Friday, October 31, 2008

Pictures Of The Month

Some funny pictures of IndiaJust couldn't be bothered.

They might be good at computers. The wiring is another matter.

Its a living!

Why not? A billion other Indians are.

Surging ahead into the 21st century.

Who says they can't use their heads?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

More On Einstein

Albert Einstein described belief in God as ‘childish superstition’ in a letter recently auctioned in London. The father of relativity, whose previously known views on religion have been more ambivalent and fuelled much discussion, made the comments in response to a philosopher in 1954. ‘The word ‘God’ is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this,’ he wrote in the letter written on January the 3rd 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, The German-language letter was sold by Bloomsbury Auctions in Mayfair after being in a private collection for more than 50 years. In it, the renowned physicist, who declined an invitation to become Israel’s second president, (David Ben Gurian is supposed to have said to his cabinet ‘What will we do if he accepts?’) also rejected the idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people. ‘For me the Jewish religion like all others, is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions’, he wrote. ‘And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people’. Previously Einstein’s comments on religion - such as ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind’ - have been the subject of much debate, used notably to back up arguments in favor of belief in God. This letter reflected Einstein’s real thoughts on the subject.
Okay! That’s pretty clear. Now what did Einstein think of Buddhism? The two most often sited quotes on this subject from Einstein are these -

‘The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginning of cosmic religious feeling already appears in early stages of development – e.g. in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism as we have learned it from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer especially, contain much stronger elements of it’.

‘The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual , it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual in a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism’.

I always had my suspicions that these quotes were spurious and once in an effort to establish their authenticity I read a book called Einstein on Religion and there was no reference to Buddhism in it at all. This increased my suspicion. Then about 5 years ago I located the source of one of these quotes, although which of the two and where, I cannot remember. But it verified for me that Einstein did know something about Buddhism and did have a good opinion of it. Can anyone give me and my readers to source of these quotes by the great man?
On the 1st of next month on I will launch my new web site and from the 2nd onwards I will explore the Buddha's teachings about meditation.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Einstein And The Buddha

The other day someone passed me a book called Einstein and the Buddha – Parallel Sayings by Thomas J. Farlane. ‘Now that might be an interesting read’ I thought to myself. If ever you need to be reminded of the truth of that old saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ read this little publication. Out of 125 quotations only 18 are attributed to the Buddha and of these only one is from the Dhammapada while all the rest are from Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible. Now you probably know that Goddard’s book would have to be the most unreliable rendering of Mahayana sutras ever published. Where there was something which didn’t fit into what Goddard thought the Buddha should have taught he just changed it accordingly. Even poor old Einstein hardly gets a hearing in Farlane's book; there are only 25 quotes from him. The rest are from Taoist text, Vedantic scriptures, Sri Aurobindo and some people I have never heard of; Godjin M. Nagao, Jagadish Chandra Chatterji, Cheng Chien, etc. As is often the case, Farlane uses ‘Buddha’ as a general catch-phrase for any vague, feel-good or ‘deep’ spirituality.
One quotation by David Bohn says, ‘Matter is like a small ripple on this tremendous ocean of energy, having some relative stability and being manifest…And in fact beyond that ocean may be still a bigger ocean…the ultimate source is immeasurable and cannot be captured within out knowledge’. The supposed ‘parallel’ saying by the Buddha is, ‘Universal Mind is like a great ocean, its surface is ruffled by waves and surges but its depths remain forever unmoved’. Now I’m just a simple monk and I’ve probably got it completely wrong, but it seems to me that the first quote is talking about matter while the second is talking about the mind. The first is positing unknowability while the second is asserting immovability. In fact, the only thing these quotes seem to have in common is the simile of the ocean. Many of the other ‘parallel’ sayings in this book are just as tenuous.
Einstein and the Buddha is, sad to say, a good example of the sort of thing I discussed on by post of 21, 4, 2008. The Buddha continues to get co-opted by those who wish to use him to support whatever they happen to believe in. The mechanism of this co-opting goes something like this. Where there is no authentic saying to support my beliefs I simply create one and where there is one that contradicts what I believe I either ignore it or claim that it was ‘put in later by the monks’. And whala! The Buddha is anything I want him to be – a strict vegan, a Rastafarian, an advocate of the healing power of crystals, a socialist, a free-marketer, an Aquarian Christian and an Inuit walrus worshipper who taught exactly what Teilhard de Chardin did and who came from outer space to exhort humanity to live in harmony. Of course poor old Jesus is subjected to this kind of treatment too but the wide availability of and knowledge about the Bible limits this to some extent. This is not the case with the Buddha. Authentic and complete translations of the Buddha’s words have only lately become available and even now are not widely read.
In the introduction to his humorous, readable and well-informed book The Gods Drink Whiskey Stephen Asma says, ‘It is my mission in life to take the ‘California’ out of Buddhism. Maybe that’s because I’m a Chicagoan – the son of a steelworker. Chicago Buddhism, if there is such a thing, is bound to be gritty, straightforward and down to earth. My blunt style may occasionally jar the sensibilities of more delicate, cheerful, colonic types. But rest assured, it is not certainty but only geographic temperament that gives timbre to my voice…Often the stuff that passes for ‘Eastern’ in the West would be unrecognizable in the East. The reason why so many Westerners become hopelessly muddled about Eastern ideas is that they have little interest in them per se. Many Western searches want the East on their terms. For Americans, Buddhist, Tantric or Taoist ideas have become like herbal remedies that one picks up at the local high-priced organic boutique-grocer…Consequently, Eastern ideas in the West float about like little self-esteem life-preservers – clung to desperately by disintegrating personalities. American Buddhists frequently go no further than, ‘This is what Buddhism means to me’, never seeing the narcissism in this approach and never bothering to understand Buddhism in its own terms’.
This is not my mission in life but I’m glad it is someone’s. Keep trucking Stephen! The tragedy of ‘California Buddhism’ is not that it is just shallow and inauthentic but that the Dhamma’s many unique insights can never challenge our assumptions, stimulate us to reassess what we already believe or get us to consider other possibilities. In short, it never help us to grow.

