Friday, September 29, 2006

The Legend of Jow Ngaw

The odd looking Jow Ngaw เจ้าเงาะ is worshipped as a deity of prosperity by some Thais. Jow Ngaw originally refered to a character in a literature by King Rama II - SangThong สังข์ทอง, the original work is in poem form but there are simplified versions for children and an animation was also made.
The story is based around a prince named SangThong. His mom was a wife of a King but when she gave birth to the baby, it came out as a conch shell so she (and her conch shell) had been expelled from the palace. She went to stayed with an old couple where she supposed to do the housework, but the place always mysteriously clean itself. One day she found out that there was a boy came out from the conch shell and do all the housework. This boy is SangThong.
So SangThong was growing up and the palace heard the news. King's current wife persuaded the king to get rid of both of them. So the mom and SangThong had been put to sea (on a raft) but the storm had split them up. Mom, later on, was found by a rich guy and accepted to work for him as a cook. Meanwhile, SangThong had some help along the way from a Naga, and was then picked up by a female ogre. Anyway, the ogre had magic powers like hypnotising. So Sangthong was under the hypnosis that the giant was a nice woman who took care of him. The giant really looked after him but she was afraid that if he knew she was a giant and eat wild animals, SangThong would run away. Anyway, while living with this ogre, there is a forbidden area in the place that SangThong was not allowed to go in. But in his curiosity, one day he broke the rule, went into that room & found loads of wild animal & human bones. SangThong realised his foster mom was a giant, but he also found silver and golden pools inside. So he had a dip in the pool and turn his body into gold, then he found (1) golden shoes that make him be able to fly (2) golden dagger (3) the Jow Ngaw armour/costume so when he wore it, nobody realise he has a golden body. Wearing the costume made him looks like Ngaw Pah เงาะป่า, & with all the other items, he fled the scene.

After SangThong fled the scene, the foster mom came back home and realised that he was gone, so she ran after him. When she saw him, he created a magical barrier that placed the ogre under a spell, such that if she passed through the barrier, she will die. So she cried and asked him to come back, but SangThong still really scared of her. She cried and cried until she died. While she was dying though, to show that she genuinely loved him as her son, she wrote a magical spell for him just in case it will be useful for him in the future. After the ogre died, SangThong realised that she really loved him and felt really really sorry for her. He arranged a really really big funeral (no pun intended) and then left their home.

Wearing his Jao Ngaw costume, SangThong arrived at the suburb of a town, He then stayed there and helped a villager looked after his buffalos. The children in the village also enjoyed playing with him.

One day, the king of this town invited all the princes from surrounding kingdoms to his palace for his 7 princesses to choose whom they want to marry. The 6 of the princesses each chose their own prince without hesitation. The youngest princess, Rojana, however did not like anyone. So the king invited all the men in his town to show up for his Rojana to choose. And among these guys, Rojana chose Jao Ngaw because she could see through his costume (somehow) and know he was a handsome guy with a golden body. But the king was so angry (don't forget that people saw SangThong as Jao Ngaw i.e. dark skin man with curly hair and wear red flower on his ears like a crazy person) with her choice that he expelled both of them.

Although Jao Ngaw and Rojana was expelled from the palace. The king was not satisfied and still want to find a reason to execute Jao Ngaw. So one day he arranged a kind of competition, where every one of his sons-in-law have to join. Let's called the other 6 sons-in-law together as the 6 in laws.

He ordered everyone of them to go into the jungle and hunt one stag. The person who can't bring a stag back will be executed. The king was so confident that all the six in laws were good hunters (in which they were) and Jao Ngaw was useless.

However, once they splited up in the jungle, Jao Ngaw took off his costume, revealed his golden body, used the spell (remember, the one that his giant foster mom wrote for him before she died) to call stags. And all the stags in this jungle came to him. Meanwhile the six in laws can't find any single stag between them. In the end, the six inlaws came to beg Jao Ngaw (whom they thought was an angel because he has golden body), so SangThong aka Jao Ngaw asked for part of their ears as exchange items.

So the king can't get rid of Jao Ngaw yet. Having no idea about the spell, he arranged another competition. This time he asked them to go catch some fish. Same thing happened, this one Jao Ngaw asked for part of their noses. Now the king ended up with six incomplete (body-parts wise) in laws and Jao Ngaw was still around. He did not give up and tried to think of new plan.

While the king was busy finding a way to get rid of Jao Ngaw, the king of the gods, Indra, knew what the king was thinking, so to protect Jao Ngaw, Indra came down to see the king and challenged the king for a game of polo (or something similar) in the sky (so you need to be able to fly), if the representative of the king lost, the king will lose his life.

