Thursday, December 27, 2007

the frog who showers flowers on lord buddha

one feature of the text i am reading here - and of much of sanskrit literature in general - is a delight in embedding stories within stories, such that finally stories are set within multiple frames. i share one example that caught my imagination, evoking as it does an image one still sees, and that after reading this story has lost much of its ordinariness for me: a cowherd leaning on his long stick contemplatively as his charges graze nearby. (sadly i have no photo of any as yet, so offer instead an image of some fields, to evoke the pastoral/agrarian setting this story assumes.)

in this tale, while buddha is telling a story to a gathering of monks, a humble cowherd brings his animals to a grazing spot within earshot and stands listening to the story. the narrator of the vinaya later tells us not only the story of the cowherd but that of a frog who was pinned under the stick that the cowherd was leaning on.

along with transforming how i look at cowherds with sticks, it has the effect of evoking the many series of ripples sent out into the world by the teaching of the buddha. translated from sanskrit, the story goes something like this:

At that very time, Nanda the cowherd was standing near the Lord [Buddha]. Leaning on his cane, he was grazing his cows. A frog was pinned by the cane, his skin pierced, his joints dislocated. He generated the thought, ‘If I should move my body or emit a sound, this would be the cause for Nanda the Cowherd to be distracted from the story.’ Having decided that, he made his mind inspired with faith in the presence of the Lord and died. He was reborn among the devas of the Four World Guardian Kings.

[We then hear the story of nanda the cowherd's reaction to the buddha's story: he asks to join the sangha, but buddha does not permit to ordain immediately, for some clever reasons. then we come back to the frog and his trajectory after death.]

It is in the nature of deva sons or deva daughters that when they are newly born they think about three things: from where they have passed on, where have they been born and due to what action. The deva son whose previous existence was as a frog saw that he had passed on from among the animals and been born among the devas of the Four World Guardian Kings, after making his mind inspired with faith in the presence of the Lord. It occurred to him, “It would not be proper for me to let a day pass without going to see the Lord. Therefore I should go to see the Lord without even letting one day pass.”

Then the deva son whose previous existence was as a frog approached the Lord. Wearing impeccable earrings that glittered as he moved, his body was adorned with necklace of 64 strands of pearls, the folds of his lower garment filled with celestial utpalas, kumudas, white lotuses and mandarava flowers, with intense colors. He reached the Lord in the dark of night, and illuminating the bank of the Ganges with a vast light, he showered the Lord with flowers and sat down before the Blessed One in order to listen to the Dharma.

Then, understanding the mental disposition and propensity, character and nature of the deva son whose previous existence was as a frog, the Lord gave that sort of Dharma teaching that penetrates the four nobles’ truths such that after hearing it, the deva son shattered the twenty-peaked mountain of belief in a personal self with the thunderbolt of wisdom, right as he was seated there, and actualized the fruit of stream-entry.

He said, “I have progressed, Lord, I have progressed. This one who is I go for refuge to the Lord, to the Dharma and to the Sangha. Accept me as a lay disciple from today forward for my whole life, as long as I live, as one who has gone for refuge and been inspired with faith.”

thus ends the story of the frog who was reborn as a deva.

now does anyone want to hear what happened to the cowherd?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

that type of dream is monlam

two of the people i am reading my text with here in sarnath left peremptorily on personal matters this week. but the unforeseen interruption to my studies coincided perfectly with three days of teachings by his holiness the karmapa especially for his foreign students in nearby bodhgaya. so off i went.

the teachings were on mahamudra, and they were concise and fully charged with the fresh spontaneity and intense presence that seem to be distinguishing marks of his holiness the karmapa's teaching style. his holiness the karmapa taught in a clear tibetan (happily for me!), and gave refuge and bodhicitta vows, as well as oral transmissions in tibetan, english, chinese and korean. these teachings took place during the annual kagyu monlam, a two-week long extravaganza of prayers by a gathering of the kagyu tradition of tibetan buddhism.

for those who do not know who the karmapa is, he is a young but already highly influential spiritual leader who escaped from tibet in 2000.

