Kitano Gempo, abbot of Eihei temple, was ninety-two years old when he passed away in the year 1933. He endeavored his whole life not to be attached to anything. As a wandering mendicant when he was twenty he happened to meet a traveler who smoked tobacco. As they walked together down a mountain road, they stopped under a tree to rest. The traveler offered Kitano a smoke, which he accepted, as he was very hungry at the time.
Is The Buddha a god?
The Buddha was born a prince. His mother died soon after giving birth to him. So there is no claim of divinity of any kind. He was an ordinary man with ordinary problems just like you and me. And therefore he is not a god. Nor should he be worshipped as such.
Buddhist iconography was something which arose after his death. And temples are not places of worship. Both of these are created to help us understand his teaching, the dharma, which is we alone can liberate ourselves from unhappiness through attention to the nature of one’s body and mind.
This then means that Buddhism is not about faith but practice. The practice espoused was to look after the mind as much as we look after our body. This Buddhists do through meditation. Meditation does not have any special powers as such but only allows one to focus the mind to see clearly what the mind and body are. Some kind of basic understanding is necessary of course, but essentially it is that everything is impermanent, without self and suffering. Nothing including Buddhism lasts forever. That includes the self which many people cling on to. The self is an illusion. And that is perhaps the greatest of all roots of our suffering. Understand that this is what existence is then we can proceed to find the happiness which does not diminish.
Saddam’s death and karma
Saddam’s death seem to bring joy to most, and hate and vengence to others. So just when is this karma going to stop?
While his death may have been his own doing through his karma, it is not for us to continue our own by rejoicing his death. Our own karma will only come back to us.
This is why I hate politics.
We can only work to free ourselves and no one else.
The Earth, its environment and resources
Recently I had to evaluate a writing textbook for my Teaching Writing class. It was a textbook for teaching English writing to second language students for academic purposes. So the articles were all social related.
The chapter I chose to examine was called Our Earth, Our Resources, Our Environment., a chapter obviously about sustainability issues. Yet the title struck me as problematic. Not that the Earth the resources and the environment are unimportant words (they are undoubtedly “trend words” for today) but it was how they were determined. The other three words or to be exact the other word repeated three times – our – was just begging for criticism.
Of the three possessive cases that occurred in this short “punchy” title resources stood out for me. What are resources and who owns them? These are questions I would like to answer here. The Oxford English Minidictionary on my desk defines resource as “a supply of an asset to be used when needed”. A fair and straightforward definition. But what about the assumptions of the word. The use of the words supply and asset are interesting here because they are not words usually associated with the environment, especially the protection of it.
And what about the verb form? It is in the passive. Passive sentences have a feature which make it a favourite of some writers because of what it can hide or ignore – the doer. To complete the definition it omits the doer partly because it is assumed and partly because it wants to obscure its negative impact. Let me put it another way: I do not know of too many animals that see the trees and mountains as “supply”, “asset” or “resource”. These are wholly human terms.
Habitat may be a better word to describe the areas we term resource. But that too has its problems. It is always “the dwarf mongooses’ habitat” or simply “their habitat”. usually it is not an area human inhabit but always a step removed from, or to look at from the outside. In other words, it is the The Other world or place and not ours.
About five minutes drive from my home is a quarry. I literally drive through it almost everyday to get to and from college. Every time I do so I shudder. Slowly what once was a mountain, a forest and habitat for animals is now bare yellow sandy rock. The huge bulldozers power shovels and dump trucks that sit by the roadside has gradually been transported away to some factory somewhere for use, for human consumption. The mountain face that once dominated my peripheral vision as I drive now opens up to a dusty sky. How sad. I wonder if the workers don’t feel any loss by this. I do. But I guess it represents food on the table for them.
Last year I wrote a very short piece about Proudon’s famous statement “property is theft”. In this piece I deconstructed the term property and turned it on to itself, saying we are really stealing from ourselves. I still feel the same way now but I must qualify it. Not that I am an anarchist or believe in anarchy (not in the popular meaning of the word anyway), rather the things in the environment do not belong solely to us, the human species.
Animals, I feel, have the right to the use and protect their home and the place which feeds them. This may be a mountain or a forest, the very place we call a resource, our resource. Yet they literally do not have representation. Animal rights groups may attempt to speak for them but it may seem – to the other on the other side of the fence – futile and naive to try to protect them.
It reminds me of the scene in Seven Years in Tibet where the monks were shown spending an entire week removing all the worms they could find from a plot of land being prepared for a new building. This was so they do not harm life or kill. Jainism, another religion that developed in India practices similarly.
And it is this fundamental respect for life – that is lacking in Western thinking, economy, politics, philosophy, etc – that I would like to point out.
When I was in 21 I became a monk. In preparation for my move I sold everything I had. At first the lack of possession was rather unsettling but I slowly felt liberated by the loss of the burden toward my things. I do not know when but I had come to understand why Buddha taught this way of living and what it means to be living as a monk.
Once I had renounced possessions once I felt I did not need to have more. Nor do I feel nowadays the sense of loss when something is taken or given away. I now question whether it is really necessary for me to have something before I buy or receive it. And I look at the mountains not as something for me to enjoy but that the joy given to me is by its grace and its non-possession of me.
Buddhist practice may help spread the bird flu
In a recent article entitled “Bird Flu Puts an Element Of Peril into Buddhist Rite” Alan Sipress points out the possibly of a link between certain Buddhist rites and the spread of bird flu in Asia. In countries like Cambodia Taiwan and Thailand the practice of “releasing” birds as a way to gain “karma points” is widespread. And it is because of the nature of caging a large number of birds together for a length of time that concerns environmental groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Environmental issues aside I am more concerned of the Buddhist practice itself. One Cambodian monk interviewed in the article recounted the story of Shakyamuni (the Buddha) helping an arrow-wounded swan. He nursed it back to health before releasing it. And it is on the basis of this story that the practice became widespread.
Yet the birds used for release in these countries are neither sick nor injured. They are captured for the sole purpose of the “act of release”. Children apparently attempt to recapture the birds as soon as they are released in order to resell them (I guess this could be called recycling). One bird vender even boasted that she sells one thousand birds on most days.
Mr Sipress pointed out that the practitioners and bird-sellers seldom remark on the contradiction of trapping of the birds for release. But this comes as no surprise to me as I often talk about the difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhism. And this is just one good example of what I dislike about Buddhism as a social organization.
If the Buddha were to see this practice today he would no doubt be saddened by the empty gesture. Practice is not about acts like this. It is about sincerity and rigour. From the article Mr Sipress did not come across as being Buddhist, so he was rather cool about it all. But I feel, as a buddhist, the bird-act cheapens the “religion” of Buddhism.