So the king annouced looking for anyone who can be his representative and win the game, the person will reward with his throne and his wealth. No one turned up so Rojana's mom went to talk to Rojana and Rojana talked to Jao Ngaw to change back to SangThong (wearing magic shoes) to compete with Indra.

SangThong won, so the king apologised to him and gave him the throne and all but SangThong wanted to looking for his real mom first. So he went off, visited so many towns until one day he arrived at a rich man's house, who invited him for dinner. He recognised his mom's food, found her and brought her back to his town (Rojana's dad town).

So he became a great king and people talked about him until his name arrived at his birth town. His dad realised that SangThong was his son (whom he thought had been gotten rid of, regrettably). His dad came to apologise to both mom and the son. And they all live happily ever after.

(Story translated by TK)

Why do Thai people worship Jow Ngaw instead of SangThong? Because when SangThong grew up, he wore Jao Ngaw costume all the time so when you say SangThong, Thai people have an image of the baby with the conch shell which was very small part of the story. For the most of the story, things happened when he was Jao Ngaw. Moreover, the most famous part of the story is where Rojana chose her groom. This part is often taken out to make a traditional Khon play, which was when he was Jao Ngaw, as seen on photo of traditional play above (Jow Ngaw is the one at the back obviously). So although Jow Ngaw is a fictional character, it is so deeply imprinted in the Thai people's minds that it eventually becomes an actual deity. This is no different from how some Chinese worship Sun Wukong, the Monkey God from the classic - "Journey to the West".

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Corruption of the Chinese Sangha

The Vinaya mentions that:

"Should any bhikkhu — participating in the training and livelihood of the bhikkhus, without having renounced the training, without having declared his weakness — engage in the sexual act, even with a female animal, he is defeated and no longer in communion."

A recent study of the state of the Chinese Sangha in China's big cities revealed that almost 90% of its monks have violated major Vinaya rules in one way or another. These "monks" have wives, girlfriends, even children. In actual fact they have committed a Parajika (defeat) offence and must be disrobed immediately, but so far only those discovered to be married with kids were expelled. Many others with unofficial partners still continue living in a wrongful way unchecked. The situation is so widespread that it becomes almost impossible to censure so many of them.

The Buddha also said to the monks:

"And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain. This is wrong livelihood."

And also to abstain from:

"running messages ... from buying and selling ... from dealing with false scales, false metals, and false measures ... from bribery, deception, and fraud."

Besides personal misconduct, the famous temples in metropolitan cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Tianjin, Yantai etc. are all well known for auctioning the rights for striking the Chinese New Year gong (a rite performed for good luck) to high ranking government officials, rich businessmen and even ordinary devotees for thousands of yuan per strike. The same auctioning process goes on for the rights to offer the first joss stick on Chinese New Year (another rite of good luck), which can be bid up to over 10 thousand yuan at least. Competiton among the different temples is fierce and politicking becomes inevitable. Temple accounts are also never revealed to the public and corrupt practices fester uncontrolled. All these commercial practices are considered wrong livelihood for monks and considered Dukkata & even Sanghadisesa offences. But again they are so popular & profitable that nobody really cares whether what they are doing accords with the Vinaya or not.

How did Chinese Buddhism come to such a state? Decades of religious suppression under Mao Zedong, followed by over 20 yrs of economic reforms set forth by Deng Xiaoping are to blame. Great strides in material progress transformed the minds of not only the ordinary people, but the monks & nuns among them as well. The pursuit of prosperity in modern Chinese society is so important that it becomes the norm, such that even religious beliefs are bended & moulded to fit into this all powerful norm. Some of these monks try to justify their misconduct by saying that they are merely adapting to the greater enviroment in order to survive, & if others are also doing it, how can they be blamed as individuals? This type of rationale, even though wrong, is very much understandable. For those few who do keep to the Vinaya rules, it is also impossible for them to influence the majority, so they have no choice but to leave the cities and go practice in some faraway mountain monastery that still remains untainted. Otherwise it will surely be a case of, "if you can't beat them, join them."

