Tuesday, October 25, 2016

An Australian Buddhist Pioneer

A book has recently been published about an almost forgotten pioneer of Buddhism in Australia, Marie Beuzeville Byles (1900-1979). Little-known until this first biography of her, I learned  a lot about her way back. My early mentor of Buddhism, Natasha Jackson, knew Marie Byles well in the late 1940s and early 50s and used to tell me about her. She used to attend the  meditation group Byles ran in the 1950s. Most western Buddhists at that time were either “the Lobsang Rampa crowd” (as Jackson used to call them),  forerunners  of today’s New Agers, or  staunch  rationalists, Kalama Sutta types. Byles and Jackson definitely fitted into this second category. Both were strong, rather blunt and opinionated women, probably the reason why they did not get on well with each other. Byles was also a dedicated feminist.
She was the first woman allowed to practise law in New South Wales. As legal advisor to various women’s organisations in the 1930s she helped change legislation that discriminated against women’s rights in marriage and divorce. Instead of the fame and fortune she could have earned through law Byles devoted herself to the nature conservation. An early member of the elite Sydney Bush Walkers club, she and her friends spent their weekends exploring unmapped terrain in the bush within reach of Sydney. As they grew to know and respect the landscape, these bushwalkers developed a commitment to protect the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive areas and became leaders of the conservation movement.  But it  was mountains vastness that held the greatest fascination for  Byles. After reaching the summit of Mt. Cook in 1928, she twice returned to New Zealand’s South Island to climb virgin peaks and map unexplored areas, and in 1938 she led an international mountain climbing expedition to Yunnan in south China.     
Reading Carl Jung psychology gave  Byles a taste of eastern thought and this eventually led her to Buddhism, which had no  groups or  societies in Australia at the time.  She brought her own rationalist and feminist perspective to this ancient tradition. For her, the Buddha  was not a man to be worshipped, but a person whose teachings were reasonable, practical and humane. In the 1950s  she made several trips to Burma where she studies with Mohnyin Sayadaw, the greatest disciple of Ledi Sayadaw, and spent extended periods in  meditation retreats. Her meditation practice and study of the Dhamma resulted in several books; The Footsteps of Gotama the Buddha (1957), Journey into Burmese Silence (1962) and Paths to Inner Calm (1965). The first two of these books are  still well worth reading. She also wrote several travel books and one on  Gandhi and spirituality, The  Lotus and the Spinning Wheel (1963).
The new biography of Byles is called  The Summit of Her Ambitions: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles by Anna McLeod.  Purchasing details are available here http://www.annemcleod.com.au/

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Modern Or Moribund?

Buddhism throughout its traditional homelands is not in a healthy state. A complacent and conservative Sangha has been slow or even reluctant to adjust to the modern world. The approach seems to be just to keep repeating what has been done for centuries. In particular, Buddhism in Japan  is pretty much  terminal and like Christianity in some western countries, seems irrelevant  to most people, especially the young. News from Japan tells of a few monks (perhaps ‘priest’ would be more accurate; nearly  all Japanese Buddhist clergy  are married) who are trying to attract the young by presenting Buddhism in  ways that resonate  with them. Apparently one  priest  runs a bar, chats with customers and chants suttas as he pours their drinks. Another priest  is attempting to attract the young by transmitting the Dhamma through rap and hip-hop music. I am reminded of Gomo Tulku, the so-called Rapping Rimpoche - fancy coiffure, dark sun glasses, leather jacket, torn jeans, the whole works.
Surely there is enough in the Dhamma that, presented in modern language and  through modern media  can be meaningful and attractive! And of course, awareness of problems and doing something about them NOW, might  mean that radical compromises do not have to be resorted to. It seems to me that when a religion has sunk so low that you have to  jettison  some of its basic doctrines or characteristic features in a desperate effort to attract people, then it’s time to throw in  the towel.
On the ‘innovative’ Japanese pre priests mentioned above see -  

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A King Passes

Thailand’s King Bhumipol Adulyadej has died after a reign of 70 years.  He ascended the throne at a time when most nations were divesting themselves of kings and the Thai monarchy has little influence or relevance. Gradually, through the force of his upright character, his personal piety and his high-profile development projects he elevated himself and the monarchy to a position of regard and reverence almost unequalled anywhere in the world.    
As head of state, he had to preside over various religious ceremonies and present the required honors and titles to the country’s often lacklustre monks, the Sangha being little more than a department of the government. However, he was genuinely pious and exceptionally well-informed about the true state of the Sangha, and when he came to know of really worthy monks he would arrange to visit them during his tours of the country. Simply by doing this the public’s attention would be directed towards often previously little-known monks, raising their status, and that of the Sangha’s at the same time. Bhumipol (bhūi = Earth, pāla = protector) was not just the protector of the nation but also protector and promoter of the  Dhamma. With his passing Thailand loses a great leader and enters a period of uncertinaty.   

