Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why become a Monk?

Prince Siddhattha said:

"Why do I, being subject to birth, decay, disease, death, sorrow and impurities, thus search after things of like nature. How, if I, who am subject to things of such nature, realize their disadvantages and seek after the unattained unsurpassed, perfect security which is Nibbana!"

"Cramped and confined is household life, a den of dust, but the life of the homeless one is as the open air of heaven! Hard is it for him who bides at home to live out as it should be lived the Holy Life in all its perfection, in all its purity."

Prince Siddhattha was a person with everything; wealth, power, women, palaces, chariots, armies, servants etc - the whole kingdom of Kapilavatthu belonged to him. Yet he saw the uncertainty of all material possessions and chose to gave up everything to pursue a holy life instead. What good does all those possessions do, since you cannot take any of it with you when you die? The Buddha had set the best example for his followers and future generations. By renouncing all that is dear to the world, he showed us that true happiness cannot be attained by gathering more and more; it can only be attained by giving up. The path of a Samana or Bhikkhu is one of simplicity, contemplation and contentment with the bare necessities in life. Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha still refused to "own" anything. Scores of wealthy and powerful donors presented large pieces of land for he and his disciples to reside in, but did the Buddha ever taken those properties to be his? Never, he merely used them as a tenant for as long as he saw fit, giving any form of ownership back to the donors themselves. When it was time to leave, the Buddha could leave without any trouble or attachment. In this we can see the Buddha's profound wisdom when conducting himself in the ways of the world. However, things appeared to have changed a lot today for some of his "followers".
Which bring us to a monk in the news recently - Ven Shi Miaoyi, abbot of Long Hua Chan Si temple. Ven Miaoyi is a "millionaire monk". The papers report that his assets include 35% shares in a coffee shop in Yangon Road worth 3.5 million, a condo and flat worth a million, a Mercedes Benz, past dealings with up to 10 businesses and shares in 4 companies under his secular name Chia Eng Soon. He also had annual income of up to $600,000 in 1999 and $660,000 in 2001. All these were revealed in court as he is one of the parties sued by Poh Lian Development for a failed venture. In his own words to the Judge's query, he said he was a "hardworking man". A hardworking businessman - excellent trait for a householder, but worthless for a monk. Besides shaving his head, sporting a fancy Buddhist name and working in a temple, there is nothing else to differentiate him from any other layman. He lives in a big house, drives a big car and makes loads of money from religious and secular businesses alike; does he even understand the meaning of "renunciation"? Does he still consider himself a disciple of the Buddha?
Another famous monk in the news last year was Ven Shi Mingyi, abbot of Fu Hai Chan Si monastery and CEO of Renci Hospital. Renci was probed by the authorities for financial irregularities, arising from the Ven Mingyi's misappropriating of hospital funds for his private business interests. Although he had not been charged yet, this case had inevitably weakened people's faith in charities even further after the NKF-Durai debacle. Why do people like Ven Miaoyi and Ven Mingyi bother becoming monks, but end up not doing things that monks are supposed to do? Why do they keep the false appearance of a Samana, when they are still householders at heart? Temples, properties, businesses, hospitals.. what are these things worth compared to the Dhamma? If they enjoy heaping dust upon themselves, wouldn't it be wiser for them to disrobe and return to the lay life? They obviously make much better laymen than monks. Indeed, they would be doing the Sangha a favour if they disrobed. Such irony..

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Nature of Sentient Beings

The Diamond Sutra says:

"Subhūti, what do you think? You should not claim that the Tathāgata thinks 'I will deliver sentient beings.' Subhūti, do not think such a thing. Why? There are in fact no sentient beings for the Tathāgata to deliver. If there were sentient beings for the Tathāgata to deliver, it would mean that the Tathāgata holds the notions of self, person, sentient being, and life span. Subhūti, when the Tathāgata says 'I,' there is actually no ' I.' Yet ordinary beings take this to be an I. Subhūti, as far as ordinary beings are concerned, the Tathāgata says that they are not ordinary beings."

