Saturday, June 26, 2010

Crystal Bowls

On Monday I visited the Asian Civilizations Museum here in Singapore to see the exhibition of Moghul jewellery from the al-Sabha Collection. I happened to see the collection in London a few years back but was only too happy to see it again. Words fail! No description can do justice to these superb works of art, every one a masterpiece. However, some of the things in the London exhibition were not on display in Singapore and vice versa. Two objects that I had not seen before and found of particular interest were the small crystal goblets. Flawless, beautifully worked and still unscratched after 1000 years. Of course, I was immediately reminded of the story in the Vinaya in which each of the four Great Kings give the Buddha a rock crystal bowl (selamaye patte, Vin.I,4). This story is intriguing in itself, but it is also evidence of how highly developed the lapidary’s art already was during the Buddha’s time. I know of only one other fine crystal artifact (other than beads) from ancient India, interestingly, connected with the Buddha - the relic casket with the fish-shaped handle from the Piprahwa Stupa (5th-4th century BCE). The two goblets in the al-Sabha Collection are dated approx 12th century although judging by the etchings on the smaller one (7) I would have thought it much earlier. Its shape also speaks of a much earlier period. Whatever the case, it may have been objects something like this, only much bigger, that were given to the Buddha.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Greeks In The Tipitaka

Many different tribes and ethnic groups are mentioned in the Tipitaka. One of these is the Yona. In his dialogue with the caste-conscious brahman Assalayana, the Buddha argues that caste must be a social phenomena rather than a divinely ordained reality because amongst the Yona there are only two groups, freemen and slaves, and having been a master one could become a slave and vica versa (M.II,149). The name Yona is derived from Ionia, the ancient name for Greece, or more accurately, the Greek states and people of costal Anatolia. When they were conquered by and absorbed into to Achaemenid Empire they were able to travel throughout the empire as far as its eastern borders. And the eastern border of course was far away as the western edge of India. So when Alexander got to Taxila for example, a delegation of Greek merchants came out of the city to meet him. One of King Asoka’s edicts mentions Ionas as a people on the frontier of his empire and one of his edicts is actually written in Greek. The famous gold coin of Kaniska (120 CE ?) had an image of the Buddha on it with his name (BODDO) written in Greek.
It is unlikely that the Buddha or any Indians in the area where he lived had ever seen a Greek, but the lone reference to them in the Tipitaka shows that a few scraps of information about them had spread east. Interestingly, the Anguttara Nikaya commentary mentions that the Sakyans, the Buddha’s tribe, had Yona statues holding lamps. After Alexander’s conquests large numbers of Greeks migrated to India (modern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan) and went on to have some influence on Indian culture.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Solitude or withdrawal (patisallana, pavivaka, viveka or vupakasa) is the state of being secluded or separate from others. A person can choose to be solitary or be forced into it by others or by circumstances. When solitude is unwanted it can result in loneliness, anxiety or fear. When used at the right time and in the right manner it can have an important role in spiritual development. After his baptism Jesus is said to have spent 40 days and nights alone in the desert. Tradition says the young Muhammad had the habit of meditating alone for several weeks every year in a cave on Mt. Hira.
Before his enlightenment the Buddha too spent extended periods alone in the forests. Reminiscing on this time many years later he said: ‘Such was my seclusion that I would plunge into some forest and live there. If I saw a cowherd, shepherd, grass-cutter, wood-gatherer or forester, I would flee so that they would not see me or me them.’ (M.I,79). Even after attaining enlightenment he would occasionally go into solitude. In the Samyutta Nikaya he is recorded as saying: ‘I wish to go into solitude for half a month. No one is to come to see me except the one who brings my food.’ (S.V,12). The Buddha made a distinction between physical and psychological solitude and considered the first to be the more important (S.II,282; V,67). For him, psychological solitude meant isolating the mind from negitive thoughts and emotions. The Buddha recognized that people can choose to be solitary for a variety of reasons, some positive, others less so. Some wish to isolate themselves from others, he said, out of foolishness or confusion, for some evil purpose, because they are mad or mentally unstable, or simply because he praised it. More intelligent reasons why one might seek solitude, he said, included because one’s wants are modest (appicchatam), for contentment (santutthim), so as to examine oneself (sallekhm), out of an appreciation for aloneness (pavivekam) and because it can be helpful for spiritual growth (atthitam, A.III,219). It is certainly true that regular periods of solitude and even occasional extended periods, can be psychologically refreshing. It can teach one independence, rest the mind, enhance an appreciation of silence and it give one the opportunity to have a good look at oneself. As the Buddha said: ‘Monks, apply yourself to solitude. One who does so will see things as they are.’ (S.III15).
However, even if one seeks prolonged solitude for the right reasons one still needs to monitor oneself carefully and intelligently. The joy of aloneness (pavivekasukka, A.IV,341) can subtly deteriate into a shirking of one’s responsibilities. Likewise one can overdo it, over-reach oneself and end up straining the mind. Hence the Buddha’s caution: ‘One who goes into solitude will either sink to the bottom or rise to the top.’ (A.V,202).

