The Wrecking Crew In Sri Lanka

Last week in Sri Lanka, a group of roughly 100 Buddhist monks and their supporters destroyed a Muslim shrine said to have been built on a piece of property given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. One of the participants, a monk named Amatha Dhamma Thero, told the BBC that “he and 100 other monks from various Asian nations destroyed the Islamic shrine because Muslims in the country were seeking to convert the locale into a mosque.”

According to the BBC report, “The mob waved Buddhist flags and – in one picture – burnt a green Muslim flag. There have been no other reports of what happened.” Witnesses to the incident claim the police were present but did nothing to stop the destruction. The police deny they were there, but the photo on the right, published on a number of sites reporting the incident, clearly shows men wearing some sort of uniform looking on.

A local senior Muslim denies that a mosque was planned.

Sinhalese is the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion. Politicians and government officials routinely make pronouncements about how Sri Lanka is the center of Buddhism, and responsible for preserving dhamma, and so on. It’s sort of a Buddhist version of American exceptionalism.

Sri Lanka has a democratic, socialist government (the President is Buddhist). And while Sri Lanka has universal suffrage, the government has been accused of human rights violations in regard to the treatment of minorities, especially the Tamil who are Hindu. To be fair, there’s probably enough questionable treatment of others to go around on all sides over there. However, since I am a Buddhist, that’s the part  that interests me.

Some time back, I read an article by Chamara Sumanapala  entitled “Can A Buddhist Be A Racist Or A Nationalist?” The gist of his piece is that Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka are “misusing Buddhism as a tool to achieve their own ends.”

Sumanapala begins his article with this statement,

An observer of Sri Lankan politics would notice that many if not all nationalist and racist elements of the Sinhalese community are Buddhists.”

The Sinhalese see themselves as a “chosen people.” This belief stems from The Mahavamsa or “The Great Chronicle”, a Pali text, actually a poem, which advances the notion that the Buddha made magical flights to the island of Sri Lanka and chose its people to be responsible for the preservation of Buddhist dhamma.

Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton and a leading scholar of Sri Lanka, writes,

The Mahavamsa is not just a text that gives us information on Sinhala-Buddhist identity; much more importantly it is a text that helps to create such an identity in a way that the previous chronicle, the Dipavamsa, did not. And central to that process of identity creation is the hero, Dutthagamani Abhaya (161-137 BCE), the man who conjoins the land or the place, Sri Lanka, with the sasana, already blessed by the Buddha as a place where the Dhamma will flourish. And when the anguished king asks the monks what consequences will befall him for having killed millions of people, the monks reply, that no real sin has been committed by him because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers, no better than beasts. And more gratefully the Mahavamsa monks assign Dutthagamini a place in heaven in the proximity of the next Buddha, Maitreye.”

Of course, I don’t know the entire story of the incident last week, or how much of what Chamara Sumanapala writes is valid, or to what extent attitudes fround in The Mahavamsa have actually shaped the culture of Sri Lanka, but on the surface none of it sounds very buddistly, as Jeff Bridges would say.

Destruction, whether it be Buddhist statues carved in the side of a cliff or a Muslim shrine, is an act of hate. I’ve always thought of Buddhism as being concerned with the art of construction, specifically the construction of shrines of loving-kindness in human hearts.

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

He who seeks happiness
By hurting those who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.

For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy.
Never harm him
And when you leave this life
You too will find happiness.

from the Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom

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Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Facebook, Twitter, Phones . . .

Rep. Weiner admits at last that his denials last week were false, apologizes but refuses to resign.

One of America's first political sex scandals involved Alexander Hamilton after it was revealed he had an affair with a married woman.

This is a fine mess he’s gotten himself into. It’s almost chilling to think of that as he was thinking about how he could lie his way out of it, Weiner might have caught a few minutes of news coverage of the Casey Anthony trial where her videotaped lies were played in court.

Two different situations but the same behavior of denial and deception.

Politicians and other celebrities engage in bad behavior partially because of a sense of entitlement that we, addicted to culture, give them. They want more power, more love, more glorification. One of the women who received photos from Weiner stated he needed to know that she wanted him.

Nan Britton wrote the first kiss-and-tell book, in which she claimed to have an affair with Pres. Warren Harding. She was 24. He was 55.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said, “We expect people who govern to be able to govern themselves.” Instead of a sense of entitlement, politicians should be motivated by a sense of responsibility. I think most start out that way, but then they find out it’s easy to take shortcuts. They discover they can get away with stuff. Because they are entitled to. Because they are famous. Because people like them and want them.

We’ve turned politicians into rock stars. Well, the media has. It’s something they’ve sold to us and we’ve been willing buyers.

It’s not a new problem. In the Tao Te Ching it is written,

If you do not glorify great men
Then people will not quarrel
If you do not cherish possessions
Then people will not steal
If you wish to be rid of desire
Then do not look at objects of desire.

If we only glorified the great . . . but most of the people we exalt aren’t even near great.

