Sunday, August 31, 2008

Three Cheers For Crude Absolutism

Some time ago I thought of starting a web site called Dopey Dharma and inviting readers to submit the best example of nonsense taught by Buddhist teachers, outlandish claims made by them or gobbledygook they had written. Then at the end of the year I thought of selecting the best of the worst and giving them the Dopey Dharma Award. I finally abandoned the idea. Firstly I don’t have enough time and secondly I thought I might be sent so much material that it might be difficult to handle.
Last week I finished reading Miranda Shaw’s Buddhist Goddesses of India, an excellent and long overdue study. I did have problems with some parts of the book though. Including Mayadevi, the Buddha’s mother, and Mahapajapati Gotami, his step mother, is such a study is questionable (neither was never elevated to the status of a goddess, even in Mahayana) and Shaw’s failure to give the periods when the various goddesses evolved detracts from the study’s value. Nonetheless, the book makes interesting reading. On page 10/11 Shaw addresses the question of whether Tantric goddesses are real or not. She finds some Westerners ‘no they don’t’ reply to the question to be a regrettable example of ‘crude absolutism’ and then says -

‘Seeking to address this rather crude absolutism, Bokar Rimpoche, a contemporary Tibetan teacher clarifies the ontological status of the deities. He explains that the deities are not illusions produced by the human mind. However, human envisionments of deities are mental fabrications that do not correspond precisely to the form of those deities. In that sense, Bokor Rimpoche concedes, a deity can be said to be a creation of the human psyche. This illusionary statue, however, holds true only of the human concept and image and not of a deity himself or herself. The deities are realities that transcend this world and “spontaneously assume…various forms…to benefit beings.” Religious practice, he holds, is an interaction between deity and devotee that invokes the protection, assistance, blessing, and revelation of the deity. Human envisionments of deity, as in the practice of deity yoga, offers a means to approach the deity and eventually to attain a direct vision of the deity’s divine form in all its glory and living reality. When deity and practitioner merge in the culmination of deity yoga, and their identities dissolve into one, it is not because the deity was unreal all along but because the practitioner has entered the radiant, blissful realm of nonduel awareness the deity inhabits. Moreover, the practitioner comes to recognize that the qualities of the deity were already present in a dormant state in his or her own being, awaiting to be awakened.’

I’m just a simple monk so my mind can only operate in terms of the ‘crude absolutism’ of ‘Yes they do’ or ‘No they don’t.’ Bokar Rimpoche’s ‘clarification’ looses me completely. Am I right in thinking that someone is trying to avoid a simple, straightforward answer?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Vulture's Peak

The Gijjhakuta, the Vulture Peak or Gijjhakuta, was the Buddha’s favorite retreat in Rajagaha and the scene for many of his discourses. According to the commentaries this place got its name because vultures used to perch on some of the peak’s rocks. The several rock shelters around the Gijjhakuta, its fine view across the valley, and its peaceful environment made it the perfect place for meditation. Climbing the steps that lead to the top, the pilgrim passes a large cave. This is the Sukarakhata (the Boar’s Grotto) where the Buddha delivered two discourses, the Discourse to Long Nails and the Sukarakhata Sutta. It was here too that Sariputta attained enlightenment. The Sukarakhata seems to have been formed by excavating the earth from under the huge rock that forms the grotto's roof, an impression confirmed by legend. According to the Pali commentaries during the time of Kassapa Buddha a boar rooting around under the rock made a small cavity which was later enlarged when monsoon rains washed more earth away. Later, an ascetic discovered the cave and, deciding it would be a good place to live in, built a wall around it, furnished it with a couch, and ‘made it as clean as a golden bowl polished with sand.’ Climbing further, the pilgrim can see the ruins of stupas and the foundations of a small temple built on the summit in ancient times. When the simple and devoted Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien came here, he was deeply moved by the atmosphere on the Gijjhakuta. ‘In the new city, Fa Hien bought incense, flowers, oil and lamps and hired two monks, long residents in the place, to carry them to the peak. When he himself arrived, he made his offerings with flowers and incense and lit the lamps when the darkness began to come on. He felt melancholy but restrained his tears, and said, ‘Here the Buddha delivered the Surangama Sutra. I, Fa Hien, was born when I could not meet the Buddha and now I only see the footprints which he has left and the place where he lived and nothing more.’ With this, in front of the rock cavern, he chanted the Surangama Sutra, remaining there overnight and then returned towards the new city.’ In Dharmasvamin’s time (13th century), the Gijjhakuta was ‘the abode for numerous carnivorous animals such as tiger, black bear and brown bear,’ and in order to frighten away the animals, pilgrims visiting the Gijjhakuta would beat drums, blow conches and carry tubes of green bamboo that would emit sparks. A Buddha statue, dating from the 6th century CE, found on the Gijjhakuta, is now housed in the Archaeological Museum at Nalanda. The Gijjhakuta is located about 5 kilometers south-east of the town of Rajgir and is a popular destination for both local tourists and Buddhist pilgrims form overseas. Because the Sadharmapundrika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) was taught on the Gijjhakuta, the place is particularly popular with Japanese and Korean pilgrims.
From Middle Land Middle Way-A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India, by Ven. S. Dhammika

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Study In Contrast

Events in Korea of late could be seen as a study in contrast. The problem is not that the president, Lee Myung Bak, is a Christian but that he is a particular type of Christian – one of those types whose religious convictions drive them to overstep the borders of good manners and good judgment. When Lee was mayor of Seoul, he declared the city ‘a holy place governed by God’ and the citizens of the city ‘God’s people.’ Later he dedicated the city ‘to the Lord.’ Strangely, there was no subsequent drop in Seoul’s crime rate. In 2006, Lee also sent a video prayer message to a evangelical rally where the worship leader called on God to ‘let the Buddhist temples in this country crumble down!’ (Asia Times 1,2,2008) On being elected president Lee publicly announced that he intended to turn the president’s mansion into ‘a house of prayer,’ not a good start one would have thought in a country where more than half the population are not Christians. He filled his cabinet with evangelical Christians like himself, including several from his own church, and has since made a point of being seen at evangelical Christian functions. In early 2008, the Seoul metropolitan area transportation information system (Algoga), administered by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, deleted the names of major temples (but not churches) from their map. The ministry apologized, saying that it was an inadvertent mistake, but a similar thing happened again in August when the educational geographical information system, administered by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry made the ‘mistake.’ It should be pointed out that Buddhists are not the only ones who have problems with Lee. Amnesty International has severely criticized him for ordering police to use ‘excessive force’ against protestors who were demonstrating against his policies. He also faces a criminal inquiry into his alleged links to a 2000 share manipulation fraud, not the first time he has been investigated for fraud.

