Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One Of The Greats

Autobiographies and biographies have never been a significant literary genera in Buddhism or in Asia in general. Even biographies of the Buddha were rather late in coming and even then were more hagiographies or romances than sober accounts of the lives of their subject. The same is true of modern Asian and Western Buddhists - except for the Dalai Lama of course;  two autobiography, at least a dozen biographies to date, one by his brother, another by his sister, one about his family, etc. He’s a very well-documented individual. So far, Western Buddhist writers have focused mainly on explaining Dhamma rather than writing about their experiences of being Buddhists. However, a  recent book by the Buddhist Publication Society is such a work. The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera – The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer is a long overdue account of the most important of those special individuals who helped the Dhamma get established and accepted in the West. And it is absolutely fascinating reading. Although made up of six quite separate parts, each written by a different author, the editors have put the book together in a readable and flowing manner. The first part is a history of Buddhism in Germany from the beginning until 1931. This is followed by Nyanatiloka’s autobiography which only goes up to 1926. Helmuth Hecker’s carefully researched Biolographical Postscript takes it from there to Nyanatiloka’s passing in 1957. This is followed by Bhikkhu Bodhi’s biography of Nayanaponika, the subject’s most influential disciple. Then comes Nyanaponika’s assessment of Nyanatiloka’s literary legacy and a bibliography. Equally useful is the last Appendix, The Monk Disciples of Nyanatiloka, giving brief biographical details of all the people who ordained under the great man. And finally there are the notes, a whopping 59 pages of them, some of them two or three pages long. Generally I dislike long notes or too many of them. However, most of these notes provide important background to Nyanatiloka’s times and details about his many interesting acquaintances, admirers and helpers. A few notes seem superfluous. Do we really need one telling us that Jawaharlal Nehru was leader of India’s independence movement and the countries first prime minister?
For a monk, Nyanatiloka had a very eventful life. He travelled through China alone and with very little money in the 1920, he worked as a university professor, was twice imprisoned as an enemy alien, was an acquaintance of many of the European avant garde and survived the great Tokyo earthquake. Such was his impact on Buddhism in Sri Lanka that he was given a state funeral.
The thing that emerges most from Nyanatiloka’s life is his apparent  quiet, patient and uncomplaining determination to live the monk’s life no matter what obstacles were put in his way. And lots were. One is also amazed that despite exile, imprisonment, official harassment and frequent  homelessness (or actually 'monsterylessness) his literary output was enormous and of the highest standard. He translated numerous Buddhist texts and wrote dozens of books and articles, many of them of enduring value. Although there have only been a few Western Buddhist monks and nuns their contributions to the Dhamma have been out of all proportion to their numbers. But none yet have exceeded the inspiring example, the dedication, the courage of Nyanatiloka.
Having said all this The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera has a serious downside. The editing of this otherwise terrific book is truly abysmal. There is hardly a paragraph which does not contain spelling mistakes, syntactical errors and stylistic peculiarities. The editors’ unfamiliarity with spoken English is painfully obvious.  “Silananda did not know the exact whereabouts of Ananda Metteyya’s address”,    “the food was very one-sided”,  Venerable Vappa was  “an expert in the field of food”,  “I decided to find my luck further south”,  “the cosmopolitan crow is not absent here too”,  “There were six of them, as high as a man’s height”,    “I would then go back to my homemade sleeping bag with my feet full of mud.”  “The ship’s engine was working so hard that the turbines caused waterfalls”,  “The winter appeared to be over soon”,  “this countryside was the ever-same yellow color”,  “it turned out to be a great piece of good fortune for us”,  “He reported about the keystones of the teachings explained to him by the German Buddhists”,  “you have been thinking for years of the thought of naturalizing in Ceylon.” Some sentences are hopelessly awkward or far too long.  “My father died in 1931, two days after an operation for cancer, and truly peacefully so, while my mother sat on his lap, and was discussing with her and my sister a journey they were planning to take to Switzerland.” “Coming back from the Galduva monastery that Robert de Soysa, the former supporter in Matara, had donated to me, I was arrested in Ambalagoda by a detective, just as I was standing in front of de Soysa’s house wishing to say goodbye to him before catching the last train to Dodanduva.”   “One evening, after a theatre performance, all the inmates – including those inmates who had been acting and were still wearing their costumes – left with their travelling suitcases, and so on, through this tunnel, but when the leader reached the exit of the tunnel and had to throw out his suitcase in order to follow himself, there were gunshots outside.”  Numerous phrases indicate the editor serious lack of knowledge of English usage.  “(T)he Police President” probably should have been the commissioner of police,  “vegetable tins and milk tins” probably meant to be tinned vegetables and tinned milk. We also have  “snow sliding”  instead of tobogganing,  “gong music” instead of  the sound of gongs, guards with bayonets affixed’ instead of  with fixed bayonets,  “departure meal”  instead of  farewell meal,  “fore-mountains”  instead of foot hills,  “Supreme judge”  rather than high court judge,  “SMS Sydney”  instead of HMAS Sydney and “scholastism”  instead of scholasticism, to name but a few. The meaning of some other words and phrases can only be guessed at -  “my ears froze and then burst open”,  “an acquainted waiter”,  “disrobals”  and  “churchly”  being some of the more humorous one. And what are we to make of  “romantic necrophiliac”  on page 227?
The book has also been very poorly produced. In my copy pages 242, 243, 246 and 247 are blank and the cover came unstuck after the first reading. Also, while some of the pictures in the book relate directly to the text, others seem superfluous. Was it really necessary to have a picture of Kaiser William, the Yangtze River and an unnamed temple in Chungking? Such pictures have left too little room for the rare and more relevant ones. The picture of Sister Upalavanna is a tiny 3 centimetres square and one plate has 10 separate pictures crammed onto it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ascetics and Asceticism

