Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burn The Buddha???

Now that one part of the world has calmed down a bit and another part is breathing a sigh of relief, I thought it might be appropriate to say something about the Dhammic response to criticisms or insults to Buddhism or the desecration of objects of special significance to Buddhists. In the Digha Nikaya the Buddha said, ‘Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Sangha you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did you would not be able to recognize if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me the Dhamma or the Sangha you should explain whatever is incorrect saying, “This is not correct”, “That is not true”, “We do not do this”, “That is not our way”’. (D.I,1-3). And the saintly Santideva had this advice on how to respond to even stronger attacks on Buddhism. ‘Hatred towards those who speak insulting about or damage sacred images or stupas in inappropriate. The Buddha did not get angry at such things.’ And a quick tour through Google Image turns up plenty of thoughtless, insensitive and insulting uses of the Buddha’s name and image. Nonetheless, the Buddha’s instructions and Santideva’s advice still holds good.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yasodhara, The Invisible Woman

Everyone knows the story about Yasodhara, the Buddha’s wife - you know, the beautiful young maid, the competition to win her hand, her happy life with Prince Siddhattha, her slumbering with Rahula as her husband left the palace at night and, when the Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu, her telling Rahula to approach the Buddha and ask for his inheritance. What most people don’t know that Yasodhara is not mentioned by name anywhere in the Tipitaka and that none of these stories, except the last one, appear there either. And even this last story, ‘Rahula’s mother’ as she is called there, makes only the briefest appearance (Vin.I,82). All the rest comes from the later Buddhist tradition; a bit from the Pali commentaries and much more from other ‘Hinayana’ literature. And while Yasodhara is literally a non-person in the Pali Tipitaka and little more than that in the commentaries, there are many legends about her, some of them quite interesting, in later Sanskrit literature.
The great Buddhist scholar Andre Bareau has written a most fascinating article on the Yasodhara legends which is now available at Kyra Pahlen, who translated this article from French did a rather poor job - Kathmandu instead of Kapilavatthu, Mahavasti instead of Mahavastu and even Solomon instead of Suddhodana!!! But don’t let these and a few other clangers put you off this most interesting bit of research.
The top picture is a sculptural representation of the Kapilavastu incident from Amaravati (4th cent.). The Buddha is represented as an empty throne. The next picture is of a painting of the same story from Ajanta (7th cent.) while the last one is a 19th century Thai painting.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Few More Books

On Sunday the 5th of September our group, the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, held a book launching ceremony for my new publication To Eat or Not to Eat Meat. In it I argue that while the Buddha did not advocate vegetarianism, avoiding eating meat is more in harmony with the Buddha’s teachings of care and compassion for others. A large crowd turned up and after my usual Sunday morning sermon I spent time signing copies of the book for people. Already someone has offered to reprint 2000 of the book.
Then on the afternoon of the next Sunday (i.e. the 12th) some friends and students accompanied me down to Peninsular Plaza to distribute 100 copies of the Burmese translation of my book Good Question Good Answer. Peninsular Plaza is the main meeting place for Burmese working and studying in Singapore and large crowds gather there on weekends. Several shops in the Plaza have small lending libraries and one Buddhist group has a small drop-in centre with a lending library. It also distributes books for free and occasionally organizes weekend talks. This is the third time we have distributed the Burmese Good Question Good Answer amongst Burmese expatriates and apparently it is proving to be very popular.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


India! Accommodating, nourishing, welcoming, confusing, spiritual India.
A road sign in Himachal Pradesh.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Panikkar Passes

