Tea House

Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends, People, and Ideas

Cultural Repatriation of Buddhist Artifacts: A Job for Cool Heads

Amitabha raigo at the Guimet. From BD Dipananda

Instinctively, my politics is anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist. However, I also appreciate the complexity inherent in human affairs and recognize that nuance of thought is required even in—perhaps especially for—matters as emotionally charged as the repatriation of cultural and artistic relics.

Today my fellow writer and blogger BD Dipananda has published an article looking back on his visit to the Guimet Museum in Paris, which houses some of the most beautiful Buddhist art in France. My political sensibilities inform my belief that the ideal place of a Buddhist artifact should be in a museum or temple in its home country. Yet many of the most beautiful historical items of the Buddhist world are scattered across the world, in New York, Saint Petersburg, London, Paris, and many more.

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Master Huijing’s Dharma Words about the Purpose of Life

If we step back and pause to reflect a little, we’ll realize just how many concerns dog us in our daily existence. As Buddhists we shouldn’t seek to ignore the conventional realities that can cause concern and vexation to arise in us. I’d be the first to confess that I have plenty of worries. But we should also put these worries into perspective. In our everyday lives, over the course of many years, we discern that some worries are trivial and deserve little thought while others, like marriage, family, and work are legitimately significant and can shape the direction and affect the wellbeing of our lives.

Let’s take the most significant of worldly worries, then, and contrast it with the great matter of birth and death. Even the biggest matters of our lives will fall into frivolity when compared to our concern about that which lies beyond. The true purpose of life is invoking Amitabha Buddha with faith, for when it comes to we who are unenlightened and lacking insight, the matter of transcending birth and death overrides all others.

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Good to See Our Own Misdeeds

Master Jingzong; English translation by Foyi, edited by Fojin

Some people get panicky when they become aware of their own wrongdoings. Others stay nonchalant, as though they don’t see any transgression.

As a matter of fact, those who can see their own misdeeds have reason to be quietly relieved. By contrast, those who are oblivious to their evil deeds should be scared.

Bad deeds are like dark shadows. If you cannot see your own evil deeds, that is either because you are the light itself, or you are entirely devoured by darkness or just blind. Unlike Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are themselves light, ordinary beings who don’t perceive the shadows of their own wrongdoings can only be engulfed in complete darkness, unable to see anything. Isn’t that cause for panic? If we can detect dark shadows, it means we are in the light and have clear vision. Isn’t that reason to rejoice?

We should be pleased to able to see the shadows of transgression in our hearts. We should also know that for as long as we exist, while we are amid the light but before we have become light ourselves, we will always be followed by the shadows. If we want to escape the distressing stalking of the shadows, there is no need to run frantically in the light or get embroiled in a fight with them. We only need to turn around and face the light.

For this reason, Master Shandao explained to us the two kinds of deep faith: believing that we iniquitous ordinary beings are already immersed in the light and thus able to see the shadows of our own sins, and turning towards Amitabha Buddha. Thus Shandao urges us to “recite Amitabha Buddha’s name single-mindedly and exclusively,” like sunflowers facing the sun.

Life, Death… All a Matter of Perspective

We like to tell ourselves that we intellectually (even if we struggle to emotionally) grasp the significance of death as the end of our present existence. But time, life, and death are nowhere near as commonsense as we think. In an article in The Independent, professor Robert Lanza lays out the concept of biocentrism: ‘the universe only exists because of an individual’s consciousness of it – essentially life and biology are central to reality, which in turn creates the universe; the universe itself does not create life. The same applies to the concepts of space and time, which Professor Lanza describes as “simply tools of the mind.”’

We don’t experience reality “as it is.” We simply don’t have that kind of access, unless we are bodhisattvas or Buddhas. For us, “life,” “death,” and everything in between is filtered through our senses and perceptions. Similarly, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has said (and which we highlight in today’s Wisdom for Today quote on the main website), birth and death are quite literally a matter of perspectives, much like the concept of above and below when we’re sitting on this blue and green rock in a quiet corner of a galaxy among billions of galaxies in a vast, unfathomable universe.

The most ancient and primeval human story is the struggle to understand the great mystery and what lies beyond, that which is too big to be contained merely by our conceptions of what reality is. Only the Buddha can help us peer past the veil that our minds have created to obscure our insight.

#Buddhistdoor Global—Your Doorway to the World of #Buddhism
#Wisdom for Today: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/wisdom-for-today

The Right Balance: Negotiating Buddhist Power in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan commandos march during a Victory Day parade in the southern town of Matara on 18 May 2014

After a mob attacked a UN safe house for Rohingya refugees on 26 September near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne came out with some of the strongest public words I’ve seen leveled by a Buddhist public servant against fellow, self-proclaimed Buddhists. “As a Buddhist I am ashamed at what happened,” Senaratne told the press a day after the attack. “Mothers carrying very young children were forced out of their safe house which was attacked by a mob led by a handful of monks. This is not what the Buddha taught. We have to show compassion to these refugees. These monks who carried out the attacks are actually not monks, but animals.”

Strong words from a government that’s struggling to convince a skeptical Buddhist establishment it isn’t attempting to undermine Buddhism’s interests. One might read Senaratne’s condemnation as a subtle plea to mainstream Buddhists: “we are sincere, critical Buddhists.” Not only has it been accused by detractors of pandering to religious minorities, the center-right United National Party is also being pressured to underwrite the state patronage and protection of Buddhism that is guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s current constitution.

