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    • Conservationists in Myanmar Express Concern Over Public Display of Sacred Hair Relic of the Buddha

      Craig Lewis Buddhistdoor Global | 2018-04-16 |

      Conservationists in Myanmar have expressed concern that a public procession and display scheduled this month of an ancient Buddhist relic, believed to be a hair from the historical Buddha, risks damaging the object of reverence.

      The relic, believed to have come from the head of Shakyamuni Buddha more than 2,500 years ago is usually enshrined within Botataung Pagoda in downtown Yangon. However, due to planned renovation work at the ancient monument, the Buddha’s hair relic has been moved to a nearby prayer hall where it has been placed on public display. The relic is scheduled to be carried by procession and placed in the Chanthagyi Prayer Hall of the city’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda for five days, along with a number of other sacred items from Botataung Pagoda, on the morning of 19 April. On 24 April, the hair relic and other revered objects are to be conveyed back to Botataung Pagoda.

      “The interior of the chamber needs renovation,” said U Sein Maw, director of Yangon Region’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. “Water leaks from its ceiling,” he added, explaining that the removal of the relic was necessary before the repairs could be carried out. (The Irrawaddy)

      The Buddha’s hair relic will be carried around Yangon in a procession for people to venerate, said Dr. Badana Eidi Bala, chair Sayadaw of the Yangon Region Sangha Nayaka was cited as saying by the Myanmar Times.

      “We carried out a consecration ceremony at Shwedagon Pagoda with 18,000 sangha [members], and now we will schedule a meeting with every sangha [member] . . .  in Yangon Region,” said Dr. Badana. “This ceremony for the relic is led by the regional Sangha Nayaka and the regional government, so I urge believers to follow.” (Myanmar Times)

      Critics of the decision, who include conservationists as well as members of State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees the country’s monastic sangha, have expressed concern for the safety of the relic.

      “Should a piece of national heritage like the sacred hair relic be out for a long time due to its fragility?” said Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust. “What if it is accidentally damaged during the display and procession? I wonder if precautions have been taken.” (The Irrawaddy)

      She drew a comparison with Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist relic, a tooth of the historical Buddha, which is enshrined in a heavily guarded room in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in the city of Kandy. “Even when you are in the room, you don’t actually see the tooth. It’s kept in a gold casket which contains a series of six caskets of diminishing size,” she observed. (The Irrawaddy)

      According to accounts of its history, Botataung Pagoda was first built by the region’s Mon civilization some 2,500 years ago. The pagoda was destroyed by British aircraft during the Second World War, although the relic casket  was found undamaged in the rubble. The pagoda was rebuilt in 1948 after the country regained independence.

      U Sein Maw offered assurances that a plan had been put in place to ensure the relic is properly protected during thr renovation period. “We have been discussing the best way to carefully put the relic casket in the car and transport it from Botataung to Shwedagon Pagoda,” he said, noting that repairs and renovations for the relic chamber were part of a larger plan to restore the entire pagoda, including replacing all the gold on the structure. An estimated 50–60 kilograms of gold would be needed to complete the project, he added.  (The Irrawaddy)

      Myanmar is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 80.1 per cent of the population of almost 48 million people identifying as Buddhists, according to 2010 data from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center. Christians, folk religions, and Muslims account for the bulk of the remainder. Buddhist monks, venerated throughout Burmese society, are believed to number around 500,000, with an estimated 75,000 nuns in the Southeast Asian country.

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    • The Nonduality of Good and Evil

      David Loy SPRING 2002 tricycle

      Buddhism encourages us to be wary of antithetical concepts, not only good and evil, but success and failure, rich and poor, even the duality between enlightenment and delusion.

      If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? —Alexander Solzhenitsyn

      Because it emphasizes mindfulness of our thought processes, Buddhism encourages us to be wary of antithetical concepts, not only good and evil, but success and failure, rich and poor, even the duality between enlightenment and delusion. We distinguish between the opposing terms because we want one rather than the other, yet the meaning of each depends upon the other. That may sound abstract, but such dualities are actually quite troublesome for us. If, for example, it is important to live a pure life (however I understand purity), then I need to be preoccupied with avoiding impurity. If wealth is important for me, then I am also worried about avoiding poverty. We cannot take one lens without the other, and such pairs of spectacles filter our experience of the world.

      What does this mean for the duality of good versus evil? One way the interdependence of good and evil shows itself is this: we don’t feel we are good unless we are fighting against evil. We can feel comfortable and secure in our own goodness only by attacking and destroying the evil outside us. And, sad to say but true, this is why we like wars: they cut through the petty problems of daily life and unite us good guys here against the bad guys over there. There is fear in that, of course, but it is also exhilarating. The meaning of life becomes clearer.

      We all love the struggle between good (us) and evil (them). It is, in its own way, deeply satisfying. Think of the plots of the James Bond films, the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films. In such movies, it’s quite obvious who the bad guys are. Caricatures of evil, they are ruthless, maniacal, without remorse, and so they must be stopped by any means necessary. We are meant to feel that it is okay—even, to tell the truth, pleasurable—to see violence inflicted upon them. Because the villains like to hurt people, it’s okay to hurt them. Because they like to kill people, it’s okay to kill them. After all, they are evil and evil must be destroyed.

      What is this kind of story really teaching us? That if you want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first—in other words, fit them into your good-versus-evil story. That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth.

      Such stories are not just entertainment. In order to live, we need air, water, food, clothes, shelter, friends—and we need stories, because they teach us what is important in life. They give us models of how to live in a complicated, confusing world. Until the last hundred years or so, the most important stories for most people were religious. Today, however, the issue is not whether a story is an ennobling one, a good myth to live by, but the bottom line: will it sell?

      The story of good and evil sells because it is simple and easy to understand, yet from a Buddhist viewpoint it can be dangerously deceptive. It keeps us from looking deeper, from trying to discover causes. Once something has been identified as evil, no more is there a need to explain it, only a need to fight it.

      By contrast, Buddhism focuses on the three unwholesome roots of evil, also known as the three poisons: greed, ill will, and delusion. In place of the struggle between good and evil, Buddhism emphasizes ignorance and enlightenment. The basic problem is one of self-knowledge: do we really understand what motivates us?

      In a passage from the Sutta Nipata, Ajita asks of the Buddha, “What is it that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it most?”

      “It is ignorance which smothers,” the Buddha replies, “and it is heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering.”

      Because this view offers us a better understanding of what actually motivates people—all of us—it also implies a very different way to address the problems created by ignorance and desire and violence: not a new holy war against evil, but a less dramatic struggle to transform our own greed into generosity, ill will into love, and ignorance into wisdom.

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    • Sacred mountain for Tibetans to be mined in Driru, one detained

      March 21, 2018 Tenzin Dharpo Phayul.com

      DHARAMSHALA, Mar. 21: A mountain considered sacred by Tibetans in Driru (in Chinese, Biru) county in the Nagchu prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region is set to be mined by Chinese authorities despite resistance by local Tibetans. A Tibetan man is reportedly detained after he refused to sign an approval for the mining.

      Late last month, villagers were forced to sign approval for the mining by Chinese authorities, the village head man refused for the same. “Karma, the head of Markor village, said that he would sign his name only if the local Chinese officials produced a letter from two Tibetan higher-ups named Radi and Tenzin showing their own approval for the work, and he was detained by the police,” a source cited by Radio Free Asia said on the condition of anonymity.

      Excavation works for the area began by the end of last year with roads being built in the foothills and red flags set as markers in the sacred mountain for Tibetans known as Sertra Dzagen.

      “Locals believe that mining activities on this sacred mountain may lead to the extinction of animal species such as wild sheep, antelope, and elk, and could possibly trigger landslides on nearby Drakkar mountain, located just to the left of Sertra Dzagen,” the same source said.

      Economists have estimated that Tibet’s gold and copper deposits alone are worth one trillion dollars to China. The resources are extracted relentlessly over the past few decades with little or no regard to the environmental consequences. In occupied Tibet, areas which are mined have experienced polluted water bodies, unseasonal weather patterns and an upsurge in natural calamities which has far reaching affects to the global climate change.

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    • The Paradox of Practice

      Brad Warner WINTER 2012 tricycle

      The iconoclastic itinerant Soto Zen teacher “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi famously said, “Zazen is good for nothing!”

      He wasn’t being facetious. He wasn’t employing some kind of “skillful means” by saying something he really didn’t believe. He wasn’t being mystical and saying it’s good (wink, wink) for nothing (nudge, nudge). Nope. He meant it. Zazen really is good for nothing. It’s useless. Absolutely useless.

      One of the hardest aspects of Zen practice is getting your head around the idea that zazen has no goal. No goal at all. You don’t do it for anything except itself. It doesn’t get you anywhere. It doesn’t gain you a damned thing.

      Part of the reason this goalless practice is hard to accept is that anyone who has ever done zazen or indeed any kind of meditation practice knows quite well that there are benefits. Some people can’t function without their morning coffee. I can’t function without my morning zazen. It makes me feel better, lighter, happier, more alive. If there were no benefits, why would anyone do such a ridiculous thing as sit and stare at a wall for half an hour or more every morning and night? Who has that kind of time to waste? There are plenty of folks working hard to determine and explain exactly what these benefits are and why they come about. There are a dozen books out right now that will tell you exactly what meditation is good for. And it ain’t nothing!

      The weird thing is that the only way one really gets any of the most important benefits of meditation practice is by giving up on the notion that there are any benefits to meditation practice.

      People often get hung up on semantics. Isn’t the goal of having no goal just another goal? You can twist your mind around this one forever. Logically, it’s a perfect loop. You can define having no goal as a goal and nobody can argue with that on a linguistic level. But in actual practice not having a goal really isn’t a goal at all. It’s something different from having a goal. It’s not having a goal.

      Even so, this is much easier said than done. We’ve been taught since birth that the worst thing any activity can be is pointless. Understandably, we always want to know if something difficult we’re considering committing to is going to produce results. I think some of us look upon meditation the way we look at dieting. We want to choose a diet that has been proven to be effective. Otherwise we’d be starving ourselves for nothing. When it comes to meditation, we certainly don’t want to spend hours and hours sitting in some weird posture only to find we have nothing to show for it afterward.

      We are deeply committed to the idea that for something to be worth doing, it needs to produce results. More than that, it needs to produce the results we desire. The diet that made me deny myself all those delicious desserts had better help me shed 20 pounds! And that meditation for which I had to give up all the time I could have spent playing video games or hanging out with friends had better fix what’s wrong in my life and bring me profound peace and contentment!

      The problem is that goal-seeking activity is always the enemy of real peace and contentment. The idea that what is here and now is less valuable than what’s over there just past the finish line prevents us from ever being truly content and happy right where we are. No matter what your ultimate goal is, it’s always off in the distance. It’s never here. This goes for any goal at all, even the goal of attaining ultimate inner peace or saving all beings. It’s still a goal. It’s still over there, not here.

      Part of striving for a goal is telling yourself that you’re not good enough, that you’ve got to push harder. If you tell yourself you’re not good enough over and over and over, what sort of effect is that going to have? How is that ever going to produce any kind of peace and contentment, even if your goal is peace and contentment? If you do accidentally achieve a little peace and contentment, you’ve set up a habit of telling yourself that you’re not peaceful and content enough.

      In order to learn to be truly content here, you have to practice being truly content here. And that means giving up any notion that there’s something better just around the next bend. Even if what’s around the bend really is better.

      It’s perfectly fine to just let your goals be as they are. I have personally found this to be a very useful approach. There’s no sense in beating yourself up over having a goal for your practice. That’s just another way of telling yourself you’re not good enough as you are. So have your goals. Have all the goals you want! Just leave them be and don’t take them too seriously. Like all other thoughts, they’ll drop away of their own accord if you stop feeding them.

      In a very real sense, when you start getting into that endless thought loop of trying to have a goal, but trying not to have a goal, but trying not to not to have a goal, while trying not to not to not to have a goal and on and on and on, you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. So treat yourself the way you would treat that annoying neighbor who tries to draw you into an argument that no one could ever possibly win. Refuse to be drawn in. Don’t respond. Just like you’d do with that annoying neighbor, let your inner voice talk and talk and talk until it’s so hoarse it has to shut up. Meanwhile, just keep doing your practice.

      After doing this for a while you’ll see that your goal-driven thoughts have less and less power. They may still crop up. But you’ll find that you just don’t care about them anymore.

      And if that doesn’t happen, don’t worry about it. Just keep on sitting anyway. After all, who couldn’t use a few moments of pointless peace and quiet each day? Even if those moments are good for nothing!

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    • Japanese sake now comes in incense form for Buddhist rituals

      Apr. 6  Oona McGee, SoraNews24

      In Japan, incense is often used to help send up prayers to deceased relatives, both at the site of their grave and at the butsudan Buddhist altar found inside homes, and is often accompanied by offerings of food and other small tokens signifying things that deceased loved ones used to enjoy while they were alive.

      For Tokyo-based candle and incense maker Kameyama, the senko incense used in these rituals is a perfect way to send up offerings of favorite food and drink to loved ones in the afterlife at the same time. So far, they’ve catered to the needs of past candy lovers, curry enthusiasts and even fans of cute character Rilakkuma, with special incense sticks specifically designed to be used while paying respects to deceased ancestors.

      Now the incense specialists are back again, this time with a new scent that promises to be even more popular than any of their past releases, as this one comes with the aroma of Japanese sake. And rather than being a collaboration with a high-end sake brewery, the new incense aims to appeal to the masses, by using one of the country’s most well-known and widely available brands: One Cup Ozeki.

      If you’ve ever wandered into a supermarket or convenience store in Japan, looking to pick up a cheap, one-person serving of sake to help you kick back and unwind, you’ve probably tried this particular brand, which offers exactly what its name suggests: one cup of Japanese rice wine.

      First introduced to the market as an alternative to bottled sake back in 1964, One Cup Ozeki is a surprisingly well-balanced tipple that’s perfect for train rides, and outdoor events like festivals and picnics, due to its convenient size and built-in glass cup.

      Given its immense popularity, One Cup Ozeki is a brand that many have turned to on a number of occasions, whether at home or out enjoying happy events with family and friends. So it makes sense that dearly departed sake lovers and their families would appreciate the sentiment behind this new sake-scented incense.

      This particular incense blend is said to have a faint scent of sake, which can be used every day so that those in the afterlife can enjoy a daily dose of their favourite drink. While it’s specifically designed to pay homage to one’s ancestors, those in the living world can reap the benefits of using the new product as well, given that sake has a history of being used to purify homes, and the lighting of incense can be likened to the custom of creating sparks with a flint stone, which is used to extinguish bad luck when a guest or family member steps out of the family home.

      The One Cup Ozeki incense sticks can be purchased at incense stores around the country and online for 734 yen.

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    • Buddhism and Morality

      Barbara O'Brien March 06, 2017 ThoughtCo.

      An Introduction to the Buddhist Approach to Morality

      How do Buddhists approach morality? Western culture seems at war with itself over moral values. On one side are those who believe one lives a moral life by following rules handed down by tradition and religion. This group accuses the other side of being "relativists" without values. Is this a legitimate dichotomy, and where does Buddhism fit into it?

      "Dictatorship of Relativism"

      Shortly before he was named Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, "Relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards… We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires."

      This statement is representative of those who believe that morality requires following external rules. According to this view, the only other arbiter of morality is "one's own ego and one's own desires," and of course ego and desire will lead us to very bad behavior.

      If you look for them, you can find essays and sermons all over the Web that decry the heresy of "relativism" and insist that we humans, flawed as we are, cannot be trusted to make moral decisions on our own. The religious argument, of course, is that the external moral rules are God's law and must be obeyed in all circumstances without question.

      Buddhism - Freedom Through Discipline

      The Buddhist view is that moral behavior flows naturally from mastering one's ego and desires and cultivating loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna).

      The foundation teaching of Buddhism, expressed in the Four Noble Truths, is that the stress and unhappiness of life (dukkha) is caused by our desires and ego-clinging.

      The "program," if you will, for letting go of desire and ego is the Eightfold Path. Ethical conduct -- through speech, action, and livelihood -- is part of the path, as are mental discipline -- through concentration and mindfulness -- and wisdom.

