Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kamma and Natural Disasters I

I usually don’t comment on anything movie stars say. In fact, I usually can’t understand anything they say; its content or even its language (e.g. ‘Please, give it up for….’). But Sharon Stone (I honestly have never heard of her before) is in the news because she suggested that the Sichuan earthquake might be the kammic outcome of China’s policy in Tibet. Now this I do understand. It’s a good example of the half-witted, simplistic, non-canonical, logically untenable, flimflam that passes for the Buddha’s doctrine of kamma amongst most traditional Buddhists, all New Agers, people incapable of logical thought and movie stars. After the tsunami the papers here in Singapore published similar misunderstandings by several leading Buddhist monks. You know the sort of thing – ‘These people are fishermen so it’s their bad kamma for killing fish.’ And the 30 or so Buddhist monks who were washed away? ‘Er! Um! Well! They must have been fishermen in their last life.’ The discourse never got above this level. It rarely ever does when it comes to the subject of kamma. Therefore, today I am going to post an article I wrote at that time about kamma and natural disasters and tomorrow I’ll post a second one. Just read ‘earthquake’ for ‘tsunami.’ On the third day I’ll post something about kamma in general. Sharon! I hope you’ll read them.

The Tsunami – A Buddhist View
Buddhism teaches causation, that the whole universe is a web of interrelated causes and effects. There are two types of causation - natural causation and moral causation. Natural causation has nothing to do with people being good or bad, it is simply a matter of the various forces in the universe acting on each other. A rainstorm or crops ripening would be examples of natural causation. Natural causes can of course have an effect on us - being caught in a rainstorm can give us a bad cold. But suffering from a cold has nothing to do with moral or immoral past actions - it would be a natural effect of a natural cause. Moral causation is about how people think, speak and act and how they feel as a result. The Buddha’s teaching of kamma is only concerned with moral causation. Being helpful to someone, having them thank you and feeling happiness because of that; stealing something, getting caught and then experiencing embarrassment or shame, would be examples of moral causation. The person’s happiness or discomfort are a direct result of how they have acted. The person is not being ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ for their actions, their happiness or discomfort is simply a result of their actions. Now let us have a look at the recent tsunami in the light of the doctrine of kamma.
A tsunami is an example of an event caused by natural causation. The tectonic plates on the earth's surface move causing an earthquake, the energy released creates huge waves which, if they hit the coast, cause devastation. The people in the area where the recent tsunami hit are experiencing two types of suffering - suffering caused by natural causation and suffering caused by moral causation, i.e., kamma. During the deluge a person might have been hit by a falling tree, cut by a piece of metal or smashed against a wall. These would be examples of the painful effects of natural causes and would have nothing to do with past moral or immoral actions.
Kamma concerns peoples’ intentional thoughts, speech and actions (kamma) and the effects of those reactions (vipaka). I will give examples of different ways people could react to the tsunami and the effects they could have. Lets say there are two people - a man and women - both are injured in the tsunami and loose their home and means of livelihood. The man falls into despair, ‘Why me?’ he cries. ‘If only I had been out of town today,’ he said in anger and regret. By thinking like this he compounds his suffering. But soon his thoughts change. He notices that his neighbor’s home is little damaged and he thinks, ‘That dog, I never liked him, it’s a pity his house wasn’t destroyed.’ He is further compounding his suffering and as well as reinforcing ugly and negative states of mind. Later he thinks, ‘Well, it’s every man for himself,’ and he starts walking around seeing if he can steal anything from abandoned houses. Now the man’s negative thoughts and feelings are leading to negative actions.
Now let us have a look at the woman's reactions. After she recovers from the initial trauma her first thought is, ‘How fortunate I am to have survived.’ She has suffered but she has not added to her suffering by being regretful, despairing or angry. Then she thinks, ‘There must be others much worse off than me. I must see what I can do to help,’ and she starts looking around for injured people. Thinking of others gives her a degree of detachment from her own circumstances and thus, once again, this does not add to her suffering. The next day she manages to get some food which is being distributed by the government and as she walks away she notices a child who did not get any. She comforts the child and shares her food with him. Seeing that the child is all by himself she decides to look after him. After a few days the child's father sees him and is tremendously grateful to the women for having looked after him. The father is now living with his sister in a nearby town unaffected by the tsunami and invites the woman to come and stay with him where she gets food and shelter. The woman's positive thoughts and actions have now had a concrete positive effect on her life.
Now why did the man react in one way and the women in another? Because of how they have reacted to their various experiences in the past, i.e. because of their past kamma. The man’s negative mental habits in the past (kamma) have meant that he has negative mental habits now and these in turn make it more likely that he will have negative mental habits in the future. These mental habits make him suffer more than he would have otherwise (vipaka). The woman (she might be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Christian or of no religion) has been taught and has always believed that it is important to have a good thoughts and actions and has always tried to cultivate them. Her positive mental habits in the past (kamma) have meant that she has positive mental habits now and these in turn make it more likely that she will have positive mental habits in the future. These mental habits minimized her suffering and led to her being looked after by the father of the child. In other words, her positive past actions (kamma) have had a positive effect (vipaka) now.
So according to Buddhism, the physical pain that the victims of the tsunami experienced is the outcome of various natural causes. How they are reacting to these natural causes is their kamma, the results of their negative or positive reactions in the future (tomorrow, next month, next year, perhaps next life), will be their vipaka. As human beings of finite knowledge and power we have only limited influence over natural causes. We do, however, have the ability to mold and influence our reactions to situations. If we make no effort to develop our minds in positive ways we might, in the future, find ourselves overwhelmed by unexpected and unwelcomed circumstances. If we do make the effort to develop our minds, particularly through meditation, we may be better prepared to endure and even triumph over future adversity.
The news is full of examples of both. People ask, ‘How is it possible to remain free from grief, anxiety and fear under such terrible circumstances?’ But some people do. A man in Sri Lanka lost his wife and two children and of course was devastated. However, being a practicing Buddhist, he recovered from his grief about two days later when he found two children, starving, crying, with their dead parents nearby, and decided to adopt them. Apparently, other people had seen the children but had done nothing to help. When the man was interviewed he said that his two adopted children have given his life new meaning and the strength to go on despite the difficulties. We read other stories of people taking advantage of the disruption to loot, rob and steal. Each of us chooses to act the way we do and we will experience the results accordingly. When a Singaporean man heard of the disaster he loaded up his van and drove to Thailand with the intention of distributing food and water to the victims. Sadly, on the way his van skidded and he was killed. People ask, ‘Why did he suffer despite his good deeds?’ But such a question shows a confusion between natural causation and moral causation. This man’s swift and practical response to the suffering of others shows a great deal of compassion and will have very positive results in his next life. His accident had nothing to do with his good or bad deeds - it was a result of natural causation - a momentary lack of attention, faulty breaks, a slippery road due to rain, etc. Being good does not mean that we will never suffer due to natural causes, it means that when we do suffer due to natural causes we will be less likely to react in negative ways that increase our suffering.
Some uninformed Buddhist might say that the death and injury caused by the tsunami are the result of peoples’ past bad kamma. It need hardly be stated here that this is contrary to what the Buddha taught. In the Devadaha Sutta (M.II,214, also A.I,173 ) the Buddha says that the belief that every experience we have is due to past kamma (sabbam tam pubbe katahetu) is a wrong and false view (miccha ditthi). In the Sivaka Sutta (S. IV,228) he says that the suffering we sometimes experience can be due to kamma but it could also be due to sickness, to weather, to carelessness or to external agents (opakkamikani). The tsunami would be a good example of the third and the last of these causes. All kamma, whether positive or negative, certainly has an effect, but not all effects are due to kamma.
But what of us who have been fortunate enough not to be involved in this disaster? How can the Buddha’s teaching of kamma be relevant to us? Like the man and women mentioned above, our reactions to the tsunami could be either negative or positive. A person might read about the tragedy, shrug his shoulders and then turn to the sports page. When asked for a donation for the victims he might refuse to give anything, saying that he is short of cash this week. Or he might make a donation but then go around telling everyone hoping to get their praise or approval. He has been presented with an opportunity to react differently from how he has always done but the has failed to take advantage of it. He has failed to grown or changes, he has simply allowed himself to be carried along by his old habits of thoughtlessness, greed, pride and lack of compassion. But lets say a person has always been rather uncaring and self-absorbed but when he sees the victims of the tsunami on the television he feels a twinge of compassion. Then, rather than ignoring this flicker of compassion as he has always done in the past, he decides to act upon it. He goes to Red Cross and makes a really generous donation. While there he sees a sign asking for volunteers and on the spur of the moment he signs up and for the next few weeks spends all his free time collecting donations and helping out in other ways. As a result of this he would have weakened his selfish mental habits and strengthened positive ones, he would have grown and changed to some degree. If in the future he continued to act in such positive ways whenever he had the opportunity, he would gradually become a much more pleasant person and probably a much happier one too. Thus even a tragedy like the tsunami can actually have a positive side. Firstly, it can be an opportunity to develop generosity, care and compassion. Secondly it can be an opportunity for us to contemplate the truth of dukkha, the Buddha’s teaching that life in the conditioned world is unsatisfactory. Such contemplation can wake us from our complacency, remind us that no matter how comfortable our life might be, it can change at any time. This can help turn us from frivolous worldly pursuits to meaningful spiritual goals.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Color of Saffron

