Tuesday, March 31, 2009


More than 100,000 Britons have recently downloaded "certificates of de-baptism" from the Internet to renounce their Christian faith. This unusual initiative has been launched by the National Secular Society and follows on from a recent NSS campaign in which they put ads on London buses and elsewhere proclaiming "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This campaign was in response to pro-Christian adverts on buses directing passers-by to a website warning those who did not accept Jesus would suffer for eternity in hell." The NSS president Terry Sanderson, said "We now produce a certificate on parchment and we have sold 1,500 copies at 3 Pounds (that’s US. 4.35 dollars, 3.20 Euros) a pop." Apparently this idea is spreading. The Italian Union of Rationalists and Agnostics (UAAR) won a legal battle over the right to file for de-baptism in 2002. The group's website carries a "de-baptism" form to facilitate matters. According to UAAR secretary Raffaele Carcano, more than 60,000 of these forms have been downloaded in the past four years and continue to be downloaded at a rate of about 2,000 per month. Another 1,000 were downloaded in one day when the group held its first national de-baptism day last October.
Now I have actually been baptized twice, once when I was a baby and again when I was about 12 or 13. I still remember this second dipping, although I have no idea why my parents, who weren't the least religious, decided to have my sister and I undergo the ceremony. Perhaps it was one of those 'just to be on the safe side and it'll do no harm' decisions that my mother sometimes took. I could well understand how this ceremony could have a powerful and salutary effect on a believer, but I don’t remember being anything but bored and a bit confused by the whole thing. Since then, of course, I have come to accept the Buddha's way of seeing things; 'Not by water is one made pure though many people may here wash' (Na udakena suci hoti bhav'ettha'nhayati jano, Ud.6). Even so, I have no intention of intention of officially de-baptizing myself. It would cost me 3.20 Euros; and besides, if when I die I find myself standing before 'You Know Who' it just might be a point in my favor to have two baptisms under my belt.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Return To The Silence

On the 11th of this month Vimala Thakar passed away after a long illness. Her body was cremated the same day. An embodiment of still and silent awarness, Vimalaji was one of the great spiritual masters of our time. Her teachings corresponded closely with the Dhamma, as did her life and personality. Every now and then a remarkable being passes through the world. Vimalaji was one of them.
See my post of 24th of the 4th, 2008.

Flowers From Heaven

The Mahaparinibbana Sutta mentions that as the Buddha passed away, flowers fell from heaven (D.II,137. This same motif often occurs in Mahayana sutras, and with good reason - it is a particularly lovely one. Directly across the road from me is a line of Pterocarpus indicus trees that burst into blossom once a year for only three or four days. During that time they continually sprinkle down so that early in the morning the cars parked under them, the parking lot itself, and the foot path, are completely covered with a carpet of beautiful golden flowers. If you stand under the trees for only five or ten minuets, you have blossoms all over you too. It’s a bit like being in chapter six of the Vimalakirtineddesa Sutra. Despite this, most people walk right past these blossoms or even right over them and don’t even notice them.
One of the blessings of practicing mindfulness is that you see the wonder and the beauty that is all around us, even in your own neighborhood, which less mindful people might completely miss. So its true what the Buddha said; 'The mindful person's happiness increases' (Satima sukham edhati, S.I,208).
If you enjoyed my post on Buddhist mummies (19th, 2nd, 2009) you MUST have a look at http://www.pinktentacle.com/tag/paranormal/

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Saddhammamaniratana IV

. Just as the lotus is water-born,
and there grows up beneath the waves,
and yet remains so clean and pure,
ever fresh and good to see;

197. So too the Buddha is worldly-born,
grows up and dwells within this world,
but like the lotus in the mud
is ever pure and beautiful.

201. When the Buddha teaches beings,
he does so out of sympathy.
From every idea of good and bad,
the Tathagata is wholly freed.

202. Certainly the sun will rise,
when darkest night does fade away,
so too the Buddha's spoken words
are always dependable and true.

198. The mighty sea, the earth so broad,
the mountain peaks and roaring wind,
in majesty do not come near
the liberation of the Lord.

200. When in the forest, amongst the trees,
when retired to an empty place,
just call to mind the Buddha and
no fear or trembling will arise.

204. So now stir up your energy,
skillful be and mindful too,
and having heard my gentle voice
enlightenment you will attain.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saddhammamaniratana III

149.For the mindful one there's always good'
for the mindful one happiness grows,
for the mindful one things smoothly go,
although enmity may remain.

150.But one who both day and night
takes delight in harmlessness,
sharing love with all that lives,
that one has enmity with none.

153. Develop a mind that’s full of love,
be compassionate and restrained in virtue,
arouse your energy and your strength,
be always firm in making progress.

154. Just as a loving mother would guard
her only dearly beloved child,
so towards creatures everywhere
one should always wish their good.

165. Whoever boundless makes their love,
and sets their heart upon the goal
of seeing the end of birth and death,
all their fetters are worn thin.

156.Just as water freely cools
all different types, the good and bad,
and washer away all dirt and dust;

157. Like this you should develop thoughts
of love to friend and foe alike,
and having reached fullness in love,
you will attain enlightenment.

164. Therefore, the meditation on love
should be done for self and others too,
everyone should be suffused with love.
This is the teachings of the Buddha.
149,S.I,208.150,S.I,208.153,Tha.979.165,It.21.156, Jn.168.157, Ja.169.164,Mil.394.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Saddhammamaniratana II

176. Develop the quiet, even state of mind.
when praised by some and condemned by others.
Free the mind from hate and pride,
and gently go your way in peace.

180. Peaceful, quiet, and restrained,
speaking little, without conceit -
such a one shakes of all evil
as the wind shakes leaves off a tree.

181. Let one with sight be as though blind,
let one who hears be as though deaf,
let one with tongue be as though dumb,
let one who is strong be as though weak.177. Learn this from the waters -
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.

178. Empty things make a noise,
the full is always quiet.
the fool is like a half-filled pot,
the wise person like a deep still pool.
176, Sn.702. 180, Tha.2. 181, Tha.501. 177, Sn.720. 178,721.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Saddhammamaniratana I

26.Not with monks or brahmans
Neither with the poor and needy
Does the base man share his food
Nor give any drink or sustenance.
People say that selfish man
Is like a drought, a rainless sky.

27.One who shares his wealth with some,
But does not gladly give to others,
Is like a local shower;
In such a way the wise describe this person.

28.But one who rains down bountiful gifts,
Gladly giving here and there
Out of compassion for all beings,
And who always says ‘Give! Give!’