On the 26th of last month Raimon Panikkar passed away at the ripe old age of 92. Panikkar was probably Catholicism’s most well-known, most learned and most articulate proponent of ‘dialogue between men of living faiths’. Over the decades he wrote dozens of books and countless articles urging Catholics to dialogue with and learns from Eastern religions, mainly Hinduism and Buddhism. In some ways he was uniquely placed for this endeavor having had a Hindu father and a Catholic mother and being educated at Benares Hindu University. Some of his more notable works are The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (1989), The Unknown Christ Of Hinduism: Towards An Ecumenical Christophany (1981) and Espiritualidad Hindu: Sanatana Dharma (2006). One of his oft quoted sayings is, ‘I left Europe (for India) as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian’. I can’t say I ever read anything by him that suggested that he was a Buddhist, although many of his ideas did sound like Christian (or perhaps better ‘theistic’) concepts wrapped up in Buddhist terminology. Inter-religious dialogue is a good thing if it takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect and if the benefits are shared by all parties. But myself, I sometimes have trouble shaking off the impression that another strategy lies behind dialogue, at least for some people. In her obituary of Raimon Panikkar published in Time (20,9,2010) Amy Sullivan writes, ‘Some Catholics saw (Panikkar’s) work as dangerously radical. But to his students and many admirers, Panikkar was a prophet whose teachings helped Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the non-Western world’. Now I’m not sure I would agree that Christianity is growing that fast, but it certainly is in the ascendant in Asia, including in traditional Buddhist countries. Could this be the unspoken rationale behind some dialogue?
Whatever the case, Panikkar was a deeply spiritual man and a very warm, open one as well. And he could be most interesting to listen to. Here is parts of a dialogue he engaged in on the subject of love.

Friday, September 17, 2010

'Animal Release'

‘Animal release’ (fang sheng) is a term used by Chinese Buddhists to refer to the practice of purchasing animals that are due to be slaughtered and letting them go. While the rationale for this practice is the Buddha’s teaching of kindness and compassion to all creatures, even the most humble, the earliest evidence of the practice actually comes from the Pali Tipitaka. According to the Vinaya, a monk once came across a pig caught in a hunter’s trap and feeling compassion for its plight he released it. By the convention of the time he was guilty of theft. When the matter was brought to the Buddha’s intention he said that from the perspective of the Dhamma the monk had committed no offence because he had acted ‘out of compassion’ (karunnena, Vin.III,62).
The Chinese Buddhist tradition of animal release has its origins in the Suvarnabhasottama Sutra (Chinese Jin guang ming), composed in the early centuries of the Common Era. According to this work, a merchant’s son named Jalavahana, while traveling through a forest wilderness during summer, came across a pond in which the fish were struggling to survive in the rapidly evaporating water. All around the pond crows, cranes and jackals had gathered waiting to snap up the unfortunate fish. Moved by compassion and determined to save the fish Jalavahana cut some foliage and placed it in the pool hoping to shield the water from the sun and prevent its evaporation. When this proved ineffective, he traced the empty stream bed that had provided water to the pool and found that the water had been diverted from it by a great hole that appeared in the bed of the stream. Unable to block this hole himself he approached the king, told him of the situation and asked for some elephants, which the king gave him. Jalavhana’s ingenuity and efforts eventually paid off and he was able to fill the pond with water and save the fish.
When the Suvarnabhasottama Sutra was translated into Chinese the story of Jalavahana in particular had a powerful influence on people’s attitude towards animals. Soon, rather than releasing animals on an individual basis the custom developed of releasing large numbers animals in elaborate public ceremonies. The first person to organize such events was the monk Chih-I (538-97). In time, many temples came to provided ponds where people could release fish and tortoises, lofts for pigeons and pastures for goats, cows and horses.

Sadly, today ‘animal release’ practice frequently takes the form of a mere ritual more destructive to life than life-saving. In countries with significant Chinese communities a whole industry of capturing wild birds simply so they can be released has developed. The birds are taken from their natural environment, shipped to the cities and set free in the ‘concrete jungle’ where they often soon die. Temple ponds are commonly so crowded that the fish and tortoises lead diseased and miserable lives. According to environmentalists the two leading threats to the Asian Temple Turtle (Heosemys annandalii, so-called because it is favored by Chinese Buddhists for ‘release’) are the restaurant market and the temple trade. Several of the more progressive temples here in Singapore now try to educate the Buddhist public about the proper way to practice animal release or even prohibit the practice within their premises.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Hole In The Heart

Please read this and see what you do think you can do to help.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guess Who's Meditating?