      The Buddhist Precepts are sometimes compared to the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic religions.

      However, the Precepts are not commandments, but principles, and it is up to us to determine how to apply these principles to our lives. Certainly, we receive guidance from our teachers, clergy, scriptures and other Buddhists. We are also mindful of the laws of karma. As my first Zen teacher used to say, "what you do is what happens to you."

      The Theravada Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah said,

      "We can bring the practice all together as morality, concentration, and wisdom. To be collected, to be controlled, this is morality. The firm establishing of the mind within that control is concentration. Complete, overall knowledge within the activity in which we are engaged is wisdom. The practice, in brief, is just morality, concentration, and wisdom, or in other words, the path. There is no other way."

      The Buddhist Approach to Morality

      Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor of theology and a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, explains,

      "There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. 'Buddhism' encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of interpretations.

      All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. ... When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation--whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion--and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha's teachings."

      Buddhist practice, which includes meditation, liturgy (chanting), mindfulness and self-reflection, make this possible. The path requires sincerity, discipline, and self-honesty, and it is not easy. Many fall short. But I would say the Buddhist record of moral and ethical behavior, while not perfect, compares more than favorably to that of any other religion.

      The "Rules" Approach

      In his book The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken Roshi said (p.17), "The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely.

      Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us."

      The controversy over using embryonic stem cells provides a good example of what Aitken Roshi meant. A moral code that values surplus, eight-cell frozen blastocysts over children and adults who are sick and suffering is self-evidently screwy. But because our culture is fixated on the idea that morality means following rules, even people who see the screwiness of the rules have a hard time arguing against them.

      Many atrocities perpetrated in the world today -- and in the past -- have some connection to religion. Nearly always, such atrocities require putting dogma ahead of humanity; suffering becomes acceptable, even righteous, if it is caused in the name of faith or God's law.

      There is no justification in Buddhism for causing others to suffer for Buddhism.

      A False Dichotomy

      The notion that there are only two approaches to morality -- you either follow the rules or you are a hedonist with no moral compass -- is a false one. There are many approaches to morality, and these approaches should be judged by their fruits -- whether their overall effect is beneficial or harmful.

      A strictly dogmatic approach, applied without conscience, humanity or compassion, often is harmful.

      To quote St. Augustine (354-430), from his seventh homily on the First Epistle of John:

      "Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good."

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    • Did you know some Qingming practices are myths?

      APRIL 2, 2016 PEOPLE MAJORIE CHIEW Star Online

      SOME Chinese families clamour to place the first joss sticks at ancestral graves. They believe that those who place the first joss sticks will earn the most blessings. Others believe that in order to foster good ties and a spirit of family reunion, family members should try and go in one group to pay respects during Qingming.

      “It is not the first joss sticks that are stuck on the grave that bring good luck to the descendants,” says feng shui master Louis Loh. It is only a myth. Worshipping ancestors at the tomb is only to pay respects and to remember them.

      The same goes with the belief that married daughters are not allowed to visit their parents’ graves for fear they take away the good feng shui or family’s luck. This is not true, Loh says.

      Rather, Loh explains that the tombstone location already predetermines the luck of the descendants.

      That is why, he says, tombstone locations with good feng shui come with hefty prices.

      Loh says that from the tombstone looking outwards, if the mountain on the left side (Green Dragon position) is higher than the right side, the tomb feng shui favours the sons of the family. If the mountain of the right side (White Tiger position) is higher than the left, the daughters will reap better luck and fortune.

      To benefit all descendants, Loh explains, the tomb should face a distant mountain range that is not too high (not higher than one’s eyebrows). There should be mountains in front and at the back of the tomb. The tomb should be facing a water element (natural body of water such as lake or river and in the case of memorial parks, perhaps, a man-made pool) to ensure wealth for the descendants.

      If graves are not facing any mountains and water, or do not have a countryside landscape around it, it must have at least face an auspicious direction, he says.

      In order to foster good ties and a spirit of family reunion, family members should try and go in one group to pay respects during Qingming. Photo: EPA/David Chang

      In order to foster good ties and a spirit of family reunion, family members should try and go in one group to pay respects during Qingming. Photo: EPA/David Chang

      Some Chinese believe that tomb visits should be made very early in the morning, preferably before the crack of dawn. Not necessarily so, says Loh.

      “It is not practical to visit tombs before sunrise because it is still dark and one may trip and fall.”

      However, these days, many families still head to the cemetery very early in the morning to avoid the mid-day scorching sun.

      The characters on Chinese tombstones are usually written in gold, black and red. In a double burial plot, one side may have characters written in red while the other side, in black. The red characters denote that the tomb is reserved for the person who is still living. The black, gold or green denote that the person is already demised and buried in the tomb, Loh says.

      The family members should repaint the red characters to black, gold or green if the other parent also passes away.

      Green characters on a tombstone denote that the dialect group of the family is Teochew.

      Sometimes fire crackers are lit during a tomb visit but that is only a cultural practice.

      He says: “It has nothing to do with feng shui (or reaping good fortune).”

      According to feng shui master Louis Loh, the location of the tombstone predetermines the luck of the descendants. Photo: Xinhua/Ding Ting

      Offerings of food to one’s ancestors should be opened when placed at the grave, and not left wrapped in clingwrap, to show sincerity.

      Whether these offerings are left at the graves or taken home to be distributed to family members and eaten together is not an issue, he says.

      Some families, out of goodwill, will also offer jossticks to neighbouring graves during Qingming. They are inviting the spirits of the departed to also join in the partaking of the offerings.

      Loh says it is out of good heart that these families also appease other spirits of nearby graves.

      Loh advises women not to wear skimpy clothing when visiting graves to show respect to the departed.

      He also says it is taboo to make any remarks. “Don’t say, ‘How beautiful this person is or how unfortunate she died young,’ The spirit of the deceased may just follow you home!” he warns.

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    • Influx of visitors at the graves

      MARCH 31, 2018 MAJORIE CHIEW The Star Online

      Have you heard that you should bring a bunch of jingling keys when you go for Qingming prayers?

      And has anyone reminded you to visit the graves with coins in your pockets?

      It is said that the keys and coins will help you find your way home, so that you’d not lose your way or be stranded.

      Above all else, the belief is that you must worship the Earth Deity (Tai Pak Kung in Cantonese) first before making offerings to the dearly departed.

      If you fail to do so, you could have trouble finding your ancestors’ graves.

      Qingming or Pure Brightness Day which falls on April 5 this year is Tomb Sweeping Day for the Chinese. They pay respects to their departed ancestors by visiting their graves and burning offerings. It is an important day in the 24 solar terms of the traditional Chinese calendar.

      “The Chinese observe this annual ritual to show our respect and gratitude to our departed ancestors or loved ones,” says feng shui master Jessie Lee. Qingming, an act of filial piety, is an occasion to gather family members, from near and far, in remembrance of their ancestors.

      Feng shui master Louis Loh says tomb sweeping can be done 10 days before and after the actual Qingming Day on April 5.

      Lee adds that some people also observe Qingming two weeks before and after April 5.

      Some families may need to visit different graveyards in different locations or even states to pay respects to their ancestors, so they do not have to adhere strictly to a particular day within the Qingming period, says Loh.

      Although there might be clashes for those born under certain zodiac signs on certain days, Loh assures that they can still proceed to pray to their ancestors at the gravesite. However, they should try not to be the first to burn the joss sticks or light the candles.

      Instead, be the last person to do so.

      But even if you do not observe this practice, Loh says there is no need to worry as “no major incidents will befall them”.

      He reminded Chinese families visiting their ancestral graves to pray for blessings and protection to inspect the tombs to see if they are damaged in any way.

      In yin (burial) feng shui, it is believed that the condition of the ancestors’ tombs and their surroundings can affect living descendants’ wealth and health.

      As such, many Chinese families would take remedial actions promptly to repair cracks or damages on the tombs to protect their well-being.

      Confucianism emphasises treating our parents with filial piety, alive and deceased.

      Hence, Loh says it’s important to bring some of the deceased’s favourite food as offerings.

      If the deceased was not a vegetarian when he was alive, he says, it would be respectful to not offer vegetarian meals at the grave.

      “If you would like to accumulate merits for the deceased, it would be good for you to become a vegetarian,” adds Loh.

      Lee says paying respect to the departed sincerely is most important during Qingming. Photo: Jessie Lee

      Lee answers some common questions on the dos and don’ts of Qingming.

      What is a suitable time for tomb sweeping?

      The transition period between Spring/Vernal Equinox (March 20) and Rain Grain (April 20) is a suitable time to observe Qingming.

      Most people observe the recommended period of performing their Qingming ritual two weeks before or after the actual day of April 5 (March 26-April 19) or 10 days before and after April 5 (March 22-April 15).

      So, expect busier traffic on the highways especially during weekends when the Chinese return to their hometowns for Qingming during this period.

      Why is there a specific period for Qingming?

      “The Spring Equinox energy of fire is ‘most balanced’ as the energy of the sun (in the day) is balanced with that of the night.

      “We want to tap into the energy of earth, heaven and man that are in alignment. Whatever endeavours we make will be easier and unobstructed,” said Lee.

      If there was a death in the family that is less than a year (new tomb), the family should go for Qingming prayers before the Spring Equinox.

      What is the best time to visit graves?

      Most usually visit the tombs as early as possible in the morning and finish their rituals to avoid the scorching sun.

      According to Chinese astrology, the sun rises during the hour of the Rabbit (5am to 7am). However, 5am is still dark here. So, many people begin their prayers from 7am onwards, Lee said.

      In the old days, the prayer ritual should end before 3pm. This could be because graves were located on higher grounds and people needed time to hike down before dark. Nowadays, people visit their late relatives’ graves till 5pm.

      Who should pray first?

      Hierarchy is important in Chinese culture. Most people pray to their ancestors according to seniority.

      But these days, many Chinese think that if they are sincere in paying their respects, it doesn’t matter who they worship first. They schedule their visits according to family members’ convenience.

      Can family members visit graves after Qingming?

      Sometimes there are family members who cannot observe Qingming during the alloted period because they are abroad, for instance.

      They can still offer prayers in front of the ancestral tablets, or visit their departed loved ones’ graves at a later date.

      Who should not perform Qingming at the graveyards?

      Some people advise pregnant women, young children and the sick to not visit graves during Qingming as the yin (dark) energy (of the graves) might affect them psychologically.

      In modern memorial parks, Lee thinks it is not an issue if pregnant women and young children want to visit the graves.

      Can menstruating women pray at the grave?

      Menstruating women should not touch the Earth deity at the grave site out of respect for him.

      There is no taboo restricting the holding of joss sticks and paying respects to the ancestors.

      Should you wear bright or dark clothing?

      Some elders forbid wearing brightly coloured clothing (red or yellow) to the graves. Others believe that people should not wear dark coloured clothes as it would attract wandering spirits.

      But Lee said that the colour of clothes is not important, what’s more significant is one’s sincerity of paying respect to the departed ancestors.

      Can we perform Qingming rituals for non-relatives?

      One is deemed to perform a meritorious act if he or she perform the Qingming rituals for those whom they have no blood ties with. Such a ritual will not have any effects on the lineage of the person but he or she is believed to be able to accumulate merits.

      What are the purification rituals after Qingming?

      After Qingming, some Chinese believe that they should step over a small fire to purify themselves before entering the house.

      After that, they should take a flower bath to throughly clean themselves. Lee explains these are precautions for peace of mind.

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    • Only the Practice of Dharma Can Help Us at the Time of Death

      Larry Rosenberg SUMMER 2000 tricycle

      Death is all around us, everywhere. For the most part—following the lead of our culture—we avoid it. But if we do open our hearts to death, it can be a great help to us.

      Throughout our lives, our body has been our closest companion. At times it has seemed to be who we are. We have spent hours washing and cleaning and clipping and oiling and combing and brushing, taking care of our body in all kinds of ways. We have fed it and rested it. We might have had differing attitudes toward it, sometimes loving it and sometimes hating it. But now this closest companion, which has gone through everything with us, will no longer be here. It will no longer take oxygen. It will not circulate blood. This body that for so many years was so full of vitality will be lifeless. It will be a corpse.

      The first Panchen Lama says it well: “This body that we have cherished for so long cheats us at the time when we need it most.”

      It is also true that this will not be the last change it will undergo. As a physical phenomenon, the dead body, if not cremated, will decompose, and it is common in Buddhist practice to consider the stages of change and decay in order to bring the reality of death home.

      Buddhist monks sometimes actually visit the charnel grounds to contemplate these other forms, to see our final fate, and there is a whole series of charnel ground meditations as well. The Mahasatipatthana Sutra, the Buddha’s main teaching on what to be mindful of in meditation, offers some guidelines as to how to practice with dead bodies at various stages of decomposition. For our purposes, visualization of these stages is more practical.

      As with the earlier contemplations, we first calm the mind with breath awareness; then through words and visualizations we create each stage and contemplate it. It is important to make a connection between the image and our own body. One traditional formulation is: “Truly, my body is of the same nature as the body being visualized. It won’t go beyond this nature. It is of the same lawfulness.” Our bodies don’t belong to us but to nature. And nothing in nature has a stable form.

      Reflecting in this way helps us come to terms with the nature of the body. We view it with wisdom, see that it can’t be any other way. If fear or resistance comes up, we see that too with nonjudgmental awareness, watching it arise and pass away.

      Ajaan Suwat taught me a version of this practice that I found extremely helpful. In his approach, you would start out by visualizing an inner organ of the body that you can easily picture, then watch what happens to it after death as the body goes through its stages of decomposition. When you reach the ninth contemplation (listed here)—when everything is ashes and dust—visualize it re-forming to its starting point. Finally—and I found this crucial—focus on the mind that is aware of all this. See that it is completely separate. This understanding keeps the charnel ground contemplations from becoming overwhelmingly depressing.

      Both of my parents instructed me to have them cremated when they died. My father died first, and I placed his picture and the urn with his ashes on the home altar where I meditate each day. In addition to my daily vipassana practice, I would find some time in most sittings to look at his picture and remind myself that the urn contained all that was left of his body and that I was not exempt from the same process. Such reflections sometimes aroused a powerful sense of how unstable my body is.

      As I write these words, my mother’s ashes now rest in an urn on the same altar. I am carrying out the same practice with her, and it is proving to be equally rich. Such teaching is the last gift that my extraordinary, generous parents were able to give me.

      As with many deep truths, people tend to look at the death awareness meditations and say, Yes, I know all of that. I know I’m going to die someday. I know I can’t take it with me. I know my body will be dust.

      And as with other things—as with the law of impermanence itself—I would say we know it and we don’t know it. We know it in our heads but haven’t taken it into our hearts. We haven’t let it penetrate the marrow of our bones. If we had, I can’t help thinking we would live differently. Our whole lives would be different. The planet would be

      If we really faced our fear of death—and these contemplations will bring it up, again and again—our lives would ultimately be lighter and more joyful. I don’t propose death awareness to depress us. It enhances our ability to live more fully.

      If we understood the reality of death, we would treat each other differently. Carlos Castaneda was once asked how we could make our lives more spiritual, and he said: Just remember that everyone you encounter today, everyone you see, will someday have to die. He’s right. That knowledge changes our whole relationship to people.

      During death awareness practice groups that I’ve led in Cambridge, I have asked people to leave the building after lunch, to walk around town, and to know that everyone they see will die; everyone is their brother or sister in death. It is a wonderful thing to do, especially after a period of death awareness meditation. It gives you a whole new attitude toward people you encounter.

      Finally, life is a great teacher and death is a great teacher. Death is all around us, everywhere. For the most part—following the lead of our culture—we avoid it. But if we do open our hearts to this fact of our lives, it can be a great help to us. It can teach us how to live.

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    • Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy

      Barbara O'Brien March 23, 2017 ThoughtCo.

      Finding Happiness in the Good Fortune of Others

      Mudita is word from Sanskrit and Pali that has no counterpart in English. It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others. In Buddhism, mudita is significant as one of the Four Immeasurables (Brahma-vihara).

      Defining mudita, we might consider its opposites. One of those is jealousy. Another is schadenfreude, a word frequently borrowed from German that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.

