Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Little Bit Can Go A Long Way

It often happens that I see a new Dhamma book, flick quickly and then dismiss it as either ‘basic’ or ‘the same old thing.’ I suppose this is natural, but it’s a reaction that can make you to forget that what might not be ‘new’ to you, ‘useful’ for you or does not ‘speak’ to you may very well not be so for others. A friend of mine has written several small books that at least some people might have such an attitude towards. At his own expense he posts them to people around the world and every now and then shows me emails he gets from people who have received and appreciated them. Some of these emails are the usual polite expressions of thanks and gratitude you would expect, but occasionally he gets some that are very different. This is one of them that really struck a cord with me -
“I host a meditation group whose specific interest is learning and incorporating the Buddhist Dharma to end suffering in their lives and the lives of others. This is a dedicated group of members on a spiritual journey. Many members are healing from extreme suffering and utilize the Buddhist Path (4 Noble Truths, 8 Fold Path and principles) on their journey. The group consists of some core members but every week there are newcomers to Buddhism and meditation. We always have individuals interested in Buddhism coming to check out the meditation group. I have used the booklets sent from ‘Just be Good’ to help spread the Dharma to these new members and those interested in learning about Buddhism. They get so excited when they come and can take a book of their choice with them. Group members who want to spread the Dharma also hand them out to people they know interested in meditation and Buddhism. It is amazing to see people light up when they learn about the principles and begin to utilize them in their life. We have had a couple of members begin to understand their grief of tragic losses of loved ones, through your lessons and writings. Thank you so much for your materials. ‘Just be Good’ books have helped so many in their journey to enlightenment. We are so grateful for your organization and bringing Buddhism to the West - Jane, USA.”
Sometimes even the smallest and most simple telling of the Dhamma can move others in a way you could never expect. Have a look at http://www.justbegood.net/

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bhutan's Dilemma

The Bhutanese parliament is poised to pass a tough amended anti-proselytizing bill before the year is out. The amendment bill would punish proselytizing that uses coercion or other forms of inducement – which the country’s approximately 6000 Christians claim is aimed at them. “Now, under section 463 of the Penal Code of Bhutan, a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9th. Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, said that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanours, punishable by one to three years in prison. Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”
Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, more than 80% are Buddhist. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese living in southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 20% of the population. The country’s tiny Christian population is almost entirely Nepalese. According to the authorities there is no church in the country or any registered Christian organization or group. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali. Since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice. Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji said, “Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist...We have Hindus mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?” Buddhism is inextricably linked with cultural, political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in the huge monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the cultural and social life of a village revolves around its monastery. Dorji also pointed out that multi-religious Indi, Bhutan’s southern neighbour, is plagued by continual religious strife and says Bhutan wants to avoid this problem if it can. “India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants (i.e. India and China).”
The Bhutanese are very proud that they avoided colonization by the British and that they were not gobbled up by a larger more aggressive power as was their northern neighbour Tibet by China. But the incorporation of Sikkim into India in 1975 still haunts Bhutan’s leaders. Sikkim was a semi-independent state whose indigenous Buddhist population was outnumbered by immigrants from Nepal and which in turn precipitated the Indian takeover. The Bhutanese are understandably jittery that something similar could happen to them. In the last half century hundreds of thousands of Nepalese fleeing grinding poverty in their own country have settled in Bhutan’s lowlands. In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which pretty much excluded ethnic Nepalese. Their protests in the 1990s resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 Nepalese, a good number of whom were Christians. Many of these people now live just across the border in India and are demanding to be recognized as Bhutanese citizens.
Evangelical Christians have long wanted to get a foothold in Bhutan and see Nepalese within the country and those expelled from it and now living in India just across the border as a means of doing this. These Nepalese are for the most part divorced from their Hindu roots, illiterate, desperately poor and thus easy targets for Christian conversion efforts. These missionaries are well-funded, superbly organized and absolutely determined that Bhutan will be the next ‘mission field’. The Bhutan’s constitution, adopted in July 2008, requires the state to protect country’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan. The tragedy of this situation is that the missionaries’ agenda may require the world’s youngest democracy to limit religious freedom in order to carry out its constitutional obligations and preserve its unique culture.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Buddha And The Ferryman

