Helping Tamil children orphaned in the Sri Lankan war

The following message is from our good friend Ramya Panagoda. She spoke to me of her recent visit to Sri lanka, and about the urgent need for support in the reconstruction. The war’s over: now we must win the peace.

While in Sri Lanka last December we travelled to the security areas in the northern province. The simplicity of the ordinary Tamil and Sinhalese people touched our hearts. But a lot of work needs to be done. I visited Nagadeepa, Anuradhapura and many other Buddhist areas. I am currently working with 64 Tamil orphans who their parents entrusted to the local Buddhist temple during the conflict years, in a remote boarder village. The youngest was 4 days old when he was left at the temple door by his fleeing parents. The Buddhist monk with the help of the army protected these children all these years and gave them an education. The children are unpolluted and is a breath of fresh air. They do not know anything about Television or radios. Their needs are simple, soap, washing powder and milk!! The children attend school and after school attend to agricultural work on temple grounds.

We managed to get a lot of publicity for the temple and Sri Lankan government declared Sethsevena Children’s Home as a charitable institution. Recently there was a news paper article about this monk and the article appears on their website.

I have been fund raising for the basic needs of these children. Our Tamil friends in Sydney have offered to provide beds for the children and this in a small way is uniting the two communities in Sydney.

If people want to donate I have the bank details for the Children’s Home. I can be contacted by email: ramyapanagoda[at]yahoo[dot]com[dot]au

One day I would like to take you and Ajahn Brahm to visit these children. Recently they discovered a big cave in the jungle near the temple. Apparently it was used by about 500 Arahaths during the time of King Dutugamunu when Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka some 1500 years ago. The Monk told me that the energy in the cave is so powerful that monks from all over the world now visits the Cave for meditation. Bhante that’s an inspiration for you to visit the cave!

Buddhism and “The Gender Dynamic”

Here’s an article that expresses the ‘other side’. It gives a straightforward argument in favor of sexism, and bases that on Buddhist ideas. Of course, I disagree with almost all the good author’s views, but I appreciate the fact that he’s confident enough to express himself clearly and openly.

Nevertheless, the doctrine he expresses is frightening: since domination of females by males is a fact, this is how it should be. This kind of thinking, though rarely expressed with honesty, lies behind many of the attitudes towards women that have been exposed in the rejection of bhikkhunis.

The author makes the surprisingly common error of thinking that ethical ‘equality’ means equality in fact. He says, ‘It is obvious to anyone with even an average level of insight and knowledge that males and females have differences physically, emotionally, mentally, behaviourally and societally.’ Yes it is. Likewise, old people are different from young, black are different from white, tall are different from short, and intelligent are different from stupid. People are different, and differences need to be taken into account.

But this has nothing to do with the ethical principle of equality, which means equal opportunity, equal treatment, and equal respect. Women are not lesser beings than men.

Try this: read the article below, and where it says ‘men’ read ‘whites’, and where it says ‘women’ read ‘blacks’. There’s no swifter way of cutting through the cruft of discriminatory argument.

The author trots out the usual criticisms of the ‘West’, apparently oblivious to the fact that many of the things he praises about Asian society – that women have equal access to education, voting, work opportunities – came about through the influence of ‘Western’ ideals of equality.

He says that women in Asia ‘choose’ to be dominated by men. I just received an email the other day from Sister Yeshe, working in India, who has been explaining to the young men there that it’s wrong to hit women. I wonder what happens to the women who ‘choose’ not to be beaten?

One of his basic arguments is that both the West and Asia discriminate, but the Asians are more honest about it. He’s wrong: people all over the world recognize that there is discrimination, and some, whether Asian or Western (or African or whatever), understand that this is harmful. It is the way it is, but not the way it should be. The Buddha taught an ‘ought': he wanted us to do what is right, not what everyone else is doing. To use the Buddhist slogan of ‘the way it is’ to justify harmful social norms is a perversion of the Dhamma – one which, sadly enough, is not limited to the present article.

I especially love his arguments from animal behavior – now that’s an ethical precedent! If animals do it, it must be Dhamma! Imagine the possibilities…

GARUDHAMMAS – THE GENDER DYNAMIC 1

Rasika Wijayratne

Men and women are not equal. This is what most people, especially in the West, have trouble grasping especially due to their cultural background and heritage. So when they approach an Eastern tradition like Buddhism and come across something like the Garudhamma rules instituted by the Lord Buddha, they instantly react against it. Although this is understandable, it is never wise or skilful.

