Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Great Buddha Of Nara

The largest bronze image in the world is housed in the largest wooden building in the world. Work on the great Buddha commenced in 743 on order of the Emperor of Japan and was finished in 752. The statue, which is 14.98 m (49.1 f) high and weighs 380 tons, is not made out of bronze plates as for example the Statue of Liberty is, but was actually caste. Exactly how this was done is uncertain but must have required astonishing technological planning and sophistication. The temple that houses it has been damaged by fire several times since it was built. The head of the great Buddha fell off in 855 but was restored soon after. This is an interesting video on the construction of the great Buddha.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Man Loves Dog

Dog bites man is not news while man bites dog is. Man loves dog may not exactly be news but it is certainly possible and rather moving when you see it. Have a look at this and see if you agree with me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Passing Of Sai Baba

A few days ago (24th April) India’s most famous god-man Sai Baba died. I thought it appropriate to reproduce something I wrote a few years ago about my meeting with Sri Baba.
I have just finished reading Paul William Roberts’ Empire of the Soul, the best travel book on India I have read for a long time. It is funny, perceptive and beautifully written. But for me the most interesting thing in the book, if only because it differed so much from my own experience, is Roberts impressions of Sai Baba, India’s most famous god-man. Roberts met Sai Baba and became a true believer and he describes the impressions and feelings that led to having such faith. Given Roberts’ ability to immediately see through Rajneesh (later known as Bhagawan and then Osho) I found this adoration rather strange. People have often asked me what I thought of Sai Baba and I have always given them what I believed was a good Buddhist answer – ‘The ability to perform miracles is no proof of holiness and anything worthwhile Sai Baba teaches is taught better and more comprehensively by the Buddha’. But over the years I met about a dozen people whose accounts of apparently miraculous experiences with Sai Baba seemed too convincing to dismiss as exaggeration, delusion or lying in order to impress or to get attention. So when I was in India in 2001 I decided to go to Puttapathi to see for myself. The ashram turned me off from the very beginning. It was crowded and noisy, the staff were efficient but officious and rude and everything directly related to Sai Bada himself (pictures of him, his ‘throne’ and his personal quarters) were garish and tawdry. The photos I saw everywhere of Sai Baba waving from his gold-plated swan-shaped chariots struck me as rather ridiculous. Every day while I was at Puttaparti I went down to the place where one of Baba’s sayings is posted daily. ‘Love all, serve all.’ ‘Do your duty and trust in me.’ Hardly the most profound quotes I have ever read. I also got the impression that many of the people at the ashram were little more than guru groupies. They seemed to spend all there time recounting stories of how Baba’s grace had saved them from a car accident, got them a seat in the circus despite all tickets being sold out and guided them to buy some stocks that climbed dramatically the very next day. One woman told me breathlessly how here dog had survived straying onto a busy highway all through Baba’s grace. The only spiritual teaching at Puttaparthi seemed to be, ‘I’m God. Worship me.’ Nonetheless I tried to be as objective as I could and consciously kept my critical facilities at bay.
I got up at 3 AM two days after my arrival to try to get a front seat for Baba’s appearance at 9 that day. It’s all done by a lottery and I got in the front row. Then came the 5 hour wait. I decided to spend the whole time meditating so that when the time came and if Sai Baba walked passed me or even picked me for a private audience, my mind would be completely empty so as to be receptive to whatever he projected rather than me projecting my feelings on to him. Just before 9 the crowd became restless with anticipation and young men appeared and rolled out red carpets on the passages through the crowds where he might walk. Then a phalanx of very big men who looked like bouncers stationed themselves at regular intervals along the edge of the crowd and told everyone that they must not stand up. A few minuets later Indian music started to play over the loudspeaker, the whole crowd turned to the right craning their necks and God entered the hall. I too turned to get a look but my mind was still empty and I was unmoved by the awe and excitement that had obviously seized the crowd. Sai Baba proceeded along the passageway then turned left meaning that he would be passing me. I noted this but remained still and detached. As he got closer I observed him carefully. With all the good-will in the world he could not be described as physically attractive. He had thick lips, a stubby nose and his face appeared to be puffy. All the photos I had seen of him must have been taken years ago because in the flesh he was old and stooped. It also occurred to me that he was virtually the only person I had seen in the last several days who was wearing long sleeves, which I thought strange given the heat. But my mind only noted this without appending any comment or conclusion. Sai Baba was closer now. In his hands he carried letters and notes that people handed him as he passed and which he occasionally pass to the attendant behind him. A solid-looking bodyguard also accompanied him to make sure no one tried to stand or approach him although it was permissible to touch his feet, which many people did. He stopped a little before me, reached out to an elderly woman three along from me, moved his hand in a strange wiggling fashion and a grey powder seemed to come from his