Friday, February 27, 2009

Picture Of The Month

Patna, 24, 2, 2009. Police in Hajipur of late have been cracking down on errant drivers on the state's highways. Yesterday a truck was pulled over near the Mahatma Gandhi Setu when an alert police officer noticed that one of its tail lights was not functioning properly. A kick by the driver got the light back into working order and he was let off with a warning. Sergeant Gupta of the State Traffic and Highways Division said that the police will no longer overlook broken windscreen wipers, missing hubcaps, bent rear vision mirrors or obscured number plates…

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Bit

Some years ago I began thinking about the need for Dhamma material for kids and this finally resulted in a series of children's' comic books called Great Buddhist Stories. My friend Susan Harmer did the pictures, which took her many months of eye-squinting, work while I wrote the text which took roughly a day per book. Great care was taken to make sure the stories were as close to the original texts as possible and we also tried to have costumes, architecture, etc close to how they were at the Buddha's time. I defiantly wanted to avoid the 'late Rubaiyat' style that seems to predominate in modern Western depictions of the Buddha's life.

The books were launched with much fanfare by the publishers and initial sales were good but now they have leveled off. Heroic efforts to let various Buddhists temples, groups and organizations around the world know about the books has led to some interest, but not much. It’s a bit disappointing. Of course, it may be that the books are not as great as think they are but I have a sneaking suspicion that that old scourge Buddhist indifference is operating here. Since Great Buddhist Stories came out then I have collaborated with the well-known Sri Lankan political cartoonist Vini Hetigodha on another children's Dhamma book, now available in English and Sinhala from the Buddhist Publication Society, and also with another artist on a comic book on the life of the Buddha, available only in Sinhala. I've done my bit.

If you want more information about Great Buddhist Stories ring (65)62139300, Fax (65)62854871 or email The online bookstore is at
From the 1st of next month I will be looking at little-known or forgotten Buddhist communities around the world.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dhamma For The Kids

I teach Buddhism in both the East and the West and even in places in-between, e.g. Singapore, which in the East but very Western. It's so interesting to notice the difference response to the Dhamma in different cultural milieus. Take audiences for example. In the East, e.g. Sri Lanka, its predominantly very old ladies with very young children - granny looking after the kids. Young people only ever come to the temple on festival days, and then partly to check out the talent. In the West it is predominantly the 20 to 45 age group with hardly a child in sight. Western Buddhism is primarily an individual and adult pursuit, not a family affair. This to me is one of several things that convinces me that, despite all the appearances, Western Buddhism is still not firmly established. Without Buddhist parents bringing up Buddhist kids, no enduring Buddhist community or identity can evolve. And without that, Buddhism may prove to be just a passing fad. However, I also notice that things are starting to change and the best sign of this is the number of Buddhist kids books now available. On a quick survey of the internet I found these books. Please forgive the length of this post but I couldn’t get the pictures to form up into twos or threes. I sometimes I hear Buddhist parents say things like, 'Of course I'm not bringing up Kyle as a Buddhist. I believe that every child should freely choose their own path.' I have serious problems with this (pseudo-liberal?) attitude. If the Dhamma is good enough for you, why isn’t it good enough for Kyle? Exposing your kids to the Dhamma doesn't mean you are robbing them of their freedom to choose. They can (and probably will) make up their own minds later anyway. There's a lot of superficiality out there, a lot of temptations and a lot of bad ideas. Giving your kids a good foundation in the Dhamma will help them better navigate through or avoid these (Have a look at the 'Jesus Camp' video and be frightened, be really frightened. I'm told the Scientologists have even started a kids 'outreach program').

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

This video is not particularly interesting and in calling India a 'Hindu Buddhist country' it demonstrates the speaker's sparse knowledge of Buddhism. Also, it's not about a monk who sold his expensive car but it does mention a monk who tried to get someone to buy him one, a senior monk from a 'top monastery in Kandy.' The reason I am drawing your attention to this video is because the speaker's experience almost exactly mirrors one I once had in Sri Lanka and one that quite a few people I know have also had in Buddhist Asia. In the speaker's case the experience led him away from the Dhamma. In my case it strengthened my resolve to know the true Dhamma. The speaker's experience also reinforces I point that I think is absolutely crucial to the progress of the Dhamma. Western Buddhists, or indeed anyone new to the Dhamma, should not 'take Refuge' in Burmese culture, Tibetan culture, Japanese culture or in Thai culture. They should take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. They should not idealize Burma, Tibet, Japan or Thailand; rather they should make the Buddha, the Perfectly Enlightened One, their ideal. One would hope that lands where the Dhamma has prevailed for centuries were better than others and that those who wear the yellow robe were better than others, but this is not always the case. And it's pretty much the same for Hinduism, Taoism Christianity, Sikhism and other religions too. The Dhamma resides in the heart and mind of those who truly treasure it, not in any particular cultural milieu or geographical location. Have a look at Beyond the 'buy me a car' incident there is nothing else of any interest in the video.

