Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Burmese Art At The Museum

Recently I went to see the newest exhibition at the Museum of Asian Civilizations, ‘Cities and Kings, Ancient Treasures from Myanmar’.  The exhibition is only a small one, giving the visitor a rather hurried tour of Burmese art, mainly religious, from the Bagan period to the 19th century. Nonetheless, most pieces are exceptional and demonstrate the refinement of Burmese civilization. After seeing the exhibition I had a look at some of the museum’s recent acquisitions, including several pieces of Buddhist sculpture from Mathura, Gandhara and China. The exhibition is on until the 5th of Match 2017


Thursday, December 29, 2016

My 2016

This year had not been a particularly busy one for me.  It did however, mark two significant landmarks in my life; I turned 65 in October and I celebrated 40 years of being a monk. I made two overseas trips in the last twelve months. Together with a group of friends I visited northern Queensland  and when they returned after a week I stayed behind for another two weeks.  I spent July/August in France visiting family. While there my brother and I visited St. Nazaire where the famous commando raid took place during the Second World War. Over the last decade I have become increasingly interested in the history of WWII, perhaps an unusual interest for a monk. Our society had several prominent visitors this year. Bhante Dhammaswami from Oxford was holed up in Singapore with a broken leg, having fallen down in the Botanical Gardens. Bob Isaacson from Dharma Voice for Animals in the US paid us a visit, and Ven. Anoma stayed with us for a month. My Dhamma work received some recognition this year with the publication of Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia published by the University of Hawaii Press which includes a paper  about me by Meng Tat Chai. Other than this my year has generally been quiet. Only one new book came out, A Pilgrim’s Guide to Borobudur was published in Jakarta in English and Indonesian. I contributed an essay for the beautiful new coffee-table Sri Lanka: The Heritage of Water which was published in Colombo just last month. I also finished  my new book, A Banquet for the Buddha: Food and Drink in Early Historical India  although it will not be published until sometime next  year. I decided to cut my speaking engagements, only accepting several invitations  to organizations that have been supportive of our society over the years. Next year I plan to withdraw much more from public engagements so I can focus on writing and meditation. 
I hope all my readers will have a happy, safe and fruitful New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Encyclopaedia Of Buddhism II

Looking at the Sri Lankan Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (SLEB) and all the more recent ones it’s immediately clear what the problem is. They cover all schools of Buddhism, Buddhist art, history, biographies, odd bits-and-pieces, as well as the actual Dhamma. All religions are diverse but Buddhism particularly so. The result is that trying to fit all this info into several volumes, let alone in one, in encyclopaedic detail, requires that most articles have to be kept small; in other words, they cannot be encyclopaedic. And that’s what we see in all the recent encyclopaedias. The solution? Well, as far as the Pali tradition goes, this is what I would like to see.   There should be an encyclopaedia which covers the Dhamma as presented in the Pali Tipitaka, and this would require at least three or four volumes. The translation of all Pali terms should be standardised, and where not, the reason for it explained. Articles on doctrine should be details, comprehensive and cross-referenced with other articles. Only a few articles should deal with the cultural and historical aspects of Buddhism; e.g. perhaps an article each on the history of Buddhism in Burma,  Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc. and perhaps several brief ones on the likes of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, etc.  The results of trying to fit everything in can be seen in the SLEB.  The article on ‘Love’ is just over six pages, the article on ‘Metta’ just over four pages, while the article on Mahathupa (a stupa in Anarudhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka) takes up 17 pages. This sort of emphasis on Sri Lankan history to the detriment of important aspects of Dhamma was absent in the first several volumes SLEB but is  painfully obvious in the recent ones. Quite frankly, Thai amulet superstitions, Sri Lankan healing rituals, Burmese nat worship, and the like,  would be more appropriate in a book on anthropology. Another thing that should be kept to a minimum is what might be called scholastic equivocation. Peter Harvey’s otherwise excellent An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics  is marred by this sort of thing. On  alcohol, meat-eating, violence, homosexuality, and numerous other issues, it’s all “The Dalai Lama says this”, “The American meditation teacher ABC says that”, “According to the Tibetan understanding…”, “In the Tantric tradition…” and so it proceeds so in the end we have no idea what Buddhist ethics teach.  Again we have the problem of trying to fit everything in, and in this case, even opinions.  The Dhamma as presented in the Pali Tipitaka is pretty clear on most doctrinal and ethical issues. Where this is not the case it is usually possible to detect historical development. For example, most of the suttas in the Majjhima are earlier than the Vimanavatthu and the Petavatthu and this should be acknowledged and explained. An encyclopaedia such as this would be of enormous help to the present and future generations of Western Buddhists trying to absorb the essence of the Dhamma. There are now enough scholars, including several outstanding ones in Sri Lanka, who would be capable of undertaking a project such as this.  
A few days ago I was  somewhat carried away in a daydream (I admit to sometimes doing this). I fantasised that I had won a lottery prize of $50 million, used the money to set up a foundation to produce an encyclopaedia, and that the first volume had just come off the press. Then the phone rung and I was abruptly brought back to reality. But one is allowed to dream sometimes isn’t one? 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Encyclopaedias of Buddhism I

