Monday, August 31, 2009

The Fifth Precept

Alcohol is a chemical produced by fermentation, which suppresses the central nervous system and causes intoxication when ingested. The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al meaning `the' and kahal meaning `collyrium' and was originally an alchemic term. Alcoholic drinks are usually categorized into three different types - beers made from fermented grains, wines made from fermented fruits and spirits made by distilling either beers or wines. Drinking certainly seems to have been widespread in ancient India, at least during certain periods. The Ramayana describes Ayodhya as a city pervaded with the aroma of wine and streets full of drunks staggering about. Sounds like Melbourne on a Saturday night! Four main types of alcoholic drinks are mentioned in the Tipitaka. Sura was brewed from rice or flour (Sn.398; Vin.I,205), meraya was distilled alcohol made from sugar or fruit and sometimes flavored with sugar, pepper or the bark of a certain tree (M.I,238). Majja was made from honey and asava was made from the juice of the palmyra palm or the wild date palm and could be either just brewed or distilled (Vin.II,294).
The fifth Precept which all Buddhists undertake to practice, is to abstain from consuming alcohol or any other recreational drugs. In the case of alcohol, this is mainly because alcoholic intoxication clouds the mind, while the whole rationale of Buddhism is to clarify the mind. However, drinking alcohol may also result in several other personal and social disadvantages. The Buddha says: ‘There are these six dangers of drinking alcohol: loss of wealth, increase of quarrels, ill-health, a bad reputation, making a fool of oneself and impaired intelligence’. (D.III,182). In the Dhammapada the Buddha warns, ‘The person who drinks alcohol digs up his own root in this world’ (Dhp.247). The Buddhist tradition says that if one breaks the fifth Precept, this can easily lead to breaking the others and there is some evidence that this is true. A very high percentage or crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How Did The Buddha Wear His Robe?

How did Buddhist monks in ancient times wear there robes? There were two ways, what might be called the open style and the closed style. The open style consists of wearing the outer robe around the body, under the right arm and over the left shoulder. Even today monks wear there robe in this way when in their monastery. However, the Vinaya stipulates that when monks are in towns or villages or going to peoples’ homes they should cover both shoulders, which would be what I have called ‘the closed style’. But exactly how did this ‘closed style’ cover both shoulders? The closed style worn by all Theravada monks today seems to have evolved in Burma in the 14th/15th centuries from where it spread to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. This rather complicated way of wearing the robe consists of rolling it into a tight tube around the body and opening out the top to form a collar, and holding it all together by pressing the robe between the right side of the body and the right arm (picture).
Nothing like this can be seen in ancient depictions of monks from India and I haven’t even been able to find representations of it from Theravada countries from before the 14th/15th centuries. The earliest depiction of the ‘closed style’ comes from Gandhara (northern Pakistan, north-east Afghanistan) from between the 1st to the 4th centuries CE. Gupta period (3rd-5th centuries) sculptures from northern India depict the Buddha wearing his robe in the same way.

This ‘closed style’ shows no join in the robe which hangs loose at the front, drapes over the upper-half of the body and a corner of the robe is clearly seen in the Buddha’s left hand. How is this done? Well, like this. Take the top corners of the robe and hold them out in front of you (picture 1). (Several hours of trying to upload this and the next picture have failed so you will just have to imagine what I am describing). Put the left corner of the robe down behind the right sholder (2). Put the right corner of the robe under the edge of the robe and down behind the left shoulder (picture 3). As you do this, take the edge of the robe at the right elbow, bring it across and ‘hook’ it over the left shoulder (4).
As you do this it is essential to keep hold of the left corner of the robe. (If you don’t do this the whole thing will come undone). You will then find that part of the robe is hanging down your right side. Pull it over to the left and tuck its edge into your belt and Walla! You have your robe in the same ‘closed style’ as it was worn by Indian monks at least at the turn of the first millennium and quite possibly as it was done at the time of the Buddha. And the whole procedure takes less than a minute.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Let's Go After The Buddhists

During George Bush’s administration many groups fell foul of his policies and his attempts to prosecute to the ‘war on terror’. But, according to Roy Zimmerman, there was one potentially dangerous group that escaped attention.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Way...To Decline?

This is an interesting article on religious change in Singapore. I’d just like to clarify a few points in it though. The growing of interest in Buddhism amongst the young in Singapore has nothing to do with Richard Gere or Tiger Woods. And more importantly, Shenism, the worship of traditional Chinese folk gods and spirits, is really quite different from Taoism (and Buddhism for that matter) although the author of this article, and indeed many Chinese, assume they are the same.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Impermanence, Selflessness And Love

One of my regular readers, Vesile, made some interesting observations about yesterday’s post. He wrote, ‘It dawned on me that love - not just mercy, not just compassion, not just care, love proper - makes no ultimate sense if it is not forever and if the personal identity is always changing or absent at all. This is putting me in serious difficulty with Buddhism at the moment. If the goal is extinction of personal identity, what's left of love then?’
There are a few interesting points here, the main one is that love would make no sense if it does not last forever. But Vasile, your love for your wife is not going to last forever. It has probably already changed – perhaps from desperate hungering passion, to less passionate and more appreciative affectionate love. In years from now when you have grown old together, your love may have no passion in it all. The love you have for each other then might be almost like a brother/sister love or best friends-type love. As you change so does how you love; as your wife changes so does your love for her. And of course, sometimes love changes, not by becoming deeper and more mature, but by souring into indifference or even dislike.
When I was in Milan I went to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and was deeply moved by it. Does it mean that because that feeling has now faded leaving behind a treasured memory and a deeper understanding of Leonardo’s creativity, that the experience I had while gazing at his painting was worthless? I don’t think so. And when Leonardo painted his picture he must have known that it would not last forever (and it is indeed badly decayed). Does that mean that when he put his heart and soul into his painting that he was wasting his time? I don’t think so. All things are changing and impermanent, love included, but they are no less important because of that.
Vasile, you ask, ‘How do I care for my beloved if she's not gonna be herself into eternity and if my goal is to never be reborn again?’ But surely you did not love her when she was a 2 month old fetus, when she was a one year old baby or when she was a willful spotty-faced gap-toothed 13 year older, indeed you probably didn’t even know she existed. You only had the joy of loving her after she had changed enough to be a fully matured woman and when you had changed enough to feel sexual and emotional attraction. And before that she was cared for quite okay without you and you got along quite okay without knowing her. Believe me, it will be like that in the distant future.
Your love for your wife is, and hopefully it will remain for a long time, part of your life. The Buddha said that if a couple love each other deeply enough and they have similar kamma, they may even meet again in the next life. But just as your love had a beginning, it will, according to the Buddha, eventually have an end. Rejoice in it while it is here while developing an understanding of the truth of impermanence.
Now Vasile, the fact that the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence (anicca) and no-self (anatta) has come as such a shock, this suggests that you have assumed that Buddhism teaches something like a eternal life in an eternal heaven after death. If so, Vasile, you have either not studied Buddhism very deeply or have been badly misinformed. I would encourage you to do some reading on the Dhamma.
Oh! And give my regards to your lady. She must be a very special person.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Comment On Rebirth