While you are on line also have a look at this unusually inspiring, insightful and moving blog. It really made my day.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Tree Grows In Singapore

I have just finished the second volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs From Third World to First. At 778 pages it’s quite a read and volume one is almost as long. Lee knew or met almost every world leader from the 1950’s onwards and his book contains interesting and sometimes amusing cameos of some of them. Katherine Frank wrote of Moraji Desi that he ‘had all of Gandhi’s fads and none of his virtues’ an impression confirmed by Lee. He writes, ‘In December 1979, in the car taking us from Delhi airport to the Rasthrapati Bhavan, he said that thousands of years ago Indians had made a space journey and visited other planets, which the Americans were then doing. I must have looked skeptical, so he emphasized, “Yes, it’s true. It is by reincarnation. It’s recorded in the Bhagavad Gita."’
Singapore has long been ridiculed for its various campaigns to change its citizens’ behavior – the flush the toilet campaign, the don’t spit campaign, the be polite campaign, the don’t litter campaign, the don’t chew gum campaign, the say 'thank you' campaign, etc - but Lee defends these campaigns convincingly. ‘They laughed at us. But I was confident we would have the last laugh. We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we made no effort to persuade people to change their ways. We did not measure up as a cultivated, civilized society and we were not ashamed to set about trying to become one…It has made Singapore a more pleasant place to live. If that is a ‘nanny state’ I am proud to have fostered one.’ Who could argue with that?
But being a tree-lover (not ‘hugger’ please note), it was the 13th chapter ‘Greening Singapore’ that interested me most. After two months in India your eyes crave to alight on something clean and green. Bangkok’s last pathetic trees are slowly chocking to death in the smog. There is a suburb of Colombo with the lovely name of Cinnamon Gardens. Even in the 70’s it was still a bit green and shady. Now it’s all asphalt, grime, billboards and glare with hardly a tree in sight. Singapore by contrast gets greener every year. Lee describes his determination to make Singapore a garden city, how he brought in experts to test the soil to find out how to make the grass grow greener, how he carefully selected trees that would not just grow well in the Singapore climate but also flower and the early tree-planting campaigns. Now Singapore even has ‘heritage trees’ which can’t be chopped down and recently they even slightly changed the route of a new highway to save a lovely old tree.
This is Jalan Dusan, just across the road from me, a fairly typical shaded, tree-decorated Singaporean street in a heavily built-up area.
A little further along is the Pan Island Freeway. Just imagine what this would look like without the trees and the trimmed hedges! This is East Coast Freeway. No barren paved parking lots in Singapore! All of them are shaded with trees, like this one covered with orchids and moss. And this is my favorite Singapore tree and I think the biggest in the country, a true ‘forest monarch’ (vanaspati), to use the Buddha’s term, the majestic Ceiba pentandra growing in the Botanical Gardens.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Buddha In The Church

The popular but controversial priest Father Peter Kennedy of St. Mary's South Brisbane, in Queensland Australia, has just been told to vacate his church by the Archbishop of Brisbane. All the signs suggest that he's headed for excommunication. No, not execution. They don’t do that any more. Today excommunication means being expelled from the church, loosing your pension and being denied Holy Communion in any Catholic church. Does Father Kennedy have a 'house keeper'? No. Does he deny the Holocaust and hate Jews? Nope. Did he abuse little girls? No he didn’t. He did something even worse than that. He allows women to be involved in the Mass, he invited lay people give sermons, he blessed gays couples in church and he (Warning! Some readers may find the following offensive) invited the local Buddhist community to use his church for meditation and put a statue of the Buddha on the altar. One report says this statue was later taken out of the church by an angry parishioner and smashed. Another report says it was moved to the side of the altar. (Readers should be aware that statues of Jesus, Mary and saints are made from a very different type of plaster from that used for Buddha statues). Recently Father Kennedy pointed out that in 1945 50% of Australian Catholics attended church every Sunday and that today only 13% do. He added 'If the church doesn't come to terms with the fact that it has to operate within a liberal democracy, while it continues to act like a monarchy where all power is invested in the leadership of the Pope, then there's no hope, we'll be down to 3%'. Asked what Jesus would make of the controversy, Father Kennedy replied, 'Well, Jesus always stood with the poor, the broken and the oppressed. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. And he certainly wasn’t a Catholic. He didn’t start any church'. Father Kennedy is only the latest victim of a resurgent conservative trend within the church which started to flex its muscle after the new pope was installed. Father Kennedy's congregation of 800 which he has served for nearly 30 years is amongst the biggest in Queensland and the fear is that when he goes they will go with him.
I hope they take the Buddha statue when they leave.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Be Like Water