The Jews started their  first one in 1900  and this was joined by the Encyclopaedia Talmudit in 1942.  The    majesterial  26 volume Encyclopaedia Judaica came out in 1972. The Catholic Encyclopaedia saw the light of day in 1907. The Encyclopaedia of Islam was first published in 1913 and in 2005 the  six volume Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an was published. Brill’s Encyclopaedia Islamica, a translation of the magnificent Dā'erat-ol-Ma'āref-e Bozorg-e Eslāmi, is on-going and is projected to take up 16 volumes when finished.  And of course the recent Encyclopaedia of Islamic Law in  three volumes, and the huge Encyclopaedia of Hadith must not be forgotten. There is even an   Encyclopaedia of Hadith Forgeries! The 11 volume Encyclopaedia of Hinduism  has just been published. As with most things, the Christians are ahead of the game. For reasons of space I can  mention only a few of their  encyclopaedias. The Encyclopaedia Biblica  was published in 1899, although I think there were several similar works before this. The Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties, Baker Encyclopaedia of Christian Apologetics, The Encyclopaedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, A Concise Encyclopaedia of Christianity in India, The World Christian Encyclopaedia, The Encyclopaedia of Christian Civilization,   The  Encyclopaedia of Christian Theology (3 vols.), The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Reformation (4 vols.), The Oxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity (2 vols.),  The Oxford Encyclopaedia  of the Bible and the Arts, and  The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopaedia (12 vols.). Everything you could possibly  want to know  about every aspect of the faith. Even a  small sect like the Mormons (4 million members?) has  its  four volume Encyclopaedia of Mormonism (1992).
Now we turn to Buddhism. In the early 1950s as the Buddhist world geared up for the Buddha Jayanti the government of Ceylon undertook to publish an Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, an idea that was first broached, I think, by G. P. Malalasekera. Unusually for traditional Buddhists, a great deal of careful thought went into the project. Specialists in Buddhism from around the world were invited to participate and included big names such as I. B Horner, Giuseppe Tucci, B. C. Law. P. V. Bapat, N. Dutt, Helmut von Glasenapp, and even the likes of Lama Govinda and Christmas Humpherys.  The Ceylon government purchased at considerable expense a fine quality acid-free paper for the volumes and made generous contributions to the project.  After careful consideration it was decided that the whole project would need 15000 pages  and take 10 years to complete. In 1965 the first volume was complete and proved to be a tour de force. But a perceptive observer  might have noticed a problem; that of  the project being over-ambitious. It covered the doctrines of all schools, history, art, literature, indeed just about everything related to Buddhism. It was clear that even every book in the Tibetan Tipitaka was going to have a separate entry. How on earth was all this going to be fitted into  15,000 pages?  Then there was the problem of being associated  with the Ceylon/Sri Lankan government. Political appointments to the editorial staff, cutback of funding, and a general slowness started to take its toll. By volume IV (1979-1987) the project was in serious trouble. This is reflected by the quality of the articles, although some are still excellent, the cutback in the number of articles, the cheap paper, the different font from the earlier volumes and the different size of each volume. Put all the volumes on a shelf and they are all of a different size. And  now  the output has slowed to a crawl. Recently I asked a former staff member when the final volume was expected to come out; he smiled and said: “When the next world-system starts to re-evolve.”  
Of course with the slow decline of the Sri Lankan Encyclopaedia other attempts have sprung to life. Apart from small efforts on individual Buddhist schools (e.g. An Encyclopaedia of Korean Buddhism and The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Zen Buddhism) we have the new Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Buddhism which is  planned to be in seven volumes and looks promising, the  Edward Irons Encyclopaedia of Buddhism,  the Thomas Gale Encyclopaedia of Buddhism  edited by Robert E. Buswell and Encyclopaedia of Buddhism edited by Damien Keown and Charles Prebish (only 857 pages of entries).  These last  three efforts cover the subjects in no more detail than does The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. As if to reinforce the perception of Buddhism being disengaged none of them have an entry on marriage or quite a few other subjects relevant to 99% percent of Buddhists or those wanting to know more about Buddhism.       
I will say more in this subject in my next post.