Saturday, June 26, 2010
Friday, June 25, 2010
It is unlikely that the Buddha or any Indians in the area where he lived had ever seen a Greek, but the lone reference to them in the Tipitaka shows that a few scraps of information about them had spread east. Interestingly, the Anguttara Nikaya commentary mentions that the Sakyans, the Buddha’s tribe, had Yona statues holding lamps. After Alexander’s conquests large numbers of Greeks migrated to India (modern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan) and went on to have some influence on Indian culture.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
However, even if one seeks prolonged solitude for the right reasons one still needs to monitor oneself carefully and intelligently. The joy of aloneness (pavivekasukka, A.IV,341) can subtly deteriate into a shirking of one’s responsibilities. Likewise one can overdo it, over-reach oneself and end up straining the mind. Hence the Buddha’s caution: ‘One who goes into solitude will either sink to the bottom or rise to the top.’ (A.V,202).
Monday, June 21, 2010
The second thing that makes a bodhisattva is that their passion for the Absolute (however they may see it now) inspires them to practice one or several of the Perfections (Parami) to a extremely high degree. The Perfections are generosity (dana), virtue (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), patience (khanti), integrity (sacca), resolve (adhitthana), love (metta) and equanimity (upekkha). Okay! That’s what a bodhisattva is. Now could a non-Buddhist be a bodhisattva? I think they could. After all, Siddhattha Gotama was a bodhisattva in his earlier lives and he was a non-Buddhist at that time. He had to be! There was no Buddhism then! It seems to me that most of the major world religions teach all the Paramitas (except perhaps wisdom) although they do not call them that. History also shows us that most of these religions have produced exceptional individuals from time to time. I have mentioned Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Maximillian Kolbe but I could think of others. So Richard’s question was, ‘Would I consider Father Damian to be a bodhisattva?’ and the answer is ‘I would’.
Father Damian was a Catholic priest living in Hawaii and by all accounts was a rather uncouth man who wasn’t particularly fond of washing. In those days there was a horror of leprosy and when someone was found to have it they were forcibly confined on the isolated island of Molokai and basically left to fend for themselves. The leper colony was a vision of hell – the strong dominating the weak, little food, inadequate housing and everyone slowly rotting for want of any medical attention. Realizing that something needed to be done, in 1873 the Bishop of Hawaii called for a priest to volunteer to minister to the lepers knowing that it was tantamount to a death sentence. Surprisingly there were four volunteers, of whom Damian was selected because of his apparent enthusiasm. He spent the rest of his life with the lepers, producing food, building a church and houses, giving them medical treatment, counselling and consolation. Inevitably he contracted leprosy himself and died of it in 1889. There is little doubt that Damian’s inspiration was the stories of Jesus healing lepers. Now it seems to me that whether such miracles actually happened is irreverent. The point is that such stories inspired in him a self-sacrificing compassion and renunciation that few of us could muster. In fact, we stand in awe at his behaviour. And the fact that he was a bit rough around the edges should not lessen our awe. He was prepared to give his life for others, inspired by his vision of the Absolute. So to me, that would make Father Daman a bodhisattva. In traditional Buddhist iconography bodhisattvas are depicted as beautiful youths bedecked in jewels. Father Damian looks ordinary, human, un-special, real. Mahayana sutras are full of legendary stories of bodhisattvas giving their lives for others, although Buddhist history offers very few examples where people actually did this.
One last point. If a non-Buddhist can be a bodhisattva, could a non-Buddhist attain enlightenment? As I wrote at www.buddhismatoz.com under 'Universalism' ‘The attainment of enlightenment is not dependent of winning the approval of a deity but by realizing certain natural truths, which everyone has the capacity to do. This being the case, it is conceivable that even those who have never even heard the Dhamma could become enlightened. However, we could say this. Openness to the Buddha’s teaching makes an appreciation of it more likely. Appreciation of the Buddha’s teaching would make the desire to practise it more possible. Practising the Buddha’s teaching would make attaining enlightenment many times more probable’.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
This shocking and tragic case set me thinking. Does capital punishment really act at a deterrent? Maybe for the intelligent person tempted to commit a serious crime. But most criminals are, as I said, stupid. They commit their crime because they are stupid enough to think they can get away with it. In this recent case, only one of the accused had the sense to get out of the country. The others were caught within a few days. Stupid! Hanging may eliminate stupid people but it doesn’t make stupid people smart.
The other thing this case did is remind me of how decent people can be. According to the news paper when Mr. Shanmneanathan’s (the murdered man) body was returned to India, all his worldly goods accompanied it – several sets of cloths, a cooking pot and a small album of family photos. I was deeply moved when I read this. When I thought of the struggles and difficulties his wife will now have to face, I mentioned it to friends and students and they opened their hearts and their wallets. In no time we had collected $3000. This money has been handed over to HOME, an organization here in Singapore that works for the welfare of immigrant workers and will be passed on to Mr. Shanmneanthan’s wife. Just when some people make you lose your faith in human nature, others come along and restore it.