      Obviously, both of these emotions are marked by selfishness and malice. Cultivating mudita is the antidote to both.

      Mudita is described as an inner wellspring of joy that is always available, in all circumstances. It is extended to all beings, not just to those close to you. In the Mettam Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 46.54) the Buddha said, "I declare that the heart's release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence."

      Sometimes English-speaking teachers broaden the definition of mudita to include "empathy."

      Cultivating Mudita

      The 5th-century scholar Buddhaghosa included advice on growing mudita in his best-known work, the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification. The person just beginning to develop mudita, Buddhaghosa said, should not focus on someone dearly loved, or someone despised, or someone one feels neutral about.

      Instead, begin with a cheerful person who is a good friend.

      Contemplate this cheerfulness with appreciation and let it fill you. When this state of sympathetic joy is strong, then direct it toward a dearly loved person, a "neutral" person, and a person who causes difficulty.

      The next stage is to develop impartiality among the four--the loved one, the neutral person, the difficult person and oneself.

      And then sympathetic joy is extended on behalf of all beings.

      Obviously, this process is not going to happen in an afternoon. Further, Buddhaghosa said, only a person who has developed powers of absorption will succeed. "Absorption" here refers to the deepest meditative state, in which sense of self and other disappear. For more on this, see "The Four Dhyanas" and "Samadhi: Single Pointedness of Mind."

      Fighting Off Boredom

      Mudita also is said to be an antidote to indifference and boredom. Psychologists define boredom as an inability to connect with an activity. This may be because we're being forced to do something we don't want to do or because, for some reason, we can't seem to keep our attention focused on what we're supposed to be doing. And plugging away at this onerous task makes us feel sluggish and depressed.

      Looked at this way, boredom is the opposite of absorption. Through mudita comes a sense of energized concern that sweeps away the fog of boredom.


      In developing mudita, we come to appreciate other people as complete and complex beings, not as characters in our personal play. In this way, mudita is something of a prerequisite for compassion (karuna) and loving kindness (metta).

      Further, the Buddha taught that these practices are a prerequisite for awakening to enlightenment.

      Here we see that the quest for enlightenment does not require detaching from the world. Although it may require retreating into quieter places to study and meditate, the world is where we find practice--in our lives, our relationships, our challenges. The Buddha said,

      "Here, O, Monks, a disciple lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, everywhere and equally, he continues to pervade with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will." -- (Digha Nikaya 13)

      The teachings tell us that the practice of mudita produces a mental state that is calm, free and fearless, and open to deep insight.

      In this way, mudita is an important preparation for enlightenment.

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    • How the Buddha became a popular Christian saint

      Blake Smith February 22, 2018 America Magazine

      Christianity has been intertwined with the Indian subcontinent almost from the beginnings of the faith. The apostles Thomas and Bartholomew are both said to have traveled to India to preach the Gospel. And Christianity has been influenced by India in return. Two of medieval Europe’s most popular saints, Barlaam and Josaphat, were in fact Christianized versions of the Buddha, whose life story and teachings were adapted to the message of Christ. The transformation of the Buddha into a Christian figure demonstrates how much the two spiritual traditions share—and reveals the special beauty of medieval Christian piety.

      The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, was born to a noble family in India in the fourth or fifth century B.C. Renouncing his wealth to pursue wisdom, he founded what became one of the world's most important spiritual traditions. Hagiographies began to appear soon after his death, combining fantastical versions of his biography with his sermons and parables. The stories traveled throughout Asia, reaching the frontiers of Europe by the 10th century A.D. Monks in the Byzantine Empire took the story for their own. They replaced the Buddha with the fictitious Indian saint Josaphat (the name of an Old Testament king) and created the character of Barlaam from Bodhisattva, the Buddhist term for an enlightened person. But the story itself hardly changed.

      According to the Buddhist legend and its Byzantine adaptation, a king was granted a son after many years of childlessness. Raised in a palace, the young prince never saw poverty, sickness, old age or death. But one day, he snuck out of the palace and encountered on the road beggars, victims of disease and a funeral procession. Realizing that suffering was omnipresent, the prince could not return to the comfort of his father’s house. He began a quest for truth, in which he was helped, depending on the version, either by the supernatural beings of the Buddhist pantheon or by Barlaam, a Christian priest.

      The Byzantine story was translated into Latin and became one of the key texts of the medieval European church. Preachers in need of a sermon could find inspiration in its parables, which had been given a Christian interpretation by the Greek and Latin translators. A particularly famous one describes how a man chased by a tiger tripped over a cliff. Grasping onto a vine to stop his fall, the man sees another fearsome animal below him, the tiger still above him and a pair of mice gnawing through the vine, from which hangs a ripe fruit. With his free hand, he plucks the fruit and finds to his delight that it is the most delicious he has ever tasted.

      This story is today often interpreted among Western Buddhists of the Zen tradition as a call to enjoy life in the moment. In its medieval Christian interpretation, it was a stern warning: The sweetness that comes from the vine is the false pleasure of the world, by which people are so taken in that they forget the danger that pursues them.

      The Greek and Latin versions of Barlaam and Josaphat’s story represent a fascinating moment in the encounter between different cultures and spiritual traditions. Reading them, however, does not reveal much about why Barlaam and Josaphat became two of the era’s most beloved saints. The real appeal of the two Indian saints can be found in works of theater and poetry written for popular audiences in French, Spanish and other emerging languages of medieval Europe. Rather than focus on theological points or the interpretation of parables, these plays and poems explore the relationship between Josaphat and his father, the pagan king.

      When a son is finally born to him, the king is overcome by joy. He tells Josaphat in one 13th-century play, “You are my son and all my pleasure, my love and all my happiness.” He watches over his child, worrying that Josaphat “might be lost to death or that he might convert to the Christian faith” and thus be lost to him. When the king learns that his fears have come true, he confronts his son in desperation: “Why, son, have you put me in such sadness and dishonored my old age?” Finally, moved by his son’s explanation of the Gospel or by a miracle (depending on the particular version), the king recognizes that his beloved son is not his alone but also “that of the heavenly Father. How I must give him thanks for you!” Father and son, torn apart by religious difference, find each other again.

      Here medieval Christianity reveals its treasures of compassion. The Buddhist version of the story and the first Christian adaptations in Greek and Latin are rather cold, individualist affairs. They are concerned almost exclusively with the figure of the son, who must escape from the pleasures of the world and the gilded cage created by his father. Indeed, the father and his watchful love are merely obstacles to be overcome as the son pursues his spiritual journey. Faith itself is a question of intellect rather than emotion, with the Buddha achieving enlightenment through meditation and Josaphat accepting the Gospel after being convinced by the teachings of Barlaam.

      The medieval plays and poems, in contrast, portray the father as having a heart and soul of his own. They present his attachment to his son as a genuine paternal love, one that the love of God will improve, not abolish. Rather than escaping from his father and the world in general, the son must rescue and enrich them.

      Focused on the anguish of family strife and the power of divine love to redeem our everyday relationships, these medieval stories are far more than historical curiosities. Read today, the popular medieval versions of the life of Josaphat not only remind us that Christianity has long been in conversation with other faiths, borrowing and adapting from them, but also that the Christian tradition has something special to bring to these encounters. The tender treatment of a pagan father’s love in these poems and plays offers a particularly Christian reminder that dialog and conversion take place within vital, fraught relationships that are worthy of respect.

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    • American Actress and British-Royal-to-be Meghan Markle Reportedly Combats Stress with Meditation

      BD Dipananda Buddhistdoor Global | 2018-03-15 |

      Meghan Markle, American actress, humanitarian, and fiancée of Britain’s Prince Harry, meditates twice a day—20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon, according to her former meditation instructor. Years before her royal engagement, Light Watkins, an American meditation teacher and author of the book Bliss More, taught her the mindfulness practice, which she quickly adopted into her daily wellbeing routine. 

      “I met Meghan through a mutual friend of ours about five years ago,” Light Watkins told women’s fashion magazine InStyle. “This friend of ours is in the wellness space, and I think she had been working on some diet stuff with him. She’d been obviously familiar with the practice [of meditation] and had been doing it on her own and she was really intrigued by the fact that I was a meditation teacher and I do these trainings.”

      At the time, Markle was portraying Rachel Zane on the popular American drama series Suits, when a friend introduced her to Light Watkins. Already familiar with meditation, she decided to follow one of Watkin’s meditation courses to receive further training and structure for her practice. 

      Mindfulness is an ancient technique used in many contemplative spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism, and is has been rapidly growing in popularity among modern physiologists, neurologists, and physicians. Many recent studies demonstrate that even secular versions of mindfulness offer numerous well-being benefits, such as stress reduction, deep relaxation, and more positive states of mind. Many organizations, particularly in the West, are adapting mindfulness-based meditation programs to high stress environments, aiming to help practitioners better cope with the stressors they encounter on a daily basis.

      Markle was reportedly already well versed in wellness practices and followed a very clear diet with a regular exercise as part of her daily self-care routine. “I think she just saw meditation as just another tool that she could use because she has the resources and I guess the time to explore,” said Watkins. “I think it ended up being a lot more profound than she originally thought. It seems like she was in a relatively good space beforehand and in a better space afterward.”

      Markle was so inspired by Watkins that she mentioned him in her now-discontinued wellness blog, The Tig. She reportedly observed to Watkins: “Hey look, I’ve got this news wellness blog and I want to introduce more people to the things that I’m benefiting from and one of the key components to my wellness program is meditation.”

      Watkins says that he teaches very simple meditation techniques that can even be practiced on a bed: “When you close your eyes, your mind is going to be incredibly busy. [My] technique is based off of an acronym: EASY. Easy stands for embrace, accept, surrender, and yield. And what I’m referring to are the very things that people tend to resist in meditation. It’s very counterintuitive.”

      A couple of years ago, Watkins said, he was contected by Markle, who noted that she was meditating twice a day. With the royal wedding scheduled for later this spring, Watkins added, Markle is surely extremely busy, but still at times responds to the inspiration emails that he sends out every day: “I’m pretty sure she’s still meditating.”

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    • ... Buddhist temple in Malaysia. As early as the beginning of the Common Era, Buddhism was introduced to the Malay Archipelago through Indian influence. However, Chinese Buddhism did not arrive until the second half of the 17th century, well after ...

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    • ... good. Then I discovered Boudhanath. Literally ‘Buddha place’, Boudhanath (or Boudha, for short) is a village nestled within the sprawling Nepalese city of Kathmandu. It is the city’s large and generous Buddhist heart, populated by...

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    • The Many Buddhas of Malaysia

      Vanessa R. Sasson Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-07-28 |

      I knew very little about Buddhism in Malaysia before I landed in that lush green country. My visit was the result of some last-minute changes and I did not have much time to prepare. As a faithful academic, I did make a quick library dash and pulled out a number of histories, but I only managed to skim the surface before it was time to board the plane.

      I was whisked off by friends to the Cameron Highlands as soon as I landed—a beautiful region in the mountains, famous for its tea estates (and the setting for the magnificent novel Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng). I was fed at every turn, chaperoned and chauffeured, and entertained with the best sights the Highlands have to offer. At each step of the way, friends explained histories and pointed out details, providing me with an unparalleled introduction to Malaysian culture and love.

      The community I shared my time with there was Chinese Buddhist. There were Taoist shrines honored with incense and oil lamps, references to full moon rituals and Confucian mores, and offerings made to the bodhisattvas. I assumed this was what the Buddhist world of Malaysia looked like. I was, however, quickly relieved of that assumption. As I was being dropped off in Kuala Lumpur, one friend offered me a clue about where to look to understand the complexity of Buddhist Malaysian life further: she suggested I find a Buddhist shop to see what was being sold.

      She was right. On the shelves of the first shop I found were Buddhas of every variety mixed together. Chinese guardians placed with Tibetan tantric deities and Buddhas from Theravada lands. There were images from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Himalayas, and China, all sharing space on the same shelf in the most extraordinary combinations I have ever seen. Malaysia’s population is 65 per cent Muslim, most of whom are Sunni (but there are Ahmadi communities, Shi’a groups, and more). The remaining 35 per cent of the country’s population, however, is made up of a much more diverse range of non-Muslim communities, most of whom are Buddhist. The Buddhist communities interact with each other with extraordinary fluidity and freedom.

      I was soon whisked away again, this time by another group of friends who hosted and fed me in ways that I was beginning to realize were a regular feature of Malaysian hospitality. From early in the morning until late at night—every night!—we (myself and a colleague, for whom this was a research trip) were introduced to the stunning diversity of Buddhist life around Kuala Lumpur.

      The town of Ipoh (and its surrounding areas) provided, without a doubt, the most breathtaking example: in just one relatively small area, our hosts drove us to temple after temple after temple, not one of which was even remotely the same as the last. We did a marathon 16-1/2hour tour on one day, visiting a Chinese cave temple, a Bhutanese Kagyu temple, a Sri Lankan temple, a Thai temple, and a Tibetan Sakya temple. There were others too, but I eventually lost count (I was admittedly slightly delirious by the end!) I never imagined so much Buddhist diversity could exist in one small area.

      Even more fascinating, the diversity was to be found inside each temple as well, with Thai spirit houses surrounding the Sakya Tibetan temple, Kuan Yin sharing an altar with Guru Rinpoche, and so much more. The diversity was everywhere and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I kept wondering why there is so little academic (and even popular) attention being paid to this community. There seemed to be more happening in one square kilometer of Malaysia than in the whole of LA! There were very few tourists and there is virtually no research available about the area. How was all of this cultural diversity being missed by the greater international community?

      On the one hand, I must admit that it was delightful not to be swarmed by tourists. To walk through these temples quietly with friends, lighting butter lamps, talking with the people who cared for them, and have enough surrounding quiet to hear the insects humming in the background was a gift I did not take for granted.

      But there is a flip side that I became increasingly aware of as well: the Buddhist communities of Malaysia are a minority and they do not enjoy the same rights and freedoms of their Sunni Muslim counterparts. The history is complicated and layered, but regardless of how the country reached this point, at this juncture in time Buddhism appears to be facing serious obstacles. Every Buddhist I spoke with told me about their mounting concerns as further implementation of a restrictive interpretation of Sharia law was being debated in government.

      Currently, Sharia only applies to Muslims, and only to a limited extent (mostly having to do with issues of religious practice and marriage and divorce, but each state has its own interpretive range). Few people I spoke with doubted that the reach of Sharia would be extended to non-Muslims and that criminal law would be added to its domain of authority. I was told by a number of a people that it has already become impossible to build new Buddhist temples in Malaysia (unless they are labelled “tourist sites”—an apparent loophole in the system).

      Combined with a number of other logistical obstacles, Buddhism may soon be prevented from developing further (despite the fact that Article 11 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia promises freedom of religion). One Buddhist monk I spoke with (who is politically active), told me that it is not a question anymore of whether Sharia will be extended. Sharia, in his words, was already here. He carried his papers with him wherever he went, in case he suddenly encountered trouble as a representative in Buddhist robes.

      I am in no place to assess the political situation of Malaysia, but I certainly walked away feeling concern about the future of the country’s extraordinary Buddhist diversity. I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to meet with many members of the Muslim community, and I am sure I would have come away with a different impression if I had. I am certain there is debate, concern, and a vast spectrum of interpretation that I have missed. It was a short (albeit very full) trip, but it was ultimately one-sided. The side I did see, however, consistently gave voice to fears about the future of its Buddhist communities. The rich diversity and playful interaction between the different Buddhist traditions was magnificent, and it certainly spoke to a spirit of openness not always available in other parts of the Buddhist world.

      I am a bit embarrassed to write on a community I know so little about. I welcome corrections with humility, but I thought it would be valuable to provide some of my impressions here, given how little attention Buddhist Studies has paid to this fascinating part of the world. May others pick up the thread and develop the conversation with greater skill.

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    • Meditation’s Secret Ingredient

      Mark Epstein SPRING 2018 tricycle

      We practice “right concentration” not to experience blissful states but to help us entertain uncertainty.

