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.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Three Temples In Cambodia III

Prasat Preah Vihera runs for 800 meters up a steep mountain incline  and stops   just short of the dramatic cliff at the top. It is a spectacular situation and I have included an aerial picture from the internet so you can see what it is like. Politically the temple’s situation is just as precarious. It sits right on the Thai/Cambodian border and the two countries have been quarrelling  over its ownership for decades. A few years ago this led to shooting and even today the visitor is met by razor wire, armed soldiers, mine fields and pill boxes. Preah Vihera started when a 9th century when Khmer king got a message from Siva telling him to set up a lingum on the high point of the Dangrek Range. The complex consists of a series of stairways and stone-paved roads that give access to or pass through four gateways and shrines. The view from the top is breathtaking; to the northeast one can see the jungle-covered hills of Thailand and to the south the e seemingly endless plain of Cambodia’s hinterland. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Three Temples In Cambodia II

Beng Mealea’s name means Lotus Pond and is a recent one, its original name being unknown because as yet no inscription giving details about who built the temple, when and what they called it has been found. This  temple has been  constructed with exceptional  care, unlike  Banteay Chamr for example, which shows signs of hast and carelessness. Where the stonework is in its original position  at Beng Mealea you can walk through  mysterious halls and galleries. In other places tree roots have prized the stones apart causing whole sections to collapse, the great piles of stones looking  like toy blocks  scattered by some giant child. In other places moss transforms such stones into cubes of green velvet. But it is the  tree;  their  roots, their  foliage  and the play of light and shade they create on surfaces that  make Beng Mealea so worth a visit.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Three Temples In Cambodia I


Last week a few friends and I spent 10 days in Cambodia. Our intention was to visit three ancient temples - Banteay Chamr, Preah Vihera and Beng Mealea. The first is one of the few Khmer Buddhist temples and was apparently dedicated to Avalokitesvara while Beng Mealea reflects Buddhist/Hinduism syncretism. Both these temples are situated in thick jungle, the second much more so than the first, giving them an added appeal. Preah Vihera is perched  on the very edge of a sheer cliff and almost straddles the Thai/Cambodian border. Soldiers of both countries have been engaged   in combat over the temple in the recent past and the area remains tense. Today and for the next two posts  I will share with you some of the photos we took during our visit. Today Banteay Chamr.