Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The End Of The Road?

The end of the road? Well, not quite yet. But it’s approaching. A few days ago I bought my air ticket to Europe. I will be going for six months at the end of the year so I can have access to research material I need to complete my Dictionary of Flora and Fauna in the Pali Tipitaka. I also hope to have time to go into retreat for at least a month or two. During that time I plan to stop blogging, something I have been doing for nearly every day for about three years and four months. Goodness, how time flies! Non-blogging, not giving talks every week, doing no counseling and not having to talk to people who come to ask questions about the Dhamma will, I hope, refresh and rest my mind, so I can re-start blogging with renewed energy on my return.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Buddha And Trees III

The ancient Indians believed that trees would give their bounty on condition that they were treated with a degree of respect and the Buddha told a story to illustrate this very point. Long ago, the mythical King Koravya had an amazing banyan tree in his realm which bore fruit of exceptional sweetness. Everyone in the realm enjoyed the fruit freely and so there was no reason to guard the tree. But one day a man ate his fill of the fruit then broke a branch and went away. So angry was the spirit of the tree by this ingratitude that it caused the tree to bear no more fruit (A.III,369-70).
As an act of public service the Buddha also encouraged the planting of fruit trees along roads to offer both shade and food for travelers (S.I,33, something that King Asoka was to do in later centuries. It also became a custom amongst the early Buddhists to repair roads by filling in pot holes, removing large stones and cutting down the trees that might strike the axles of passing chariots and carts (Ja.I,199).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Buddha And Trees II

Some of the most beautiful passages in Buddhist literature relate to trees. The Buddha said of a kindly hospitable person that he was `like a great banyan tree growing on the side of roads that welcomes weary travelers with its cool shade and soothes their tiredness' (Ja.VI,526). The Milindapanha says that the diligent disciple should try to be like a tree. `As a tree makes no distinction in the shade it gives, like this, the meditator should make no distinction between any beings, but develop love equally to thieves, murderers, enemies and to himself or herself.' (Mil.410). The general Buddhist attitude of respect for trees is expressed in these words from the Jataka. `Of the tree in whose shade one sits or lies, not a branch of it should he break, for if he did he would be a betrayer of a friend, an evil doer...of the tree in whose shade one sits or lies, not a leaf of it should he injure, for if he did he would be a betrayer of a friend, an evildoer.' (Ja.V,203). The Buddhacarita compares spiritual practice to a tree `whose fibers are patience, whose flowers are virtue, whose boughs are awareness and wisdom, which is rooted in resolution and which bears the fruit of Dhamma.' The Mahavastu says: `The meritorious person grows like a banyan tree, while the person of little merit becomes stunted like a tree planted in the roadway.' In his Bodhicariyavatara, the poet Santideva wrote of his pining for the peace of the forest life in these words: `The trees do not speak harsh words nor do they try to please by artifice. When shall I have the opportunity to dwell with those happy to live with the trees?'