      Concentration is the secret ingredient of meditation, the backbone of the entire endeavor. It is the simplest, most elementary, most concrete, most practical, and most ancient therapeutic technique in the Buddhist repertoire. It is a means of temporarily dispelling the repetitive thoughts of the everyday mind, a way of opening the psyche to new and unscripted experiences. Although it follows mindfulness on the eightfold path, it is generally taught before mindfulness when one is learning to meditate. It is such an essential introduction to Buddhist practice that its closing place on the eightfold path does not make sense at first glance. But concentration needs to be understood in the context of the entire path if it is not to become a distraction in itself. Concentration is “right” when it connects with the other branches of the whole. It is “right” when it demonstrates the feasibility of training the mind, when it supports the investigation of impermanence, when it erodes selfish preoccupation, and when it reveals the benefits of surrender. It is not “right” when it is seen as an end in itself and when it is used to avoid painful truths. One can hide out in the peaceful states that meditative concentration makes possible, but in the context of the eightfold path, this is considered a mistake.

      Concentration, from a Buddhist perspective, means keeping one’s attention steady on a single object such as the breath or a sound for extended periods of time. This is not something that we do ordinarily, and it is not something that comes easily. Those who try to fix their attention in this way for even five minutes will see this for themselves. Try to follow your breath and see what happens. Note the sensation of the in-breath and repeat the word “in” to yourself. Do the same with the out-breath and repeat the word “out.” Keep the mental label in the background and the bulk of your awareness on the direct physical sensation of the breath. If you are like most people, after successfully noting a breath or two, your usual subconscious inner world will reassert itself.  Thinking, planning, fantasizing, and worrying will rush to fill the void, noises from the outside world will pull you in, and five minutes will be over before you know it.  The mind does not become concentrated just because we tell it to.

      But right concentration asks us to persevere. Beginning meditators struggle with this very simple task. Whenever they notice that their attention has strayed, they return it to the central object. Lapses in attention happen not once or twice but over and over and over again. Sometimes people notice right away, and sometimes not for a long while, but right concentration suggests that we do not judge ourselves for our failings. Ancient texts compare the process of concentration to the taming of a wild animal. It is a difficult endeavor, full of ups and downs, but one that yields reliable results if practiced diligently and with patience.

      As concentration increases, the mind and body relax. Thoughts diminish, emotional pressures weaken, and a kind of calm takes over.  The mind gradually comes under some degree of control and settles down.  The Buddha compared this process to the smelting of gold. When its superficial contaminants are removed, gold becomes light, soft, malleable, and bright. Its brilliance comes forth, and it begins to shine.

      The benefits of concentration for the management of stressful situations are now widely acknowledged. I spoke recently with a young man newly diagnosed with colon cancer who had to go through a number of tests, scans, and procedures in rapid succession. His wife was interested in meditation and had already begun to explore it, but he had other things to do when he was healthy. Upon receiving the diagnosis, however, he needed something to help him, and he quickly became proficient in using concentration to calm his anxiety.  This was incredibly useful. When inside the PET scan machine, for example, where he had to lie still for long periods of time in a close space, he was able to watch his breath or scan the sensations in his body while letting the machine do its thing. It was just like a long, enforced meditation, he told me cheerfully, and it was fine. It is good to have this ability, to know from experience that it is possible; it is incredibly useful in all kinds of uncomfortable situations.

      Concentration is not just a method of managing stress, however; it is also an incubator of self-esteem.  This is less easily measured but just as important. I found this out for myself during one of my first extended explorations of meditation. Up until this first retreat, I had tried to watch my breath with varying degrees of success. I was taken with the challenge and interested in the underlying philosophy of Buddhism, but my immediate experience of meditation had mostly made me aware of the rather mundane nature of my own mind. The more I tried to watch my breath, the more I saw of the incessant, routine, repetitive, and self-serving thoughts running through the undercurrents of my psyche.

      At this retreat, however, after about three or four days of practice, things started to shift. I remember sitting in the meditation hall and suddenly being able to focus. All the effort to locate the breath and stay steady with it no longer seemed necessary. It was just there. Although I was remarkably devoid of my usual litany of thoughts, I was wide awake and clearheaded. My eyes were closed in the darkened hall, but light started to pour into my consciousness. Literally. I was seeing light while resting the bulk of my attention in the breath.  The light lifted me in some way and I had that feeling I sometimes get, when very moved, of the hairs of my body standing on end. A strong feeling of love came next—not love for anyone or anything in particular, just a strong sense of loving.  This all lasted for a while. I could get up and walk around and then, when I sat back down, it would be there again. It was as if the curtains in my mind had parted and something more fundamental was shining through. It was tremendously reassuring. Many of my doubts about myself— as inadequate, unworthy, or insufficient—seemed, as a result, to be superfluous. I knew, from the inside, that they were stories I had been repeating to myself, but not necessarily the truth. The love pouring out of me seemed infinitely more real.

      While this experience lasted for hours, it did not, of course, last forever. It was one of the more dramatic things to ever happen to me while meditating, and in fact I subsequently spent a fair amount of time trying to get it back. But its impact is as strong today as it was when it first happened. I know for a fact that behind my day-to-day preoccupations lies something more fundamental. While I have changed over the years, and while change (as we know from right view) is the nature of things, this underlying, almost invisible, feeling is there in the background. Concentration revealed it to me and sometimes allows it to reemerge. At times, with my family, with my patients, when listening to music or walking in the countryside, it peeks through of its own accord.

      Clinging takes many forms, and the desire for inner peace can sometimes be just as neurotic as other, more obvious addictions.

      A couple of years after this pivotal experience, when I was in medical school and doing one of my first monthlong rotations in psychiatry, I had an individual tutorial with an esteemed Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. John Nemiah, who was teaching me about a rare syndrome then called “conversion hysteria.” In this disorder, patients present with physical, often neurological, symptoms, like paralysis or shaking fits, for which no organic cause can be found. In many such cases, the theory goes, the actual problem is some kind of anxiety, but the anxiety is “converted” into physical symptoms because it is too overwhelming to experience in its raw psychological form. The diagnosis is rarely used today; it has been replaced in many instances by the term “dissociative disorder,” and some clinicians now believe that the symptoms can be traced back to episodes of sexual abuse. But the underlying theory about it remains essentially unchanged. Overwhelming feelings are somehow displaced onto, or into, the body. Physical symptoms emerge that have no direct and obvious cause. Post-traumatic stress might be thought of as a contemporary version of this. Traumatic events, never fully acknowledged, come back to haunt people in the form of seemingly inexplicable symptoms that arise as if out of the blue. Dr. Nemiah showed me some films of patients from the 1950s with conversion symptoms and then questioned me about them. He was trying to teach me not just about this particular syndrome but about the concept of the unconscious. If a patient’s symptoms are expressions of underlying anxiety, he wanted to know, how do they get “converted” into physical form? How does this happen?

      “What is the unconscious?” Dr. Nemiah asked me. This was a central question for a young would-be psychiatrist in those days, and I sensed that his evaluation of me depended upon my answer.

      I thought immediately of my retreat, of the curtains parting and the light shining through, of my understanding that the narrow world of my day-to-day preoccupations did not have to define me. In Dr. Nemiah’s world, the unconscious was mostly thought of as the dark and lurking place from which dreams emerge, but, as much as I would come to respect that point of view, this was not how I was thinking at the time.

      “The unconscious is the repository of mystery,” I responded.

      I remember how much Dr. Nemiah liked my answer despite being unaware of what I was actually thinking about. I was not about to tip my hand to him about my Buddhist leanings despite my admiration for his clinical acumen. Buddhism, at that time in my life, was not something I was talking about to my superiors, especially those who were going to give me an evaluation. But my answer worked just as well in his world as it did in my own. Mystery encompasses the dark as well as the light.

      As an experienced and erudite psychiatrist, Dr. Nemiah was trying to give me a feel for how little we, as supposed experts, understand the recesses of the mind. The unconscious is a mystery, and it remains one all these years later. In bringing Buddhism to a Western audience, I am in a similar situation. As much as I may talk to my friends and patients about how concentration opens doors into unexpected areas of the psyche, nothing beats experiencing it for oneself. Concentration is a channel into something we do not have exact words for. The unconscious? Mystery? The imagination? Love and light? It is tempting to turn whatever it is into something more concrete than we can actually apprehend.

      Right concentration argues against doing this. I think that is why it is saved for the last step instead of being talked about at the beginning. Right concentration does not want us to get attached to it. It does not want us to turn it into an object of worship. Use it to free yourself, but don’t turn it into another thing. Allow it to remain unpredictable.

      My Buddhist teachers, in making this point, chuckle at a story they often repeat. A man who successfully completed a three-month silent retreat came running down the street in its immediate aftermath screaming, “It didn’t work! It didn’t work!” Under the spell of developed concentration and enveloped within the silence of the retreat, this man had discovered a profound sense of inner peace. Mistakenly assuming that this achievement was permanent and that his mind had been transformed (and laboring under the conviction that absorption was the goal he was aiming for), he was naturally distressed to find this golden state evaporating as soon as conditions changed. He thought his mind would stay quiet forever and assumed he was finally rid of his neurotic tendencies. But his assumptions were unfounded, and his attachment to a particular state of mind was revealed.

      In a certain light, realizing his mistake was the real point of this man’s retreat. The desire to conquer impermanence by uniting the self with an idealized and unchanging “other” is very understandable. It manifests in love as well as in religion and is a persistent theme warned about in Buddhist psychology. Concentration meditations, deployed in the extreme, tend to take people away, akin to what happens when one is lost in music or transported during sex. The mind becomes focused, physical sensations are heightened, and feelings of serenity become strong. With diligent one-pointed practice, these feelings of absorption can be extended for prolonged periods of time, giving people the impression that all their problems have disappeared forever. The Buddha himself was careful not to urge his followers too far in this direction, however. Clinging takes many forms, and the desire for inner peace can sometimes be just as neurotic as other, more obvious addictions. The wish to lose oneself, however well-intentioned, masks a mind-set dominated by self-judgment and self-deprecation. It is often just another way of trying to find a safe place to hide, replacing a troubled self with something perfect and unassailable. Right concentration steers in a different direction. It offers stillness, not just as respite, but as a way of entertaining uncertainty. In a world where impermanence and change are basic facts of life, the willingness to be surprised gives one a big advantage.

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    • Clergy's monopoly over Buddhist teachings is over

      Sanitsuda Ekachai, The Bangkok Post, Feb 3, 2018

      Bangkok, Thailand -- People who believed that the majority of monks do not follow the Buddha's path have increasingly turned to meditation retreats led by non-monk teachers outside temples. A religious group called Techo Vipassana is one of them.

      The controversy surrounding a new religious group called Techo Vipassana led by a self-proclaimed enlightened woman should remind the clergy that, short of Sangha reform, it is fighting a losing battle in the modern faith market.

      Like it or not, the time of monks monopolising Buddhist teachings and practices is now over.

      Thanks to information technology, ordinary people can now have direct access to the Buddha's teachings without having to go through the "professionals" in temples as in the old days. The result is the rise of lay meditation masters -- both men and women, both genuine and fake.

      Meditation retreats led by non-monk teachers outside temples are also an increasingly popular answer the middle class' spiritual quests that cannot be met by the traditional clergy.

      Acharavadee Wongsakon, leader of the Techo Vipassana Meditation Centre, is just one of them.

      Ms Acharavadee became the centre of a controversy when her photos as a female religious guru surrounded by doting disciples went viral on social media. The photos show monks paying respects to her, implying her superior spiritual status while her seating in the religious ceremony gave her near-royal status.

      Who is she? That question has spread like wildfire.

      What is this strange-sounding Techo Vipassana meditation? The term is unheard of in Buddhism. And while there are many self-proclaimed enlightened meditation masters in the faith market, why is Ms Acharavadee so deeply hated by the clergy?

      With an educational background in marketing and film-making, Ms Acharavadee worked in the advertising industry before making her name in high society as a jewellery designer and owner of a high-profile diamond store. She left high society about a decade ago to set up a Dhamma school for youngsters before setting up an organisation called "Knowing Buddha" to rally for legal punishment against abuses of Buddha images.

      Then her books hit the book stands, establishing her new role as a meditation guru. In "Kharawat Banlu Tham", meaning enlightenment of lay Buddhists, she said the Buddha told her to write about her meditation experiences and ability to see past lives. In Techo Vipassana, she relates how the spirit of the late Somdet Phutthachan To Phrom Rangsi, a saint to Thai Buddhists, came to teach her a long-lost short cut to nirvana called Techo Vipassana.

      According to her website, Techo means the fire element. By sharpening mental concentration, the fire element in one's body will be ignited to burn up all mental impurities, resulting in lightning-speed enlightenment.

      She claimed that was how she became spiritually liberated in a short period, and so did many others who followed her shortcut to enlightenment.

      Hers is a classic story line of the creation of new religious groups. You establish yourself as the chosen one with magical powers and direct access to the locals' saints or gods, the saviour who can provide a shortcut to salvation.

      When traditional Buddhism tells you to be patient as it can take countless lifetimes to thoroughly purify your minds to end the cycle of births and deaths, it is not surprising that many in our fast-food culture are attracted to Ms Acharavadee's promise of nirvana in this lifetime.

      Her meditation centre is serene, beautiful, comfortable and located in a scenic setting. The courses are well organised for mass retreats. And they are free. Obviously following the system of well-known Goenka meditation centres, the courses are supported through voluntary donations.

      Interestingly, her claim about a long-lost meditation technique is quite similar to that of the Goenka school of meditation. While the body-scanning technique of the Goenka school is said to be passed down through generations of monks in Myanmar, Ms Acharavadee said she is the discoverer through extrasensory channels with a Buddhist saint.

      As curious as Ms Acharavadee's claims are, they are not the reason she got into trouble with the clergy.

      In mid-January, she launched her "Stop Alajji" (stop wayward monks) campaign to "protect Buddhism" and asserted that the majority of monks cheat people into making merit for their own gain.

      The monks were immediately up in arms.

      Representing the voices of mainstream clergy, the website www.alittlebuddha.com fired the opening salvo. Ms Acharavadee is accused of insulting monks, being anti-clergy and breaking Buddhist teachings by falsely claiming and advertising her own enlightenment. Her fund-raising activities have also been questioned and calls were made for state intervention and punishment.

      The Techo group acted fast. Last week, it held a press conference to apologise to "good monks" for going overboard by stating that most Thai monks are wayward as a way to emphasise the urgency of the problem.

      She blamed the controversy on defectors who maliciously used her photos on social media out of context to discredit her; and allegations of acting like a royal are particularly sensitive given the harsh lese majeste law.

      She called the allegation that she is demanding big donations from followers in return of a speedy enlightenment "the most vicious lie" of the defectors, and countered with a promise to sue them.

      Ms Acharavadee insists Techo meditation is in line with Buddhism's Satipatthana practices.

      Satipatthana is a mindfulness meditation system to foster constant awareness of one's material form, feelings, mental activities and state of flux or impermanence.

      History dating back to Buddha's time is also full of lay Buddhists attaining different levels of spiritual purification through practising the precepts and meditation without having to be ordained, she argued.

      Amid prevalent misunderstanding that spiritual liberation is only for monastics, she said she shared her spiritual experience not to boast about it, but to encourage people to practice insightful meditation and live correctly so they can be spiritually purified step by step.

      She denied the allegation that her group is a cult, insisting that her teachings come from Buddhism and she has a strong track record through her Knowing Buddha organisation as a protector of Buddhism.

      Talking about the monks' fury, I suspect that it also has much to do with the Techo leader being a woman.

      Traditionally, a woman's role in our patriarchal clergy is to be subservient and supportive to monks. If women want a monastic life, they must accept a deferential status as nuns. If they attempt to achieve equality as female monks, they must be punished and, better still, eliminated.

      Ms Acharavadee is certainly not the first female meditation teacher. The late Siri Krinchai revolutionised traditional meditation by making it systematic to accommodate mass retreat. Despite high public respect, she remained humble throughout her life.

      But Ms Acharavadee is different. She claims sainthood for herself and openly belittles monkshood by telling people they don't need to go to temples because most monks are unworthy of respect.

      The monks' rage has prompted the National Office of Buddhism to investigate whether the Techo Vipassana group "violates Buddhism and creates division in society".

      Yes, the same National Office of Buddhism that was recently embroiled in a corruption scandal involving its top executives colluding with senior monks to swindle state funds for temple restoration.

