Thursday, July 31, 2008

Disappering Act

There is a curious but persistent belief amongst some Buddhists that the Dhamma will soon disappear. Although this belief is usually in the background, it comes to the fore at those times and in those people who have a heightened awareness of the many inevitable inadequacies in Buddhist institutions. But is there any truth in this belief? Firstly we must be clear about what we mean by ‘Dhamma.’ The Dhamma is (1) the truth about the nature of reality, it is (2) that truth as realized and described by the Buddha in his many discourses and dialogues, and it is (3) the applying and practising of that truth by those who call themselves Buddhists. In this first sense the Dhamma cannot disappear any more than space, energy or time can. For as long as anything exists, Dhamma exists because Dhamma is the nature of reality. In the second and third sense, the Dhamma will eventually disappear because all compounded things (samkhara), including the Buddha’s words and human understanding and behaviour, are subject to change (anicca). Having disappeared, it will sooner or later be rediscovered by a new Buddha and proclaimed to the world again. The Buddha of the next era will be named Maitreya.
So when will the Dhamma in these last two senses be no more? Once the Buddha was asked what would lead to ‘the obscuration and disappearance of the good Dhamma’ (saddhammassa sammosaya antaradhanaya). He replied that there would be two things. ‘When the letters are wrongly pronounced and there is wrong interpretation of their meaning. For when the pronunciation is wrong, the interpretation will also be wrong’ (A.I,59). Here the Buddha was referring to his words as they were remembered by his immediate disciples, later committed to writing and as we have them today in the Tipitaka. In this sense, the Dhamma is in no danger of disappearing. In fact, with printing, books and electronic media it has never before been more secure, more easily available and more widely read. On another occasion someone put a similar question to the Buddha. ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why the good Dhamma does not last long after the Thatagata has attained final Nirvana?’ The Buddha replied, ‘It is because the four foundations of mindfulness are not developed and cultivated that the good Dhamma will not last long’ (S.V,174). Here the Buddha was saying that for as long as people continue to purify and clarify their minds through meditation the Dhamma will endure. On this same issue the Buddha also said: ‘Earth, water, fire or wind cannot make the good Dhamma disappear. But foolish people right here will make it disappear’ (S.II,224).So this is the answer to the question of how long the Dhamma will last. The Dhamma does not have any set lifespan nor is it predetermined to disappear at any particular time. It will endure and flourish for as long as those who call themselves Buddhists practise it with commitment, sincerity, understanding and love and ‘foolish people’ (mogha purisa) are a minority.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pictures Of The Month

I found so many interesting, unusual, funny, quirky, inspiring or beautiful pictures on the internet during the last month and couldn’t decide which to use for my Picture Of The Month. In the end it came down to two and as I just couldn’t make up my mind which of them to pick I decided, ‘What the heck! Use them both.’ As for the first one – what can I say! When I saw it I laughed for a whole five minuets. It’s someone’s idea of what would have resulted if Michelangelo had met his model for David 35 years later than he did. The second one evoked a very different response in me. It epitomizes the Buddha’s words ‘kalyanamitata kalyanasahayata kalyanasampavanakata’ (S.V,2). If you want to know what this phrase means have a look at the picture again. Next month, starting on the 12th I intend to examine everything the Buddha says about sex and sex-based relationships – no holes bared. No, wait! That last expression didn’t come out right. Please ignore.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Art Calling For Reform

Last October Doo Phra, the oil painting on the right, by Thailand’s Warthit Sembut, won one of the Young Thai Artist Awards meted out annually by the cultural foundation established by Siam Cement, one of the country’s leading corporations and one with close royal connections. The foundation invited Warthit to bring his family to the awards presentation in Bangkok; his parents drove all the way from Chiang Rai in the far north to attend. When they got to the venue, they found an empty frame dangling among the other prize-winning works. The foundation, supposedly made of concrete, had collapsed at the mere possibility that Warthit’s painting would draw complaints because of its depiction of Buddhist monks greedily looking over amulets. A few days later Warthit, accompanied by members of the Thai Artist Network, went to the offices of Siam Cement, handed back the trophy and cash and asked for his painting back. The Buddha advised us to detach ourselves from material things and be free of desire. However, most Thai monks neglect teaching the Dhamma and spend much of their time hawking blessed amulets, lucky charms and quack medicines. The title of the painting, Doo Phra means ‘monks watching’ or, if you turn the translation slightly, ‘watch the monks.’
The Siam Cement Foundation had reason to worry about complaints. The month previous there’d been an unholy row over another painting that showed monks in a bad light. Anupong Chanthorn’s Bhikkhu Sandan Ka, meaning ‘Monks With Traits of a Crow,’ a phrase which the artist says the Buddha used for bad monks (Vin.III,107 ?) - won the gold prize at the 2007 National Artist Awards and was displayed at Silpakorn University. This painting depicted two squatting monks with the beaks of crows rummaging through an alms bowl full of magic amulets as crows flutter around them. In Thai culture the crow is a symbol for avaricious opportunism. One of Chanthorn’s earlier paintings, entitled Ma-nus, showed mangy temple dogs reincarnating into monks. Unused to having their behavior questioned, dozens of monks and scores of laymen staged a series of protest rallies, demanding that the university withdraw the award and remove the painting from the show because it insulted the clergy. Some protesters burned a photo of Anupong while monks chanted a funeral prayer. The sound bites for the TV news came from a leader of the right wing People’s Network to Protect the Nation, Religion and the Monarchy. This group had been involved in the summer rallies outside Government House where the drafters of Thailand’s new constitution were prodded to include a passage declaring Buddhism the national religion. Several monks staged a hunger strike to underscore how much this meant to them. They only stopped their strike when Queen Sirikit said in her birthday speech that Buddhism shouldn’t be used for political ends. It is interesting that calls for the long overdue reform of the Thai Sangha are being left to mere artists like Sembut and Chanthorn rather than to the Dept. of Religious Affairs, the senior monks on the Ecclesiastical Council or the Sangharaja; yet more evidence of just how spiritually moribund the Thai Sangha is.
‘Too many of the 250,000 to 300,000 monks in this country do not observe even the most rudimentary precepts required of lay Buddhists - let alone the 227 precepts that those who take up the saffron robe are supposed to observe,’ The Nation said in an editorial concerning the recent controversy. ‘Buddhist temples used to be centres of learning, and monks were the guardians of our cultural heritage, but many temples have turned into dens of iniquity.’
Adapted from the Internet