As water is calm and cool by nature, so too, the meditator, out of compassion for all creatures and seeking their welfare, should be possessed of patience, love and kindness. As water makes the impure pure, so too, the meditator, whether in the village or the forest, should in all circumstances, never transgress or give reason to be reprimanded by his preceptor or teacher. As water is desired by everyone, so too, the meditator should have few wishes, be content, aloof and solitary in his or her practice, thus being much desires by the whole world. And finally, as water in itself harms no one, so too, the meditator should do nothing by body, speech or mind that produces strife, quarrels, contention, disputes, neglected meditation or dislike (Milindapanha 383)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Making A Monkey Of Him

I have read a news item saying that some newspaper in America has published a cartoon comparing President Obama to a monkey or at least that the cartoon could be read in that way. Apparently some people are up in arms about this. I haven’t seen the cartoon but this is my thinking on such matters. When it comes to political humor, it's 'no holes barred.' Some humor might be tasteless, insulting, unfunny or downright moronic but that reflects on the comic or the cartoonist, not the target. I strongly disapprove of throwing shoes at politicians, but only if you miss. And as far as being likened to a monkey goes, I think that should be seen as anything but an insult. The Bodhisattva was often reborn as a monkey and in that embodiment he demonstrated resourcefulness, courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty, leadership and other good qualities. Monkeys are, depending on the species, intelligent, they have close family bonds, the females are caring mothers, the males will protect the troop with their life if necessary and all this is a lot more than some humans do. Monkeys have lots of sex too but that's not so much a virtue as a fringe benefit. If you really want to cause offence, call a monkey a human and see what happens.There are quite a few Jatakas that suggest that humans could and should learn a thing or two from animals, including monkeys. In the Garahita Jataka a monkey (the Bodhisattva) is captured, kept as a pet, eventually escapes and returns to his monkey companions. The other monkeys ask him what human society is like and he tells it as it is. '"This gold is mine!" "This money is mine!" Thus they wail both day and night. These stupid humans do not see the Noble Dhamma.' When the monkeys hear this and about the other things humans do they put their hands over their ears.' In the Tayodhamma Jataka the Bodhisattva as a monkey is praised in these words, which I would like to address to President Obama. 'One who has three things, as you have Oh Monkey King - skill, courage and wisdom - he will banish his critics.'
Ven. Anandajoti helped me translate these Jataka verses and any mistakes are purely his responsibility.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I Want My Mummy!

Mummified monks are apparently quite popular in Thailand, Vietnam and in China too, although less so. The Tibetans have or at least did have until the Red Guards destroyed them, a few mummified rimpoches and lamas too. Some of the saints in Catholicism are deemed to be 'miraculously uncorrupted.' I don’t know what Communists call the mummified remains of Lenin and Mao, although when I saw the Great Helmsman back in the early 80's he looked decidedly 'waxy'. 'Do Not Expose To Naked Flame!' Singaporean Buddhists returning from travels in Thailand sometimes ask me what I think about or how I can explain the mummified monk they saw while they were there. I always tell them that amusing story about Ramases II. Ramases was the greatest of all the Egyptian kings, perhaps the greatest ruler of all time. His many titles included 'Conqueror of Syria', 'Subduer of the Hittites' 'Conqueror of Nubia' and the fact that he reigned for 66 years alone qualified him to be called 'The Great.' It is even thought by some that the 'Pharaoh' mentioned in the Old Testament is Ramases. When his mummy was discovered in 1881 it was shipped off to England. When it arrived at Tilbury the customs officers had to charge some duty on it but they didn’t know under what category it should be classed. Finally, Ramases II, King of Kings, was categorized under and charged duty as dried fish. The top picture is of Thai Buddhist dried fish (What's he need the sun glasses for?), the second is of the Sicilian Catholic variety and the bottom one is the original 'King of Kings' brand.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mock Meat