29.This type of person is like
A great rain cloud filled with rain,
Thundering and pouring down
Refreshing water everywhere,
Drenching the highlands and the lowlands too,
Generous and without distinctions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Hate The Dhammapada

I hate the Dhammapada! I often read books on Buddhism where the only quotes of the Buddha are all from the Dhammapada. Get a Vesak card or a Buddhist-themed bookmark, and you can bet your life it will have a verse from the Dhammapada in it. The headings of Buddhist newsletters and the extra space at the bottom of their page, will inevitably be filled in with a Dhammapada verse. In Sri Lanka, the main English newspaper has a small ‘Thought for the Day’ section, and if it’s from Buddhism, it’s always, you guessed it, a saying from the Dhammapada. However, I should revise my opening statement. I don’t hate the Dhammapada, but rather the way it is overused. This lack of imagination and ignorance of other books from the Tipitaka, has made the Buddha’s precious words from the Dhammapada trite and commonplace. But that’s not all. The over-reliance on the Dhammapada severely limits many people’s exposure to the Dhamma. Although the Dhammapada is often thought of as being a summery of the Dhamma, it is not and was never meant to be. It was probably originally compiled as a handbook for novices and new monks. Most of its verses deal with concepts and ideas of interest to monastics, or relevant only to them. Many important aspects of the Dhamma get no mention in it at all. For example, the word metta only occurs once, and karuna is not mentioned at all. The Dhammapada is also rather poorly arranged, and in that sense is a typical Indian work. Two of the verses from the Citta Vagga are actually about the body and numerous other verses about the mind are not in the Citta Vagga. There are dozens of ‘translations’ of the Dhammapada available, a good number of these actually not translations at all but rehashes based on one or two earlier translations or rehashes. And some of these ‘translations’ are truly awful. And yet, despite the pervasiveness of the Dhammapada, and how widely it is known, spurious Dhammapada sayings are all over the place. Here are just two of about 15 I found after a few minuets on the internet.
These sayings are actually quite good, most fake Buddha sayings are, but they are not from the Dhammapada or anywhere else in the scriptures. On this subject see my post of 21th, 4, 2008, Misquoting the Buddha.
Years ago, in an attempt to encourage a boarder knowledge of the Buddha’s words, I culled 210 verses from the Tipitaka, arranged them into 20 chapters of 10 verses each, with a five verse introduction and a conclusion of five verses. I made a point of selecting verses all in the same meter (except two) so that the whole could be chanted in the same rhythm or tune. The Dhammapada verses, by contrast, are in about 10 different meters. I also made sure that metta and compassion both got a good hearing – the first occurs eight times and the second four times. I called this collection Saddhammamaniratana, the ‘Gemstones of the Good Dhamma’ and it was published by the Buddhist Publication Society with the Pali on the left hand page and the English on the right. My hope was that the Saddhammamaniratana would become popular and its verses would join those from the Dhammapada in being well-known and often quoted. It didn’t work. It has been translated into Chinese and Hindi but has generally been ignored. Well, at least I tried. Over the next few days I will post some verses from the Saddhammamaniratana.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Breath

The breath (apana or vata) is the air that moves in and out of the body with the rise and fall of the diaphragm. Like most people, the ancient Indians associated life with respiration and in fact one of the Pali words for animal life is apana, literally ‘breathing things.’ The first Precept actually says: ‘I take the precept not to harm breathing things’ (panati pata…), meaning that bacteria, sponges, plants, etc. are not included in the Precept. Because of the connection between life and respiration, the Indians saw the breath as having some mystical significance. Ascetics also noticed that holding the breath, or breathing rapidly for extended periods, would cause hallucinations, which they interpreted as an exalted state. Consequently, many of the types of meditation popular during the Buddha’s the time focused on the breath. Before his enlightenment, one of the practices the Buddha experimented with was ‘breath retention meditation’ (appanakam jhanam), which he finally gave up as making his body overwrought and agitated and being painful (M.I,243-4).
Although the Buddha taught a meditation based on the movement of the breath (anapana sati), he did not do so because he believed it has any mystical power or significance. So why the breath? I suspect that there are three reasons for this. The first is purely practical. (1) The breath is a convenient object to focus attention on and it is available to everyone. (2) the breath’s gentle in and out movement has a natural ability to calm the mind. (3) Focusing on the breath can be the first step in drawing attention away from external distractions to the mind. Many mental states cause some change in the breathing. When we are calm our breath is long, slow and gentle, and when we are excited it becomes short and fast. We hold our breath in expectation, huff with annoyance, sigh with sadness, get exasperated and breath free with relief. Watching the movement of our breath naturally leads to becoming aware of the movement of our mind.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Special Anniversary

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of the passing away of Godwin Samararatne, my kalyana mitta and the person who taught me more about the Dhamma than anyone else. What follows is something that I had published some years ago on www.godwin-home-page.net/Friends /Enlightened-One/Enlightened-One.htm. The numbers in the text refer to references to passages from the Tipitaka and these can be found on the above web site.
One day Godwin and I were discussing what the enlightened person might be like. As usual the conversation was wide-ranging and eluded to ideas from the Buddhist texts, Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Taoism and other traditions. We both agreed that the usual Theravadin conception of the arahat as a rather stiff and unsmiling monk seemed to be inadequate. "Bhante", he said, "why don't you go through the Tipitaka, take out all the descriptions of arahats and put them together?" I thought this a good idea and agreed to do it. Some months later, I showed Godwin what I had written and he was delighted with the many interesting things I had found. But he also mentioned several things I had missed which he thought should be included. The enlightened one's ability to be at home anywhere, one of his favorite ideas, was one thing he mentioned. He also urged me to include something about non-duality, a concept he had become much interested in during the last few years. After some more reading and writing, and a few more discussions with him, I put what I had written in its final form and got ready to show it to him. But it was not to be. Death intervened and our 23 year long friendship came to an end. Now, reading through what I have written, I do not know whether it is an accurate description of the enlightened person, but I am again and again reminded of Godwin himself. I offer this piece of writing as a humble tribute to the kindest friend and the wisest teacher I have ever known (1).