During my recent visit to Borobudur I tried to identify as many scenes in the first gallery of the great temple as I could. The 120 carved panels in this gallery supposedly illustrate the Lalitavistara, an early and extremely ornate biography of the Buddha (perhaps 2nd cent. BCE to 1st cent. CE). But identifying the events the panels supposedly depict is no easy task. During my last two visits to Borobudur I identified some of the scenes but other, most of them in fact, completely eluded me. However, one I was able to make out and which I missed last time, is the charming story of the Buddha and the ferryman. The story, now famous because Herman Hess included it in his Siddhartha, has the Buddha arriving at a river while on his way from Uruvela to Isipatana. The ferryman refuses to take him across because he does not have money to pay for the trip. To the ferryman’s utter amazement the Buddha disappears and then re-appears on the further bank. The story finishes by saying that when the Buddha related this incident to King Bimbisara he, the king, issued an edict allowing all ascetics in Magadha to travel by ferries for free. Although my picture of this panel is not very clear, it shows the nonplussed ferryman on the right, the ferry with its paddle-like rudder and canopy, the forest with its creatures through which the river is flowing, and on the right, the Buddha on the far bank. There is even a few fish and a tortoise in the river. This story might be an elaboration of a similar miraculous crossing of a river from Digha Nikaya II,89. More likely, it was probably thought up to explain the tradition in ancient India of allowing Buddhist monks and other ascetics to travel for free on public transport.
Quite by coincidence, as I was writing this post a friend sent me a link to a rather lovely article about a kindly ferryman. Have a look at

Monday, July 19, 2010

Questions From Scott And Alessandro

In a comment on my post about ghosts (2nd 7th 2010) Scott asked what he called a ‘slightly impertinent question’ Slightly! I was so outraged by his impertinence that it took me two whole days to calm down. My support group helped. Anyway, now that I’m half way back to normal I will try answering his question which was this. ‘Buddhists often like to portray their faith as a modern religion with a rationalist bent, capable of coexisting with modern science. Yet belief in petas sits ill at ease with either rationalism or science...Given that one cannot see a peta, do any sort of scientific test to confirm their existence, or fit their existence into what we know of modern science, is it reasonable for a modern Buddhist to believe in these entities? If so, I feel I'm being asked to take something on faith, or to apply a standard of evidence that I wouldn't accept coming from another religion. If belief in petas is not justifiable today, what sense do we make of the Buddha's statements regarding them? Could they be meant allegorically? Is to be reborn as a peta the same as having a desperate, craving state of mind in this very life, as Buddhadasa suggested?
I do feel that the central conceptions of Buddhism are empirically verifiable, non-mystical and rational, or at least that they do not stretch credibility to breaking point. By this I mean the Four Noble Truths, dependant origination, kamma and the possibility of human enlightenment. I would maintain that the reality of petas does not come anywhere near an essential teaching of Buddhism and that being a Buddhist does not depend in accepting the reality of petas. As I pointed out, the Buddha considered discussing petas to be a type of useless chatter so their reality or otherwise could hardly be considered important.
Further, we do not have to depend on Buddhadasa for the idea that petas might be just an allegory. The Buddha suggests that purgatory might be taken as a metaphor for unpleasant experiences. ‘Ordinary ignorant people says that purgatory is under the sea. But I say purgatory is a name for painful feeling.’ (S.IV,206). This being so, the peta realm could just as easily be a name for the distress of unfulfilled desire and ambitions. So Scott, I think you can safely reject the idea of petas and still practice the Dhamma and benefit from it. I would encourage you to focus on the essentials.
In a comment on my post of 10th 7th 2010 Alessandro informed us that a Korean monk recently committed suicide in protest at some of his government’s policies and asked me what I thought about this. Firstly it should be mentioned that quite a few Mahayana sutras, starting with the Saddharmapundrika Sutra (Lotus Sutra), praise suicide, usually by self-immolation, where it is done as an offering to the Buddha. There were periods in Chinese history when so many people, mainly monks and nuns but sometimes lay people too, were doing this that several emperors had to outlaw it and threaten punishment for the crowds who usually came to watch, if they did not intervene to stop it - see for example James Benn’s Burning for the Buddha – Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism, 2007 and Jan Yun-hua’s ‘Buddhist Self-immolation in Medieval China’, HOR, Vol. 4 No 2, 1965, both of which make rather troubling reading. So what this monk has done has a long and scripturally-sanctioned tradition behind it.
I can think of a few situations where suicide could be understandable but certainly not as a protest against environmental or social policies. I consider this, like burning oneself as an act of devotion, to be an example of religion gone mad, a sort of aberration of the type that have infected most religions from time to time. I would take Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation in 1963 (picture) to be in a slightly different category. He was protesting against a particularly intransigent, cruel and corrupt regime and his sacrifice led directly to changing that regime and a marked improvement in the situation.

