Monday, June 30, 2008

The Buddha Didn't Go To Heaven

Sankassa (Sanskrit Sankasya) was a town on the western edge of the Middle Land. Legend says the Buddha descended from the Tavtimsa heaven at this place after spending three months teaching abhidhamma to his mother, who had been reborn their after her death. Supposedly three ladders appeared in the sky - a golden one on the right for the god Sakka, a silver one on the left for Brahma and a jeweled one in the middle for the Buddha. Some versions of the legend say that Brahma held an umbrella over the Buddha as he descended from heaven to earth.
It is hardly surprising that the so-called miracle at Sankassa is not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka. The place itself is only referred twice in the scriptures and the Buddha only visited it once, passing through it while on his way to somewhere else (Vin.II,299; III,11). Apart from being incredible in itself, the Sankassa legend contradicts that Buddha’s prohibition against the public display of psychic powers or miraculous abilities (Vin.II,110-111). There is also no mention in the scriptures of the Buddha mysteriously disappearing from the scene for three months. The Sankassa legend’s association with the abhidhamma is a key to its origin and rational.
The abhidhamma is conspicuous by its absence from the Buddha’s discourses. It is not mentioned as one of the nine branches of the Buddha’s teachings (navanga, A.II,103) and the account of the first council describes the recitation of the monastic rules, vinaya, and the discourses, suttas, but not of the abhidhamma (Vin.II,285). As the abhidhamma developed in the centuries after the Buddha’s passing and the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka were gradually composed, pressure grew to have them considered canonical and included in the Tipitaka. When this happened, an explanation of their origin was needed and thus the legend of the Buddha going to heaven to teach the Abhidhamma Pitaka was created. Interestingly, this legend is not even mentioned in the Abhidhamma Pitaka itself but only in the much later commentaries. This suggests that it was considered just a ‘popular’ legend at the time the Abhidhamma Pitaka became canonical and only became ‘official’ later. King Asoka raised a great stone pillar at Sankassa, parts of which can still be seen there. There is however, no evidence that this pillar was raised to commemorate the legend, which had probably not come into existence at that time. The earliest evidence of the Sankassa legend is a sculptural depiction of it from Sanchi which dates from about the 1st century BCE. The picture opposite is of me and Viraj in front of Asoka’s pillar capital at Sankissa.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Butcher's Day Off

While the early Buddhists considered killing for any reason to be wrong they also recognized that many people did not agree with them, that some people might want to kill a chicken to have for lunch and that other people enjoyed hunting. Not wanting to impose their values on others while at the same time hoping to create a more humane society, the custom developed in India to have what were called non-killing days (maghata, Vin.I,217) when no criminals were executed, no animals were slaughtered and no hunting was allowed. Such days were usually announced by the beat of a drum (Ja.IV,115). In 243 BCE King Asoka issued an edict banning the killing, castrating or branding of animals on certain days of every month. The custom of observing non-killing days survived even up to the Muslim period. In his Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri the emperor Jahangir (reigned 1605-27) wrote; ‘I ordered that each year from the 18th of Rabiu-l-awal which is my birthday, for the number of days corresponding to the years of my life, that people should not slaughter animals for food.’

If you hang round just a bit longer you will be able to read, from the 1st of July onwards, a detailed examination of the question of vegetarianism and Buddhism.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Praying In America

I mean, America really is different. It’s the land where everyone has a gun, where they have drive-in funeral parlors, where 64% of collage students can’t locate Washington DC on a map, where you can sue your dry-cleaner for $10 million for delaying the delivery of your suit and where, alone amongst industrial nations, nearly everyone believes in God. Or do they? The results of one of the most extensive survey ever conducted on the subject and just published in USA Today, show that the picture is not as simple as that. The overwhelming majority of Americans call themselves Christians and say they adhere to Bible teachings but facts show that this is far from true. Americans will argue vehemently for the truth of some Bible teachings but studiously ignore other bits they don’t like or which don’t suit them. The porn industry in this Christian nation rakes in $4.5 billion a year and as Larry Flint pointed out ‘Hell! Someone must be buying all that smut.’ A survey conducted a decade ago showed that 91% of Americans believed in God but that 39% of these also believed in astrology. It seems that the main difference between Americans and the rest of the industrialized world is that they think of themselves as Christian and yet do whatever they want while Europeans, Canadians, Australians, etc don’t think of themselves as Christians and do whatever they want. In this sense American religiosity is more like Buddhism in its traditional homeland – everyone thinks of themselves as practicing the Dhamma while in fact it only has an effect on limited areas of their lives. Read the report as and see what you think.

Religion today in the USA is a salad bar where people heap on upbeat beliefs they like and often leave the veggies - like strict doctrines - behind. There are so many ways of seeing God, public policy expert Barry Kosmin says, that "the highest authority is now the lowest common denominator." Such are the key findings in latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,000 Americans. Pew released demographic data in February from the survey, conducted May through August 2007. This new installment focuses on 60 questions about participants' religious beliefs and social and political views. The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study's authors say there's a "stunning" lack of alignment between people's beliefs or practices and their professed faiths. Likewise, the long-standing links between highly religious people, conservative ideology and the Republican Party are starting to fray, says a co-author of the study, John Green, a Pew Forum senior research fellow. "There are votes to be had for both Democrat and Republican candidates," Green says. "Evangelical Protestants' votes may be more in flux than in 2004…more open to persuasion." The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.6 percentage points for overall findings. The margin is a bit larger for subgroups such as "evangelicals" (26.3% of adults, who share strict ideas on salvation and common historic origins), mainline Protestants (18.1%, who share "a less exclusionary view of salvation and a strong emphasis on social reform") and historically black churches (6.9%, "shaped by experiences of slavery and segregation"). Among the highlights:
• 78% overall say there are "absolute standards of right and wrong," but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to "practical experience and common sense," with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.
• 74% say "there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," but far fewer (59%) say there's a "hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."
• 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say "many religions can lead to eternal life."

• 68% say "there's more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion."

• 44% want to preserve their religion's traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either "adjust to new circumstances" or "adopt modern beliefs and practices."

• 50% say "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society," but the most consistently traditional religious groups say society should discourage it — 76% of Jehovah's Witnesses, 68% of Mormons, 61% of Muslims and 64% of evangelicals.

• 51% have a certain belief in a personal God, but 27% are less certain of this, 14% call God "an impersonal force," and 5% reject any kind of God. "People say 'God,' and no one knows who they mean," says Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

• 14% of all surveyed, including 28% of evangelicals, say religion is the "main influence in their political thinking."