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Prosperity Dhamma

There are not many areas where Buddhism even approaches the success of Christianity. But there is one. Since the 1980’s a new interpretation of Christianity called the prosperity gospel, the justifications for which are worked out in what is called prosperity theology, has become very popular in charismatic and Pentecostal churches. The prosperity gospel is very simple – accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and you’ll get rich, real rich. It’s a sort of modernized and americanized version of the cargo cult. Although nowhere near as slick, savvy or successfully promoted as the Christian version, Theravadins have had their own equivalent of the prosperity gospel for at least a thousand years. Who would have thought that stodgy, conservative, unimaginative old Theravada could be so far ahead of the game?
I am of course referring to the Theravadin teaching of merit. In the Tipitaka, merit (punna in Pali, bum in Thai and pin in Sinhalese) is the joy one feels having done good. In Theravada, but particularly in Thai Theravada, the meaning of merit has been seriously misunderstood and perhaps even deliberately distorted. Rather than thinking of merit as a psychological quality derived from a particular type of behaviour, it has come to be seen as an object or even a commodity that can be ‘earned,’ ‘accumulated,’ stored up to be used later and even ‘transferred’ to others. The idea that it is possible to ‘transfer’ merit, is of course not mentioned in the Tipitaka because it contradicts the doctrine of kamma which teaches that it is our intentional actions that have an effect on us and that each of us is responsible for what we do. Also, it undermines the whole idea of moral causation. Think about it! If it were possible to ‘transfer’ to others the result of the good we do, it must likewise be possible to transfer to others the result of the evil we do and thereby avoid its consequences. These misunderstandings has had a corrupting influence on the practice of Dhamma in Thailand. I believe that anthropologists call Thai Buddhism ‘the Buddhism of merit’ and with good reason. More than a few Thais understand this as the basis of Buddhism – take bribes at the office, spend an hour in the bar after work for a few glasses of Mekong, pop into the massage parlour on the way home and tomorrow visit the wat and donate some money to the monk to make up for the previous days bad kamma. Thais may well help an old person across the road, forgive a transgression or visit the sick in hospital but they don’t think of such actions as ‘merit making.’ You can only ‘make merit’ from monks. Thais see their monks like vending machines – put in the money, pull the handle and the merit is credited to your account. ‘Accumulate’ more merit than evil and the next life should be okay. As a result of seeing Buddhism in there terms Thais generally don’t do good out of regard for the Buddha’s teaching, for the simple joy of doing good or because it is the right thing to do, but in order to ‘earn merit’. Generosity (dana) has been downgraded from an act of giving to a means of getting. People believe that they can ‘make merit,’ by performing certain rituals - putting gold leaf on statues, circumambulating stupas and most effectively, by giving things including money to monks - rather than by having integrity and being virtuous in their everyday lives. If you think this is a parody of Thai Theravada, spend a little time in the country.
And all this despite the Buddha’s exhortation ‘Do not think that an external action brings purity. The skilful say that purity cannot be gained by one who seeks it in outward things’ (S.I,169). According to the Padhana Sutta, Mara, tried to dissuade the Buddha from his spiritual practice by suggesting that he ‘heap up merit’ (ciyate punnam) instead, exactly the suggestion Thai monks make to their supporters today. The Buddha rejected this insipid compromise saying, ‘I have not the slightest use for merit’ (Sn.428-31). And if a person practices the Dhamma sincerely and fully they should have no need of it either. In the Itivuttaka the Buddha said, ‘Doing meritorious deeds with the aim of having a favourable rebirth is not worth so much as a sixteenth of having that love which frees the heart’ (It.19). So being loving and acting with love is 16 times better that making merit, although this idea doesn’t seem to get much of a mention in Theravada.
Recently a young Malaysian came to see me. He bowed before me, held out a red envelope with money in it and said, ‘Venerable sir, I would like to make merit.’ I replied, ‘Good! Then do your work conscientiously, be kind to other, always tell the truth and nurture love in your heart.’ I could see from his perplexed expression that he didn’t have the faintest idea what I was talking about and that he must have learned his ‘Buddhism’ from Thai monks. Our subsequent conversation confirmed this.
I find it interesting that Christian prosperity theology has evoked the strongest criticism and detailed refutations from properly schooled theologians and mainline churches. No Theravadin scholars, thinkers (are there any?), learned monks or lay people seem particularly interested in critically reassessing the ‘prosperity Dhamma.’ I wonder why.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

You Don't Have to Be Buddhist

Poland’s Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring Irena Sendler saved nearly 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis by organizing a ring of 20 people to smuggle them out of the Warsaw Ghetto in baskets and ambulances.The resolution also honors the Council for Assisting Jews, of which her ring of mostly Roman Catholic members was a part. If any of these people had been caught they and their whole families would have been killed and yet they risked their lives to help complete strangers.Sendler, now 97 and living in a Warsaw nursing home, was too frail to attend but sent a letter read by Elzbieta Ficowska, one of the children she rescued.It said, in part: ‘Every child saved with my help…is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.’ Who says there is no such things as bodhisattvas nowadays? And who says you have to be Buddhist to be a bodhisattva?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

2008 Mitra Conference

I was in Australia between the 11th and 14th of this month attending the annual Mitra Conference in Sydney, this year’s theme being ‘Wisdom For The Modern World.’ It was truly inspiring to see the energy and dedication of young Australian Buddhists.
For images of the Conference see -

Friday, July 25, 2008

Imaging God

The Bible gives a pretty detailed description of Jehovah. He has arms (Deut.11,2), hands (Ex.15,12) and fingers (Ps.8,3); a face and a back (Ex.33,23; Deut.13,17). Apparently he has flames coming from his body (Ps.50,3) and most interestingly, smoke coming from his nostrils and burning coals from his mouth (Ps.18,7-8), although I have never seen depictions of this aspect of him. In the Middle Ages God was usually shown as an old man with a beard and wearing a crown, or more correctly a tiara. In those days there were kings so naturally God was seen as a big king in the sky. During the Renaissance God remained pretty much unchanged except for often having a stern, almost angry expression. When I visited the Baroque churches of Europe in 2000 I noticed that God was often shown as an equilateral triangle (the Trinity) with an eye in it. It gave me the creeps! No matter where I went in the church this big eye was glaring at me. I noticed also that his ‘Holy Ghost’ aspect was usually depicted as a dove. One of the most unusual, not to say bizarre, portrayals of God and one that has gone completely out of fashion, shows him with three faces. Reminds one of Siva. William Blake’s wonderful drawing of God as the divine designer with his compass is the only one I have seen showing him naked. This certainly makes sense. Why would God need clothes? In the film Evan Almighty God is a suave elderly black guy in a white suit (white seems to have become God’s favorite color of late) instead of the more usual flowing robes. One could write a thesis on what this says about contemporary American religious thinking. My favorite depictions of God are of him on a horse or in a fiery chariot pulled by horses. It confirms what I’ve always believed – that animals do go to heaven.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Imaging The Buddha

We Buddhists are funny people. We believe the most poposterous thing about the Buddha – that his relics can multiply, that he flew from one place to another, that he was 18 ft tall, that he knew everything and that he could read minds as easily as we read newspapers - and yet we have always depicted him as a human being. The earliest images of him, from Gandhara (2nd to 5th cent CE), show him quite realistically. Other than funny-looking hair, golden skin, being much bigger than those around him and sometimes so stylized as to be almost totemic, Theravadin Buddhas are always unmistakably human. Strangely, when he is shown dying, which you will recall happened when he was 80, he is inevitably portrayed as being about 25. I say ‘strangely’ because Theravada harps on so much about the reality aging, decrepitude and impermanence. Even when the Buddha was transformed into the deity Amitaba or Amida he was still shown as distinctly human, albeit with rays of light coming out of his body and floating above the clouds. Perhaps the most popular and widespread contemporary images of the

Buddha are a set of about 10 pictures done by an anonymous Indian artist in the late 60’s. Kitsch, garishly colored and sentimental, these pictures show the Buddha, whether as a young prince or an old man, as an ageless, androgynous milk sop. Despite this, I love these pictures, there is something homely and folksy about them. The recent Telugu film Gauthama Buddha by Allain Sridhar tries and succeeds in showing him in exactly the same way.

