AAR Day 1 (and a half)

Some thoughts on the first day of the AAR. Before that, though, just to note that I’m writing these posts from my Blackberry. I’ve been reading the comments, but have some difficulty replying to them. I’ve written two long replies on the topic of slavery, but they don’t seem to have appeared. Others have gone thru okay, so I’ll keep trying…

The first panel I went to was, fittingly enough, a panel in honor of Rita Gross, a pioneer in feminist Buddhism. Her book “Buddhism after Patriarchy” is a must read, and some of her concepts are central to my thinking on the topic; particularly her distinction that Buddhism is normally androcentric but only occasionally misogynist. If you want to see what I mean by these terms, check out the post on this blog where I discuss them.

My own presentation was on Saturday morning, part of a panel on issues in Buddhism in Oz/NZ. I was asked to talk about the bhikkhuni ordination, and chose to focus on bhikkhunis and “reproductive rights”. As I have argued in detail in “Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies”, the earliest oral literature of the bhikkhunis says nothing about monks doing ordination for nuns, and depicts the nuns as performing ordination for themselves. With the advent of the garudhammas, perhaps 100 years after the Buddha, the monks made themselves an essential part of the new dual ordination procedure. This means that the monks have control of women’s ordination, which for a celibate community is the only way of “reproducing” and maintaining the community in the future. A similar process occurred with the “5 points” in the Amaravati Sangha, where the siladhara ordination, which on the analogy of samanera ordination should be performed by bhikkhunis, becomes the province of the monks alone. This was specifically used as a threat to cut off future ordinations and throttle the nuns community. Ironically enough, the 5 points themselves have proven to be destructive for the siladhara community.

Another presentation I went to was on depictions of Mary in various cultures. She has been used as a figure of hope and comfort for women. In several places, visions of Mary have been received by people at the lowest class of society – in one case a poor, illiterate black girl. The visions then prompt the development of a vigorous pilgrimage phenomenon, which generates a lot of money. The visionary experience, for example of La Negrita in Costa Rica, eventually is adopted by the State as a nationalist symbol.

A fascinating case was reported from Zimbabwe. A group of women in a rustic, remote hills shrine had simultaneous visions of Mary while at their devotions. The local Bishop honored their visions by commissioning a new shrine, with a Mary carved by a local artist from local black granite. When it was unveiled, however, the women were outraged: “That’s not our Mary!” They insisted that the statue be replaced with a white Mary and child, in a conventional style.

I went to another panel, this time on various aspects of Buddhist iconography and ritual in India and Nepal. The papers were reasonable, although I felt that there were a number of questionable assumptions; most of these were picked up by Ute Husken in her comments on the papers. For example, one of the panelists spoke of the whether Siddhattha was said to have undergone the traditional Vedic rites of passage (upanayana, etc.). Most Buddha biographies do not mention these, the exceptions noted being the Buddhacarita and one passage from the Milindapanha. Are these omitted because they were not done, or because the Buddhist hagiographers wanted to avoid brahmanizing the Buddha? Perhaps they were just taken for granted. The presenter tried to argue that since these rituals constitute a spiritual rebirth under a Vedic guru, they would contradict the Buddha’s claim that he had no prior teacher. This is not all that persuasive, I think, because such rituals, while regarded as solemnly spiritual from the brahmanical theology, are seen as worldly from the Buddhist perspective; and for most people who actually do them they would be seen as just a normal part of life.

I’ll leave it at that for now: day 2 is starting.



First impressions in downtown Atlanta: Big blocky buildings. Strangely quiet streets.

The architecture speaks to me of domination. It’s all imposing, arrogant squares, too sure of themselves to admit a wussy curve. Nature, get out of the way. Sky, back off. Trees, fit yourselves in – if you can.

And people wander through, with lots of space between them. They are dwarfed by their own structures. Not like the messy, organic life that is most Asian cities, where the structures always seem to be left behind, panting and struggling to keep up with the people. Here, it’s things first.

We’re in America, the consumption capital of the world; and, for all we know, the universe. So let’s do it: let’s go shopping. Specifically, some new shoes for Chandra.