      Do we really think this agency has the integrity to have a final say on what is "true" or "false" Buddhism? Should criticism against monks be prohibited? Should monks use state agencies to eliminate their competitors? Should the state intervene in people's beliefs at all?

      Absolutely not.

      Cults or not, we have no right to eliminate belief groups we disagree with unless they break the law.

      Isn't tolerance what Buddhism teaches?

      I call Techo Vipassana a new religious group, not a cult, because it is a neutral term while cult has negative connotations which violate religious freedoms. It can also be easily abused to trigger hate leading to banishment for political purposes.

      When mainstream religious organisations can no longer meet the spiritual needs of a modern, fragmented society with diverse needs, the emergence of new belief groups is common, and should be accepted as such. Only when they violate the law shopuld intervention be necessary.

      Admit it, Ms Acharavadee is not alone in believing the majority of monks do not follow the Buddha's path. It's why people are turning to groups who can give them the spiritual guidance they want.

      For new religious groups, the lessons learned from the Techo controversy are to stay safe by refraining from criticising the clergy, even of it is the truth.

      For the clergy, it should learn that the best way to survive in the competitive faith market is to return to the monks' original vocation as expected by the public. If not, being a crybaby by endlessly demanding state help will not stop new religious groups from stepping in to take the cake.

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    • Does your ego serve you, or do you serve it? What Buddhism and Freud say about self-slavery

      February 2, 2018 Mark Epstein Big Think

      Ego is the one affliction we all have in common. Because of our understandable efforts to be bigger, better, smarter, stronger, richer, or more attractive, we are shadowed by a nagging sense of weariness and self-doubt. Our very efforts at self-improvement orient us in an unsustainable direction since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. We want our lives to be better but we are hamstrung in our approach. Disappointment is the inevitable consequence of endless ambition, and bitterness a common refrain when things do not work out. Dreams are a good window into this. They hurl us into situations in which we feel stuck, exposed, embarrassed, or humiliated, feelings we do our best to keep at bay during our waking hours. Our disturbing dreams are trying to tell us something, however. The ego is not an innocent bystander. While it claims to have our own best interests at heart, in its relentless pursuit of attention and power it undermines the very goals it sets out to achieve. The ego needs our help. If we want a more satisfying existence, we have to teach it to loosen its grip.

      There are many things in life we can do nothing about—the circumstances of our childhoods; natural events in the outer world; the chaos and catastrophe of illness, accident, loss, and abuse—but there is one thing we can change. How we interact with our own egos is up to us. We get very little help with this in life. No one really teaches us how to be with ourselves in a constructive way. There is a lot of encouragement in our culture for developing a stronger sense of self. Self-love, self-esteem, self-confidence, and the ability to aggressively get one’s needs met are all goals that most people subscribe to. As important as these accomplishments may be, however, they are not enough to guarantee well-being. People with a strong sense of self still suffer. They may look like they have it all together, but they cannot relax without drinking or taking drugs. They cannot unwind, give affection, improvise, create, or sympathize with others if they are steadfastly focused only on themselves. Simply building up the ego leaves a person stranded. The most important events in our lives, from falling in love to giving birth to facing death, all require the ego to let go.

      This is not something the ego knows how to do. If it had a mind of its own, it would not see this as its mission. But there is no reason for the untutored ego to hold sway over our lives, no reason for a permanently selfish agenda to be our bottom line. The very ego whose fears and attachments drive us is also capable of a profound and far-reaching development. We have the capacity, as conscious and self-reflecting individuals, to talk back to the ego. Instead of focusing solely on success in the external world, we can direct ourselves to the internal one. There is much self-esteem to be gained from learning how and when to surrender.

      While our culture does not generally support the conscious de-escalation of the ego, there are silent advocates for it in our midst. Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy both hold out hope for a more flexible ego, one that does not pit the individual against everyone else in a futile attempt to gain total surety. These two traditions developed in completely different times and places and, until relatively recently, had nothing to do with each other. But the originators of each tradition—Siddhartha Gautama, the South Asian prince who renounced his luxurious lifestyle to seek an escape from the indignities of old age, illness, and death; and Sigmund Freud, the Viennese doctor whose interpretation of his own dreams set him on a path to illuminate the dark undercurrents of the human psyche—both identified the untrammeled ego as the limiting factor in our well-being. As different as these two individuals were, they came to a virtually identical conclusion. When we let the ego have free rein, we suffer. But when it learns to let go, we are free.

      Neither Buddhism nor psychotherapy seeks to eradicate the ego. To do so would render us either helpless or psychotic. We need our egos to navigate the world, to regulate our instincts, to exercise our executive function, and to mediate the conflicting demands of self and other. The therapeutic practices of both Buddhism and psychotherapy are often used to build up the ego in just these ways. When someone is depressed or suffers from low self-esteem because he or she has been mistreated, for example, therapy must focus on repairing a battered ego. Similarly, many people have embraced the meditation practices of the East to help build up their self-confidence. Focus and concentration diminish stress and anxiety and help people adapt to challenging home and work environments. Meditation has found a place in hospitals, on Wall Street, in the armed forces, and in sports arenas, and much of its benefit lies in the ego strength it confers by giving people more control over their minds and bodies. The ego-enhancing aspects of both of these approaches are not to be minimized. But ego enhancement, by itself, can get us only so far.

      Both Western psychotherapy and Buddhism seek to empower the observing “I” over the unbridled “me.” They aim to rebalance the ego, diminishing self-centeredness by encouraging self-reflection. They do this in different, although related, ways and with different, although related, visions. For Freud, free association and the analysis of dreams were the primary methods. By having his patients lie prone and stare into space while saying whatever came to mind, he shifted the usual equilibrium of the ego toward the subjective. Although few people lie on the couch anymore, this kind of self-reflection remains one of the most therapeutic aspects of psychotherapy. People learn to make room for themselves, to be with uncomfortable emotional experiences, in a more accepting way. They learn to make sense of their internal conflicts and unconscious motivations, to relax against the strain of the ego’s perfectionism.

      Buddhism counsels something similar. Although its central premise is that suffering is an inextricable aspect of life, it is actually a cheerful religion. Its meditations are designed to teach people to watch their own minds without necessarily believing everything they think. Mindfulness, the ability to be with whatever is happening in a moment-to-moment way, helps one not be victimized by one’s most selfish impulses. Meditators are trained to not push away the unpleasant nor cling to the pleasant but to make room for whatever arises. Impulsive reactions, in the form of likes and dislikes, are given the same kind of attention as everything else, so that people learn to dwell more consistently in their observing awareness, just as one does in classic modes of therapy. This observing awareness is an impersonal part of the ego, unconditioned by one’s usual needs and expectations. Mindfulness pulls one away from the immature ego’s insistent self-concern, and in the process it enhances one’s equilibrium in the face of incessant change. This turns out to be enormously helpful in dealing with the many indignities life throws at us.

      While the two approaches are very similar, the primary areas of concern turned out to be different. Freud became interested in the roiling instincts and passions that rise to the surface when the ego is put under observation. He saw himself as a conjuror of the unconscious, an illuminator of the dark undercurrents of human behavior. When not prompted, people reveal themselves, often to their own surprise, and what they discover, while not always pretty, gives them a deeper and richer appreciation of themselves. Out of the dark earth, after a night’s rain, flowers grow. Freud took delight in poking fun at the belief that we are masters in our own houses, comparing his discoveries to those of Copernicus, who insisted that the sun does not revolve around the earth, and Darwin, who claimed that man “bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” For Freud, the ego could evolve only by giving up its ambitions of mastery. The ego he encouraged was a humbled one, wider in scope but aware of its own limitations, not driven so much by instinctual cravings but able to use its energies creatively and for the benefit of others.

      While maintaining a similar reliance on self-observation, Buddhism has a different focus. It seeks to give people a taste of pure awareness. Its meditation practices, like those of therapy, are built on the split between subject and object. But rather than finding uncovered instincts to be the most illuminating, Buddhism finds inspiration in the phenomenon of consciousness itself. Mindfulness holds up a mirror to all the activity of mind and body. This image of the mirror is central to Buddhist thought. A mirror reflects things without distortion. Our consciousness is like that mirror. It reflects things just as they are. In most people’s lives, this is taken for granted; no special attention is given to this mysterious occurrence. But mindfulness takes this knowing consciousness as its most compelling object. The bell is ringing. I hear it and on top of that I know that “I” am hearing it and, when mindful, I might even know that I know that I am hearing it. But once in a while in deep meditation, this whole thing collapses and all that is left is one’s mirrorlike knowing. No “I,” no “me,” just pure subjective awareness. The bell, the sound, that’s it! It is very hard to talk about, but when it happens the freedom from one’s usual identity comes as a relief. The contrast with one’s habitual ego-driven state is overwhelming, and much of the Buddhist tradition is designed to help consolidate the perspective of this “Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom” with one’s day-to-day personality.

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    • The R Word - What All Religions Offer

      Robert Bellah SPRING 2008 tricycle

      Fundamentalists here and abroad have been giving religion a bad rap lately, and so-called militant atheists have used the opportunity to take up the offensive. But according to prominent sociologist Robert N. Bellah, both sides have it wrong: they are mistaken about what religion actually is.

      In our current atmosphere of cultural polarization, the term religion has become highly contested. Just how contested was brought home to me in April 2006, when, during a public lecture I gave at the University of Montana in Missoula, a man in the audience sharply questioned my very use of the word. I said that I was simply following a long history of usage, that I knew that some people contrast spirituality, which they see as good, with religion, which they believe is bad, but that I had never found that dichotomy helpful, as spirituality until recently was always considered an aspect of religion, not a rival to it. But he was adamant. Religion, he insisted, is a terrible thing and if I didn’t want to use the term spirituality, I should think of some new word. Like what? I queried. He had no answer but insisted I come up with one. It was his fervor rather than the content of his remark that struck me.

      It seems that the biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of the 2006 book The God Delusion, doesn’t just dislike the word religion, he dislikes the very thing, attributing many of the ills of the world to it and advocating its early demise. As one reviewer pointed out, echoing my experience in Montana, it is the strength of Dawkins’s conviction rather than his argument that is striking. Indeed, for a scientist accustomed to arguments based on evidence, Dawkins’s book contains remarkably little in the way of proof. In the case of the man in Montana, I think the problem was that religion to him meant “institutional religion,” that is, churches and such, and institutions are, to his mind, intrinsically alien and oppressive, whereas spirituality is the free expression of individuals. Dawkins’s problem is somewhat different.

      Religion for Dawkins is a cognitive system, a kind of science, but bad science with bad consequences. Therefore it should be gotten rid of. For a social scientist, on the other hand, religion is not primarily a scientific theory at all: it is the many ways humans have sought to find meaning, to make sense of their lives. As such, it is an inescapable sphere of life, like economics and politics. Because there is much wrong with our economy—social injustice and environmental degradation, to mention two major effects of our capitalist sytem—can we just abolish the economy? Because there is much political corruption and incredibly incompetent political leadership, can we just abolish politics? Like other spheres of human life, religion—the meaning-making sphere—is often subject to distortion and can become horribly destructive. But getting rid of it isn’t an option. Religion meets a human need, and if you get rid of it in one form, it will come back in another.

      Dawkins’s idea of religion as theory is widespread among educated people, and this might partly account for the popularity of his book and other equally silly ones by so-called militant atheists, who are attempting to respond to religious extremism armed only with half-understandings and misconceptions about what religion actually is. After all, they say, isn’t Christianity just a set of beliefs? Christianity has in fact emphasized belief more than any other of the great religious traditions, and Protestantism more than other forms of Christianity, so this understanding has some historical foundation. Yet belief is not the same as theory. Religious belief is not a kind of quasi-science, even though that is how people like Dawkins view it.

      Religion isn’t about theory; it’s about meaning. Religious texts and statements are not, in their basic function, about imparting information with which one must agree or disagree. What they impart is meaning, and meaning doesn’t tell us something new; it seems just to be saying the same old thing, though in a deeper understanding it makes sense of the new. Meaning is iterative, not cumulative. If someone in an intimate relationship says to the other, “Do you love me?” and the other replies, “Why do you ask? I told you that yesterday,” we can say that he doesn’t get it. The request was not for information or some new bit of knowledge but for the reiteration of meaning. Similarly, if someone said, “Why do we have to say the Lord’s Prayer this Sunday?—we already said it last Sunday,” again, we would say that the person is missing the point, that he or she is making what philosophers call a category mistake. For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is not news that we can forget once we’ve heard it; it is an expression of who we are in relation to who God is, and its reiteration is not redundant but a renewed affirmation of meaning, an invocation of a total context.

      We are inclined to think that sacred texts, canonical texts, have in themselves an intrinsic meaning and are by nature qualitatively different from other texts, but this is an error. In fact, sacred texts must be read or listened to in the context of a community for which they are sacred: it is in the ritual practices of a living community that they become sacred. Ritual is the place where meaning occurs. Saying “I love you” to an intimate other is indeed a ritual, but it contributes more than we imagine to maintaining the meaning of the intimate relationship, just as the ritual of reciting the Lord’s Prayer reiterates the meaning of our worship of God.

      While it is good to regard religion as that sphere of life where we seek to make sense of the world, it is also good to recognize that it is not a neatly demarcated sphere with clear boundaries, even in our society, where we tend to try to separate the spheres more than earlier societies have done. In most societies until modern times, the spheres have largely overlapped. Economics and politics were saturated with religion and vice versa. Because religion gave expression to the meaning of life, it was hard to separate it from a way of life as a whole.

      Since religious practices have been central to human life from the beginning of our species, and are really coexistent with our being as a species, they must be considered as a whole. As one of my own mentors, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, put it in Toward a World Theology, they are, historically speaking, singular. This is not to say that all religions are the same. Far from it. Wilfred championed diversity before the word ever became fashionable. His sense that the history of religion is singular does not mean that in their particularities religions are the same. In fact, he didn’t even think the same religions are the same, and therefore he urged the abandonment of such terms as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and so forth. For Wilfred, it would be absurd to suppose that all people have been religious in the same way: “No two centuries have been religious in the same way; certainly, no two communities, in the end, no two persons.” But while recognizing the variety of humankind’s religious life, he also discerned that this life was contained within a historical continuum. To consider religious practices as historically singular is also “to affirm that they are all historically interconnected; that they have interacted with the same things or with each other, or that one has ‘grown out of’ or been ‘influenced by’ the other; more exactly, that one can be understood only in terms of a context of which the other forms a part.”

      It is, of course, obvious that while all religions may be related, the family of religion is not a happy one. Even so, without ever denying the enormous complexities in this field, the recognition that we are all part of a single history, may move us closer to mutual intelligibility, even toward a recognition that we are all ultimately members one of another.

      In his essay “The Widening Gyre: Religion, Culture and Evolution” (Science & Spirit,July/August 1999), the evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald postulates that religion emerged out of two developments in the evolution of human capabilities. The first of these involves mimesis, “learning by observing a behavior and mimicking it, acting it out, in our own lives.” Mimesis, he writes, “is a whole-body skill, unique to human beings, whereby we can use our entire bodies as expressive devices. It is the basis of most nonverbal communication, as well as art, craft, dance, and athletics. But more importantly, it is the primordial source of our communal cultural traditions.”

      The second great evolutionary event in the background of what we call religion is the emergence of our capacity for speech, probably over 100,000 years ago. Donald describes the consequences:

      Oral traditions were the inevitable outgrowth of this capacity for language. These traditions may be viewed as gigantic representational conventions that summarize the accumulated wisdom of a people. Such narratives were a great leap from the older framework of simpler ritualized behaviors that had been put in place by mimesis, and served as a kind of collective governor of values, beliefs, and behavior for every member of the society.

      However, oral traditions did not displace or conflict with mimesis. They incorporated mimetic ritual under a more powerful system of narrative thinking, which produced “mythic” cultures. Myth, in the sense of an authorized set of allegories and narratives, became the ruling construct in such societies.

      Modern society still preserves much of this structure, and still depends upon mimesis as a sort of elemental social glue. The universal form of traditional religion consists of precisely this: a narrative, a sacred story overlying a deeper core of mimetic traditions—ritual and beliefs whose origins lie in the depths of time. These form a “governing hierarchy” that regulates both individual consciousness and public behavior on much of the planet.