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Buddha And Trees I

The Pali words for tree are rukkha, duma, jagataruha 'earth grown', padapa, 'foot drinker' and vitapin (A.III,43; II,43; Bv.9,28; Ja.I,216; VI,178). The Jataka says: 'It is called a tree because it has branches. Without branches it's just a stump' (Ja.IV,483). The Tipitaka mentions many types of trees, a good number of which can be identified. Trees in general are also frequently mentioned. Some of the structural components and other parts of trees referred to include the roots (mula), the trunk (danda or khandha), the periderm or outer bark (papatika), the phloem or inner bark (taca), the sapwood (pheggu), the heartwood (sara), branches (sakha), twigs (pasakha), leaves (panna or patta) and crown (agga, M.I,193-6). There were still large forested tracts in northern India during the Buddha's time. The Mahavana or Great Forest, extended almost unbroken from the outskirts of Vesali to the foothills of the Himalayas. Once, the Buddha stayed in a forest near the village of Parileyya where an elephant looked after him (Ud.42). Other forests visited by the Buddha were the Dark Wood near Savatthi (S.I,130), the Forest of Offering at Kusinara (A.V,78), the Gosinga Forest at Vesali where many sal trees grew (A.V,134) and the Cool Wood to the west of Rajagaha near the city's charnel ground (A.III,373). Very large and majestic trees were sometimes called vanaspati, `forest lords' (S.IV,302; Vin.III,47). The Buddha encouraged monks and nuns to seek solitary lodgings in the forest (A.II,250), 'at the roots of trees, mountain slopes, a glen, a hill cave, a cemetery or a woodland grove' (M.III,3). He said: `The one who wears rag-robes, who is lean, with protruding veins and who meditates alone in the forest - him I call a true Brahmin.' (Dhp.395). Some monks tried living in hollow trees and in the fork of trees (Vin.I,152). A forest-dwelling monk was advised not to settle down at the foot of a tree on a border, one used as a shrine, one from which resin or fruit was collected, one in which flying foxes roost, a hollow tree and one growing in a monastery (Vis.74). However, forests could also be frightening places; they were the abode of dangerous animals and bandits and travelers could get lost in them (A.I,153; Ja.I,320; S.I,181; III,108). The Buddha commented that when he lived in the forest before his enlightenment sometimes at night `an animal would prowl around, a peacock would snap a twig or the wind would rustle the leaves' and he would be filled with terror (M.I,210). Villagers living near forests sometimes acted as guides for those wanting to travel through them. (Ja.II,335). Those entering the forest had to be careful of what fruit they ate as some were poisonous (Ja.III,200). Some forested areas were thorny, unpleasant and difficult to walk through without getting cut or scratched (S.IV,189).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Buddha On Conflict Resolution

If, in an argument, the accused and the accuser do not practise honest self-examination, you can expect that it will lead to drawn out, bitter, contentious strife and no one will be able to live in peace. And how should the two parties practise strict self-examination? The accused should reflect: "I have committed some wrong and that other person saw me. When he saw, he got annoyed and said so. He rebuked me and I got annoyed and went and told the others. So, it is I who am at fault." And how does the accuser practise strict self-examination? The accuser should reflect: "This person has committed some wrong and I saw him. Had he not done it, I would not have seen it, but as he did it, I saw it. When I saw, I was displeased and I told him so. He got annoyed and told the others. So it is I who am at fault." Thus it is that if in an argument the accused and the accuser both practise strict self-examination, you can expect that all will be able to live in peace. (A.I.53)

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Far Is It To India?

The full story of Buddhist pilgrimage to India is still to be told, although I have made some contribution to it in my books Navel of the Earth: The History and Significance of Bodh Gaya and Middle land Middle Way: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha's India. I’m always on the lookout for information that all to the story and the other day I stumbled across another fragment in a rather unexpected place – a book about Japanese Buddhism, Robert E. Morrell’s Kamakura Buddhism.
Apparently in 1202 the Japanese monk Myoe Shonin (1173-1232) decided to undertake a pilgrimage to India. As part of his preparations for this seemingly impossibly difficult undertaking he tried to calculate the distance involved and the time it would take if he set out from Ch’ang-an, the Chinese capital. The calculations are to be found in Dainihon shiryo VII, pp. 427-8, apparently in his own handwriting. ‘I am unable to contain my affection and longing for India, the land where the Buddha was born, and so I have drawn up plans for the journey thither. Oh, how I wish I were there! If I walked 7 long ri a day, I could reach India in 1,130 days, arriving on the 20th day of the second month of the fourth year of my travels. And if I walked 5 ri a day, I could at long last arrive on the 10th day of the sixth month of the fifth year, a total of 1,600 days’.
Myoe was not making a complete stab in the dark, he had carefully studied Fa-hien and Huien Tsiang accounts of their pilgrimages to India and had at least some idea of what was involved. Nevertheless, his calculations were highly unrealistic and as it happened he never even set out on this would-be journey. But what determination, what faith, what courage these pilgrim monks of old had! What an inspiration they were.
The picture is of Japanese pilgrims in the 19th century.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Seminar In KL