Ancient Toilets

In preparation for yesterday's post I searched the internet to see what it had on ancient toilets. I put 'ancient toilets,' 'history of toilets', 'ancient urinals,' etc. into my search engine and all I got was images of Roman toilets - nothing at all about the interesting and sometimes highly elaborate toilets used in ancient Buddhist monasteries. So in the interest of balance I include here images of some of Sri Lanka's many ancient toilets. The first picture is of the so-called urinal stone at the Western Monastery at Anuradhapura which may date from the around the 9th century. Note the close fitting paving to maximize dryness and easy cleaning. Note also the concave boss for holding the water pot used for washing afterwards. The drain led waste to a covered pit. The third toilet has an interesting feature - a raised border. The purpose of this would have been to facilitate cleaning without the water spreading. The pit beneath this toilet is still discernable. Imagine what you might find if you were able to dig around in the bottom of this pit! Fish bones, fruit pips, a pen knife, perhaps the keys to the front door of the monastery. The last toilet could justly be called a 'throne'. All these toilets except 2 and 5 were originally inside buildings and all were used while squatting, in accordance with the Vinaya.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Going To The Toilet

A toilet (vaccakuti) a place, usually a small room, for passing bodily waste and which contains some means for disposing of that waste. Toilets at the time of the Buddha consisted of a cesspit (vaccakupa) covered by a stone or plaster slab (paribhanda) with a small hole in it. On either side of the hole was a raised footprint-shaped platform (vaccapaduka) on which one stood or squatted. After finishing, one either washed or wiped oneself with grass or a piece of wood. Outside the toilet was a water pot for washing the hands. The Buddha understood the importance of hygiene and insisted that the toilets in monasteries be regularly washed and swept. In the Vinaya he also spoke of what might be called ‘toilet etiquette.’ On nearing the toilet one should make a coughing noise to let whoever might be inside know that someone is coming. If someone is inside they should likewise make a coughing noise to indicate that the toilet is already occupied. The robe should be taken off before entering and properly hung up. One should not groan while relieving oneself, clean one’s teeth or spit on the floor. Also, after finishing, the water containers should be refilled as a courtesy to the next person (Vin.II,222).
The Chinese monk I-tsing who visited India in the 7th century wrote a detailed account of Indian monastic life at that time. In his account he included a separate chapter on toilets, how to use them and the importance of maintaining a high standard of toilet hygiene.
The heart of Buddhist meditation is Right Mindfulness. In the early stages of this practice, the meditator becomes aware of the gentle in and out movement of the breath and then expands it to becoming aware of all aspects of himself or herself; the whole body, feelings, the mind and then the contents of the mind. But if one can only be mindful while sitting in a quiet room, one will only be aware of a small part of one’s life, a rather uninteresting part. To be really fruitful, mindfulness has to flow into everything one does. The Buddha said: ‘A monk has full awareness while coming and going, while reaching out his hands or drawing them back, while putting on his robes and carrying his bowl, while eating and drinking, chewing and tasting, even while defecating and urinating. He has full awareness while walking, standing and sitting, while falling to sleep and waking up, while talking and remaining silent’ (M.I,57). When the Buddha said that we should be mindful ‘even while defecating and urinating’(uccarapassavaka kamme) he was saying that all activities no matter how commonplace should become an object of lucidity and presence. When done with mindfulness every action, from the most lofty to the most mundane, becomes sacred.
The picture shows a toilet in the ruins of an ancient monastery in Sri Lanka.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Images of Sri Lanka

I thought you might like to see some of the photos I took during me recent trip to Sri LankaOn the 1st of next month I will give you the address of my new web site and from the 2nd onwards I will be looking at the Buddha's teachings on meditation.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Who Could Doubt It?

I found this article on the internet. It inspired me so much I thought I might share it with you. It contains all the things that make Tibetan Buddhism so compelling - claims made in ancient scriptures, self-evident truths and a teaching authority based on a chain of rebirths, all of which is verified by prophesies, visions, miracles and supernatural signs. And if this doesn’t convince you of Rimpoche's profound spirituality then his astonishing achievements and genuine modesty will. Even though this is only 'a very short introduction' I unfortunately had to cut it down a bit to fit it in. The part about the 'cock sized light' is in the original.

The Pre-eminent Qualities of Tsoma Gontse Rimpoche and His Compassionate and Altruistic Activities
The par excellent and most gracious Dharma that is as rare as refined gold, is the source of every happiness and prosperity of all sentient beings. The precious Buddha Dharma flourished and developed extensively in Tibet owing to energetic, incomparable and sincere efforts of the great numbers of highly esteemed masters of India and Tibet. One of this great masters as mentioned in the text 'Lamrim bLa rGyud'; was the omniscient Tsonawa, popularly known as ‘dul ba’ bum sDe’I mNga’ bDag’ (the great master of Vinaya). Lord Buddha attained Mahaparinivana around 2550 years ago and 400 years latter eight great masters were born in this world. They were collectively known as Six Ornament and Two Excellences. The most renowned of them was Nagarjuna, the closest and heart disciple of pandita Sarah from Nalanda. He wrote Middle Way treatise in a very comprehensive manner. During the time when his religious activities were as the highest level Khedubje the direct disciple of rJe Tsong Khapa had been born as Rig pai Khubyung in India. Rig pai Khubyung had received teachings of profound views from Nagrjuna. That time Nagarjuna prophesied saying 'I pray I could go to Tibet for the purpose of sentient beings there and that time, you will be among the first group to be trained’. rJe Tsong Khapa and Nagarjuna are believed to be of one and the same mind but in different manifestation. It has been prophesied in sutra that Nagarjuna would be born as Jangsem Norsang, then after that at the time early diffusion of Buddhism he would be born as Kawa Drimedo. He would invite many experts’ panditas from India and translate their teachings into Tibetan there by helping people to a great extent. Then during the period of later diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet he would be born as gNyos sTon Chosbar, who would develop and spread teachings of Atisha like that of sun shine. As prophesied by Geshe Potowa, he passed away at the age of 63. It has been said that after his passing away, amazing miracles took place. Many self-born Buddha statues appeared on 21 backbones with many relics. And Mandala of Charkrasamvara is said to have also appeared inside the Kapala (bdu Thod) and 21 Taras outside the Kapala. Further, on the right shoulder white Miyova is said to have appeared and on the left shoulder appeared Avaloketeshvara and number of relics were born from his tongue, heart and eyes. Later he was born as Lhari sDe sNod zinpa. He studied and practiced the instruction of Chakra samvara. He also saw vision of mandala of the same. In his will, he said, 'Twenty-one-to twenty two years after I die, amber of Buddha’s Dharma will flourish little more'. During the cremation bright light emitted from dead body of Lahri sDe sNod zinpa about cock size and faded away towards the Tsona province of Tibet. This miracle witnessed by local folks. Tsonawa Sherab Zangpo is believed to be the reincarnation of Lhari sDe sNod zinpa. At the age of 21, he regenerated Buddha’s Dharma as a whole and particularly giving more importance to the code of discipline laid down in Vinaya. Again Phelchen Sutra says, 'In the place called Zhiwa Rinchen, Chogigling Tsonawa would be born. This region would become the place of learn, he would be able to dispel the darkness of ignorance and prove to be great leader of sentient beings to the path of Enlightenment'. It is evident from here that he derived his first name Tsona’ from the name of a place and Sherab Zangpo was his ordination name. Je Tshongkhapa had said 'There is no text written better than Tsonawa’s Tsotrig nyimay odzer and there is no need of another text!' Saying so, Tsonawa was highly acclaimed as the highly qualified master and called him 'dul ba’ bum sDe mNga ‘bHga Tsonawa' (the master of Vinaya). Later on the great Tsonawa Sherab Zangpo, whose name could not be easily uttered, reincarnated as Jetsun Sherab Zangpo and he reincarnated as Thupten Jampal Wangchuk. Thupten Jampel Wangchuk was norn in Murshing aty Mon region in 1903, Arunachal Pradesh, India. He has mastered all the sutras and tantras and was renown all over the places. He passed away at the age of 63. Venerable Jetsin Tenzin Jampel Wangchuk is now revered as the re-incarnation of Thupten Jampel Wangchuk. He was born in 1967 on the 19th Augustat Nyesar Junpagon of Mon-Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India. He was recognized as reincarnation of Lam Thupten Jampel Wangchuk by H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama. He started his education at Drepung Loseling Monastery, South India and is well-versed in all the treatise. He also obtained the degree of Geshe Lharampa. After he obtained his degree, he becomes the president of Buddhist Culture Association of Himalaya. As a president he worked towards the development of mutual relationship between various culture and religion of India and endeavored towards preservation of flora and fauna to maintain a peaceful environment. Further, he has taken the great responsibilities of developing the religion and the culture of Mon region. He has established numerous monasteries, Educational Centre, Stupas and Cottage Industries. He was Minister of State, Industry, Textile and Handicrafts and Cabinet Minister of Tourism, Chairman of Advisory council for Tourism Development (ACTD), Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh. And he now holds the position of Chairman, Hydropower Development Corporation, (APHPDC) Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh. He has got international recognition as an authentic and excellent social worker and fully accomplished spiritual master. He received several national and international awards for his tireless efforts and social works for the well being of people around the world. He has the privilege of attending the millennium UN world peace summit at the United Nations Assembly Hall as the first ever Buddhist representative from the entire Himalayan region. This is a very short introduction of the Lama Tsonawa, through his works and contributions are unlimited.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

