Sunday, October 31, 2010

Island Of Peace

I would like to share with you a few pictures I took recently of the Siong Lim Temple which is within walking distance of my place. It was built in 1902 and although is now in the midst of a housing estate and has a major freeway right next to it, it has managed to maintain an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Does Religion Make People Better?

I have just read for the umpteenth time that ‘morality only become meaningful with religion’ and that ‘without religion anything becomes permissible’, and of course the word ‘religion’ is almost always used to mean belief one or another deity or god. I have long had trouble with these claims, not because I dislike religion but because I like and take an interest in history. I know of few historical facts demonstrating that religious devotion made people better or that being non-religious made people worse. I have just read parts of Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself – letters he wrote and notes he made during his long incarceration. Some parts are this absorbing book are painful to read. The loneliness, the separation from his family, the isolation and the physical hardship caused him, as you would expect, terrible distress. That he didn’t give in to despair as the long years, the slow decades, rolled by says something about his incredible conviction. But it also made me question even more the often-repeated and widely accepted claims mentioned above.
Just a few facts. Apartheid, one of the more wicked and inhuman ideologies of the 20th century, was the brainchild of a group of deeply religious people, the Afrikaans. According to Wikipedia, and I’ve read the same claim elsewhere, Afrikaans have long had the highest rate of consistent churchgoing of any group of people in the world. D. F. Malan who set up the apartheid system in 1948 had studied theology and was an ordained Protestant minister. His successor Hendrick Verwoerd had doctorates in and theology and psychology cum laude and was likewise a conspicuously pious man. Even those Afrikaans who had no part in establishing apartheid were happy to benefit from it, endorse it and vote for those who implemented it – as they regularly attended church – churches that were racially segregated after the Churches Native Laws Amendment Act of 1957. And as apartheid met with more and more resistance from people like Nelson Mandela, pious Afrikaans lied, bribed, fixed elections and stacked courts in their favor; they beat, tortured and murdered their opponents to keep apartheid going. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission even established that P. W Botha, another deeply religious man, had ordered the bombing of the South African Council of Churches headquarters in Johannesburg.
To dismiss Malan’s, Verwoerd’s and the others’ piety as insincere and self-serving would be to ignore facts. Even their most bitter opponants acknowledged that they were staunchly religious men who prayed and read the Bible regulary. In fact, it was probably their firm, albeit it misguided, belief that they were doing what God had ordained that made them so determined to uphold apartheid. Oh, and just so one particular religion doesn’t get all the thumping, it is equally true that other South African Christians opposed apartheid with a similar determination, and   I know of deeply religious Sinhalese Buddhists who excused and justified some of the worst cruelty of Sri Lanka's civil war.
Nelson Mandela on the other hand, who is quite irreligious, stood up to apartheid long before it was popular to do so, endured decades of cruel imprisonment (and they really were cruel to him) and emerged from this martyrdom seemingly without any  rancor or ill-will and with a readiness to engage with and forgive his former tormentors. So does ‘morality only become meaningful with religion’ and is it true that ‘without religion everything becomes permissible?' I see no evidence for this. People can be deeply and devotedly religious and commit great evil. Likewise, someone could be without any conventional religious conviction and yet have the highest standards of morality and integrity. So it’s not just religious conviction that makes the difference but something or some things else. What?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Atisa's Tomb

During my first visit to Tibet I missed it. In fact, I couldn’t find anyone who had even heard of it. So before my most recent trip I did all the required research about Atisa’s tomb and even that proved more difficult than I had expected. Gyurme Dorje’s popular Tibet Handbook has much to say about the nearby Nyetang Dolma Lhakhang but is silent about the tomb. Most other guidebooks proved to be equally unhelpful. Nonetheless, I eventually found it. Nyetang Dolma Lhakhang is on the main road about 20 miles out of Lhasa heading west and it seems most tourists stop to have a look at it judging by the large car park in front. If you cross the road and walk down a dusty track for about half a mile you come to a small, rather shabby village not far from the banks of the Kyi Chu River. Locals stared opened-mouthed at us but when I said I would like to see ‘Jowo Jey’ someone ran off to get the key and on his return we entered what looked like a very ancient but recently renovated temple. There, in the middle of the main hall, was a large stupa, drum-shaped on a high square base – the actual tomb of one of the last great Indian Buddhist pandits and the man who had an critically important role to pay in the revival and spread of Buddhism in Tibet during the 11th century. Atisa is still lauded in Tibet, his works are still studied but his tomb is neglected and little-known. Sir Charles Bell’s The Religion of Tibet has a photo of the tomb as it appeared in the 1920s (page 58) but even at that time, as he attests, it was rarely visited. At that time the drum of the tomb was painted, as the old photo shows. Now it has been recently whitewashed and is covered with plastic, apparently to protect it from water leaking through the roof. During the height of the Cultural Revolution it is said the Bangladesh Government quietly let the Chinese know that they would appreciate it if the tomb was not destroyed, Atisa still being famous in that country. I and my companions circumambulated the tomb and then chanted the Metta Sutta in honor of this remarkable son of the Buddha.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Bet You Didn't Know