The following is part of the transcript of the interview Seth Mydans had with the former long-time prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune on 1 September 2010.

Mr Lee: “Thank you. When you are coming to 87, you are not very happy..”
Q: “Not. Well you should be glad that you’ve gotten way past where most of us will get.”
Mr Lee: “That is my trouble. So, when is the last leaf falling?”
Q: “Do you feel like that, do you feel like the leaves are coming off?”
Mr Lee: “Well, yes. I mean I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality and I mean generally every year when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that is life.”
Q: “My mother used to say never get old.”
Mr Lee: “Well, there you will try never to think yourself old. I mean I keep fit, I swim, I cycle.”
Q: “And yoga, is that right? Meditation?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Tell me about meditation?”
Mr Lee: “Well, I started it about two, three years ago when Ng Kok Song, the Chief Investment Officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, I knew he was doing meditation. His wife had died but he was completely serene. So, I said, how do you achieve this? He said I meditate everyday and so did my wife and when she was dying of cancer, she was totally serene because she meditated everyday and he gave me a video of her in her last few weeks completely composed completely relaxed and she and him had been meditating for years. Well, I said to him, you teach me. He is a devout Christian. He was taught by a man called Laurence Freeman, a Catholic. His guru was John Main, a devout Catholic. When I was in London, Ng Kok Song introduced me to Laurence Freeman. In fact, he is coming on Saturday to visit Singapore, and we will do a meditation session. The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts. It is most difficult to stay focused on the mantra. The discipline is to have a mantra which you keep repeating in your innermost heart, no need to voice it over and over again throughout the whole period of meditation. The mantra they recommended was a religious one. Ma Ra Na Ta, four syllables. Come To Me Oh Lord Jesus. So I said Okay, I am not a Catholic but I will try. He said you can take any other mantra, Buddhist Om Mi Tuo Fo, and keep repeating it. To me Ma Ran Na Ta is more soothing. So I used Ma Ra Na Ta. You must be disciplined. I find it helps me go to sleep after that. A certain tranquility settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping. I miss it sometimes when I am tired, or have gone out to a dinner and had wine. Then I cannot concentrate. Otherwise I stick to it.”
Q: “So…”
Mr Lee: “.. for a good meditator will do it for half-an-hour. I do it for 20 minutes.”
Q: “So, would you say like your friend who taught you, would you say you are serene?”
Mr Lee: “Well, not as serene as he is. He has done it for many years and he is a devout Catholic. That makes a difference. He believes in Jesus. He believes in the teachings of the Bible. He has lost his wife, a great calamity. But the wife was serene. He gave me this video to show how meditation helped her in her last few months. I do not think I can achieve his level of serenity. But I do achieve some composure.”
Q: “And do you find that at this time in your life you do find yourself getting closer to religion of one sort or another?”
Mr Lee: “I am an agnostic. I was brought up in a traditional Chinese family with ancestor worship. I would go to my grandfather’s grave on All Soul’s Day which is called “Qingming”. My father would bring me along, lay out food and candles and burn some paper money and kowtow three times over his tombstone. At home on specific days outside the kitchen he would put up two candles with my grandfather’s picture. But as I grew up, I questioned this because I think this is superstition. You are gone, you burn paper money, how can he collect the paper money where he is? After my father died, I dropped the practice. My youngest brother baptised my father as a Christian. He did not have the right to. He was a doctor and for the last weeks before my father’s life, he took my father to his house because he was a doctor and was able to keep my father comforted. I do not know if my father was fully aware when he was converted into Christianity.”
Q: “Converted your father?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Well this happens when you get close to the end.”
Mr Lee: “Well, but I do not know whether my father agreed. At that time he may have been beyond making a rational decision. My brother assumed that he agreed and converted him.”
Q: “But…”
Mr Lee: “I am not converted.”
Q: “But when you reach that stage, you may wonder more than ever what is next?”
Mr Lee: “Well, what is next, I do not know. Nobody has ever come back. The Muslims say that there are seventy houris, beautiful women up there. But nobody has come back to confirm this.”
Q: “And you haven’t converted to Islam, knowing that?”
Mr Lee: “Most unlikely. The Buddhist believes in transmigration of the soul. If you live a good life, the reward is in your next migration, you will be a good being, not an ugly animal. It is a comforting thought, but my wife and I do not believe in it. She has been for two years bed-ridden, unable to speak after a series of strokes. I am not going to convert her. I am not going to allow anybody to convert her because I know it will be against what she believed in all her life. How do I comfort myself? Well, I say life is just like that. You can’t choose how you go unless you are going to take an overdose of sleeping pills, like sodium amytal. For just over two years, she has been inert in bed, but still cognitive. She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night. She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favourite poems.”