In the current Dhamma Ending Age, when the Vinaya & Dhamma is slowly eroding away, true Bhikkhus & Bhikkunis will become fewer & fewer, until a time where the monastic code might be forgotten altogether. Lay followers will no longer have a qualified Sangha to look up to, not to mention an Ariya Sangha. When the Vinaya is corrupted, the Dhamma cannot survive on its own as well. Woeful it will be for us to be born in a time where the right Dhamma can no longer be heard. Blinded like bats we will be, depraved of the light of the doctrine. The signs of such a time are already evident in Sanghas around the world, not just the Chinese Sangha. Let us try our best to work towards our own enlightenment while there are still some real monks & nuns around, & the correct path to Nibbana can still be learned. If we missed this opportunity as humans in this life, the next time we are reborn as humans will definitely be too late. Take heed!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Betel Tree Spirit in Penang

The New Paper on 15th Sep 2006 did a report on a certain human face which recently grew out of a betel nut tree in a Penang village. While droves of curious people went to see for themselves, some also harm the tree by cutting off its roots, which they believed had healing powers. The villagers are very much against this type of inconsiderate people.Look at how human-like the face is! Some say the face changes everyday, but it sure looks damn unhappy here. Maybe its those dumb people who are cutting the roots pissing it off. That's why they call it a "ghost tree". Chinese visitors also started to offer joss sticks & flowers to this ghost tree, praying for 4-D numbers. Some of the smart villagers also sell photos of the face to visitors for 2 ringgit each. I think they might as well get a bomoh to make amulets out of its betel nuts. Why hasn't anybody thought of it yet? This also reminds me of the tree shrine in Choa Chu Kang where they found a Lukkok. I wonder which Ajahn wannabe buried it there, of all places. When there's so many people praying there, someone is sure to discover his "baby"! Well now that its with the police, some people have put up a separate shrine there to make offerings to the baby spirit. Wierd stuff..

The Vinaya says that:

"The damaging of a living plant is an offence to be confessed."

The story goes that during the Buddha's time a certain Alavi bhikkhu was chopping down a tree. The devata living in the tree said to the bhikkhu,
"Sir, do not chop down my dwelling to build a dwelling for yourself."
The bhikkhu, paying no attention, continued chopping and injured the arm of the devata's child. The devata thought:
"What if I were to kill this bhikkhu right here?"
Then another thought occurred to her:
"But no, that wouldn't be proper. What if I were to inform the Blessed One of this matter?"
So she went to the Blessed One and on arrival informed him of what had happened.
"Very good, devata. It's very good that you didn't kill the bhikkhu. If you had, you would have produced much demerit for yourself. Now go, devata. Over there is a vacant tree. Go into it."

(The Commentary adds here that the tree, being in the Jetavana Monastery, was one of the choicest pieces of devata real estate in those days. Other devas coming to pay their respects to the Buddha also made a point of paying their respects to the devata living in this tree.)

People were offended and annoyed and spread it about, "How can these Sakyan recluses chop down trees and have them cut up? They are destroying one-facultied life."

This news report is living proof that there ARE Devatas or in this case, spirits that make dwellings out of any tree taller than a man. If we are not careful when dealing with these trees, these supernatural beings could very well harm or even kill us for destroying their houses. That is why we should not just respect animals, but all plant life as well.

Observations at Ven Dhammananda's cremation

Ven Dhammananda (1919-2006), one of the most revered Theravada Buddhist leaders in South East Asia, passed away in KL, Malaysia on 31st Aug 2006. He was 87 yrs old. A wake was immediately set up at the Maha Vihara Temple in KL, where the Ven was the abbot. Devotees from all over Malaysia & Singapore flooded in to pay their last respects to this great teacher. On 3rd Sep 2006, his body was transported to the Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih to be cremated on a hilltop. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mr Ratnasiri Wickremanayake specially flew in to join the thousands of mourners who came to witness the cremation ceremony.On the way to the memorial park, raindrops which resembled snowflakes started to fall, a sign that even the Devas mourned the passing away of this Maha Thera. The above photo was snapped by one of the mourners and published in Malaysia's New Life Post paper. During the cremation in the evening (around 6.15pm), more miraculous signs started to appear. Devotees heard claps of thunder, after which they saw in the northern sky images of a great Stupa, as well as celestial Nagas protecting it. Some say this is a sign that the Heavenly King Vessamana, guardian of the North & often portrayed as carrying a Stupa, had came to receive the Ven's relics. The following morning, when the chanting ceremony started around 9 something am, everyone present saw a white light shining forth from the sky above the 3 storey high funeral pyre containing the Ven's remains. Within the light there appeared 2 clouds, one resembling Ven Dhammananda in a samatid posture (see above photo) and the other resembling a Bodhisattva (some say Guanyin) who has also came to receive him. This vision lasted for 5 mins and dissappeared when the chanting was over. Although the monks present told the devotees there not to take these signs too seriously and that they might just be natural phenomena, but everyone who saw them can't help but be filled with deep awe and renewed faith in the Dhamma. To see more photos, go to

