February 2004

“Yaw, did you know that Buddhists believe in an afterlife?”

“So do Christians, Mog–in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.”

“No no, Yaw. They believe in an afterlife on Earth. When we physically die, our soul is reborn into another physical being.”

“That’s an ugly word, reincarnation, but I can believe that, Mog. There was a scientific inquiry done by some Americans showing that it does occur, not only in India but in other parts of the world. Have you ever experienced meeting some people and thinking that you’ve met them before? I think a bird once knew me…

“I was sitting outside a Starbuck’s cafe in Toranomon and a bird came and perched himself on my table and started to chirp. ‘Hey, Yaw! Fancy meeting you here!’ he seemed to say.

“I crumbled a corner of my scone and he ate it. The people around sat still and watched the bird. After he had eaten, he started to chirp again and to hop around my table. Then he paused, ‘Until next time…’ he seemed to say, then he flew away.”

“I think that’s something else, Yaw, called Jainism. So going back to what I was saying, do you know what this afterlife credence means? If the cycle of birth and re-birth can be broken by following Buddha’s Path to Enlightenment, who are going to be left to rule the Earth if they don’t know the Way?”

“Certainly not the wise nor the meek…”

Most conflicts between people are a result of misunderstanding. The best way of clearing the misunderstanding and reconciling is through discussion between the two parties.

But Man–the intelligent, Man–the genius, Man–the cogitating animal, has thought of another way of clearing misunderstandings, and that is, by the abolition of the enemy. War seems to have become the way to resolve conflicts. In time, thinking Man will no longer exist and will be replaced by non-thinking animals, if they make it out alive in the world that Man has devised.

Perhaps one of the most abhorrent traits of Man is jealousy. There are other characteristics which you can describe as inherently evil, but jealousy or envy is at the root of most misperceptions. Tragically, most misperceptions are blown out of proportion.

Is it in the nature of man to be envious and to want things that belong to others? Perhaps so, from a toy belonging to another child, to natural resources belonging to another country, Man has shown his capacity to covet.

What you do not have, you must work hard for. But if Man has gotten it by means other than what is morally acceptable, not only is his nature shallow, but Man is no better than an animal who does not think.

“Mog, what did you think of the homily today on Luke 6:27-38?”

“Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Implore God’s blessings on those who hurt you? If someone slaps you on one cheek, let him slap the other? God is kind to the unthankful and to those who are very wicked?

“Yaw, do you expect me to do those things because these are Christian virtues? How, in heaven’s name, can I believe in a God that is kind to the wicked? No no, Yaw. I may be Christian by religion, but when it comes to resignation and loving your enemy, I am Christian in name alone.”

“What about the Talmud’s Tallion Law, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Do you think that’s the alternative?”

“That sounds like anarchy, Yaw, but that’s Justice. If someone were to slap me, I wouldn’t hesitate a minute to slap him back. If I turned the other cheek, that moron is going to go around slapping everybody else because no virtuous Christian is going to stop him.

“As Father François-Xavier said, the circle of violence must be broken. I don’t know if you can consider the circle broken by being on equal footing, as one slap in return for one slap. But I think you cannot consider it broken by turning the other cheek.”

sidgau-tm.jpg   Two thousand five hundred years ago, during Siddhartha Gautama’s time, no clear boundaries existed between nations. Some sources say that Siddhartha was born in Nepal, while others say that he was born in India. The Sakya Kingdom, in which the Gautama clan ruled, was located inside the border of Nepal, in what is now northeastern India.

Writing did not exist at the time, and the Pali Canon, written in Pali, may not have been the language of Siddhartha. In the 13th century, Buddhism disappeared in India and alot of material was lost. Hinduism took over and Muslim invasions further resulted in the loss of Buddha’s teachings from Indian languages. But meanwhile, the Buddhist philosophy prevailed elsewhere and was translated into Chinese and Tibetan, and thus preserved. However, monks from these countries not only kept the Buddha’s philosophy through the Chinese Canon and the Tibetan Canon (and from which the Pali Canon is tested for veracity), but also elaborated the teachings with a sprinkling of their well-intentioned interpretations and their ideas. The passage of time has made it difficult to separate Buddha’s exact teachings with that of the monks.

How has Buddha’s words been preserved all these years? Buddha had a gifted follower by the name of Ananda, who had a prodigious memory. Handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation until it was finally recorded in writing in 1BC, gifted monks such as Ananda preserved the words of Buddha.

Early in the development of Buddhism, two schools of thought diverged: Theravada Buddhism (known as “The Lesser Vehicle”), which claims to be the closest to the original teachings of the Buddha; and Mahayana Buddhism (“The Greater Vehicle”), which is divided into numerous distinct schools, two of which are Tibetan Buddhism (the highest authority is the Dalai Lama) and Zen Buddhism. A third school is mentioned in some sources, Vajrayana Buddhism (“The Diamond Vehicle”), which originates from Tibet. There are a staggering number of schools of thought that have evolved since the death of Buddha.