For those who may not know, Father Laurence Freeman is head of The World Community for Christian Meditation, which teaches a meditation adapted from Hindu and Buddhist techniques and the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Visit To Vikramasila

From about the 8th or 9th centuries onwards a new type of Buddhism began to develop which later became known as the Tantrayana, the last of the three great 'vehicles' of Indian Buddhism. In the beginning this new interpretation met with disapproval amongst the more traditional monks and nuns, so King Dharmapala (775-812) founded a monastery named Vikramasila especially for its study. One Tibetan source gives us this description of the monastery. ‘Sri Vikramasila was built on the bank of the Ganges in the north of Magadha on the top of a hill. At its centre was built a temple housing a life-size copy of the Mahabodhi image. Around this were fifty three small temples for the study of the Guhyasamaja Tantra and another fifty four ordinary ones, all being surrounded by a wall. Thus the number of temples was one hundred and eight. He (Dharmapala) also provided requisites for one hundred and eight pundits.’ From other sources we also know that there was a huge courtyard big enough to hold 8,000 monks, that at the entrance to the main temple were two statues, one of Najarjuna and another of Atisa, and that the monastery’s perimeter wall had six gates. At the main entrance there was a dharmasala to accommodate those who arrived after the gates had been locked at night. What the monastic universities at Valabhi and Bodh Gaya were to early Buddhism and Nalanda was to Mahayana, Vikramasila was to Tantra. Some of the monasteries ‘gate keeper scholars’ were amongst the greatest names of this twilight period of Indian Buddhism. They included Santipa, Jetari, Ratnavajira, Jnanasrimitra and the great Naropa. Vikramasila’s first abbot, Buddhajnanapada, was the author of some 14 works and was described as ‘a great pundit learned in many fields of knowledge.’ The monastery’s greatest son however was the Bengali monk Atisa (982-1054). Apart from being a brilliant scholar and prolific writer, he also developed a new curriculum for the university, built more rooms for its monks and invited some of the best pundits of the time to come and teach there. The colophons on several of Atisa’s works state that he wrote then ‘while residing at Sri Vikramasila Mahavihara.’ At its height during the reign of King Ramapala at the beginning of the 11th century there were 160 teachers and 1,000 students. They are known to have come from all over north India as well as from Kashmir, Java, Nepal and Tibet. Vikramasila's connection with Tibet is of course well known, its connection with Sri Lanka less so. However, Tantra flourished in Sri Lanka for about 300 years and teachers from Vikramasila were sometimes invited to the island. The Caturasitisiddhapravritti says that Santipa, one of the greatest of the legendary 84 siddhas and a teacher at Vikramasila, visited Sri Lanka at the invitation of the country’s king and stayed for three years. Nor was the movement one way, Lankajayabadhra, famous for his expositions of the Guhayasamaja Tantra was one of the great Sri Lankan Tantric scholars who taught at the monastery. Some Tantric practitioners had a bad reputation for unconventional behaviour, but such things were not tolerated at Vikramasila. It is recorded that a monk named Maitrigupta was expelled for bringing wine into the monastery. As was the custom, he was ejected over the wall rather than being allowed to leave through the main gate.
At the beginning of the 13th century Vikramasila met the same fate as all Buddhist centres in India. One Tibetan source says that the monk Prajnarakshita prayed to a Tantric deity and the Muslim soldiers who were about to attack Vikramasila were scattered by a great rain storm. The reality was rather different. As the invading armies pushed further east, the king hastily fortified several of the larger monasteries including Vikramasila and stationed soldiers in them. But it did no good. In about 1206 Vikramasila was sacked, its inmates were killed or driven away and its foundation stone was tossed into the Ganges.