fingertips. This supposed ability to produce vibuthi out of nothing is what has made Sai Baba so famous and I had been able to see it close up. Although this is the only time in my life that a supposed miracle has taken place before my very eyes and despite me having really wanted to see it done so that I could make up my own mind about it, I was strangely unmoved by it. It seemed so inconsequential, so ordinary. You would expect the avatara of the Lord of the Universe to come up with something a bit more spectacular than that. If it was just slight of hand (and I’m not saying it is), it was a trick a magician who does kids birthday parties could do. Sai Baba moved on a little and was right in from front of me. I looked up at his face, for a moment he looked into my eyes and smiled and them he moved on. As before, I felt as I would have if an unremarkable stranger had walked passed me as I sat on a park bench – nothing. After it was over I returned to my room and made preparations to leave the next day.
The day I arrived back in Sri Lanka something happened that did make me wonder if Baba’s grace was at work. Almost the first person I spoke to after arriving was a man who had been a devotee of Sai Baba for more than 20 years. And it was he who brought up the subject. I mentioned to him that only a few weeks before I had been to Puttaparthi and as could be expected, he said, ‘We have come together through the grace of Baba.’ The next step in our conversation followed almost on cue; he recounted a miracle that Baba had wrought in his life. About a year before his daughter developed a persistent cough, they took her to the doctor and X-ray revealed a shadow on her lung – the beginning of TB. They prayed to Baba and a few weeks later when the girl had another X-ray the shadow was gone and in its place was an image of Sai Baba’s face. I tried not to yawn. ‘Interesting’ I said. ‘Do you still have the X-ray?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes’ he replied, ‘We would never throw it away.’ ‘Would you bring it to me so I can see it?’ I asked hopefully. He readily agreed and we made arrangement for him to come and visit me. Within a few days I put the matter out of my mind because I was certain that I would never see the man again or if I did I would never see the X-ray. Sinhalese are notorious at not keeping appointments and people who tell you about miracles are very reticent at producing the evidence. Five days later, having completely forgotten about the whole matter, I happened to look out my window and saw the man walking up the hill towards my kuti – and under his arm was a large brown envelope. I was surprised. I met him at the door, ushered him inside and after he had caught his breath I asked him whether he had brought the X-ray, half expecting him to tell me some story about how it had been lost or that the image on it had faded. But again I was wrong. ‘Yes’ he said with a smile ‘I’ll show you.’ He began to remove it from its envelope but I told him not to. Now was my big chance to get to the bottom of all these Sai Baba stories and I didn’t want to spoil it. I asked him to reinterate the story he had told me some days before. He did and it was basically the same – that an image of Sai Baba’s face had appeared to the X-ray of his daughter’s lung. Of course I had no way of knowing if the X-ray was really of his daughter but I took it for granted that the man was not deliberately trying to deceive. He seemed genuine to me. I prepared myself, took a few deep breaths, opened the envelope, took the X-ray out, held it up towards the window and began examining it. The man looked on expectantly. I looked carefully at the part of the X-ray where the lungs were but I could see nothing that looked like a face. I turned the X-ray around but still couldn’t see anything. I turned it upside down. Still nothing. Then I said to the man, ‘I have to honestly tell you, I can’t see anything. Tell me, is Baba’s face on the left lung or the right one.’ ‘The right one’ he said’ sure that I would see it now. I looked again. I narrowed my eyes and squinted. I glared. But I couldn’t see anything other than the image of two lungs in whips of gray and white. I was rather disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing something difficult to explain; something that would challenge my skepticism; something that might make a good story to tell others. I turned to the man and said ‘I honestly can’t see anything. Show me where it is.’ He didn’t seem to be the least flustered by my blindness. He happily took the X-ray, pointed at the place, I looked at where he was pointing and the letdown became complete. There was nothing there other than those shadowy indistinct shapes that always appear on X-rays. Not wanting to upset him I said in a noncommittal tone, ‘Oh, I see.’
I read about an experiment where 40 balding men were given a lotion without any active ingredients and told that applying it would gradually restore their hair. Before they started using the lotion the number of hair follicles per millimeter on their scalps were carefully counted. After a month of ‘treatment’ every man reported a noticeably regrowth of hair and two month later all but a few were still convinced that their hair was thicker than before. Counting the hair follicles again showed that there had been no change at all. Sometimes the eye sees what the heart believes.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I’m very happy to announce that my good friend Evi Zoepnek has just been awarded The Golden Distinguished Service Award of Vienna (Das Goldene Verdienstzeichen des Landes Wien) by the City of Vienna for her contributions to inter-religious understanding and service to the city’s Buddhist community. The picture shows Gerhard Weissgrab, president of the Austrian Buddhist Society and Evi with her award. Congratulations Evi and may your good work continue.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Life After Death

