Thursday, April 30, 2009

Commandments And Precepts VI

The sixth of the eight Precepts and ten Precepts is Vikala bhojana vermani sikkhapadam samadhiami, I take the precept not to eat at the wrong time. 'Wrong time' (vikala) has long been interpreted to mean after noon or midday, although I know of no place in the suttas where this is specifically stated. The overall purpose of this rule is clear enough – to encourage moderation in eating (Sn.707) and to keep drowsiness due to a full stomach at bay. But the part about not eating after midday is less clear. The origin story in the Vinaya explaining this rule is unconvincing and obviously a later invention. According to this story, a monk was standing at someone's door late at night. As the woman of the house approached the door a sudden flash of lightening illuminated him, frightening the woman half to death, and to prevent this from happening again the Buddha instituted the rule. The only justification the Buddha gives for this rule is that it is good for the health and he does not mention what the 'wrong time' is other than to say the 'evening' or 'night' (ratti). He said, 'I do not eat in the evening and thus I am free from illness and affliction and enjoy health, strength and ease' (M.I,473). But I can see not reason why eating only in the morning should be any more or less healthy than eating only in the afternoon.
I suspect that the rule has its origins in two things. That eating before noon was already a well-established convention amongst wandering ascetics and the Buddha simply asked his monks and nuns to follow this convention. And the reason why this convention evolved in the first place was probably because, then as now, Indian peasant women cooked all the day's food early in the morning and the main meal of the day was in the morning. In other words, the most convenient time to go for alms gathering (pindapata) was in the morning. Noon was probably used as the cut-off point for not eating because it could be known exactly. Its also pretty certain also that monks and nuns only eat one meal a day because, not doing hard physical labour, they did not need that much food. So it is important to understand that noon is not some magical time, after which consuming food becomes a moral failing. It is just a convenient, and at that time a practical, way of dividing the day.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More On The AWARE Affair

Just an appendix to yesterday's first entry. Fundamentalist Christian ministries and organizations claiming that homosexuals need 'curing' and that they can be 'cured' through faith and prayer, have been around for a while. But as with so many other things, the gap between their galloping optimism and the reality, is a wide one. Take Exodus International, which seeks to convert homosexuals, both religiously and behaviorally. Three years after it started, two of its original founders 'reverted'. In 2000 its long-term chairman, John Paulk, was removed for 'engaging in behavior which has negatively impacted on the credibility of Exodus'; which is another way of saying that he had been caught visiting gay bars. In the 1990's in the US a man named Michael Johnston, who was HIV positive, was widely promoted by the American Family Association as a sterling example of a homosexual 'transformed by the Lord'. He spoke widely on radio and TV and in churches. In 2002 it was revealed that he had been having unprotected sex with other males. Another Christian ministry called Love In Action started in 1973 by Frank Worthen, John Evans, and Kent Philpott, claimed that homosexuals could become heterosexual if only they would pray hard enough. McIntyre eventually committed suicide in despair over his inability to change and Evans left the project and denounced it as dangerous. He was quoted as saying: 'They're destroying people's lives. If you don't do their thing, you're not of God, you'll go to hell. They're living in a fantasy world'. The third of the three founders, Kent Philpott, wrote a book called The Third Sex? in which he claimed that he had 'cured' hundreds of gays. Some of these 'cured' gays, including Evans, filed a suit against Philpott for misrepresentation (i.e. lying) and he was forced to remove his book from the market. Until 2006 Pastor Ted Haggard was head of the 14,000 member congregation New Life Church in Colorado in the US, and leader of the powerful National Association of Evangelicals. He was also well-known for his strong condemnation of homosexuality. In 2006 Haggard was forced to resign when confronted with evidence that he had been taking drugs and engaging in sex with other men. A year later Haggard announced that he had been 'completely cured through the Lord's grace' and almost immediately new evidence emerged of his homosexual behavior.
One's first reaction to these and numerous similar incidents, might be to dismiss them as just more examples of psalm-singing evangelical Christian hypocrisy. But they have another dimension, a genuinely sad and tragic one. Because of old prejudices and misunderstandings, homosexuals are from the very beginning up against some very difficult odds. Fortunately, due to better understanding and the work of organizations like AWARE, a young homosexual's chances of overcoming these odds and gaining self-acceptance and self-respect are much better today. But if he or she happens to have a spiritual yearning and if, due to their upbringing or cultural milieu or because access to information about different religions is limbed, they become a Christian, they will be forced by their church's teachings to re-adopt all the negativities they had just overcame - pretense, shame, denial, self-loathing, secretiveness, etc. If they confess their homosexuality they will either be asked to leave their church or have to undergo endless sessions of quack 'conversion therapy' until they are judged 'normal'. Both options are a lingering remnant of the cruel victimization of the past. People like Michael Johnston and Pastor Ted Haggard are not so much hypocrites as victims.
A quick check through the internet found that these are just some of the professional organizations in the US that consider homosexuality to be normal and which consider 'conversion therapy' to be ineffective or even harmful - the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Assn, the American Counseling Assn, The National Assn of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Assn of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, National Assn of School Psychologists and the National Education Association. Similar medical and psychological organizations in other Western countries take the same stance. But of course, none of this cuts any ice with the evangelicals; to them all it does is prove that these organizations are under the influence of Satan. Welcome to the new Middle Ages!
The priests and pastors who deplore homosexual promiscuity and hedonism are actually partly responsible for it. Deprive a person of the spiritual sustenance and comfort, tell them that the feelings they have are perverted and sick, strongly advocate laws that stigmatize them as criminals, do everything you can to prevent them from forming legally recognized partnerships, tell them that they will go to hell when they die, and is it a wonder that they reject religion and turn to superficial, self-destructive lifestyles?
The phenomena of forcing your moral principles on others and then have it create all sorts of problems, has, sad to say, a long sorry history in Christianity. Take prohibition for example. In the late 19th century American Christians were starting to flex their political muscle. High on their agenda for making society more 'decent' was banning alcohol – not encouraging abstinence, not educating people to drink responsibly, that would have taken too much effort - banning it outright! As a Buddhist, I don't drink and I have never have - I don't like it. But I wouldn't try to stop my neighbor from drinking and I would never speak to him about abstaining, unless his drinking was having some negative impact on me. But evangelicals aren't like Buddhists, they want to force their beliefs and practices on everyone else, even by using the law if necessary. Spearheaded by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the prohibitionists finally got the Volstead Act passes in 1920 and all alcohol was banned. The supporters of prohibition were all the usual suspects, most Protestant sects but also the Quakers and those upholders of moral decency the Ku Klux Klan. Opponents were the wise and sagacious Woodrow Wilson who tried to veto the Congress ratification of the Volstead Act, the Episcopalians, the Catholics and most of the medical profession.
The consequences of prohibition were disastrous. The millions of ordinary people who liked an occasional drink resented having what they saw as their rights restricted, alcohol consumption sored, as did drunkenness and all the problems that go with it. In 1925 there was more speakeasies (illegal bars) in New York (as many as 100,000) than there had been legal bars in 1919. The police wasted millions of man-hours ferreting out illegal booze, prosecuting otherwise law-abiding citizens, and trying to stop liquor smuggling. The mafia could hardly believe their luck. The price of bootleg liquor skyrocketed, they made hundreds of millions of dollars and with that loot established themselves, for the first time, as a potent force in American life. Prohibition was called 'the Noble Experiment' in that while it was a complete failure, those who advocated it had 'good intentions'. But good intentions aren't sufficient; intentions also have to be thoughtful and well-informed, they have to take into account existing realities, and they have to be guided by accurate information not what ancient books say. The 'well intentioned' prohibitionists were nowhere to be seen when the Volstead Act was finally repealed in 1931, as people danced in the streets and celebrated by getting uproariously drunk.
The fundamentalist Christian approach to homosexuality is similar; perhaps well-intentioned but ill-informed, responsible for causing heartbreak, confusion and suffering, and doomed to failure.
People occasionally inform me that they are homosexual and ask me what the Buddhist stand on this issue is (see my blog of 25th May 2008). With one exception (a man who had very obvious and serious personality problems) all these people struck me as perfectly normal and average. Most of them appeared to have a distinct spiritual leaning, a genuine desire to practice the Dhamma and a determination to live by the Precepts. Several have been members of our society and the ones who still are have been good, helpful and supportive members.
The picture above shows Pastor Ted Haggard reading the Bible while pretending to be heterosexual.


