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Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends

Category: Raymond’s Caravan (Page 1 of 4)

What was Possible, and What is no Longer: A Buddhist Dimension in La Dolce Vita

A poster of the final scene in La Dolce Vita in Brussels. From Buddhistdoor Global

It’s a classic moment in film, one of quite a few from Federico Fellini’s black and white cinematic masterpiece. The charismatic but emotionally lost gossip columnist Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is at the beach, holding his hands up in bemused resignation as he struggles and fails to discern the shouts of a young girl in the distance. Eventually, he can’t make out her words and leaves. The girl’s name, played by Valeria Ciangottini (she was personally chosen by the director) is Paola and Marcello (Rubini) has seen the character before in a restaurant – a sweet angel from a lost world of innocent affection, when love just meant love and nothing else. What might have happened had he been able to respond to her waving and shouting? The implication is that it would have been an encounter far removed from and superior to his Roman world of fallen aristocrats, broken celebrities, and suicidal intellectuals.

But the causes and conditions just weren’t there. He certainly behaves that way. He doesn’t rush to her. He seems hardly desperate to escape the emptiness of his life and reach for that remote if possible alternative future. His languid posture as he kneels on the sand, his reluctance and even laziness to move at all, speaks of a spiritual lethargy and “giving up” that has crippled him permanently as far as Fellini is concerned. This is no Hollywood where the protagonist cornily realizes the error of his ways and makes amends.

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Exploration and Freedom: Womanhood, Relationships, and Love

Making women’s issues more visible is not just about putting more females in positions of religious authority, like fully ordained bhikkhunis. It is about discussing and acting out ways of relating and loving that women feel liberated by and unleash everyone’s potential to provide fulfillment, satisfaction, and even enlightenment for others. When it comes to the thorny subject of love, I want to look at relationships beyond the simple dichotomy of non-attachment or pure passion and possession. Life is not so simple and I firmly believe that Buddhism understands this.

I was struck and inspired by a post from fellow blogger Lyudmila Klasanova, which was about the “Dharmodaya”: a sacred tetrahedron that symbolizes the female reproductive organ and the source of wisdom and birth.

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Is Pure Land Buddhism a “Mystic” Tradition?

The Cathedral of Ávila. From Buddhistdoor Global

A groundbreaking conference between Teresian sisters and priests and Buddhist scholars and monastics has just concluded at the University of Mysticism in Avila, Spain. During our time here among new friends and Carmelite masters, I had the chance to visit many churches in the Old City (the UNESCO-listed complex behind the grand walled fortifications) and those beyond the walls, each of which hold a piece of the life of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, or some other Christian figure associated with the Discalced Carmelite Order. Within each sublime structure we were reminded of the simultaneous grandeur and humility of the contemplative life, which demands a retreat from the lies and futility of the world and an inner turning that results in the elevation of the human being and a union with God.

So, we turn inwards single-mindedly. What of the single-minded determination to become a Buddha, which is the ultimate goal in Mahayana Buddhism? What of the path to achieving Buddhahood, the quickest and most effective of which is total reliance on Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow and one-minded invocation of his Name? Isn’t this Buddhist anthropology also one of the highest elevation, of an evolution through bodhi to Buddhahood that parallels the metamorfosis of the Carmelite mystic into something God-like, a true human of light and love unified with all of God?

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Sakyadhita in Hong Kong: Confluences and Reunions

From 22-28 June, The University of Hong Kong hosted the largest ever event to do with Buddhist women in the city. This could only have been done through Sakyadhita, whose tireless volunteers worked in tandem with our friends at the Centre of Buddhist Studies to bring an impressively diverse and intellectually enriching symposium about Buddhist women’s interests in this busy metropolis, which despite its prosperity and fast-paced life cries out for spiritual ideas and possibilities. It was, of course, also a delight for attendees to reunite with academics, meditators, and Venerables who have been regulars at previous biannual conferences over the decades.

Nuns at the Big Buddha, Hong Kong. Photo by Olivier Adam

Throughout its history, Sakyadhita’s conferences have been held mostly in Asia, and most of these Asian countries, save for some pockets of liberal or progressive thought, are “traditional” – very strictly patriarchal, non-egalitarian, and socially conservative. The Buddhist establishment in some of these countries might be indifferent or even antagonistic to the idea of women assuming higher positions of authority in the Buddhist religion, and this includes bhikkhuni ordination.

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Myanmar: Another Square on the Buddhist Chessboard

Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda

From 5-6 August, the Vivekananda Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation will be hosting the second Samvad conference* at Sitagu International Buddhist Academy (SIBA), Yangon. I reported on Samvad’s first symposium two years ago in New Delhi, and it was then that it became clear India’s government was trying to manoeuvre among different Asian countries – Japan, Mongolia, and now Myanmar – to establish for itself a solid bloc of Buddhist support that could rival China’s plans for Buddhist development. Samvad is one of the main organs through which Indian PM Narendra Modi hopes to accomplish this.

