Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My 2015

This year I have been gradually taking less responsibilities and accepting fewer invitations to write or speak. Nonetheless, it has been an interesting and rewarding twelve months. Some of the visitors to the BDMS have been old friends Ven. Sumanasiri, Ven. Kovida from Canada and Ven. Sanghasena from Ladakh, also Ven. Anoma who filled in for me during my three month retreat, and Ven. Thubten Chodron and her cheerful,  friendly nuns. As for writing, this year saw two of my two new books in print; Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism and Good Kamma! Bad Kamma! What Exactly is Kamma? Perhaps more satisfying was that some of my earlier writing appeared in translation. My small children’s book Rahula Leads the Way and The Words of the Buddha were both  published in Vietnamese, Like Milk and Water Mixed appeared in Indonesian as did A Guide to Buddhism A to Z  under the title Ensilkopedi Mini Buddhis. The ever popular Good Question Good Answer continues to be translated too. This year it finally appeared in Hindi, Sinhala and Dutch, and Chin (a regional language of Burma) Russian and Swahili translations have been done and are awaiting publication.  Ven. Anoma diligently and carefully translated To Eat of Not to Eat Meat into Sinhala and arranged for its publication. A generous donor in Burma offered to reprint 3000 copies of the Burmese Good Question Good Answer to be distributed in Singapore and Burma. In November some of our members undertook to distribute copies of the book to the crowds of young Burmese who congregate at Peninsular Plaza each weekend. We will be doing this again in January and February. Late October saw the official re-opening of the BDMS center after last year’s dramatic fire closed us down. Glad to say, most of our congregation have started returning. I traveled very little this year, only to Indonesia, Malaysia and Europe.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Was The Buddha Really A Prince?

While there are several hundred biographies of the Buddha and his biography is recounted in thousands of books on religion, Indian history, etc. there is still no biography which is based entirely on the earliest records leaving out the later legends and embellishments. If and when this is ever done a very different Buddha would become apparent. Take but one example. Everyone knows that the Buddha’s father was a king and thus that he was a prince. The interesting thing is that there is almost no evidence of this in the Tipitaka.We are told that when the baby Buddha was born the sage Asita went to Suddhodana’s bhavana to see the kumara (Sn.685). The two Pali words here in italics are almost always translated as ‘palace’ and ‘prince’, whereas the first more correctly means ‘a place’  without any regal conotations, and the second means a male child or boy; prince is raja kumara. In every instance when the Buddha talks about his or his father’s abode he uses the words for house, home or mansion, not the usual words for palace; i.e. a royal residence, i.e. vimana or mandira. “In other people’s nivanana the servants, workers and slaves are given broken rice and sour gruel to eat. But in my father’s nivasana they were given the best rice and meat to eat” (A.I,145). “I had three pasada, one for the winter, one for the summer and one for the rainy season” (A.I,145). “At my father’s nivesana lotus ponds were made just for my enjoyment” (A.I,145). In later centuries the word nivasana came to be applied to royal palaces but there is no examples of this from the 5th cent BCE or before and not for quite a few centuries after. Even in the very places where one would expect the Buddha to refer to his father as a king he did not do so. When he was asked by King Bimbisara about his family and birth he simply replied that he was from a Sakyan family (Sn.322-4).
 The famous incident where the young Buddha spontainously fell into a jhanic state while sitting in the shade of a jambu tree as he watched his father, is another example of this. Nearly all accounts and depictions of this incident say or show the Buddha’s father plowing, supposedly doing the first ceremonial plowing of the year, what was called mangalavappamangala, Ja.I,57; IV,167). But in the Buddha’s account of this incident he simply says: “I recall that when my Sakyan father was working (pitu Sakassa kammante) while I was sitting in the shade of a jambu tree…” (M.I,246). Now working could mean anything – weeding, mending a fence, milking a cow, picking fruit, etc.  So how did the general ‘work’ become ‘ceremonial plowing’?  I don’t know, but this is what I suspect. In the centuries after the Buddha the claim of royal ancestry was made for him and his father, and of course kings do not do ordinary labor, they only do regal things like ceremonial plowing. Hence work was morphed into royal work
Also interesting is the fact that Suddhodana is only mentioned once in the Sutta Pitaka,   in the Mahapadana Sutta, perhaps the latest sutta in the whole collection, where he is also   said to be a raja (D.II,7). In the Vinaya, most of which post-dates the Buddha by at least 100 years, he only gets a single mention too and he is not called a raja (Vin.I,82). Further, the Vinaya provides us with the only reference in the Tipitaka to a Sakyan  ruler and it is to Bhaddiya, who later became a monk (Vin.II,182).
So was Suddhodana a king, making the Buddha a prince?  Almost certainly not in the sense that ‘king’ and ‘prince’ have been understood for the last 2000 years in both East and the West.  He was probably more like a chief elected by the senior men of the clan. The reference to the Sakyans having a body called the ruler-makers (raja kattaro, D.II,233) makes this scenario the most likely one.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Women In Buddhism

