Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I'm Off

Tomorrow I’m off on pilgrimage again. Given this, there will be no posts until my return on the 20th of October. And where am I going? Here is a hint In the meantime, you might like to re-explore some of the golden oldies. I recommend –

The Origins of Tibetan Prayer Wheels, 11th January 2009.

A Buddhist View of Euthanasia, 1st -4th January 2009

. Phallicism in Buddhism, 16th November 2008.

How to Kill Yourself, 24th October 2008.

The Buddha Logo, 9th September, 2008.

My Meeting with Sai Baba, 25th August 2008.

That perennial favorite, Buddhism and Vegetarianism, 1st-6th July 2008.

My Encounters with Hindu Swamis, 10th June 2008.

Thoughts on Jewish Buddhists, 22nd May 2008.

And the ever useful How to Swear in Pali,10th May, 2008.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Buddha Prophesized Jesus?

Some time in 2003 a website from Thailand appeared on the internet with an article making an extraordinary claim – that in the 5th century BC the Buddha prophesized the coming of Jesus Christ, and that this prophesy can be found in the Buddhist scriptures, the Tipitaka. This article was quickly picked up by other websites and blogs and has since appeared in numerous others, as well as in several publications. Now (2009) there are at least four different versions of the supposed prophesy and yet more claims about it. Below is reproduced the most common version of this prophesy.

When Buddha was travelling and living in this world, there was an old Brahman priest who wore white robes who asked the Buddha, “How will all men and all Brahmins continue in their merit-making so as to escape the results of sin?” The Buddha answered, “Even though all of you give alms according to the 5 precepts, the 8 precepts, the 10 precepts, or the 227 precepts for 9 trillion years and you raise your hands and offer yourselves as a burnt offering, or you pray 5 times a day, you will still not escape the results of your sins. If you do this every day, your merit gained will only be equal to the smallest strand of hair of an unborn infant which is extremely small. You shall not enter heaven’s doors.” The old Brahman priest asked further, “What are we all to do to be saved?” The Buddha answered the old Brahman priest, “The results of sin and karma are very great, heavier than the sky, thicker than the earth, and so high that it would be like an angel dusting the corner-posts of the temple compound with a cloth post that are 18 inches high - dusting them one time per year - until the posts were worn down to the ground. When the posts are worn down, that’s how long it would take to end your sins.”
The Buddha said further, “I have given up my high position and entered the priesthood. I considered that even though I am good, I would have only a very small amount of merit at the end of the year. If I was given this same amount of merit for 100,000 epochs and live 10 more lifetimes, I would not be saved from sin’s results even once.
The old Brahman priest asked further, “So what should we all do?” The Buddha answered, “Keep on making merit and look for another Holy One who will come and help the world and all of you in the future.”
Then the old Brahman priest asked, “What will the characteristics of the Holy One be like?” The Buddha answered him, “The Holy One who will keep ??? the world in the future will be like this: in the palms of his hands and in the flat of his feet will be the design of a disc, in the side will be a stab wound; and his forehead will have many marks like scars. This Holy One will be the golden boat who will carry you over the cycle of rebirths all the way to the highest heaven (Nirvana). Do not look for salvation the old way; there is no salvation in it for sure. Quit the old way. And there will be a new spirit like the light of a lightning bug in all of your hearts and you will be victorious over all your enemies. Nobody will be able to destroy you. If you die, you will not come back to be born in this world again. You will go to the highest heaven (Nirvana)
.” ’