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Makes A Bodhisattva?

My post on Dr. Ambedkar (16th June) has attracted a few interesting comments. Teck pointed out that some of the ‘bodhisattvas’ I mentioned had their shortcomings and I have replied to this comment. Richard has asked, ‘Christians consider Father Damien to be a saint. Would you consider him a bodhisattva?’ Two questions are implied here, (1) What is a bodhisattva? and (2) Could a non-Buddhist, say a Taoist, Muslim, Christian, a Jew or Sikh, qualify to be considered a bodhisattva? I will give my take on this issue. A bodhisattva is someone fully committed to complete enlightenment, a Buddha in the making if you like. I interpret this to mean someone totally focused on the Absolute, however they understand it. A Hindu will see the Absolute as Siva or Visnu, a Christian will see it as God, a Taoist as the Great Tao and a Buddhist as Nirvana. By this I do not mean that Visnu, God, the Tao and Nirvana are the same. They are not. But at an early stage in a bodhisattva’s progress they may well see the Absolute in terms of their conditioning and pre-conceived ideas. This will gradually give way to a more realistic understanding as they draw near the Absolute.
The second thing that makes a bodhisattva is that their passion for the Absolute (however they may see it now) inspires them to practice one or several of the Perfections (Parami) to a extremely high degree. The Perfections are generosity (dana), virtue (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), patience (khanti), integrity (sacca), resolve (adhitthana), love (metta) and equanimity (upekkha). Okay! That’s what a bodhisattva is. Now could a non-Buddhist be a bodhisattva? I think they could. After all, Siddhattha Gotama was a bodhisattva in his earlier lives and he was a non-Buddhist at that time. He had to be! There was no Buddhism then! It seems to me that most of the major world religions teach all the Paramitas (except perhaps wisdom) although they do not call them that. History also shows us that most of these religions have produced exceptional individuals from time to time. I have mentioned Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Maximillian Kolbe but I could think of others. So Richard’s question was, ‘Would I consider Father Damian to be a bodhisattva?’ and the answer is ‘I would’.
Father Damian was a Catholic priest living in Hawaii and by all accounts was a rather uncouth man who wasn’t particularly fond of washing. In those days there was a horror of leprosy and when someone was found to have it they were forcibly confined on the isolated island of Molokai and basically left to fend for themselves. The leper colony was a vision of hell – the strong dominating the weak, little food, inadequate housing and everyone slowly rotting for want of any medical attention. Realizing that something needed to be done, in 1873 the Bishop of Hawaii called for a priest to volunteer to minister to the lepers knowing that it was tantamount to a death sentence. Surprisingly there were four volunteers, of whom Damian was selected because of his apparent enthusiasm. He spent the rest of his life with the lepers, producing food, building a church and houses, giving them medical treatment, counselling and consolation. Inevitably he contracted leprosy himself and died of it in 1889. There is little doubt that Damian’s inspiration was the stories of Jesus healing lepers. Now it seems to me that whether such miracles actually happened is irreverent. The point is that such stories inspired in him a self-sacrificing compassion and renunciation that few of us could muster. In fact, we stand in awe at his behaviour. And the fact that he was a bit rough around the edges should not lessen our awe. He was prepared to give his life for others, inspired by his vision of the Absolute. So to me, that would make Father Daman a bodhisattva. In traditional Buddhist iconography bodhisattvas are depicted as beautiful youths bedecked in jewels. Father Damian looks ordinary, human, un-special, real. Mahayana sutras are full of legendary stories of bodhisattvas giving their lives for others, although Buddhist history offers very few examples where people actually did this.
One last point. If a non-Buddhist can be a bodhisattva, could a non-Buddhist attain enlightenment? As I wrote at under 'Universalism' ‘The attainment of enlightenment is not dependent of winning the approval of a deity but by realizing certain natural truths, which everyone has the capacity to do. This being the case, it is conceivable that even those who have never even heard the Dhamma could become enlightened. However, we could say this. Openness to the Buddha’s teaching makes an appreciation of it more likely. Appreciation of the Buddha’s teaching would make the desire to practise it more possible. Practising the Buddha’s teaching would make attaining enlightenment many times more probable’.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Stupid And The Decent