Easter Sunday is that time of year when Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Coming back to life after dying and sometimes even buried is surprisingly common. Apart from Jesus, Lazarus and a few others, the Bible says that once numerous people who had died came out of their tombs and walked around in Jerusalem (Mathew 27,52-3). In the 50s there was actually a society in the US made up of people who had been dead for a day or more before being resurrected. They used to meet once a year to welcome new members and exchange stories.
Every now and then ‘natural resurrection’ stories appear in the press. One example is a 61-year-old woman from Delaware, USA, who was given "multiple medicines and synchronized shocks", but never regained a pulse. She was declared dead but was later discovered in the morgue to be alive and breathing. She sued the medical center where it happened for damages due to physical and neurological problems stemming from the event. Another case is a 66-year-old man suffering from a suspected abdominal aneurysm. During treatment for this condition, the patient suffered cardiac arrest and received chest compression and defibeillation shocks for 17 minutes. Vital signs did not return; the patient was declared dead and resuscitation efforts ended. Ten minutes later, the surgeon felt a pulse. The aneurysm was successfully treated and the patient fully recovered with no lasting physical or neurological problems. An 18-year-old woman in Missouri, USA, attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping medication. Resuscitation was attempted, but failed, and she was declared dead. Seven minutes later, her heart started beating and she started breathing on her own again, though she was comatose. The woman regained consciousness 5 days later and was oblivious to what had happened. A 45 year-old woman in Colombia was pronounced dead, as there were no vital signs showing she was alive. Later, a funeral worker noticed the woman moving and alerted his co-worker that the woman should go back to the hospital. A 65-year old in Malaysia came back to life two-and-a-half hours after doctors at a Penang hospital pronounced him dead.
In the late 19th and early 20th century there were enough cases like these that it was thought prudent to design tombs that could be opened from the inside so that if the corpse came back to life it (him or her) could open their tombs from the inside (see picture). There is only one resurrection story in the Tipitaka, in the Patika Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. The Buddha relates a story in which a man dies, comes back to life and describes what he experiences while dead, then drops dead again (D.III,8). Rhys Davids is probably correct in saying that the story is ‘no doubt intended to be both humorous and edifying’ and was not meant to be taken literally.
Of course all this raises the question ‘When does death take place?’ Science is understandably uncomfortable with the idea that the dead can be resurrected so it has re-defined death to take into account so-called near death experiences and the occasional cases where people have (or appear to have) died for hours or even days and come back to life. So now death is the termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism to the stage where they cannot be re-started.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Silence Of The Buddha

What is called ‘the silence of the Buddha’ has become almost proverbial. Numerous writers, academic and popular, have mentioned it, given their opinions about it and tried to plum the meaning behind it. According to Raimon Panikkar, “The ultimate reason for the Buddha’s silence seems to me to be rooted neither in the inherent limitation of the human subject, nor in the imperfection of our cognition, nor in the mysterious, recondite nature of reality. Instead, it seems to me that the ultimate reason for the silence of the Buddha resides precisely in the fact that this ultimate reality is not.” Contrary to what Panikkar thinks the Buddha affirmed the is-ness of ultimate reality (Nirvana) in his famous saying, “There is an Unborn, an Unbecome, an Unmade an Unconstructed. If there were not this Unborn, this Unbecome,…etc” (Ud.80) and elsewhere.

Edmond Holmes was certain that 2500 years of Buddhists scholarship got it all wrong but that he finally straightened it out. “…Buddha kept silence, when metaphysical questions were discussed, not because he had nothing to say about great matters, but because he had far too much, because he was overwhelmed by the flood of his own mighty thoughts, and because the channels of expression which the riddle-mongers of his day invited him to use were both too narrow and too shallow to give his soul relief. As it is on the plane of spiritual emotion, so it is on the plane of spiritual thought. ‘Silence,’ says one of Shakespeare's characters, ‘is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much.”’

