Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Bit More Chopping And Cutting

Trudy very kindly left a comment on Nip, Tuck, Chop, Hack (Oct. 27th) in which she gave us the word for dueling scars. This useful information and a bit of free time on my part has allowed me to find images of two types of ‘body modification’ that had previously eluded me – head binding and cheek cutting. Many dueling scars were genuine but an interesting wed site on this weird subject has this comment. ‘For a student and all of German society, the badge of courage was the Schmiss, the dueling scar, or sometimes called the Renommierschmiss, or bragging scar, mostly on the left side of the face, where blows would fall from a right-handed duelist. This was borne by a generation of doctors, jurists, professors and officials, certifying the owner’s claim to manly stature. The dueling scar was certain to attract attention because it signified courage and breeding. There are stories that students would resort to self-infliction with a razor. Those who received their Schmiss in this less honorable way would frequently enhance it by pulling the wound apart and irritate it by pouring in wine or sewing horse hair into the gash.’ God! If that’s what the doctors, jurists, professors and officials were doing, imagine what the criminal class was like! This practice and head binding are of particular interest in telling us about the human psyche. It would seem to be innate to find injury and deformity ugly and to avoid them if at all possible. But cheek cutting at least, shows that the desire to appear ‘manly’ could override this natural feeling. As for what desires or ideas gave rise to head binding I have no idea. What a pity people don’t take more interest in changing their minds.

From tomorrow my blog will host a Tibet Month in which most of the posts will deal with matters related to Tibet, including my impressions of and experiences in that country.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reflections On Body, Speech and Mind

This shall be the rule for my body –
Refraining from harming or killing I shall lay aside the stick and the sword and live with care, kindness and compassion for all creatures. I shall cherish and protect the lives of other beings. Refraining from stealing I will not take what belongs to others. Rather, I shall share with them that which belongs to me. Refraining from sexual misconduct I will respect the dignity of others and not use them for my own pleasure. Refraining from intoxicants I will keep my mind clear and alert.

This shall be the rule for my speech –
Refraining from lying I shall become a speaker of the truth, one whose word can be taken. I will be reliable, trustworthy, one who does not deceive the world. Refraining from malicious speech I shall not repeat here what I heard there or repeat there what I heard here to the determent of others. I will be a reconciler of those who are at odds and an encourager of those already united. Rejoicing in peace, loving peace, delighting in peace, I will speak up in favor of peace. Refraining from harsh language, I will speak words that are blameless, pleasant, easy on the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, pleasing and liked by everybody. Refraining from useless chatter, I will speak at the appropriate time, correctly, to the point, about Dhamma and discipline, words worthy of being treasured, seasonable, reasonable, articulate, and connected to the goal.

This shall be the rule for my mind -
My mind shall not be perverted nor shall I speak evil speech but with kindness and compassion I will live with a mind free from hatred and filled with love. I shall live suffusing firstly one person with love and starting with them, suffuse the whole world with a love that is expansive, pervasive, immeasurable and utterly devoid of hatred and enmity.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Suriya Arana