You Make Me Sick

Well, I agree that he's sick. But can anyone tell me what ankle biters are?

Traditional Healers

Here are some pictures of traditional healers - Chinese, Indian and Tibetan. Note that they are all taking the patient's pulse. The fourth picture is of an Arabic herbalist. I took the final picture in Sri Lanka last month while visiting the Dalada Maligawa. I have been there many times but never before noticed this sculpture. It appears to be of a man massaging a monk's foot. Most unusual!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Life. Don't Take It Lightly

Just yesterday I heard that the British footballer Daniel James had gone to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland and committed suicide, assisted suicide being legal in that country, even for non-terminal patients. James had been paralyzed from the neck down in a sporting accident and decided his life wasn’t worth living. When I heard about this I was both appalled and saddened.
A few years ago while I was staying at a Buddhist society in Europe I was informed that at 3 in the afternoon someone was coming to see me to talk about the Dhamma. Just before 3 I heard the front gate open and I saw a man in a wheelchair entering the premises. After a bit of fuss getting the wheelchair through the front door the man was pushed into the library by the person accompanying him and I entered to meet him. As we introduced ourselves he held out his hand, I took it and his grip nearly crushed my hand as he shook it. He was a good-looking man of about 25 with a fine complexion and well-developed arms and chest.
Almost immediately he got down to business. ‘Two years ago I was in a car accident in which the driver, my friend, and another person were killed. I was left paralyzed from the waist down. I’m undergoing therapy at present but the doctors tell me that if I have not regained the use of my legs within another 12 months I probably never will. I have decided that if I can’t walk again by that time I’m going to kill myself’. He paused for a moment, letting this piece of information sink in. Then he continued. ‘I have gone to Catholic and Protestant clergymen, a rabbi, a Baha’i teacher and a Hindu swami to ask them if they can give me good reasons why I should not end my life. Now I want to know what a Buddhist would say about this. That’s why I’m here.’ All this was said in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact manner that convinced me he meant what he said. I asked him, ‘What did these other religious teachers say to you?’ ‘They all said I shouldn’t do it’ he replied. ‘Is being in a wheelchair so terrible,’ I asked him. ‘I will never get an erection again. I leak urine. You can probably smell it a bit. I can’t shit any more like normal people. Every morning I have to remove it manually. I used to love sports, I was a real sportsman. Ill never be able to run and jump like I used to. For the rest of my life I’m going to have to depend on others and quite simply, I don’t want to live like that.’ As he said this I detected a hint of emotion in his voice for the first time. I asked, ‘And have you given any thought to how you intend to kill yourself?’ ‘Gas’ he replied, ‘Its quick, clean and painless. So that’s it. Can you, as an expert in Buddhism, give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill myself?’ I listened to all this and decided to take the approach I have sometimes found useful in such cases. I spent a few moments pretending to ponder his question and then I said. ‘No I can’t. Given your circumstanced I think suicide is your best option.’ He opened his mouth to say something but nothing come out. He must have assumed that I was going to try to convince him not to kill himself and when I didn’t respond as expected he was knocked off balance. His friend who was standing behind him gave me a horrified look and waved his hand indicating that I should not say such a thing. ‘So you agree. You think I should kill myself?’ ‘Yep, I said.’ Now it was my turn to be silent while my words sunk in.
Finally I said, ‘The only thing I think you should reconsider is how your going to commit suicide. May I recommend another way?’ ‘Er, yes’ he said. His friend looked down and shook his head in despair. ‘This is what I would recommend. I live in Sri Lanka, in Kandy up in the mountains. Every time I go to the town market I see dozens of young guys on all fours crawling around amongst the crowd begging for money or food. They’ve all been crippled by polio. Now because they spend all their time down near ground level and are always breathing in dirt and dust, they often get lung infections. And of course because they crawl around their hands and knees are bruised, calloused and covered with scabs. I also know that almost none of them get any help from the government or any charitable organizations. They live by begging and petty theft. Now this is what I recommend you do. Sell everything you have, go to Sri Lanka, get yourself a one year visa, and do everything you can to improve the lives of these young guys. They have lived on the streets for years so they are a pretty tough bunch. I will be more than happy to give you contacts in Kandy who can help you get a house and the other things you will need. Of course there are no facilities for wheelchair-bound people in Sri Lanka, no ramps or anything. The pavements are uneven and the roads full of pot holes, so getting around will be a constant struggle. I calculate that two years of this plus the strain of working with these very difficult kids should finish you off. I think the only problem you might have is that someone might come to know of what you are doing and try to help you which might prolong your life or even stave of death altogether. But you can always tell them to piss off.’ I said all this in the same no-nonsense tone that he had used when telling me of his resolve to commit suicide. He sat looking at me for a while and then we had a long talk.
I can understand and I sympathize with the terminal patient who is in great pain and who wishes to end (or perhaps better, to shorten) his or her live. But to want to kill yourself just because your life is not going the way you want it, is, to me at least, nanarcisistic, selfish and stupid. The ‘If I can’t win I’m going to take my ball and go home’ attitude to life bewilders me. In Vienna I met a distinguished surgeon who told me his life had become meaningless since he retired some years previously. He didn’t know what to do with himself and was increasingly suffering from bouts of depression. I felt like grabbing him by the collar and shouting, ‘You selfish old man!’ With the skills he had developed during his career there was so much he could do for others – tutoring young medical students, volunteering his knowledge to some charitable organization, spending periods during the year in an undeveloped country passing on his skills to surgeons there. And even if he didn’t want to share what he knew, he could travel, write a book, do some research or take up a hobby. But for whatever reason such possibilities just never occurred to him. The Buddha said that to be reborn as a human is a rare opportunity pregnant with possibilities (S.V,457). To squander that opportunity, to fail to see its potential or to be so fixated on one particular course that it blocked out all others, seems to me to be a terrible tragedy; far worse than being confined to a wheelchair or paralyzed from the neck down. I am not advocating that ‘you can achieve anything if you really want it’ or that ‘never give up’ approach to life so popular in America. The first is a delusion – you can’t achieve anything you want; life is full of limitations. And the second is almost a recipe for unhappiness – knowing when to gracefully surrender, when its time to call it quits, is a mark of good judgment. I am talking about an appreciative awareness of the fact that we are alive and using the time we have well. Yes, we may find obstacles in our way, sometimes very serious ones, so we may have to modify our goals, adjust our expectations or consider completely new ones. I am constantly astonished at how people with serious disabilities find fulfilling and creative ways to spend their time or make their lives meaningful. Daniel James’ self-pity, lack of imagination and willfulness led him to take his life. How very sad.
When I returned to the Buddhist society the next year the young man in the wheelchair came to see me again. He invited me to lunch in the flat he had just bought and where I met his new girlfriend, who quite coincidently, happened to be a Buddhist. I didn’t ask him if he had changed his mind about killing himself but I assumed he had. Sometimes you have the privilege of making a significant difference to someone’s life. If Daniel James had made the goal of his life inspiring and encouraging those less disabled than he himself, I wonder how many lives he might have been able to change.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Keeping Them Pearly White