I often come across the words ‘saffron robes’ being used to describe monk’s attire. A report about the recent disturbances in Burma described the monks as “a saffron clad army of peace.” The writer could not have seen the attached photo which showed monks clad in maroon. Let’s just straighten a few things out. The English word saffron comes from the Arabic sa’faran and is used as the name of the plant Corous sativus and for a bright orange/yellow color the same as or similar to the color derived from the stigmas of this plant. Saffron was unknown to the Buddha’s India, growing only in Persia at that time. The Pali/Sanskrit word for saffron, kunkuma, does not occur anywhere in the Pali Tipitaka. Saffron was imported into northern India in later centuries but never used to dye cloth. It was used in medicine, to flavor and color food but it has never been used as a fabric dye because it washes out after the third or fourth wash. A further reason why it has never been used to dye monks’ robes or any other cloth is its expense. In Singapore today an ounce of saffron sells for a little less than an ounce of gold. It was even more expensive in ancient times. City monks in Thailand often wear robes that could well be described as saffron-colored although safety-helmet orange would be a more accurate description. But just as many monks and especially forest monks wear robes of a soft brown color. Monks’ robes in Burma are uniformly purple/brown and in Sri Lankan they range from Communist Party red to dark brown. If Tibetan monks’ robes were to be given a botanical association it would have to be beetroot. So how has saffron come to be so associated with Buddhist monk’s robes?

Uneasy is the Head

Yesterday the world’s last Hindu king was unceremoniously dethroned and an institution that stretched back to Vedic times came to an end. King Gayanendra was, by all accounts, the wrong man at the wrong time – aloof, arrogant and more concerned with his business interests than his people. Had his predecessor, the popular Birendra, still been alive the Indian tradition of kingship might have clung on. It lasted in India until 1947 when about 260 Hindu kings were un-deified and then slowly driven into penury by the tax man. I once had tea with the Maharaja of Benares in his crumbling and ill-lit palace. There was plastic on the chairs in a vain and half-hearted attempt to keep the dust off them and we were served slightly stale Britannia biscuits. The maha and long gone out of the raja. Nepal now stands at a fork in the road. It’s going to be either ‘Prachandra, infallible leader of the glorious Nepalese working people and president for life’ or a colorless nonentity ‘His Excellency’ elected for a five year tenure.
The Pali words for king are manujinda, narinda and raja. The Buddha defined royal rulers thus; ‘a king is the chief of men’ (raja mukham manussanam, Sn.568). Different religions have different theories about the origins and nature of kinship. The Bible for example, says that all rulers derive their power from God and thus to obey the king is to obey God (Romans 13,1-2). In Europe this doctrine came to be known as ‘the divine right of kings’. Queen Elizabeth still officially rules ‘by the grace of God’ although in fact she actually rules by the assent of the people who can be nearly as fickle and petulant as God. Confucianism taught a similar idea called ‘the mandate of Heaven.’ According to Hinduism, kings actually were gods. It naturally followed from all this that a king’s legitimacy was not derived from his fitness to rule but from divine assent or approval.
The Buddha had an entirely different and more realistic concept of kings and kingship. In the Agganna Sutta he posited a social contract theory of monarchy. In ancient days, he said, people saw the need for some form of government and so they elected from amongst themselves a person who they thought would be best able to rule them. According to the Hindu myth, the first king of India was Mahasammata, a name which the Buddha reinterpreted in support of his idea to mean ‘elected by the majority’ (D.III,93; Ja.II,352). Thus according to the Buddhist theory, kings derived their legitimacy from general consent, i.e. from the people they ruled. It followed from this that a king retained his right to rule only for so long as his subjects benefited from it. Several stories in the Jataka implicitly suggest that people had a right to overthrow a king who was cruel, unjust or incompetent (Ja.I,326; III,513-14; VI,156).
Such ideas were far too ahead of their time and there is little evidence that they were ever applied. However, the Buddha’s teaching of good governance had some influence in making kings more humane. The best example of this is Asoka who was probably being completely genuine when he said: ‘All subjects are my children. I wish for them what I wish for my own children - their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next.’
While the Tipitaka and later literature always exhort kings to abide by Buddhist values, the general impression they give, almost certainly based on hard experience, is of kings as despotic, arbitrary, self-indulgent and ruthless. ‘Kings are fickle-minded,’ ‘Kings are cruel,’ ‘Like a raging fire, kings are dangerous to be near’ (Ja.IV,432; V,345; VI,419). Some were described as being ‘like dust in the eye, like grit in the soup, like a thorn in the heel’ (Ja.II,240). When King Milinda asked Nagasena if they could have a discussion on the Dhamma the latter said: ‘Sire, I will discuss with you if you do so like a learned person and not like a king.’ Milinda asked what the difference was between these two approaches were and Nagasena replied: ‘When the learned are discussing, beliefs are overturned, theories are unravelled, assertions are refuted, ideas are accepted, points are made and other points are made against them. When kings are discussing they say something and punish anyone who disagrees with it’ (Mil.28-9).
Whether kings were good or bad, they had great power and the Buddha modified some of his teachings so as to avoid coming into conflict with them. In deference to the monarch he said that a person could not join the Sangha until they have fulfilled any obligations they had to the king (Vin.I,39) and that Vinaya rules could be changed if the king required it (Vin.I,137). At the same time he told monks and nuns to steer clear of royal courts so as not to get involved in all their intrigues, jealousies and temptations (A.V, 81).
The three kings who appear most frequently in the Tipitaka are Pasenadi of Kosala, Bimbisara of Magadha and his son and heir Ajatasattu. It was about two years after his enlightenment that the Buddha first met King Pasadeni in Savatthi, the capital of Kosaka (S.I,68). Impressed by his teaching, the king and his chief queen Mallika soon became two of the Buddha’s most dedicated disciples. Many discourses in the Tipitaka record dialogues between the Buddha and the king and nearly all the discourses in one chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya consists of such dialogues (S.I,68-102). Pasenadi’s genuine integration of the Dhamma into his life is nowhere better illustrated than by the fact that his commitment to the Buddha’s teachings did not prevent him from having respect for and being generous towards other religions (S.I,78; Ud.14). According to tradition, Pasadeni had two sons, one of whom, Brahmadatta, became a monk (Th.441-6).
Bimbisara came to the throne at the age of 15 and ruled for 52 years. He had met Prince Siddhattha briefly while he was still a wandering ascetic (Sn.408-9), again in the year after his enlightenment and on several subsequent occasions. Bimbisara donated one of his pleasure parks, the Bamboo Grove, to the Buddha to be used as a monastery (Vin.I,35). Although Buddhist tradition says Bimbisara was a devout Buddhist there is no discourse in the whole of the Tipitaka addressed to him. Like many Indian kings, he probably supported all religions and each claimed him as one of their followers.
While Bimbisara is described by the Buddha as ‘a just and righteous king’ (D.I,86), his son Ajatasattu is depicted in the Tipitaka as ruthless, scheming and unpredictable. He murdered his father to get the throne and supported Devadatta in his machinations against the Buddha (Vin.II,185). He also had territorial ambitions. He provoked a war with Kosala which turned out to be a disaster for him (S.I,82-5) and we read of him fortifying the border town of Pataligama in preparation for invading Vajji (D.II,86). There is also a brief reference to him strengthening the walls of his capital out of suspicion that his neighbours were going to attack him (A.II,182). In time, Ajatasattu came to be haunted by thoughts of his murdered father and sought consolation from the Buddha (D.I,475). Tradition tells us that Ajatasattu ruled for 35 years and was eventually murdered by his son Udayibhadda.
There are only three Buddhist king left, two of them beguine, well loved by their people and secure on their thrones. Do you know who they are? The third one sometimes gives the impression of having one foot on the ground and the other on a banana skin. Given Gayanendra’s experience yesterday, he would want to be careful.
The picture above is of King Mahendra's coronation in 1955

