Please help Justin James Bridges

Here’s a message from our good friend Jackie Miller, a former resident of Santi (is that a ‘Santista’?). She’s been on the front lines at Occupy Portland, and sent the following message asking for help for one of the people injured in the protests.

Dear friends,

My good friend Justin James Bridges was severely injured by police on Nov. 13 during the eviction of Occupy Portland. Justin was defending our right to peacefully assemble by standing in solidarity outside of the Chapman Square camp in downtown Portland when he was pulled into the park by police after falling and injuring his back. Although injured, his hands were zip tied by police and he suffered further injuries while in police custody. Justin is a blues guitarist/singer and was the sign language interpreter for Occupy Portland. His right hand is injured, leaving him without any livelihood until he heals. He has no health insurance and is in need of ongoing care and therapy. He still can’t walk under his own power and has been referred to a neurologist. See for more about Justin.

If you feel moved to contribute to medical expenses for Justin, here is the link to his Paypal account. Any amount helps. More importantly, please send good wishes and spread the word via social media, etc. Feel free to call me with questions.

Justin James Bridges recovery fund:



The Ten Funniest Scenes from the Pali Canon

What? The Pali Canon is profound, difficult, revolutionary: but not funny, surely. And if it is, then why? What’s the nature and purpose of Dhamma humour?

Thankfully I’m going to leave aside weighty matters of interpretation and present here the definitive list of funniest scenes. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments. In this list I am only considering the early Suttas. There’s plenty more humour in the Vinaya, and even more in the Jatakas, but it would just be too hard to choose.

10. Saccaka gets his comeuppance


Majjhima Nikaya 35, Culasaccaka Sutta

What’s up?

Saccaka the wanderer features in a few Suttas. Here he threatens to take on the Buddha in debate on the five aggregates and not-self, giving an elaborate series of similes on how he will drag the Buddha about ‘like a huge elephant would enjoy a game of washing hemp’.

Where’s the funny?

While Saccaka is boasting, there’s no doubting his pride is due for a painful fall, and the Sutta doesn’t disappoint. He ends up thoroughly humiliated, seating and depressed. But like all good thrashings in debate, it turns out to be a necessary antidote for his pride. He ends up becoming an arahant.

9. The Boast of Brahma

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 11, Kevaddha Sutta.

What’s up?

A monk searches for an answer to the question, ‘Where do the four great elements cease without remainder?’ He questions the gods, but they keep referring him upstairs (which itself is a lovely satire on the bureaucratic nature of the celestial hierarchy) until he arrives in the realm of Brahma. Brahma appears and boasts, ‘I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, Father of All…’. But he keeps dodging the question. Eventually the monk is so persistent, he takes him by the elbow, leads him to one side, and whispers to him, ‘Actually, I don’t know the answer to your question. You should have asked the Buddha!’

Where’s the funny?

It is a brilliantly accurate skewering of religious pretensions. The bluster and bombast is revealed for what it is. While the story as it stands is directed at the Brahmans, other texts make it clear the Buddha respected the good practice of Brahmans of old (after all, he must have had jhanas to become a Brahma in the first place.) The point here is that religious authority is propped up by signs and displays, and with a little dedicated and persistent questioning anyone can see beneath the surface.

8. Sariputta gets Clubbed

Where do I find it?

Udana 4.4

What’s up?

A passing yakkha sees Sariputta meditating in the full moon, his freshly shaven head a tempting target for an ogre’s club. Unable to resist, despite the warnings of his friend, he lands a blow that would split a mountain in two. Sariputta sits there unperturbed and the blow bounces off. Later, Moggallana asks him if he saw anything unusual, and Sariputta says, ‘No, but I do have a slight headache’.

Where’s the funny?

Come on. A huge troll smashing a shiny bald head in the moonlight? How is this not funny? The episode is pure slapstick, and gives an entertaining contrast between the violent religion of the yakkhas – which, let us not forget, was a mainstream cultic practice often involving human sacrifice – and the peaceful cultivation of the Buddhists. We’re left with no doubt where the real strength lies.

7. Sakka Turns Back

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 11.6, Kulavaka Sutta

What’s up?

In the interminable war between the Gods and Titans, the Gods lost the battle and were fleeing, with the Titans hard at their heels. Their escape route led through a forest full of delicate birds, with their chicks nesting. Sakka cannot bear to endanger such innocent creatures, and so he instructs his charioteer Matali, to turn around, even though this means facing their enemies. The Titans, however, assume that Sakka has turned around because he has reinforcements. Terrified, they flee and the Gods end up victorious – and saving the birds.