What are we to make of the claim that the Buddha spoke these words and that they are recorded as such in the Buddhist scriptures? The first thing one notices about this passage is that its style, structure, language, the similes used, etc. are markedly different from those found in the Buddhist scriptures. For example, the Buddha is rarely referred to in the Tipitaka as ‘the Buddha’; he is almost always called and/or addressed as ‘Tathagata’ or ‘Bhagava’ (Lord). Anyone familiar with that particular labored and repetitious style characteristic of the Buddhist scriptures will notice that it is absent in this passage. The term ‘burnt offering’ has no Pali equivalent (Pali being the language of the Tipitaka) because making burnt offerings was not a practice done in ancient India. Making burnt offerings is of course mentioned in the Bible. The word sin does not really have an equivalent in Pali, although it is a well-known Christian term. The practice of praying five times a day was not a Brahmin or a Buddhist ritual either. Nowhere in the Buddhist scriptures in Nirvana thought of as a kind of heaven, although those with little or no knowledge of Buddhism often mistakenly think they are the same. But perhaps the strangest thing about this passage is that it has the Buddha implying that one is saved (again more a Christian concept than a Buddhist one, Buddhists usually speak of being ‘liberated’) by making and accumulating merit, and that it is impossible to ever accumulate enough merit to be ‘saved’. Anyone familiar with even basic Buddhism will know that this is the antithesis of what the Buddha taught. In the Sutta Nipata (Chapter 3, Discourse 2), to give but one example, Mara, the Evil One, approaches the Buddha and tempts him to stop meditating and ‘accumulate merit’ instead. The Buddha rejects this suggestion saying ‘I have not the slightest need of merit’. In Buddhism, enlightenment is not attained by accumulating merit but by developing wisdom and understanding. In another discourse, the Buddha says that making merit for the next life is ‘not worth even a sixteenth part of having a heart of love.’ (Numerical Sayings, The Eights, Discourse 1). Here and in many other places in the Tipitaka, merit is considered of very little importance in the religious life. In short, the claim that this passage comes from the Tipitaka does not seem credible.
So does it come from the Buddhist scriptures and if so from where? Just as the Bible is divided into books, chapters and verses, the Buddhist scriptures are divided into books, chapters, discourses and sometimes into verses too. Not one of the websites or publications which reproduce this supposed prophesy ever give a reference to where it comes from in the Tipitaka - not the name of the book it is supposed to be in, not the chapter, not the discourse or the verse numbers. This should make one even more suspicious about the authenticity of this passage.
I have studies Pali for 20 years and can read the Tipitaka in that language. Despite my wide knowledge of the Tipitaka I know of nowhere where this passage or anything like it occurs. In order to double check, I sent copies of the passage to eight Buddhist academic institutions in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand asking if they could identify it as being from the Buddhist scriptures or even from any post-canonical writings. I received replies from seven of these institutions which confirmed my findings. All of them said that the passage is spurious. So the conclusion is clear. The claim that the Buddha prophesized the coming of Jesus Christ and that this prophesy is in the Buddhist scriptures is fraudulent and false.
But who would commit such a fraud? Who would knowingly and deliberately lie and for what purpose? As noted above, the passage in question contains several Christian terms and biblical notions. It’s content claims that the Buddha was asking people to await the advent of someone greater than him, i.e. Jesus Christ. Further, having surfed the net I have found that this supposed prophesy only appears on Christian websites. Considering all this, the conclusion seems inescapable. Either a Christian or a group of Christians have perpetrated this fraud. But why would disciples of Christ, a teacher who insisted on the highest ethical standards, be involved in lies, deception, chicanery and fraud? Only the person or persons involved can answer that question. But as a Buddhist, I find it strange that some people are so determined to spread what they believe to be the truth, that they are even prepared to tell lies.
About a year after this hoax began circulating, two scholar monks, one in Sri Lanka and another in Cambodia, wrote refutations of it and exposed it as fraudulent. Since the publication of these refutations, more details about the supposed prophesy have appeared. One of these additions goes like this. Just before the Sixth Buddhist Council in 1956, a Thai monk received permission to copy out the whole of the Tipitaka and while doing this he discovered the prophecy. After he had finished, the authenticity and accuracy of his copy was certified by his local village headman. Later, when the Sixth Council Edition of the Tipitaka was published, the monk discovered that the Buddha’s prophecy had been deleted, and he converted to Christianity. To give this tale an air of authenticity, names, dates and places are included in it, none of which can be authenticated or refuted, which is, of course, probably their purpose. When you can’t prove a fabrication, it’s hard to disprove it also. But once again, this story does not ring true.
A monk would not need ‘permission’ to copy out the Tipitaka any more than you or I would need it to copy out the Bible. If the monk was learned - and he would have to be to copy out the whole of the Tipitaka – why had he not read or at least heard about this prophesy before? The Buddhist clergy have been studying their scriptures for 2000 years. Surely at some point in this monk’s education someone must have mentioned this prophecy if it had really been in the Tipitaka! That a village headman in northern Thailand in the 1950’s would know Pali, let alone known it well enough to vouch for the accuracy of a copy of the Tipitaka, stretches credibility to breaking point. Further, the Tipitaka is a huge book, 45 large volumes in the Royal Thai Edition. It would take one person several decades to accurately copy it out, check it and re-check it. Then it would take the village headman just long to check and compare, word by word, one copy with the other. And another point! Why would a monk in the 1950’s want to or need to make a copy of the Tipitaka? The Royal Thai Edition was published in the 1920s, and has been widely available ever since!
The purpose of this addition to the hoax is obvious. After it was demonstrated that the fake prophecy was not and never has been in the Tipitaka, the fraudsters, or others with the same agenda, began claiming that the prophecy was there but that it was quietly removed during the Sixth Council. It is very easy to disprove this preposterous claim. The whole of the Fifth Council Edition (1871) was engraved on marble slabs and is still available for anyone to check – and the prophecy is not there! Besides that, there are numerous ancient copies of the Tipitaka, dating from hundreds of years before the Sixth Council Edition, and none of them have the supposed prophecy in them. Not one of the many ancient manuscripts of the Tipitaka in the libraries of the Pali Text Society in the UK, and the University of Copenhagen, all of them deposited in those libraries in the 19th century, have the prophecy in them either. And one last point. In the 19th century the famous Christian missionary Reverend Spence Hardy (1813-1900) learned Pali, studied the Tipitaka in detail and wrote numerous books trying to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Buddhism. If this prophecy had really been in the Tipitaka before the 1956 Council, Hardy would have surely found it and highlighted it in his numerous writings and sermons. But he never mentioned it or even alluded to it. This is evidence from a Christian source that this prophecy is not and never has been in the Buddhist scriptures. So like the prophecy itself, the claim that it was removed from the Tipitaka is an impudent lie.
From the Internet.

Noel Coward On Religion

Noel Coward was urbane, funny and sophisticated, but also rather shallow. In 1949 he wrote to his longtime friend Esme Wynne, who was trying to win him for God: ‘My philosophy is as simple as ever. I love smoking, drinking, moderate sexual intercourse on a diminishing scale, reading and writing (not arithmetic). I have a selfless absorption in the well-being and achievements of Noel Coward… In spite of my unregenerate spiritual attitude, I am jolly kind to everybody and still attentive and devoted to my dear old Mother.’ However, Coward could sometimes pose some pretty interesting questions about religion, as in his little-known poem ‘Do I Believe in God’.