Many who label themselves "conservative" also turn up in agreement with liberals and moderates on issues such as the environment, the economy and the role of government. "Politics doesn't occur in a vacuum," says Green, pointing out a tendency by broadcast and print journalists to "focus on the most outspoken believers, who often tend to be the most conservative" and miss the tilt toward middle ground. Church attendance is the best predictor of political activity - whether people vote - but beliefs predict how they vote, he says. Pew Forum director Luis Lugo attributes the decline of dogmatism to living in a pluralistic society, in which friends, co-workers, even family members come from myriad faiths. The survey found 37% of couples with children were married to or living with someone from another religion or faith tradition, bringing diversity "right down to the kitchen table," Lugo says. "Americans believe in everything. It's a spiritual salad bar," says Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay. Rather than religious leaders setting the cultural agenda, today, it's Oprah Winfrey, he says. "After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the national memorial service was at Washington's National Cathedral, conducted by Episcopal clergy. After the 9/11 attack, Oprah organized the official memorial service at Yankee Stadium, and while clergy participated, she was the master of ceremonies. "The impact of Oprah is seen throughout this survey. She uses the language of Bible and Christian traditions and yet includes other traditions to create a hodgepodge personalized faith. Exclusivism (one religion has the absolute and exclusive truth) has gotten a bad name in America today," he says. Political science professor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for American and Public Life at Boston University, says many people, despite their religious claims, "have no command of theology, doctrine or history, so it's an empty religiosity." Still, he finds "a very forgiving quality" to this non-sectarian, no-mention-of-sin view. "No one wants to think their spouse, friends or co-workers are mad or bad." Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, like Lugo, attributes the shifts to long-term changes in family with rising divorce, increased cohabitation, smaller families and steady increases in religiously mixed marriages. "Don't look at the church, look at home," he says. Among couples (married or living together) with children, 63% say they read the Bible or pray with their children, and 60% say they send kids for religious education. The numbers drop significantly for the 37% in religiously mixed marriages: 48% say they pray or read Scripture with their children, and 44% say they send their children for religious education, says Greg Smith, a Pew research fellow and co-author of the survey. Adults under 30 are further from strict religious adherence than their parents. Although other studies show they cycle back to religion at key moments such as marriage or rearing children, those spirals are getting smaller and smaller, says Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at the University of Chicago, which has measured religion and society for decades through the General Social Survey. "Every religious group has a major challenge on its hands from all directions," says Lugo. When he factors in Pew's February findings that 44% of adults say they've switched to another religion or none at all, Lugo says, "You have to wonder: How do you guarantee the integrity of a religious tradition when so many people are coming or going or following ideas that don't match up?" Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sees in the numbers that Catholics, like everyone else, are shaped by an individualistic culture where "people are trained to trust only their own spiritual experience" rather than in the historic message of the church. "Religion is about conversion, self-surrender as opposed to self-righteousness," he says. "That's hard in any culture but particularly in our own." The Rev. Frank Page of Taylors, S.C., past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, is not surprised by the Pew findings. "The number (of churches that) teach a clear doctrinal Christianity are a minority today. How would people know it when they never hear about how to be saved?" Still, Page is undaunted. "Jesus predicted all this," he says, quoting from the Bible (Matthew 15:8): "People honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me" "We still work as hard as we can to share the good news," he says, "even though we know most will reject the way."

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Meeting In Tibet, 1950

I have seen this picture many times before but quite by chance I found it on the internet the other day. The photo appears in Heinrich Harrer’s famous book Seven Years In Tibet, in the first English edition on the front cover and as the frontispiece in subsequent editions. Harrer said that he considered it the best photo he ever took in Tibet. The picture was taken in the far south of Tibet in a monastery near from the Indian border in either late 1950 or early 1951. The Chinese had invaded the country, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government waited to see what would happen and finally they decided to flee. The Dalai Lama and his retinue went to the far south so they could negotiate with the Chinese and, if necessary, slip across the border into India. Little news leaked out of Tibet and million around the world listened to their radios for news of the fate of the young ‘god king.’ For Nehru, it was his first major foreign policy quandary but in the end he issued a statement saying that he hoped Tibet and China could settle their differences peacefully. Tibet’s monastic hierarchy was starting to see the disastrous consequences of their policy of total isolation and were in panic and the prayers to Tara didn't seem to be working. One person in India hit on an idea that he thought might help the situation. Just before Independence, the British government had returned to India the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana which had been sitting in a box at the V&A since the middle of the 19th century. Venerable Mativalla Sangharatana of the Mahabodhi Society of India asked Nehru if the Indian Government would allow a delegation from the MBSI to go to Tibet and show the sacred relics to the Dalai Lama – both as a blessing to him and to let him know, in an oblique way, that people outside Tibet were aware of his plight. Nehru agreed. Without informing the Chinese government who, if they had known what was afoot, would have angrily protested about foreign national crossing into the ‘sacred Chinese motherland’ without permission, Ven. Sangharatana and his party set off. They flew to Gauhati and then took trucks, then horses and finally yaks through what is now Aranuchal Pradesh, crossed into Tibet and in three weeks arrived at the monastery where the Dalai Lama and his government were staying. On the far left of the picture is a Sri Lankan monk wearing glasses and with his hands clasped in front of him. This is Ven. Sangharatna. The Dalai Lama holds the casket containing the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana which has just been handed to him by Ven. Sangharatna.
I first met Ven. Sangharatna in (if I remember correctly) in 1975 and a year later I became a samanera under him in his monastery at Sahet Mahet (the ancient Savatthi). Once I asked him about his adventures in Tibet and he told me the full story. He also had some very interesting photos he had taken while there but I think these are now all lost. He mentioned how amazed he was by the utter barrenness of the Tibetan landscape and how awed he was by the Dalai Lama’s presence and the gorgeous and elaborate protocol surrounding him. One thing he said that stays in my mind because the expression on his face when he said it was this. Thousands of people from all over southern Tibet had come to see their king; he never having been there before and many of them probably never having been to Lhasa. When the Dalai Lama appeared to the throng, he said, huge monks with yak hide whips prowled through the crowds lashing anyone who dared lift their eyes to see the sacred presence. Ven. Sangharatna was not a particularly sentimental person and he had very little time for what he considered ‘humbug’ – rituals, miracles, people claiming to be enlightened, etc. When I asked him what the Dalai Lama was like he was quiet for a few moments, he adjusted his glasses and then he said in a very soft voice, ‘The Buddha’. He paused for a moment and added ‘That’s it, he was just what I expect the Buddha was like.’

New Age

New age is a term that became current in the 1980’s to describe a nebulous, pseudo-religious set of beliefs that grew out of the Western counterculture of the 1960’s. The term alludes to the belief at that time that a new spiritual age, the so-called ‘Age of Aquarius,’ was about to dawn. Despite the fact that some Buddhist concepts and practises have been incorporated into new age spirituality, Buddhism and the new age movement have little in common.
A Buddhist can see serious problems with this movement. Its belief that a ‘new age’ was about to begin has been shown to be wrong. Tragically, there has been as much conflict, greed, hatred, hypocrisy and despair since this supposed new beginning as there was before it. New age is highly commercial and in this sense closely resembles the ‘old age’ that it claims to have superseded. A brief survey of new age fairs, shops, magazines and catalogues shows that everything on offer has a price to it, often an exorbitant one. New age has no core concepts or guiding ideals but is fad-driven. Certain beliefs or practises come into vogue (pyramids, crystals, Celtic fairies, shaman drumming, etc.) and are soon replaced by others. New age has a distinct narcissistic and ‘crank’ quality to it. People involved in new age often develop a preoccupation with their health and with diets, additives, quack medicines and treatments, etc. Perhaps more seriously, new age is also naively optimistic. It offers no solutions to the very real and serious problem of human suffering other than platitudes, wishful thinking and vague generalizations.
A Buddhist might say that the new age spirituality does little harm but little good either. One positive thing that can be said about the new age movement is this - it shows that despite the widespread rejection of conventional religion in the West, people continue to have a spiritual yearning. Hopefully, more people will look to the coherent, realistic and time-tested teachings of the Buddha to fulfil this need.
It's getting closer! Starting on July 1st and continuing for a week I intend to discuss the issue of meat eating and the Dhamma from every possible angle.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Don't Take Your Cloths Off

