Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Gift Of Sight

The headquarters of the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society is housed in an unpretentious three-story building in the heart of Colombo's residential Cinnamon Gardens district, where the gift of sight is flown to many parts of the world. Today, its International Eye Bank is one of the world's biggest, supplying human eyes to restore vision to people in as many as 57 countries, including Japan. "We have supplied nearly 56,000 donor corneas to 117 cities in 57 countries - over 9,000 to Japan," as of Sept. 9, said Janath Matara Arachchi, manager of the International Eye Bank. "We realized there was a vast potential to collect donor eyes in this country, over 10 times what we could use here. Owing to a worldwide shortage of donor eyes, our founder, the late Dr. Hudson Silva, mobilized that potential," he said. Sitting in his office with Siri Cassim, the doctor who directs the eye bank, Matara Arachchi explained that the Buddhist concept of dana, or giving, was the root of their success. "Buddhists believe that it is an act of great merit to gift their eyes after death to someone living who would have the gift of sight. Dr. Silva was initially inspired by the Sivi Jataka, a story in which the Bodhisattva gives his eyes to a blind man. Over 870,000 people have signed consent forms we hold asking us to take their eyes after they are dead." Both my parents were very keen that their eyes are donated when they died and the first thing I did when my mother and father passed away was to telephone the Eye Donation Society and arrange for their corneas to be taken," the son of two donors said. "A technician from the society came to our home and removed the corneas. There was no disfigurement of the bodies," he said. Cassim, a senior consultant on eye surgery, explained that corneal graft surgery today involves taking the whole eye ball, not just the cornea, as was done in earlier years. "Even if an eye is not suitable, we take it because it satisfies the families of the donors," he said. "It is not wasted. It can always be used for research." Countries that have received corneas from Sri Lanka include Japan, Thailand, Egypt and China. Japan has been very supportive of the society, with much assistance rendered by its Lions Clubs, notably those in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. The society also received support from noted eye surgeon Akira Momosa of Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture. The eyes of prime ministers have been donated, as well as those of the late Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene, who had a special relationship with Japan. His corneas were successfully grafted to two Japanese recipients. The society has 450 branches throughout Sri Lanka, with trained volunteers in each of them ready to remove donor eyes whenever called. "Most of the eyes we receive are taken from hospitals, but we commonly visit homes as well," Cassim said. "We check the body for tattoos as well as injection marks to guard against possible risk of HIV infection." He said that a cell count is first conducted to ensure the cornea is suitable for grafting. A count of 2,000 cells per sq. millimetre is good, but a low cell count can mean the cornea is unsuitable for grafting. "There are six muscles around the eye and the optic nerve and once you cut them the eye can be removed," Cassim explained. "It is sterilized with an antibiotic and iodine solution and examined for suitability for grafting." He said that an eye must be removed from the body within 24 hours of death, packed in ice and received at the laboratory within four hours. There are three types of preservation fluids that allow a cornea to be preserved for five, 14 and 21 days, respectively, at a temperature of 4 degrees. The 21-day fluid is the most expensive one. "We have sent more eyes abroad than have been used locally," Matara Arachchi said. "Nothing is charged for providing corneas for grafting here, but there is a charge, for example, $250 per eye in Pakistan and $450 in Japan, to meet processing charges and other costs." The eye bank operation is slim and tight, with a paid staff of 47, including drivers, clerks and technicians. Expenses run about 1.6 million rupees ($16,000) a month.
By Manik De Sliva from Kyodo News
A painting of the Sivi Jataka from Mukirigala Maha Vihara, Sri Lanka, early 19th century

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Book Of Hungry Ghosts

The Petavatthu, the seventh book in the Khuddaka Nikaya which is the fifth collection of the Sutta Pitaka, one of the three divisions in the Tipitaka, the Buddhist scriptures. This text and its companion text, the Vimanavatthu, is easily the least interesting book in the whole Tipitaka and one can only wonder how it ever got included in it. The title means ‘Story of Ghosts’; peta = ghost + vatthu = story. It consists of about 814 verses embedded in prose stories. Only the verses are canonical. There are four chapters containing 12, 13, 10 and 16 stories each. The exact number of verses is unclear because it is sometimes hard to tell where the story ends and the verse begins. The stories tell of the mean, nasty or immoral things people did which led them to being reborn as a ghost. Without exception these stories are dull, rather puerile and even without literary merit. Winternitz commented, ‘The truly great and profound doctrine of kamma…which has found expression in…Buddhist texts in so many beautiful sayings and legends, is most clumsily explained by means of examples in little stories, whose metrical form is their only poetical attribute.’And what about ghosts? The Rg Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, speaks of the ‘realm of the fathers’ (pitarah), a sort of shadowy world where everyone went when they died. In later centuries this term fused with the term preta, ‘departed’ and led to the creation of the word peta and the idea of a ghostly realm or existence (Pali pettivisaya, later petaloka ‘ghost world’). Brahmanism later developed the idea that making offerings to ghosts could raise the quality of their gloomy existence. The Buddha mentioned that one of the reasons people wanted a son was so he could make offerings to them after they had died (A.III,43). A brahmin mentioned to the Buddha that he made saddha offerings to the departed (A.V,269), a practice you can still being done in Gaya to this day.

