Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Challenge of Bringing Theravada to the West

by Bhikkhu Bodhi

(an extract from keynote address at a seminar on “The Necessity for Promoting Buddhism in Europe,” held on the first death anniversary of Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera. Colombo, 2 July 2000)

... When I ponder this issue, the question that immediately lodges itself in my mind is this: 

“What exactly is the type of 
Theravada Buddhism 
that we wish to spread?” 

For one thing, it is not merely texts and ideas that Westerners are looking for, not merely the Buddhism of the books. Books are certainly needed to introduce people to the Dhamma, to give them material for study and reflection. The point I wish to make is not that literature on Buddhism is dispensable, but that it is insufficient. For the Dhamma to take deep root in people’s hearts, it must come to them, not between the covers of a book, but in living, breathing persons who display the truth of the teaching in their lives.

Thus when I raise the question, 

“What type of Buddhism 
do we wish to spread?” 

I am not thinking of the pure canonical Dhamma, which exists as such only in the books. In actuality, Buddhism has always been expressed in concrete practices, embedded in social structures, and embodied by real human beings. Thus we have to consider this aspect of Theravada Buddhism and not merely the doctrinal formulas of the Pali Canon. So when we ponder how to bring Buddhism to the West, we have to decide which of the many faces of Theravada we want to bring. To some extent, this is premature, since if Buddhism does eventually take root in the West, it will assume forms particular to Western social and cultural conditions. But to begin we need something to serve as a seed or nucleus.

The ideal form of Theravada to present would be one that fuses all healthy aspects of the tradition into an organic whole. The transmission would have to focus on the practice of meditation, yet it should include a strong emphasis on Buddhist ethics (including Buddhist perspectives on contemporary ethical issues), textual and doctrinal study, devotional practices, and a fair share of ritual, too; but ritual would have to be integrated into the spiritual path, not pursued in compliance with mere cultural norms. 

The meditation practice should be 
the heart of the transmission. 

Once students experience the beneficial effects of meditation on their lives, in time they will develop keener interest in the study of texts, in devotional practices, in the precepts, and in ritual. Ritual will then serve to cement these varied aspects of Dhamma into a coherent whole, animated from within by the meditative experience.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


by Piya Tan

(Source: Roman mosaic found in the House of the Faun, Pompeii, Italy.)

Buddhism began to become effectively global with Alexander the Great’s invasion of northwest India (4th century BCE). This cultural cross-current gave us a remarkable work on Buddhist apologetics, entitled the Milindapañha (The Questions of Milinda, see book below). Milinda was Menander 1 Soter (reigned 155-130 BCE), a Buddhist ruler of the Indo-Greek Bactrian kingdom in present day Pakistan. With Greek influence, too, we see perhaps the most beautiful of Buddha images, modelled after the sun-god, Apollo, complete with wavy hair, flowing pleated robes and halo.

Coins show the second-century BCE Indo-Greek 
155 BCE - 130 BCE

Inscribed Portrait of KING ASOKA 
from Kanganhalli (Courtesy ASI)

Buddhism reached its height in the time of the Indian emperor Asoka (3rd century BCE), who it is said to have sent out various missions that brought Buddhism to south and southeast Asia (and Vietnam), Persia (modern Iran), the Middle East (including Israel), Egypt and the West, especially Asia Minor (or Anatolia, including modern Turkey), Greece, and Italy. With the rise of the Abrahamic religions, much of this is history now, although we still see vestiges of Buddhist stories in local folk tales, especially that of “Bar­laam and Josa­phat,” a Christianized version of the Buddha story. [1]

Apparently, the relics of the Buddha made their way to the West. Few mediaeval Christian names are better known than those of Barlaam and Josaphat, [2] who were credited with the “second conversion” of India to “Christianity,” after the country had relapsed to “paganism” following the mission of the Apostle Thomas. Barlaam and Josaphat were remembered in the roll of saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church with the festival day of 27 November. In the Greek Church, Iosaph (Josaphat) was commemorated on 26 August, while the Russians remember both Barlaam and Ioasaph, together with the latter’s father, king Abenner (Suddhodana), on 19 November (2 December, Old Style). Sir Henry Yule once visited a church at Palermo, Italy, dedicated to “Divo Josaphat.” 

In 1571, the Doge Luigi Mocenigo presented to king Sebastian of Portugal a bone and part of the spine of St Josaphat. When Spain annexed Portugal in 1580, these sacred treasures were removed by Antonio, the pretender to the Portuguese throne, and ultimately found its way to Antwerp, Belgium, where they were preserved in the cloister of St Salvator.

