Tea House

Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends, People, and Ideas

Category: Raymond’s Caravan (Page 1 of 6)

Cultural Repatriation of Buddhist Artifacts: A Job for Cool Heads

Amitabha raigo at the Guimet. From BD Dipananda

Instinctively, my politics is anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist. However, I also appreciate the complexity inherent in human affairs and recognize that nuance of thought is required even in—perhaps especially for—matters as emotionally charged as the repatriation of cultural and artistic relics.

Today my fellow writer and blogger BD Dipananda has published an article looking back on his visit to the Guimet Museum in Paris, which houses some of the most beautiful Buddhist art in France. My political sensibilities inform my belief that the ideal place of a Buddhist artifact should be in a museum or temple in its home country. Yet many of the most beautiful historical items of the Buddhist world are scattered across the world, in New York, Saint Petersburg, London, Paris, and many more.

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Life, Death… All a Matter of Perspective

We like to tell ourselves that we intellectually (even if we struggle to emotionally) grasp the significance of death as the end of our present existence. But time, life, and death are nowhere near as commonsense as we think. In an article in The Independent, professor Robert Lanza lays out the concept of biocentrism: ‘the universe only exists because of an individual’s consciousness of it – essentially life and biology are central to reality, which in turn creates the universe; the universe itself does not create life. The same applies to the concepts of space and time, which Professor Lanza describes as “simply tools of the mind.”’

We don’t experience reality “as it is.” We simply don’t have that kind of access, unless we are bodhisattvas or Buddhas. For us, “life,” “death,” and everything in between is filtered through our senses and perceptions. Similarly, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has said (and which we highlight in today’s Wisdom for Today quote on the main website), birth and death are quite literally a matter of perspectives, much like the concept of above and below when we’re sitting on this blue and green rock in a quiet corner of a galaxy among billions of galaxies in a vast, unfathomable universe.

The most ancient and primeval human story is the struggle to understand the great mystery and what lies beyond, that which is too big to be contained merely by our conceptions of what reality is. Only the Buddha can help us peer past the veil that our minds have created to obscure our insight.

#Buddhistdoor Global—Your Doorway to the World of #Buddhism
#Wisdom for Today: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/wisdom-for-today

The Right Balance: Negotiating Buddhist Power in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan commandos march during a Victory Day parade in the southern town of Matara on 18 May 2014

After a mob attacked a UN safe house for Rohingya refugees on 26 September near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne came out with some of the strongest public words I’ve seen leveled by a Buddhist public servant against fellow, self-proclaimed Buddhists. “As a Buddhist I am ashamed at what happened,” Senaratne told the press a day after the attack. “Mothers carrying very young children were forced out of their safe house which was attacked by a mob led by a handful of monks. This is not what the Buddha taught. We have to show compassion to these refugees. These monks who carried out the attacks are actually not monks, but animals.”

Strong words from a government that’s struggling to convince a skeptical Buddhist establishment it isn’t attempting to undermine Buddhism’s interests. One might read Senaratne’s condemnation as a subtle plea to mainstream Buddhists: “we are sincere, critical Buddhists.” Not only has it been accused by detractors of pandering to religious minorities, the center-right United National Party is also being pressured to underwrite the state patronage and protection of Buddhism that is guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s current constitution.

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No Easy Answers: Bangladesh’s Buddhists and Rohingya Refugees

Rohingya refugees walk next to huts in a makeshift camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. From Hindustan Times

The tragedy of Myanmar’s displacement of Rohingya Muslims, aside from its complex ethnic, historical, and religious backdrop, is exacerbated by two essential political realities. The first is that Western media and governments erroneously saw what it wished to see in Aung San Suu Kyi throughout her difficult struggle against the Burmese junta. When she decided to become the country’s state counselor in 2016, she did so under a constitution that favors the continuity of military authority and acquiesced to a context of government that does not fit with the simplified dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed. Myanmar is also far more ethnically and politically diverse than many care to appreciate.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was the founder of Myanmar’s independence movement and the modern Burmese army; her mother was a high-level diplomat in the newly created country. She has the full backing of the Buddhist sangha and its representative organization, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. She is therefore understandably and justifiably a nationalist. As a statesman and diplomat, her priority is the political integrity of Myanmar, nothing more and nothing less. So she isn’t unaware of international sentiment turning against her; she’s as cosmopolitan as they come. Rather, it’s far more likely that she sees the criticism against her and has decided that there are more pressing urgencies. Such hard choices are dilemmas that haunt many a politician.

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Postcard from Raymond: Holy Chamber

Mogao Cave 254. From e-dunhuang.com

The darkness inspires awe, even as the divine faces around me are illuminated for my mortal eyes.

The cavern’s patterns, the motifs, the mosaics, the chapels, the shrines. Mortal channels of traceless wisdom and compassion. Tangible expressions of immaterial insight.

Within this cool shroud of black, with only a streak of warm illumination from the hot star outside the cave, I am immersed in the ineffable infinity, among the stars and the pantheon of the “beyond beings.”

This is the enlightened holy of holies, crafted by inspired hands.

A bell rings.

The summons has been made. The call, echoing to all sentient beings. To return to the Buddha, to their true nature.

