Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Phra Malai & Ksitigarbha

"Bitter are the sins of sentient beings,
(they) cannot be exhausted even after 1,000 kalpas;
when the bloodshed flow into rivers,
know that these are fruits of evil karma."

- Songs from Hell

I was reading LP Jarun's "The Law of Karma - Dhamma Practice" Book I the other day and came across an interesting anecdote. In the story of "The Lady with 2 Bodies", the main character Sa-ing recounted how she created evil karma through her misdeeds & how she fell into Hell to suffer for 100 yrs. She mentioned that on observance days a monk (Phra Malai) would come to teach the hell-beings. In Hell they made the hell-beings chant & pay homage to the Triple Gems. Sa-ing had never chanted before in the human world, but after being in Hell she could recite all the Kathas fluently. Phra Malai was there to teach them about Karma. He also taught that in Hell they had to chant & practice Vipassana meditation just like in the human world.

Who is this Phra Malai, teacher of the hell-beings? Legend has it that he is an Arahant from Sri Lanka, who achieved great supernormal powers through his own merits & meditation. He is also honoured as a successor to Ven Mogallana, the Buddha's disciple foremost for his supernormal attainments. The story of Phra Malai is well-known throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand & Laos. In the story this pious and compassionate monk descends to Hell to give teach & comfort the suffering hell-beings there. He also learns how the hell-beings are punished according to their sins in the different hells.After returning to Earth he is presented a bunch of lotuses collected by a poor man, who wished to be freed from poverty. Phra Malai ascends to the Tavatimsa Heaven to pay homage and offer the lotuses to the Culamani Stupa, which enshrined the hair that the Bodhisatta cut off after renouncing his princely life in his father’s palace centuries ago. In this heaven, Phra Malai & Indra, King of Tavatimsa, converse on how merit is accumulated. Phra Malai eventually has the chance to meet Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya gives him instructions for the people on Earth on how they may progress spiritually, make merit, and benefit further from his teaching when he eventually comes to Earth for his last existence, during which he will achieve Buddhahood. Phra Malai later returned to the human world and preached widely about Heaven & Hell, as well as Maitreya's instructions to the faithful.
The interesting thing is that even though Phra Malai had entered Parinibbana for more than 2,000 yrs ago, he continues to manifest himself in the hell realms to help the beings there. The true story of Sa-ing took place in the late 1950s. Without Phra Malai's teachings, Sa-ing would not have been able to free herself from Hell. She would probably still be suffering there till this day. Sa-ing and countless other hell-beings taught by Phra Malai throughout the centuries owe their teacher a great debt.

The deeds of Phra Malai bear striking similarities to Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, his equivalent in Mahayana Buddhism. Perhaps they are one & the same enlightened being? Ksitigarbha is not just the Teacher of the Hell realms, but he is also the guardian of all beings in our Jambudiva world in the long time between Buddha Shakyamuni's parinirvana and Buddha Maitreya's appearance into this world. Just as Phra Malai is a Savaka Arahant, Ksitigarbha also manifests himself as a Savaka instead of a Bodhisattva to teach others. Thus he is always potrayed as a Bhikku monk rather than in Deva form like other Bodhisattvas.
Like Phra Malai, Ksitigarbha also appear in the hells on observance days to give Dana & teachings on Karma to all the hell-beings. If any of these beings seeing or hearing the Bodhisattva sincerely repent their past misdeeds, they would be liberated from their suffering through the power of the Bodhisattva's merits. Such is the great compassion shown by the Teachers of Hell.
Whether it is Phra Malai in Theravada or Ksitigarbha in Mahayana Buddhism, they teach us that no matter how much evil a person has done, such that he or she has fallen into the various hells of their own making, all it takes is a single thought of true repentance & the forsaking of past evil to be liberated. Of course, one still have to expiate one's own negative karma over time, but as long as one does not create any more new karma, the old karma will eventually be exhausted & one will be able to ride on the highway to Buddhahood without any obstacles.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Truth of Avici Hell

The Parinirvana Sutra says:

"Among the 8 great Hells, the worst is known as Avici Hell. Because one experiences immense suffering without any interval, thus it is given such a name."

The Ksitigarbha Sutra says:

"Avici Hells are hells reinforced with iron surrounded by iron walls, 8 millions miles wide and 1 million miles high. These Hells are fully filled with burning flames and are jointly linked up together with other Hells of different names. Among them there is one Hell by the name of Avici. The area of this Avici Hell is eight thousand square miles. The whole of this Hell, with iron walls, is packed with burning flames. Iron snakes and dogs with hot fire in this Hell run from the East to the West. Also, there is an iron bed and when one is cast there, he can see his own body filling it. Therefore, all beings are subjected to punishment according to their sins."

