Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hope And Hugs

It is going to take a lot more than hugs to heal the very real and the very deep wounds in Sri Lanka. However, it’s a start and hopefully it will be the beginning of the process.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sticks But Not Stones

A staff (danda) is a long stick, usually made of wood, used to assist walking, for combat or as a symbol of office. According to the Vinaya, the standard staff should be four hands (hattha) long, i.e. four times the distance from the fingers to the elbow (Vin.IV,200). The Buddha allowed monks to carry a staff when they were traveling while sick (Vin.II,131). Gradually though, all traveling monks and nuns would carry staffs. They would use them to push aside prickles, warn off village dogs and protect them from wild animals while traveling through forests. In later centuries a large metal ring with smaller rings through it was attached to the top of the staff. The jingling should made by these rings gave the such staffs their name kakkarakka which is an onomatopoeia for this sound. When I go carika (I’m getting a bit old for it nowadays) I always carry a khakharaka staff. My one is an exact copy of one I saw in an Indian Buddhist sculpture dating from the 10th century. Although I carry this staff mainly for ‘sentimental’ reasons I have also found it most useful while walking through rough country and keeping angry village curs at bay. Rattle your khakharaka and they back off real quick!Eventually the khakharaka ceased to be used for practical reasons and became a symbol of authority and used by abbots during important ceremonies. The rings also became more elaborate and decorative.
Senior Chinese and Tibetan monks still sometimes use such khakharakas. The Mahayana bodhisattva Kshitigarbha often seen as the protector of travelers, including those ‘traveling’ to the next life, is always depicted holding a khakharaka. In Japan, pilgrims sometimes use miniature khakharakas called shakujou. With the development of Vajrayana Buddhism a different type of staff came into use. Called khatuanga it had a trident on the top and a human skull through the shaft. Like much of Vajrayana, such staffs were copied directly from the Hindu Sivite tradition. The trident (trishula) is the symbol of Siva and Sivite ascetics were called ‘skull-carriers’ (kapalika). Padmasambhavana, the semi-mythological magician who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet is always depicted carrying one of there staffs. The staff has gone completely out of use in the Theravadin tradition. It is not even used as a symbol of office, a ceremonial fan serving that purpose. The only occurance of any kind of staff I know of within Theravada is in images of the mythological Phra Malai of Thailand who is always depicted with a simple staff. In a sense, the different types of staff illustrate the changes that took place Buddhism - from simple to complex, from practical to symbolic, and finally from a distinct separate religion to a fusing with Hinduism.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Akon's Not Coming

COLOMBO: US singer Akon will not be granted a visa to visit Sri Lanka for a sell-out concert after Buddhist monks and almost 12,000 people on social media site Facebook took offence at one of his videos. A group of monks lobbied the government to stop the star’s planned visit because of a music video that featured women in bikinis dancing around a pool in front of a Buddha statue. The offending video was for the R&B star’s “Sexy Bitch” hit, set on the Spanish party island of Ibiza. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said there was no application for a visa by Akon or his entourage, but the government had taken a decision not to allow him into the country to perform at the concert scheduled for April 24. “He has not applied for a visa yet, but we will refuse him if he does ask for one,” a spokesman for the ministry said. Director General of Information Anusha Pelpita said Colombo took Buddhist sensitivities and other protests into account. The show was reported to have sold out with tickets priced at 25,000 rupees (217 dollars). Thousands of Sri Lankans had also banded together to form a “We Hate AKON” group on Facebook, the social networking site, which counted 11,700 fans today. “We hate Akon. Please stop insulting a religion. Save Buddhism,” said one posting. Majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka projects itself as a secular country, but it is highly sensitive to the use of religious images for commercial purposes. Six years ago, Sri Lanka’s police and customs were ordered to seize albums from plush lounge bar and restaurant chain Buddha Bar which depicted the Buddha, as well as bikinis with Buddha motifs. Authorities have already banned candles in the shape of the Buddha.
From the Himalayan

Comment: I can’t say I have ever heard of Akon. But if he’s touring Sri Lanka (a beautiful country but let’s face it, top of the list or rock music backwaters) he must be very desperate. And as for his video, I think the indignant monks can go back to their meditation in peace. After the video and Akon himself are forgotten (in 5 years?) the Buddha will still be around and attracting an audience. The Buddha has survived worse.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Buddha In Ballarat

Years ago I was giving some talks in Ballarat in rural Victoria and staying with my long-time friend John Hall. One afternoon he suggested we go and visit the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. I was agreeable to this suggestion although I wasn’t expecting much. Probably a small collection of modest and mediocre works by locals artists, I thought to myself. I ended up being pleasantly surprised. They have paintings by Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Fred McCubbin, Sidney Nolan and quite a few other fine artists. But one painting surprised me more than all the others and has remained in my memory ever since. It is a large painting called Buddha’s Renunciation by the Anglo-Russian Nicholas Chevalier who lived in Australia for 14 years. The ‘Buddha’ seems to pop up in the most unexpected places! I don’t know much about this work other than that Chevalier painted it in 1884. As Edwin Arnold’s famous poem The Light of Asia was first published in 1879 there is a good chance that it served as Chevalier’s inspiration. Buddha’s Renunciation is rather typically Victorian – romantic, sentimental and naive, but it is also pleasing to the eye. Anyway, it’s been in the Gallery’s collection since 1923. That means that for 87 years Ballaratins (if that’s what there called) have been able to have at least a little bit of Buddhism in their lives.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Putting A Price On The Dhamma

