. The first is what I call the exaggeration of emotion. Both here in Singapore and in reports in the foreign media I read expressions like ‘I am devastated’ ‘The whole world is in mourning’ ‘My family and I am in a state of shock’. Really? When I was in the Medical Corps in the army in the late 60’s I sometimes saw severely wounded soldiers evacuated from Vietnam, some of them in shock. Believe me, no one ‘is in a state of shock’ over the death of MJ. And the whole world mourning? I wouldn’t mind betting that a couple of hundred millions peasants in India have never he heard of MJ and even those who have are far more concerned about the fact that the monsoon is late. I suspect that hundreds of millions of poor villagers in South America, China and Africa have hardly given MJ’s death a second thought either, even if they have heard about it. Devastated? Now I saw devastated people on a recent news report of a bomb going off in an Iraqi market. None of the numerous reports I saw about MJ’s showed ‘devastated’ people. The problem with using absurdly exaggerated terminology to describe ordinary experiences, in this case a little bit of sadness, is that when something really shocking or devastating happens we don’t have adequate words to convey its true seriousness or impact. It diminishes it. This misuse of language also encourages people to ‘over-express’ themselves about what are actually rather commonplace events. Sobbing, huddling in weeping groups arms over each others’ shoulders, and gasping ‘Oh my God!’ over the passing of someone you have never met or even seen at a distance on stage, is completely inappropriate. It leaves you with nothing to do when some you are personally are struck by real tragedy.

Did you also notice that during the memorial concert and in the thousands of cards people wrote and left at the hall where it was preformed, that MJ was constantly addressed as if he were present. ‘We love you’, ‘We will always remember you’, ‘You enriched our lives’, instead of ‘We loved him’, We will always remember him’, etc. I find this sort of thing, very common in funerals nowadays, rather weird. And this is not just a matter of the proper use of language. It grows out of and reinforces a sort of pseudo-mysticism in which a vague sentimentality replaces more thoughtful idea about death and the after-life.

Another interesting thing about MJ’s passing is how quickly the recent deep concern and even disgust about aspects of his private life has been elbowed aside by an avalanche of accolades, A genuine and meaningful eulogy to him would include mention of his very real talents in some areas, his great generosity, but also the fact that he apparently made a mess of his life. On several occasions I read of or heard people say things like ‘His message will live forever’, as if he was some great prophet or spiritual teacher. I must say, I find this sort of thing to be the height of vulgarity. It also obscures an extremely important point. If MJ’s life conveys any ‘message’ it would have to be that talent, celebrity and unimaginable wealth do not guarantee happiness. The Buddha said, ‘Truly dire are gains, honor and fame. They are serious and difficult obstacle in the way of attaining true safety’ (S.II,226)

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Buddha Meets The Dark Lord

The Padhana Sutta in the Sutta Nipata is the earliest version of the ‘Buddha verses Mara’ story and, incidentally, the only one found in the Pali Tipitaka. This sutta is interesting for a variety of reasons. For example, Mara tells the Buddha that he has pursued him ‘for seven years’ (satta vassani), whereas tradition tells us that the Buddha’s quest for truth lasted six years. Mara’s army is made up, not of monsters and ghouls, but various negative psychological traits and states of physical deprivation, underlining the story’s allegorical and didactic intent. In verse 444 the Buddha tells Mara that after he has attained enlightenment he will ‘go from country to country training many disciples’. In other words, he had already decided to teach the Dhamma even before his encounter with Brahma Sahampati after his enlightenment (Vin.I,6-7).
However, in this post I would like to examine verse 449 from the Padhana Sutta. The verse describes Mara’s 'defeat' and reads, ‘The lute fell from the armpit of that one overcome with disappointment. Then that discouraged one disappeared there and then’. Now throughout the sutta the Buddha’s adversary is called by three names – Mara, Namuci or Kanha. Now this last name can be translated as ‘Dark One’ or ‘Darky’ and of course its Sanskrit equivalent is Krishna. Now we meet with Krishna under his alternative name of Vasudeva in the Ghata Jataka (No.454), a story very similar to the one about Krishna in the Bhagavata Purana. But what is the Hindu god Krishna doing trying to hinder the Buddha attaining enlightenment in the Sutta Nipata? Well, Krishna is probably the most amorphous of all Hindu deities. He can be the insatiable lover, (some Indians even associate the blue color of Viagra pills with Krishna), the adorable child, the trickster, the brave warrior, the noble friend, the thoughtful philosopher, the incarnation of God, etc. He is most commonly depicted today playing a flute, and in earlier times, a lute (vina), as in the Sutta Nipata. The best ‘biography’ of Krishna I know of is in Trevor Ling’s outstanding ‘A History of Religion East and West’ (1968).
But whatever Krishna became later, he started off as an aboriginal fertility god, similar to Pan (you know, dalliancing in the wood with the shepherdesses and playing his pan pipes). His aboriginal origins also explain his color, although the Aryan distaste of blackness caused him to become blue as he was gradually incorporated into Hinduism. But at the time of the Buddha, Krishna was a popular but minor a god of sensual love and in that role he tried to distract the Buddha from his noble quest.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Recollection On Blessings

Infinite in number and variety are the states of existence that beings are born into. I have been born as a human beings.

