Thursday, December 25, 2014

My 2014

2014 has been both a good and a bad year for me. The low point was the fire that severely damaged the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society premises. It has meant a drastic cutting back of the Society’s activities for the rest of the year, and for me it was a close shave with the Grim Reaper. Repairs are ongoing and hopefully we will be able to return to our old place in  March or April. On the positive side I managed to complete three books this year; Like Milk and Water Mixed; Buddhist Reflections on Love, Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism and Good Kamma, Bad Kamma! What Exactly is Kamma? This third book will only be published when our Society is able to return home, as that is the only place we have to store the books. I have also written an essay entitled ‘Water in the Religions of Sri Lanka’, my contribution to a large coffee  table book on water in Sri Lanka which will be edited by my friend Sarala Fernando and which is due out in the middle of next year.  In November I attended a conference in Pune, India, organized by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Others attending were Richard Gombrich, Dr. Alexander Wynne, Jeffrey Race, and various academics from Pune and Mumbai universities. While there I also met Pankaj Padghan who is busy translating Good Question Good Answer into Marathi. With luck the book should be published next year. Another translation, my Guide to Buddhism A to Z into Indonesian as Ensiklopedi Mini Buddhisme, is due out in January. Apart from joining family in France and trips to Cambodia and Indonesia, the most interesting trip I made this year was to Korea. I and members of the BDMS spent 10 days visiting some of South Korea’s famous Buddhist sites. The highlight of the trip was seeing the 81,2058 wooden printing blocks of the great Tripitaka Koreana at the famous Haeinsa Monastery. Later, I climbed the beautiful forested hills behind the monastery and met some of the hermits who have their small temples there. In October, just after my 63rd birthday I had my first ever complete medical check-up which showed that other than being slightly overweight I am in good health, a state that I hope shall continue in 2015 and beyond. Mentally? Well, that’s another story! * I have spent much of this morning trying to get the pictures in the right place but without success. Sorry about that.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Reflections

Nowadays and for most people Christmas is about shopping, eating, trying to find a Christmas tree or taking the fake one out of the garage and assembling it. Then there is the problem of trying to remember who sent you a Christmas card last year so that you don’t neglect to send them one this year. In some countries it has become a time to argue about whether saying to others “Happy Christmas” or “Happy Holidays’ is appropriate. Of course it’s supposed to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus and an opportunity to give heart to some of the things he taught. Here, this Christmas, are some of the more important things he or his disciples said.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13,34-35.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13,10. 
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. Mark 12,31.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4,8.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…1 Corinthians 13.   
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5, 22-23. 
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Romans 12,10.  
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.1 John 5,3. 
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15,13.
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippains 2,2-4.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Buddha With Headphones

Three men have just been arrested in Burma  on a charge of insulting Buddhism. The three own a bar in Rangoon. It seems they posted an image of the Buddha wearing headphones on the bar’s Facebook as part of an advertisement for an upcoming event at the bar. The news reports do not make it clear whether the alleged insult stems from the identification of the Buddha with a bar, the picture of the Buddha wearing headphones, or both. If it is about the headphones I think it rather curious that Buddhists would find this insulting. In Rangoon there is a temple enshrining a large statue of the Buddha wearing glasses. Many Burmese Buddha images depict him with a crown on his head. Indeed in Thailand once a year the king places a crown on the Phra Kaew, the country’s most revered image. In Thailand and I think in Burma too, the Buddha is not uncommonly depicted adorned with a necklace, armlets, bracelets, rings and other jewellery, things which as a monk he never wore and would have probably disapproved of. If the bar/Buddha association is the cause of the outrage I think this is misplaced. That someone could live in Burma, where Buddhism is so pervasive, and not know that such an association would be quite inappropriate, I think calls for education of the offenders rather than punishment. 
The Buddha actually made a comment on this very matter  which would be worth keeping in mind. I quote from the Alagaddupama Sutta: “If others abuse, revile, insult or harass the Tathagata…you should not because of that feel annoyance, bitterness or be down-hearted” (M.I,140). I am pretty sure the Buddha would have considered anger on the part of those who know his Dhamma, far more unbecoming than the misuse of his image by those ignorant of it. Let’s hope Buddhism is not deteriorating into a religion that reacts with angry indignation and calls for retribution at every slight real or imagined. The three men should be asked to attend several talks on basic Buddhism and the cultural norms of Burma. This way they would respect Buddhism because they understand it, not because they fear it. 
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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Can Animals Go To Heaven?

Recently Pope Francis raised eyebrows when he suggested that animals can go to heaven. During a public appearance while talking to a young boy distraught over the recent death of his dog, the Pope told the boy that “paradise is open to all God’s creatures”.  While it would seem fairly clear, to me at least, that he was only trying to console and comfort the boy, conservative Catholics were quick to “clarify” the Pope’s statement and explain that as animals do not have a soul  and cannot “literally go to heaven”. Others, pet lovers and animal  rights groups, were ecstatic at the possibility of spending eternity with Spotty or Rex, Mr. Tabby or Blackie. Given that Christian orthodoxy is clear that salvation is only available to those who have faith in Jesus,  (and  according to some,  do good works as well) it is very difficult to imagine that the  Pope was announcing a new dogma that would contradict orthodoxy.

Whatever the case, the idea is an interesting one. What would Buddhism say about the possibility of animals in heaven? Interestingly, the question was raised and discussed during the Third Council (cira 250 BCE). Those who believed that this was possible pointed out that Erāvana, the mount of the god Indra, was an elephant. The Theravadins countered this by saying that if this was taken literally it would require that there also be stables, fodder, animal trainers, grooms, etc. in heaven, something that was considered to be clearly ridiculous (Kathavatthu v.20,4).  The question “Are there  animals in heaven?” assumes various theistic concepts that do not apply to the Buddhist understanding of reality. According to the Buddha, beings can be reborn in a variety of realms, one of them being heaven and another the animal realm. The primary thing that distinguishes one realm from  another  is the experience of the beings there, and perhaps to a lesser degree the bodily form in each.  As a human one would have one kind of body, as an animal another, and as a deva yet another. If an animal died and was reborn in heaven it would have a heavenly body, not an animal one, thus it would no longer be an animal, and thus the question “Are there animals in heaven?  does not really apply. Given this, the question needs to be re-phrased as “Can animals be reborn in heaven?” According to the Buddha  once reborn as an animal it is difficult to rise to a higher rebirth. Difficult but not impossible. Books such as The Emotional Life of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter and Jeffrey Masson’s wonderful When Elephants Weep demonstrate that animals have much richer and more complex minds than what was understood until recently, and what was known to the Buddha and his contemporaries.  Given this I think it is likely that some higher animals have at least some rudimentary moral sense and thus could take a heavenly rebirth. However, it should not be forgotten that the animal world is dominated by “eating each other and preying off the weak” as the Buddha very realistically put it (M.III,169). Perhaps another thing worth mentioning is this. It is important to try to distinguish between our desires and reality. Many people love their pets and would be very happy to have them with them in heaven. But wishes and hopes are one thing, reality is another. 
Should you be interested, I have written something on the love of animals from a Buddhist perspective. You can read it here