I have just returned from Kuala Lumpur where I participated in a seminar which was part of the 4th anniversary of Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda’s death. I shared the stage with Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusama, the first properly ordained nun in the Theravada tradition for over 1000 years. Together we took questions on a wide variety of subjects from a large and attentive audience.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Another Noah

As a child going to church one of my favourite stories was the one about Noah. When I was about 10 someone even gave me a toy ark filled with pairs of little wooden animals which I played with for several years. Perhaps my affection for animals was originally aroused by this toy. Anyway, it is well-known that the Bible myth of the Flood and Noah is only one of several such myths from the ancient world, the oldest one being the Epic of Gilgamesh from which the Bible stories (there are actually two versions of it in Genesis) are derived.
Well, now they have found another such story. A newly translated ancient Babylonian clay tablet tells the story of a circular reed raft that saved all the animals from a great flood. The Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script at the British Museum, Irving Finkel, who translated the tablet, says of the ark’s shape: ‘In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it. But the ark didn't have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft, which they knew very well. It's still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle, which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods’. The tablet basically follows the well-known Gilgamesh and Biblical stories. The Noah equivalent is a legendary pre-flood Sumerian king Atram-Hasis. The god Enki tells the king, ‘Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions and save life! Draw out the boat that you will build with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same’.
The tablet was found when Leonard Simmons, a history enthusiast serving with the Royal Air Force in Iraq from 1945 to 1948, obtained it along with much else. He bequeathed it to his son, Douglas, who described how his father got the ancient artefacts, ‘When my dad eventually came home, he shipped a whole tea chest of this kind of stuff home – seals, tablets, bits of pottery. He would have picked them up in bazaars, or when people knew he was interested in this sort of thing, they would have brought them to him and earned a few bob’. When Douglas Simmons took the tablet to Finkel, one of the few people today who can read Babylonian cuneiform, he nearly fell of his chair when he recognized its significance. So now we know why all those ark-hunters have never been able to find the famous vessel. They have been searching for a boat-shaped object when they should have been looking for something circular. Of course, how all those animals were able to fit into a vessel, whether it be boat-shaped or round, remains to be answered.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Burmese Temples

I found these interesting 19th century photos of Burmese temples and monasteries and thought you might enjoy seeing them.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Special Day

On this day 64 years ago India saw off the most recent of her invaders. Here is a video highlighting very briefly why India does or should a special place in the hearts of all Buddhists.
Happy Independence Day to all my readers in India.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Strangest Sutra Of Them All