      But although the deepest truths of our being continue to be expressed in mimetic and mythic forms, another much more recent evolutionary advance has also to be taken into account: the emergence of theoretic culture, the capacity for objective critical reasoning. The beginnings of theory as a cultural form go a long way back, but the first clear emergence of theory as an alternative to mimesis and myth occurred in the Axial Age, the first millennium B.C.E., in Greece, Israel, India, and China, and have to a considerable degree influenced the religions that derive from that period, that is to say, all the great religions that still survive. But just as mythic thinking did not and could not displace mimetic consciousness, so theory did not and could not replace mimetic and mythic culture. It gave the possibility of critical reflection that, at its best, could prevent distortions of older truths, but always with the possibility of adding new distortions of its own.

      Theory can greatly enrich our religious life and has done so in all the great traditions for millennia. But theory can’t replace the older forms of human culture that give religion its vitality. When it tries to do that, it becomes a parody not only of religion but also of the realm of critical reason itself.

      An example of this kind of parody occured at a recent conference on science and religion at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The discussion, as reported in the November 21, 2006 New York Times, apparently took a turn toward a kind of anti-religious scientific evangelicalism:

      Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church…

      She was not entirely kidding. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome—and even comforting—than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

      What she wants to “teach our children” is not a theory but, as she says herself, a story, that is, a myth. That the universe is incredibly rich and beautiful I have no doubt, but I know for certain that science is not in the business of telling us that and, in fact, cannot possibly tell us that and still be science. Even more clearly, science is not in the business of comforting us with the glorious and the awesome. All of its great achievements would be undermined if it tried to take on that role. In imagining that science can do what only religion can do, we have once again a category mistake, one that messes up science in the process. Further, it is dangerous to imagine that such a thing could be done while leaving behind the mimetic and the mythic, because what is thrown out at the front door will come in at the back door.

      It’s no surprise that science would be seen as an appealing substitute for religion. Science claims to be universal, the same truth for everyone, whereas religions seem to be indelibly particular, and in their particularity, often deadly: If you are not like me, then I’ll kill you. And if you are a Sunni in a Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad or vice versa, you may indeed find yourself in such a situation. Our task, however, is not to deny our particularity in favor of some abstract theoretical universalism. I am not in the least denying that what we have in common is important—it is critically important—as is the search for ethical universals that can appeal across all forms of diversity. But if genuine universality is possible for humans, it must derive from and not deny particularity. The idea of the history of religion in the singular lets us see that, though we are indelibly different, not only from other religions but also from other forms of our own religion, we yet share a common history, and we cannot understand ourselves except in the context of the whole.

      To illustrate this point, we can look at two religious rituals that, though they may appear to be worlds apart, actually underscore the very same religious theme. First, a Tewa Pueblo initiation ceremony that Robert Darnton described in his reflection on anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the January 11, 2007 New York Review of Books. During the ceremony adolescent boys are awakened from their beds in the middle of the night and led into the deepest and most secret room in the pueblo. There they wait, in the dark, clad only in ritual loincloths. Suddenly there’s a terrifying thumping over their heads. The overhead door opens, and into the room comes a god in a frightful mask, and he asks if the boys are ready to be “finished” as men. (Although Geertz uses the word “god,” for reasons having to do with the connotations that word has in monotheistic cultures, I prefer to use the term Powerful Beings.) When they assent, he flails them mightily with a yucca whip. Eventually, having beaten and terrorized the youths, the Powerful Being pulls off his mask and the boys see that the man looking back at them, now laughing, is a neighbor or relative.

      The important lesson is not that the Powerful Being was Uncle X, but that during the ritual Uncle X was the Powerful Being. After that, he is just Uncle X again. Yet the boys have learned something about the relationship between humans and Powerful Beings, namely, that under certain circumstances they can become identical. But the point I want to make about this “strange” event is that, in its particularity, it tells us something important about religion generally: It often involves human participation in what we can call, for want of a better term, divinity.

      The ritual of the Eucharist, if one thinks about it, seems as strange as the Tewa initiation. It is familiar culturally—especially for Christians, obviously—and so many of us tend not to see the strangeness of it. But what is going on here? A narrative account of its institution is an essential part of the ritual, but the event is mimetic, enacted. Ordinary bread and wine become, through the words and actions of the priest, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the members of the congregation approach the altar and partake of that body and blood. In partaking they reaffirm their membership in the body of Christ, their identity with Christ: Though we are many, we are one body because we all share one bread and one cup.

      My point is that when we make the effort to understand what may seem strange in the religious practices of others, we may find that it opens the door to something beyond the particular case, something quite general: the capacity of humans to participate in divinity.

      The particularities of religions may illustrate their most universal features. All religions involve bodily enactment, performance, mimesis. Even reading, when done as a religious practice, is a form of embodiment. Young Chinese in pre-modern times, for example, began by memorizing the classics before they could understand them. The point was to make the texts a part of oneself so that the poems’ meaning, as it unfolded, did not only come from the acquisition of external knowledge, but also from within. While each religion involves unique stories, narratives, and myths, the centrality of narrative is one thing that all faiths have in common.

      The concreteness and particularity of mimesis and narrative seem to limit the capacity for generalization. While all religious people incorporate mimesis and narrative, they do so in very different ways. Theory, as I said earlier, has one great advantage: It can transcend context, it can rise above the particular, or at least try to. The theoretical achievements of the religions transformed in the Axial Age may show us even more clearly that we are part of one history.

      Of course, the axial transformations in Greece, Israel, India, and China were not all the same. Far from it; they were each quite different and each led to later developments that took quite different directions. But they were similar, indeed this is what makes them axial, in that they involved a new element of explicit theory: the ability to criticize, to give reasons why certain religious, ethical, or social practices are wrong and should be corrected. It is not the case that narrative religions wholly lack criticism. But they have little capacity to make criticisms explicit; what they do is tell a new story, one that includes what they feel is left out in the old story. Any primarily narrative culture has a plethora of stories, often conflicting, and different depending on who tells them. The myths of women in some Australian Aboriginal societies, for example, kept secret from men, claim that originally they, the women, had all the ritual secrets, that they gave them to the men because the rituals they involve are too much trouble, and that they still know the secrets even though the men think they don’t.

      But the kind of criticism I am calling theory moves beyond telling another story to giving reasons why one’s criticism is justified. Axial criticism can be political, ethical, or religious, and sometimes all three at once. Axial societies inherited from their archaic Bronze Age predecessors the notion that the ruler is “the shepherd of the people.” When the rulers are clearly not good shepherds, there is great complaint, but little in the way of argument. In the Axial societies ideas such as justice emerge for the first time. Similarly, in pre-Axial societies, if ritual doesn’t work, the failure will be explained by saying there was some mistake in the ritual, or the people will try a new ritual borrowed from a neighboring people. But in Axial societies ritual itself comes under fire, and its very meaning is altered.

      One of the best examples is Amos, one of the great prophets of early Israel. Amos is relentless in his criticism of injustice and unrighteousness, of the oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. In viewing such injustice, God will not be placated by conventional ritual.

      Thus says the Lord: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21–24)

      It is not worship as such, I would argue, that Amos criticizes, but worship used to placate or even bribe God into overlooking sins. What we see in Amos and in other prophets is the capacity to criticize the existing order, social and religious, and to offer criteria in terms of which they may be reformed. The prophets do not reject, however, the mimetic and the narrative, but seek to reform them to bring them closer to their deepest meaning. Here theory, critical thinking, is used not as an autonomous basis from which to reject the received tradition, but as a way of opening up the particularity of the tradition to a more general level of understanding.

      One could produce evidence of similar developments in ancient Greece and China, but I will give only some examples from ancient India, the teachings of the Buddha in particular. In Axial India, too, a radical critique of ritual occurs, one in which the sacrifice so central to Vedic religion becomes the sacrifice of self in mystical liberation, a development already apparent within the Vedic tradition itself in the Upanishads. But the Buddha carried through the criticism of the received tradition more radically than any other critic in Axial India. Key Vedic terms become radically transvalued. The central Vedic term dharma (Pali dhamma), which originally meant the act of animal sacrifice itself and was then generalized to mean duty in the context of one’s inherited status, was radically inverted to mean the teachings of the Buddha, also assertively called saddharma, the real or true dharma. Similarly, the central Vedic idea of karma (Pali kamma) was changed from a determinative principle focused on meeting primarily ritual obligations defined by social status to a moral principle focused on purifying the intention of one’s acts. To put it in more general terms, one could say that the Buddha gave an unprecedented emphasis to the rational agency of individuals and radically devalued differences of inherited status, including in principle the varnasystem of social hierarchy and any notion of the divine status of kings. He placed the virtues of compassion and generosity at the center of religious ethics and as preparatory to the practice of meditation that could lead to liberation. Although the Buddha, like all the great Axial reformers, took many inherited ideas for granted—above all in his case the ideas of reincarnation and liberation—he brought a theoretic clarity to religious life that undermined all inherited structures of inequality and exploitation, at least in principle. (We must admit, however, that the “promissory notes” issued in the Axial Age were never fully redeemed then or later and remain tasks for our own future action.)

      My point is not that all the Axial cases are the same, or even that terms we translate as “justice” and “compassion” are the same. In every case, both ideas and words are rooted in particular traditions. Yet the use of theory, not to replace but to reform social and religious practice, provides a level of generality where we can begin to discern analogies, not just of form but of content, between the traditions. It has been a long hard road even to discern these analogies, and they are still disputed by scholars who argue for radical relativism and even incommensurability. That is an argument I cannot get into in this essay. Nor can I deal with the many ways in which power, economic and political, has used and abused religious belief and practice, a matter that can never be forgotten in any serious discussion of the role of religion in human history.

      But if I am right and the objections can be overcome, then, without abandoning our indelible particularity, the fact is that, in a very important sense, we are our history. We can move to a new history in which we see that those of other faiths are not as Other as some like to claim, that we have much in common with them, that, in spite of all the differences, we are part of the same story, the human story. Religion is certainly not the whole story—science, politics, economics, and the other realms of human endeavor are part of it as well—but it is in and through and because of religion that this story is meaningful.

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    • Going Native: The History of Buddhism in China

      Buddhistdoor Buddhistdoor Global | 2018-01-22 |

      It is never easy to provide an introductory overview of what we call Buddhism in China. Afterall, the term “Chinese Buddhism” does not have geographical boundaries and is not restricted to Sinophone communities. Chinese Buddhist communities also exist outside of the People’s Republic, complicating what it means to be a Chinese Buddhist.

      Nor does “Buddhism in China” capture specifically the Mahayana schools that came to shape the philosophy, culture, and interior being of the Chinese people (and not just the ethnic Han majority). There also are flourishing Vajrayana and Theravada communities across the country, but their story is for another day.

      Here we will focus on what would become the Chinese expression of Mahayana Buddhism­­: an expression that would irrevocably influence Mahayana Buddhism across East Asia.

      The Classical Age: Teachings Trickling East

      Mahayana Buddhism as a spiritual movement cannot be divorced from its greater historical context. It was the expansionist reign of Emperor Wu (156–87 BCE) that pushed the borders of the Han empire into Central Asia, enabling contact with the Eurasian steppe cultures and peoples living between the civilizations of India, Persia, and China.

      The mystic magnetism of the “West” has fascinated Chinese rulers for millennia. It inspired King Mu of Zhou’s journey to see the mysterious Queen Mother of the West, before giving way to a hardheaded desire to seize the corridors of Central Asia. No longer were the borderlands of China a blurry barrier between the known world and the magical sphere of the Kunlun Mountains. Instead, through the Silk Road, the Chinese started interacting with people like the Sogdians, Indians, and Parthians. These cultures had, to some extent, contact with the dispensation of a chieftain’s son-turned-wanderer—the Buddha. This traceless man, through apparently a charismatic personality and compelling teacher, set a world religion into motion some 500 years before his teachings reached China.

      The Kushans, in particular, were instrumental in transmitting the Buddhist teachings and memory into Luoyang, the capital of classical China. Their emissaries were camel-riding merchants and caravan traders accompanied by monks, such as Lokashema (b. 147 CE), An Shigao (fl. c. 148–80 CE), and many more. Our story therefore begins not with a booming revelation from above, but with a hesitant trickle of teachers and translators from China’s west.

      Buddhism was known among the Chinese imperial court by the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), but did not find a stable ideological foothold until the dynasty collapsed into three kingdoms—the states of Shu, Wu, and Wei—engaged in a cutthroat civil war—otherwise known as the Three Kingdoms period (184/220–280 CE). For the intellectual class, the state ideology of Confucianism had failed. Intellectuals, artists, and poets looked elsewhere for guidance on how to stabilize society and cultivate the individual, including the native alternative of Daoism and the foreign message of Buddhism.

      One major appeal of Buddhism was that it had a detailed and comprehensive schema of salvation after death, as opposed to Confucianism’s intricate rules and guidelines for living a moral life. We know that Ze Rong (d. 195), a minor warlord who skirmished with the infamous but legendary Han chancellor and king of Wei, Cao Cao (155–220), claimed to be a follower of Buddhism. Therefore, we know that by this time Buddhism was known among statesmen and warlords.

      Various schools of Buddhist thought, originating from the Pure Land on Mount Lu with early Pure Land propagator Huiyuan (334–416), started to take shape and take root in the empire, along with the originally Kharosthi Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka sect. The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya became the Buddhist law code accepted by all Chinese temples and monasteries, and, as a result, the Chinese bhikkhuni sangha did not suffer an institutional break like in the Theravada Vinaya in the 11th century.

      In hindsight, this gave Chinese Mahayana Buddhism in a significant advantage over the Theravada and Vajrayana vehicles when it came to ordaining women. While the movement to ordain women in the Theravada tradition began in the 20th century, Vinaya conservatives argued that the lineage had died out and that the best they could hope for was dual ordination under a Dharmaguptaka-aligned institution: very often, a Chinese or Korean temple.

      If any social or spiritual force proved that China was open to foreign influence, it was Buddhism. The Northern Wei (386–535) even declared themselves to be the rightful monarchs of China, in 460, because they were representatives of the Buddha. Many historians credit the consolidation of Buddhist influence in the Chinese polity to them.

      Medieval Monks and Monarchs: Consolidation and Sinicization

      Once it was introduced, Buddhism would never leave China, not even during periods when the Chinese writers and poets themselves feared that Buddhism was under fatal pressure. From the growth of Buddhist schools during the Tang dynasty (618–907) to periods of disunity or splintering such as during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589), we can see schools of Buddhist flourishing and experimenting with local culture—essentially, a slow but sure process of the Sinicization of Buddhism.

      It is true that Emperor Wuzong’s Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution in 845 marked a low point in Buddhist fortunes. Yet while some schools lost their institutional power, most notably and sadly the Huayan school, the common stereotype that all the schools lost their influence save the Chan and Pure Land factions is a misconception. Even the idea that Buddhism did not offer much intellectual vigor or philosophical innovation during the Song (960–1279), Yuan (1271–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) is a long-standing misapprehension. During each of these dynasties, Buddhist philosophy interacted with shifting social trends, other intellectual traditions like Neo-Confucianism, and foreign and native political forces to endure and flourish in the Chinese cultural, religious, and social landscape.

      It is these historical misconceptions (along with many more contemporary and philosophical stereotypes of Chinese Buddhism) that we will be questioning throughout this project. We will aim to propose thoughtful, inquisitive, but most of all interesting narratives that help us look at Buddhism in China with fresh eyes.

      From the early modern period to contemporary times: upheaval and adaptation

      There are many problems with the idea that Buddhism was “asleep” during the Qing era (1644–1911). There was plenty of Buddhist activity during that time, both at the local level as well as in the imperial court. Still, it is fair to say that the issues that plagued the dynasty from the 1840s onward­ reflected the growing sense of urgency for Buddhism to “modernize,” particularly in response to the growing number of Christian missionaries in the coastal treaty ports and growing cities of China.

