From the report, I take it His Holiness quoted from the Dhammapada: "With our thoughts, we make our world. Our mind is central and precedes our deeds. Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you like a shadow that never leaves." He also said a Bodhisattva Vow: "As long as space remains and as long as sentient beings remain, until then may I, too, remain and help dispel the misery of the world."
His Holiness also met briefly with members of the House of Representatives, who put aside partisan difference (briefly) to praise the Dalai Lama's efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance.
One of the challenges of Buddhism is that, on the one hand, we're told not to believe something just because an authority figure or an ancient scripture says it (see "The Kalama Sutta"). We are our own arbiter; we are our own refuges, or islands, or lamps, depending on how you translate things. On the other hand, we're told that our conventional understanding, including sensory experience, is a big illusion. Is this not something of a catch? How is this reconciled?
I've found that it's possible to find a "sweet spot" between skepticism and credulity, affirming what seems wise to me but staying open to the wisdom in teachings I don't understand yet. When I say "staying open" that means "I don't get this and don't believe it, but maybe there's something here I'm not seeing, So I'm not going to toss it out. I'll keep it over here on this shelf where I can see it, and maybe someday it will speak to me." And sometimes, someday, it does.
But from listening to others I take that that for some people the sweet spot is really hard to find. More often than not, westerners tend to err on the side of skepticism, quickly rejecting teachings that don't make immediate sense. Occasionally I hear from someone who has tilted too far in the other direction, adopting Buddhist teachings as a belief system without bothering to experience directly what the teachings are directing us to experience. But that's relatively rare.
I've been trying to wrap my head around current events in Thailand, in particular to see how the monastic sangha might be connected. Over the past few weeks there have been waves of protests in Thailand that turned violent late last month, and I read that one prominent monk is protest leader.
From what I can tell, the situation in Thailand is very different from what we're seeing in Burma and Sri Lanka. One monk, Buddha Issara, abbot of Wat Or Noi in the central Thailand province of Nakhon Pathom, is very visibly involved in the anti-government protests. He has been criticized for being surrounded by thuggish bodyguards and has been photographed handling money, which is a violation of the Vinaya.
My impression from reading news stories is that Thais are not happy about a monk getting mixed up in politics.The Buddhist Association of Thailand, a long-respected lay organization, has called him out for destroying the image of Buddhism. Buddhism in Thailand appears to be much less militant than in Burma or Sri Lanka, possibly because Thailand never dealt with being a European colony.
Last week I looked at Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka, and this week I want to say something about our other "problem" sangha, in Burma. We've all read the news stories about Burmese Buddhists, including monks, attacking Muslims. It's hard to know exactly what's going on, viewing Burma from the other side of the world.
I call your attention to a commentary by Kyaw San Wai of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and published in Eurasia Review. In "Myanmar's Religious Violence: A Buddhist Siege Mentality at Work?-- Analysis" Kyaw San Wai suggests that part of the problem is a kind of Buddhist millenarianism that is common in Burma. Millenarianism in this sense is belief in a coming revolution or other upheaval that will profoundly change society.
Many Burmese sincerely believe that Islam poses a real danger to Buddhism in Burma, in spite of the fact that Burma is something like 90 percent Buddhist. Again, this makes no sense to outsiders. Kyaw San Wai explains a little about where this belief is coming from. Being surrounded by larger and mostly not-Buddhist countries also contributes to something of a siege mentality in Burma. Anyway, if you are puzzling over the situation in Burma, as I am, I recommend the article.
The Wide World of Buddhism doesn't always sort itself neatly into diagrams and outlines, which makes the search for some kind of sensible organizational structure a bit, well, foolish. But people continue to try.
For example, Justin Whitaker points out that the way Buddhism is explained in the Associated Press Stylebook -- something of a "bible" for working journalists -- is seriously awfully bad. And not just the part where it says "Buddhists believe that correct thinking and self-denial will enable the soul to reach nirvana," a statement so packed with inaccuracy as to be worthy of the late Christopher Hitchens, who infamously concluded that Buddhism is "A faith that despises the mind and the free individual." This is bit like saying mathematics is a cult that despises numbers and calculations.