On the surface, it seems like a form of narcissism. After all, what could be more vane than sending out pictures of yourself to women in that manner. However, I don’t think that’s what is going on here. It’s more like, if I can get this person to like me, glorify me, give more power, then I’ll be happy, or happier.

These obsessions stem from the fact that we look outside of our own lives for happiness. We think happiness can be found in other people, in acquiring money, having sex, being glorified by others.

Tarzan was outraged when reporters accused him of sleeping with this woman while Jane was away.

I think religion is the major cause for this condition. From the very beginning of life we’re told to look to something external for happiness and salvation. This supernatural being will reward us if we are good, punish us if we do bad, but most of all, this being wants us to love him, want him.

We’re conditioned to look outside, counting on friends, lovers, jobs, cars, money and so on to bring us the satisfaction that already exists within, if we would only look there and tap into it.

This is why I believe that Buddhism has a unique message and a real answer for this problem. As far as I am aware, Buddhism and Taoism are the only two major religious philosophies that teach self-power. The rest are all looking to some other-power to save them.

That doesn’t mean that Buddhists are necessarily immune to the syndrome. We certainly do our share of placing certain people on very high pedestals. We need to pull back on the glorification of teachers. If we don’t give them power (beyond what a teacher should reasonably have), then they cannot abuse their power.

The sage leads by opening the mind of people,
And helps them to satisfy their needs
by weakening their attachments
and strengthening their spirit.
The sage helps all people to let go of their desires,
and then, confounds those who think
they possess superior knowledge.

By practicing doing nothing,
Everything is in harmony.

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Religions of Man

Religious scholar Huston Smith is 92 today. A very happy birthday to him.

Smith is best known for his book “The Religions of Man”, first published in 1958, which evidently is now titled “The World’s Religions.”  It’s a classic primer to comparative religion.

I have always thought his section on Buddhism was rather good. I especially like the way he starts off:

Buddhism begins with a man . . . While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking life, one man roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like inchoateness of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.”

Unlike other religious philosophies, Buddhism is not concerned with magic or the supernatural. Buddha-dharma is about human beings, human affairs, earthly events. The experience Gautama had beneath the Bodhi Tree was neither mystical nor mysterious; it was a human experience. It has to be, or else we could never hope to have the same experience ourselves.

Smith tell us that the Buddha’s teachings were earth-bound, rational, and pragmatic. He lists six corollaries of religion and then gives six reasons why Buddha-dharma is “almost entirely disassociated” with them:

1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.

2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual.

3. Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation.

4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.

5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.

6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural.

Then he presents six terms that summarize the Buddha’s approach to religion:

1. It was empirical.

2. It was scientific.

3. It was pragmatic.

4. It was therapeutic.

5. It was democratic.

6. It was directed to individuals.

[Smith offers an explanation to each of these, however it would too lengthy to include them here.]

This is the humanistic aspect of Buddhism, which I feel is its main characteristic.  A philosophy given by a human being to human beings. Teachings that address human problems, the human malaise, human suffering. Although there may be gods in the background, the dharma Buddha taught was not about them. The mystery he was seeking to solve was the mystery within the human mind.

Earlier in the book, Smith writes,

Finally religion brushes with mystery. It is always mixed up with magic and mysticism and miracles; with the occult, the esoteric, and the uncanny; with things like spiritualism and the supernatural. Rationalists may complain and all will deplore its credulity and excesses in some of these directions. Religion’s final business is the infinite, the beyond, the beckoning, and its coin is ecstasy. It will always, therefore, lie tangential to what is mundane, ordinary, and prosaic and move away from these even when it can only grope in the direction of their alternative.

If by “tangential” Smith means that Buddhism hardly touches upon the “mundane, ordinary, and prosaic,” I would disagree. Those things lie in the direction the Buddha encouraged us to head toward. It is the mystical that is tangential. Mysticism may be employed, but it is only a tool. Supernatural powers may be on display within the literature, but for us in the modern world, they should be taken as metaphors.

In “The Religions of Man”, Huston Smith says, “Religion’s final business is the infinite.” Interestingly, Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” I took for the title of this blog, is well known for his book “The Religion of Man.” It was published some 27 years before Smith’s book and while it was not on the subject of comparative religion per se, Tagore did discuss at length his ideas on the universality of religion. This passage conveys what I think Buddhism means when it talks about the infinite. Here, Tagore is discussing

[What] Buddha has described as Brahmavihara, “living in the infinite”. He [Buddha] says . . . ‘To be dwelling in such contemplation while standing, walking, sitting or lying down, until sleep overcomes thee, is called living in Brahma’.

This proves that Buddha’s idea of the infinite was not the idea of a spirit of an unbounded cosmic activity, but the infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human. By being charitable, good and loving, you do not realize the infinite, in the stars or rocks, but the infinite revealed in Man. Buddha’s teaching speaks of Nirvana as the highest end. To understand its real character we have to know the path of its attainment, which is not merely through the negation of evil thoughts and deeds but through the elimination of all limits to love. It must mean the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself, which unites in its bosom all those to whom we must offer our sympathy and service.