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No Easy Answers: Bangladesh’s Buddhists and Rohingya Refugees

Rohingya refugees walk next to huts in a makeshift camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. From Hindustan Times

The tragedy of Myanmar’s displacement of Rohingya Muslims, aside from its complex ethnic, historical, and religious backdrop, is exacerbated by two essential political realities. The first is that Western media and governments erroneously saw what it wished to see in Aung San Suu Kyi throughout her difficult struggle against the Burmese junta. When she decided to become the country’s state counselor in 2016, she did so under a constitution that favors the continuity of military authority and acquiesced to a context of government that does not fit with the simplified dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed. Myanmar is also far more ethnically and politically diverse than many care to appreciate.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was the founder of Myanmar’s independence movement and the modern Burmese army; her mother was a high-level diplomat in the newly created country. She has the full backing of the Buddhist sangha and its representative organization, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. She is therefore understandably and justifiably a nationalist. As a statesman and diplomat, her priority is the political integrity of Myanmar, nothing more and nothing less. So she isn’t unaware of international sentiment turning against her; she’s as cosmopolitan as they come. Rather, it’s far more likely that she sees the criticism against her and has decided that there are more pressing urgencies. Such hard choices are dilemmas that haunt many a politician.

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Postcard from Raymond: Holy Chamber

Mogao Cave 254. From e-dunhuang.com

The darkness inspires awe, even as the divine faces around me are illuminated for my mortal eyes.

The cavern’s patterns, the motifs, the mosaics, the chapels, the shrines. Mortal channels of traceless wisdom and compassion. Tangible expressions of immaterial insight.

Within this cool shroud of black, with only a streak of warm illumination from the hot star outside the cave, I am immersed in the ineffable infinity, among the stars and the pantheon of the “beyond beings.”

This is the enlightened holy of holies, crafted by inspired hands.

A bell rings.

The summons has been made. The call, echoing to all sentient beings. To return to the Buddha, to their true nature.

All are one in the Dharma. This is what has been revealed to us in this grotto.

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

English Version of Digital Dunhuang Offers Virtual Tour of Mogao Caves

Pop Culture: The Case for A Greater Buddhist Presence

Siddhartha and Yasodhara, from the “Buddha” animated film.

I never bought the argument that sacred stories, figures, and themes should not be brought to pop culture media like films or novels. Some of our more powerful and compelling pieces of modern fiction (and indeed, fiction from any era) was informed by not just the author’s spiritual identity or values, but by their intentional deployment of religious figures and ideas to shape the narrative and deliver the message of the novel, comic, film, or cartoon.

A long time ago I got into a discussion with someone about the accuracy of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha manga serial. The animated adaptation hadn’t yet been released—the two films have not been critically successful, although I would argue it is largely due to the film’s internal structure and poor use of Tezuka’s source material rather than any overarching problem with depictions of the Buddha. The manga itself was far more self-referential, bawdy, and subversive than this particular person was prepared for. His main complaint, however, was that it depicted the life of the Buddha inaccurately and therefore risked misleading people who were sincerely searching for the Dharma.

I want nothing more than for more people to draw closer to accurate Buddhist teachings. However, I have real difficulty with this argument.

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Spontaneous Union

Mystic dance of siddha. Drawing by the author

Everything in nature is conditioned by the fundamental principle expressed in the unity of opposites: yin-yang. The fusion of the male and the female is a creative act and the source of life. Even though Buddha Nature is beyond genders, Buddhist iconography uses sexual polarity to symbolize the Mahayana and Vajrayana concept of the union of principles: female wisdom (Skt. prajna, Tib. sherab) and male compassion (karuna, nyingje) or skilful method (upaya, thab).

The union of wisdom and compassion symbolizes the non-polarized state of bodhicitta (jang chub sem), or the mind of enlightenment, which is represented visually by showing two deities engaged in sexual union. In Tibetan Buddhism such images are known as yab-yum, which literally means father-mother. The Sanskrit term for such union is yuganaddha (union of opposites), which refers to Tibetan term zung jug.

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Gifts of the Moment

Walking along the fence of the allotment, a window opens into something like deep, foraging time. Walking carefully, steadily, gaze turned towards the edible potential to my left, with senses open to the wider environment. Calm, content, alert, I could keep going like this all afternoon. What is it that makes me think of an ancestor gathering berries into a container woven of grass, a hundred thousand years ago? The imagination renders this moment both less and more significant than usual. Gentle warm wind, intense brightness when clouds give way – a gift this late in the summer.

There is a mild burning at the inside of my third finger where it was touched by nettles and the rubbing with dock leaf hasn’t completely taken it away. A “be careful” message enlivening the skin. Thorns are ready to rip into my scarf, which I hold close to my body. There is barbed wire too and you have to reach a little further at this time of the year to get to the last crop of blackberries. Aware of the whole body, the reach, balance, in-breath, contact with the fruit, careful release, exhale. Some of them are too soft to come off the branch whole and dark, sticky red juice runs down the fingers into the palm. Others are too firm and don’t yield to a probing tuck. They are for later, or for others, whose anonymous presence replaces the “wanting for one-self.”

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