Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nazis, Buddhists and Meteorites

Buddhism rarely if ever gets into the international news unless it’s something bizarre or quirky or embarrassing. Well, its recent mention is certainly bizarre and quirky although thankfully not embarrassing.  All the ideas the Nazis held were odious and twisted but the most harmless, although just as bizarre as the others, was the notion that the Aryan race originated somewhere in Central Asia; at least Heinrich Himmler thought this probable. In 1938 he financed an expedition to Tibet to find evidence of this. You can read the whole story as and see the photos the expedition took in   Tibet – 1938-1939 (2007) edited by Isrun Engelhardt.  Amongst the artefacts the expedition brought back was a statue made out of some unusual metal that looked something like aluminium. Now Prof. Elmar Buchner of the University of Stuttgart has determined that this statue was actually made from what astronomers refer to as the Chinga Meteorite which hit the Earth in what is now Mongolia some 150,000 years ago. This claim is based on an analysis of the metal in the statue and the fact that it was made in Mongolia before being imported into Tibet at some later date. News reports say the statue is 1000 years old which judging by its style is highly unlikely. Some reports say it is represents Vaisravana although it looks like some king or worrier to me. The Nazis in the expedition, and only Bruno Beger was a true believer, were probably attracted  to the statue by the swastika on its chest. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dhamma And Friendship

The Buddha  spoke about friendship more than any other human relationship and he identified several types of friends and the levels  or  intensities of friendship associated with them. Most commonly he spoke of ordinary  friends, what we  would  call acquaintances, chums or mates  (mitta, sakha and sambhatta), people we like, we get on well with, socialize with  but with whom  our connection  is not  deep. The basis of much ordinary friendships is  reciprocity, shared interests and benefits.  Then there are  loving friends, called by the Buddha heart friends or  bosom friends (mitta  sahada),  or sometimes true friends (sahaya   or samdittha), those of whom we can say we really love. We describe such a friend as being our “soul mate” and others might comment that we “get along together famously”.  Typically, we have only two or three such friends, they are usually the same gender as ourselves, and our connection with them not uncommonly last a lifetime. Such friends may not see each other for years,  then meet again and  resume their relationship  as if they only saw each other last week. Anurudha told the Buddha that the loving companionship between he and his friends meant that they were  “different in body but one in mind” (kaya ekam ca pana manna cittam, M.III,156). In an interesting parallel to this Aristotle defined loving friendship as “two souls in one body.”
In the famous Sigalovada Sutta the Buddha  enumerated what he  considered the  virtues of a loving friend. These include giving more of anything you ask them for, reassuring you when you are frightened, being constant through thick and thin, rejoicing in your successes, looking after you when you are off your guard, discouraging you from doing wrong  and encouraging you to do good, confiding in you and keeping the  confidences you share. A loving friend might, should the need  arise, even risk his or her life for you (D.III,187). The Jatakas says of a loving friend; “A ordinary friend will go seven steps for you, a loving friend (sahaya) will go twelve. If he does so  for a fortnight or a month he  is  family, more than that and he is your second self.” What is here translated as  ‘second self’ is  attasamo  which literally means ‘the same as oneself’, Ja.I,365). These virtues imply kindness, unstinting generosity, loyalty, sympathetic joy and absolute openness and trust. One will, the Buddha said; “cherish and nurture such a friend as a mother does the child of her own breast” (D.III,188).
When two people’s loving friendship includes a significant spiritual element they become what the Buddha called  kalyana mitta and their  relationship is called kalyana mittata. A kalyana mitta is the ideal friend and  kalyana mittata is the supreme human relationship. Kalyana literally means ‘beautiful’ or ‘lovely’ although the Buddha was not referring to physical attractiveness but inner beauty, the beauty of  integrity, kind-heartedness,  virtue and love of the Dhamma.  “If someone is jealous, selfish or dishonest, they are unattractive despite any eloquence or good features they might have. But the person  who is purged of such things and free from them, it is they who are really beautiful”  (Dhp.262-3). I will translate kalyana mitta as spiritual friend.