as his holiness the karmapa explained, "the purpose and fundamental root of the Kagyu Monlam is to remember the kindness of our Teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, and to pray for the peace and happiness of all beings with whom we share this world." for more on this event, read below) this year's prayer festival displays the karmapa's spirit of inspired reworking of tradition, as his holiness has been redesigning the book of prayers used during this group's annual prayer festival, and this year includes prayers from all the major schools of tibetan buddhism - prayers by lama tsongkhapa, by sakya, nyingma and even jonang lamas. it would take a bit of explaining to show just how remarkable that is given the usual sectarian divisions within tibetan i'll just say: this is major.

and if i may add, this year's prayer celebration includes prayers in sanskrit and also added emphasis on vinaya... (and as you know, i am working on the vinaya in sanskrit, so you can imagine my delight.)

these photos do not begin to capture the beauty or the energy of the event. i include a brief video from a previous monlam that does a far better job of evoking some of the feel of the event .

the following is excerpted from an interview his holiness gave several days before the start of the prayer festival. many, many thanks to namdrol's mom louise for sending it to me!

Interviewer: Your Holiness, please could you explain the meaning of the word monlam?

His Holiness the Karmapa: From the perspective of mind, the meaning of monlam can be explained in several ways. From the perspective of the individual it means having the profound wish to bring happiness and well-being to others and simultaneously enhance our own root of virtue, dedicating that merit for the benefit of all sentient beings. That type of dream is monlam.

Interviewer: What is its importance?

His Holiness the Karmapa : Generally speaking, all major developments in human culture have come about as the result of hope and a clear vision. From the Buddhist point of view, our ultimate goal is to attain parinirvana; in this process, the role of aspiration is fundamental and threefold. At the beginning it is like the seed, in the middle it is like water and manure, and at the end it is the fruit. Without an aspiration the seed of Buddhahood will not germinate.

Interviewer: Are there any special features of this year’s Monlam?

His Holiness the Karmapa: Because we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Kagyu Monlam this year, we are offering free medical treatment to help local people. In addition, because the Kagyu Monlam has become an international event, which aims to bring the peoples of the world together, this year the Monlam, recitation texts are available in five languages: Tibetan, Hindi, English, Chinese and Korean. I consider these two the most important special features.

Interviewer: Sanskrit prayers are being used for the first time this Monlam. Please could you expand on this?

His Holiness the Karmapa: Our Tibetan dharma is based on the Sanskrit canon. So, in times past, Tibetan Buddhist scholars considered Sanskrit to be very important; they studied the language and also studied Buddhist scriptures in the original Sanskrit. But, from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, about three hundred and fifty years ago, the ties between India and Tibet were broken. Afterwards, it became difficult to maintain the standard of our knowledge of Sanskrit and so things such as pure pronunciation were lost. However, now that we are in India, Tibetans have begun to study and research texts in Sanskrit once more, and are involved in discussion with Indian Sanskrit scholars too. This development is very important for the Indo-Tibetan relationship and, I feel, it is essential that it be maintained. Thus, we are reciting prayers in Sanskrit so that the relationship may continue forever. Furthermore, by reciting in Sanskrit, we can transcend time, generating a feeling of closeness with the Buddhism of the time of Lord Buddha. It is my aspiration that we can achieve this.

Interviewer: This year monks and nuns have received special training in codes of conduct. What was the purpose?

His Holiness the Karmapa: In the twenty-first century there are many external distractions, so we need a way to remain stable. If we are carried away by these distractions we will lose our self-restraint. In order to instill proper conduct and to bring well-being and peace of mind, we have this Monlam. Using ancient methods from the Vinaya, we are training the sangha members because they are the principal participants in the Monlam.

This code of conduct, based on ancient Buddhist traditions, is not intended to serve the interests of one religious tradition alone, but to bring stability and happiness to society at large. Recently, the misconduct of some members of the sangha, both inside and outside Tibet, has become a threat to the security and well-being of society. Thus, we have done this as a service to humanity.

Interviewer: How does the Kagyu Monlam help the well-being of sentient beings and world peace?