The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Punna was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or even worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, they return to their homelands and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. I really think this is unethical. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma, certain Tibetan teachers being the worst offenders. I once mentioned to the student of a rimpoche that his teacher charged very high prices for his teachings – real high. Rather defensively the student said that air fares, accommodation, etc all cost money. “Why not just ask students for a donation rather than charge them?’ I said. “What if the costs were not covered?” the disciple shot back. I let the subject drop but it seemed a little odd after all that Tibetan stuff about giving your body for all beings and having infinite compassion for all beings. I also couldn’t help thinking that Goenka (and his assistant teachers) rely entirely on donations. In charging for Dhamma such teachers are turning the precious Dhamma into a commodity and the Buddha clearly said: ‘One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma’ (Ud.66). When the Buddha said: ‘The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts’ (Dhp.354) he clearly meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold. During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (acariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students audience than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). I think there is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called ‘sponsorship’ or to announce that a ‘donation’ of a certain amount is expected, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeing The Buddha, Seeing The Dhamma

Venerable Vakkali was staying at the Potters’ Shed and was suffering from a disease, sick and afflicted. Then he called his attendant and said: “Friend, go to the Lord and in my name worship his feet, tell him I am suffering from a disease and suggest that it would be good if he were to come and visit me out of compassion for me.” So the attendant did as he was asked. In silence the Lord consented and dressing himself and taking his robe and bowl, set out. Now Vakkali saw the Lord coming in the distance and struggled to rise from his bed. But the Lord saw him and said:
“Enough, Vakkali. Remain in your bed. There are seats made ready. I will sit there.”
Having seated himself, the Lord addressed Vakkali saying: “I hope you are bearing up. I hope you are enduring. Are the pains decreasing or abating? Do they seem to be decreasing or abating?”
“No, Lord. I am not bearing up or enduring, the pains do not decrease, neither do they grow.” “Then have you any regret or sorrow?”
“Lord, I do have some regret and sorrow.”
“Have you anything concerning virtue to reproach yourself about?”
“No, Lord, I have nothing to reproach myself about.”
“Then why are you troubled by regret and sorrow?”
“Because Lord, for a long time I have been wanting to see you but I have not had the strength to do so.”
“Quiet, Vakkali. Why do you want to see this dirty body of mine? One who sees the Dhamma sees me and one who sees me sees the Dhamma. Truly, seeing the Dhamma, one sees me and seeing me, one sees the Dhamma.” (S.III.119) The source of this exceptional award winning photo is

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Of Aryans, Nazis And Buddhists

In a comment to my post of the 23rd David asked if I could say something about the Pali Buddhist term ariya, which congers up images of Nazism and its idea of so-called Aryan superiority. So hear goes. The Vedic Sanskrit word arya first appears in the Rig Veda (2000-1500BCE) where it is used as the name of a group of people who had migrated into India from perhaps what is now Iran (from arya) in prehistoric times and gradually subdued the aboriginals who they called dasa or dasyu. Like most peoples, the aryas saw themselves as superior to others and the word arya gradually came to mean ‘noble’, ‘esteemed’ or ‘superior’. By the time of the Buddha the word had come to include the idea of ethical or intellectual excellence and the Buddha always used it in that sense. Thus in the Tipitaka we have terms like Ariya sacca = Noble Truth, and many others.
When Sanskrit and Avestan studies began in Europe in the late 18th century the word arya was noticed and came to be used for the family of languages we now call Indo-Iranian, i.e. most Indian, Iranian and European languages, and by extension, the people who spoke those languages. Europeans, particularly blue-eyed, blond-haired ‘Nordic’ peoples came to be seen as the ancestors of the ancient Aryans who had conquered India in ancient times, just as the British had conquered India (and half the rest of the world) in the 19th century. Thus the word took on a distinctly racist and imperialist coloring. By the late 19th century such an association was being discarded in scientific circles but among ill-informed people and especially among the more loony right-wing groups, particularly in Germany, it lingered. Hitler picked it up and the rest is history, very ugly history. As Nazism perverted everything it touched, it likewise gave the word arya/ariya something of a bad reputation. But of course, no informed person could find any similarity between how the word was (and sometimes still is) used by racists and how it is used in Buddhism. For all the uses of ariya in the Tipitaka have a look at the PTS’s Pali-English Dictionary and their new A Dictionary of Pali. The article ‘Arya’ in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism examines the use of the word within the wider Buddhist context and the article ‘Aryan’ on Wikipedia gives a pretty good account of the words use in philology and politics.

