Thursday, December 29, 2011

Buddhist Hospitality

Hospitality (sakkara) is the act of being welcoming and helpful to guests (atithi or pahunaka), strangers (agantuka) and travellers (addhika). Throughout the ancient world hospitality, at least towards members of one’s own tribe or religion, was held in high esteem. In India it was restricted to some degree by the demands of the caste system. For example, the Manusmrti, the most important Hindu law book, says that a brahman should only offer hospitality to other brahmans and that he should neither greet nor return the greeting of monks or ascetics of unorthodox sects, although the more open-minded brahmans did not always agree with this(D.I,117). It was probably because of such ideas that, when the Buddha went on alms gathering in the brahman village of Pancasala, the inhabitants refused to give him anything, and he ‘left with his bowl as clean as when he had come.’ (S.I,114). For the Buddha, hospitality should be shown to all, whatever their caste, religious affiliation or status. When Siha, a leading citizen of Vesali and a generous supporter of Jainism, became a Buddhist, the Buddha asked him to continue offering his hospitality to Jain monks who might come to his door (A.IV,185).

The Tipitaka often says that the Buddha was ‘welcoming, friendly, polite and genial’ towards everyone who came to see him (D.I,116). One of the traditional duties of a lay person was to make the fivefold offering, one of which was providing food, accommodation and help to guests (atithibali), a practice the Buddha approved of and encouraged (A.II,68). When a monk turned up at a monastery, he asked the resident monks to go out and meet him, prepare a seat for him, bring him water to wash his feet, prepare accommodation for him and do other things to make him feel welcome (Vin.II,207-11). The Milindapanha said that, if a guest turned up at a person’s house after all the food had been eaten, more rice should be cooked in order to feed him and allay his hunger (Mil.107). The Buddha considered failure to reciprocate hospitality to be very bad form. He said: ‘Whoever goes to another’s house and is fed but does not feed them when they come to his house, consider him an outcaste.’ (Sn.128). The Jataka says: ‘If for even one night one stops in another’s house and receives food and drink, have no evil thought, for to do so would be to burn an extended hand and betray a good friend.’ (Ja.VI,310).

Today, with hotels and rapid transportation, hospitality to travellers as practised in the past is less relevant and less necessary. However, there are still many opportunities to be hospitable. Being newcomers to a Buddhist group, to the workplace or to the neighbourhood can be a time of awkwardness and uncertainty. Welcoming such people, making them feel at home and introducing them to others is an expression of kindness.

A type of indirect hospitality common in the Buddhist world until recently was making provisions for travellers and pilgrims. People would build rest houses (avasatha) on the edge of villages or towns or along roads where there was a long distance between villages. Other devout folk would undertake to supply these rest houses with firewood for cooking and water for drinking and to keep them clean. The Buddha said that planting trees (probably along roads), building bridges, digging wells, building rest houses and providing water for wayfarers, were all meritorious deeds (S.I,33).

In his Suhrllekha Nagarjuna urged his royal correspondent to ‘establish rest houses in temples, towns and cities and set up water pots along lonely roads.’ This last practice remains very popular in Burma. Groups of friends form what are called water-donating societies (wainay ya thukha) and undertake to place water pots along roads for the convenience of passersby.

The pictures show a typical wayside free water booth in Burma and two ambalama, resthouses from Sri Lanka, built as an act of generosity. The first dates from the early 19th century and the second from the early 20th century.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sripura In The Headlines

Even though I take a deep interest in India’s Buddhist past and have travelled widely through the country I had never heard of Sripura until 18 months ago. The place was first brought to attention in 1872, when Dr. Beglar did some preliminary excavations there. In 1953-5 Dr. M. G. Dixit of the University of Sagar did more excivations. He discovered the Anand Prabhu Kuti Buddha Vihar, Swastik Buddha Vihar and several Sivite and Jaina temples. Despite its great interest Sripura remained little-known and rarely visited, mainly because it was in a backward and roadless district.
After the new state of Chhattisgarh was formed in 2000 it sponsored large-scale excivations at Sripur throughout 2004-5 in the hope of attracting tourism to the state. These digs have uncovered three Shiva temples, numerous residential areas, a palace complex, a huge Buddha Vihara, the Torana Dwar of Surang Teela and a unique pyramidical temple. Money has been spent on building good roads to the site, and prompting the place and visitors have began coming. Sirpur is in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh State is on the right bank of the rather lovely Mahanadi River, some 84 km from Raipur, the state capital. From the 5th to the 9th cent. CE it was the capital of the somewhat obscure Dakshinkosala kingdom. Archaeological evidences and inscription show it was also a religious and cultural capital centre of considerable importance and that it had a large Buddhist population. I haven’t visited Sripura yet it is defiantly on the top of my list of where to go during my next trip to India.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David.To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Lord's Compassion

Putting aside the bonds offspring have for their parents, and giving up the love he felt for his wife and child, the Lord renounced the world and dedicated himself to the quest of truth. He did this for the good of the many for the welfare of the many, for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and humans, out of compassion of the world.
Turning his back on great wealth and royal glory, and all the security they provide, the Lord renounced his palace to live in the lonely forest. He exchanged a golden palace for the roots of the trees. He did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion

Assailed by Mara and his army, attacked by fearful shapes and sounds, enduring menace and doubt, the Lord remained calm and resolute, never being diverted from his noble quest. He overcame Mara for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.