In a democracy the president is elected by the people and is supposed to represent all the people. If he or she has a bias (and we all have some) it is good policy to either keep it well hidden or better, to try to compensate for it. Lee’s faith is so frenzied that he has proudly proclaimed and demonstrated his biases. Up to now there have only been rumbles amongst Buddhists, Confucianists and, one might add, mature socially conscious Christians as well. But in late July when the police rudely searched the car of the head monk of the Jogye Order, Venerable Jigwan, in the course of arresting Buddhist activists that were suspected of having sought refuge in the temple, Buddhists decided things had gone far enough. Some 55,000 people and about 3000 monks have held a demonstration in the centre of Seoul. In contrast to the unapologetic bias and discrimination of the Lee administration, the Buddhists’ protest has been dignified, measured and peaceful. Venerable Wonhak, one of the leaders of the protest said, ‘This gathering is not to declare a state of confrontation but to try to end social conflict and division.’ He also called for more tolerance and understanding between faiths. The venerable’s is attitude is in accordance with the Buddha’s words in Dhammapada 223; 'Overcome anger with love, bad with good, meanness with generosity, and falsehood with truth.'
Unfortunately, blind faith sometimes makes one deaf to such reasoned pleas.

From the 1st of next month I will discuss the positive emotions from the Buddhist perspective.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Himalayan Journey II

These photos were taken at Gangotri, in Lahaul, Spiti and between Munsiyari and the foot of Nandadevi. The purpose of going to Nandadevi was to try to find Nanda Guha (see the post for 26th). We didn’t find it but we had a fantastic adventure anyway. The highest point we reached during the whole trip was the 4551 meter high Kumzum Pass.

Himalayan Journey I

These pictures were taken below the tree-line (up to 3500 meters) in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, and include locations in the Kullu Valley, the Parvati Valley, at Tungnath, in Kinnaur and in the Sangla Valley. I was accompanied during the trips by the ever cheerful and helpful Viraj and we traveled by jeep, public bus, horse or donkey and by foot. The Hindus believe that God abides in the Himalayas and I understand why. If I was God I’d live there. Tomorrow’s pictures will be of the Himalayas above the tree line.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Buddhism In The Himalayas