Nudity or nakedness is the state of being without clothes. Throughout history people have gone naked or nearly naked. Hunter-gatherer peoples in tropical regions have often been naked for practical reasons. Nudity has been practiced as a protest, as a punishment and even as something that promotes good health. In ancient India nudity was mainly practiced for religious reasons. The monks of the Jain and the Ajivakas sects went naked and the Ekasataka ascetics only wore a small cloth over their genitals. Nakedness together with tearing the hair out, never cutting the hair and nails, allowing the hair become matted and never washing, were all believed to show an admirable detachment from the world. The supposed spiritual value of nudity was summed up by the monk who said: ‘nudity is useful for desiring little, for contentment, for expunging evil, for scrupulousness, for carefulness, for lessening obstructions and for arousing energy’(Vin.I,305). Twice a month the lay disciples of the Ajivaka sect would go naked and sleep on the ground in imitation of their clergy, the idea being: ‘I have nothing anywhere and therefore for me there is no attachment to anything’ (A.I,206). As these lay people really gave up nothing and resumed their ordinary lives the next day, the Buddha considered that their ‘renunciation’ was nothing more than a bluff.
The Buddha made it a rule that monks should never go naked, even within their private quarters (Vin.II,121). He said: ‘Nakedness is unbecoming, unsuitable, improper, unworthy of an ascetic, not allowable and not to be done’ (Vin.I,305). He objected to it on two grounds. The first was because like all austerities or surface changes, nudity does not lead to significant inner change. He said: ‘Not nakedness nor matted hair, not mud nor fasting, not lying on the ground, being unwashed or squatting on the heels will purify one who has not passed beyond doubt’ (Dhp.141). He also objected to nudity because it contravened the norms of polite society for no good reason. Lady Visakha once saw some nuns bathing naked and commented: ‘Nakedness in women is ugly, abhorrent and objectionable’ (Vin.I,293) which seems to have been the general opinion at that time. The Buddha wanted his monks and nuns to abide by the normal standards of decorum and good manners, the better to be able to communicate the Dhamma to others. The Buddha was also anxious that his monks and nuns should be distinct from those of other sects, inwardly but also outwardly. Because many of these other ascetics were either completely or partly naked or wore whatever they liked, the Buddha stipulated that his ordained disciples should wear a distinct and easily identifiable robe. Today Jain monks and nuns and several sects of Hindu ascetics still practice nudity, the most well-known being the Naga Babas. Incidently, many people mistakenly think that the ‘Naga’ in the ‘Baba’ comes from naga (first a long) meaning ‘dragon,’ ‘awesome creature’ or ‘noble serpent.’ Actually it is from the Sanskrit nagna, Pali nagga, meaning ‘nude’ and is etymologically related to the Latin nudus.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Anatta And Rebirth

When some people learn that Buddhism teaches rebirth and also that there is no self (anatta), they find it difficult to understand how rebirth can take place: `If there is no self or soul,' they ask, `what passes from one life to the next?' This problem is more apparent than real. Firstly, the Buddha did not teach that there is no self as such - he taught that there is no permanent, unchanging, metaphysical self. In Buddhism, as in contemporary psychology, the self is understood as a constantly evolving cluster of impressions, memories, traits and dispositions. It is this 'self' that passes from one life to the next. Imagine three billiard balls in a line, each touching the other and a fourth billiard ball some distance from the three and aligned to them. Now imagine that a man hits the fourth ball with his cue and it speeds across the table and hits the first ball in the line. The moving ball will come to an immediate halt, the first and second balls will remain stationary while the third ball, the last in the row, will speed across the table and into the pocket. What has happened? The energy in the fourth ball has passed through the first and second balls in the row, into the third ball, activating it so that it moves across the table.
In a similar way, the mental energy that makes up what we can conveniently call the 'self' moves from one body to another. Indeed, the very thing that allows this energy to pass through a medium and animate another object is its changability (anicca). It is not this, but the idea that a soul or spirit can go from one location or dimension to another without changing that is difficult to explain.
From the 1st of July I intend to examine the issue of meat eating and vegetarianism in Buddhism. Hope you will tune in.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Blood On The Stone

The road north-east from Bodh Gaya to Patna passes through particularly beautiful country. There are lines of palm trees around the edges of the rice fields, ponds with pink water lilies growing in them and parts of the road are shaded by majestic mango trees. You drive passed creaking bullock carts, shabby villages and peasants toiling in their fields, scenes which have probably changed very little since the time of the Buddha. After about an hour and a half on the road a long wall of mountains looms up on the horizon in front of you. These mountains are often shrouded in haze but if the air is clear they appear rugged, steep and barren. Eventually you drive through a narrow pass and find yourself in the small town of Ragjir, one of the most ancient towns in India and a favorite resort of the Buddha.
In 1984 I spent a leisurely month in Rajgir, meditating and getting to know all the crags, grottos, ruins and springs around the town. One place that was on my list of 'must sees' was a stone referred to in several many ancient accounts of Rajgir. The Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien mentions seeing this stone at the beginning of the 4th century. He wrote "Leaving the old city and going north-east three li we arrive at the cave of Devadatta, fifty paces from with which is a large square black stone. In the past there was a monk who walked back and forwards on this stone meditating on the impermanence, suffering and vanity of the body. Realizing the truth and loathing himself he drew a knife to kill himself. But then he remembered that the Lord of the World had forbidden suicide. He thought further, 'Although this is so yet I am anxious to destroy greed, hatred and delusion.' So he took the knife and cut his throat. With the first gash he became a sotapana, as the knife moved further he became an anagami and as he finished he became an arahat." The stone which was splashed by the monk's blood and which Fa Hien saw was still being visited by pilgrims 200 years later when another Chinese pilgrim, the famous Hiuen Tsiang, saw it and wrote; "To the left of the northern gate of Giribajja (one of the ancient names of Rajgir) about two or three li to the east, on the north side of the southern cliff crag, we come to a cave in which Devadatta attained concentration. Not far to the east of this cave is a flat stone with spots like blood on it. By the side of this stone a stupa has been built. This is where a monk practicing meditation killed himself and attained arahatship. Formerly this monk diligently exerted himself and practiced meditation in seclusion. Months and years passed but still he did not attain the holy goal. Retiring to this spot and upbraiding himself he sighed, 'I despair at ever attaining arahatship. What is the use of this body, this source of impediment?' Having said this he sat on this stone and cut his throat. Immediately he attained the fruit of arahatship and ascended into the air and his body was consumed by fire."
I recalled reading an early 20th century archeological account of Rajgir mentioning the stone and saying that it was still to be seen in a small Muslim shrine. The most well-known such place in Rajgir is the Sufi shrine of Makhdum Kund. I had gone there, had a good look around but finding nothing assumed that wherever the stone might have been it had long since disappeared.Recently I was in Rajgir again and happened to go with a companion to Makhdum Kund to have a bath in the hot spring. The place had changed much since I had last seen it. All the buildings have been painted garish colors, the once moss-covered stones in the bathing pool were now covered with cheap bathroom tiles and there were touts and noisy crowds everywhere. As in many other places, these changes are due to India's middle class now having both the time and the money to play at being tourists. Locations that were once fairly quiet are now full of screaming children, blaring radios and camera-carrying extended families. After we had finished our bath the presiding mulla approached us and began trying to wheedle some baksheesh out of us. Deciding that he was going to have to earn his money I asked him about the history of the shrine. I was only half listening to his patter until I heard the phrase words "stone with blood" and I pricked up my ears. Apparently Muslim legend says that Makhdum Jahaiyan, the saint to who the shrine is dedicated, was once attacked by a lion while praying and that his blood can still be seen on a stone. "Is the stone still here?" I asked excitedly. Nodding his head the mulla pointed to the small shrine perched on the side of the cliff towering above us. We followed him up the stairs and sure enough, there on the floor of the shrine was a much-worn stone with distinct dark red spots on it. I was elated to have finally have found the famous stone so serendipitously and I ran my hands over it. Then I explained to my companion the Buddhist legends surrounding it. The mulla asked my companion what I had said and as he translated my words I could see the smile evaporate from the mulla's face. He must have been thinking of the recent dispute between Hindus and Muslims over ownership of the Babari Mosque at Ayuthaya. Perhaps he thought we were the vanguard of a horde of fanatical Buddhist soon to descend upon his shrine and lay claim to his stone. "No!" he said in a most loud and emphatic way. "That's not this stone. The one you are talking about must be somewhere else." Seeing that I had unnecessarily alarmed the mulla I agreed wholeheartedly with him and he calmed down bit. I looked at the stone very carefully. It is now broken into several pieces but the dark red spots are still visible. Remembering that both the Chinese pilgrims mention a cave used by Devadatta being near the stone I asked the mulla if there was a cave in the area. Again he nodded and led us back down the stairs to the main mosque which, it turned out, is actually built around the cave. By now the mulla was getting bored with my endless questions and he ambled off to try to find easier prey somewhere else. We crawled into the cave, which is very low, although parts of it could easily have been used for meditation. It was somewhat eerie to think that the disruptive and ambitious Devadatta may have actually once sat where we did now. The cave has two entrances, one of which is so narrow that it is difficult to squeeze through. Muslims believe that to crawl through the cave imparts good luck. We had a good look around the rest of the shrine to see if there were any Buddhist antiquities or anything else of interest but we found nothing. As we neared the main entrance I saw the mulla again, I thanked him for his help and gave him a generous donation which he graciously received.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to identify any of the stories from the Pali Tipitaka with Makhdum Kund's blood-splashed stone. There are two stories about monks committing suicide in circumstances similar to those mentioned by Fa Hien and Huien Tsiang but there is no mention of where these incidents took place. Fa Hien's account mentions the frustrated monk walking up and down on a stone which reminds one of the famous story of Sona, the monk whose overly energetic walking meditation caused his feet to bleed and stain the ground with blood. This incident is said to have taken place in Rajgir but at Gijjakuta, which is about three kilometers from Makhdum Kund. Any of these stories could have been the basis of the legends heard by the Chinese pilgrims. It is quite easy to find Makhdum Kund and well worth a visit if you happen to be in Rajgir. From the main bus stand proceed north, at the fork in the road take the right branch and a short distance later take the road to the right. You will see the shrine at the foot of the cliff and shaded by trees. The stalls near the entrance of the shrine sell rather tasty biscuits shaped like a star and crescent. Although a Muslim holy place non-Muslims are allowed to enter Makhdum Kund. However, if the guardians of the shrine come to know that Buddhists have an interest in the stone this might change. So during your visit be discreet with both your opinions and your devotions.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mother Teresa