Towards the end of the 19th century European and Indian scholars began speculating about where Vikramasila might be. Silao, just south of Nalanda, Sultanganj near Bhagalpur and Hisla south of Patna were all suggested as possibilities. In 1901 Nundalal Dey suggested that it might be at Patharaghat where there were several huge mounds and fragments of Buddhist statuary near a hill overlooking the Ganges. One ancient Tibetan source says that the monastery was situated ‘where the holy river flows northward’ and indeed the Ganges does turn north at Patharaghat. Although Dey’s suggestion is now widely accepted as correct, excavations at Patharaghat have so far failed to find a single inscription or seal actually mentioning the name Vikramasila.
Today Patharaghat is one of the most interesting Buddhist sites in north India and yet at the same time one of the least known and least visited. At first it seems to be somewhat out of the ancient heartland of Buddhism but in actual fact this is not so. Nearby is Champanagar, the Campa of old, visited by the Buddha and the scene of several of his discourses. Abhayadatta, who wrote the biographies of the 84 siddhas was a native of Campa and so were several of his subjects. To the west is Munger, a town that is believed to derive its name from Moggallana, one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples. The Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsiang spent a year in this town studying with Tathagatagupta and Kshantisimha. At Sultanganj there are the ruins of another huge Buddhist monastery. A magnificent bronze Buddha statue recovered from these ruins is now one of the great treasures of the Birmingham Museum. The fact that a few local village temples have ancient Buddhist statues in them now serving as Hindu gods, also attests to the fact that Buddhism once flourished in this region. But that was long ago. Today Bhagalpur district where Patharagahat is situated is perhaps the most poverty stricken and lawless areas in India.
Getting to Vikramasila promised to be a long and grueling trip but our visits to Don, Hajipur and Kesariya had all been tiring but also worthwhile so we decided to go nonetheless. We hired a four wheel drive in Bodh Gaya and set off. After hours bumping over dusty pot-holed roads we got to the Ganges and began to follow it towards the east. We arrived in Bhagalpur around sunset, booked into the town’s only hotel, a truly seedy and rundown establishment, and fell into bed exhausted after the long drive. The next morning when I went into the bathroom to wash I found that a rat had eaten half my soap. Leaving Bhagalpur early we arrived at Patharaghat in about two hours. Patharaghat itself is a hill with its rocky north side washed by the Ganges and its top offering a commanding view over the river. The first thing we noticed were a series of caverns dug out of the side of a rocky water-filled depression. Local lore says that these mysterious cavern were the result of mining in ancient times but their real origin and purpose are unknown. At the foot of the nearby banyan tree is a beautiful statue of the Mahayana bodhisattva Tara, some votive stupas and other pieces of sculpture. The Tara is now being worshipped by locals as a Hindu goddess. A little further on along on the side of the hill is the Bodhesvaranath Temple. Just inside the main gate are a collection of ancient statues of the Buddha, Tara, Avalokitesvara and other bodhisattvas. The first shrine has another statue of Tara at its entrance. Right next to this is a cave with two chambers cut out of the side of the hill and outside the temple’s back gate is a similar one. About a hundred yards beyond the temple is yet another cave, large, finely cut and with a paneled ceiling. Another Hindu temple is situated right besides the water and all the rocks nearby have ancient carvings on them. Patharaghat is a very picturesque place and the many caves and Buddhist statues in the area suggested that it used to be a popular meditation retreat with monks and siddhas from Vikramasila. I once read an old text mentioning that Naropa used to stay in a cave near Vikramasila and it made me wonder if one of the caves we had seen might have been sanctified by his presence. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang came to Patharaghai in the 7th century and wrote of it. ‘By cutting the rock, houses have been made; by leading the streams through each there is a continuous stream of water. There are wonderful trees and flowering woods; the largest rocks and dangerous precipices are the resort of men of wisdom and virtue. Those who go there to see the place are reluctant to return.’ Nor has the place lost its appeal. We met half a dozen wandering swamis staying in the temple and under the banyan tree.

