Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dong Duong

Dong Duong is a large town in central Vietnam some 53 k from Da Nang. In ancient times it was called Indrapura and was the capital of the Chams. Towards the end of the 9th century the then Cham king Jaya Indraverman built a temple in Dong Duong that was to be one of the most magnificent ever built in S E. Asia. The temple was completed and consecrated in 875. It consisted of three complexes within a large walled compound – a pillared hall, a mandapa, and western-most shrine, the whole being 1,300 long and 155 m wide. The hall contained a superb 1.19 m high bronze standing statue, either made in Sri Lanka or made in the Sri Lankan Anuradhapura style.
At the west end of the hall was a huge stone Buddha image in the so-called European manner, its elaborate pedestal depicting events in the life of the Buddha.

The western-most shrine housed a statue of Avalokitesvara but this has not survived. This shrine had two dine door guardians (dvarapala) it its main entrance.
The great French archaeologist Henri Parmentier excavated Dong Duong in the 1920s and fortunately moved most of its sculpture to the museum. I say fortunately because in the late 60s the Americans bombed the temple leaving only the foundations. In 1978 a farmer discovered a beautiful statue of Tara in a field adjacent the temple site. It and all the other sculptures can be seen today in the museum at Da Nang.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Sacred Fire

Most of the rituals of Brahmanism, the main religion at the time of the Buddha, centered on fire (aggi). Agni, the god of fire, also sometimes called Jatadeva (Ja.I,286; IV,51), is invoked in the Rg Veda more than any of the other deity. The Vedic sacrifice consisted of three fires, the ahavaniya, the garhapatya and the daksinagni. There were also the three fires of the household, the primary one being the birth fire (jataggi, Ja.II,43) which was ignited when a person was born and from which their funeral pyre was ignited when they died. It was essential that these fires be kept burning throughout a person’s life. Walking seven times (saptipadi) around the nuptial fire, also lit from the birth fire, sealed the marriage. Apart from these sacred fires, brahmans who renounced the world to become ascetics worshipped Agni by tended a sacred fire in the jungle. This fire was likewise ignited by the birth fire (Ja.I,494).
It seems that the Buddha chose to itemize three main mental defilements (greed, lobha; hatred, dosa; and ignorance, moha) and call them fires, to parallel and contrast with the sacred fires of Brahmanism (Vin.I,35). Brahmanism required that the three fires be tended and kept burning, the Buddha taught that one attained enlightenment by abandoning the three fires and extinguishing them. Of the several names he gave to the state of complete liberation the most common was Nirvana, meaning ‘to blow out’, i.e. to blow out the burning mental defilements. The Buddha commented that a monk will not make offerings to the sacred fire (aggihoma, D.I,9) and in the Dhammapada he said; “If one were to attend the sacred fire for a hundred years in the forest or were to honour even for a moment one who had developed himself, that honour would be better than the hundred years of sacrifice” (Dhp.107).
The early Buddhists considered fire worship to be as foolish and ineffective and several stories in the Jataka pokes fun at it (e.g. Ja.II,43-40; VI,206-7). In one of these, an ascetic decided to offer an ox he had been given to Agni. Not having salt for the meat he went off to get it, tethering the animal near the sacred fire before going. While he was away a band of robbers came to his hermitage, slaughtered the ox, cooked the meat, eat their fill, and left nothing but the hide, tail and bones. When the ascetic returned and saw what had happened he said; “If Jatadeva the cannot protect what is his how can he protect me?” He dumped what was left of the ox into the sacred fire and then threw a bucket of water over it (Ja.I,494).
After the 7th century CE the fire ritual was one of many Brahmanical practices incorporated into Vajrayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism it is called sbyin-sreg and in Japanese Shingon Buddhism goma.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Year Of The Dragon