A recent publication on Mother Teresa, often called the Saint of the Gutters, has sent ripples of unease throughout the Catholic world and beyond. The book, called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, is a collection of letters written by the famous missionary nun over a 60 year period. They show that except during her first years as a nun and for a few weeks in 1959, Mother Teresa never once felt the presence of Jesus and was continually plagued by doubt about the existence of God.
It is not the first time controversy has surrounded Mother Teresa. In the early 1990 it was discovered that children in her orphanages were only given for adoption to Christian couples. After this policy became known in India it caused widespread criticism. Christopher Hitchens 1997 book about her painted a picture of a women who hobnobbed with dictators and sleazy businessmen and happily accepted their donations, who considered birth control and abortion to be the greatest threat to world peace and who refused to give pain-killers to the dying so that 'they could participate in Christ's suffering.' Whatever or not one accepts Hitchens' claims, this new book shows that Mother Teresa's inner life was dramatically different from her outer persona. In letter after letter to her numerous confessors she pours out her feelings of despair and abandonment. The book is difficult to read without feeling very sorry for the poor woman. But there is something else equally troubling about this book. Apparently Mother Teresa gave the strictest instructions that all her letters were to be destroyed after her death. It seems she wanted no one to know of her inner emptiness. Her wishes have not been followed and now these most private missals are available for everyone to read. In the light of these recent revelations Catholics are struggling to explain how someone widely considered to be a saint could have led such a spiritually barren and tortured life. Some are suggesting that her doubt was 'a divine gift that enabled her to do great work.' Others are saying that 'God hides himself most from those he loves most' or that he 'uses nothingness to show his greatness.' Another commentator has written that Mother Teresa's letters could be 'a ministry to people who have experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives'
Modern Christian apologists sometimes remind me of an alcoholic. He comes home reeking of alcohol and insists to his wife that he has only had one. His friends take him aside and hint that he's drinking too much and he airily tells them that he can stop any time he wants. When his wife finds bottles of whisky hidden around the house he insists he got them to give to a friend as a birthday present. After he looses his job for continually coming to work drunk he explains to his family that he really got the sack because the boss doesn't like him. The years go by and despite all the evidence to the contrary, against the most basic common sense and in spite what everyone can plainly see, the alcoholic always has an answer, no matter how unconvincing. Likewise, in the coming years Christian theologians will be able to think of a thousand reasons why God did not reveal himself to Mother Teresa or answer her prayers, except the simplest and most obvious one - that he doesn’t exist. Evangelical Christians who are forever insisting that 'only Jesus can give you peace' will likewise be struggling to explain why a devote, humble and self-sacrificing woman like Mother Teresa hardly had a moment's peace in spite of giving her whole life to Christ and yearning for his presence. The tragedy of Mother Teresa is that she was born at a time and into a faith that considers belief in God to be the basis of all spirituality. Like Dostoevsky and so many others, she was convinced that if there is no God life must be meaningless, ethical principles must be without foundation and the universe must be unexplainable.
According to her letters, Mother Teresa's faith in God started to wane soon after she moved to Calcutta to found the Home for the Destitute Dying in 1948. To a Buddhist this would hardly be surprising. Seeing beggars with maggots in their wounds and being eaten alive by rats, as Mother Teresa did, would have to shake any intelligent person's faith in a loving, caring deity. Throughout the following years Mother Teresa wrote of her doubts and feelings of abandonment by God to her various confessors and they urged her to be patient and to pray harder. Sometimes her confessors' advice and encouragement kept the darkness at bay for a while but it always came back.
Imagine if the Buddha had been her confessor. When she told him that she had doubts in the existence of God he would have smiled at her and said; 'It is good to be uncertain, it is good to doubt. Uncertainty arises towards something that is doubtful' (Kankhaniye va pana vo thane vicikiccha uppanna, A.I,189). Given her conditioning, this statement would have shocked her. She might have asked: 'But Lord, if there is no God there must be no immortal soul and therefore no salvation!' The Buddha would have replied; 'When someone thinks "Alas, I had it and now I have it no longer" they grieve, lament, beat their breast and feel sorrow. This is how there comes to be agitation about something that does not exist' (M.I,136). Then he would have explained to her the truth of anatta. He might have then told her about kamma so she could see that ethics can still be meaningful without having to believe in a divine being who keeps everyone in line with rewards and punishment. He would have taught her the Noble Eightfold Path so she could understand that life can have direction and purpose despite there being no Jesus. He would have also reassured her that doubt was not necessarily a sign of rebelliousness and sinfulness but sometimes of intelligence. And finally, he would have shown her how to meditate so that she could develop a deep inner stillness and peace that was due to seeing things as they are rather than being based on believing in things that are not. Had she been able to grasp all this, Mother Teresa would have still then been able to do all the good she did and have inner peace as well.
In the light of all these recent revelations it seems likely that Mother Teresa's hectic activity, her punishing routine and her demanding personality were all an attempt to escape from her agonizing doubt. The constant self-abasement that is to be found in nearly every one of her letters probably has the same origin. None of this detracts from Mother Teresa's uniqueness. Her dedication to the poor makes her a saint by any standards, at least a saint as the word is used in the non-religious sense. But it does cast yet more serious doubts on the existence of God. Mother Teresa could have done everything she did without believing in God and now we know that actually she did do it without believing in God - or at least while having persistent doubts about his existence. In fact, it was only her conviction that she should believe in God when she could not, that made her life so unhappy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Holy Water