On one hand, to say that religion is “of man” is curious, for what creatures on this planet other than ‘man’ or humankind have religion?  On the other hand, it points to the bothersome truth that all religions, all gods, and the supernatural were created by humans.  Here is where, in my opinion, Buddhism has an advantage, because of its secular and humanistic qualities, Buddhism can be viewed as a path that goes beyond religion.  This is where I think we should all go, beyond the misty realms of the divine and into the world of humanity . . . beyond illusion and into the real.

Huston Smith writes,

Buddhism begins with a man . . . a man who woke up.”

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Tai Chi Truths

Most people think of tai chi as a form of gentle exercise, but technically, it’s a martial art. It’s also a way of meditation, and a way of life.

Tai is “great.” Chi does not mean “energy” or “life force” (ch’i, qi, ki) as one might expect, instead it refers to yin and yang (two polar forces in the universe) fused into the Great Ultimate, represented by the Tai-chi (taiji) symbol to the left. The Great Ultimate is fundamentally the Non-Ultimate, or the Ultimate of Non-being.

The health benefits of tai chi are pretty well documented now. Many studies have determined that tai chi has a positive effect on mental health, cardiovascular fitness, high blood pressure, muscle strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity. A new study by the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, South Korea and the University of Exeter (UK), published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that while tai chi offers little help in easing the symptoms of cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, “tai chi, which combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements, may exert exercise-based general benefits for fall prevention and improvement of balance in older people as well as some meditative effects for improving psychological health.”

Here are the so-called Eight Truths of Tai Chi, translated by Waysun Liao* from “early manuscripts by unknown masters.” I don’t know if “truths” is the right word, for they are not facts, but rather principles, ones that apply not only to tai chi but also to meditation itself, and for that matter, daily living.

The Eight Truths of T’ai Chi

1. Do not be concerned with form. Do not be concerned with the ways in which form manifests.

2. Your entire body should be transparent and empty. Let inside and outside fuse.

3. Learn to ignore external objects. Allow your mind to guide you, and act spontaneously, in accordance with the movement.

4. The sun sets on the western mountain. The cliff thrusts forward, suspended in space. See the ocean in its vastness and the sky in its immensity.

5. The tiger’s roar is deep and mighty. The monkey’s cry is high and shrill. So should you refine your spirit, cultivating the positive and the negative.

6. The water of spring is clear, like fine crystal. The water of the pond lies still and placid. Your mind should be as the water and your spirit like the spring.

7. The river roars. The stormy ocean boils. Make your ch’i like these natural wonders.

8. Seek perfection sincerely. Establish life. When you have settled the spirit, you may cultivate the ch’i.

* Waysun Liao, T’ai Chi Classics (Random House, 1977)

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True Emptiness, Wondrous Existence

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

The individual self is one with nature, an integral part of the vast universe. The Buddhist quest is to realize our “greater self” and to obtain liberation from the “lesser self”, the self of ego, self-cherishing and clinging. The view from the greater self is like the view from the top of mountain. It’s hard not to be enthralled with the vista. The lesser self is like standing on the land below in the fog. The view is limited.

To me, this is what is meant by the phrase chen-k’ung miao-yu (Jp. shinku-myou) or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness”, refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, infinite. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” In other words, emptiness does not deny or reject existence, rather it offers us insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicableness, and the glorious interdependency of everything.

Chih-i interpreted the word miao as “subtle.” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-I the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

This is similar to what is expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be known is not the infinite Tao.
The name that can be named is not the infinite name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Those without constant desire see into its subtlety.
Those with constant desire, only see its limit.
These two have the same origin
But are given different designations.
We call them both mysteries.
Deepness within deepness:
The gate to all subtleties.

It may sound strange but you should be pleased to know that things are empty, for it is what makes existence truly wondrous.

In The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh, commenting on the maxim “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” from the Heart Sutra, says,

‘Emptiness’ means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. The word ‘emptiness’ should not scare us. It is a wonderful word. To be empty does not mean to be nonexistent.”

When one has attained this understanding of the oneness of true emptiness and wondrous existence and is liberated from thought processes that form attachments, our saha or mundane world is transformed into a world of ten thousand wonders.

The message today then is that letting go of attachments does not mean that we cease enjoying life and seeing emptiness does not mean to depreciate beauty.

Because, as Han-shan Te-ch’ing said, “so-called existence is called ‘wondrous existence’ because the illusory existence is fundamentally non-existent”, we can see the world around us clearly, without veils of desires and attachment before our eyes, or as if we were standing on a mountain above the fog, and that enables us to embrace what we see and what is enjoyable about life from a profoundly higher level of appreciation.

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

Enjoy being a laughing, smiling, happy Buddha all day.

 

 

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