The Himalayas are the highest mountains in the world. They form a giant arch 2500 kilometers long, between 200 and 300 kilometers wide and define the northern boundary of the Indian sub-continent. The Jataka describe the Himalayas as ‘a vast region, five hundred yoganas high and three thousand in breadth’ (Ja.V,415). To the ancient Indians they were ‘the thousand-peaked mountains’ or ‘the measuring rod of the world.’ The Hindus scriptures know them as Devabhumi, ‘the abode of the gods’ while the Buddha called them Pabbataraja, ‘the lord of mountains’ (S.II,137). The exact meaning of the name Himalaya is uncertain. It may have been formed from the words hima and mala meaning ‘garland of snow’ or from hima and alaya meaning ‘abode of snow.’ Both meanings are appropriate to these majestic mountains. Viewed from a distance in either summer or winter they give the appearance of a string of pure white blossoms and no matter how pleasantly warm it may be down in the valleys during the summer there is always snow on the horizon. Although more often associated with Hinduism, the Himalayas are often mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures and were familiar to the Buddha himself. He would have seen these great ice and rock ramparts long before he renounced the world and began his quest for truth. The spectacular 8,167 meter high sentinel of Dhaulagiri can be clearly seen from his hometown of Kapilavatthu. Perhaps he had this particular mountain in mind when he compared the virtuous person to the dazzling sun-lit snow peaks. ‘The good shine from afar like the Himalayas.The bad are obscure like an arrow shot into the night’ (Dhp. 304). Shortly after his enlightenment the Buddha is said to have used his super-normal powers to visit Lake Anotatta which is now identified with Lake Manasarovar at the foot of Mount Kilash (Vin.I,27). Later in life he occasionally ‘sojourned in a forest hut in the Himalayan region,’ probably the thickly wooded hills of the lower Kumon or the Mahabarata Hills of Nepal (S.I,116). It is hard to know how far into the mountains the Buddha may have gone but he once mentioned ‘the rugged uneven places in the Himalayas where hunters and their prey could go and beyond it, the regions where neither man nor beast can penetrate’ (S.V,148). Some of his direct disciples, following the horary tradition of Indian ascetics, would have gone up into the mountains to find peace and solitude. In the Jataka the Buddha is attributed with asking his monks; ‘Do you wish to go a wandering in the Himalayas?’ (Gacchissatha pana Himavanta carikam, Ja.V,415) The Himalayas feature prominently in early Buddhist geography. India was known to the ancient Buddhists as Jambudipa and was one of the world’s four great continents. The northern border of this land was defined by the Usiraddhaja Mountains (Vin.IV,197) and beyond that were the Himalayas, the region called sometimes Himava, Himacala or Himavata. The Jataka name numerous caves, plateaus, valleys, hermitages and rivers in the Himalayas but almost none of these can be identified today. The most famous cave was at the foot of Mount Nanda and was thus known as Nandamula Cave. Pacceka Buddhas are mentioned as living in this cave and flying from there to Benares or elsewhere in India, and back again (Ja.III,157; 190; 230; 259). In one place it describes one of these mysterious saintly beings like this; he ‘wore rag robes red as lac, dark as a rain cloud, his belt was yellow like a flash of lightening and the clay bowl hanging over his shoulder was as brown as a bumble bee. He rose into the air and after having given a talk on Dhamma he flew to the Nandamula cave in the north of the Himalayas’ (J.IV,114).
Seven of the biggest lakes were Kannamundaka, Rathakara, Sihapapata, Chaddanta, Tiyaggala, Anotatta and Kunala (are these the Seven Lakes south-east of Gangotri?) and some of the more prominent peaks were Manipabbata, Hingulapabbata, Ajanapabbata, Sanupabbata and Phalikapabbata (Ja.V,415). Two peaks that can be identified are Kelasa, now known as Kilash (Ja.VI,490) and Nanda which is of course the 7817 meter high Nandadevi (picture on the left), the second highest peak in India (Ja.IV,216; 230; 233). Amongst the first range of hills or perhaps beyond them (ancient geography is sometimes unclear or contradictory) was Uttarakuru, Northern Kuru, from which the modern district of Kulu derives its name. Uttarakuru was seen as a sort of garden of earthly delights, a paradise of eternal sunshine and free love where healing herbs and fragrant flowers grew in abundance and all sorts of fantastic creatures lived without care or toil. According to the Atanatiya Sutta the rice that grew in Uttarakuru was self-sown, fragrant and without husks, the people traveled on the backs of beautiful maidens or comely youths, the trees always hung heavy with fruit and ‘peacocks screech, herons call and cuckoos gently warble’ (D.III,199). Somewhere in Uttarakuru Kuvera, the king of the north and the god of good fortune had his jewel-encrusted palace (D.III,201). If the modern visitor travels through Garhwal or Kumaon, at least during the spring time, he or she can easily understand how such legends developed. These regions offer some of the most beautiful prospects to be seen anywhere on earth. Beyond the Himalayas was a huge mountain called Kelasa, Seneru, Neru or more commonly Meru which was thought to be the axis of the world, the point at which the four great continents met (S.II,139; Ja.I,25; III,247). Meru corresponds with Mount Kilash near the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Although by no means the loftiest mountain in the region all the peaks around Kilash are much lower than it, giving it the impression of immense height and grandeur. Kilash’s nearly pyramid-shaped snowy summit marked with several black horizontal gashes give it a distinct hub-like appearance. Although fanciful in parts and completely wrong in others, the ancient Buddhist conception of India and the region to its north was relatively correct. The Himalayas are the setting for numerous Jataka stories. In many of his previous lives the Buddha renounced the world and went to live as an ascetic in the mountains or retired there towards the end of his life (e.g. Ja.I,140; 362; 371; 406; 440). He and other ascetics lived of wild fruit and grains and often made friends with the wild animals. As the winter approached they would come down to the plains to escape the cold, collect salt, vinegar and other supplies and then return four months later. The Jataka explains; ‘Now in the Himalayas, during the rainy season, when the rains are incessant, as it is impossible to dig up any bulb or root or to get any wild fruits, and the leaves begin to fall, the ascetics for the most part come down from the mountains and take up their abode amidst the haunts of men’ (Ja.III,37). It was probably the Bodhisattva and other ascetics before and after him who first explored the more remote mountain valleys of the Himalayas and brought back to India proper descriptions of this natural and spiritual wonderland. In the beautiful Sama Jataka the Bodhisattva is described as following the Ganges into the mountains to where the Migasammata River flows into it and then following this second river until he came to a suitable place to build himself a hermitage (Ja.VI,72). The Migasammata probably corresponds to the Alakanda River which joins the Ganges near Devaprayag. Various rulers may have also played a part in this exploration as well. The Jataka tells of a king who sent an expedition into the Himalayas guided by foresters. They tied several rafts together and sailed up the Ganges (Ja.III,371).
Buddhism came to the Himalayas very early. After the Third Council convened by King Asoka five monk led by the arahat Majjhima were sent to the Himalayan region to spread the Dhamma (Mahavamsa XII,6). Unfortunately, the records do not tell us which part of the region Majjima and his companions went although it was probably either Kashmir or the Kathmandu Valley. When the Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsiang visited Kulu and its surrounding valleys in the 7th century the area still had a significant Buddhist population. ‘The land is rich and fertile and the crops are duly sown and gathered. Flowers and fruit are abundant and the plants and trees afford rich vegetation. Being nestled in the midst of the Snowy Mountains there are found here many medical herbs of much value. Gold, silver and copper are found here as well as crystal and native copper. The climate is unusually cold and hail and snow often fall. The people are rustic and common in appearance and are much afflicted with goiter and tumors. They are tough and fierce by nature although they greatly regard justice and bravery. There are about twenty monasteries and a thousand or so monks. They mostly study Mahayana although a few practices the other schools. Here arahats and rishis dwell. In the middle of the country is a stupa built by King Asoka.’ In time nearly the whole of the Himalayan region became Buddhist and even today Ladhkh, Zanskar, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Mustang, Sikkim and Bhutan remain predominately Buddhist.
The modern traveler in the Garhwal or Kumaon (now within the modern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarancal) regions of the Himalayas will find almost no ancient traces of Buddhism in the Himalayas. The lovely old temple at Nala has been a Hindu temple for at least a thousand years. But the stone stupas at each of its four corners and the much worn statues of bodhisattvas within it, show that it was originally a Buddhist one. On the other side of the river at Mandi are a few caves cut out of the rock in which Buddhist monks used to live and practice. Many of Tibetans refugees have established communities and monasteries in Garhwal and Kumaon in places like Dharmasala and Manali. They have as also reclaimed and sometimes even ‘recreated’ Buddhist sacred places like Rawalsa, supposedly the birth-place of Padmasambhava.

Tomorrow and the next day I will post some of the photos I took during my three trips through the Himalayas.