On the 3rd of June I wrote a brief review of John Powers’ A Bull of a Man. In a comment on this post Gustav mentioned that there is a sutra in the Chinese Tipitaka about the Buddha’s penis. I replied that I had heard about this strange sutra and knew something of its general outline. However, Gustav’s comments prodded me to find out something more about it. Not being familiar with the Chinese Tripitaka I got Ananda and Nam Khim, both well-versed in Chinese Buddhist literature, to help me. So this is what we came up with.
The sutra is called Kuan-fo-san mei-hai-ching in Chinese which means something like ‘The Buddha’s Meditation on Oceanic Concentration Discourse’ in English. It is very difficult to reconstruct its original Sanskrit name. It was translated into Chinese during the Liu Sung Dynasty (420-43) so it must have been written before then. It is sutra 643 of vol.15 of the Taisho Tripitaka. Mahayana sutras have a pronounced tendency towards fantasy, hyperbole and unreality but this one would have to go even beyond this. It is the three stories that make up the seventh chapter of the sutra that I will focus on here.
The first story takes place in Prince Siddhattha’s palace before he renounced the world. The ladies-in-waiting bring up a rather sensitive subject with Yasodara, prince Siddhattha’s consort. In all the years they have waited on the princess and her husband they have never seen Prince Siddhattha’s...his, you know...umm...well lets be adult about this...his penis. Equally strange, they have also noticed that he does not even have a bulge in the place where such things usually appear in males. Now the ladies-in-waiting are wondering if the prince is really a man. As it happens, Siddhattha overhears these doubts being expressed so he takes of his clothes, spreads his legs and shows the ladies what is there - and what was there is his kosohitavatthaguyha glowing with a golden light. Then a lotus appeared and from its centre a baby boy’s penis emerges which gradually grows into an adult’s. More lotuses appear, each with a bodhisattva in it. The sutra doesn’t record what the ladies-in-waiting said about this extraordinary exhibition. I imagine they were speechless.
The next story takes place when the Buddha is staying in Savatthi. There is a brothel in the city which is causing a lot of social problems and King Pasenadi asks the Buddha what can be done about this. He decides to ask the monks to meditate for seven days and then go to the brothel and try to reform its prostitutes. But as often happens with such anti-vice campaigns, the ‘working girls’ take absolutely no notice. One of the prostitutes, a saucy young lady named Lovely, says to the others, ‘Men without lust are not real men. The Buddha talks about suffering and the cooling of desire because he is incapable of desire. He probably insists on desirelesness because he himself doesn’t have the necessary equipment. If he was a ‘real man’ I would be more than happy to become his disciple’. The Buddha hears this, a challenge that apparently even an enlightened male cannot let pass, and he shows Lovely and the other prostitutes his penis. It is so long that it reached down to his knees. But these ladies have seen a lot in their careers and they are completely unimpressed, in fact they just laugh. It could be only an illusion, they scoff. So the Buddha exposes his chest and the miraculous swastika on it and suddenly he appears to the prostitutes as an extraordinarily handsome and desirable young man. He exposes his penis again and performs the previous miracle of the golden light, the lotus, the child’s penis gradually turning into a fully mature one and the multiple lotuses each with their bodhisattva. The prostitutes are amazed and are finally converted.
The third and last story is supposedly told by the Buddha to Ananda. Once, the Buddha says, while he was staying in Gaya, five Sivite ascetics, leaders of hundreds of disciples, came to see him with their penises coiled seven times around their bodies. The spokesman of the five told the Buddha that even though he and his companions are celibate their penises are as virile as Mahesvara’s (Siva) and are quite capable of doing what such organs are supposed to do. You, the Buddha, claim to be a ‘great man’ (mahapurisa). Prove it! Once again the Buddha exposes himself while performing several astonishing miracles, one of which involves wrapping his penis seven times around Mt. Meru. And once again the interlocutors are converted.
What could have been the point of this bizarre sutra and what are we to make of it? Firstly, we need to know that it has some precedent in the Pali suttas - go to http://www.buddhismatoz.com/ and look up ‘Penis’ and ‘Signs of a Great Man’. There is also an incident in the Pali Tipitaka in which the Buddha exposes himself (M.II,135). The meaning of this and the other 31 Mahapurisalakkhana is very interestingly dealt with in Ven. B. Wilamaratana’s Signs of a Great Man published by the Buddhist Library here in Singapore. We also need to know something about Indian society during the first centuries of the Common Era when our sutra was probably composed. While Indian Buddhism was at its zenith during the Gupta period it was also being vigorously critiqued by a resurgent Hinduism. It seems likely that some Hindus were passing aspersions on Buddhist monks and the Buddha himself by claiming that they preached celibacy, not because they had passed beyond desire and lust, but because they were sexually inadequate, that they were ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’ to use the biblical phrase. It is possible that this sutra was composed in an attempt to answer this challenge. There was, and still are, Hindu ascetics who ostentatiously and unhesitatingly displayed their genitals to stave off exactly this accusation. I have seen Naga Babas and other swamis lifting quite large rocks tied to their penises and wrapping them around their staves. Such demonstrations remind one of the Sivite ascetics who came to the Buddha with their penises wrapped around their bodies and challenging him. All this no doubt explains the origins and purpose of the sutra under discussion. But whether we laugh at it, blush as we read it, or dismiss as of no significance, it does underline a serious problem with many Mahayana sutras.
In the Theravada tradition, as new ideas evolved, new challenges arose, or new questions were asked, works were composed to explain, meet or answer them, but these were never attributed to the Buddha, they were never put into his mouth. Even the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which Theravada tradition attributes to the Buddha, do not make this claim themselves. Most Mahayana sutras are attributed to the Buddha and if the ideas they contain happen to be absurd, unbelievable or blatantly false, the poor old Buddha gets loaded with them and we Buddhists have to struggle to justify or explain them. As Mahayana literature becomes more available in translation this is going to become an increasingly awkward problem. Just imagine what those who would disparage the Buddha or Buddhism could do with the Kuan-fo-san-mei-hai-ching Sutra.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Buddhist Gastronomy