The Aryan race myth was never more effectively discredited than by those who loudly proclaimed it, not just in their behavior but even in their looks - Hitler with his sickly yellow skin and black hair, the grotesquely obese Goring, Dr. Gobbles with his club foot, cadaverous features and beak-like nose, the offish bald-headed Julius Streicher with his paunch, and the weakly, shortsighted Himmler. It’s hard to decide which of this bunch of Aryan supermen was the worst but if I was forced to choose I’d probably pick Julius Streicher. Even the other Nazis found him repulsive (although characteristically Hitler always liked him) and in 1940 he was quietly sacked and told not to attend any more Party functions. God! How unsavory would you have to be to be blackballed by the Nazis!

Related to this, the swastika, so often associated with the Nazis, has been used in Buddhism (and in nearly all cultures and religions) for centuries. Here is carvings incorporating swastikas on the Dharmik Stupa at Sarnath where the Buddha taught his first proclaimed the Dhamma.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sutasoma Kakawin

The Sutasoma Kakawin is an ancient Javanese Buddhist epic poem in 1199 verses. Composed by Mpu Tantular who lived during the reign of King Rajasanagara (1350-89), the poem is one of the greatest and most influential works of Indonesian literature. Episodes from it were/are frequently depicted in temple sculpture and painting, many wayang tales are based on it and in Bali it is still regularly recited and studied. The official motto of Indonesia, ‘Although Separate One’ (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika), is taken from the Sutasoma Kakawin. The poem tells the story of Prince Sutasoma who renounces the world and the various obstacles, people and situations he encounters his search for enlightenment. Although I know of no scholar who has noticed it, I suspect that the Sutasoma may have been originally based on the Cula Sutasoma Jataka and the Maha Sutasoma Jataka (Ja.V,177; 456). In the first, a king renounces the world to become a wandering ascetic, as in the Sutasoma, and in the second, a hundred kings are threatened with being sacrificed to Kali, an incident again found in the Sutasoma. There are also probably other parallels but I have never had the time to ferret them out.
The influence of later Buddhist literature is present too. In canto 34 the hero gives up his own body to save a starving tigress from eating her own cubs. This story is obviously taken from the Jatakamala. Despite these early Buddhist roots (if I am correct) the Sutasoma is heavily influenced by Vajrayana and Hinduism, and the emphasis is on magical power and esoteric knowledge rather than ethics and self-understanding.
The other day I was browsing through the bookshop at the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple here in Singapore and noticed Kate O’Brian’s new translation of the Sutasoma with its extensive notes and beautiful illustrations. As I was toying up whether or not I could afford to buy it (it was VERY expensive) one of the resident monks appeared and most generously offered to buy it for me. Thanks Venerable.
Kate O’Brien’s Sutasoma; The ancient tale of a Buddha-Prince from 14th century Java is published by Orchid Press, P.O Box 19 Yuttitham Post Office, Bangkok 10907, Thailand.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Little India

Singapore’s Serengoon Road area is known as ‘Little India’ and if they threw rubbish all over the place, had a few dozen scrawny cows wandering about and a dozen or so of beggars sleeping in the street it would be just like the ‘big’ India. Here are a few photos I took in Little India some weeks back. The pictures of the kavadis devotees are by my friend and student Richard who came with me. I couldn’t resist photographing the young Indian tourist with his swastika T-shirt. Talk about ‘cultural clash!’

Monday, March 22, 2010

Godwin Remembered

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the death of Godwin Samararatana. Monday being my silent day I had the opportunity of spending time thinking about Godwin, about what he taught me, about what he was. He was the best friend I ever had, the best Dhamma friend one could have. More than anyone I have even known he lived the Dhamma, even embodied the Dhamma. As I thought about him I could actually hear his voice saying the things he used to say. It made me smile (he could be quite funny), it made me a bit teary-eyed but most of all it made me feel how lucky I was to have known him. This is a picture of him, I and some friends in Hong Kong in 1995? You can find out something about Godwin by going to Read some of the transcripts of his talks. You might find them interesting.

The Celluloid Buddha

The first film about the life of Buddha was Buddhadev which was produced by the famous Indian director Dabasaheb Phalke (1870-1944) in 1923. Two years later, another attempt to depict the life of the Buddha in film was Prem Sanyas (Light of Asia). This movie was made by the German filmmaker Franz Osten and the Buddha was played by Himansi Rai (1892-1940). The film’s title suggests that the script was based on the Sir Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Asia but, in fact, its contents deviate deliberately from Arnold's book. Prem Sanyas cost ten times more than any other film made in India up to that times and never covered its cost. However it proved to be popular with European audiences and was even watched by the British royal family. Both Buddhadev and Prem Sanyas were silent films.
In 1952, the third feature film representing the life of Buddha, Dedication of the Great Buddha, had its premiere. Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982) directed the picture for the Japanese film company Daiei Eiga and it was nominated for the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. The fourth film about Buddha was the documentary entitled Gotama the Buddha. This black and white film was released by the government of India in 1957 as part of the Buddha's 2500th birthday celebration. Rajbans Khanna was the director and Bimal Roy as producer. It got an honorable mention at Cannes in 1957 because of its stunning beauty. Since then another ten films including two animated films on the life of the Buddha, none of then box office successes.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


