Saturday, January 31, 2009

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Sad Situation

We Buddhists are not exactly well-known for meaningful social engagement and effective social work; our strengths lie in other areas. However, things are starting to change and this is a good thing. Recently I highlighted the Fire Fly Mission, a new and small organization but one which has a lot of promise. When I hear of Buddhists practicing what I call 'practical compassion' I always take an interest and if possible try to get a first-hand look at what they are doing. Years ago I heard about and went to visit Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu, the famous AIDS temple in Thailand, and was very impressed. The whole place struck me as rather shabby and very haphazardly organized, but hey! it's Buddhist project. What do you expect? More importantly, it seemed to me that the abbot was genuinely concerned to help his charges and the place was making a positive difference to people's lives.
Then about nine months ago I met a young man who had volunteered there seven years ago when he was a medical student and again just recently as a doctor and he gave me a very different account of the place. He said, 'The abbot is not soliciting money so he can care for AIDS patients. He's pretending to care for AIDS patients so he can collect money.' I told him my impression of the place had been very positive. He replied. 'Mine was too when I first went there but since then it has changed completely.' He proceeded to detail what he believed to be some of the many serious problems with the Wat, mainly financial. Then he said, 'I think the worst thing there is the so-called Life Museum where they display the mummified corpses of patients who have died and Thai tourists come and ogle at them. Then they tour the wards ogling at the patients. Supposedly this is to educate people but all it does is play up to the Thais' taste for the grotesque and the ghoulish. It's absolutely disgusting.'
This was rather sad to hear but I would have to admit that, if it's true, it conforms to a pattern I have often observed throughout Buddhist Asia. I know of many Buddhist charitable projects started with genuinely good intentions but that soon either stagnated, became ineffectual or, if they attracted generous financial support, degenerated into money-making rackets. When the latter happens, well-meaning but naive donors never asks for receipts for their donations, never ask for details or checks to make sure the place is being run properly. They just keep giving. Charity in Buddhist lands is still pretty much medieval - throw a coin at a beggar and keep walking. The Buddha said that we should give 'thinking about the results' (agamana ditthako, A.III,172) i.e. whether the money donated is being used properly and effectively so that it actually makes a difference. Such considerations rarely seem to occur to anyone and if the person requesting the donation or receiving it is a monk, it never does. The Sunday Times has published a highly unflattering article on Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu. It is a very disappointing story but I suspect most of it is true. Have a look at To read the Wat's account of its activities see . None of this is particularly inspiring reading. But if we Buddhists just keep smiling and pretending everything is okay, then things are unlikely to ever improve. If any of my readers have visited or volunteered at Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu, please give us your impressions.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Doing Metta Differently

We were discussing meditation, something that he obviously took very seriously. ‘Do you do metta bhavana sometimes?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I do it all the time’ he replied. ‘You do it in the standard way I suppose?’ ‘No, I never do it like that’ he said and I looked at him inquiringly. ‘Well, as I understand it Bhante, bhavana means ‘to develop’ so I do metta by doing it, by acting with metta. I have found that acting with kindness and thoughtfulness strengthens my metta more than anything else.’ Now I really focused on what he was saying. ‘That sounds interesting’ I said, ‘describe what you mean.’ To understand something of what follows you have to know that there is a shortage of taxis in Kuala Lumpur. As a result, many ordinary drivers use their cars as taxis. People wanting to get to Petraling Jaya for example, will congregate at certain places and any drivers going that way may pick them up and take them in that direction. The fee they get helps cover their fuel costs. It is illegal but it is commonly done.
My friend described what he meant. ‘Two weeks ago my wife asked me to pick her up at the supermarket at a our usual place and time. I arrived a little early, parked on the side of the road with the engine running and waited. As I sat there I noticed an elderly woman come out of a doctor’s clinic just up the road from me. She hobbled to the side of the road and began trying to hail a taxi. I looked at her for a moment and then said to myself, “If she’s still there when my wife comes I’m going to take her wherever she wants to go.” I few moments later my wife came, I told her what I intended to do, she agreed and I drove up to the old lady, opened the back door and bid her get it. I asked her where she wanted to go, which happened to be some way out of our way and we drove off. When we got there the lady got out and asked me how much she owed me. I said, “Nothing. It's okay.” She looked around fugitively for a moment and said, “Its alright, no one’s looking. How much?” I told her that I wasn’t acting as a private taxi and that I took her home simply because I wanted to help her. When she realized that what I was saying was true she was very surprised, she thanked me profusely and then my wife and I drove home. That’s how I practice metta.’
Sometimes it would be easy to get the impression that Theravadin practice atrophied centuries ago. But every now and then you meet people who are able to practice Dhamma in more thoughtful and creative ways. Hearing my friend’s way of ‘doing’ metta was more than a pleasant surprise, it was moving and inspiring too. And I could see that it was ‘working’ as well. He was soft-spoken, modest, unassuming and centered. Later, I gave some thought to the implications of what he told me. My friends act of kindness may well have encouraged the old lady he had helped to be less selfish, less cynical, more thankful and kindly. I could imagine that she had told her family about it and that it had inspired them to be more kindly and thoughtful towards others. Certainly it inspired me. Perhaps this could be seen as another way of 'radiating' metta.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Animals In Heaven

You might be interested to know that some two centuries after the Buddha, one of the points discussed during the Third Council was whether or not animals could be reborn in heaven. Those who believed that this was possible pointed out that Eravana, the mount of the god Indra, was an elephant. The Theravadins countered this by saying that if this was taken literally it would require that there also be stables, fodder, animal trainers, grooms, etc. in heaven too (Kv.XX,4). The picture is from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, 1504.

Jake from Perth very kindly sent me the details of where to hear Les Crane's Desiderata. It's at and it's good to hear it again after all those years. AQJB tells me you can hear the Deteriorata on iTunes and while your at it have a listen to the sound advice and gentle humor of Wear Sunscreen at Thanks for that Minotaurus.

From the 2nd of next month I will be looking at the claim that Jesus visited India. I hope you will find my observations interesting.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Elephant Man

There is a particular approach to the Dhamma which I call Flat-Earth Buddhism. FEB goes like this. If the Jatakas say there is a rabbit in the moon then there is a rabbit in the moon. If the sutta says that the Buddha flew from the Vulture's Peak to the Bamboo Grove then he did fly from the Vulture's Peak to the Bamboo Grove. If the Vinaya says that a monk or nun should squat while urinating then monks and nuns must squat while urinating. The mantra of FEB is 'As it was in the beginning it shall be now and forever more.' Sometimes I am on the receiving end of FEB. For example, just recently I had the opportunity to see again David Lynch's wonderful 1980 film The Elephant Man. It moved me as much as it did the first time I saw it. In the course of conversation with a group of Buddhists from Malaysia I happened to mention this and I couldn’t help notice that the temperature in the room suddenly dropped by about 25 degrees. Eyes were averted, throats were cleared and the silence was deafening. Finally one of the group, appointing himself spokesman, said, 'Bhante, are monks allowed to watch films?' Although grammatically this was a question it was actually a reproach. And of course the spokesman was right in one sense; but only right from the point of view of FEB. I could have indulged in a bit of one-upmanship and pointed out that there is no mention of films in the Vinaya and therefore I had not broken any rule. But I wasn’t in the mood. Technically, the theater was quite highly developed at the time of the Buddha although the subject matter of the material presented was far less elevated and was probably mainly what we would call vaudeville. But that was then! This is now! Things have changed! Today theater, whether on stage or screen, can be intellectually, morally and spiritually uplifting (although it often isn’t). It can challenge us to think, it can transmit important ideas, it can motivate us to act and change things for the better. Seeing a good film is little different from reading a good book. The Elephant Man would be a good example of this. Based on Sir Fredrick Treres' The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences and Ashley Montagu's superb The Elephant Man - A Study in Human Dignity the film is the best commentary I know on Dhammapada 262-3, 'If someone is jealous, selfish or dishonest, they are unattractive despite their eloquence or good features. But the person who is purged of such things and is free from hatred, it is he or she who is really beautiful.'

