Category: Dharma

Aung San Suu Kyi, please speak out and help to relieve the suffering in Burma

ImageThe fires of suffering and strife rage around the world,” and continue to rage in the Rakhine state of Burma. Recent sectarian strife between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim community have claimed the lives of at least 78 people, and displaced over 80,000 fleeing from the violence. With the situation degenerating into a vicious cycle of hate begetting hate, it has come to light that some Buddhist monastics are actively engaged in fanning the flames by calling on lay people to disassociate with the Rohingya and actively blocking humanitarian aid to the refugee camps.

Shame on any monastics who would use their moral authority to suade others in enhancing suffering. While their Arakanese identity may compel them to act in ways that hurt others, they also wear the ochre robe and carry with it the freedoms and responsibilities of their monastic precepts. Their renunciation embodied by the first precept has now been made useless. By their own actions, these monastics demonstrate that they do not deserve to wear the ochre robe.

I realize that the situation is not so black and white. However, the Arakanese and Rohingya alike are sharing in pain. The face of suffering is the same among all people and the cycle of violence rings throughout history. In the late 1960’s, my parents, their families, and many of their Toisan community were driven away by the Burmese and fled into Maoist China. Though the conditions were not great, at least they had a state which would accept them as Han Chinese and would provide a home.

The Rohingya have no state advocates and have shuttled back and forth between Bangladesh and Burma for many decades. Burma’s Presidential Office has stated that “It is impossible for Burma to accept people who are not ethnic to the country and who have entered illegally.” Their situation grows more desperate as the violence continues, as more people are displaced, and as more languish in camps without the infrastructure or supplies to support them. Organizations that have stood up for the Rohingya include the UN and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. Unfortunately, as the violence continues, the Rohingya’s list of advocates now include the Pakistani Taliban, who have said, “We will avenge your blood.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, in your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, you acknowledged the ongoing strife in your native Burma. We all celebrate your release and your continued work for democracy in your country. This means that you are again a politician for your constituents: speaking on their behalf, and sharing their concerns. Your freedom to speak as you choose is also delicately tied to the whims of a state still emerging and fragile in its transition towards democracy. Nevertheless, the moral authority you possess reaches across national boundaries as we lend you our ears. Please speak out. Your voice as a mediator are needed in this conflict. Lend your compassion with the humanitarian aid organizations  and help to relieve the suffering in Burma.

I Am Not My Favorite Book: How Buddhist Education Really Works

I’ve known Arunlikhati for a number of years now, and he carries with him an ability common to old friends: he knows what things really twist my ears. And so I receive from my old friend this article from About.com’s Buddhism page, where the guide Barbara O’Brien wrote:

Schools that emerged in China and spread to Korea and Japan — e.g., Zen, Pure Land, Tendai — each have their own canon of Mahayana sutras and pretty much ignore the Pali Canon.

In the interest of full disclosure: I have an axe to grind. I am a member of a Chinese Buddhist temple and the Pali Canon means a great deal to me. So we exist. But behind the About.com article I see a great deal of misunderstanding regarding how Buddhists have educated generations of disciples, and what it means to value a text. Read more

That could be my mother

Compassion and rebirth are two basic tenets of traditional Buddhism that both came together for me recently as I sat reflecting on how I nearly drove my mother off the road. That incident occurred another night long ago. Irritated by a slow driver ahead of me, I tailgated the vehicle so closely that I could not even see the license plate. I persisted until the car turned off onto a side road.

But that side road was the very road that I intended to take to visit my parents—and the driver was my mother.

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Master Yin Guang: Buddhist Epistolary

There are not many great Buddhist writers. This is not an accident; good writing is just not an aspiration for most Buddhist teachers. The Dharma is shared in words, practice, shared experience, and community. Writing carries with it the necessity of saying something new and valuable to as many people as possible, while the domain of a good teacher is to impart what is old and worn and true in the way which speaks to the heart of the individual whom most needs to hear it.

That is why I am fascinated by the curious case of Master Yin Guang (印光), a pre-Civil War Chinese Pure Land master. Master Yin Guang lived most of his life in seclusion on the Buddhistically sacred Mount Putuo off the coast of southern China. He did not perform lavish ceremonies or amass skads of lay and monastic disciples. But he did write.

