Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cermonies For The Departed

Brahmanism at the time of the Buddha taught several contrasting, even conflicting ideas about what happens to a person after they die; that they go to heaven, that they are dispersed among the elements, that they become plants or that they join their ancestors, the fathers (pitamaha), in some kind of shadowy afterlife. All these notions are mentioned in the Vedas. The last of them was probably the most widely accepted as it is the one mentioned most frequently in the Tipitaka. During the Buddha’s time there seems to have been only the beginning of an idea that one’s postmortem state, whatever it might be, was determined by one’s moral or immoral behavior while alive. Everyone, it was assumed, went to the world of the fathers. Some days after the funeral the oldest son, directed by a brahman, performed a ceremony called the sraddha (Pali saddha, A.V,273; D.I,97) in which small balls of dough (pinda) and other food were offered to the departed person as this invocation was made: ‘May this offering benefit our ancestors who are dead and gone. May our ancestors dead and gone enjoy this offering.’(A.V,269). The belief was that this food would be received by the departed and help to sustain them. Gifts were then given to the brahmans directing the ceremony. Only a son could perform the saddha rite, which was one of the main reasons people so strongly desired to have a son (A.III,,43). Performing this ceremony was one of ‘the five offerings’ (pancabalim) every person was expected to make (A.II,68). Evidence of the enduring nature of Indian spirituality is that this ceremony, little changed, is still done today by Hindus. If you visit the Vishnupada Temple in Gaya you can see this ceremony being done. In the last decade or so Hindu pilgrims have started doing it at Bodh Gaya.
As with many other contemporary beliefs, the Buddha ethicized Brahmanical ideas about the afterlife, and shifted the practices associated with them from the material to the psychological. He reinterpreted the ‘fathers’ (pita) as the ‘hungry spirits’ (peta) and said that only greedy, immoral or wicked people might get reborn as such unhappy beings (A.I,155). A good and kindly person, he said, would probably be reborn as a human or in heaven, rather than the world of the fathers. When the brahman Janussoni asked if it were really possible for the departed to receive and benefit from the material offerings made to them the Buddha replied that this could only happen if they had been reborn as a hungry spirit (A.V,269).
However, it seems unlikely that the Buddha would have believed the rather primitive notion that material offerings could actually be conveyed to another dimension. More likely the Buddha was using skillful means, adopting or taking into account the questioner’s standpoint in order to speak to him or her in terms they could understand. In this case he probably did so because although he would not have accepted that material things can be conveyed to another world, he could see that Janussoni’s desire to do so was based on good intentions -love, gratitude and concern for his departed ancestors. When the Buddha was addressing his instructed disciples he would say that the best way they could give their departed relatives something that would benefit them would be to lead a good and moral life here and now. Once he said: ‘If a monk should wish, “Those departed relatives and ancestors of mine who I recall with a calm mind, may they enjoy great fruit and benefit,” then he should be one who is filled with virtue, who spends time in solitude, dedicated to meditation and calmness of mind.’ (A.V,132). The Buddha’s idea seems to have been that if you wish to give happiness to your departed loved ones lead a life of kindness and integrity.
In keeping with this interpretation the Kathavatthu specifically denies that the departed can receive or benefit from material things offered to them (Kv. XX,4).
In traditional Buddhists countries today people will do good deeds, usually making offerings to monks, and then in a simple ceremony dedicate the merit they have created to their departed loved ones. Although people are told by monks and often believe that they actually ‘transfer the merit’ to their departed loved ones this is a misunderstanding of Buddhist doctrine. See http://www.buddhisma2z.com/ under Merit and Transference of Merit. The picture shows a supposed ‘merit-making’ ceremony.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Important New Dhamma Course

Some of my readers will have heard of Venerable Analayo, a German monk who embodies a rare balance of impeccable scholarship and solid meditation practice. Although Analayo is most well-known for his book Satipatthana; The Direct Path to Realization he has over the last few years, also produced a steady stream of extremely interesting articles on various aspects on the Dhamma. Unfortunately many of these articles are published in academic journals where they are not easily available to the average Buddhist reader. The good news is that now Ven. Analayo will be conducting an E-course on Buddhism. The main purpose of the course will be to introduce central themes of Buddhist thought from an historical-critical perspective through the medium of a comparative study of the early discourses. Extracts from the Madhyama Agama preserved in Chinese will be made available in English translation to participants, so that these can be compared with their Pāli counterparts, which mostly, but not exclusively, are found in the Majjhima Nikāya. The course will follow the order of the discourses in the Madhyama Agama so as to give the participants an opportunity for a first-hand impression of this collection, so far not available in translation in any European language. The coverage of the first chapters of this collection during the course held in 2011 will alternate between brief surveys of some discourses and in-depth studies of other discourses (see below for the discourses selected for this term). Anyone taking an intelligent interest in the Dhamma is bound to benefit from this course. Online registration starts on the 15 February 2011. For more information go to http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/index.php?id=121&L=0

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Writings Of The Great D. D.