For those of you unlucky enough to not know of whom I speak, allow me to introduce. Chandra – or to give his full name, “Kumarasinghe Katunayake Appuhamillage Chandrawansa Kumarasinghe”(yes, it’s a thing) – is my kappiya (steward) for this trip. He’s a Sri Lankan retired electrical engineer who’s been staying at Santi for the past several years. A good friend and a wonderful human being.

Anyway, Chandra got to the airport and realized he had only his comfy squashed up ugg boots on. No good in the weather. So we ended up at a couple of shoe shops, remembering why we hated shopping. People really do this for fun? Well, he got a pair. Actually two: why not? They’re on sale…

Food, clothes, stuff. It’s another world for me. It just feels so alien. This is how it was long before I became a monk, and I remember why I felt the Dhamma jibed so well with me. But I wonder: what does Dhamma have to say to these people? I’ve immersed myself for so long in the aggregates, samadhi, dependent origination, it’s the world I’m at home in. How can it speak to these people?

Someone hands me a Jesus card. Believe – it’s the only way. Morality or good deeds can’t save you. Only the saving grace of Jesus can. I think this is silly. What an impoverished, unreasonable spirit. And how far from anything that Jesus himself might have wanted. And yet – here we are in the Temple of Mammon. Here, Dhamma is not the alternative to Christ – stuff is. It’s not faith versus faith, or even faith versus reason, but faith versus meaningless acquisition. And “just believe” is maybe not such a bad option after all.

We visited the Olympic memorial park and just sat for a while. Kids playing in the fountain. Old men sitting on benches. I guess we were two of the old men. The best bit: two small white cats, hidden behind a hedge, curled up with each other in the sun. They didn’t need much to be happy.

There’s a little museum called APEX nearby, all about the African-American history of the region. We spend a quiet hour or so. It’s so hard to square it all. We see outside black, white, Asian people, sharing space, eating each others food, laughing. All different, all human, all ok. How can something so obvious and natural become so utterly perverted into the horrors of the slave trade?

The gradual extension of our humanity, the full embracing of “others” is the story of our moral evolution. It’s full of backsliding and contradictions. An African-American has become President of the US – something of incalculable symbolic power. Yet inequality and, yes, slavery still thrive. These days the hidden trade has shifted, and it is often women who are the victims. But the numbers and the suffering have not diminished.

I wonder why the Buddha did not object to slavery. Sure, the kind of slavery that was around in ancient India – or indeed through most of Asian history – was a far cry from the horrific degradation of the trade of Africans to the New World. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the court of King Chandragupta only a century after the Buddha, wrote that there was no slavery in India. He was wrong, but it reveals how different Indian slavery was compared to what he knew from Europe. One of the Jatakas tells of a female slave who wanted to go on a picnic with friends. Her mistress not only allowed her to go, but loaned her a valuable necklace to wear – something no employer would do today.

Nevertheless, it still seems wrong. We have this notion of human dignity – it’s just not right to own another human being, even if you treat them kindly. The Buddha spoke out on some social issues – notably the caste system – so why not on this one? Perhaps it was just not the time and place when it could have done any good.

I still have hope. There is goodness in people. If they are not too twisted by ideology they will, by and large, try to do the right thing.

So why segregation, discrimination, slavery? It is uncomfortable in another’s world. I feel like an outsider here. Probably because I am. And it doesn’t feel good. I’m looking at people, but lots more are looking at me. What, d’ya think I’m weird or something? We like to belong, to stay where we feel comfortable, with the people and the ways we know. There’s always a slight nervousness, a little fear when going out of our domain.

I’ve noticed how just about every American who has offered some advice for our trip has included a warning of some kind. It would never occur to me to issue warnings to anyone visiting Australia, or any other country I know. For all the astonishing expenditure on defense and security, Americans don’t feel safe in their own country.

Perhaps we won’t ever feel really safe until the earth is our country, and humanity is our people. Until then, be afraid.