After the European colonists had settled in India, with the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries, some of them were struck by the similarities between episodes and features of the life of St Josaphat and those of the Buddha, as is clearly evident from the early 17th century Portuguese writer Diogo do Couto who declared this fact. By the 1850s, European scholars doing comparative study of the legend of St Josaphat (“Bodhisat”) and the life of the Buddha, 

“came to the startling conclusion that 
for almost a thousand years, 
the Buddha in the guise of the holy Josaphat, 
had been revered as a saint of 
the principal Churches of Christendom”! 
(DM Lang, introduction, Barlaam & Josaphat, 1967:x-ix)

With Western colonialism and European contact with the East, Buddhism again began flowing back to the West, beginning with scriptural scholarship, and now blossoming into numerous Western Buddhist groups and teachings. After about a century of Western scholarship in Buddhism, we now have ever more accurate editions and translations of the early Buddhist texts, complete with critical apparatus, in English and other European languages. 

Following the 1960 hippie counter culture movement that experimented in Oriental religions and altered states of consciousness, growing numbers of westerners, including many well-educated seekers, came to the East to become Theravada monastics, Zen priests and Vajrayana practitioners. The latter two traditions have been successfully westernised, although not without some major hiccups. [3] 

A new, and very important, development is the interest of Western science in Buddhist meditation, especially the mindfulness practices of early Buddhism. This interest in Buddhist psychology started over a century ago, with pioneers like William James, but it was only in the mid-20th century that the momentum began to pick up. Mind scientists can now see and measure, for example, what happens in the human brain during meditation.  So significant is this new meeting of science and religion, between western psychology and ancient Buddhism, that the scientists now even have their own annual retreats conducted by other scientists experienced in Buddhist meditation. [4]

In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902),
William James (1842-1910) also promoted
the functional value of meditation
for modern psychology. 
He wrote:

“This is the psychology 
everybody will be studying 
twenty-five years 
from now.”

When Buddhism left India and changed the societies that adopted it, Buddhism was in turn changed by these societies, so that what is originally the Buddha’s teachings and methods went through a sea-change or were altogether set aside. However, with the rise of Westerners and the western-educated turning to “forest” Buddhism today, seeking a more pristine practice in early Buddhist meditation, we now have a better chance of tasting the refreshing spiritual springwater at its source, as it were.
The 20th century British historian, 
Sir Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975)
was attributed with saying,

“The coming of Buddhism to the West 
may well prove to be 
the most important event of 
the Twentieth Century.”
 The truth of such words goes beyond who actually said them. Let’s say it is now becoming common wisdom of an uncommon phenomenon.

Revisioning Buddhism 24
[an occasional re-look at the Buddha’s Example and Teachings]
Copyright by Piya Tan © 2010

[1] See eg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barlaam and Josaphat

[2] See, for example, Graeme MacQueen’s “Changing Master Narratives in Midstream: Barlaam and Josaphat and the Growth of Religious Intolerance in the Buddhalegend’s Westward Journey.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 5 1998:144-166.

[3] See Bad friendship = SD 34.1: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/?page_id=2583

[4] See Meditation and Consciousness = SD 17.8c: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/17.8c-Meditation-consciousness.-piya1.pdf


The Milinda Panha is, with good reason, a famous work of Buddhist literature, probably compiled in the first century B.C. It presents Buddhist doctrine in a very attractive and memorable form as a dialogue between a Bactrian Greek king, Milinda (Menander), who plays the 'Devil's Advocate' and a Buddhist sage, Nagasena. The topics covered include most of those questions commonly asked by Westerners such as:

“If there is no soul,
what is it that is reborn?”
“If there is no soul,
who is talking to you now?”

This abridgement provides a concise presentation of this masterpiece of Buddhist literature. The introduction outlines the historical background against which the dialogues took place, indicating the meeting of two great cultures that of ancient Greece and the Buddhism of the Indus Valley which was a legacy of the great Emperor Asoka. It is hoped that the adequate references, glossary, index and list of Pali quotations will provide readers with an incentive to read further from the translations of the Pali texts.

Visit our website: www.inwardpath.org for more books.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Pious Cat in South Korea

Original Videos by Queenaaaaaa's Channel @ YouTube

English translation provided by Wayne Woo, Singapore (Wayne's Dhamma Blog)

There was a story in the papers about a special temple cat in South Korea, which spends hours everyday gazing and praying to the Buddha, reluctantly leaving only for its meals. There was one part where after eating food, the cat shed a tear... out of gratitude? This cat was found as a kitten four years ago by the abbot with burn injuries. The abbess saved it and gave it the Dharma name of "Liberation". She also gave the kitten three precepts for staying in the monastery, which was to 1) refrain from making noise in the Vihara, 2) refrain from eating meat and 3) refrain from killing. Amazingly the kitten could understand her instructions and have never broken them for the past 4 years.

