Friday, July 29, 2011

The Buddhist Precepts III

The sixth of the eight Precepts and ten Precepts is Vikala bhojana vermani sikkhapadam samadhiami, I take the precept not to eat at the wrong time. 'Wrong time' (vikala) has long been interpreted to mean after noon or midday, although I know of no place in the suttas where this is specifically stated. The overall purpose of this rule is clear enough – to encourage moderation in eating (Sn.707) and to keep drowsiness due to a full stomach at bay. But the part about not eating after midday is less clear. The origin story in the Vinaya explaining this rule is unconvincing and obviously a later invention. According to this story, a monk was standing at someone's door late at night. As the woman of the house approached the door a sudden flash of lightening illuminated him, frightening the woman half to death, and to prevent this from happening again the Buddha instituted the rule. The only justification the Buddha gives for this rule is that it is good for the health and he does not mention what the 'wrong time' is other than to say the 'evening' or 'night' (ratti). He said, 'I do not eat in the evening and thus I am free from illness and affliction and enjoy health, strength and ease' (M.I,473). But I can see no reason why eating only in the morning should be any more or less healthy than eating only in the afternoon.
I suspect that the rule has its origins in two things. That eating before noon was already a well-established convention amongst wandering ascetics and the Buddha simply asked his monks and nuns to follow this convention. And the reason why this convention evolved in the first place was probably because, then as now, Indian peasant women cooked all the day's food early in the morning and the main meal of the day was in the morning. In other words, the most convenient time to go for alms gathering (pindapata) was in the morning. Noon was probably used as the cut-off point for eating because it could be known exactly. It's also pretty certain that monks and nuns only eat one meal a day because, not doing hard physical labour, they did not need that much food. So it is important to understand that noon is not some magical time, after which consuming food becomes a serious moral failing. It is just a convenient, and at that time a practical, way of dividing the day.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Buddhist Precepts II

In addition to the five Precepts, serious Buddhists will try to practise the eight Precepts (attha sila), at least on the half and full moon days of every month. The eight Precepts are the same as the five except that the third is replaced by abstinence from all sexual behavior, and the additional three Precepts are: (6) not to eat after midday (7), to abstain from dancing, singing, playing or listening to music, personal adornment and makeup, and (8) not to use high seats and couches. Novice monks and nuns are expected to practise the ten Precepts (dasa sila) in preparation for their monastic life. These ten are: (1) not to harm living beings, (2) not to steal, (3) to abstain from sexual behaviour, (4) not to lie, (5) not to take alcohol or intoxicating drugs, (6) not to eat after midday, (7) to abstain from dancing, singing and musical entertainment, (8) to abstain from adornment and makeup, (9) not to use high seats and couches, and (10) not to use gold and silver, i.e. money.
It will be noticed that while the five Precepts pertain to moral behaviour, the last three of the eight Precepts and the last five of the ten Precepts, are not about morality, but about behaviour that simplifies and uncomplicated one's life so one can focus fully on the spiritual. The failure to understand this (somewhat common in traditional Buddhist countries) can cause all sorts of confusion. Over the next few days I will have a look at these 'lifestyle simplification' Precepts.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Buddhist Precepts I

A precept (sikkhapada) is a self-imposed rule or discipline. The moral rules that all Buddhists commit themselves to and try to live by are called the five Precepts (panca sila). They are (1)
not to harm living beings, (2) not to steal, (3) not to engage in wrong sexual behaviour, (4) not to lie and (5) not to take alcohol or other intoxicating drugs. In following these Precepts one gradually develops a respect for the life of others, for their property, their dignity, their right to know the truth and a respect for the clarity of one's own mind. The Buddha called adhering to these Precepts a consideration to others which ‘creates love and respect and which is conducive to helpfulness, non-dispute, harmony and unity’ (A.III,287; M.I.322). I think this passage needs to be more well-known so I give it in Pali as well… ‘piyakarana, garukarana, sangahaya, avivadaya, samaggiya, ekibhavaya, samvattanti’. The Buddha saw adherence to the Precepts as a gift (danani) which would benefit both the giver and the receiver. 'When a noble disciple practices the five Precepts he gives the gift of freedom from fear, from hatred and from ill-will to limitless beings. And in giving this gift he thereby partakes in a freedom from fear, from hatred and from ill-will which is limitless' (condensed, A.IV,246). On another occasion, the Buddha called virtue 'freedom-giving' and 'conducive to concentration' (A.III,132) and he mentioned that one of the most important benefits of practicing the Precepts is that one experiences ‘the happiness of being blameless’ (anavajja sukha, D.I,70). In other words, Buddhists practices the five Precepts because they care about their own welfare and the welfare and happiness of others too.
Over the next week I am going to have comment on all the Five, Eight and Ten Precepts.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Quick Trip To Nirvana