About HOME see http://home.org.sg/home/index.html
Friday, June 18, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Monday, June 14, 2010
It would be really interesting to come back in 200 years and see if the Jesus Malverte and the Santa Muerte cults have evolved into ‘legitimate’ religions with a priestly hierarchy, sacred text, an ‘official’ theology and an acceptable and ‘respectable’ pedigree. After all, I can think of a few gods of very doubtful origins and individuals who never existed but are now worshipped as gods, and their cults are generally taken seriously.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Before the Buddha was enlightened, he had seven dreams full of strange symbolism which did in fact foretell his enlightenment (A.III,240). However, he was sceptical of those who claimed that they could interpret other people's dreams and he forbade monks and nuns from doing so (D.I,8). He said that a person who does loving kindness meditation (metta bhavana) will not be disturbed by nightmares (A.V,342) and also that a monk who falls to sleep mindfully will not have a wet dream (A.III,251). The Buddha also said that dreaming of doing something, i.e. killing someone or stealing something, is not ethically significant and therefore has no kammic effect (Vin.III,111). Thus he understood that dreams are beyond the power of the will. Legend says Maha Maya, Prince Siddhattha’s mother, had a dream dreamed of a white elephant soon after he was conceived and that this was a portent of his future greatness. The story is not in the Tipitaka and the earliest version of it is found in the Jatakanidana 50.
The best attempt I know of in any medium to depict a dream is Salavador Dali’s dream sequences from Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. If you have never seen this second clip, be warned, it’s pretty startling, or you might say ‘nightmarish’.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
I would take this as an example of the Dalai Lama being ‘unchallenging’ and ‘nice’ rather than precise and straightforward. The Dalai Lama would not be a Buddhist monk and Leonardo Boff would not be a Catholic (and a Catholic priest, if he still is) if they did not believe that their respective religions were truer than others. A way of answering Boff’s question which would have been inoffensive while at the same time honest and accurate would have been to say something like this. “Different people are looking for different things and see things differently. The religion that best fulfills my needs and seems most realistic and true for me is Buddhism. And while being a committed Buddhist I recognize that there is truth and goodness in other religions.”
And if the Dalai Lama desire to please means he doesn’t go far enough, Boff goes too far when he says that his question was ‘malicious’. What on earth is malicious in asking someone, “What seems most true to you?” If someone asks me whether I believe in the Inuit walrus god and I politely say “No” why am I being ‘malicious’? Why am I being malicious when I say that astronomy is more true than astrology, evolution more true than intelligent design, medicine more effective than faith healing and psychiatric intervention more reality-based than exorcisms. Aren’t we allowed to honestly express our opinions any more? Is it getting to the stage that we are going to be labeled ‘malicious’ or ‘intolerant’ if we simply, gently, politely but also clearly and honestly say what we believe? We are constantly being urged to ‘celebrate diversity’ in our societies which I agree is a wholesome thing to do. But express ‘diversity’ in your religious beliefs and you are shunned as ‘intolerant’. In some quarters this sort of thing is called ‘political correctness’. I call it ‘the new intolerance’.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Anyway, when I read the Dalai Lama’s article I was relieved that despite its name he was not advocating the ‘all religions are the same’ position but rather arguing for a focus on finding meeting points and using them as bridges between different faiths. Of course, this is hardly a new idea but the Dalai Lama does put it across with sincerity and eloquence. And it might be worth pointing out that long before this approach became popular the Buddha advocated it too. In the Digha Nikaya I,164 he says, “Those things about which there is no agreement, let us put aside. Those things about which there is agreement let the wise bring up, discuss and examine”.
You can read the Dalai Lama’s article at
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Powers maintains that the early Buddhists were concerned that the Buddha should not be thought of as impotent or in any way inadequate, even sexually inadequate, and to this end they emphasized his masculinity. This seems like a plausible theory and would certainly explain the noticeably macho epitaphs the Buddha and other enlightened males are given throughout the Tipitaka - the Bull of Men, Leader of the Caravan, Stallion, Hero, etc. Later tradition would seen to verify Power’s theory too. He recounts a popular legend from Laos about the Buddha’s virility. According to this story, some evil disciples were claiming that celibacy was unnatural and that the Buddha practiced it only in order to hide his impotence. When some other monks heard this and thought that perhaps their might be some truth to it the Buddha asked them, ‘Do you really doubt my virility?’ Their silence indicated that they did. The Buddha then went to a secluded place and returned some time later (the story doesn’t say exactly how long later) with cupped-hands full of his own semen. He showed it to the doubting monks saying, ‘Here is proof of my manliness’ and then went to the Mekong and washed his hands. It so happened that the fish goddess just happened to we swimming past, she became pregnant and later gave birth to the boy child who would grow up and become the arahat Upagta, a mythological saint popular in parts of S.E.Asia. Good God! What a story! That would have to be the most bizarre Buddha legend I have ever heard.
In the seventh and last chapter ‘Adepts and Sorcerers’ Powers examines Indian Vajrayana. It is only a brief survey but the material he assembles is enough to contradict the Western Tibetan Buddhist contention that Tantra had little to do with sexual indulgence and promiscuity. Even allowing for so-called ‘twilight language’ some of this stuff was clearly meant to be practiced and is pretty bizarre by any standards. Some is so bizarre and extreme it simply couldn’t be practiced. Sex itself may not be adhammic, but that unrestrained lust, sexual indulgence and sexual magic are a means to enlightenment, was a major departure from early Buddhist and Mahayana teaching. Powers makes another point that may well be unpalatable to Western Tantric enthusiastic, particually females. ‘All of the tantras I have studies assume a male perspective, were written by men for men, and assume that males would be performing their rituals. The descriptions of sexual yoga are always, as far as I am aware, addressed to males, and female consorts are not described as deriving any spiritual benefits from their participation. The Indian Buddhist tantras provide no guidelines for woman who want to engage in these yogas…The female consort does not attain any soteriological benefits in any of the text I have studied, and her role is as a facilitator in her partner’s progress. I have not encountered any evidence of a corresponding women’s spirituality in any Buddhist tantric text’.