XIN NIAN JIN BU to all my readers and friends

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Snakes And Ladders

I have always liked the Jains. During my travels throughout India every Jain I have met without exception has been respectful, helpful and generous. When I visited Palitana in Gujarat the only problem was that they wouldn’t let me leave, so intent were they on offering me their hospitality. Now that I have discovered that the Jains invented Snakes and Ladders I like them even more. As a child, my older sister and I and the kids next door used to play this game all the time. I can still remember the snake’s head in the square Pride and its tail in the square Fall. Tradition says that the Jain saint Gaydev invented Snakes and Ladders in the 13th century to teach children the cardinal virtues. This story is perfectly plausible. Anyone who has ever stayed with Jain monks will know how diligently and creatively they minister to the lay community. The great Indiologist A. L. Basham thought that one of the reasons why Buddhism disappeared in India and Jainism didn’t was because of the attentiveness of the Jain monks towards the laity. It’s an interesting theory. The Jains call Snakes and Ladders Moksha Patamu, Liberation and Decline, which would be Mokkha Patana in Pali. I wonder if the Buddhists of ancient Gujarat played Snakes and Ladders too. The most ancient version of the game have 72 squares and the virtues are faith, reliability, generosity knowledge and simplicity. The vices are disobedience, vanity, rudeness, theft, dishonesty, drunkenness, debt, killing, anger, greed, pride and lust. The last square on the top left is Nirvana. What a delightful and fun way to teach children basic goodness! I suspect that young kids today would be bored stiff by Snakes and Ladders. It wouldn’t have a chance against video games. But to me the game brings back fond memories of a more simple and innocent time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fighting The AIDS Stigma

As she sees her daughter return home after school, 31 year-old Nha beams with pride and love for the little girl. Eight year-old Thuy gives a mischievous smile to her mother and swiftly gets on her lap to cuddle. “It is only when Thuy turned four years old that we found out she was also HIV positive. She had always tested negative. The news came as a shock. I love my daughter so much. I felt worried and depressed. I was starting losing hope in the future”, Nha recalls. Thuy is now studying in grade 3. “I like going to school a lot”, she smiles. “I have friends and I am learning many things every day.” At her school, nobody is aware of her HIV status. “Thuy looks very healthy. She is tall and strong. When she was younger, she often got sick”, Nha says. “I have friends who decided to be open about the fact that their child was HIV-positive. When parents of other students came to know it, they refused to let the child come back to school. This is how bad it can get. I do not want my daughter to suffer. So I just keep quiet”. Thuy and Nha undergo regular health check-ups at the nearby hospital. Every month, Thuy, Nha and Nha’s second husband, Anh, receive free anti-retroviral treatment. Nha’s first husband died of AIDS in 2002. “He was working in construction and traveling a lot. He probably contracted the disease through unsafe sex with a sex worker”, Nha says. It is around that time that she found out about her own HIV status. “I cried a lot when the doctor told me I was HIV positive. It’s a long time ago now, but I will remember it forever”, Nha remembers. “I did not know what the disease was about, so the doctor explained what it meant. I felt desperate”. Nha’s current husband is a drug user. He works on and off as a motorbike taxi driver, but their two meager salaries are not enough to make ends meet. He most likely contracted the AIDS virus through injecting with shared needles. “Life is not easy. I am doing domestic chores to earn a living’, adds Nha. A few years ago, friends of Nha introduced her to Phap Van pagoda. There she met Monk Huan and his team of monks and volunteers providing support and care to HIV-affected children and families.

“They not only gave me food, they also gave me tremendous emotional and psychological support. There, I was also able to meet with people who had a similar story. I realized I was not alone. I really helped move forward. I have also learnt how to communicate with my community and protect my family.” At the pagoda, Monk Huan, its chief monk, organizes Buddhist teachings twice a week. “Through these sessions, we aim to reduce stigma around HIV and we share information on HIV: how it is transmitted, how to protect oneself. Over 2,000 children and young people have attended these sessions in the past two years”, he says. In addition to these sessions, a team of volunteers trained by the monks undertakes monthly visits to approximately 40 families in the neighbourhood. Approximately 220,000 adults and children are infected with HIV in Viet Nam. In a country where over 80 per cent of the population is Buddhist, Buddhist monks are extremely respected and highly influential. The Buddhist Leadership Initiative was established by UNICEF Viet Nam in 2003. Through the initiative, UNICEF works closely with the government and international partners to train monks to support the special needs of people affected by HIV and to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS in communities. “Buddhist monks are a key elements in our strategy to decrease stigma and discrimination against families living with HIV/AIDS,” says UNICEF Viet Nam’s HIV and AIDS specialist, Yasuda Tadashi. “I receive great spiritual support from the pagoda”, says Nha. “They are an inspiration for me. I have also made many friends at the pagoda. This makes me hope for a bright future, especially for my daughter. I want her dream to come true: she wants to become a teacher.” UNICEF is currently providing support for implementation of the Buddhist Leadership Initiative model in seven pagodas in its two main urban centres (three in Ha Noi and four in HCMC).
By Sandra Bisin from UNICEF wed site