Father A. Chandrakanthan has a different interpretation. “A philosopher once visited Buddha and asked him: ‘Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?’ Buddha kept silence. After a while the philosopher rose up gently, made a solemn bow and thanked Buddha saying: ‘With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the true path.’ When the philosopher had left, Ananda, a senior disciple of Buddha, enquired: ‘O, Blessed One, what hath this philosopher attained?’ Buddha replied: ‘A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip!’ For Buddha, Silence as the inevitable path that leads to the Truth is not distinct from the Truth itself. That is, as the way to the Truth, Silence already contains the reality of the Truth. They are two aspects of the same reality. It is no wonder that even in Christian tradition silence is spoken of as the language of God. In Christian terms, we may say that for Buddha, Silence is the sacrament of the Truth.” This is fairly typical of the garbled, trite, ‘greeting card’ versions of the Buddha’s words that circulate as his genuine profound teachings.

And of course we couldn’t have a silence without someone trying to smuggle God into it somewhere. Another writer says, “Buddhists misunderstood Buddha by taking His silence for negation. The silence of Buddha about God was misunderstood and Buddhists felt that Buddha indicated the absence of God through silence. When you have concluded that God does not exist at all, then, what is the object of your meditation? If you say that the self is the object, there is no benefit in taking interest about yourself since you are always interested in yourself.”

Moving on, and perhaps in a downwards direction, we find popular writers have had a lot to say about the Buddha’s silence as well. According to Sri Chinmoy the Buddha said, “Sometimes silence is the best answer.” The Punjabi poetess Amrits Pritam, an admirer of Mother Meera and Osho has written, “Where the dance of Meera and the silence of Buddha meet, blossoms the true philosophy of Osho.” Allan Smiths in his Philosophy of the East says “The Buddha elevated silence to a philosophy. It was the very essence of his teaching.” According to the Proverbs of Buddha website he said “Silence is an empty space, space is the home of the awakened mind.” Given all this you couldn’t blame someone for thinking that the Buddha often affected an enigmatic silence when questioned and that much of his teachings was communicated through silence, perhaps accompanied by a knowing smile.

Now we have some idea of what others have said about and thought of the Buddha’s supposed silence let’s see what original sources say. The Buddha was an advocate of silence, not in response to questions, metaphysical or otherwise, but simply as an alternative to the idle chatter that often takes place in a social context. He said to his monks, “When you meet together either talk about the Dhamma or maintain a noble silence” (M.I,161). He certainly encouraged silence in the face of anger and provocation (S.I,162). Occasionally he would go into solitude for half a month during which time he probably didn’t speak (S.V,12). Nothing particularly ‘philosophical’ or ‘mystical’ about any of this!

One of the few original sources ever mentioned in discussions on the Buddha’s supposed silence is his dialogue with the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta. This man asked the Buddha a series of questions - Is the universe finite, infinite, both or neither? Is the soul the same as the body? Is it different from the body? Does an enlightened person exist after death?...etc. To each of these the Buddha replied “I am not of that view Vaccha” (Na kho aham Vaccha evamditthi). Finally Vacchagotta asked the Buddha why he had no opinion on these matters and he replied because such questions and any answers that could be given to them are “just opinions, the grasping of opinions, the jungle of opinions, the wriggling of opinions…They do not lead to giving up, turning away, dispassion, stopping, calming, higher knowledge, to awakening nor to Nirvana.” Far from responding to Vacchagotta’s barrage of questions with silence the Buddha replied coherently by saying that he has no opinion one way or another about them. He was not silent. Then he gave a clear and understandable reason why he has no opinion about them; because they are just opinions that distract attention from the things that really matter (M.I,484-8). Nothing particularly ‘paradoxical’ or ‘metaphysical’ about that either!

In fact, there is only one place, I repeat, one place, in the whole Tipitaka where the Buddha declined to answer a question or questions put to him. On another occasion the same Vacchagotta asked the Buddha, “Is there a self?” The Buddha was silent. Vacchagotta continued, “Then is there no self?” and again the Buddha was silent. Perhaps a bit peeved or disappointment Vacchagotta got up and left. Then Ananda asked the Buddha why he met these questions with silence and he replied, “If when asked if there is a self I had answered ‘yes’ I would have been siding with those teachers who are eternalists. And if I had answered ‘no’ I would have been siding with those teachers who are annihilationists. If I had answered ‘yes’ would this have been consistent with the knowledge that everything is without self?” “No Lord” replied Ananda. “And if I had answered ‘no’ there is no self’ an already bewildered Vacchagotta would have been even more so and would have thought, ‘Before I had a self and now I don’t’” (SIV,400). So once again, clearly and simply, the Buddha explains why, on this single occasion, he remained silent when asked a question; because he didn’t want to be identified with particular philosophical standpoints and because he did not want to further bewilder an inquirer. All the theoretical, fanciful and speculative explanations about the Buddha’s so-called ‘paradoxical’, ‘enigmatic’ and ‘mystical’ silence are based on this one incident. So it would seem that people have created an imaginary ‘silence of the Buddha’ and then filled it with their own noise. In some cases they have done this because they have never bothered to check original sources, and in others because they have wanted to co-opt the Buddha into their own philosophical beliefs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Buddhist Bells