When is someone going to portray the Buddha as he actually might have been? Tomorrow I’m going to have a look at how people have imagined God to be.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Not Good News

In Singapore last week a well-known and popular monk, Ven. Ming Yi, was arrested on ten charges of fraud, forgery and falsifying accounts. In the past the Venerable earned the reputation as a successful fundraiser for various charities, an active social worker and a respected director of the Ren Ci Hospital of which he is also the founder. He is also widely liked as an approachable and kindly person. News of his arrest is bad for everybody. The ‘charity industry’ is already reeling from financial scandals in two charitable institutions which have led to a significant drop in donations to many other charities. It is also bad for Buddhism, which in Singapore, has a great reputation for organizing elaborate ceremonies and building lavish temples but a poor one when it comes to meaningful charity work. Ven. Ming Yi showed by his example that the modern monk in the urban setting need not just sit around ‘radiating’ compassion but can actually go out and manifest it by making a positive difference to people’s lives. He has up to now at least, given Buddhism a very good image.
Now people are saying that perhaps it would be better if monks stuck to their traditional role. I disagree. Ming Yi’s fall from grace had nothing to do with the fact that he ‘handled money’ or didn’t live in a forest. Many monks and nuns ‘handle money’ and live in towns without it being a problem. If the only way monks can keep on the straight and narrow is to isolate themselves from every actual or potential temptation then the Sangha is in very serious trouble. The solution, at least for the urban-dwelling socially engages monk or nun, is to balance periods of withdrawal with periods of engagement.
Allegedly, Ven. Ming Yi has made some very bad decisions concerning money, the details of which will only come out during his trial. Whatever the outcome of this, I hope people will remember and take into account Ven. Ming Yi’s very considerable contributions to society and accept him back after an appropriate period of contrition. I hope also that this unfortunate incident will not deter young monks and nuns, and lay Buddhists for that matter, from being more socially active.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oil Paintings

They towered over a rich valley in what is now central Afghanistan, where caravans of traders would stop and rest on the Silk Road as they transported goods between east and west. For centuries the two huge statues stood guard over Bamiyan. But in 2001, just months before they were forced from power, the Taleban dynamited what they considered un-Islamic representations of the human form. Today all that remains are the recesses where they stood, and the labyrinth of fragile caves surrounding them. Today there isn’t even a paved road connecting the valley to Kabul, but yet inside the caves are a reminder of Bamiyan’s past wealth and glory and a new claim to fame that could put the province back on the map. Inside those caves the steep, narrow steps are crumbling, there are cracks in the mud tunnels carved into the mountainside, and still visible high in the echoing chambers are pieces of Buddhist iconic art which are now thought to be the oldest oil paintings in the world. Japanese, European and American scientists restoring the cave murals dating back to around 650AD, discovered oil was used in the paint. Yoko Taniguchi, one of the Japanese experts working on the caves, told reporters this is the earliest known use of this technique in the history of art. She said it was previously thought the technique originated in Europe during the Renaissance, eight centuries later. But wandering through the Buddhist temples carved out of the rock, there is little left of the murals destroyed in the last 30 years of war after surviving for centuries. A tourist guidebook to Afghanistan written in the 1960s and 70s by Nancy Dupree, a famous traveller who dedicated much of her life to the country, gave an account of the artwork as it was then. ‘The rest of the hall is elaborately decorated in a varied palette of burnt sienna, green, lapis lazuli blue, and yellow ochre depicting flowers, trees, stylised floral sprays, cornucopias and figures of kneeling worshipers,’ she wrote. ‘A series of Buddhas dressed in sombre-hued maroon robes and framed with aureoles against an azure background walk on lotus pads set among flowers.’
There’s little evidence of this today apart from a few scraps of colour and detail here and there, but there are isolated caves higher up the mountain, impossible to get to without a rope, where some of the best examples still survive. A combination of the vibration from artillery shells, the Taleban chiselling away the depictions of faces and hands, and looting put paid to most of the paintings. But there are enough fragments left to give a hint of what it must have been like. The views from the caves looking out over the valley are stunning and there is another twist to the story of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. A Buddhist pilgrim wrote around the time the paintings were finished in the mid seventh century of the amazing statues - but he described three. According to his account, the third reclining Buddha was a 1,000 feet long and lay on the valley floor. It would be remarkable if it was buried beneath the river sediment and two teams of archaeologists, one from France another from Japan, are in a race to find it. It sounds like an Indiana Jones film, but there have been many interesting archaeological discoveries in Bamiyan and this beautiful valley may not yet have revealed all its secrets.
From a BBC report.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Going Gray

Old age (jara) is the period towards the end of an organism’s natural life span. The Tipitaka defines old age as being elderly (vuddha), worn out (mahallaka), far gone in years (addhagata), approaching the end (vayo anuppatta, A.I,68) and the Buddha described it as characterized by ‘brokenness of teeth, greyness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of vigour and the failing of the facilities’ (S.II,2). At the time of the Buddha the life expectancy was much shorter than today and few people lived to be ‘eighty, ninety or a hundred’ (A.I,68). However, the problems most often associated with old age - senility and illness, loneliness and fear of death - were as common then as they are today. The difference is that with people living longer than ever before, at least in developed countries, such problems affect a much larger section of the population.
The Buddha taught the Dhamma for the overcoming of suffering (dukkha) and because old age is one of the manifestations of suffering he had much to say on this subject (S.V,421). The most obvious symptoms of old age are physical - frailty, incapacitation and sickness. Because these states are inherent in old age they cannot be avoided completely but only postponed or minimized. Avoiding drinking and smoking, having a healthy diet and regular exercise before the onset of old age, and prompt medical intervention after its arrival, all help to do this. However, the psychological problems often associated with old age can, with the right attitude, be minimized to a much greater degree or even avoided completely. Once a man came to the Buddha and said: ‘Sir, I am now elderly, worn out, far gone in years, approaching the end, always physically sick and ailing...Tell me something cheerful and comforting that will benefit me for a long time’. The Buddha replied: ‘Train yourself like this, “Though my body be sick, my mind shall not be sick” ’ (aturakayassa me sato cittam anaturam bhavissati, S.III,1). These words of wisdom are a positive and cogent reminder that we can be emotionally stable, happy and content despite physical decline.
The Buddha recommended a range of strategies to help keep the mind healthy in the face of old age and impending decline, and we will briefly look at three of these. The first is learning to accept old age. Modern society sees old age as a state to be feared and denied. Science, medicine and surgery are marshalled in a frantic effort to stave it off for as long as possible. The results can be both comical and sad - the aged matron going for her sixth face lift, the 70 year old man putting on his toupee and teenager’s attire, Mae West at 90 still asking young men to come up and see her some time. Of course, the old men who marry women decades younger than themselves were known at the time of the Buddha too (Sn.110). The Buddha asked us to be realistic about old age and see it as a natural and inevitable process. Doing this will help us to ‘gracefully surrender the things of youth’ so we can use the energy we would otherwise expend on denial in filling our time with meaningful endeavours and in preparation for the end. The Buddha said: ‘Old age comes to the learned noble disciple but when he is old he thinks, “Not just I but all who are born grow old. And if when I am old I were to weep and cry, food would not interest me, my body would become ugly, I would neglect my affairs, my enemies would rejoice and my friends would grieve.” And so when old age does come he does not weep and cry. He is rightly called a learned noble disciple, he has pulled out the poisoned arrow of sorrow with which the ordinary person is tormented’ (A.III,54).
The Buddha also asked us to consider that longevity is perhaps not as important as what we do with ourselves in the time we have. He said: ‘It would be better to live for one day wise and meditative than for a hundred years stupid and lacking awareness. It would be better to live for one day full of vigour than for a hundred years lazy and idle’ (Dhp.111-12). These statements are of course rhetorical but their point is clear. The quality of our life is more important than its length. If we fully utilize and appreciate our life now we will become less concerned with staying young for as long as possible.
Two common psychological problems many elderly people face are regret - about having done or failed to do certain things - and a sense of having wasted one’s life. Such feelings can fill an elderly person’s days with sorrow and bitterness. Living with integrity now and developing the mind now will pre-empt these problems.
Another aspect of old age that the Buddha addresses is the issue of caring for the elderly. In the past growing old was compensated for to some degree by the deference and respect given to the elderly. Grandparents often had the job of caring for their grandchildren and this kept them occupied and made them feel needed. But in modern consumer societies old people are often ignored or even shunned as an unwelcome reminder to the young of what is in store for them and as an economic burden. The Buddha said that loving and grateful people think like this concerning their parents: ‘Having been supported by them I will support them in return’ (bhato nesam bharissami, D.III,189).
The picture is Bandinelli's Youth and Old Age.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Bones And Buddhists