To the best of my knowledge, the oldest advice on oral hygiene is to be found in the Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Tipitaka. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha says, 'Monks, there are these five advantages of using a tooth stick. What five? The eyes stay bright, the mouth does not become bad-smelling, the taste buds become clean, phlegm and mucus do not get in the food and one enjoys one's food' (A.III,250).
The word for tooth stick is danthakattha. The mention of the eyes is probably a reference to the fact that oral infections can affect the sinuses and eventually the eyes. The word for taste buds is rasa harani. Harani means 'nerve' or 'channel' and actually refers to the papillae, the knob-like projections on the tongue which contain the taste buds. According to the Jataka there are 7000 rasa harani (Ja.V,293). The last of these five advantages - enjoyment of food - shows that the Buddha had nothing against enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Anyone who has ever read the Buddha's words will of course know this but the old canard that a good Buddhist 'should shun all and every pleasure life has to offer' (a phrase I just found on an academic wed site on Buddhism - where do they get this nonsense from?) is still alive and well.
The Buddha does not mention what type of stick should be used for cleaning the teeth but we know from later sources that twigs of the neem tree (Azadirachita indica, nimba in Pali) were used for this purpose and indeed they still are. The Jatakas mentions people cleaning their teeth with naga twigs early in the morning (Ja.I,232; IV,363; V,56). Naga is an alternative name for the Betel vine (Piper betle, tambula in Pali). The active ingredients of betel and especially of neem, have strong disinfectant and antibiotic properties. On several occasions while in India I have tried to clean my teeth with neem twigs but I just couldn’t do it - too bitter. But Indian peasants do it every day. The twig is cut to about 10 inches long, frayed at one end, chewed for a while and then rubbed up and down over the teeth. While doing this a white foam forms which is occasionally spat out. Indian villagers commonly have receding gums quite early in life probably as a result of poor diet and rubbing the tooth stick over the teeth too vigorously. The Buddha's comments on teeth cleaning shows that he was not only concerned that we should treasure our health but also take steps to prevent becoming sick.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Animals Go To Court

An interesting book has just come on the market, The Animals Lawsuit Against Humanity. It is a translation of a fable in which eloquent representatives of all members of the animal kingdom – from horses to bees – come before the respected Spirit King to complain of the dreadful treatment they have suffered at the hands of humankind. During the ensuing trial, where both humans and animals testify before the king, both sides argue their points ingeniously, deftly illustrating the validity of both sides of the ecology debate. The ancient origins of this tale are thought to have been in India, possibility amongst Buddhists or more likely Jains, but the oldest existing written version of the story was penned in Arabic by members of the Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity), a Sufi order, in Basra, Iraq, sometime before the 10th century CE. In this version, the story was the 25th of 51 treatises comprising an encyclopedia in which were described the mysteries and meaning of life. Much later, this one story, The Letter of the Animals, was translated and adapted by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, known among Christians as Maestro Calo, at the request of his patron, King Charles of France, in 1316. The story was popular in European Jewish communities up to the early 20th centuries. Besides being published in Hebrew, it was also translated into Yiddish, German and Spanish. Rabbi Kalonymus lived primarily in Arles in the Province region of France. He, like many others, was busy translating Aristotle and many others important classical thinkers into Hebrew, works that had been preserved in Arabic and transmitted by the Arabs to the West. How relevant this 10th century tale is today for both the young and old of all religions or none! It addresses environmental and animal rights issues with charming affectivity. An Indian story pleading human sympathy for animals, rewritten by an Iraqi Sufi, translated by a Rabbi into Hebrew, rendered into Latin for a Christian monarch and now translated from Hebrew by Jews into English, edited by a Christian and beautifully illustrated by a Muslim woman from India under the patronage of a Saudi princess. Wow! Talk about interspecies, interfaith and intercultural co-operation! Should be more of it.
The book is available from Amazon

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Medicine Buddha Or The Buddha's Medicine?