His Holiness the Karmapa: Over the years, Kagyu Monlam has become a great assembly of people, and as such, it is very powerful. If we can win people over by our example, then, gradually, through this assembly, we will benefit the whole of human society. For example, if we can change one bad person into a good person, we will have been successful in reducing the number of bad people in the world by one, and thus will have helped world peace.

There is no way that Kagyu Monlam on its own has the power to bring peace to all sentient beings, but we can use the Monlam as a way of broadcasting the message that the world is something that all sentient beings have the right to enjoy, a message of loving kindness, compassion and peace to the whole world." [end interview]

for more on monlam, read here.

i return to sarnath today deeply, deeply renewed by the days i spent near the tree where buddha was enlightened, witnessing the massive gathering of thousands of monks and nuns coming together in its shade to join their voices and hearts again and again in prayers for the happiness of others.

this 68-second video is from the 2005 monlam

satellite image of the temple complex in bodhgaya that marks the spor where buddha sat under the bodhi tree and attained his final insights... and where the fesitval takes place.

Mahabodhi Stupa map - Tagzania

Monday, December 17, 2007

one part brick

my friend and neighbor here in sarnath, bhikshuni jampa tsedroen, is also working on her dissertation. unlike me, she has just passed a major milestone in completing her draft. she celebrated with a quick trip to a nearby stupa.

local tradition has it that this stupa marks the spot where the buddha actually give the first discourse on the 'four noble truths' and where his first disciples became monks. it thus is revered as the place where the monastic order first took shape. (a similar honor is accorded a spot near the sri lankan mulagandhakuti temple here.) but this spot boasts a stupa that even in ruins towers high above the surrounding countryside; the photo above was taken only halfway up its side. a mughal king later had a pavilion erected on the top of the buddhist structure to commemorate a visit - in the sort of move to assert dominance over a place while drawing on its established sacrality that has been practiced by imperializing cultures everywhere.

the links connecting place and event in the life of the buddha are often tenuous. like many other such spots, it exists as one part brick, two parts imagination. happily, this spot is particularly rich in bricks.

Friday, December 14, 2007

a ride from the clinic

last week i managed to pour boiling water all over my hand. after googling 'burn boiling water first aid' and finding that anything as large as the area i had covered required 'immediate medical attention,' i was forced to overcome my instinctive resistance to visits to doctors. but a late evening trip to a local clinic just four minutes up the road proved extremely successful - it turned out to be run by a small community of indian women who are also catholic nuns, one a doctor trained in austria and three nurses. they all live onsite, and when we arrived, well after the clinic's closing hours, found them praying together in a simple chapel in back. a sister interrupted her devotions to come out and immediately said of course we will treat you. they did, and refused to accept payment for the service or medication. i came away with a very wholesome looking gunk to plaster over my burn, an admiration for the lives these women are leading and a renewed respect for the service work that christians can be found doing.

unfortunately, my visits to the clinic did not end there. though my hand is healing very nicely, a fairly debilitating stomach bug decided its turns was next. so after spending most of the week in bed i returned today. they put me on cipro, offered me a cup of tea, and sent me back home. i had taken my camera with me hoping to take a photo of their image of christ seated cross-legged with one hand in meditation posture, the other on classic buddhist gesture offering fearlessness or security. remembering on the rickshaw i failed to do so, i took random photos of the series of images that i see regularly during my daily five-minute ride to the tibetan institute. none are remarkable photos, nor were they taken with much care. in fact, they are so ordinary i look forward to viewing them later just for the nostalgia that is best fed by what is ordinary, but only in a given context.

what you see is in the order i passed it during the brief ride, all extraordinarily unworthy of notice here. sit on the edge of your seat, spine straight, and scroll lazily through these images if you want a sense of my ride home: - young girl playing outside gate (above)

- an outdoor barber shop; note brick floor

- a woman walking barefoot down the street (rickshaw driver's back in the extreme foreground)

- a roadside sweet shop cum pan shop cum chai shop with patient client in seating area,