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I have finally finished my Dictionary of Flora and Fauna in the Pali Tipitaka, a project that has taken nearly three years. It will not be ready for the press for at least another 12 months. There are 754 entries and over 3000 references. The animal that gets most space is the elephant and the plant is rice. A long introduction includes all information from the Tipitaka pertaining to plants and animals in general. While doing research for this book in the ancient literature of India I came across so many fascinating references to plants and animals, much of which I have not been able to use. Some of this material is so beautiful or interesting or quirky that I have kept it anyway. Below is an example of such material. It is a charming passage from Bana’s Harshacarita which describes king Harsha's impressions on arriving at Venerable Divakaramitra’s forest hermitage in the Vindhyan Mountains. It was the idea of monkeys worshiping stupas and birds reciting the Dhamma that made this delightful passage appeal to me so much. The translation is Thomas and Cowell’s which I have modified slightly.
Then in the midst of the trees, while he was yet at a distance, the holy man's presence was suddenly announced by the king's seeing Buddhists from various provinces seated in different situations, - perched on pillars, seated on the rocks, dwelling in bowers of creepers, lying in thickets, in the shadow of the branches or squatting on the roots of trees, - all diligently following their own tenets, pondering, urging objections, raising doubts, resolving them, giving etymologies, disputing, studying, and explaining, and all gathered here as his disciples. Even some monkeys who had taken the Three Refuges were busy performing the ritual of the stupa, while some devout parrots, skilled in the Shakya sastras, were explaining the Abhidharmakosa, and some mynas who had obtained calm by expositions of the duties of Vinaya, were giving lectures on the Dharma, and some owls, who had gained insight by listening to the ceaseless round of instruction, were muttering the various births of the Bodhisattva, and even some tigers who had given up eating flesh under the calming influence of Buddhist teaching were waiting in attendance, while some young lions sat undisturbed near his seat showed at once what a great sage he was, as he thus sat as it were on a natural lion-throne. His feet were licked by some deer who seemed to drink in his calmness; he demonstrated universal love by a young dove which sat on his left hand like a lotus dropped from his ear, while he dazzled the spectators by the rays which streamed from the nails of his other hand, as he poured water on a peacock, which stood near with its neck uplifted, like an emerald water-jar, or scattered grains of panic and rice for the ants. He was clad in a soft yellow robe, as if he were the dawn in the East teaching the other quarters to assume the red robe, while they reflected the pure red glow of his body like a finely cut ruby; with his gently eye lowered in humility, he seemed to rain ambrosia to revive the little insects which the crowd had inadvertently crushed. He was like Avalokiteshvara, absorbed without faltering in austerity, revealing the real nature of all things to his student, one whom even the Buddha himself might well approach with reverence.

The Dark Hill

Kanheri (kanha = dark and giri = hill) is a high, thickly-wooded hill on the outer edges of Mumbai. From about the 1st to the 9th centuries it was the site of a thriving community of Buddhist monks. It seems from inscriptions on the site that the monks were well supported by merchants who passed the monastery while on their way to and from the ancient ports on Mumbai island and further up the coast. There are about 100 caves cut out of the rocky parts of the hill. I have been there twice and during my first visit I stayed in one of the small caves for a few days. The cistern cut into the rock just outside my cave had crystal-clear water in it even at the height of summer. The silent forest, the birds serenading the dawn and the fabulous view of the city far below all combined to make it a really magical experience. Two jackals that came sniffing around at night and frightened the life out of me were, I must admit, somewhat less magical. My friend Jake Mitra has just come back from India and has been kind enough to send me some of the photos he took at Kanheri. The picture of the elegant little stupas with the cherubs hovering around the pinnacle of one and the banners fluttering in the breeze, is my favorite. Why don’t Buddhists make stupas like that any more? The second picture, of small Buddha image, is testimony to the skill of the artists of the high Gupta. What a masterpiece! If you would like to see more of Jake’s pictures have a look at

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Good God!

I remember reading that when a British press baron decided to install computerized printing machines that needed no workers to operate them, he immediately found himself at odds with the unions. The battle went on for some time but eventually the baron prevailed and the most the unions were able to get was an agreement that one worker would be employed to stand besides each machine. This way at least a few workers would retain their jobs. This story reminds me of God. Originally he/she/them/it was dreamed up to explain how things worked. Now science has done that and God isn’t needed any more. But some people still have God standing besides the machine, not because he does anything but just because psychologically they can’t bare to give him the sack.
The Buddha took God out of the picture for two reasons. He understood that things could be more plausibly explained by natural causation and because he saw that the God-idea is full of moral, logical and evidential problems. Despite this, there are still intelligent and otherwise well-informed people who will tell you that the Buddha gave some place to God in his philosophy. There are several verses in the Bhuridatta Jataka which deal with some of the moral objections of the God-idea and which pretty much settle the argument that the Buddha believed in a benevolent, all-powerful deity (Ja.VI,208). This is Cowell and Rouse’s translation of these verses which, because of its feistiness often get reproduced.

He who has eyes can see the sickening sight;
Why does not Brahma set his creatures right?
If his wide powers no limits can restrain,
Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
Why are his creatures all condemned to pain?
Why does he not to all give happiness?
Why do fraud, lies and ignorance prevail?
Why triumphs falsehood – truth and justice fail?
I count you Brahma one th’ unjust among,
Who made a world in which to shelter wrong.

This translation certainly captures the spirit of the original but it is not a translation or even a loose rendering. Here is a translation of these verses done with help by my friend Ven. Anandajoti

Why does God not straighten out the world?
If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings,
Why is the whole world in such a mess?
Why did he not make the world happy?
If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings,
Why is there so much deceit, lies, pride and unrighteousness?
If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings,
Then he must be unrighteous and cruel,
Because it was he who made everything.

Incidentally, the Buddha was by no means the only great teacher who taught a God-free spirituality in 5th century BCE India. Jainism and most of the heterodox sects did too. Jainism in particular took to theism like a terrier to a rat. In his Mahapurana, Jinadasa (9th century) wrote these verses about the idea of a benevolent creator God. The lines about God’s play refer to the Vedantic concept of divine lila.

Some foolish men declare that the Creator made the world.
But this doctrine is ill-advised and should be rejected.
If God created the world, where was he before creation?
If you say at that time he was transcendent and needed no support,
Where is he now?
No one being has the skill to make the world –
Who can believe that an immaterial God could make a material world?
How could God have made everything without any raw material?
If you say that he made all this first,
Then you are faced with the problem of endless regression.
If you say that this raw material arose naturally,
You are faced with yet another problem.
For if it arose naturally then the world might have arisen naturally too.
If you say God created purely by an act of will
And without raw material, then everything must be just will,
And who would believe such nonsense?
If God is perfect and complete, as you claim,
Then where did the will to create come from?
If on the other hand he is not perfect,
He could no more create the universe than a potter could.
If you say God created without purpose,
Simply because it is his nature to do so,
Then his creation is pointless.
If his creation was a ‘play’ then it was the game of a foolish brat,
Resulting in trouble.
If he created out of love for beings,
Why did he not make creation happy and free from troubles?

Monday, May 26, 2008

When Elephants Sigh

The terrible Sichuan earthquake has been in the news for the last 10 days which has stimulated me to have a look at what the Buddha says about these terrifying and destructive occurrences. Earthquakes (bhumicala) occur all over India but particularly in the north and the ancient Indians made various attempts to explain their cause. The 10th century Adbhuta Sagara says earthquakes are caused by the movement of sea monsters while the Brihat Samhita, written in about the 6th century, says they are caused by flying mountains dropping to earth. Another theory was that they happen when the great elephants that holds up the earth sigh. The oldest explanation, in the Rig Veda, says that Indra, the god of thunder, agitates the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – and that this makes the earth quake.
The Buddha said that earthquakes occur when eight things happen. “This great earth is supported by water which is supported by air which is in turn supported by space. When a great wind blows, this stirs up the water and because of the stirring-up of the water the earth quakes” (D.II,107). Although the Buddha was mistaken in this matter, he was clearly attempting to give a naturalistic explanation for the phenomena. However, he also said that gods or even humans who had developed certain psychic powers could cause earthquakes. And finally, he said that earthquakes can occur when a bodhisattva is conceived, is born, attains enlightenment thus becoming a Buddha, teaches the Dhamma for the first time, decides to die and then passes into final Nirvana; although he did not explain why they coincide with these events. Probably, like many people at the time, he assumed that ‘earth shattering’ events should have an earth-shattering manifestation. Interestingly, the Bible says that an earthquake occurred just as Jesus died (Matthew 27, 51).