The more things change the more they remain the same! An interesting example of this would be the austerities practiced by some Hindu sadhus and the beliefs that underline them. The belief is that self-inflicted physical stress creates ‘heat’ (tapas) and that this can impart super-normal powers (siddhi). These powers can then be used to attain certain worldly or spiritual goals. The range of austerities is wide but some of them are virtually the same as those practiced by certain ascetics at the time of the Buddha. Laying on beds of thorns (kantapassaya) is mentioned in the Tipitaka (e.g. D.I,167; Ja.III,235)  and is still done today. Once I had to wait hours for a delayed train at Lucknow, and walking around outside the station  I saw a sadhu, naked except for a small genital covering, standing beside a pile of tree branches with long murderous-looking thorns on them. A train came in and as crowds  emerged from the station the sadhu finished the beedi he was smoking and then threw himself onto the thorns. It was one of the most  startling  sights I have ever seen. The  thorns  clearly penetrated his body but apparently caused him  no pain. People tossed small coins at him as they passed.
The bat practice (vaggulivata) is mentioned in the Tipitaka (Ja.I,493; III,235; IV,299) and is still done. It consists of hanging upside-down by a rope for extended periods. Sometimes the practitioner will have  another sadhu push him so he swings back and forward. I have never seen this  being done. Another austerity still  practiced  is the  “five fires”  (Pali pancatapana, Hindi panch agni tapasya) which consists of sitting surrounded by five piles of smouldering dried cow dung. Some sadhus place one of these smouldering piles on their head. I have seen sadhus in Allahabad, at the Girnar Parikrama in Gujarat and elsewhere doing this. Sitting all day under the blazing Indian sun while breathing in the acrid smoke makes this one of the toughest of all austerities.
Many other aspects of Hindu asceticism done today would have been familiar to the Buddha; nakedness, matted hair (jati), extreme fasting, perpetual standing, etc. It is rather extraordinary when you think of it that such  institutions, beliefs and practices could endure for so many centuries. And there is no sign that they are dying out.     

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Putting A Price On The Dhamma

 The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Punna was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, they return to their homelands, and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. I really think this is unethical. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma, certain Tibetan teachers being the worst offenders. I once mentioned to the student of a rimpoche that his teacher charged very high prices for his teachings – really high. Rather defensively the student said that air fares, accommodation, etc all cost money. “Why not just ask students for a donation rather than charge them?’ I said. “What if the costs were not covered?” the disciple shot back. I let the subject drop but it seemed a little odd after all the insistence  about infinite compassion for all beings. I also couldn’t help thinking that Goenka (and his assistant teachers) rely entirely on donations. 
In charging for Dhamma such teachers are turning the precious Dhamma into a commodity and the Buddha clearly said:  “One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma” (Ud.66). When the Buddha said:  “The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts” (Dhp.354) he clearly meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold. During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (acariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students audience than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). I think there is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called  “sponsorship”  or to announce that a  “donation”  of a certain amount is expected or required, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.