I bet you (i.e. you Singaporeans but maybe other readers too) didn’t know that one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Buddhism in S.E.Asia is to be found in the vicinity of Singapore. The Indonesian island of Karimun Besar lies just 30 k south-west of Jurong. On a small hill on the tip of the island, from where Singapore can easily be seen, is a rock with an inscription on it. Usually called the Pasir Panjang Inscription, this brief document dates from around the 9th century and is in Sanskrit in Devanagari script. It says that the small depression next to the inscription is the footprint of ‘the venerable Gautama’ i.e. the Buddha. The depression looks like an actual footprint although it has been carved out of the rock.
Who carved this inscription and its ‘footprint’? We have no idea. Very likely it was done by a devote passenger from a passing ship – the island is right in the middle of an important shipping route. Or perhaps it was carved by a monk hoping to encourage passing ships to stop and visit the ‘shrine’. Whatever the case, it is very inspiring to think that Buddhists have been living on, in or near Singapore for so long. Perhaps some of our local Buddhists should make a trip to Karimur Besar and visit this important place. The Pasir Panjang Inscription was discovered at the end of the 19th century and translated sometime later, I think by a Dutch epigraphist. However, several words in it are obscure and Ian Caldwell and Ann Hazlewood have made an attempt to give a clearer translation in their paper ‘The Holy Footprint of the Venerable Gautama; A New Translation of the Pasir Panjang Inscription’ published in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land en Volkenkunde in 1994. I have not read this paper but look forward to doing so.
The above pictures are courtesy of The Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog at

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Good Start

In a world increasingly dominated by a secular and materialistic mentality, there is a real need for the world’s faith communities to stand solidly together. Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism participates in promoting such a stance. As the “logos” or revealed Word in the Islamic tradition is the Qur’an, Muslims abide by doctrines therein and have taken care to avoid what is not stated clearly in their own scripture. As the name of the Buddha was not specifically listed among the prophets sent by God which are mentioned in the Qur’an, and because Muslims have assumed Buddhists to be atheistic, there has hitherto not been much dialogue between these two august traditions. This volume represents a historic change of course. After a number of meetings in Jordan between HH the 14th Dalai Lama and HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a true and profound “Common Ground” between Islam and Buddhism has been formally recognized. This follows a previous initiative by Prince Ghazi, entitled A Common Word, which has entailed meetings and conferences between a large number of Islamic clerics with the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and gatherings held at both Yale and Georgetown Universities over the last two years. These gatherings have become the basis for a new educational effort in both the Christian and Muslim world. But now we have this groundbreaking publication, authored by Reza Shah-Kazemi, introduced by contributions from the Dalai Lama and Prince Ghazi, and the renowned Islamic scholar, Professor Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali. The opening words by the Dalai Lama set the stage:
"This is an important and pioneering book, which seeks to find a common ground between the teachings of Islam and of Buddhism. It is my hope that on the basis of this common ground, followers of each tradition may come to appreciate the spiritual truths their different paths entail and from this develop a basis for respect for each others' practice and beliefs. This may not have occurred very often before, because there has been so little opportunity for real understanding between these two great traditions. This book attempts to set that right...From a Buddhist point of view, the practice of Islam is evidently a spiritual path of salvation".
From here the respected Islamic scholars go on to make an earnest attempt to help Muslims to see Buddhism as a true religion, or dīn, and Buddhists to see Islam as an authentic dharma. Although Buddhism is clearly non-theistic, the ultimate Reality affirmed by Buddhist thought, and the supreme goal sought by it, is proposed to correspond closely with the Essence (al-Dhāt) of God in Islam. Seemingly divergent issues are resolved in terms of the underlying principial realm. For example, one would imagine that the Buddhist doctrine of Karma/Reincarnation is irreconcilable with the Abrahamic Judgment Day. But, as Dr Shah-Kazemi explains:
Nonetheless, the incompatibility between the two perspectives pertains to the operation of the principle of accountability, and not to the principle itself. In fact, one observes within Islam both modes of operation. The theistically conceived ‘Judge’ can be seen, from a Buddhist point of view, as one way of expressing the objectivity of the principle of cosmic recompense; while karma can be conceived, from a Muslim point of view, as one way of expressing the principle according to which the Judge evaluates all deeds. Moreover, as will be seen in the section on compassion, in both traditions there is a principle which transcends the cosmic chain of cause and effect, and this is divine mercy.”
Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism presents a series of reflections attempting to interpret some “central principles of Buddhism in the light of Islamic spirituality, doing so in a manner which we hope will nourish a spirit of mutual understanding and enriching dialogue between the adherents of the two faiths”.
From a review by Elena Lloyd-Sidle, Yale Divinity School in Parabola Magazine,2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Asita, The Sage