A mantra is a sound or a combination of sounds used as a spell. The Brahmanism at the time of the Buddha taught that repeating certain mantras would impart spiritual power and blessings and evoke the help of the gods. Some of these mantras consisted of lines or verses from the Vedas, but single syllables like hum were being used too (Vin.I,3). The Buddha rejected the efficacy of mantras as he did all forms of magic and replaced it with the idea that the greatest strength and protection comes from having a pure mind. In the Vinaya he says that the enlightened person will not chant hum (Vin.I,3). The Sutta Nipata says that chanting mantras, making offerings and performing sacrifices (mantahutiyanna), i.e. the central sacraments of Brahmanism, could not help someone plagued by doubt (Sn.249). In the Jatakas there is a story he told about a group of virtuous men who were falsely accused of doing wrong and were sentenced to be trampled by elephants. But try as he might, the executioner could not get the elephants to kill the men. Assuming that they must be reciting some protective spell or incantation the executioner asked them; 'What is your mantra?' The leader of the men replied; 'We have no mantra other than this, that none of us kills, steals, sexually misconducts ourselves exploits, lies or drinks alcohol. We cultivate love, practise generosity, repair roads, construct watering holes and built rest houses for travellers. This is our mantra, our protection and the thing by which we flourish' (Ja.I,200).
The use of mantras was an aspect of Hinduism incorporated into some schools of Mahayana and later more so into Vajrayana. In fact, mantras became so central within Vajrayana that this Buddhist movement was sometimes also called Mantrayāna.

Friday, March 19, 2010


One may not be skilled in the habit of other's thoughts but at least one can make this resolve: "I will be skilled in the habit of my own thoughts." This is how you should train yourself, and this is how it is done. A woman, a man or a youth fond of adornment, examining their reflection in a bright, clear mirror or a bowl of clear water might see a blemish or pimple and try to remove it. And when they no longer sees it there, they would be pleased and satisfied and thinks: "It is an advantage to be clean." In the same way, one's introspection is most fruitful in good states when one thinks: "Am I usually greedy or hateful, overcome by sloth and torpor, with agitated mind, filled with doubt or anger, or am I not? Do I usually live with soiled thoughts, or with clean thoughts, with body passionate or not, sluggish or full of energy, uncontrolled or well controlled?" If, on self-examination, one finds that he does live with these evil unprofitable states, then he must put forth extra desire, effort, endeavour, exertion, energy, awareness and attention to abandon them. And if on self-examination he finds that he does not live with the evil unprofitable states, he should make an effort to establish those profitable states and further destroy the defilements. (A.V.92)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

California Here I Come

California sounds like a really interesting place, religiously speaking that is. There are 10,079,310 Catholics, the largest Christian group, 529,575 Mormons, 471,119 Baptists and 994,000 Jews. In fact Los Angeles has the second largest Jewish population in the US outside New York. There are about a million Muslims in California, 100,000 in San Diego alone, more than in any other state. Forty percent of all American Buddhists live in California. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Area has become unique in the Buddhist world as the only place where representative organizations of every major school of Buddhism can be found in a single urban center. And the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in northern California and the His Lai Temple in southern California are two of the largest Buddhist temples in the Western Hemisphere.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Francis And The Buddha

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was born in Italy into a wealthy family and led a worldly and reckless life during much of his youth. In 1202 he was imprisoned for several months and on his release became seriously ill. Dissatisfied with his life, he turned to prayer and four years later publicly renounced his family and his wealth, to the horror of his father. After this Francis lived as a simple hermit and spent much of his time ministering to the poor. Gradually he began to attract disciples and eventually founded an order called the Order of Friars Minor and later an order for women called the Poor Clares. However, Francis was not a good organizer and in time he handed over the day-to-day running of his orders to others and retired to a life of silent contemplation. It was during this period that he began to manifest strange wounds on his body similar to those of Jesus. Francis died in 1226 and two years later was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.
For Buddhists, Saint Francis is the most attractive of all the Christian saints. In many ways his life was similar to the Buddha’s. His behaviour and teachings manifested the best of Jesus’ gospel of love; gentleness, forgiveness, simplicity and renunciation, but without the dogmatism and harshness. He was also particularly kind to animals, something that had no place in Christianity up till then. If Francis had been one of his disciples, the Buddha would have praised him as an exemplary monk. However, the two men were also different in some ways. Francis was inept in practical matters while the Buddha showed sound judgement and common sense in most things he did. Francis’ simplicity extended to intellectual matters; he was innocent, trusting and guileless in the best possible way. The Buddha by contrast, was thoughtful, knowledgeable and intellectually rigorous. Francis had all the endearing qualities of a child; the Buddha, all the finest attributes of an adult.
The lives, teachings and examples of the Buddha and Saint Francis are important today in that they can serve as bridges of understanding between Buddhists and Christians.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beautiful. Meaningful

