Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Crazy Wisdom Or Just Crazy?

Crazy wisdom (yeshe cholba) is a concept in Tibetan Buddhism asserting that a teacher may have reached a level of development whereby his/her  behaviour  appears highly unconventional or even immoral to others and that he/she  may  use such behaviour to jolt or shock their disciples  into higher states of spirituality. Something like this has existed in several religions;  being a fool for Christ as described in the Bible (1 Corinthians 1.18; 3,19; 4.10) and the  clownish but wise figure of  Chee Kong in the Chinese Buddhist/Taoist tradition would be examples of this. There are even suggestions of something approaching it in Tipitaka. Verse 501 of the Theragatha says “Let one with sight be as though blind, and one who hears be as though deaf, let one with tongue be as though dumb, let one who is strong be as though weak.” The Buddha said that if you do not retaliate to another person’s anger, those who do not appreciate the Dhamma will think you are a bala, i.e. a fool (S.I,162).
However, the individual whose innocent and simple holiness is misunderstood and mocked by the majority is one thing, the articulate  worldly-wise teacher who cleverly explains and justifies his  unconventional  or wreakless behaviour  another altogether. The most well-known exponent of crazy wisdom in recent times was Chogyam Trungpa. While Trungpa was clearly a dynamic and brilliant individual he made a terrible mess of his own  life with his abusive sexual behaviour, drug taking and alcoholism, and caused a great deal of distress to others.      
The idea of crazy wisdom presents  several serious problems as far as Buddhism is concerned. It renders indistinct the boundary between morality and immorality. It raises the suspicion that those who indulge in it are not really wise but are just trying to rationalizing or excuse behaviour that in other context would be unacceptable, immoral or even illegal. It leads to hypocrisy in that crazy wisdom proponents such as Trungpa insist that their students should not emulate their behaviour. In Trungpa’s case, at one point, when his alcoholism became really serious, he admitted himself into a rehab clinic to dry out and recover. Significantly, he did not apply to himself all the supposedly profound meditational and psychological techniques that he had been teaching to others. Surely this alone has to raise some doubts about the legitimacy of crazy wisdom. 
But for me the most serious problem with the concept of crazy wisdom is its dependence on the assumption that the teacher is ipso facto enlightened or at least highly developed. This assumption depends entirely on the acceptance of certain beliefs; e.g. in the Tibetan tradition that the teacher is supposedly the reincarnation of a great teacher of the past, in India on the traditional assertion that gurus have mystical powers and that surrender to them is the key to spiritual advancement. Like all such assumptions and assertions these ones are not open to critical examination but have to be taken on faith.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jagaddala Rediscovered

Several bronze-made Gautama Buddha sculptures and some other artefacts, including an ancient brick-built structure with a lotus-shaped inflorescence have been found recently during an excavation at Jagaddala Budhha Bihar archaeological site,   some sixty five kilometers away from Naogaon in Bangladesh. Though many Buddhist monasteries  have been discovered in the country, all of them were square or geometrical in shape, only this one is shaped like a lotus inflorescence, said archaeologists. Mahbub Ul Alam, one of the members of the excavation team and custodian of Paharpur Buddha Bihar Archaeological Museum said that some rare sculptures of Gautama Buddha were found, including some ancient brick, granite and black stone built structures and four cells of Buddhist monastery have been found in an excavation at Jagaddala Bihar recently. “They also found precious stones, ornamental stone pieces, ancient brick staircases and broken earthen pots”, he said. The structure was built in the 10th or 11th  centuries during Pala dynasty. “The locals had their doubts about the authenticity of the Jagaddala Bihar. We are now sure that this is the original Jagaddala Vihara”, he said. He  added, “It is a rare discovery for our country.”  
Jagaddala Mahavihara was a Buddhist monastery founded by the later kings of the Pala dynasty, possibly Rampala (1077-1120), most likely at a site near the present village of Jagaddal in Dhamurhat Upazila in the north-west Bangladesh on the border of India, near Paharpur.
Little is known about Jagaddala compared with the other mahaviharas of the era such as Nalanda. For many years, its site could not be ascertained. AKM Zakaria inspected five likely locations, all called Jagddal or Jagadal, in the Rajshahi-Malda region- namely Panchagarh, Haripur upazila in Thakurgaon, Bochaganj upazila in Dinajpur, Dhamoirhat  in Naogaon, and Bamongola of Malda in India. Of these, significant ancient ruins were present only near Jagddal. Excavations under UNESCO over the past decade have established the site as  the once famous  Buddhist monastery.
A large number of  monasteries  were established in ancient Bengal and Magadha during the four centuries of Pala rule in north-eastern India (756-1174 AD). Dharampala (781 – 821) is said to have founded 50 viharas himself, including Vikramshila, the premier university of the era. Jagaddala was founded toward the end of the Pala dynasty, most likely by Ramapala (1077-1120). According to Tibetan sources, five great mahaviharas stood out, Vikramshila, Nalanda, Somapura, Odantapura and Jagaddala. The five monasteries formed a network under state supervision. Jagaddala specialized in Vajrayana Buddhism. A large number of texts that would later appear in the Kanjur and Tenjur were known to have been composed or copied at Jagaddala. It is likely that the earliest dated anthology of Sanskrit verse, the Subhasitaratnakosa, was compiled by Vidyakara at Jagaddala toward the end of the  11th  or the beginning of the  12th centuries. Sakyasribhadra, a Kashmiri scholar who was the last abbot of Nalanda Mahavihara and instrumental in transmitting Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have fled to Tibet in 1204 from Jagaddala when Muslim incursions seemed imminent. Historian Sukumar Dutt tentatively placed the final destruction of Jagadala to 1207; in any case it seems to have been the last mahavihara to be overrun.  In 1999, Jagaddala was submitted as a tentative site for inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. UNESCO reported that the excavation has revealed an extensive mound, 105 meters by 85 meters, which represents the archaeological remains of a Buddhist monastery. The findings have included terracotta plaques, ornamental bricks, nails, a gold ingot and three stone images of deities.
From News Network Archaeology  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Contribution To the Same-sex Marriage Debate