The other day I went to Nirvana. Not that one! The other one, the one out on Old Chao Chu Kang Road on the far side of Singapore. Nirvana Pte. Ltd. is, according to the glossy, colorful brochure we were given on our arrival, ‘Singapore’s most luxurious 6-star grade modern columbarium with full air-conditioning’. The company that runs Nirvana is ‘the pioneer and market leader in bereavement care industry in South East Asia’. And I can believe it. The place is amazing, if that’s the right word - ultra-modern buildings, manicured grounds, lavish interiors, and everything in plastic and chrome, mirrors, gaudy colors and kitsch lighting with muzak in the background. We were given a complete tour by a solicitous saleswoman who met us on our arrival. The Central Hall has a huge Buddha overlooking it and numerous comfy lounge suites positioned around it so that costumers can sit and ‘abandon their fear and sadness but instead cherish the memories and remembrance (sic).’ We checked out the huge rooms with niches where you can deposit your loved one’s ashes. And the prices are very reasonable. Approaching $100,000 for a top-end niche. The brochure informed us that buying now can be a ‘not-to-be-missed investment opportunity’ as prices are bound to go up, and that if you purchase a niche now they’ll throw in a free imported urn. Very thoughtfully, they even have a room for the ashes of non-believers. To reserve a niche in this room for a loved one or for yourself only costs $ 25,000. I was very tempted I can tell you. Another huge room has dozens of golden stupas in it for customers to worship. Our guide informed us that none of the stupas have relics in them yet but that they’ll be getting some soon. I didn’t ask where from but I have heard on the monk’s grapevine that there’s a factory in Bangkok now that mass-produces them to meet the demand. The highlight and finale of the tour was the sound-and-light show in the Great Buddha Praying Hall. The computerized color laser system and the high-tech sound coordination creates an atmosphere of, well I’m not sure. I think it’s supposed to be of heaven or Nirvana as conceived in popular Chinese Buddhism; the brochure says ‘an air of refinement and serene ambience’. Monks are on hand to do any praying costumers might need.
Something that attracted my attention on the way out was the pictorial display on the life of the Buddha. We see Maha Maya dreaming of an elephant, only in this depiction of the legend it’s an African elephant she’s dreaming of. Another interesting picture shows the Buddha walking past a mosque, in fact it looks like the entrance of grand mosque at Fatehpur Sikri. Now exactly how an African elephant could have ambled into an ancient Indian dream, or how there could have been mosques in India a thousand years before the advent of Islam, I’ll leave for my readers to figure out.
But it doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s all the same! Fact and fiction, clarity and confusion, sympathy and platitudes, Dhamma and commercialism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Buddha Jayanthi 1956

This is more than just one of those ‘Ah! The good old days’ videos. It is also of considerable historical interest. It is a compilation in three parts, of footage taken during the Dalai Lama’s visit to India in 1956. Not many people know it but India, an avowedly secular state, celebrated the Buddha Jayanthi with more fervor than did most Buddhist countries. A few in the opposition grumbled at the vast amount of money allotted for the celebrations but Nehru was for it, indeed it was mainly due to his personal interest that it happened, and so the naysayers were silenced. The highlight of the year-long celebrations was the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, at Nehru’s personal invitation. Beijing was none too pleased to let the Dalai Lama go but they were still keeping up the pretence of friendliness to India so they reluctantly agreed. When they saw the Dalai Lama being treated like a head of state and the huge, enthusiastic crowds that assembled to see him everywhere he went, they really began to get nervous. Finally Chao En Lai flew to India to make it clear to Nehru personally that whatever the circumstances, the Dalai Lama must return to Tibet after the celebrations. In the film we see him arriving. One clip shows the DL, Nehru and Chao watching Indian children marching and doing calisthenics, out of step, badly co-coordinated and all over the place. I suspect that when Chao saw them and compared them with the perfectly drilled and disciplined Chinese kids he got the idea that it would be worthwhile to invade India, which of course happened seven years later. In other clips we see the DL together with Rajendra Prasad, Dr, S. Radhakrishna, Indraji, the Chogyal of Sikkim, Devapiya Valisinghe and even of my own teacher Ven. Matiwella Sangharatana. We see the DL planting the Bodhi Tree in what was to become Delhi’s Buddha Jayanthi Park, touring the still-to-be-completed Nagarjuna Sagara, Sanchi, Ajanta and many other places. The DL and the Panchen Lama were even taken to the Calcutta races!! Two things in particular attracted my attention while watching this video. One is the absence of bodyguards and security. We see Nehru, Prasad, etc., walking through crowds of ordinary people and the usual stray Indians gorking at the dignitaries and wandering here and there. They were the days! And the other thing, at the very beginning of the video, the DL and his party going to India, not by plane or even jeep, but by horse, only switching to vehicles at Gantok. You can see it at