This is one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking documentaries I have seen for a long time. Take half an hour out to watch it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Be Like Writing On The Water

There are three types of people in the world. What three? One who is like carving on a rock, one who is like scratching on the ground, and one who is like writing on the water. What sort of person is like carving on a rock? Imagine a certain person who is always getting angry and his anger lasts long, just as carving on a rock is not soon worn off by wind, water or the passing of time. What sort of person is like scratching on the ground? Imagine a certain person who is always getting angry but his anger does not last long, just as scratching on the ground is soon worn off by the wind, water and the passing of time. And what sort of person is like writing on the water? Imagine a certain person who, even though spoken to harshly, sharply and roughly, is easily reconciled and becomes agreeable and friendly, just as writing on the water soon disappears. (A.I.283).

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Going To Angkor

Of course it would be wonderful to go to Angkor Wat. But it would also be a terrible hassle – the expense, the heat, the time, and those plastic hotels where all the staff says ‘Have a nice day’. It’s much easier to just log on to Ven. Anandajoti’s and go there without leaving the comfort of your own home. Anandajoti’s site offers a brief account of Angkor’s history, maps of the city and his beautiful photos all sensitively composed and intelligently arranged. My favourites are the images of Banteay Seri and To Pramh. Have a nice trip!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hair Raising!

Hair is the long, slender filamentous strands that grow out of the body. In keeping with the understanding of the time, the Buddha usually made a distinction between head hair (kesa) and body hair (loma, M.I,57). Body hair included the eyebrows (bhamu), eye lashes (pamha), nose hair (nasikaloma), facial hair (massu). pubic hair (sambahe loma) and the hair in the armpits (upakaccha loma, Vin.IV,260). Hair has long had a social, religious, erotic and psychological significance. Sikhism teaches that men should not cut their hair, while the Bible condemns long hair on males as against nature (1 Corinthians 11,14). Islam and Orthodox Judaism requires men not to cut their beard. In several religions women must conceal their hair with a vale or wig. The ancient Indian tradition considered hair to be one of the five types of human beauty, and glossy black head hair and the line of soft down between the pubis and navel (tanuromaraji) had a strong erotic appeal.
The coiffeur’s art was very sophisticated by the Buddha’s time and both men and women paid a great deal of attention to their hair. Women favored parting their hair in the middle (dvedhasira vibhatta), wearing plats (veni, Ja.II,185) and applying sandal oil to it both to perfume it and make it glisten (Ja.V,156). The courtesan Ambapali used to wear her glossy-black hair 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). For men, sikhabandha consisted of twisting long hair and a long cloth together and then tying it around the head into a turban (D.I,7). Boys would wear five topknots or bums called culaka (Ja.V,250) and women would sometimes have a jeweled diadem attached to theirs (Ja.I,65). Buns on the back, top or the side of the head were also popular. Bees’ wax and sometimes banyan tree sap was applied to slick the hair down (Vin.II,207) Men trimmed their beards, wore them long, grew goatees (golomikam karapenti), and shaped them into four points. They would also pluck out grey hairs to disguise the fact that they were getting old (Vin.II,134). Some ascetics wore dreadlocks (jatila), i.e. the hair matted into long braids and 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). Some ascetics wore topknots (sikhabandha) while others shaved their heads or pulled their hair out (D.I,167). Brahmans probably shaved their heads except for a small part at the back which was left to keep growing, as they still do today.
The Buddha asked his monks to keep their heads and faces shaved and nuns to keep their heads shaved, probably for hygienic reasons and to lessen vanity (Vin.II,207). Nuns were expected to shave their under-arm and pubic hair which was a sign of respectability in women (Vin.III,260). Monks were also asked to cut the hair in their noses if it got too long so as to avoid having a curious or unpleasant appearance(Vin.II,134) .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Old Age

‘Shame on you, miserable old age, you who make the complexion fade. This alluring mannequin is laid low, by the relentless march of ageing’ (S.V,217).
I read this verse a few days ago and it reminded me of my own physical decline. But then it occurred to me that I’ve never been much to look at so there is not much to moan about there. So I thought I might look up some of the great ‘icons’ of my youth to see what ageing has done to their ‘alluring’ beauty. Two I thought of were Liza Minnelli and Joe Dallesandro. A few moments on Google Image gave me these images. Just look at what miserable old age’ (and probably a lot of booze, drugs, late nights and serial marriages and divorces) have done to them!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Maybe Some Things Don't Change

