Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Year

2013 has been a full year for me. I travelled to Japan, the first time I have even been there, and to Europe. Two of my publications also came out – The Buddhist Physician’s Vow and Like Milk and Water Mixed: Buddhist Reflections on Love. Our centre in Singapore, the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, hosted  many guests and speakers, including Ken and Visakha Kawasaki of the Buddhist Relief Mission, Venerable Sanghasena, Venerable Indrajala, Thubten   Chodron, and Dr. H. S. Tan from the Nalanda Institute  in Malaysia. I also gave talks outside our society, but in keeping with my desire to  cut down on such activities so as to enjoy the blessings of “having few duties” much fewer than last year.
May you all have a happy, safe and fruitful coming year.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Oh No!!

One of India’s greatest treasures, the 2200-year-old Lion Capital which King Asoka erected at  Rampurva, has been broken at the Indian Museum in Kolkata while being moved from one place to another. The Lion Capital is the brother of the Sarnath Lion Capital, India’s national emblem. Although the breakage apparently happened last week the museum has so far not reported it. The governor of West Bengal,  M. K. Narayanan, who is chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, has denied any breakage, saying:  “Nothing has broken as far as I know”  But pictures and documents have been leaked confirming the breakage. Meanwhile, the museum has put the statue back together but, experts say, in a hasty and haphazard way, putting the parts together with epoxy glue and painting over the cracks. India is in the forefront of those countries demanding that art treasures taken by former colonial powers be returned. But its record in preserving the treasures it has in its care is very poor. If  things go as usual with this latest disaster, the denial will continue until it is impossible to keep it up, then there will be a clamour of buck passing,  this will be followed by someone else being blamed, probably foreigners, and finally the whole matter will be swept under the carpet.  

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nativity Animals

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving.  The nativity scene created by St. Francis is described by St Bonaventure in his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi written around 1260. Staged in a cave near Greccio, St. Francis’ nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. Pope Honorius III  gave his blessing to the exhibit. Such pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom.  Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime.  Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes   grew into elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings.
A donkey and an ox typically appear in nativity scenes. Besides the necessity of animals for a manger, this is an allusion to Isaiah “the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Is.1:3). The Gospels do not mention an ox and donkey.  Another source for the tradition may be the extracanonical text, the Gospel of Psudo-Matthew of the 7th century. “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary went out of the cave, and, entering a stable, placed the child in a manger, and an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah, ‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib.’ Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying,  ‘Between two animals you are made manifest.’”
The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel, and Old Testament  sacrificial worship, while the ass represents humility, readiness to serve, and the Gentiles. The ox and the ass, as well as other animals, became a part of nativity scene tradition. Other animals introduced to nativity scenes today include elephants and camels. Adapted from Wikipedia.
A peaceful and joyous Christmas to all my readers.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Japan 2013

In May/June of this year I and a group of friends spent ten days in Nara and Kyoto, the two ancient capitals of Japan. We were fortunate to be accompanied by Clifton Ong who used to come to our centre and   is now studying Buddhism in Japan. Here are some photos of our trip.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tapussa And Bhallika

In the Mahāvaccagotta Sutta the Buddha mentioned that he had many thousands of disciples, a good number of whom had attained one or another of the stages leading to enlightenment (M.I,490-2). However, his first disciples were the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika. During the fourth week the Buddha was staying at Uruvela, Bodh Gaya’s original name, Tapussa and Bhallika happened to pass the outskirts of the village and saw the Buddha quietly meditating there. Impressed his serene looks and the aura of peace around him they approached him and offered him a bowl of barley gruel and  honey balls. When the Buddha had finished eating the two merchants asked if they could take refuge in him and his Dhamma. They did not take refuge in the Sangha because it had not yet been established yet (Vin.I,4). The  Tipitaka contains very little other information about these two individuals. In the  Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha describes Tapussa as ‘the first person to take Refuge’ (A.I,26) and in the  Theragatha   there is a verse by a Bhallika, although it is not certain if this is the same person as the second of the two merchants (Th.7).
Perhaps because of the dearth of information about Tapussa and Bhallika many legends  grew up around them. When the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang was in northern Afghanistan in the 7th century he visited two towns each claiming to be the merchant’s hometowns and each named after them. Near each town was a  stupa supposedly enshrining relics given to  the two  by the Buddha. From about the 5th century CE Sri Lankans have claimed Tapussa and Bhallika as their own. At Tiriyaya on the north-east coast of  Sri Lanka is a beautiful stupa supposedly built by the two merchants and enshrining a hair given to them by the Buddha. On the other hand, the Burmese insist that Tapussa and Bhallika were from their country. The great Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon contains, Burmese legend says,  strands of hair  that the Buddha gave the two merchants. However, the Vinaya says that the two merchants came from Ukkala which most historians identify as being somewhere in Orissa. Archaeology  has  pretty much confirmed this. An inscription in early Brahmi (cira 1st  cent. BCE)   found in the ruins of a stupa at Jaipur in Orissa mentions a gift made by Tapussa. Another inscription, equally as old, on Deuli Hill near Puri, also in Orissa, mentions the name Bhallika. Close by are the remains of a huge stupa. The picture is of this inscription.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Let Us Praise Great Men