What is the meaning of these verses? What is the purpose for a Bodhisattva to teach and help sentient beings when they fundamentally do not exist? How could a Bodhisattva arouse tireless compassion when he realizes that these beings and the suffering they experience are all unreal?
Although an intellectual understanding could be gained, we should not try to conceptualize the answers to this Dharma riddle. The deeper meaning of this passage is beyond concepts. One can only point to it using a metaphor. It is as if you are dreaming lucidly. Many characters appear in your dream, going through all sorts of suffering because they are unaware that they are only figments of your own imagination. You try to "wake" them up out of compassion. Those who do disappear from your dream, those who don't continue to suffer. However, the truth is whether they appear or disappear they are all not real. You are also not real, your act of waking them up is also not real. Because everything in your dream is of the same nature, the compassion that arises within you is non-dual as well. Technically speaking, your dream ego and all the other dream characters are all in the same boat. You are all One, yet you are also not One. The only thing different about you and the dream characters is that you are "awake" to the truth that everything is a dream. This is what the Buddha was trying to point out to us. So if you wish to follow the Buddha's path, you must first awaken to this Prajna Paramita. Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha..

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Powerful earthquake hits Sichuan China

The Dhammapada says:

"As rust growing out of iron itself eats that iron away,
even so, their own deeds lead evil-doers to states of woe."

When we do not take care of the body, the 4 elements that make up our body start to become imbalanced and sicknesses occur as a result. In the same way, when sentient beings do not take care of the world they live in, the same 4 elements that make up the world become imbalanced and disasters occur as a result. And the best way to take care of the body as well as the world is by refining our own mind. Following the cyclone in Burma, a powerful earthquake measuring 7.8 hit Sichuan province in China yesterday, causing extensive damage. The most recent death toll was reported to be around 9,600 and rising steadily. As the above diagram shows, the quake is so strong that tremors could be felt as far away as Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok and Taiwan.
This diagram shows that the epicentre of the quake is at Wenchuan county of Sichuan province, not far away from Chengdu (the provincial capitol). Needless to say, Wenchuan and neighbouring counties are the hardest hit. Reports say that this earthquake is of the same magnitude of the Tangshan earthquake 32 yrs ago, in which hundreds of thousands people died. In Burma we see the destructive force of the unbalanced Wind element, and now in China we see the same force coming from the unbalanced Earth element. Thousands upon thousands of sentient beings lose their lives as a result. What is the cause of such unbalances?
A scene of devastation at the collapsed Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan town. Death toll not confirmed as rescue efforts still underway. Who knows how many school kids are buried under the rubble? Unbalances in the 4 elements in this world are caused by collective karma. This means those thousands of beings created the same causes in the past, now they are experiencing the same effects in the present. Because they went against the Way, they actually went against their own well-being and happiness. This is what it means by rust eating away the iron that it grew from.
Another collapsed building in Wenchuan County. It doesn't matter if those beings created the causes in this life or in previous lives, because karma drew all of them together to the same place to experience the effects in this very present moment. Yet in this collective karma there are millions of different individual karmas as well. Those who were supposed to die, die and those who were supposed to survive, survive. Everything follows it own Way, with no room for error whatsoever in the great scheme of things.
More collapsed buildings in Wenchuan. Those people there are just going about their normal lives, then wham.. suddenly they are buried under tons of concrete. This is a live example of the transient nature of existence. Whether they are the poor people living tough lives in the Irrawady delta or the well-to-do people living comfortable lives in Wenchuan, they are all equal when faced with the power of Nature.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao flying down to Sichuan from Beijing promptly to supervise the disaster rescue operations. Is there a way to be safe from the power of Nature? Is there a way to keep the 4 elements of the world in harmony? There is. The way is to live in accordance to the Way. To live in accordance to the Way means to refine the mind. A monk once asked Chan master Dazhu Huihai:
"Is there a Dharma greater than Nature itself?"
"What is it?"
"That which can know Nature."
Indeed, that which can know Nature is none other than our own mind. When our mind is obscured by delusion and clinging, we cannot know Nature. Only when the mind is refined, clear of defilements that the Way becomes evident to us. We will understand the rising and falling of all things, including the power of Nature, and immediately know what should be done. If we are supposed to avoid, we avoid. If we are supposed to save lives, we save lives. If we are supposed to die, we also die without any fear or regret. In that way, we are in complete harmony with the Way, such that we realize that we were never apart from the Way in the first place. Suffering ends right there. This is the true value of the Dharma that we seek.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Devastation of Cyclone Nargis on Burma

The Dao De Jing says:

"Heaven and Earth are not benevolent;
they treat all things like straw dogs."