1. What are enlightened people like? Well, some are men and some are women (2). You might find them in a monastery or a suburban home, in the forest or in a small country town. It is true that there are not many of them but there are a lot more than people usually think. It is not that enlightenment is inherently difficult; the sad truth is that most people cannot be bothered to pull themselves out of the bog of ignorance and craving (3).
2. At first you wouldn't notice the enlightened person in a crowd because he's rather quiet and retiring. But when things started to get heated, that's when he'd stand out. When everyone else was enflamed by rage, he'd still be full of love (4). When others were in turmoil because of some crisis, he'd be as calm as he was before (5). In a mad scramble to get as much as possible, he'd be the one over in the corner with the content expression on his face (6). He walks smoothly over the rough (7), he's steady amidst the shaking (8). It's not that he wants to make a point of being different, rather, it's freedom from desire that has made him completely self-contained (9). But strangely, although others can't move him, his calm presence moves them. His gentle, reasoned words unite those at odds, and bring even closer together those already united (10). The afflicted, the frightened and the worried, feel better after they have talked with him (11). Wild animals sense the kindness in the enlightened one's heart and are not afraid of him (12). Even the place where he dwells, be it village, forest, hill or vale, seems more beautiful simply because he is there (13).
3. He's not always expressing an opinion or defending a point of view, in fact he doesn't seem to have any views (14), therefore people often mistake him for a fool (15). When he doesn't get upset or retaliate to abuse or ridicule, again people think there must be something wrong with him. But he doesn't mind what they think. He appears to be dumb, but it's just that he prefers to remain silent. He acts as if he was blind, but actually he sees everything that is going on. People think he is weak, but really he is very strong (16). Despite all appearances, he is as sharp as a razor's edge (17).
4. His face is always radiant and serene because he never worries about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow (18). His carriage and movements are graceful and poised because he has a natural mindfulness of everything he does (19).His voice is lovely to hear and his words are urbane, clear and to the point (20). He is beautiful in a way that has nothing to do with physical appearance or eloquence, but which comes from his own inner goodness (21).
5. He might have a house but if it burned down tomorrow he would move somewhere else and be just as comfortable there. He can be at home anywhere (22). Even those who try to cut down on the number or things they own always seem to have too much. No matter how much the enlightened one is given he always seems to have just enough. True, he seeks the necessities of life like everyone else, but he takes only what he needs and his needs are very small. His life is uncluttered and simple and he is content with what comes his way (23). His real nourishment is joy (24), his real beverage is truth (25), his real home is awareness (26).
6. Ordinary people are as noisy as babbling brooks while the enlightened one is as silent as the ocean depths (27). He loves quiet and he speaks in praise of quiet (28). By this I don't mean he never opens his mouth. He's only too happy to talk about the Dhamma to those interested in listening (29), although he never preaches and he won't get involved in arguments or debates (30). Also, because he doesn't talk beyond what he actually knows (31) everything he says is vested with an authenticity that the 'experts' simply can't match.
7. The enlightened one's mind is not cluttered with thoughts, nor is it inactive (32).When he needs thoughts he thinks and when he doesn't need them he lets them fall silent (33). For him they are a tool, not a problem. He still has memories, emotions and ideas, but he is unmoved by them. To him they are just magical illusions (34). He watches them as they arise, as they persist, as they pass away (35). His mind is like the clear empty sky (36) - clouds drift through but it remains spacious, pristine and unchanged.
8. Although he is pure in all ways, the enlightened one doesn't think of himself as being better than, as good as or inferior to anyone else (37). Others are just as they are and there is no need for judgments or comparisons. He's not for or against anyone or anything (38). He no longer sees things in terms of good and evil, pure and impure, success and failure (39). He has understood the world of duality (40) and gone beyond it. He has even gone beyond the idea of samsara and nirvana (41).Being beyond everything, he is free from everything. No desires, no fears, no concepts, no worries.
9. Not so long ago the enlightened one was as confused and as unhappy as everyone else. So how did he get the way he is? It was simple really. He stopped looking for the cause of all his pain outside himself and began to look within (42). As he looked he saw that the things he identified with and clung to; body, feelings, emotions, concepts, problems; all were not his (43). And then he just let go. No longer entangled in the unreal he saw the real, the Unborn, the Unbecome, the Unmade, the Unconditioned (44). Now he abides in that empty, signless freedom (45) and he's happy all the time (46). Because of this, it is rather difficult to categories the enlightened one. Others try to pigeon-hole him by calling him a saint, an arahat or even sometimes a fool. But he laughs at these labels and refers to himself as 'a nobody' (47). How can you label someone who has transcended all boundaries? (48)
10. Because he has completed his task and has nothing more to do (49), the enlightened one spends most of his time sitting quietly minding his own business (50). To the ordinary person there may seem to be a dull sameness about the enlightened one's life. "Give me a bit of excitement, a bit of variety", they say. But of course when they get excitement or variety of the type they don't like - sickness, failure, rejection or death - then they fall into despair. That's when the enlightened one quietly steps forward to help and to heal. And because he's got plenty of time, he can give himself fully to others. He touches everyone with his love (51).
11. He is happy to bide his time like this until the end, and when death finally comes he embraces it without fear and goes his way without regret (52). What happens to the enlightened one after death? Scholars have argued about that for centuries. But you can't find where the enlightened one has gone anymore than you can trace the path of a bird flying free in the sky (53). In death as in life, the Trackless One leaves no tracks (54).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Affirmation And Prayer

A prayer (avhayana or pathana) is a collection of words addressed to God or to gods. Normally there are two types of prayers – (1) requests for help and (2) praise of the deity, both of these mentioned in the passage from the Tipitaka, ‘to beseech, praise and worship with joined hands’ (ayacanti thomayanti panjalika nemassanama, D.I,240). Such prayers can be either silent or vocalized, done individually or in a group. The Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism, contain hundreds of prayers to various gods. Being a god-free philosophy Buddhism does not consider prayer to have a role to play in the spiritual life and the Buddha denied that prayer works. The things that people long for most – happiness, long life, rebirth in heaven, etc – cannot, he said, ‘be acquired by vows and prayers’ (na ayacanahetu va na patthanahetu, A.II,47).
Affirmation (adhinnana or dhiti) does, however, have a significance in Buddhism. An affirmation is a strong resolve, avowal or determination to do or to achieve something. When we make an affirmation it clarifies and bring to the forefront of consciousness the goal we desire, it marshals and intensifies all the power of the mind and it focuses that power on the goal. An affirmation can make one ‘resolute for the highest goal, firm-minded…steadfast and endowed with strength and energy’ (Sn.68). When prayers work, as they sometimes seem to, it is actually due to the power of the mind, not the intervention of a deity.
Affirmation had a part to play in the Buddha attaining enlightenment. He declared, ‘Gladly will I let only my skin, sinews and bones remain after my flesh and blood had dried up, but my resolution shall not falter until I have attained what can be attained by human power, human strength, human persistence’ (A.I,50). These words aroused and focused the energy, the confidence and the courage he needed for his final push to attain Nirvana. The Buddha also mentioned that a strong affirmation can have a role to play in mental purification. He said that effective way to efface negative mental states was to make the affirmation not to give into them. ‘Effacement can be done by thinking like this …“Others may be contemptuous, we will not be contemptuous. Others may be domineering, we will not be domineering. Others may be envious, we will not be envious” ’ (M.I,42-3).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Often Overlooked

Recently, a good friend of mine in Australia inherited $40.000 and decided to give half of it away. What follows is parts of a letter she wrote to me about this, reproduced with her permission.

“I decided not to give it away suddenly but to carefully check out different charities to make sure they really need the money and that they will use it intelligently and properly. Bhante, it was a real revelation to me. I never realized that there are so many people, volunteers and helpers, who care enough about this, that or the other cause that they are prepared to spend so much of their energy and time helping it. Charities helping people and animals seem to attract the most selfless and passionate volunteers. But there are numerous other causes – preserving old buildings, saving the Southern Lesser Red-breasted Tom Tit, getting travel books translated into brail, saving grand old trees from being chopped down…you name it! And all sorts of people are involved – young people, housewives, retirees, and lots of them spend their after-work hours, weekends and holidays at it. Its incredible Bhante! I never knew just how many good and caring people there are out there and discovering it has really inspired me… It has made me look at verse 53 in the Dhammapada completely differently. Instead of lying flat on the page, the Buddha’s words now seem to rise up, come close and whisper in my ear, ‘Get of your bum and do something to help others.’ ”

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hiuen Tsiang On Sri Lanka II

