Monday, October 13, 2014

The Birds, The Beasts And The Buddha

Going back nearly fourteen years ago I spent a few days in forested areas in Jamui and Munger districts in Bihar. Less than 6% of Bihar is now forested and even much of that is degraded. Nonetheless, this gave me at least some feel for what life must have been like for monks and other ascetics during the Buddha’s time. Sometime later  I was asked if  I  would write an article on  nature in the Buddhist scriptures and  I agreed to do so, thinking that there might be enough information to fill perhaps two or three pages. However, as I began  looking for references  I realized that the scriptures actually contain a huge  amount of very detailed information on flora, fauna and the natural environment. So what began as a brief article grew into a book  which I have called Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism. The book is now available on line and you can read it at  I think most people will be surprised to know in what detail the Tipitaka discusses the natural environment – soil types, numerous ecological  niches, different types of water courses, cloud formations, etc. Altogether it also mentions some 700 different species of plants and animals. For me the greatest challenge was not compiling all these names but trying to link them  to their modern botanical and zoological nomenclature. Everyone agrees that amba refers to the mango and kaka to the crow. But other than these and a hundred or so others,  no concerted attempt has ever been made to identify all the flora and fauna mentioned in the Tipitaka. Trying to do so has taken up a good amount of my spare time during the last five years. In some cases I have succeeded, in others not.  Either way the result gives, I think, a fascinating insight into the natural world as the Buddha would have known it.
As for the forests and their wildlife in Bihar the future does not look good, despite the best efforts of the Forestry Dept and their dedicated officers in the field. Population growth and administrative corruption insatiably eats away it the few green areas left. The forest in Jamui is thoroughly unsafe nowadays, not because of tigers but because it  has become a refuge for  extremist Maoist guerrillas. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Buddhist Treasures Lost Forever

The unprecedented floods that swept Kashmir Valley last month, have inflicted heavy damage to cultural and archival treasures representing 2,000 yea   the historic Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar have been lost forever. Sources told DNA that the important document, the Gilgit manuscripts, the only surviving testimony to the Buddhist classic knowledge, has been lost forever. Historians across the world were awaiting   with bated breath news about the fate of these documents, only to hear  that they have  been declared 100% damaged with no chances of recovery.  Suspecting  that tribal raiders may damage these documents in 1947, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had prevailed upon then government in Jammu and Kashmir to shift them to National Archives in Delhi.  On two other occasions, to protect them from aerial bombings during war in 1965 and 1971 they were again flown to Delhi for protection. Ironically, some of  the documents placed at the Central Asian Studies Department of Kashmir University were returned to the Museum authorities just a week before the floods. Member of National Monument Authority and former director of INTACH Salim Beg, who has just returned from Srinagar after inspecting the loss said that not only manuscripts but other significant treasures like paintings, shawls, historic textiles, and wood carvings have been damaged. He was aghast that even when  the waters  receded, no action had been taken to rescue the artefacts. He lamented that state authorities lack expertise or even basic understanding to rescue the objects. Tracing the history of their discovery, Beg says a shepherd had found them in 1931 accidentally and by the orders of then Maharaja Hari Singh, they were placed in the museum. Since then scholars from all over world arrive Srinagar to see these documents. Known as the oldest manuscripts in the world, the Gilgit documents have an unmatched significance in the area of Buddhist studies. They help trace the evolution of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan religio-philosophical literature. They were named Gilgit manuscripts as they were discovered in three instalments in the Gilgit region, now part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Fragments of these manuscripts are placed in the British Museum and the Department of Archaeology in Karachi.
 From DNA, 3 Oct. 20014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Sign Of The Times?

The number of Buddhist monks who are giving up their robes has increased rapidly during the past five years with nearly 2,500 leaving the  Sangha between 2007 and 2011, a census has revealed. The census which began in 2007, of monks who have left the priesthood, has shown that in 2007, 73 had left but the number has increased steadily going up to 516 in 2008, 728 in 2009 and 940 in 2010. Within the first three months of 2011, 230 had given up their robes. Among the reasons listed for the exodus include giving up the  Sangha after graduation, due to conflicts arising among brethren monks, to seek foreign employment, to join the armed forces during the war period, due to a father’s addiction to liquor, death of a father and economic difficulties, to care for an elderly spouse left behind at time of ordination, lack of a permanent temple for residence and uncertainty about their future. The number of Buddhist monks in the country who are registered with the Department of Buddhist Affairs between 1993 and 2011 stands at 42,803 novices with 16,538 monks having received higher ordination (upasampada). These details were revealed in response to a question posed by UNP Kurunegala District MP Gamini Jayawickrema Perera to Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratna who is also the Minister of Buddha Sasana. It was also revealed that between 2005 and 2010, the Departments had 9,654 temples registered with it. The Government has put in place several programmes to help under-privileged temples with monies being allocated according to recommendations of the relevant Divisional Secretariats. A subsistence amount is paid to monks in selected temples that face severe economic difficulties in the North and East and other areas. The monthly subsistence paid to temples range from Rs.300 where there is one monk, Rs. 450 for two monks, Rs. 600 for three monks, Rs. 800 for four monks and Rs.1000 per month if there are five resident monks. Temples that need assistance that have six resident monks are given Rs.1,200 monthly, Rs.1,300 if there are seven monks, Rs.1,350 for eight monks and Rs.1500 if the number is nine or more. The UNP MP had requested that at least Rs. 5,000 be paid to temples that are facing economic hardships, particularly in rural areas.
Chandani Kirinde in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka.   