When the Lord attained enlightenment and achieved his high purpose, he decided to teach what he had realized to others, rather than enjoy the happiness of liberation alone. The Lord did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
When he heard that Angulimala was waylaying travelers and murdering them, the Lord disregarded the dangers of the lonely roads and went to teach him the Dhamma of peace. He did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
When the Lord could have partaken in royal banquets, he was content to eat scraps and simple fare. He could have worn cloth of gold gowns but he was satisfied with a robe of rags. The Lord did this for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
Disregarding the heat and dust of Summer and the icy winds of the Winter, the Lord traversed long roads and paths, byways and jungle tracks, to teach the Dhamma to one and all. He undertook such journeys for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.
Although abused by Asurinda, denied alms by the people of Pancasala, and mocked by the ascetic Nigrodha, the Lord never turned his back on the hostile, but remained open and friendly. He acted thus for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion of the world.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Indonesian Extras I

The year is coming to an end so I am clearing some of the photos I have taken in the last 12 months. In October I was in Indonesia to give some talks but mainly for last minute checking for my new book, a guide book to the great Buddhist temple of Borobudur. During my previous trip there I was astonished to discover that although there are a dozen or so guide books to the temple as a whole, there is none explaining the 120 panels depicting the life of the Buddha. So I have written one. Arriving in Yogyakarta for final checking I went to meet Ven. Pannavaro, former Sangha Nayaka of Indonesia, only to discover he had just assisted a Dutch scholar in writing a guide book similar to mine. He showed me the book then we went to Mendut to see some sculptures there and then we caught up on all the news. While in Yogyakarta I gave some talks as well as later in Jakarta.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Indonesian Extras II

Here are pictures of two panels from Borobudur illustrating the famous Sasa Jataka (No.316). Four friends, a monkey, a jackal, an otter and rabbit (for reasons I cannot understand sasa is always translated as hare) vow that during the coming Uposatha they will be especially generous. Sakra, king of the gods, hears their resolution and to test them transforms himself into a wandering brahmin begging for alms. Each of the first three animals give him food but as the rabbit has nothing to offer other than grass, inedible to humans, he asks the Brahman to kindle a fire, then jumps into it, intending to provide the brahman with a roast dinner (note the fire in the second panel). Having passed the test Sakra makes the flames burn cool and the rabbit is saved. It’s a charming story but with slightly troubling implications. It is the only story in the Pali tradition of someone voluntary giving his life as an offering, as opposed to giving it to actually save the life or lives of others. Mahayana took this idea to its most illogical, not to say grotesque extreme, with stories of bodhisattvas giving their skin, limbs, blood and lives at the drop of a hat (or perhaps better, a turban), sometimes for the most trivial reasons and where some less dramatic alternative could easily have been thought of.

Here are a few more photos of Borobudur panels and of less commonly visited temples around Yogjakarta.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Indonesian Extras III

Here are a few photos taken at the wonderful botanical gardens at Bogor, Indonesia. I always wondered where they get sausages from. Now I know!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Very Remarkable Singaporean

Today a very special and unusual Singaporean died, Teresa Hsu Chih. Apart from her major contributions to helping the poor and aged she was an inspiring example of kindness and compassion. At nearly every funeral nowadays the deceased is described as having “lived life to the full” but Teresa Hsu really did. The retired nurse was the founder of the non-profit charities—Heart to Heart Service and the Home for the Aged Sick, one of the first homes for the aged sick in Singapore. She had been a social worker in China and South America and a nurse in England, before coming to Singapore to start non-profit charities in 1961. She spent almost all her savings on feeding and housing the poor and the elderly, most of whom were younger than she was. In 2005, she received the Special Recognition Award from the Singaporean government in recognition of her contribution to the country.