In April police in Jaigaon, India, uncovered a human-bones factory and arrested six people. The factory's bones had come from cremation centers on the Ganges River in Varanasi, the Hindu holy city. They were being sold to Buddhist monasteries and to students of traditional medicine. Eastern India was once a flourishing center for the export of human skeletons. The government banned the trade in the late 1980s after human rights groups questioned bone-collection practices. ‘During interrogation [the gang] confessed that the hollow human thigh bones were in great demand in Bhutanese monasteries and were used as blow-horns, and the skulls as vessels to drink from at religious ceremonies,’ investigating officer Ravinder Nalwa told the Reuters news service Tuesday.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Buddhism In Bali

Much attention has been given to how far west Buddhism extended in ancient times. The most westerly Buddhist monument that can be is the foundations of a large stupa in the south east corner of the ancient citadel of Khiva in Turkmenistan. Small communities of Buddhists may have existed beyond this but if they did they would have been insignificant, isolated and exceptional. We can say therefore that the outer edge of Buddhism in the west was what is now western Iran. But how far to the east did Buddhism spread its gentle and civilizing influence? To the outer islands of Indonesia, to Australia or perhaps beyond? In the 1920’s a superb bronze bust of the Buddha was found on Sulawesi, one of the larger islands that make up Indonesia. This is the eastern most point that any Buddhist antiquity has ever been found. There is, though, no evidence of an enduring Buddhist presence either on Sulawesi or beyond it; no ruined temples or monasteries, no inscriptions or references to it in the historical records. However, only a few hundred miles south-west of Sulawesi is the small island of Bali where inscriptional and literary evidence shows that Buddhism existed along side Hinduism for about seven hundred years.
Indian merchants first arrived in Bali in about 200 BCE and it was probably these people who introduced Buddhism and Hinduism. A Balinese work of uncertain date called the Nagarakertagama by the Buddhist monk lists all the Buddhist temples in Bali, 26 altogether, and mentions that in 1275 King Kretanagara underwent a Tantric Buddhist initiation to protect his kingdom from an expected invasion by Kublai Khan. The island’s history is scant until 1343 when it was conquered by and absorbed into the Majapahit Empire of Java-Sumatra. Hinduism and Buddhism both received state patronage although the type of Buddhism that prevailed gradually became indistinguishable from Hinduism. A Javanese Buddhist work from about the 12th century contains this telling verse. ‘The one substance is called two, that is, the Buddha and Siva. They say they are different but how can they be divided? Despite differences there is oneness.’ Clearly at the time these words were being composed some Buddhists were struggling to maintain the uniqueness of the Dhamma while others were stressing its similarity with Hinduism. Eventually in both Java and Bali the integrators prevailed. Incidentally, the phrase ‘Despite differences there is oneness’ (Bhineka tunggal ika) has been taken as the motto for the Republic of Indonesia. With the collapse of Mahapahit in 1515 and the ascendancy of Islam, Java’s old intellectual and religious elite, including the last surviving Buddhist monks and scholars sought refuge in Bali.
In January 2004 I fulfilled a long-standing wish to visit the island that Nehru eulogized as ‘The Morning of the World.’ I planned to visit all the sights that other tourists like to see but my main intention was to search out the traces of Buddhism and find out something about Bali’s small Buddhist community. My first stop was the Bali Museum in Denpasar, the capital of the island. The older part of the museum was built in 1910 in the style of a royal palace and gives some idea of the artistic sophistication of the traditional Balinese culture. The exhibits on display in the museum reinforce the impression that the Balinese have an unusually highly developed aesthetic scene. The paintings, masks, pottery, wood calving and fabrics are superlative. In one room is a modest collection of Buddhist antiquities. These consist of clay votive stupas found at Pedgeng dating from about the 9th century and seals with the well-known Dhammapariaya on them. There is also a small collection of bronze images of the Buddha and various bodhisattvas. The captions on these exhibits gave little information about them and so I made an appointment to see the curator. He was able to give details about publications containing some details about the history of Buddhism in Bali but told me that no comprehensive account of it has ever been written. Next I headed for Goa Gajah near Ubud where I had read there were some traces of Buddhism. Goa Gajah was a sacred spring in ancient times and locals still come to bathe in its two pools. Water pours into the pools from pots held by beautifully calved figures of apsaras. Beyond the spring is a deep mossy and fern filled canyon with huge boulders strewn around it. The rocks on the side of the canyon have half finished Buddha statues, architectural forms and other things calved out of them. One bolder has what was quite clearly meant to be the pinnacle of a stupa calved out of it, again unfinished. There are also several artificial caves cut out of the cliffs one of which have three small stupas in front of it. The several inscriptions found at Goa Gajah show that both Hindu and Buddhist ascetics once lived here. My next stop was Besakih Bali’s largest and most sacred temple , which is situated on the lowest slopes of the spectacular Gunung Agung volcano. As the bus wound its way gradually upward the air became cooler and the landscape began to remind me of the country around Kandy, lush and green and filled with flowers. The top of Gunung Agung was hidden by cloud. Before the 10th century Besakih had been a Buddhist temple but just as Buddhism gradually declined and was absorbed into Hinduism so Besakih gradually became a Hindu temple. The temple itself is laid out in a series of terraces and extends for about a mile up the side of the volcano. I looked for signs of Buddhism, old statues or familiar motifs but could find nothing. Volcanic eruptions have destroyed or damaged Besakih several times throughout its history. Perhaps excavations in the thick black ash on which the present temple now stands would yield evidence of it’s Buddhist predecessor.