Countless are those who cannot speak or hear what is spoken to them, who cannot see to read and who lack the power to reason and ponder. I have been born with all limbs and faculties complete.

Many are those who dwell in lands of strife and conflict and who are deprived of security and safety. I am living in a land that is at peace.

Incalculable are those forced to toil without end and who are driven by hunger and want. I have wealth to sustain the body and time to give it rest.

Numerous are those whose bodies and minds are in bonds, who are not their own masters, unable to go where they wish, unable to think as they like, I enjoy great freedom.

Without number are those who abide in regions where the light of the Dhamma shines not, or where its message is not heard above the racket of false doctrines. I have heard and understood the good Dhamma.

Truly precious is this human life and great are the blessings I enjoy. I here and now before the Buddha contemplate my own good fortune and resolve to use this rare opportunity to work for my own good and the good of others. With strong determination I will overcome all obstacles both great and small.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I found these quotes on an atheist website. I thought some of them were rather good. However, I notice that most of them, like discussions on religion in general, assume that religion means belief in a god, and in one god in particular. Thats a pity. I think its time we get together with the Jains, the Taoists and the Confucianists and start a Society For The Better Understanding Of God-free Religions.
(1) An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support. John Buchan
(2) Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color. Don Hirschberg
(3) Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. Anonymous
(4) The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike. Delos B. McKown
(5) I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal god. So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake… Religion is all bunk. Thomas Edison
(6) I’m a polyatheist - there are many gods I don’t believe in. Dan Fouts
(7) The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality. George Bernard Shaw
(8) Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? Douglas Adams
(9) With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. Steven Weinberg
(10) Atheism is a non-prophet organization. George Carlin
(11) I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world. Richard Dawkins
(12) Faith means not wanting to know what is true. Friedrich Nietzsche
(13) I believe in God, only I spell it Nature. Frank Lloyd Wright
(14) What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. Christopher Hitchens

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Buddha's Hair

Okay! Hears one for you. Why is the Buddha’s hair usually depicted as a collection of tightly twisted spiraling curls? A search through the internet came up with two particularly cockeyed explanations. (1) The Buddha sat in meditation for so long that snails slid up his body and rested on his head. This theory would seem to be based on the similarity between the spiriling curls and snail shells (yawn, yawn!). (2) On a black pride website claiming that most of the civilization’s great innovations actually originated in Africa or were made by black people, it is maintains that the Buddha was actually an African. The proof of that is that he had crinkly African-type hair (groan!). Okay, after that interesting sojourn in cloud-cuckoo land, let’s return to earth and have a look at the evidence. Firstly, let us be clear that this is more a question related to iconography and art history than to Buddhist thought and practice. Secondly, I know of no serious attempts by Buddhist commentators or art historians to explain the spiraling curls on Buddha images. And thirdly, the Tipitaka offers no authentic information about the Buddha’s hair other than to say that it was black (kalakesa) and that he cut it off when he renounced the world to become a monk (M.I,163). Although it is not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka, we can safely assume that the Buddha shaved his head like all other monks. Depictions of him with hair, is an iconographical convention without historical basis.
So where did the spiraling curls come from? The Lakkhana Sutta and several other suttas are devoted to the concept of the 32 Signs of a Great Man (mahapurisalakkhana), a rather strange idea introduced into Buddhism at a later period. One of these signs pertain to the hair. The relevant passage reads ‘Uddhaggani lomani jatani nilani anjanavannani kundalavattani padakkhinavattaka jatan’ (D.II,17). Word for word this means – uddhaggani = turns around or upwards, lomani = hair, nilanianjanavannani = black in color similar to collyrium, kundalavattani = curled, and padakkhinavatta = turning to the right. So according to the sutta, the Great Man’s hair was black and curled upwards and to the right. It was probably thought to curl the right because the right has been, in nearly all cultures, considered more auspicious. Being the color of collyrium is interesting. The Pali and Sanskrit word nila means black, blue or dark. Now collyrium as it is used in India, is made from the ash of fleabane, ghee and a few other ingredients and is a black greasy substance. In Mahayana sutras the nila gradually came to be understood as being blue. In the Gandhavyuha Sutra’s discussion on the signs of a Great Man it glosses nila as ‘the color of the vairocana jewel’ which is blue in color. This is why Tibetan Buddha statues have blue hair.
Anyway, when the first sculptors made Buddha statues they tried to depict at least some of the 32 signs. It is thought that the first Buddha statues were made in Gandhara under Greek influence, and in Mathura, in around the 1st/2nd centuries CE. Greek or Greek-influenced sculptors in Gandhara, perhaps more rooted in reality, depicted the Buddha’s hair naturalistically as, not exactly curling to the right, but waving to the right. The first Mathura-manafactured Buddhas show him with a single bun spiraling to the right, something like a Mr. Whippy ice cream. The Gandhara style never penetrated into India proper and eventually died out. The spiraling Mathura style eventually evolved into many spiraled curls and the Buddha’s hair has been depicted in that manner ever since.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