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy New Year

Well, its Chinese New Year again and the first day of The Year of the Ox. Actually niu doesn't mean ox, in English ox being a castrated bull, so technically we English speakers should rightly call it The Year of the Bull. To the Chinese the bull suggests prosperity won by hard work; it symbolizes patient endurance and just quietly getting on with the job. People born in The Year of the Bull have all these qualities, plus they don’t say much but when they do it's eloquent, to the point and sensible.
It's interesting to see what the Buddha and his contemporaries thought about bulls (usabha). To call someone a bull of a man (purisusabha) meant that he was virile (Vin.III,39). But to the Buddha the bull conjured up the idea of nobility, courage, psychological strength and leadership. A monk who attained enlightenment was compared with the 'bulls, the fathers and leaders of the herd' (usabha gopitaro goparinayaka) who lead the other animals across the river (M.I,226). In the Anguttara Nikaya he said, 'When the cows are crossing, if the bull swerves they follow his lead and swerve too. If he who is considered the leader amongst humans does not live correctly neither do others. If the leader is immoral the whole group will be so too. When the cows are crossing, if the bull goes straight they will go straight following his lead. If he who is considered the leader amongst humans has integrity others will have too. The whole group will be happy if their leader is good' (A.II,70-1).
When King Asoka had one of his pillars erected at Rampurva he chose a sculpture of a bull for the capital. It is one of the masterpieces of early Indian sculpture. Unfortunately, this magnificent object is housed in Rastrapati Bhavan and six attempts by me to get in and see it have ended in an avalanche of forms, slips and permits, 400 k of journeys to offices, 3 passports worn out by being examined, 34 hours of being stared at with slit-eyed suspicion and no results. Maybe one day.
To all my Chinese readers Kung See Fa Choi or better Shen Tee Jen Kang Long Ma Zing Sern.
Photo by Benoy K. Behl.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Philosophically Buddhist

Maya Soetoro Ng was born in Indonesia to a Chinese businessman named Lolo Soetaro and Ann Dunham and Ann Dunham happens to be Barak Obama's mother. That makes Maya Ng Barak Obama's half sister. Maya was educated in Hawaii, at Barnard College in New York, later she did her MA at New York University and her Ph. D at the University of Hawaii. Apparently, recently Maya Ng described herself as 'philosophically Buddhist.' I'm not sure what that means but it sounds promising. Hopefully it's something like practicing the Dhamma and leaving out all the cultural trappings.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ancient Undies

Early last year I embarked on a project to write a social history of northern India in the 5th/3rd centuries BCE based on the information in the Pali Tipitaka. Knowing more about the society the Buddha lived in can help us better understand why the Dhamma took the form it did. It can help us distinguish between the culturally specific teachings and the sananta Dhamma. I work on this project nearly every day and some of my material ends up on this blog. Of late I have been looking at clothes (No, not dirty laundry!). It is proving to be a bit of a challenge because it is often difficult to tell the differences between the different types of cloaks, hats, dhotis, belts and waist bands. Other early Indian literature may help throw light on some of these differences but unfortunately I don’t have access to most of it. However, I'm struggling through. The Hindi sari is almost certainly related to the Pali sataka, the choli, the bodice that Indian women wear, is defiantly a developed form of the Pali cola, a sort of early brassiere. These are some of the things I have so far discovered about ancient Buddhist underwear.
The Vinaya says that when nuns are menstruating they are allowed to wear either a samvelliya or a katisutta, apparently to hold a pad in place (Vin.II,271). Samvelli means something like 'that wrapped around' and katisutta comes from kata = hip + sutta = string, and was probably something like what we call a G-string (The string I understand. The G?). It seems likely that katisutta was the literary form for kopina, an undergarment worn by lay men and women. Yesterday's post mentioned the Buddha's comment about the tart lifting her kopina for the sake of a miserable coin (Vin.II,111). The Jataka describes a cook wearing a kopina squatting down washing the dishes (Ja.V,306). One of the disadvantages of getting drunk, the Buddha said, is that a man may expose his kopina (D.III,183). I think it's also one of the disadvantages of being David Beckham and signing a contract with Calvin Kline. Now in Hindi the kaupina is the G-string sort of thing worn by some yogis, by men doing messy work and in Indian wrestling (kusthi). In wrestling it is called langota, probably related to the Pali langati, 'to bind' or 'to tie'. This garment consists of a triangular piece of cloth with strings on each corner (hence the sutta in katisutta) two being tied around the waist and one pulled between the legs. The great Ramana Maharishi always wore one of these. Sometimes instead of strings there are ribbons which are wrapped around the waist, pulled between the legs and tucked in at the back and I suspect the Pali for this variation of the garment is samvelliya. According to the Vinaya, monks are not allowed to wear a samvelliya (Vin.II,137). This is interesting because today Hindu yogis and wrestlers wear G-strings in the belief that confining the genitals and pressing them against the body it minimize sexual desire.
I recall that Sankaracariya composed a five verse poem in praise of the G-string. I think it's called Kaupina Pancakam.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Floating Buddhist Monk Woman

'So how was your trip to Thailand?' I asked.

'Wonderful' he replied. 'We went to that famous temple in Kanchanaburi and saw those women who can levitate.'

Now of course I'm never surprised by anything I hear about Thailand, especially if it concerns Buddhism, or what passes for Buddhism in that country. You know, the Phra Arahan who can blow smoke out of his ears, the other one who stands on your passport and can see all your former lives, the one who can see all your future lives without standing on your passport and the temple full of tigers. Then of course there is the beloved old Lung Po somewhere in Ubon whose aphrodisiacal potions have even been investigated by the Viagra company, or so the story goes.
'The women who can levitate?'

'Yes Bhante. They are mai chis and they levitate in water.'

'Do you mean float?'

'That’s it Bhante. They float.'

I was silent for a minute while I tried to think what interest or significance there could be in floating. Human fat is lighter than water and the Dhamma is…No. Air-filled lungs are lighter than water so one-pointedness of mind is…Nope. No connection there either. Now this place is a temple and in temples monks do…Nothing there. Finally I gave up.


'Well, they use the supernormal powers they have developed through meditation to float in a swimming pool-like thing.'


'Eh, um. Well, um, I suppose to show how highly developed they are.'

'Why would they want to display such powers? I would have thought that a highly developed meditator would want to avoid celebrity, crowds and self-promotion. Let me guess. Do you have to pay to see these floating ladies?'

'Yes, lots of people come. There are seats around the swimming pool. You have to pay extra to video it.'