The Garudhamma rules were first given by the Lord Buddha to Maha-Pajapati Gotami on admission to the Order as the first female bhikkhuni (higher ordained nun) with the establishment of the female Sangha. These 8 sacred rules were given as a part of her higher ordination and also became part of the female monastic Vinaya rules for all bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns), starting with Maha-Pajapati Gotami as the first nun. Even though the rules were formally given to Maha-Pajapati Gotami, it is understood that it applies to all bhikkhunis and it is even clear from the way they are worded, “A nun should…”. These eight rules are only there for bhikkhunis and not for bhikkhus (Buddhist monks). This inequality is what upsets some, especially those from the West.

It is true that an inequality is there. However it is also true that men and women, whether one likes to accept it or not, are not equal. This is why this inequality exists in the rules. It is the inability to grasp and accept this basic truth regarding the inequality between men and women that has given rise to this whole debate over whether the Garudhammas should or should not exist in the Dhamma, whether they were or were not instituted by the Lord Buddha and whether sections of the Tipitaka are authentic or not, especially in relation to the Garudhammas. This inability to see, grasp and understand that significant differences exist between men and women and that therefore they are not equal, goes to the heart and root of this whole debate and issue. So it makes sense to try and understand these differences and to also accept and come to terms with them.

It is obvious to anyone with even an average level of insight and knowledge that males and females have differences physically, emotionally, mentally, behaviourally and societally. The physical differences are obvious. It is also a well-known fact that the kinds and levels of hormones (the main ones being testosterone in men and oestrogen in women) that activate inside the body affecting emotions, mood, etc. are different in men and women. These in turn differently affect thinking, behaviour and impact on attributes significant to mental training such as energy, confidence, etc.

The differences between men and women in society, in the East or West, are even more significant. The 2010 Catalyst U.S. Women in Business report found that only 2.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women!2 This is in the USA, a Western society that purports to be egalitarian (equal) in every aspect when it comes to women. It becomes clear from this single example alone, of which there are many, that even in the West, which constantly talks about gender equality, there isn’t much equality in reality. So it is fair to say that even Western societies are male dominated, even though most would not wish to acknowledge it due to factors such as ‘political correctness’ and the laws of the land.

Eastern cultures are openly male dominated by contrast and make no attempts to hide this fact. In Buddhist countries in the East such as Sri Lanka, women enjoy the same levels of equality as enjoyed by women in the West with equal access to education, work opportunities, health care, etc. However being an openly male dominated society, it is understood and accepted that in the family home and in society that the males play a dominant role while the females play a supportive role to the male. This also prevalent in Western societies, even though it is politically incorrect and even against the law to openly state it.

Being male dominated does not in any way refer to the mistreatment of women by men as happens in some societies through subjugation, torture, sexual mistreatment, etc. In a male dominated society both women and women understand the nature of their relationship and live in that way by choice, seeing the advantages in it, rather than by force. Women are treated with dignity and respect and their wishes are respected at all times. It is important to make this distinction clear.

Historically most societies such as the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese were male dominated. However some especially in the West, attempted to adopt egalitarianism (gender equality).3 The West maybe egalitarian ‘on paper,’ but not in reality. So gender-egalitarianism, the view that males and females can ever be equal, contradicts reality, the way thing really are, in short it contradicts the Dhamma, as is evident in both the East as well as the West. So in reality most Eastern and Western societies are still male dominated, but only the East is willing to openly acknowledge it.

In the Bahudhatuka Sutta, the Lord Buddha says that only a male may become a Sammasambuddha, Wheel-turning Monarch, Sakka, Mara or Brahma thus: “It is impossible, it cannot happen that a woman could be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One (Sammasambuddha) … a Wheel–turning Monarch… that a woman could occupy the position of Sakka … Mara … Brahma – there is no such possibility (while in the form of a woman, however through rebirth as a male it is possible). It is possible that a man might be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One … a Wheel-turning Monarch… that a man might occupy the position of Sakka … Mara … Brahma – there is such a possibility.”4

Going beyond the these other realms and even looking at the animal realm this gender imbalance again becomes evident among most mammalian species, viz. “Female-biased dominance occurs rarely in mammals, and it is only observed consistently in hyenas and lemurs.”5 A questions that arises is, among lions for example where the males are dominant, what would would happen if females tried to be equal or dominant to the males? Would it create harmony or disharmony in the group of lions? The same question can be applied to other areas such as the Sangha and the family unit.