Gastronomy is the art of preparing, presenting and consuming food. While a preoccupation with food and eating would be linked to craving, this need not cancel out the idea of favoring nutritious food, presenting it in a hygienic and appealing way and consuming it with appreciation. The Buddha spoke of several principles and ideas that pertain to gastronomy.
According to the Western understanding there are four basic or ‘primary’ tastes – sweet, bitter, sour and salt. The Buddha recognized these tastes but added four more making eight basic tastes (mula rasa) – sweet (madhura), bitter (tittika), sour (ambila), salt (lonika), pungent (katuka), savory (kharika), mild (akharika) and bland (alonika, S.V,149). This more subtle understanding of tastes, allowed cooks a wider combining and contrasting of tastes thus giving rise to a richer and more varied cuisine.
As far as preparing and cooking food is concerned, the Buddha said that a skilled cook (rasaka or suda) will carefully observe his costumer’s or employer’s reaction to his preparations and adjust his recipes accordingly. He should think like this, Today he liked this curry, he reached for that, he took a good helping of this, he praised that, the sour curry pleased him.’ (S.V,151).
Such ideas eventually led to the development of a distinct ‘Buddhist’ cuisine. Although the Buddha did not advocate vegetarianism it seems that early Buddhists gravitated towards a meat-free diet or only ate meat occasionally. This was partly because of religious scruples and partly economic, meat being expensive. And like the Jains, they favored non-root vegetables – fruit, grains, pulses, leafy vegetables, etc. – because they did not require digging and thus the possibility of killing creatures living in the earth. However, within a few centuries Buddhist cuisine was absorbed into general Indian tradition of cookery which was influenced by ideas of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods and Ayurvedic concepts.
An important part of gastronomy is table etiquette. The Tipitaka gives us a detailed description of how the Buddha eat which points to what he considered to be gracious behavior while eating (M.II,138). The Vinaya too, contains several rules that pertain to table manners.
In countries beyond India where Buddhist became established, particularly in the Far East, a distinct Buddhist gastronomy evolved, becoming and remaining even today very influential. These culinary traditions are usually entirely meat free, they avoid pungent vegetables such as garlic and onions in accordance with the Buddha’s instruction not to eat these vegetables (Vin.II,139). Such cuisine is called ‘vegetable food’ (zhaicai) in Chinese and do chay in Vietnamese, ‘devotion food’ (shojin ryori) in Japanese and ‘monastery food’ (sachal eumsik) in Korean.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Happy Birthday!

