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. Continue reading “I Am Not My Favorite Book: How Buddhist Education Really Works”

Shinnyo-En temple visit

I recently had the chance to visit a Shinnyo-En temple with my girlfriend and learned more about this relatively new form of Buddhism.

Though Shinnyo-En’s followers are mainly Japanese, it has managed to establish a foothold in several other countries as well. The temple we visited was in the Los Angeles region and we joined a bazaar hosted by the temple where they offered food and entertainment on an overcast day.

Founded by Shinjo-Ito and his wife, I heard much about as much about their practice as I did about the followers’. Shinjo-Ito and his wife are said to have had visions of the Dharma in their dreams and set off to realize their vision. Shinjo-Ito retired from his career as an engineer and they adopted Dharma names, Kyoshu-sama and Shojushinin-sama. Kyoshu-sama went through many strict practices through Shingon Buddhism. One of his practices include meditating with lit candles on arms to train in pain tolerance and “become one with the God of Fire.” He also meditated under a waterfall. His lay followers believe they are able to pick up in their spiritual training where Kyoshu-sama left off.

Practicing meditation is a big emphasis among followers, which progress in meditation divided into 4 levels: Daijo, Kangi, Daikangi and Reino, with tests organized for followers to demonstrate their advancement. Those who attain the highest level, Reino, are able to give spiritual advise during sesshin and can assess advancement during the meditation test. Reino, however, are still lay persons.

Interestingly, the last person to practice as a monastic within Shinnyo-En was Kyoshu-sama, making Shinnyo-En a strictly lay organization. The community is now led by Kyoshu-sama’s daughter, Shinso-ito, who decided not to marry and have children so that the next leader that is chosen would be based on a consensus of merit.

Their sangha arrangement is certainly different than the traditional monastic-lay arrangement and I have respect for their succession model and am curious how they will continue practicing without a monastic tradition. Do you all know of other streams of Buddhism without a monastic tradition?

The True Story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha Statue

While preparing notes for a lesson for this coming Sunday I recalled the story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha statue. It is a peculiar story, showing up in anecdotes and talks in a variety of different forms depending on who is telling it. It goes something like this:

Winston Churchill kept a Buddha statue by his bedside, or on his desk throughout the Second World War. Some versions of the story explain his reasoning for doing so, while others will even evoke words of Mister Churchill himself, and recall the serenity the peace that the statue gave him during the most trying of times.

None go so far to claim that Winston Churchill was a Buddhist; and that is not really the point. The story is trying to get at those self-evident elements of Buddhism that change minds and move mountains; things like compassion and harmlessness that sit on the surface of Buddhism, inspiring many to delve deeper, but moving far more people simply by their presence.

Its a great story; but it is the kind of story that sounds like a story. So I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of it! Continue reading “The True Story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha Statue”

Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

During the first week of March, I made a trip with a friend to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Every first Sunday of the month, admission into the museum is free, with the exception of $5 to see the featured exhibit, of which was themed around Bali.

Bodhissatva Maitreya

I was quite impressed with the collection of Buddhist items, with entire sections dedicated to Buddhism from different time periods and regions. Of all the historical artifacts, I would say what became most apparent and valuable as a take-away lesson was the diversity of Buddha imagery in Buddhism, again depending on time periods and regions. As I walked from one room to the next, I sometimes found myself not sure if I was even still browsing the Buddhist exhibit in seeing images I would initially associate with Hinduism or other Eastern religions.

 

Specifically, this statue of the Buddha surprised me. My first impression, as I think yours might be, is that it looks quite like a certain other religious leader popular and dominant in Western culture.

 

Description of Bodhisattva Maitreya

The description of the statue points out certain details that mark this to be a figure of Bodhisattva Maitreya, namely the princely garments and water bottle held in the left hand. Moreover, with origins  inPakistan, it is no wonder that their regional depiction of Maitreya is much different than the Chinese-derived Buddhist images I’m used to.

And though I enjoyed the informative exhibits and felt the museum overall was well worth my time (especially for free), I did notice one detail near the end of the exhibit that triggered a cringe, especially for such a reputable facility.