Hiuen Tsiang learned that Sri Lanka was known by several different names - Ratnadipa "because of the precious gems found there," Silangiri and the Sorrowless Kingdom, which may be related to Ravana’s Asoka Garden as mentioned in the Ramayana. Another name, Simhala, was derived from the name of the legendary founder and first king of the island. Hiuen Tsiang was told two stories about the origins of the Sinhalese, each different from the other and both differing from the legend in the Mahavamsa. The stories are too long to relate here but they suggest that the Mahavamsa story was only one of several legends circulating in the 7th century. Hiuen Tsiang described the Sinhalese and their island home thus; "The soil is rich and fertile, the climate is hot, the ground regularly cultivated and flowers and fruit are produced in abundance. The population is numerous, their families possessions are rich in revenue. The statue of the men is small, they have dark complexions and they are fierce by nature. They love learning and esteem virtue. They greatly honor religious excellence and labor in the acquisition of religious merit." He adds further; "...they have square chins and high foreheads, they are naturally fierce and impetuous and cruelly savage without hesitation." This unpleasant side of their natures was, he was told, due to being the descendants of the offspring of a woman and a lion. But this had a positive side as well, for it also made them brave and courageous at the same time.
The Sri Lankan monks Huien Tsiang met in Kanchipuram were probably from Anuradhapura which would explain why they were able to give him such a detailed and vivid description of the temples in the capital, especially those in the royal compound. The most celebrated of these was of course the Temple of the Tooth. "By the side of the kings palace is the temple of the Buddha’s tooth which is decorated with every kind of gem and splendor of which dazzles the sight like the sun. For successive generations worship has been respectfully offered to this relic..." The temple was "... several hundreds of feet high, brilliant with jewels and ornamented with rare gems. Above the temple is placed an upright pole on which is fixed a great ruby. This gem constantly sheds a brilliant light which is constantly visible night and day and afar off appears like a bright star. Three times a day the king washes the Buddha’s tooth with perfumed water or sometimes with powered perfume." It is interesting to note that a few decades after Hiuen Tsiang returned to his homeland another Chinese pilgrim in India, I Tsiang, heard a most strange story about one of his fellow countrymen staying in Sri Lanka. It seems the Chinese monk was in Anuradhapura and had been invited to attend the washing ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth. So enthralled was he by the Tooth that he decided to steal it. Unbeknown to him though, the relic casket was attached to some kind of mechanical device so that when it was moved it set off an alarm and automatically sealed all the doors. The Chinese monk was caught and escaped punishment only because of his yellow robe. Next to the Temple of the Tooth was "a small temple which is also ornamented with every kind of precious stone. In it is a life-sized golden statue of the Buddha cast by a former king of the country. He afterwards ornamented the statues head dress with a precious gem." Apparently the statue had a slightly bent head and a delightful legend was told to explain this. Once a robber decided to steal the gem in the head dress of the Buddha in the temple which he entered by digging a tunnel. Seeing the huge gem he reached up to take it but the statue miraculously increased in height so that he could not reach it. The robber said to himself; "Formerly when the Tathagata was a bodhisattva so great was his compassion that he vowed to give up everything, even his own life, for the sake of others. But now the statue which stands in his place begrudges to give up even one little gem. What was said of old about the Buddha seems to differ from what his statue now dose". Suddenly the statue bent over and the robber could reach the gem. He ran from the temple and took the gem to a merchant to sell but the merchant recognized the gem, informed the king and the robber was arrested. When asked by the king where he got the gem from the robber said that the Buddha had given it to him and he related what had happened. The skeptical king sent someone to the temple and sure enough the golden statue’s head was still bent over. Convinced that a miracle had occurred, the king brought the gem from the robber, who escaped punishment, and it was placed once again the statue’s headdress. Neither this temple or the delightful legend told about its golden statue survive in any Sri Lankan sources. Another building in the royal compound that Hiuen Tsiang was told about was the Mahapali Hall. "By the side of the kings palace there is built a large kitchen in which is daily measured out food for eight thousand monks. The meal time having come the monks arrive with their bowels to receive their allowance. Having eaten it they return, all of them to their monasteries. Ever since the Buddha’s teaching has reached this country the king had established this charity and his successors have continued it down to our times". When Fa Hien was in Anuradhapura in 412 AD he received alms in this very kitchen and left a description of it. The great stone trough of the Mahasali from which the rice was served can still be seen in the citadel at Anuradhapura.
The rest of the information that Huien Tsiang gives about Sri Lanka consists of brief and fragmentary facts and impressions. For example he mentions that there were 100 monasteries in the island and about 10,000 monks. About the pearl industry he wrote, " A bay on the coast of the country is rich in gems and precious stones. The king himself goes there to perform religious services in which the spirits present him with rare and valuable objects. The inhabitants of the capital seek to share in the gain and also invoke the spirits for that purpose. They pay tax on the pearls they find according to their quality." This may be a reference to the religious ceremonies used to keep sharks away from pearl divers that Marco Polo noted. He also makes a brief reference to Sri Pada. "In the south-east corner of the country is Mount Lanka. Its high crags and valleys are occupied by spirits that come and go. It was here that the Tathagata formerly delivered the Lankavatara Sutra." Sri Pada is of course in the south-west not the south-east of the island, so either Hiuen Tsiang misheard his informants or lost his notes and later when writing his travelogue had to rely on his (in this case faulty) memory. The Lankavatara Sutra he refers to is the great Mahayana scripture now used and revered in the Zen school of Buddhism of Japan and was supposedly taught by the Buddha during one of his visits to Sri Lanka. Hiuen Tsiang knew that Mahinda had introduced Buddhism into Sri Lanka although, in accordance with Mahayana tradition, he called him the brother, not the son, of King Asoka. He made an extremely interesting comment about a monastery that he noticed a few miles from the capital of Malakuta in south India. "Not far from the east of the city is an old monastery of which the vestibule and court are covered with wild shrubs; the foundation wa11s only survive. This was built by Mahinda, the younger brother of King Asoka." So it seems that the Buddhists of south India had there own traditions and legends about Mahinda and even monuments attributed to him. Sri Lankan legend has Mahinda flying from north India to Sri Lanka but obviously he must have come overland. In which case it is only logical to assume that he had done missionary work in south India before coming to Sri Lanka and Hiuen Tsiang’s travelogue seems to strengthen this conjecture.
lt is a great pity that political trouble prevented the most observant and articulate of the great Chinese pilgrims from visiting Sri Lanka. What other fascinating and detailed information about our past would we have if he had he do been able to?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hiuen Tsiang On Sri Lanka I