By this time I remembered that I had better things to do like tidy the kitchen or something and I drew the conversation to a close. That evening he rung me and told me that the floating women of Wat Tham Mungkornthong are on YouTube. As I happened to be on line at the time I had a look at it. Its called Floating Buddhist Monk Woman of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. If you have nothing better to do, have a look at it. But believe me, you do have something better to do - like reading this passage from the Tipitaka.
"Now it happened that a rich merchant of Rajagaha got a block of expensive, quality sandalwood and he thought, 'Why don’t I have a bowl carved out of this sandalwood. I can keep the off-cuts for myself and the bowl I can give to someone else'. And this is exactly what he did. Then he had a string tied around the bowl and hung it from the top of a long bamboo pole. Having done that he made an announcement, 'Any monk or brahmin, perfected in psychic powers, who can take down this bowl can have it.' Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambala, Pakudha Kaccayana Sanjaya Belatthiputta and Nigantha Nataputta all tried to get the bowl but none were unable to. Now it so happened that Maha Moggallana and Pindola Bharadvija had gone to Rajagaha and heard about the sandalwood bowl on the top of the pole and Pindola said to Moggallana, 'You are enlightened and you have psychic powers. Get the bowl and it is yours.' But Moggallana replied, 'Pindola, you are enlightened and you have psychic powers. You get the bowl and you can have it.' So Pindola rose off the ground, took the bowl and then circled Rajagaha three times in the air. Now the rich merchant happened to be standing on the roof of his house with his wife and children (and seeing Pindola) he joined his hands towards him in salutation and said, 'Please land here in my house Venerable Pindola Bharadvaja.' and this Pindola did. The merchant took the bowl from his hands, filled it with expensive food, returned it to him and them Pindola went back to his monastery. Now people heard about what had happened and noisy excited crowds began following him around. And hearing all this noise the Lord asked what it was about and Ananda told him. Then the Lord convened all the monks, questioned Pindola in front of them, and having been given the details said, 'It is not appropriate, it is not becoming, it is not worthy of a true monk and it should not be done. How could you, Pindola Bharadvaja, in front of householders, display the achievements of spiritually accomplished people for the sake of a miserable wooden bowl? You, Bharadvaja, are like a tart who lifts her dress for the sake of a miserable coin' "(Vin.II,110-11).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Old Books Free Books

Our society, the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, prints a wide range of Dhamma books for free distribution. The money for printing these books comes from people who wish to honor or remember their deceased loved-ones, usually their parents, and they ask this fact to be mentioned somewhere in the book. This is a very ancient and a particularly Buddhist practice. The oldest dated book in existence is a copy of the Vajracchedika Sutra printed on 11th May 868 in western China. On the colophon at the end of the book are these words. 'Devotedly made for free distribution by Wang Jie in memory of his parents on the 13th day of the 4th moon in the 9th year of Siantong.' The book is made of several sheets of paper glued together, 16 feel long and with an illustration of the Buddha surrounded by his disciples at the end. It was found at Dunhuang in 1907 by Aural Stein and is now displayed at the British Library. Last time I was in London I went to have a look at it. It's yellowed and worn but still in pretty good condition and the print is clearly readable. I got a real thrill to see it and to think that we Buddhists continue to follow the custom of generously sharing the Dhamma with others. May it continue long. Related to this, printing seems to have been invented in China around the end of the 6th century CE and probably to mass-produce Buddhist literature. The Confucianists disdained printing, believing that calligraphy was more noble. The oldest book printed with movable type, also a Buddhist book from China, is dated 1377.

From the 2nd of February I am going to share with you some of my thoughts on the now well-known claim that Jesus spent his 'lost years' learning Buddhism in India.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Shortly after Les Crane's reading of the Desiderata hit the charts in 1971 someone did a parody of it called the Deteriorata. The first can make you a bit misty-eyed, the second makes you laugh. Both moods are healthful. I can't find the Deteriorata in beautiful calligraphy or superimposed on a sunset so you get just the words. Chuckle and be of good cheer!

Go placidly amidst the noise and waste and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof. Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep. Rotate your tires. Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself; and heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys. Know what to kiss - and when. Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do. Wherever possible, put people on hold. Be comforted, that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment, and despite the changing fortunes of time, there is always a big future in computer maintenance. Remember the Pueblo. Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate. Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI. Exercise caution in your daily affairs, especially with those persons closest to you...that lemon on your left, for instance. Be assured that a walk through the seas of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet. Fall not in love, therefore, it will stick to your face. Gracefully surrender the things of youth: the birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan - and let not the sands of time get in your lunch. Hire people with hooks. For a good time, call 606-4311 and ask for Ken. Take heart in the deepening gloom that your dog is finally getting enough cheese. And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee. You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here. Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back. Therefore, make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be: hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin. With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate. GIVE UP!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I know it’s a bit corny but the advice it gives is still well worth considering. And besides, it always reminds me of the good old days in the late 60's and early 70's when it was very popular and when you often used to hear it on the radio set to music by Les Crane. Tomorrow I'll post the other version of it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Oral Transmission

When people hear that the Buddhist scriptures were orally transmitted for several centuries they assume that they must be very unreliable. It is often said that the Tipitaka was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka in about 100 BCE but this is a misunderstanding. The source of this information is the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Mahavamsa. But all this chronicle says is that the Tipitaka was first written in Sri Lanka at that time. It may well have been written down much earlier in India and indeed there is good reason to believe it was. It is likely that this was done during the reign of King Asoka. This king was a devote Buddhist, he was very concerned that the Dhamma should be preserved and disseminated, and he made wide use of writing as a part of public policy. Everything we know about Asoka suggests that committing the Tipitaka to writing is the very thing he would have done. If this is correct it would mean that about 200 years passed between the writing of the Tipitaka and the Buddha’s passing. However, the Manjusrimulakalpa says the Tipitaka was written down during the reign of Udayin, the son of King Ajatasatu (tadetat pravacanam sastu likhapayisyati vistaram). If this is correct, it would mean that the Tipitaka was written down only a few decades after the Buddha, when people who met the Buddha were still alive.
Centuries before the Buddha the brahmans, the hereditary priests of Hinduism, had perfected ways of committing the Vedas, the sacred scriptures, to memory so they could be passed on to the next generation. The earliest Vedas date from about 1500 BCE and did not start being written until at least the 11th or 12th century CE. This means that they were orally transmitted for at least 2500 years. Despite this, all historians and Indologists agree that the Vedas reflect daily life, beliefs and language of the time they were composed, i.e. that they have been faithfully handed down. How was this done? A brahman’s whole life was dedicated to becoming a living receptacle for the Vedas. From an early age they chanted them until they had committed them to memory, great attention was given to getting pronunciation and intonation correct. Many of the Buddha’s disciples who became monks were brahmans and they brought with them the mnemonic skills they had been educated in. These same skills were used to preserve the Buddha’s suttas, his sermons, talks and sayings. Like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly designed to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices – rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc. Even before the Buddha’s passing, monks and nuns would regularly chant the suttas in congregation (D.III,207). This made it difficult to add, delete or change anything once a sutta had been settled and committed to the memory of the monastic community. It is also important to realize that lay men and women had a role to play in orally transmitting the suttas too. The Vinaya says that if a monk hears that a lay person who knows a sutta that he doesn’t is dying, the monk should go and learn it from them before they pass away. Inscriptions from Sanchi mention lay men and women who knew (i.e. by heart) suttas and sometimes whole collections of suttas. The Buddha said he wanted not just his ordained disciples but also his lay men and women disciples to be ‘knowers of the Dhamma’ so that they could ‘pass on’ what they had learned to others (D.II,105). The oral transmission of the Tipitaka for two or even three hundred years was kids stuff compared to the 2500 years during which the Vedas were orally transmitted. It is interesting to know that long after writing came into vogue in India Buddhists continued to transmit the Tipitaka orally, believing, probably correctly, that it was more accurate than writing. When the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien was in Patna in the first decade of the 5th century he noted that although the Vinaya was written down the monks preferred to commit it to memory.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Metta For Sri Lanka

I'm not particularly interested in politics, except when it overlaps with religion and where it is a mirror of society. In Sri Lanka Buddhism is very much both these things. Despite 2250 years of Buddhism, the loud profession of Buddhism by both the politicians and the electorate and the oft repeated claim that Sri Lanka has preserved Buddhism 'in its pristine purity', one sometimes gets the impression that Dhamma is very thin on the ground in that beautiful but tragic island. You may have heard that Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of one of Sri Lanka's few independent newspapers and a critic of the government, has just been shot dead by unknown assailants. He feared that this might happen and in preparation for it he wrote a last editorial to be published on his death. Please read it and then radiate metta to him and for all the people of Lanka.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dhamma In Darwin