Monday, September 21, 2009


A greeting is something said or done on meeting a person. In ancient India there were several forms of respectful and polite greetings. The most common was to bow the head (panama) and put the hands in a praying gesture (anjali, D.I,118; M.I,168). Sometimes while doing this one would exchange friendly words with the person being greeted or inquire about their health (D.I,52; A.I,66). In Buddhist countries this remains the most common form of greeting between monks, by lay people to monks and between lay people.
The Natyasastra says there are three forms of this greeting; with the hands put to the head, in front of the face or in front of the chest and they are given to the gods, to teachers and to friends respectively. To express more respect one might bow the head, put the hands in a praying gesture and get down on one knee or even on both knees (Thi.109). Not necessarily more respectful but certainly more elaborate, was to get down on both knees and put one’s head at the person’s feet (A.I,146). The most elaborate greeting was to lie prostrate while stroking and kissing the person’s feet (M.II,120; S.I,178). This was called ‘lying prone like a stick’ (dandapanama).
When people went to meet the Buddha they always found him welcoming (ehisagatavadi), friendly (sakhila), polite (sammodaka), genial (abbhakutika), engaging (uttanamukha) and the first to speak (pubbabhasi, D.I,116), and while he accepted greetings and gestures of respect from others, he was not overly concerned about whether or not this was done or how it was done. After a man named Sonadanda took the Three Refuges, he confided to the Buddha that he had a particular problem. He was a brahman and his income depended on the respect other brahmans held him in. If they saw him bowing to the Buddha he would lose the respect of his peers and his income would suffer. ‘So if on entering the assembly hall I put my hands together in greeting, consider it the same as if I had stood up for you. If on entering the assembly I remove my turban consider it the same as if I had bowed at your feet. If when riding in my chariot, I were to get down to salute you others would criticize me. So if I pass you in my chariot and I just lower my head, consider it the same as if I had got down and bowed at your feet.’ (D.I,126). The Buddha had no problems with Sonadanda’s way of paying respect, presumably because he had sympathy with his predicament and because how social formalities were done was of little importance to him.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Poverty (daliddiya or niddhana) is a lack of resources necessary to maintain an adequate standard of living. In one place the Buddha sympathetically described a poor man as living in a dilapidated hovel that the crows could come into, having rickety furniture, a single pot with low quality seed and grain in it and a wretched wife (M.I,450). The Buddha recognized the undesirability of economic deprivation saying: ‘Monks, poverty is real suffering for an ordinary worldly person’ (A.III,351). He also described the difficulties that often accompanying poverty. ‘When a man is poor, penniless and in penury he gets into debt and that is suffering. When he is in debt he borrows money and that too is suffering. When he the bills aren’t paid they press him that is suffering also. When he is pressed and cannot pay they harass him and that is even more suffering. When they harass him and he still cannot pay they have him arrested and that is great suffering’ (A.III,352). Poverty can have a variety of causes; individual or social. Some of the causes of individual poverty can be making unwise business decisions, irresponsible spending or failure to husband one’s resources carefully. Other causes such as sickness or disabilities are perhaps beyond the control of the individual. The causes of social poverty include long-term unemployment, downturns in the economy or exploitive social systems, and are likewise are not the fault of individuals and beyond their ability to solve. In the Buddha’s time, ‘being crushed by taxation’ (balipilita) by tyrannical kings sometimes drove large numbers of people into penury (Ja.V,98). Such poverty is unconscionable and one of the roles of the government should be to try to alleviate it. Another reason why a government should involve itself in poverty alleviation programs is because there is a link between poverty and crime and a government also has a duty to protect its citizens from crime. The Buddha recognized the link between poverty and crime when he said: ‘From (the king) not providing sufficient relief to the poor, poverty increased, with the increase of poverty theft grew, from the growth of theft the use of weapons became common and with weapons common there was an increase in killing’ (D.III,67).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Shaddow Of The Whip

Sitting here watching religious developments in nearby Malaysia is interesting. You might say the country has been ‘whipping up’ religious fervor of late. In July a religious court sentenced a young woman to six strokes of the cane and a fine for sitting in a club sipping a beer. Last week another court sentenced a man to six strokes and a year in jail for the same offence. Who said alcohol isn’t bad for your health? Now it is reported that a Shariah court have ordered a soon to be married couple to be given six strokes and a fine for trying to have sex in the back seat of a car. They could have got three years imprisonment as well. Now I reckon that any man who would subject his fiancé to something as unromantic and uncomfortable as cotius inbackseatus deserves 12 strokes, not six. But jokes aside. Although such laws and their penalties only apply to Malaysian Muslims, the country's large non-Muslim minorities are looking with disquiet at the gradual stricter and stricter implication of Islamic law. Some are asking if a jizya, the tax on non-believers required by Shariah, is in the offing. A few liberal Muslims are questioning if criminalizing private behavior is really possible. One wag has pointed out that although hypocrisy (nifaq) is considered one of the worst religious offences in Islam, and a punishable one, that no one has been convicted for that yet. ‘What! Are our religious, political and social institutions completely free from hypocrisy?’ they ask. Interesting question.
The picture shows caning Malaysian-style.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founder and director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. He has become famous for using mindfulness meditation to help people cope with stress, pain and illness. Kabat-Zinn also conducts meditation retreats at the Center For Mindfulness. Over 200 medical centers and clinics in the US and elsewhere now use mindfulness to assist healing in patients. I think the Buddha would smile if he knew that his most precious discovery, mindfulness, were being used by medical professionals to alleviate suffering. Watch this interesting talk by Prof. Kabat-Zinn.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's About The Economy Stupid!