Where’s the funny?

Sakka is the Buddhist version of the ferocious war god of the Vedas, Indra. He is the archetypal Aryan hero, leading his people on chariot raids, plundering and slaughtering in the joy of strength and victory. The Buddhist texts turn him, not without a struggle, into a spokesman for non-violence. Like the religious allegories, this provides, in its light-hearted way, a political allegory for the idea that non-violence can be a source of strength and political success.

6. The Humiliation of Mara

Where do I find it?

Sutta Nipata 3.2, Padhana Sutta

What’s up?

Mara tires to defeat the Buddha, but ends up routed. While later accounts depict Mara’s army as a vicious mob of monsters, this early story lists 10 purely psychological factors as Mara’s army: desire, cynicism, and the like. Mara tries to tempt the Buddha to live a life of wholesome merit and give up striving for Awakening. But the Buddha is impervious, and Mara ends up depressed, saying he couldn’t get any more entrance to the Buddha than a crow poking a stone. It ends with the unforgettable image of the ‘depressed troll’ letting his lute droop from his armpit and vanishing.

Where’s the funny?

Mara is hardly the paragon of evil we might expect by comparison with the Christian Satan. He is more akin to the Trickster figures of folk mythology; except he ends up being the one getting tricked. His inevitable defeat is a standard trope, repeated in countless stories. Like the wily coyote (another trickster figure), the fun is watching his (admittedly admirable) persistence and ingenuity, knowing all the while his efforts are doomed… I could have chosen any number of Mara tales for this spot, but I felt this major archetypal episode deserved the gong. A special mention, though, for Majjhima 50, Maratajjaniya: Mara enters Moggallana to possess him, and Moggallana says it feels like his belly is full of beans.

5. The Doctrine of Dighanakha

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 74, Dighanakha Sutta

What’s up?

Dighanakha approaches the Buddha and without ado declares his doctrine to him. With a name like ‘Long-nails’, you know this is not going to end well. His doctrine is, ‘Nothing whatsoever is pleasing to me’. The Buddha responds with one of the best one-liners in the Suttas: ‘Well, this view of yours, is that pleasing to you?’

Where’s the funny?

The Buddha’s response is sharp, witty, and cuts to the heart of the matter. Like the best humour, it’s not just amusing, but it points to a deep truth: religious people often claim to have let go of the world, but it is their attachment to their religious ideals that is really holding them back.

4. Ratthapala’s Wives

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 82, Ratthapala Sutta

What’s up?

Ratthapala is the son of a wealthy family. He is permitted to go forth by his parents only after he nearly starves himself to death. When he returns to his family after attaining enlightenment, they try to tempt him to return to worldly things, placing a large pile of gold before him and serving delicious food. Ratthapala’s former wives come to attend him, intent on seduction. They ask, ‘What are they like, the divine maidens for whose sake you are following the holy life?’ Ratthapala says, ‘Sisters, we do not live the holy life for the sake of divine maidens.’ They cry out, ’He called us “sisters”!’ and collapse in a faint.

Where’s the funny?

Your mileage might vary! Yes, it’s a standard ‘woman tempts ascetic’ scenario; but I don’t think it’s as sexist as it might appear out of context. The bulk of the sutta has Ratthapala dealing with his clinging parents, and later with a king. The wives only appear in this one scene, and are a transparent narrative device. I just find the image of the wives crying, ‘He called us sisters’ and fainting to be so over the top. They’re vapid valley-girls; and for me the humour lies in the naivety of their response, in stark contrast with the strong, wise women found elsewhere in the Suttas. It strikes me as a throw-away bit of camp, contrasting beautifully with the sombre and profound teachings that the sutta ends with. The sutta as a whole is one of the most dramatically accomplished in the whole canon, and the effect is partially accomplished with the fusion of dark and light elements. Anyway, if you still think the story is proof of the sexism of the Pali Canon, perhaps you’re not familiar with…

3. Mutta’s Song of Freedom

Where do I find it?

Therigatha 1.11, Muttatheri

What’s up?

An awakened nun sings of her freedom from the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband.

Where’s the funny?