Yesterday a reader made a comment saying that concepts like rebirth, reincarnation and resurrection are the same because they all grow out of the desire for continuity after death. ‘Simply put, we just hate to leave the world…and want to live forever’. It’s an interesting observation but, as far as the Buddhist concept of rebirth is concerned, a rather unconsidered one. I think that all non-Buddhist after-life theories did grow out of the fear of death and the desire for continuity. But the Buddha’s idea of rebirth could not have. Think about it! All the other religions say that if you believe in the right god or do the right thing, you’ll live forever. The Buddha said that if you don’t attain enlightenment, if you don’t reach the goal, you’ll live forever. All other religions hold out eternal life as a reward; Buddhism sees eternal life as a problem to be solved. So whatever the origins of the Buddha’s teaching of rebirth, it could not have been the desire for eternal life.
The reader also asked… ‘why is Buddhism so concerned with rebirth? Is it attachment to life?’ My above comments mostly answer this question and I will just add this. Buddhism is concerned with rebirth because it is seen as a problem to be solved. To be reborn is to redie again and again and that is dukkha. Is not everyone concerned with overcoming their problems?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A New Dhamma Game

Some time ago (25th and 26th February) I wrote about the dearth of Dhamma material for children and young people. Well, now the Buddhist Relief Mission has made its contribution to overcoming this problem with the issue of its new game Buddhist Knowledge Quest. In this challenging board game, players move around the Wheel of Life by answering questions based on the Dhamma, the life of the Buddha and Buddhist history. The first player to complete the circle is the winner. The questions are grouped into four levels of difficulty, with 36 questions at each level. Questions are determined by a roll of a dice.
The game is greatl for Dhamma classes, English-as-a-second-language classes, Sunday schools, families, and any group interested in learning about Buddhism while having a bit of fun at the same time. Not only in answering their own questions, but also in hearing the questions and answers of others, players can learn a great deal about Buddhism and deepen knowledge already acquired.
Each set of Buddhist Knowledge Quest contains a beautiful game board, eight colored markers, a dice, 144 color-coded question-and-answer cards, and complete instructions for playing the game. For advanced learners, many of the cards include references to the Buddha's teaching in the Pali Tipitaka where more information about the answer can be found. To order log on to

A lot of thought and effort has gone into creating and producing this game, so you might like to put a notice about it on your blog.

Monday, August 24, 2009

America Is Becomming Hindu??

America is not a Christian nation. We are, it is true, a nation founded by Christians, and according to a 2008 survey, 76 percent of us continue to identify as Christian (still, that’s the lowest percentage in American history). Of course, we are not a Hindu—or Muslim, or Jewish, or Wiccan—nation, either. A million-plus Hindus live in the United States, a fraction of the billion who live on Earth. But recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity. The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.” A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life”—including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone. Also, the number of people who seek spiritual truth outside church is growing. Thirty percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual, not religious,” according to a 2009 NEWSWEEK Poll, up from 24 percent in 2005. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for “the divine-deli-cafeteria religion” as “very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same,” he says. “It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that’s great, too.” Then there’s the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the “self,” and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975. “I do think the more spiritual role of religion tends to deemphasize some of the more starkly literal interpretations of the Resurrection,” agrees Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard.

By Lisa Miller in Newsweek

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mr. Know-it-all?

The Buddha said that all sentient life can be classified according to whether it is egg-born, womb-born, sweat-born or spontaneously-born (S.III,240). The first two of these are clear enough. The fourth one refers to the devas. It’s the third one, swear-born (sansedaja), that needs a bit of explaining. The ancient Indians, like almost everyone else in the world until the 19th century, believed in spontaneous generation - the idea that life can emerge from lifeless matter. They would wash, bathe, put on clean clothes and in a day or two they would have head and body lice again. They couldn’t understand where these tiny creatures came from so they deduced that they were born out of their sweat. Maggots in rotting meat were believed to have spontaneously generated too, and for the same reasons – people couldn’t see where they came from. In believing in spontaneous generation the Buddha was in good company. Aristotle accepted it as did St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas after him. In the late Middle Ages spontaneous generation was used as evidence for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception - if life can come from dead matter, why can’t conception take place without sex? Franceaso Redi in the 17th century did a few experiments that cast serious doubts on spontaneous generation and finally in 1854 Louis Pasteur proved conclusively that it is false, although I know that many simple people in Sri Lanka still take it for granted.
Anyway, if the Buddha is ‘all-knowing’ (sabbannu) how come he believed spontaneous generation? Well, there are two ways of understanding sabbannu - the Flat-Earth Buddhism way and the other way. According to FEB (see my blog for 27,1,2009), the Buddha knew absolutely everything - how many bricks there are in the Great Wall of China, the number of grains of sand on Bondi Beach, that I was going to fail my maths exam in 1967, etc. The Tipitaka says ‘all-knowing’ and ‘all’ means ‘all’, everything, every thing, event and occurrence that ever has and ever will happen. Concerning spontaneous generation and other evidence that the Buddha didn’t know everything, Flat Earth Buddhists will cast aspersions on science. They can and do say, ‘Well, science might be wrong. Perhaps one day we will find out that some life is spontaneously generated. After all, science doesn't know everything’.
The other way of looking at it is within the context of the Dhamma. In the very interesting Sabba Sutta (the Discourse on the All, S.IV,15) the Buddha says that for him ‘the all’ means the senses and their objects, i.e. the eye and visual objects, the ear and sounds, etc. in other words, the process of cognition and the desire, craving and conceptualizing that it triggers, was fully understood by the Buddha. In another place the Buddha denied that he was omniscient but affirmed that he had the Three Knowledges (tevijja, M.I,482). So the Buddha was not a Mister Know-it all, although he did know everything necessary to attain enlightenment.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where Did You Get That Hat?

Can you really take a man dressed like this seriously? Maybe not, but Mr. F. Bailey Vanderhoef Jr. travelled through western Tibet in 1938 and the pictures he took then are now on display under the auspices of the University of California Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. You can see them at

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Golden Rule

The principle known as the Golden Rule – Do unto others what you would have them do unto you – is often thought of as the apex of Jesus’ moral teachings and even of being unique to Christianity, at least by some Christians. However, the Buddha made this same principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics too in the 5th century BCE. It occurs in many places and in many forms throughout the Tipitaka. For example, the Buddha said, ‘All tremble at punishment. Life is dear to all. Put yourself in the place of others and harm none or have them harmed’ (Dhp.130). ‘You should make this inference, “A person who is angry and who speaks angrily is unpleasant and disagreeable to me, so if I were angry and spoke angrily to others I would be unpleasant and disagreeable to them.” Understanding this, one should then think, “I shall neither be angry nor speak angrily.” ’ (M.I,99). ‘Knowing that as I am so are others and as are others so am I, harm none or have them harmed’ (Sn.705).
To make the so-called Golden Rule central to one’s thought and behavior, several prerequisites are necessary. One must be clear about one’s own true welfare; one must be aware of the reactions of others; and one must be detached enough to get out of one’s own feelings and enter into the feelings of others. So paradoxically, true empathy and compassion are preceded by mindfulness and detachment.
Here are some other examples of the Golden Rule predating Jesus and perhaps even the Buddha.

Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him. Pittacus, Greece (640-568 BCE), Fragment 10.3.

Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing. Thales, Asia Minor (624-546 BCE).

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. Confucius, China (5th century BCE), Analects XV.24, also at V.12 and VI.30.

The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful. Lao Tzu, China (5th century BCE. Tao Te Ching, chap. 49.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. Jewish, Palestine (500-500 BCE), Leviticus, 19:18.

What you wish your neighbors to be to you, such be also to them. Sextus the Pythagorean, Greece (4th century BCE).

Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others. Isocrates, Greece (436-338), Nicocles 6.

I will ask you a question. ‘Is sorrow or pain desirable to you ? If you say “yes it is”, it would be a lie. If you say, “No, it is not” you will be expressing the truth. Just as sorrow or pain is not desirable to you, so it is to all which breathe, exist, live or have any essence of life. To you and all, it is undesirable, and painful, and repugnant. The Jain Acaranga Sutra, India (3rd-6th cent CE?).

What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others. Epictetus, Greece (1st cent CE), Encheiridion.

Do to no one what you yourself dislike. Jewish, Palestine, (2nd century BCE), The Book of Tobit 4,15.

Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of sameness treat other with respect and compassion. The Jain Canon, India (2nd century BCE), Suman Suttam v.150.

One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. (2nd century BCE - 3rd century CE). Mahabharata Anusasana Parva, cxiii, v.8

A man should wander about treating all creatures as he would like himself to be treated. Jainism, India (1st cent BCE) Sutrakritanga 1.11,33.

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn. Hillel (1st century BCE) Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More On Tulkus

Yesterday Namkhim left a comment asking about the origins of the Tibetan tulku concept (25th June). So here goes. Now I'm venturing into an area here which is not really my forte, so someone can correct me if I'm wrong. But this is my understanding. The tulku system evolved in response to a problem, the problem of political succession. For some centuries the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism held power in Tibet. Being lay rulers, the male heir of the earlier ruler inherited the throne. At one point, a power struggle resulted in two branches of the family assuming the throne in turn, a system that still prevails. In the late 16th century the Gulupa sect became the dominant power in Tibet with the help of their Mongol enforcers and after a good deal of killing and sacking of monasteries, let it be said (The Chinese communists were certainly not the first to destroy Tibetan monasteries and murder monks). But this created a quandary. As the head of the Gulupa sect (later to be called Dalai Lama) was a celibate monk, he would have no natural heirs. This problem was solved by ‘recognizing’ where the former head had been reborn and ‘reinstating’ him. This was, one would have to admit, a rather ingenious solution - it fitted reasonably comfortably with the doctrine of rebirth and also with the idea that a bodhisattva would be willing to be reborn again and again to help sentient beings, in this case by being their ruler. Unfortunately, it also had one very serious drawback. As the new ruler would always be a child, it would be at least 20 years before he would assume power. This interregnum gave whoever was appointed regent time to establish his own power base before the new Dalai Lama came of age. The reason why most Dalai Lamas ‘left their bodies’ while still young was so that the regents could hold on to power. Apparently, the tulku system existed before it was institutionalized by the Gulupa, but only intermittently and mainly within individual monasteries. Today, most positions of power in Tibetan Buddhism – abbots of monasteries or heads of sects – are filled by persons who are supposedly their predecessors reborn. These positions are often monopolized by certain families and occasionally involve a great deal of political wrangling (e.g. the two Kamapa Lamas). Tulkus are, in effect, petty medieval monarchs - their births are accompanied by miraculous signs, they are ‘enthroned’, their position is legitimized by being officially ‘recognized’ by another high lama, the sons of married tulkus inherit their position, and their writ is presented as a ‘Dhamma teaching’. In imitation of ancient Indian monarchy, many tulkus also claim to be deities or ‘emanations’ of deities; Avalokitesvara, in the case of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa lamas, Amitabha in the case of the Panchen Lama, etc. Some of the more powerful and influential tulkus (or those who aspire to it) effect all the splendor and rituals that are usually associated with monarchs. As is well-known, Chogyam Trumgpa had his own private army, the so-called Vajra Guards, by no means the first tulku to do so.
As a cultural phenomena, the tulku system is a fascinating one. But I’m not at all sure the best way to transmit the insights of the Vajrayana tradition to the West is through the medium of medieval Central Asian power structures. I also have very strong doubts that someone must be a great Dhamma teacher simply because he was born into a particular situation. Did not the Buddha say ‘No one is born a brahman’? When a Westerner becomes a Buddhist should he or she have to buy into all the trappings of traditional Asian culture - be it Tibetan, Thai, Japanese or Sri Lankan? Shouldn’t I be able to practice vipassana without believing in nats as the Burmese do? Why can't I develop Bodhicitta without spinning a prayer wheel like a Tibetan? Can’t I practice the Five Precepts without reciting them in Pali with a Thai accent? During the 19th century Western missionaries in Asia insisted that their converts wear trousers, eat with a knife and fork and swear allegiance to Queen Victoria, in short, become an Englishman. They mistook their culture, which is limited in time and space, with the Gospel, which is universal. They finally realized that this approach did not work. It’s a lesson many Asian Buddhist teachers in the West and their Western disciples still have to learn.
In 2007 when I was in Dharmasala I witnessed something which epitomized to me one of the problems of the transmission of the Dhamma to the West. As I stood on the side of the main road watching the crowds go past, I saw two young Tibetan monks greet each other by giving a ‘high five’. A matter of moments later a Western woman walked passed wearing Tibetan dress, her hair in plats like those worn by Tibetan women, a prayer wheel in her hand and even imitating that Tibetan swaying way of walking. Again I ask – can’t a Westerner practice the Dhamma without becoming a Tibetan, Thai or Burmese clone?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Bodhi Banyan Bungle

Nowhere is the ignorance of and confusion about Buddhism better illustrated than in the widespread inability to distinguish between Bodhi trees and Banyan trees. I thought everyone knew that the Buddha was enlightened while sitting under the Bodhi tree, otherwise known as assattha in Pali, asvattha in Sanskrit, bo in Sinhala, po in Thai, bawdi in Burmese, pipple in Hindi, Bodhi Tree or Sacred Fig in English, Ficus religiosa in botanical writings; and that a Bodhi tree is one thing and a Banyan is another.
God! They look different enough! The Bodhi tree has thin bright-green leaves with the characteristic long pointed tip (right picture) while the Banyan’s leaves are ovate/elliptic-shaped, thick and dark green (left picture). The fruit of the former is small and brown while that of the latter is large and purple. Their botanical names are distinct too; Ficus religiosa for the former and Ficus bengalensis for the latter. But most noticeable of all is that the Banyan puts forth numerous aerial roots which support its spreading branches and form accessory trunks, and the Bodhi does not.