My last stop was the eastern town of Klungkung which had been capital of a small kingdom during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the center of the town is Taman Gili (The Island Garden) the only surviving part of the old royal palace which was built in 1710. The ceiling of several pavilions in the garden are covered in paintings of the highest quality. Most of these depict incidents from the Tantrikatha, a Balinese version of the Thousand and One Nights, and the Hindu epic Mahabhatara. But there is also some 20 panels illustrating the life and adventures of a legendary Buddhist character named Satusoma. This is of course a retelling of the famous Sutasoma Jataka. The paintings depicting Satusoma’s deeds are full of action and drama and the legends about him are very interesting. Although my main intention in visiting Bali was to seek out traces of Buddhism I was very interested in seeing the many beautiful Hindu temples also. When I was at the Puseh Pura Desa Temple at Batubulan I chanced to see a line of images which included an elegantly calved one of the Buddha. Later in the temple at Pura Ulunsiwa I saw another statue of the Buddha still being worshiped. Hinduism first integrated Buddhism into itself and then erased its identity leaving only there two sad reminders.
The last census in 1989 showed that there were 13,274 Buddhists in Bali, nearly all of them either ethnic Chinese or people from other parts of Indonesia. There are two Buddhist temples, one in Singharaj in the north of the island built by the Thai and Indonesian governments in 1971 and another in Denpasar. I visited both these establishments and was sad to see that the monks in them did little more than conduct rituals and do blessings for the people who came. I was invited to the homes of several Buddhists and was treated with the greatest respect but it was very clear that my hosts knew little about the Dhamma. They all acknowledged their ignorance and seemed to have a genuine desire to know more but as they all said, there was no one to teach them. But Hinduism in Bali is surprisingly vigorous and still claims the allegiance of almost everyone, young and old. It seems unlikely that the teachings of the Buddha will prove to be attractive to the Balinese for a long time in the future.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Happy Birthday

There are not many politicians whose behavior could be held up for emulation unless it was for ‘political acumen,’ a euphemism for slippery maneuvering, ruthlessness and knowing how to use people. An exception to this would have to be Nelson Mandela. He emerged from 29 years of harsh inceraration without any rancor or bitterness. He has constantly spoken up for reconciliation and forgiveness as the best way to heal the ugly wounds of apartheid and his words come across as completely sincere. A few years ago he went out of his way meet the wife of one of his former tormentor, Mrs. Botha. He held out his hand to her, she refused to take it, and yet throughout the proceeding conversation he remained his usual polite smiling self. We need more people who survive injustice without turning their victimhood into a means of self-promotion or who insist that they can only get ‘closure’ by extracting an apology from their oppressors. The Buddha said;

He who, though innocent, patiently bears
abuse, flogging and imprisonment,
with endurance as his only strength;
him I call a true brahman.Dhp.399

Nelson Mandela is 90 today. I wish him a Happy Birthday and hope that he has many more.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Quite A Mouthfull

Monks, there are these four dangers for those who go down to the water. What four? The danger or waves, of crocodiles, of whirlpools and the danger of sharks. So too, there are four dangers for one who has gone forth from home into homelessness as a monk equivalent to the four dangers of the water…And what is the danger of crocodiles? Monks, ‘crocodiles’ is a term for gluttony (M.I,160-61).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On The Face Of It

The complexion (chavivanna) is the colour and condition of the facial skin and the countenance (mukha) is the expression on the face. Complexion is one of the five types of human beauty; the others being beautiful hair, muscle structure, teeth and youth (Ja.I,394). In ancient India a complexion which was ‘not too dark and not too fair’ was considered the most desirable (M.I,88). Our complexion is influenced by physical factors like genetics, health, diet and climate. However, our psychological state has some influence on our complexion too and it is the major factor in shaping our countenance. The numerous muscles in the face are unique in that they are attached to the facial skin, surrounding and radiating from the eyes, mouth, nose and ears. Our emotions make these muscles expand or contract which influences blood flow to the skin and thus skin colour. Emotions that have become habitual can cause some muscles to be permanently tight or loose changing the contours of the face so that the skin becomes smooth or wrinkled.
Popular wisdom says that a person's heart is written on their face and there is an element of truth in this saying. Fear or worry can make the eyes to sink into their sockets, the cheeks droop and the skin become pale. An explosive temper can make the face red and in time cause the capillaries to become visible (dhamanisanthtagatta) so that the skin has a blotchy appearance. A persistently angry, critical or haughty outlook can give the skin a dark hue and make the ends of the mouth turn down into a sneer.
In numerous places throughout the scriptures the Buddha is described as having a golden-coloured skin (kancanasannibhattaca), exceptionally smooth skin (sukhumacchavi) and clear and radiant faculties (vippasannani indriyani, A.I,181; D.III,143; Sn.551). This outer beauty was a direct result of his inner transformation. The experience of enlightenment had dissolved all greed, hatred and perplexity creating space for the unrestricted expression of love, kindness, detachment and clarity. This in turn gave the Buddha a beautiful complexion and countenance that lasted even into his old age.
A sure sign of progress in meditation is that the face develops a more noticeably calm and pleasant demeanour (bhadramukha). Those who are able to spend longer periods in meditation and whose practice is fruitful, are sometimes reported as having radiant complexions. This is particularly true for those doing loving-kindness meditation or who have attained any of the four jhanas (S.III,236; V,301).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Older And Wiser

The famous evangelist Billy Graham used to read the Bible very carefully and tell it as he read it – God saves Christians and condemns everyone else to eternal Hell. The Bible still says the same as it did when Graham was young but apparently he reads it rather different nowadays. Nice to see. This is part of a dialogue between Reverend Schuller and Billy Graham that was broadcast on The Hour of Power, program #1426, May 32.
Schuller: ‘Tell me, what is the future of Christianity?’
Graham: ‘Well, Christianity and being a true believer, you know, I think there’s the body of Christ which comes from all the Christian groups around the world, or outside the Christian groups. I think that everybody that loves Christ or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the body of Christ. And I don’t think that we’re going to see a great sweeping revival that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. What God is doing today is calling people out of the world for His name. Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts they need something that they don’t have and they turn to the only light they have and I think they’re saved and they’re going to be with us in heaven.’
Schuller: ‘What I hear you saying is that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into a human heart and soul and life even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?’
Graham: ‘Yes it is because I believe that. I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, have never heard of Jesus but they’ve believed in their hearts that there is a God and they tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.’
Schuller: ‘This is fantastic. I’m so thrilled to hear you say that. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.
Graham: ‘There is. There definitely is.’
The Reverend Schuller must have been mistaken when he said that there is ‘a wideness in God’s mercy.’ The Christian God is presumably the same as he has always been; it’s Billy Graham’s mercy that’s got a bit wider. Goodness! If this goes on he might start quoting the Metta Sutta.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Be Like A Banyan Tree