As far as medicine is concerned the Buddha's teaching as preserved in the Pali Tipitaka is distinctly different that which proceeded it and to a large extent even different from what came later. The medicines and healing procedures in pre-Buddhist Indian literature is what can be called religio-magical, i.e. prayers, mantra, spells and rituals. Likewise, many sicknesses were believed to be caused by evil spirits. The Pali Tipitaka is the earliest evidence of a departure from such notions, none of which are found in it. Instead, we find the beginning of empirico-rational medicine. In the Bhesajjakkhandaka of the Vinaya is a list of herbs, resins, salts and oils which can be used as medicines. I will give some of these below. Now whether or not such substances really did have healing properties, their mention without any magical additions suggests a new type of thinking. Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita, (dates uncertain but defiantly post-Buddha, probably between 200 BCE and 300 CE) also contain a strong empirical and experimental outlook but one can also see the either the inability to shake off or perhaps the reintroduction of, magic. My favorite prescription in Caraka starts, ‘Take the left ear of a donkey, boil it and…’ By the time the great Mahayana sutras were composed religio-magical healing was well on the way to completely replaced rational medicine. A good example of this would be the Bhaisajyarajan Sutra (Medicine Buddha Scripture) which says, ‘May every being be cured of deformity by hearing my name. May every ailing being too poor to afford medicine be cured of their sickness by hearing my name. May all female beings get rid of their femininity by hearing my name, etc.’ Worshiping the Medicine Buddha, reciting his name and doing Medicine Buddha pujas had almost completely superseded rational healing. Later Tantric text contains huge amounts of healing dharanis, mantras and spells.
Picture above shows monks making a Medicine Buddha mandala

I give here some of the medicinal plants mentioned by the Buddha and include their application according to S. K. Jain and Robert A. DeFillipps’ authoritative Medical Plants of India, Algonac, 1991.
Amalaka, Emblica officinalis. Bark: Applied to sores, pimples, with the bark of Dillenia pentagyna for tubercular fistula; for cholera, dysentery, diarrhea. Leaf: For gravel, diarrhea and sores. Fruit: Refrigerant, diuretic, laxative, for indigestion, with Swertia and fnugreek for gonorrhea. Raw fruit: Aperient, dried and used in haemorrhagia, diarrhea, as a liver tonic, for scurvy, the juice as an eye drop. Seeds: For asthma and stomach disorders.

Ativisa, Hiptage mabadlota. Astringent, tonic, for fevers, cough, diarrhea and dysentery.

Bhanga, Cannabis sativa. Leaves boiled and steam inhaled and/or rubbed on the skin. Whole plant: Stomachic, antispasmodic, analgesic and sedative, for epilepsy, with root of Bryonopsis laciniosa, Melothria heterophylla and opium for convulsions; on sores, for cough and cold. Leaf: for dyspepsia, gonorrhea, bowel complaints, narcotic nerve stimulant and for skin diseases.

Bhaddamuttaka, Cyperus rotundus. Whole plant: For heat stroke. Root: For stomach disorders.

Candana, Santalum album. Bark; With root bark of Solanum torvum and Achyranthes aspera for malaria. Oil: For enlarged spleen, with Lepidium, Nerium oleander, Nymphaea, root of Michelia and almonds for dysentery; in a paste and applied for headaches, skin complaints, burns and fever inflammation. Oil from heart wood: As diuretic, diaphoretic, refrigerant, expectorant and for dysuria. Oil from seeds: For skin diseases.

Halidda, Curcuma domestitca. Root; For hazy vision, inflammation of eyes, with tobacco for night blindness; subnormal temperature, body pains, rheumatism, with green gram for scabies, sores, with Dolichos biflous for infantile fistula ani; with mustard and Solanum surattense for coughs; with leaves of sweet potato, Negella indica and Buettneria herbacea root to stimulate lactation. Flowers: For sores in the throat, with Shorea robusta and bark of Ventilago calyulata for syphilis.

Haritaka, Terminalia chebula. Bark: As diuretic, cardiotonic, for eczema, mouth sores. Fruit: For dysentery, enlarged spleen, externally for measles, applied to inflammation of the eyes, constipation, coughs, bronchitis, as

Hingu, Balanites aejyptiaca. Bark: For colds and cough. Fruit: For pneumonia and skin diseases.

Kalanusari, Nardostachys jatamansi. Root. As an aromatic, bitter tonic, stimulant, antiseptic, for convulsions, inhaled (with other plants) for ulcers of nose and palate, dysentery, constipation, bronchitis (with other plants), as a laxative and to improve urination.

Kutaja, Holarrhaena antidysenterica. Root: Spleen complaints, diarrhea, discharge in urine and excreta, haematuria, blood dysentery, the bites of dogs or poisonous animals. Bark: For bronchitis, cold, menorrhagia,, dysentery and other stomach disorders. Flowers: For worms, leucoderma and as an appetite stimulant. Seeds: For epilepsy, postnatal complaints, leprosy and other skin diseases, constipation and indigestion, colic and dysentery.

Lasuna, Allium sativum. Bulb: For fever, pulmonary phthisis, gangrene of lung, whooping cough, rheumatism, duodenal ulcer, hyperlipidemia, certain typhoides, flatulence, atonic dyspepsia, juice on skin diseases and as an ear drop.

Padma, Nelumbo necifera. Tuber: To relieve strangulation of the intestine. Rhizome: Yields nutritious arrowroot useful for diarrhea and dysentery in children. Carpel: Demulcent. Flower: As astringent and cooling agent for cholera.

Talisa, Flacourtia cataphracta. Bark: Given together (with the roots of other plants) to women as prenatal and post natal treatment to purify the blood; for biliousness. Fruit: For biliousness and liver complaints.

Usira, Andropogon muricatum. Root: Chewed for coughs and colds, promotes bronchial secretion, asthma, diarrhea and dysentery, the oil is used as a nerve stimulant, sedative, analgesic, epilepsy, constipation. Stem: Cough and colds. Root: Vermifuge, in intermittent fever. Whole plant: Sedative, analgesic, depressant for blood pressure, rubbed on aching body parts.

Tagara, Tabernaemontana coronaria. Root: Bitter-tasting and applied locally as an anodyne, chewed to relieve toothaches. Stem: The bark as a refrigerant. Leaf: Latex used for eye diseases.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fleas In The Hospital

The passage below is from Reginald Heber’s Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay, 1824-25. Incidentally, Heber’s book is still a great read 180 years after it was written.
‘At Broach is one of those remarkable institutions which have made a good deal of noise in Europe as incidences of Hindoo benevolence to inferior animals. I mean hospitals for sick and infirm beasts, birds and insects. I was not able to visit it, but Mr. Corsellis described it as a very dirty and neglected place, which, though it has considerable endowments in land, only serve to enrich the Brahmins who manage it. They have really animals of several different kinds there, not only those which are accounted sacred by the Hindoos, as monkeys, peacocks, etc, but horses, dogs and cats, and they have also, in little boxes, an assortment of lice and fleas. It is not true, however, that they feed those pensioners on the flesh of beggars hired for the purpose. The Brahmans say that insects, as well as the other inmates of their infirmary, are fed with vegetables only, such as rice etc. how the insects thrive I did not hear, but the old horses and dogs, nay the peacocks and apes are allowed to starve, and the only creatures said to be in any tolerable plight are some milch cows, which may be kept for from other motives than charity.’