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Battle For The Buddhas

It might be called the battle of the Buddha’s feet, a struggle to rescue one of the great Buddhist sites in Afghanistan. The deadline has just been cut to a year for a team of Afghan and foreign archaeologists to rescue what they can from the sites of four shrines and temples round Mes Aynak - the Copper Mountain - in the plains of Logar, 25 miles south of Kabul. The Chinese have signed a 20-year lease to make this the biggest open-cast copper mine in the world outside Africa. They plan to blow up the mountain and what is left of the Buddhist temples, hoping to dig as much as they can of the copper estimated to be worth £45 billion. Initially, they’re offering £800 million a year for the concession. It is a race between Afghanistan’s cultural past and commercial future. A team of 32 archaeologists is moving everything it can from the site, rediscovered in the Sixties, rebuilding one of the temples and putting the treasures in a custom-built museum. They are helped by 900 local Afghan workers. Initially they were given three years, but under pressure from the Chinese, President Karzai has said the conservation must end for the blasting and mining to begin late next year.
“The site is very important because this was a main junction on the Silk Road. The monks came here and settled between the 5th century and the 8th century, lured by the copper,” said Philippe Maquis, the leading French archaeologist at the site. He points to large pieces of handsome Buddhas, complete with swirling drapery - said to be inherited from the Greeks who came here with Alexander the Great. A battered statue three times life-size shows the Buddha attaining pari-Nirvana. Next to the figure are two huge stone feet, more than four times life size. “These pieces are the same style and from the same time as the great Buddha statues of Bamiyan,” said Mr Maquis. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban in March 2001. Mes Aynak has not suffered such outright vandalism, although Osama bin Laden moved his main training camp here in 1999. “I think we can really do it,” said Dr Omar Sultan, 61, deputy culture minister, a renowned archaeologist. “If we get the funds and the team of 40 archaeologists, I get the job of essential conservation done by the deadline.”
Looking across the monastery and the camp for Chinese workers, it is a scene of utter tranquility. But in two years the mountain which has lured mystics, pilgrims, and entrepreneurs - often all three in one - for more than 5,000 years will be blasted to oblivion. It is the starting point of yet another invasion of Afghanistan, this time by the Chinese in their relentless charge for the world's mineral riches.
Source: London Evening Standard by Richard Fox.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Dear Dalai Lama

Today the Dalai Lama is celebrating the 76th birthday. May he and you all have a peaceful and inspirational day in the Dhamma.
I'd like to share with you a project in the hope that some of you may find this worthy of support. This is the 84000 Project, which is a global non-profit initiative to translate the words of the Buddha and make them available to everyone. See this website
Historically, translation has played a crucial role in ensuring the survival and revival of Buddhism. The living traditions of Buddhism that still exist in some parts of the world, such as Japan, China, Korea, Tibet, Bhutan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma, have survived in large part because of the foresight of our ancestors who compiled and translated many of the original texts into their own languages. Pali and Sanskrit were the first languages in which collections of the Buddhist texts were compiled. The Pali texts had been taken to Sri Lanka and survived, but most of the Sanskrit texts were lost when the great Buddhist culture of northern India was destroyed by Muslim invaders between the 11th and 13th centuries. Fortunately, by then most of the texts had already been translated into classical Chinese and Tibetan. The three major collections of sacred Buddhist texts that have survived till now are: (1) The Pali Canon or Tipitaka, (2) the Chinese Buddhist Canon or Chinese Tripitaka, and (3) the Tibetan Kangyur and Tengyur. The classical Chinese translations started in the 1st century as Chinese pioneers and Indian scholars began gradually to introduce Buddhism to China. The classical Tibetan translations followed later during the unparalleled state-sponsored cultural transfer of the Buddhist teachings into Tibet from the 8th century onwards. The Tibetan collection contains a large number of texts not found in the Chinese canon, particularly tantras, and there are a smaller number of texts in Chinese that do not exist in Tibetan. To ensure the continued survival of these timeless texts, and to make the profound meanings they contain accessible to all, they now need to be translated into the languages used in the world today. Check out the 84000 web site and see what you can do to help.
Complements of K Chris Kang at