In 1909  Lord Curzon wrote a tract called Fifteen Good Reasons Against The Grant Of Female Suffrage. Curzon was a conservative man but he was no doddering aristocrat. Far from it, he was a respected senior minister in the British government, Viceroy of India for two terms, a writer and an explorer who had been awarded the Royal Geographic Society’s gold medal for his discovery of the source of the Oxus. The opinions he expressed in his tract were shared by the majority of educated men, and many women too, at the beginning on the 20th century. Nineteen years later the Representation of the People Act (1928) gave all women the vote. One wonders what the arguments being used against same-sex marriage, curiously similar to Curzon’s, will sound like to our ears nineteen years from now. “Traditional values” are amorphous things and they can have a very brief shelf life. Reason 1.  “Political activity will tend to take women away from her proper sphere and highest duty, which is maternity.”  Reason II. “It will tend by the divisions it will introduce to break up the harmony of the home.” In other word, allowing women to vote will lead to the breakdown of the family. Reason III. “The grant of the vote to women cannot possibility stop short at  a restricted franchise on the basis of a property or other qualification…Its extension to them would pave the way to Adult Suffrage. There is no permanent or practical halting-stage before.” At present only people earning a certain level of income and  owning  property  valued   above a certain amount can  vote. If we enfranchise women everyone will start demanding it - labourers, tradesmen, farmers, etc.  It is a slippery slope. Reason IV. “Women have not, as a sex or a  class, the calmness of temperament or the  balance of mind, nor have they the training necessary, to qualify them to exercise a weighty judgement in political affairs.” Woman are psychologically unsuitable to be given this responsibility. Reason VIII. “The presence of a large number of females in the constituencies returning a British government to power would tend to weaken Great Britain in the estimation of foreign powers. Reason IX. “It would be gravely misunderstood and become a source of weakness in India.” In short,  if women were given the vote it will  weaken the social and political order and perhaps even threaten the Empire. Reason X. “The vote once given, it would be impossible to stop at this. Women would then demand the right to become MP’s, Cabinet Ministers, Judges, etc. Nor could the demand be logically stopped.” It will open the floodgates for them to demand other even more undesirable rights. Reason XIV. “The intellectual emancipation of women is proceeding, and will continue to do so, without the enjoyment of political franchise. There is no necessary connection between the two.” Don’t they already have enough?   Reason XV. “No precedent exists for giving women as a class an active share in the government of a great country or empire, and it is not for Great Britain, whose stake is the greatest, and in whose case the result of failure would be the most tremendous, to make the experiment.” There is no precedent for this move and we have no idea what the consequences of it will be.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Blind Men And The Elephant

The parable of the blind men and the elephant is probably the most widely known and the most loved of all the world's parables. By far the earliest version of  it is to be found in the Udana, one of the books of the Buddhist scriptures where it is attributed to the Buddha (Ud.67-9). There seems no good reason to doubt this attribution, for while the blind men and the elephant is a most memorable one, it is by no means the only cleaver parable attributed to the Buddha. The parable’s  appeal is due to how well it makes its point, its striking juxtaposing of man and beast and its gentle humor. 