Last Sunday, the senior pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, Derek Hong, gave a sermon in which he urged his congregation to join AWARE and support the new committee in the upcoming extraordinary general meeting, i.e. to stack the meeting. Amongst the several other interesting things Pastor Hong said was this - 'This is not a crusade against the people but there is a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line.' Now exactly how dishonestly and underhandedly taking over an organization like AWARE is going to prevent Singapore's 4 million citizens from being pushed across a line drawn by God, is not at all clear to me. But although I am just a simple monk I am able to read between the lines, and I think this is what Pastor Hong means – we are justified in using deceitful and sneaky tactics to take over an organization that we previously had no connection with, then to stack a meeting to keep hold of that organization, because that organization is advocating things that are against God's laws. If this is what he means, all of us should start becoming very cautious, very AWARE and very frightened.
Here at the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, we do not believe in God and we bow to and place flowers before a statue of the Buddha. Both this belief and these practice directly contravene the First and the Second of the Ten Commandments. Does this mean that Pastor Hong now has us in his sights? Does this mean that just before our new next annual general meeting that we are going to see an unusual rise in membership? Does this mean that a group of complete strangers who have never come before are going to be voted in, and that the whole focus and character of our society is going to change?
Jokes aside. Pastor Hong has in the past made no secret of his determination to turn Singapore into a Christian nation. If he and his supporters intend doing this using the tactics they have used to take over AWARE, I think there is going to be trouble.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The AWARE Saga - A Buddhist View

Singapore is a pretty boring place. By 'boring' I mean no school massacres, no 'no-go areas', no corruption scandals, no gang warfare and not much crime. Even elections are low-key, unexciting and predictable affairs. But of late Singaporeans have been treated to a bit of real excitement. People are talking about it, it is getting wide coverage in the media and the internet is positively humming with opinions about it. And because all the excitement has a religious element to it I'm dealing with it on my blog today. I will return to the promised subject of the five and ten Precepts in two days.
For 26 years an organization called AWARE has promoted women's rights, birth control, lesbian self-respect, everything you would expect from a modern progressive women's advocacy group. Last month AWARE had their annual general meeting and to everyone's astonishment a large group of members who had only joined during the previous month, voted out all the old members and took over. Interesting in itself, but even more interesting is that six of the 11 new office-bearers all just happen to be members of the same religious organization. In its reporting of this matter the media has mentioned the new offices holders' have a particular 'religious affiliation', that they have a 'faith-based' outlook and that 'certain beliefs' are involved, seemingly unable to bring themselves to actually use the word – Christian; or more precisely, fundamentalist Christian; or to be exact the Church of Our Savior.
Now the Church of Our Savior is - how can I put this? - let's just say that a guy with a beard and turban hiding in a cave in Afghanistan is a moderate by comparison. On the side-bar of the church's web site, the fourth item after 'Home', 'Welcome' and 'About Our Church' is 'Position Statement on Homosexuality' so presumably what homosexuals do in the privacy of their own bedrooms is of particular interest to the COS. The church even run an operation called Choice Ministries which 'cures' homosexuals. Apparently COS also has close links with the controversial Hillsong Church in Perth, Australia, characterized by its many critics, including Christian critics, as having an abusive, cohesive, mind-control approach to religion (see I always refer to these types of setups as Taklakamakan churches - 'go in, can't get out'.
The new AWARE committee have publicly stated that they did not know each other previous to their election, that they haven’t yet decided whether there will be new policies on gender issues, and that they intend to keep their religious views in the background. Many people in Singapore of late have reported seeing pigs flying. After all this got in the papers, the new committee appointed the mother of a former MP as its 'feminist mentor'. Within days, alleged 'private and confidential' emails between this woman and some of the new committee appeared on the internet and these suggest very strongly that there had been a carefully planned, religiously motivated, conspiracy to take over AWARE because of its stance on matters relating to sexuality.
Religious fundamentalists of all persuasions are pretty much the same, aren't they? While claiming to promote the highest moral standards, they are quite willing to use underhand, dubious or even immoral means to promote those standards. Typically, they also want to impose those standards on everyone else.
Because of their excellent organizational abilities and fierce determination, fundamentalist Christians in Singapore have a profile and an influence far beyond their numbers. If your neighbor, fellow student, boss, work colleague, local shopkeeper or the driver of the taxi you just hired, is a fundamentalist, you'll know it because he or she will very soon tell you. They may even tell you so often that you start to feel as if you are being verbally harassed. And they are very determined to use each and every opportunity to promote their particular view of things. Some observers maintain that they are also prepared to do almost anything to stifle or suppress opposing or different views.
Whether the AWARE saga turns out to be an example of this, we should know within a few days. The ousted committee has called an extraordinary general meeting for the 2nd of May and both sides are urging sympathizers to quickly join AWARE, attend the extraordinary general meeting and give their support. For more on this, have a look at

Monday, April 27, 2009

Commandments And Precepts V

In addition to the five Precepts, serious Buddhists will try to practise the eight Precepts (attha sila), at least on the half and full moon days of every month. The eight Precepts are the same as the five except that the third is replaced by abstinence from all sexual behavior, and the additional three Precepts are: (6) not to eat after midday (7), to abstain from dancing, singing, playing or listening to music, personal adornment and makeup, and (8) not to use high seats and couches. Novice monks and nuns are expected to practise the ten Precepts (dasa sila) in preparation for their monastic life. These ten are: (1) not to harm living beings, (2) not to steal, (3) to abstain from sexual behaviour, (4) not to lie, (5) not to take alcohol or intoxicating drugs, (6) not to eat after midday, (7) to abstain from dancing, singing and musical entertainment, (8) to abstain from adornment and makeup, (9) not to use high seats and couches, and (10) not to use gold and silver, i.e. money.
It will be noticed that while the five Precepts pertain to moral behaviour, the last three of the eight Precepts and the last five of the ten Precepts, are not about morality, but about behaviour that simplifies and uncomplicated one's life so one can focus fully on the spiritual. The failure to understand this (somewhat common in traditional Buddhist countries) can cause all sorts of confusion. Over the next few days I will have a look at these 'lifestyle simplification' Precepts.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Commandments And Precepts IV

The general consensus amongst scholars is that the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy were composed, bit by bit, from different sources, between about the 6th and the 3rd centuries BCE, so they roughly correspond with age of the compilation of the Tipitaka. It is interesting therefore to compare the Ten Commandments (any one or all three versions) with the Buddha's five Precepts. Their similarities and differences, what they include or leave out, are indicative of the two (or three, if we include Judaism) religions.
A precept (sikkhapada) is a self-imposed rule or discipline. The moral rules that all Buddhists commit themselves to and try to live by are called the five Precepts (panca sila). They are (1)
not to harm living beings, (2) not to steal, (3) not to engage in wrong sexual behaviour, (4) not to lie and (5) not to take alcohol or other intoxicating drugs. In following these Precepts one gradually develops a respect for the life of others, for their property, their dignity, their right to know the truth and a respect for the clarity of one's own mind. The Buddha called adhering to these Precepts a consideration to others which 'creates love and respect and which is conducive to helpfulness, non-dispute, harmony and unity' (A.III,287; M.I.322). I think this passage needs to be more well-known so I give it in Pali as well…'piyakarana, garukarana, sangahaya, avivadaya, samaggiya,ekibhavaya, samvattanti'. The Buddha saw adherence to the Precepts as a gift (danani) which would benefit both the giver and the receiver. 'When a noble disciple practices the five Precepts he gives the gift of freedom from fear, from hatred and from ill-will to limitless beings. And in giving this gift he thereby partakes in a freedom from fear, from hatred and from ill-will which is limitless' (condensed, A.IV,246). On another occasion, the Buddha called virtue 'freedom-giving' and 'conducive to concentration' (A.III,132) and he mentioned that one of the most important benefits of practicing the Precepts is that one experiences 'the happiness of being blameless' (anavajja sukha, D.I,70). In other words, Buddhists practices the five Precepts because they care about their own welfare and the welfare and happiness of others too.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Commandments And Precepts III