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Don't Forget The Birds

Every time I go to Delhi and if I have the time, I visit the Jain bird hospital at the end of Chandi Chowk, just across from Lal Quilla. It is in the grounds of the Digambra Jain Temple. Last time I was there I had a good look around, took some photos and talked to the chief veterinarian, a young man who seemed genuinely concerned about his patients. The bird hospital was founded in 1929 and treats an average of 30,000 birds per year. It has a research laboratory and even an intensive care unit for its serious patients. By Indian standards the hospital is fairly clean although there is a distinct avian smell about the place, not surprising I suppose. The cages held mynas, parrots, kites, sparrows, one very subdued-looking crow, two peacocks and numerous pigeons. Delhi is full of pigeons. A sign at the entrance of the ‘wards’ shows how birds in urban India can get injured – by being caught by cats, hit by cars, shot with catapults by naughty boys, by getting tangled in kite strings and flying into ceiling fans. On the second floor is a mural of famous Buddhist Jataka story of King Sibi who cut off his own flesh to give it to a hawk in exchange for a dove it was about to eat. I think a version of this same story is in the Jain scriptures too. I asked the doctor how the kites in the hospital were fed seeing as they are carnivorous. He told me that the hospital is very reluctant to take such birds but obviously they must take some. Now some could argue that in an Indian city like Delhi where thousands of people live in the street and without even rudimentary medical care, that time and effort could be better spent on helping them. In some ways this is a compelling argument. But all the same, I'm glad that at least someone hasn’t forgotten the birds.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Heal Thyself

Seeing as we have been looking at all aspects of sickness and health for much of this month, I thought it might be appropriate to look at so-called spiritual healing. Of late there has been a big rumpus surrounding a supposed spiritual healing in my motherland, Australia. About two years ago Reverend Michael Guglielmucci, described as 'a modern prophet', 'a God-anointed preacher' and pastor of the Planetshakers Church in Adelaide, announced that he had cancer. His huge congregation (and his church really is big) were shocked. Over a period of months hundreds of thousands of devote Christians in Australia and throughout the world followed Guglielmucci struggles with the disease and prayed for him. Earlier this year, he released a hit song, Healer, which was featured on Sydney church Hillsong's latest album. The song debuted at No. 2 on the ARIA charts. Since then it has become something of an anthem of faith for evangelical Christians, especially those suffering their own illness and hoping for a miraculous healing themselves.
Anyone familiar with the unseemly twists and turns of Pentecostals churches can probably guess what happened next. It was discovered that Reverend Guglielmucci never had cancer. Day after day for nearly two years he had been standing up in front of huge crowds, tugging at their heart strings, filling them with hope and asking for their prayers while he lied to them. And not only had he deceived millions of people, he had even deceived his own family. 'This news has come as a great shock to everyone including, it seems, his own wife and family,' Hillsong general manager George Aghajanian said in an email to his congregation'. 'Michael has confirmed that he is not suffering with a terminal illness and is seeking professional help with the support of his family. We are asking our church to pray for the Guglielmucci family during this difficult time.' The Australian Christian Church said Mr. Guglielmucci's credentials were immediately suspended once he told the national executive that his cancer claims were false. Since the scandal broke Pastor Guglielmucci has also confessed to having a long-time addiction to pornography.
I don’t think any decent person can rejoice in the fall from grace of a religious leader, or indeed anyone for that matter. Myself, I feel rather sorry for Guglielmucci and especially for the millions who were taken in by his lies. But scandals like this are very common in evangelical and born-again churches and they raise a few questions that cry out for answers. What were the mechanics that caused Guglielmucci to deceive even his own family? Why were so many people ready to believe what are, lets be honest, highly improbable claims? Does giving your life to Christ really change a person or are the changes only superficial or imagined? If this healing was found to be fraudulent (many others have been similarly exposed), should this not make us cautions of healing claims in general? Before we invest so much energy in telling others that we have all the answers, shouldn’t we first spend a bit of time looking into our own hearts? Where in the religious life should galloping optimism and obdurate certainty stop, and discernment and intelligent doubt begin?
I read a lot of Christian literature and I've never seen issues like these honestly discussed, which is probably why one scandal continues to follow another with such regularity. My own feeling is that almost all religious healings can be attributed to either fraud or delusion, neither of which are a good foundation for faith. In 2006 CBC Television aired a program called Do You Believe in Miracles which examined the supposed miraculous healings preformed by the American pastor Benny Hinn. Try to get a copy of it. It should make any discriminating person extremely cautious of Christian faith healers. And if it doesn't, you can't say you weren't warned!
If you are sick go to a doctor, not a witchdoctor, a jeetong or a pastor; whether he wears a bone through his nose, a duto or a cross around his neck. The Buddha reminds us that sickness is inherent in life and it is possible that we may someday develop a sickness for which medical science still has not found a cure. Developing a calm mind now, enhancing detachment now, strengthening acceptance now, will stand us in good stead should this ever happen. Then, if we do get a serious sickness, we will be better able to deal with it in a Dhammic way. As the Buddha said, 'Train yourself like this; "Though my body be sick my mind shall not be sick"' (S,III,2).
Have a look at Pastor Guglielmucci tearful confession at But I warn you, it's hard to watch without wincing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Buddhism In The News

Just the other day in the US at a John McCain rally, in front of thousands of people, the Revered Arnold Conrad of the Grace Evangelical Free Church addressed a prayer to God. In his prayer Conrad told God that millions of people around the world were praying to Hindu gods, Allah and Buddha that Barack Obama would win the up-coming election and that if he did these people would think their gods were greater that the one true God, the hint being that God should make sure John McCain wins. The ignorance, the presumption, the conceit, the parochialism, the bias of some of these pastors is enough to literally take your breath away. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if God sees things the way Reverend Conrad does and whether he listened to his prayers. Take a look at