Monday, July 4, 2011

Buying The Buddha Back

An anonymous art dealer passionate about Afghan heritage has teamed up with the British Museum in an effort to buy and repatriate a spectacular antiquity believed to have been looted from the Afghan national museum in Kabul during the 1990s.
The British dealer, who said he had a “very strong emotional attachment” to Afghanistan, resolved to buy the 2nd-century Gandharan Buddha after he recognised it in a photograph sent by a colleague in Japan. The sculpture, which had disappeared in the bloody civil war, had been bought by a Japanese collector. The British dealer, who is insisting on anonymity but spoke to the Observer about his determination to save the Buddha, said: “I begged him to give it back. He didn’t ' care. In Japan, even if the object is stolen, you can’t prosecute. So I decided to buy it.”
The problem was that in Britain, purchasing stolen goods is a criminal offence, but the dealer was undeterred. He informed only the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, and a curator, St John Simpson, of his plan. “It was a big risk, but I had the (museum’s) blessing,” he said. "I thought that could have helped, although Customs officers don't believe in ‘good faith’ and there could have been serious trouble. I was doing something very moral, but illegal.” He has an enduring passion for Afghanistan, having travelled extensively there in the 1970s: “I saw the piece in Kabul then. I remember perfectly where it stood. This was my homage to their civilisation and their suffering.” Simpson, curator for ancient Iran and Arabia, said: “We had to seek legal advice. But the consensus was that, if this was the only way in which this piece could be returned, that's what we had to do. The clear public benefit outweighed the grey area.”
With the museum's blessing, the dealer used his own money to persuade the Japanese collector to sell the 1.2 meter-high Buddha. Negotiations lasted a year.
Simpson described the rescue as “terribly appropriate”, coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan: “They’re gone forever. But one very important piece can be returned. This is a very important and stunningly beautiful piece.” Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, described it as “one of our most treasured objects”. One source put the sculpture's value at £600,000, but the British Museum said it is “without value, given its provenance”. The Buddha, which is shown performing a miracle with flames rising from his shoulders and water pouring from his feet, will be displayed in the British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery from Wednesday, before it is returned to Kabul after the close of ‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’. About 75% of the Kabul museum’s antiquities have been destroyed or looted. They reflected the rich heritage of a land that was once a crossroads of eastern and western ancient civilizations.
Source: The Guardian

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Footprints In The Dust II

The Buddha was not, as is commonly supposed, primarily a forest dweller. Of the four monasteries he founded and now identified by archaeologists - Ghositarama, Jivakarama, Jetavana and Veluvana - the first is actually inside the walls of the city while the other three are within easy waking distance of their respective cities. When staying in these places the Buddha’s accommodation would have been reasonably comfortable but when he was on the road the situation was very different and he would have to sleep in or take shelter in whatever was available. We read of him sleeping in a potter’s shed on grass spread on the floor (M.I:502). On another occasion, he arrived in Kapilavatthu and finding no proper lodgings, spent the night in Bharandu’s hermitage sleeping on a mat on the ground (A.I:277). Often he must have simply slept in one of the many mango groves that to this day are still to be seen near most north Indian villages. Finding him out in the open one winter’s night Hattaka asked the Buddha if he was happy. He replied; ‘Yes my lad, I live happily. Of those who live happily in the world I am one’. Hattaka expressed surprise at this, pointing out that it was the dark half of the month, the time of frost, that the ground was trampled hard by the hoofs of the cattle, the carpet of leaves thin, the wind cold and that the Buddha’s robe appeared to be thin. The Buddha reaffirmed that he was nonetheless happy (A.I:136).
The Buddha must have also enjoyed the freedom his life of wandering gave him. For him ‘the household life is full of hindrances, a path of dust. Free as the wind is the life of one who renounces all worldly things’ (D,I:62). However, moving from place to place had very important practical reasons behind it too, in a world without the communications that we take for granted it allowed him to spread his teachings far and wide. He was also aware that some personal contact with him was important, especially for newly ordained monks and nuns, and that this may have been a factor in determining in which districts he visited and how often (S,III:90). During his wanderings he might visit a district, teach, make some disciples, even ordain a few monks or nuns and then perhaps not come again for many years. If a monk from such a district wished to see him again he could simply set off to wherever the Buddha was staying at the time.