I have just returned from four days in Darwin in the far north of Australia where I had gone for the funeral of Upail Ranasinghe. Upali was both a longtime friend and one of the driving forces behind getting the Buddhist Society of Northern Territory established. Because of him, what was a large block of barren land is now a collection of buildings (hall, kutis, shrine room and stupa) set in botanical gardens-like grounds. Nicest of all, two Tibetan monks, a Burmese monk and a Vietnamese nun all live together in harmony, each catering to their respective communities and participating together in joint activities. Large crowds attended Upali's funeral and after it was over I had a few restful days meditating and meeting friends.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Joy Of Sects

The two main religious movements at the time of the Buddha were those of the brahmans and the samanas. I have not been able to check it but I think our word shaman is related to the Pali samana. The brahmans adhered to age-old Vedic religion and considered the Vedas to be the ultimate spiritual authority. However, the more forward-looking brahmans of the day were starting to doubt the efficacy of Vedic rituals and give more attention to ethics and meditation. In particular, they were increasingly uneasy about Vedic sacrifices which involved the slaughter of animals. However these and other teachers still saw themselves as still within Vedic orthodoxy and so it is more correct that they were the founders of schools rather than sects.
The samanas on the other hand, rejected the Vedas and most Brahmanical beliefs and practices and were considered unorthodox, even heretical, by the brahmans. This brahman disapproval of samanas is well illustrated by Ambattha’s comment that the Buddha and his disciples were ‘petty, shaven menial samanas, the black scum of Brahma’s foot’ (D.I,90). The last part of this insult refers to the Hindu belief that low caste people were created by Brahma, the supreme god, from his feet. Because most samanas ignored caste rules this put them on a par with low castes and outcastes in the eyes of the brahmans. They ignored social norms and expectations, they were usually celibate and in spiritual matters gave precedence to experience rather than scriptural authority. They experimented with meditation, self-mortification, yogic breathing, fasts and sensory deprivation. When, as a result of such practices, an individual had some kind of mystical experience which led him to believe he had attained enlightenment or liberation, he would attract disciples and this would lead to the founding of a sect.
Some of the sects mentioned in the Tipitaka include the Ajivaka (Those of the Pure Life), the Mundaka Savaka (the Shaven Disciples), the Jatila (the Matted-hair Ones), Paribbajaka (the Wanderers), the Majandika, the Medandika (the Trident-bearers), the Aviruddhaka (the Free Ones), the Gotamaka (Gotama’s Disciples) and the Devadhammika (the Godly Ones, A.III,276). These and other samana sects were also collectively known as ‘fords makers’ (titthiya) because they claimed to be able to show the way to ‘cross’ from this world to the next. Soon Buddhists began to use this word for any non-Buddhist samana sect. The two dominant samana sects of the time and the only ones to survive to the present were the Nigantha (The Bondless Ones A.III,276), later known as the Jains and the Sakyaputtas, the Buddhists. The Buddha was often referred to as ‘the samana Gotama’ (D.I,4).
There was a great deal of religious switching at the Buddha’s time. Early in the Buddha’s career three famous brothers, the Kassapas, who were the leaders of a band of Jatilas became his disciples bringing all their followers with them (Vin.I,). It was this incident more than any other that drew widespread attention to the Buddha so soon after he started teaching. The two men who later became Buddha’s senior disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, had both been Ajivakas before becoming Buddhists. Occasionally those who had been the Buddha’s disciples joined other sects, Sunakkhatta being an example of this (D.III,2).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Suprise, Suprise!

La Rochefoucauld said that the only thing that should surprise us is that we are still surprised. Well I am! Often! Despite so much evidence of it, I'm still surprised at how ignorant some people can be about Buddhism. Take this picture for example. It's from a book for Christian children. The text below informs the kiddies that the picture is from India. The statue is Japanese. The worshipper is a Hindu (you can tell by the tassel at the back of his head). Buddhists don’t pray to the Buddha. They don’t worship in this manner. And the Buddha isn’t a god. It's not the man in the picture who needs help so much as the author.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Like Father Like Son

For the first time in 900 years a father and son have just been ordained as Catholic priests. Father Dominic Cosslett, 36, and his father, Father Ron Cosslett, 70, were both ordained by Archbishop Vincent Nichols in Birmingham in the UK. Now the obvious question that arises is, since Catholic priests have to be celibate, how come Father Ron has a son? Of late Catholic priests have often been in the news for having sex with choir boys and little girls but in both cases this usually does not produce progeny, although it does produce some very expensive compensation payments. So where did Father Ron's son come from? A virgin birth? Cloning? Found under a cabbage leaf? Well, Father Ron was formerly an Anglican priest (they're allowed to marry) but he converted to Catholicism and the rule of the Church is that when this happens the convert may continue his priestly duties in the Catholic Church. His son Dominic, who is not married, also converted to Catholicism and wanted to become a priest too. I have not been able to find out if Father Ron's wife is still alive and if so whether he is able to…you know…um! How can I put it?...bless her. And what's this got to do with Buddhism? Nothing really. I just thought it was an interesting story. And I wish Father Ron and Father Dominic fulfillment in their new vocations.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cut And Thrust

Weapons (ayudha) are instruments used for protection and for killing. Some of the many weapons mentioned in the Tipitaka include the spear (setti), battle axe (vasi), club (mugara) and trident (suula). The most characteristic weapons of the time were the sword (khagga) and the bow (dhana) and arrow (sara). The standard sword was 33 fingers long (Ja.I,273). Arrows could have heads with a variety of shapes (M.I,429) and the heads were sometimes smeared with poison (J.V,231).
To practice the first Precept, the Buddha said, required one to ‘refrain from taking life, to lay aside the stick and the sword and live with care, kindness and compassion for all living creatures’ (D.I,4). Sometimes he used the word ‘weapon’ to mean threats, coercion and violence and killing. Probably using an idiom of the time, he said of people engaged in violent argument that they were ‘wounding each other with the weapon of the tongue’ (M.I,320). On another occasion he said that a person with a heart full of love cannot be harmed by, fire, poison or weapons (A.V,342).
People often expressed surprise at how well the Buddha's disciples were trained without pressure or threats. King Pasenedi once said, ‘I am a noble anointed king with the power to execute, fine or exile whoever deserves it. And yet when I am in council people will often interrupt me. Even if I tell them to wait until I have finished speaking, still they interrupt me. But here I notice that when the Buddha is teaching to several hundred people there is not even the sound of someone coughing or clearing their throat. Once, when the Buddha was teaching the Dhamma to several hundred people someone did clear their throat. And one of his companions in the holy life nudged him with his knee as said, “Quiet, sir, make no noise. The Lord is teaching us Dhamma.” Then I thought, “It is wonderful, truly marvelous, how an assembly could be so well disciplined without stick or sword.” In fact, I know of no other assembly so well disciplined’ (M.II,122).
The Buddha has never been depicted holding a weapon, a few Mahayana bodhisattvas are, many Tantric deities are, although these are only symbolic.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Good Reads

Those able to read English are most fortunate to have had all the Pali Tipitaka translated into English for over 50. It has still not been fully translated into Sinhala, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian or Laotian. I know that in the case of the parts already done in Sinhala and Burmese, the style of the language used is archaic and 'high' making it difficult for the average person to read. English readers are now doubly fortunate in having accurate, readable and easily available translations of anthologies from the Tipitaka. Three of these have come to my attention. The first is Bhikkhu Bodhi's and Nyanaponika's Numerical Discourses of the Buddha published by Vistaar Publications, New Delhi in 2000. Bodhi's In the Buddha's Words, a selection of discourses from throughout the Tipitaka with extensive notes was published by Wisdom in 2005. And now another anthology, this time done by Rupert Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, has been done by Oxford World's Classics, so it will find its way into the average bookshop and be avaliable to 'the man in the street.' You may or may not keep turning your prayer wheel, but you defiantly should turn the pages of these books (Ops! I nearly forgot to add - 'and read them').