The Buddha said; Just as in some pleasant countryside where four main roads meet, the majestic banyan tree growing there is a haven of rest for all the birds around about; even so, the believing clansman is a haven of rest for many people – monks and nuns, lay men and lay women.
A great tree with firmly rooted trunk,
And branches bearing leaves and fruit
Becomes a delightful gathering place for birds.
Those in need shade go there for shade,
And those in need of fruit go there for fruit.
In the same way, those who are free from lust,
Hatred and from delusion, the cankerless ones
Who are a field of merit in the world
Associate with a person who is endowed with virtue,
Faith, modesty, who is well-mannered,
Friendly, gentle and nor rough.
They teach him Dhamma that dispels all suffering
And which, if he understands it,
He becomes perfectly calm and cankerless.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Temple On The Border

The beautiful temple of Prasat Phra Wihan is in the news again after being out of it for many decades. Popularly called Preah Vihear, this ancient temple is located right on the border between Cambodia and Thailand and the two countries have been at odds over it since the French separated Cambodia from Thailand in the early 1900’s. If you are ever in that part of Thailand make a point of going to see it. Getting there from the Cambodian side is far too difficult and dangerous. Believe me! I know. It sits on the top of a high hill – one side with a gradual slope and the other side ending in a most dramatic cliff. An incredibly impressive stairway in three tires with 214 steps leads up the slope and the entire complex extends for over 800 meters. In 1962 Cambodia and Thailand took their dispute over the temple to the International Court of Justice and judgment was returned for Cambodia. Ever the sore losers, the Thais have never really accepted this judgment and every now and then a politician who wants to make a name for himself will bring up the issue of the temple’s ownership. The Thais like to think of themselves rather than the Cambodians as the decedents of the Khmers (We built Ankor Wat!) and never let history stand in the way of a bit of chauvinism. Just to make sure there is no doubt about who owns Prasat Phra Wihan, the Cambodians have put a picture of it one their 100 riel bank note. Cambodia recently applied to have Prasat Phra Wihan given World Heritage status, the present Thai government agreed to support their bid but last week the Thai High Court, probably egged on by those trying to embarrass the prime minister, blocked the government from doing so. Prasat Phra Wihan could act, quite literally, as a bridge between the two Buddhist neighbors. Instead it continues to be a barrier. My photos of the temple have turned yellow with age so I provide this aerial picture of it. I am going to be in Australia for a conference until the 15th so no new postings until then.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Eyes Tightly Open

Mysticism is a term given to a variety of intense experiences or the means of developing such experiences. Mysticism is notoriously difficult to define. William James said that the main features of the mystical experience are ineffability, noetic quality, transience and passivity. Evelyn Underhill wrote that mysticism could be described as being practical rather than theoretical, an entirely spiritual activity, having love as its purpose and method, and as never being self-seeking. The problem with these and indeed most definitions of mysticism is that they apply mainly to the major monotheistic religions and do not take into account Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and non-religious mystical experience.
Incidentally, the best examination of the mystical experience I have ever read is that of Walter Kaufmann in his brilliant Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Unlike James, Underhill, G. Parrinder and others, Kaufmann was well acquainted with Buddhism and took it into account in his study. As for D. T, Suzuki’s Mysticism – Christian and Buddhist, I found it more mystifying than actual about mysticism.
Looked at from the perspective of modern psychology we could say that most, if not all, experience usually labeled mystical has these four characteristics. (1) It has an intense emotional component, (2) it is triggered by physical or psychological stress - despair, longing, fasting, suppresses sexuality, long vigils, etc, (3) it never contradicts the mystic’s theological beliefs - Christians do not have visions of Visnu, Muslims never have a glimpse of the Trinity, etc, and (4) it is interpreted as having been caused by an external agent - God, angels, Spirit, etc. The Buddha’s description of his enlightenment does not fit well into either James’ or Underhill’s description of the mystical state nor does it have any of the other four characteristics of mysticism.
The Buddha appears to have been exceptionally calm and poised, emotionless even, as he began his meditation in the hours before his enlightenment (M.I,167). The intense joy (vimuttisukha) he felt only came later (Ud.1-3). He had fully recovered from his austerities at the time he attained enlightenment. He mentioned that he had eaten proper food, rested and regained his strength (balam gahetva, M.I,247). There is no evidence that he had any idea about the Four Noble Truths or dependant origination before his enlightenment. In fact, he distinctly said that the truths he realized had ‘not been heard about before’ (pubbe ananussutesu, S.V,422). The Buddha never described his enlightenment as a gift from God or as the result of divine grace. He always taught that a person attains enlightenment ‘through his own knowledge and vision’ (sayam abhinna, D.III,55).
Some writers on religion occasionally refer to what they call ‘Buddhist mysticism.’ Interestingly, the word mysticism comes from the Latin mysterium meaning ‘to close the eyes’ while the Pali word for enlightenment (bodhi) means ‘to awaken’ or ‘to open the eyes.’ So whether we are justified in describing intense and transformative experience in Buddhism as ‘mystical’ is a debatable point.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I thought that after all those words the silence of the mountains and some of their cool, clean air might be welcomed. Besides, I need a break.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Vegetarianism VI