Films with a strong religious theme don’t have a very high success rate or a long shelf life. Think of George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. At 4 hours and 20 minutes it was dubbed the Longest Sleep-inducing Film Never Sold. It was eventually cut to 3 hours and 17 minutes and finally to 2 hours and 17 minutes but even then it never recouped the money spent to make it. What I object most about this film is that Jesus seems to move through it as if he’s doing tai chi. Even when he clears the money changers from the temple he does it in slow motion. Buddhist themed movies are little better – Kundun (yawn!), Little Buddha (I'll just nip out and get more pop corn and be back in an hour), etc. An exception to this is Somaratne Dissanayake Suriya Arana, Sinhala cinema's greatest success so far. I would go so far to call it a minor masterpiece and it’s a pity it is so little known beyond Sri Lanka.
The story line is an interesting one. Sediris, a hunter in a remote jungle village accompanies his 10 year old son Tikira, on a hunting trip to teach him the tricks of the trade. Other villagers keep clear of the forest because Sediris has scared them off with false rumors of ghosts and yakkhas. The sudden appearance of a monk with a young disciple in the forest becomes a threat to Sediris. His various attempts to remove the monks fail. Meanwhile a secret friendship developed between the hunter’s son and the monk’s disciple, challenging the adults hostility. Inspired by the little monk, the hunter’s son Tikira gradually learns to love animals instead of killing them. Villagers begin to accept the monks despite Sediris’ threats. One day while fleeing from villagers Sediris accidentally runs onto one of his own gun-traps and loses a limb. With two wives and six children Sediris is helpless but the monk he hated and tried to discredit comes forward to help them all and the two boys friendship blossoms.
Senior Sri Lankan monks, those paragons of conservativism and lack of imagination, were outraged by the film and demanded that it be banned. Showing a little monk standing on his hands and wrestling with another boy (and a lay boy at that!) is of course a major threat to the Sangha’s dignity. Monks in Sinhala cinema are depicted the way Jesus is in Steven’s film. The public took no notice, Suriya Arana became the highest grossing film in Sri Lankan history and the monks backed down, eventually giving the film their ‘blessing’ (Others Lead, We Follow). No doubt part of the films success was due to its two young stars, Sajith Anuththara (Tikira) and Dasun Madhusanka (the little monk), the cutest little guys you’ve ever seen and both very credible actors.
Have a look at this scene from the film. As it happens most of these scenes were shot in Meemure, one of my old stomping grounds. How fondly I remember the time I and the former Venerable Pajalo spent in this lovely place. We never saw the leopard. Perhaps she was hiding.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Ministry?

Oct 21, Colombo: Chief monks of all four Buddhist sects in the country asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday to reestablish the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs with immediate effect to protect the Buddhism. Sending a special letter to President Rajapaksa, the chief monks of all four sects, including Malawatha and Asgiri, pointed out that the Sri Lanka as a nation has promised to protect the Buddhism through it’s constitution. However, in 2006 the government abolished the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs and established a common Religious Affairs Ministry for all three religions. As a result of this step, several activities took place that badly affected the Buddhism as well as Buddhist history in the country, the chief incumbents claimed. According to the four chief monks several Buddhist text books have been launched with distorted facts about Buddhism and its history. They asked President Rajapaksa to appoint a special committee, comprising professionals to review every Buddhist book before they are launched.

I found this article on Sri Lanka News Portel. It made me smile. During the years I lived in Sri Lanka the Ministry of Buddha Sasana was something of a joke. The minister himself was usually a political has-been being reward for past services to the party in power and the ministry itself did nothing and did it slowly and inefficiently. Even the letter of recommendation we foreign monks had to get each year to renew our visas usually took days and could only be hurried up with a ‘gift’. A ministry? A special committee? Sri Lankan Buddhism doesn’t need another meaningless gesture or empty symbol, it needs dedicated, spiritually orientated monks and a well-informed, active laity.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Nip, Tuck, Chop, Hack

Yesterday’s post led me to give some thought to some of the things humans do to their bodies apart from being so disgusted with them that they would kill them. It certainly is a rich field for contemplation. Mother Nature in her wisdom (and she is a wise old gal) has provided us with a body pretty much perfectly designed for the task it is meant to do. But then, because of vanity, stupidity, feelings of inferiority, the need to stand out, the desire not to be noticed, greed, etc, we cut bits off it, insert things into it, stretch it, compress it, dye it, deprive it of sustenance, over-feed it, poke holes in it, scar it, etc. I could have included photos of a few other things such as male and female genital mutilation, penis enlargement and vaginal ‘tightening’ but decided that the images might be inappropriate or a bit too harrowing. And I couldn’t find any images of living persons with head binding or the scars German students used to cut into one of their cheeks. What is it with we human beings?!! The Buddha had little time for body vanity but he certainly encouraged a sensible and respectful attitude towards the body (deha, kaya or sarira). This is why he criticized the body-unfriendly austerities practiced by some of the sects of his time. He asked us to look upon our body as if it were a sore (ganda, A.IV,386). You look after a sore or wound with care, apply the appropriate medicine to it, cover it properly and try to protect it from knocks and blows. He referred to the body as a little hut (kuti, Sn.19), something you live in, and as a chariot (ratha, S.IV,292), something that helps you get around. To me, being respectful to the body would mean not putting any foreign object into it or cutting any living tissue off it, other than for reasons of health or to rectify a deformity i.e. one of the mistakes Mother Nature sometimes made.
All November will be Tibet Month on my blog and will include articles about and images related to the Dhamma in that country.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Manfred's Questions I