On Sunday 12th Oct. there was a full page article in the Straits Times about Singapore's two most popular Christian pastors; Reverend Joseph Prince and Rev. Kong Hee. God has been very good to both men, filling their churches' coffers with a combined yearly take of nearly $80 million and allowing them to live in opulent apartments, drive luxury cars and wear expensive suits. Reverend Prince also runs a chain of fashionable boutiques and his church has just entered into a tie-up with property giant Capital Land to develop a $600 million lifestyle hub at Bona Vista. Jesus, with his rough homespun robe and sandals, would probably be refused entry to this 'lifestyle hub' when it opens. A friend of mine, a drop-out of Princes' church, described it to me as 'the California Gym of churches' and I don’t think he meant it as a complement. Apparently Prince is not the Reverend's original name but one he gave himself later in life and his new book is called Destined to Reign. Mmm. Interesting! The journalist who wrote the Straits Times article seemed genuinely awed to be granted an interview with Prince and the result is as much an accolade as an article.
Having read about the 'success' of these two pastors and starting to think that I might have actually picked the wrong religion, I turned to page 30 and there was an article about the English/Australian Buddhist monk Ajahn Bhahmavamso who happens to be visiting town. The article mentions that Brahmavamso doesn't even touch money and lives a simple austere life. Goodness! He doesn't even wear an $8000 suit or a $190 hairdo! Every now and then it's good to be reminded of what religion is really supposed to be about. In some ways it reminds me of that Heineken Beer add which says 'When you make a great beer you don’t have to make a great fuss.'
In response to these two articles a local Christian speaker, Monte Lee Rice, said to a congregation - 'And finally brothers and sisters, I am compelled to draw attention to the article in today’s paper titled, “I, who have nothing.” This is a short write-up about the British born Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, whose picture most of us have at some point seen occasionally in the paper or around town. I am not a Buddhist; I am a Christian. But boy, what shame this man brings upon us! He “travels up to 10 times or more a year” all over the world, “people turn up by the thousands to listen to him,” and yet he “does not carry a single penny, has no mobile phone or MP3 player,” and “sleeps on the floor and has one meal a day from his alms bowl.” The article mentions that Ajahn Brahm “doesn’t believe religious leaders should be paid a lot of money either.” I think we better listen to this: “How much money did Jesus have? He had nothing… We’re at an economic downturn here and many people are afraid of what might happen if they lose their savings and house, and I can come along and say I’ve never had a house and savings and I can be happy and peaceful. If I can do that with nothing, you don’t need to be afraid.” '
One local Christian blogger also read the articles about the two pastors and Ajahn Brahmavamso, noticed the contrast they highlighted and commented that 'maybe God is speaking to us through a Buddhist monk'. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. It doesn't matter who says it, does it, thinks it, suggests it or writes it, God always gets the credit - even when it actually originated from the Buddha or one of his disciples. But anyway, surely Christians don’t need to listen to a Buddhist monk to know what Jesus taught about wealth and worldly success. Its already in the Bible. 'If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor and follow me and you will have treasure in heaven' (Matthew. 19:21). 'But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger' (Luke. 6:24-25). 'Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God' (Matthew. 19:23-24). 'People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs' (I Timothy 6,9-10). 'Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have horded wealth in the last days' (I Peter 5,1-2). 'Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world - the craving of the sinful man, the lust of his eye and the boasting of what has and does - comes not from the Father but from the world' (I John 2, 15-16).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Bodhisattva As Veterinarian

One of the most beautiful legends in the whole of the Buddhist tradition comes from the 12th chapter of the apocryphal Abhiniskramana Sutra and concerns a goose. Once, while walking through the palace garden, Prince Siddhattha saw a goose fall from the sky with an arrow lodged in its wing. He gently nestled the bird in his lap, extracted the arrow and anointed the wound with oil and honey. Soon afterwards, Devadatta sent a message to the palace saying that he had shot the bird and demanding that it be returned to him. Siddhattha replied to the message by saying: ‘If the goose was dead I would return it forthwith but as it is still alive you have no right to it.’ Devadatta sent a second message arguing that it was his skill that had downed the goose and as such it belonged to him. Again Siddhattha refused to give his cousin the bird and asked that an assembly of wise men be called to settle the dispute. This was done and after discussing the matter for some time the most senior of the wise men gave his opinion, saying: ‘The living belongs to he who cherishes and preserves life, not to he who tries to destroy life.’ The assembly agreed with this and Prince Siddhattha was allowed to keep the goose. Although not found in the Pali Tipitaka, the story of Prince Siddhattha and the goose may have been based on fact. Whatever the case, it reflects Buddhism’s regard for nurturing kindness and respect for all life.
The Sanskrit and Pali word hansa is usually incorrectly translated as ‘swan’ but swans are not native to India and were unknown to the ancient Indians. The goose so often referred to in the Tipitaka and later Buddhist literature is Anser indicus, the Bar-headed Goose. About the size of the domestic goose, this beautiful bird has grey, white and brown plumage and a white head marked with two distinctive black bands. Its gentle, musical ‘aang aang aang’ call is widely acknowledged to be one of the most enchanting in the natural world. The Buddha was sometimes compared with the goose and the bird’s characteristics and habits were often used as a metaphor for certain spiritual qualities. For example, the Buddha said that householders are like the peacock in that they are beautifully colored but a clumsy flier while monks and nuns are like the goose, drably colored but able to soar into the sky (Sn.221).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Medicine Monk

Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese) was a Chinese monk of the Tang Dynasty who could properly be called a renaissance man. Born in what is now Jiangsu Province in 688 he became a monk while young and studied Buddhism in the Chinese capital for six years, his main field of study being Vinaya. In the succeeding years he mastered many arts including medicine, horticulture and even architecture. His two great achievements during this time were to found a hospital and to organize the copying out of 33,000 scrolls of the scriptures to be distributed to various monasteries.
In 742 a delegation from Japan arrived in China and invited Jianzhen to visit their country to reestablish the correct ordination procedure for monks and nuns. Despite the protests of his disciples and supporters, Jianzhan accepted the invitation and the next year set out for Japan by ship. Bad navigation and unruly weather forced his ship back to China. Three more times he tried to get to Japan and failed. During the fifth attempt his ship was blown off course as far as Hainan Island and in the three years it took him to return home the rigors of the journey were such that he developed an eye infection and lost his sight. Undeterred by his earlier failures and despite being blind he tried to reach Japan yet again and finally succeeded in 753. He arrived in Nara, the Japanese capital, and was greeted by the emperor who put him in charge of the great Todaiji Temple. Over the next two years Jianzhen trained some 400 monks and then ordained them in the proper manner. After this Jianzhen built a temple for himself where he was to reside and teach until his death in 763. In designing and constructing this temple he introduced to the Japanese architectural techniques unknown to them until that time. He is also introduced the art of bonsai and the technique for making soybean curd.
But Jianzhen’s greatest gift to the Japanese was pharmacology and medicine Despite his blindness he could identify numerous herbs by smell alone and he was highly skilled in classifying and storing medicines so as to retain their potency. He also corrected the many mistakes in the earlier translations of Chinese medical texts. Right up to the end of the 19th century many packets of medicine in Japan had Jianzhen’s face on them. Shortly after he passed away Jianzhen’s disciples made a statue of him so lifelike that it was to radically change Japanese sculpture from then on. This statue can still be seen in Nara.
Jianzhen’s influence and reputation continues to resonate even today. He is still considered the father of Japanese medicine. In 1973 China and Japan jointly constructed a Jianzhen Memorial hall at the master’s home temple to mark the restoration of their diplomatic relations. A successful play based on his life has been written by Inooe Yasusi with a musical score by the renowned composer Dan Ikuma. More recently, Jianzhen’s life has been presented in comic book form.
The first pictures is of the famous statue of Jianzhen and the second is a late medieval painting depicting his journeys.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sacred Island