Nelson Mandela was a model of reconciliation and lack of bitterness towards past wrongs. But one wonders if some of his ideas didn’t die even before he did. Sometimes praising great individuals such as he simply becomes a substitute for genuinely following their example. Such has been the fate of that other giant Mohandas Gandhi.  Watch this fascinating documentary.

Friday, November 29, 2013

More On The Lumbini Discoveries

In my last blog (26th Nov.) concerning the recent discoveries at Lumbini, I mentioned that not having read the archaeological report I was not really able to comment on it and that it might be best not to get too excited until the jury is in. Well, one of my readers, Venerable Indrajala, has very kindly  sent me a link to the report. You can read it at
You can also read an intelligent review of the report at

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Discoveries At Lumbini

You will have heard the news. Archaeologists say they have discovered evidence suggesting that Buddhism may be at least 100 years or more  older than has been  previously thought. This will be not just an interesting but also an important piece of evidence – if it can be verified. All sources agree that the Buddha lived for 80 years but there is wide disagreement about exactly when he was born. From at least as early as the 2nd century BCE, Sri Lankans have believed that he was born in 624 BCE. This date probably reflects the belief in India at the time Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka. Up to now most historians and Indologists have considered this date to be too early. Until recently 563 BCE was thought to be the more likely date of his birth. However, in 1988 an international conference was held at Gottingen University in Germany to review all the evidence pertaining to the Buddha’s  dates and there was wide consensus among scholars that he was born later than 563, perhaps as much as a 100 years later. More research is needed before we can be sure. All the papers read at the conference can be read in Heinz Bechert’s 1995 When Did the Buddha Live?
Of course, uncertainty about the Buddha’s  dates has no bearing on the veracity of his Dhamma. Nonetheless, a certain date would allow us to have a better understanding of the forces that influenced the Buddha’s teaching and how he presented it. I have not read the archaeological report that contains these new findings  and the press  reports of it so far give very few details. The main evidence seems to be this;  that digging under the foundations of the Maha Maya Temple in Lumbini where Prince Siddhattha was born has revealed the remains of what appears to be a tree shrine and wood from this shrine has been carbon 14 dated at aprox. 600 BCE.  Siddhattha’s birth took place under a tree and the assumption is that the actual remains of the tree have been located. There are more than a few problems with these conclusions. Is there any evidence that the tree was worshipped by Buddhists? The tree around which the shrine (if that’s what it is) was built could have been alive for several hundred years before Buddhists started worshiping it. Etc, etc, etc.
Some scientists and researchers nowadays are in the habit of announcing headline-grabbing accounts of their discoveries long before they have actually been confirmed. Before we start getting too excited about these new discoveries let’s wait until the jury is in.  You can read more about the discoveries at  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Among The Tombstones

When in London this September I visited Highgate Cemetery, the last resting place of some 170,000 people. Of course  the cemetery’s most famous grave is that of Karl Marx. But    Robert Cesar  Childers’ (died 1876) who compiled the first Pali English dictionary is there somewhere too although I could not find it.  Parts of the cemetery are well maintained but most if it is overgrown and rather spooky. While walking through an overgrown and dark section  my eye was caught by the word Nirvana on one of the partly obscured moss-covered tombstones. Perhaps Calbe Pink (died 1907) was an early Buddhist or Theosophist.