During Thailand’s election in 1996, politicians around the country vied for one man’s endorsement. He was not a billionaire, ex-president or movie star, the man sought after was a small, grandfatherly Buddhist monk with a rural accent. In the past decade, Luang Phor (Reverend Father) Khoon has become the most powerful monk in Thailand, in charge a monastery which generates millions of dollars and counts government leaders and the Thai royal family among its followers. Dr Peter Jackson, a Research Fellow in Pacific and Asian History in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, has followed the rise of Rev. Khoon over the past decade. He believes Khoon's fame is the result of the monk’s money-friendly outlook. ‘Buddhism has always been like a divine mirror for the state in South East Asia,’ said Dr Jackson, ‘so when the Thai economy boomed in the 1980s and commercialism became a driving social force, Buddhism followed suit’ In a country of about 30,000 Buddhist monasteries, most monks have a small, local following. A few monks have risen to national fame in the past, but this is the first time a nationally prominent monk has embraced commercialism so wholeheartedly, said Dr Jackson. Khoon's Wat Ban Rai monastery in the Nakhonratchasima province is five hour’s drive from Bangkok. It sells a variety of religious merchandise and good luck tokens - from Khoon bumper stickers to blessed amulets and car ornaments. ‘Going to his monastery is like going to a shopping mall. You go there for religious reasons but also to participate in consumer culture,’ said Dr Jackson. Donations are also a major source of income to Khoon’s monastery. In Thai tradition, donations bring blessings and merit to those who give. Dr Jackson estimated that Khoon brought in about $20 million a year in sales and donations, before the recent devaluation of the Thai currency. So far, donations appear to have been spent on those in need and no official corruption charges have been raised. Khoon’s popularity has a number of facets in addition to his commercial bent, said Dr Jackson. His appeal is one of nostalgia - he is a grandfatherly figure who uses old-fashioned language to communicate. ‘The way he speaks brings back memories of how it used to be and the way people used to talk in a time when things are changing and modernising very quickly,’ said Dr Jackson. Khoon is also blessed with a catchy name. In Thai, “khoon” means “to multiply” or “times” which helps link him with good luck in producing and multiplying wealth. But Dr Jackson said the most powerful draw of Khoon is that he is believed to possess magical powers. News of his powers began to circulate in the 1960s, when soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War took his amulets for protection and returned home unscathed. Then in 1993, a large hotel collapsed in Khosat, a large town near Khoon’s monastery, killing over 150 people. Just as rescue workers lost hope, they found a hotel cleaning woman still alive in the rubble. As they labored to free the woman’s feet from beneath a concrete slab, someone threw her one of Khoon’s amulets. She prayed with it until she was freed and Khoon’s magical powers made national headlines. Even the Thai royal family has embraced Khoon’s monastery, after a brief conflict in 1994 when Khoon’s followers had the audacity to sell fake bank notes with the image of the King replaced with that of the old monk. Relations were smoothed over when Khoon made a generous donation to Thailand’s national welfare budget in honor of the King. Now Khoon’s followers sell the fake banknotes with the King’s consent and he receives members of the Royal family at his monastery on a regular basis. During a recent trip to Bangkok, Dr Jackson rode in a taxi with a Rev. Khoon amulet dangling from the rear-view mirror. Although not a genuine article blessed by Rev. Khoon, it showed what the monk represents to many in Thailand. “Ruay, ruay, ruay” read the script below the monk’s face - “Rich, rich, rich.”
By Shelly Simonds. From the internet.
The top picture shows Luang Phor Khoon with his ‘iconic’ cigar, spittoon and in his ungainly squatting position. The second picture shows one of the fake bank notes with his picture on it. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry, sometimes I just feel utterly disgusted.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One Person

There is one person whose birth into the world is for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and humans, out of compassion for the world. And who is that person? It is the Tathagata, the Arahat, the fully Enlightened Buddha.
There is one person whose presence is hard to encounter in the world, whose teachings is seldom heard, whose face is rarely gazed upon and whose compassion is infrequently felt. And who is that person? It is the Tathagata, the Arahat, the fully Enlightened Buddha.
There is one person whose appearance in the world is unique, unequal, incomparable, unparalleled, without counterpart, matchless, unrivaled, and who lifts up the hearts of gods and humans. And who is that person? It is the Tathagata, the Arahat, the fully Enlightened Buddha.
The passing of one person from the world is regretted by the many and causes sorrow. Even though he admonished, ‘After I has passed away, let the Dhamma be your teacher’ still his passing is regretted. Who is that person? It is the Tathagata, the Arahat, the fully Enlightened Buddha.
Adapted from the Anguttara Nikaya I,20

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Dharmek Stupa

There used to be two huge stupas at Sarnath, one marking the place where the Buddha proclaimed the Dhamma to the world for the first time and the other, well, we’re not sure what it was meant to mark or commemorate. When the Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsiang was saw it in the 7th century he was told it was built to commemorate an event in one of the Buddha’s last life. I suspect it originally commemorated the second discourse the Buddha delivered at Sarnath, the Anattalakkhana Sutta. The first of these stupas was demolished in 1795 to provide building material for a market. The second we was in the process of being demolished when work was halted for some reason, allowing us today to get some idea what a partially complete Gupta period stupa looked like. This stupa is now called the Dharmek Stupa and is the structure most often associated with Sarnath. Here are three images of it – the first from 1823, the second from the late 19th century and a modern photo of it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Papal Protocol

During his long pontificate, Pope John Pall II visited 129 countries and met thousands of religious leaders, so this picture of him with Thailand’s supreme patriarch Somdet Phra Ariyavongsagatanana in 1984 might not seem so unusual. It is however, very unusual. You see, popes consider themselves (and are seen by many others) not just as religious leaders or a head of state, but as a monarch. And they are very concerned that they receive all the protocol befitting their lofty status. When the Pope visits your country, he doesn’t pay a call on you, you are shuffled off to pay one on him and are photographed giving him obeisance. Various religious leaders and dignitaries are invited to come and meet him, not the other way around. In all John Paul’s trips this situation was only ever reversed once - in Thailand. When it was announced that the Pope would like to make a two day visit to Thailand the protocol of his visit had to be discussed and agreed upon by the two governments. Vatican diplomats said the Pope would be honored to go to the royal palace to meet the king and that he would be most happy receive the supreme patriarch. With their usual exquisite politeness, the Thais let it be known that as a guest, they felt that the Pope should call on the supreme patriarch, who was after all, leader of 61 million Thai Buddhists. For the Vatican, this would never do. It would imply an equality between the Pope and a Buddhist leader. A series of long, complex and very delicate negotiations began but the Thais stuck to their guns. Normally, the invitation to meet a visiting pope is given and if it is not accepted on those terms you miss out. That ‘take it or leave it’ offer couldn’t very well be done in this case. The Pope could hardly visit a country and fail to meet with its most important religious personage. So in the end it was the Pope who went to pay his respects to the patriarch, who did not meet him at the gate of his residence, at the bottom of the stairs, at the top of the stairs, at the door or even inside, but sat, as usual, on his throne as the pope walked across the room to meet him. The Vatican usually issues photos of the Pope’s meetings with various dignitaries but strangely, pictures of him with the patriarch are quite hard to come across. This ‘building bridges with those of other faiths’ is all very well, but sometimes it takes its toll on a monarch’s dignity.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Lord's Compassion

Putting aside the bonds offspring have for their parents, and giving up the love he felt for his wife and child, the Lord renounced the world and dedicated himself to the quest of truth. He did this for the good of the many for the welfare of the many, for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and humans, out of compassion of the world.
Turning his back on great wealth and royal glory, and all the security they provide, the Lord renounced his palace to live in the lonely forest. He exchanged a golden palace for the roots of the trees. He did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
Assailed by Mara and his army, attacked by fearful shapes and sounds, enduring menace and doubt, the Lord remained calm and resolute, never being diverted from his noble quest. He overcame Mara for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.