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Do Prof. Hawking And Zulus Have In Common?

On his 70th birthday Prof. Stephen Hawking has announced that the universe can be explained by science and that there is no room in this explanation for a supreme being. On course you wouldn’t have to be one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century to have come to this conclusion. Some far less well-educated people worked this out for themselves long ago and were highly sceptical of the claims of those who do believe in a god. Take the Zulus who the Reverend Francis Owen tried to evangelize in the 1830s. I quote the good reverend’s own words as reproduced in Eric Newby’s delightful A Book of Travellers’ Tales.

“At length I told him (the king) it was Sunday, whereupon he bid me to address his people and teach them the word of God. At the same time he sent Masipulu, his head servant to tell the Indoonas that they were all to be quiet and listen attentively to me. A dead pause immediately ensued…I commenced by telling them that they all knew that there was a great chief above the sky…I proceeded to say that this king was greater than all kings, greater than my king, greater than their king: that they aught to fear their parents, they aught to fear their king, but much more that they aught to fear the great God; they aught to do what their parents bid them, what their king bid them, and also what God bid them! We have none of us, however, done what God has told us to do. We are all sinners before him. He is displeased at us: each of us has a soul that must live forever when the body is dead, but that our Souls, by reason of sin, are filthy and that they must be washed.

Until this moment the greatest stillness and attention prevailed but now the contradiction began, and such a caviling and stormy audience never did I before address. It is impossible to give an adequate idea of the despite which lasted for nearly 2 hours. When I began to speak of the need of spiritual washing in order to introduce the Gospel the subject was treated with scorn. One asked if it were to be washed in the river. I said not with water, but with blood! Whose blood was the natural reply. The blood, I answered, of the Son of God, who was Jesus Christ. Where is he? They asked. In heaven, I said, but once he came down to earth, and…whom did he leave behind to wash us. He washes us himself with his own blood. It is not our bodies that he washes but our Souls. – He washes all who come to him by faith. Away, it’s all a lie. I persisted in crying that Jesus Christ shed his blood and that if they believed in him, that he came down from heaven that he died for them their souls would be saved. They asked me how this person was killed and who killed him. I said, wicked men nailed him to a tree. Dingarn then asked if it was God that died. I said the Son of God. Did not God die?, he asked. I said God cannot die. If God does not die, he replied, why has he said that people must die? I told him it was because all people were sinners, and death was the punishment for sin, but he would raise us all again from the grave. This gave rise to innumerable cavils.

They wanted me to tell them the day and the hour when we should rise again, who would be witnesses of the resurrection, who would be alive at that day. They said if any generation had been seen to raise from the grave they would believe. I told them that Jesus Christ rose again on the third day, and that he was seen by his 12 servants, and afterwards by 500 persons at once, and that his servants raised a great many other people. Dingarn asked how many days Jesus Christ had been dead. If only 3 days, he said, it is very likely that he was not dead in reality but only supposed to be so! I said, that when he was on the tree a soldier pierced his side from which came forth blood, and that blood, I said, if believed in washes away sin. After a great deal more combat they told me I need not speak anything more about the resurrection, for they would not believe it. They had no objection to God’s word, but they would not believe in the resurrection. I many times broke away from their caviling and exhorted them to believe instead of objecting. The king once asked if all men would go to heaven? I told him plainly, if you believe the words which I now speak you will go to heaven, but if you believe them not you will go to hell. They wanted me to give them proof that Christ was not in heaven; as who had seen him there. What the persons who took him up into heaven said when they came back again.” Condensed.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wolves In Sheep's Clothing