Monday, August 25, 2008

An Encounter With God

I have just finished reading Paul William Roberts’ Empire of the Soul, the best travel book on India I have read for a long time. It is funny, perceptive and beautifully written. But for me the most interesting thing in the book, if only because it differed so much from my own experience, is Roberts impressions of Sai Baba, India’s most famous god-man. Roberts met Sai Baba and became a true believer and he describes the impressions and feelings that led to having such faith. Given Roberts’ ability to immediately see through Rajneesh (later known as Bhagawan and then Osho) I found this adoration rather strange. People have often asked me what I thought of Sai Baba and I have always given them what I believed was a good Buddhist answer – ‘The ability to perform miracles is no proof of holiness and anything worthwhile Sai Baba teaches is taught better and more comprehensively by the Buddha’. But over the years I met about a dozen people whose accounts of apparently miraculous experiences with Sai Baba seemed too convincing to dismiss as exaggeration, delusion or lying in order to impress or to get attention. So when I was in India in 2001 I decided to go to Puttapathi to see for myself. The ashram turned me off from the very beginning. It was crowded and noisy, the staff were efficient but officious and rude and everything directly related to Sai Bada himself (pictures of him, his ‘throne’ and his personal quarters) were garish and tawdry. The photos I saw everywhere of Sai Baba waving from his gold-plated swan-shaped chariots struck me as rather ridiculous. Every day while I was at Puttaparti I went down to the place where one of Baba’s sayings is posted daily. ‘Love all, serve all.’ ‘Do your duty and trust in me.’ Hardly the most profound quotes I have ever read. I also got the impression that many of the people at the ashram were little more than guru groupies. They seemed to spend all there time recounting stories of how Baba’s grace had saved them from a car accident, got them a seat in the circus despite all tickets being sold out and guided them to buy some stocks that climbed dramatically the very next day. One woman told me breathlessly how here dog had survived straying onto a busy highway all through Baba’s grace. The only spiritual teaching at Puttaparthi seemed to be, ‘I’m God. Worship me.’ Nonetheless I tried to be as objective as I could and consciously kept my critical facilities at bay. I got up at 3 AM two days after my arrival to try to get a front seat for Baba’s appearance at 9 that day. It’s all done by a lottery and I got in the front row. Then came the 5 hour wait. I decided to spend the whole time meditating so that when the time came and if Sai Baba walked passed me or even picked me for a private audience, my mind would be completely empty so as to be receptive to whatever he projected rather than me projecting my feelings on to him. Just before 9 the crowd became restless with anticipation and young men appeared and rolled out red carpets on the passages through the crowds where he might walk. Then a phalanx of very big men who looked like bouncers stationed themselves at regular intervals along the edge of the crowd and told everyone that they must not stand up. A few minuets later Indian music started to play over the loudspeaker, the whole crowd turned to the right craning their necks and God entered the hall. I too turned to get a look but my mind was still empty and I was unmoved by the awe and excitement that had obviously seized the crowd. Sai Baba proceeded along the passageway then turned left meaning that he would be passing me. I noted this but remained still and detached. As he got closer I observed him carefully. With all the good-will in the world he could not be described as physically attractive. He had thick lips, a stubby nose and his face appeared to be puffy. All the photos I had seen of him must have been taken years ago because in the flesh he was old and stooped. It also occurred to me that he was virtually the only person I had seen in the last several days who was wearing long sleeves, which I thought strange given the heat. But my mind only noted this without appending any comment or conclusion. Sai Baba was closer now. In his hands he carried letters and notes that people handed him as he passed and which he occasionally pass to the attendant behind him. A solid-looking bodyguard also accompanied him to make sure no one tried to stand or approach him although it was permissible to touch his feet, which many people did. He stopped a little before me, reached out to an elderly woman three along from me, moved his hand in a strange wiggling fashion and a grey powder seemed to come from his fingertips. This supposed ability to produce vibuthi out of nothing is what has made Sai Baba so famous and I had been able to see it close up. Although this is the only time in my life that a supposed miracle has taken place before my very eyes and despite me having really wanted to see it done so that I could make up my own mind about it, I was strangely unmoved by it. It seemed so inconsequential, so ordinary. You would expect the avatara of the Lord of the Universe to come up with something a bit more spectacular than that. If it was just slight of hand (and I’m not saying it is), it was a trick a magician who does kids birthday parties could do. Sai Baba moved on a little and was right in from front of me. I looked up at his face, for a moment he looked into my eyes and smiled and them he moved on. As before, I felt as I would have if an unremarkable stranger had walked passed me as I sat on a park bench – nothing. After it was over I returned to my room and made preparations to leave the next day.

