Sunday, April 29, 2007

Legend of Wetsandon & Chuchok

The Prajna Paramita Sutra says:

"It is by means of the Dharma of having nothing whatsoever which is given away that he perfects Dana Paramita. This is because neither giver, receiver nor object given can be found."

In the world of Thai Buddhism there is a certain deity of a crooked, old brahmin called Chuchok (Jujaka). This odd-looking figure is believed to attract wealth for the person who venerates it. Who exactly is Chuchok and what is the story behind him?

Chuchok is actually one of the characters in the Jataka tale of Prince Wetsandon (Vessantara), the Bodhisattva's last life before he was reborn in the Tusita heaven. It is in this existence that the Bodhisattva, as Prince Wetsandon, brings his Dana Paramita to perfection. The tale goes like this:

Phusatti, the principal consort of Sakka (another name for the Indian thunder god Indra) descended to earth and became the mother of the Bodhisattva in his final birth. Phusatti, at the age of 16, marries King Sanjaya, the sovereign of Sivi. Once pregnant, she built six alms' halls where she distributed charity daily. While visiting Vessa, the merchants' quarter of the city, she gave birth to Vessantara. Vessantara became a generous and charitable boy, always wanting to give away his possessions, distributing alms on his favorite white elephant with whom he shared birth and whom he grew up together. Many subjects attributed the kingdom's rains to this white elephant.

But one day he gives the elephant away to brahmin emissaries from another kingdom, which enrages the citizens. They compel King Sanjaya to force Prince Vessantara and his wife, Maddi, who insists on accompanying him and their children, to go into exile. Before leaving, the prince gives away all of his possessions, making the "gift of the seven hundreds". Along the way, they encounter a group of people begging for their horses. The prince gives them his horses and they are taken away by these people. When Vessantara gave away the horses, the devas turn themselves into deers to pull the chariot, but he also gives away the chariot later. The couple continue on foot carrying their children. They reached a town, and the people there invite the couple to remain as King and Queen, but Vessantara refuses and leaves. After a long journey on foot, they reach a spot in the mountains, where they settle down in a forest hermitage. Husband and wife make a vow to live in chastity.

In another village, there is an old brahmin called Jujaka (Chuchok). His wife is pretty a young girl who marries him to repay the family debts. Her faithful care of the rather repulsive Jujaka only provokes the ire of the other village women since it makes their husbands demand the same uncomplaining attention. Jujaka 's wife forces him to find a servant when she refused to fetch water any longer. Having no money, and as a last resort, he decides to test the fabled generosity of Vessantara by asking for his children. Jujaka goes into the forest and meets a hermit who knows where Vessandara is residing. Jujaka then tries to trick the wise hermit into showing him the way to the hermitage. He eventually succeeds. When Chujok arrives, Maddi is on the mountain gathering berries. The devas, knowing that she will not understand the tests of Vessantara's generosity, turn themselves into wild animals and hold her at bay. The brahmin pretends to be a messenger from the King and invites Vessantara to return; but his true motive is to ask for Vessantara's children.

Vessantara is at first shocked and angry when the Jujaka asks him for the children as servants. Then he realizes that he has only given away his material possessions, never anything that was a part of his own being. He explains this to the children and asks them to help him in the great sacrifice. Jali assents gladly but his sibling Kanha was reluctant. Vessantara, agreeing to a large sum of ransom money, hands them to the brahmin.

The old Jujaka takes the children away, driving them ahead of him through the forest and treating them cruelly. During the night Jujaka sleeps on top of a tree safe from snakes and scorpions, while the children are being tied up. They escape once and return to the hermitage but Vessantara will not let them break a bargain. He makes them return to Jujaka.

When Maddi returns from the mountain she finds the children gone. Vessantara, fearing to add to her grief, will not speak. She falls into death-like faint. Later he explained to her of his great sacrifices. Another old man appears and asks for his wife. This is actually Sakka, the king of the gods, who has assumed the old man's form. After Vessantara has passed the test, Sakka resumes his divine form and returns Maddi, binding her over to his care.

Jujaka finally loses the children and they make their way back to the palace of their grandparents, the King and Queen. When he hears their story the King is angry with Prince Vessantara but Jali explains the ultimate test of his generosity. The King finally understands and orders that Vessantara be brought back from exile. He then pays Jujaka the agreed sum for ransom of his grandchildren. Jujaka wastes the ransom money lavishly on wine, women and dies from gluttony.