Damn! I forget my bucket.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Keeping Your Balance

Balance (samatta or samata) is a situation in which different things exist in equal and mutually beneficial amounts. Having one virtuous quality to counterpoise another is an essential element in the development of a healthy and growing spiritual practice. The Buddha specifically recommended maintaining a balance between faith and wisdom, and between effort and concentration. Faith opens the mind to the possibility of things that cannot be immediately experienced or understood. But if faith does not go hand in hand with caution, questioning and even a healthy scepticism, it can be very misleading. Buddhaghosa said: ‘One strong in faith but weak in wisdom has uncritical and groundless confidence. One strong in wisdom but weak in faith errs on the side of cunning and is as hard to cure as one whose sickness is caused by a medicine. When the two are balanced, one has confidence only where there is ground for it’ (Vis.129). However, balance has a place in other aspects of the Buddhist life too. There should be a balance between fellowship and solitude, study and meditation, seriousness and light-heartedness, self-concern and helping others, etc.
Once, a monk named Sona was practising walking meditation with such determination that his feet started to bleed. The Buddha came to know of this and asked Sona: ‘Before you became a monk weren't you skilled in playing the lute?’ ‘I was, Lord.’ ‘And when the strings were too tight or too loose was the music pleasant and tuneful?’ ‘No, Lord.’ ‘And when the strings were neither too tight nor too loose was the music pleasant?’ ‘Yes, Lord.’ ‘In the same way, when too intense an effort results in agitation and when it is too weak it results in slackness. Therefore Sona, keep your energy in balance, be sensitive to a balance between the faculties, and you will attain your goal’ (A.III,373).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Picture Of The Month

I have no idea who this man is or why he is doing what he is. But this strikes me as an absolutely wonderful picture. The bull appears unharmed and is following its nature by charging at the moving object in front of it. The man is deftly and effortlessly avoiding the bull’s horns by changing his nature, by transforming himself into a bird, as it were. To me, this is what anatta is all about. Despite my best efforts, I feel myself to be a rigid, fixed entity. When I truly see that this is an illusion, that there is no self, I can ‘become’ anything I want. Because I am nothing, I am an emptiness of limitless potential. This is why the Buddha and the arahats are free from sorrow, because they are able to adjust to, fit in with or fly over the charging bull of samsara.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More On Burma

Reading the Tipitaka over a 35 year period I have found that the Buddha said something about almost everything and where not, he said things that were relevant or related to them in some way. Take the recent situation in Burma for example. A large part of costal Burma has been devastated by a cyclone, various countries and aid organizations have rushed to help and the government refuses to let them do so. I think the last time something like this happened was during the Ukraine Famine of 1932-3 when Stalin refused to admit that there was anything wrong and refused all offers of help and continued exporting grain just to prove it.
A man called Vacchagotta had been told by someone that the Buddha was teaching that people should only give alms to him and his disciples and not to those of other religions. Vacchagotta went to the Buddha and asked if this was true. The Buddha replied, ‘Those who say this are not of my way of thinking, they misrepresent me, they say something that is false and untrue.’ He then added, ‘Indeed, whoever obstructs someone from giving creates hindrances in three ways. What three? He prevents the donor from acquiring merit, he prevents the donees from receiving the gift, and he has thereby completely ruins himself’ (A.I,161). This last phrase, pubb’eva kho pan’assa atta khato, is quite a strong one. Khata has the double meaning of ‘to uproot’ and also ‘to injure’ or ‘to harm.’ To discourage someone from giving (provided of course that the gift is appropriate and one is giving intelligently) for the joy and delight of sharing, could only grow out of jealousy or mean-spiritedness and would reinforce such unattractive mental states. To prevent someone from giving to those in desperate or even life-threatening circumstances would be – well, I cannot understand why someone would do such a thing. It would have to have its origins in some extremely perverse and twisted intentions.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Complain! Complain! Complain! We are always complaining. Rising prices, dishonest politicians, the neighbours, the quality of the stuff on the TV. I suppose its only natural. After all, this is samsara. Nonetheless, sometimes it is a good idea to stop for a while and give some thought to the many advantages you are privileged to. Based on the Buddha’s teachings of quite contemplation (anussati) I wrote these words some years ago and once every two or three weeks, at the end of my daily mediation, I read them to myself.

Infinite in number and variety are the states of existence beings are born into. I have been born as a human being.
Countless are those who cannot speak or hear what is spoken to them, who cannot see to read or who lack the power to reason and ponder. I have been born with all limbs and facilities complete.
Many are those who dwell in lands of strife and conflict and who are deprived of security and safety. I am living in a land that is at peace.
Incalculable are those who toil without end and who are driven by hunger and want. I have wealth to sustain the body and time to give it rest.
Numerous are those whose bodies and minds are in bonds, who are not their own masters; unable to go where they wish, unable to think as they like. I enjoy great freedom.
Without number are those who abide in regions where the light of the Dhamma shines not or where its message is not heard above the racket of false doctrines. I have heard and understood the good Dhamma.
Truly precious is this human life and great are the blessings I enjoy. I here and now, before the Buddha, contemplate my own good fortune and resolve to use this rare opportunity to work for my own good and the good of others. With strong determination I will overcome all obstacles great and small.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

All Smiles

A smile is an expression on the face caused by happiness and where the corners of the mouth turn up. Laughter is a combination of facial expressions, sounds and bodily movements indicating strong happiness or amusement. There is no reference to the Buddha ever laughing but he is said to have had a beautiful smile and to have smiled often (S.I,24; Th.630). The Buddha’s smile, together with his calm and radiant countenance, gave him an attractiveness that naturally attracted people. His disciples were described as being ‘smiling, cheerful, exultant, joyful and with radiant complexions’ (M.II,121). The psychology of the abhidhamma recognises several types and intensities of smiles and laughter - the gentle smile (sita), the beaming smile where the corners of the mouth turn up and the teeth can be seen (hasita), laughter that makes an audible sound (vihasita), laughter that causes the head, shoulders and arms to tremble (upahasita), laughing until tears come to the eyes (apahasita), and roaring with laughter (atihasita).
The Buddha considered loud giggling and laughing to be inappropriate for monks and nuns (A.I,260), given that their vocation is a serious one. In the Dhammapada he asks: ‘Why all this laughter and celebration when the world is on fire?’ (Dhp.146). The Mahavastu says: ‘By living together, by a kind look and a warm smile, love is born in both human and animal.’ The Bodhicaryavatara advises those meditators who have a tendency to become overly serious: ‘Always have a smile on your face, give up frowning, a serious mien…and be a friend to the whole world.’ The Buddhist peoples of Asia are renowned for their readiness to smile, a characteristic which reflects a general openness and kindness which the Buddha's teachings impart.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Orange, White and Blue

Here’s an interesting fact I bet you didn’t know. Wisdom Publications used to issue their books in three different formats according to the depth of the Dhamma they contained – orange for basic Dhamma, white for intermediate and blue for advanced. When they published Maurice Walshe’s translation of the Long Discourses (Digha Nikaya), the very words of the Fully and Perfectly Enlightened Buddha, it was put in the white or intermediate class. Books by various Tibetan lamas were put in the blue class. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho! So I suppose if the Buddha came back today and he wanted to know the deeper aspects of his own teachings and insights he would read something written by a Tibetan lama. Makes sense. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I love starting my day with a good laugh.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Appealing Pictures

If you would like to give your cognitive fatalities a rest for a while have a look at
If you have bit of time have a look at And if you don’t have a bit of time make it, because this is quite good.
If you would like to see some of the pictures I took during my recent trip through the Himalayan Buddhist regions of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur have a look at One of the pictures is of Amristar’s Golden Temple and the other is of the Mahabodhi Temple at sunset.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Different View, Very Different

Holy prayer wheels! You mean to tell me that there actually used to be communists in the old Tibet, that there were people who wanted democracy and the end of monastic feudalism, that Kham Tibetans and Chinese fought together against the Dalai Lama’s government, that many lamas were backward and oppressive! That the Communist Party betrayed all its promises, imprisoned or murdered its members and ditched socialist equality for Han racism - that I can believe. But this! I’m just a simple monk so I’m more comfortable with the black-and white picture – that the Communists are black and the lamas are white – while levitating, choosing where to be reborn, being emanations of Manjusri, reading minds, having rainbow bodies and chatting with Dorje Shukden. Read the article below and see what you think.