Other titles on Korean Buddhism
Don't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen Korean Buddhism: Tradition and Transformation Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self Korean Buddhism

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vision and Routine — Why You Need Both To Strike A Balance

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

(An article from Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review Summer 2010 Vol. 19, No. 4)

All human activity can be viewed as an interplay between two contrary but equally essential factors — vision and repetitive routine. Vision is the creative element in activity, whose presence ensures that over and above the settled conditions pressing down upon us from the past we still enjoy a margin of openness to the future, a freedom to discern more meaningful ends and to discover more efficient ways to achieve them. Repetitive routine, in contrast, provides the conservative element in activity. It is the principle that accounts for the persistence of the past in the present, and it enables the successful achievements of the present to be preserved intact and faithfully transmitted to the future.

Although they pull in opposite directions — the one toward change, the other toward stability — vision and routine mesh in a variety of ways, and every course of action can be found to participate to some extent in both. For any particular action to be both meaningful and effective, the attainment of a healthy balance between the two is necessary. When one factor prevails at the expense of the other, the consequences are often undesirable. If we are bound to a repetitive cycle of work that deprives us of our freedom to inquire and understand things for ourselves, we soon stagnate, crippled by the chains of routine. If we are spurred to action by elevating ideals but lack the discipline to implement them, we may eventually find ourselves wallowing in idle dreams or exhausting our energies on frivolous pursuits. It is only when accustomed routines are infused by vision that they become springboards to discovery rather than deadening ruts. And it is only when inspired vision gives birth to a course of repeatable actions that we can bring our ideals down from the ethereal sphere of imagination to the somber realm of fact. It took a flash of genius for Michelangelo to behold the figure of David invisible in a shapeless block of stone, but it required years of training, and countless blows with hammer and chisel, to work the miracle that would leave us a masterpiece of art.

These reflections concerning the relationship between vision and routine are equally applicable to the practice of the Buddhist path. Like all other human activities, the treading of the way to the cessation of suffering requires that the intelligent grasp of new disclosures of truth be fused with the patient and stabilizing discipline of repetition. The factor of vision enters the path under the heading of right view — as  the understanding of the undistorted truths concerning our lives and as the continued penetration of those same truths through deepening contemplation and reflection. The factor of repetition enters the path as the onerous task imposed by the practice itself: the need to undertake specific modes of training and to cultivate them diligently in the prescribed sequence until they yield their fruit. The course of spiritual growth along the Buddhist path might in fact be conceived as an alternating succession of stages in which, during one phase, the element of vision predominates, and during the next the element of routine. It is a flash of vision that opens our inner eye to the essential meaning of the dharma, gradual training that makes our insight secure, and again the urge for still more vision that propels the practice forward to its culmination in final knowledge.

Though the emphasis may alternate from phase to phase, ultimate success in the development of the path always hinges upon balancing vision with routine in such a way that each can make its optimal contribution. However, because our minds are keyed to fix upon the new and distinctive, in our practice we are prone to place a one-sided emphasis on vision at the expense of repetitive routine. Thus we are elated by expectations concerning the stages of the path far beyond our reach, while at the same time we tend to neglect the lower stages — dull and drab, but far more urgent and immediate — lying just beneath our feet. To adopt this attitude, however, is to forget the crucial fact that vision always operates upon a groundwork of previously established routine and must in turn give rise to new patterns of routine adequate to the attainment of its intended aim. If we are to close the gap between ideal and actuality — between the envisaged aim of striving and the lived experience of our everyday lives — it is necessary for us to pay greater heed to the task of repetition. Every wholesome thought, every pure intention, every effort to train the mind represents a potential for growth along the Noble Eightfold Path. But to be converted from a mere potential into an active power leading to the end of suffering, the fleeting, wholesome thought formations must be repeated, fostered, and cultivated, made into enduring qualities of our being. Feeble in their individuality, when their forces are consolidated by repetition they acquire a strength that is invincible.

The key to development along the Buddhist path is repetitive routine guided by inspirational vision. It is the insight into final freedom — the peace and purity of a liberated mind — that uplifts us and impels us to overcome our limits. But it is by repetition — the methodical cultivation of wholesome practices — that we cover the distance separating us from the goal and draw ever closer to awakening.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the BPS Newsletter, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Bhikkhu Bodhi lives at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. He teaches there and at Bodhi Monastery in Lafayette, New Jersey. Ven. Bodhi is currently preparing a complete translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, the fourth sutta collection of the Pali Canon. 

Artwork by Shinichi Maruyama

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