Jan Palach’s 1968 sacrifice would be similar. We do not know the thinking or the mental state of this Korean monk before he killed himself but I would assume he was unbalanced in some way. If he felt that the government’s policies were wrong or unjust he could have done more to change them by staying alive and campaigning against them. And to go to such extreme lengths to try change the decisions of a democratically elected government when other channels are available is, to my mind, unnecessary and undermining to democracy by indulging in blackmail.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Wat Palelai

Last Sunday Ananda, Samatha, Tathata, Min Than and I drove out to Wat Palelai in Bedok on the eastern side of Singapore. It is about 25 years since I have been there and the place has undergone something of a transformation since my last visit. Now the temple has a fine new library and conducts regular Dhamma talks and meditation sessions. But equally interestingly, the new hall and shrine (Chedi Dhammasathit) has been decorated with some surprisingly fine art. In ancient times most Buddhist temples were repositories of beautiful sculpture, paintings, furnishings, etc, but this could hardly be said of most of today’s temples. The rear wall of the new Chedi Dhammasathit is covered with carved stone panels depicting the main events in the life of the Buddha. The Thai sculptur Khun Teerayuut Daochanterk created these beautiful panels out of a fine-grained softly-yellow sandstone which seems to enhance their appeal. Even more pleasing is the large mural in the main shrine room. This really is worth going all the way out to Bedok to see. The mural depicts the Buddha flanked by Sariputta and Moggallana and surrounded by a host of monks and nuns, lay disciples, devas, nagas and other mythical beings. This is a pretty standard composition but here the artist has combined the traditional Thai style of painting with what looks like Indian Pala forms and has used strikingly bold colours. The effect is quite stunning, innovative but clearly connected with authentic Buddhist artistic tradition. If you are in Singapore go and see it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two Books On Nuns

The Buddhist Publication Society, the world’s premier Theravadin publishing organization, has just released its newest publication, Mohan Wijayaratna’s Buddhist Nuns: The Birth and Development of a Woman’s Monastic Order (ISBN 978-955-24-0345-3). Dr. Wijayaratna is already well-known for his former publications, especially his excellent Buddhist Monastic Life (CUP, 1990). The present book was originally written in French. An English translation was published in 2001 and this is a revised edition of that translation. Wijayaratna gives a detailed account of the founding of the nuns’ Sangha, the rules for nuns and in the appendixes the text of and a translation of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. Altogether it is a useful and well-written book. The revised part of this edition is a 33 page postscript in which Wijayaratna discusses why the nuns’ Sangha died out and whether or not it can or should be re-established. Why the Theravadin nun’s Sangha disappeared is undoubtedly a complex matter and sources concerning it are scant, but I find Wijayaratna’s explanation generally superficial. Foreign (read ‘Tamil’) invasions are popularly sited by Sri Lankans for many of their country’s past troubles and the author gives this as the main cause. There can be no doubt that such invasions were very destructive. But Sinhalese always assume that only Tamil invaders looted Buddhist temples, killed monks and raped nuns even though the Mahavamsa offers ample evidence that Sinhalese soldiers, mercenaries and bandits were just as prone to do so at times of social disruption. The numerous civil wars and dynastic struggles that plagued Sri Lanka especially after the 8th century were probably just as destructive as ‘foreign invaders’. And even if we accept this as a significant cause of the disappearance of the nuns’ Sangha it still leaves unanswered the question of why the monks’ Sangha, which also disappeared several times during this period, was later revived and the nuns’ Sangha was not. Several of the other reasons the author for the disappearance of nuns are, to my mind, equally unsatisfactory.
Concerning whether it would be possible to revive the nuns’ Sangha today, Wijayaratna believes it is not and gives his opinion why he thinks this. Again I find his reasons unconvincing. Another book, published in Malaysia, is a much more useful examination of the question of reviving the nuns’ Sangha. The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition by Bhikkhu Bodhi would have to become essential reading for everyone interested in this issue.
Anyone familiar with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s style of writing will not be surprised that he approaches this contentious issue in a balanced and considered manner and combines a deep concern for the well-being for the Sasana with impeccable scholarship and common sense to argue his point. Bodhi starts by examining the cases against and for revival, treating them both with the respect they deserve, then moves on to examine the legal (i.e. Vinaya) technicalities related to the issue. The book ends with a most surprising and interesting document, a short essay written by the famous Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw in 1949 arguing for the revival of the nuns’ Sangha. I confess that I usually think of the Burmese Sangha as rigidly (sometimes I use the term ‘hopelessly’) conservative but as I said in my post of 12th 7, 2010, ‘It’s always good for you to have to readjust your mindset in the face of reality’. I would have never expected an elderly Burmese monk so long ago to have been willing to reconsider traditional practice. Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw’s essay ends with these poignant words ‘Thus the Bhikkhu Sangha...should make a determined effort as follows: “Now that the Bhikkhuni Sangha has become extinct, we will revive the institutions of the bhikkhunis! We will understand the heart’s wish of the Exalted One! We will see the Exalted One’s face brighten like the full moon!”’ ’
Buddhist Nuns is available from The Buddhist Publication Society at www.bps.lk/new_releases.asp The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition is published by Inward Path, PO Box 1034 GPO, 10400 Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, or ijbook@inwardpath.org for free copies or inwardpathpublisher@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kbal Spean