Criminals are not so much fearsome or dangerous as stupid. A recent crime here in Singapore really underlined this point. A gang of young men attacked and robbed four immigrant workers, seriously harming them and killing one. Within a few days they were all caught except one who has probably fled the country. Three have now been charged with murder and if found guilty will probably hang, while the other four face a range of charges for which, if convicted, they will spend years in jail. And how much did they rob from their victims? Forty dollars and a few odds and ends. One life lost, three seriously threatened, five people severely injured, a widow and three orphans made, the best years of several young men’s lives spent in incarceration. And for what? Forty dollars and a few phone cards!
This shocking and tragic case set me thinking. Does capital punishment really act at a deterrent? Maybe for the intelligent person tempted to commit a serious crime. But most criminals are, as I said, stupid. They commit their crime because they are stupid enough to think they can get away with it. In this recent case, only one of the accused had the sense to get out of the country. The others were caught within a few days. Stupid! Hanging may eliminate stupid people but it doesn’t make stupid people smart.
The other thing this case did is remind me of how decent people can be. According to the news paper when Mr. Shanmneanathan’s (the murdered man) body was returned to India, all his worldly goods accompanied it – several sets of cloths, a cooking pot and a small album of family photos. I was deeply moved when I read this. When I thought of the struggles and difficulties his wife will now have to face, I mentioned it to friends and students and they opened their hearts and their wallets. In no time we had collected $3000. This money has been handed over to HOME, an organization here in Singapore that works for the welfare of immigrant workers and will be passed on to Mr. Shanmneanthan’s wife. Just when some people make you lose your faith in human nature, others come along and restore it.
About HOME see

Friday, June 18, 2010

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

You give up your freedom so that others can be free.

Your charm and honesty oppose ugliness and lies.

Without power yourself you challenge brute power.

Deprived of the closeness of your beloved sons,

You are close to the millions who admire you.

You are resolve and courage, grace and kindness.

On this, your 65th birthday, may you be blessed,

Guided and protected by the Triple Gem.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Monsters At The Gate

Unkei (1148-1223) was a Japanese sculptor sometimes called the Michelangelo of Buddhism. The earliest work that can be attributed to him with certainty is a statue of the Buddha dated 1176. Like all his later works this statue exhibits a realism and vigor unknown in Japanese art previously. In 1203 Unkei collaborated with several other master sculptors and their apprentices to produce his greatest work, two huge wooden statues of temple guardians to be placed in the gate house of the great Todai-ji temple in Nara. Pieces were carved separately and then assembled.
Called kongorikishi in Japanese, such guardians are, according to Mahayana tradition, manifestations of Vajrapani, a yakkha who used to protect the Buddha, his guardian angle, if you like. Vajrapani is very occasionally mentioned in the Pali Tipitaka, e.g. (D.I,95; M.I,231). In later Indian Buddhism most temples would have statues of these yakkhas in at their gates, and this tradition was transmitted to China, Korea and Japan.
In about 1210 Unkei made carved a statue of Maitreya flanked by two bodhisattvas and two arahats. These statues were so beautiful and so lifelike that they evoked wonder in all who saw them. Unkei was not just an artist of great skill he was also a deeply devote Buddhist. Records tell of him copying out three manuscripts of the Saddharmapundrika Sutra in 1186. In the colophon of one of these manuscripts he wrote that each evening he tallied up how many words he had written out that day and then bow to the sutra that many times.
Unkei' s fame has endured right up to today. In 2008 a Buddha statue made by him sold at Christi's in New York for US $14.37 million.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Bodhisattva In Our Time