More Bad News From Swat

The irony is as thick as the dust clouds sweeping over the ramshackle Pakistani market town of Takht-i-Bahi. At the hilltop ruins of a first-century Buddhist monastery, Ikram Ali, a local university student, is in the middle of explaining what it is that attracts him to the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site’s grassy knolls and quiet quadrangles when automatic gunfire rips through the serene vales and gullies. “It’s peaceful up here,” he’d been saying just a few seconds earlier, scanning the horizon in the direction of the Swat Valley. “You can escape all of the noise and stress that goes on down there.” The volley of bullets erupts just as he points down toward the town. A group of villagers can be seen scrambling for cover under a grove of trees. The exchange is brief, lasting five minutes or so, after which the villagers resume their routines. Ali watches the scene with mild amusement. “That kind of thing happens every day around here,” he says with a Buddha-like calm.

Across a wide, fertile plain to the north, the black mountains of Malakand Division, including Swat, stretch across the horizon. There, ruins of another sort are a dominant feature—the products of weeks of war that have gripped the Swat Valley and its environs. But up in the hilltop monastery in Takht-i-Bahi, none of that seems particularly relevant. Here, young couples, otherwise forbidden from even speaking to one another, huddle conspiratorially in the shadows of meditation halls, or walk casually through what were once monks’ residences. None of them can tell you much about the prolific history of Buddhism in Pakistan and the role Buddhism once played in bringing peace to a region now perennially beset by violence. They can tell you little about Asoka , the 3rd century BCE emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, who, after witnessing first hand the killing fields of his army’s expansionist campaigns, converted to Buddhism, gave up war, and spent the rest of his life actively promoting a Buddhist-inspired program of peace and brotherhood. His story reads like a life lesson in pacifism. The prosperity his empire enjoyed after his conversion is legendary. Some of that legacy remains in Takht-i-Bahi, in the quiet, contemplative moods of people like Ali who come there to clear their minds.

For a time, when the Taliban were in control of Malakand a few short weeks go, that serenity appeared to be under threat. Their hatred of Buddhism is an established fact: the March 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, officially ordered by the then-ruling Taliban regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar, and the more recent November 2007 mutilation of a seven-meter tall Buddha statue in the Jehanabad region of Swat, are examples of what could have been in store for Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage. “Militants are definitely a threat to Swat’s historical sites,” says an official at the Sir Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Museum in Peshawar, requesting anonymity. “They tried to attack some sites and even attacked the Swat Museum. But the government had good security there so the attackers were repelled.” Since that incident, officials have moved the most precious of Swat’s Buddhist relics to an undisclosed location.
The sites, however, remain exposed. Pakistani officials don’t know how badly, if at all, ruins similar to Takht-i-Bahi have been damaged during the Swat offensive—the region is still too dangerous for any assessment. Any loss would be a grave blow, not only to the world’s Buddhist heritage, but, according to some Pakistanis, to the identity of Pakistan itself. “This is something from the past, and the Quran tells us the past is important to Muslims,” says Rafaqat Baig, a guide at the Dharmarajika complex in Taxila, 30 km north of the capital Islamabad, where some of the Buddha’s ashes were placed by Emperor Ashoka. “There are many prophets who came before the Prophet Muhammad. Some people here believe Buddha was one of those. He speaks of equality between men, so does Islam. He speaks about love, so does Islam.”
For Muslims like Baig, paying tribute to Buddha in no way contradicts their faith. But even he admits he would not speak openly to others about his beliefs: “You never know who might be listening.” His caution is understandable. Even though the Taliban are on the run in Swat, it’s not inconceivable that one day Dharmarajika and Takht-i-Bahi’s meditative slopes could be occupied by gun-toting Islamic radicals.

From the Internet.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Neuroscience Of Compassion

The prestigious Stanford University is setting up a new Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The two biggest donors to the project are the neurosurgeon and businessman Jim Doty ($5.5 million) who will also be the center’s director and the Dalai Lama ($150,000). The rest of the money is coming from well-wishers, corporations and foundations. The center’s goals will involve investigating how the brain deals with compassion and altruism and apply those findings to developing ways to improving peoples lives. What a thoroughly worthwhile project! Doty said he hopes the center’s research will help understand and combat childhood bullying and recidivism among prisoners. He also wonders whether the benefits of intense mediation can be more easily achieved by healthcare and corporate workers to prevent burnout, depression and anxiety.
Some scientists have expressed concern with the Dalai Lama’s association with the proposed centre. Several years ago, he gave a keynote address at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, amid criticism from some members of the society. More than 1000 people signed an on-line petition questioning his credentials, though some of the opposition was probably tied to his views on Tibetan independence rather than his religious status.