The day I arrived back in Sri Lanka something happened that did make me wonder if Baba’s grace was at work. Almost the first person I spoke to after arriving was a man who had been a devotee of Sai Baba for more than 20 years. And it was he who brought up the subject. I mentioned to him that only a few weeks before I had been to Puttaparthi and as could be expected, he said, ‘We have come together through the grace of Baba.’ The next step in our conversation followed almost on cue; he recounted a miracle that Baba had wrought in his life. About a year before his daughter developed a persistent cough, they took her to the doctor and X-ray revealed a shadow on her lung – the beginning of TB. They prayed to Baba and a few weeks later when the girl had another X-ray the shadow was gone and in its place was an image of Sai Baba’s face. I tried not to yawn. ‘Interesting’ I said. ‘Do you still have the X-ray?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes’ he replied, ‘We would never throw it away.’ ‘Would you bring it to me so I can see it?’ I asked hopefully. He readily agreed and we made arrangement for him to come and visit me. Within a few days I put the matter out of my mind because I was certain that I would never see the man again or if I did I would never see the X-ray. Sinhalese are notorious at not keeping appointments and people who tell you about miracles are very reticent at producing the evidence. Five days later, having completely forgotten about the whole matter, I happened to look out my window and saw the man walking up the hill towards my kuti – and under his arm was a large brown envelope. I was surprised. I met him at the door, ushered him inside and after he had caught his breath I asked him whether he had brought the X-ray, half expecting him to tell me some story about how it had been lost or that the image on it had faded. But again I was wrong. ‘Yes’ he said with a smile ‘I’ll show you.’ He began to remove it from its envelope but I told him not to. Now was my big chance to get to the bottom of all these Sai Baba stories and I didn’t want to spoil it. I asked him to reinterate the story he had told me some days before. He did and it was basically the same – that an image of Sai Baba’s face had appeared to the X-ray of his daughter’s lung. Of course I had no way of knowing if the X-ray was really of his daughter but I took it for granted that the man was not deliberately trying to deceive. He seemed genuine to me. I prepared myself, took a few deep breaths, opened the envelope, took the X-ray out, held it up towards the window and began examining it. The man looked on expectantly. I looked carefully at the part of the X-ray where the lungs were but I could see nothing that looked like a face. I turned the X-ray around but still couldn’t see anything. I turned it upside down. Still nothing. Then I said to the man, ‘I have to honestly tell you, I can’t see anything. Tell me, is Baba’s face on the left lung or the right one.’ ‘The right one’ he said’ sure that I would see it now. I looked again. I narrowed my eyes and squinted. I glared. But I couldn’t see anything other than the image of two lungs in whips of gray and white. I was rather disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing something difficult to explain; something that would challenge my skepticism; something that might make a good story to tell others. I turned to the man and said ‘I honestly can’t see anything. Show me where it is.’ He didn’t seem to be the least flustered by my blindness. He happily took the X-ray, pointed at the place, I looked at where he was pointing and the letdown became complete. There was nothing there other than those shadowy indistinct shapes that always appear on X-rays. Not wanting to upset him I said in a noncommittal tone, ‘Oh, I see.’
I read about an experiment where 40 balding men were given a lotion without any active ingredients and told that applying it would gradually restore their hair. Before they started using the lotion the number of hair follicles per millimeter on their scalps were carefully counted. After a month of ‘treatment’ every man reported a noticeably regrowth of hair and two month later all but a few were still convinced that their hair was thicker than before. Counting the hair follicles again showed that there had been no change at all. Sometimes the eye sees what the heart believes.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Unknown Masterpieces

The temple in a large Indonesian town was first built in the late 18th although none of the original buildings remain and the whole is rather nondescript today. However, in a back room just behind the main shrine are some of the best examples of Javanese sculpture still to be seen outside a museum. Four Hindu sculptures and seven Buddhist ones sit on the floor, painted with cheap gold paint, covered in dust and partly obscured by junk. The image of Prajnaparamita and another of Manjusri are particularly impressive. No one today knows where the sculptures came from or when they were first acquired by the temple. But the temple guardians have a real and completely justifiable fear that the sculptures might be stolen or that the archaeological authorities might confiscate them and therefore I do not give the name or the location of the temple.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Journey To Jambi

One of the places I visited during my recent teaching tour of Indonesia was Jambi in north-east Sumatra. The ruins of the ancient city, the capital of the Srijiviya Empire, are about 30 kilometers from the modern town of the same name and are located in relatively thick jungle. The ruins of some 80 temples, monasteries, shrines and palaces are strung out for about 8 kilometers along the north bank of the Batanghari River. When we arrived at Candi Tinggi, the largest temple at Jambi, we met a group of archaeologists who very kindly showed us around, explained things for us and answered our questions. The small museum on the site houses all the antiquities found in the area. The most important of these is a fragmentary image of Prajnaparamita very similar to the famous Candi Singasari Parjnaparamita now in Jakarta’s National Museum, although it is slightly less finely carved. We took motorcycles along jungle tracks to look at the most significant ruins. The famous Chinese pilgrim I-tsing visited Sumatra twice, for six months on his way to India in 673 and for four years on his return journey. He almost certainly stayed at Jambi and wrote his famous Nanhai-jigui-neifa-zhyan while there. This fascinating book is an account of monastic practice in India and Java/Sumatra. I-tsing recommended to Chinese monks going to India that they should stop in Sumatra for a while to learn Sanskrit and monastic etiquette in order to prepare for their arrival in India. Asita, one of the pivotal characters in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet had spent some years in Sumatra, again probably at Jambi, studying logic with the famous Dharmakirti.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Picture Of The Month

Of course I’m not an expert in these things, but I would swear that the one second from the left has had a face lift.

Now we have the Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics, the Paralympics, the Youth Olympics and the Gay Olympics. I think what we really need now is an Articulation Olympics judging by some of the pronouncements made during the current Games.
1. Paul Hamm, gymnast: ‘I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father.’
2. Boxing analyst: ‘Sure there have been injuries and even some deaths in boxing, but none of them really that serious.’
3. Softball announcer: ‘If history repeats itself, I should think we can expect the same thing again.’
4. Basketball analyst: ‘He dribbles a lot and the opposition doesn’t like it. In fact you can see it all over their faces.’
5. Tennis commentator: ‘One of the reasons Andy is playing so well is that, before the final round, his wife takes out his balls and kisses them...Oh my God, what have I just said?’

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Birth Control

Birth control is the practice of preventing birth from taking place. There are two ways this can be done - by preventing conception from happening or by destroying the foetus at some stage before it is born; i.e. abortion (gabbhapatana). Buddhism teaches that life begins at or shortly after conception and thus considers abortion to be a type of killing (M.I,265). To prevent conception from happening, either by using condoms, contraceptive pills, cervical devices or spermicides does not involve killing and is thus morally neutral. The ancient Indians practised douching to prevent conception and also made condoms out of animals' intestines.

That pretty much does it as far as sex and Dhamma is concerned. If there is any other aspects of the subject that you would like discussed please let me know and if I think I can say anything meaningful about it I will. From the 1st of next month I will discuss the positive emotions from the Buddhist perspective.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Masturbation (sukkavisatthi) is the act of stimulating one’s own sexual organs to the stage of orgasm. At the time of the Kama Sutra, male masturbation was referred to as ‘seizing the lion’ (simhakranta). Interestingly, some people during the Buddha’s time believed that masturbation could have a therapeutic effect on the mind and the body (Vin.III,109), although the Buddha strongly disagreed with this. The Parajaka section of the Vinaya gives rather graphic descriptions of different ways males masturbated and also mentions a nun using a device called a matthaka, probably a dildo (Vin.IV,261). In the Kama Sutra dildos are called sahayya.
According to the Vinaya, it is an offence of some seriousness for monks or nuns to masturbate (Vin.III,111) although the Buddha gave no guidance on this matter to lay people. However, I Buddhism could agree with contemporary medical opinion that masturbation is a normal expression of the sexual drive and is physically harmless and psychologically harmless as long as it does not become a preoccupation or a substitute for ordinary sexual relations. Guilt and self-disgust about masturbating is certainly more harmful than masturbation itself.