He wrote letters.

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Dhammakaya in the news

Foreign Policy magazine just did a photo-essay entitled “Close Encounters of the Buddhist Kind“, with the subtitle, “An exclusive look inside a booming multibillion-dollar, evangelical, global Thai cult.”

That’s not a fair way to introduce to their readers a “movement…little known to Thailand’s general public, and certainly to the rest of the world.” Buddhism has always had an evangelical element ever since the Buddha’s decision to teach and spread the dharma, with the same motivation powering Christianity (or any other religion’s) spread of its gospel, compassion. Dhammakaya is certainly global, but to say it is little known to Thailand’s general public is a misstatement, later corrected in the essay. And it’s okay if the rest of the world does not know about it, there’s a lot that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. Most religious groups do not have the global celebrity power of the Dalai Lama.

The most egregious assault by Foreign Policy is in the way the photo-essay labels Dhammakaya as a cult. With little explanation of the context within Thai culture, the photo-essay shows pictures of massive rallies with adherents all dressed white and standing in lines. What are most people to make of these pictures without the proper context? Afterall, Dhammakaya is “certainly” unknown to the rest of the world. Could it be that the massiveness of the rallies is fed by the Thai culture’s expectations that men be ordained at least once in their life? This is suggested by the fifth picture but there are no indications of this being a family or community event. Instead, we only see a sea of uniformity.

It would be easy to post up a group of pictures and include short commentary. The Internets does this all the time! In fact, we could invite our readers to do the same for the pictures below. Use your imaginations, sky’s the limit.

But in all seriousness, there is one troubling aspect shown by these pictures: lots of money and it’s use. Where does all the money for the Memorial Hall come from and how did they receive it? Was it necessary to enclose it with dome consisting of thousands of gold-plated Buddha statues? Why are we creating another idol? I will admit to having a suspicious bias against ostentatious displays, be it of wealth, compassion or most other things.

I am interested in hearing from Dhammakaya followers or anyone who knows more about these practitioners. What is the meditation practice like? Their website suggests imagining nimitas. Why’s that? How is the organization able to collect so much money? Since there is a local meditation center, I may just have to check them out.

Dharma is free?

A meditation teacher once said, “Dharma is free!” to encourage us to share and ask questions about our meditation experience and the dharma. I will admit that his exclamation worked and got our group to open up. Free, as in beer, usually encourages greater demand and fortunately for us, this situation was without the indulgence of the sacking of the commons. But even information and experience has costs, namely the costs associated with memory, transference and time. So dharma is not free as in beer, as appealing as that may sound. In fact, I don’t think it ever was.

The Buddha and his followers found their support from their society, as did many other mendicants such as the Jains. As Ajahn Geoff notes, the Buddha’s society supported their dropouts, those who felt their lives were meant for something other than making do or making money. In fact, he had a huge web of support. His daily alms came from the surplus food of his ordinary lay supporters. Political support and protection came from King Pasenadi. And so appealing was his message to the merchant Anathapindika, that an elaborate park was constructed and donated to the Buddha and his followers, a place that would become the center of his movement while he was still alive.

I still find such support systems here in the states, imported from other countries that have hundreds of years of this kind of history. Wat Metta has a money tree each Thai New Year and Kathina celebration. Ven. Cheng Yen and her penny-pinching house wife followers have a worldwide non-profit relief organization to provide aid to the tired, the poor, and others yearning to breathe free. These are nevertheless still young cultural imports which take root with immigrant populations.

In the same referenced essay, Ajahn Geoff also notes that American society has no ready support system for people with aspirations of samvega. According to the essay, such people who act on these feelings are likely to be relegated to the fringes of society along with other cast-offs who have no use for the economy. There are exceptions to the rule for unproductive members of society: alternative lifestyles such as early retirement extreme and van dwelling; authors who become popular enough to live off the royalties of their writings, and speakers who command exhorbitant fees. But there can only be so many authors before our bookshelves are full and so many speakers before our wallets run dry.

