Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It's Not About Winning Or Loosing

Sport (kili) or (lila) is, in the broadest sense, physical exertion for the purpose of recreation, health or competition. Like all peoples, the ancient Indians played and enjoyed a wide variety of sports. Garden sports (uyyanakila) consisted of games like hide-and-seek, tag and racing, while water sports (udakakilainvolved swimming and diving. Stick fighting, boxing, wrestling, callisthenics and other sports and games were probably played in stadiums (kelamandala, Ja.VI,333). Several other games were played with a ball although we have little information about how these activities were structured. One game we do know something about was played with a string attached to a ball and involved throwing the ball, jerking back the string and trying to catch the ball in the hand (Ja.V,196). The Buddha had nothing to say about sports other than that monks and nuns should not watch them (D.I,7). Nonetheless, the physical and psychological aspects of sports could have relevance to the Buddhist.
The Buddha said: `Good health is the highest gain' (Dhp.204), and he encouraged monks and nuns to do exercise as a way of promoting vigour and health (Vin.II,119). As far as the mind is concerned, sport can help to develop positive states like team spirit, friendship, alertness and even a degree of detachment (gracefully accepting defeat). Sadly, nearly all sports today have become excessively competitive and few things bring out the worst in people as much as competition does. Cheating, violence by both spectators and players, personal animosities, doping, match fixing and being a bad loser have all become the norm in professional sports. Some encounters are even promoted as `grudge matches.' The old value of `it is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game' has been unceremoniously shoved aside by large egos and even larger salaries.
A good example of a sport that requires great skill, is healthy for the body and restful for the mind, conducive to friendship and mutual appreciation amongst players and is enjoyable for spectators, is called chin lon in Burma, takraw in Thailand and sepak takraw in Indonesia. The idea of this sport is to keep a cane ball in the air by knocking it only with the heels, knees, elbows and shoulders. There is no competition as such; one player keeps the ball for a while, demonstrating his skill and grace, before letting it go to another player. No one wins or loses and everyone enjoys themselves. Sometimes chin lon is played to the accompaniment of music. It is common for young men to assemble wherever there is space, often in a temple courtyard, and whenever they have free time and just play this game.

 In the last few decades chin lon/takraw/sepak takraw have started to be turned into competitive sports  spawning  high-powered advertising, prize money, star players and teams, cheating, drugs, court cases, appeals, magazines highlighting the opinions, tastes, personalities and sex lives of players, etc.  It’s a pity really but I suppose it’s inevitable.     
The Buddha observed: `Winning provokes resentment, the loser lives in distress. Giving up winning and losing one lives in peace and happiness.' (Dhp.201). 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beer And Buddhism

Any thoughts on this issue? One of the most basic ethical principles of Buddhism is to avoid drinking alcohol, which is the last of the Five Precepts. Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia and the majority of Cambodians call themselves Buddhists. The prime minister  of Cambodia Hun Sen, himself a former Buddhist monk,  recently presided over the opening of yet another new brewery and in his speech he encouraged his countrymen to drink more beer. In fact, he almost suggested that it was a patriotic duty to do so because it will support local industry, presumably the brewing industry.  A can of beer in Cambodia is priced at equivalent to about US 50 cents, well within the reach of the average person. And according to Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Cambodia  “its never a challenge to find beer” in the country because it is  literally “awash with  good brews”. Extraordinarily, one brand of beer is named after the largest Buddhist temple in Angkor, Bayon,  while  another popular beer, Angkor, actually has a picture of  Angkor  Wat on it with   the words ‘Angkor Wat’ underneath it. Of course wat is the Cambodian/Thai word for monastery. The General Director of Khmer Brewery Ltd. said the new factory can produce 50 million liters of beer annually in the first stage and the production is expected to increase up to 200 million liters per year during the next stage.
I can think of worse things than having a nice cool beer but if a government claims to protect and promote a particular religion should it  go out of its way to  encourage practices  that directly contradict that religion? Or is it that in traditional Buddhists countries such as Cambodia the Dhamma is just an identity, little more than a collection of rituals,  something that is not really taken seriously? Is it possible for a government to uphold ‘Buddhist values’ even in a country where the majority are Buddhists? 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mustang VIII