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Food And Its Dangers

As Buddhism gained first acceptance and then popularity, it became a challenge for monks and nuns to maintain a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation, particularly when it came to food. People were only too happy to provide monks, not just with adequate sustenance, but with the best they could afford, and in generous amounts. “They chose not to take soft or hard food or drinks themselves, they did not give it to their parents, spouse or children, not to their slaves, servants or friends, and not to their colleagues or relatives, but they did give it to the monks who as a result were handsome, plump, and with radiant complexions and clear skin”(Vin.III,88). The Buddha became acutely aware that even diligent monks could easily become preoccupied with food and even slip into gluttony. His discourses are peppered with warnings against preoccupations with food. Maintain “a sensible attitude towards food” he counselled, “have an empty stomach, be moderate in food and with little desire” (e.g. Dhp.92; Sn.707). The plump and content monk, the Friar Tuck type,  never became a stereotype in Buddhist lands as it did (and remains) in the Western  imagination.
To head off the threat of gluttony and illustrate the attitude to food he expected from his monks and nuns Buddha gave this rather startling example. “Imagine two parents, a husband and wife, and their only son who they love dearly, were travelling through the wilderness with insufficient provisions. In the middle of the wilderness with still a long way to go they use up all their provisions. So thinking ‘All our provisions are exhausted. Let us kill and eat our son though we love him dearly, and prepare dried and spiced meat. Let not all three of us perish.’ Having done this they emerged from the wilderness. But while eating their sons flesh they would beat their breasts and cry ‘Where are you our son? Where are you?’  What do you think monks? Would those parents eat that food for amusement, for enjoyment or to enhance physical beauty and attractiveness?” No Lord.” “Would they not eat that food only for the purpose of crossing the wilderness?” “Yes Lord” (S.II,98-9). He then proceeded to asked them to eat only what was needed to maintain the body. 
The prospect of  regular meals and sometimes even  sumptuous ones,  created another less expected problem for the Buddhist  Sangha.  Some people came to see  the  Sangha as an attractive option to the struggles and drudgery of ordinary life. The monastic regulations contains more than a few stories of men ordaining for reasons entirely unrelated to the Sangha’s true purpose, including to get free meals. One of these accounts tells of the son of a noble family now fallen on hard times noticing that monks “having eaten good meals, lie down to sleep on beds sheltered from the wind” and then deciding that he wanted to join the Sangha so as to enjoy such benefits (Vin.I,86). On another occasion a man stopped off at the local monastery on the way home after a hard morning’s toil in the fields. One of the monks gave him “a helping of juicy, delicious fare” from his own bowl. Never having eaten so well before the man decided that the monk’s life had advantages that the farmer’s life do did not and he joined the  Sangha. (Ja.I,311) The Buddha berated such opportunists as having entered the  monkhood “for the sake of your belly” (Vin.I,58).
Being entirely dependent of others for their sustenance freed monks and nuns from the need to work and the complications of acquiring and preparing meals, but it also made them vulnerable in some ways. Food shortages and famines were a recurrent reality in India well into the 20th century. If the monsoon failed one year the result would be serious food shortages the next year. If it failed two years in a row there would be famine. Naturally, people would not feed monks when they had insufficient for themselves and thus Buddhist monks and other mendicants would become early victims of famines. There are several references to famines in the Tipiaka. One of these mentions food tickets being issued, although exactly what this means is uncertain. Perhaps the authorities, guilds or others with access to resources were issuing tickets to the hungry entitling them to a dole (S.IV,323). During another famine monks were given grain usually fed to horses. Although this grain had been steamed it still had to be mashed in a mortar before it could be eaten (Vin.III,7).