I think the best alternative Ten Commandments I have come across is from Hal Urban's book The 10 Commandments of Common Sense - Wisdom from the Scriptures for People of all Beliefs. Hal Urban's TC are informed by a tolerant, open-minded Christian faith and I would recommend his book to anyone. I'm trying to get his earlier book Life's Greatest Lessons but have been unable to find it yet.
1. Don’t be seduced by popular culture. It prevents you from thinking for yourself.
2. Don’t fall in love with money. It will make you greedy and shallow.
3. Don’t use destructive language. It hurts others as will well as yourself.
4. Don’t judge other people. Its better to work on your own faults.
5. Don’t let anger get out of control. It can wreak relationships and ruin lives.
6. Keep a positive outlook on life. It's the first step to joy.
7. Bring out the best in other people. It's better to build up than to tear down.
8. Have impeccable integrity. It brings peace of mind and a reputation of honor.
9. Help those in need. It really is better to give than to receive.
10. Do everything in love. It is the only way to find true peace and fulfillment.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Commandments And Precepts II

There are a lot of 'alternative' Ten Commandments going around; the Golfer's Ten Commandments, the Vegan Kitchen Ten Commandments, the Ten Commandments of Customer Service, the Driver's Ten Commandments, etc. However, there are some genuinely spiritual and thoughtful ones too, like this one by the famous diplomat and founder of the Club of Rome.

Ervin Laszlo's Ten Commandments
1. Live in ways that enable other people to also live, satisfying your needs without detracting form the chances of others to satisfy theirs
2. Live in ways that respect the right to life an to economic and cultural development of all people, wherever they live and whatever their ethnic origin, sex, citizenship, station in life and belief system
3. Live in ways that safeguard the intrinsic right to life and to an environment supportive of life of all the things that live and grown on Earth
4. Pursue happiness, freedom, and personal fulfillment in harmony with the integrity of nature and with the consideration for the similar pursuits of others
5. Require that your government relates to other nations and peoples peacefully and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing the legitimate aspirations for a better life and a healthy environment of all the people in the human family
6. Require of the enterprises with which you do business that they accept responsibility for all their stakeholders as well as for the environment , and demand that they produce goods and offer services that satisfy legitimate demand without reducing the chances of smaller or less privileged entrants to compete in the marketplace
7. Require of the public media that they provide a constant stream of reliable information on basic trends and crucial processes to enable you to reach informed decisions on issues that affect your life and well-being
8. Make room in your life to help those less privileged than you to live a life of dignity, free from struggles and humiliations of abject poverty
9. Encourage young people and open-minded people of all ages to evolve the spirit that could empower them to make ethical decisions of their own on issues that decide their future and the future of their children
10. Work with like-minded people to preserve or restore the essential balances of the environment, with due attention to your neighborhood, your country and region, and the whole of the biosphere

While being partly tongue-in-cheek the advice this TC advises is of the type that should give a few red-hot religious types we have here in Singapore pause to think.
A New Christian Ten Commandments
1.Thou shalt shut thy gob when politely asked, and not drone on endlessly.
2. Thou shalt not use circular arguments, such as "God exists, because the Bible sayeth so, and the Bible is True because it is God's Word."
3. Thou shalt notice when thy audience is bored rigid. See Commandment 1.
4. Thou shalt not use a cop-out such as "God worketh in mysterious ways" when backed into a corner by thine own convoluted logic.
5.Thou shalt use thine own imagination, and not just quote from the Bible all the time.
6.Thou shalt not tell atheists what they believe, nor that thy God loveth them.
7.Thou shalt not get upset by jokes about thy God. He is big enough and old enough to looketh after himself.
8.Thou shalt not define how thy God worketh. Thou canst not know.
9.Thou shalt not state that the Bible is consistent and hath no contradictions. Thou wouldst be a fool to doeth so.
. Thou shalt not say Grace without also thanking the farmers, truck-drivers and shopkeepers that actually did the work required to get your food to the table.

This is a sort of New Age Ten Commandments.
1. You will daily give thanks to your heavenly Mother and Father, and to your earthly mother and father, for the precious gift of life.
2. You will show your respect and appreciation for this gift by striving always to make life a rich experience for yourself and others.
3. You will have reverence for the plant kingdom, which provides oxygen to breathe, food to eat, and beauty to uplift your soul.
4. You will love the members of the animal kingdom as brothers and sister.
5. You will not wantonly injure or destroy any vegetation.
6. You will not injure or kill any animal, except in self-defense or for food.
7. You will not injure or kill any human, except in defense of your life, or your kin.
8. You will not wage war.
9. You will regard with equal dignity men, women and children of all races and creeds.
. You will joyfully give succor and assistance to those less fortunate than yourself.

This is called Ten Instructions For Life. I don’t know where it comes from or who wrote it.
1.Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
2.When you lose, don't lose the lesson.
3.Follow the three Rs: respect for self, respect for others, and responsibility for all your actions.
4.Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
5.Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
6.Don't let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
7.When you realize you've made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
8.Spend some time alone every day.
9.Open your arms to change, but don't let go of your values.
10.Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

This is supposed to be a traditional Native American Ten Commandments although it’s a bit too 'new agey' to be genuine. Nothing about collecting scalps and raiding neighboring tribes. Nonetheless, its okay.
1.The Earth is our Mother - care for her.
2.Honour all your relations.
3.Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit.
4.All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect.
5.Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more.
6.Do what needs to be done for the good of all.
7.Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day.
8.Speak the truth; but only of the good in others.
9.Follow the rhythm of nature; rise and retire with the sun.
.Enjoy life’s journey, but leave no tracks.

This TC comes from Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and while I heartily approve of every one of these commandments, I can only say, 'Richard, the reality is that the majority of people are never going to 'check their ideas against facts', or 'question everything.' They don’t even have the time!
1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
2.In all things, strive to cause no harm.
3.Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
4.Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
5.Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
6.Always seek to be learning something new.
7.Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
8.Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
9.Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
.Question everything

Gene Autry's wrote this Cowboy Code in 1930 which I honestly think is more comprehensive, more humane and more broad than God's originals, although the last two might come into conflict with the other eight.
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take an unfair advantage.
2. A Cowboy must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. A Cowboy must always tell the truth.
4. A Cowboy must be gentle with children, the elderly and small animals.
5. A Cowboy must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant views and ideas.
6. A Cowboy must help people in distress.
7. A Cowboy must be a good worker.
8. A Cowboy must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9. A Cowboy must respect women, parents and his nation's views.
10. A Cowboy is a patriot.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Commandments And Precepts I

Everyone knows of the Ten Commandments although very few know what they are. A survey or regular church-goers recently in the US found that only 1 person out of 10 knew them all. A survey amongst 5000 Americans who identified themselves as Christian found that only 129 knew them all and 2642 couldn’t name any of them. Perhaps there is some excuse for this lack of religious knowledge because the most well-informed answer to the question 'What are the Ten Commandments?' would be 'Which Ten Commandments?' You see, there are actually three versions of the TC in the Bible. Two of them, at Exodus 20;2-7 and Deuteronomy 5;6-17 are nearly the same but the other one at Exodus 34;11-27, the only one the Bible actually be calls 'the Ten Commandments' (Hebrew aseret ha'dibrot), is very different from the other two. The TC that the few people who do know them do know, is the Exodus 20;2-7 one. The interesting thing about this supposed ethical blueprint is that the first five commandments do not really pertain to what most people would consider to be ethical behavior. Not working on the Sabbath may be overexertion (it certainly is a bore) but its hardly immoral. Then there is the small matter of the first three commandments which, I would contend, have done very little over the centuries to foster inter-religious harmony and understanding. The statement 'for I your God am a jealous God punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation those who reject me' does not fit at all well with my concept of ethics either. Then when we get to the last four commandments, the ones that actually deal with morality, I also have a few problems. Apparently, number six does not say 'don’t kill' (harog), it says 'don’t murder' (retzach) which implies that killing in other circumstances might be acceptable. Number eight is interesting too. Many scholars contend that it does not really say 'Thou shall not steal' but rather 'Thou shall not kidnap', kidnapping for ransom or to get hostages being as common in the Middle East then as it is today. Number nine covers one type of lying - lying in a court about someone else, but not all the other types of dishonesty. The last commandment, about not coveting, is a good one, it suggests that one should not just control one's behavior but also do something about the emotions and desires that motivate behavior.
It seems to me that even these ethical principles, good enough as far as they go, are spoiled by the fact that God demands the death penalty for infringing them (Exodus 22;20, Leviticus 24;16, Ex. 31;15, Ex. 21;15, Ex. 21;17, Lev. 20;10). Death for adultery! Isn't that what we condemn the Iranians for doing? Death for not believing in God! Isn't that what we have criticized Afghan lawmakers for proposing? And if you don’t believe in and honor God he will, he says, 'corrupt your seed and smear filth in your face' (Malachi 21;4. I could manage the filth thing but having my seed corrupted is a bit much if you ask me. My seed is very important to me.
The TC have been and remain today the basis of Jewish and Christian ethical teachings. While some uphold their relevance in today's world, others claim that the average decent 'man in the street' could come up with a far better guide to moral living. Tomorrow I will look at some of these 'alternative' Ten Commandments.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bodh Gaya Color