I had tried to find a picture for yesterday’s posting on pornography but had difficulties locating an image that was appropriate for the theme and yet not offensive. I settled on the pictures of some old Man and Adam magazines ( they did a great service in the 60’s in introducing numerous young Australian males including myself to the mysteries of sex although in the most tame and innocuous way I might add). Having finished my posting I happened to find this hilarious picture. I couldn’t use it yesterday so I’m sharing it with you today.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Pornography is media meant to arouse sexual feeling. Unlike erotica, pornography is devoid of subtlety and artistic content and is usually perceived as obscene. Whether reading or looking at pornography would amount to breaking the third Precept would require us to first consider what effect it has on ourselves.
While the Buddha accepted that it is ligitimate for lay people to ‘indulge in and enjoy the pleasures of the senses’ (A.IV,280), he also reminded us that sense pleasures are ‘impermanent, hollow, false, deceptive, illusory, the prattle of fools’ (M.II,261). He further pointed out that sensual desire (kama raga) is a hindrance to mental calm and clarity which ‘overspreads the mind and weakens wisdom’ (A.III,63). Next, we need to think of the effect of pornography on others, as most pornography today consists of images of people. As in the case of prostitution, some of these people may work as ‘models’ because it is an easy source of income, whereas others are compelled to do it because of poverty or social deprivation. Thus, looking at such material may associate one with the exploitation of others and therefore be against the first and third Precepts. Perhaps another factor should be taken into account as well - the so-called Golden Rule. One should ask oneself; ‘How would I feel if I were to see one of my children, one of my siblings or one of my friends in a pornographic magazine of film?’

Monday, August 18, 2008


Homosexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to persons of the same rather than the opposite gender. According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being ‘the third nature’ (trtiya prakti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, primarily by the intention (cetana) behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept, although this is not always understood in traditional Buddhist countries. If a homosexual avoids the sensuality and licence of the so-called ‘gay scene’ and enters into a loving relationship with another person, there is no reason why he or she cannot be a sincere practising Buddhist and enjoy all the blessings of the Buddhist life.
None of the legal codes of traditional Buddhist countries criminalized homosexuality per se, although of course there were penalties against homosexual rape and homosexual acts with minors just as there were for similar offences committed by heterosexuals. In most Buddhist countries today, homosexuality is usually considered strange and laughable although not wicked or evil. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan and South Korea have no laws against homosexuality between consenting adults. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and Sri Lanka mainly because their legal codes were in part drawn up during the colonial era. Recently in Sri Lanka, the penalty for homosexuality was increased in an ill-considered response to the growing problem of sex tourism in the country.
The Dalai Lama and Homosexuality
At a press conference in 1997 the Dalai Lama said; ‘From a Buddhist point of view (lesbian and gay sex) generally considered sexual misconduct.’ He very soon found that he had stumbled into a pink minefield when some Western Buddhists, a significant number of who are gay, loudly expressed their outrage. Together with promoting the Dhamma, the Dalai Lama’s main purpose in touring the West is to win support for his cause, and to this end he defiantly does NOT want to alienate anyone. As soon as he realized what he had done he immediately back-peddled. He called a meeting with gay and lesbian representatives, during which he expressed the ‘willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context’. Dawa Tsering, spokesperson for the Office of Tibet released a suitably politically correct and safe statement; ‘His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion and the full recognition of human rights for all.’ Ruffled feathers were smoothed, gay Western Tibetan Buddhists left convinced that the Dalai Lama approved of their sexual orientation and the Dalai Lama continued believing that homosexuality is wrong - only now making a careful note never to say so again in public.
The truth is that while the Dalai Lama is one of the kindest people imaginable, he is also a very traditional Tibetan in many ways – and traditional Tibetan culture, like most cultures, has very skewed and confused ideas about homosexuality. Tibetan Buddhism does not derive its ideas about homosexuality from the earliest teachings of the Buddha but from Mahayana sutras and sastras, the earliest of which dates from approximately 500 year after the Buddha. By this time Indian Buddhists were being influenced by various popular Indian notions and incorporating them into their understanding of the Dhamma; sometimes with not very happy results. One such notion was the idea that sexual acts could be judged right or wrong depending on ‘place, person and orifice.’ Thus having sex anywhere near a temple or stupa was a wrong place, with anyone other than one’s spouse was a wrong person and anywhere other than the vagina was a wrong orifice. To be frank, this is a rather good example of the numbering, sub-dividing, categorizing mentality that became dominant in Buddhist clerical thinking. I do not know when this strange idea evolved but I think the earliest mention of it that I know of is in the Ugrapariprccha (or maybe it is the Upasakashila Sutra) which may date from about the 2nd century CE. And it doesn’t take much sense to see how unfounded it is from the Buddha’s point of view. Exactly how does the law of kamma distinguish one orifice from another? Other problems arise when we realize that many male homosexuals practice intercural sex and mutual masturbation rather than penetrative sex. And exactly which sexual organ do lesbians use to penetrate the vagina of their partner? The Dalai Lama is also reported to have said that he had difficulty imagining the mechanics of homosexual sex, saying that nature had arranged male and female organs ‘in such a manner that is very suitable…Same-sex organs cannot manage well.’ With all due respect to the Dalai Lama, and I do have the highest respect for him, this statement shows both his ignorance and naivety concerning sex, and I might add, of some aspects of the Dhamma as well. What on earth have Buddhist ethical judgments got to do with two body-parts fitting together ‘properly’ or not? I often clean my ear with my finger despite it not fitting into my ear canal very well. Does mean I make negative kamma every time I clean my ear? Also, the old argument ‘It’s unnatural’ is both unsound and irreverent as far as the Dhamma is concerned. If homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ then celibacy is more so and all Gelupa monks are breaking the fifth Precept by abstaining from sex. The Buddha’s criteria of right and wrong is not based on ideas of ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ which are usually social constructions, but on the intention behind the act. I am sorry to say that the Dalai Lama’s ideas about homosexuality are on a par with his (and other Tibetans’) belief that turning a prayer wheels will ‘pray’ for you, that the Tibetan state oracle gets messages from gods, that seeing the Karmapa’s black hat will get you enlightenment within seven lifetimes and in the existence of wrathful deities like Dorje Shukden. In short, it is medieval.
The two most sensible things on the issue of homosexuality and Dhamma I have found on the internet are Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism by A. L. De Silva at and Kerry Trembath’s Buddhism and Homosexuality at And if you would like to know what some Tibetans other than the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monastic hierarchy think about homosexuality, have a look at This website and particularly its posting on the rapping rimpoche would have to be the last nail in Shangri La’s coffin.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Prostitution is the selling of one’s body for sexual purposes. Today as in ancient India, people considered prostitution to be ‘the lowest type of livelihood’ (antimajivaka, Mil.122). Because it involves sex and the exchange of money, prostitution pertains to the third Precept and also to the Buddha’s teachings of Right Livelihood (samma ajiva). The issue of prostitution has to be looked at taking into account the prostitute and the customer. Roughly speaking, we can say that there are two types of prostitutes: (1) those forced into prostitution by poverty or social deprivation and (2) those who choose to do it because they feel it is a convenient and easy way to make money. This first type of prostitute is called a harlot (vesiya) or a streetwalker (bandhak√£) in the Buddhist scriptures while the second type is called a courtesan (ganika or nagarasobhini). The intention of the first is probably just to survive and is therefore kammically far less negative than the second whose motive might be greed, laziness or lack of self-respect. The first is not willingly involved in wrong livelihood while the second clearly is.
Now what of the customer? Customers of the first type of prostitute are definitely breaking both the first and third Precepts because they are sexually exploiting another person, taking advantage of their dire circumstances. The customers of the second type may not be breaking the third Precept, but they are hardly involving themselves in an activity likely to benefit themselves spiritually. Generally speaking, prostitution is a sordid and unedifying affair and sincere Buddhists would not involve themselves in it.
One of the Buddha’s supporters was a woman named Ambapali who was a wealthy courtesan of Vesali and who later gave up her trade to become a nun (D.II,95). In the scriptures we read of prostitutes charging 500 or even a 1000 coins a night for their company (Vin.I,268-9).