One of my readers, Manfred, has emailed me with two thoughtful and interesting, not to say troubling questions which I feel deserve a full answer. So for the next few days I will attempt to answer there questions. The first question is this. 'There is a very odd story in the Tipitaka where the Buddha instructs some monks in the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body and then goes on solitary retreat during the rains. In the meantime the monks become so disgusted with their bodies that they commit suicide and one of them even kills other monks in order to free them from their repulsive bodies asking “is there somebody else to who wants to be relieved?” Only when the Buddha returned from his retreat did he remedy the situation.
My question is this: How is it possible that the Buddha, who is regarded by Buddhists the “incomparable Teacher of gods and men”, and who had the ability to foresee the destinies of beings let it come so far. If this story is true he can’t have been a very good teacher, one might say'.
The incident being refered to is from the Vinaya III,68-9. I will try to give an answer to this question.
There are two ways of answering the question asked yesterday. The first way is to take a text historical approach. The story of the monks who committed suicide (it says ‘up to 50 or 60 in a single day’, Vin.III,68-9) is from the Vinaya. Now despite what Vinaya fundamentalists think, scholars can demonstrate that much of the Vinaya is later that the Sutta Pitaka, perhaps two or even three hundred years later. This is the same as saying that it is much later than the time of the Buddha. Considering this we have to ask, ‘Does this story really record something that happened during the Buddha’s time?’ and the answer has to be ‘Unlikely’. The artificial and formularistic structure of the story (like many Vinaya stories) is a further pointer to its late date. So the story does not really contradict the Buddha’s claim to be an “incomparable Teacher of gods and humans”. However, it almost certainly does reflect issues confronting monks and their attitudes towards them at the time it was composed. And there can be no doubt that monks sometimes did commit suicide out of frustration or loathing about their bodies. Such behavior was more understandable then than it would be to us today because of the long tradition of religious suicide within the Indian ascetic tradition. However, at the end of the story the Buddha is depicted as saying, “Whatever monk should intentionally deprive a human of life or should be his killer (literally ‘his knife-bringer’) he is defeated, no longer in communion with the Sangha” (Vin.III,71).
The second way we could answer the question is to take the story on face value, accept that it really did happen as recorded, admit that some monks (50 or 60 per day is a clear exaggeration) did commit suicide as a result of practices recommended to them by the Buddha. If we take this approach the story certainly would cast doubts on the Buddha’s omniscience and his ‘incomparable’ teaching style. But of course the Buddha was not omniscient (see my post of 23rd August) so that deals with that problem. Was he an “incomparable Teacher of gods and humans”? I think he was. The stories in the suttas of his insight, tact and finesse in dealing with people are almost certainly genuine and show a profound psychological sensibility. But saying that the Buddha was an incomparable teacher is different from saying that he was infallible. We all know that only Popes are infallible. So we could say this. The guidance that the Buddha gave his disciples came from his deep understanding of the human psyche. But despite his careful guidence, a few people sometimes got it wrong with tragic consequences.
On suicide in Buddhism have a look at my under ‘Suicide’ and also Damian Keown’s article on the same subject at On religious suicide in India, in particularly what the Jains call santhara or sallekhana see A good book on the subject is Upendra Thakur’s History of Suicide in India.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Does He Mean?