Finally King Sanjaya and the court set off for the forest to bring back Vessantara from exile. They remain at the hermitage for a month, feasting and celebrating until a smooth road could be prepared for the triumphal return to their kingdom. As in all traditional Indian stories, the story has a happy ending. The family is reunited, all of Prince Vessantara's possessions are returned to him, and they all live happily ever after.

So why is Chuchok, an evil brahmin who harassed the Bodhisattva in his last birth, associated with wealth attraction? Because it is precisely his meanness that helped Wetsandon to complete his perfection of giving. Paradoxically, he is believed to have made much merit in that way, and after he had finished suffering in the lower realms for his misdeeds, he would be reborn with great wealth and power. By venerating Chuchok, people believe they can share in his "merits" and also gain that kind of prosperity. But do these people really get what they seek? Hmm.. I leave this question for readers to think about.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Dhamma of Wine

To refrain from taking intoxicants in one of the five most important precepts to be followed by any Buddhist follower. This is even more important in the Theravada tradition, where followers tend to follow the original teachings of the Buddha very closely. But for Mahayana and Vajrayana followers, the view against intoxicants, especially wine, is usually more liberal. A good example is Monk Ji Gong (1130-1209CE) of the Southern Song Dynasty. An enlightened but eccentric master who lived in Zhejiang province, Ji Gong was fond of eating meat and wine. Others ridiculed him because of this, but he replied them with this saying:

"Wine and meat may pass through my intestines,
but the Buddha remains in my heart."

This became a famous Chinese saying which is often misused by people today as an excuse to justify their craving towards meat and alcohol. Another interesting anecdote comes from the 2nd Patriarch of Chan, Huike. Many years after he transmitted the Dharma to his successor Seng Can, he went to Yedu city and transformed himself into a lay person. Huike frequented the wine shops and the butcheries. Sometimes he could be found engaging in idle chatter in the streets, or mixing around with urchins and vagrants. People who knew him were shocked to find him totally changed and together they asked him, "The Venerable Master used to be a great cultivator; how did you turn out like that?" To which Huike replied:

"I am tuning my own mind, what does that have to do with you?"

This again became an important Chan saying, and the term "tuning the mind" became synonymous with a drinking session. It is clear that enlightened beings did not take the precept against intoxicants very seriously; to them it is merely a skillful means to teach ordinary people. The same could be said for many other basic percepts. Outwardly these masters may break the percepts, but in reality their minds always remain pure and untainted.

Regarding taking wine as tuning the mind, HK-based journalist Zhang Li recently wrote an interesting story. 10 over years ago Mr Zhang visited Wutai Shan for the first time. It was a November evening and the weather was extremely cold. He was with a Chinese and a Mongolian Lama on the Northwest corner of Bodhisattva Peak. The Lamas invited him to a wine-drinking session to fight the cold, but they did not call it wine; they called it the "Nectar of Manjusri" instead. That night they told him:

"Speaking from the viewpoint of the Yogacara doctrine, one's Alaya or store consciousness can only be revealed after drinking alcohol. A person who is happy and jovial after drinking is destined for the realm of the Devas. Those that turn violent and create trouble belong to the realm of the Asuras. People who become depressed and cry will be heading towards the 3 lower realms. Finally the ones who become drowsy and fall asleep will be reborn as human beings."

Mr Zhang had a certain realization after hearing these words. In the future when he observed the behaviour of his friends after a few drinks, he could immediately know what were their future destinies. Once the black box of the Alaya was opened, a person's true nature became exposed without any holding back. But there was a kind of person, who no matter how drunk he gets, never loses awareness of himself. This is what it means by "when even the illusionary becomes real, then reality is none other than illusion." These are the enlightened beings.