A few weeks ago I gave a talk about Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, someone who, without exaggeration, could be called a genuine, flesh and blood bodhisattva. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Maximillian Kolbe and a few others might well be considered bodhisattvas too, even though the first was a Hindu and the other two Christians. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to be a bodhisattva. Compassion transends sects. But these others are world-famous while Ambedkar remains little-known outside India. Since my talk eight people have asked me where they can get more information about the great man and I have given them the names of three or four good studies about him. While doing so I recalled Jabbat Patel’s 1991 award-winning film Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, which unfortunately I have never been able to find dubbed into English. Here is the scene from the film where Ambedkar and a hundred thousand of his followers converted to Buddhism in 1956. It’s quite a moving and realistic depiction of this pivotal event in modern Buddhist history.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Contemplation On Blessings

Infinite in number and variety are the states of existence that beings are born into. I have been born as a human beings.
Countless are those who cannot speak or hear what is spoken to them, who cannot see to read and who lack the power to reason and ponder. I have been born with all limbs and faculties complete.
Many are those who dwell in lands of strife and conflict and who are deprived of security and safety. I am living in a land that is at peace.
Incalculable are those forced to toil without end and who are driven by hunger and want. I have wealth to sustain the body and time to give it rest.
Numerous are those whose bodies and minds are in bonds, who are not their own masters, unable to go where they wish, unable to think as they like. I enjoy great freedom.
Without number are those who abide in regions where the light of the Dhamma shines not, or where its message is not heard above the racket of false doctrines. I have heard and understood the good Dhamma.
Truly precious is this human life and great are the blessings I enjoy. I here and now, before the Buddha, contemplate my own good fortune and resolve to use this rare opportunity to work for my own good and the good of others. With strong determination I will overcome all obstacles great and small.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Advent Of A God

I get the National Geographic every month and always enjoy reading it. Last month’s issue is particularly interesting. One article is about the ancient tea route by which bricks of tea were carried from China to Tibet right up until the 1950s. Even more interesting is the article by Alma Guillermoprieto about religious changes that have been taking place in Mexico in the last 20 years, in particular the coming into being of two new gods. Nearly all the gods worshiped today have been for at least a few thousand years. Although they had a beginning we know very little about it. Contemporary Mexican society is actually allowing us to actually see the advent of a god, or actually at least two gods. Their origin is not lost in time or myth, it is unfolding before our very faces.
The two gods features in the National Geographic are Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverte. It is thought that Santa Muerte now has something like two million devotees while many others worship her while still attending church. Her cult has now spread to the US and popular devotional songs to her are beginning to be produced. There are also videos on how to worship her and everything else the devotee might need. Despite condemnation of Santa Muerte by the Catholic and other churches and efforts to discourage it by the Mexican authorities her cult continues to grow There are numerous house churches and shrines to Santa Muerte around Mexico and a huge new church in her honor is under construction in Mexico City right now. Another god who has really hit the big time is Jesus Malverde. According to the story, Jesus Malverde was a good-hearted bandit who used to rob from the rich and give to the poor and who was captured and hanged some hundred years ago. So one might think of him as a real person who eventually got deified. The problem is, investigators have yet to come up with any evidence that he ever existed.
Jesus Malverde is popular with drug gangs who want protection and with others want to be rich and powerful like them. And by all accounts Jesus Malverde, like Santa Muerte, delivers the goods. The numerous shrines to him are plastered with ‘thank you’ letters by devotees who have had their prayers answered and a monthly Santa Muerte magazine with a circulation of about 30,000, includes dozens of testimonies from grateful petitioners. How can non-existent gods answer prayers? Are these devotees lying? Are they deluded? Is it just their imagination? And is there a difference between these people and those who worship older, more popular, more recognized gods and claim that their prayers were answered?
It would be really interesting to come back in 200 years and see if the Jesus Malverte and the Santa Muerte cults have evolved into ‘legitimate’ religions with a priestly hierarchy, sacred text, an ‘official’ theology and an acceptable and ‘respectable’ pedigree. After all, I can think of a few gods of very doubtful origins and individuals who never existed but are now worshipped as gods, and their cults are generally taken seriously.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dreams, Sweet And Otherwise