- a cyclist picking his way between cow and her calf,

- a home shuttered up and in disuse,

- a man transporting the gas tanks used in any home that can afford to upgrade from cow dung or coal fires for cooking,

- a roadside furniture shop (manufacturing and sales outlet),

- vegetable stand next to barber shop (sarnath has what seems to me more than its fair share of barber shops for some reason - this is one of at least seven i pass daily),

- an elderly woman pictured near her home making patties out of cow dung to use for fuel, surrounded by goats on excruciatingly short tethers and paan shop,

- motorcycle repair shop (hero honda being the country's most popular model)

- cow hobbled by rope linking neck and leg so it cannot stray far, driver wiping down car while waiting for owner and ad for a local private school

- field of gracious trees crisscrossed by paths villagers take to reach the road - also doubles as cricket ground and garbage dump

- front yard mill - also doubles as laundry drying rack and little boy's plaything

- unmarried girls chatting on strong cot, family buffalo looking longingly at fodder bin

- dharmachakra gate to private home

- roadside grocer

- cow plays her part in the village's ad hoc recycling process

- our neighbor's servant giving directions to a motorist

so: do those of you who have been to india feel nostalgic or what? please leave a comment: they are most welcome and all-too-few on this blog!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

pretty great resolution

yes, this satellite image of sarnath has pretty great resolution. that is the stupa casting its shadow in the morning sun. these days, those who like my mexican friend flora who spend their days here meditating or doing other spritual practices at the stupa no longer chase the shade around the stupa throughout the day, as they did in october when i first arrived here. now it is the sun's thin warmth they seek.

Sarnath, India map - Tagzania

Saturday, December 01, 2007

a chill in uttar pradesh

this week in the north indian state of utter pradesh, temperatures have begun their slide to winter lows. as are the indian monks in this photo, with their shawls and wool hats, i am feeling the chill as daytime temperatures now hover around 70 degrees and can dip into the mid 60s at night.

far greater causes for chill, though, are the bombs set off last friday across the state. it seems earlier in the year, defense lawyers across this state had decided as a group that they would not defend people accused of terrorism-related crimes. now, some terrorist group or other planted bombs that exploded almost simultaneously at courthouses across the state, including that of nearby varanasi. the junior home minister (the ministry in charge of internal security, police etc) told the new york times, in discussing the attacks:

“Uttar Pradesh is so large, lapses can happen,” Sriprakash Jaiswal said.

at least 15 people died in varanasi alone, with many more injured. the following day the right-wing hindu political groups took vigorous advantage of the opportunity to stage a protest, calling for the resignation of the current government of india, and shutting down sections of varanasi. too bad, as the strikes prevented some from attending a dazzlingly beautiful hindu festival in which thousands of candles are set afloat on leaves on the ganges river.

so you have caught lawyers making a statement against terrorists, then right-wing and highly political hindu fundamentalist groups calling strikes against the terrorists and the government that it says is too soft on them, preventing hindu devotees from honoring their goddess ganga. and the government itself effectively calling its own territory unpoliceable - too large to prevent 'lapses.'

in the same complex that binds religious fundamentalism and politics rather tightly here in india of late, a muslim female writer has met with a decidedly mixed reception. this exceptionally outspoken woman, taslima nasreen was threatened with death by muslim clerics in her native bangladesh, after writing novels questioning women's status in her muslim culture. she had a valid indian visa, so came here to stay in the state of bengal that is adjacent to bangladesh and shares much of its culture and langauge, though the state of bengal is predominantly hindu while bangladesh is muslim. but upon arriving, she found that the communist party that runs the state was none too happy to have a prominent target of muslim ire around. (the communist party draws heavy support from the muslim population of the state, it seems.) after they succeeded in forcing taslima out of the state, the other states have been falling over themselves trying to pass her off to another state... except gujarat - a state whose government is most vocally pro-hindu fundamentalism. it seems in the delicate balancing act between the potentially volatile 'communal groups,' this courageous woman has fallen deep into the gap. some of her books, meanwhile, are banned in india.

for those who missed the ny times articles, they are still available online at this link and this one.

just to make clear, it is not all fun and games - or all elephants and relics - here.