I always used to think Chinese were good cooks - and they may be, at least as far as ordinary food is concerned. But when it comes to vegetarian cooking they are hopeless. All Chinese monks and nuns are strictly vegetarian as are many more serious lay people and many nominal Chinese Buddhists will eat vegetarian food on special religious days. But if you are expecting a fresh bright salad, a tasty veggie pie or baked stuffed tomatoes you will be very disappointed. Chinese vegetarian cooking consists of vegetables that have been boiled to oblivion, rubbery dried mushrooms, oodles of oil, tons of MSG and strangest of all, soya bean paste that has been prepared to look like meat. It is quite amazing how realistic they are able to make what they call 'mock' fried chicken, 'mock' shrimps, 'mock' sliced duck and 'mock' abalone. But while it all looks just like the real thing it is tasteless (and hence all the MSG). It also points to a rather strange attitude to vegetarianism. Why decide not to eat meat and then dress up all your food so that it look like meat? I used to joke to my friends that if I ever disrobed I was going to start a restaurant where all the food was made of meat but prepared so as to look like vegetables.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Satan And An Atheist In Dialogue

Walter Kaufmann was one of America's most famous philosophers and I became a fan of his years ago. I was first introduced to his writings by Venerable Nyanaponika who had a great appreciation for him also. He had all Kaufmann's books and with his characteristic generosity lent them to me. Kaufmann was the one of the very few academics at that time who actually read the Tipitaka instead of the then often unreliable secondary literature. He knew the Tipitaka through Neumann's lyrical German translations. As a result, Kaufmann was able to write authoritatively about the Dhamma and he often did. In his brilliant Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958) Kaufmann has an amusing and insightful fictitious dialogue between Satan and an atheist. I reproduce a small part of it here.

Atheist: You look so content. Have you grilled another theologian for breakfast? Or did you heat up a Christian for your lunch?

Satan: Both, my friend.

Atheist: I have often wondered how you catch Buddhists. After all, they do not believe the sort of thing Christians believe, so you can't undermine their faith.

Satan: I get them to fall out of love with the world.

Atheist: By dangling beautiful women in front of ascetics?

Satan: Not necessarily. Their aim is to fall out of love with the world. I try to show them that suffering is worthwhile.

Atheist: That’s what I said; women.

Satan: That works only with the least interesting cases. The others I try to interest in some cause, some task, some mission. I may even persuade them to spread their knowledge to as many men as possible. As soon as I have kindled some ambition I generally do not find it too hard to involve men in all sorts of compromises. But there are other ways.

Atheist: Just name one more.

Satan: Sometimes I try to lead then from detachment into callousness and indifference to the suffering of others. But that only works in the early stages. Once a Buddhist has developed his particular detached compassion he represents one of the hardest cases I know. A Christian theologian is child's play compared to that.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two Items

Venerable Sheng-yen's last instructions to his disciples was that his funeral should be a simple and unostentatious one and that without looking for 'relics' that his ashes should be ground up and sprinkled onto the earth somewhere. To me this is further confirmation that he was a true son of the Buddha. Not only that, his disciples carried out his wishes. To me this is a confirmation that they had a good understanding of the Dhamma and genuine respect for their teacher.

Have a look at these breathtaking pictures of the piety of the Tibetan people and the grandeur and splendor that results from it. These pictures really are extraordinary.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Serenity In Stone

In 1996, the Chinese made one of the most important archeological discoveries in the history of their country. While a school sports field was being excavated some 400 stature of Buddhas and bodhisattvas came to light. A find of so many statures was rare enough but these ones were exceptionally fine, in fact the amongst the finest ever produced in China. Many of the statues still had the original paint and gold leaf on them, albeit fragmentary and faded. But it is the faces of these statues that make them so special. Each has a smile so loving, so gently benign, that it captures almost perfectly the enlightened state. As you gaze into these beautiful faces you can hardly believe that you are actually looking at stone and not at warm living flesh. I was reminded of Upaka's words on first meeting the Buddha, 'Friend, your senses are serene, your complexion is radiant and bright. Under whom have you become a monk?' (M.I,170). Archaeologists have speculated as to why there beautiful statues were originally buried. The most likely explanation is that they were old, were to be replaced and being too sacred to just dump somewhere, they were buried, as one would an actual person.
Last Saturday afternoon, Thirananda, Samata, Yi Rong, Min Than and his mum, Padma, Viraj and I went to the Peranakan Museum to see 35 of these exquisite sculptures which are on display there. The exhibition is appropriately called Serenity In Stone and is really worth seeing. The Buddhas and bodhisattvas left me feeling quite peaceful and that night I had a particularly good meditation.