Dreams (supina) are mental images that occur during sleep. There is widespread belief that dreams have some significance. Some people believe they foretell the future, others that the dead can communicate with the living through them. Modern psychoanalysts say that when interpreted correctly, dreams can offer an insight into suppressed desires and drives and thus can lead to a deeper self-understanding. Buddhist psychology recognizes several types of dreams. According to the Milindapanha these are (1) dreams caused by physical stress, (2) by psychological irritability, (3) by spirits, (4) because of mental clarity and (5) prophetic dreams (Mil.II,298). It also says that dreams mainly occur in the interval either between falling asleep or waking up (okkante middhe) and deep sleep (asampatte bhavnge, Mil.II,299), a fact confirmed by science.
Before the Buddha was enlightened, he had seven dreams full of strange symbolism which did in fact foretell his enlightenment (A.III,240). However, he was sceptical of those who claimed that they could interpret other people's dreams and he forbade monks and nuns from doing so (D.I,8). He said that a person who does loving kindness meditation (metta bhavana) will not be disturbed by nightmares (A.V,342) and also that a monk who falls to sleep mindfully will not have a wet dream (A.III,251). The Buddha also said that dreaming of doing something, i.e. killing someone or stealing something, is not ethically significant and therefore has no kammic effect (Vin.III,111). Thus he understood that dreams are beyond the power of the will. Legend says Maha Maya, Prince Siddhattha’s mother, had a dream dreamed of a white elephant soon after he was conceived and that this was a portent of his future greatness. The story is not in the Tipitaka and the earliest version of it is found in the Jatakanidana 50.
The best attempt I know of in any medium to depict a dream is Salavador Dali’s dream sequences from Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. If you have never seen this second clip, be warned, it’s pretty startling, or you might say ‘nightmarish’.
The picture shows the oldest representation of Maha Maya’s dream from the Bharhut Stupa 2nd century BCE

Thursday, June 10, 2010

One's As Good As Another

IN the very unlikely event of us ever feeling the need to worship a god, we could do a lot worse than choosing the Nordic deity, Thor. Unlike the bad-tempered, psychotic old god worshipped by some, Thor – for all his antics with his mighty, magic hammer, Mjolnir – seems to have been an amiable sort of fella, who would never dream of visiting floods or pestilence upon innocent folk. What’s more, he is so often portrayed as virile young hunk, not a grumpy, dysfunctional old git. Nevertheless, we can understand why the authorities at the Utah Department of Corrections might be a tad nervous about allowing Michael Polk to worship Thor while in prison. Polk is suing the Utah Department of Corrections for denying him his right to have religious items he claims are necessary for him to practice the ancient Nordic religion of Asatru while behind bars. The religion worships ancient Nordic gods like Odin, Thor, Tyr and Heimdal According to World Wide Religious News, Polk, who is serving time for aggravated assault and robbery, said in his federal court lawsuit that he has been a member of the Asatru faith since 2005 – and to properly practice it he needs items including a Thor hammer, a prayer cloth, a mead horn used for drinking wassail, a drum made of wood and boar skin, a rune staff and a sword. Hmmm, a hammer and a sword in the hands of an wassail-soaked prison inmate with violent tendencies …. We await the outcome of this case with considerable interest. From

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The New Intolerance

In response to my last post someone sent me this extract from a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the famous Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff.
I would take this as an example of the Dalai Lama being ‘unchallenging’ and ‘nice’ rather than precise and straightforward. The Dalai Lama would not be a Buddhist monk and Leonardo Boff would not be a Catholic (and a Catholic priest, if he still is) if they did not believe that their respective religions were truer than others. A way of answering Boff’s question which would have been inoffensive while at the same time honest and accurate would have been to say something like this. “Different people are looking for different things and see things differently. The religion that best fulfills my needs and seems most realistic and true for me is Buddhism. And while being a committed Buddhist I recognize that there is truth and goodness in other religions.”

And if the Dalai Lama desire to please means he doesn’t go far enough, Boff goes too far when he says that his question was ‘malicious’. What on earth is malicious in asking someone, “What seems most true to you?” If someone asks me whether I believe in the Inuit walrus god and I politely say “No” why am I being ‘malicious’? Why am I being malicious when I say that astronomy is more true than astrology, evolution more true than intelligent design, medicine more effective than faith healing and psychiatric intervention more reality-based than exorcisms. Aren’t we allowed to honestly express our opinions any more? Is it getting to the stage that we are going to be labeled ‘malicious’ or ‘intolerant’ if we simply, gently, politely but also clearly and honestly say what we believe? We are constantly being urged to ‘celebrate diversity’ in our societies which I agree is a wholesome thing to do. But express ‘diversity’ in your religious beliefs and you are shunned as ‘intolerant’. In some quarters this sort of thing is called ‘political correctness’. I call it ‘the new intolerance’.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Many Or One?