In 1979 an article entitled ‘The Twentieth-Century Bastille’ appeared in a Chinese dissident magazine. It described the fate of two Tibetan prisoners, the founder of the Tibetan Communist Party, Phüntso Wangye, and his close ally Ngawang Kesang, who were languishing in Beijing’s Qingchen Number One Prison, where high-ranking Communists opposed to the policies of Mao Zedong had been incarcerated. It was the first that had been heard of either of them since their arrest in 1960. Phüntso Wangye (affectionately known as Phünwang) was special adviser to the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army in 1950 when they entered Tibet. Phünwang comes from Kham, an area that has always had a mixed Tibetan and Han population, Western Kham has been incorporated into the Autonomous Region of Tibet, and Eastern Kham became part of Sichuan Province in 1955, the Yangtse river forming a natural administrative boundary, but people of both nations continue to live on both sides of the border. It was the disastrously insensitive implementation of secularisation and collectivisation in the areas of Kham in Sichuan province that precipitated armed revolt in 1956, and afterwards some 60,000 Tibetans from Kham fled into the Ü Tsang Autonomous Region, a contributing factor in the Tibetan revolt in 1959, that was also precipitated by CIA involvement. Phünwang grew up in Batang under the rule of Chinese warlord Liu Wenhui. A garrison town under the late Qing dynasty, Batang had a modern government school that had sent a stream of students, Phünwang’s uncle among them, to train as Chinese administrators in Nanjing. This is a very interesting detail because it shows how being an ethnic Tibetan was not an obstacle in the Qing period to becoming part of the state bureaucracy, provided you mastered Mandarin. The dismemberment of China by colonialism and warlordism therefore closed the route to economic and social advancement for Chinese of all nationalities, even those not under direct foreign rule. In 1932 Kesang Tsering, a local Nanjing-educated commander acting for the Chinese nationalist Guomindang (KMT), led an uprising in Batang against Liu Wenhui and proclaimed Tibetan rule. Again it is interesting that Tibetans fought for the Chinese nationalist KMT of Chiang Kai-shek, illustrating how the politics and history have always been intertwined. Phünwang was determined to follow in the footsteps of Kesang to study in Nanjing, as he puts it: “so that I too could become a leader in the fight for freedom for our Tibetan people…I didn’t admire Kesang Tsering and my uncle simply because they had defied the Chinese [but] because they were educated, sophisticated and modern, as well as committed to the belief that Khampas had to rule Kham.” Tsering Shakya in New Left Review explains how it was a teacher, Mr Wang, at the special academy run by Chiang Kai-shek’s Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, who first introduced the 16 year-old Phünwang to Lenin’s “Nationality and the Right to Self-Determination”. With the Japanese invasion the academy was evacuated west to the temporary capital of Chongqing in Sichuan. Discipline loosened and political debate increased. For Phünwang and his fellow Tibetan students, Lenin’s formulations on national self-determination came as a revelation. The 19 year old Phünwang returned to Kham, initially working as a Chinese language and music teacher while vigorously pursuing his political goals. The strategy of the tiny Tibetan Communist Party under his leadership during the 1940s was twofold: to win over progressive elements among the students and aristocracy in ‘political Tibet’—the independent kingdom of the Dalai Lama—to a programme of modernization and democratic reform, while building support for a guerrilla struggle to overthrow Liu Wenhui’s rule in Kham. The ultimate goal was a united independent Tibet, its feudal social structure fundamentally transformed. Phünwang gives testimony to the arrogance of the traditional feudal elite, the cruelty of some of the monks he encountered during his travels and the poverty of the peasants—worse than in China itself—under the heavy taxes and corvee labor system. In Lhasa, Phünwang tried to persuade the youngest member of the Kashag, Tibet’s Council of Ministers, to provide rifles for the armed struggle in Kham. But the Kashag was instead pinning its hopes on a fascist victory in the second world war to weaken China. Indeed, the modernising faction within the Tibetan state, let by Tsarong had earlier sought alignment with Imperial Japan in the first years of independence, until in 1925 the anti-reform feudal conservatives managed to have Tsarong ousted. In the spring of 1949 the Tibetan Communists heard that the Chinese communists had established guerrilla bases in Khampa areas of Yunnan, and that the Burmese communists also had a strong force in the area. While making plans to join them, Phünwang and his comrades were expelled from Lhasa by the Tibetan government, now jumpy at the prospect of imminent Communist victory in China. Travelling via India, the Tibetan Communists reached the field headquarters of the Western Yunnan forces in August 1949. Here, however, the Red Army commander, a Bai named Ou Gen, demanded that the Tibetans dissolve their party into the CCP as a condition of joint guerrilla activity. After much argument, Phünwang agreed. Having failed to locate a progressive reforming force within Tibet that could provide a path towards his aim of ‘self-rule as an independent communist Tibet’, he decided to work through the Chinese Communist Party with the aim of establishing ‘an autonomous republic that would function in a similar way to the autonomous socialist republics in the Soviet Union…it would be under Chinese sovereignty, but it would be controlled by Tibetans.’ Phünwang played a key diplomatic role in negotiations over the Seventeen-Point Agreement between Beijing and Lhasa, and in winning acceptance for it from members of the Tibetan aristocracy. Almost from the start, he was critical of the Han chauvinism and ‘top-down’ attitude of many of the Chinese CCP cadres. But he succeeded in opening the country’s first ever secular school in Lhasa - earlier attempts to do so had been shut down by the monasteries - and established a newspaper, drawing in leading Tibetan intellectuals to write for it; reforms that would have been impossible in independent Tibet.
Crucially, Deng Xiaoping, leader of the South-west Bureau backed a cautious approach to social reform and winning the support of the Dalai Lama and monastic elite, and Phünwang was influential in shaping policy within Tibet within the first few years, advising that a slower pace that respected local traditional culture would be more productive in the long run. Unfortunately, both Deng and Phünwang were opposed by the ultra-left North-west Bureau under Fan Ming, an ally of Mao Zedong who maneuvered Phünwang out of Tibet and to a government post at the Nationalities Institute in Beijing. Phünwang acted as interpreter between Mao Zedong and the new, young Dalai Lama, and was convinced that Mao was at that time sincere in intending to allow full autonomy within the PRC for Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. But the nationalities policy of the PRC became subordinated to the ultra left turn of the Great Leap Forward. As a delegate to the 1957 National People’s Congress Phünwang was openly critical of Fan Ming’s policies in Tibet and Kham. The following year he was summoned before a disciplinary committee and ordered to ‘cleanse his thinking.’ The “anti-rightist” campaign was getting under way, and Phünwang became a non-person. In 1960 he was arrested and disappeared into Qingchen gaol. Phünwang was released from prison in 1979, and had suffered torture, isolation, and mental distress. Impressively, after just a year’s recovery, he returned to active politics, drafting proposals for an ‘autonomous republic’ model for the 1980 debate on the PRC Constitution, and arguing powerfully that the Chinese Army should not be used for police work in the minority nationality regions, where its role was all too comparable to that of an army of occupation. When his suggestions drew down a damning attack from Party officials, Phünwang responded with a long rebuttal. Now in his 80’s and officially rehabilitated, he remains a critical voice within the CCP, still attentively following developments in the Land of Snows.As Tsering Shakya explains, Phünwang and other young radical Tibetans allied themselves with the CCP as a means of bringing reform and social change to Tibet; yet once China had established firm control over the region, the Tibetan Communists were deposed and replaced with Han officials. A leading political figure in the 1950s, Phünwang was the only Tibetan to possess any degree of authority during the first decade of Chinese rule. His knowledge of the language and his position as a socially aware figure made him into a vital cultural and political mediator, a role that gave him access to the highest levels of the CCP as well as to the Dalai Lama. Insensitivity, failure to respect cultural autonomy, and knee-jerk secularism exaggerated the problems created by the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Phünwang’s active political life was over by 1958. His fate and those of his comrades reveal the problematic nature of Beijing’s approach: after 50 years, the Party has not managed to promote a Tibetan to the top leadership in Lhasa. The dangerous accusation of ‘local nationalism’ pinned on Phünwang is still applied to any Tibetan who opposes the CCP’s policy. In 1979, in a conversation with a delegation sent by the Dalai Lama, Phuntso Wangye declared, “I was and am still a communist who believes in Marxism…I am a communist, true, but I was also in solitary confinement in a communist prison for as long as 18 years and suffered from both mental and physical torture” but then he does not blame party, at all, rather he says, “I was put into prison by people who broke the laws and violated party discipline and the laws of the country.” Prominent Tibetans in exile, accuse him of being a ‘Red Tibetan’ who led the ‘Red Han’ into Tibet and he admits, “To be accurate, I led the People’s Liberation Army. I was the Tibetan who guided the people, who in the words of Chairman Mao, were there to help the Tibetans - the brotherly Tibetans - to stand up, be the masters of their homes, reform themselves, and be engaged in construction to improve the living standards of the people and build a happy new society. But I never meant to lead the Han people into Tibet to establish rule over Tibetans by the Han people.” He argues that those Chinese officials who exhibit Han chauvinism, and who are failing to respect Tibetan rights for autonomy are betraying the ideas of Marxism, and of the Chinese revolution. But without Chinese intervention, there would have been no social reform and emancipation in Tibet. Although many in the Tibetan exile community regard Phünwang as a traitor, Gelek Namgyal, from Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre in New Delhi argues that his general reputation among Tibetans is just as “a Tibetan nationalist who wanted to reform the feudal system in Tibet.” Indeed, far from being a traitor, Phünwang is still an articulate voice for Tibetan interests in the PRC. As recently as July 2007, Phünwang declared that the CCP was going down a disastrous route, by closing the door on dialogue, and underestimating the influence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Melvyn Goldstein sums up Phünwang’s position: “He sees China as a multiethnic state where large minorities like Tibetans constitutionally have the right to cultural, economic and a modicum of political autonomy, and should be considered equal in all ways to the Han Chinese. The issue for Phunwang is not that Tibetans demand to separate from China, but that they want the Han Chinese to treat them as equals.
From Socialist Unity by Andy Newman