Between the years 629 and 645 AD the famous Chinese monk Hiuen Tsiang traveled through Central Asia and India to visit Buddhist sacred places, learn from Indian teachers and to collect copies of Buddhist scriptures. On his return to China, his extraordinary journey made him famous and the Emperor himself asked him to write an account of his adventures. The result was a book called ‘A Record of the West Compiled During the Tang Dynasty’ (Ta Tang Si Yu Ki).The ancient Chinese called India ‘the West’ because they thought it lay in that direction from their country. Later, Hiuen Tsiang’s disciple Hwui Li, wrote a biography of his beloved teacher in which was included some supplementary information that Hiuen Tsiang had given him. Together, these two books tell us a lot about the most famous Chinese monk of ancient times. To undertake such a long journey, alone, with neither money, knowledge of the language or even a clear idea of where India was, must have required immense courage and commitment. At the same time, Hiuen Tsiang’s own words give the impression that he was something of a prig, certain of his own importance and very sectarian in outlook.
More than once we see him oblivious to the fact that his pride and argumentativeness are irritating others. However, it is not biographical data that makes A Record of the West and the biography so interesting and important but the detailed information they gives about that lands that Hiuen Tsiang traveled through, in particular India. Hiuen Tsiang was not just a brave traveler and fine scholar, he was also a careful observer, curious about and interested in all he saw. His book tells the historian more about lndia - its legends and customs, art and architecture, the literature of Buddhism, the location of famous monasteries, how many monks resided in each and what school they adhered to, the politics, religion and every day life of the people - than any single document until modern times. And this information is not just extensive, it is also quite accurate. For the most part, despite all his sectarian biases, Hiuen Tsiang simply recorded what he was told and what he himself saw. This of course is well-known and few are books on ancient India that do not have at least one or two quotes from Hiuen Tsiang. It is less well-known that the books contain a great deal of information about Sri Lanka as well. As a source of facts about ancient Sri Lanka Hiuen Tsiang’s travelogue and biography have probably been neglected because he did not actually visit the island. But making up for this, the Chinese pilgrim spoke to people who had been there and met many Sri Lankan monks staying in India.
Even while still in north India Huien Tsiang heard a lot about Sri Lanka. When he was in Bodh Gaya he saw the famous Mahabodhi Vihara which had been built by King Megavana. His impressions of the Sri Lankan monks at Bodh Gaya was thus. "The monks of this monastery number more than a thousand...They carefully observe the Dhamma Vinaya and their conduct is pure and correct". The details he gives about the founding of this monastery are too well known to be repeated here. However, another Buddhist establishment that he visited and which had also been built by a Sri Lankan king is less well known. Concerning this place he wrote, "To the south (of the Kapotika Vihara near Rajagaha, i.e. modern Rajgir) is a solitary hill which is of great height and which is covered with forest and jungle. Beautiful flowers and springs of pure water cover its sides and flow through its hollows. On the hill are many viharas and shrines, sculptured with the highest art. In the exact middle of the main vihara is a statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Although it is of small size yet its spiritual appearance is of an affecting character. In its hand it holds a lotus flower and on its head is a figure is of the Buddha. There is always a number of persons here who abstain from food desiring to obtain a vision of the Bodhisattva. For seven days or fourteen days or even for a whole month they fast. Those who are properly affected see the Bodhisattva with its beautiful marks and adorned in majesty and glory."
This is the story Huien Tsiang heard about this temple’s founding. "In olden days the king of the Simhala country, early in the morning, while looking in the mirror, saw not his own face but the image of a mountain in Jambudipa in the middle of a Tala wood and on its top a figure of Avalokitesvara. Deeply affected by the benevolent appearance of the figure he decided to search for it. Having come to this mountain and finding the figure he had seen in the mirror he built the vihara and endowed it with religious gifts. Then he built the other vihara and shrines also". While parts of this story are obviously legendary it seems likely that the building of this temple would not have been attributed to a foreign monarch had it not been so. Several other sources mention Sri Lankan kings constructing buildings in India (e.g. Nissankamalla) and we know that the Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was widely worshipped in the island at one time. Huien Tisang’s travelogue gives further confirmation to both these facts.
He got some more information, not about Sri Lanka, but about the famous Sri Lankan - Aryadeva. After Nagarjuna himself, his disciple Aryadeva, was one of the greatest thinkers of the Madhyamika and perhaps one of the most brilliant and subtle thinkers ever. As with other personalities from ancient India, almost nothing is known about Aryadeva. For example, there is a wide variety of opinions between both ancient and modern scholars about where he was born. Some sources say he was of the royal house of Sri Lanka while others contradict this. But Huien Tsiang very clearly says he was a Sri Lankan. "At a certain time there was a bodhisattva from the island of Simhala called Deva (i.e., Aryadeva) who profoundly understood the relationship of truth and the nature of all composite things. Moved by compassion at the ignorance of men he came to this country to guide and direct the people in the right way." As this was the story circulating in the 7th century, only 500 years after Aryadeva’s death, it is most likely to be true. And if it is, it shows that while Indians like Mahinda, Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala and Ramachandra Bharati, were able to have a profound influence on Sri Lankan Buddhism, Sri Lankans were able to have equally profound effects on Indian Buddhism.
After a long stay at Nalanda, Huien Tsiang continued his journey east and then south with the intention of going to Sri Lanka. He had decided on the usual route from north India, to embark on a ship at Tamrilipti and sail down the east coast, a trip of about 14 days. However, a south India monk he met and who was presumably acquainted with the way, advised him otherwise. "Those who go to the Simhala country ought not go by sea route, during which they will have to encounter the danger of bad weather, yakkhas and huge rolling waves. You ought rather go from the south-east point of South India from which it is a three day voyage. For though going by foot you may have to scale mountains and pass through valleys yet you will be safe. Moreover, you will thus be able to visit Orissa and other countries on the way." From this we learn that while the sea route from northern India to Sri Lanka might have been quicker, some thought it so dangerous that they preferred to go overland. Certainly Hiuen Tsiang was convinced of this because he decided to take the monks advice. On his way south he passed through the coastal city of Charitra in Orissa, which he described as "a rendezvous of merchants." Apparently these merchants brought back with them tales and stories about Simhala, the legendary and wondrous island to the south and other exotic places. The red lights that could be seen in the evening sky of the coast of Charitra were explained in this way. "Every night when the sky is clear and without clouds can be seen at a great distance the glittering rays of the precious gem placed on the top of the Temple of the Tooth in Simhala. Its appearance is like that of a shining star in the midst of space." Obviously, the fame of the Temple of the Tooth and its fabulous gem had spread far and wide.
When Hiuen Tsiang got to Kanchipuram (south west of Madras) a party of 300 monks from Sri Lanka had just arrived in the city. He seems to have had plenty of time to get to know them because he had a long philosophical discussion with some and later traveled through the Tamil country with 70 others. Most of what Huien Tsiang recorded about Sri Lanka he would have learned from these monks, and while some of it must be factual some must likewise reflect the biases and preoccupations of his informants. The names of one of the leaders of these monks, Abhayadanshtra, suggest that he and his fellows were from the Abhayagiri. If they were, Hiuen Tsiang would have been able to speak to them without need of an interpreter because he was proficient in Sanskrit and this language a was also widely used in the Abhayagiri. The monks told Hiuen Tsiang that they had decided to come to India on pilgrimage at that particular time because of trouble at home following the death of the king. He was told that "...the present king, a Chola, is strongly attached to the religion of the heretics and does not honor the teachings of the Buddha; he is cruel and tyrannical and opposes all that is good." A little later he recorded, "During the last ten years or so the country has been in confusion and there has been no established ruler…" It was this information that made Hiuen Tsiang give up his idea of going to Sri Lanka. Although this trouble must have been happening between about 600 - 642 AD, the Mahavamsa and other Sri Lankan chronicles make no mention of a Chola king around this time, or even of a period of social or political turmoil. This suggests that for some periods, the Mahavamsa records only the barest details and neglects to mention others completely.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Expensive Exorcism

A interesting court case that had gone on for 32 days recently came to a close here in Singapore. A woman who describes herself as a Christian who practices Buddhist chanting and who also believes in Sai Baba went to the popular Catholic Novena Church because she believed she was possessed by evil spirits. The priests at the church offered to exorcise her and she claimed that during the exorcism she was harassed, assaulted, partly strangled and confined against her will. The priests denied the accusations. All sorts of weird (to me as someone who is more comfortable in the 21st century than the Middle Ages) details emerged during the trial. While the woman was possessed she had 'slithered like a snake', marched up and down like a soldier and had said in a deep voice that she was Lucifer. Other details were more 21st century. Troubling inconsistencies turned up in the woman's testimony and her sister testified that she had once spoken about a plan to fake an illness in an attempt to get $200,000.
Eventually, the judges threw out the case saying that they found the priests' testimony more convincing than the woman's and that they could find no evidence that she was traumatized by the incident. The woman has now been ordered to pay costs and damages of $300,000 to the church workers she tried to sue, $72,000 to the priests and other costs amounting to nearly a million dollars. It seems unlikely that she will be able to pay this amount which means the defendants and the church will be stuck with huge legal bills. On her part she may have to sell her house to pay some of the costs. Beelzebub must really be laughing.
Materially Singapore is very much in the third millennium - it is a glass and steel, computerized, air-conditioned, economically top-notch society. Psychologically you would think it is in the Dark Ages. Belief in ghosts, evil sprits, black magic, good and evil omens, curses, etc is widespread. And a good science-based education system doesn't seem to have diminished this. When people are traditional Chenist/Taoist/Buddhist, as most Chinese are, they accept the Chinese version of such things. When they convert to Christianity, and many well-educated ones do, (often because they see it as being more 'Western' and 'modern') they get the fundamentalist/evangelical/Pentecostal version of the same thing, i.e. Satanic influences, exorcisms, miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, ghosts, holy rolling and belief in the imminent 'Last Days.' Whereas in the West (at least that part I come from) the 30 or so references in the Bible to demonic possession are passed over in embarrassment, here in Singapore they are taken very seriously and very literally. The recent court case shows that such beliefs can also end up being very expensive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Extraterrestrial Life

