Monday, January 26, 2015

Gurus I Have Met III, Walpola Rahula

Venerable Walpola Rahula could not be properly described as a guru, he was more an academic and most of the teaching he did was in universities to fellow academics. He was however, probably the most well-known monk in Sri Lanka and even  famous  amongst Buddhists  throughout the West, at least by name,  through his  book What the Buddha Taught, considered by many to be the definitive introduction to Theravada Buddhism. I met Rahula on at least a dozen occasions during various events and conferences, the last time in Indonesia in 1991 when we were both staying at the Dhammacakkha Vihara in Jakarta.   He did part of his education in Colombo, London and at the Sorbonne, and later became Vice-Chancellor of Vidyodaya University and a professor at Northwestern University in the US.  Rahula was always interested in politics. His controversial 1946 book Bhisuvage Urumaya (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu) advocated monks having a role in politics and has encouraged monks ever since to do just that, with disastrous results for the Sri Lankan Sangha. In the 1990s he very much spoke for the “war party”, those Sinhalese who advocated a hard line in Sri Lanka’s civil war.  In all my contacts with Rahula I noticed that he was often dismissive and superior with fellow Sri Lankans and defensive and insistent when with Westerners, particularly academics. He tended to speak as if he assumed his comments on Buddhism, politics, Sri Lankan culture, etc. were to be taken as ex cathedra  and get irritated when they were not. This is not to say that he was not learned, he was, although judging by his output his reputation exceeded his abilities. Once we had a discussion on meditation during which he spoke learnedly but purely theoretically and at one point said: “That’s how it’s done although I don’t do it myself. No time!”  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Authentic Dhammapada

What did the Buddha actually teach? Well, the ancient texts are pretty clear. Not only do they communicate the Buddha’s vision, but they present it using different words and from different perspectives dozens, sometimes scores, occasionally hundreds of times. It’s easy to get the general idea while still allowing for flexibility in interpretation.  But this has never worried that  curious breed of people out there who have managed convince themselves that what they believe is exactly what the Buddha taught. The favoured means of doing this is the Dhammapada. Usually knowing no Pali and even less Dhamma, they claim to offer a  “new”   translation of this text and lo and behold it coincides exactly with what they have always thought. There are numerous  such  Dhammapadas out there, I reviewed one of the more silly versions recently, see But now comes one that would have to  take the Nobel Prize for audacity, presumption, gall, cheek, effrontery, nerve, temerity and downright chutzpah, Shakya Aryanatta’s The Authentic Dhammapada of the Buddha. Take verse 380 which in the original is  "Attā hi attano nātho, attā hi attano gati, tasmā saṁyamam-attānaṁ, assaṁ bhadraṁ va vāṇijo."
A word for word translation of this verse is - Attā = self, hi = indeed, attano = of the self, nātho = lord/master, attā = self,  hi = indeed, attano = of the self, gati =  refuge, lit. destiny, tasmā = therefore, saṁyamam = restraint, attānaṁ = of the self, assaṁ = horse, bhadraṁ =  good/auspicious, va = as/like, vāṇijo = merchant.
A perfectly adequate translation of this would be –
“Oneself is indeed master of oneself. Oneself is the refuge of the oneself. 
Therefore, one should restrain oneself, as a merchant (does) a good horse.”
Aryanatta turns this into- 
“The exquisite True Self, is indeed the lord, the master of the True Self, that very Atman utmost! The True Self is the highest borne! The True Self is the supreme refuge, utmost highest hyperborean excellent exquisite bliss indivisible deathlessness, and highest of highest fulfillments! Hence O' monks, guard well that True Self vigilantly! Just as the merchant trader guides and guards his precious Oxen along the hazardous road!”   
The 15 words in the original are expanded into 68 in Aryanatta’s version and along the way it picks up over ten words and phrases which cannot be found in the original, such as “exquisite bliss”, “the highest borne”, “hyperborean”, “indivisible”, “deathlessness”, “highest of highest fulfilments”, “monks”, “guides and guards”, “precious” and a “hazardous road” to boot.
This isn’t translation, it’s transubstantiation!  As one reviewer on Amazon put it: “This is worse than merely amateur scholarship. It’s fake.” If your looking for a Dhammapada as opposed to a Shakyaryanatta have a look at

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Back To Earth Again

It’s something of a surprise to learn just how many people in America die or have a near-death-experience, go to heaven, come back to life again and then write an account of their brief but wonderful sojourn  in the celestial realm. The 2004 book 90 Minutes in Heaven spent over five years on the New York Times best-seller list  and sold over six million copies. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent documents the report of a near-death experience by Burpo’s  four-year-old son, Colton. The book recounts the experiences the boy relates from visits he said he made to heaven during  his near-death experience. In less than twelve months over one million ebooks copies had been sold,  and by 2014 the number had reached over 10 million copies. A movie based on the book was released in April  2014  earning over $100 million at the box office. Then there is Eben Alexander’s account of his experiences in heaven called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife. This book attracted some comment beyond the general reading public, mainly because its author’s academic credentials. Yet another such book, The Boy who Came Back from Heaven: A True Story, follows a similar pattern and has had a similar impressive record in the bookshops, a million copies sold within a few years. But now the author of this book, Alex Malarkey, had admitted that his claim to have had a glimpse of heaven during his serious accident, is a complete fabrication. A few days ago his publisher announced that they were pulling the book from shelves and would no longer distribute it. Perhaps it’s easy to understand why people lie about having certain religious experiences:  clearly there is a lot of money to be made by doing so. It is less easy to understand how ready millions of people are to believe some of these claims. And incidentally, although “I was the Buddha’s disciple in an earlier life” claims made by some Buddhists nowhere near approaches the boldness or slickness of the Christian equivalents, they attracts a lot of attention from too.  This is what I think. If your practice is going well and is imparting to you inner peace, clarity, kindness and detachment, that should give you all the confidence in the Dhamma you  require.  You should not need reassurance from unverifiable and possibly spurious claims by others.  You can read more about the boy who claimed to have gone to heaven here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Pope Francis In Sri Lanka

Pope Francis was in Sri Lanka recently where he met senior Buddhist monks and other religious leaders. Gone was the usual protocol that elevate a pope above other religious leaders when meeting them, as was the just slightly imperious attitude. Pope Francis was informal, respectful, genuinely friendly and made everyone feel that they were all meeting as equals. In return the monks gave the Pope a warm welcome. It looks like this pope is going to give the Church an   appeal even to those not in it.