All are one in the Dharma. This is what has been revealed to us in this grotto.

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

English Version of Digital Dunhuang Offers Virtual Tour of Mogao Caves

Pop Culture: The Case for A Greater Buddhist Presence

Siddhartha and Yasodhara, from the “Buddha” animated film.

I never bought the argument that sacred stories, figures, and themes should not be brought to pop culture media like films or novels. Some of our more powerful and compelling pieces of modern fiction (and indeed, fiction from any era) was informed by not just the author’s spiritual identity or values, but by their intentional deployment of religious figures and ideas to shape the narrative and deliver the message of the novel, comic, film, or cartoon.

A long time ago I got into a discussion with someone about the accuracy of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha manga serial. The animated adaptation hadn’t yet been released—the two films have not been critically successful, although I would argue it is largely due to the film’s internal structure and poor use of Tezuka’s source material rather than any overarching problem with depictions of the Buddha. The manga itself was far more self-referential, bawdy, and subversive than this particular person was prepared for. His main complaint, however, was that it depicted the life of the Buddha inaccurately and therefore risked misleading people who were sincerely searching for the Dharma.

I want nothing more than for more people to draw closer to accurate Buddhist teachings. However, I have real difficulty with this argument.

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Postcard from Raymond: We Never Truly Die

One of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s most eloquent and moving teachings is a summation of Buddhist doctrine about life after death: we do not leave this world until full, total enlightenment. We are integrally part of it and even when our personal time expires on this beautiful but hurting planet, we don’t disappear. Our constituents remain in this cosmos, and the loved ones and friends we leave behind can see us all around them if they just pay attention. This is the message of the Vietnamese teacher when he recounts losing his mother in one of his most personal books:

I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.

From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.  — No Death, No Fear (2002)

I would like to leave you with this final, beautiful reflection from the same book. When we feel at such peace with our universe, and when we even have the Dharma’s promise of transcending it, and returning to it over and over again as bodhisattvas—What can we ever be afraid of? What can we ever hate?

I hope you enjoy these messages from Thay as much as I have loved to come back to them over the years.

This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there, the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies. All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.

What Happens to Our Karma If We Fall Into a Black Hole?

Crossing the event horizon of a black hole (astrophysical bodies born from the inward collapse of a massive star) means no coming back, because a black hole is not just an invisible object, but the collection of happenings that we, who are outside of the black hole, say don’t happen at all. This extraordinary and literal hole in the fabric of spacetime deletes entire occurrences within itself from every external observer’s self-consistent history of the universe. Whoever and whatever crosses a black hole’s event horizon simply stops at the edge to an outside observer is forever stuck there to our eyes, even as that thing or person does cross the event horizon and moves inevitably towards the singularity of infinite gravitational density. It can never be a part of the spatial or temporal region that is our known universe, ever again.

What about that thing’s karma? Karma, as it is classically understood, can only be totally expunged through total liberation from samsara (the attainment of Buddhahood) or intervention through a celestial Buddha. The violent death of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, is commonly used as an example of the inevitability of karma. This was because he committed matricide and patricide in a previous distant life, and even with the Maudgalyayana’s attainment of arahatship, there was no escaping the severe karma for two of Buddhism’s Five Grave Offences. Like causality itself, karma is like an arrow that chases the sentient being through infinite past lives and infinite future lives, ripening with a ruthless yet not immediately discernable inevitability.

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Meaning-crafting: An Emerging Discourse of Contemporary Buddhist Art

Pond 2007 © Andrea Traber

There is a fascinating group of people shaping contemporary artistic culture in the Buddhist world. Some of them are regular contributors to this website, including Sarah Beasley, Tilly Campbell-Allen, or Tiffani Gyatso, whilst others have been interviewed about their craft (sometimes by our aforementioned artist writers). These individuals include contemporary creators like painter Andrea Traber, calligrapher Alok Hsu Kwang-Han, Taiwan-born Lee Ming-wei, and sculptor Sukhi Barber, as well as artists who more overtly blend traditional items like thangkas or brocades and other tactile crafts for contemporary needs, like Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo (who specializes in Tibetan applique) and Helene Rein (similarly, a stitcher of Tibetan textiles).

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Buddhist Studies: A Vital Academic Tradition

Bezeklik. From buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu

Is Buddhist Studies elitist? Short answer: ideally, although it depends on how one defines the word. Like every humanities subject, Buddhist Studies can feel like an insular field if it’s not careful. Much of my work as a journalist who loves Buddhist Studies, a subject of which I was a devoted but hardly competent student, has been to ask, in effect, the sharp and groundbreaking scholars I encounter: “What’s at stake here?” in their thesis or research.

It’s a blunt question (I don’t actually phrase it so directly). Yet it’s a crucial one, I believe, that helps PhD students, professors, and other academic professionals articulate their objectives and hopes for what to achieve, be it for their own circle of researchers or when they share their voices with us on Buddhistdoor Global.

But as any Buddhist Studies academic who knows me personally, I’m keen on defending the Buddhist Studies discipline because, when done right, it nudges our understanding of Buddhism toward the right direction (over many years, admittedly, as per the pace of academia): to a more open-ended, curious, and non-dogmatic conception of this great religious organism.

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