I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Sumption’s The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. It’s a fascinating account of pilgrimage in the Age of Faith and of all the other things which used to go together with pilgrimage – relics and hospices, dreams and visions, souvenirs and indulgences, vows and most of all, the intense faith of the simple folk. One section of the book, that dealing with supposed miraculous healings, reminded me a bit of what goes on in some religious establishments here in Singapore. I quote from Sumption –

The view propagated by the (Protestant) Reformers was that miracles were concocted by a conspiracy of clergymen in order to induce simple men, who knew no better, to part with their money…On the eve of the Reformation there was considerable evidence to support such a view, and the Church’s critics made full use of it. In his diatribe against the pilgrimage to Wilsnack, John Hus alleged that the clergy paid handsome sums to beggars to wander from town to town announcing that they had been cured or exorcized at Wilsnack. Hus had himself sat on a tribunal convened by the archbishop of Prague to examine those citizens of Prague who asserted that they had been cured there. These included a boy whose deformed foot was found to be worse than ever, and two women who were said to have recovered their sight ‘but who, on clear investigation, were found never to have been blind.’ One witness testified that after three days and nights of fruitless vigils at Wilsnack he was suddenly seized by a priest who cried out ‘A miracle! A miracle! Come and see this citizens of Prague whose withered hand has been healed.’ ‘O priest, why do you lie thus’, the man exclaimed with unusual presence of mind, ‘see hand is as withered as ever.’

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Sanchi is the oldest and most compete Buddhist stupa. Have a look at these great pictures of the Sanchi sculptures, almost the oldest existent Buddhist art.

Monday, March 8, 2010

So Can Killing Sometimes Be Justified?

On 2nd March I related my bed bug problem and asked the question ‘Are their circumstances when killing, at least killing insects, is justifiable, or perhaps understandable, or perhaps excusable?’ On the 5th March I gave some background information pertaining to kamma that might have some bearing on answering this question. Today I would like to try to answer the question according to my understanding. According to the Buddha, the killing of any ‘breathing thing’ (that counts out bacteria) is negative. In the Vinaya the Buddha is depicted as saying, ‘A monk should not intentionally deprive a living creature of life, even if it be only an ant’ (Vin.I,97). So there is no doubt that in getting rid of my three bed bugs I did something with negative consequences. So now the question is, ‘How negative?’ What will be or would be the kammic consequences of killing a bet bug or some other insect? We saw that according to the Vinaya killing an animal is on a different level to killing a human (although the reason for this distinction is not given). We also saw that the Buddha recognized that an action can have ‘mixed’ intentions and thus mixed kammic consequences. I am going to argue that killing an insect would have minor kammic consequences and this negativity would be even further diluted if the intention/intentions behind the act was mixed with concern for one’s health, one’s kids well-being, etc. If I do this sort of thing rarely and with hesitation (and I do), and I generally have a kindly and nurturing attitude towards others, including small creatures, I suspect that like the salt in the great river, the consequences of killing three bed bugs would actually be quite small. So in answer to our question we could perhaps say this. Wherever and whenever possible do what you can to preserve and uphold the life of others, even that of humble creatures. while understanding that there might be times when you feel this is difficult. What do you think?

One other thing. In the comments, some of my readers said that ‘killing for any reason must have a kammic consequence.’ While I agree completely, this sort of comment implies that the whole purpose of Buddhism is not to make any negative kamma no matter what, to go through life ultra-careful not to do anything that might ‘make bad kamma.’ Clearly the less negative kamma we have to deal with the better. However, we should keep in mind that the purpose of Dhamma is to develop that wisdom and understanding that can free us from the rounds of samsara. There may be times or situations in life where we genuinely feel that we can manage a bit of negative kamma, or that the consequences of doing some action are less negative than abstaining from doing it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Japanese Temple Bells

The BBC World Service’s Heart and Soul program of 3, 3, 2010 is about Japanese Buddhist temple bells. You can read a transcript of the program, look at the pictures of the bells or listen to the program (it’s best because you hear the chiming) at It’s really worth looking or listening too.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Kamma And Dhamma Of Killing Bed Bugs

(A) According to the Buddha, kamma is the intention (cetana) behind our physical, verbal and psychological actions (A.III,415). In other words, kamma is primarily how we use our mind and the effects it has. It is not some sort of force outside ourselves that decides what action will have what reaction. (B) There are positive, negative and mixed (vitimissa, sometimes ‘partly a dark partly bright’, kanhasukka; M.I,318; 389) actions which must be such because the intentions behind them are correspondingly positive, negative or mixed. Even in ordinary parlance we speak of being in ‘two minds’ about or ‘having mixed feelings’ about something. Each of these types of actions will of course have a corresponding positive, negative or mixed vipaka.
(C) Although the mind is a subtle and complex phenomena and its workings are difficult to plumb, the doctrine of kamma is all too often presented in the most naive and simplistic terms. For example, one often hears people say ‘If you kill you will...(fill in the gap – be killed in your next life, be reborn as a worm, go to hell, etc.).Interestingly, although not surprisingly, the Buddha criticized such generalizations.