Despite its barrenness Mustang  has a surprisingly  rich flora, most of it small-leafed, armed with thorns and only noticed by the careful observer. Throughout my trip I had Watanabe’s Handbook of Medical Plants of Nepal with me. One of the few trees of any size I saw was  this twisted and gnarled apricot tree in Tangbe (picture1). The villagers told me it was 400 years old and I noticed that it still  has fruit on it. You would almost expect to see a Taoist sage sitting under a tree like this. The beautiful yellow Rosa serica (picture 4) is common everywhere although I only saw one Rosa macrophylla (5), its pink-blossomed cousin, at Mukthinath. It is this lovely pink flower that is often depicted in Tibetan scroll paintings (thanka). Picture 7 is  Bergenia cilita and 9 is Juniperus indica from which the Tibetans make their incense. Of course junipers  can grow into large trees but throughout Mustang they are gnarled and stunted like this one, probably because of the dryness and because they are always having their branches torn off for firewood. I noticed that plants in steep  gorges sometimes had a golden-colored lichen growing on them (10), probably because  the occasional mists gather in such places and provide them with moisture. The locals told me this particular lichen is used as a dye. The valley in which Mukthinath is set is fertile and green and I saw many interesting plants there, the most notable being a wild iris (11) and some beautiful pure  white flowers with a   delightful fragrance   (12) which grow  in a grassy   bank below the temple where the spring water bubbles out. One plant I was particularly interested to see was the Ephedra gerardiana (13) because Watanabe and quite a few others identify   it as being  the mystical Soma of the Vedas, which I think, is possible. I picked a leaf from this plant and cautiously tasted its  sticky, yellow  sap but I did not go into a trance, become hyper-alert or see  any  divine beings. In fact the  sap is so bitter I cannot imagine it being made into a drink.
Every time I downloaded this picture it appeared in its side and I have been unable to find out why or rectify the problem. Apologies.
This is the last of my posts on Mustang. I hope you enjoyed them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Journey To Mustang VII

In numerous places during my trip through Mustang I noticed man-made caves,  usually situated in what seemed to be almost completely inaccessible places. On the far side of the spectacular gorge at the edge of Tsarang for example there are 20 or so caves in the cliff hundreds of feet above the ground. It is hard to imagine how these and most of the other caves I saw could have been excavated, let accessed. On the sheer cliff above the bridge at Chele is a line of 16 caves, or more likely square windows for the caves or perhaps a passageway inside. I was so impresses by these caves that I observed them for a while trying to imagine how they could have been reached or why anyone would want to excavate them in such an inaccessible place. The only thing I could imagine is that the walkway that originally led to them has fallen away or eroded away, although I could seen no sign of this. When Giuseppe Tucci was in Mustang in 1952 he too was intrigued by these caves. Locals told him they were cut during the Tibet-Nepal war of 1855-6 as a hiding place for people fleeing from danger, an explanation he considered unlikely  (G. Tucci Journey to Mustang, 1977, p.141).  He manages to get into one of these caves and found “no objects and no trace of decoration”. Given that all the caves I saw were within walking distance of villages and that Buddhist monks have long favored living in caves, I assume that they were excavated by or for monks. Several accessible caves north of Lo Manthang have functioning monasteries attached to them. 
On returning to Singapore I tried to find something on the internet about these mysterious caves and the first thing that came up was a fascinating National Geographic documentary on this very subject.  It can be seen at

Sunday, August 12, 2012

French GQGA

I am very happy to announce that my little book Good Question Good Answer has just been published in French, meaning that it is now available in nearly 40 languages. This is the first time I have allowed the book to be published by a commercial publisher. I  took this step because if the book was free the possibilities of it being widely available would be limited. Commercial publishers have wide networks of distributers and now the book will be available in over 100 outlets in Belgium, France and Switzerland. For details about purchasing  Le Boddhisme Bonnes Questions, Bonnes Responses  see 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Journey To Mustang VI

The people of Mustang are Buddhists and nearly all the monasteries in the region are of the Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Other  than the   main temple in Lo Manthang and the monastery at Tsarang   few of the religious establishments are particularly impressive or interesting. According to Tucci this is because so many were destroyed during  the Tibet-Nepal war of 1856 and never really recovered their former glory.  Nonetheless, Buddhism’s influence is apparent in  the friendly, good-natured demeanor of the people. While at Ghami I wandered into the temple to find the monks assembled and doing their puja. Immediately the senior monk motioned another monk to find me a seat and as soon as I sat down a lady brought me fried bread and butter tea. While I appreciated this hospitality I was not looking forward to sitting through one of those endless Tibetan pujas, or having to drink cup after cup of butter tea. As it happens the puja only went for another 20 minuets and after the first tea they brought me tea with sugar in it rather than salt. As soon as  the puja was finished I was invited to join the monks for a meal – rice, yogurt and what they called ‘grass’, some sort of vegetable. One of the younger monks spoke good English and explained to me what was going on and he in turn translated   all the  questions the other monks asked of me and my answers to them. Soon the subject got to robes and I showed them the Thai way of putting on a robe. They were both amused and impressed.  
At Tsarang I was asked to briefly address the ‘morning parade’ of the novices. I noticed that they sung first the Tibetan national anthem, then a prayer to Chenrezi and then the Nepali national anthem. None of these people are refugees from Tibet and yet they apparently they identify themselves as much with Tibet as they do Nepal.
The most impressive temple I saw   during the whole trip was the main one in Lo Munthang. The first time I went there the huge wooden doors were ajar and I walked in to the large pillared hall lit only by the sky light. There was no one around.  Through the gloom I could just see the wall paintings   and the wooden scaffolding built against the walls. The next  day when I went  there were people on the scaffolds absorbed in restoring the paintings which were all illuminated by large flood lights. Buddhas, bodhisattvas, various deities and mandalas and floral designs all made bright and alive by the lights, fully visible probably for the first time since they were painted. I just stood in the shadows and the silence and  watched the restorers work. There is a documentary about the restoration of these paintings at  
Note. Having got familiar with the standard way of blogging the whole  system was suddenly changed about two months ago without notice and without guidance for how to use the new system, leaving me completely confused. I’m just a simple monk. Only yesterday I  figured out how to enlarge pictures, hence their bigger format in this post.   However, I still can’t get the pictures in the  sequence I want. Be patient!   