Venerable Anandajoti has just returned from a trip to Angkor Wat and has posted some of the photos he took on his blog. For me, the most impressive of these is the ones of Kbal Spean in the mountains some 25 km from Angkor. Kbal Spean is actually a Hindu site but this in no way diminishes its interest or beauty. Some 1000 Siva lingams are carved into the rocky bottom of the Siem Reap River so that water naturally and continually flows over them, which is of course, the usual way of worshiping a lingam. Kbal Spean probably dates from the 11th or 12th centuries. The surrounding forest is almost impenetrable, the rocks and boulders are moss-covered and the atmosphere is almost mystical. Go to http://records.photodharma.net/photography/photographs-from-kbal-spean-near-angkor

Monday, July 12, 2010

With Muslims At Borobudur

I, together with 15 friends and students have just come back from Indonesia. The purpose of our trip was to visit the great Buddhist shrine at Borobudur. We arranged to stay in the Manohara Hotel which is set in the sylvan, flower-filled park around Borobudur and within walking distance of it.
When we arrived we were informed that one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations was having its congress in nearby Yogyakarta, that 20,000 people are attending and that many of them will probably visit Borobudur. When I heard this the slightest feeling of unease came over me. Whether or not it is justified, Islam does have a ‘scary’ image in many peoples’ minds. We had already decided to visit the shrine early in the morning so we would probably avoid the crowds anyway – or so I thought. Even when we got there at 6.30 there were already a lot of people there – all the women with head scarves and the men with taqiyahs. I had been half expecting unfriendly or disapproving looks, or at least blank stares. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Almost without exception, everyone met me with a beaming smile, an extended hand, polite inquiries about where I was from or requests to have photographs taken with me. After a while the friendliness actually became a bit overwhelming and prevented me from concentrating fully on the temple itself. Several people asked me to give them a detailed explanation of Buddhism (Good God! Is there no escape!) and one elderly gentleman took my hand on being told I was a Buddhist monk said to me, ‘You Buddhists have given we Indonesians this lovely temple. Thank you’. I also noticed that some of the visitors showed a real appreciation for the meaning of the temple, carefully examining the carved panels and looking appreciatively at the Buddha statues.
It’s always good for you to have to readjust your mindset in the face of reality.
My next post will deal more fully with our Borobudur trip.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Character And Character Building