Asian Art Museum restroom

What do you notice in the picture below? Yes, you’re right. Those are restrooms right across from Buddhist figures that are as much part of the exhibit as any of the other statues. Really? Could they find no where else to put those items? It seems as though in treating the museum items as representatives of history and culture, the curators seem to have forgotten their original function as representatives of religion and faith, a significant factor to consider regardless of whether placed in a temple or museum.

Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

During the first week of March, I made a trip with a friend to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Every first Sunday of the month, admission into the museum is free, with the exception of $5 to see the featured exhibit, of which was themed around Bali.

Bodhissatva Maitreya

I was quite impressed with the collection of Buddhist items, with entire sections dedicated to Buddhism from different time periods and regions. Of all the historical artifacts, I would say what became most apparent and valuable as a take-away lesson was the diversity of Buddha imagery in Buddhism, again depending on time periods and regions. As I walked from one room to the next, I sometimes found myself not sure if I was even still browsing the Buddhist exhibit in seeing images I would initially associate with Hinduism or other Eastern religions.

Specifically, this statue of the Buddha surprised me. My first impression, as I think yours might be, is that it looks quite like a certain other religious leader popular and dominant in Western culture.

Description of Bodhisattva Maitreya

The description of the statue points out certain details that mark this to be a figure of Bodhisattva Maitreya, namely the princely garments and water bottle held in the left hand. Moreover, with origins  inPakistan, it is no wonder that their regional depiction of Maitreya is much different than the Chinese-derived Buddhist images I’m used to.

And though I enjoyed the informative exhibits and felt the museum overall was well worth my time (especially for free), I did notice one detail near the end of the exhibit that triggered a cringe, especially for such a reputable facility.

Asian Art Museum restroom

What do you notice in the picture below? Yes, you’re right. Those are restrooms right across from Buddhist figures that are as much part of the exhibit as any of the other statues. Really? Could they find no where else to put those items? It seems as though in treating the museum items as representatives of history and culture, the curators seem to have forgotten their original function as representatives of religion and faith, a significant factor to consider regardless of whether placed in a temple or museum.

Crazy Wisdom and the Imperial Examination

Right now I am editing a book of Chinese Buddhist Literature, and as such am chin-deep in Chinese Buddhist lore. I find the stuff immensely fascinating. I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.*

That being said, the one thing that shakes me is that, time and time again, it seems like the way to know that a given figure is enlightened, the way to know that they’ve really got it figured out, is when they don’t act anything like one would think an enlightened person would or should behave.

It makes so little sense, but, coincidentally, that seems to be the very thing that such a trope is least interested in making. The concept of the enlightened person as the antithesis of an enlightened person assumes that this latter ideal, the standard and agreed upon garden-variety, halo-wielding enlightened being exists.

Continue reading “Crazy Wisdom and the Imperial Examination”

Historiography and How to Talk About Buddhism

When I find myself in the company of loud and proud Buddhists during a quiet moment, I like to ask the question: How do you talk to people about Buddhism for the first time?

I have gotten many answers, and coupled with most responses is an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the endeavor. Buddhism is a huge topic, awash in a jargon whose impenetrable status drops farther and farther from mind with each attended retreat.

I’ve seen Buddhism described in opposition to other religions, stressing the non-godliness of the Buddha and the rationality its teachings, but this seems to be not stating Buddhism on its own terms. I’ve seen explanations grounded in the Buddha’s life which do a great job of framing the concerns of Buddhism, but can make Buddhism seem less immediate and relevant. I’ve seen and attempted personal appeals, drawing out the differences and benefits measured in my own life. This approach is only effective for people who are willing to listen to me describe the intense Buddhist significance of giving up potatoes.

Of course, people have been answering this question since the time of the Buddha, in one form or another. My favorite are historical accounts of interactions with Buddhists; because they answer a related but slightly different question: How does a non-Buddhist talk to people about Buddhism for the first time? What are the most pertinent details. Continue reading “Historiography and How to Talk About Buddhism”

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?