Sunday, October 30, 2011

Religions and Politics: How to help a nation?

The central of Thailand and certain parts of the city of Bangkok had been deluged with flood water over the past one week or more. And it had so far killed about 400 people. Cries of desperation had been heard. People in other countries are collecting money to help them. However, the Thai people do not actually need money. Nor do they need food. They have plenty of these. The problem is the food and other daily necessities cannot reach them due to the flood. That's the problem when a nation is faced with such huge natural disaster. There are calls from various people and religions to pray for them. There was even one call to do battle with the force of nature. 

I find this rather strange because we are not able and will never be able to battle the force of nature. That is because the force of nature is just a manifestation of the people in it. It is the group karma (or national karma as I wrote once in a previous blog post) we are talking about. And group karma is usually very strong and not easily pacified with individual karmic strength. We don't combat them. It is the wrong word to use. The right word to use is "pacify". And how do we pacify the force of nature?

It is actually very simple. But hard to implement. The whole nation or the majority of the people affected by the natural disaster must apologise and say "sorry" for whatever wrong doings they have done in the past. Karma is never wrong. So, when we Buddhists say things like "combat with nature", we are actually implying these natural phenomena like floods or earthquakes are inflicted by others, for example by God or other entities. Even if it is caused by other entities, with regard such a wide scale destruction, it is never without the accompanying negative karma of the people affected. So, the first step to ease the flood is in fact to adopt the "I am sorry" attitude, and not "I will combat you" attitude. If you have the later attitude, already the first thing you do is wrong. So, how can the mantras you recite work?

Whenever we recite the Vajrasattva mantra, we must do it with the four powers, of which regret is one of them. "Regret" is just the "I am sorry" attitude. As a nation and people, think what was the thing that you guys have done wrong? Perhaps not working together harmoniously as a nation? Perhaps, the politicians are more interested in holding large scale protests and jamming up the streets, airport and economy? Perhaps there are people, especially the politicians who are more interested in maintaining power or grabbing power for themselves, rather than contributing to the interest of the nation even without any positions? And are people supporting a political candidate just because they like him/her despite knowing he/she does not have any actual ability to govern a nation? So, all these do have consequences to the national/society's karma. 

One of the most important area to improve a nation's general karma is in the area of politics. And Buddhists do have a role to play even in politics, including monks and nuns. In the days of the Buddha, the politics then were feudal and the ordinary citizens do not have much voice in the day to day governance of the nation. But today absolute monarchies are rare. And ordinary citizens have a role to play in a democratic nation. A good and responsible government elected by the people will ensure the continued support and prosperity of the religion. But if you have a communist party taking over the nation, you will faced with dire consequences to any spiritual practice, just as what happened to Buddhism and other religions in China during the Cultural Revolution of the Communist Party of China. Lots of Buddhist temples and Buddhist scriptures were destroyed. Is that what you want to happen to Buddhism in the future? If that is what you mean when you say that religious people should be free from politics, think again. The truth is, in today's contexts at least, religious people can never be 100% free from their responsibility to do their part in supporting the right government or opposing those that are not. In a democratic nation, for example, the monks and nuns should still come out and do their part in a general election to cast their votes. Otherwise, if a bad government comes to rule and administer the nation, they also have to be partly to blame as others who supported the bad government party. 

I advocate certain limited involvement of religious people in politics and not wholesale involvement. Some limited involvement in politics by religious personalities is in fact good for the nation. This is in line with the concept of the Middle Path advocated by the Buddha and the Bodhisattva concept of not abandoning samsaric beings. The Buddhists like to cite the concept of renunciation as a reason for not getting involved in politics at all. But this is not likely to be correct as total renuncation does not mean having a "don't care, don't bother" attitude. A little involvement is necessary to balance renunciation and focus on spiritual practice. As I have mentioned, you can be involved in the election process once every few years. And you can make your disagreement with national policies heard through the proper channels. That is perhaps all a religious person needs to be involved in. But not taking to the streets until the economy and peace of the nation is affected. Certainly not be involved actively in any political party activities nor taking part in national policy debates and all that.  But we can give advice if necessary. However, how far should a religious person involved in politics is never fixed. There is no rule of thumb. It will have to depend on the situation. And no one can really tell for sure. And yes, sometimes it may even have to involve sacrifice and defending the nation in some skillful ways. I use the word skillful to be in line with how the Buddha did to prevent war waged by the Kosambis against his Sakya tribe. The Buddha never lifted a single weapon except the weapon of compassion. Unfortunately, that was not enough to prevent war. So, religious involvement with politics should never be encouraged till it has to resort to military means. Monks should never have to carry arms. The present situation in Tibet, Sri Lanka and the past histories of Japan and China are replete with examples of monks who got involved heavily in politics. We should realise that when these monks carry weapon, they are not wearing the hat of a religious monk, but that of a nationalist. We must distinguish their two different roles. It is the same with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was playing two roles at the same time until recently when he gave up the role as political head. I feel that it is a step in the right direction of separating these 2 roles. He cans till advice the Prime Misniter but the Prime Minister must take full responsibility and make his own decisions.