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Gay Tragedy

Occasionally someone, usually a young man but sometimes a young women or an older man or women, will approach me and after a few minuets of hesitation or beating around the bush, ask me what the Buddhist position on homosexuality is. When they do I tell then that intentional actions (kamma) modify consciousness and that our kamma conditions our future. Positive intentional acts have positive effects (vipaka) and negative intentional acts have a negative effect. Sexual acts motivated by the usual intentions, feelings and emotions which exist between two people who love each other, would have a positive effect and would not infringe the third Precept, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual. I underline this point by saying that Buddhist ethics about sex are primarily concerned with the motives behind out sexual behavior, rather than the gender of our partner. This being so, if two people of the same gender express their love for each other physically there is no good reason why the kamma this creates should be any different from when two people of the opposite gender do the same. Having said this I then try to change the subject, not because I am embarrassed talking about homosexuality, but because I do not like the ‘single issue’ approach to Dhamma. However, a few years ago I had an encounter which made me realize that inquiries about homosexuality, whether from gays themselves or their families, should be given my whole attention. However theoretical or marginal this issue may be to me it is likely to be of considerable import to the people who ask such questions.
A young man named Julian rung me asking if he could come and talk to me about Buddhism. I said he could and on the appointed day and time he came. Julian turned out to be about 20 old, of slight build and with pleasant features. He was well groomed and neatly dressed. He started by asking me a few questions about some aspects of Buddhism but I sensed that these were not really what he was interested in. Finally the question came, “Venerable, can a gay person be a good Buddhist?” I gave my usual reply but it soon became clear that this did not please him. He kept interjecting and expressing doubts about what I said. I answered all his objections but he remained unconvinced. Arriving at a deadlock and not knowing what more I could say I asked him if he was gay. He blushed, cleared his throat and said that he was. Then he told me his story. Since his early teens he noticed that he was attracted to other boys and had a particular interest in woman’s clothes. Horrified by these feelings he kept them well under control. A year ago while doing his national service he had met another soldier who was gay and since that time they had been having a relationship, although a guilt-filled and fugitive one. Once or twice a month they would pool their recourses and book a hotel for the night. He would dress in woman’s clothes, put on makeup and they would spend the night together. For Julian at least, this would be followed by days of self-loathing and resolutions never to do it again. After he had finished telling me this he hung his head and said, “This must be wrong.” “Well,” I said, “some people would find it a bit strange. But from a Buddhist perspective I really can’t see that it is particularly harmful. Satisfying sexual urges is a perfectly natural thing to do and it is acceptable where it does not involve adultery or harming others. The conflict you create within yourself by hating what are completely harmless feelings hurts you much more than being gay ever could. There is no reason why you can’t practice the Precepts – respecting the life, the prosperity and the sexual feelings of others, their right to know the truth and keeping your mind free from intoxicants – while being gay.” He was silent but I could see that I had not been able to still his doubts. Julian visited me two more time over the next two month and our conversations were about the Dhamma in general although we also went over the same territory concerning homosexuality with very much the same results.
Then, after not having seen or heard from Julian for nearly six month I got a call from him. He told me that a famous Taiwanese monk was in town giving a series of talks and that he had managed to get a few minuets with him. He had asked the monk the same question he had asked me and the monk had told him that homosexuality was a filthy, evil thing and that homosexuals get reborn in the lowest hell where they are boiled in excrement for eons. Julian said this with in an almost triumphant tone, seemingly glad that he had proved me wrong or that he had found someone who agreed with him. I asked him what else this venerable monk had said. “Nothing,” he replied. “He was going somewhere and only had a few minuets to talk.”
How often has this happened to me? I have told an inquirer something about Buddhism which I know to be sound, sensible and in accordance with the Tipitaka, they go to another monk who tells them the exact opposite and then they come back to me asking me to explain the anomaly. Then I am stuck with the problem of either saying that the other monk doesn’t know what he is talking about (which is often the case) and appearing to be an arrogant upstart, or biting my lip, saying nothing and letting the person go away with yet another half-baked notion or superstition thinking that it is Dhamma. How often? Very often! In most cases this is just frustrating. In this case it had tragic consequences.
“Look Julian” I said, “You asked me what Buddhism would say about homosexuality and I told you based on my 20 years of studying the Buddhist scriptures and thinking about various issues in the light of the Buddha’s Dhamma. I don’t know what else I can say.” I told him that if he wanted to talk with me at any time he was welcome to do so and then we hung up.
Four days later I was browsing through the paper and a small article tucked away on the eighth page caught my eye. The heading read ‘Man’s Body Found in Park.’ I scanned the article briefly and was about to turn to something else when the name Julian sprung out at me. In an instant my attention was riveted. I read the part where this name appeared and sure enough it was about the Julian who had come to see me. I returned to the top of the article and read it all the way through. Four days earlier, perhaps only a few hours after ringing me, Julian had gone to a park in the centre of Singapore late at night, taken an overdose of sleeping tablets and been found dead the next morning. A suicide note had been found in his pocket but the article did mention what it said. I was overwhelmed by sorrow. The thought of him lying there utterly alone, hating himself and in such despair that he would kill himself almost made me cry. But soon anger was welling up through the sadness and diluting it until it had completely replaced the sadness. I pictured the Taiwanese monk blithely dispensing his ignorant and ultimately toxic opinion before rushing off to give a sermon about compassion or receive the accolade of the crowd. I became so angry that I resolved to write him a letter and tell him what he had been responsible for. Then I thought it would probably be a waste of time. He probably wouldn’t even remember talking to Julian.
It seems to me that most thoughtful people would agree that sex without love is a pretty unattractive thing. Physically, it is little more than ‘exchanging fluids’ as the AIDS awareness literature so delicately puts it. What lifts sex above the fluids exchange level is the motives and emotions behind it – affection, tenderness, the desire to give and receive, the bonds of companionship, fun even. This fits well into the Buddha’s famous statement, “I say that intention is kamma.” Is sticking a knife into someone a positive or a negative action? It depends! If the knife was held by an enraged violent person it would probably be negative. If it is held by a surgeon performing an operation to save someone’s life it would certainly be positive. From the Buddhist perspective, sexual behavior is not judged primarily by the gender of the people involved, by the dictates of a code of behavior drawn up in the Bronze Age or by whether a legal document has been signed, but by its psychological components. Homosexuals are as capable of wanting and of feeling love and affection towards their partners as heterosexuals are and where such states are present homosexual sex is as acceptable as heterosexual sex.
This is a simple and logical truth and it is in accordance with Buddhist teachings but circumstances were such that I was unable to help Julian see it. All his experience had told him that being attracted to people of the same gender is wrong. Those around him had always expressed disapproval towards homosexuality and sniggered at gays. The law (in Singapore) told him that homosexuality is so heinous that it must be punished by 10 years imprisonment, more than for manslaughter. He knew that religious teachers, Christian, Muslim and even some Buddhists, consider it so evil that it will have dreadful consequences in the life hereafter. All this denigration and ignorance prevented him from hearing the gentle, reasonable and kindly words of the Buddha. It caused him inestimable suffering and finally drove him to suicide.
I am reminded of Julian because three weeks ago I represented Buddhism in a seminar on religion and homosexuality at Catholic Junior Collage (Boy! Haven’t Catholic collages changed!). Of the 800 students in the audience I assumed that a certain number would probably be homosexual and may be struggling to understand their feelings. Knowing that what I said may well have something to do with them growing up either happy and well-adjusted or tortured and self-loathing, I did took great care to explain the Buddhist position on homosexuality.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Watching Movies