Character (sabhava) is the mental qualities and traits that make a person different from others. The English word is derived from the Greek for an etched or stamped mark. When we say that someone is a nice or an unpleasant person we mean that they have a predominance of positive or negative traits that are more easily noticed or more often manifest. When we are reborn we bring with us traits formed in the previous life (perhaps several lives) as well as innate underlying tendencies (anusaya). Within a few months these traits start becoming apparent and may be reinforced or wane according to circumstances. Our early childhood experiences may also form new traits. Likewise, circumstances may arouse the underlying tendencies. By the time we are in our early teens our character is fully formed although still malleable. Some traits will be strengthened and perhaps develop into biases (nata) according to the mental habits we form. The Buddha said, ‘Whatever a person thinks about and ponders on often, their mind gets a leaning in that way’ (M.I,115). Using an image similar to the Greek one, he also commented that some traits are like an engraving on a rock, others are like a scratching on the ground and yet others are like writing on water (A.I,283), meaning that some traits are difficult to change and others less so. If they are not changed either through deliberate conscious effort or by a particularly dramatic experience we might have, our character will remain relatively fixed, becoming more rigid and deep-rooted as time goes by.
Character is very important because it is a major factor in the course of our life. It influences how we see ourselves, how we relate to others and therefore how they relate to us, the way we deal with the vicissitudes of life and how we see the world. An important part of being a Buddhist is character building or developing what the Buddha called ‘a beautiful nature’ (kalyana dhamma, A.I,248; II,109). Broadly speaking, there are three steps in this process; (1) seeing the desirability of character transformation, (2) having a model or ideal character to work towards, (3) having and applying the means to modify the character.

Some people, due to fortuitous circumstances in former lives as well as in the present one, already have a beautiful character. Most do not. Most people have never seen the desirability or even the advantages of changing themselves. Some of the things that can create the desire for character transformation include a personal crisis that they themselves have been responsible for, a close brush with death or being inspired by a particularly admirable person. Having seen the possibility and the need for change, one must then have an ideal to work towards. The Buddha of course is the perfect ideal; infinitely patient, unfailingly kind, utterly honest and profoundly wise. To 'take Refuge’ in the Buddha is to accept him as one's guiding ideal. Having decided how one would like to be, one then needs a practical program of transformation. The Noble Eightfold Path is such a program, offering as it does guidance on every aspect of life; the intellectual, the ethical and the psychological.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ghosts And Hungry Spirits

In popular Western thinking ghosts are believed to be the souls of people who have died and without going to heaven or hell, wander the earth appearing to and haunting the living. Christian theology accepts the reality of ghosts and forbids trying to contact them (Deuteronomy 18,11). When Jesus reappeared after his death his disciples initially thought he was a ghost (Luke 24,37-39). The Pali word peta is often translated as ‘ghost’ but as ghosts and petas differ significantly from each other, to do so would seem to be unjustified and confusing. A better rendering of peta would be ‘hungry spirit’.
According to the Buddha, beings exist as either humans, animals, gods, angry spirits, hungry spirits or purgatorial beings. Rebirth in one or another of these states depends on the kamma one has generated by one’s intentional thoughts, speech and actions. The excessively greedy, constantly dissatisfied and hankering person may well be reborn as a hungry spirit. The Tipitaka gives only brief descriptions of these spirits but in one place a leper is described as being ‘a peta-like human’ (manussapeta, Ja.V,68), indicating that they are rather miserable beings. There is no suggestion in the Buddhist scriptures that hungry spirits can haunt humans or can be ‘conjured up’ or contacted. However, they can, apparently, be sensitive to what their living relatives may be thinking or feeling about them.
The importance of hungry spirits in the Buddha's thinking can be judged by the fact that he considered talking about them (petakatha) to be an unbecoming and unskillful type of speech (D.I,8).

The picture shows hungry spirits as imagined by a late medieval Japanese artist. The swollen belly and small neck or mouth suggesting that the amount of sustenance consumed can never satisfy the hunger, is common to the conception of hungry spirits in all Buddhist traditions.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Czech GQGA

For three days from the 29th April, I hosted Dalibor Pavlik, a Buddhist from the Czech Republic. Dalibor has arranged to have my small book Good Question Good Answer translated into Czech and published in Prague. This means that this book is now available in 26 languages. The book is available from Obcanske sdruzeni SATI Pardubice which can be contacted at dharma.zdharma@gmail.com