So, we can see that there were many cases of religious people who involved themselves in politics in a major way. But by and large, there is no need to go to that extent. Most of the time, just a little bit of involvement will suffice. And the rest of the time, they should concentrate on their spiritual practice, instead of meddling in politics. As Buddhists, it is better not to wear the hat of a nationalist for far too long. It may have a negative impact on our spiritual practice. To sum up, I think there is still a role to play in the politics of a nation by any religious person. But to think that religions can be absolutely free from politics is naive, if not irresponsible. Buddhists should make it a point to support the right leaders. Look at Korea for instance. It is because the people elected a Christian as their president that at times, it seems like the Buddhist interests are not being taken care of. In the meantime, Christianity is prospering there. As I said, there is no need for Buddhists (especially monks) to form a political party. Just exercise your voting rights in the right way to ensure continued support for Buddhism. I am not writing all these with any particular nation in mind. Even though I mentioned Thailand, Korea and Tibet above, the advice and views given here in this blog post is general in nature. It can be applied to any country.
By the right involvement in shaping the politics of the nation, and with the right advice given to politicians, religious people can make a positive influence to the peace as well as the spiritual welfare of the nation. That will enhance the national karma and will ultimately reduce the incidences of destruction by the so-called "forces of nature". Actually nature has no force, it acts in accordance with the karma of the people. If the people is peaceful and have positive values and the society is generally virtuous, and the politicians and citizens live in harmony, then heaven and earth will be in harmony too. Everything will be in harmony when the people are virtuous and morally upright. Think about it. 

So, if you are in the middle of a flood crisis, try to ease the situation with saying "sorry" for whatever wrong you have done in the past. Think of something wrong that you have done. For example, have you been selfish to somebody? Have you been stubborn and refuse to support a good politician even though you know he is a good politician? Have you been greedy for something? Have you been unreasonable with someone? Think, think. Only you yourself know what you have done wrong. With that "I am sorry" attitude in you, and multiply that with the number of people living in your area, things will surely improve. Together, it collectively forms a good positive karma and that is the best way to pacify destruction by nature, i.e. by a positive change in our attitude. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What is Your Mantra?

This is a poem I wrote dedicated especially to Zen Master Seung Sahn for the blessings and compassion he showed me years ago and still do even though he has gone beyond into our "Don't know mind". Besides telling of my re-connection with the Korean Zen group, it also tells us that traditions are harmonious when our mind is in harmony. Initially I do not understand it too, but now a little understanding emerges. When our mind is not in harmony, everything else is not in harmony. And I feel so blessed. As in all other mantra,  it is not meant to be mouthed alone. If you regard it as a koan, it falls short of the real intention. The mantra below is meant to convey a message, and not meant to be recited. Mantras are meant to be lived, i.e. living mantra. As Master Seung Sahn said many times, "Keep the don't know mind. Just do it and save all sentient beings from suffering." Thank you so much! The poem is presented in a style that is both Tibetan as well as Zen Buddhism. Most of the words used have been chosen with care because there is a meaning to them. I'll explain in due time. Meanwhile, enjoy it.

What is your mantra?

E Ma Ho!
With seeds planted many years ago,
Perhaps even longer,
From beyond the grave,
the leafy trees at Hwa Gye Sa finally grows in Hoeh Beng Shi
Crossing space,
Traversing time,
Now providing shade to this wretched mind.
Who could believe such wondrous miracle?
Such deep compassion!
Now spring time is here, the air is fresh.
The old fox beckons from far away.
I put my palms together in gratitude to my teachers.
Bodhidharma chats happily with Padmasambhava,
Shinran sits here watching in Sukhavati.
And Sakyamuni Buddha holds a flower.

Dogs’ mantra is “Wow- wow”.
Cats’ mantra is “Meow-meow”.
What is your mantra?

Om Only Don’t Know Svaha!
Om Only Don’t Know Svaha!
Om Only Don’t Know Svaha!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Importance of Supporting the Sangha ...Too!