I would like to share with you some of the photos I have taken at Bodh Gaya over the years. Bodh Gaya gets more crowded and noisy every year but more lively and colorful too. These photos have been taken between 2002 and 2007

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

They've Done It Again

About two months ago I finished Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi, a thoroughly absorbing read and the best survey of post-independent India I know of. I'm not sure how he did it, but Guha seems to have managed mentioning just everything in a mere 900 pages. I first became familiar with him a few years ago when I found his This Fissured Land, An Ecological History of India while I was doing research for my own Dictionary of Flora and Fauna in the Pali Tipitaka. Anyway, in India After Gandhi, Guha mentions all the observers who have over the decades predicted that India would either fall to pieces or decline into dictatorship. And there have been many of them. Not only were they proved wrong, but they have been proved wrong yet again. Despite all the chaos, the corruption, the cronyism, the casteism, the crime and the crookedness, the Mother has held together and conducted free and fair (well, maybe not so fair in Bihar) elections for 62 years. Hundreds of millions of Indians are illiterate, but they treasure their right to vote and select the politicians who will rip them off. I mention this because the excuse the Communist Party of China always uses to suppress any political opinion other than the party line, is that if there is freedom in China the country will descend into a chaotic free-for-all and disintegrate. It isn’t true. India has remained unitary because of democracy, not in spit of it.
Have a look at these great pictures of Indians exercising their right to vote.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Always Relevant

At a time when it is becoming increasingly acceptable to display hysterically fury at what is perceived to be blasphemy or iconoclasm, some calm and reasoned words from the Buddhist tradition might not be out of place.

When the Buddha was informed that a man named Suppiya was 'finding fault in all sorts of ways with the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha' he said: 'Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saïgha you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did you would not be able recognize if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Sangha you should explain whatever is incorrect saying: "This is not correct, that is not true, we do not do this, that is not our way" ' (D.I,1-3).
Over a thousand years later the poet Santideva wrote in his Bodhicaryavatra: ‘Hatred towards those who speak insultingly about or damage sacred images or stupas is inappropriate. The Buddhas do not get angry at such things.’

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Long List

I have been called lots of things in my life, a list of some 86 of them can be found in my curricula vita. Recently I wrote a critical review of a book called From Buddha to Jesus and in his response to this review, the book's author has now added considerably to this list. Apparently I am an ‘argumentative’, ‘conceding’ ‘academic elitist’, ‘a materialist’, ‘a neo-atheist’, I have the audacity to ‘cite the Tipitaka as if it were on a par with the Bible’, I live in the ‘Ivory Tower of Academia,’ I’m ‘ignorant of science’, I speak ‘out of the corners of my mouth’, no matter how many hours I chant and meditate I will never know Buddhism the way it is lived by Asians, I can’t tell historical science from operative science (I plead guilty to that one), I ‘misapply quotes and misuses statistics,’ I have had ‘no exposure to the realities of Asian life,’ I have ‘an ax to grind,’ I cannot claim to have ‘achieved the 8-fold path’ (guilty again) and I seem to have a ‘Western supremacist mentality.’ According to the author, some of my friends are ‘anti-Jews’ and ‘bigots’ and I might well be anti-Semitic myself. I usually take critical assessments of myself fairly easy, but this last one genuinely offended me. Perhaps it’s not as bad as it seems though. In From Buddha to Jesus, the author assures us that that he ‘loves Buddhists’ and as I have been a Buddhist for 40 years I’m sure he loves me too.
You can read my review of the book at
and another one by Bhikkhu Aggacitto at
and the author's 'interesting' response at
If you would like to add to the growing things I have been called you can SMS insults to 77459233156

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Knuckledusters In The Temple

Normally one would be happy to hear that someone has decided to join the clergy. That, unfortunately, is not always the case when it comes to Buddhism. In Theravadin countries like Thailand, it is quite common for criminals to enter the Sangha in order to lie low until the heat is off, or simply to get temporary immunity from the police. As with the priesthood and the mafia in Italy, gangsters and the Sangha in Thailand have very chummy relationship. 'Please check in your knuckledusters before entering the monastery. They will be returned to you on leaving.' Less ignoble reasons for joining the Sangha are because one can't get a job, one doesn't want a job or because one just wants a break from the wife and kids for a while. A recent event in Japan suggests that a similar situation may prevail there too. A notorious yakuzi (I always confuse it with 'jacuzzie') boss has decided to become a Buddhist monk. If this is because he has had a genuine change of heart it would be most encouraging, although the newspaper reports suggest very strongly that his motives are anything but noble. When the captain is no good, is it surprising that the ship is going all over the place?

Tadamasa Goto, one of Japan's most notorious underworld bosses, is to enter the Buddhist priesthood less than a year after his volatile behavior caused a rift in the country's biggest crime syndicate. As leader of a yakuza – or Japanese mafia – gang, Goto amassed a fortune from prostitution, protection rackets and white-collar crime, while cultivating a reputation for extreme violence. Tomorrow, his life will take a decidedly austere turn when he begins training at a temple in Kanagawa prefecture south of Tokyo. The 66-year-old, whose eponymous gang belonged to the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, was expelled from the yakuza fraternity last October after a furious row with his bosses over his conduct. Known as Japan's answer to John Gotti, the infamous mafia don, Goto reportedly upset his seniors amid media reports that he had invited several celebrities to join his lavish birthday celebrations last September. Several months earlier he had attracted more unwanted publicity following revelations that he had offered information to the FBI in return for permission to enter the US for a life-saving liver transplant in 2001. At an emergency meeting last October the Yamaguchi-gumi's bosses – minus their leader, Shinobu Tsukasa, who is serving a six-year prison term for illegal arms possession – expelled Goto, splitting his gang into rival factions. According to the Sankei, Goto will formally join the priesthood on 8 April – considered to be Buddha's birthday in Japan – in a private ceremony. The former gangster was quoted as describing the occasion as "solemn and meaningful, in which Buddha will make me his disciple and enable me to start a new life". In his deal with the FBI, Goto reportedly gave up vital information about yakuza front companies, as well as the names of senior crime figures and the mob's links to North Korea. Underworld experts have pointed out, however, that the bureau could have gleaned the same information from yakuza fanzines. Goto's transplant was performed at UCLA medical centre in Los Angeles in the spring of 2001 by the respected surgeon Dr Ronald W Busuttil, using the liver of a 16-year-old boy who had died in a traffic accident. The grateful don, who was suffering from liver disease, later donated $100,000 (£68,000) to the hospital, his generosity commemorated in a plaque that reads: "In grateful recognition of the Goto Research Fund established through the generosity of Mr Tadamasa Goto." Jake Adelstein, a former crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, received death threats before he went public with the transplant story last spring, and has been living under police protection ever since.
When it was assigned to cultivate the Tokyo area in the late 1980s, the Goto-gumi stuck to what it knew best: drugs, human trafficking and extortion, before new anti-gang laws forced it to move in to more lucrative areas such as real estate and the stock market. At the height of their powers, Goto's henchmen were capable of unspeakable acts of violence, including bulldozing businesses that refused to pay protection money and administering beatings to victims in front of their families, reports said. A 1999 leaked police file noted that "in order to achieve his goals, [Goto] uses any and all means necessary or possible. He also uses a carrot-and-stick approach to keep his soldiers in line. His group is capable of extremely violent and aggressive acts".
By Justin McCurry in The Guardian