Like many Singaporeans of the previous generations Hsu came from a very depressed background. She was born in China in 1898. After the disappearance of her father her mother, who was illiterate, had to fend for her three girls and one son singlehandedly. At 16, the family moved to Penang. Malaya, where they worked as cleaners in a convent. The nuns allowed her to join the children in the classes and thus she managed to get an education. In time she moved back to China becoming a secretary and bookkeeper but then leaving her job to become a volunteer helping the injured during the Sino-Japanese War. Her experience during the war led her to London to train as a nurse. In her mid-50s, she returned to Penang to be with her mother where she assisted her brother in starting the Assunta Foundation for the Poor. She also played a key role in founding three homes for the elderly and two for young girls and neglected children in Ipoh
In 1961, she came to Singapore and opened the first home for the aged sick in Singapore in 1965. The society gradually built three blocks to house the increasing number of residents and Hsu remained the home’s matron until 1980, when she retires at 83. When asked where all her dedication and caring came from, Hsu replied: “I must have got it from my mother because she was totally dedicated to the job she chose to do and that was looking after the family. I think that trait was passed down to us. I’ve no family, so I look after everybody else. I choose to serve everybody else who comes to me—that is my job... The world is my home, all living beings are my family, selfless service is my religion”.
At a time when most people are winding down Hsu still had the energy and enthusiasm to continue. She set up the Heart to Heart Service with Sharana Yao, her co-social worker, a non-profit, non-government aided welfare service which provides food, clothes and monthly cash contributions to those in need. With the help of volunteers who drove her around, she brought necessities and cash to the homes of elderly women and destitute in their 80s and 90s on public assistance. The needy get on Heart-to-Heart’s list based on good faith by word of mouth
Remarkably Hsu was still active at 100. An advocate of healthy living, she often gave talks at schools, welfare homes, and hospitals in Singapore and overseas about health and service to the needy. When asked about the secret of her good health and longevity, she attributed it to a spartan lifestyle, vegetarianism and to her positive attitude towards life: “I prefer to laugh than to weep. Those people who cry to me, I always tell them it is better to laugh than to use tissue paper, as laughing is free but tissue paper still cost five cent. ‘Ha ha ha’ cost no cents.”
She would start her day at 4 am with calisthenics and an hour of yoga. She was also a regular meditator. At night, she would do yoga again, then read until midnight. She also taught yoga to the young and old at temples, associations, hospitals and schools. She ate sparely; her breakfast is a glass of water or milk. Lunch was often milk and salad, unless “people bring me food,” and it was milk or yogurt for dinner. She had a 2,000-volume private library which she called Prema. Teresa Hsu was Singapore’s oldest person at age 113 until she died on the 7th December. She asked that her cremation take place soon after her death and without ceremony and so her passing was only announced today. May she attain the peace and freedom of Nirvana.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ticket To Nirvana

Indian railway representatives introduced the country's railway tourism to the Indonesian market on Thursday, promoting in particular its spiritual Buddhist tour on the Mahaparinirvan Express."The Mahaparinirvan Express train goes on a seven-night-and-eight-day package tour, which covers traditional Buddhist places. It provides an exclusive, safe and comfortable tourism service," Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTR) joint general manager for tourism Arun Srivastava said on Thursday. Speaking at a presentation of the tourism service at the Indian Embassy, Srivastava explained that the Mahaparinirvan Express was a fully air-conditioned train tour. The tour covers many important places of Buddhist interest such as Lumbini where Buddhism founder Siddhartha Gautama was born; Bodhgaya, the place Buddha attained enlightenment; Sravasti, the city that sheltered Buddha for 24 rainy seasons in the Jetyana Gardens; and Kushinagar where Buddha died and attained Parinirvana (Final Nirvana). The train also made stops at other Indian tourism destinations such as Agra, where the famous Taj Mahal is located. The tour package, he said, included all train journeys, hotel accommodations, road transports, tour guide services, meals, travel insurance, security and monument admission fees. The train's cabins are divided into three air-conditioned classes: first class, second tier and third tier. The first class cabins, boasting two berths and a sliding door, cost US$160 per person per night. Tier two and three, which have more berths and a curtain in place of a door cost $130 and $105, respectively. Srivastava said that the facilities and services would be worth the price, as the trip would be a unique, exclusive and comfortable train experience. "This is not a public train where people at stations can just jump on board. Only passengers who have bought the package are allowed to board the train. This is an exclusive train," he said. The tour period, which starts in October, provides 14 trips in a year. Last year, the tour attracted around a total of 2,000 tourists, from 35 countries all over the world including the US, Canada, China and Singapore, he said. Manadimetta Michael, an Indonesian who has taken the tour, said that the Mahaparinirvan Express did have its drawbacks, such as lack of privacy in the small cabins, as well as limited meal choices. However, he hailed the trip as the best he had ever been on. "Whether you find it pleasant or unpleasant, India is definitely the most enjoyable place to visit," he said.

From The Jakarta Post, December 10, 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

Then And Now

When I first went to India in the early 70s and saw, as I occasionally did, dead bodies in the street or in rivers, I told myself that Indian culture does not departmentalize the various realities of existence, that it has transcended the dualism of life and death, pure and impure, beauty and ugliness. During my last visit to Varanasi a few years ago I saw a bloated cadaver silently drifting down the river with a few crows picking at it and my reaction was different, far less accepting and ‘philosophical’. It struck me as callous indifference, municipal incompetence and as an appalling public health problem. Have I matured and ‘got real’ or have I lost my spiritual sensitivity? Was I right then or am I right now? All these photos are from the internet and were taken in Varanasi.