Saying that the Buddha was enlightened under a Banyan tree is a bit like saying Jesus was born in a milk pail or that he was nailed to an octagon, that a water melon fell on Newton’s head, that Santa’s slay is pulled by aardvarks or that the jolly swagman jumped into a bath tub. On one hand it’s not really that important, on the other it shows a superficial and casual attitude to clearly discernable differences and easily discoverable facts. In 2008 Time ran an article on corruption at Bodh Gaya entitled ‘Big Trouble Under the Banyan Tree.’ The August 8th 2009 edition of the Economist commenced a column called ‘In the Shade of the Banyan Tree’ in which it stated that the Buddha was enlightened under a Banyan. An excellent ecological website called Eco India (‘brings you down to nature’) says that Bodhi is another name for the Banyan (‘just brings you down’). Another website, Science Museums of China, gives a picture of a Bodhi tree, has its correct botanical name, lists its proper colloquial names and then spoils it all by calling it a Banyan tree. The tourist website for Phimai in Thailand gives a slightly different version of the muddle, stating that the Buddha was enlightened while ‘standing’ under a Banyan tree. Wikipedia, as I have come to expect by now, also buys into the confusion, at least in its article ‘Banyan Tree’. Out of 40 websites I logged on to at random, 36 got it wrong.
Come on people! It’s not that difficult! If you can tell a reindeer from an aardvark you should be able to tell a Bodhi tree (top) from a Banyan tree (bottom).

Like Milk And Water Mixed

May my mind never be perverted and may I never utter evil speech, but with kindness and compassion, may I live with a mind free from hatred and filled with love. I will live suffusing firstly one person with love, and starting with them, suffuse the whole world with a love that is expansive, pervasive, immeasurable and utterly devoid of hatred and enmity.
I will always consider what a blessing it is, what a real blessing, to be in communion with my fellows in the spiritual life. May I always think of them with love. May I always speak to them with love, both in public and in private. I will always act towards them with love, both in public and in private. I will always consider putting aside my own wishes and acquiesce to their wishes and then I will act accordingly.
Though our bodies will be different our minds will be one. Doing this we will live in concord, with mutual appreciation, free from arguments, like milk and water mixed, looking upon other with the eyes of love.
This passage is an amalgam of words from M.I,126; III,156

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kamakura Buddha

The great Buddha of Kamakura was cast in about 1252 out of 93 tons of bronze, a remarkable technological achievement at the time. The temple it was originally housed in was destroyed by a tsunami in 1498 and it has sat in the open ever since. I’m told that a real tourist circus takes place there every day but I don’t care. This picture I found of the Kamakura Buddha really transmits a feel of peace and immovable peace and stillness.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Buddhism On Wikipedia Again

I return to the subject of Dhamma on Wikipedia. Yesterday I looked up ‘Compassion’ to see what it would say about this supreme Buddhist virtue. What a letdown! The short section on compassion in Buddhism starts off with a mistake. The author has used an online version of my Buddha Vacana where the quote he or she gives is clearly marked as NOT being from the Buddha but from the Dhammapada Atthakatha. It then gives a garbled and inaccurate version of Samyutta Nikaya V,2, mistakenly replacing ‘compassion’ with the original ‘spiritual friendship’ (kalyana mittata). No citation is given either, showing, if it were needed, that the author has simply copied someone else’s confused second or third-hand version of the sutta rather than checking the original, which he or she could have easily done. Next we have a quote from the Dalai Lama worthy of a cheap greeting card (I’m sorry to say that some of the Dalai Lama’s pronouncements are getting more and more trite, and this one certainly is). After this comes a quotation from Bhikkhu Bodhi which saves the Buddhist part of the article from being completely worthless. And finally, there is a loose paraphrase of Samyutta Nikaya I, 75, ‘It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found.’ The problem is that the original does not mention compassion but piya, which is never, to the best of my knowledge, translated as compassion. And again, being unfamiliar with the original, no citation is given. It is a great pity that such an important, positive and attractive aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is dealt with so briefly and so clumsily.
Next I turned to ‘Karuna’ to see what is said there. This article is a little better than ‘Compassion’ but it is again very short and gives only one quote from the many it could have used from the Pali Tipitaka and gives only two from the vast store of inspiring and beautiful references to karuna in the Mahayana sutras and sastras. Then, with increasing trepidation, I looked up ‘Brahma Vihara’. This article starts by incorrectly saying that ‘brahma’ means ‘abiding’ and goes on to state that the Tevijja Sutta is from the Majjhima Nikaya. Groan! Perhaps worst of all, it presents the Brahma Viharas only as a way you can get to heaven and counter your negative mental states. Not a single mention of altruism, benevolent helping or caring about others. This is all very disappointing. Again I ask, ‘What can be done to give a more accurate and extensive presence of Buddhism on Wikipedia?’

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I came across this on the Where Is Buddha blog and I found it uplifting and meaningful.

My existence is sustained by the dedication of so many people. I am grateful for the care and hard work of my ancestors and parents. They have nurtured me in infinite ways. Without them I would not exist.
I am grateful for Cherielyn who has graced my life with her gentle presence, her quiet wisdom, her acceptance of my countless flaws and her laughter.
I am grateful for my friends, who have enriched my life with happiness and wisdom.
I am grateful for the countless teenagers who I have taught and continua to teach. They teach me patience and keep me young at heart, while constantly reminding me that I am growing older every day.
I am grateful for the people who constantly irritate me and provoke me to anger. They are my gurus. They teach me how destructive anger can be.
I am grateful for the countless people who produce books, music movies that I have loved and enjoyed.
I am grateful for the Buddha. The light of his compassion continues to illuminate this world of suffering. I stumble towards the sourse of that light with joy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Green Temple

