Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Buddha's Begging Bowl

One of the most revered relics in the ancient Buddhist world was the Buddha’s begging bowl. A rough outline of its long convoluted history is this – it was supposedly given to the people of Vesali when the Buddha passed through the city on his way to Kusinara. In the 1st/2nd century King Kanishka took it to Pushapura, now Peshawar, where a string of Chinese pilgrims reported seeing it between the 3rd and the 9th centuries. The importance of the bowl is attested by numerous depictions of it in Ghandara art, usually shown on the pedestal of Buddha statues. During the Islamic period it was taken from one palace or mosque to another until at a date unknown it ended up in Sultan Ways Bābā’s shrine on the outskirts of Kandahar. Several British officers report seeing in there in the 19th century, one attempting to translate the inscription on it, and another, Alexander Cunningham, trying to trace its history, a fact I mention in my Middle Land Middle Way (1992, p.136). In the late 1980s during Afghanistan’s civil war President Najibullah had the bowl taken to Kabul’s National Museum. When the Taliban came to power their Minister of Culture ordered all Buddhist artifacts in the museum smashed although the bowl remained undamaged, no doubt because of the Quranic verses inscribed on its outer surface. Today the bowl is displayed at the entrance of the Museum.

The bowl is not small. It is a stone hemispherical vessel of greenish-grey granite with a diameter of about 1.75 meters, a height of about three ¾ of a meter, and a thickness of about 18 cm at its rim, rather thicker elsewhere particularly at its middle and the base. It has no cracks or abrasions, except for a portion about the size of the palm of one’s hand that has flaked away from near the rim. There is a delicate lotus petal design chiseled around its base, attesting to its Buddhist past, and, inscribed in beautiful large calligraphic script horizontally along the rim of the bowl, are six rows of verses from the Quran, reflecting its Islamic continuum and its status through the ages as an object of special religious interest. Traces of similar calligraphic script are visible on the surface on the inner side of the bowl. The bowl is about 350 to 400 kg in weigh, far too heavy to lift.

The bowl was probably an early larger copy of the Buddha’s actual bowl placed in a monastery in Vesali for people to offer their first fruits in, a custom common in ancient India and which survived even in Sri Lanka and elsewhere up to the 19th century. The bowl’s great size may well have encouraged the acceptance of the widespread belief amongst ancient Buddhists that the Buddha was 18 feet tall. Only someone that big could have used or even lifted a bowl this size.
I am writing about the Buddha’s begging bowl because after being in obscurity for so long it recently hit the headlines in India when it was mentioned in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament. I reproduce the below from the Ministry of External Affairs website.
MP Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh asked; “Will the Minister of External Affairs be pleased to state: (a) whether the Government has recently got the information that the begging bowl of Buddha, given to the people of Vaishali by him, has been found in the Kabul museum; (b) if so, the details thereof; (c) whether the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan has sent a photo of the said bowl to the Government; (d) if so, the details thereof; (e) whether the Government has initiated the process to recover the said bowl; (f) if so, the details thereof; (g) whether the travelogues of the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hein and the writings of Dr. Cunningham and Shri S.V. Sahni mention the said bowl; and (h) if so, the details thereof?”
The Minister Prenteet Kaur in reply answered; “The Embassy of India, Kabul has made enquiries in the matter. It is learnt that the item purported to be Lord Buddha’s begging bowl was apparently in Kandahar until the regime of former President Najibullah. It was later brought to Kabul and is currently in the Kabul Museum. It has been pointed out that the begging bowl, a photo of which our Embassy has obtained, is rather large, besides having inscription in Arabic and Persian, thus calling into question its provenance. The Archaeological Survey of India has been requested to convey any information or advice it may have regarding the provenance of the bowl currently in Kabul Museum”.
The picture of the bowl as it appears today is reproduced with permission of

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jesus, Joy Of Man's Desiring

This you must see; ingenious, surprising, absorbing, beautiful and uplifting.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Religion In Mongolia