The Buddha laid down the precept against intoxicants for his followers who do embarrassing and harmful things when they become drunk. This precept is to guard against the negative effects of alcohol abuse, rather than the substance itself. But when used correctly, alcohol is a medicine and also a catalyst that brings out people's mental essence. If alcohol brings out the good in people's mind, then it is known as Nectar. But if it brings out the bad, then it becomes the blood of Mara. When the great Tang dynasty poet Li Bai got drunk, he was truly a "Drunken Immortal"; most of the others are just silly drunkards. Do you want to know what kind of a person you really are? Bottoms up!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Dead Uncle Appearing as a Bird

The Ksitigarbha Sutra says:

"For all the sentient beings of the present & future eras, if they are close to death & have the chance to hear the name of one Buddha, Bodhisattva, or Pacceka Buddha; they will be able to achieve liberation whether they are with or without sin."

It also says:

"Even if the sentient beings of the present & future eras can recite the name of only one Buddha, they will gain immeasurable merits; how much more so if they are able to recite the names of many Buddhas!"

My uncle died last Thursday (12.4.2006) of liver failure in the hospital, and a funeral wake was held for him till Monday (16.4), after which he was cremated. Before he was about to die and even throughout the wake, there were people chanting Amitabha to help him on his way; but he did not do any practice or cultivation at all when he was still healthy and alive.

The strange thing is his mom reported seeing a black bird flying into her house 2 days after he died. No matter how they tried to scare it, the bird refused to go away. It even allowed my uncle's mom to touch and stroke its body. Suspecting the bird to be his son, the old lady told it, "If you are my son *his name*, be at peace and move on." The strangest part is that the bird seemed to understand that and immediately flew away! Although she was a Christian, she could not help but believe that there is such a thing as rebirth. We were quite amazed to hear the story at the wake on the 3rd day.

But the question is, can a person who just died for less than 2 days be reborn as a bird without first going through Bardo (intermediate state between death and rebirth)? As far as I know, only beings with powerful good or evil karma don't pass through Bardo. If he is still in the first stage of Bardo, can the spirit appear as a bird to visit his relatives? From my readings of the Book of Bardo, only when the spirit has reached the last stage of Bardo will it gain certain temporary supernormal powers like being able to go anywhere it wants and ability to transform.
I posed these questions to friends in the E-sangha and obtained 2 views. The first view is that the bird was not my uncle's reincarnation, but the emanation of a Dakini (a kind of dancing female deity) or a wrathful protector deity who manifests mostly as birds. They guide the dead to the pure realms as well as comfort the living relatives. The second view is my uncle had been reborn in a heaven realm as a Deva through the merit of hearing Amitabha Buddha's name and other Mahayana Sutras at his death bed. Thus he has the supernormal power to transform himself into a bird the next day. He appeared as a bird before his grieving mother so as to comfort as well as inspire her. Though these 2 views are both possible, my own feelings tell me that the latter one is much more likely. If my uncle is a Deva now, I hope he is well and happy. May he continue to watch over his family and may he start to follow the Dhamma in that heaven realm, sadhu.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"Tour" to the Nether Realms

Recently in Singapore, a Taoist temple in Geylang introduced a new kind of religious ceremony that claims to be able to take devotees on a tour to the Nether Realms to seek out their departed relatives. This kind of ceremony was first heard of in Taiwan and was even shown before in a National Geographic documentary. Now it had finally came to our shores and there are quite a number of people willing to try it, even though they are not Taoist. The best part is that the ceremony is open to people of any race or religion, so anybody can just take a tour of Hades, even out of curiosity! But are they really able to bring people there?

The Ksitigarbha Sutra says:

"Other than by supernormal powers or by karma,
One cannot reach this hell."

In the same way, for ordinary beings to visit the nether realms without these 2 causes is virtually impossible. This type of ceremony is merely a process of group hypnosis. Under the spell of the chanting and orchestra of ritualistic instruments, the blindfolded participants grow drowsy and enter a kind of trance, causing them to see various visions of the hells. These visions are conjured up by the mind from the sub-conscious impressions of hell that are gathered from popular mass media. Many of the participants could not see their departed relatives as they have hoped in these visions. Those who could probably think of their relatives so much that impressions of how they might be doing pop up whenever the opportunity arises. In reality, those dead relatives should have been reborn into other realms long ago; how could one still find them in hell? If they are not reborn, they will be stuck in the ghost realm and that would also make it impossible for them to be found by the participant. Either way it does not seem likely for the participants to actually go to the hells and find their relatives by such means.