One year after opening, and about two years after construction began, the Poh Ern Shih Temple (or Temple of Thanksgiving in English) is looking great. I'm dropping by to visit the temple and check out progress on this green Buddhist sanctuary. The place is bustling with activity, and thankfully the first phase of construction has now been completed. On the day of my visit, several different religious study groups are in session upstairs, catering to the younger members of the Buddhist congregation. I locate Boon, the temple president, just before lunch and we sit down for a chat. "The building performance has been great," he tells me. "We've generated 15 megawatts of power from our first phase PV systems so far in the first year, and we're going to install another set in our second phase of construction." The temple is trialing several different PV systems on their building. So far, they've found the Amorphous Cell system is the best at producing energy so far under the hot Singapore sun as it is often shaded by some cloud cover. The Amorphous Cells are capable of harnessing the spectrum that penetrates this cover. It might not have the highest output on sunny days, but the system has proven its claim to fame. This means that even on stormy or cloudy days, the system is still producing some energy. The 7 large solar hot water heating units have also proven worth the investment. "We've had a consistent flow of hot water since we started operations, which is really good as we are catering for quite a congregation now," Boon says. Gathered in the lunchroom are at least 150 people, and there are several classes going on upstairs. "What's particularly good is that we've also started hosting other religious groups here several times a week," Boon says. "Right now we have a Muslim group, one Hindu group, and a Unitarian service that happens at our temple. The local government has found this all a bit puzzling as religious groups rarely get together like this," he laughs. "We believe in interfaith understanding, and embracing the many different communities that live here in Singapore. It's a small island and this place is about bringing people together."
After we finish lunch, Boon shows me the upper floors of the temple. The main worship hall has been completed, its lotus dome beautifully lit by thousands of energy efficient LED lights. The passive ventilation design of the dome and open walls channels the air through the space, allowing cooling to take place without the need for air conditioning. With a capacity to hold several hundred people, this is no easy task. On the same level as the worship hall, there's a terrace that is now fully planted with a garden. Butterflies are all over the place. "Let me show you something else," Boon says. He reaches down to pull open an access hatch. "We're also storing some of our own water on site. We still haven't gotten full permission for all the rain tanks we had planned to install, but this one was approved. We now can use the rainwater that falls to water the plants in the terrace garden." As Singapore gets significant year-round rainfall, this will be a worthwhile investment for the future. We go up one more level in the temple to get a better view of the pagoda structure that lets light in to the lower regions of the temple's interior. During phase two of the construction, the pagoda's overhangs will also be covered in PV panels. "Shhh," Boon says, "don't tell the architect!" In addition to the pagoda, there are Solatubes also dotted around several of the terraces on the back of the temple, allowing natural sunlight to penetrate the lower levels. "It cuts down on the amount of lighting we need, and electricity we would need to run them. They work really well," Boon informs me. Unfortunately, one of the most innovative features of the temple has been held up in red tape. "We were going to trial micro-hydro power generation in our rain gutters, since rain from the roof falls nearly 25m to the base of the structures. We don't have approval yet. Something like this has not yet been done in Singapore, so it makes people a bit nervous. We don't fit in the box," Boon says. Something else falling outside the box is pollution monitors. Boon has been concerned for some time about the oil refineries located on an island just off the coast of Singapore. "The temple is only two years old, and yet we already have signs of air pollution in the area. Our building already bears some of the scars," he points to several stained points around the structure where airborne pollution has been brought down by rainfall. "I've already written three letters about the pollution, and if nothing is done by the government, we're going to install monitors here and have the data live on our website. With asthma and COPD diseases on the rise in Singapore, people need to know what they're breathing and how it affects them," he says. I hadn't anticipated the pollution already leaving a mark, but it's good to see that people are starting to take notice. Like any problem, if it is invisible, it's hard to warrant any concern from people, much less push for any changes to fix it. The temple has come along in leaps and bounds, and the congregation is flourishing. We head down one of the handicapped accessible ramps for a final shot of the temple. While many of the congregation is older and the facilities have been built to suit an aging population, Boon is thrilled to have so many young people in the temple on this particular day. "They will be the future, they will be the ones taking all of this forward," he says. Judging by the progress made by Boon and his counterparts, the younger generation will have some very big shoes to fill.
By Chris Tobias for Reuters

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gone To That Great Bank Vault In The Sky

The Rev. Ike, the flamboyant Christian minister who preached the blessings of material prosperity to huge congregations, died July 28th in Los Angeles aged 74. ‘Close your eyes and see green’, Reverend Ike would tell his 5,000 parishioners from a red-carpeted stage at the former Loew’s Theater on 175th Street in Washington Heights, New York, the headquarters of his United Church Science of Living Institute. ‘Money up to your armpits, a roomful of money and there you are, just tossing around in it like a swimming pool’. His theology held that the Bible was wrong; that the root of all evil is not the love of money, but rather the lack of it. It was a message that millions liked to hear, it legitimatized their greed and gave it a spiritual slant. One person who certainly benefited from this theology was Reverend Ike himself. Along with Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson, he was one of the first evangelists to grasp the power of television and to financially benefit from it. At the height of his success, he reached an audience estimated at 2.5 million. In return for spiritual inspiration, he requested cash donations from his parishioners, from his television and radio audiences, and from the recipients of his extensive mailing list - preferably in paper currency, not coins. ‘Change makes your minister nervous in the service’, he would joke to his congregation. They laughed and happily handed over their money. His critics saw the donations as the whole point of Rev. Ike’s ministry, calling him a fraud and a conman. Whether legitimately or not, the money flooded in, making him a multimillionaire and enabling him to flaunt sumptuous clothes, ostentatious jewelry, luxurious residences and exotic automobiles. ‘My garages runneth over’, he boasted. Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter was born in 1935, the son of a Baptist minister. At 14 he became assistant pastor for his father’s congregation, and after high school, he attended the American Bible College in Chicago, receiving a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1956. Later he founded the United Church of Jesus Christ for All People. Finding the traditional Christian message constricting, he moved to Boston in 1964 to start the Miracle Temple and to practice faith-healing, which “was the big thing at the time,” he said, “and I was just about the best in Boston, snatching people out of wheelchairs and off their crutches, pouring some oil over them while I commanded them to walk or see or hear.” Two years later, still dissatisfied, he moved to New York City, setting up business in an old Harlem movie theater, and shorten his name to ‘Rev. Ike’. There he tinkered with his act, polishing his patter, introducing radio broadcasts and taking his show on the road. He began to refine his message to attract a more striving, stable, middle-class audience, people who wanted to hear that their hard work should be rewarded with money here and now. In 1969, he paid more than half a million dollars for the old Loew’s 175th Street movie theater and made it his headquarters, calling it the Palace Cathedral. David W. Dunlap, a reporter for The New York Times, described the former theater as ‘Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco style’.
By the mid-1970s, Reverend Ike was touring the country and preaching on over 1,770 radio stations. Television stations in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major markets were telecasting his videotaped sermons. A magazine he founded, Action!, reached more than a million readers. Because of his emphasis on material wealth, Reverend Ike alienated many traditional Christian ministers as well as leaders of the civil rights movement, who believed black churches should further social reform rather than get-rich-quick theology. His huge income also provoked suspicion. Detractors accused him of preying on the poor, and the Internal Revenue Service and Postal Service investigated his businesses. Reverend Ike could be an electric preacher, whether at the old theater or on the road, appearing before standing-room-only audiences. And he could make his congregations laugh, drawing on the Bible to drive home his message about the virtues of material rewards. ‘If it’s that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven’, he would often say, citing the Bible, ‘think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in. He doesn’t even have a bribe for the gatekeeper’. Reverend Ike would be well placed to pay a bribe to get into heaven if it was required. He died a multimillionaire.
Adopted from the internet.
You can see one of Reverend Ike’s sermons about how to love God and money at the same time at

Not believing in a deity, I’m just going to rub the Buddha’s belly to get my filthy lucre