After a four years of delays my book Sacred Island – A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka has finally been published. It took so long to see the light of day I was starting to fear it might come out as a commemorative volume. I’m far from happy with the editing, the pictures and the maps but most people who have already seen it seem to like it. In the process of doing research for this book I encountered Tiger terrorists near Mahakacchakodia, had my way blocked by an angry elephant at Nagalakanda and got lost for a day and a half in the jungle around Puttalam. I went to Point Pedro, the northernmost point in Sri Lanka, Dondra Heads, the southernmost point, to a place near Hambantota which is 21 ft below sea level, the lowest place in Sri Lanka, and I climbed to the top of Pidurutalagala, the country’s highest mountain. Of course not all this was done in one trip but rather during many trips over several years. Viraj and Sunil came with me on about half these journeys.
One of our destinations was Tiriyaya in the far north of the east coast on the edge of terrorist-held country. There is a beautiful stupa there on the top of a hill overlooking the ocean which was supposedly built by Tapussa and Bhalluka. With the greatest difficulties we made our way as far as Kodduvarakattu about ten miles from Tiriyaya when the army stopped us. Now I want to tell you that the army is very suspicious of anyone they find wandering around in insecure areas like this; understandably I suppose. With guns at the ready the soldiers took us to their officer who politely but firmly interrogated me. I think he thought I was a spy, or worse, a journalist. I dropped the names of a few big monks I know, he realized that I really was just a simple monk and the tension eased. But then he turned to Viraj and really began to grill him. It was a bit touch and go for a while but eventually suspicions were allayed. Then just as things got better they got worse. The officer refused to let us go any further. ‘The terrorists sometimes come at night to round up the cattle that the peasants left when they abandoned the area. They eat them’ he said. ‘I can’t take responsibility for your safety.’ ‘No worry’ I said blithefully, ‘we’ll take responsibility for ourselves.’ The officer looked me in the eye and said ‘No!’ in a way that left me in no doubt that he was not going to let me talk him into letting us proceed. After having got all that was it was extremely frustrating to be turned back just ten miles from our goal. We could even see the mountain from across the lagoon. A few months later I happened to meet a close friend of Admiral Karunagoda, the head of Sri Lanka’s navy. I told her of my desire to go to Tiriyaya, the trouble I had in getting there and asked her if he could put in a good word for me to the admiral. It worked. We were given a telephone number at the naval base at Trincomalee and told to ring it when we got up there. We did as asked and at the pre-arranged time two jeeps turned up where we were staying, one for us and the other for four heavily armed soldiers. And that’s how I finally got to Tiriyaya.
Now when I went to so much trouble and endured so many hardships to get material for this book I hope that at least some of you are going to read it. If you intend to visit Sri Lanka it is a must. And even if you are not you might still find it an interesting read. Sacred Island – A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka is available from the Buddhist Publication Society, Po Box 61 Kandy, Sri Lanka or at

Monday, October 13, 2008

Nursing The Sick

Now at that time a certain monk was suffering from dysentery and lay where he had fallen in his own excrement. The Lord and Ananda were visiting the lodgings and they came to where the sick monk lay and the Lord asked him, ‘Monk, what is wrong with you.’ ‘I have dysentery, Lord.’
‘Is there no one to look after you?’
‘No, Lord.’
‘Then why is it that the other monks do not look after you?’
‘It is because I am of no use to them, Lord.’
Then the Lord said to Ananda, ‘Go and fetch water so we can wash this monk.’ So Ananda brought water and the Lord poured it out while Ananda washed the monk all over. Then taking the monk by the head and feet the Lord and Ananda together carried him and laid him on a bed. Later, the Lord called the monks together and asked them, ‘Why monks, did you not look after that sick monk?’
‘Because he was of no use to us, Lord’
‘Monks, you have no mother or father to look after you. If you do not look after each other who will? He who would nurse me, let him nurse the sick’ (Yo bhikkhave mam upatthaheyya so gilamam upatthaheyya, Vin.I,301).

This is well known incident in the life of the Buddha - at least today. But looking through the literature produced in Buddhist cultures over the last two thousand years - poems, biographies of the Buddha, anthologies of stories, hagiographies, guides to the monastic life, cosmological works etc. - I have been able to find only a single reference to it. I am very familiar with the sculpture, wall paintings and sculptures of India Thailand, Burma, Tibet, China and Sri Lanka which illustrate the life of the Buddha but I have never seen this incident depicted. Mingun Sayadaw’s monumental 2700 page biography of the Buddha mentions almost every conceivable incident in his life - but not this one. The famous and ever-popular Jayamangala Gatha which celebrates the Buddha’s good or miraculous deeds does not consider his nursing the sick monk to be significant. The only mention or depiction of this story that I know of in the traditional literature, sculpture or painting of Theravadin lands is in the Saddhammopayana, a 10th century poem from Sri Lanka. Verses 557 to 560 eulogize the Buddha’s compassion in nursing the sick monk and ask the reader to follow his example. These few words of heartfelt and practical kindness make the Saddhammopayana almost unique in the literature of Theravadin lands. There must be an explanation for this anomaly and one does not have to look far to find it. According to scholars, the Saddhammopayana was composed by a monk of the Abhayagirivasins, a sect that the Theravadins derided as heretics and dismissed as Mahayanists. So although the Saddhammopayana draws on material from the Pali Tipitaka it is not a Theravadin work. Why has the wonderful story of the Buddha and the sick monk – so human, so indicative of loving-kindness and compassion, so worthy of being held up as an example to be emulated – received almost no attention in Theravada?
Now in some things I like being proved wrong. Can anyone find me an example of Buddhist literature mentioning the incident of the Buddha washing the sick monk or a depiction of it. Both must predate 1850. If no one can, and I’m fairly certain no one will be able to, I hope it will prod my readers to give some thought to why the Buddhist tradition has ignored/suppresses/never noticed this incident and what this might tell us about Buddhism as it has been practiced.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Ancient Hospital

During my recent trip to Sri Lanka Cittalaya, Tony, Malang, Viraj and I went to have a look at the ruins of the ancient hospital at the foot of the mountain at Mahintale. It is just off a side road and set amidst a grove of lovely mango trees. It is probably the remains of the hospital which the Culavamsa says Sena II established at Mihintale in the 9th century. The entrance is on the southern side where a gatehouse leads to an outer courtyard. On the right are the remains of what looks like a hot water bath or perhaps a steam bath. Beyond this a flight of stairs leads to the accommodation area. There are 27 rooms for patients and four larger rooms for other purposes, all built around a courtyard with a small temple in its middle. In the large room on the north east corner is a stone medical bath. The exact purpose of such baths is not certain but they were probably used for immersing patients in medicinal oils. The picture shows Viraj playing ‘sick’ in this bath. There are other medical baths like this - two in Anuradhapura, one at Polonnaruwa and another at Medirigiriya. Mahintale’s hospital was probably situated some distance from the main monastery for quarantine purposes. It was probably not meant for the general population but for the monks and staff of the large monasteries nearby. During excavations of this hospital a clay jar with a blue glaze similar to those known from Iran was found.
If you would like to know more about stone medical baths read R. A. L. H, Gunawardana’s ‘Immersion as Therapy-Archaeological and Literary Evidence as an Aspect of Medical Practice in Pre-colonial Sri Lanka’, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol.IV, 1978.