Born in rural Goa in 1876, Dharmanand Damodar Kosambi (not to be confused with his equally brilliant son Damodar Dharmanand) came under the spell of the Buddha’s teachings during his adolescence. As described in his long autobiographical memoir, at an early age he set off on an incredible journey of austere self-training across the length and breadth of Britain’s Indian Empire, halting to educate himself at places connected with Buddhism. His sojourns included living in Sri Lanka to master Pali, in a cave in Burma, and in some viharas of North India - begging for his food all the way - as well as in Nepal and Sikkim which he reached after arduous, sometimes barefoot, treks. During these itinerant years Dharmanand acquired such mastery of the Pali Tipitaka that he was variously appointed to teach and do research at Calcutta, Fergusson Collage, Baroda, Harvard, and Leningrad. His Bhagwan Buddha (1940) remains to this day the most widely-read account of the Buddha’s life in Marathi. Two of his other great achievements were his editions of the Visuddhimaga and of the Subhasitaratanakosa which he did together with V. V. Gokhale. My own teacher, Ven. Matiwella Sangharatana, knew D. D. quite well and I distinctly recall him saying that he was one of the few Indian Buddhists he knew ‘who could think’ which might be a bit unfair. As a thinker Dharmanand blended Buddhist ethics, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of truth and non-violence, and the ideals of socialism. He exchanged letters with the Mahatma, worked for his causes, and most extraordinarily, ended his life in the traditional Jain manner by voluntary starving himself to death at Sevagram ashram in 1947. The process took 30 days. Arguably, no Indian scholar’s life has been as exemplary as Dharmanand’s, or has approximated as closely the nobility and saintliness of the Mahatma’s. Despite his mastery of several languages, Dharmanand chose to write mainly in Marathi because of his strong region-specific commitment. Consequently, very few today even in India are familiar with his copious output in Buddhist studies, and fewer still with his contribution to social and political thought. By translating and marshalling his most significant writings, Meera Kosambi, shows the manifold dimensions of Dharmanand’s personality, and the profoundly moral character of his intellectual journeys. Her Introduction also contextualizes the life, career, and achievement of modern India’s greatest scholar-savants. The book includes for the first time a translation of Kosambi’s long autobiographical essay Nivedan.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

J. P. Vogel's Photos

Anyone who, like myself, takes an interest in the archeological history of Buddhist places in India will know the name J. P. Vogel. The Archeological Survey of India reports dating from the early 1900s onward contain numerous articles and reports written by him. He excavated, amongst other sites, Kusinara and Savatthi. Although I have long been familiar with his name I have never known anything else about him. The other day I stumbled upon a book called A Vision of Splendor, Indian Heritage in the Photography of Jean Philip Vogel, 1901-1913 by Gerda Theuns-de Boer, published in 2008. This really is a discovery for me. It contains numerous beautiful black and white photos of so many Buddhists sites and artifacts taken by Vogel. How fascinating it is to see what these places looked like just before or while they were being excavated. Here, for example are two photos of the Buddha statue at Matha Kaur in Kusinara.The first is of the statue after Vogel dug it up, and the second just before he built the structure around it and in which it sits to this day (note the freshly-mortared bricks behind it).
The Buddha identified three types of craving – craving for sensual pleasures (kamma tanha), craving for existence (bhava tanha) and craving for non-existence (vibhava tanha). When I see beautiful publications like this one I am convinced that the Buddha overlooked one type of craving – craving for books (potthaka tanha).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The 5 Regrets Of The Dying

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying. It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called "comfort" of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is your life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly.
By Bronnie Ware

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dhamma Tour In Sumatra

I have just returned from a five-day Dhamma tour of northern Sumatra in Indonesia. I traveled to six locations and spoke to big crowds, the largest being a 3500 audience at the Grand Aston City Hall in Medan itself. It is really good to see the level if interest in the Dhamma in this somewhat isolated part of Indonesia.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Doubly Interesting

Here is a blog and a video news item, both of them worth watching by anyone interested in the good Dhamma. The first is about the Swiss nun Venerable Ariya Nani who understands that offering help to others need not necessarily hinder your meditation. It is a rather inspiring example of what we need more of in Buddhism – metta with its sleeves rolled up. The video is a brief examination of the progress of the Dhamma is the USA.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The True Hero

Some time ago a reader asked me an interesting question. When the Bodhisattva was struggling to attain enlightenment he said he would be prepared to let his body become emaciated, to die even, in order to realize his goal. Isn’t this, my reader asked, extreme? Does it not contravene the idea of the Middle Way? I have been reading William Manchester’s account of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, A World Lit Only By Fire, Little Brown 1992. Williams takes the lives of Erasmus, Luther and particularly Magellan as illustrative of the spirit of this time. Of course I know about Magellan’s achievements but I, at least, never knew the sheer audacity, the incredible courage, the super-human determination that it involved. Magellan was a real hero and Williams describes the inner workings of a hero like this -
‘The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth, love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge…Guided by an inner gyroscope, he peruses his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejection, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude. Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations – of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man of towering strength of character can suppress them.’
This perhaps gives some idea of what might have been going on in the Bodhisattva’s mind when he renounced his wife and child and when he drove himself with deprivations and austerities. And in this sense Siddhattha Gotama and Magellan were similar – they were both determined to go where no one had even been before, one spiritual the other terrestrial. And I imagine this is the reason why one of the epitaph the early Buddhists gave the Buddha was Great Hero (Mahavira, e.g. S.I,110; 193; III,83).
Incidentally, A World Lit Only By Fire is a great read. Apart from being a hang-on-tight romp through a world long gone, it also offers page after page of evidence for the point I made in my post of 25th October, that religion does not necessarily make people better. As Williams points out, the Middle Ages was not just a time when everyone believed, even the possibility of doubt or skepticism didn’t exist. And yet it was also a time of appalling cruelty and savagery, of unrestrained and unapologetic avariciousness, and in politics of treachery, double-dealing and perfidy that would even make the tyrants of our times gasp - all existing together with a rock-like faith. It was a world where everything was sacred and yet nothing was sacred.