After seeing everything we took the road about 3 kilometers south-east to the ruins now identified as Vikramasila. A broad processional path leads up to the monastery’s main entrance. The remains of the huge stone pillars that once supported the roof of the gatehouse can be seen on the left and right. One of these pillars is nearly 4 feet square. Passing through the gate we entered a vast quadrangle surrounded by monks cells. The thickness of the walls suggest that there may have been in two or even three tiers of these cells. According to the archaeological report, up to 6 inches of ash was discovered in some of these cells, proof of the monastery's fiery end. In the middle of the quadrangle is the immense main temple, built on a cross plan, rising in three terraces and with shrine on each of the four sides. Circumambulating the temple we noticed numerous terracotta figures decorating the sides of the terraces but most were now badly weather worn. When Dey came here he found Buddhist sculptures scattered all over the place. In the home of an Englishman living nearby he saw ‘...some votive stupas, a big statue of Avalokitesvara, a large seated figures of Buddha... and some broken statues. These statues were exquisitely sculptured.’ He was also told that some years before his visit another Englishman digging in the ruins had found ‘a beautiful lotus made of silver, containing eight petals, which could be opened and closed by means of a spring.’
I didn’t see a single piece of sculpture so I asked the watcher who was hovering around hoping to get some baksheesh. ‘Are there any statues?’ ‘Yes’, he said. ‘In the museum.’ ‘Museum!’ I exclaimed with excitement. ‘You mean there is a museum here?’ He nodded his head and we followed him through a grove of mango trees to a rundown building, its rusty iron door firmly fastened with a huge padlock. My face fell. I already knew the answer to my question but I asked him anyway, ‘Do you have the key?’ ‘Oh no’, he said cheerfully, ‘That’s kept in Patna.’ I gave him his baksheesh and we walked back to examine the other ruins scattered around the main complex, most of them still unexcavated.
The archaeological report on Vikramasila makes it clear that the ruins are very large but even this did not prepare me for the sheer massiveness of the main temple and its cloisters. In its heyday it must have been the most magnificent Buddhist monastery in all India. In one ancient account of Vikramasila it says that as a delegation from Tibet approached the great monastery they were ‘greatly thrilled to have the first distant glimpse of its golden spire shining in the sun.’ The golden spire is long gone but anyone interested in the later history of Indian Buddhism will still find Vikramasila a fascinating place to visit.

I wrote this article in 2000 and it was published in Sri Lanka’s Daily News 17th, 10, 2001. Later, a slightly different version of the same article was published on Mandala, the magazine of the FPMT, Of late the AIS has gone a bit of gardening around Vickramasila and tidied it up a bit. To see some views of what it looks like today go to

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A 911 Contemplation

You might like to have a look at this contemplation on the victims of the attack of New York’s Twin Towers on this, its 9th anniversary.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hillel And Buddhism

I first became acquainted with Rabbi Hillel through the writings of Walter Kaufmann and took a shine to him straight away. In the years since then I have occasionally ‘bumped into him’ again and just recently found this article about him at Dhammawiki and thought I’d share it with you.

Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE) was a famous Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school for Tannaim (Sages of the Mishnah) and the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood at the head of the Jews living in the land of Israel until roughly the fifth century of the Common Era. Like the Buddha and Greek philosophers, Hillel taught the Golden Rule well before the time of Jesus. When asked to recite the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel stood on one foot and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” He is also known as the author of two popular sayings: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Although not a Buddhist, Hillel had teachings (such as the above) and a calm demeanor that was very Dhamma-like. The exhortation to love peace emanated from Hillel’s most characteristic traits - from that meekness and mildness which had become proverbial, as is seen from the saying: “Let a man be always humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai” (Shab. 31a; Ab.R.N.xv). Hille’s gentleness and patience are illustrated in an anecdote which relates how two men made a wager on the question whether Hillel could be made angry. Though they questioned him and made insulting allusions to his Babylonian origin, they were unsuccessful in their attempt. Hillel often debated with Shammai and on several issues, Hillel demonstrated a more open and compassionate mind: Admission to Torah study. The House of Shammai believed only worthy students should be admitted to study Torah. The House Hillel believed that Torah may be taught to anyone, in the expectation that they will repent and become worthy. Hillel wanted Judaism to be open to converts and Shammai wanted the faith open only to those born into the ethnicity and religion. Judaism tended to be more accepting of Shammai on this issue. In general, the House of Shammai’s positions were stricter than those of the House of Hillel. On the few occasions when the opposite was true, the House of Hillel would sometimes later recant their position; similarly, though there are no records of the House of Shammai as a whole changing its stance, a few individuals from it are recorded as deserting a small number of the more stringent opinions of their school, in favour of the viewpoint of the House of Hillel.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Homage To Kwan-yin

This exceptionally fine essay was written by Francis Story and published in a Buddhist magazine here in Singapore years ago. I reproduce parts of it here hoping that it moves you as much as it does me.

IT is said that when Avalokitesvara who is supremely compassionate, wanted to reveal the divine nature of mercy to mankind he took birth as a woman. So it comes about that in Chinese are we have one of the most beautiful concepts of art East or West, the figure of Kwan-yin
Even those who do not know her, the gracious figure of Kwan-yin, in painting, sculpture, metal work or delicate porcelain, conveys something of the spiritual meaning that like an aura of infinite love surrounds her name. It is present in every flowing line of the robe that clothes her, in the graceful shape of her hands, the serene yet tender expression of the oval face, even in the slender, naked feet, one of which rests on the open lotus that is her throne. The whole figure is serene and full of repose, yet at the same time instinct with life, and a soft light seems to spread all about it, as though the rays of compassion are kindled within, to suffuse the world of living beings.
Generations of artists have found inspiration for their noblest work in the figure of Kwan-yin; generations of craftsmen have expended their patient skill on the loving creation of her form; and for centuries men and women have turned to her image as the embodiment of their longing for a better, purer life. Lovely and gracious as her figure is, there is nothing in it of sensuality; it seems to be pure spirit, radiant with an ethereal beauty, its form and substance a transmutation into something finer than the gross materials on earth.

She, who is mercy incarnate, shed no tears. Her compassion is not that of an emotion or a passing mood; it has its being in the profound stillness of the heart, where dwells knowledge and understanding. The tranquil face of Kwan-yin reflects the nature of infinite peace, of she who has no desire but to remove the distress of others must herself be undistracted. She lives in the world, suffers with the world, but does not depart from the eternal Void.
Yet there is something awe-inspiring in the thought of a compassion that is completely undiscriminating, a compassion that looks upon all alike – the judge and the criminal, the executioner and the executed, the torturer and the man undergoing torture – and sees them all in a clear and equal light as victims of a self-created situation. Can that godlike dispassion in compassion be likened in any way to the pity that we know, the human pity mixed with hatred of the cause of the suffering? Or is it that we, who have never looked upon injustice without anger, have never known what true compassion is?
Ah, All-merciful One, teach us the love that does not hate! Teach us the pity that does not destroy! Teach us the wisdom that does not scorn! And if man, infatuated by the Ten Thousand Things, cannot learn, let us look upon your image and know that there is hope for the world.