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Prayer Wheels

The capacity of the human mind to misapprehend and misunderstand seems to be almost infinite. And sometimes the results are startling. Take prayer wheels for instance. How did this (now I want to be culturally sensitive here) ‘interesting’ practice begin? On many occasions the Buddha said that it is good to listen to the Dhamma. For example in the famous Mangala Sutta he said 'listening to the Dhamma from time to time, this is the greatest blessing' (Sn.265). Given my observation above this was a mistake on the part of the Buddha. What he should have said was ‘Listening to the Dhamma, paying attention to it and understanding it, is the highest blessing’ because it wasn’t long before people came to believe that not listening to the Dhamma, but merely hearing it, not understanding it but just having the sound of the words go in one’s ears, was a blessing. When books came into use and the sutras were committed to writing the logical next step was believing that writing out the sutras, or even paying someone else to write them, was to receive a blessing. Mahayana sutras are replete with exhortations like this one, ‘Anyone who listens to, writes out, has written out, bows to, worships, sings the praises of, sees, has faith in, honors, respects or enshrines in a stupa this sutra will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of the Ganges.’ In the 23rd chapter of the Saddharmapundrika Sutra it says, ‘If anyone copies this sutra or pays homage to it with flowers, incense, garlands, perfume, sandal powder, unguents…oil lamps, the merit he earns will be incalculable.’ Nothing about reading it. Now a common way of paying respect to someone or something in ancient India was to walk around them or it – a temple, a stupa, a statue, etc. In time the practice developed of making merit by walking around libraries containing copies of the scriptures. By the 10th or 11th century some of the great monastic libraries of India had book cases that turned on a pivot, apparently so that their books could be more easily reached. Pilgrims to these monasteries would visit the libraries and walk around or sometimes turn the book cases as a meritorious act. You can probably see where this is going. The Wikipedia article on the subject says that the first reference to prayer wheels is in the account of a Chinese pilgrim to Ladakh in the 4th century. Mmm! I know of no such pilgrim visiting Ladakh at that time and I don’t think the region was Buddhist then either. However, we do know that by the 6th century Vietnamese, Chinese and even Japanese temples had octagonal wooden structures containing copies of the scriptures which later were turned for the purpose of ‘making merit.’ One of these things, called a rinzo, can still be seen (and turned) at the great Kannon Temple in Kamakura. Another version of the same thing is the disks (jizo wheels) sometimes found on Japanese tombstones which are turned to ‘pray’ for the person buried beneath. But of course the most well-known outcome of this chain of just slightly off-centre ideas, misunderstandings and conceptual corner-cutting, is the Tibetan prayer wheels or mani chos kor. There are/were many different types of these. The picture shows a huge one people would actually get in and turn treadmill-style.
There have always been those who read, understood and tried to apply what the scriptures say as indeed there are today too, but the majority have always preferred the easy option, and in Tibet this meant turning a cylinder containing pages from the scriptures. And the final step in the process? Well, it can be a bit of a bother turning a prayer wheel all day. Throughout those countries and regions where Tibetan Buddhism prevails you’ll find prayer wheels turned by wind, water, heat and nowadays, by electricity. Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘saying prayers in a mechanical fashion.' You can even buy prayer wheel earrings which you can turn as you fiddle with your ear lobes when you’re bored. Well, it’s been a long and interesting journey from the Buddha’s original intention. Perhaps it time we went all the way back.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Honor For The BDMS

In November our society, the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, was honored by being selected as one of ten Buddhist organizations from around the world to receive a complete copy of the Pali Tipitaka in memory of Princess Galyani Vaddhana, the sister of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. As part of Her Highnesses cremation ceremonies our former president and long-time member John Soh together with Padma and Detong arrived in Bangkok on the 13th Nov to be met at the air port by a welcoming committee. Over the next several days John and co attended several glittering receptions and formal meetings including at Thailand's Constitutional Court. On the 15th they joined other invited guests to witness the cremation of Her Highness at the large ground in front of the Bangkok's Royal Palace. John's account of this event and the pictures of it leave no doubt that it was an occasion of extraordinary splendor and pomp. John also had the honor of meeting Her Royal Highness Princess Soamsawail. Princess Galyani was widely loved in Thailand and vast crowds attended her cremation. John, Padma and Detong were fortunate enough to witness the event up close. Everybody arrived back in Singapore tired but very happy for having been treated with such kindness and respect during their stay. The 40 volumes of the Tipitaka will be specially shipped down to Singapore and we will ceremonially receive it and keep it in a special cupboard in our library.

Friday, January 9, 2009


After more than 30 years of a being asked questions about the Dhamma its rare that I'm asked a question for the first time. Well, it happened just last Sunday. A friend was perusing a Buddhist chat room where the subject of tattoos was being debated - apparently with considerable vehemence. He told me about this and then asked, 'Bhante, what would be the Buddhist idea about tattoos?' Never been asked this before! Now I want to make it clear that Buddhism is not like Orthodox Judaism, Islam or Catholicism which feel that they must have a 'position' on everything - sticking the stamp on the envelope upside down, flossing, basting a lamb in its own juice, tying your shoe laces with a double knot, parting your hair on the left or tattooing, and that need a committee of theologians who decided what is and is not acceptable. Thank goodness!! As far as I can see, I don’t think Buddhism has or needs to have a 'position' on tattooing. So I'm just going to give you my personal opinion as a Buddhist and a scholar of Buddhism and as I gave it to my friend.
There is no Pail or Sanskrit word for tattooing as far as I am aware and I think the practice was unknown in ancient India. In 25 years living in Sri Lanka I have never seen a tattoo or even heard the subject discussed. Tattooing is common in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and probably has its origins in the pre-Buddhist and tribal past. As in the West until recently, tattooing in these lands is associated with rough types, criminals and prisoners. The lower class of Thai monks often have tattoos and perform tattooing. Just as mafia types and Catholic priests in southern Italy often have close connections, petty criminals and Thai bhikkhus do too. This is because the former believe that magical diagrams tattooed on the skin will protect them from bullets and knives and the later are believed to know how to draw up such diagrams. I always associate tattoos with Ilsa Koch and every time I see one it makes me feel just slightly uneasy.
Today however, tattoos have risen above the underworld and become fashionable amongst ordinary people, although I suspect they still has a slightly 'naughty' air, a hint of danger or rebelliousness about them, and perhaps this is a part of its attraction to some people. As a fashion statement I can't see much difference between having a tattoo and wearing lipstick, makeup or earrings - except for one thing. Tattoos are difficulty and irksome to remove. The Buddha said, 'I know nothing that changes as quickly as the mind' (A.I,8). Therefore, before deciding to have a tattoo it might be good to consider these words. You may think it looks fashionable and 'cool' now, but what will you think ten years time? The fact that there is a thriving tattoo removal business suggests that many who had them before want to get rid of them now.
Quite by coincidence, Singapore's first ever Tattoo Fair is opening today. Remember the good old days when Singapore men with hair long enough to touch their collar would be 'served last'? I'm just sittin here watchin the wheels go round.
The picture is a 19th century photo of a tattooed Burmese boy. He has the face of an angel but the sword a bandit.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Two Surveys