Friday, April 17, 2009

Darwinian Dhamma

Feb 17, 2009 — It seems odd to call a secular scientific theory like Darwinism a Buddhist belief. That’s what National Geographic claimed today. “Darwin the Buddhist? Empathy Writings Reveal Parallels,” wrote Christine Dell’Amore about new ideas about Darwin by Professor Paul Ekman, the eminent psychologist. What could Darwin possibly have to do with Buddhism? Ekman told an audience at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago that Charles Darwin was fascinated with facial expressions of emotion. Indeed, he wrote a book on it: The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), in which he hired photographers to film faces of people expressing happiness, rage, sadness and other feelings. Darwin suggested that empathy was a universal trait that had evolved in humans.
Ekman said the idea of universal empathy meshes with Buddhist beliefs about compassion. Ekman also suggested “it’s also possible that Darwin encountered Buddhist teachings through letters from other scholars of the time.” To strengthen the Darwin-Buddha connection, Ekman shared an inside story: the Dalai Lama had told him that he “would consider himself a Darwinian.”
Ekman did not explain how this new compassionate Darwin relates to the old picture of evolution as a process of pitiless indifference by a natural world red in tooth and claw. Nor did he explain why compassion, if genetically inherited in some people and not others, needs to be cultivated – a role seemingly more suitable for religion. The article simply stated point blank, “Until psychologists figure out why the disparity exists, he said, ‘the survival of our planet’ depends on cultivating compassion.” This begs the question whether even survival is a good thing in a universe of pitiless indifference. Nevertheless, the article suggested people could go to “compassion gyms” to improve their empathy fitness.
Somehow, this makes sense to Ekman as he imagines primates becoming more self-aware. The NG article ended with a quote to this effect by Barbara King, an evolutionary anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She said, “We wouldn’t be human in the ways we are human today if apes were not deeply emotional creatures and deeply social ones. We are ... products of our past.”

I found this interesting article on one of the more loopy 'creationist' websites ( It seems to have enraged the web master that some aspect of the Dhamma should be taken seriously and was accompanied by a rebuttal full of ridicule and scorn. I don’t know what the Dalai Lama meant when he told Prof. Ekman that he was a Darwinian but I certainly am, in the sense that evolution is an irrefutable scientific fact and it is not, as far as I can see, at odds with anything the Buddha taught.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Master's Voice

As I'm sure you know, its World Voice Day (Goodness! Who thinks up these things?). This being so, I thought it appropriate to say something about the Buddha's voice. The sound of the voice is intimately connected with one's physical and psychological state. Anxiety or excitement can produce a high-pitched, jabbing or rapidly fluctuating voice. Anger, fear or depression can produce a strangled shrieking sound or alternatively a low threatening one. The Buddha is described as having a particularly beautiful voice, which reflected his deep inner stillness and warm compassion and this must have made his talks even more appealing. It is said to have had eight characteristics; it was distinct (vissattha) and clear (vinneyya), sweet (manju) and pleasant (savanaya), well-rounded (bindu) and flowing (avisari), deep (gambhira) and sonorous (niddadi). One observer noticed that after the Buddha’s talks were over the audience would get up and leave reluctantly, keeping their eyes on him (M.II,140).
In the Mahavastu, that fascinating and chaotic jumble of Buddhist legends and stories, there are two rather beautiful poems praising the beauty of the Buddha's voice. Here is one of them from vol. II, p. 170.

The voice of the Excellent Man pervades everywhere,
like the sound of sweet music.
It is like the sound of the flute and fife,
like the song of the swan.
The voice of the Eminently Wise One
is like that of the roar of thunder
and yet sweet like the call of the cuckoo.
It is like the hum of the chariot wheel,
like the roar of the ocean,
like the cry of the curlew.
The note of the kinnara, the sparrow,
the cloud-bird, thus is the voice
of he who bears the marks of excellence.
It is like an elephant's trumpeting
or the roar of the lion.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

Well! Today is the first anniversary of my blog. Except for a few days when my computer was not working or when I was traveling, I have written a post every day. When I decided to start the blog, friends warned me of two things, that most blogs fizzal out after a few months or even weeks, and that I should be prepeared to get lots of abusive comments. I proved the first of these predictions wrong (although I did not set out to) and my readers proved the second one wrong too. Thank you all for that. However, doing an entry every day does take up a lot of time, so I am thinking of blogging every three or four days or irregularly. I'll see how I feel about it tomorrow. Whatever I decide I would like to thank all my readers for their comments, encouragement, corrections and observations over the last 12 months.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Stick In The Spokes

The wheel is one of the oldest and probably the most widely and continuously used, as well as the most recognizable, of all Buddhist symbols. In the Vedas the wheel (Pali cakka, Sanskrit cakra) is associated with conquest and royal power, and this association probably dates from the time wheels first started being used in India and war chariots evoked awe and fear. The Buddha's first sermon is called the Dhammacakkapavatana Sutta, the Discourse Setting Up (or Set Motion) the Wheel Of Dhamma. Here too, the wheel is used in the sense of power and dominion, but of the spiritual type. One of the accoutrements of the Universal Statesman (cakkavatti) is a wheel. This wheel represents his just and benign rule (D.II,89) and when he becomes unjust, complacent or cruel the wheel 'slips from its place' (D.III,59). In an interesting sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha associates the wheel with both royal power and sincere Dhamma practice (A.I,111), i.e. worldly and spiritual power. In the Tipitaka, the wheel is always said to have a 'thousand spoke' (shassara, e.g. D.II,172) ), a thousand meaning 'many'. The wheels on King Asoka's famous lion capital and most early examples of the Dhamma wheel are depicted like this. (First picture shows a wheel from Amaravati, 3rd cent CE).The idea of the Dhamma wheel with eight spokes, representing the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path is almost unknown in Indian art. The earliest eight-spoked Dhamma wheel I know of it, if indeed it is, dates from about the 4th century CE (2nd picture) and I have only ever seen one or two others. The fact that Indian Dhamma wheels are depicted with spokes ranging from seven to 31 shows that the number of spokes was not considered significant (3rd picture, multi-spoked wheel from Thailand, 6th cent). I know of no mention of an eight-spoked Dhamma wheel in Sanskrit literature, but look forward to someone contradicting me (give sources). Likewise, Dhamma wheels from other Buddhist cultures rarely have eight spokes. The symbolism of the wheel in Buddhism as presented in the Wikipedia entry on Dharmacakkra, is fanciful and unhistorical. Sometimes in early Buddhist art three multi-spoked wheels are used to symbolize the Three Jewels (4th picture). By the Gupta period the wheel was often depicted flanked by two deer, an arrangement that is still widely used today. The wheel with eight spokes and the spokes extending beyond the rim (like a ship's wheel) seems only to have come into vogue in China and Tibet at a much later period.Of course, there is no official Buddhist 'Commissioner of Symbols' who decides what symbols will be used and what they are meant to represent. They have the meaning they are given and this will change through space and time. However, the meaning of the wheel in the earliest Buddhist tradition and throughout Indian Buddhism generally, was that of spiritual power, dominion and authority.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What A Question!