Tomorrow is Singapore’s 45th birthday, quite a big occasion here. The word sinha (lion) and pura (city) often occur in the Tipitaka but try as I might I can’t find any reference to Singapore itself. Not being able to link some aspect of the Dhamma to Singapore I have decided to write about another subject that interests me – botany. Vanda Miss Joaquim is Singapore’s national flower and apart from being beautiful, it also has a rather interesting story behind it, having been hybridized by a Singaporean Armenian woman in the 19th century. If you ever come to Singapore do visit the National Orchid Garden (I go there often) where you can see Vanda Miss Joaquim as well as some 600 other species and about 1000 hybrids. Anyway, Happy Birthday Singapore.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A New Jataka

Throughout history the vast majority of Buddhists got nearly all their Buddhism from the Jatakas and one or two popular accounts of the Buddha’s life. For most, the Jatakas stories was their Buddhism. The importance of these stories in Buddhist lands is similar to that of biblical stories in Christendom. Their influence on the arts, literature and thinking can hardly be overestimated. It is interesting therefore that the Jatakas are so neglected by Western Buddhists who usually pass them over as being ‘wonderful for the kids’. The complete Jataka was translated by Cowell, Charmers, Rouse, et el, over a hundred years ago and it has never been done again since. There have been several good anthologies though, the most recent being Sarah Shaw’s translation of 26 stories with its excellent introduction published by Penguin Classics.
But now the Buddhist Publication Society has issued a three volume re-telling of the Jatakas, probably the most ambitious publishing endeavour the Society has undertaken in its 52 years history. Called The Jataka Tales of the Buddha - An Anthology, it is a re-telling of 217 of the 547 stories, a whopping 1298 pages altogether. While I believe a new translation of this most important book is long overdue, a re-telling of them, like this one, has been needed for a long time too. In its original form the Jatakas can be tiresomely repetitious and annoyingly meandering and a good number of stories differ only little from others. The continual jump from prose to verse can be distracting too, particularly when the verses simply repeat what has been said in the prose. Ken and Visaka Kawasaki, who have done this new book, have removed all the extraneous material, rendered the verse into prose and tightened up the stories where necessary, without changing the story line or excluding anything of importance. The result is a very readable, non-scholarly but still authentic re-telling of these wonderful stories.
The Jatakas are of great interest on many levels. The picture they paint of Indian society during the time they were composed (5th -2nd cent. BCE ?) is a rich and fascinating one. While the Vinaya gives us an idea how monks, and to a lesser extent nuns, thought and behaved in the first few centuries after the Buddha, the Jatakas tell us about ‘non-specialist’ Buddhists – the ordinary people, princes and paupers, merchants and craftsmen, men, women and children, the good, the bad and the ugly. While the sutta and the Vinaya never once, to the best of my knowledge, deal with moral dilemmas, some Jataka stories do just that. You might say that the suttas present morality in its most pure and ideal form while the Jatakas talk about the actual situation ‘on the ground’. Just as importantly, they also illustrate many virtues and values not found in the suttas. And they often do all this with sense of humour, something that is not absent from the suttas but is not exactly common in them. Having said this, it is also true that the hero of each Jataka story (always the Bodhisattva) sometimes cuts ethical corners and dishes out rather rough justice to the villain. And one or two stories are outright raunchy; definitely not suitable for kids.
The three volumes of The Jataka Tales of the Buddha are presented in an attractive (although rather flimsy) box and there is an excellent map, useful to help the reader locate the scene of some of the stories and get some idea of the Jataka’s geographical range. There is also a table of correspondence and the chart of the 31 planes of existence, useful given that various divine beings appear so often in the stories. The glossaries of important terms and of personal names could have been more comprehensive and the recommendation for further reading should have perhaps included Gombrich and Cone’s The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vasantra, Ratilal Mehta’s Pre-Buddhist India, a detailed study of the Jataka’s cultural milieu, and Wintenitz’s History of Indian Literature with its detailed analysis of the age, structure and influence of the Jatakas. But I’m only being a nitpicker here. The BPS is to be congratulated for undertaking what must have been a huge committment and the Kawasakis are to be thanked for the enormous amount of work they have put into it. The Jataka Tales of the Buddha is an excellent recourse and should be in every Buddhist’s book shelf. You can find ordering details at www.bps.lk/new_releases.asp
As an aside, when I was at Borobudur recently I recognized this depiction of the lovely Vattaka Jataka in which a brave little quail puts out the raging forest fire; number 20 in the book under review, number 35 in the Jataka.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Compassionate Teacher, Receptive Disciple