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Such Beautiful Books

This is a picture of a beautiful and extremely rare ancient Indian Buddhist manuscript dating from about the 11th century. The text is written in ink rather than scratched onto the leaves, and the two wooden covers are exquisitely illuminated. The two holes in the covers and each page were for cords which originally held the pages together and bound them to the cover. The monasteries of India once held many thousands of these beautiful objects although all but a few hundred were destroyed during the Islamic invasion of India in the 13th century. Some of them, like this one, were carried to Tibet by refugee monks where a combination of pious care and dry climate preserved them, sometimes almost perfectly. Of these, a good number were ripped up and burned by the Red Guards during the so-called Cultural Revolution. The fragile few that remain show us how the Buddha’s precious Dhamma was transmitted through time so as to be available to us today.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Being faithful (anubbata, assava or sucarita) is to have a firm and enduring loyalty and commitment to something or someone. Socially, faithfulness has an important role in building trust, reliability and enduring relationships. The spiritual value of faithfulness is that it curbs the tendency to get sidetracked by impulsive desires, boredom or fickle-mindedness and enhances resolution and self-discipline. We do not need to be faithful in the same way and to the same extent to every commitment we have ever made. Our faithfulness should be reserved mainly to worthwhile objects and in proportion to their worth. The Buddha mentioned three things which are worthy of being faithful to – the Dhamma, friends and marital relations.
We should take the three Refuges only when we truly understand what we are doing and what it requires of us. And when we do this and are faithful to our commitment, it imparts to us a tremendous energy and confidence that speeds our journey along the Path. The Buddha said: ‘One should practice the Dhamma faithfully, without wavering. One who practices the Dhamma like this sleeps happily in this life and the next’. (Dhp.169). The Buddha also said that some of the characteristics of a genuine friend are that he or she is true to their word (avisam vadanataya), they will sticks by you in times of trouble (apadasu na vijahati), and that they might even give their life for you (jivitam pi’ssn atthaya pariccattam hoti, (D.III,187-190). In other words, the highest level of friendship does not change through changing circumstances. Such faithfulness tends to engender faithfulness in those it is maintained towards.
Faithfulness as one of the most important ingredients for a successful and marriage. A husband should not, the Buddha said, be unfaithful to his wife or a wife to her husband (D.III,190). A character in the Jataka says: ‘We do not transgress with another’s wife and our wife does not transgress against us. We relate to others’ partners as if we were celibate’ (Mayan ca bhariyam natikkamama amhe ca bhariya natikkamama annatra tahi brahmacariyam carama, Ja.IV,53). A good wife was praised in the Tipitaka as ‘true to one husband’ (ekabhattakini, Ja.III,63). The archetypical devoted and loyal spouse in the Buddhist tradition is Sambulaa, the wife of King Sotthisena. When he was struck by a disfiguring disease and had to renounce the throne and go into the forest, she ignored all his requests to stay behind and happily to accompany him in his exile. With patience and love she nursed him through and eventually cured him of his disease. When he doubted her faithfulness and shunned her, she would still not abandon him. Eventually, he recognized her faithfulness, apologized for not trusting her, and the two were reconciled (Ja.V,88-98).

Monday, August 10, 2009

How Long Can Caste Last III

Continued from August 3rd. All this is, in a sense, understandable. Religion sometimes changes attitudes and sometimes it is changes by pre-existing attitudes. Until fairly recently, a devote European Christian would have considered it an honour to nurse lepers while having little more than contempt for a Jew. For 2000 years Jews were, in effect, the outcastes of Christendom, a situation that only started to change during the Enlightenment. And it was not the Protestant churches or the Pope who finally liberated the Jews but Napoleon, who had hardly a religious bone in his body. In the case of caste, tradition and social attitudes in Buddhist countries trumped the Buddha's condemnation of caste and his teaching of human equality and compassion. I can understand that. But that was then - this is now. It is a great pity that the modern Asian Buddhist's response to this issue is, sorry to say, pretty much like the Buddhist response to many internal problems, to smile and deny they exist. Yet more gilt is put on Buddha statues, more requisites are piled on the Sangha, more stupas are erected, but little is done for the marginalized groups within Buddhist societies.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Happy Birthday

Today is Singapore’s National Day and the country is 44 years old. Many people put out the national flag and the official celebrations will be impressive. I notice that quite a few younger Singaporeans I know seem to find it hard to be interested in, let alone enthusiastic about, National Day. Although I’m not a Singaporean, I feel rather different. Having visited and even lived in almost every country in south and south-east Asia I have a considerable admiration for and appreciation of the Singaporean achievement. The leaders and people have built for themselves a stable, prosperous and decent society – a good place to live and a good place to bring up children (admittedly not a particularly good place to meditate in, but that’s another story). How easily people take their blessings for granted. Anyway, Happy Birthday Singapore.

Someone had pinched the pictures I took in Bhutan several years ago and put them on the internet without either my knowledge or permission. What a nerve! What a cheek! What a….On the other hand, they have presented them very nicely and to the accompaniment to rather beautiful music so I suppose I can forgive them. Have a look at

And while your at it you might like to see a series of talks on meditation I gave some time ago. They have five stars besides them which I’m told means that lots of people are watching them. I thought it meant that viewers were ‘seeing stars’.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The First Buddhist Monks In Europe

In 1818 the wife of the first Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Alexander Johnston, became seriously ill and he decided to hire a ship to take her back to England. Just before the ship left two Buddhist monks, Venerable Sri Gunamuniratana and his cousin Venerable Dhammaratana, turned up and asked if they could also take the ship to England. The monks were from Silabimba Vihara, on the edge of the lake at Dodanduwa near Galle, where on an island in the lake one of the first Western monks, Nyanatiloka, was to established a monastery in 1911. The monks were told they could come if they were prepared to work on the ship which they agreed to do. When the ship arrived in England Johnson contacted the Reverend Dr. Adam Clark, a well-known Wesleyan clergyman, and asked him to look after the monks which he was happy to do. With their striking yellow robes and exotic origins the monks were the talk of the town for a few months and were in demand in society. Eventually they announced that they wished to become Christians and to Clark’s delight he baptized them and gave them the names Adam and Alexander. In 1820 they returned to Ceylon with a letter from Clark to the Governor stating that he believed that their conversion was genuine and that they should be given all assistance. Their ship docked in Trincomalee where Alexander disembarked and Adam stayed on board. He wished to proceed to Calcutta where he intended to train as a missionary, or so he said. A few hours out of port lightening struck the ship and it returned to Trincomalee and no other records of Adam survive. Perhaps he thought that the gods were angry at him for renouncing the faith of his fathers. Jehovah is not the only deity who hurls thunder bolts! Alexander got a minor job in the government and there is no record of his involvement with Christianity or the church. Beyond that we know nothing of him.
Was Sri Gunamuniratana and Dhammaratana conversion genuine? I doubt it. The Sinhalese are a gentle, easy-going people, always ready to please, especially if there is some advantage to be had from it. I suspect they feigned interest in Christianity to please the Clark and because they thought it might be to their advantage when they returned to their homeland. Of course, it is also possible that Reverend Clark pressured them into converting. Whatever the case, we have to wait until the 1900’s before another Buddhist monk would set foot in Europe.
The top picture is of Rev. Clark in his drawing room together with Sri Gunamuniratana and Dhammaratana. There are two copies of this painting, one in Wesley House in London (so I am told) and another in the National Museum in Colombo where I found it stacked in the store room, covered with dust and curling up in the heat in 1978. I am told it has since been restored and is being looked after a little better. It was this painting that initially put me onto the track of the first Buddhist monks we know to go to the West. The second picture is of Alexander after he disrobed.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Last Comment On Ming Yi's Trial

Since the trial of Venerable Ming Yi, the Ren Ci Hospital has reported a dramatic drop in the donations it receives. In a sense this is understandable. Who wants the money they have donated to charity being used for other purposes? However, I would ask Singaporean Buddhists to keep in mind that the amount of money that was diverted from its real purpose was $50,000, a rather small percentage of the money donated. I would also ask people to ask themselves, ‘Did I make my donation because I liked Ven. Ming Yi or because I wanted to help the less-privileged to have a chance of getting good medical treatment?’ If you can answer ‘Because I wanted to help the less-privileged’ them you should continue giving Ren Ci your support. Don’t penalize the many for the failings of some. The dedicated staff at Ren Ci Hospital are doing their jobs now just as well as they were before. They too deserve our appreciation and support.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