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Journey To Mustang V

Lo Manthang is a like bit what I imagine parts of London, Orleans or Frankfurt were like in the Middle Ages. It is  also probably the only town in the world which still looks like what all towns in Tibet looked like before 1959. Every town I have seen in Tibet is defaces by ugly modern Chinese buildings in styles utterly incongruous to the existing architecture. However, the Chinese cannot be accused of discrimination – they have destroyed or mutilated most of their own towns and cities too. Lo Munthang is  enclosed by a  wall with towers and a gate,  its streets are dirty and narrow  and  the smell of animal dung hangs in the air. The only open area is the small   square in front of the king’s palace.  The square and most of the streets are paved with large flagstones, although I believe this is a recent innovation. Like a Medieval European town or city the dominate buildings in Lo Manthang are religious – the 15th century Jampa Lhakhang, Chodey Gompa and Choprang Gompa. The inner walls of the first of these are covered with paintings of extraordinary vibrancy  and beauty, although they can hardly be seen in the dark. Situated here and there around the town and in the street leading to the main gate are clusters of stupas and several mani walls. Early each morning I noticed people, mainly women, circumambulating the town with the characteristic Tibetan two steps one bow, a distance of about two or three kilometers. Clearly people are maintaining their traditional piety.  Walking through the streets one often has to make way for herds of goats or pack mules and when the wind blows it whips up the dirt and the dust.  Although Lo Manthang  is evocative of a time gone by and is fascinating to visit I have no illusions that living there must have numerous disadvantages. Singapore might be uninteresting, boring and familiar but we have clean water, efficient garbage disposal, excellent health regulations, clean air and air conditioning. But Lo Manthang certainly has something Singapore does not – atmosphere.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Buddhism And Islamphobia

As disciples of the Buddha who live in the West, we would like to take the holy month of Ramadan as an opportunity to express our growing concern about Islamophobia, both within our governments and within the Buddhist community worldwide.
In North America and Europe, the past decade has seen peaceful Muslim communities targeted by hate crimes, police profiling, and even challenges to their basic human rights of free religion and free assembly. The New York Times reports that the New York City Police Department infiltrated peaceful Muslim groups across the Northeastern United States for indiscriminate surveillance. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Murfreesboro, Tennessee has faced vandalism, arson, and legal challenges opposing their new mosque, while France and Belgium have outlawed wearing niqāb in public over concerns about immigration, the status of women, and the diluting of European culture.
In the wider Buddhist community there have been media reports of Buddhist leaders—including monastics—endorsing human rights abuses against Muslim ethnic groups. For example, The Independent reports that Buddhist monastic organizations in Burma are blocking aid shipments to refugee camps for ethnically Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine. The article also accuses monastic associations of encouraging ethnically Rakhine Buddhists not to associate with Rohingya. Ethnic tensions have resulted in human rights abuses and loss of life on both sides of this conflict.
Meanwhile, Newsweek reports that the Thai government has set up military encampments inside Buddhist temples—even using some of them as torture chambers—in their ongoing fight against a violent Malay Muslim insurgency in the southern states of Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat. More disturbingly, Newsweek reports the Thai government is paying ethnic Thais to resettle in majority-Malay areas in order to dilute the Malay population. Once again, there have been many human rights abuses and much loss of life on both sides of the conflict.
In this time of conflict, we believe that the life and teachings of the Buddha can be a shining example for the world. He taught us to practice mutual respect among all people without prejudice, to work for the mutual benefit of all beings, and to try to solve our problems without resorting to violence. In those rare instances where violence is necessary, he taught us to practice restraint and to protect innocent lives. It is in this spirit that we are writing.
In our own countries, we ask law enforcement agencies to stop targeting Muslim communities with indiscriminate surveillance and profiling. And we call on Americans to see their Muslims neighbors as fellow citizens, bound together with them through the shared values of democracy, equality, and freedom.
In the wider Buddhist community, we ask our fellow Buddhists to refrain from using the Dharma to support nationalism, ethnic conflict, and Islamophobia. We believe that these values are antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
The vast majority of Muslims the world over are peaceful, law-abiding people who share much the same dreams, hopes, and aspirations as their non-Muslim neighbors. They are our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our neighbors, and our fellow citizens. Most importantly, they are our fellow sentient beings, all of whom, the Buddha taught, have loved and cared for us in the past. We stand with them during this holy month of Ramadan and denounce Islamophobia unequivocally.
By  Joshua Eaton.