The Buddha seems to have taken this belief for granted or at least saw that it might grow out of kindly motives and he encouraged some people to make offerings to the departed. Typically, he added an ethical dimension to the belief, saying that not everyone, but people who had been immoral might get reborn in the ghost world. He said, ‘By knowing his mind with mine, I have known a certain man who because of his behavior has taken such a path so that after the breaking up of the body he will be reborn as a ghost and will experience much painful feelings. It is just like a tree growing on rocky ground with sparse foliage and casting an uneven shadow. One man might see another, exhausted by the heat of the day, weary, parched and thirsty, going on a path that leads directly to that tree and later he would actually see him sitting or lying in the shade of that tree experiencing much discomfort’ (M.I,75). It seems that the early Buddhists incorporated the existing Brahminical belief in the ghost realm into their cosmology and then had to distinguish it from purgatory. They did this by saying that the committing of prolonged evil would result in rebirth in purgatory, lesser evil or evil associated with craving, longing and wanting would result in rebirth in the ghost realm.
Interestingly, the Buddha considered ‘talk about ghosts’ (petakatha) to be unedifying and unbecoming for serious Dhamma practitioners (D.I,8). The Petavatthu would by any interpretation qualify as ‘talk about ghosts.’ All scholars who have examined the Petavatthu – Rhys Davids, H. S. Gehman and Prof. Abhayanayaka – ascribe to it a late date. Winternitz wrote that it ‘probably belongs to the latest stratum of literature assembled in the Pali Canon.’

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Something Really Worthwhile

For millennia, Asia has been enriched by the Buddha's teachings, giving rise to great and peaceful civilisations. However, in recent times, Buddhist countries across Asia have been affected by political conflicts, consumerism and hostile ideologies. Buddhists have struggled to deal with these problems but not always in the most carefully thought-out and effective manner. Constructing large Buddha statues, building more stupas and organizing chanting ceremonies do little to counter these very real challenges. As Asian Buddhist communities make the transition to modern societies there is a great need for authentic, easy-to-read and readily available literature on the Dhamma. Dhamma Aid Asia was initiated by a group of young Malaysian Buddhists as an intelligent response to this need. While many Buddhist communities across Asia have difficulty in finding the resources to rebuild their religion, those beyond Buddhism’s traditional homelands often have a surplus. Dhamma Aid Asia seeks to address this disparity by creating the medium for Buddhists who seek a wiser and effective way to support the Buddha Sasana. Dhamma Aid Asia is a non-profit organization with a policy of not accumulating funds. All members are volunteers working from their homes and thus incur minimal operating costs. Personal expenses of volunteers are borne by themselves. Particular attention is given to publishing and distributing Dhamma books in isolated and deprived communities. If you are looking for a worthwhile organization to make a donation to consider Dhamma Aid Asia. Their web site is at

Monday, February 13, 2012

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes

People find their faith or lose it (or lose their reason and then find it, as a friend of mine prefers to say) for a wide variety of reasons. The linguist Daniel Everett spent years in the Amazonian jungles trying to share his faith with the Piraha Indians. But in a strange reversal of expectations the simple, practical and content Indians caused Everett to abandon his faith. In his book Everett tells how this happened and articulately explains how one view of reality can be just as valid and just as satisfying, as another. The Piraha were able to accept Everett despite him having a different faith. But when Everett announced to his family that he had lost his faith, he lost them also. It’s a very interesting story.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Animals In Buddhist Art