More Reflections On Ming Yi's Trial

The second thing that comes to mind about the Ming Yi affair is what it may tell us about Buddhist monastic life in the 21st century. Several people have already written to the press saying, in effect, ‘See! We told you so! If monks stray even an inch beyond their role as defined in the Vinaya, that’s what will happen’. In the aftermath of Ming Yi’s trial such arguments sound cogent. However, I really think they are the result of the one-dimensional thinking characteristic of Theravada – follow the Vinaya scrupulously and there will be no problems, don’t and there will be nothing but problems. If only it was that simple! There are many ways of being sidetracked from the spiritual life. Ming Yi seems to have been led astray by wealth and adulation. But I know plenty of ‘strict’ monks who never touch money but who are self-advertising, proud, petulant, domineering and self-satisfied – not offences against the law or against the Vinaya, but corruptions nonetheless.
And perhaps more importantly, there have been and still are plenty of monks and nuns who abide by the spirit of the Dhamma without being fastidious about the fine points of each and every Vinaya rule. One who immediately comes to mind is Venerable Fatt Kuan, a bodhisattva-like Singaporean nun who founded and ran the Tai Pei Home until her death in 2002. Ven. Fatt Kuan was one of the kindest, most imperturbable and smiling people I have ever known. She solicited and attracted huge donations and every cent of it went where it was supposed to go – to providing decent accommodation and a homely environment for several hundred poor elderly women and compassionate nursing for them when they became incapacitated. She also founded or ran the Tai Pei Buddhist Centre, the Tai Pei Senior Citizens Drop–in Centre, the Thuja Home and the Tai Pei Child Care Centre. She was widely respected for her dedication to the less fortunate and in 1989 was awarded Singapore’s highest civilian award by the President of the Republic. Despite all this very ‘un-Vinaya’ behaviour she remained modest, accessible, kindly and unaffected. Once, when she came to know that we were reprinting our children’s book, ‘Rahula Leads the Way’ she invited me to come and have tea with her one afternoon. We chatted while she served me tea with a biscuit (something that would put her beyond the pale in the eyes of the fundamentalists) and when I left she gave me an extremely generous donation to help reprint the book. I thanked her for her completely unexpected generosity and said I would make sure her name went in the back of the book as the main donor. In her typical self-effacing way she asked me not to do so and not even to tell anyone she had made a donation. I know for a fact that Ven. Fatt Kuan made many other anonymous donations to poor or struggling individuals and to worthy organizations, often without being asked.
Another truly admirable Buddhist cleric who comes to mind is Venerable Yen Pei who founded and managed the Singapore Buddhist Welfare Services. For the noble work done by this organization see All his welfare work did not prevent Ven. Yen Pei from also being a master of the Chinese Tipitaka and a popular and respected Dhamma teacher. One could also think of Venerable Bellanwila Dhammaratna, the Sri Lankan monk who long ago saw the crying need for Buddhist educational resources in Singapore and resolved to do something about it. As a result, the Buddhist community in Singapore has a superb library in English and Chinese, a top-class venue for public meetings, a thriving Sunday School and a program of Buddhist higher education (see ). Ven. Dhammaratana also runs the Buddhist Research Society which publishes numerous Dhamma books. None of this just appeared, it was the result of hard work, determination, continual fundraising and, I suspect, quite a few sleepless nights, on the part of Ven. Dhammaratana. And it goes without saying that none of it could have been achieved had he refused to travel in a vehicle (it is a Dukkata offence to do so), refused to received, write out or cash checks (offences against Nissaggiya Pacitiya 18) or if he had spent all his time trying to find sandals with one-layered soles (unless of course he was living in the regions bordering Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India, in which case he could have two or even three layers on his soles, Vin.I,197). Despite not being strictly observant monks or nuns, no aspersions have ever been cast on the integrity of these three clerics, and their services to Buddhism and to the community have been enormous.
So why did Ven. Fatt Kuan, Ven. Yen Pei and Ven. Dhammaratana remain true to the spirit of the Dhamma and Ven. Ming Yi apparently fall by the wayside? It would seem to me that the first three had internalized the Dhamma to the degree that they were/are impervious to greed, fame and worldly success and the fourth had not - not because they followed or didn’t follow a set of arcane rules. As is often the case, the Buddha has something pertinent to say on this matter. ‘Say a bad person is an expert in vinaya and he thinks, “I’m an expert in vinaya but those others aren’t’ and he exalts himself and disparages others. This is the Dhamma of the bad person. But the good person thinks like this, “It is not through being an expert in vinaya that greed, hatred and delusion are destroyed. Even if one is not an expert in vinaya one may still live in full accordance with the Dhamma, may practice correctly, may still live by Dhamma and therefore be one worthy of honour and respect". Thus, having made the Way itself the main thing, he neither exalts himself nor disparages others. This is the Dhamma of the good person’ (M.III,39).
Concluded Tomorrow
The top picture is of Ven. Fatt Kuan’s Tai Pei Buddhist Centre, the second picture is of Ven.Yen Pei and the bottom one is of Ven. Dhammaratana.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reflections On The Trial Of Ming Yi

Two things come to mind while contemplating the Ming Yi affair. The first is this. Venerable Ming Yi allegedly misappropriated S$50,000 from the Ren Ci Hospital, which is actually small change compared to the huge amounts of his own money he spent on himself. The question no one has asked so far is, ‘Where did he get all that money from?’ Anyone familiar with Buddhism as practiced in Asia will know the answer. It was given to him by his supporters and admirers. Traditional Buddhism is constructed so that the lay person’s main role, some might even say, only role, is to give things to the Sangha, and the more lavish the better. I have frequently encountered people who happily tell me that they don’t know and don’t want to know any Dhamma and that they just want to ‘give dana’ or to use the Thai term, to ‘make merit’. And if a monk wins more respect and regard than usual, as Ming Yi did, he will literally be buried under an avalanche of goodies. The more finicky monks will refuse to take money and either direct donors to their personal accountant or suggest that the money be ‘converted’ into material luxuries before being offered. A friend of mine recently stayed in what he was led to believe was a ‘forest monastery’ in Thailand. He described it to me as ‘a bhikkhu’s Club Med’ - all mod cons, dozens of servants, expensive furnishing, four cars to take the monks anywhere they might want to go, every meal a banquet, all the ‘kutis’ made out of teak and other rare timbers and fitted with air-conditioners – and everything acquired without actually touching any money.
I have said this before but I will say it again – traditional Buddhism is (unintentionally) constructed to make it much more likely that a monk (nuns aren’t in the running) will be spoilt or corrupted. The adulation monks receive, the ignorance of the Dhamma by the laity, and the understanding of ‘dana’ almost exclusively as generosity to monks, conspire to overwhelm, then tempt and finally to corrupt someone trying to live the holy life. Some resist this, many don’t. This of course does not excuse Ming Yi behaviour, but does go some way to explaining it. So long as Buddhism is ‘monk centred’ rather than ‘Dhamma centred’ these problems will persist.
Continued Tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Trial Of Ven. Ming Yi