Singapore used to be a bit of a cultural wilderness, but not any more. Every few months one or another of the city's museums puts on a world-class exhibition, this one, for me at least, being the best so far. Of course there are still a few creases to iron out. I couldn’t help notice several clangers in the Gallery Guide to the exhibition. Shakyamuni is not 'one of the names of the historical Buddha, another is Siddharta Gautama.' It is of course a title meaning 'the Sakyan sage.' Saying that the Gupta period went up to the 7th century is stretching it a bit and Buddhist sculpture flourished in Mathura under the Kushan rather that the Guptas. But they're new at it so we'll be indulgent.
The exhibition is at the Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian St and continues until it the 26th of April. They're even allowing people to meditate in the gallery every Wednesday evenings between 7.30 and 8.30 pm. What a creative idea!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hymn To The Buddha

From the Satapancasatka of Matrceta, 1st century CE. Translated by Bhante S. Dhammika Homage to you, O Self-developed One
Whose good works are numerous and wondrous,
Whose virtues are too numerous and awesome to define.

Their number? They are infinite.
Their nature? Words must fail.
But to se speak of them bestows great good,
so I shall speak much.

No faults in any way are found in him;
All virtue in every way dwell in him.

You were kind without being asked,
you were loving without reason,
you were a friend to the stranger
and a kinsman to those without kin.

The joy you beings feel on saving their lives
equals not the joy you experienced
when you gave your life for others.

By not envying the superior,
despising the inferior,
or competing with equals,
you attained pre-eminence in the world.

Good deeds you praise, bad deeds you blame,
but towards those who act thus
you are free from any 'for' or 'against'.

Lovely yet calming, bright but not blinding,
gentle yet strong. Who would not be
inspired just to see you?

Your body seems to say to your virtues:
'I am blessed to have you,'
and the virtues seem to respond:
'Where better could we dwell.'

Just to hear you brings joy;
just to look upon you calms the heart;
your speech refreshes and your teaching frees.

Your are a wall of safety
for those hovering at the edge of the cliff,
those blind to their own welfare,
those who are their own worst enemy.

You are the Lord, but you never lord it over others.
All may use you as a servant to obtain the help they need.

To an enemy intent on evil
you are a friend intent on good.
To one who gleefully seeks faults
you respond by seeking virtues.

I have hardly began to sing your praise
and yet already my heart is filled with joy.
But need a lake be drained
before one's thirst is quenched?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jeepers Creepers

While trying to identify the plants mentioned by the Buddha one Pali name that stubbornly eluded its Linnaean nomenclature was maluva. This was particularly frustrating because the Buddha mentions the maluva creeper so often and in several important context (e.g. Dhp.162; 334; S.I,207). Then my Polish correspondent Piotr Jagodzinski drew my attention to an article written on this very plant some 35 years ago, which included its Hindi name and I finally had it. The maluva vine so often mentioned by the Buddha is the Camels Foot Creeper, malu or chambuli in Hindi and Bauhinia valhii to botanists. It is the largest creeper in the Indian forests, an evergreen with soft porous wood, velvety rusty-colored shoots, paired tendrils and creamy-white flowers. The leave are downy beneath and have two rounded lobes on the end giving them the shape of a camel's footprint and hence the plants English name. These leaves were pinned together with small splinters and used as plates (Ja.V,389) and they still are. If you have ever brought some alu subji on an Indian railway platform (a culinary delight I do not recommend!) it was probably handed to you in a disposable plate made of maluva leaves. The big woody pods burst open in the summer heat, the seeds can be eaten and the strong rough fiber in the bark is used to make ropes.
Despite its usefulness, the Camels Foot Creeper causes great damage to forest trees, twining around them and stunting their growth and sometimes killing them (Ja.V,452). It is, the Buddha correctly observed, a fast-growing plant (Dhp.334). In the Jataka a man described his lover as 'clinging to me like a maluva creeper' (Ja.V,215). The Buddha said that passions spread the was the maluva creeper spreads through the forest (Sn.272). On another occasion he used this plant in a parable in which he warned that although sense pleasures may give immediate satisfaction, they can cause problems later. 'Imagine in the last month of the Summer that the pod of a maluva creeper bursts and seed drops at the foot of a sal tree... Being fertile and not being swallowed by a peacock, eaten by an animal, destroyed by a forest fire, carried away by a forester or destroyed by termites, it was eventually watered by the rains, sprouts and put forth a soft downy shoot which wound around the sal tree. The spirit living in the sal tree thought, "The touch of this maluva creeper is pleasant". But in time the creeper grew around the tree, made a canopy over it and draped a curtain all around it and broke its branches. And then the spirit of the sal tree thought, "This is the coming danger. Because of this creeper I am now experiencing painful, racking, piercing feelings"' (M.I,306).
So be careful that the maluva creeper of sensual pleasure doesn't get a hold on you.