When the Lord attained enlightenment and achieved his high purpose, he decided to teach what he had realized to others, rather than enjoy the happiness of liberation alone. The Lord did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
When he heard that Angulimala was waylaying travelers and murdering them, the Lord disregarded the dangers of the lonely roads and went to teach him the Dhamma of peace. He did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
When the Lord could have partaken in royal banquets, he was content to eat scraps and simple fare. He could have worn cloth of gold gowns but he was satisfied with a robe of rags. The Lord did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
Disregarding the heat and dust of Summer and the icy winds of the Winter, the Lord traversed long roads and paths, byways and jungle tracks, to teach the Dhamma to one and all. He undertook such journeys for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
Although abused by Asurinda, denied alms by the people of Pancasala, and mocked by the ascetic Nigrodha, the Lord never turned his back on the hostile, but remained open and friendly. He acted thus for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Has The Medium Got The Message?

We have just had a tragedy here in Singapore. Two 16 year old youths jumped from the 9th floor of a building and died. Six others had planned to join them but pulled out at the last moment. Who or what was responsible for this shocking tragedy? Religion! Or I should say a particular religious belief; the belief that it is possible to communicate with divine beings. Ku Witaya, a spirit medium, was convinced that if he and his friends died they would be reincarnated at warriors in the coming World War III and battle demons, an idea picked up from a video game called Slayers. One-way communication with a deity (prayer) is acceptable I suppose; two-way communication (mediumship) is fraught with problems. When you pray you inform God what you want, thank him for what he has given you and or tell him what you think of him. You feel good and if he’s really there presumably he feels good too. In mediumship something is added to this, you get instructions on what to do or information about what’s going to happen. Mediumship is very widespread in Singapore. In Shenism, Chinese folk beliefs (incorrectly called Taoism in Singapore), many temples have mediums who are regularly consulted on a wide range of subjects, including quite important ones. I have seen some of these mediums in action and I must say, I was very impressed. Some of them must be faking it, but the ones I saw were defiantly in trance states and absolutely believed they were communicating with God or gods.
When young Singaporeans become more Westernized, wish to appear smart or to please their friends, they abandon the smoky and sometimes untidy Chinese temples and start going to Christian churches. There the mediumship is of a much more ‘modern’ form and it is buttressed by intensive religious instruction, scriptural authority and ‘witnessing’ by those who vouch for its validity. But whatever variety of mediumship you go in for, it is as I said before, fraught with problems. When I ‘channel’ messages from God, whether occasionally or on a regular basis, whether for my personal use or to give to others, how do I know it’s him speaking to me and not just my imagination? When I’m given messages from on high by a ji tong or a pastor, how do I know he’s genuine and not deluded or a charlatan? Most people who believe in God also believe in his opposite, sometimes called Siong Shen or Satan. This being is dedicated to using all his wiles to harm and deceive. How do I know the message I’m receiving, either directly or through the medium, has not been ‘intercepted’ and distorted by this Evil One?
Mediums are notorious for ‘receiving’ information that turns out to be wrong – or perhaps it’s the message-sender who gets it wrong! The famous American televangelist Pat Robertson regularly gets communications from God. His divine predictions are interesting because he usually announces them on TV so it's possible to later prove whether they were accurate or not. So far, they have all been wrong. For example, two years ago he prophesized that a huge terrorist attack on the US was imminent. In 2006 he predicted that a tsunami would strike the US that year. In 1976 God told him that the world was going to end in 1982. Incidentally, I’m have been told that there is a very exclusive society in the US only open to those who have confidently predicted the end of the world. They have a membership of 123,000 and a past membership of three and half a million.
Getting predictions about the future is one thing, receiving guidance on what to do is another. About two years ago a man came to see me, introduced himself and then airily announced, ‘God has told me to come and talk with you’. Without missing a beat I replied, ‘Pity he didn’t tell me, because I have an appointment in 20 minutes and have to get ready’, I walked passed him and went up to my room leaving him standing there. Apparently some of these divine instructions are very precise and specific, like this one. In this case as with most others, acting on the divine message only caused minor inconvenience to the receiver. But I know of many others where it led people to take dangerous substances, refuse medical treatment, stop taking medication, bring a mentally disturbed child to church instead of a social worker or psychiatrist, fork out large amounts of money, sell their house and move somewhere else, turn against a spouse, etc. Occasionally it leads to people losing their lives.
To know something about Shenist (Taoist) mediumship and mediums have a look at