How I Became a Vegetarian
It was a Saturday morning and I was in Phnom Penh’s walking through the central market looking for some fruit to buy. Without trying too, I found myself in the meat section. Even a blind person would know they were there. The stench was overpowering. Chickens with wet feathers and blank expressions sat in tiny cages, probably oblivious to what was soon to happen to them. The goats certainly knew. You could see it in their eyes. But there was nothing they could do and they just stood there, heads bowed, resigned to their fate. Meat hung on hooks, knives and cleavers lay on chopping blocks and everything was covered with blood and flies. I walked on hoping to get to the fruit and vegetable section and a few minuets later found my way blocked by a large round basket that was placed in the middle of the aisle. The basket was full of dead and plucked chickens and a man was crouching beside the basket doing something to the chickens with a hose while a young boy stood on the other side doing something with what looked like a gas cylinder. I stood there for a moment trying to take in the scene before me. Then it dawned on me. The chickens were just slightly putrid, in places their yellowish-white skin was going green or gray. The man was sticking a needle attached to the hose into each chicken and as he did so the boy pumped the cylinder. In countries like Cambodia, when a butcher’s or fish monger’s wares have gone off, they sometimes pump formalin into it to disguise the putrefaction and so that it keeps a bit longer. The association in my mind of food, the chicken, and the formalin, which as you probably know is used by undertakers to preserve human cadavers, revolted me so much that I turned away and actually vomited. A man behind one of the stalls saw this and most kindly offered me a glass of water so I could wash my mouth out. When I got back to the temple I was still feeling a bit nauseous but not so much that I could not eat and when the lunch bell rung I made my way to the dining hall. As I sat at the table with all the dishes of food on it I immediately noticed that the main dish was, you guessed it, chicken. As soon as I saw it my stomach began to churn again and I had to rush from the hall. I didn’t vomit this time but my apatite had quite gone. Over the next few weeks my taste for meat, any meat, just went. It slowly returned but if the memory of the putrid formalin-dosed chickens arouse I had to consciously suppress it or lose my apatite. Three months later on a quick trip to Australia a Sri Lankan friend gave me some things to deliver to his brother back in Sri Lanka. One of these things was a book called Animal Liberation by Paul Singer. I had never heard of this book and its title aroused no interest in me. Back in Sri Lanka I called the brother, he said he would come the next day to collect the things and didn’t show up for another three months. The book and other things sat around my room acting as a sort of silent reminder of how casual Sinhalese are towards keeping appointments, commitments, promises or indeed anything. One hot afternoon as I lay on my bed feeling rather bored and with nothing to read I picked Singer’s book up thinking just to browse through it. As it happened happens, the parts I read interested me so much that I returned to the beginning and read the whole thing in three sittings. I had been expecting it to take the usual vegetarian’s approach – you know, calling meat ‘carrion’ or ‘rotten flesh,’ quoting the opinions of famous odd-ball vegetarians, giving long descriptions of how meat ferments in the bowels and claiming that vegetarianism’ poo smells better than that of meat eaters’. Instead, Singer argues for the kind treatment of animals (including by not eating them) objectively, logically and convincingly. Peter Singer is a professional philosopher and he writes like one. And incidentally, he has nothing to do with the extremist animal rights group Animal Liberation. As I followed his arguments I found myself forced by the logic of them to agree with them. Over the next week or two I returned to parts of the book and reread them and finally decided that anyone who wants metta to be an important part of their character would have to seriously consider being vegetarian. As a Buddhist I do wish to have metta dominate in my life and so I made the decision to abstain from eating meat. Since that time I have cut my meat consumption by at least 95%, the force of long established habit, circumstance or just the desire for a juicy steak accounting for the other 5%. So my decision to become vegetarian was brought about by three things – a gradual awareness of the need for active (as opposed to passive) metta in the Buddhist life, by an incident of visceral revulsion with meat and then by the reasoning of a philosopher helping me see implications in the Buddha’s words that I had not seen before. I could not honestly say that I am grateful for that Cambodian man with his putrefying chickens but I am most grateful to Peter Singer. The fact that he is an Australian had nothing to do with it.
I conclude this exploration into the issue of meat eating, vegetarianism and Dhamma with a final question. If vegetarianism is more consistent with the Dhamma why didn’t the Buddha endorse it?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vegetarianism V

Meat In Buddhist Traditions
I would like to examine different Buddhists attitude to vegetarianism. The simplistic picture – Hinayanists (Theravadins) eat meat and Mahayanists don’t – does not reflect reality. Although Theravada doctrine does not condemn meat eating, vegetarianism is common in Sri Lanka (although probably more due to the influence of Hinduism than Buddhism) but rare in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Some Mahayana texts advocate vegetarianism, although not all, and all Chinese and Korean monks and nuns and the more devote lay people are strictly vegetarian. Many other Chinese and Korean lay people will be vegetarian at least on certain holy days. Vajaryana texts do not advocate abstaining from meat, indeed some specifically endorse and even encourage it. Vegetarianism is rare in Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia and also in Japan.
There are two Theravadin justifications for eating meat. We have already discussed the ‘I didn’t see, hear or suspect that the animal was killed for me so I’m off the hook’ argument. The other one goes like this, ‘Monks get what they need by begging and should eat whatever they are given without picking and choosing.’ Like so much Theravada, this explanation of the theory bears little resemblance to the reality. The reality is, and I’m probably revealing a trade secret here, that monks nearly always get exactly what they want. When the average monk wants something he simply buys it or says to his supporters, ‘I need A, B and C.’ The more scrupulous monks will resort to hints, a slightly changed expression or insinuations. Either way, lay people are more than happy to provide monks with all their needs and most of their wants as well, and if a monk wanted a vegetarian diet he would get it without any difficulty at all.
Theravadins traditionally do not use the 3rd point mentioned in my Vegetarianism I post (Feeling and acting with kindness towards living beings is a part of the first Precept) because the Theravada does not teach that meaningful concern for others has a spiritual significance. Likewise points 2, 4 and 5 (Trying to influence and encourage others not to harm or kill living beings and to be kind to them would be consistent with the first Precept. Not killing or harming living beings and being kind to them, is an integral part of the whole Dhamma, not just the first Precept. Eating meat is casually related to the harming or killing living beings and thus to the first Precept being broken) are not included in Theravada discourse on the meat eating-vegetarianism debate because its pedantic and literal interpretation of the Dhamma means that these points are not considered. So when it comes to eating meat, Theravada is not hypocritical, it is just narrow and selfish.
Vajrayana (I will use the term Tibetan Buddhism from now on) is another matter. Most Tibetans Buddhists – living Buddhas, manifestations of Manjusri, rimpoches and tulkus included, don’t just eat meat, they consume it with gusto. Now when I read works on Tibetan Buddhism I find they the subject of compassion is nearly always mentioned somewhere; and so it should be. As if to emphasise its central position in Vajrayana, it is usually referred to not just as compassion but as maha karuna. Numerous commentaries on the Bodhicariyavatara linger with tear-jerking emotion on Santideva’s aspiration to willingly give his life for others. The practice of paratma parivartana ‘exchanging self with others’ forms an important element within the practices of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. I won’t labour the point because I think you can see where this is going. Is there not a serious contradiction between the Tibetan Buddhist persistent and strong emphasis on compassion and the fact that they eat meat? I think there is. So Tibetan Buddhism may not be narrow but it certainly is hypocritical and inconsistent concerning this issue.
Some years ago I was staying at Bodh Gaya, the Dalai Lama was due in a few days to give some teachings and the town was filling up with Tibetans. A friend and I decided to get out of town for the duration. As we drove to Gaya we found the road blocked by a herd of a hundred or so buffalos and goats being driven by several cowherds. Our driver hooted the horn, inched the car through the animals and when we got to the one of the cowherds asked him where he was going with such a large number of animals. ‘To Bodh Gaya. They’re for the lamas’ he replied. One would think that the least they could do is abstain from meat while they are at such a sacred place receiving teachings that almost certainly included calls to have maha karuna for all beings.
Related to all this is a rather shameful hypocrisy that prevailed and indeed continues to linger in nearly all Buddhist lands. Butchers, leather-workers, hunters, fishermen and fowlers in Buddhist countries provided the community with various animal products including meat but were marginalized for doing so. Costal-living fishermen in Sri Lanka were shunned by the majority and no monks ministered to them. Consequently these peoples were easily converted to Catholicism when the Portuguese arrived. Interestingly, soldiers, whose job was to kill humans, were never similarly ostracized. In Japan the Buraku were and still are treated as outcastes because they did slaughtering and other ‘unclean’ tasks. In Tibet a group of people (I do not know what they were called. Can anyone help?) were likewise despised because they made their living as slaughter men and tanners and were relegated to the outskirts of towns. I will stand being corrected here but I think they were also not allowed into temples. Interestingly, coracle men were likewise despised because their crafts were made of leather. Heinrich Harrer has some interesting comments on how the monastic hierarchy made these peoples’ lives difficult while benefiting from their services. Pious Burmese would never slaughter a large animal (cow or buffalo) but they think that killing small ones like fish, ducks or chickens is okay or that it only creates a manageable amount of negitive kamma. They let the Muslims provide them with their beef and mutton and despise them for doing so.
So it would seem that meat eating is an issue that all Buddhist schools are yet to intelligently, consistently and compassionately come to terms with.
Tomorrow, my own journey into vegetarianism.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Vegetarianism IV