It is true that the concentrated or enlightened mind on its own is above gender distinctions. But it must be remembered this is following enlightenment, not before where gender where gender is very much relevant. To gain concentration (samadhi) and then enlightenment (Nibbana), one must first be established virtue (sila). This is where the Garudhamma rules have their place. They were instituted by the Lord Buddha first for Maha-Pajapati Gotami and then other bhikkhunis as a way of restraining gender specific unskilful qualities from arising that would compromise their and others’ training, affecting concentration (samadhi) and thus also enlightenment (Nibbana). Here gender specific unskilful qualities refers to the female desire to be on par with or even higher than males. This directly contradicts the reality of the inequality that exists between males and females. So the Garudhamma rules were instituted out of compassion for bhikkhunis, understanding the differences between genders, and not to degrade or subjugate females as some have misunderstood.

The Lord Buddha being full enlightened was fully aware of the gender differences, would have instituted these rules only for female also out of pragmatic reasons and thinking of the harmony of the Sangha community. A fully Self Enlightened One does not discriminate but acts pragmatically for the benefit and welfare of all. He would have understood the universal nature of this gender dynamic, that the males are dominant is every aspect, physically, emotionally, mentally, societally in most societies and even across other realms such as the Diving and animal realms. He would have also understood that if he did not institutionalise a set of rules such as the Garudhammas, that some would attempt to bring gender egalitarianism to the Sangha, as was attempted in Western societies. This would contradict the prevalent reality (Dhamma) of the gender dynamic and would thus create disharmony in the Sangha. As he foresaw 2600 years ago when he instituted the sacred Garudhamma rules, isn’t this very thing happening today in the Sangha community with various attempts at removing the Garudhamma rules in preference for ‘modern’ (and misguided) gender-egalitarianism?

May the true Dhamma remain uncorrupted and last for 10,000 years for the benefit of present and future generations. May you gain the wisdom and strength protect it from all present and future threats!

Notes

1. Please contact the author to obtain the latest version of this document.

2. See New U.S. Women in Business Statistics Released by Catalyst here http://www.womenonbusiness.com/new-us-women-in-business-statistics-released-by-catalyst/ and here http://www.catalyst.org/publication/132/us-women-in-business

Percentage of women in the U.S. labor force: 46.3%

Percentage of women in management, professional and related occupations: 50.6%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 corporate officers: 15.4%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 board seats: 14.8%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 top earners: 6.7%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOs: 2.4%

3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarchy

4. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Majjihma Nikaya, Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, pp 929.

5. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominance_hierarchy#Female_dominance_in_mammals

A Swift Pair of Messengers (2)

I’ve finally got around to putting up A Swift Pair of Messengers in various formats, especially as a print=on-demand book from Lulu.com. I promised these many months ago, optimistically saying they’d be ready in ‘a few days’! The hardcover from Lulu is really excellent, I’m very impressed with their quality.

Actually, I’ve been preparing all my old books, and one new one, for publication through Lulu.com. I’m awaiting the next round of proof copies from Lulu and hopefully will get these available in… well, perhaps best not to mention a time frame.

There was some terrific discussion on this after my last post, and if anyone has more comments or questions, that can be continued here. I notice that I didn’t answer everyone’s questions, so I’ll try to get on to that. If I don’t answer your question, please post it again, sometimes I miss things!

Transmission

Here’s a brilliant article by Erik Storlie dissecting the latest wave of scandals to sweep ‘American Buddhism’. He lays the blame exactly where it belongs: not on occasional ‘mistakes’, but on the ‘fairy-tale’ notion of a Dhamma lineage. Those of us whose Buddhism is inspired by the early Buddhist teachings know full well that all notions of hierarchy, lineage, and Dhamma transmission are exactly the opposite of what the Buddha explicitly wanted. Storlie quotes a few passages to support his case; there are many more. Indeed, the entire Vinaya is constructed so as to exclude these power-based dynamics. It is a great shame that our very real, urgent need for spiritual Awakening has been hijacked by such inauthentic, damaging notions. It’s past time for a return to the source…

Monks in Suits

‘When ordinary people praise the Buddha, they do so only on the trivial and petty grounds of mere behavior.’
The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1

In recent days there’s been considerable discussion among Buddhists, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, over the conferring of the respected title ‘Datuk’ to the senior monk Venerable Dhammaratana, abbot of the Brickfields Temple in KL. The controversy is not over the honor, but over the fact that the Venerable received it wearing a suit!