No one knows what the Buddha looked like–the statues of him that we know today were made centuries after his death. But judging from an ascetic’s diet of berries and tree bark, I really don’t think that a rotund Buddha, in his classic pose of meditation, would result. Neither one living on alms, I suppose. (He might have put on weight with age, but who knows?).

“When you walk into a room full of people, Yaw, can you tell right away who are nice or mean, and self-confident or queasy? It must take a special kind of knack to be able to read people.”

“But I’m sure you could learn to read people from experience or from a book, Mog. You would need a really keen sense of observation, though.”

“And based on that power of observation, I can see right through someone’s character. His body language, his behaviour, his taste in clothes, his conversation, and the way he speaks–all this tells me if a person is sympathetic or not.”

“But don’t be too hasty with your first impressions, Mog. Some people can be purposely antagonising because they are shy. You see, aggressive and dishonest people have the annoying habit of stepping on shy people, and antagonism could be a defence mechanism.”

“You must be right, Yaw. Traumatic experience does forever change a person.”

“Personality is a complex thing, Mog. There are too many factors to consider before you can pass judgment on someone.”

“Well, if you can’t read, it’s best not to talk about something you haven’t read.”

“That would make the world a better place…”

sidgau-tm.jpg There are hundreds of books written about Buddhism, and the public library is the place to go for extensive information. I would like to give a brief description here, in order to set a foundation for this series of posts.

At one point in our lives, we surely have had a negative attitude towards life, and a sense of pessimism leads us to ask: What is the meaning of life? What is the destiny of man? What is the reason for existence?

The Path to Enlightenment, as proposed by Buddha, and which he calls The Middle Way (between asceticism and meditation), is encompassed in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are: 1. All existence is suffering; 2. The cause of suffering is wrong desire; 3. Ending desire leads to Enlightenment; and 4. The best way to Enlightenment is the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path are: right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right contemplation. Buddhist beliefs are elaborate, and a simple enumeration of these general beliefs, as I’ve done here, does not do justice to its thoughtful philosophy.

There is no God in Buddhism. It is a philosophy of life. Many call it a religion, perhaps because of its spiritual aspirations. The Buddha is a Teacher, not a God nor a Saviour. But you can choose anyone or anything to be your god, as some people do.

The Pali Canon is one of the oldest recording, and is said to be the closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. This Canon was written on leaves in the Pali language, a dialect of Sanskrit, the sacred and literary language of India. Kept in three baskets (Tipitaka in Pali, means “the three baskets”), these teachings are also known as “The Doctrine of the Elders” or the Theravada. The Pali Canon has not been entirely translated into English. What has been translated comprises 12,000 pages contained in several volumes.

The first basket, “The Basket of Discipline,” are monastic instructions exclusively for the Buddhist monks. The second basket, “The Basket of Teachings,” is a collection of discourses, anecdotes and dialogues. The third basket, “The Basket of Metaphysics,” analyses and elaborates the Buddhist teachings.

Buddha’s teachings are in the forms of lectures and dialogues. These lectures and dialogues have to be understood in the context of the time they took place. Most of the dialogues are between Buddha and his followers. Dialectic logic would best descibe the Buddhist way of thinking–paradoxes and the showing out of contradictions releases one from the fetters of existence by defeating thought.

sidgau-tm.jpg Siddhartha spent six years in a forest, practicing asceticism and meditation. Ascetics believe that the human body is the enemy of the soul, and that in order for the soul to be free, the body must be subjugated. Ascetics never bathe, they lock themselves in one posture, they survive on berries and water, and they sleep out in the open air or in caves.

But after a time, Siddhartha realised that this will not bring him any closer to finding freedom from suffering. He then bathed in a river and accepted milk from a village girl. His ascetic companions were mortified and decided to leave him.

Siddhartha then tried meditation, which is a state of neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. Sitting under a bodhi tree, all sorts of thoughts crossed Siddhartha’s mind. These thoughts are embodied in myths, but were essentially stories to describe Siddhartha’s struggle against doubt, fear, and temptations to return to the physical desires of the world. He conquered these thoughts by thinking: If I fight these obstacles, they will become stronger; but if I serenely accept them for what they are, they will lose their power over me.

Then Siddhartha thought of life as a wheel (samsara). We are born in one life, we die, and we are reborn in another life. This is a never-ending cycle of birth and death and re-birth. He also saw in his thoughts that the circumstances of the present life is caused by the actions of a previous life (karma). He concluded: There is nothing substantial in the world of samsara, and people who are ignorant of that truth will suffer over and over again.

Siddhartha realised that he had solved the enigma of suffering: Suffering ends when the cycle of birth and death and re-birth is broken. He touched the earth, and called for his release from the cycle of birth and death.

Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha, the Enlightened One.

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