(D) ‘If anyone were to say that just as a person does a deed, so is his experience is determined by it, and if this were true, then living the holy life would not be possible, there would be no opportunity for the overcoming of suffering. But if anyone were to say that a person does a deed that is to be experienced, so does he experience it, then living the holy life would be possible, there would be an opportunity for the ending of suffering. For instance, a small evil deed done by one person may be experienced here in this life or perhaps not at all. Now, what sort of person commits a small evil that takes him to hell? Take a person who is careless in the development of body, speech and mind. He has not developed wisdom, he is insignificant, he has not developed himself, his life is restricted, and he is miserable. Even a small evil deed may bring such a person to hell. Now, take the person who is careful in development of body, speech and mind, He has developed wisdom, he is not insignificant, he has developed himself, his life is unrestricted and he is immeasurable. For such a person, a small evil deed may be experienced here or perhaps not at all. Suppose someone throws a grain of salt into a little cup of water. That water would be undrinkable. And why? Because the amount of water is small. Now, suppose throws a grain salt in River Ganges. That water would not be undrinkable. And why? Because the amount of water is great’ (A.I,249).

(E) So let’s say, Mr. X kills a friend during an argument that gets out of hand, and you say ‘He will have a negative rebirth.’ Such a statement assumes several things. (1) That what Mr. X did during the (let’s say) 19 minutes of the violent and ultimately lethal argument, will completely overwhelm and cancel out everything else he did during the other (let’s say) 68 years of his life; and (2) that his murderous act will have absolutely no effect on him in this life, only in his next life. Both these assumptions are highly doubtful. Mr. X may have been a caring and compassionate social worker, he may have been a thug and a bully. Surely what he was like and how he behaved during his whole life would have some impact on the intensity of the vipaka he will experience as a result of his murder! If he was a caring and compassionate person the vipaka from that may well dilute the vipaka from his murder. And when we speak of vipaka, why do we always insist that this must manifest only in the next life? Perhaps Mr. X feels a deep and painful remorse for his behaviour and that he spends 15 years in prison because of it. If so, this would be the vipaka for the murder he committed. In fact, it may well be that by the time Mr. X passes away his subsequent remorse and contrition and the good deeds he does after the murder, exhausts the negative vipaka he had generated.
(F) So I maintain that the usual mechanistic and simplistic understanding of kamma does not take into account the complex and multi-faceted phenomena that is human intentions, human behaviour and human consciousness. Perhaps this is the reason why the Buddha mildly rebuked those who confidently and glibly proclaimed which good or bad act would have which vipaka. When the Buddha heard that Migasala was proclaiming that a certain deceased person had been reborn in a certain place because of their kamma he said, ‘Who is this know the complexity of the human character?’ (A.III,351). Purisapuggalaparopariyanana is a difficult compound but the translation ‘the complexity of the human character’ does, I think, capture its general meaning.
(G) One other point relevant to the ‘killing bed bugs’ issue. I know of no place where the Buddha makes a distinction between killing, i.e. between species (human and animal), between the size of the victim (cow and ant) or between intention in killing (self-defence and hunting for pleasure). However, the Vinaya makes one such distinction, considering murder an offence so serious as to require permanent expulsion from the Sangha (Parajika 3), while killing an animal is a far less serious offence (Pacittiya 62), on a par with insulting someone, idle chatter and having a non-regulation size sitting mat. This distinction is probably based on the idea that the intentions behind killing a fellow human would be markedly stronger and more intense than those behind killing an animal. Each of us has probably noticed that we differently about the death of a person, the death of a warm blooded animal and that of an insect. Likewise we probably notice a difference in how we felt if we were to kill a chicken and an ant. These feeling must be partly socially conditioned but whatever their cause they do affect our minds differently and therefore have different vipaka. I am not stating this as a fact but only as a possible explanation for the Vinaya’s (and most peoples’) distinction between killing a human and an animal.
(H) I will continue this examination tomorrow. If you have any comments which include some of the theoretical and complex ideas about the different types of kamma, please distinguish between (1) the Buddha’s words from the Tipitaka, (2) concepts from the Abhidhamma Pitaka and (3) concepts from later medieval abhidhamma literature.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

More On Killing Bugs

My post of two days ago dealing with my bed bug problem has created some interest. Some readers have expressed gratitude that I have dealt with the very type of problem they have confronted and been unsure of how to respond to. One has mildly taken me to task for admitting to breaking a Precept, several have applauded my ‘practical’ approach. A good number suggested that killing a few bed bugs is too minor to lose much sleep over, while others have given their thoughts on what might be the kammic results of killing insects. In particular, I appreciated Ven. Jo Jo and Kurt’s comments. So tomorrow I will try to deal with the issue of killing and kamma and Dhamma.

In the meantime, here are a few real scenarios which have made me think more deeply about the first Precept.