Such tours only serve the purpose of self-delusion, which might or might not make the participants feel better about the death of their dear ones. For those simply curious to see hell, it serves to reinforce their sub-conscious impressions of it, though they might or might not be accurate. From a Buddhist viewpoint, it is totally unnecessary because the Dhamma teaches us to calmly accept the truth of impermanence, to perceive the arising and passing away of all things. By the avoidance of unwholesome thought, one eliminates the possibility of going to hell through the compulsion of karma. By the proper practice of Samatha Vipassana meditation, one will gain the insight to see not just the hells, but all the realms of existence as they really are. This is one of the 3 higher knowledge (Tevijja) that leads the mind to complete awakening and the end of suffering. Is that not infinitely better than taking any imaginary hell tour?

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Death of Asia's Richest Woman

"Surely man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nought are they in turmoil;
man heaps up, and knows not who will gather?"

Psalms 39:6

Gong Ruxin aka Nina Wang, once recognised by Forbes magazine to be the richest woman in Asia, died of cancer in Hong Kong on Wednesday (4.4.2007). She was 70 yrs old, and left behind no children. It is estimated that her assets amounted to around 4.26 billion US dollars, which would probably be distributed among her younger siblings now that she is gone.

An oddball character but at the same time a legendary figure in HK, Gong and her husband Wang Dehui built up the business empire of the Hua Mao corporation together since the 1960s. However, their fame and fortune attracted unwanted attention. Wang was kidnapped by criminals in 1983 and only released when Gong paid them a ransom of 11 million USD. In 1990 Wang was kidnapped yet again. But this time before Gong could pay his ransom of 30 million, the kidnappers suddenly cancelled the deal and Wang went missing forever. Gong was traumatized by the ordeal and only recovered 4 yrs later. In 1994 she started to retake sole control of the Hua Mao corporation and all its assets. Concentrating all her energies on doing business, she single-handedly brought the corporation to new and greater heights.

In 1997 Gong's father-in-law started a lawsuit requesting the high court in HK to declare Wang Dehui legally dead, and also seeking to claim all the wealth that he had left behind based on a will made in 1968. Gong of course could not accept this and produced another more recent will made by her husband in 1990, one that stated her as the sole inheritor of the money. Thus began the 9 yr legal battle to determine who was the rightful owner of the billions. Victory finally came in 2005 and 2006, where she not only won over the sole ownership, but also the compensation of 280 million HKD worth in legal fees. But the ironic thing is after such a long struggle, she died half a year later, before she could enjoy any of this hard-earned wealth.

One of the judges that presided over Gong's series of disputes with her father-in-law, Ren Yijun, made a statement in his judgement quoting from the Psalms in the Bible (seen above). This meaningful verse pretty much sums up the life of Asia's richest woman, Madam Gong Ruxin. She and her husband heaped up so much money, more than any person can dream about, yet it did not bring them any real happiness. Now that they are dead, who is left to benefit from that mountain of wealth? Huge as the amount was, it could not prevent Wang Dehui from being kidnapped and killed by criminals. It also could not save Gong from the years of trauma and stress that resulted from her husband's disappearance, as well as the long tussle with her father-in-law for her husband's money. No, it even did not help to prevent Gong from contracting cancer and dying when her troubles finally came to an end. Indeed, what is the use of having so much money?

Rich and famous as these worldly beings are, they live in delusion and could not escape from the sufferings of this existence; what more for the next? If only they knew the true purpose of wealth, if only they have a chance to understand the Dhamma; then their lives would not have been in vain. The Adiya Sutta says:

"My wealth has been enjoyed,
my dependents supported,
protected from calamities by me.
I have given supreme offerings
and performed the five oblations.
I have provided for the virtuous,
the restrained, followers of the holy life.
For whatever aim a wise householder
would desire wealth, that aim I have attained.
I have done what will not lead to future distress.
When this is recollected by a mortal,
a person established in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones,
he is praised in this life and after death, rejoices in heaven."

To provide satisfaction for your family, your workers, your friends and associates, to wisely ward off calamities caused by natural disasters and greedy men, to make the right offerings to the poor and to respected people, to provide for the needs of the Noble Ones who have gone forth, to dedicate all good for one's own unbinding, and for the realization of Nibbana - these are the greatest benefits that can be obtained from wealth. May all beings have the wisdom to use their wealth in such ways, sadhu.