I can make this relatively bold assertion with confidence because the Vivekananda Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation are open about what they do. The former, as stated on its website, “is a New Delhi-based think tank set up with the collaborative efforts of India’s leading security experts, diplomats, industrialists and philanthropists under the aegis of the Vivekananda Kendra. . . . to kick start innovative ideas and thoughts that can lead to a stronger, secure and prosperous India playing its destined role in global affairs.” Its advisory board and executive council are filled with political grandees, analysts, and advisors and senior military figures. The Tokyo Foundation is broader in its foci, from tax to social security and constitutional reform, but one of its core interests is maritime defence, and the foundation has published numerous research papers about Japanese security concerns.

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Embodied Women

What does it mean to be a woman in the Buddhist tradition? To me, even a question as important as bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada and Vajrayana schools is not as basic as the question of “the woman” in Buddhism. Nor am I convinced that gender is inconsequential to conventional Buddhist life just because gender is illusory at the ultimate level. Our society is gendered and we operate on gender as much as we use conventional illusions like “I” or “you.”

I’m not so much reflecting on the activist side of things, important though that is in winning more equitable circumstances for women. What I wonder more is how do women, as the Other in a mostly androcentric world, manoeuvre as embodied beings in the Buddhist world of monasteries, temples, charitable organizations, and university institutes?

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The Buddha’s Guiding Hand in the Chinese Dream

 

The Leshan Giant Buddha.

Buddhism should not be peripheral to the Chinese Dream, that great and multi-dimensional project of national rejuvenation. The religion should be front and center in informing it.

This is not simply my wild theocratic fantasy, but an idea actively encouraged by the Chinese government. It is also being propagated by Buddhist temples, media, and events (such as the World Buddhist Forum series, the most recent of which was held in Wuxi in 2015, and Hong Kong’s own Belt and Road symposium, which I hope is only the first of many more to follow). For Buddhism to exert satisfactory influence, the entire sangha (by this I mean the overall organism of Buddhist activity in China) needs to be engaged, from monastics to academics to householders; from influential monasteries to lay publishers to Buddhist Studies departments at universities.

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Buddhism is Bhutan’s Key to Working with the Great Buddhist Powers

India and China are right now locked in a dispute over a plateau (known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China) that lies at a junction between China, the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, and Bhutan. My focus today is not on the technicalities of the border dispute (this analysis by Wangcha Sangey, a retired civil servant and former managing director of Bhutan Times, lays out the situation far better than I can), but rather how Bhutan could play its cards over the long term through the piety of its Buddhist people and its Buddhist royal family.

HRH Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck with Bhikkhu Sanghasena

In an age where landlocked Bhutan’s behemoth neighbors, China and India, are going all in with Buddhist diplomacy (not to mention regional neighbors like Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), the Himalayan country’s Buddhist heritage grants it a unique and priceless asset. This is because the idea of “Buddhist kingship” or chakravartin-hood is embodied in its monarchy. I venture to propose that without Buddhism, the moral authority of the royal house of Wangchuk would be diminished whilst one of the country’s key soft power exports (such as its concept of Gross National Happiness) would be compromised. Nowhere else, except perhaps in Thailand, is there a monarchy invested with such a Buddhist mandate.

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Of Statecraft and Sangha: Po Lin Monastery and the Silk Road

Raymond Lam

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover at Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island. From Hugo San

29 June will be remembered as a key date in post-handover Hong Kong: aside from president Xi Jinping’s landmark visit to the fragrant harbor, Po Lin Monastery is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the handover as well as the 25th anniversary of its Big Buddha. It is also hosting a carefully timed, simultaneous symposium: Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism along the Belt and Road (29 – 30 June). This is a statement, at least from Po Lin Monastery and its friends: that the time is ripe for Buddhists, both of the southern and northern traditions, to integrate themselves into the new Silk Road that is China’s outreach to the world.

The conference is packed with guests and VIPs from Southeast Asia and South Asia. There are guests from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and many others. There are many good, old friends here: Ven. Sovanratana, one of Cambodia’s most influential monastic professors. Karma Lekshe Tsomo of Sakyadhita, the world’s largest Buddhist women’s association. Ven. Fa Ren, one of Hong Kong’s most active Chinese Buddhist nuns.

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Buddhist Masculinity: Living a Well-Weathered Life

Raymond Lam

Our musings on gender in Buddhism rightly focus on the feminine, underrepresented voice that it is. However, Buddhism’s gentle values and ethics often seem to be in (apparent) conflict with the toxic masculinity of today’s pop culture, where men are caricatured as avatars of explosions and gods of war, their churning inner lives spitting out destruction like a tornado or volcano. More enlightened perspectives are emerging, sometimes prevailing, but too often masculinity is still defined as or framed through dubious and harmful traits: violence and anger, a propensity to control others, predatory and rapacious attitudes to women, and all-round selfishness.

In the real world this vision of a negative masculinity does not bear out. A domineering or deceitful man will always be looking over his shoulder for the revenge of those he has mistreated. The overwhelming majority of women gravitate toward considerate, generous, and attentive men. Even in macho male circles, honourable ideals endure, like keeping one’s word and looking out for each other in solidarity. A sense of teamwork and self-sacrifice are prized, while a man who only looks out for number one or betrays his mates will be quickly isolated or shamed, much like a wolf ostracized from its pack.

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