Sona Kutikanna was ordained by Mahakaccana and about a year later developed the desire to meet the man whose teachings he had committed himself to. He said to his preceptor; ‘I have not yet met the Lord face to face, I have only heard about what he is like. If you give me permission I will travel to see the Lord, the Noble One, the Enlightened Buddha’(Ud,58). For lay disciples with domestic obligations undertaking a long journey to see the Buddha would have been more difficult and so they may have had to wait, perhaps many years, before they got to see him again. The Thapataya Sutta gives us some idea of the excitement caused in an outlying district when its inhabitants heard that the Buddha might be on his way to see him and how the excitement increased as word of his gradual approach reached them (S,V:348-349). Elsewhere we read of people’s anxiousness for news about the Buddha and of what he had been teaching.
Once a monk who had spent the rainy season with the Buddha in Savatthi arrived in Kapilavatthu. When people heard where the monk had come from he found himself deluged with questions about the Buddha (S,V:450). On another occasion a group of brahmins from Kosala and Magadha who had arrived in Vesali, heard that the Buddha just happened to be in town and decided that the opportunity to meet him was one that was too good to miss. The Buddha had apparently given his attendant instructions that he was not to be disturbed while the brahmins were adamant that they would not leave until they got to see the famous teacher.
Seeing this impasse, the novice Siha asked the attendant to tell the Buddha that there were three people waiting to see him. The attendant said he would not do this but he wouldn’t object if Siha did. This was done, the Buddha asked Siha to put a mat outside his residence in the shade for him to sit on while he talked to the brahmins (D,I:151). But the Buddha couldn’t be everywhere at once and so monks and nuns would often take long journeys for the privilege of spending some time in his presence. For example once while he was residing in Catuma at least five hundred monks arrived to see him (M,I: 456).
However, with him moving around a lot, it was not always possible to know where he was at any one time. In the beautiful Parayana Vagga of the Sutta Nipata we read of the sixteen disciples of the ascetic Bavari setting out for northern India in the hope of meeting the Buddha. First they heard that he was at Savatthi and ‘wearing matted hair and dressed in deer skin’ they headed there. They went through Kosambi and Saketa and arrived in Savatthi only to find that he had left some time previously. They followed his route through Setavya, Kapilavatthu, Kusinara, Pava and Vesali finally catching up with him at the Pasanaka Shrine, (Barabar Hills north of Gaya) ‘and like a thirsty man going for cool water, like merchants going for profit, like a heat exhausted man going for shade, they quickly ascended the mountain’ (Sn.1014).
There were undoubtedly as many languages and dialects spoken in the Buddha’s India as there are today and this would have created special problems for him. Theravada tradition asserts that the Buddha spoke Pali although there is no mention in the Tripitaka of what language he spoke. Like merchants, diplomats and others whose professions meant frequent travel in different regions it is very likely that apart from his mother tongue, which would have been a dialect of Kosala, he was probably fluent in several other languages as well.
In the Aranavibhanga Sutta he says that insisting on using one’s own dialect in an area where another is spoken can only cause confusion and conflict. ‘It has been said, “One should not stake too much on the local language...” How does one do this? In different regions they might call the same thing a pati, a patta, a vittha, a serava, a dharopa, a pona, a hana or a pisila (these are all different words for a bowl or dish). So whatever they call it in one region, one uses that word thinking ,“It seems this person is referring to that object”, and one uses that word accordingly’ These are the words of someone familiar with a range of languages and dialects and who was very open and practical about language.
The Buddha was equally open about regional customs as well. Once when he found some monks spending too much time bathing and playing in the water he made a rule that they should only bathe once a month. Later some monks who had been staying in an outlying region where people found their infrequent bathing revolting (not surprisingly) reported this to the Buddha and he allowed them to bathe more often to accord with the customs of that region. Once again this is the kind of thing one would expect of the urbane well-travelled individual. Whatever the Buddha was he was not parochial and no doubt his travels made him even more urbane and open-minded.
For a map showing the Buddha’s last journey see