Yesterday Thinker left a comment saying that perhaps the Buddha’s Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded (Ud.80) could be equated with God, that perhaps Jesus and the Buddha were talking about the same thing. Perhaps. But for this to be so we have to do is adopt what I call linguistic befuddlement. I’ll give you an example of linguistic befuddlement.
“We don’t have any cats in Singapore”.
“What! Why only yesterday I saw six or seven cats hanging around our wet market”.
“Ah yes. But I’m not using the word ‘cat’ in the usual crude, pedantic, restricted way. When I use the word ‘cat’ I’m referring to large grey-colored African herbivore with two horns on their nose which have a tendency to charge when threatened or angry. So, as I said before, there are no cats in Singapore”.
Jesus used the word ‘God’ or ‘Father’ in a fairly precise way and it has generally been used in that same way in Christian theology ever since. God is a divine creator with three natures actively involved in the world, who has a personal relationship with believers, requires undivided devotion from them and who, if they believe in him and his Son, will save them from eternal damnation. There is nothing like this mentioned in the Buddha’s scriptures. Of course we could disregard usually understood usage and use the word god any way we want. But it seems to me that this just causes confusion. I once listened to a talk given by a monk in which he emphasized the importance of God in Buddhist practice. Later I asked him about this and he said, “Of course I’m not using ‘God’ in the usual way. I’m referring to…” and he went on to describe kamma. I said, “ ‘Of course’ would not seen to be appropriate here. I doubt that your usage of the word ‘God’ was ‘of course’ to your audience. I suspect they were thinking something quite different from what you were thinking of when you used the word ‘God’. I certainly did not understand what you were talking about”. He replied, “I’m merely using terminology that my audience is familiar and comfortable with” (It was a Western audience). I said, “But there is a perfectly good word for kamma. Try ‘Kamma’. It’s even in the Oxford Dictionary now. And if the audience is not familiar with it, give a talk explaining what it means”.
It’s no surprise that the Buddha, a consummate teacher and a clear communicator, addressed this very issue. Referring to language and terminology he said, “One should not ignore local usage” (M.III,235). We could also add that we should not ignore ‘normal usage’ either.
The picture is of a 'cat'.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ian Stevenson And Reincarnation

The only after-life theory that has attracted any scientific attention and support is reincarnation, usually called rebirth by Buddhists. And the only accredited scientist who has studied the phenomena was Prof Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) who was head of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. I met Stevenson during his several visits to Sri Lanka in the 70’s and 80’s and on one occasion asked him if he believed in reincarnation. He said he did but being a scientist and given the controversial nature of his research he kept his opinion to himself. I asked him if his findings could be explained in some other way and he said this. They could be explained as fraud but that he had done everything possible to cancel this out. It could be telepathy, where one person is unknowingly picking up someone else’s experience and mistaking it for their own memory. And it may be that it is eventually discovered that some memories are transmitted genetically and we are able to ‘remember’ fragments of our grandparent’s or great grandparent’s memories.
Stevenson’s research was published in peer-reviewed academic journals but was largely ignored by the scientific community. Philosopher Paul Edwards has written a detailed critique of his research called Reincarnation: A Critical Examination and Ian Wilson’s Mind Out of Time? The Claims of Reincarnation, also contains an in-depth criticism of the research. Wilson also hints that Stevenson was being dishonest, without saying why he thinks so. Nonetheless, Wilson’s book contains some very interesting research and it well worth reading. It’s enough to make anyone with an intelligent interest in reincarnation very cautious of much of the ‘evidence’ presented in its favor of reincarnation and I used to recommend this book to people. But after Wilson has converted to Catholicism and became a fervent believer in the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin we are justified in not just doubting his judgment and his objectivity but even his sanity.
However, Ian Stevenson has his supporters too. One of the most eminent and articulate of these is Prof. Robert Almeder of the Dept of Philosophy Georgia State University. You can listen to Prof. Almerder’s assessment of Stevenson’s research on reincarnation at