A survey recently conducted by Harris Poll in the US found that 42 % of adults are not 'absolutely certain' that there is a God compared with 34 % who were asked the same question three years ago. Seventy six % of Protestants, 64 % of Catholics and 30 % of Jews said that they are 'absolutely certain' that God exists and the percentage climbed to 93 % among Born Again Christians. And how's this - when asked about God's gender 36 % said he is male, 37 % think its neither male or female, 10 % said they think its both male and female and 1 % think she's female. I wonder what results they would have got if they asked how many think he's Barak Obama? When asked whether God controls earthly events 29 % said 'yes' and 44 % said he, she or it observes but does not judge of interfere with what happens - something like a Vipassana meditator I suppose. That’s America. Heres a report on a religious survey recently carried out amongst older people in Briton
The Telegraph Group Limited
London: Only one in four older Britons wants the Church of England to remain the country's official religion, according to research that indicates a decline in belief among the over-50s. The survey of 15,500 adults found that the majority now worship or pray less frequently than they used to, and that many have lost their faith in God as they have grown older. A quarter now call themselves atheist or agnostic and a similar proportion (24%) supports the separation of Church and state. A further 28% wanted it to remain the established Church. Last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said it would not be 'the end of the world' if the Church of England were to be disestablished. Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society, said: 'This is more bad news for the Church of England as even its most traditionally faithful demographic begins to desert it.' The poll carried out for The Daily Telegraph by Saga, the group that provides holidays and financial products to the over-50's, found that one in five of those surveyed said their religious beliefs were now weaker than earlier in their adult lives and 14 % said they now had more doubts about God's existence. A spokesman for Saga said: 'Because of the efforts of Church of England 'modernizers', older people can no longer be replied upon to be the backbone of the Church.'
The picture shows Dr. Rowan Williams checking just to make sure the Boss is still there.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More On Hair

Now if you want to know just how sophisticated Indian men’s coiffure became by the Gupta period, have a look at this wonderful picture taken by my friend Vikramajit during a recent trip to Deoghar near - well actually, its not really near anywhere, but it's where UP pokes its finger into Madhya Pradesh. It show the Pandu brothers full of masculine vigor and confidence and with the most elaborate hairdos. Why don’t they do hair like that any more?And in response to yesterday's post Vijramajit sent me another picture showing ancient Indian hairstyles (funny that, seeing that he's usually more interested in feet) from the great torana at Sanchi (150-100 BCE). It shows a salabanjaka under a mango tree having 'let her hair down.' It is a decidedly sensuous piece of sculpture, particularly for a Buddhist monument. The young woman is topless, she has her dhoti pulled through her legs, her mekhala, made of either chain or knotted cord, hangs on her hips (much as a smart young woman today might wear her jeans 'hipster style') and she has nupuras around her ankles and lower legs. I can't see her face but I suspect she has a cheeky smile. For a very detailed description to women's dress from around the time of the Buddha have a look at Ja.V,202-4.
Thanks Vikramajit, for sharing these two wonderful images.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


My encyclopedia says that hair is ‘long, narrow, filamentous growths made of keratin scales that protrude from the skin of mammals.’ Yak! Sounds horrible! Hard to believe that such a thing could be thought of as beautiful and be so fundamental to our self-esteem. Men will go to great lengths to stop going bald or disguise it when it happens. The worst thing the French could think of to punish woman who collaborated with the Nazis was to cut their hair off. The men of the Kandyian aristocracy all wore luxuriant beards, it being considered a sign of authority and power. Women regularly shave their legs just as most men shave their faces. Chinese men have difficulties growing beards so if they have a hair growing out of a mole on their face they let it grow. Seeing a smooth-faced Chinese man with a single six or seven inch hair on their face always makes me want to pull it out! Thai monks shave their eyebrows, probably because of a pedantically literal interpretation of the Buddha's requirement to shave the head. Young monks at Vidyalankara University in Colombo used to let their hair grow very long and sport impressive sideburns to impress the female students. That was in the 1970's. I don’t know about now. The Tipitaka is full of information about what people did with and thought about their hair at the Buddha’s time and I present some of it below.
The Buddha was not ‘into’ hair. He asked his monks and nuns to shave their hair every two months or when it was two finger-breadth long (Vin.II,207). Nuns were expected to shave their pubic hair which apparently all respectable women did (Vin.III,260). Monks were also asked to cut the hair in their noses if it got too long (Vin.II,134). Statues of the Buddha always show him with hair but of course he shaved his head like all other monks.
We have quite a lot of information about the hair styles of the time and this is supplemented by archaeological evidence. Certain ascetics wore jatas, what we call dreadlocks, i.e. the hair was matted into long braids and then allowed to either hang down or be tied together into various shapes. When the braids were tied into a bun on the top of the head it was called jatanduva (S.I,117). Centuries later Siva and Avalokitesvara were always depicted with their hair like this. Brahman men probably shaved their heads except for a small part at the back which was left to keep growing, just as they still do. Topknots or buns on the back or top of the head were also popular. Another type of topknot was the culaka. Boys would wear five of these (Ja.V,250) and women would sometimes have a jeweled diadem attached to theirs (Ja.I,65). Sikhabandha seems to have meant twisting long hair and a long cloth together and then tying it around the head into a turban (D.I,7). Women favored parting their hair in the middle (dvedhasira vibhatta) as they still do, wearing plats (veni, Ja.II,185) and applying sandal oil to their hair both to perfume it and make it glisten (Ja.V,156). The high-class prostitute Ambapali used to wear her hair glossy-black, curled at the ends, with flowers in it, well-parted with a comb, decorated with gold ornaments and adorned with plats (Thi.252-5). When Nanda left to become a monk, he looked back and saw his girlfriend with her ‘hair half combed’ (upaddhullikhitehi kesehi), an image that later he couldn’t get out of his mind (Ud.22). Perhaps it was something like in those shampoo ads where you see the woman’s hair blowing in the wind.

Bees’ wax was applied to slick the hair down (Vin.II,207) and later Indian works mention that the sap of the banyan tree was used as a sort of hair gel. Men trimmed their beards, grew them long, grew goatees (golomikam karapenti), and shaped them into four ends. They would sometimes shave shapes into the hair on their chest and abdomen or even have all their body hair removed (Vin.II,134). There were hairdressers (kappaka) and barbers (nahapita) to do all his coffering and the second of these usually doubled as bath attendants and masseurs. Just as today, both professions attracted homosexuals, as the Kama Sutra makes clear. The barber’s equipment (khurabandana) would include a razor (khura), scissors (kattarika), tweezers (sandasa), comb (koccha) and mirror (dasa).

The two pictures below, both of sculptures from Bharhut (150-100 BCE) throw more light on ancient Indian hairstyles. In the first the two women with their backs to the viewer showing their hair platted into numerous braids and then all of them tied into a single knot. The bottom picture shows a man arranging his turban (and hair?).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Comments On Euthanasia

I would like to address some of the comments and observations made on my four previous posts on euthanasia. Konchog said that his teacher would disagree with my assertion that euthanasia could sometimes be in the best interest of the pain-wracked terminal patient. His teacher would take the position that we 'do not know if that being has exhausted the dominate kammas to be in that form and condition.' By this I assume that Konchog's teacher believes that the pain a terminal patient is feeling must be due to some negative past kamma and by ending their life or assisting them in ending their life we would be doing nothing more than postponing their negative kamma until the next life. This is a common Buddhist argument against euthanasia. I cannot speak for the Mahayana/Vajrayana position on this matter, but early Buddhism most strongly asserts that the belief that everything we experience in this life (pleasant, painful or neutral) is due to something done in the past, is one of the three false and pernicious misunderstandings. And one would not have to be Einstein to see why. It implies absolute determinism. Following from this the Buddha says that the diseases and sicknesses we may fall prey to have a variety of causes, only one of which is kamma. Common sense and empirical observation would tell us that someone with liver cancer is experiencing pain because the tumor is disrupting the healthy functioning of their liver, not because of any morally negative act they did previously.
Related to this is, Indigoblue's comment, 'How can you be sure that an individual's intentions are compassionate or not?' Perhaps we cannot be 100% sure that this is the case but I think any relatively self-aware person knows when they are feeling at any one time. I cannot be 100% sure that a doctor contemplating euthanatizing a terminal patient is doing so out of compassion but inquiries may make things more clear. I think we can be sure of a doctors good intentions in such cases as we can be in other cases. But there is one thing we can have little doubt about - that a patient writhing in agony and begging for release knows what they want.
Dyanne related how a friend experiencing unbearable mental suffering committed suicide ,which is always a tragedy and often has a devastating effect on those they leave behind. However, I do feel that suicide in such cases is somewhat different and less acceptable than in the case of a terminal patient. In the case of the first, things could (in most cases) always change and improve. This is not so with a terminal patient.
Both Paulo and Vasile drew my (our) attention to the Channovada Sutta (M.III,264-66). In this sutta Venerable Chamma is sick, in pain and wants to 'use the knife.' Sariputta urges him not to. We are not told whether Channa's condition was terminal or not. Whatever the case, he did later commit suicide. Sariputta informed the Buddha of this and asked what would be his destiny in his next life. The Buddha replied, 'When one lays down this body and clings to a new body, then I say that one is blameworthy. But this was not so with Channa and therefore he used the knife blamelessly.' It would appear from this that Channa was a highly developed person and that between the time he 'used the knife' (i.e. cut his wrists or his throat) and he died he was able to be totally detached and therefore attain enlightenment. If this is was so, it's hard to understand why he could not have been equally detached from the pain caused by his sickness. Either way, the story suggests that killing (suicide or euthanasia) need not necessarily have negative results.
For more on kammic determinism and the causes of diseases go to and have a look at 'Determinism' and 'Sickness and Health.' See also my post of 24, 10, 2008.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Euthanasia IV