The background to the Buddha telling this parable goes like this. Some monks in Savatthi noticed a group of non-Buddhist monks quarrelling with each other about some philosophical or theological issues. Later, they mentioned what they had seen to the Buddha and he said:  “Wanderers of other sects are blind and unseeing. They don’t know the good and the bad and they don’t know the true and the false. Consequently they are always quarrelling, arguing and fighting, wounding each other with the weapon of the tongue.”  Then the Buddha related his famous parable.  “Once here in Savatthi, the king called a certain man and said   ‘Assemble together in one place all the men in Savatthi who were born blind.’  Having done as the king commanded, the king then said to the man ‘Now show the blind men an elephant.’ Again the man did as the king commanded, saying to each as he did   ‘Oh blind man, this is an elephant and this is its head. This is its ear. This is its tusk. This is its trunk. This is its body. This is its leg. This is its back. This is its tail. This is the end of its tail.’ This having been done the king addresses the blind men saying ‘Have you seen an elephant?’  and they replied  ‘We have sire.’ ‘And what is an elephant like?’  he asked. And the one who had touched the head said ‘An elephant is like a pot.’  while the one who had touched the ear said ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’  The one who had touched the tusk said ‘An elephant is like a plough pole’  while the one who had touched the trunk said  ‘It is like a plough.’   The one who had touched the body said ‘It is like a granary’  and the one who had touched the leg said ‘It is like a pillar.’ The one who had touched the back said ‘It is like a mortar’,   the one who had touched the tail said ‘It is like a pestle’  while the one who had touched the end of the tail said ‘An elephant is like a broom.’  Then they began to quarrel saying ‘Yes it is!’  No it isn’t! An elephant is like this!’  ‘An elephant is like that!’,  until eventually they began fighting with each other.” Having told this story the Buddha summed up its meaning in a terse little verse -“Some monks and priests are attached to their views
And having seized hold of them they wrangle, like those who see only one side of a thing.” The key to understanding the meaning of the parable is in the last line of this verse; seeing only one side of a thing (ekanga dassino). This is but one example of where the Buddha gives advice about how to form a more complete, a more accurate view of reality. Here he is suggesting one important point - that we should not mistake the part for the whole. In other places he advises keeping personal biases out of the way when assessing views, taking time to form opinions and even when having done so, keeping an open mind so as to be able to consider fresh evidence to the contrary.  I notice that the Wikipedia article on this famous parable says that the blind men touch eight pachyderm parts while K. N. Jayatilleke (usually a very careful scholar) says there are ten. In fact, there are nine. I really  delight in the Buddha’s  comparisons. You can see women using winnowing baskets (sup or supli in Hindi, suppa in Pali) is any Bihari village even today and they  are shaped  just like an elephant's ear. The elephant’s tail and the broom is a good comparison too. The back with the pestle is less obvious. Could it be referring to the long ridge of the backbone which can so easily be seen under the elephant’s skin? After the Udana, the earliest mention of the parable of the blind men and the elephant is to be found in the Syadvadamanjari, a Jain work where it is used to illustrate the Jain doctrine of relativity of truth (anekantavada). This doctrine states that  “every view is true from some standpoint (naya) or other and in general no view can be categorically false.” Boy! Wouldn’t New Agers love this one if they knew of it! After this the blind men and their elephant  wandered all over the place. They appear in Brahmanical and Hindu works, in some Persian collections of stories and even in one of the works of the Persian  Sufi mystic Rumi. Today there are numerous children’s  books about it or which include it. If you would like to see a careful and accurate word by word translation of the whole sutta in which the parable of the blind men and the elephant appears have a look at Venerable Anandajoti’s www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Texts-and-Translations/Udana/6-Jaccandhavaggo-04.htm

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Non-practicing Buddhist !!

Just yesterday someone described themselves to me as a non-practicing Buddhist. I cannot say that I have heard this term used before and I found it a rather strange one. Strange because it implied that being  Buddhist is an identity apart from practicing and trying to live by the Dhamma. It makes sense to call yourself a non-practicing  Jew because Judaism is to a large sense a culture and an ethnicity as much as a religion, so you can have one without the other. I have heard people describe themselves or someone else as a non-practicing or lapsed Catholic. This makes sense too given that Catholicism is so all-embracing that it imparts an identity beyond one’s specific culture, race and so on. But a non-practicing Buddhist? 
To me this makes no more sense than it would be to describe oneself as a non-practicing athlete. “I have never competed in any athletics, I do not have an athlete’s build and I have no interest in or knowledge of athletes, so I’m a non-practicing athlete.” An athlete is legitimately and properly called such by his or her doing of athletics. And equally it makes no sense to  describe oneself as a non-practicing Buddhist. You either practice or genuinely try to practice the Dhamma and accept its main philosophical propositions or you do not. If you do you are a Buddhist, and if you do not you are not. You can be a former Buddhist, you can be a bad Buddhist (a far from endangered species)  but you cannot be a non-practicing Buddhist.