Category: Sangha

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.

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?

Luangta Maha Bua Passes Away

It’s all over the front page of the Nation. “Thailand’s most revered monk; a guiding light has passed on.” Luangta Maha Bua had an enormous influence on Thai Buddhism, culture, politics and even the Thai economy. You can read some recent pieces about Luangta Maha Bua at Wandering Dhamma, where the author had the great fortune of being able to speak with him. For those who’ve never heard of this charismatic old monk, it is hard to relate how huge an impact he had on Thai Buddhism—not to mention what his passing may mean for the future of the Thai forest tradition. Much more to say, but those are my thoughts for now.

My thanks to Bhante Sujato for altering us of this sad news.

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.

How will you observe Kathina?

Last year’s bhikkhuni ordination in Australia prompted an unprecedented outpouring of support for the Theravada bhikkhuni movement. It was certainly a tipping point. The center of discussion in the wider community has begun to shift from questions about ordination to questions about how to support and nurture the growing community of nuns. This was the first year that the “Theravada Buddhist women’s monastic community has gathered together to observe the vassatime retreat.” Tomorrow will mark their first Kathina ceremony at the Aranya Bodhi Hermitage.

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Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination in Los Angeles

Recently, a friend of mine received her ordination at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles. She has been a very inspirational figure in terms of her commitment to the Dharma and the community. I attended for most of the ceremony, but had to leave before the final photo shoots to make it home before my early bedtime. Fortunately, she sent me a link to a piece on the ceremony written up by Dr. Stephen Long for the Asian Tribune.

I have had mixed feelings about recent bhikkhuni ordinations. My concerns are less about the ordinations themselves, but of the polarized politics that surround them. I was a bit anxious about attending, but I’m glad I did. At the ceremony this past weekend, I realized that the young children in the audience will grow up in a Buddhist community that includes both monks and nuns, oblivious to the controversy that can at times rip through my generation. Two or three generations down the road, who knows? All the anxieties of my generation (mine included) may be relegated to a footnote in a history text. I wish these newly ordained bhikkhunis all the best blessings and support.

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?

A Vietnamese Mendicant Tradition

Nhu Lai Thien Tu

There were six, if not more toilets at Như Lai Thiền Tự, a Buddhist temple in San Diego. I figured six was excessive—until three coaches of pilgrims pulled up in front. Celebrations for the Lunar New Year continue, and this includes the ancient tradition of temple hopping. Apparently the new year is the best time to make merit—and to wait in a long line to pee.

On any given day, there is very little about Như Lai Thiền Tự to distinguish it from the multitude of other Vietnamese temples across North America. There is a main shrine hall, an ancestor hall—even a special stage set up for Tết ceremonies. Statues of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and classic characters from Chinese Buddhist literature meet you at every turn, always accompanied by a incense holder for the devotee. But this is not your typical Mahayana Buddhist temple.

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Modern Contradictions

Over on The Huffington Post, Deborah Jiang Stein asks whether a Buddhist skateboarding monk is “a contradiction or a product of the modern age.” She’s referring to the image of a monk on a caster board at Mount Emei that sparked criticism in China Skateboarding Monk(“Monks should seek quietness and riding a skateboard is such a contradictory thing to Buddhist life”) and humorous applause elsewhere (“What could be a better example of the middle way than balancing on a skateboard?”). You’ve probably already seen this news pop up on the Buddhist blogs (like here, here, here and here). The contradictory aspect of this episode isn’t the monk, but rather the Buddhist community—as evidenced by the range of reactions that appear online.

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Sects and Sectarianism

UnityEdictSarnathweb-fullThe problem with free eBooks is that, for all the gains in access they offer by removing the constraints of traditional distribution they remove some of the methods of traditional promotion. For Buddhist monastic authors this is usually not a problem since free access is greatly prefered to fame and fortune, but this means that many great eBooks fall through the cracks, unnoticed.

Thus, attention all Buddhist nerds: read Ajahn Sujato’s Sects and Sectarianism immediately. I cannot think of a more important book written for the cause of Global Buddhism.

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