      The goal of these reformers was not only to rejuvenate Buddhism, but also for Buddhism to play some part in invigorating the Chinese nation. The names of these reformists are now renowned among Chinese Buddhists, each representing an original way of approaching Buddhist thinking. With the onset of the printing press and modern, politically engaged journalism, Yang Wenhui (1837–1911) was one of the first householders (lay believers of Buddhism, jushi 居士) to open Buddhist publishing houses (most famous among them the Jinling Sutra Publishing House) that circulated Buddhist sutras and reading materials to a wider audience. Sometimes called the father of the Buddhist “renaissance” in China, he imported more than 300 Buddhist texts lost to China with the help of Japanese priest Nanjo Bunyu (1849–1927). Among such texts were the writings of Master Shandao, the de facto founder of Pure Land Buddhism.

      Master Taixu (1890–1947), one of Yang Wenhui’s most important protégés, believed that ritualistic obsessions were corseting intellectual development and laid the foundations of Humanistic Buddhism, a movement that would prove immensely influential in the Sinophone world. Another student of Yang’s, the revolutionary Zhang Binglin (1868–1936), was immersed in the dialectic of Yogacara Buddhism, and saw history as an unconscious process of drives that reflected the store-consciousness (alaya-vijnana). Later Chinese academics drew on Zhang’s Yogacara dialectic to provide a theoretical framework for the failures of capitalism as well as Chinese philosophy itself.

      Social and political reform turned to revolution with the establishment of the Republic of China, the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, and finally the Communist victory. Buddhist development was not totally halted but significantly hindered by the Cultural Revolution, which impacted all religious traditions adversely. From the wreckage emerged new generations of Buddhist thinkers as well as members of the old guard, like the jushi Zhao Puchu (1907–2000), who served as president of the Buddhist Association of China from 1980 until his death in 2000, and was one of the most successful advocates of Sino-Japanese friendship via Buddhist ties.

      Today, Buddhism faces new challenges and opportunities in a globalized world and a Chinese nation-state that has an unprecedented stake in the world as the second-largest economy. We’ve hastily stormed through two millennia of Buddhism’s history in this country, but it is not our intention to close the book on this rich and varied story so soon. Rather, we invite you to stay a while longer as we delve deeper into what are defining hallmarks of Chinese Buddhism.

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    • The Role of Gods and Deities in Buddhism

      Barbara O'Brien June 30, 2017 ThoughtCo.

      Are There Gods, or Aren't There?

      It is often asked if there are gods in Buddhism. The short answer is no, but also yes, depending on what you mean by "gods."

      It also is often asked if it is all right for a Buddhist to believe in God, meaning the creator God as celebrated in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other philosophies of monotheism. Again, this depends on what you mean by "God." As most monotheists define God, the answer is probably "no." But there are lots of ways to understand the principle of God.

      Buddhism is sometimes called an "atheistic" religion, although some of us prefer "non-theistic"--meaning that believing in a God or gods really isn't the point.

      But it's certainly the case that there are all kinds of god-like creatures and beings called devas populating the early scriptures of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism still makes use of tantric deities in its esoteric practices. And there are Buddhists who believe devotion to Amitabha Buddha will bring them to rebirth in the Pure Land.

      So, how to explain this apparent contradiction?

      What Do We Mean by Gods?

      Let's start with poytheistic-type gods. In the world's religions these have been understood in many ways, most commonly, they are supernatural beings with some kind of agency---they control the weather, for example, or they might help you win victories. The classic Roman and Greek gods and goddesses are examples.

      Practice in a religion based on polytheism mostly consists of practices to cause these gods to intercede on one's behalf.

      If you deleted them the various gods, there wouldn't be a religion at all.

      In traditional Buddhist folk religion, on the other hand, the devas are usually depicted as characters living in a number of other realms, separate from the human realm. They have their own problems and have no roles to play in the human realm.

      There is no point praying to them even if you believe in them, because they're not going to do anything for you.

      Whatever sort of existence they may or may not have really doesn't matter to Buddhist practice. Many of the stories told about the devas have allegorical points, but you can be a devoted Buddhist for your whole life and never give them any thought.

      The Tantric Deities

      Now, let's move on to the tantric deities. In Buddhism, tantra is the use of rituals, symbolism and yoga practices to evoke experiences that enable realization of enlightenment. The most common practice of Buddhist tantra is to experience oneself as a deity. In this case, then, the deities are more like archetypal symbols than supernatural creatures.

      Here's an important point: Buddhist Vajrayana is based on Mahayana Buddhist teaching. And in Mahayana Buddhism, no phenomena has objective or independent existence. Not gods, not you, not your favorite tree, not your toaster (see "Sunyata, or Emptiness"). Things exist in a kind of relative way, taking identity from their function and position relative to other phenomena. But nothing is really separate or independent from everything else.

      With this in mind, one can see that the tantric deities can be understood in many different ways.

      Certainly there are people who understand them as something like the classic Greek gods--supernatural beings with a separate existence who might help you if you ask. But this is a somewhat unsophisticated understanding that modern Buddhist scholars and teachers have altered in favor of a symbolic, archetypal definition. 

      Lama Thubten Yeshe wrote,

      "Tantric meditational deities should not be confused with what different mythologies and religions might mean when they speak of gods and goddesses. Here, the deity we choose to identify with represents the essential qualities of the fully awakened experience latent within us. To use the language of psychology, such a deity is an archetype of our own deepest nature, our most profound level of consciousness. In tantra we focus our attention on such an archetypal image and identify with it in order to arouse the deepest, most profound aspects of our being and bring them into our present reality." (Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality [1987], p. 42)

      Other Mahayana Godlike Beings

      Although they may not practice formal tantra, there are tantric elements running through much of Mahayana Buddhism. Iconic beings such as Avalokiteshvara are evoked to bring compassion to the world, yes, but we are her eyes and hands and feet.

      The same is true of Amitabha. Some may understand Amitabha as a deity who will take them to paradise (although not forever). Others may understand the Pure Land to be a state of mind and Amitabha as a projection of one's own devotional practice. But believing in one thing or another really isn't the point.

      What About God?

      Finally, we get to the Big G. What did the Buddha say about him? Well, nothing that I know of. It's possible the Buddha was never exposed to monotheism as we know it. The concept of God as the one and only supreme being, and not just one god among many, was just coming into acceptance among Jewish scholars about the time the Buddha was born. This God concept may not have ever reached him.

      However, that doesn't necessarily mean that the God of monotheism, as commonly understood, can be dropped seamlessly into Buddhism. Frankly, in Buddhism, God has nothing to do.

      The creation of phenomena is taken care of by a kind of natural law called Dependent Origination. The consequences of our actions are accounted for by karma, which in Buddhism is also a kind of natural law that doesn't require a supernatural cosmic judge.

      And if there is a God, he is us, too. His existence would be as dependent and conditioned as ours.

      Sometimes Buddhist teachers use the word "God," but their meaning is not something that most monotheists would recognize. They may be referring to the dharmakaya, for example, which the late Chogyam Trungpa described as "the basis of the original unbornness." The word "God" in this context has more in common with the Taoist idea of "the Tao" than with the familiar Judaic/Christian idea of God.


      So, you see, the question as to whether there are or are not gods in Buddhism can't really be answered with a yes or no. Again, though, merely believing in Buddhist deities is pointless. How do you understand them? That's what matters.

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    • Why so many Americans think Buddhism is just a philosophy

      January 22, 2018 Pamela Winfield The Conversation US

      In East Asia, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s death and entrance into final enlightenment in February. But at my local Zen temple in North Carolina, the Buddha’s enlightenment is commemorated during the holiday season of December, with a short talk for the children, a candlelight service and a potluck supper following the celebration.

      Welcome to Buddhism, American-style.

      Early influences

      Buddhism entered into the American cultural consciousness in the late 19th century. It was a time when romantic notions of exotic Oriental mysticism fueled the imaginations of American philosopher-poets, art connoisseurs, and early scholars of world religions.

      Transcendental poets like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson read Hindu and Buddhist philosophy deeply, as did Henry Steel Olcott, who traveled to Sri Lanka in 1880, converted to Buddhism and founded the popular strain of mystical philosophy called Theosophy.

      Meanwhile, connoisseurs of Buddhist art introduced America to the beauty of the tradition. The art historian and professor of philosophy Ernest Fenellosa, as well as his fellow Bostonian William Sturgis Bigelow, were among the first Americans to travel to Japan, convert to Buddhism and avidly collect Buddhist art. When they returned home, their collections formed the core of the premiere Arts of Asia collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

      At the same time, early scholars of world religions such as Paul Carus made Buddhist teachings readily accessible to Americans. He published “The Gospel of Buddha,” a best-selling collection of Buddhist parables, a year after attending the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. This was the first time in modern history that representatives from the world’s major religions came together to learn about one another’s spiritual traditions.

      The Buddhist delegation in Chicago included the Japanese Zen master Shaku Sōen and the Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla, who himself had studied western science and philosophy to modernize his own tradition. These Western-influenced Buddhists presented their tradition to their modern Western audience as a “non-theistic” and “rational” tradition that had no competing gods, irrational beliefs or supposedly meaningless rituals to speak of.

      Continuity and change

      Traditional Buddhism does in fact have many deities, doctrines and rituals, as well as sacred texts, ordained priests, ethics, sectarian developments and other elements that one would typically associate with any organized religion. But at the 1893 World Parliament, the Buddhist masters favorably presented their meditative tradition to modern America only as a practical philosophy, not a religion. This perception of Buddhism persists in America to this day.

      The Buddhists did not deliberately misrepresent their tradition or just tell the Americans what they wanted to hear. They were genuine in their attempt to make a 2500-year old tradition relevant to the late 19th century.

      But in the end they only transplanted but a few branches of Buddhism’s much larger tree into American soil. Only a few cuttings of Buddhist philosophy, art and meditation came into America, while many other traditional elements of the Buddhist religion remained behind in Asia.

      Buddhism in America

      Once it was planted here though, Americans became particularly fascinated with the mystical appeal of Buddhist meditation.

      The lay Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, who was Japanese Zen Master Shaku Sōen’s student and translator at the World’s Parliament, influenced many leading artists and intellectuals in the postwar period. Thanks to his popular writings and to subsequent waves of Asian and American Buddhist teachers, Buddhism has impacted almost every aspect of American culture.

      Environmental and social justice initiatives have embraced a movement known as “Engaged Buddhism” ever since Martin Luther King Jr. nominated its founder, the Vietnamese monk and anti-war activist Thich Nhat Hanh, for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. His Buddhist Order of Interbeing continues to propose mindful, nonviolent solutions to the world’s most pressing moral concerns.

      America’s educational system has also been enriched by its first Buddhist-affiliated university at Naropa in Colorado, which paved the way for other Buddhist institutions of higher learning such as Soka University and University of the West in California, as well as Maitripa College in Oregon.

      The medical establishment too has integrated mindfulness-based stress reduction into mainstream therapies, and many prison anger management programs are based on Buddhist contemplative techniques such as Vipassana insight meditation.

      The same is true of the entertainment industry that has incorporated Buddhist themes into Hollywood blockbusters, such as “The Matrix”. Even professional athletics have used Zen coaching strategies and furthered America’s understanding of Buddhism not as a “religion” but as a secular philosophy with broad applications.

      The exotic appeal

      But American secular Buddhism has also produced some unintended consequences. Suzuki’s writings greatly influenced Jack Kerouac, the popular Beat Generation author of “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums.” But Suzuki regarded Kerouac as a “monstrous imposter” because he sought only the freedom of Buddhist awakening without the discipline of practice.

      Other Beat poets, hippies and, later, New Age DIY self-helpers have also paradoxically mistaken Buddhism for a kind of self-indulgent narcissism, despite its teachings of selflessness and compassion. Still others have commercially exploited its exotic appeal to sell everything from “Zen tea” to “Lucky Buddha Beer,” which is particularly ironic given Buddhism’s traditional proscription against alcohol and other intoxicants.

      As a result, the popular construction of nonreligious Buddhism has contributed much to the contemporary “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon, as well as to the secularized and commodified mindfulness movement in America.


      We may have only transplanted a fraction of the larger bodhi tree of religious Buddhism in America, but our cutting has adapted and taken root in our secular, scientific and highly commercialized age. For better and for worse, it’s Buddhism, American-style.

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    • Three times as many Buddhists as Communists in China: Dalai Lama’s Tibet wish may require rapprochement with former adversaries

      01/16/2018 Martin Desai Huffpost

      Whilst China technically remains a communist country, it has over the last two or three decades relaxed draconian Mao-era rules, for example by opening the door to private sector capitalism and by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice, so long as it is not to be perceived as a potential threat to the stability of the state or of the Communist Party.

      There are now almost three times as many Buddhists in China as there are Party members. An official communiqué released in July this year estimated the membership of the Communist Party of China at just under 90 million. Meanwhile, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs estimates there are some 250 million Buddhists in China, more or less evenly split between Tibetan Buddhism and Han Buddhism, and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks.

      Chinese authorities monitor religious adherence closely, and are extremely sensitive to any challenge, real or imagined, that certain religions may represent. While the Chinese regime’s approach to Buddhism has been liberal – for example, no bans have been issued and open religious expression is permitted – it clearly takes the religion’s influence seriously, given its importance in Chinese society.

      Above all the regime fears religious divisions or unrest, as evidenced by the swift outlawing of the Falun Gong movement and imprisonment of its leaders after a series of demonstrations by Falun Gong members prompted fears that the group’s swelling support could one day rival the Party. The regime is also acutely sensitive to the possibility of what it sees as external interference – especially on the delicate subject of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

      A particularly divisive issue for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and abroad is the devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, a 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Critics of Shugden devotion say worship of the deity promotes divisions among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, all of which share the same fundamental philosophy, and whose differences lie in their interpretation of the extensive collection of Buddhist scriptures and the emphasis they place on various aspects of Buddhist philosophy.

      At the origin of the controversy lie a number of ambiguous declarations from the current (14th) Dalai Lama. On the one hand, he has appealed for non-sectarian cooperation among all branches of Tibet’s religions. However, he has also effectively excluded Shugden practitioners from such cooperation despite once regarding Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being and authoring one of the most popular liturgies to this deity. Some Shugden devotees have claimed that these ambiguous declarations amount to a de facto ban on their practice and this exclusion is tantamount to being exiled in their own communities. The Shugden de facto exclusion has already existed for two decades since it was initiated by the current Dalai Lama and has slowly stirred disunity in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and among the exiled Tibetan communities.

      In 2014 the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, which is chaired by the actor Richard Gere, said it had obtained a ‘directive’ from the Communist Party Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in China in February 2014 whose title translates as, “Some opinions on dealing correctly with the ‘Gyalchen Shugden’ issue”.

      The International Campaign for Tibet’s evaluation of the directive accuses China of seeking to gain a political advantage from the controversy. Entitled “China’s new directive on (the) controversial Shugden spirit in Tibet in (a) further bid to discredit Dalai Lama”[2], even the title of the critique dispels any expectation of objectivity.

      While the Chinese position is that the authorities are aiming to guarantee the right of all Tibetans to choose who and how they worship, the directive issued by the Communist Party Committee of TAR is couched in rather divisive language. It calls the Shugden controversy “an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique” and “a deceitful ploy by the 14th Dalai’s clique to split the country…”

      The Chinese directive was made in response to the de facto religious ban implemented by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government in Exile, and to their suspected destabilizing activities inside the TAR. The directive proposes educational and law enforcement measures to be implemented inside the TAR to mitigate the risk of division and unrest that the controversy may cause. Tashi Tadchen, a representative of the European Dorje Shugden Society which was set up to create awareness of the supposed ban, says that following the exiled Tibetan leadership’s edict against the Shugden practice, there have been frequent clashes which at times have led to loss of lives between those who feel obliged to follow the Dalai Lama’s decree and adherents of the Shugden practice.

      The directive mirrors Chinese fear of discord within Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in general. What it does not do, despite the International Campaign for Tibet’s claims, is take a specific position on Shugden devotion outside the TAR. In spite of the content of the directive, the Exiled Tibetan Government and related NGOs around the World have repeatedly used it as evidence to attest that Shugden practitioners are “spies of the Chinese Communist Party.”