In the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha asks his audience, “Monks, have you ever seen caranam nama cittam?” They answer that they have and then he says, “Even that caranam nama cittam has been conceived by the diversity of the mind and yet the mind is even more diverse than caranam nama cittam” (S.III,151). Woodward translates the words caranam naman cittam as “a picture which they call ‘a show-piece,’” Nyanaponika translates it as “a multi-figured painting” and Bhikkhu Bodhi has “the picture called ‘Faring On.’” These three translations are certainly correct in having citta as ‘painting’ and ‘picture’ but what about caranam? Carati means, according to the PTS Dictionary, to move, to turn, to turn around. This has led Bhikkhu Bodhi to think that it is the content of the painting that has something to do with moving and the ancient commentary supports this interpretation. It says, “The Sankha were a sect of heretical brahmans. Having taken a canvas, they had various pictures painted on it of the good and bad destinations to illustrate success and failure, and then they took it around on their wanderings. They would show it to people, explaining, ‘If one does this deed, one gets this result; if one does that, one gets that.’” So according to the commentary, ‘caranam’ refers to the movement of beings from one life to another according to their kamma. Of course it is quite possible that such pictures were used to entertain and instruct. However, I think ‘moving’ here had a different meaning.
There is a long tradition of wandering story-tellers in India. Some of these story-tellers have pictures which they display as they sing or recite their tales. The best known of these are the Patus of Bengal. These people make cloth paintings which they hold vertically and let descend in time to the stories they are narrating, often to the accompaniment to music. Less well-known are the long painted scrolls used by Rajastani story-tellers which are displayed horizontally and slowly unrolled in time to the story. Similar painted scrolls are called cheri in Andhra Pradesh and patta chitra elsewhere.
It is interesting that the Buddha actually refers to paintings being done on cloth (dussapatta) with lac, turmeric, indigo or madder (S.II,101-2). He also mentions that people would attend something called “the city of Sobha” (sobhanagaraka, D.I,6), Sobha being the abode of the cherubim and seraphim of Vedic mythology. It is possible that these were pictures of heaven which were displayed while a bard described their various delights. The oldest material evidence of painted cloth scrolls being used by bards and story-tellers is to be found at the Buddhist stupa of Sanchi. The cross-bars on the torana of the stupa are made in imitation of painted scrolls. Note the depiction of rolled up cloth at each end and the how crowded with images the displayed part is, as would have been the case with an actual scroll. There can be little doubt that by the 2nd century BCE Buddhist story-tellers, possibly monks, were touring the land telling people of the life and deeds of the

Buddha and illustrating it with pictures. I think it very likely that some of the gathas in the Pali Tipitaka and particularly in the Mahavastu are actually the very words these story-tellers used to read or chant.
Today, other types of moving pictures, cinema and television, have led to the almost complete demise of the Patus but in the past their stories and their gradually unfolding brightly-colored images must have enthralled their audiences. I suggest that it was such ‘moving’ paintings that the Buddha was referring to. One might render the Buddha’s words as “…the mind is even more diverse than the movies.” An acceptable translation of his question as mentioned above would be, “Monks, have you ever seen what is called the moving picture?”
If you would like to know something more about these Indian scroll paintings visit or and look up Gazir Chitra.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


A few years ago as I sat in the library of a Buddhist society in Australia the librarian came up and began talking to me. During our conversation he described himself to me as “an Anglican Buddhist.” Not a Christian Buddhist mind you, but an Anglican Buddhist. There is probably something wrong with me but I find this kind of thing completely bewildering. But then, of course, I’m just a simple monk. Judging from the literature coming out of Buddhist America the new orthodoxy there seems to be that you can be both Jewish and Buddhist. Such people call themselves Jubus or Bujus. Some time ago I saw a book on meditation by Sylvia Boorstein. The title, Its Easier Than You Think, told me straight away that the author must be American. I picked it up and leafed through it. I thought it quite good but its claim that you can be a good (practicing?) Jew and a Buddhist astonished me. One of the author’s other books, which I later read, Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, discusses this theme in more detail. And how about this one? Buddha Turns the Kabbalah Wheel: Jewish Buddhist Resonance From A Christian Gnostic Perspective by Thomas Ragland. Just reading this title makes me feel like I’m having an identity crisis.
Is it possible to be ethnically Jewish and a practicing Buddhist? Absolutely! Is it possible to be ethnically Jewish and a practicing Buddhist and have a deep regard for and interest in your Jewish heritage? Yes! Is it possible to be ethnically Jewish and a practicing Buddhist and participate in the various Jewish holidays and some of its rites in order to keep in touch with your roots or to please the family? Yes! Is it possible to be a practicing Jew and a practicing Buddhist at the same time? No it is not! The two are mutually incompatible. A Buddhist would have to see most of the practices of Orthodox and even Reformed Judaism as harmless but empty rituals that contributed nothing to the development of virtue or the freeing of the mind. If anything, they reinforce a specific identity; the very thing Buddhism seeks to transcend. The Torah’s unambiguous demand for total allegiance to the God of Israel and the Buddha’s God-free spirituality and world view, separate the two religions from the word go. Do Jewish and Buddhist ethical values have much in common? Yes. But to believe that you can accept all the core principles of Judaism and Buddhism is to have a profound misunderstanding of both and, quite frankly, to betray of the uniqueness of both.
Would it be possible to be a practicing Jew, do meditation, benefit from it and to have a regard for Buddhist spirituality? Yes! Would it be possible to be a practicing Buddhist and have a respect for Jewish beliefs? It would be obligatory. But to believe that you can do justice to the behavioral and intellectual requirements of both at the same time is a delusion. In the good old days the ‘we’re absolutely right and everyone else is absolutely wrong’ approach to religion was responsible for a great deal of smugness, prejudice and hatred. Now, in the ‘good new days’ the ‘we’re right but everyone else is too’ approach is causing nothing but confusion, dishonesty and hypocrisy. I’m not sure which one is worst.
Just so there is no hard feelings, treat yourself to a bit of Jubu humor.

If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?

Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.

Accept misfortune as a blessing. Do not wish for perfect health or a life without problems. What would you talk about?

There is no escaping kamma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?

The Torah says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The Buddha says, ‘There is no self.’ So, maybe we are off the hook.

Incidentally, everything said above applies to those who believe that you can be a Christian, a Mormon, an Exclusive Brethren, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Sikh or an Inuit walrus worshipper and be Buddhist as well. And just to show that it is I who am out of step, the BBC North Yorkshire website has an article about Sadhu Dharmaira who describes himself as a Zen Hindu monk. When asked to explain this apparent anomaly Sadhu said “Of course there is no such thing as Buddhism or Hinduism.” Wow! Deep! And on her website, Irshad Manji mentions a friend of hers who is – wait for it – a Buddhist Muslim! Is it just me or did I hear the sound of a fatwa being hurled?
Have to go now. I want to get back to a really interesting book I’m reading called A Marxist Capitalist’s Analysis Of the Future of Christian Atheism in the 19th Century.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tickets Please!

This is my picture of the month. Hey, you in London! Stop complaining about how hot and stuffy the Tube is! And those old rattling U Bahn carriages in Berlin with the graffiti all over them – learn to love em! And if you think the Sydney trains are crowded - count your lucky stars! In fact, count them twice. This is an Indian train – outside peak hours. God! I can hardly believe that I traveled all over India in the 70’s by third class but I did. Once I took a train from Nagpur to Seoni that was easily as crowded as this and it took all day. I often took the train from VT to Kurala Junction which made this one look empty. I must have been mad! I must have hated it but I look back on it now and all the dukkha is gone and only good memories remain. Funny thing memory!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