Sexual politics have, it seems, changed but little. The short verses segue blithely from the mundane to the sublime, speaking with wit and pith of the reality of domestic disappointment. Rather than offering a Cinderalla-solution (the handsome prince will take you away and you can live in a castle – with someone else to do the cooking and cleaning), this offers a genuine solution: freedom from birth and death.

2. Citta’s Faith

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 41.8, Nigantha

What’s up?

Citta, a highly intelligent and capable lay disciple, goes to see Mahavira (known in Pali as Nigantha Nataputta), the leader of the Jains and the Buddha’s chief rival. Mahavira asks him whether he has faith in the Buddha’s claim that there is a state of mind so still that all movement and applied thought has vanished? Citta replies that he does not go by faith in the Buddha’s claim. Mahavira is delighted in this, puffs out his chest, and declares, ‘See, even the Buddha’s followers don’t believe him!’ And he praised Citta for his honesty. Citta, however, asks Mahavira, ‘Which is better, faith or knowledge?’ Mahavira agrees that knowledge is better. Citta then declares that whenever he wishes he enters the second jhana where there is no movement or application of mind, and indeed enters even higher attainments. So he does not need to go by faith: he speaks from personal knowledge. Mahavira is devastated: he glances aside at his following, and says how deceitful and insincere Citta is.

Where’s the funny?

Unfortunately, neither the Jain nor Buddhist scriptures record that the Buddha and Mahavira ever met in person, so exchanges such as this are the best we have. As well as the usual pricking of religious pretensions, Citta exposes some of the flaws of the Jain system as seen by the Buddhists. By focussing so much on self-torment, they do not have the tranquillity necessary for deep meditation, and so cannot see the truth. Moreover, Mahavira bombastically claims to be all-knowing, yet he can be so easily fooled – and by a mere layman at that.

1. The Love Song of Pancasikha

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 21, Sakkapanha Sutta

What’s up?

Sakka wants to ask the Buddha some questions, but can’t seem to arrange an interview as the Buddha is on retreat. Pancasikha the gandhabba offers to help, and standing neither too close nor too near, he serenades the Buddha with a song extolling the ‘Buddha, arahants, and love’. He sings of his beloved Suriyavacchasa, ‘maiden fair of thighs’, whose glorious beauty he covets ‘as the arahants love the Dhamma’. His desire grows as does the merit of gifts given to arahants; and were he to be made one with his beloved, he would rejoice like the Buddha attaining Awakening! Despite the outrageous inappropriateness of the song, the Buddha rewards him with a nice compliment: the sound of your voice blended well with the sound of your lute. Sweet, and neatly avoids commenting on the content of the song. (Incidentally, certain later myths make this lute of Pancasikhas none other than the very lute that had dropped so ignominiously from Mara’s armpit in the episode mentioned above. Not so implausible, perhaps, as both events are closely related with the of the Buddha’s Awakening.)

Where’s the funny?

A love song in the Pali Canon! Though the verses are perhaps the earliest attested love song in Indian literature, they are clearly playing with well-practiced tropes. Even when the song doesn’t directly speak of Buddhism, it uses standard Buddhist imagery: like an elephant plunging into a cooling lotus-pond, Pancasikha longs to plunge into the bosom of his beloved. Foreshadowing later Indic literature such as Ashvaghosa, the verses are ironically aware of their own tension: her love will grant him sweet release like water cooling flames, but at the same time he is like a fish stuck on a hook, his heart bound, and his thoughts confused. You can read it either as a genuine erotic song, or as an exposure of the sufferings of lust. And, like the Ratthapala Sutta, the narrative is sophisticated enough to move from such light fare to the weighty matters that are dealt with later on.

FECCA again

A plenary session this morning – 6 or so speakers given 5 minutes each.

(Now why, I wonder, when given time constraints does every speaker feel obligated to waste their time by starting off commenting on how little time they have? Note to self: don’t do that. And, BTW, if you do go over time, eveyone is sitting there thinking, ‘How
inconsiderate!’ Way to lose your audience.)

Content: Some interesting snippets. Australia is one of very few nations in the world that thinks of itself as an immigrant nation, and it does so largely positively. Most Australians think that immigration strengthens the country, and are happy with current levels of immigration. However, Australians also consistently prefer
‘integration’ over ‘multiculturalism’. In other words, you’re welcome to come here, but it’s your job to fit in.

Prof Salman Sayyid: The problem is that these days, there is racism but no racists. (Brilliant!)