The Buddha described a spiritual friend as being  “loving, pleasant, a good mentor, experienced, committed, able to explain things well,  with profound understanding, and being concerned with your welfare”  (A.IV,32). And he spoke of spiritual friendship like this.  “What is spiritual friendship? Concerning this, whether living in a village or town one consorts with, comes together with, associates and discusses with  people, whether young or old, who are full of faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom. One emulates the faith of the faithful, the virtue of the virtuous, the generosity of the generous and the wisdom of the wise. This is called spiritual friendship”  (A.IV,282). While the Buddha emphasized that the Dhamma has to be  “attained by the wise each for himself or herself”,   he also stressed that this cannot be done in isolation from others. Being self-confidently independent is important, but it needs to be balanced with the emotional sustenance that friendship offers.  “Ananda said to the Lord;  ‘Spiritual friendship, intimacy and  companionship  are half of the holy life.’ The Lord replied; ‘Not so Ananda! Not so! Spiritual friendship, intimacy and  companionship  are all of the holy life. When one has a spiritual friend, a spiritual intimate, a spiritual companion it can be expected that he will develop and cultivate  the Noble Eightfold path.’ ” (S.V,2).  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Relics Of The Forgotten Buddhists

The Chams were the original inhabitants of much of what was then called Champa and what we now know as Vietnam. Much of the history of Vietnam from the 13th century onwards is one of Vietnamese gradually pushing south and driving the Chams before them. This process ended   in the 19th when the last Cham resistance was overcome and most of the remaining Chams were driven into Cambodia. Only about 100,000 Chams still live in Vietnam. As Cham power gradually declined they turned to Islam but before that they were Hindu and Buddhist. Pre-Islamic Cham civilization –religion, art, architecture, dance, language, script, etc, was influenced by India and the small communities of Vietnamese Chams still adhere to their original religion; they are the last survivors of the Hindu/Buddhist culture that dominated South-east Asia until the 12th-14th centuries. During a recent 10 day trip to Vietnam I visited the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang and the extensive Cham temple complexes at My Son. Here are some of the photos I took. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Buddhist Monkey Buisness

The usual words for monkeys in Pali are  kapi, makkata and vanara.   These   words   seem to be used loosely and interchangeably in the Tipitaka as is suggested by the mention of a large black-faced monkey, a clear reference to the Hanuman Langur, and a small red-faced monkey, a reference to the Rhesus Macaque. In both cases the word makkata is used (Ja.II,445). However, many of the numerous stories about monkeys in the Jatakas would seem to refer mainly to the macaque because this monkey would have been more familiar to most people and because of its more human-like appearance and often amusing antics. Monkeys pull faces and threaten people (Ja.II,70) and while moving through the forest they grab a branch and let go of it only to grab another (S.II,95; Sn.791). Hunters used to go into the forests of the Himalayan foothills and set traps of sticky pitch to catch them. The more curious monkeys would touch the pitch, get stuck and while trying to free one paw would get their other paws stuck. The hunters would then kill them, put the carcass on a spit and cook them over a fire (S.V,146). 
The Tipitaka often uses the term monkey mind (kapicitta) to describe the agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behaviour of ordinary human consciousness (Ja.III,148; V,445). The Buddha said that a person with uncontrolled craving  jumps from here to there like a monkey searching for fruit in the forest.(Dhp.334). The monk Valliya compared the body to a five-doored house and the mind to a macaque racing around inside it. Then he cried to himself,  Be still, monkey, stop running. Things are not as they were before. Now you are restrained with wisdom. (Th.125-6). Maha  Kassapa said that a monk who wears rag robes and yet is conceited, is like a monkey wrapped in a lion's skin (Th.1081). In a story meant to illustrate the idea that greed can make one blind to one's own benefit, the Jataka tells of a langur who lets go of all the beans it had just to retrieve one that it had dropped (Ja.II,74). Street entertainers had monkeys which were trained to play with snakes and to do tricks (Ja.III,198).  According to the Jataka the Bodhisattva was often reborn as a monkey and throughout the Jataka stories monkeys are depicted as having the best and worst human traits and attitudes. And if you wish to know just how human-like monkeys can be in some ways have a look at this wonderful documentary.