European Hindus

The First European Hindus
Being a Western Buddhist monk I have always taken an interest in my predecessors; Ananda Mettiya, Nyanatiloka, etc. Only recently did I discoverer that Western Hindus proceeded all we Western Buddhists monks and nuns by perhaps as much as 200 years. When we think of the beginnings of Hinduism in the West we usually think of Swami Vivakananda teaching Vedanta at the World Parliament of Religions in 1896 or of Swami Yogananda founding the Divine Life Mission in Los Angeles in 1920’s. In fact, the Western interest in Indian religions in general and in Hinduism in particular began at least 300 years earlier than this. The first Europeans to arrive in India since the armies of Alexander the Great were the Portuguese in 1498. After wrestling what was to become Goa from the local maharajas Portuguese merchants, priests and soldiers starting coming to India in large numbers. Within 20 years many of them began adopting Indian customs including specifically Hindu ones. At this early period no one actually became Hindu and indeed this would have been impossible - all religions other than Catholicism were forbidden in Portuguese territory. But many people began to adopt Indian customs and this gradually opened the way to the acceptance of Hindu beliefs. This was particularly true of the soldiers. These men were inevitably from the lower rungs of society, poorly paid, badly treated and usually without female company. Early in the peace one or two of these soldiers deserted and fled to Indian territory where they soon found well paid jobs, mainly as army officers and royal guards. Those who were employed with Muslim courts learned that if they converted to Islam they could have several wives and even rise to quite high positions. When word of this got around soldiers started deserting in large numbers. At one period, as many of four thousand Portuguese are known to have deserted and 'become idolaters.' There is no explicit mention of any of these runaways having converted to Hinduism but in the light of later developments this almost certainly happened. The Office of the Holy Inquisition arrived in Goa in 1560 determined to stamp out even the slightest vestige of Hinduism or Islam. One Jesuit wrote back to Rome that "the Inquisition is more necessary in these parts than anywhere else, since all the Christians here live together with Muslims, Jews and Hindus and this causes laxness of conscience in persons residing therein." Just to have adopted a few harmless Indian practices was enough to be dragged before the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy or being an apostate. The Inquisition drew up a list of practices which were forbidden; it included refusing to eat beef, wearing a dhoti and "cooking rice without salt as the Hindus are accustom to do." Most people had no choice but to buckle under but some quietly crossed over into Indian territory where they could live and worship as they wanted. Many of them and their offspring were effortlessly absorbed into the great sea of Hinduism.
The English arrived in India in the early 1500’s and by the middle of the 18th century they were well established in the subcontinent. They were also well and truly Indianized by that time too. In between doing business and fighting wars they eat Indian food, wore Indian dress and in most ways lived very much as upper class Hindus did. Those commanding Indian soldiers usually joined their men at various religious observances, if for nothing else because it helped develop espirit de corps. Thus gradually through acquaintance, habit and them appreciation, Hinduism entered into the consciousness of many of the English. Another thing that hastened the process of ‘going native’ was the need for female company. Most Englishmen either kept a concubine or married a local woman, some even had harems. The famous David Ochterlony had a harem of about 14 women. A wonderful painting of Ochterlony done in 1820 shows him sitting amongst large pillows on the floor, dressed in Indian attire, smoking a huge hooker and surrounded by his many wives and retainers. With Indian women in their homes Hindu practices and beliefs entered even the private lives of the English. Job Charnock, the legendary founder of Calcutta, married a Hindu women who he rescued from her husband’s funeral pyre and, according to a contemporary observer, "instead of he converting her to Christianity, she made him a Proselyte to Paganism." The two were happily married for many years and when she finally died "the only Part of Christianity that was remarkable in him, was burying her decently, and he built a Tomb over her, where all his life after her Death, he kept the anniversary Day of her Death by sacrificing a Cock on her Tomb, after the Pagan Manner." A good number of Englishmen remained Christian, if only nominally, while being intrigued by or appreciative of certain aspects of Hinduism - its tolerance, its all-embracing form and its undemanding spirituality. The great orientalist Sir William Jones always remained a practising member of the Church of England but he considered the doctrine of reincarnation to be more attractive than the Christian concept of eternal hell. He wrote; "I am no Hindoo but I hold the doctrines of the Hindoos concerning a future state to be incomparably more rational, more pious and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by the Christians on punishment without end." Others went beyond mere intellectual appreciation of Hindu doctrines to participate in its rites and festivals. The missionary literature of the time provides ample evidence that some Englishmen were thoroughly Hinduized. One of the most outspoken of these missionaries was the Reverend Alexander Thompson, author of Government Connection with Idolatry in India, a scathing condemnation of the official British tolerance of and support for Hinduism. Thompson recounted with indignation how "the chief officers of the Government belonged to a particular class, those who between 1790 and 1820 possessed the greatest experience, and held the highest offices in India, were on the whole an irreligious body of men; who approved of Hinduism much more than Christianity…Some hated Missionaries from their dread of sedition and others because their hearts…had fallen to idols foul." He related how the East India Company employed brahmins to pray for rain and bountiful harvests, how it made donations to temples and how some of its offices participated in pujas and other ceremonies. Another missionary, James Peggs, related with horror how a certain commanding officer of a regiment near Tanjore gave his men money to buy goats to sacrifice to Kali and that the officer himself prayed before an image of the goddess to eradicate cholera from the ranks. Other records show this same trend. For example, when the Scottish watchmaker David Hare who had founded the Hindu Collage in Calcutta died, the Church refused to grant him a Christian burial on the grounds that "he was more Hindu than Christian." Undeterred, his English and Indian friends took his body to the nearby river and had it cremated with full Hindu rites.
A much smaller but not insignificant number of Englishmen consciously renounced Christianity and converted to Hinduism. The most eminent of these and the one we have most information about was Major General Charles Stuart. Born in Ireland, Stuart came out to India in the 1780’s when he was still a teenager. Almost immediately he took to Hinduism and faithfully practised it for the rest of his life. Every morning he would go and bathe in the Ganges, he would greet all the Indians he met with the traditional ‘Sitarama’ and on one occasion even attended the Kumba Mela, not as a sightseer but as a devotee. He also learned Hindi and Sanskrit and became very familiar with the shastras, so much so that the Indians called him ‘General Pandit’ and amongst the English he was known affectionately as ‘Hindoo Stuart’. That he did not do all this just to gain the acceptance of the locals is clear from the fact that on his trip back to England he took all his household gods with then so the could worship them while there. But Stuart was not content with just being a Hindu, he was also anxious to defend the religion that had given him so much satisfaction from the attacks of Christian missionaries. In 1808 he wrote a books called A Vindication of the Hindoos from the Aspersions of the Revd Claudius Buchanam with a refutation of the arguments exhibited in his Memoir…By a Bengal Officer. It is a remarkable work and shows that Stuart was at least two hundred years ahead of his time. Stuart saw no reason for Christian missionaries being in India because "on the enlarged principles of moral reasoning, Hindooism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people of all the useful purposes of a civilised society." Missionaries never missed the opportunity to ridicule the complex, and to those who had never taken the trouble to examine it sympathetically, confusing theology of Hinduism. To such criticism and ridicule Stuart had an interesting comment. ‘Whenever I look around me, in the vast regions of Hindoo Mythology, I discover piety in the garb of allegory, and I see Morality, at every turn, blended with every tale, and, as far as I can rely on my own judgement, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory that the world has ever produced’.
At least one Englishman, or more correctly, an Irishman, actually become a Hindu swami. Thomas Legge was born in Donaghadee in Ulster and started life as a seaman. He jumped ship in India and spent several decades wandering the country working for various maharajas as a cavalryman and a cannon maker. He became deeply interested in Hinduism and especially with alchemy and astrology. Eventually he became a swami and dressed in a yellow robe, settled down in an old tomb near Jaipur in Rajastan. He practiced yoga and was apparently looked upon with deep respect by local people. At the very beginning to the 19th century James Todd, himself an almost completely Hinduized Englishmen, happened to meet Swami Legge and recorded his conversations with him. Legge told Todd that during his wanderings through the Himalayas he had discovered what he thought was the Garden of Eden. "Deep down in the heart of the mountains was situated a beautiful garden , filled with delicious fruit, with piles of gold bricks at one end and of silver at the other." Swami Legge died in 1808 and was buried in the ruined tomb where he had long lived. In the 1850’s his grave was still pointed out to visitors.
If this harmonious blending of Eastern and Western cultures and beliefs had been allow to continue who knows what interesting fruits it might have produced. Perhaps the first Vedantic or yoga teachers to come to the West might have been pale skinned English speaking swamis rather than Indians. But it was not to be. There were two main reasons for this. When the first Englishmen came to India in the early 16th century the standard of life of the average person in both countries was not that much different. Two hundred years later they were miles apart. English society had been dramatically transformed and improved by the industrial revolution and discoveries in science, technology and medicine while India had hardly changed at all. Young Englishman coming out to India could hardly fail to notice the differences between the two countries and they started to develop superiority complexes towards Indians and things Indian. In time, this soured into an ugly racism and created an almost insurmountable barrier between the two peoples so that they related to each other only as rulers and ruled. Another thing that brought the process of cultural fusion to a halt was the evangelical revival in England. A harsh judgmental Christianity was becoming the vogue and it demanded strict moral behaviour and a contempt for everything un-Christian. And if you think this type of narrow-minded and bigoted religiosity is a thing of the past I would invite you to S.E. Asia any time to talk to a few new Christians here. These unfortunate trends intensified when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1836 and hardened as the 19th century progressed. For the English in India it gradually became unacceptable to take an Indian concubine or wife or even to wear Indian clothes. This is how pyjamas, a common form of Indian day dress, came to be worn by the English only in bed. As Indian clothes went out of fashion one could only wear them in the privacy of one’s home and at night. Of course, away from the Anglicized cities like Bombay, Madras and Calcutta and in districts where there were no memsahib or missionaries, some continued to live an Indian lifestyle but where this had once passed without comment it was now seen as eccentric, as ‘letting the team down’, or as ‘going tropo’. By the time poor old ‘Hindoo Stuart’ died in 1826 he was one of the last representatives of an earlier more tolerant age. It was not until nearly a hundred years later that Western respect for Hinduism began to blossom once more.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The AK-47 Monk