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Celibacy (brahmacariya) is the practice of abstaining from sexual intercourse (methuna). Buddhist monks and nuns must be celibate as are lay people during the time they practise either the eight or the ten Precepts. While sex can give a great deal of pleasure and emotional fulfilment it can also stimulate excessive fantasizing, intense desire, frustration and physical and emotional turbulence. A person trying to develop mental calm and clarity through meditation may find this a hindrance to their practise and choose to minimize it by becoming celibate, at least for certain periods. Thus, Buddhism’s advocacy of celibacy is not because it sees sex as dirty, animalistic or sinful, but for purely practical reasons. However, like other religions in which some people are encouraged to practise celibacy, Buddhism emphasizes the problems of sexuality and the advantages of celibacy but has little to say about the problems of celibacy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Same-sex Marriage

A same-sex marriage is a legally recognized union between two people of the same gender, i.e. two homosexuals. Same-sex marriages have only of late become legal in several European countries and in a few states in the United States. However, such unions may have existed in some parts of the ancient world, including in India. The Kama Sutra (II, 9, 36) says; ‘There are citizens who love each other and with great faith in each other, who take each other as a husband.’ The word for husband here is parigraha and the Pali equivalent is patigaha. In his commentary on his verse Yasodhara says; ‘Citizens so inclined, reject women, willingly do without them and get married, bound by a deep and trusting friendship.’ It is not clear if these marriages, if this is the right word for such unions, were performed by Buddhist monks or Hindu priests or were recognized by the state, probably not.
What would be the Buddhist attitude to such marriages? Buddhism sees marriage as a secular institution (see yesterday’s posting), an arrangement between two people, and thus Buddhist monks or nuns do not perform marriages, although they are often called upon to bless the couple either just before or just after the marriage. Monks also often give short sermons and chant a few suttas during the opening of new businesses, at birthdays, funerals and at the bedside of the sick or the dying. If two men or two women were genuinely committed to each other and wanted a monk or nun to bless their union and wish them well in their life together, it is not difficult to imagine that he or she would be happy to do this for them.
I often think how lucky I am being a Buddhist. One of the many advantages of this apart from peace of mind, contentment, happiness, a realistic world-view, rational moral principles to live by, inspiration from the Buddha and having good Dhamma friends, is that when a contentious issue arises I can always adhere to the ‘middle way’ and not endorse any one side in an argument. Take same-sex marriage for example. I happen to think both sides of this issue, at least as it is playing itself out in America, have got it wrong. For goodness sake! What is the big deal if two men or two women wish to marry each other? God may disapprove but he disapproves of many thing that are legally acceptable and nowadays commonplace. According to Leviticus ‘prawns are an abomination’ but no one wants to ban seafood platters. I Corinthians 11,14 says that long hair on males is a ‘disgrace’ and unnatural but no one boycotts Steven Segal movies (although I can think of many other good reasons for doing so). More relevant to the issue at hand, divorce is absolutely forbidden in the New Testament unless one partner commits adultery. Despite this, Christian social activists are conspicuously silent about America’s very liberal divorce laws. Surely if anything is ‘against the family’ it would have to be the ease with which one can get divorced, and yet I know of no Christian groups in the US crusading to have it made more difficult. Could it be that in opposing homosexuality they only alienate approximately 10% of the population, whereas if they opposed easy divorce they would rattle just about everyone? Not necessarily relevant to the gay marriage issue but certainly worth pointing out anyway, is the interesting fact that most churches in the southern US considered inter-racial marriage to be ‘unnatural’ and ‘immoral’ until the early 1960’s and supported the laws that made it illegal. South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church took a similar stand until just recently. If you were white male and you wanted to marry a black woman you had to leave the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ or South Africa. If you were black male and wanted to marry a white woman you were risking your life. In short, the churches’ ‘moral compass’ is not a very reliable one. The decision as to whether or not homosexuals should be granted the right to marry should be based on common sense reasons and the principle of equality. And on this basis I can see no good reason why same-sex marriages should not be allowed.
On the other hand, being just a simple monk I cannot understand why homosexuals would want to get married. For goodness sake! What’s the big deal if two men or two women walk down an aisle and then get a certificate with both their names’ on it? How does that make their commitment to each other more binding? Why pressure churches to do something they clearly don’t want to do, something which goes against scripture and 2000 years of Christian tradition? Creative hermeneutics may bypass what the Bible says about homosexuality, willfulness may ignore it, wishful thinking may reinterpret it - but none of this changes what it says. And as for the churches that will perform same-sex marriages – who would want to be a member of an organization that so casually compromises its long-held, scripturally sound teachings just to be popular? Of course, not all homosexuals who want to marry are religious. But it seems to me, and of course I’m just a simple monk, that such people are motivated by a rather childish ‘they’ve got one so we want one too’ attitude. What’s wrong with a legally binding and recognized civil union which gives the couple all the rights, privileges and obligations of heterosexual couples? Homosexuals who wish to have legally recognized marriages should also consider that in doing so they will presumably becomes libel to all the problems that arise when conventional marriages break down (and in America, UK, Australia, etc. about 1 in 3 do) – bitter divorce proceedings, mutual recriminations, quarrels over property and so on.
So when people ask me what my position on same-sex marriage is (no one has asked me yet, but I’m ready when they do) I say ‘I do not adhere to one side or the other’ (Naham ettha ekamsavado, M.II,197).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Marriage In Buddhism