Rev. Danny Fisher, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Sharon Salzberg, Barre, MA, USA
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Carmel, NY, USA
Karma Lekshe Tsomo, San Diego, CA, USA
Charles Prebish, State College, PA, USA
William Aiken, Washington, DC, USA
Rev. Maia Zenyu Duerr, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Rev. James Ishmael Ford, Providence, RI, USA
Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Boulder, CO, USA
Lopon Rita Gross, Eau Claire, WI, USA
Ven. Zenkei Blanche Hartman, San Francisco, CA, USA
Ken & Visakha Kawasaki, Swartz Creek, MI, USA
Rev. Wakoh Shannon Hickey, Alfred, NY, USA
Rev. Beth Kanji Goldring, Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA
Chap. Mikel Ryuho Monnett, M.A., BCC, Columbus, OH, USA
Acharya Sujatin Johnson, Newcastle upon Tyne, ENGLAND
Rev. Josho Pat Phelan, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Rev. Daishin Eric McCabe, Pennsdale, PA, USA
Rev. Patricia Dai-En Bennage, Pennsdale, PA, USA
Rev. Michael Tran, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Ven. Hue Hai, Alhambra, CA, USA
Upāsaka Raymond M. McDonald, La Verne, CA, USA
Rev. Michele Kaishin Tae, Boise, ID, USA
Rev. Jim Hokyo Dunn, Santa Fe, NM, USA

For other signatories see    

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Journey To Mustang IV

Our ultimate destination in Mustang was to get to Lo  Manthang, the walled town which is the capital of the region.   Much of the track that leads from the south to the town follows the Kali  Kandaki River. Flowing as it does between  the 8167 m high  Mt. Dhaulagiri   and the 8091 m high Mt. Annapurna this river cuts what is believed to be the deepest gorge in the world. No matter where you turn you are confronted by sheer cliffs, strangely eroded hummocks and on the horizon, soaring snow-capped mountains. Wherever there is flat ground and water for irrigation there are small villages surrounded by green fields and orchards. Sometimes at lonely places far from   habitation one sees stupas or mani walls, reminders that this is a Buddhist land. While  evoking interest and sometimes even awe,  none of the vistas are enough to take  make you forget just how difficult the trek to Lo  Manthang is. Between Chele and Samar the path is  almost vertical and seems to go on for ever. The assent from Yamda to Syangboche makes the knees ache so much that when you reach the bottom you can hardly walk. Another difficulty is the wind, sometimes howling, at other times full of grit and dust, which   usually starts blowing after midday. Buddhist monks robes were not designed for windy places and mine was continually blowing off or filling with gusts like the sail of a  ship so as to force   me sideways or blow  me over. This was very trying and added to the exhaustion.
Only a brief but very disconcerting experience was crossing the several suspension bridges on the way, the most scary one leading to the village of Gaykar . Each step you take makes the bridge wobble and if you look down you freeze with horror at just how far down it is. I should mention that all these bridges are very sturdy, but your imagination keeps pushing this knowledge out of your mind.  
The ruins of numerous forts throughout Mustang speak of its   tumultuous history;  petty lords vying with each other for power and invasions from neighbouring states. By 1768 the Gurkhas had conquered and united most of what today is modern Nepal and then turned their eyes to Mustang. It seems they did not invade Mustang but   its king   became a tributary of the Gurkha court, paying a yearly tribute while remaining independent in all but name. In 1962 the Raja Abolition Act divested all Nepal ’s minor rulers of their power, an exception being made for the king of Mustang. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet Mustang became the base for Khampa  resistance  organized   and financed by Taiwan and the CIA. Eventually  Chinese pressure on Nepal put an end to all this and the Nepalese government took full control of Mustang and ending any power the king had. However  Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista must be still regarded with respect  because I noticed   pictures of him and his queen in most homes.