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Arising Of The Light

When the sun or the moon appear in the heavens there is a shining forth of great light, a glow of brightness. Then there is no more gloom or darkness, obscurity or blackness, and day and night, weeks, months and seasons become apparent. Likewise, when the Tathagata appears in the world there is a shining forth of great light, a glow of brightness. Then there is no more gloom or darkness, obscurity or blackness. Then there is a proclaiming of the Four Noble Truths, a teaching and declaring of them, a making them known, an establishing of them and a making them clear. S.V,442.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Carl Sagan On Indian Cosmology

I stumbled across this video of the famous astronomer Carl Sagan explaining the ancient Indian view of the universe. He starts by quoting the wonderful hymn of creation, the Nasadiya, from the Rig Veda (10.129). A little later he says, ‘Hinduism is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, no doubt by accident, to scientific cosmology’. I feel a little presumptuous correcting the great Carl Sagan but here I feel I am justified in doing so. Buddhism too taught all these ideas. Indeed the Buddha’s idea about the ultimate origin of the universe is one up on the Hindu one because it attributes it to natural causes rather than to a divine being.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Now here is some interesting of statistics for you! A recent Pew Survey in the US showed that of all religious followers Buddhists were most likely to accept evolution as the most convincing explanation for the origins of life. Either American Buddhists are better educated and more open to the findings of science that others or they have been completely taken in by those fossils Satan has planted all over the place.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Buddhist monks and nuns were robes (civara or kasava) rather than conventional lay clothes. This attire consists of three parts; a smaller rectangular robe wrapped around the waist (antaravasaka), a belt used to secure it (bandhara) and a larger rectangular robe (uttarasanga) draped around the whole body, over the left sholder and under the right arm. A double-layered robe (sanghati) is used in cold weather. Robber could be and still are made out of linen, cottern, silk, wool, sana fiber, or hemp fiber. The under and upper robber are tailored out of pieces of cloth into a pattern or ulternating rectangles each with a border around it. it is not certain when or why this pattern evolved but a story in the Vinaya has the Buddha saying that the robes should have a pattern similar to the ‘fields of Magadha’ (Magadha kettha). This pattern probably evolved from the odd rags that the first monks’ robes were made out of.
As for the color, the term ‘saffron robe’ is a misnomer. Saffron is not a fast dye and has never been used to color fabric. It has also always been far too expensive to use as a dye. The correct color or colors range from bright orange (popular in Thailand) to tawny brown (common in Sri Lanka) and sometimes browny-purple (standard in Burma). Orange/yellowish has always been the color of death or renunciation in Indian culture. Some modern monks are very conscious of the color of their robes. In the 70’s and 80’s monks at Sri Lankan universities who were playing at being Maxists (i.e. most of them) wore bright red robes. Forest-dwelling monks, or those who want to give the impression of being meditators, favor a dark brown color. This is considered very ‘chic’ by young Thai monks. The matching bowl with designer carring bag is an essential accessory. I recall once listening to a Thai monk grumble that the expensive bag he had been given was a slightly different color from his robe.
Still, I think its unfair! We Buddhist monks have to be content with a simple monotone robe costing 20 or 30 dollars tops while Catholics clerics are able to adorn themselves in the most elaborate and expensive silk and satin gowns especially designed for them. And they are even able to have a matching hat! I think its unfair! If you haven’t seen it before check out Fellini’s ecclesiastical fashion show from his Roma and have a chuckle.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm Back

I have returned from my trip and will recommence my blog tomorrow. From the 1st of November my blog will host a Tibet Month in which most (although not all) of the posts will deal with matters related to Tibet, including my impressions of and experiences in that country. I look forward to your readership and your comments.