Now here’s something you don’t see every day – a Buddhist monk behaving badly. In Thailand you only see it every second or third day. The particularly skewed Thai understanding of what the Sangha is supposed to be about, the country’s arcane system of monastic recruitment and the fact that anyone - and I mean anyone! - can join the Sangha, means that Thai monks are, how shall I put it, ‘a mixed bag.’ The news item below illustrates what I mean. It would be interesting to know why this monk was not disrobed after his first encounter with the police. It would be equally interesting to know if he was disrobed after this more recent performance. Probably not. Now that I think about it, it would be interesting to know how a monk makes his way through Bangkok and enter parliament with a AK-47 tucked under his robe? How does a monk GET an AK-47? Ah Thailand! The land of the tattered Buddha.

BANGKOK May 22. A young Buddhist monk was arrested on Wednesday after storming Thailand’s Parliament with an assault rifle, taking about 30 people hostage and demanding to speak with the Prime Minister. No one was injured. After a one-hour standoff during which he berated authorities by mobile phone and fired an AK-47 assault rifle into the air once, the monk was captured by three plainclothes police posing as reporters who grabbed the gun and handcuffed him. The monk, who wore a traditional yellow robe, said he was from a province in south-eastern Thailand and was in his 20’s. Before being arrested, he demanded to be allowed to talk with the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, saying that he wanted to protest “unjust treatment” he suffered when arrested by police several years ago. Speaking into a reporter’s mobile phone, the monk said in a lengthy speech that was broadcast live on radio and television that he was arrested in 1996 for trespassing in a national park and was beaten and stripped by police. He said that authorities had not responded to his complaints. The chaos began at about 8:30 a.m. local time, just minutes before Thailand’s 500-member elected Lower House was set to debate a much-anticipated no-confidence motion against 15 Cabinet members in Mr. Thaksin’s 14-month-old Government. A woman entering the Parliament building to listen to the debate said that the monk threatened to kill her and others. “He stormed into the reception office where I was and said, ‘Don't move or you'll get yourself killed,’” said Pratuang Mongkolsil, 53. “Then the monk went out and shot once and came back. I was so frightened.”

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Rejoice! Rejoice at the good tidings! The Buddha our Lord has found the root of all evil; he has shown us the way to salvation. The Buddha dispels the illusions of our mind and redeems us from the terror of death. The Buddha our Lord brings us comfort to the weary and sorrow-laden; he restores peace to those broken down under the burden of life. He gives courage to the weak when they would fain give up self-reliance and hope. You who suffer from the tribulations of life, you who have to struggle and endure, you who yearn for a life of truth, rejoice at the glad tidings. There is a balm for the wounded, and there is food for the hungry. There is water for the thirsty, and there is hope for the despairing. There is light for those in darkness, and there are inexhaustible blessings for the upright. Heal your wounds you wounded, and eat your fill you hungry. Rest you weary and you who are thirsty quench your thirst. Look up to the light you who sit in darkness and be of good cheer you who are forlorn. Trust in truth you who love the truth for the Kingdom of Righteousness is founded on earth. The darkness I of ignorance is dispelled by the light of truth. We can now see our way and take firm and certain steps. The Buddha, our Lord, has revealed the truth. The truth cures our diseases and strengthens us in life and death. The truth alone can conquer the evils of ignorance. Therefore, rejoice at the glad tidings!
From Paul Carus’ The Gospel of the Buddha.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Apart from the more well-known places, Bihar has hundreds of other Buddhist sites virtually unknown to anyone except the local people. Ferreting out such places is one of my hobbies. Last year during my annual trip to India I decided to go to Konch which has been on my list of ‘must sees’ for a long time. Viraj, I and a couple we had just met in Bodh Gaya, Frank and Kateri, set off early for the long drive to Konch which is about 35 kilometers north west of Gaya. It was a lovely morning and I saw lots of birds - several Indian Rollers, milk-white herons and for the first time a pair of Open-billed Storks, sithilahanu in Pali. The village of Konch is built on the top of a low mound which is highest on its eastern side. We took the car as far as we could through the village until the streets became too narrow and then parked and got out and walked. A crowd of curious villagers gathered and followed us down the road. Soon we arrived at the edge of the village where the temple is. I have only ever seen one photo of the temple, taken in approximately 1870, so it was a bit of a shock to see it now. Like so many of India’s architectural treasures, it has been ‘renovated,’ destroying much of its original appearance. The pujari was busy doing his daily devotions and when finished he came out and talked to us. Unusually, he proved to be well-informed about the history of the place and was delighted that strangers would come such a long way to see it. His polite and respectful attitude towards us meant that none of the more mischievous village boys would get rowdy, something which can happen in more remote villages and which can be a real problem. After chatting with him for a while we had a look around. Other than its curving lines, the temple’s spire is very similar to that of the Mahabodhi Temple. The triangular opening in the spire is identical to the one in the Mahabodhi Temple as is the arched ceiling in the inner chamber. Some people, me included, believe the temple was originally a Buddhist one and represents a later evolution of the Mahabodhi Temple. Inside the temple’s first chamber are two dozen Hindu images, some of them very fine and all dating from the Pala period. But what interested me most was outside around the outer wall of the temple – a dozen or so Buddhist images, mainly Buddhas, but one of Tara and several of bodhisattvas. All of them dated from between the 9th and 13th centuries and had been badly damaged, probably sometime after the Islamic period. There are lots of carved fragments too. Whichever iconoclasts came this way certainly did a good job. I have been unable to identify Konch with any of the place names mentioned in the Tipitaka so it probably has no association with the Buddha. However, it is on one of the two ancient roads (the northern one) that led from Gaya to and Varanasi and Garjanapati (modern Ghazipur).