What we do with the surplus of our economy seems to be as important as what we do not do with it. Maintaining the centers and support of dharma is certainly not free, just as arunlikhati and Will Buckingham point out. But if we are working so hard to produce this surplus, what value do we want it to bring for us?

Where’s our Sangha?

On my bookshelf, next to Plato’s Republic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, are several Buddhism books: The Dhammapada, Buddhism Without Beliefs and In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. On websites like Access to Insight, I can read many excellent and various essays and translations of suttas. And on YouTube, I have hours of Dhamma goodness from around the world. These are all available at my individual convenience at little personal toil. When I’m done or feel too busy, the books are back on the shelf, and the websites (usually) remain, waiting to be picked up again.

This seems far different from the methods of propagation that were available to previous Buddhist cultures that were faced with the limits of physical travel and the travel of information, and were without huge stores of energy like we have. Preserving the suttas and passing them on to the next generation depended on the labor of constant renewal: memorizing and chanting; recruiting, training and integrating new members; and tuning in the teachings to both the standards of the Dhamma and the needs of the community. All this was necessary to continue the teachings lest the Dhamma be swept away in a gap of practice. And these all existed in and were nurtured by the support of community.

Yet, at my fingertips are the ideas of the Dhamma, fully and freely available at any time, most strikingly without the communal milieu that it previously existed in. With our technology, it is possible and easy for Buddhism to transplant its ideas, far and thin, without the community that has previously nurtured and supported it. But the Buddha himself did not exist in a vacuum that he later filled with the Triple Gem. He lived in a culture that promoted the kind of seeking he engaged in, as evidenced the many mendicants he interacted with and the path that he was enabled by his community to follow. The Sangha of support he built and which continues in some fashion to this day speaks to this need for finding our path together.

Where do we find our community of practice? What might this community look like?

An Attitude Toward Precepts

Bhante Sukha Sambodhi

Bhante Sukha Sambodhi of TTVMC in Riverside, CA, found an odd quirk among many of his American born practitioners. He mentioned this to myself and two friends while we were spending a weekend meditating at his meditation center. The quirk was in the ordering of the teachings, which were reversed from the MO of Buddhist practice in his native Burma. Precepts always came first before people committed to sitting. Instead, many of Bhante Sukha’s American students dived right into meditating without a solid teaching and experience with the precepts. This has been variously noted by other meditation teachers as well.

I myself have not formally taken on precepts, my own reasoning being that I may inevitably take life, steal, philander, lie, or use intoxicants and would be unable to hold myself to that standard of conduct. If after finding a community of practitioners close enough to home and heart, I may consider otherwise. They could keep me honest. This attitude however, could be to everybody’s detriment.

A community of Buddhists who hold precepts up high would help its own members hold onto their precepts, perhaps for dear life. The example of shunning has been used in other groups with mixed results. Good results being that more of its members could stand straight in line, and bad being a simple, inflexible and hard-line brutality towards complex actions in life.

My own practice would be put at jeopardy as well. I could be the best sitter in the group, but would do little more than vegetate if I depended entirely on others for my own ethics and well-being. And maybe that is what it comes down to: my own well-being. Rather than being a sole object while meditating, breathing while sitting would provide but one more distraction from dealing with past negative actions and would do little to prevent future transgressions. Maybe some restraints aren’t so bad.

John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and The Sirens 1891

Well-worn Words: The Brahma-viharas

I’ve found that the hardest Buddhist concepts to understand are those which predate Buddhism in one way or another. One of these is the Buddha’s teaching on the four Brahma-viharas: metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

In the Pali suttas they are almost always mentioned as a set without additional descriptions, such that it is hard to know where each begins and ends.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article Head and Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas does a really great job of explaining the Brahma-viharas and their interrelationships in a way this hapless practitioner can understand:

Of these four emotions, goodwill (metta) is the most fundamental. It’s the wish for true happiness, a wish you can direct to yourself or to others. […] The next two emotions in the list are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: It wants the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (mudita) is what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness: It wants the happiness to continue. Equanimity (upekkha) is a different emotion, in that it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help.

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