But the Associated Press is not finished. It breaks Buddhism down into these component parts -- "Hinayana or Theravada," Mahayana, Mantrayana (by which AP means Vajrayana) and Zen, which AP says is "similar to" Mahayana. Ack!
There's an article by Adam Alter on the New Yorker website that debunks the claim that "positive thinking" is the key to happiness and success in all things. In fact, Alter says, data show that unquestioning expectation that things will go your way may make you less happy and successful. You may work less hard, for example, and also be unprepared when things don't go your way. Relentless optimism may not help you heal from injuries, either.
This doesn't mean there isn't some truth in the benefits of positive thinking. Someone who projects confidence and optimism will likely gather more friends and supporters than someone projecting gloom. And, of course, our thoughts generate karma just as much as our words and actions. Thoughts can be powerful. But that doesn't mean optimism of itself will bring you good luck.
Of course, we could ask "What do you mean by happiness?" and "What do you mean by success?" In Buddhism, happiness is a mental state cultivated by practice that does not depend on an object of happiness. In other words, it doesn't depend on what happens to you, or what you acquire. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said, "Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions."
Recently seven Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka were arrested and charged with leading a mob attack on a couple of Christian churches, the Calvary Free Church and Assembly of God Church in Hikkaduwa. I understand there are videos of the incident showing monks vandalizing the churches. No one was hurt, fortunately.
The only reason I can find for targeting these two churches is that there is some question whether the churches are operating with the proper government permits, or some such thing. Otherwise I have no clue. If you happen to know something about this situation, do speak up. But as I understand it, there appears to be a slowly escalating pattern of violence against Christians, Hindus, and Muslims in Sri Lanka.
Yesterday I wrote a little about the Great Revival in Sri Lanka. This is a bit of history that's critical to making sense of what is going on there now. In brief, after centuries of rule by European powers and the auxiliary Christian missionaries, by the mid-19th century Buddhist temples and monasteries on the island of Ceylon were barely surviving. Children were being educated in Christian missionary schools. Laypeople knew next to nothing about Buddhism.
One of the many things I love about writing about Buddhism is that I've gotten to know some great people from history. Yesterday a news item from Sri Lanka commemorated the 107th anniversary of the death of Henry Steel Olcott, who somehow played a pivotal role in the revival of Buddhism in 19th century Sri Lanka.
I think Olcott and his companion, Madame Blavatsky, would make great film characters -- Olcott was a once-respectable New York lawyer, and Blavatsky was the original New Age flower child. If Blavatsky had dropped into Haight-Ashbury in 1967 she would have fit right in. (If you young folks don't get the reference to Haight-Ashbury, ask your parents.) They traveled to India in 1879 full of Orientalist romance and transcendentalist idealism, and somehow Olcott got mixed into the Sinhalese Buddhist revival and national independence movement. It's epic.
I also think the life of the 6th Dalai Lama could make a great film, or a really awful one, depending on how the subject is approached. Well, some day, maybe.
Some Mahayana schools commemorate the death and Parinirvana of the Buddha on either February 8 or 15. I think the 15th is the more common date. The Buddha's Parinirvana makes a poignant story, and it feels doubly so for me this year, so soon after the passing of my own teacher.
The Buddha's life has been mythologized to the point that it's sometimes hard to tell how much, if any, has historical plausibility. But this story of his last days "feels" very real to me. It speaks plainly of the 80-year-old Buddha's physical deterioration, the sorrow of his cousin and attendant Ananda, and his serene passing into final Nirvana.
All compounded things will decay, the Buddha said. We might remind ourselves of this every day, so that we don't squander the opportunity we have now -- to awaken, or to at least be useful!
My Zen teacher, Jion Susan Postal, died late Friday of cancer. It is a testimony to her teaching that our sangha has pulled together in strong support of each other and our ongoing practice.
I realized awhile back that I don't write as much about Susan as I do about my first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Loori. Daido had a dramatic teaching style and a knack for saying wonderfully quotable things. Susan's style was more subtle and intimate, more heart to heart, so it's harder to put into words.
She was a great teacher. Whenever someone tells me they don't need a teacher, and point to the several Zen teacher scandals as an argument, I always think, I wish you could meet Susan. She was completely sincere, and completely and unselfishly devoted to her students and to the dharma.
You can read a biography of Susan at Sweeping Zen.