A bit strange, I think. I’ve lived in Malaysia for over a year, and i can’t imagine anyone, including the Malaysian royalty, expecting a monk to wear anything other than his traditional robes. After all, the officials at the ceremony were wearing traditional Malaysian garb, not suits. I’ve met three Prime Ministers and the Queen of England, and it never occurred to me to wear anything other than the same robe I wear every day.

But what’s stranger to me is the emotional reaction of some Malaysian Buddhists. The Young Buddhists Association of Malaysia (YBAM), one of the most important central organizations, said, ‘We were deeply saddened by the failure of Ven. Dhammaratana to set a good example in upholding the dignity of Buddhism.’ The Buddhist Channel published an article where the author Siriminda said: ‘I am disturbed and horrified to know that the venerable donned a complete lay suit to in the investiture ceremony.’

These articles, and others, were careful to acknowledge their pride as Buddhists and respect for the fact that the Venerable had received such an award. But there is no mistaking their very serious concern for the idea of such a senior monk not wearing robes. This is seen as an affront to one of the core symbols of Buddhism.

According to Vinaya, wearing lay clothes is a minor offence, although what this exactly means is not entirely clear. After all, the robes that monastics wore in those days wear, in point of fact, the same as lay clothes, except for the distinctive color and the patchwork pattern.

As with so many other things, the Vinaya issue is a distraction here. Monks break far more rules than this every day and no-one bats an eyelid. The real issue is the robe as a symbols of the Sangha, part of the Triple Gem.

The Venerable is by no means the first bhikkhu to don lay clothes. The respected German monk Ven. Nyanaponika would, so I am told, wear a brown suit when he returned to Germany, as the robs were unknown in his country. It is quite common in the west for Tibetan monastics to wear lay clothes to go to work, then put the robes on when they return to the temple. This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of support for Tibetan monastics in the west.

In the Brahmajala Sutta I quoted from above, the Buddha makes a strong point about how people will tend to blame or criticize based on trivial details of external behaviour, ignoring that which is of true value. The Buddha was very clear on this, and always kept a sense of ethical perspective. Sadly, we Buddhists have become so attached to the externals of our religion that we tend to judge and condemn someone who has spent a life in service to the Dhamma based on such a trivial thing.

We forget: there is nothing immoral about wearing a suit. It doesn’t harm anyone. There are real, genuine moral issues facing us every day, and we as Buddhists get used to simply living as if they passed us by. But a suit! Now, that’s something to get ‘horrified’ by.

When I see Ven. Dhammaratana wearing a suit I don’t get horrified or saddened. I think, well that’s unusual. I wonder what the circumstances were that caused him to make that choice? And that’s about all it deserves.

The real take-home message of this little kerfluffle is something quite different. What we are seeing is a Muslim raja presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk. Just think: in how many countries in the world could something like this happen? The Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice.

We hear a constant narrative about Muslim ‘extremists’, about Islamic intolerance for other faiths. This honoring of a Buddhist by a Muslim should be an occasion to celebrate. Malaysians should be proudly saying to the world, ‘Look, this can happen!’ Instead, we show the world that all we care about is a suit.

And why has it happened? It is because of decades of work by leaders such as Ven Dhammaratana and his mentor K Sri Dhammananda, who have built a solid foundation for faith relations in Malaysia. I myself witnessed Ven K Sri Dhammananda’s efforts in this regard, and it was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in interfaith in Australia.

One of the most salient aspects of the late K Sri Dhammananda’s approach to Buddhism was that he kept it real. He told a story once of how a woman in an airport dropped her handbag off a balcony. He was below, he picked it up and brought it to her. She said, ‘I didn’t think monks could touch a woman’s possessions!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t do it as a monk, I did it as a human being.’ When the Chief Rev told that story in KL, there was a spontaneous applause.

Another story. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he commented on the fact that Buddhists around the world had responded very calmly, without getting upset at the destruction of such a magnificent symbol of Buddhism. And he said, again to applause, ‘And that’s real Buddhism.’