In Buddhist cosmology, Avici Hell is considered the worst and most severe of all the hell realms in existence. The Sanskrit term "Avici" means without interval, referring to the unceasing torments that sinners in that hell experience for an unimaginably long time. What type of beings get reborn into such a terrible place? Those who have committed any of the 5 heinous sins, namely:
1. Murdering one's father
2. Murdering one's mother
3. Killing an Arahant
4. Shedding the blood of a Buddha
5. Creating discord within the Sangha

Which brings us to a young Canadian girl in the news, Jasmine Richardson, charged with ganging up with her boyfriend to murder her parents and little brother in 2006. The 12 yr old Jasmine became the youngest person ever charged with a multiple murder in Canadian history. The reason for the senseless killings is due to her parents disallowing her from seeing her 23 yr old boyfriend Jeremy Steinke. She was angry at being grounded, and after seeking help from Jeremy, they hatched a plan to kill all the people obstructing their paedophilic relationship. They eventually succeeded in murdering the rest of Jasmine's family members, although it was Jeremy who carried out most of the killing. The only thing Jasmine did was to "stab her little brother". Jeremy finished off the job by slitting the boy's throat. Nevertheless, on July 9th 2007, Jasmine was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in the killings. She would be sentenced to a maximum of 6 years imprisonment and 4 years of probation, which is the maximum penalty for a person under 14 years of age next month (August). As for Jeremy, his trial would probably start only next year, and according to Canadian laws, he would be sentenced to life imprisonment if found guilty of the murders.

Despite the vivid descriptions in the scriptures, Avici Hell is not so much as a place that people who have done great evil go to after they die, but it is right there in their very minds. In Jasmine's case, the moment the thought of hatred arose in her mind towards her parents, the pit of Avici Hell had already opened wide for her to fall into. One thought leads to another, which is no different from her falling deeper and deeper into Hell. When the thoughts transform into action, she had already landed on the burning iron bed inside Avici Hell. The torment began right then. Now, after being arrested, charged and sentenced by a worldly court, it is not life in prison that would bring her the greatest suffering, but the mental guilt that would plague her every single day for the rest of her life. That is truly a long lasting suffering that is Avici, without interval. And we all know where all that guilt is going to take her mind-stream upon the dissolution of her body.

More fearsome than any weapon on Earth, is the thought of hatred. Consuming everything in its path, it would not be extinguished until both subject and object are plunged into great suffering. Endless is the sea of suffering, yet simply turn around and the shore is right before you. Will the young Jasmine ever have the chance to turn around? Let us pray that her dead parents and brother will one day forgive her for her sins.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Query on the authenticity of the Tooth Relic

An Arabian proverb says:

"It doesn't really matter what you worship; what matters is how devoted you are."

A Buddhist culture researcher named Ye Guofeng wrote a letter to Zaobao paper's forum page on Friday (29.6.2007), questioning whether the Buddha Tooth Relic kept by the Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown is real. His letter in Chinese could be read here:

In the letter Ye calls for DNA testing to be done to the tooth, or for a dentist to examine whether it is a human tooth at all, given its large size. He also demands verification by scriptural references to the existence of such a relic. Ye says that in the past many so called tooth relics in other parts of the world were discovered to be fake, so Singaporeans should have a right to know whether what they are venerating is authentic. After all, local people donated more than 43 million dollars & 273kg of gold to construct the temple as well as the gold stupa to house the tooth relic.

I believe the abbot of the temple ,Ven Fazhao will have to make a public clarification soon since somebody had already raised such a doubt on the tooth relic. Personally though, it makes no difference to me as I'm neither an archaeologist nor an academic. There is a well known Tibetan tale on the meaning of authenticity:

A poor old woman living in a small village in Tibet saved all her life to buy a relic of the Buddha. Hearing that one of the Buddha's tooth relic was going to be sold in a city in neighbouring India, she gave all the money to her no-good drunkard of a son and told him to travel there on a pilgrimage to obtain the relic for her. But he soon got distracted by the sights and sounds, squandering all the money on alcohol and girls instead. Later on the way back he found a dead dog in the gutter & took a tooth from its mouth. Wrapping it in a piece of golden cloth, he decided to bring it back to his mother in Tibet. The son even derided her for her superstitious faith as he presented her with the fake tooth relic. A week later, he passed her room and saw her praying before her little altar. The mouldy dog’s tooth was ablaze with divine light, and soon the whole village learned of the amazing occurrence. His mother's little altar had transformed into a famous shrine of the Buddha's relic overnight! Many miracles were attributed to it and to his mother as keeper of Buddha’s tooth. Her deeds of compassion and goodness were profound and her happiness unbounded. The young man, however, grew more and more disturbed as the relic’s reputation grew and his mother’s saintliness increased. This built up over years, and finally he couldn't stand living a lie any more. One evening, after several Lamas had visited and received both blessings and teachings from the tooth, he finally blurted out the true story to his mother: “That's not the Buddha’s tooth. I lost all the money you gave me. I got that tooth from a dead dog!" And he ran outside the house. Just outside the door stood a magnificent man looking at him with eyes of loving-kindness. It was the Buddha. In a gentle voice, the Buddha said: “That was my tooth, you know."

So there you have it; faith or science? It is all up to you really.