The Tale of the Merchants at Sea

Here’s a retelling of the Samudda-vāṇija Jātaka (no. 454). It’s a great little tale, which depicts our current environmental situation with uncanny precision. It is the Buddhist version of the widespread flood myth, which probably originated in Mesopotamia perhaps 3000 BCE. The setting here, which depicts the flood as afflicting lost merchants in a far-off land, perhaps preserves a memory of the distant origins of the story.

The story is ideal for a children’s class on the environment. But I haven’t found any up-to-date translations. So I have used the old translation (which you can read here) as a basis, and modernized the language and cleaned up the narrative a little.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, there stood near Benares a great town of carpenters, containing a thousand families. The carpenters from this town used to advertise that they would make a bed, or a chair, or a house. But after being paid an advance, they couldn’t make a single thing. So people abused those dishonest carpenters whenever they met them. They were harassed so much that they could live there no longer.

“Let’s go into some foreign land,” they said, “and find some place to live.” So to the forest they went. They cut down trees, built a mighty ship, launched her in the river, and took her away from that town. Then, together with all their families and friends, they sailed down the river to the ocean.

There they sailed at the wind’s will, until they reached an island that lay in the middle of the sea. Now in that island grew all kinds of wild plants and fruit-trees: rice, sugar-cane, banana, mango, rose-apple, jackfruit, coconut, and every other kind of delicious food.

Another man had been shipwrecked on that island before them. He lived there, eating the rice and enjoying the sugar-cane and all the rest, by which he had grown strong and sturdy. He went naked, and his hair and beard were grown long.

The carpenters thought, “If this island is haunted by demons, we shall all perish; so we will explore it.” So seven brave, strong men, armed with the five kinds of weapons, went to explore the island.

At that moment the castaway had just had breakfast, washed down with sugar-cane juice, and in high contentment was lying on his back in a lovely spot, cool in the shade on some sand which glistened like silver plate. He was thinking, “Life is good here! If I was in civilized lands, I would have to work all day for my food. Here I have all I want, provided by Nature herself!” He burst out in song, just for the joy of it.

The scouts who were exploring the isle heard his singing and said, “It seems to be the voice of a man. Let’s go and meet him.” Following the sound they came upon the man, but when they saw him naked with such long shaggy hair they were terrified.

“It’s a goblin!” they cried, and put arrow to bow ready to shoot.

When the man saw them, he called out in fear, “I am no goblin, sirs, I am a man: spare my life!”

“What!” they said. “Do men go all naked and defenceless like you?”

But it was true. He was a man, and eventually they began to talk pleasantly together. The new-comers asked how the castaway came there.

The castaway told them what had happened. “As a reward for your good deeds you have come here.” he said. “This is a first-rate island! No need to work with your hands for a living. There’s endless rice and sugar-cane, and anything else you might want, and all growing wild. We can all live here without anxiety.”

“Is there nothing else,” they asked, “to hinder our living here?”

“Only this,” he said: “the isle is haunted by spirits, who get furious when their home is polluted. So when you go to the toilet, dig a hole in the sand and hide it there. That’s the only danger, there is no other. Only always be careful on this point.”

So they all made their home on the island and lived happily, becoming strong and healthy on the plentiful diet of fruits and grains.

Now, among these thousand families there were two master workmen, one at the head of each five hundred people. And one of these was foolish and greedy of the best food, the other wise and not always worried about getting the best of everything.

Then they thought, “We have not had a party for a long time. Let’s make some toddy from the juice of the sugar-cane.” So they fermented some sugar-cane juice and made toddy, a strong liquor. They all got drunk, and sang, danced, and laughed together. But being thoughtless they relieved themselves here, there, and everywhere without hiding it, so that the island became foul and disgusting.

The spirits were enraged that these thoughtless men made their beautiful island all foul. They got together for a spirit conference to discuss the matter.

“We have cared for this island for so long,” one spirit said. “We made it beautiful, and provided it with everything that you could want. When these strangers came, we welcomed them and shared everything with them, holding nothing back.”

“All we asked,” said another spirit, “was that they respect the land and not pollute it. They knew this, but still they fouled everything.”