How do disciples conduct themselves towards a teacher with love, not hostility? Concerning this, the compassionate teacher instructs his disciples in the Dhamma, seeking their welfare and out of compassion, saying: "This is for your welfare and happiness." His disciples listen to him, lend an ear, prepare their minds for profound knowledge, they do not turn aside or move away from the teacher's instructions. In this way do disciples conduct themselves towards a teacher with love, not hostility. Therefore, conduct yourselves towards me with love, not hostility, and it will be for your welfare and happiness for a long time.
I shall not treat you the way the potter treats damp clay. Repeatedly admonishing I shall speak, repeatedly testing. One who is sound will stand the test. (M.III.117-18)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nothing To Do With Dhamma

The pictures in this link have nothing to do with the Dhamma other than that they demonstrate the awesome power of nature and the sometimes puny and insignificant efforts of humankind. They are some of the most dramatic and spectacular pictures I have ever seen. May the poor people affected by this natural upheaval be comforted in their distress.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Progress In Meditation

There are many different types of meditation and even many variations of the same types. Thus people often ask, ‘Which is the best meditation technique?’ and after they have been meditating for a time they often ask, ‘How do I know whether or not I am doing it correctly?’ There are four criteria that can be used to assess what the Buddha called ‘progress, growth and furtherance’ (vuddham, virulhim, vepullam) in meditation. If (1) you are generally happier than before you started meditating, (2) if you notice an increase in positive and a decrease in negative qualities within yourself, (3) if you are more relaxed and open and (4) if you are able to be more objective about yourself, these are good indicators that your meditation is going the way it should.
Some approaches to meditation and certain attitudes some people bring to meditation, can cause practitioners to become tense, glum and overly serious. King Pasenadi noticed a marked difference between the followers of other sects and the Buddha’s disciples. The former were so gaunt and miserable-looking ‘that you would not want to see them again’ while the latter were ‘smiling, cheerful, exultant and joyful, with radiant complexions, relaxed, without anxiety, content with what they receive and with minds like a forest deer’ (M.II,121). Time and again the Buddha linked balanced mature meditation and happiness. ‘The mind that is happy becomes concentrated’ (sukhino cittam samadhiyati), ‘The mindful person becomes happier’ (satima sukham edhati), ‘Now you might think, “Perhaps these defiling mental states might disappear…and one might still be unhappy.” But this is not how it should be regarded. If defiling states disappear…only delight and joy, serenity, mindfulness and clarity remain, and that is a happy state’ (D.I,73; S.I,208; D.I,196).
Rather than trying to see themselves as they actually are, some meditators have an image of how they ‘should’ be and then use suppression and contrivance to make themselves fit into that image. The result is often bodily rigidity; a strained unsmiling expression, constrained movements and a stiff body. Other meditators develop a form of psychological rigidity, becoming puritanical and unbending in their attitude to even the most minor rules and dogmatic about interpretations of Dhamma and meditation techniques. One frequently hears such people comment that the way they are meditating is ‘absolutely correct’ and that other ways, even those only slightly different, are ‘absolutely wrong.’ Such physical and psychological rigidity is a very bad sign. By contrast, the successful meditator has the confidence to ‘relax and let their hair down’ (appossukka, pannaloma) without becoming slack, and the ability to see Dhammic concepts and meditation techniques as useful stepping stones rather than absolutes that must be clung too.
Successful meditation should gradually diminish the ego so that one’s self-image becomes less important and detachment increases, including detachment towards one’s negativities. Consequently, meditators should be able to have an increasingly realistic and insightful self-assessment and be frank and honest about their inner life. They should become more amenable to advice from spiritual friends and teachers, more ready to acknowledge mistakes, more able to accept praise without blushing and criticism without getting defensive. The mature meditator will, the Buddha said, be willing ‘to reveal his defilements to the Teacher or to an experienced monk as they really are’ (A.IV,189-90).
To the question ‘Which is the best meditation technique?’ the answer should be, ‘If the qualities mentioned above become more apparent as a result of the meditation you are practising then that is the most suitable technique for you.’