Through contacts with neighbouring nomadic and sedentary populations, the Shamanist Mongols were exposed early to various religions such as Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam or Taoism, not to mention influences of Zoroastrism and Manicheism in former steppe kingdoms. Chingis Khan and his successors were interested in the spiritual and political benefits which could be gained from supportive mainstream religions in their dominions and consequently exempted religious institutions from taxes and military conscription. Although Nestorianism was initially favoured at the imperial court thanks to influent Christian wives of several Chingisids, Mongol rulers eventually converted either to Islam or, for those ruling in China, to Tibetan Buddhism.
A second conversion took place at the end of the 16th century, begining of the 17th century when the expanding power of some Eastern and Western Mongol rulers allowed them to interfere again in Tibetan affairs and patronize some of its Buddhist schools. The Gelupas, whose political supremacy in Tibet will eventually be achieved through Mongol support, built a religious monopoly in Mongolian lands, discouraging all rival schools. Through active missionary work, indigenous shamanism was suppressed, good use being made in the process of magical aspects of tantric Buddhism, mantras and fierce deities in addition to creating a new repertory of rites and prayers to satisfy the religious beliefs and needs of the Mongols. The adoption of Buddhism involved this time all the Mongol subjects and constituted a nation-wide cultural shift. Shamanism survived in a few groups, not so much because of their remoteness from Buddhist centers but because of their specific ethnic features and social organisation. The Darkhads, for example, had not only an important monastery on their territory, but were themselves direct subjects or shabi of the Jebtsündamba Khutughtu, the more venerated Buddhist incarnation and main religious figure in Mongolia. It is the presence of shamanist elements from Tuva and of a clan organisation which best explains their strong shamanist traditions.
In the course of the 17th century most leaders in Southern and Northern Mongolia as well as the Chinggisid-born Buddhist hierarch chose to submit to the Manchu emperors rather than to fellow Mongols. The Qing dynasty was then able to fragment the power of the main Mongol princes between several dozen petty banner-rulers and to prevent further appropriation by Chinggisids of the prestige associated with Buddhism, while patronizing local Buddhism and keeping it under control. With the fall of the Manchus in 1911 there was no member of the Chinggisid lineage influent enough to rule the new independent Mongolia : so without much questionning, the Tibetan-born VIIIth incarnation the Jebtsündamba Khutughtu was put on the throne as Bogd Khan or ‘Holy king’.
The long-lasting relation between secular authorities and the Buddhist Church in Mongolia ended under the communist regime established in Northern (ex-Outer) Mongolia in 1921 with the help of Soviet Russia, thus preventing a Chinese occupation. During the following years some intellectuals attempted to reconcile a reformed, modern Buddhism with communist principles, but to no avail. The Comintern advisers compelled the Mongolian government to first abolish the privileges of the Buddhist Church and the monastery estate system, then to weaken by all available means the economic foundations of the Buddhist Church. Nevertheless the influence of the lamas remained strong, and as late as 1934 one Mongolian Prime Minister, Ghenden, a dedicated communist who praised the Buddha as much as Lenin, would not bow to Stalin’s pressure for eradicating Buddhism.
The gruesome work was finally imposed and closely guided by the Soviets in 1937-38, at the time of the Great Terror in Russia. Kh. Choibalsan, their Mongolian executor, dutifully wrote down in his notebook that 797 temples and monasteries had been destroyed and 20,396 persons (probably more) executed over an 18 month period; high lamas and educated monks but also many simple monks and lay people. Some religious practice went on secretly as people kept on asking defrocked lamas to perform rites behind closed doors. After the war, a handful of monks were allowed to resume some Buddhist activity in what was left of the Gandan monastery in Ulan-Bator. This activity insured nevertheless a partial transmission of Buddhism liturgy in Mongolia.
Such was the situation in 1990 when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political pluralism was introduced and Mongolia opened to the Western world. The religious revival was rapid. The same year an Association of Buddhist Believers was founded and by 1992 a hundred temples had opened, many being often just a simple yurt with one or two old lamas, testifying to the strong religiosity among the Mongols. Today one can see worshippers queuing in one of the many new monasteries for private sutra-readings and other ceremonies, the names and fees of which are generally indicated on a board, or busy monks living in town among lay people, armed with cell-phones and 4-wheel cars who hold rituals in private homes. Many Mongols have a family lama they consult on various matters such as health, work, travel, family disputes, death and funerals, and of course astrological matters.
Shamans and other specialist were also fast in adapting to the modern environment with their specific answers to the requests made to them; curing illnesses, dispelling bad luck, securing success in commercial matters. Novative organisation and rituals appeared, for example the sharing by several shamans of the same facilities, the setting up of associations providing recognition (diplomas) to their members and aiming to present a modern, rational image of shamanism for the public, or the annual collective good-luck ritual organised in a wood near the capital-city for his clients by a successful “master” borrowing from both Buddhist and shamanistic traditions. And whereas some nationalists still view Buddhism very negatively through the eyes of communist historiography, they have a favourable perception of Shamanism, seeing in it the authentic Mongol religion followed by Chingis Khan himself, and in the shaman a priest able to address Heaven. This explains why shamans take part in state cultural ceremonies dedicated to sacred mountains (re-instaured by presidential decree in 1985), state banners or the emblematic figure of Chingis Khan.
Alongside the revival of Mongolia’s native religions came an unexpected phenomena – at least from a Mongolian point of view; the arrival of many foreign religions, denominations or cults of which the most numerous and zealous are the Christian protestant organisations. Their missionaries were already present in far away corners of the country as early as 1990, October 1990 for the Assembly of God and December the same year for the Bible Society. In 1998, the latter could boast 30 churches, representing some 5,000 members. Such Christian groups were completely new to Mongolia, as previous attempts had been limited to a small Catholic mission in Inner Mongolia (Ordos) and an even smaller and very short-lived community of English Evangelicals among the Buriats that had little local influence. Apart from Christianity, other religious movements started activities in Mongolia: the Baha’i, Moonies, Ananda Marga, etc. Some like the Jehovah’s Witness and the Church of Scientology did not get an authorisation for running centers. Mongols generally disapprove of “non-traditional” and “foreign” religions.
Christianity benefits from its association with the rich and trendy Western world. Missionaries use efficient recruiting methods, targeting poor or isolated individuals, of which there are plenty in post-communist Mongolia, and young people. Their religious teaching is done by trained people (a Bible Study Center was established in 1995 in which local missionaries are trained). Christian propaganda uses other less obvious channels, mainly through relief and humanitarian work carried out by NGOs. As in other places (Africa, South America, etc), the newcomers are more efficient and helpful that the local clergy in dealing with the disastrous economic effects of the transition process, although this does not always win them support. Another effective way of reaching the Mongolian population is the private TV channel Eagle TV, run by a Christian organisation. Efficient, professional and novel, it has become one of the main news channel of the country. A Christian slant influences the programs : Christian topics, criticism of the teaching of Darwinism and the theory of evolution in school, etc.
In the Mongolian newspapers one can read articles mentioning Christian who visit their neighbours and destroy their burxan “in order to prevent them from falling into hell”. In the countryside, missionaries (or Christian “masters” as people call them) buy the family sutras, either in Tibetan or in Mongol, and then burn them. Such things are said to happen regularly. Youngsters who became Christian force their parents to get rid of the Buddhist icons at home, often provoking quarrels in the family. Some elders prefer to try and sell their old books to universities or libraries. Islam is better able to resist. Christian missionaries arrived in 1993 among Muslim Kazakhs of Western Mongolia, at a time of deep economic recession, providing much needed help and medical care to the local population, and at the same time distributing Bibles in the Khazak language, and taking away from the people religious objects. This produced a rapid reaction from the mosques and from the Mongolian Muslim Association who eventually chased them away. They came back in 1998 but were no more successful. In the Khazak case, the Islamic attitude to apostasy is difficult to overcome. Families and neighbours unite against the missionaries although their relations with shamanist and Buddhist Mongol is harmonious. Buddhism on the other hand does not teach strongly against apostasy which makes conversion easier. After 60 years of anti-clerical and atheist policies, religion is not as strong among Mongols as among the isolated Kazakhs (over 83% declare themselves Muslim in 1994, against less than 70% declared Buddhists among the Khalkhas).
In 1990, the transition to democracy and the widening of its external relations has thus induced religious as well as political pluralism. Although this can be a cause of worry for the Mongolian authorities who fear for the future of their national culture, Mongols are presented with a choice of religions from which to choose as individuals rather than collectively as a nation or an ethnic group. Privatisation and individualisation of religion are becoming new features in modern Mongolia, as they have become - but over a much longer span of time - in the Western world.
Drawing illustrating an article by Tsognemekh called ‘Religious fogginess won't save Mongolia’ in which self-interested Buddhist monks and intolerant Christian missionaries were criticized as causing dissension within Mongol families (Zuunii Medee, 24.06.2006)
From ‘On Mongolia’s Moving Religious Landscape’, Marie-Dominique Even, Le reseau Asia 2011.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Mother's Love