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Philosopher in Bollywood

Bertrand Russell was the greatest English-speaking philosophers of the 20th century and   also one of its greatest mathematicians.  Few people know it but he also had time to appear in   what were then known in the west as “Bombay Dreadfuls” and what we now call Bollywood movies. It was 1967, Russell was already 95 and the big issues of the day were the Vietnam war and nuclear disarmament, the former which Russell opposed and the latter which he supported. So when he was approached to appear in a film about a young Indian studying medicine in London who planned to go to Japan to help the victims of Hiroshima, the always kindly and open Russell agreed.  The film is called Aman and the doctor, played by Rajendra Kumar, gets an audience with the great man who gives him his blessings and encouragement. It’s not clear  whether  the director coned Russell or that he Russell understood that the film was going to be a popular one – perhaps he thought it was going to be a documentary. Anyway, the result really is one for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One Of The Greats

Autobiographies and biographies have never been a significant literary genera in Buddhism or in Asia in general. Even biographies of the Buddha were rather late in coming and even then were more hagiographies or romances than sober accounts of the lives of their subject. The same is true of modern Asian and Western Buddhists - except for the Dalai Lama of course;  two autobiography, at least a dozen biographies to date, one by his brother, another by his sister, one about his family, etc. He’s a very well-documented individual. So far, Western Buddhist writers have focused mainly on explaining Dhamma rather than writing about their experiences of being Buddhists. However, a  recent book by the Buddhist Publication Society is such a work. The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera – The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer is a long overdue account of the most important of those special individuals who helped the Dhamma get established and accepted in the West. And it is absolutely fascinating reading. Although made up of six quite separate parts, each written by a different author, the editors have put the book together in a readable and flowing manner. The first part is a history of Buddhism in Germany from the beginning until 1931. This is followed by Nyanatiloka’s autobiography which only goes up to 1926. Helmuth Hecker’s carefully researched Biolographical Postscript takes it from there to Nyanatiloka’s passing in 1957. This is followed by Bhikkhu Bodhi’s biography of Nayanaponika, the subject’s most influential disciple. Then comes Nyanaponika’s assessment of Nyanatiloka’s literary legacy and a bibliography. Equally useful is the last Appendix, The Monk Disciples of Nyanatiloka, giving brief biographical details of all the people who ordained under the great man. And finally there are the notes, a whopping 59 pages of them, some of them two or three pages long. Generally I dislike long notes or too many of them. However, most of these notes provide important background to Nyanatiloka’s times and details about his many interesting acquaintances, admirers and helpers. A few notes seem superfluous. Do we really need one telling us that Jawaharlal Nehru was leader of India’s independence movement and the countries first prime minister?
For a monk, Nyanatiloka had a very eventful life. He travelled through China alone and with very little money in the 1920, he worked as a university professor, was twice imprisoned as an enemy alien, was an acquaintance of many of the European avant garde and survived the great Tokyo earthquake. Such was his impact on Buddhism in Sri Lanka that he was given a state funeral.
The thing that emerges most from Nyanatiloka’s life is his apparent  quiet, patient and uncomplaining determination to live the monk’s life no matter what obstacles were put in his way. And lots were. One is also amazed that despite exile, imprisonment, official harassment and frequent  homelessness (or actually 'monsterylessness) his literary output was enormous and of the highest standard. He translated numerous Buddhist texts and wrote dozens of books and articles, many of them of enduring value. Although there have only been a few Western Buddhist monks and nuns their contributions to the Dhamma have been out of all proportion to their numbers. But none yet have exceeded the inspiring example, the dedication, the courage of Nyanatiloka.
Having said all this The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera has a serious downside. The editing of this otherwise terrific book is truly abysmal. There is hardly a paragraph which does not contain spelling mistakes, syntactical errors and stylistic peculiarities. The editors’ unfamiliarity with spoken English is painfully obvious.  “Silananda did not know the exact whereabouts of Ananda Metteyya’s address”,    “the food was very one-sided”,  Venerable Vappa was  “an expert in the field of food”,  “I decided to find my luck further south”,  “the cosmopolitan crow is not absent here too”,  “There were six of them, as high as a man’s height”,    “I would then go back to my homemade sleeping bag with my feet full of mud.”  “The ship’s engine was working so hard that the turbines caused waterfalls”,  “The winter appeared to be over soon”,  “this countryside was the ever-same yellow color”,  “it turned out to be a great piece of good fortune for us”,  “He reported about the keystones of the teachings explained to him by the German Buddhists”,  “you have been thinking for years of the thought of naturalizing in Ceylon.” Some sentences are hopelessly awkward or far too long.  “My father died in 1931, two days after an operation for cancer, and truly peacefully so, while my mother sat on his lap, and was discussing with her and my sister a journey they were planning to take to Switzerland.” “Coming back from the Galduva monastery that Robert de Soysa, the former supporter in Matara, had donated to me, I was arrested in Ambalagoda by a detective, just as I was standing in front of de Soysa’s house wishing to say goodbye to him before catching the last train to Dodanduva.”   “One evening, after a theatre performance, all the inmates – including those inmates who had been acting and were still wearing their costumes – left with their travelling suitcases, and so on, through this tunnel, but when the leader reached the exit of the tunnel and had to throw out his suitcase in order to follow himself, there were gunshots outside.”  Numerous phrases indicate the editor serious lack of knowledge of English usage.  “(T)he Police President” probably should have been the commissioner of police,  “vegetable tins and milk tins” probably meant to be tinned vegetables and tinned milk. We also have  “snow sliding”  instead of tobogganing,  “gong music” instead of  the sound of gongs, guards with bayonets affixed’ instead of  with fixed bayonets,  “departure meal”  instead of  farewell meal,  “fore-mountains”  instead of foot hills,  “Supreme judge”  rather than high court judge,  “SMS Sydney”  instead of HMAS Sydney and “scholastism”  instead of scholasticism, to name but a few. The meaning of some other words and phrases can only be guessed at -  “my ears froze and then burst open”,  “an acquainted waiter”,  “disrobals”  and  “churchly”  being some of the more humorous one. And what are we to make of  “romantic necrophiliac”  on page 227?
The book has also been very poorly produced. In my copy pages 242, 243, 246 and 247 are blank and the cover came unstuck after the first reading. Also, while some of the pictures in the book relate directly to the text, others seem superfluous. Was it really necessary to have a picture of Kaiser William, the Yangtze River and an unnamed temple in Chungking? Such pictures have left too little room for the rare and more relevant ones. The picture of Sister Upalavanna is a tiny 3 centimetres square and one plate has 10 separate pictures crammed onto it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ascetics and Asceticism