If we accept that the intentions of a terminal patient in great pain who wants to deliberately shorten their life would not be much different from a patient in a similar position who does not think of or is not in a position to kill themselves (and this is what I posited as a possibility yesterday), what about the care-giver who decides to end the life of such a patient? What would their intentions and thus their vipaka, be? Now the kin of a terminal patient could have plainly negative reasons in wanting such a patient euthanatized – to limit the hospital bills, to end their own grief and distress or perhaps just ‘to get it over and done with.’ But let's say the care-giver has had a long, close and loving relationship with the patient and they have bee been asked by their loved one to end their life. I honestly cannot see how they would have anything but compassion and fellow-feelings for their loved one in agreeing to and carrying out their request. Surely, in acquiescing to their loved one's request they would be doing what the Buddha said we should try to do, putting themselves in the place of the other (attanam upamam katva, Dhp.129), feeling for them, feeling with them, and acting out of compassion. I cannot see in what way this would be, as Archishop Chia called it, ‘false compassion’ other than that it contradicted some dogma. In the past, before the rise of our litigatious society, this is exactly what doctors did. Their years of experience told them when the kindest thing to do was to withhold treatment or even administer a lethal does of medicine. It was not taught, it was never talked about, but it was widely done and it no doubt prevented untold pointless suffering. A doctor's reason for not doing this now is the fear of being sued, hardly a positive or noble reason in allowing a patient to end their days in unendurable pain.
Just to sum up the main points I made or tried to make -
From the perspective of Buddhism, what gives any behavior its ethical quality is primarily the intention (cetana) behind it and also the effect it will have on oneself and the other.
Under most circumstances, killing is morally wrong because it requires strongly negative intentions on the part of the killer and it goes so much against the victim most cherished desires, thus causing great terror, distress, etc. and such suffering is intrinsically evil.
Killing oneself in order to save the lives of others could be motivated by compassion and thus not have negative vipaka.
If killing oneself could be done out of positive intentions it is conceivable that killing another (at their request and to save them from great pain) could be done with the same or similar intentions.
This last point is reinforced by the universalizability principle – applying to others one’s own wishes. I would not like to spend my last days suffering great pain so I will (when requested to do so) relieve the pain of someone in that position.

The theistic faiths’ objection to any type of euthanasia is based on the myth of a life-giving, life-taking deity. Speaking with Buddhists on this issue, it seems that their objections to it (when they do object to it and by no means all do) are derived from the idea that killing is wrong because it is wrong in itself, it is intrinsically wrong. But my understanding is that this is not what the Buddha taught. For example to unintentionally and unknowingly kill something has no kammic consequences (vipaka) because it is not intentional. It is intention that makes an act moral or immoral. It is this point that needs to be kept in mind when thinking about euthanasia. I am undecided on the pros and cons of euthanasia but I do think the issue is much more complex and nuanced that the usual ‘it’s wrong’ stance. What do you think?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Euthanasia III

That Buddhism is strongly against killing and emphasizes gentleness and kindness is well-known. But why? Why did the Buddha consider killing to be so wrong? There seem to be two main reasons for this. (1) Because beings treasure their life above all things and thus to threaten it or to take it is to inflict great suffering upon them and suffering is intrinsically evil. ‘All fear death…therefore one should not kill another’ (Dhp.129). (2) Knowing that deliberately killing someone is the worst thing one can do to them, it requires intensely negative intentions to do it which in turn reinforces such intentions making it more likely that the evil of suffering will be perpetuated. In other words, killing is not wrong in itself, it wrong because of its results - because it imposes on the victim something they do not want and it requires strongly negative intentions on the part of the killer.
All this would normally be the case. But we know that there are situations where someone can choose death because circumstances have made it a worse option that remaining alive. For example, a soldier captured by a barbaric enemy. Having vital information which, if it falls into the hands of the enemy, may lead to the deaths of many others, knowing that he is going to be tortured to get this information, certain that he will not be able to endure the torture and be killed afterwards anyway, he may decide to kill himself. People sometimes give their lives out of what is usually called at altruism; the fireman who enters the burning house to try to save the children trapped inside even when he knows he has only the slimmest chance of finding them alive and getting out safely; the two elderly gentlemen in the overcrowded lifeboat who ease themselves overboard so that the boat will sit higher in the water and increase the chances that the 36 other people in the boat will survive. Now in these cases (and they have all actually happened) it cannot reasonably be said that the persons concerned had negative intentions in killing themselves. In fact, their intentions were clearly to save lives. So I maintain that while killing oneself or another is almost always motivated by negative intentions, that this is not always the case. Interestingly enough, this is a point confirmed by Buddhism. In the Mahayana tradition, it is said that the bodhisattva may even give his or her life for the sake of others. The most famous example of this is the story in which the Bodhisattva cut his throat so that a starving tigress could feed herself and her cubs. The very purpose of this allegory is to suggest that compassion and courage can cancel out self-concern, the craving to live and identification with the body.
It should be noted that in only one of the 548 Pali Jatakas does the Bodhisattva give his life for someone else. However, the Buddha does say (approvingly) that a friend may be devoted to another enough to give his or her life for them (D.II,187) more evidence that killing, in this case killing oneself, need not always be negative. Incidentally, this same point is made in the Bible; 'No greater love has he than that he give his life for his friend.' How does this square with Archbishop Chia's idea of 'false compassion'?
Now, to return to the question of euthanasia - could someone kill themselves or asked to be killed and do so without negative intentions? Let's say that a woman has terminal liver cancer, she has been in terrible pain for the last month and it gets worst every day, the stench coming from her body is sickning, her veins have collapsed so that the nurses have to stab her six or seven times with the needle before they can administer morphine and the doctor has said that she has a week, perhaps two or three left. Lets say she decides she has endured enough and asks the doctor to (1) give her a lethal dose of morphine or (2) give her an injection containing a lethal done of morphine so she can administer it herself. What would be going through her mind at this time? The dominant ones would probably be (a) resentment and fear of the present pain, and others would be (b) desire to avoid the future pain, (c) revolution with the body. Now I maintain that a and b would have to be classed as kammicly negative but also that they will both continue and almost certainly increase if this patient decides not to end her life. As for c, it is exactly this outlook that the Buddha hoped to evoke when he encouraged his disciples to do the meditation on the unpleasant aspects of the body. So while a terminal patient who desires to end their life may have some negative intentions (and thus some negative vipaka) they are likely to have them anyway. Perhaps a highly developed meditator may be able to free themselves from such thoughts and intentions, but not the average person. And if the care-giver decided to leave a lethal injection besides her bed so that she can administer it to herself, what could their intentions be? Respect for the patients wishes, sympathy and compassion, desire to see them free from pain? Quite possible.
The picture is a Mongolian depiction of the Bodhisattva offering his body to the starving tigeress.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Euthanasia II