      A late 2015 report from the news agency Reuters looking into the Shugden controversy relied heavily on the Communist Party Committee of TAR directive, and especially the International Campaign for Tibet’s interpretation of it, as solid evidence that China is financing various Shugden groups in the West, in particular the The International Shugden Community (ISC) which has seen strong support from individual members of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and Tibetans living in the West. The NKT has meditation centres around the world and has been vocal in its public opposition to the Dalai Lama’s position.

      Even so, no concrete evidence has ever been supplied. However, whilst the intended objective is unclear, the Dalai Lama’s Shugden exclusion has created unrest amongst Tibetans inside the TAR. This is precisely what China fears. China sustains a “One China” policy to maintain stability and prosperity of the state. Any divisive conflict in the TAR such as the Shugden split, does not augur well for it’s objectives. This is not an objective the exile Tibetan Government necessarily shares and its ability to influence affairs in the TAR is one of its key bargaining chips.

      What we have, in effect, is both sides calling for unity while at the same time continuing to bicker. The Communist Party of TAR has certainly sought to politicise the rift, as the Dalai Lama and his supporters also appear to have done. The Dalai Lama’s comments have served to alienate Shugden devotees from other Tibetan Buddhists, and are somewhat jarring when considered alongside his calls for unity in the Tibetan diaspora. Shugden adherents have insisted that if indeed the exiled Tibetan leadership believes that the Communist Party of China is leveraging this issue, then a simple pronouncement by the Dalai Lama declaring an end to the de facto ban would have the effect of rendering it harmless.

      Could the time now be ripe to call for closure of hostilities? The Dalai Lama has recently expressed a desire to return to his Tibetan homeland, a wish that would have no chance of fulfilment without a significant thawing of China’s attitude towards Tibet’s spiritual leader.

      Harmony among Tibetan Buddhists is in the interests of both sides. Moreover, having said in November 2017 that “Tibetans want to stay with China” and that he would return to Tibet at once, if China agrees, the Dalai Lama has flagged a willingness to try and overcome the longstanding political impasse. In addition, a high ranking emissary of the Dalai Lama, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche - former Prime Minister of the Tibetan exile Government - was nominated in the autumn as the Dalai Lama’s envoy for talks with the Chinese authorities and is believed to have held secret meetings with senior Communist party leaders.

      Given that one of His Holiness’ early reasons for his criticism of Shugden worship – that it “harms the life of the Dalai Lama” – no longer seems justified given his longevity and continuing fair health, a rapprochement with Shugden acolytes may be a good starting point if his desired return to Tibet is to be anything more than a pipe dream.

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    • Iconic Jokhang temple safe, adjacent shrine gutted by fire

      February 17, 2018 Tenzin Dharpo Phayul.com

      DHARAMSHALA, Feb. 17: Amid widespread speculations of the iconic Jhokang temple in Lhasa city in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR)being destroyed by fire, Phayul’s sources in Lhasa have confirmed that a nearby shrine has been destroyed by a fire earlier today and not the 7th Century shrine.

      The Jokhang temple, considered sacred by Tibetans and built by Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo has suffered no damage.

      A fire broke out on Saturday evening around 6:30 p.m. local time, the source said. The fire has since been put out by the authorities. No damage to sacred relics have been reported. The cause of the fire is not yet ascertained, a Tibetan living in Lhasa told Phayul.

      No casualty has also been reported, considering the locality being in close proximity to the Jokhang temple which is usually packed with pilgrims and devotees. Today being the second day of the Tibetan new year is especially inclined to increased number of pilgrims in the area.

      The Jokhang temple which was accorded the UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Potala Palace in the year 2000, houses the “Jhowo Rinpoche”, a holy statue of the Buddha.

      The temple that houses the iconic Jhowo Shakyamuni suffered damage during the cultural revolution, after Chinese communist forces occupied Tibet in 1959, and later restored in the 1970’s.

      However, Beijing based Chinese media house CGTN (China Global Television Network) reported that fire did break out at Jhokhang temple. "Local authorities said there are no casualties and no cultural relics were damaged," it said without citing any official or authorities' name.


      At the time of this report going online, social networking sites and microblogging sites are flooded with videos of massive fire raging some building in what looks like residential dwellings in the Tibetan capital. However, the videos are taken from a distance from where it is difficult to ascertain the exact spot of the fire. A Facebook post by a user called Bah Meson (འབའ་མེ་སོན།) claims it was not the Jhokhang temple that caught fire but a nearby temple. The user claims he was actually outside the Jhokhang temple's circumambulation path when he was posting his comment. "About half an hour ago, there has been a rumor that the Jhokhang temple caught fire. However, it is not true but a temple nearby caught fire. I am actually circumambulating the Jhokhang right now. Please do not worry and stay relieved", he wrote in Tibetan. (translated) However, the authenticity of the user could not be verified.

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    • The Seed of True Kindness - Unlimited Friendliness

      Pema Chödrön WINTER 2009 tricycle

      Three steps to genuine compassion

      I’ve often heard the Dalai Lama say that having compassion for oneself is the basis for developing compassion for others. Chögyam Trungpa also taught this when he spoke about how to genuinely help others—how to work for the benefit of others without the interference of our own agendas. He presented this as a three-step process. Step one is maitri, a Sanskrit word meaning lovingkindness toward all beings. Here, however, as Chögyam Trungpa used the term, it means unlimited friendliness toward ourselves, with the clear implication that this leads naturally to unlimited friendliness toward others. Maitri also has the meaning of trusting oneself—trusting that we have what it takes to know ourselves thoroughly and completely without feeling hopeless, without turning against ourselves because of what we see.

      Step two in the journey toward genuinely helping others is communication from the heart. To the degree that we trust ourselves, we have no need to close down on others. They can evoke strong emotions in us, but still we don’t withdraw. Based on this ability to stay open, we arrive at step three, the difficult-to-come-by fruition: the ability to put others before ourselves and help them without expecting anything in return.

      When we build a house, we start by creating a stable foundation. Just so, when we wish to benefit others, we start by developing warmth or friendship for ourselves. It’s common, however, for people to have a distorted view of this friendliness and warmth. We’ll say, for instance, that we need to take care of ourselves, but how many of us really know how to do this? When clinging to security and comfort, and warding off pain, become the focus of our lives, we don’t end up feeling cared for and we certainly don’t feel motivated to extend ourselves to others. We end up feeling more threatened or irritable, more unable to relax.

      I’ve known many people who have spent years exercising daily, getting massages, doing yoga, faithfully following one food or vitamin regimen after another, pursuing spiritual teachers and different styles of meditation, all in the name of taking care of themselves. Then something bad happens to them, and all those years don’t seem to have added up to the inner strength and kindness for themselves that they need in order to relate with what’s happening. And they don’t add up to being able to help other people or the environment. When taking care of ourselves is all about me, it never gets at the unshakable tenderness and confidence that we’ll need when everything falls apart. When we start to develop maitri for ourselves— unconditional acceptance of ourselves—then we’re really taking care of ourselves in a way that pays off. We feel more at home with our own bodies and minds and more at home in the world. As our kindness for ourselves grows, so does our kindness for other people.

      The peace that we are looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth—it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.

      I sometimes wonder how I would respond in an emergency. I hear stories about people’s bravery emerging in crises, but I’ve also heard some painful stories from people who weren’t able to reach out to others in need because they were so afraid for themselves. We never really know which way it will go. So I ponder what would happen, for instance, if I were in a situation where there was no food but I had a bit of bread. Would I share it with the others who were starving? Would I keep it for myself? If I contemplate this question when I’m feeling the discomfort of even mild hunger, it makes the process more honest. The reality gets through to me that if I give away all my food, then the hunger I’m feeling won’t be going away. Maybe another person will feel better, but for sure physically I will feel worse.

      Sometimes the Dalai Lama suggests not eating one day a week, or skipping a meal, to briefly put ourselves in the shoes of those who are starving all over the world. In practicing this kind of solidarity myself, I have found that it can bring up panic and self-protectiveness. So the question is, what do we do with our distress? Does it open our heart or close it? When we’re hungry, does our discomfort increase our empathy for hungry people and animals, or does it increase our fear of hunger and intensify our selfishness?

      With contemplations like this, we can be completely truthful about where we are but also aware of where we’d like to be next year or in five years, or where we’d like to be by the time we die. Maybe today I panic and can’t give away even a crumb of my bread, but I don’t have to sink into despair. We have the opportunity to lead our lives in such a way that year by year we’ll be less afraid, less threatened, and more able to spontaneously help others without asking ourselves, “What’s in this for me?”

      A fifty-year-old woman told me her story. She had been in an airplane crash at the age of twenty-five. She was in such a panic rushing to get out of the plane before it exploded that she didn’t stop to help anyone else, including, most painfully, a little boy who was tangled in his seat belt and couldn’t move. She had been a practicing Buddhist for about five years when the accident happened; it was shattering to her to see how she had reacted. She was deeply ashamed of herself, and after the crash she sank into three hard years of depression. But ultimately, instead of her remorse and regret causing her to self-destruct, these very feelings opened her heart to other people. Not only did she become committed to her spiritual path in order to grow in her ability to help others, but she also became engaged in working with people in crisis. Her seeming failure is making her a far more courageous and compassionate woman.

      Right before the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he was tempted in every conceivable way. He was assaulted by objects of lust, objects of craving, objects of aggression, of fear, of all the variety of things that usually hook us and cause us to lose our balance. Part of his extraordinary accomplishment was that he stayed present, on the dot, without being seduced by anything that appeared. In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all. I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through. The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away. They didn’t set off a chain reaction. This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers—warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the Bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms. That which can cause our destruction becomes a blessing in disguise when we let the energies arise and pass through us over and over again, without acting out.

      A question that has intrigued me for years is this: How can we start exactly where we are, with all our entanglements, and still develop unconditional acceptance of ourselves instead of guilt and depression? One of the most helpful methods I’ve found is the practice of compassionate abiding. This is a way of bringing warmth to unwanted feelings. It is a direct method for embracing our experience rather than rejecting it. So the next time you realize that you’re hooked—that you’re stuck, finding yourself tightening, spiraling into blaming, acting out, obsessing—you could experiment with this approach.

      Contacting the experience of being hooked, you breathe in, allowing the feeling completely and opening to it. The in-breath can be deep and relaxed—anything that helps you to let the feeling be there, anything that helps you not push it away. Then, still abiding with the urge and edginess of feelings such as craving or aggression, as you breathe out you relax and give the feeling space. The outbreath is not a way of sending the discomfort away but a way of ventilating it, of loosening the tension around it, of becoming aware of the space in which the discomfort is occurring.

      This practice helps us to develop maitri because we willingly touch parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of. We touch feelings that we think we shouldn’t be having—feelings of failure, of shame, of murderous rage; all those politically incorrect feelings like racial prejudice, disdain for people we consider ugly or inferior, sexual addiction, and phobias. We contact whatever we’re experiencing and go beyond liking or disliking by breathing in and opening. Then we breathe out and relax. We continue that for a few moments or for as long as we wish, synchronizing it with the breath. This process has a leaning-in quality. Breathing in and leaning in are very much the same. We touch the experience, feeling it in the body if that helps, and we breathe it in.

      In the process of doing this, we are transmuting hard, reactive, rejecting energy into basic warmth and openness. It sounds dramatic, but really it’s very simple and direct. All we are doing is breathing in and experiencing what’s happening, then breathing out as we continue to experience what’s happening. It’s a way of working with our negativity that appreciates that the negative energy per se is not the problem. Confusion only begins when we can’t abide with the intensity of the energy and therefore spin off. Staying present with our own energy allows it to keep flowing and move on. Abiding with our own energy is the ultimate nonaggression, the ultimate maitri.

      Compassionate abiding is a stand-alone practice, but it can also serve as a preliminary for doing the practice of tonglen, the practice of taking in and sending out. Tonglen is an ancient practice designed to short-circuit “all about me.” Just as with compassionate abiding, the logic of the practice is that we start by breathing in and opening to feelings that threaten the survival of our self-importance. We breathe in feelings that generally we want to get rid of. On the out-breath of tonglen, we send out all that we find pleasurable and comfortable, meaningful and desirable. We send out all the feelings we usually grasp after and cling to for dear life.

      Tonglen can begin very much like compassionate abiding. We breathe in anything we find painful and we send out relief, synchronizing this with the breath. Yet the emphasis with tonglen is always on relieving the suffering of others. As we breathe in discomfort, we might think, “May I feel this completely so that I and all other beings may be free of pain.” As we breathe out relief, we might think, “May I send out this contentment completely so that all beings may feel relaxed and at home with themselves and with the world.” In other words, tonglen goes beyond compassionate abiding because it is a practice that includes the suffering of other beings and the longing that this suffering could be removed.

      Tonglen develops further as your courage to experience your own unwanted feelings grows. For instance, when you realize you’re hooked, you breathe in with the understanding, even if it’s only conceptual at first, that this experience is shared by every being and that you aspire to alleviate their suffering. As you breathe out, you send relief to everyone. Still, your direct experience—the experience you’re tasting right now—is the basis for having any idea at all about what other beings go through. In this way tonglen is a heart practice, a gut-level practice, not a head practice or intellectual exercise.

      It’s common for parents of young children to spontaneously put their children first. When little ones are ill, mothers and fathers often have no problem at all wishing they could take away the child’s suffering; they would gladly breathe it in and take it away if they could, and they would gladly breathe out relief.

      It’s suggested to start tonglen with situations like that, where it’s fairly easy. The practice becomes more challenging when you start to do it for people you don’t know, and almost impossible when you try to do it for people you don’t like. You breathe in the suffering of a panhandler on the street and aren’t sure you want to. And how willing are you to do more advanced tonglen, where you breathe in the pain of someone you despise and send them relief? From our current vantage point, this can seem too much to ask, too overwhelming or too absurd.

      The reason why tonglen practice can be so difficult is that we can’t bear to feel the feelings that the street person or our nemesis bring up in us. This, of course, brings us back to compassionate abiding and making friends with ourselves. It has been precisely this process of doing tonglen, trying to stretch further and open my mind to a wider and wider range of people, that has helped me to see that without maitri I will always close down on other people when certain feelings are provoked.

      The next time you have a chance, go outside and try to do tonglen for the first person you meet, breathing in their discomfort and sending out well-being and caring. If you’re in a city, just stand still for a while and pay attention to anyone who catches your eye and do tonglen for them. You can begin by contacting any aversion or attraction or even a neutral, uninterested feeling that they bring up in you, and breathe in, contacting that feeling much as you do with compassionate abiding but with the thought, “May both of us be able to feel feelings like this without it causing us to shut down to others.” As you breathe out, send happiness and contentment to them. If you encounter an animal or person who is clearly in distress, pause and breathe in with the wish that they be free of their distress and send out relief to them. With the most advanced tonglen, you breathe in with the wish that you could actually take on their distress so they could be free of it, and you breathe out with the wish that you could give them all your comfort and ease. In other words, you would literally be willing to stand in their shoes and have them stand in yours if it would help.

      By trying this, we learn exactly where we are open and where we are closed. We learn quickly where we would do well to just practice abiding compassionately with our own confused feelings, before we try to work with other people, because right now our efforts would probably make a bigger mess. I know many people who want to be teachers, or feed the homeless, or start clinics, or try in some way to truly help others. Despite their generous intentions, they don’t always realize that if they plan to work closely with people they may be in for a lot of difficulty—a lot of feeling hooked. The people they hope to help will not always see them as saviors. In fact, they will probably criticize them and give them a hard time. Teachers and helpers of all kinds will be of limited use if they are doing their work to build up their own egos. Setting out to help others is a very quick way to pop the bubble of ego.


      So we start by making friends with our experience and developing warmth for our good old selves. Slowly, very slowly, gently, very gently, we let the stakes get higher as we touch in on more troubling feelings. This leads to trusting that we have the strength and good-heartedness to live in this precious world, despite its land mines, with dignity and kindness. With this kind of confidence, connecting with others comes more easily, because what is there to fear when we have stayed with ourselves through thick and thin? Other people can provoke anything in us, and we don’t need to defend ourselves by striking out or shutting down. Selfless help—helping others without an agenda— is the result of having helped ourselves. We feel loving toward ourselves and therefore we feel loving toward others. Over time, all those we used to feel separate from become more and more melted into our heart.