Paul Power (CEO Refugee Council): It is ironic that today, in a country with levels of wealth virtually unprecedented in human history, there is so much resentment and intolerance of the poor and disadvantaged.

Prof Santina Bertone: Throughout State govts, CALD representation is significantly less than in society generally, despite the fact that everyone agrees this should not be the case. The reason seem to be subtle rule-based barriers, such as bureaucratic job applications, preference for local qualifications, etc. The problem is specially prevalent in higher level policy and executive levels. (This was an interesting insight for me, to see how racism and other forms of discrimination become embodied in forms so subtle that they escape notice, but are none the less powerful.)

FECCA conference – about

I’m feeling a little like a fish out of water. Not an unusual feeling for me, frankly. But here at a multiculturalism conference, you don’t belong unless you’re an outsider. It’s about the Other: those of a different language, origin, color, religion, gender, body shape….

I’m here mainly as the Buddhist rep for the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations (APRO). The APRO session is tomorrow, and till then I’ll try to catch up with what’s interesting.

Much is a little boring, to be honest. Not being someone who works in govt. or other service providers for multiculturalism, the specifics of programs and stats don’t mean much to me.

But it’s about compassion: understanding the Other, appreciating their lives and struggles. There’s always something to remind you to extend your mind, to notice a corner of your mind that is closed off, and invite it to open…

It’s easy as a monk to stay in a closed context; to be always the center, to have your words accepted without question, to always be right, to forget the struggles and confusions that beset so many people’s lives. So that’s what I’m looking for: to understand better.

FECCA conference, Adelaide

I’m at the FECCA conference on Advancing Multiculturalism in Adelaide, as part of the interfaith Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations roundtable. I’ll try to blog some bits I find
interesting. These are purely random observations, not an attempt to cover everything.

Paraphrases in normal text, “quotes in quote marks”, (my own observations in brackets).


(Two very moving and insightful presentations from persons with disabilities. Sorry, these few remarks can’t capture the strength of these inspiring people… But anyway, here’s a few bits and pieces) Hon Kelly Vincent (Dignity for Disability party):

“You can’t access justice if you can’t access the building.”

Christian Astourian (FECCA disability committee chair)

There are a million people with disabilities in Australia who come from a non-English speaking background; they take up services and support for disabilities only half as much as those from an
English-speaking background. Services are supplied largely in English, and non-English speakers feel marginalized and excluded.

“I strongly believe that in this world we are all connected in one way or another.”

Rather than looking at people with disabilities as liability, we should look at the contribution to society.

Advice for parents: Don’t hold back from and be overprotective. Empower children with disabilities, the disability is only one part of them.

“I really believe that in this life we should do the best with what we’ve got.”

Hi Newcastle

I haven’t been to Newcastle for, like, ever. 20 years or so. My main memory is arriving on tour with my band, going to the local radio station for an interview, only to find that the interviewer was the Aussie rock legend, John Paul Young. Memories of a forgotten past; I guess we’re all yesterday’s heroes now…

As for new memories, we forged some bright ones. I’d been invited by the kindness of some friends, Sarawati and Richard, who I’d met thru the AABCAP course on Buddhism and psychotherapy. They do kirtan, a kind of Hindu devotional musical mantra, at a local yoga center, and they invited me to share some meditation.

When we arrived, Richard and Saraswati were doing a very beautiful, gentle chant based on the Heart Sutra mantra, ‘Gate gate parangate…’ Saraswati told me she wrote it after doing my metta retreat last year, which gave me a big happy.

We had a lovely afternoon doing some metta. They weren’t a regular meditation group, so of diverse backgrounds and levels of experience. There was that easy Australian sense of relaxed earnestness, and a lot of appreciation for the chance to learn and practice.

In the evening, Saraswati and Richard together with some friends did two kirtans. One was based on ‘Namo tassa..’, the other on
‘Nataraja…’ (Lord of the dance, an epithet of Shiva). I’d never experienced it before, and I found it very moving. It’s a slow, repetitive call-and-response, very gradually building in intensity. I found a surprising depth of stillness among the sound – which is, of course, the whole idea. It really was a great experience. I loved the way they managed to bring everybody together very simply and share an uplifting experience.

And what made it even better was that it was by donation, and the donations went to help orphans in India. Thanks to Saraswati and Richard, and to the Ashtanga Yoga Center, for putting on such a great event.


The MedMob has happened. At 11am on 11/11/11, around 300 randoms gathered in a park above the Sydney Opera House. We came, we sat, we ommed.