Yesterday IS IT REAL asked the question, 'Did the Buddha believe in life on other planets?' It's an interesting question. In several places but in particular in the Acchariyaabbhutadhamma Sutta (M.III,123-4), the Buddha speaks of the 'interspace of vacancy, gloom and utter darkness where the moon and the sun, mighty and powerful as they are, cannot make their light prevail' (this sounds like intergalactic space to me) and the 'beings born there' (satta idhupapanna). While this could refer to life on other planets I don’t think it does. Firstly, this passage seems to be didactic, used to illustrate a particular point, and not meant to be taken literally. And if it were taken literally it looks to me as if it is would be referring to devas or spirits inhabiting space, not embodied entities residing on the surface on a particular planet. So I would maintain that the Buddha did not speak of life on other planets. If in anyone else knows of something the Buddha said that would contradict this, let's have it. We could then ask, 'Would the idea of life on other planets be at odds with Buddhist doctrine?' I can't see that it would. If extraterrestrial life were discovered (and apparently scientists consider this scenario to be quite plausible) there is no reason why dukkha, anicca and anatta would not apply to them and therefore that the Dhamma would not be relevant to them, if they had the intelligence to understand it. I imagine that some other religions would find such a discovery troubling. It would become increasingly difficult to maintain that humans were a special creation and that man was made in God's image. And if it were found that this extraterrestrial life were more highly developed than us, this too would require major adjustments within the theistic traditions. It would also probably spell the end of the 'they came from outer space' genera of movies and novels.
In the Tipitaka quote above is Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Freud's Couch

Just another comment on Buddha statues in inappropriate, un-spiritual or unexpected places. When I was in London I went to Freud's house in Mansfield Gardens to pay homage to the Master. There are small ancient Egyptian statues all over the house, collecting them was one of Freud's hobbies. What surprised me was the Buddha statues. There was a beautiful one, Japanese if I remember correctly, on his desk. More interestingly, at the end of his famous couch, positioned so that a patient laying there could gaze at them, was a line of Buddha images. I have tried to find a picture of the couch looking from the head towards the end so that these statues can be seen, but all the ones available have been taken from the opposite angle. But even from this angle you can see the heads of two Gandhara Buddha head. Of course, sometimes a Buddha statue is just a Buddha statue.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Buddha In The Bar

There is a minor uproar going on in Jakarta right now. The up-market French bar and music lounge franchise Buddha Bar has just opened a branch in Jakarta. On Thursday dozens of Buddhist college students sealed the exclusive bar and restaurant after negotiating with the bar's management. 'We've sealed the Buddha-Bar and it will remain closed until the matter is resolved. The management team has also agreed not to open the bar', Indonesian Buddhist Students Association (AMB) representative Widodo said. According to Widodo, the Jakarta administration had issued a letter to France regarding protests.
The bar's local management who had also filed a request for a name change, said 'Until the issue is resolved, the bar will stay shut'. The AMB's protest against the Buddha Bar is based on the group's dissatisfaction at the bar's use of Buddhism in a way that they perceive to be disrespectful to Buddhism. 'The name 'Buddha', Widodo said, carries sublime meanings that are not appropriate to be paired with words like 'bar' that are associated with venues where alcohol is served and where people get drunk. The bar itself is also filled with Buddhist symbols and artifacts. Its presence is offensive to the Buddhist community in Indonesia,' he said. Buddha Bar Jakarta branch is the George V Hotels and Resorts chain's first restaurant in Asia, following successes in London, New York, Dubai, Sao Paulo, Kiev, Cairo and Beirut.The Jakarta police told a group of protesters on Friday that it would summon the owner of the Buddha Bar for questioning over its alleged blasphemy. If proven guilty, owners of the restaurant could face up to five years imprisonment.
I am happy to say that so far the Buddhists have conducted their protest in a measured and non-hysterical way. As for the bar's name and its use of a Buddha statue are concerned, I am in two minds. Associating the Buddha with alcohol and indulgence is quite inappropriate (See my post of 9, 9, 2008). On the other hand, if they made a few minor adjustments I think the place could become genuinely and authentically Buddhist and then they could rightly use the name. They should do this - (1) make everyone entering the bar shave their head, (2) drop the prices of everything so they were the same as items at McDonalds, (3) have these words be printed in large letters on the bottom of the menu, 'What will the food you are about to eat look like tomorrow morning when you go to the toilet?' (4) require everyone to share part of their meal with someone at another table, (5) have the bar's band play Brahm's Deutsches Requiem all night and (6) when each person leaves, instead of saying 'Have a nice evening' the receptionist should say, 'One day you will die.' I think that would all go over well with Jakarta's in-crowd, high flyers and expat community. Don’t you?

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Humor (parihasa) is the characteristic of something that evokes laughter. Having a sense of humor is the ability to see the funny side of things or the knack of being able to make other laugh. The Buddha had a poor opinion of the humor of his time, probably because most of it was rather course – slapstick, ribaldry or based on sexual innuendos. He also must have noticed, as many have since, that a lot of humor is derived from making fun of and ridiculing others and thus contains an element of cruelty. Ancient Indian actors (nata) and comedians (hasaka) believed that because they ‘use both truth and falsehood to entertain and amuse the crowd’ that they would be reborn in the heaven of the laughing gods. The Buddha had a different idea. He said that they would be more likely to be reborn in the purgatory of laughter (S.IV,306). Such was his belief in the importance of speaking the truth that he told his son Rahula, ‘Do not lie, not even in jest’ (M.I,415). This same idea is referred to several times in the Jataka (e.g. Ja.I,439; V,481).
Nonetheless, the Buddha seems to have approved of humor that would raise a smile or lighten the mood because the Tipitaka contains many examples of his urbane, subtle humor. His discourses are full of puns (silesa), a pun being the use of a word that has two different meanings or two words that sound the same, for humorous effect. For example, brahmans were also known as ‘reciters’ (ajjhayaka) because they chanted the Vedas. The Buddha joked that they were really called this because they couldn’t meditate (ajhayaka, D.III,94). Another way of evoking humor is by juxtaposing two connected but incongruous things, something the Buddha often did this in his similes. Having good intentions but wrong practice, he said, will no more leads to Nirvana than pulling a cow’s horn will give milk (M.III,141). He said that a fool does not benefits from his association with a wise person any more than a spoon tastes the soup (Dhp.64). Occasionally the Buddha used parody (parihapajja) to critique certain persons or ideas, particularly the pretensions of the brahmans. Once an arrogant young brahman insisted to him that brahmans are superior to other castes because ‘they are borne from the mouth of Brahma,’ an idea found in the Vedas. The Buddha quipped, ‘But surely brahmans are born from the womb of their mothers’ like everyone else’ (M.II,148). In the Digha Nikaya he gently parodied the idea of a supreme god in a way that can still raise a chuckle in the modern reader (D.I,17-18; 220-222).
Laughter is sometimes called ‘the best medicine’ and the Buddha would have agreed that humor can sometimes have a therapeutic value. On those occasions where a particular way of thinking has made a problem look unsolvable or a burden appear unbearable, making a joke of the situation can sometimes open up a different way of looking at it and suggest a solution. Humor can also trigger a catharsis, a therapeutic release from anxiety, tension or fear or lift one out of depression. The Buddha occasionally used it to this end. On one occasion, King Ajatasattu went to visit the Buddha and asked him if he could tell him one advantage of the monk’s life that could be seen in the present life. The king had only recently murdered his father and was starting to feel increasingly regretful and uneasy. The Buddha asked the king what he would do if one of his slaves ran away and became a monk and he later came to know where he was staying. Would he, the Buddha inquired, have the monk arrested and returned to slavery? ‘No’, answered the king. ‘On the contrary, I would stand up for him, bow to him and offer him alms.’ The Buddha replied, ‘Well there you are. There is one of the advantages of the monk’s life that could be seen in this life’ (paraphrase of D.I,51-61). This expectedly whimsical answer to a serious question must have at first surprised the king, but then made him either smile or laugh. Having lightened the king’s mood and put him at his ease, the Buddha then proceeded to answer his question more seriously.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Twenty Six Long Years