The Dalai Lama is such an inspiring man. He has probably done more to raise the profile of Buddhism among the wider population in present it in a positive way than any other person. Having said than though, one would also have to say that in his efforts to be agreeable he sometimes says some pretty stupid things. Perhaps he tries a little too hard to be liked and to please his audience. So the other day when someone sent me an article by him called Many Faiths, One Truth published in the New York Times, my heart sunk. “Oh no!” I thought “He’s going to give us the old ‘all religions are the same’ nonsense.’ As a 20 second ‘sound bite’ statements like ‘All religions are the same’ are okay. They tell the listener that you’re the open, accepting type and that the proceeding discussion is going to focus on commonalities and studiously avoid differences. As a statement of fact they bear no relation to reality at all. It’s a struggle just to get some agreement between different sects of the same religion, let alone between different religions. People who believe that all religions share a common vision of reality are always bemoaning religious divisions. While constantly beseeching ‘Why these divisions? Why can’t we be one?” the most obvious answer to these pleas – that religions see things very differently - never seems to occur to them. I have always suspected that the “all religions are the same’ crowd are actually less open and accepting that the “most religions are different” bunch. To me, real tolerance is knowing the differing or opposing viewpoint and accepting it as such. If you can only ‘stand’ the other guy because you have been able to convince yourself that he actually agrees with you about everything, you have a pretty weak tolerance.
Anyway, when I read the Dalai Lama’s article I was relieved that despite its name he was not advocating the ‘all religions are the same’ position but rather arguing for a focus on finding meeting points and using them as bridges between different faiths. Of course, this is hardly a new idea but the Dalai Lama does put it across with sincerity and eloquence. And it might be worth pointing out that long before this approach became popular the Buddha advocated it too. In the Digha Nikaya I,164 he says, “Those things about which there is no agreement, let us put aside. Those things about which there is agreement let the wise bring up, discuss and examine”.
You can read the Dalai Lama’s article at

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Makes A Real Man?