Monday, August 2, 2010

Political Dialogue And Secret Handshakes

Brussels is to hold an EU summit with atheists and freemasons in the autumn, inviting them to a political dialogue parallel to the annual summit the bloc holds with Europe's religious leaders. While the EU is a secular body, the three European presidents, of the commission, parliament and EU Council, alongside two commissioners, on Monday met with 24 bishops, chief rabbis, and muftis as well as leaders from the Hindu and Sikh communities. The annual dialogue, which has taken place since 2005, is for the first time this year made legally obligatory under Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty. Under pressure from Belgium, which constitutionally protects and financially supports humanist organisations as well as churches, the EU has been forced to hold a mirror-image summit, but of atheists, scheduled for 15 October. However, in a move that perplexed and annoyed humanist groups, the EU atheist summit will also welcome under the rubric of ‘non-religious groups’, the Freemasons, the secretive fraternal organisation, according to commission spokeswoman Katharina von Schnurbein. "I find it rather odd," David Pollock, president of the European Humanist Federation, told EUobserver. "Some of the Grand Lodges are secularist organisations, and strongly for separation of church and state, but they also retain all sorts of gobbledygook and myths such as the Great Architect of the Universe." Emerging in the late 16th century in England and subsequently spread throughout the world, the Freemasons split in 1877 between the English-speaking lodges and their continental counterparts over the question of god. Anglophone Freemasons require that their members believe in a deity, while continental freemasons do not. "Their public face is that they do charitable work and they do indeed engage in this, but there are also rituals involving blindfolded candidates with their trouser-legs rolled up during initiation," continued Mr Pollock. "It's boys' games sort of a thing." Mr Pollock told this website that humanists had opposed any inclusion of the ‘religion clause' in first the EU Constitutional Treaty and subsequently the Lisbon Treaty, arguing that "no one has any right to some special summit any more than any other type of organisation, and we should wait in line to speak to commissioners, to access at the highest level, like any other NGO, which is what churches are." "Neither religious groups nor non-religious ones have any greater claim to taking up the time of commissioners." "But sadly we lost that battle, and so with the atheist summit, at least we're being treated equally, although I'd rather if we were there along with the churches. Instead we're being bundled off with the Freemasons." According to the commission's Ms. von Schnurbein, Brussels views the Freemasons as a "community of conscience interconnected throughout Europe," and "a form of humanist organisation." She dismissed concerns that while churches and atheist groups are free for anyone to join, membership in the Freemasons, a private organisation of men, with some separate Grand Lodges for women, is by invitation only and requires initiation fees and an annual subscription. The EUobserver attempted to speak with the United Grand Lodge of England, the oldest Grand Lodge of masons in the world, regarding this development but without success. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has had its nose put out at the annual EU summit with religious leaders by the presence for the first time this year of Hindus and Sikhs. According to La Croix, the French Roman Catholic daily, the church, happy to embrace an ecumenism of the great monotheistic faiths at the EU level, fears that the enlargement of the meeting to include such groups beyond those "more anchored across the whole of the continent," suggests the EU is being "religiously correct". According to a spokesman for President Van Rompuy, next year the meeting could include a Buddhist. Beyond the annual summit, religious leaders interpret Article 17, which commits the EU to holding "an open, transparent and regular dialogue with… churches and non-confessional and philosophical organisations", as meaning regular meetings with senior civil servants, not just on grand themes such as Monday's topic of the battle against poverty, but on more concrete legislative measures dealing with climate change, education, immigration, social services and labour laws. In the future, they hope to have similar relations with EU agencies, notably the Fundamental Rights Agency, as well as with the bloc's new diplomatic corps, the External Action Service.
By Leight Phillips in EUrobserver.