Most of Tibet’s suffering is inflicted on it by outsiders (yesterday’s blog). Sri Lanka’s seemingly endless suffering is all self-inflicted. Having gone to Sri Lanka in 1976 I was able to witness how a combination of diminishing opportunities and poverty, ancient animosities, bad government and political opportunism caused what could have been a manageable situation to get out of control. One would have hoped that being primarily a Buddhist culture that the Dhamma might have been drawn on to offer some hope of avoiding the coming storm. I am very sorry to say that this was not the case. A prominent monk I used to know when he was young, said some years ago, ‘We have to put the Dhamma books in the cupboard until the war is over.’ In saying this, he was not being a lone ‘hardliner’, rather, he was expressing a fairly widely held attitude, especially among the sangha. I am not naive enough to think that just chanting the Dhammapada or meditating would have been enough to defuse what was an extremely complex situation, but it was sad to see how little the Buddha’s teachings of detachment, kindness, awareness and careful consideration were heard above the spite, racial slurs and jingoism, often shouted in the name of ‘protecting the Dhamma.’ It looks like the conflict is drawing to a tear-stained, blood-soaked conclusion. Should that be so, and I hope it is, it will takes several generations at least to heal the broken hearts and the broken lives. Will there be magnanimity in victory? Will there be attempts at reconciliation? Will the Dhamma be ‘taken out of the cupboard’ to help heal the wounds? I will hold my breath and hope so. Have a look at these powerful images of war-torn Lanka at http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/03/sri_lanka_and_its_long_war.html?s_campaign=8315 The 30th and 31st images are of Lasantha Wickramatunga’s funeral (see my post of 18,1,2009)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fifty Long Years

Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese Communists, one of the many tragic dramas in the blood-soaked 20th century. Perusing the internet on the Tibet/China issue I notice virtually only two positions – the pro-China one (almost entirely Chinese with a few Western ‘realists’ and cynics sticking their bib in) and the pro-Tibet one which seems much more board-bases. I notice now that the Chinese web sites highlight all that was negative about the old Tibet – serfdom, slavery, primitive justice and an almost complete lack of modern development, all of which is true. They make a great deal of CIA skullduggery in Tibet in the 1960’s and 70’s knowing that booing the wicked old CIA will always find you a few friends. But didn’t China support, train and finance communist insurgents in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaya and Indonesia for decades? Why is it unacceptable for the ‘Running Dogs’ to do this and but not for the Absolutely Correct Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China?(that’s how it described itself in the 1970’s). Then they go on to claim that Tibet has developed under their rule, which is ironic because this is exactly the same argument the colonialists and the imperialists used to use to justify their domination of other countries. Nonetheless this is generally true too.
When I was in Tibet in 1984 I noticed the massive reforestation that had gone on around the Lhasa valley, a valley which had been completely denuded in the old days. The realists and cynics love to scoff at Western supporters of Tibetan independence, claiming that they suffer from the Shrangla La syndrome, a hopelessly unrealistic view of the old Tibet. They are quite correct for the most part. But of course the cynics and the Chinese sympathizers are equally unrealistic about Chinese rule in that they downplay its appallingly brutality and the fact that it is almost universally resented by the Tibetans. The two things I saw in Tibet that most sticks in my mind are these. Directly in front of the entrance of the ancient Ramoche Temple in Lhasa was a stinking urinal (and I mean ‘stinking’) and when I went in to use it (I was desperate) I noticed that the floor was entirely paved with Mani stones. Now Mani stones don’t mean much to me but I know that they are considered sacred by the Tibetans. This was probably only one of numerous ‘in your face’ ‘f*#+k you’ insults that the Chinese inflicted on the Tibetans religious sensibilities. When I visited the then still neglected and partly ruined Drepung Monastery, a young monk took me by the hand and gesturing to me to be quiet, led me into a building, along a passage and up some stairs. We emerged on a third floor balcony overlooking a courtyard. Stacked in the courtyard were thousands of butter lamps, cymbals, bells and pieces of gilded metal that had once been parts of large images. Beside a pair of industrial scales were perhaps 50 large sacks full of small Buddha images. I am sure that the Tibetan did and still do deeply resent all this desecration and destruction. And the old excuse that it was all done by a few ‘bad elements’ is a lie. It was a deliberate policy of the Chinese Communist Party, the same party that still rules the country.
Then there is the Tibetan exiles and their supporters who have a pronounced tendency to romanticize the old Tibet to an almost comical degree. Take the Khampas, a bunch of murdering highwaymen who terrorized of the northern grasslands. And when they weren’t doing that they were preying off pilgrims at Mt. Kailash – in between chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. A recent book about them is called Gentlemen Bandits. I don’t think so! Another book I saw recently is entitled The Tibetan Art of Parenting. What! Read travelers accounts of the level of hygiene in Tibet and the superstitions and taboos that surrounded childbirth, and shudder. And traditional Tibetan medicine? All the diplomatic missions to pre-1951 Tibet mention being swamped by people pleading for medicine and medical treatment. Smallpox and syphilis, easily cured or prevented in the West, were all… you get the general idea. And as for the catastrophe of the Chinese invasion, much of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the Galupa monastic hierarchy. For 34 years after 1912 Tibet had the opportunity to join the world community, to make friends, to build alliances, to join the League of Nations, the International Postal Union, etc. and they failed to do so. In fact, they adamantly refused to do so. Every innovation was blocked or undermined by senior monks, who saw them as a threat to their power. For all their abilities to defeat phantom Hinayanists and Sautantikas in mock debates, they knew nothing of the real world and their obstructive ignorance cost them and their people dearly.
So where does that leave us. To me it’s very simple. Whether old Tibet was a feudal hell or a spiritual paradise, whether the Chinese are vicious oppressors or much-needed reformers, the Tibetan people want to be and deserve to be masters of their own destiny. Put it to the vote and let them decide. Of course, the Communist party will never allow this because they know what the outcome would be. They will not let even the Chinese people decide who rules them for exactly the same reason. The Dalai Lama and his followers defiantly have right on their side but unfortunately right doesn’t mean much in the world of realpolitics.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Gift Of Life