Another time he spoke of when he was a young monk in KL, how he would get just so hungry sometimes in the afternoon – but the Buddhists wouldn’t give him anything to eat, because monks shouldn’t eat in the afternoon. Only the Muslims, responding to him as a human being, not as a symbol, would give him a snack.

It is this attitude, this insistence on humanity as the core of Buddhism, not external behaviors and symbols, that inspired K Sri Dhammananda’s mission, which as all Malaysians know, is the foundation of modern Malaysian Buddhism.

His approach is not the strictest. But it has a flexibility and a sincerity that has allowed Buddhist to flourish in a majority Muslim country, during a time when so many other countries have been overtaken by the spectre of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is this very flexibility, this concern for the other, that lay behind Ven Dhammaratana’s decision.

I can only imagine that wearing lay clothes would feel very strange and uncomfortable. Stepping out, knowing the judgments that others will make. I can’t imagine that he did this for himself. I can only assume he was thinking of what was best for the occasion, to be as gracious and considerate as possible for his host.

As a monk, and even more so, as a human being, Ven. Dhammaratana deserves the benefit of the doubt, not harsh judgments. Let us not forget his role in making Malaysian Buddhism what it is: a diverse, vibrant, relevant community that has helped build and sustain Malaysia as a successful multi-faith nation.

What to say?

I’m on my way to another environmental event, the launch of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change’s policy paper. It’s a great paper, strong, well argued, and convincing.

But it gets hard to find words sometimes. How to say what is so obvious? Consumption doesn’t make you happy – how can anyone not get that, really? How many times do we have to keep pointing at the bleeding obvious? Until it really does start to bleed, I guess.

Floods, cyclones, fires: the end does seem a little more nigh than is comfortable. Of course, we can’t pin any one event down to climate change, any more than we can blame cancer on any one cigarette. One thing is sure: the past months in Australia are just a taste of what’s to come.

How much do we need to do? More, that’s for certain. The Buddhist scriptures pin climate change down to one thing: insatiable human greed. We have to start wanting less.

What does Australian Buddhism look like?

There’s a discussion going on now among the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils about a new logo. Just a bit of PR, really, but it raises some interesting questions about Buddhism in Australia, and how we go about finding an identity, and expressing that visually.

One suggested logo is a lotus on a map of Australia. I don’t like it: it’s too obvious. And it’s not integrated: take a symbol of Buddhism, put it next to a symbol of Australia, and voila! Instant Oz Buddhism. But it’s really just two separate entities stuck together: “Australia” “Buddhism”, not “Australian Buddhism”.

What’s much more interesting for me is to look at how aspects of Buddhism have genuinely resonated with Australia.

The most obvious thing is “light”. Think of temple names in Australia: Dhammaloka, Buddharamgsee, Aloka. They all mean “light”, and reflect the local Buddhist’s response to Australia’s brilliant sunshine, a light that reflects the light imagery that is so pervasive in Buddhism.

Light is connected with the Dhamma wheel, which originated partly as a solar symbol (the other main symbolic source is the wheel itself, especially the two-wheeled chariots of the Aryans).

One of the common Buddhist flags reflects this imagery. Not the garish multi-colored .modern flag, but a traditional design, often seen in Thailand, of gold background with a red Dhamma wheel in the center.

The red center! Now that’s pretty Australian. The design is also a little reminiscent of the Aboriginal flag, which also has a sun in the center.

I think this is getting to some aspects of what it means to be an Australian Buddhist. There’s a brightness, a relaxed optimism, a morning freshness. There’s also a sense of great space. This is, for me, one of the essential things: we cling to the margins, and somehow we always know there’s a great big empty heart. This is not a negative thing, it’s an openness, a feeling of room to move, where horizons just keep on receding. And they recede over the ground, that great, broad, flat earth.

It is, of course, this sense of place that creates the many
magnificent works of Aboriginal art. It speaks to us, it feels like home, even for the many Australians, like myself, for whom the involvement with indigenous culture and the outback is marginal.

Dots, then; maybe a Dhamma wheel done in dots? Or too obvious?

Or another tack. The Australian crest features a kangaroo and emu facing a shield; not altogether unlike the classic image of the Buddha being served by a monkey and elephant. How about it? A Buddha being attended by a kangaroo and emu? Yes!

Any ideas? What does being an Australian Buddhist mean for you? And for those living elsewhere, how is Buddhism felt in your landscape? How has your place, peiple, story shaped your experience of the Dhamma.