Until fairly recently almost all societies considered women to be inferior to men. This lower status was reflected in the teachings of most religions as well.  The Bible hold women responsible for the fall of humankind (1 Timothy 2,11-15) and the pain of childbirth  was seen as divine punishment on women for this offence (Genesis 3,16). Confucianism taught that women should live by what was called `the three subordinations', i.e. being subordinate to their father before marriage, to their husband after marriage, and to their oldest son when they become a widow. Men whose wife had died were encouraged to remarry but widows were forbidden to do so. One of the two branches of Jainism, the Digambras, believe that a women must be reborn as a male in order to attain enlightenment.  Apparently this notion is a later development and was not taught by Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. According to the Hinduism's Manusmrti women are to be honored but kept subservient in every way. They were not allowed to read the Vedas, the sacred scriptures. Although the Manusmrti's authority was not universally accepted and even those who did accept it did not necessarily follow all its strictures, its influence on the Indian attitude to women has been profound. One of the few religions that  from its inception considered   women to be equal with men   is Baha’i, which is particularly significant given that this religion had its origins in 19th century  Persia.  
At the time of the Buddha Indian women had considerably more freedom than in later centuries and there is little evidence that purdah, widow burning, female infanticide or child marriage had become the norm, as they did in later centuries. Widows could re-marry, although a collection of verses in the Jataka show that they were starting to be looked upon with contempt (Ja.VI,508), an attitude that later led to enforced widowhood. The verses express great sympathy for the widow's predicament showing that Buddhists did not approve of it.   
 The main criticism of the Buddha's attitude to women are the ideas attributed to him that; (1) a woman cannot become a Fully Perfected Buddha (samma sambuddha, M.III,65), and (2) that nuns must abide by eight special rules (atta garudhamma) that makes them inferior to monks (Vin.II,254). Concerning this first idea, the appearance of a Fully Perfected Buddha is an event so rare, only occurring once in many eons, that the chances of anyone, whatever their gender, becoming one are extremely remote. This being  the case the objection would seem to be moot.
The eight special rules incumbent on nuns give them a second place to monks and in several matters make them dependent on monks. This would have been uncontroversial during the Buddha's time although it does not accord with modern ideas of gender equality.  Today numerous Vinaya rules are disregarded because they are irrelevant  or at odds with modern norms and the eight special rules would be an example of this and thus need not be adhered to.  The other text that always gets a mention when the Buddhist attitude to women  is being discussed is the Kunala Jataka. To say that this  tale is outrageously misogynistic is an understatement. It accuses women of a broad range of vices.  But in doing so it is also more than a little hypocritical given that other Jataka stories depict males as guilty of murder, theft, scheming, skullduggery, treachery ingratitude, avariciousness, stupidity and a few other vices we don’t have words for. The only consolation is to keep in mind that the Jataka was not taught by the Buddha and clearly post-dates the  suttas by several centuries.  
The Buddha seems to have had an ambiguous attitude towards women, sometimes praising them, at other times disparaging them.  However, concerning the essentials of the Dhamma, he asserted that there is no significant differences between women and men. He said: `Having gone forth from home into homelessness in this Dhamma and training taught by the Tathagata, women are able to realize enlightenment and the stages leading up to it' (Vin.II,254). And again: `Whether it be a man or a whether it be a woman, whoever travels in the Chariot of Dhamma shall draw close to Nirvana' (S.I,33). The nun Soma  made the same point only perhaps more emphatically.  “A woman's nature is unimportant when the mind is still and firm, when knowledge grows day by day, and she has insight into Dhamma. One who thinks such thoughts as  I am a woman’ or I am a man’  or any other I am...’,  Mara is able to address that one”  (S.I,129). The Buddha said that he expected all his disciples, including nuns and lay woman, to be `accomplished and well-trained, learned and erudite, knowers of the Dhamma, living by Dhamma and walking the path of Dhamma...  pass  on to others what they have received from their Teacher and teach it, proclaim it, establish it, explain it, promote it and clarify it... and  use it to refute false teachings and impart this wondrous Dhamma'(D.II,105). Some of the nuns in the scriptures are described as being learned (bahussuta), eloquent (bhanika), confident (visarada) and outstanding at teaching the Dhamma (pattha dhammam  katam  katum, Vin.IV,290).
The Dhammasaghani of the Abhidhamma Pitaka says that gender is a characteristic of matter (rupa) not of consciousness (citta, Dhs. 633-4), which certainly makes sense. Thus while the consciousness of a being who had a female body in this life would be the same as the consciousness in the next life even if it reanimated a male body.