The more things change the more they remain the same! An interesting example of this would be the austerities practiced by some Hindu sadhus and the beliefs that underline them. The belief is that self-inflicted physical stress creates ‘heat’ (tapas) and that this can impart super-normal powers (siddhi). These powers can then be used to attain certain worldly or spiritual goals. The range of austerities is wide but some of them are virtually the same as those practiced by certain ascetics at the time of the Buddha. Laying on beds of thorns (kantapassaya) is mentioned in the Tipitaka (e.g. D.I,167; Ja.III,235)  and is still done today. Once I had to wait hours for a delayed train at Lucknow, and walking around outside the station  I saw a sadhu, naked except for a small genital covering, standing beside a pile of tree branches with long murderous-looking thorns on them. A train came in and as crowds  emerged from the station the sadhu finished the beedi he was smoking and then threw himself onto the thorns. It was one of the most  startling  sights I have ever seen. The  thorns  clearly penetrated his body but apparently caused him  no pain. People tossed small coins at him as they passed.
The bat practice (vaggulivata) is mentioned in the Tipitaka (Ja.I,493; III,235; IV,299) and is still done. It consists of hanging upside-down by a rope for extended periods. Sometimes the practitioner will have  another sadhu push him so he swings back and forward. I have never seen this  being done. Another austerity still  practiced  is the  “five fires”  (Pali pancatapana, Hindi panch agni tapasya) which consists of sitting surrounded by five piles of smouldering dried cow dung. Some sadhus place one of these smouldering piles on their head. I have seen sadhus in Allahabad, at the Girnar Parikrama in Gujarat and elsewhere doing this. Sitting all day under the blazing Indian sun while breathing in the acrid smoke makes this one of the toughest of all austerities.
Many other aspects of Hindu asceticism done today would have been familiar to the Buddha; nakedness, matted hair (jati), extreme fasting, perpetual standing, etc. It is rather extraordinary when you think of it that such  institutions, beliefs and practices could endure for so many centuries. And there is no sign that they are dying out.