The trial of the most well-known and well-liked Buddhist monk in Singapore concluded yesterday. The judges will deliver their verdict on the 7th of October. Venerable Ming Yi and an assistant, Raymond Yeung, were charged with fraud and making false declarations. The problem began several years ago when the discovery of financial irregularities in the National Kidney Foundation, Singapore’s largest and richest charity, led to a more careful scrutiny of other well-endower charities. Soon problems were found in one of several charities run by Ven. Ming Ye, namely the Ren Ci Hospital. The Venerable’s fundraising efforts for this hospital had previously won him a high profile, friendships with celebrities, much praise and many admirers. It had also helped dispel the impression that Buddhism is a passive, out-of-touch religion with no social conscience and nothing relevant to say to the modern world. Ven. Ming Yi had also been elected Secretary General of the Singapore Buddhist Federation. But when his books and management style was more carefully examined problems emerged and eventually he and his assistant were charged with falsifying accounts and misappropriating funds to the amount of $50,000. During the first week of the trial it looked like Ming Yi was guilty of nothing more than sloppy bookkeeping, slapdash management and irregular although not improper use of funds, i.e. that he was running Ren Ci the way most Buddhist undertakings in Asia are run. There was a feeling of sympathy for him among the general public. But as the trial has proceeded and more details have come to light, this sympathy has dissolved. Apart from the charges against him, it has also emerged that Ming Yi had been living an extravagant lifestyle. The Public Prosecutor submitted evidence that he had a A$27,900 membership to an exclusive golf club in Australia, three BMWs, one valued at A$163,500, a race horse with a monthly upkeep of A$1000, and expensive properties in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. Records also showed that he had numerous credit cards which were used to pay for stays in up-market resorts, and visits to tanning clinics and even casinos. Long before the trial reached its sad end it had become painfully clear that a basically good monk who had began with good intentions had been seduced by wealth and adulation. All this has been profoundly disappointing to many people and a major embarrassment for Buddhism in Singapore. Continued Tomorrow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

How Long Can Caste Last? II

Despite the Buddha's repudiation of caste, less extreme variations of the system exist in most Buddhist countries. For example, the buraku of Japan (see picture) and the yanban of Korea, were originally denigrated because of pre-Buddhist notions of purity and impurity. But the coming of Buddhism did not help them. Rather, it accepted and even reinforced discrimination against them. Look up burakumin on Wikipedia and see what it says about Jodo Shinshu attitudes to Japan's untouchables. The paya kyun of Burma are the descendants of monastery slaves and will still not be given ordination. As for the ragyapa of Tibet, I have found it quite difficult to get much information about this group. For all the books now available on almost every aspect of Tibetan life and religion (The Tibetan Art of Potty Training), this is one subject that remains in the dark. What I do know is that all the Bodhisattva vows taken by all the rimpoches and 'living Buddhas' never did very much to improve the ragyapa's miserable lives. The accompanying picture shows a ragypa’s dwelling in old Lhasa, made partly of the horns of the animals they slaughtered and for which they were allotted the lowest and most degraded rank in the society.
Last time I was in Nepal, I was the guest of a leading Vajradhara family who treated me with almost embarrassing generosity and kindness. But when I asked to visit their temple I was given a dozen hurriedly invented excuses as to why it would not be convenient right now. Of course I knew that Nepalese Buddhists practiced caste, but until them I had no idea that they would not even allow a monk from outside their own community to enter one of their temples. Caste used to be very strong in Sri Lanka but has lost most of its power nowadays, although more due to education and urbanization than to faithfulness to the Buddha’s high ideals.
Paradoxically, the only Sri Lankan institution where caste is still significant is the Sangha. The country's three monastic sects are still divided sharply along caste lines. A monk of the Siam Nikaya will be delighted to ordain a Westerner but he simply will not ordain a Sri Lankan from a non-goyagama caste. Sri Lanka also has its own outcasts, the rodhiyas, who even in the early 1900’s were not allowed to enter the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. I do not know about their status nowadays, but I suspect that they are still marginalized.
Continued tomorrow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How Long Can Cast Last? I

Caste (vanna) is the Hindu belief that humans were created by God as four distinct and different types; priests (brahmana), warriors (khattiya), merchants (vessa) and labourers (sudda). According to this belief, the different castes should make their living in different ways, should not mix and should be treated differently. Beyond the four castes are the outcastes (nica kula or vasala), those who have no caste and are considered beyond the pale of ordinary Hindu society. That, at least is the theoretical structure of caste. In reality there are thousands of sub-castes and even hierarchies amongst the untouchables.
The Buddha was an outspoken critic of the caste system and at least a dozen of his discourses are devoted to highlighting its contradictions and cruelties. The Buddha's tribe, the Sakyans, were excessively proud of their high caste status. When a group of them requested to become monks, the Buddha ordained Upali, a low caste barber, first thus giving him a precedence that would require the others to bow to him.
The Buddha criticised the caste system on several grounds. The claim that it was ordained by God is no more than a myth (M.II,148). Caste is not practised everywhere and thus must be a regional custom rather than a universal truth (M.II,149). The claim that different castes have different abilities and personalities is not born out by experience and is thus invalid (M.II,150; Sn.116). Low castes and outcastes may be dirty because they are compelled to do dirty jobs, but if they wash themselves they become as clean as everyone else (M.II,151). The caste system engenders cruelty and suffering and is thus evil. From the Buddhist perspective, how people are treated, the respect they receive, the opportunities they have, even where they are reborn, should depend on their behaviour, not what caste they are born into. The Buddha said: `Without righteousness, all castes can go to purgatory. All castes are pure if they act with righteousness.' (Ja.VI,100).
Continued tomorrow.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

That Time Of Year Again

Well, it’s that time of year again. The weeping fig out the back of my place is in fruit and the birds are going berserk. Weeping figs (Ficus benjamina) can be seen all over Singapore, often growing out of the sides of old buildings, and this particular one stands on a small patch of scrap ground between the downstairs restaurant and the next door school. Chinese are sensitive to the almost mystical beauty of these trees and often place small animist shrines at the base of them. This one has a small but substantial shrine next to it full of fierce-looking Chinese deities. There’s a Buddha statue in there also. Sometimes I feel like sneaking down there, rescuing him and putting him in more salubrious surroundings. Anyway, it’s in full fruit and its small, round, purple-colored figs are raining down in their thousands on my upstairs porch. That is, when the birds aren’t gobbling them up. The buildup to the daily racket begins about an hour before sunrise when the fluty call of the resident Drongo announces that this is his tree. By sunrise the mynas have arrived, about 30 of them, and begin gorging themselves and quarrelling with each other. Then the Spotted Doves, Bulbuls, Glossy Starlings, the beautiful gold and black Orioles and a few others I can’t identify, come for the feast. They chirp and chatter, whistle and warble, squeak and squawk all the livelong day. I’ve often wondered what all the fuss is about so yesterday I ate two of the figs to see what they are like. Nothing special. Not sweet at all and rather dry.
Anyway, my feathered friends love them and I get to enjoy them announcing their delight all day.