What does this mean? It means that Heaven and Earth work according to their own Natural Law, without any affection or aversion towards all things nourished by them. This Law is known as the Way. Those who flow with the Way prosper, and those who go against it destroy themselves. It has been 1 week since the Cyclone Nargis hit Burma (Myanmar) on May 2nd, and up till now more than 100,000 are believed to be dead, not to mention the amount of houses, crops and physical infrastructures devastated. In the above picture we can see the path taken by Nargis through the Burmese coastal regions. The death toll is expected to rise as the days passing by. The power of nature always move in cycles; whenever this power accumulates up to a certain point, hitting its zenith, it will inevitably release itself explosively, until all the power is exhausted before beginning a new cycle all over again. And woe to those who are in its way when it happens. Whether this power manifests as tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the process and result is still the same. All are simply following the Way. However, the Dao De Jing also says:

"The Way of Heaven is impartial, but it always benefits the good."

How do good people benefit from Natural Law when it obviously favours nobody? They do so by living in accordance with the Way. Because they live in the Way, the Way lives in them. This is the true meaning of prosperity. But if they abandon the Way, they actually abandon their own lives. How can they hope for anything good to happen? Above we see a satellite picture of Nargis swirling above Burma. The sad thing is although neighbouring countries like India have already detected the cyclone and sent urgent warnings to the relevant Burmese authorities 48 hours before it hits land, the Junta apparently did not understood or could not care less about the power of nature coming their way. The people in the coastal regions were neither warned nor evacuated, and so they bore the full destructive force of the cyclone in total cluelessness. Since the Junta chose to oppose the Way, the millions of Burmese people under them also involuntarily stood against it. How could they have survived?
The devastation in downtown Yangon. A massive number of trees are uprooted, blocking the already flooded roads. Although many countries have promptly sent in emergency supplies to help the victims and survivors, but most of the stuff have still not reached these people. The reason is the Junta will only admit their supplies, but refuse to admit the foreign rescue teams tasked to take them directly to the disaster areas. Many of the foreign teams, especially those from the US and other "unfriendly" Western countries are still stalled in Thailand, unable to fly over to do their work of saving lives. Every minute delayed is lives lost, but the Junta also choose to ignore that despite its own inability to help its people. The Junta policemen helping to clear the fallen trees on the roads, ill-equipped as they are. By making things difficult for the international community to help, the Junta is also making things more difficult for its own suffering people. By turning a deaf ear to widespread criticisms, they have not only opposed the Way of Heaven, they are also opposing the Way of Man. When one's heart is totally devoid of the Way, how long can one last?
The same monks who came out to protest last year are probably the same monks helping to clear the roads in Yangon now. But they are as ill-equipped as the military and police personnel.
Electrical and communication cables are also sustained lots of damage. Large parts of the city are still without power, and phone lines are mostly down as well. Many overseas Burmese are unable to contact their relatives in Burma to find out whether they are ok or not.
The completely flooded fields. Many corpses of animals and humans continue to rot in the open areas. The stench of death is everywhere even as the survivors wait in vain for help to come.
People trying to salvage what they can from the many sunken ships in the harbour. Who knows how many livelihoods are destroyed in this disaster?
A totally wasted jetty. It will take many years for the Junta to repair all that is damaged in the cyclone, if they even bother to try. They don't care about the people, they don't care about the country; all they want is to carry on the so-called referendum to pass the constitution that will only serve to consolidate military rule. Nothing more can be said about these Generals, for they have reached the peak of their own evil. Let us pray for the Burmese people. May they be free from suffering, may they be free from oppression and may they prosper in the Dhamma. Sadhu.