The Tipitaka is full of little-known but beautiful, insightful, memorable or dramatic passages. One of the most poignant of these is the first of the seven questions that Sakka asked the Buddha. It would have to be on a par with Pontius Pilate's famous question 'What is truth?' This question perfectly sums up humanity's deepest yearning but also most intractable problem. The question is: 'Why is it that…wanting to live in peace and without hate, harming, hostility or conflict, humans have no peace and live with hate, harming, hostility and conflict?' For the Buddha's answer to this question go to the Digha Nikaya and read the Sakkapanha Sutta.
Sakka's questions and the Buddha's answers must have been very popular in ancient times because the whole scene of the Sakkapanha Sutta - the Buddha in the Indasala Cave being approached by Sakka and Pancasikha - was often depicted in ancient Buddhist art. The earliest depiction of it is from the railing at Bodh Gaya dating from about the 2nd century BCE. Below is a picture of a cast of the sculpture. The original is in the museum at Bodh Gaya.The picture below is of me at the Indasala Cave. I spent five days there meditating in 1982. I don't recommend it. The cave is very damp and smelly.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Poetry Of The Killing Fields

For years, Ly Van Aggadipo served as the spiritual mentor to many Cambodian refugees in this old mill city, guiding followers at the Glory Buddhist Temple through family issues, work problems and recurring nightmares from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. But his own internal struggles from the Khmer Rouge remained a mystery, and those who knew him say he rarely spoke of his own story of fleeing war-torn Cambodia. Then, soon after his death last year, friends found a collection of the monk’s poetry tucked under stacks of old Buddhist texts. On worn pages were handwritten, carefully crafted poems describing his memories of witnessing infant executions, starvation at labor camps and dreams of escaping to America.
Now followers are seeking to publish the poetry, even as the discovery of this vivid historical record of the atrocities has reopened for many a painful time they still have not reconciled in their own lives. “It put us in tears again,” said Samkhann Khoeun, 45, who studied under Ly Van. “We couldn’t believe it. When I read (the work), it was so vivid. It refreshed the memory.” Everyone knew the basics of Ly Van’s life, Khoeun said. “But we didn’t know the details and no one ever asked. He was so busy helping us,” Khoeun said.
Born in 1917 in a small Cambodian village, Ly Van and his family lived through the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, which perpetrated one of the worst mass genocides of the 20th century. An estimated 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease and executions due to the radical policies of the communist group. According to the temple’s biography of Ly Van, he was forced to work on agricultural and public projects for 14 hours a day. It was during this time that the monk witnessed mass executions and large-scale starvation. In early 1979 when Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia, Ly Van and thousands of others fled to Thailand through dangerous terrain and later ended up in Lowell, a community second only to Long Beach, Calif., for the largest number of Cambodian residents living in the United States. While in Lowell, Ly Van helped establish the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association and was invited to lead the Glory Buddhist Temple in 1988, a position he held until his death in January 2008.
Khoeun and others found the manuscript just days after Ly Van’s body was cremated. In one translated verse, Ly Van writes about how he and other refugees fled to Thailand by traveling through a treacherous mountain range packed with thieves and land mines. It was a well-known trek where Thai soldiers pushed refugees over cliffs at gunpoint while refugees tumbled over each other trying to escape. “Surrounded by corpses as we walked, slept and ate; an unbearably foul smell/Emanated from the swollen, rotten bodies, most of which were missing limbs and heads.” Ly Van also writes of the conditions of a refugee camp in Thailand where women were constantly raped, men were frequently beaten and families combated filthy living facilities. “…we had to sleep on the bare concrete floor, like animals/Dirty water and stench-filled raw sewage floated everywhere/We were swarmed by mosquitoes constantly, resulting in rashes all over our bodies.” Kowith Kret, whose parents were executed during the Khmer Rouge, said it was hard to read the monk’s account because it brought back the past. “But it is the fact,” said Kret, who also studied under Ly Van. “People have to accept the experience they’ve been through.”
George Chigas, a political science professor at UMass-Lowell who has seen copies of the poems, said the monk wrote in a rare 11-syllable meter style that is more than 1,000 years old in Cambodian literature. “It showed great devotion to cultural tradition and, at the same time, tries to preserve something that had been lost,” Chigas said. That’s important, Chigas said, especially since the Khmer Rouge regime burned old texts and killed scores of writers and artists. He compared Ly Van’s writing to Loung Ung’s memoir, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” as an act of “trying to put old demons to rest.” Today, an estimated 20,000 Cambodian Americans live in greater Lowell.
So far more than half of Ly Van’s poems have been translated from Khmer to English, Khoeun said. Members of the Glory Buddhist Temple are selling a CD of Ly Van’s work read in Khmer and expect the rest of the manuscript to be translated by the end of the year. They also are aiming to raise $40,000 to get 5,000 bilingual copies published by April 2010. So far, two publishers in Cambodia have expressed interest and the group still is searching for a U.S. publisher. After reading the poems, Khoeun said, he and other refugees have more questions for Ly Van. Questions, such as, when did he have time to write? What was life like in a refugee camp right before coming to America? And how many late relatives of the refugees did Ly Van know? “He knew my grandfather who died right when I was born. I never asked him about that,” Khoeun said. “I guess I always took him for granted.”
By Russell Contreras. Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Buried Treasure

I have a theory. Well, actually I have several theories, but one of my theories is this. The Buddha's Dhamma was of universal significance and application, but from an early period it came to be controlled by male monastics (not monks and nuns, just monks) and they determined which parts of the Dhamma were to be emphasized and which parts were not. They emphasized those parts that were of interest, of value and of convenience to them and deemphasized or ignored those parts which may have been relevant to other groups. This trend has continued up till today, and that a task of the modern (Western ?) Buddhist is to rediscover and reclaim the ancient universal Dhamma. For what its worth, that’s the theory.
I may not have been the first to think along these lines. In his booklet on the Desaka Sutta, Nyanaponika describes this interesting discourse as 'hidden like a buried treasure, unknown and unused.' The Desaka Sutta has an extremely important take on compassion and self-and-other-relationships, but is given almost no notice in either traditional commentarial literature or modern expositions of the Dhamma. Why not? Please refer to my theory as described above. Another example of a Dhamma teaching that has been deemphasized is the four sangaha vatthuni. Despite occurring frequently in the Tipitaka, in 38 years of reading Dhamma books, listening to explanations of the Dhamma, talking with learned monks and listening to sermons, I can never recall hearing the sangaha vatthuni being mentioned. And I ask myself 'Why?' Why didn’t Nyanatiloka include it is his Buddhist Dictionary? He included just about everything else. Why didn’t Payutto mention it in his A Constitution for Living where you would think it might have had some relevance? Why didn’t…etc, etc, etc.
Below is a few short paragraphs I have written about the sangaha vatthuni. The term itself is a difficult one. Woodward translates it as 'bases of sympathy.' For sangaha the PTS dictionary has 'collecting', 'gathering', 'accumulation', 'kind disposition', 'kindliness', 'sympathy', 'friendliness', 'help', 'assistance', 'protection', 'favor'. For sangaha vatthuni Rhys Davids gives 'objects (characteristics) of sympathy'. Given all this, plus the fact that the sangaha vatthuni are about creating a group or body of people, I have decided to translate sangaha as 'community', both in the sense of a collection of people and in the sense of the things that bring people together in a shared endeavor.

The four Basis of Community (sangaha vatthuni) are those behaviors and attitudes that help create a sense of togetherness (samarika), fellowship (sahayata) and love (metta) within a group, whether it be a family, an organization or society at large Whenever people come together in groups tensions are bound to arise. One person’s character grates on another’s, ambitions collide, differences of opinion emerge, comments are misunderstood. Such problems can be minimized, soothed when they arise or even avoided completely by keeping in mind what the Buddha called the four Basis of Community, these being generosity (dana), kindly speech (piya vaca), acting for the good of others (atthacariya) and impartiality (samanattata, A.II,248; D.III,192). The four Basis of Community are to the world, the Buddha said, what the linchpin is to the chariot wheel; they keep it moving forward and turning smoothly (A.II,32).
Generosity is usually thought of as being liberal with material things. But we can also be generous with praise, with our time and with our skills and such ‘gifts’ are greatly appreciated by those around us. The power of speech to alienate people and create divisions between them is almost limitless. Gossiping, boasting, whining, put downs, ethnic slurs, teasing, sarcasm and one-upmanship are just some of the many negative forms of speech that can do this. Likewise, words motivated by kindness and respect, help build relationships and bring out the best in people. The Buddha said, ‘If speech has five qualities it is well-spoken, not ill-spoken, commendable, not blamed by the wise. What five? It is timely, truthful, gentle, to the point and spoken with a mind of love’ (A.III,243). The third of the Basis of Community involves being sensitive and aware enough to see when others need help and being selfless enough to offer it to them. Sometimes, just letting people know that you are there to help them should they need it is enough to create or to strengthen a relationship with them. On course, the offer should be sincere. This type of attitude is well illustrated by Reõu’s words to Govinda from a story told by the Buddha; ‘If you are in need of anything I will provide it. If anyone tries to harm you my arms will protect you’(D.II,243). When there are no favorites in a group, when everyone has the same opportunity to excel or to contribute and when the burdens and the rewards are shared equally, then no cliques develop, no ‘in group’ or ‘out group’ and the community remains strong and close.
One of the reasons why the Buddha’s Dhamma spread so widely and so fast during his time was because of the strong sense of community within the monastic sangha and the laity and between the two of them.When the Buddha visited Alavi met Hatthaka, the leader of the thriving 500 strong Buddhist community there. He asked Hatthaka how he had been able to establish such a large and dedicated group and Hatthaka replied that he had done it by applying the Basis of Community and by giving it generous financial support. The Buddha responded, ‘Excellent, Hatthaka, excellent! This is exactly the way to build a large group’(A.IV,219).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Lets Talk About Athena