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Laughing Buddha

The so-called laughing Buddha is a character popular in Chinese and Japanese folk belief and has its origins in a welding together of the identities of semi-historical monk Che’tz and the bodhisattva Maitreya (Chinese Mile pusa). Che’tz lived in 10th century China and was widely loved for his eccentric behavior, his way with children and in particular, his open, friendly manner. He was also very obese and used to carry a bag full of knickknacks over his shoulder, for which he was also known as ‘Big Bag Monk (Buti’shang). In later centuries, popular imagination came to identify him with Maitreya, the Buddha of the next era, probably because Maitreya’s name means ‘The Loveable One’ and he too was thought of as being a friendly, benign individual. Eventually, Maitreya came to be depicted like Che’tz; bald-headed, rotund, and broadly smiling or laughing. Although learned Chinese Buddhists always distinguisher between the two, the majority of simple folk did not, and gradually looked upon Che’tz/Maitreya as a god of prosperity, abundance and good luck.
In some ways the so-called laughing Buddha is similar to Saint Nicolas in the Christian tradition. He was an entirely legendary character who later became a saint in the Church and eventually evolved into Santa Claus, a friendly old man who dispenses gifts to good children.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Buddha At The V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has just opened a new and spectacular gallery called Buddhist Sculpture: The Robert H. N. Ho and Family Foundation Gallery. The V&A already has an amazing collection of Buddhist art and this new collection has added 47 masterpieces to it. My favorite piece is the standing (strangely the catalogue mistakenly describes it as ‘seated’) 10th century gilded Buddha statue from south India. Apart from having a simple beauty the statue is interesting in showing that Buddhism, probably Theravada Buddhism, was still alive and well enough amongst the Tamils at that time to both justify and to create such a masterpiece. My other favorite piece is the Pala image of the Tantric goddess Parneshari from the 11th century. I take a great interest in Pala art and I have never seen this image before or even heard of this particular deity. Nonetheless, the image displays aesthetic and spiritual perfection. The inscription on the image’s pedestal says it was set up in Campa which I find of great interest. When I was doing my research about Campa (modern Bhagalpur) for the second edition of my book Middle Land Middle Way, I read that during the late 19th century several Buddhist images had been dredged out of the great tank in the town ‘but their whereabouts is now unknown’. Now I know where at least one of these images is. And I defiantly know where I will be going during my next visit to London. For pictures of some of these lovely sculptures go to

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Buddhist-Muslim Cooperation

The good news is that it’s not all bad news. Have a look at this fascinating documentary about the harmonious encounter of Buddhists with Muslims in one of the most isolated and remote places in the world. When one group does not have a ‘conversion agenda’ towards another, there is no reason why things can’t go smoothly.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Wheel And The Crescent

Buddhism and Islam are two religions we do not hear mentioned in one breath very often. So it was with great anticipation that I went to attend the conference, Buddhism & Islam – Encounters, Histories, Dialogue and Representation held at McGill University, May 29 and 30, 2009. The conference indeed turned out to be eye-opening.
Not many know that the encounters and relationship between the two religions commenced almost at the very beginning of Islamic history. The first panellist, Xinru Liu, opened the conference with her research on Tukharistan (northern Afghanistan), Sogdiana (southern Uzbekistan) from 6th to 8th century, which was the junction on the Silk Route for routes going east and west and north and south. This region was Buddhist and Zoroastrian before the Muslims came in as invaders and traders. There was not a sudden conversion because of the fear of the Muslim armies as is generally believed, but close collaboration and cooperation in the region. The people there greatly appreciated the opportunities that came with joining the Islamic culture and civilization. For some, it was also convenient to be Muslim under the Muslim regime and pay no taxes, since in Umayyad times Muslims did not need to pay taxes. However, once Muslim, they continued to be so and the region produced many philosophers, scientists and mathematicians who took Islamic civilization to new heights, while as Liu argues, also preserving their pre-Islamic local cultural traditions.
Equally interesting in this panel was Alexandre Papas’ paper in which he discussed the writings of two Ottoman travellers to China in the early twentieth century. The dialogue between the Muslim authors and Buddhist monks was discussed. It was interesting to see that they discussed the similarities and dissimilarities between the two religions as well as political issues with both their countries facing Western domination. However, the highlight of the day was Georgios Halkias’ paper on Muslim Queens of Buddhist Kingdoms, which was about the practice of bride exchange in Ladakh and Baltistan. According to Halkias, “the Muslim Queens of the Himalayas stand witness to a rich cultural fusion, an old blend of Arab, Persian, Mongol, Indian and Tibetan elements. Ever since the conversion of the Baltis to Islam in the 14th century, the Muslim princess-brides stood as promises of unity and peace and as a means of alleviating conflict between the warring houses of Baltistan and the Buddhist kingdoms of Ladakh.” Interestingly, these Muslim queens ruled the Buddhist kingdoms as well, longest rule having been of 13 years, and were patrons of both Buddhist monasteries and mosques. Muslim and Buddhist interactions in Tibet discussed by José Ignacio Cabezón, was also quite absorbing. According to him, “Muslims—both Muslims of Kashmiri origin and ethnic Chinese Muslims—have lived among Tibetans for centuries.” However, he argues that the “Chinese annexation of the Tibetan plateau has exacerbated the tensions between these two groups.”
The two papers presented on Buddhism in Muslim Indonesia by Karel Steenbrink and Hudaya Kandahjaya were complementary and explained a unique situation really well. Buddhism and Islam have lived together in the region since the arrival of Islam in 1200, Buddhism these days being mainly represented by the Chinese community. Indonesia, in spite of having the largest Muslim population in the world, does not call itself an Islamic state. Six religions are recognized by the state of Indonesia. However, people of all religious communities have to accept the Pancasila ideology, one of its principles being, “belief in the one and high divinity.” This leads to the development of a unique situation for the Buddhists, since in their belief, the presence or absence of God is left undefined. Some Buddhists in compliance with Pancashila and also because of Muslim influence are using the concept of Adi Buddha, a form of divinity. This is seen as problematic by others who perceive it as forming a new kind of theistic Buddhism.
The two papers on Thailand brought about two contrasting pictures of the region. Charles Keyes of University of Washington gave more of a historical perspective telling us that by the beginning of twentieth century, Muslims were a distinct minority in Thailand, they came from South Asia, China, Malaysia and some were also ethnic Thais. However, with the restructuring of the state in the late 19th century and growth of nationalist feelings, promotion of Buddhism became fundamental to Thailand. The result of this being that the Muslims then became the “others” or what is called khaek in Thailand. This rhetoric of difference has led to “some Muslims, especially Malay-speaking Muslims, have embraced fundamentalist versions of Islam and some Thai politicians and Buddhist leaders have accentuated Buddhist nationalism.” On the other hand, Alexander Horstmann’s paper focused on the small village of Ban Tamot in Southern Thailand, where the Muslims are mainly concentrated. He talked about an ancestor-worshipping ritual held in the cemetery, in which local Imams as well as Buddhist monks participate. Very interestingly, “the basis of this ritual is the mutual bond of kinship relations that criss-cross through the religious communities and the local elites. Thus, the Imam of Ban Klong Nui is related to the old Buddhist abbot of Wat Tamot. Second, the village spirit is believed to be of Malay-Muslim origin ... Thus, while not explicitly announced, the participation of Muslims is crucial to the ritual.”
An interesting project on Islam in Tibet has just been finished by the Warburg Institute of the University of London. Two of the papers presented on Rashid al-Din’s (1247-1318) Life of the Buddha were part of the project. Rashid al-Din’s book is considered the oldest World History book, in which he dedicates a separate section on the life of the Buddha. Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim highlighted the aspects from Tibetan Buddhism that are present in the work and also attempted to give evidence of the presence of Buddhists in the Ilkhanid court. Commenting on the same text, Anna Akasoy brought out the use of Islamic terminology by Muslims in trying to understand Buddhist concepts. This is what the two scholars called a 'cultural translation', where Buddhists concepts were Islamicized in order to be understood.
The conference ended with another interesting panel on Religion and Local/Global Identities, where an effort was made to understand how one community perceives another in various places, Japan, India, Thailand and Malaysia. And how contemporary scenarios like the 9/11 affect relations, although needless to say, do not alter them completely. This conference gave a much needed comparative religious perspective. More such efforts are needed to bring out the fact that most religious people when left to themselves are able to live together in a collaborative and cooperative way, enriching all the cultures and religions involved. This “cultural translation” is an ongoing process, in spite of the hoopla surrounding fundamentalisms of all sorts today. (The picture shows the mosque in Lhasa).
By Juhi Shahin from Rethinking Islam