Bells (gandi) and gongs (kamsa) are metal objects struck to make a noise. Whereas a bell is usually hollow a gong is flat. Speaking of patience and non-retaliation, the Buddha asked us to be like a cracked gong (kamsa upahato) that does not react when struck (Dhp.134). In the centuries after the Buddha monasteries in India and elsewhere throughout the Buddhist world always had bells or drums (bheri) to announce the various times for the monks’ activities. The Pali commentaries mention that certain monasteries in Sri Lanka had mechanical devices (yamayanta) that would ring the bell at designated times. A work called the Ghantastotra (2nd–3rd century CE) and attributed to Asvaghosa, is a hymn to the monastery bell ‘which calls the monks to meditation as a mother calls her children.’ Chinese, Korean and Japanese temples often have wooden bells which are struck to the keep time during chanting. These bells have two fish-like or dragon-like creatures carved in them and are called ‘wooden fish’ (Chinese muyu). The largest functioning bell in the world is the Mingun Bell cast in Burma in 1808 and which weighs 90 tons.

Another huge ‘Buddhist’ bell hangs in the Da Tzong Temple in Peking. Called the Great Yongle Bell it was caste in the early 1400s and weighs 46 tones. It also has the whole of a sutra (I think it’s the Saddharmpundarika Sutra) in raised characters, 230,000 altogether, on it’s outer surface. When I was in Peking in 1984 I bicycled around the city (you could in those days, there weren’t many cars) trying to find the temple. I had asked someone in my hotel to write the name of the temple on a piece of paper in Chinese so I could show it to people if I had trouble locating it. As happens I did have trouble finding the temple but I had even more trouble finding anyone who would give me directions. Everyone I approached to ask for help would either look the other way or wave their hand in my face, the usual Chinese way of saying ‘No!’ or ‘Go away!’ They wouldn’t even look at my piece of paper - so frightened were Chinese in those days of having any contact with what their government called ‘foreign friends’. After half a day of peddling around the city and being rebuffed or ignored I gave up and headed back to my hotel. Ten minutes later I found myself in front of the temple. But my delight was short-lived. Walking to the main entrance I saw a watchman sitting there - and I knew, I just knew. Anyone in China in a decision-making position was officious and obstructive and because the last flickering of Communist idealism still lingered even bribery wouldn’t move them. Friends tell me nowadays its the only thing that will move them. Good-old capatilism! I approached the watchman suitably obsequious and smiling and he gave me a sour look, barked ‘Jaow!’ and went back to reading his paper. Looking beyond him could see the great bell in the hall across the courtyard. I’d been so looking forward to seeing this interesting object and invested half a day in trying to find it, I decided on another strategy. I took some money out of my pocket and started going through the notes while giving the watchman a few sideways glances. No response. All during this time odd locals wandered in and out of the temple. So I never got to see the Great Yongle Bell. But here’s a picture of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Religious Images

I have found these pictures while casually browsing on Google Image. It is not clear what some of them mean or indicate but I thought all of them warranted at least a second look and perhaps a chuckle.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Spring Is Here

I have been in Europe now for about five months. I had planned my stay badly, completely failing to take the weather into account. I have endured months of cold, snow, rain and leaden skies and by the time I leave in a few weeks the Summer will be well underway. Right now the Spring is just beginning. Like most people who have spent their lives in the tropics I really did not know how beautiful, not to say how welcome the Spring is. The Indian Spring (Pali vasanta) is not as dramatic as that in the northern hemisphere but apparently it was just as welcomed. This is what Udayi Thera says of the Spring in the Nidanakatha. ‘The Winter is ended, the Spring has began, men have gathered in the harvest and are taking it along the roads. The ground is covered with fresh green grass, the forest trees are in bloom, and the roads are suitable for traveling’ (Ja.I,86).

These are some pictures of the emerging spring flowers I have taken over the last week.