Two days ago, I informed a former colleague of mine of a coming Kathina event at a local temple. I knew he is a Buddhist still struggling to find his footing in Buddhism. He is not active in Buddhism but wants to learn about Buddhism but yet I think he does not have enough motivation to keep it going in that direction. So, I thought it might be good if he stops by at the Kathina at the temple not very far from his home. (note: Kathina is mostly celebrated in the Theravada tradition when the robes and other requisites are offered to the Sangha. Kathina is celebrated after the vassa period that marked the end of the rainy period)

Upon hearing that, he said "No... I rather contribute to those who really needs them", implying it is more worthy to support the orphanage, home for the aged and sick, associations for the mentally handicapped, and other such organisations. I did not dispute that these organisations are worthy of support but I told him that the Sangha is still the third Jewel and is one of the key important pillars of Buddhism. And by Sangha I did not only meant the monks and nuns, but also the entire community of Buddhist monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. I told him I always have a philosophy of supporting both these organisations and Buddhism. I said that it is important to support and contribute to Buddhism as well, even if it is just a little bit, to stay connected to Buddhism. We want to ensure in our future lives, we continue to have that relationship and connection with the Buddha dharma. Otherwise, I reasoned to him that we might find ourselves reborn as non-Buddhists, and as non-Buddhists, our enlightenment or Buddhahood will be uncertain. Anyway, in order to truely help these "special communities", we need to be liberated from samsara ourselves. I told him to think about it.

He thought for awhile and in the end, nodded in agreement. I wanted to confirm again and asked him "What I just said, does that make sense to you?" Again he said "Yes". I was happy that I manage to "convert" a non-supporting Buddhist to a one who agreed to be one. Then he disclosed to me that in his family, he is the only Buddhist and that everyone else has gone to Christianity. He said with some pride that he is still "holding the fort". Then I suggested to him that perhaps it is not very wise to fight to convert them to Buddhism. Instead he should instill some Buddhist elements into their Christian lives, because Christianity as a religion and Buddhist principles are not contradictory. In other words, a person can be a Christian but yet believe in some principles like non-killing, non-lying, loving-kindness, compassion for all beings, equanimity, letting go and others. That's because these are not necessarily Buddhist principles... and even if they are, they will blend well with the Christian religion. He did not get my point and said, "No, it does not work...". We talked a little bit more before we parted ways. At the back of my mind, I was just glad I did my part to convince him that he need to show some support to Buddhist activities. I believe he is not alone in having this kind of thinking. I have heard others talked in the same way before. Therefore, I was glad I did my part in correcting that wrong perception. That wrong perception explained why in the past he did not support me when I approached him for some contributions to a Buddhist event. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Life is short; Seek your enlightenment

Today I wished someone close to me a birthday wish. I said, "Happy Birthday!" but it comes with a short message which says "Life is short. Seek your enlightenment." I told him I hope he knows what it means and I am confident he does. At least it will linger in his mind for a while. I think this is one of my most meaningful birthday greetings I have ever wished anyone. That short message basically is a reflection of my own thoughts for myself. That's what I am feeling right now. Feeling vulnerable and that time is running short. I don't knoiw why.  Lam Rim setting in? Or am I just getting old? I don't know.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Anita Mui's rendition of The Heart Sutra

I like this cantonese version by the late songstress and actress of Hong Kong. Her sultry and husky voice adds to its uniqueness, especially the last part when she sang the mantra. I thought I like Faye Wong's mandarin version but when I heard this version, I thought this version twiched my heart a little. Is there a version in English sang by a Buddhist Western singer? Won't that be astounding? Anyway, I pray by the merit of singing this song Anita Mui would have had a good rebirth. Enjoy even if you do not understand cantonese! Just listen to the melody.

Here are other versions I find interesting: -

1. Pop version in Japanese (quite comical too, anime version):
2. Rock version in Japanese (by the same person):
3. Said to be samba version(?), for me it sounds like Jazz version:
4. A cute Scottish remix version (probably the same person responsible - Miku Hatsune - for all the above is also responsible for this):
There are also the Indian remix, Techno, and other kinds musical versions, probably done by the same person, but I can't be sure about it. Seems like a very creative way of spreading a Buddhist Sutra. Just hope that it is used in the proper way.
5. Chant Version in English by a Western Zen monk (he really chant it!):
6. Chant version in Korean (I like the melody in Korean):
7. Chant version in Tibetan:
8. Faye Wong's version for you to compare (her voice is so sweet):
9. Imee Ooi's sanskrit version:
10. Imee Ooi's mandarin rendition:
11. Another Chinese singer's version, Chyi:
12. A Tibetan version sang by Yangjin Luma, indeed she has voice of heaven (listen for yourself):
13. A non-anime version by a Japanese rock band:
14. A chant version in sanskrit by a layman:
15. A beautiful mix between traditional Korean chanting and music using a flute by a talented Korean musician:
16. Another cantonese rendition, slightly faster with a canto-pop beat thrown in by the Hong Kong pop sensation, Eason Chan:

Since today is the Bodhisattva of Compassion Kuan Yin's holy day according to the Buddhist lunar calendar, I thought sharing all these different renditions of the Heart Sutra and various chant versions in one blog post would be good to spread the positive vibe generated by such a core Mahayana Sutra. I pray that by this action, and may you by hearing them, may all sentient beings be liberated soonest and achieve the Unsurpassed, Complete and Perfect Enlightenment. I hope you guys like this post. :)  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Khensur Lama Lhundrup's Relics

Referring to my previous post dated September 16th, where I dreamt of Khensur Lama Lhundrup in blissful form, that dream was several years ago. Since that dream, I already have suspected he had achieved enlightenment. Today we are informed by the Kopan monastery and shown a picture of the former Kopan Abbot's relics. The relics are really beautiful. See picture posted here. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Buddhist Tribute to Steve Jobs

This is my little tribute to Steve Jobs who has done the whole world of Buddhist proud by his innovative skills. He had a Zen teacher by the name of Kobun Chino and had visited a few Zen centres. This was reported in various internet news. He had also sought spirituality in India and visited Japan and that was probably where he encountered Zen Buddhism. I will be looking forward to the digital publication of an online comic book detailing his experiences in Japan by Forbes Magazine. His biography due in a few weeks should be interesting too. By his sheer focus and simplicity that are the hallmarks of Zen Buddhism, he was responsible for producing the iphone and ipad that has enabled many of us to quickly receive dharma messages and also replying to them. With these devices we are also able to listen to dharma lectures more conveniently without having to bring in separate gadgets. For example, that message from Khenchen Rinpoche I posted recently was sent by him using an ipad. Amazing that even Lamas are using Apple products! But whether the devices themselves are good or bad, as in most other things, it depends on how and what we use it for, right? For example, we have to train our fingers not to be so trigger happy to reply instantly. Replying without thinking through may land us in deep trouble. We must think first before we reply so quickly. Anyway, even though he may not be a practicing Buddhist as Robert Thurman said (although I am not too sure how Thurman could make that judgement that he was not one), still from the fact that he is a Buddhist, he has got the entire world buzzing about Buddhism and how it has shaped the Apple products. Apple has been on the forefront of innovative smart gadgets in modern times. With the knowledge that he was a Buddhist, it will never be the same again the next time we touch an ipad or use an iphone. We will know that these products were the result of the inspiration and vision of a Buddhist. This is what normal, working lay Buddhists should be, i.e. to turn our daily work and job into something that benefit many people. Buddhism is not only about wanting to be monks and nuns. There are so many ways to be a Buddhist. And Steve Jobs had shown us his way of being a Buddhist.

So, for that much, and perhaps more, I salute him and the honor his great products have indirectly brought to Buddhism. Thank you. May Buddha bless him for a rebirth back as a human to create more products that will benefit all sentient beings in a positive way.

Photo sourced from

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Protectors in Theravada tradition

The fourth group of devas used are dakinis, dharmapalas and lokapalas. These deities correspond to the devas found in Hindu tantra, Mahakala/Kali etc: but they are used as protectors and clearer of obscurations on the path of enlightenment. So the 10 Mahavidyas (with the exception of Tara) are not givers of enlightenments, but rather helpers on the way who clear away obstacles to practice and enlightenment in Vajrayana. So even with the group of devas (which seem to converge and to a greater degree to Hindu dieties) their use is totally different. They are not even similar. But even Sri Lanka Theravada uses Indra as a Dharmapala (protector of dharma), so such use of Hindu deity is found in all Buddhist tradition.

My comment: In many Theravada Buddhist temples, there are statues of Devas around the main Buddha statue or outside the door leading to the shrine. These are their protectors. So, Theravada Buddhists should not feel shocked when Tibetan Buddhists perform smoke offering to deities such as Ganapathi or to the Naga Kings. These are practices to be regarded as "treats" to them so that they clear our obstacles to dharma practice. I think most Tibetan Buddhists are equally aware not to take refuge in them. I post here some pictures I took of statues of devas and devis (gods and goddesses with a small "g"; other religions may prefer the word "angels" instead) at a local Theravada temple. Notice the vajra pestle that the gods are holding. Click on the images to view enlarged version. These images belong to me.