These miraculous signs indicate that Ven Dhammananda is by no means an ordinary monk, but an Ariya who has attained one of the fruits of Sainthood. The Diamond Sutra says:

"Subhūti, what do you think? Does a practitioner who has attained the level of sotāpanna think: 'I have attained the realization of the sotāpanna?' "
Subhūti said, "No, World Honored One. And why not? Because the name sotāpanna means 'stream-enterer,' and there is in fact no stream to be entered. One does not enter form, sound, odor, taste, touch, or concepts. Therefore one is called a sotāpanna."
"Subhūti, what do you think? Does a sakadāgāmi think, 'I have attained the realization of sakadāgāmi?' "
Subhūti said: "No, World Honored One. And why not? Although the name sakadāgāmi means to go and come once more, but there is, in reality, no going or coming. Therefore he is called a sakadāgāmi."
"Subhūti, what do you think? Does the adept who has attained the level of anāgāmi say, 'I have achieved the realization of the anāgāmi?' "
Subhūti said, "No, World Honored One. And why not? Anāgāmi means non-returning (to this world), but there is, in fact, no such thing as returning. Therefore this person is called an anāgāmi."
"Subhūti, what do you think? Does the arahat think, 'I have attained the realization of the arahat?' "
"No, World Honored One. And why not? There is, in reality, no such a thing called 'arahat.' World Honored One, if an arahat should give rise to the thought, 'I have attained the realization of the arahat, this would mean that he is attached to the notions of self, person, sentient being, and life span.' "

Therefore understand that to attain enlightenment means not attaining anything at all. All Dhamma are fundamentally empty and cannot be grasped to. If Ven Dhammananda still grapsed on to anything, we would not be able to see all those signs at his passing away. Therein lies the bliss of Nibbana, of which these signs act as inspirations for everyone. Let us work hard towards our own liberation, for noone can save us except ourselves, sadhu.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The 4 Noble Truths in Zen

Ven Xing Si asked Hui Neng:
"How do I practice, such that I will not fall into stages?"
Neng: "What have you been practicing lately?"
Si: "I don't even think about the Noble Truths!"
Neng: "What stage is that?"
Si: "When you don't even think about the Noble Truths, what stage is there left?"
The 6th Patriach was very pleased with his answer, and asked him to lead the disciples.

Every Buddhist know that the 4 Noble Truths are the core teaching of the Dhamma, for it is the very first sermon that the Buddha gave at the Deer Park in Benares to the 5 ascetics. But what are the Noble Truths according to Zen, which Ven Xingsi, one of the foremost disciples of the 6th Patriach rejected outright?

1. Suffering - what is suffering? The mind of love & hate, suffering & happiness, birth & death, existing & non-existing; such that all dual states of mind are suffering.

2. Cause of Suffering - what causes suffering? Avijja or fundamental ignorance. Being ignorant & blind to the true nature of the mind, grasping to duality as its reality.

3. End of Suffering - what is the end of suffering? Shatter Avijja & one passes beyond all suffering. This is Nibbana, Bodhi, Patience of the Unborn, Dharmakaya.

4. Path leading to the End - what is the path? The path is the 8-fold Path of which the most important is to establish Right View (which I have explained in one of my past articles).

When one developes Right View, one sees that the mind & all its conceptions are fundamentally empty. Duality exists only because of one's deep-seated grasping & discrimination. One chases after illusionary things in the false hope that they will lead to happiness, setting forth the wheel of Samsara. Abandoning all false thoughts, discrimination & grasping in your own mind, & this very mind is the Buddha. There is no other Buddha or Dharma except your own mind. This is the "esoteric teaching" that the Buddha silently imparted to Maha Kassapa, from Bodhidharma to Hui Ke, & from Hui Neng to all his disciples. The heart of Zen has been transmitted for 2549 yrs, but there are no other teachings except for this one. No special meditation instructions, no supernormal powers or any other exciting stuff. Do you believe it?

When one realizes this for oneself, the mind is completely calmed. It remains unmoved amidst all phenomena for the Cause of Suffering has fallen away. When the Cause of Suffering is no more, Suffering is no more. When Suffering does not exist in the first place, what more for the End of Suffering? When one crosses the river, one abandons the raft. The Path that led you here has served its purpose, now it no longer has any use. So why talk about stages? Thus the Heart Sutra says:

"No suffering, no cause, no end & no path."

This is also what Ven Xingsi meant when he said he no longer thought about the Noble Truths.