Yesterday I listened to a lecture Professor Charles Collins gave at the Veritas Forum at the University of California in 2007, where he explained why he believes he can be a scientist and a devote Christian at the same time. Collins is an eminent geneticist and was head of the Human Genome Project. He is definitely no fool. I found his lecture absorbing, and thoughtful - up to a point. I was expecting him to say that his explorations in genetics have led him to believe in 'a' god - you know, one that’s not aligned to any particular faith, one that made the world and that then stands back and lets it get on with itself, without taking sides or answering prayers. But no! Collins believes all the evidence points to a specifically Christian god. His lecture kept me focused until the Q and A section when a student asked him; 'Why the Christian god and not the gods of Islam, or Hinduism or Judaism?' Then Collins dropped his 'evidence' and 'probability' stance and basically answered that because it’s the one he believes in. So as usual, we were back to the old 'leap of faith', with the emphasis on 'leap', although 'long jump' or 'jump in the dark' would probably be more appropriate. The previous regard for his close reasoning evaporated. I'm prepared to admit that a god 'in general' is within the bounds of possibility, although highly unlikely. But a god who has the specific and clearly defined characteristics of say Jehovah, Sat Nam or Vishnu, that to me is off the radar - right off it. Not because it offends logic or reason but because I see absolutely no evidence for it. And Collins was unable to provide any. Collins seems to have thrown overboard many of God's attributes mentioned in the Bible - creation in six days, flooding the world, siding with the Israelites in their wars with other tribes, etc. and perhaps it could be argued that such events should be taken allegorically. I would have liked to ask him if he believed that the outcome of not believing in this god results in eternal punishment. Whether one sees hell as 'separation from the divine' or as the eternal Belsen, Christian doctrine is very clear that God is intimately involved in hell - creating it for a specific purpose, assigning beings to it and requiring that that will be their eternal state. I would liked to have asked Collins this, not to put him on the spot, but to see how an intelligent, scientifically-trained mind approached, what to me at least, is a very serious ethical problem.
Anyway, listening to Collins lecture, and I listened to it twice, made me think yet again about the Buddhist position on the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent deity.
Christian acquaintances often ask me why I (and other Buddhists) so frequently return to the subject of God. In fact, I don’t often mention the subject, but it is true that it has some part in my speaking and writing. Four headings in my new book A Guide to Buddhism A to Z relate to the concept of a supreme deity - Affirmation and Prayer, Agnosticism, God and Gods, and Theism. I always answer this question by saying; 'Because you are continually bringing up the subject, continually insisting that the spiritual life depends on belief in God, and sometimes even claiming that the Buddha taught that there was such a god. If this were not the case, the subject could be dealt with briefly and then the discourse could move on to more practical and reality-based issues. In all my years of teaching I have never discussed the matter of whether Athena really did emerge from the head of Zeus fully formed and wearing armor. Why? Because no one has ever asked me whether or not this story is true; no one has ever asked me what the Buddhist position on this matter would be; no one has ever told me that believing this story has some fundamental importance to questions of life, ethics and human destiny.'
In his lecture, Collins made it clear that he views agnosticism is a cop-out, a position taken by lazy minds. He then added that he could have respect for someone who becomes an agnostic after a long and sincere study of religion. This made me think of an interesting but rarely discussed problem with theism, at least the theism of the three main monotheistic faiths. People disbelieve (and believe for that matter) in God for a wide range of reasons: - to be different, to rebel, out of willfulness, because they want to upset a parent, because they resent any restrictions on their behavior, etc. But it is also true that many people don’t believe in God despite themselves. They have wanted to believe, they have tried to believe, but they find they just can't; the whole thing remains unconvincing to them. I have met people whose disbelief profoundly upsets them and who would give anything to be able to believe. What has the theist to say to people like this? What comfort can they give them? Are they to be deprived of any spiritual life because of their predicament? And what can the believer say about such people's destiny after death? What would Collins have to say to them? I know what I would (and have) said to them. 'The Buddha's spirituality does not centre on the existence or non-existence of a supreme being. Life can be meaningful, ethics can be sound, and peace of mind can be achieved, whether or not you believe in a god.' Incidentally, I say exactly the same thing for the people I meet who are very attracted to Buddhism but who tell me that they need to believe in God.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Obscure Elephant Facts II

Hanno became the talk of the town. Cardinal Giuliano Medici commissioned the sculpture Goivanno of Udine to make a fountain in the form of an elephant squirting water from its trunk. The Villa Madama, where this fountain was built is now the official residence of the prime minister of Italy, and although the fountain itself was long ago destroyed, fragments of the head and trunk of Hanno can still be seen. The Pope’s nephew, Lorenzo, asked for a lend of Hanno for a grand procession he was organizing in Florence but fearing that the long trek north might endanger the creature, the request was refused. The great Renaissance painter Raphael was working in the Vatican at the time, and he included Hanno in a fresco he was doing in the Loggia. The original is now lost, but a copy was made by an unknown artist, probably one of Raphael’s students, and is now in the Stiftung Museen Preussischer in Berlin. From this drawing we can say that Hanno was a young adult, probably male, with small tusks (or more correctly, tushes), hairs on his head and in fairly good condition. This last point is important because it shows that despite all the travel he had been subjected to, the strange and no doubt inappropriate food he was fed, and the cold winters he had to endure, Hanno was still able to thrive. He must have been docile and used to his mahouts too because the drawing also shows a man astride his back and another fondly and apparently without concern, stroking his trunk. Both mahouts are Europeans, wearing European cloths of the era, but who they were and how and where they learned the art of elephant driving, we shall never know. Another point of interest in this drawing is the two goads or ankushs that both mahouts hold. The usual ankush is in effect a spear of differing length with a hook protruding from near the top end. The mahout on Hanno’s back has this type of ankush but the other man’s is quite different. Instead of a pointed end, it has a crescent and from behind the hook is a spike. Four sharp points instead of the usual two. It is a fearsome looking implement and I have not seen another like it although I suspect it was of Indian origin. Overall, the drawing is extremely detailed and lifelike and the artist has made only one mistake in Hanno’s anatomy - he has depicted the end of the trunk flat rather than with the prehensile ‘finger’ characteristic of Asian elephants. He has also made the trunk just a little longer than it should be, but this may have been done just to emphasize the animals strange appendage.
Pope Leo grew very fond of Hanno, calling him by pet names, showing him off to guests, and having him dressed up in silk and gold brocade. But despite or perhaps because of all the attention he received, he died only two years after his arrival, leaving the Pope inconsolable. The Epistolae Obscuroum Virorum mocked the pontiffs grief thus. "T’is dead and the Pope is very sorry and they say that he will give a thousand ducats for the elephant for it was a marvelous beast, having a long snout in great abundance and when it saw the Pope it fell to its knees before him and said in a terrible voice, Bar! Bar! Bar!" There are different versions of why Hanno died. One says he suffocated after being covered with gold leaf for a glittering procession he was to take part in. According to this version, the Pope spent nearly 5000 gold pieces on medicine and treatment trying to revive his ailing pet. Another account says he fell into the Tiber and the heavy wooden castle on his back caused him to sink and drown. Whatever the case, Hanno was buried near the Bronze Gate leading to the Vatican Gardens where an inscription was set up. It read " Under this colossal mountain I lie, a colossal elephant, who King Emmanuel, after conquering the East, gave as a gift to Leo X. What nature carried off, Raphael of Urbino reproduced with his art". This monument was destroyed during the sack of Rome later in the 16th century. Hanno’s influence in the Eternal City continued for many years after his death in the numerous images of elephants that were used to decorate fountains, gateways and buttresses. One of the best known of these is the elephant supporting an Egyptian obelisk outside the church of Santa Maria Minerva and which was calved by Lorenzo Bernini in 1667.
As a side note, another famous European artist who drew a Sri Lankan elephant was Rembrandt van Rijin (1606-69). In 1637 a circus arrived in Amsterdam and among the sights on display was an elephant from Sri Lanka named Hansken. Just how this elephant got to Holland is not known. The Dutch did not take over the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka until 1656. Rembrandt must have been impressed by the strange creature and he did a quick but masterly sketch of it in charcoal. The drawing is now in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna.
The top picture is said to be 'from the studio of Raphael.'