Marriage (avaha vihaha) is the formal and legal joining of a man and a woman. It is a secular institution, an arrangement between two people or two families and thus Buddhism does not insist upon monogamy, polygamy, polyandry or any other form of marriage. There were several forms of marriage in ancient India, the most common being those arranged by the parents or guardians, those where the couple chose each other with the parents approval, and elopement. The ancient law books called this second form Svayamvara and the third Gandharva. According to the Buddha, monks and nuns should not get involved in ‘the giving or taking in marriage’ and thus they have never been marriage celebrants (D.I,11).
We have almost no information in the Tipitaka about the ancient Buddhist marriage ceremony other than that the bride was bedecked with garlands (A.V,264) and that her father tipped water over her's and the groom’s hands as a symbol of giving her away (Ja.III,286).
Traditionally, Buddhists practised the form of marriage which prevailed in the society in which they lived. Although the Buddha did not advocate any particular form of marriage, we can assume that he favoured monogamy. His father Suddhodana had two wives and as a prince he could have had several wives also, but he chose to have only one. In a discourse on marriage the Buddha only discusses monogamy, again implying that he accepted this as the best form of marriage (A.IV,91). Having been both a husband and a father, the Buddha was able to speak of marriage and parenthood from personal experience. A husband, he said, should honour and respect his wife, never disparage her, be faithful to her, give her authority and provide for her financially. A wife should do her work properly, manage the servants, be faithful to her husband, protect the family income and be skilled and diligent (D.III,190).
The Buddha said that if a husband and wife love each other deeply and have similar kamma they may be able to renew their relationship in the next life (A.II,161). He also said that a couple who are following the Dhamma will ‘speak loving words to each other’ (annamannm piyamvada, A.II,59) and that ‘to cherish one’s children and spouse is the greatest blessing’ (puttadarassa samgaho etam mamgalam uttamam, Sn.262). He criticized the brahmans for buying their wives rather than ‘coming together in harmony and out of mutual affection’ (sampiyena pi samvasam samaggatthaya sampavattenti, A.II,222), implying that he thought this motive for marriage far better. Upholding fidelity in marriage he taught that adultery (aticariya) is against the third Precept.
The ideal couple in the Buddhist scriptures are Nakulamata and Nakulapita. Nakutapita said that since his wife ‘was brought to my house when he was a young man and she a young girl, I have never transgressed against her even in thought much less in deed’ (A.II,61). The Buddha told him that he was ‘blessed, truly blessed to have Nakulamata full of compassion for you, concerned with your welfare, as your mentor and counsellor’ (A.III,298).
It seems that throughout history most ordinary Buddhists have been monogamous, although kings were sometimes polygamous and polyandry was common in Tibet until just recently. In the highlands of Sri Lanka during the medieval period polyandry was practiced. Today monogamy is the only legally accepted form of marriage in all Buddhist countries although the king of Bhutan has two wives, both sisters. There is no specific Buddhist wedding ceremony; different countries have their own customs which monks do not perform or participate in. However, just before or after the marriage the bride and groom often go to a monastery to receive a blessing from a monk.
Because Buddhism sees marriage as a social arrangement and not as a sacrament as in Christianity, it accepts that if two married people agree to end their relationship they can do so. Buddhism and all Buddhist countries have always seen marriage as an institution worth supporting and maintaining but at the same time they have never had legal restrictions on divorce. I have been unable to find any information in the Tipitaka about divorce. It seems, at least during the Buddha’s time, that divorce was an informal affair. If a wife did not like her husband she would simply leave, return to her home and if she wanted, try to find another husband. Law books like Manusurti show that divorce, at least for Hindus, became subject to various legal restrictions and obligations.
The pictures above are (from top to bottom) a Burmese, a Thai, a Sri Lankan and a Tibetan bride and groom.