Denzil, a 58 year old lawyer in Sri Lanka was desperate. The ultrasound investigation had revealed that he had a malignant tumor in his liver and that he needed a liver transplant in order to continue living. After an extensive search, he came to Singapore for further medical consultations and investigation. Being childless and not wanting to consider any of his very young nieces who were willing to be donors, Denzil pleaded with a friend for help. The friend was willing to help n but doctors found him unsuitable. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, Denzil's wife found a donor in a temple which she visited regularly. It was a young monk who wanted nothing in return and who had, extraordinarily, previously donated a kidney to someone else. With hopes renewed, they brought the monk to Singapore and to everyone's relief, he was deemed a suitable donor. The transplantation was arranged immediately and it turned out to be a success.
Today, one and a half years later, we were fortunate to speak to the donor, Ven. Ariyawansha and Denzil. Ven. Ariyawansha is a 29 years old monk who hails from a temple in Anuradhapura, in northern Sri Lanka. He is presently in Singapore for the liver check up. A soft-spoken young man, he showed exceptional spiritual strengths. When asked what had led him to donate part of his liver, and earlier one of his kidneys, Ven. Ariyawansha explained that it is customary for monks to consider making such contributions. He also said that even if he had not been a monk he would have made the same offer. Apparently, at the age of 16, three years before he was ordained, he had already pledged to donate his organs should he pass away. Ven. Ariyawansha also said that he had been inspired to become an organ donor by the Jataka story in which the Bodhisattva gave his eyes to a blind man.
When asked for his opinion concerning Singapore’s proposal that some sort of 'controlled monetary compensation' be given to organ donors, Ven. Ariyawansha replied, "According to Buddhism, donation without any sort of expectations of monetary rewards or compensation would be regarded as the best and highest possible act of generosity. Therefore, as Buddhists, we have to bear this in mind and if we follow the Buddha's teachings correctly, our actions would reflect a higher act of donation rather than donating for money. Moreover, there would be sufficient organs for those in need if more people were encouraged to donate their organs voluntarily after their demise. I therefore do not agree to monetary compensation for organs. A donation is different from a sale."
With regards to his donations, Venerable said that he was quite happy about his decision and that he harbored no regrets whatsoever. He added, "I feel extremely happy and contented that I have made someone else happy. My intention is to gain enlightenment in this very lifetime – if possible – and I am doing this to gain further experiences relating to the Dhamma."
The recipient of the liver transplant, Mr. Denzil, now back in court as a lawyer in Sri Lanka, was asked how he felt on being told that he needed a liver transplant. He said he was devastated because he lacked both the financial resources and the means to seek the required medical treatment. It was, he said, his good kamma that he was able to find the money for the operation and, more importantly, a generous donor.
On Ven. Ariyawansha, Mr. Denzil had this to say, “Ven. Ariyawansha never made us feel that we were obliged to him. He never wanted anything from us and did not ask for anything. Although we are greatly indebted to him, he made us feel that we had given him the opportunity to do a good deed. We all understood his desire to donate part of his liver as a Buddhist. This is a common tradition in Sri Lanka. So we understand. It was not a surprise.” Mr. Denzil closed with the remark, “I will donate my organs to someone else if the need arises and if my age permits. An organ donor has a very happy feeling about it for the rest of his life. It is a good deed according to Buddhist tradition and will benefit the donor in all his future lives.'
By Bhante Dhammika and Jeffery Po, Image courtesy of SingaporeMedicine.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Some years ago I met Andy Ratman in Bodh Gaya when he was half way through his translation of the Divyavadana, that amazing collection of Buddhist myths and stories, tales and fables and listened intently as he told me about the difficulties of translating this work. Now his translation of selections from the Divyavadana has been published under the name Divine Stories. I haven’t seen it yet. However, Joel Tatelman's translation of selections of the same work has also just been published by the Clay Sanskrit Library and I have just finished reading it. What a treat! As with all the CSL publications the Sanskrit text is on the left hand page and the English on the right making it possible for people like me who know very little Sanskrit to at least check the Buddhist doctrinal and psychological terms. It is also presented in an attractive hardback volume which sits comfortable in the hand and looks lovely on the shelf. Tatelman tries to capture the lyrical beauty of the original and succeeds wonderfully in doing so.
It is so interesting to see how later Buddhist authors were able to take the Buddha's sometimes bland and non-committal statements and injected a bit more feeling or inspiration, drama or urgency into them. Here is one example. In the Punnavada Sutta when Punna tells the Buddha of his courageous determination to return to the Sunaparanta country to teach the Dhamma the Buddha says, 'Excellent Punna, excellent! Possessing such self-control and peacefulness, you will be able to dwell in the Sunaparatna country. Now go and do what you think is fit' (M.III,269). The Divyavadana gives a much elaborated and quite exciting version of the Punna story but the Buddha's words to Punna at the end are far more encouraging. I reproduce Tatelman's translation of them. 'With your forbearance and meekness, you are well able to live among the people of Shronaparantaka, well able to make your home among the people of Shronaparantaka. Go, then, Purna! Attain liberation, then liberate others! Cross over, then convey others across! Consoled, consol others! Achieve final emancipation, then emancipate others!' (p.159)

Monday, March 9, 2009

In Perth

I have just returned from a ten day trip to Perth in Western Australia. I had intended to continue my blog during that time but the place I was staying in had no computer and the logistics of getting to one proved complicated. For three days I fretted and by the time a computer did become available I was starting to enjoy not having to worry about the blog. Consequently I had a holiday from blogging for ten days. So now its back to the treadmill and my blogs will start again tomorrow.
I would like to thank John and Moon, Liza, Ann and David for so kindly looking after me in Perth and for arranging my talks.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sad In The Buddha's Garden

On the 16th of Febuary the Pakistan government signed a deal with Muslim insurgants in the Swat Valley in which they have in effect handed over the running of the valley to them. The insurgents have vowed to introduce Sahria law and although they say that all the girls' schools will be reopened as soon as they are repaired, it has been pointed out that most such schools are not in need of repair. Swat is considered by many to be the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas (or Hindu Kush depending on where you draw the line between them). It used to be known as Udyana (garden) and because Buddhism flourished there for some 800 years it was sometimes referred to as the Buddha's Garden. Both Fa-hien and Huien Tsiang went there and left detailed descriptions of its monuments and monasteries. In 1023 the valley was invaded by Mahomed Gazni 'the World-burner' who killed the last Hindu king Raja Gira and, well, burned everything. Despite a thousand years of neglect and periodic vandalism the Swat Valley is (or was until recently) full of Buddhist ruins. Aural Stein's account of his journeys through and discoveries in Swat are enthralling and the Swat Museum in Mingora is a veritable treasure house of Buddhist antiquities. All this is now in serious jeopardy. In October 2007 a group of armed men drilled holes into the face of the beautiful Buddha above Jehanabad, placed explosives in it and blew to off. It had overlooked the wheat fields and the walnut trees for 1400 years. My note book is filled with notes on all the antiquities of Swat, cuttings, maps, Huien Tsiang's account of the place, etc, which I have accumulated over the years in preparation for going there some day. Now it looks like I may never be able to and if I do there wont be much left to see. Sometimes I feel very sad.