I loved the simplicity and purity of it. No message, no ideology. Just people sitting in peace together.

Muchos kudos to Sam and the other organizers. It takes a lot of work to make something so effortless.

The plan is to keep it going, with monthly sits. Hope to see you there!

O and BTW if someone has photos or video, please leave a link in the comments.

Clean Energy Act

At last Australia has passed a Clean Energy Act to begin addressing the mammoth threat posed by climate change. I visited the PM Julia Gillard earlier this year with an interfaith delegation from Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. She assured us that this Act was merely the first step, a beginning of the process of addressing what she recognized as a tremendous problem. The year previous I also spoke with Tony Abbott as a member of ARRCC, and he was very clear that he regarded climate change as unsupported by science, and that a sea level rise of 1 meter would be manageable for Australia. Little wonder he has vowed a ‘blood oath’ to repeal the legislation.

Here’s a response to this legislation from Al Gore:

History is Made in Australia November 7, 2011 : 9:00 PM

This is a historic moment. Australia’s Parliament has put the nation’s first carbon price into law. With this vote, the world has turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis. This success is the result of the tireless work of an unprecedented coalition that came together to support the legislation, the leadership of Prime Minister Gillard, and the courage of legislators to take a vote that helps to safeguard the future of all Australians.
I have spent enough time in Australia to know that their spirit of independence as a people cannot be underestimated. As the world’s leading coal exporter, there’s no doubt that opposition to this legislation was fierce. But through determination and commitment, the voice of the people of Australia has rung out loud and clear.
Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we do everything we can to ensure that this legislation is successful.

Just in case you thought we could get, you know, happy, the global picture on climate change looks worse than ever. Despite the financial crisis, levels of CO2 continue to rise. The International Energy Agency warns that the current rate of production of carbon-expensive infrastructure means that we are becoming locked into a pattern of increasing carbon levels and the inevitable global warming that that entails. From today’s Guardian:

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

Astonishingly, the IAE claims that the fossil fuels industry is being subsidised to the tune of $400 billion/year! With such figures demonstrating the shallowness of true commitment to change, it is difficult to remain optimistic. Just remember: kamma is kamma! Do the best you can, that’s all you can do.

Please help the moderator: valid emails!

Hi to all the wonderful commenters.

A couple of times recently I have tried to contact commenters offlist to discuss matters in the comments, and the emails have not been valid. Please remember that using a valid email address is a condition of using this site, and I will not allow any comments if I find that the email you submit is not valid. Of course, it may be a simple mistake, so please take care when entering the email address.

The reason I have raised this matter is this. In the past, we have had some energetic discussions on this forum, and like many places on the internet, the standard of discussion can sink to personal slurs and attacks. WordPress gives fairly simple tools for allowing or unallowing comments, and this works fine in the majority of cases. Most commenters are constructive and useful, and the few outright trolls can be easily excluded.

The problem is the grey areas: comments where I think, “Should I allow this?”, and usually err on the side of acceptance, while hoping that the tone of the dialogue will improve. But it often doesn’t, and the comments gradually descend down a slide of snark, but there’s no obvious cut-off point where I can say, “This is too much”.

I’ve read around various discussions of the issue, and one point that I read I took to heart. That is: it is the responsibility of the moderator (which is me) to engage with commenters and ensure a quality of dialogue. This doesn’t really happen through writing policies. It happens by reaching out to people.

So from now on, when I am faced with a comment that I am unsure of, rather than either allowing or unallowing it, I will email the commenter offlist, explain what the problem is, and ask if they can reconsider their original comment. I hope that this will encourage commenters to continue to contribute, and create a better atmosphere for genuinely constructive criticism.

So, back to emails: if you don’t give a valid email address, I can’t contact you offlist. Currently this applies to the commenter “What happened to Buddhism?” Can you please supply a valid email address? (Oh, and by the way, I prefer real names, although I understand that there are sometimes good reasons for using pseudonyms.)

Definition of Charity

The Australian Federal Government is revising its statutory definition of a charity. Given that most Bddhist organizations operate as charities, this is of concern for the Buddhist community, and the Govt has asked the FABC to offer advice. The webpage is here for anyone who’s interested. It is essential that any new definition should include Buddhism as a charity, as it provides abundant public benefits. In the past there has been some discussion as to whether Buddhism qualifies as a “religion” under Australian law. This is another matter that should be clarified.