Some Problems With Being Vegetarian
One of the reasons why I only became vegetarian recently (and even now not 100% so) is the hypocrisy and inconsistency I observed amongst so many vegetarians. The awareness of this and the irritation it caused prevented me from seeing intelligent, thoughtful vegetarianism’s consistency with the Dhamma. In 1996 when I visited Hong Kong and Taiwan I stayed in many Chinese Mahayana monasteries. I was always welcomed with the greatest courtesy but inevitably the subject of diet would come up. As is fairly typical of vegetarians, my hosts were fixated on food and about the only thing they knew about Theravada was that Theravadins will eat meat. When I was asked, and sooner or later I always was, ‘Are you vegetarian?’ I would truthfully reply, ‘No I am not. But while here (Hong Kong or Taiwan) I am adhering to your discipline.’ This answer was often followed by a long, usually polite but sometimes reproachful, lecture about how uncompassionate it is to eat meat. While fingers were being wagged in my face I couldn’t help noticing that nearly all my hosts were dressed in silk robes and I happen to know that approximately 50 silk worms have to be boiled alive to make one square inch of silk. I also noticed that all the banners, hangings etc. in the monasteries’ shrines were likewise of silk. One monk delivered his lecture to me while sitting on what could only be described as a throne, flanked by the two of the biggest elephants tusks I have ever seen, each intricately and exquisitely carved with images of Kuan Yin and other bodhisattvas. Both these tusks were still creamy-white indicating that their original owner had only been slaughtered a few years ago. Another thing I noticed was the furniture. You may know that running down the eastern side of Taiwan is a chain of very high mountains and that these are covered with thick forest made up of the most magnificent ancient trees. What you probably don’t know that it has become the fashion in Taiwan to have furniture made out of these trees. A table may consist of a huge cross-section of a trunk a foot or more thick and the five or six chairs around it can be made out of cross-sections of smaller trunks or large branches. The attraction of this type of furniture is the often gnarled outer surface of the trunk slabs and the age-rings within them. I hardly need mention that this furniture is extremely expensive but as Taiwanese temples tend to be very, very, very rich, they usually have at least one or two sets of this furniture. One incredibly lavish temple I visited had five such sets in the visitor’s hall and one in the vestibule of each monk’s room. Another must-have I noticed in many temples is huge twisted gnarled tree trunks, sometimes including the roots, with Bodhidhamma or Kuan Yin carved into them. None of the gung-ho vegetarian monks I met seemed particularly concerned about their role in decimating Taiwan’s ancient forests by having these beautiful but completely unnecessary and destructive luxuries.
But by far the worst thing I saw in Taiwan was the attitude towards pets. The Taiwanese are busy absorbing Western middle-class values and tastes but like all new-comers they still haven’t got it quite right. So of example, everyone wants a fluffy adorable puppy, kitten or bunny but they are not yet schooled in what to do with them once they get them. Three month later or when the animal has grown up and is no longer cute they loose interest in it. This is particularly true of dogs who are often confined in tiny cages. Some of these caged dogs are put at front gates so they will bark when anyone comes. I recall looking down several streets and seeing one of these tiny cages at nearly every gate and hearing their occupants howling with boredom, barking incessantly and whimpering for attention. As in middle-class Taiwanese homes so to in Taiwanese monasteries. In one temple I saw two adult Alsatians locked in a cage barely big enough for them to turn around and in the 3 weeks I was at this temple they were never let out once. Worst still, the abbot of this temple, a rather formidable man, is well-known as an outspoken and crusading advocate of, you guessed it, strict vegetarianism – no milk, no eggs, no animal products at all. Both his Alsatians suffered from severe rickets because being a vegan himself the abbot had imposed his fetish on his dogs when they were puppies by refusing to feed them milk or meat and now their legs are all bowed and bent. Having said all this I should point out that generally I was impressed by the vigour of Buddhism in Taiwan and that the country has an active animal rights movement. My problem was only with the Buddhist vegetarianism.
I’d have to say that a good number of the vegetarians I have encountered suffer from a similar lopsidedness - an almost obsession with meat and its consumption and virtually no interest in any other kind of cruelty to animals or the environment which they need to live. For many people, just not eating meat is enough – and from a Buddhist perspective it is not enough. You could be a scrupulous vegetarian and be thoughtless, unkind and uncaring about other beings. Vegetarianism is good but if it does not go hand in hand with a compassionate regard for all human and animal life it’s just another food fad. So if you are going to be a vegetarian be an intelligent one.
This subject is still not exhausted so there will be more tomorrow.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Vegetarianism III

The Last Link In The Chain
Here is a quandary for you. We said before that a casual link can be discerned between eating meat and animals being killed. Nowadays there are many persons between these two points - the cutters, the meat packers, the distributors, etc. but in either its simplest or most complex form the three key participants are (1) the slaughter man, the one who actually draws the knife across the animals throat; (2) the middleman who sells the meat and (3) the customer, the person who buys and consumes the meat. Now it is obvious why the Buddha mentioned slaughter men, hunters, fishermen, etc. as those who do not practice Dhamma (S.II,256). It is perhaps less obvious but significant that he describes people who sell meat as failing to practice Right Livelihood (A.III,207). But interestingly, nowhere does the Buddha complete what seems to be the logical sequence by mentioning the third and last link in the chain, the buyer/eater. Why?
Here is another quandary for you. The Buddha said that his lay disciples should avoid making their living by five trades (vanijja); these being trade in weapons (sattha), in human beings (satta), in meat (mamsa), in alcohol (majja) and in poisons (visa, A.III.208). Although this seems clear enough, looking at it a little more carefully might be relevant to the question of meat eating. Why are these trades wrong, unwholesome or kammicly negative? Let’s have a look at arms dealing. While the blacksmith is forging steel to make a sword he is unlikely to have any evil intensions, he is probably preoccupied with forging his steel and he certainly does not kill anyone. The arms dealer who sells the sword does not kill anyone either. So why did the Buddha consider arms trading to be a negative means of livelihood? Obviously because weapons, like poisons make killing possible. The arms dealer is centrally situated in a chain that could lead to someone being killed even though he himself does not kill anyone. Now if we reverse this sequence and apply it to meat eating then surly the same conclusion would have to be drawn;
A, sword maker – B, arms dealer = C, purchaser and killing;
C – eating meat – B, meat seller = A, slaughter man and killing.
Why in both these cases has the Buddha left one of the key links out of the chains? I would be interested to receive your comments and thoughts on this matter.
Tomorrow I’m taking the kid gloves off, so stay tuned. No! Hold on! Now that I’m switching to vegetarianism and am trying to be consistent in the practice of harmlessness I don’t wear kid gloves anymore.