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Obscure Elephant Facts I

The following essay has absolutely nothing to do with the Dhamma. But hey! Having a break even from the Dhamma every now and then is a good thing. Keeps the mind fresh. I wrote this years ago as part of a proposed book which never saw the light of day. It reflects my interest in elephants, Sri Lankan history and obscure and useless facts.
The first time elephants were seen in Europe was in 280 BC when Pyrrhus of Epirus and his army of 25,000 men and 20 elephants crossed from north Africa to Terentus in the heel of Italy to begin their march to Rome. The Romans were bewildered, not to say terrified, by the huge creatures and not knowing what to call them, dubbed them ‘Lucanian oxen.’ In the following centuries elephants from both Africa and Asia became a familiar sight in the amphitheatres, parade grounds and battle fields of the classical world. But with the fall of Rome and Europe’s decent into the Dark Ages, the elephant, although vaguely remembered, was rarely seen again until 802 AD.
In that year the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al Rasheed, gave Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, an elephant as part of a goodwill gesture. The creature caused a sensation until two years later, when it drowned while crossing the Rhine. About four hundred years later, Frederick II of Sicily (1212-50) was given an elephant by the sultan of Cairo. He rode it into Milan during his victorious entry of the city in 1237. It died in 1248. The first elephant in England since classical times arrived in 1255 as a gift to Henry III from Louis IX of France, who had brought it back from the Holy Land on his return from the Crusades. A special house was built for it in the Tower of London, but the harsh northern winter proved too much and it died in 1258. In 1550 before leaving Spain to return to Vienna, Prince Maximillian, later to become Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II, made a quick trip to Lisbon to meet his uncle King John III. While there he visited the royal menagerie where he was fascinated by the many exotic birds and animals from the East, but in particularly by the elephants. Consequently, his uncle promised to give him one. He suggested that Maximillian name the elephant Sulayman, after the sultan of Turkey, who was then the West’s most feared enemy "so that in this way he becomes your slave and is properly humbled". When Maximillian disembarked in Genoa during his homeward journey in the summer of 1551, he was delighted to find that the promised elephant had arrived just before him. Soon after the royal entourage, together with Sulayman, set off for the long trek to Vienna, crossing the snow-covered Alps in mid-winter, and arriving in the city in March 7 1552. As the royal party rode through the streets, Maximillian was somewhat peeved to find his elephant attracted more attention and admiration than he himself did. It seems that in the crush to see and touch the strange creature, a child was separated from its mother and fell at the elephants feet. The creature gently picked him and placed him back in his mother’s alms. This so astonished the throng that a plaque was set up at the place where it happened and it may still be seen there today.
It is very difficult to know whether these and a few other elephants that turned up in Europe in the late Middle Ages were from Africa, India or Sri Lanka. One is tempted to think that the elephant given to Charlemagne by the Caliph was from India as the Muslims had already conquered Sindh by then. On the other hand, it is also known that the Arabs had a flourishing trade with Sri Lanka during this period. When Dom Lourenso landed in Colombo in 1505 he saw Arab ships loading elephants to be taken to Cambay.
So an elephant from ‘India’ could well have originally been shipped from Sri Lanka. Henry III’s elephant was almost certainly not Asian, as a drawing of it from life by Matthew Paris shows it with the sloping forehead and large ears of the African variety. This drawing by Paris can claim to be Europe’s first reasonably accurate representation of the elephant since Roman times. The picture shown a man near the elephant’s trunk and the script under its belly reads, ‘By the size of the man drawn here the dimensions of the animal may be imagined". Maximillian’s elephant may well have been from Sri Lanka, but the lack of documentation make it impossible to say.
At the beginning of the 16th century Portugal was still a small kingdom on the outer edge of Europe which nobody took very seriously. King Emmanuel I was proud of his newly conquered empire in the East and was anxious to get recognition for his achievements. To this end, he had taken to sending gifts of exotic animals - talking parrots, trained monkeys, brightly-plumed birds - to other European monarchs and prelates, but up to then this had earned him little more than derision. So finally he decided on a gesture so spectacular and so extravagant, that it would be bound to win him admiration if not envy.
On the 12th March 1515 an embassy from King Emmanuel to Pope Leo X arrived in Rome to an enthusiastic welcome. It was met at the gates of the city by a select body of gorgeously attired cardinals, and then led through the streets to the appointed accommodation. The embassy was headed by Tristan de Cunha - soldier, seaman, former Viceroy of India, and discoverer of the tiny south Atlantic island that still bears his name albeit in a distorted form - Tristan d’Acunha. De Cunha brought with him generous samples of all the riches and wonders of the East; jewels, fine cloth, aromatic gums, spices and especially strange animals. These included a panther that was trained to hunt like a dog, two leopards, and magnificent Persian steeds. A rhinoceros from Gujarat was to be included as well but the ship carrying it sunk, and the poor creature drowned. However, after its carcass was washed up, it was stuffed and exhibited throughout Europe. Albrecht Durer, the greatest German artist of the age, saw this stuffed rhino and made his celebrated engraving of it. The most famous of the exotic animals gifted to the Pope however was an elephant from Sri Lanka.
Many subsequent accounts of the Portuguese embassy say that this elephant was from India, but this is not correct. In the early days of Portuguese expansion ‘India’ referred to just about everywhere from the Straits of Hormuze to Malacca. When Don Lourenco landed in Colombo in 1505, the king of Kotte gave him cinnamon and an elephant "as tribute in return for Portuguese protection". That, at least, is how the Portuguese saw it. The Sri Lankan king however, was probably doing no more than trying to humor these pushy, potentially belligerent, strangers in the hope that they would go away and not return. The elephant was taken to Goa and later shipped to Lisbon. Gaspar Correa was referring to this creature when he wrote that "the viceroy (at Goa) sent a very small elephant, one of those brought (from Sri Lanka) by Don Lourenco, which was the first that ever went to Portugal". Details of the elephants subsequent stay in the Lisbon are meager. Undoubtedly, he was kept in the royal menagerie.
Led by a herald bearing the alms of the Portuguese kin, the embassy made its way to the pontifical palace where the Pope stood on the balcony to receive it. When the elephant arrived, it stopped and bowed three times to the Pope. This was taken as symbolic of the conquered pagan East submitting to the Truth of Rome. The gasps of amazement that accompanied the animals genuflection were due in part to the prevalence of the old superstition that elephants had no joints in their bodies. The elephant then took water in its trunk from a nearby trough and showered the multitudes, to the great amusement of the Pope and his court. Six days later, the public audience took place, and the gifts were handed to the Pope in the presence of the assembled ambassadors and grandees from all the royal courts of Europe. The extravagance and novelty of it all was dazzling, and it was clear to everyone that Portugal had arrived. The next day, the Pope and specially invited guests, retired to the pontiffs private garden to examine the animals more carefully. The panther’s hunting skills were demonstrated on some hapless rabbits and birds, much to everyone’s satisfaction. When the elephant was introduced to its new master, the Pope declared that he would name it Hanno (Annone).