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Veronica

In 2002 the magazine Popular Mechanics published a picture of what Jesus may have looked like based on the latest forensic anthropological techniques. The results are rather startling. Jesus looks dark (makes sense; he was Semitic), grizzled (he was from peasant stock), somewhat dismayed (he had apocalyptic visions and heard voices) and has short hair (I Corinthians,11,14 says “even nature itself” tells you that long hair on men is “a disgrace.” I think we should criminalize long hair on males because the Bible says it’s ‘unnatural’). There is no suggestion that this is a portrait of Jesus but only of what the average male living in Palestine might have looked like in the 1st cent CE given Jesus’ background and likely upbringing. Certainly, it is much closer to reality than those light-skinned, blond-haired, well-groomed Jesus’ that you see in Protestant publications. The Mormon Jesus looks exactly like those preppy young Mormons you dread to see when you open your front door. Strange to say, the New Testament gives not a hint of Jesus’ appearance, suggesting that he was physically rather nondescript. It was what he said that attracted attention, not his presence or countenance. The earliest hint of what Jesus may have looked like comes from Justin Martyr (2nd cent CE) who wrote: “He appeared without beauty…as the Scriptures proclaimed.” Justin was referring to supposed prophesies about Jesus in Isaiah 52,14 and Pslam 22. Whether he was drawing on authentic memories about Jesus or attributing to him characteristics to make him fit into supposed prophesies, as Christians generally do, is unclear. The spurious but interesting letter of Publius Lentullus says of Jesus: “It cannot be remembered that any have seen him smile but many have seen him weep.” This comment would accord with his role as ‘the man of sorrows,’ another side of Jesus that today’s rose-colored, ultra-positive Christians falls over themselves to avoid.
A few years ago a picture circulated widely within the Chinese Buddhists community which was supposed to be an actual portrait of the Buddha. The claim was that a Chinese monk sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya had a vision in which the Buddha appeared to him and he later put down on paper exactly what he saw. The picture is of a dignified-looking male of about 40 or 50 with long hair and slightly oriental features. Quite apart from its miraculous origins, this picture has to be dismissed as of no value at all. The oriental features are an immediate give-away. They can be explained by a naive and muddled understanding of history (the Buddha was born in ‘Nepal’ therefore he must look like those people we saw in Katmandu) and or ethnocentricity (I’m Chinese so the Buddha must look Chinese), both traits almost universal amongst traditional Buddhists. I can’t find a copy of this picture to show you. After causing much interest it seems to have disappeared.
Fortunately, the Tipitaka gives us a fairly complete picture of the Buddha’s physical appearance. I can only imagine that this is so because it was noticeable and memorable enough to be commented upon. We are told that he was about a fathom tall (S.I,62); a fathom (byama) being the distance between both hands when extended to their full length. We are also told that he was four finger breadths taller than his half-brother Nanda (Vin.IV,173). When young, before his renunciation, he had long black hair and a beard (M.I,163). I. B. Horner translated the kala in this passage as “coal-black”! Were the ancient Indians really familiar with coal? Although statues of the Buddha always show him with hair, this is an iconographic convention and is not historically accurate. After his renunciation, like all other monks, he “cut off his hair and beard” (M.I,163). All sources agree that the Buddha was particularly good-looking. The brahman Sonadanda described him as “handsome, of fine appearance, pleasant to see, with a good complexion and a beautiful form and countenance” (D.I,115). Another person, Dona, described him as “beautiful, inspiring confidence, calm, composed, with the dignity and presence of a perfectly tamed elephant” (A.II,36). Concerning his complexion a particular brahman said of him: “It is wonderful, truly marvellous how serene is the good Gotama’s presence, how clear and radiant is his complexion. Just as golden jujube fruit in the autumn is clear and too is the good Gotama’s complexion” (A.I,181). In numerous places the Buddha is described as having a golden-coloured skin (kancanasannibhattaca), exceptionally smooth skin (sukhumacchavi) and clear radiant faculties (vippasannani indriyani, A.I,181; D.III,143; Sn.551). ‘Golden-colored’ here probably means the same as it does in English – bronze or ‘milk coffee.’ This outer beauty was a direct result of the Buddha’s inner transformation. The experience of enlightenment had dissolved all greed, hatred and perplexity creating space for the unrestricted expression of love, kindness, detachment and clarity. But of course, like everyone else, the Buddha’s appearance declined with age. In contemporary depictions of the parinibbana, he is inevitably shown as being about 20 or 25 years old, yet another indication of just how divorced traditional Buddhists are from reality and even from scriptural evidence. In the last year of his life the Buddha described himself like this: “I am now old, aged, worn out, one who has traversed life’s path. Being about eighty, I am approaching the end of my life. Just as an old cart can only be kept going by being patched up, so too my body can only be kept going by being patched up” (D.II,100).
No one has ever attempted to give an idea of what the Buddha may have looked like using the same techniques as was done by Popular Mechanics with Jesus. However, the Buddha certainly would have been an Indo-European ‘type’ (I think this is called ‘Palaearctic’); black-haired, brown-skinned, long-boned and probably not unlike the people you see in northern even today. An Indian friend tells me she is convinced that the Buddha looked very similar to Sharuk Khan. Its an interesting thought but why him and not Dino Morea, Damiel Balaji, Shashi Kapoor (what ever happened to him?) or the dhud walla who used to bring me his watery milk?
Below are some images of modern Indian men with pleasant features.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Good Sayings

Some of India’s greatest literary treasures own their existence to Buddhist monks. Take the Subhasitaratnakosa for example – an anthology of 1738 Sanskrit verses written by various poets between about the 3rd and the 11th century. This ‘Treasury of Good Sayings’ was compiled by the monk Vidyakara of the Jagaddala Mahavihara in northern Bengal. It is likely that he had the monastery’s huge library at his disposal when he made his complication. Until the 1930’s this important work was unknown when another Buddhist monk, the great Rahula Sankrityayan (one of my heroes), found a manuscript of it in monastery barn during one of his journeys to Tibet. The manuscript must have been taken from India to Tibet in ancient times, almost certainly by a monk, kept there for centuries, eventually forgotten about, rediscovered and then thrown away in the barn. Vidyakara selected the cream of the verses from numerous poems he knew and arranged them in chapters such as The Sun, Spring, Old Age, Good Men, Breezes, Peace and The Lamp. The first three chapters are devoted to the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. Verse 4 compares Siva’s killing of the God of Love with the Buddha’s way of handling the same deity -

Passion and anger both are states
hostile to self-control.
What then did Siva hope to gain
By slaying Karma in anger?
Rather may he who by forbearance
quelled Karma together with a hundred foes,
That chief of saints, the Buddha,
Point you to your welfare.

This is one praises Avalokitesvara.

All-conquering is the Savior of the World.
His lotus hand, stretched down in compassion,
Is dripping streams of nectar to assuage
The thirsty spirits of the dead.
His glorious face is bright with gathered moonlight
And his glance is soft
With that pity that he bears within.

The beauties of nature and the natural world feature much in the anthology.

What use, asoka tree, is your humility of branch,
Your height, your close shade,
Your gracefulness of foliage or your brilliant flowers?
The unhappy travelers gather at your base,
However great their longing as they praise you,
They still get no fruit.

It does not roar or thunder,
It spills no hail nor scatters lightening,
It unlooses no vast wind.
The great rain cloud simply rains.

Vidyakara included in his anthology 25 verses by the monk Bhartrhari, one of ancient India’s most readable poets. I think I would have liked old Bhartrhari. He had a touch of the skeptic in him. When not preoccupied with the philosophy of language he was wavered between desire for the world and the life of renunciation; he was maudlin and devote, curious and half-hearted, all at the same time (a bit like me). Hear is a sample of some of his less jaundiced verse –

Happy are those who in some mountain dale
Sit meditating on the highest light,
The fearless birds alighting in their lap
To drink their tears of joy.
But here I sit in a pavilion
Set in a pleasure garden by a pool
Within the palace of my daydreams
And as I daydream I grow old.

We praise the gods, but they are in the power of fate;
So fate deserves our praise. But fate can only give
The inevitable fruit of any given kamma.
If fruit is bound to kamma, what use the gods and fate?
Therefore, give all your praise to virtuous deeds, for over them
Not even fate has power.

If one fails to take to wife such learning
As may be worthy of his family and thereby
Does not beget that noble child Resplendence,
Or then who fails with gentle love to give that child
In marriage to one who seeks her, deserves our scorn
If to himself he should apply the name a man.

In the man of honor he finds coldness,
In the zealous man hypocrisy;
In the pure, deceit; in the brave, cruelty.
He counts the honest man a simpleton, the kindly-spoken servile,
The brilliant proud, the eloquent talkative,
And one unswayed by passion impotent.
Thus, of the virtuous what virtue
Is by the villain not condemned?

Daniel Ingalls translation of the Subhasitaratnakosa was published in 1965 under the title of An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry to the delight of Sanskrit lovers, but has hardly been easy to get a hold of since. I found a copy in a second-hand book-shop in London a few years ago but didn’t have the money to buy it. I asked the proprietor if I could chant a blessing for him in lieu of payment, but he refused. Now an abbreviated edition of it has been published and I found a copy in a book-shop just the other day. It’s just called Sanskrit Poetry and is published by Harvard University Press.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Joseph Rock

You have probably never heard of Joseph Rock. He was an Austrian/American botanist you spent much of the 1920’s 30’s and 40’s living in and traveling through eastern Tibet and south-west China. When I was in my early teens I found a box of old National Geographic magazines in which there were several articles by Rock. They showed nomads and lamas, mountain passes and high plateaus, Buddha images and wild-looking nomads. I was utterly fascinated. In fact, I think it was Joseph Rock’s images that first focused my attention on the ‘mysterious East’ which in turn lead to an interest in Tibet, then in Buddhism and finally to me becoming a Buddhist monk. Now, after 32 years as a monk, living mainly in Asia, I have absolutely no illusions about either the ‘East’ or Buddhism, other than that most people’s ideas about both are exactly that – illusions.
I recently stumbled across two websites about Rock. The first is which is an archive of hundreds of his photos. The other, even more interesting, is by an Australian named Michael who has retraced Rock’s many journeys and has juxtaposed his photos with Rock’s old ones. Have a look at It is one of the most absorbing sites I have so far found on the internet. Both sites are a reminder of my adolescent flights of fancy and also a ‘then-and-now’ record of a remote and forgotten part of the Buddhist world. They made me want to put on my trekking boots and go wandering. They made me wish I was born then (maybe I was) so I could have visited those places before the modern world so rudely interrupted. Here are some of Joseph Rock’s images.