Asita, also known as Kanhasiri, was a sage who lived in the forest in the Sakyan country. He is described as wearing matted hair (Sn.689). One day he noticed that the gods were wildly celebrating and he asked them why they were so happy. They replied, ‘A Bodhisattva, an excellent and incomparable jewel, has been born in the Sakyan town in Lumbini, for the welfare and happiness of the human world. This is why we are so happy.’(Sn.683). Anxious to see this child Asita went to Kapilavastu where Suddhodana welcomed him and gave him the child to hold. Being accomplished in the art of ‘signs and mantras’ (lakkhana mantra, Sn.690) he examined the baby and proclaimed that he would ‘attain complete enlightenment’ (Sambodhi), reach the ultimate purified vision’ (paramavisuddhidassi), and proclaim the Truth ‘out of compassion of the many’ (bahujamhitanukampii, Sn.693). Then tears welled up into his eyes. Noticing this and being worried by it, the Sakyans asked Asita if he had foreseen some misfortune in the boy’s future. He replied that he was sad because he knew that he would pass away before this all happened (Sn.694).
The name Asita literally means ‘not clinging’ while Kanhasiri means 'dark splendour'.
This is the only mention of Asita in the Tipitaka. According to some scholars the story about him is purely legendary and it may be. However, there is little in it that is inherently fantastic or unbelievable. It would have been quite common in ancient India for a monarch to invite a local holy man to bless and perhaps name his new-born son. Likewise, it would be normal for the holy man to ‘predict’ that the king’s son would grow up to be a great man.
Later re-tellings of the Asita story, and there are many of them, each more detailed and elaborate than the earlier ones, often say that Asita predicted than the baby prince would become either a universal monarch (cakkavattin) or a fully enlightened sage (Buddha). This ‘either or’ prediction is absent from the Tipitaka story.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Let The Dhamma Shine Forth

Assembling the material and writing it out has taking three years, designing the web site, checking and fine-tuning the material has taken nearly another year and now it is ready. A Guide to Buddhism A to Z aims to provide the reader with concise, accurate and wide-ranging information about every aspect of Buddhism – doctrinal, cultural and historical. Every month for as long as I can think of something to write about I will add a new entry. I may also supplement some of the existing entries. As of October there are 500 entries.
I would ask all my readers to let as many people know about A Guide to Buddhism A to Z and do anything you can to promote it. Anybody is welcome to reproduce the material without asking for permission; just give the link to the source.
The address to this new Dhamma web site is
Let the Dhamma shine forth!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Batchelor And Buddhism

In his long career Stephen Batchelor has moved from Buddhism, to skeptical Buddhism, to complete skepticism and now to something that isn’t Buddhism at all but which, for unaccountable reasons, he is still insists on calling Buddhism. I can quite understand why Batchelor initially revolted against the closed system of Gelupa scholasticism but in his book Buddhism Without Belief he pretty much made a break with Buddhism as a Buddhist would usually recognize it. Pity really. I read his earlier books with interest, having a bit of a skeptical streak myself, but after Buddhism without Belief I decided not to bother with his writings any more. So I have not read his most recent offering, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, but here is a review of it by Allan Wallace which includes (to me) a thoroughly sensible critique of Batchelor’s so-called Buddhism.