Sunday, September 6, 2009

More On Usury

In a comment on yesterday’s post Izblue drew attention to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s comment on usury. The passage in question comes from his book The Noble Eightfold Path (1984) and says that wrong livelihood would include making money by ‘practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery and usury’. He then gives the reference MN117, which refers to the Mahacattarisaka Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya. In his 1995 translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, he takes this same passage to read, ‘And what, bhikkhus, is wrong livelihood? Scheming, talking, hinting, pursuing gain with gain: this is wrong livelihood (p.938). I assume Bodhi is taking the phrase ‘pursuing gain with gain’ (labhena labham nijigimsanta) to refer to or to include usury. I. B. Horner translates this same phrase as ‘rapacity for gain upon gain’. With due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi, I think his interpretation of this phrase as meaning or including usury might be stretching it a bit. It seems that here the Buddha is telling his monks that acquiring their requisites with various forms of dissembling and constantly trying to get more and more, is unbecoming. Given that he also asked monks not even to touch gold and silver (money) its hardly likely that they would have been engaging in usury. But could the passage also be applied to lay people and if so could ‘pursuing gain with gain’ be taken to mean usury? Possibly, but again, I think this would be an unjustified interpretation. I take the phrase in question to be saying, ‘Don’t be avaricious’, ‘Don’t be overly greedy.’ The only direct reference to usury or charging interest I can find in the whole Tipitaka is the mention of a girl being dragged away by creditors in lieu of unpaid interest (Thi.444). Can someone point to any other or to a passage that might forbid usury?

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Apparently the Lutheran Church in the US has just voted to accept gay clergy if they are in a long-term committed relationship. Consertive Lutherans and some other denominations are shaking their heads. ‘They are throwing overboard biblical teaching and traditional Christian values in the name of political correctness’ one senior clergyman said. Of course, he and those who agree with him are absolutely correct. There is no doubt about what the Bible says on homosexuality and how the Christian tradition has always seen it. He’s also quite right about the ‘throwing overboard.’ But what I find difficult to understand is why this particular example of ignoring biblical teaching and Christian tradition is causing so much controversy, and all the other examples of doing the same thing are not. You see, recently I have been doing a bit of research on usury, charging interest on money borrowed. It’s a rather interesting subject actually. To my surprise, I discovered that usury is frequently condemned in the Bible (Exodus 22,25; Leviticus 25,35-7; Deuteronomy 23,20-21, etc). Even Jesus beautiful saying ‘Love your enemies, do good, lend to them without expecting to get anything back, and your reward will be great’ (Luke 6,35) was used for centuries as an argument against usury. Numerous Church councils condemned it, you could be excommunicated for it and it was a capital offence in different places at different times. According to Bill Bryson’s tremendously entertaining and readable book Shakespeare, the Bard’s father got into serious trouble for just giving credit, which was considered a type of usury under both church and civil law. Then, over a century or two after the 16th century it was…well…thrown overboard. So I wonder why when conservative Christians campaign against gay rights and abortion they are not also picketing loan companies, banks and building societies. How come they are not raging against hire-purchase? Why one and not the others? As far as I can see, there is not one of the Buddha’s pronouncements on matters of ethics or morality that would not be as acceptable today as when he spoke them. They really are timeless (akaliko). If you would like to know the Buddhist attitude on usury go to and look up ‘Interest’.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sometimes It's Nice