Although the mythological argument is to me the weakest argument against euthanasia it always seems to be the one that gets the most attention. Therefore I will examine it in detail rather than the other arguments against euthanasia. Archbishop Chia, who represents Singapore's 320,000 Catholics (although probably by no means all of them would agree with him), got more coverage for his views on euthanasia in the Straits Times than any other religious leader (3 Nov. 2008). His opinion fairly well represents the general theistic (in this case Christian) position. 'One must not yield to on another person's request for euthanasia. To yield to such a request is false compassion.' 'This is not a matter of life and death. It is not up to you or me to decide.' The former Anglican Bishop Moses Tay pointed out that the whole argument turns on the understanding of who has the right to take away life. 'The moral, and I believe biblical, answer to who has the right to take away life is the one who created it; God Himself. Human beings may be the procreators of life, but they do not actually have the right to take away life.'
As a Buddhist, I have a few problems with this perspective. All monotheistic religions, the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches, have long upheld capital punishment, which seems to contradict the idea that only the deity has the right to take a life. A friend who knows the Bible much better than I informs me that there are 87 offences mentioned in the Bible which God says a person can and should be executed for, some of them extraordinarily minor. One could also ask this question. If it is acceptable to prevent life coming into being (using birth control), to artificially prolong life (using life-support machines), to require people to endanger their lives and take the lives of others (sending soldiers into battle), then why is it wrong to shorten life? It seems that the reproach 'Your playing God' is only used when the question of euthanasia comes up. I find this contradictory.
There is another aspect to the mythological argument that could be examined. According to Christian mythology Jesus gave his life for others. He could have avoided this fate but he willingly chose to be tortured and killed so that his death would allow other to be saved. Many early Christians likewise chose to be killed when it could easily been avoided by simply bowing to an image of the emperor or a non-existent god. Such people were lauded as martyrs and held up as examples. Now there is a difference between courting death or willingly allowing oneself to be killed when there is an alternative, and killing someone else. But there is a similarity between courting death or willingly allowing oneself to be killed and asking to be killed, as in the case of a terminally ill patient. For reasons that are not clear to me the self-killing of martyrs and of Jesus are acceptable but euthanasia and assisted suicide are not.
And of course the other problem with the mythological argument is that not everyone believes in God and even some who do, consider euthanasia to be justifiable. Biblical teachings can and are interpreted in many very different ways. The monotheistic faiths should of course have the right to instruct their followers in what they believe to be moral and immoral, and the followers should have the right to decide for themselves or for their loved ones concerning the issue of euthanasia. But should the monotheistic faiths impose their views on everyone else and should their point of view be the main one taken into account? I do not think they should.
In an article in the Straits Times (24,12,2008), Jennifer Yeo and Madan Mohan highlight the possible dangers of euthanasia and argue against changing the law in Singapore. This article is thoughtfully written and carefully argued - until the last few lines. After mentioning that the late Pope John Paul II followed the example of Jesus by dying in pain and without trying to avoid it, the authors conclude by saying, 'It is at this point, as we enter the spiritual and metaphysical realm, that all debate on euthanasia must stop.' This statement highlights better than I ever could another problem with the God-centered perspective. For the believer, once God has spoken he or she must suspend all debate, inquiry and judgment. It should be of concern that people who think like this have such influence in deciding issues of importance to the general community and in a secular society like Singapore.
But to return to the question above - What can the Buddha's Dhamma bring to the euthanasia debate? I will deal with this question tomorrow.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Euthanasia I

Recently there has been widespread discussion in Singapore about the pros and cons of euthanasia. The government originally broached the subject, probably in response to rising health costs, and various medical and religious bodies have given their opinions on the matter. On Nov. 4th the Straits Times reported that Christian, Muslim and Buddhist religious authorities were opposed to any form of euthanasia and that Hindus were (on going to press) unable to give an opinion one way or the other. I suspect this means that they were simply unable to find anyone who could speak authoritatively on the matter, a sad reflection on the state of Hinduism in Singapore. Venerable Kwang Phing of the Singapore Buddhist Federation was asked for the Buddhist position and said that Buddhism would consider euthanasia to be unacceptable. I do not know exactly what Ven. Kwang Phing said but I would like to give some of my own thoughts on the issue.
I will use the word euthanasia here to mean intentionally killing a terminally ill patient by performing or withholding medical procedures. Euthanasia can be either active, e.g. administering a lethal injection, or passive, e.g. no longer feeding an unconscious patient. It can also be either voluntary, e.g. requested by the patient, or non-voluntary, e.g. where the patient is unconscious and a legally competent person makes the decision. Thus there are four types of euthanasia – active voluntary (AVE), passive voluntary (PVE), active non-voluntary (ANE) and passive non-voluntary (PNE). There is also what is now called voluntary suicide (VS), where the care-giver provides the patient with the means of killing himself or herself but has no involvement beyond that.
There are three main arguments in favour of euthanasia -
The Compassion Argument. If someone is in extreme pain and going to die soon anyway, or if they are brain dead, it is compassionate to both them and their family to end their life.
The Choice Argument. Our life is our own and no one has the right to tell us what to do with it if we are not interfering with the welfare of others. If I choose to end my life I should have the right to do so.
The Economic Argument. The cost of keeping terminally ill patients or brain dead patients alive for as long as possible is driving up the health care costs for those who are only curably ill.
To my mind the first of these arguments is the strongest and the last one the weakest.
There are five main arguments against euthanasia -
The Moral Argument. Killing for any reasons is wrong. It is just another type of murder.
The Unprofessional Argument. The whole rationale of the medical profession for centuries has been and is to enhance and preserve life. In asking or allowing doctors or nurses to kill patients we are compromising the most fundamental ideal of the medical profession.
The 'How Can We Know?' Argument. We cannot know for sure that a terminal patient is going to die as quickly as the doctors predict. Doctors are sometimes wrong. We cannot know for sure that a brain dead or long-term unconscious patient is going to remain in that state. They sometimes suddenly wake up. When a terminal patient asked to have their life ended we cannot know for sure that they are making a truly free choice. Perhaps they feel guilty that their medical expenses are becoming a burden for their family.
The Slippery Slope Argument. If we allow euthanasia, where will it stop? Then there might be calls to kill the elderly or physically and mentally disabled people.
The Mythological Argument. Life was created by God and is therefore sacred and no one has the right to take it except God.
I have arranges these arguments from most to least valid. The last two are equally unconvincing in my mind.
Is there anything in the Buddha's Dhamma that could help come to some conclusion on the admittedly very complex issue of euthanasia? The usual Buddhist argument used in the euthanasia debate is that it is always negative to take a life - full stop. One text that is often used in such discussions is this one from the Vinaya which seems to directly address the question of euthanasia. 'Should any monk (or nun) intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for a killer for them, or praise the advantages of death, or incite them to die saying, "What use is this wretched and miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life", or with a similar idea, a similar purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite them to die, he also is excommunicated and no longer within the monastic community' (Vin.III,71-2). However, seen within its context, I feel that this text does not really contribute much to the euthanasia debate. Firstly, the origin story of this rule tells us that some monks encouraged a sick man to kill himself so that they could get up to mischief with his wife (Good God! That’s what some of the recruits to the Sangha were like then). Secondly, there is no suggestion that the man was terminally ill, that he had expressed the desire to end his life and the monks intentions in getting him to do so were clearly negative and without concern for the sick man. Thirdly, there are several passages in the Vinaya that stipulate clearly what a monastic's role is and making it clear that monks and nuns should stick to that role and not stray into other roles. So the question of counseling a patient on the pros and cons of euthanasia or any medical questions is not a monastic's job and he or she should have nothing to do with it. But what about doctors, care-givers, terminally ill patients and their loved ones who are not monks or nuns? I will continue this discussion tomorrow.