Animals played a role in several events in the life of both the historical and legendry Buddha. Usually their appearance is incidental – the white elephant in Mahamaya’s dream, and the steed Khantaka carrying Prince Siddhattha away into the night, being examples of this. In a few other incidents they play a more important role – Prince Siddhattha rescuing the goose from Devadattha, the Buddha being looked after by an elephant (and a monkey according to the commentary) during his stay in the Parileyya Forest, and his calming of the infuriated elephant Nalagiri.
This last story has long been a favourite with artists and the earliest depiction of it is to be found on a a medallion from the railing of the Amaravati Stupa built in about 200 CE. The sculptor shows the elephant first charging and then bowing before the Buddha, thus giving a sense of movement. The terrified onlookers are realistically depicted highlights the drama of the scene. The next piece is a carved 4th century CE fragment from Gandhara showing the Buddha stroking Nalagiri’s head, a detail mentioned in the Tipitaka account of the story. Likewise the people watching from the balcony above are specifically mentioned in the text. The third picture is an illustration of the same incident from a 19th century Thai manuscript.
According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, some of those gathered around the Buddha broke into tears when he died while others remained composed. Such people usually appear in depictions of the Buddha’s passing. In Japan however, artists illustrating this event often included animals amongst the mourners. I’m not sure why this is so but it is probably because the Mahayana Maraparinirvana Sutra says that ‘all beings in the Triple World wept and wailed’ as the Tathagata passed away. This gave artists the opportunity to use their skill and their imagination to paint a wide variety of beautiful and interesting animals. The first picture below is of a 16th century (Monoyama Period) scroll painting. The next picture is an enlarged section of a similar depiction of the Parinibbana from around the same time. It is clear that the artists delighted in the painting creatures as diverse as centipedes, crabs and molluscs as well as several mythological beasts. The third picture, from a Tibetan thangka, shows two snow lions (gang shenge) morning the Buddha’s passing, an element unusual in Tibetan art.
After the biography of the Buddha himself, the Jataka stories have long been most Buddhist’s main knowledge of and contact with the Dhamma. Consequently there are numerous depictions of Jatakas in the art of all Buddhist cultures, and they are depicted in the earliest Buddhist art. The first picture illustrates the Mahakapi Jataka (No.407) in which a monkey king risks his life, and eventually looses it, to save his troop. The piece is a medallion from the Barhut Stupa dating from about 150 BCE. Being one of the earliest examples of Buddhist art the treatment is naive and awkwardly conceived but the story it illustrates would have been immediately identifiable to the viewer. The Alambusa Jataka (No.523) tells of a doe who falls in love with the ascetic who shared her forest. One day he urinated in the river, passing out semen as he did so, the doe later drunk from the river, became pregnant and in time gave birth to a boy. The kindly ascetic accepts the child as his own and helps bring him up. A sexual misadventure in the boy’s subsequent life and his father’s advice concerning it makes up the core of the story. The ascetic, the doe and their child are depicted in a panel from northern India dating from the 4th-5th century CE. Below this is a painting from Dunghuang Cave in western China dated 450 CE depicting the Nigrodhamiga Jataka (No.12). In this story a stag’s willingness to give his life to protect his herd from a king’s frequent hunting expeditions, moves the king to give up hunting and eventually, at the stag’s request, to ban all hunting throughout his realm. The final picture is an illustration from an early 19th century Thai manuscript of the Vessantra Jataka (No.574). It shows Vessantra on his wondrous rain-making white elephant which he is about to give away. The Buddha taught that there are six realms of existence, one of which is the animal world. (tiracchana yoni). All of these realms constitute samsara, the continually process of birth and death. Indian artists illustrated this doctrine diagrammatically as a wheel of six segments, each showing one of the realms. A single very fragmentary painting of the six realms survives from India, but they are common in Tibet and are painted on the walls at the entrance of most temples. Depictions of the animal world usually show a variety of creatures, domestic and wild, actual and mythological. This is a typically illustration of the animal world from a contemporary Tibetan thangka. As in other religions Buddhists saw certain animals as symbolizing particular things; e.g. the lion nobility and courage, the monkey an undisciplined mind, the goose detachment, and the elephant patience and calm deliberation. They also included animals in their folk tales. One example of this is the story of the three animals who teamed up to reach the fruit none of them could reach individually and who as a result became friends. The story is unique to Bhutan although it was probably a local development of the Jataka (No.37). An animal symbol from China and Japan, and probably of Buddhist origin is the three wise monkeys, now familiar the world over. The most famous and charming depiction of these hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil creatures is found under the eaves of the on the Toshogu Temple in Nikko, carved when the temple was built in the early 17th century.
The use of animals as decorative elements in Buddhist art and architecture is as rich as that found anywhere. One of but many examples of this is the procession of animals that the ancient Sri Lankans decorated the semi-circular door-steps (patika) of their temples with. Many different animals are used and in different combinations but perhaps the most common is a continual line made up of elephants, horses, lions and bull. The elephants in these door-steps and elsewhere in Sri Lankan art are depicted most realistically. The example below from Anuradhapura dates from about the 9th century. Under the row of animals is a row of geese (hamsa) with flower buds in their beaks, a motif originating in India.
One Buddhist monument that depicts numerous animals, actual and mythological, in most of their roles, as participants in the Buddha’s biography, symbols, as decorative elements and in illustrations of Jataka stories – is the great stupa at Sanchi, a huge repository of early Buddhist art. Below is a small selection of these.