Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thoughts At Vesakha

When the Buddha arrived in Kusinara and lay down between two  Sal trees, they burst into flower out of season and sprinkled their creamy-yellow petals over him. When Ananda expressed amazement that the very trees were revering him, the Buddha said: “Ananda, these Sal trees burst into flower out of season in homage to the Tathagata and covered his body…But the monk or the nun, the lay man or the lay woman who lives practicing the Dhamma properly and perfectly fulfils the Dhamma, he or she honors, reveres and respects the Tathagata with the highest homage” (D.II,137-8).
Being Vesakha I thought it appropriate to say something about the Sal tree. A quick perusal through Yahoo and Google Image will show an almost universal misidentification of the Cannon-ball tree (Couroupita guianensis) with the Sal tree (Shorea robusta). Wikipedia does the same. The Cannon-ball tree is native of Brazil and gets its English name from the large cannon-ball-shaped fruit that hang in bunched from its trunk. How did a Brazilian tree get confused with an Indian tree? Well, first of all, this confusion seems to have began with   Sri Lankan Buddhists. The Sinhalese of course have never seen a Sal tree which does not grow in tropical climates. They are however, quite familiar with the Cannon-ball tree because it was introduced into the Island by the Portuguese. Now the Cannon-ball tree not only has an extravagantly beautiful pink and white blossom with an almost overpowering perfume, but also in the heart of the flower is a small creamy-white nodule that looks exactly like a little stupa. The rest followed automatically for the Sinhalese. The Buddha died under a Sal and his remains were enshrined in a stupa + the Cannon-ball tree has a stupa in its flower = the Cannon-ball tree must be the Sal tree.
One can well understand how simple Sinhalese peasants could make this harmless and innocent mistake. But it says something about the influence (at least in some areas) of Sri Lankan expatriate missionary monks that they have disseminated this mistake so widely that now almost all Buddhists (outside India. Indian Buddhists know better) take it as gospel. From one point of view this is, as I said, a harmless, innocent mistake. From another point of view perhaps it is not. It could be seen of as yet another example of Buddhist carelessness, of that  “a myth is as good as a truth”  attitude so common amongst Buddhists and perhaps also of the Western Buddhists tendency to accept everything Asian Buddhists tell them. So please! Let’s have no more confusion on this matter. As the Buddha lay dying at Kusinara it was Sal blossoms that sprinkled down on him, not cannon-balls!
Vesakha blessings to all my readers.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Dhamma Of Arthur Koestler

When I was in my early 20s I went through an Arthur Koestler phase, The Sleepwalkers, Reflections on Hanging, The Act of Creation,  The Roots of Coincident and all that. Although he mainly wrote on politics  Koestler did have some interest in religion as a result of a sort of   ‘mystical’ experience he had while awaiting the firing squad. In The Lotus and the Robot he examined yoga, Hinduism and Zen Buddhism and found them wanting. He claimed that some Zen writings came very near to fascism, a claim that outraged western Zen practitioners at the time. No doubt had Koestler lived long enough to read Brian Daizen Victoria’s 1997 Zen at War he would have felt vindicated. When I was beginning my explorations of Buddhism amongst the first books  I read after Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught  were D. T Suzuki’s three volume Essays in Zen Buddhism  which left me utterly bewildered. Everyone said that Suzuki was utterly profound so I thought there must be something wrong with me. So when I read Koestler’s comment: “I genuinely admire Dr. Suzuki. He is the only man in history to have ever written a million words of nothing” I felt somewhat vindicated. Although The Roots of Coincidence is still well worth reading much of Koestler’s output has become passé, given the changing political landscape. Nevertheless, there are still gems amongst it. Here are a few.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Life, Death And Bukit Brown

Driving along the Pan-island Freeway near Thomson Rd is one of the few hints that it is there. Elsewhere it is obscured by homes, shops and yet more roads and freeways. Bukit Brown is the largest cemetery in Singapore and since it was closed in 1970 it has reverted to forest so as to become an abode for the living rather than the dead – for numerous species birds, butterflies, monkeys and other wildlife. The oldest grave so far found in the cemetery dates from the 1830s, most date from the early 20th century onwards. There are about 100,000 graves altogether and of trees, ferns, creepers, orchards, mosses and grasses no one can say. Unfortunately, parts of the cemetery are marked for destruction to make way for a four-lane highway. During a recent visit to Bukit Brown I noticed that remains are already being disinterred and many graves have markers indicating that they too are soon to go. What a pity that such beautiful old graves, the wildlife and the greenery had to give way for yet more asphalt and exhaust fumes.

The first picture is of me amongst the Dieffenbachia. Fourth picture; during the British period wealthy Chinese used to employ Sikhs to guard  their homes and businesses so it only made sense to employ then in the afterlife. The Sixth picture is of a Jade Boy. Such young men used to serve Chinese emperors and so many graves have these figures to serve them in the afterlife. Eighth picture, lovely Asplenium nidus find a home on the limbs of large trees.  
To find out more about Bukit Brown have a look at