They sat in silence for a time. Finally, one of the spirits spoke up.

“It is too much,” he said. “We cannot endure any more. Let us call the sea and cleanse the island! Let us bring forth a flood, and wash the men back to the ocean from where they came!”

The other spirits agreed. They determined to raise up the ocean to drown the island in fifteen days time, at the full moon when their power was greatest.
But there was a good spirit among them who thought, “These people have done wrong, but they don’t deserve to die.”

So out of compassion she approached the people while they were sitting at their doors chatting pleasantly after dinner. The spirit made the whole island one blaze of light. Adorned in splendor she stayed poised in the northern sky and spoke to them.

“Carpenters!” she said. “The spirits are angry with you. Do not stay in this place! In half a month from this time, the spirits will bring up the sea and destroy you one and all. Flee now, or you will all perish!”

With this advice, she returned to her own home. All the people were terrified, and a great noise arose as they argued in confusion about what this message meant.

Meanwhile another spirit, who was cruel-hearted, wanted revenge on the people. “Perhaps they will follow her advice and escape,” he thought. “I will prevent them from leaving, and bring them all to utter destruction!”

So he approached the people just like the other spirit had done, blazing with light and standing in the southern sky.

“You have been warned of a great danger,” he said. “But that was a lie! There will be no flood. The spirits have always looked after you – we don’t wish you any harm. That other spirit is just selfish, and wants to have the island all to herself. Ignore her and her ridiculous threats. See, the sky is clear, the living is good. Stay, and enjoy the good life you have made for yourselves here. The spirits of this place will bring you all you need.”

When that spirit had left, the foolish carpenter lifted up his voice and cried, “Let all people listen to me! We have been a people lost. We were cast out of our homes, driven to wander across the wide ocean. Against all hope we found this, our new home. How can we leave now? Surely the southern spirit speaks the truth!”

And all those foolish people who only wanted to eat and drink listened to him and wished to stay.

But the wise carpenter did not agree. “We have advice from two spirits,” he said. “One speaks of danger, and begs us to flee, while the other tells us to have no fear and that we should stay. We do not know which of these is telling the truth. This shows that one should not just believe everything you hear. Considering both messages, the wise should consider carefully in their own hearts and then make a balanced decision. So let us build a great ship. If we work hard together, we can complete it before the full moon. Then, if the warning of a flood comes true, we will be saved. If there is no flood, then no harm is done. We can leave the ship and continue to live here.”

“Ridiculous!” said the foolish carpenter. “You see a crocodile in a teacup! The first god spake in anger against us, the second in affection. We know this, for the spirits have always been kind to us here. If we leave this wonderful island, where shall we go? And why should we go back to working hard like slaves, when we have all we want? But if you must go, take your tail with you! We want no ship!”

And so the foolish carpenter, with his 500 followers, went back to their drinking. They laughed and sang even louder, paying no attention to the filth that they were making.

The wise man went with his 500 and built a ship, large enough to hold them and their belongings.

On the day of the full moon, at the time of moon-rise, up from the ocean a wave arose, and it swept knee-deep over the whole island. The wise man, when he saw the rising of the wave, cast loose the ship. Those of the foolish carpenter’s party were scared, but they said to one another, “A tsunami has arisen! Never mind, it will sweep over the island, but it will be no deeper.”

But the tsunami did rise deeper. It rose waist-deep, then man-deep, even as deep as a palm-tree, and it rolled over the whole island.

The wise man, skilful and reflective, not greedy for good things, departed in safety with his 500. But the foolish, greedy carpenter, having no thought for the dangers of the future, was destroyed with all his people.

Prayers for the environment

I’ve been asked to contribute Buddhist prayers for the environment for an interfaith site. I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know any – except one verse in a traditional Pali Chant:

Sammā-dhāraṁ pavecchanto
Kāle devo pavassatu.
Vuḍḍhi-bhāvāya sattānaṁ
Samiddhaṁ netu medaniṁ.
Mātā-pitā ca atra-jaṁ
Niccaṁ rakkhanti puttakaṁ.
Evaṁ dhammena rājāno
Pajaṁ rakkhantu sabbadā

Which i have loosely translated as:

May the rain fall from the heavens, showering in the right season!
May the earth’s growing bounty bring prosperity for all beings!
As a mother and father always protect their own child,
So may the righteous rulers always protect their subjects!