As a mother would protect with her life her own and only child, like this develop a mind of love to all beings.

The Buddha, Sutta Nipata 149

Friday, November 4, 2011

That Time Of The Month

Menstruation (utusamaya) is a woman’s monthly cycle of fertility and infertility. It is a natural process essential for reproduction. Many religions and cultures associate menstruation with impurity, bad luck or inauspiciousness. According to the Bible a woman is ritually impure during her menstruation and anyone or anything that touches her during that time likewise becomes unclean (Leviticus 15,19-23). Most Christians ignore these teachings nowadays although devote Jews still adhere to them. In Islam a menstruating woman is forbidden to do certain otherwise obligatory religious practices and sexual intercourse is strictly forbidden. The Manusmrti, Hinduisms most authoritative law book, says that a man must not have sex with his wife if she is menstruating, accept food from her or even talk to her.
The Buddha rejected the idea of ritual purity and impurity and placed no restrictions on menstruating women. He was only concerned with what he called the ‘inner washing’ (M.I,39), i.e. developing a mind full of love, kindness and honesty, and free from greed, hatred and delusion. Some Buddhist cultures have forgotten the Buddha’s teaching on inner purity as opposed to ritual purity and continue to adhere to various menstruation superstitions. In some parts of Thailand women in this condition are not allowed to enter temples orcircumambulate stupas. In Burma they are not allowed to approach certain holy Buddha images or enter simas.