(1) A species of goose native to Europe but very similar to a Canadian species was introduced into Canada. Being more aggressive, the European goose is interbreeding with the native one it so that it is now threatened with extinction. The wildlife authorities are considering culling the European geese in the hope that it might save the native bird. Catching the European geese and confining them has been ruled out as being prohibitively expensive. What should they do?
(2) Last time either you or one of your kids got worms what did you do? What were your motives in doing whatever you did? How did you feel while and after you did it?
(3) A few decades ago Thailand’s Malaria Eradication Authority embarked on a comprehensive spraying program in a district which had been plagued by malaria for as long as anyone could remember. The abbot of a temple in a village near a swamp known to the locals as the Buzzing Swamp, protested that killing the mosquitoes would be breaking the first Precept and urged the villagers not to co-operate with the program. Apparently no one took much notice of him. However, did he do the right thing?
(4) In Austria hunters buy a licence to hunt. In return they have to manage the wildlife in the area allocated to them, which includes culling (killing) a given number of deer, rabbits, etc. each year. As the deer’s’ natural predator, the wolf, is now extinct, the hunters have taken their place so that the existence of wildlife can be balanced with the needs of agriculture. What do you think about this arrangement?
(5) A man in Queensland Australia has just discovered that his house is infested with termites. If not dealt with they will completely destroy the house within about five years. He’s a regular at the nearby Buddhist group so he goes to ask the nun there for her advice. If you were the nun what would you say to him? Incidentally, the phrase ‘the horns of dilemma’ has a Pali equivalent in the phrase ubhatokotikam panham meaning ‘two-pointed issue’ (M.I,393).

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bill Maher On Buddhism

Bill Maher has made a quite a name for himself bashing religion, often in a most outrageous and hilarious way. His main targets are the three Abrahamic faiths and in fact I have never heard him refer to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, etc., even in passing. His recent film, Religulous, makes no mention to Buddhism either. Recently Maher did take a swipe at Buddhism and while I was looking forward to having a good laugh, or even just a chuckle, I found his comments just stupid and unfunny. God! I could have thought of dozens of absurd things some Buddhists do and believe that would have provided excellent material for a comedian. Have a look at but be aware that this video contains a few expletives.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Can Killing Sometimes Be Justified?

I’m something of an expert on bed bugs – having lived in India for a few years. Generally I like all creatures but there three that I just can’t abide, at least in my private space – flies on my food, cockroaches in my residence and bed bugs in my bed. Years ago, before I was a monk, I was in Kashmir going from Jammu to Srinagar and had to spend a night in a truck-drives’ stop. This insalubrious establishment consisted of one large windowless room with an earthen floor and filthy quilts and blankets scattered around the place. My companion and I selected the least filthy of these quilts, found the least dirty part of the floor (near the wall), blew out the lamp and huddling together against the cold, settled down to try to get some sleep. About half an hour after the light went out we both began to itch, first just a little then a lot. Grumbling and sighing, we lit the lamp again and found dozens of bed bugs on our clothing. Then a look of horror came over the face of my companion and he pointed towards the wall. I looked to where he was pointing and there, marching down the wall, were hundreds of thousands of bed bugs. There were so many of them they literally formed a rusty-colored curtain on the wall. Believe me when I say, ‘I hate bed bugs’.
From one perspective Cimex lectularius is a fascinating little creature. They are mentioned in the Tipitaka (e.g. Ja.1,10; III,423) where they are called mankuna. They can live for up to a year without feeding. Although slow-moving, their repulsive taste protects them from predators and even we humans are reluctant to squash them because of the offensive smell they give off. They even have a political dimension. By the early 60s they’d been almost eliminated in the UK. Then Mrs. Thatcher got elected and within three or four years they had returned with a vengeance. If bed bugs could vote they would always support the candidates advocating ‘trickle-down economics’ and promising to cut welfare payments and ‘streamline’ the health services. The other thing you have to admire them for is their tenacity. Once you get bed bugs they are extremely difficult to get rid of.
Well, a fortnight ago I found a bed bug in my bed. I was not a happy monk. The next morning I thoroughly checked the mattress, sheets, pillows, the bed itself but found none of the tell-tale signs of their presence. A week later another bug crawled out of a book I was reading. Then a day later I found another one. I realized it was time to take action. I took all the furniture outside and tipped boiling water over it – not just to kill the little blighters but also any of their eggs that might be there. Then I went out and bought some insect spray and sprayed every nook and cranny in the room. I soaked all my bed sheets, pillowslips and robes in boiling water and then put them through the washing machine twice. Then I put all my books in large plastic bags, sprinkled them with moth balls (naphthalene) and sealed the bags for a week. Now I’m waiting. I’ll keep you updated.
But while waiting I am also thinking. I know I deliberately and with full consciousness killed three living beings and probably killed at least a few more with my boiling water and insect spray. I’m a Buddhist monk, supposedly a model for how the devote Buddhist should live. But are their circumstances when killing, at least killing insects, is justifiable, or perhaps understandable, or perhaps excusable?