I have had a quick look on the web for other Buddhist environment prayers, ancient or modern, but i can’t find any. Does anyone know of any – maybe by Thich Nhat Hahn?

Bhante’s Back

So that’s it – another vassa over. They get shorter every year, I swear. I can’t go into detail in this post, as time is very short these few days. So just a few quick notes for now.

I haven’t been keeping tabs on the blog, but I notice that the last post has 204 comments, so the discussion continues! I’ll try to catch up on stuff, but if you have anything urgent you want me to look at, please repost your comments in this thread.

Not much to report from the vassa, as one would hope. Our largest monastic community – three monks and up to seven nuns (a couple of the nuns did not stay here the entire time). Weather and supportive conditions were all good, and for the second year we have had almost all our dana brought from outside. Normally our resident laypeople spend quite a bit of their time preparing food, so this is a great help. A great big sadhu! anumodana! to all the wonderful supporters who kept us going for the retreat.

I hope most of you have been aware of the wonderful news of the two bhikkhuni ordinations in California during the vassa. If not, head over to the Women and the Forest Sangha Facebook page for photos and details. I was, of course, particularly happy to see my old teacher, Ajahn Pasanno, at the ordination, which included one of our alumni, Ayya Adhimutta.

We had our Jhanathon on Saturday night – about 40 people joined us for an all-night meditation. By strange coincidence, the Sunday is also the day that our old friend Jason Chan, who started the Jhanathon idea last year, was ordained as a novice at Na Uyana in Sri Lanka. A big sadhu to Jason, and we all hope his monastic life brings him fulfillment.

Sunday was also our kathina day. Our astonishing Vietnamese supporters came in busloads. There were over 200 people, and because of light rain, we had to all crowd into our upstairs hall. The Sanghadana was presented by representatives from the Sri Lanka, Vietnamese, Thai, and Western communities.

On Wednesday I’m leaving for my first visit to the US, with my long-term kappiya Chandra to help keep me out of trouble. We’ll be flying into Atlanta on Thursday for the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting, where i’m part of a panel talking about women in Buddhism in the Oceania region. On Monday we go to U Alabama for a seminar on the same topic. From Tuesday 2 Nov Chandra and i will be driving from Alabama west. We’re taking our time and not planning anything along the way. I want to go for pindapata in the different towns, and see where chance takes us. We hope to arrive in Santa Cruz around 9th Nov, and take part in the Western Buddhist Monastic gathering there. A few days in the San Francisco area, and then back home.

I have deliberately left the trip as open as possible. I notice that a lot of the time myself, and other monastics, tend to travel around, but always from one monastery or meditation center to another. We are constantly immersed in an environment where monastics are ‘normal’, where Buddhism is taken for granted, and where monastics are treated with reverence.

Of course, the old carika practice – what is called ‘tudong’ in Thai – is much more random, and just follows where the path leads. In the Suttas, many of the most interesting dialogues happen when the Buddha meets someone, especially non-Buddhists, who challenge him or look at things in a different way. So I’d like to just go, and see what happens. I’ve been a staunch critic of ‘fundamentalism’, so I’m going to what is perceived as the fundamentalist heartland – the American deep south. Will this explode the stereotypes, or prove them true?

So in part this is an exercise in recreating an old monastic practice in new conditions – but I’ll be taking my Blackberry along, and blogging as I go. Observations, reflections, random doodles – who knows what’ll come out of it. At least it’ll help me while away long hours in the car…

If anyone has some suggestions for the trip, let me know.

Okay, I’ve got to go. Today’s program: talk at Macquarie Uni; dentist; blessing chanting at the new restaurant of Om and Suchin, our good friends from the nearby town of Bowral.