Friday, June 13, 2008

Can You Help?

Inter-religious harmony and understanding are good things although they have only become widely accepted and praised recently. But how recently and how widely? In about 257 BCE the Buddhist king Asoka Mauriya wrote -
‘The king…values this, that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. This can be done in different ways, but all of them have their root in restrained speech, that is, in not praising one’s own religion and condemning the religion of others without good reason. And if there is cause for criticism this should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason; by doing so one’s own religion benefits and so do other religions, while doing otherwise both are harmed. Whoever praises his own religion due to excessive devotion and condemns others thinking ‘Let me glorify my own religion’ only harms his religion. Therefore, contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. The king desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions (The Fourteen Rock Edicts No.12).
This edict mentions several important things – (1) that the promotion of the essentials of all religions is a good thing; (2) that there should not be criticism of other religions without good reason; (3) that where criticism is legitimate, it should be done in a tactful and reasonable way; (4) it is desirable that devotees on one religion should be familiar with the doctrines of other faiths. I think that these recommendations are a very good foundation for inter-religious harmony and understanding.
I would like to invite my readers to submit quotations from sacred literature, religious personages or representatives of religions which likewise recommend or praise any of these four ideas. The quotes can be (a) from any religion, (b) should pre-date 1850 and (c) should be accompanied by a reference to its source and its date. When sufficient quotes arrive I will publish them in a separate blog and post it. Please let as many people as possible know about this project so that we can get as many of such quotes as might exist. I have a sneaking suspicion that my readers will be struggling to find anything nice that one religion has ever said about another. But I may be wrong. Surprise me!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Saying You're Sorry

Yesterday the prime minister of Canada apologised on behalf of the Canadian nation to the native people of the country for its policy of forcible taking children from their parents and bringing them up ‘civilized’ and ‘Christian.’ Apparently this shameful policy only stopped in the 1970’s. Just a few months ago the prime minister of Australia made a similar apology to that country’s Aboriginal people for a similar policy there. I have not heard that the Christian churches who actively encouraged these policies and happily implemented them have said they are sorry. Perhaps they are not. After all, this was an easy and relatively inexpensive way to destroy ‘false religions’ and make converts. Whether an apology given by someone who merely ‘represents’ the ones who committed the transgression or that an apology by one generation for the misdeeds of an earlier generation can be meaningful, is a contentious point. Whatever the case, such apologies can go at least some way to making up for past injustices and hopefully make it less likely that such things will be repeated in the future. The Canadian prime minister’s statement yesterday has made me think what the Buddha said about saying you are sorry.
To apologize (khamati) is to express your recognition of and sorrow for having hurt another. Sometimes we break one or another of the Precepts in a way that hurts or offends others. One way we can make amends for this is to express our contrition to the person we have hurt. Giving a sincere apology, without reservation or self-justification, is one of the higher forms of generosity (dana). By doing so we help heal any anger or resentment the other person may feel, we ease the way for them to practise forgiveness and we make possible the mending of a ruptured relationship. On our part, giving a sincere, unreserved and timely apology soothes any self-reproach we might feel and helps us become more open about and objective towards the negative side of our character, which is an important part of character building.
If apologizing can be difficult, it is also true that pardoning a transgression (khamanasila) is just as difficult. This is why the Buddha said that it is incumbent on a person who has done wrong to apologize, just as it is incumbent on the person who has been wronged to accept an apology and then respond with forgiveness (Vin.I,54). The person who has done wrong has an obligation to make the first move and say he or she is sorry. After that, the person who has been wronged should seriously consider accepting the apology and then forgive. The Buddha said, ‘By three things the wise person can be known. What three? He sees a shortcoming as it is. When he sees it, he tries to correct it. And when someone else acknowledges a shortcoming he forgives it as he should’ (A.I,103).
There were several incidents where the Buddha said things that upset people; proclaiming the truth sometimes involves breaking cherished idols. He didn’t apologized for doing this because his concern was always the best interests of the person involved and was done as tactfully as possible (M.I,395). For us though, with our imperfections, our ego and our lack of mindfulness, apologizing is one way we can soothe some of the hurt we may have caused.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Puffing and Chewing