The cautionary advice “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” is a colourful and well-known one but where does it come from? It is usually thought of as having its origin in the Bible and the English phrase certainly does. Matthew 7:15 in the King James Version reads; “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” But if we go back further, at least five hundred years before the New Testament, we have a story about a wolf disguising itself in a fleece in the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop. The best-known version of Aesop’s Fables is George Townsend’s translation published in 1867. Townsend gives the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing fable like this. “Once upon a time a wolf resolved to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Encased in the skin of a sheep, he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day, mistakenly caught up the wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.” However, at about the same time as Aesop but far away from both Greece and Palestine there is another mention of a wicked wolf disguising itself as a sheep. In the Mahabodhi Jataka (No. 528) we find these two verses;

Once a wolf in the form of a ram
Went confidently amongst a flock of goats
Killing rams and goats,
And having terrified them he went on his way.
Similarly, some monks and brahmins disguise themselves
And deceive people by fasting, lying on the ground,
Covered with dirt, squatting, begging and holding their breaths.
They claim to be enlightened while actually doing evil.

In this version of the idea the wolf is described as being ‘in the form of a ram’ (urabbharupena) and his victims are a flock of goats and sheep. That he has covered himself with a skin to fool the flock is suggested by the word ‘disguise’ (chadana). Unlike Aesop’s story but similar to the Bible simile, these Jataka verses equate the wolf with religious frauds. In the Bible they are ‘false prophets’ while in the Jataka they are ascetics who use austerities to give the impression of holiness.

Interestingly, both Aesop and the Jataka share another story about one animal disguised in the skin of another. In Aesop an ass puts on a lion skin and amuses itself by frightening other animals who think it is a lion. Eventually it encounters a fox who fails to be deceived because he recognizes the ass’s voice. In the Sihacamma Jataka (No. 189) a peddler is in the habit of throwing a lion skin over his donkey and letting it graze in the rice or barley fields while he is doing business in the village, the field-watchers being too frightened to scare the ‘lion’ away. One day the donkey brays, the field-watchers realize the deception, and club the donkey to death. Both stories are similar in that their key character is an ass in Aesop and a donkey (gadrabha) in the Jataka, that it wears a lion skin, and that it is its voice that gives the game away. Aesop’s ass takes the initiative to disguise itself while the Jataka’s donkey is an innocent victim of its owner’s craftiness.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My 2011

I had a busy but fruitful 2011 and would like to share some images of it with you. I visited and was visited by many old friends and made the acquaintance with many new ones. Ven. Dhammajiva, former abbot of the Meetrigala Medatation Hermitage came and stayed with me as did Ven Sanghasena from Ladakh and Ven. Mahinda, former lecturer in archaeology at Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. I met Ven. Tashi Phuntsok abbot of Dilyak Monastery in Nepal and the two lovely, smiling Burmese nuns Sayalay Karuna and Yasanandi. The Sri Lankan nun Sister Bodhicitta dropped in for a visit and while in Kuala Lumpur lecturing at the Annual Noviciate Program I renewed my acquaintance with Ven. Piyananda of LA and Ven. Dr. Punnaji. Thubten Chodron and I did a large seminar together and I visited Indonesia twice giving talks to large groups in several cities in the country. Ven. Dhammaratana and Ven. Sudhamma joined the members and friends of the BDMS in helping me celebrate my 60th birthday. I am now officially ‘old’. In November I received news that my mum was critically ill and likely to die so I rushed back to Australia to be with her. As it is she recovered but she remains frail and ailing. I spent the first five months of 2011 in Paris, London and Oxford doing research for my Dictionary of Flora and Fauna in the Pali Tipitaka, a project which seems to be endless. While there I stayed at and gave talks at the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre in London and the Oxford Buddhist Vihara, guest of the ever-generous and kindly Bhante Piyadassi and Ven. Dhammasami. In December I was a guest at the exhibition by a well-known Mainland Chinese painter who very kindly painted a picture for me.
I wish all my readers a Happy, Peaceful and Dhamma-inspired New Year.