In the blurb on the back of this book Charles Prebish says it is ‘one of the most creative and remarkable manuscripts on an Indian-Buddhist related topics I have read in the past quarter century’. I would agree completely. John Powers’ A Bull of a Man, Harvard University Press 2009, is an in-depth study of masculinity, male sexuality and the male body in Indian Buddhism, from the Pali Tipitaka, Sanskrit Hinayana texts, Mahayana texts and in Vajrayana literature. It makes fascinating, and at times rather disconcerting reading. In the second chapter Powers looks at the Buddha’s body as described in the Tipitaka. He takes the position that the Buddha’s physical beauty, so often mentioned in the Tipitaka must be the result of the doctrine of kamma, the idea that physical attractiveness is the result of good done in former lives. While this is possible I see no good reason to doubt that the Buddha was handsome (some people are) and that the Tipitaka is recording an authentic memory of how the Buddha really looked. Powers then examines the mahapurisalakkhana, the 32 signs of a great man, probably the strangest doctrinal idea in the Tipitaka. If the Buddha really had some of these physical characteristics one is tempted to think that the midwives would have suffocated him as soon as he was born. But the reality is that the ancient Indians considered such characteristics not just auspicious but also charming and beautiful. Later Buddhist literature like the Paramitasamasa never seem to tire of praising the Buddha’s tongue, so long that he could lick the back of his head, and his webbed fingers. Special attention was also given to his penis which could be drawn into his body like those of male elephants and horses. In his Abhidharmakosa, Vasubhandu contradicts the Vibhasika’s contention that the Buddha’s penis was ugly, maintaining that it was actually beautiful to behold. It’s enough to make you blush! The origin of the mahapurisalakkhana has so far foxed scholars but they are usually said to be a Brahmanical concept incorporated into Buddhism at an early date. The problem with this theory is that the idea is found nowhere in pre or post-Buddhist texts. Powers uses his very considerable knowledge of Indian medical texts to examine the mahapurisalakkhana and although he comes to no firm conclusion, it looks like the 32 signs might have their origin is early medical ideas.
Powers maintains that the early Buddhists were concerned that the Buddha should not be thought of as impotent or in any way inadequate, even sexually inadequate, and to this end they emphasized his masculinity. This seems like a plausible theory and would certainly explain the noticeably macho epitaphs the Buddha and other enlightened males are given throughout the Tipitaka - the Bull of Men, Leader of the Caravan, Stallion, Hero, etc. Later tradition would seen to verify Power’s theory too. He recounts a popular legend from Laos about the Buddha’s virility. According to this story, some evil disciples were claiming that celibacy was unnatural and that the Buddha practiced it only in order to hide his impotence. When some other monks heard this and thought that perhaps their might be some truth to it the Buddha asked them, ‘Do you really doubt my virility?’ Their silence indicated that they did. The Buddha then went to a secluded place and returned some time later (the story doesn’t say exactly how long later) with cupped-hands full of his own semen. He showed it to the doubting monks saying, ‘Here is proof of my manliness’ and then went to the Mekong and washed his hands. It so happened that the fish goddess just happened to we swimming past, she became pregnant and later gave birth to the boy child who would grow up and become the arahat Upagta, a mythological saint popular in parts of S.E.Asia. Good God! What a story! That would have to be the most bizarre Buddha legend I have ever heard.
According to Powers, the modern popular images (conceptual and actual) of the Buddha as asexual or even effeminate are actually a recent idea. I’m not sure about this. I think it would be more true to say that the ancient Indians considered the Buddha to be unambiguously masculine but that their image of masculinity was/is somewhat different from that of other peoples. Powers must have missed Daud Ali’s Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (2004), a brilliant study which includes an examination of ancient Indian ideas of masculine beauty. The virile Indian male was, at least to Western thinking, soft and effeminate. Like his modern counterpart he held his male friend’s hands and lounged in his arms, painted his eyelashes and spent an inordinate amount of time looking at himself in the mirror. Al Baruni (11th cent.) found Indian men distinctly dandified and effeminate compared to what he was used to. ‘The men wear articles of female dress; they use cosmetics, wear earrings, arm-rings, golden seal-rings on the ring-finger as well as on their toes.’ This is not to say that South Asian men are incapable of doing everything other men are but only that their concept of masculinity was/is different.
In the seventh and last chapter ‘Adepts and Sorcerers’ Powers examines Indian Vajrayana. It is only a brief survey but the material he assembles is enough to contradict the Western Tibetan Buddhist contention that Tantra had little to do with sexual indulgence and promiscuity. Even allowing for so-called ‘twilight language’ some of this stuff was clearly meant to be practiced and is pretty bizarre by any standards. Some is so bizarre and extreme it simply couldn’t be practiced. Sex itself may not be adhammic, but that unrestrained lust, sexual indulgence and sexual magic are a means to enlightenment, was a major departure from early Buddhist and Mahayana teaching. Powers makes another point that may well be unpalatable to Western Tantric enthusiastic, particually females. ‘All of the tantras I have studies assume a male perspective, were written by men for men, and assume that males would be performing their rituals. The descriptions of sexual yoga are always, as far as I am aware, addressed to males, and female consorts are not described as deriving any spiritual benefits from their participation. The Indian Buddhist tantras provide no guidelines for woman who want to engage in these yogas…The female consort does not attain any soteriological benefits in any of the text I have studied, and her role is as a facilitator in her partner’s progress. I have not encountered any evidence of a corresponding women’s spirituality in any Buddhist tantric text’.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Ming Yi Update

Last year I reported on the trial of Venerable Ming Yi, one of Singapore’s most well-known and liked monk (See ). Ming Yi was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months jail but submitted an appeal. Now in Singapore someone convicted of a crime has to be genuinely convinced that there was a problem with the conduct of their trial or that the sentence they were given was inappropriately harsh. If the presiding judge dismisses the appeal he can increase the sentence. They don’t want the courts cluttered with appeals just for the sake of appealing. The judge hearing Ming Yi’s appeal decided that Ming Yi’s many years of public service should have been taken into account in deciding his sentence and reduced his sentence by four months. News of this came out the day before Vesak. As I write this news has also come out that the senior pastor and 17 staff of the City Harvest Church, Singapore’s biggest Pentecostal church, are now being investigated by the Commissioner of Charities and the Commercial Affairs Dept of the Singapore Police. The CHC has a membership of 33,000 and in 2008 their Christmas service attracted 57,000 people. And people aren’t the only thing it attracts. The church is phenomenally rich. Its US$28 million titanium-clad church complex (fully paid for, according to the CHC’s wed site) is absolutely stunning and includes one of the largest underground sanctuaries in the world. Earlier this year it announced that it had purchased a S$310 million stake in a up-market shopping complex in the heart of Singapore. If the ongoing investigation into the CHC’s finances turns out to be problematic, and let’s hope it doesn’t, it will be interesting to see how it turns out.