Tobacco was unknown in ancient India but people did inhale smoke for medical and recreational purposes. According to the Susruta Cikista, an ancient treatise on medicine, inhaling smoke is good as a purgative, a cure for tiredness, depression, throat and nose problems and is also beneficial for pregnant women. Certain herbs were burned and the smoke sniffed in through a small metal tube (dhumanetti). The Buddha subscribed to this kind of smoke therapy and allowed monks and nuns to have smoking tubes (Vin.I,204), although some people apparently considered them to be a luxury (Ja.IV,363). Cigarettes (dhumavatti) smoked for enjoyment were made by grinding cardamom, saffron, sandalwood and aloe wood into a fine paste and moulding it over a reed so that it was about 15 centimetres long and with the thickness of a thumb. When the paste was dry, the reed was removed and the resulting cigarette was smeared with clarified butter or sandalwood oil before being ignited. These cigarettes were probably far less harmful than the modern ones. Another ancient medical work, the Caraka Samhit a, recommends sitting in an upright but comfortable posture while smoking, taking three puffs at a time and inhaling through both the mouth and nostrils but exhaling only through nostrils.
While smoking has a very negative effect on the body, it has little or no effect on consciousness and thus, from the Buddhist perspective, has no moral significance. A person can be kind, generous and honest and yet smoke like a chimney. Thus, although smoking is inadvisable from the point of view of physical health it is not contrary to the fifth Precept.
Smoking is very common in all Buddhists lands although in 2005 Bhutan was the first country in the world to ban it. In Burma, Thailand and Cambodia monks commonly smoke and in fact often start even before their teens. Go to a dana in any of these countries and the ‘requisites’ often include packets of cigarettes and in Burma, cigars. Statistics released in 2001 in Thailand showed that smoking-related diseases were the single biggest cause of death amongst monks. It is considered unacceptable in Sri Lanka for monks to smoke but smoking in private is common. Strangely enough, while Sri Lankan lay people would be scandalized by a monk smoking they consider it perfectly alright to offer them chewing tobacco.
Chewing betel, betel nut and betel leaf (Pali tambula) are not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka. They are not mentioned by Panini, in the early Upanisads, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana either. The only explanation for this silence is that betel chewing had not been introduced (from South India or South-east Asia?) at the time these books were composed. Soon after the nut was introduced into India its use became widespread within a very short time. It even took on an erotic aspect. A young woman’s lips stained red with betel juice was a turn-on for Indian men. Vatsyayana suggests spitting the betel juice you’re mouth into your lovers mouth as a part of love play. God! How tastes change! Today, chewing betel is common throughout South and South-east Asia, southern China and Taiwan. Monks in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos often chew it and I saw an old Taiwanese nun with betel-stained teeth, although I believe most monastics there shun it today. While betel is as big a health risk as tobacco, it is, if anything, even more aesthetically unpleasing. Watching a Sri Lankan monk interrupting his sermon at regular intervals to spit betel juice into a spittoon is quite a sight. As a novice one of my jobs was to empty and wash the senior monks’ spittoons. As I had to do this at the end of the day it turned out to have some value. I felt so revolted after having done it that it killed any pangs of hunger I had and this helped me get used to not eating at night. I can say from personal experience that a mixture of spittle, phlegm, betel juice, tobacco juice and cigarette buts warmed in the sun for half a day is the world’s most effective appetite suppressant. Perhaps I should patent it. I might make a fortune.
While thoughtful and aware people everywhere are increasingly moving away from tobacco and betel chewing, high percentages of monks just continue as before. Abbots don’t seem particularly worried that their smoking sets a bad example for young novices or the lay community. The general ignorance amongst them and their indifference to health issues, indeed most issues, means that smoking and betel chewing will probably remain a part of monastic culture for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Swami Army

Almost no Buddhist monks today live the way the Buddha and his direct disciples did, although many like to think they do. The Buddha was a homeless wanderer, we Buddhist monks are, virtually without exception, permanently ensconced in comfortable, well-appointed monasteries where our every need and most of our wants are provided for by the surrounding community. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this; things have changed since the 5th century BCE. But I do think we should stop pretending that we are something we’re not. Yes, yes, I know that there are ‘forest monasteries’ but all the ones I’ve seen differed from the city monasteries only in that they were set in ‘extensive grounds.’ If you want a glimpse of how the Buddha lived you have to spend time with wandering Hindu swamis. While empires have come and gone and civilizations have risen and fell these men (and a few women too) have wandered India’s dusty paths without security and owning nothing more that what they can carry. In the Buddha’s time the main sects of wandering swamis were the Ajivakas, the Niganthas (Jains), the Mundasavakas (the Shaven Ones), the Jatilas (Matted-hair Ones), the Paribbajakas (Wanderers), the Magandikas, the Tedandikas (Those of the Triple Staff), the Aviruddhakas (The Passive Ones), the Gotamakas (The Disciples of Gotama, not the Buddha) and the Devadhammaikas (God’s Way, A.III,276). Today there are many more; the Khannapathas, Naga Babbas, Aghoris, Kapalikas, Avidhutas to name but a few. The Buddha’s reminiscence about the period in his life when he practiced self-mortification suggest that he studied and practiced with swamis other than Uddaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama. He said he ‘pulled out his hair and beard’ and ‘had compassion even for a drop of water’ exactly the things Jain monks do even today. When he said ‘…sakam yeva sudam muttakarisam aharemi’ one is reminded of the more revolting Aghori practices (M.I,79).
I have always found the swamis I have met to be simple, devote, good-natured men (except Aghoris who tend to be psychopaths) who treasure the freedom that life on the open road offers them. Of course there are plenty of rogues too but these are balanced by those who have genuine and sometimes very considerable spiritual attainments. On my way to Gangotri and Gomuk a few years back I passed and sometimes traveled for a few days with, several bands of swamis making the pilgrimage. All of them were shoeless and owned nothing more than a staff, robes and what they could fit into a shoulder bag. They had no supplies but ate only what they beg for on the way. Many of these swamis told me that they spend the winter hanging around village or town temples or famous pilgrimage sites and as the summer comes on they make their way up into the mountains. There they spend spring and summer doing the rounds of sacred places, find a strategically situated place near a temple where they can easily get alms, build themselves a hut in a forest near a village or find themselves a good cave. Contrary to popular opinion, a good number of these swamis are quite learned and have regular meditation or devotional practices, although it is true that there are many lay-abouts and conmen too. In short, they are just like the Buddhist sangha. But what I have often found amongst wandering swamis which is rare in the Buddhist sangha is a strong sense of fellow-feeling. They extend an almost immediate welcome to anyone they perceive to be another swami. Burmese monks will not bow to a Western monk senior to them or even return a greeting with anything more than a grunt. Thais are the same although they will at least smile back. And being of a different race is not the only barrier either. In Burma and Thailand monks of one sect will not stay in nor are they welcome in, the monasteries of a different sect. Even a slightly different practice of the Vinaya will evoke frowns or comments of disapproval. ‘Stuck up’ is not a term that immediately comes to mind when thinking about Hindu wanderers. They have a kind of camaraderie that grows out of shared hardship, of always being at the bottom of the heap. When they find out that you are of a different sect, as I always am to them, they are usually genuinly interested in knowing what you practice and believe. And as long as you state your position gently, the conversation remains cordial. When I say I am a follower of ‘Bhagawan Buddha’ this is almost always followed by a good-natured chorus of ‘Buddang Sharanang Gachami.’ I feel a bit of a fake staying with or traveling with these men because I always have my passport and my return air ticket to Singapore in my bag. But that never seems to worry them – they accept you as you are, treat you as one of their own for as long as you are with them and wish you well when you go.
I would like to share with you pictures of some of the swamis I have met over the years. Hamsaswami in the fourth picture is a quietly joyful man I met in Uttarakashi who has been a swami since he was 15 and he is now 79. When I asked where he is from he said ‘Wherever I am.’ At Badranath I shared a meal with the two swamis in picture five. They have traveled together for as long as they can remember. Both of them were as happy and as at peace as they looked.