I am happy to announce that I have been awarded the Jnan Chandra Medal for 2008 by the Association for Plant Taxonomy (India). One of the people who nominated me was Dr. S. K. Jain, former Director of the Botanical Survey of India who has always been most generous in his support for my research into flora and fauna in the Pali Tipitaka. The medal is ‘awarded every two years to a scholar for his or her research publications on the cultural, religious or mythological aspects of plants in Indian life’. Now I want to make it clear that the Jnan Chandra Medal is not the Nobel Prize of botany or anything like that, and that plant taxonomy is a pretty esoteric field. Nonetheless, sometimes it’s nice to get some recognition for the contribution one makes to any particular field of knowledge.
On another subject - a woman in Arizona recently found the letters G, O and D on three slices of salami after she toasted them. Dubbed a ‘miracle’, curious and devote people are coming from all over to see the holy salami slices and the woman is now looking for ways to preserve them. I wonder why she didn’t read the letters as DOG or even OGD, which is the Sami word for underpants?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Unity In Diversity

I have just finished reading an article by a sociologist in which he said that the different schools and sects of Buddhism are so diverse as to be almost separate religions. I often hear or read statements like this being said about Buddhism but rarely about other religions. I can never recall hearing something like this said about Christianity for example – which is funny when you think of the Catholics and the Quakers, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Lutherans, the Methodists and the Mormons, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Four Square Gospel Church. One of my favorite ‘interesting’ expressions of the Gospel is the Church of Dolly Ponds With Miracles and Signs which take Jesus’ words at Mark 16:18 and Luke 10:19 more literally than most people would. Their church services include handling real live rattle snakes. My other favorite ‘interesting’ Christian sect is the Skoptsy who take Matthew 19:12 and 18:8,9 so seriously that they cut off…well, read the relevant Bible passage and you’ll know what I mean. They are now a very small group but believe it or not they still get recruits
To an outsider or someone not well-informed about Buddhism, its numerous school, sects and traditions may appear to be so diverse as to have little or nothing in common. While it is true that some sects and cults identifying themselves as Buddhist are not really (Soka Gakki, True Mantra Buddhism?), all genuinely Buddhists traditions share certain common features. In 1967, First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council, representing Buddhists from 25 countries and made up of all the main Buddhist traditions, drew up an ecumenical document called ‘The Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and the Mahayana’. This document is a concise formula for the unifying principles that all Buddhists adhered too and was unanimously approved by all the participants of the Council. The statement reads -
1. The Buddha is our only Master (teacher and guide)

2. We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (the Three Jewels).

3. We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God.

4. We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom (panna) leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth.

5. We accept the Four Noble Truths, namely dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha; and the law of cause and effect (paticcasamuppada).

6. All conditioned things (samkhara) are impermanent (anicca) and dukkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things (dhamma) are without self (anatta).

7. We accept the thirty-seven qualities conducive to enlightenment (bodhipakkhaya dhamma) as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment.

8. There are three of attaining bodhi or Enlightenment: namely as a disciple (savaka), as a paccaka buddha and as a samma sambuddha (perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisattva and to become a samma sambuddha in order to save others.

9. We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

(the Sanskrit for all doctrinal terms is used in the original).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Toast! To The Fifth Precept!

The Ministry of Public Health is joining forces with public and private organizations in launching a campaign against alcohol abuse, marking “No Alcohol Day,” which coincides with the start of the three-month Buddhist Rains Retreat (vassa). Known in Thai as Khao Phansa, the Rains Retreat this year fell on July 8. A group of young people, including performing artists, met Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva before a Cabinet meeting on June 30th to show their appreciation for his efforts to raise public awareness of alcohol abuse. The group also urged Cabinet members and the general public to refrain from drinking alcohol during the three-month Buddhist Lent.
Deputy Public Health Minister told a press conference that the Ministry was determined to implement various measures to minimize the impacts of alcohol consumption. He did not say whether Bangkok’s annual Beer Festival held every October will be affected. On 8 July 2008, the Cabinet decided to designate Rains Retreat each year “No Alcohol Day.” Refraining from drinking alcohol is considered a worthy act, not only for keeping people in good health, but also in compliance with Buddhist principles, which include a call for abstaining from intoxicating drinks.
Statistics show that 60 percent of road accidents in Thailand are caused by drunk driving and that alcohol consumption led to an indirect economic loss of 156 billion baht during the past two years. Medical costs alone were as high as 5.5 billion baht. The country has the 45th highest alcohol consumption rate in the world, far above that of any other Buddhist country. In 2007, the sales volume of alcoholic drinks in Thailand amounted to 2,300 million litres, and it dropped to 2,000 million litres in 2008.
As for legal measures, the Ministry of Public Health was successful in pushing for the passage of Thailand’s Alcohol Control Act, which came into force on February 14th, 2008. Apart from banning liquor advertising, the act also seeks to restrict the sale of alcohol in or near temples, public parks, government offices, and schools. Other related laws will be enforced to impose stricter controls on alcohol sales. According to the Department of Disease Control, a survey conducted in 2007 on alcohol consumption indicated that out of 51.2 million Thais aged 15 and over, 14.9 million, or 29.3 percent, were alcohol drinkers. Among this group, 34.4 percent were in the working age group, followed by 21.9 percent for the group, comprising young people aged between 15 and 24, most of whom are students.
From the internet.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Gift Of The Gods?

Many cultures have myths explaining the origins of alcohol, often including the notion that it was a gift from the gods. It has also had a close relationship with religion too. The Egyptians, Greeks and the Romans all had gods of wine (Bacchus, Dionysus, etc). In Christianity alcohol is associated with Jesus’ blood and one of Jesus’ most amazing miracles was to turn some water into wine. The Jataka tells a story to explain how alcohol came into the world which is less laudatory than many of the myths but far more plausible. Long ago in a certain forest there was a fruit tree which had a large forked trunk with a depression in it. Rain water collected in the depression, fruit fell into it and warmed by the sun it fermented. In the summer, thirsty birds drank from the depression, became intoxicated, fell to the ground and after sleeping for a while, flew away. A hunter observed this and curious as to its cause, he too drank some of the liquid and became intoxicated. Later, he introduced it to his friends and so it was that alcohol became known. According to the Jataka, this discovery became the cause of innumerable social ills (Ja.V,12-20).