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Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends

Category: Raymond’s Caravan (Page 2 of 5)

Buddhist Masculinity: Living a Well-Weathered Life

Raymond Lam

Our musings on gender in Buddhism rightly focus on the feminine, underrepresented voice that it is. However, Buddhism’s gentle values and ethics often seem to be in (apparent) conflict with the toxic masculinity of today’s pop culture, where men are caricatured as avatars of explosions and gods of war, their churning inner lives spitting out destruction like a tornado or volcano. More enlightened perspectives are emerging, sometimes prevailing, but too often masculinity is still defined as or framed through dubious and harmful traits: violence and anger, a propensity to control others, predatory and rapacious attitudes to women, and all-round selfishness.

In the real world this vision of a negative masculinity does not bear out. A domineering or deceitful man will always be looking over his shoulder for the revenge of those he has mistreated. The overwhelming majority of women gravitate toward considerate, generous, and attentive men. Even in macho male circles, honourable ideals endure, like keeping one’s word and looking out for each other in solidarity. A sense of teamwork and self-sacrifice are prized, while a man who only looks out for number one or betrays his mates will be quickly isolated or shamed, much like a wolf ostracized from its pack.

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Postcard from Raymond: Pale Blue Dot

I love nothing more than having my assumptions demolished. I enjoy being put in my place. This is not some masochistic desire to be debased or humiliated. Rather, I find it liberating to see how small we really are in the cosmos, via images of space and all kinds of beginner-friendly astronomical analyses. It was the writer Carl Sagan who put it best on 13 October 1994. When giving a speech at Cornell University he mentioned the Pale Blue Dot photo, taken by the Voyager 1 space probe on 14 February 1990, 6 billion kilometres from Earth. Earth appears as a tiny, almost indiscernible speck on the image against the vastness of space. Sagan’s profound words are worth quoting in full:

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there—on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

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Postcard from Raymond: The Gaze of the Divine

“Look at me. Behold, encounter, and meet me.” Two of my favourite expressions of sacred art can be found in Cave 148 at the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, along the Chinese route of the Silk Road, and the beloved icon of the Holy Trinity in the Orthodox Church. While all art forms of the holy presume some form of physical or emotional engagement with the devotee or viewer, these two specific artistic forms demand to meet your eyes, quite literally. For the eyes are windows to the soul (figuratively in the Buddhist mind), and what better to invite human wonder and devotion than for the divine itself to meet our eyes?

The Buddha in Cave 148 is of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha of our world-system. He is in his state of Parinirvana, in a position of final repose as he leaves the world of existence and non-existence tracelessly. His head and body are massive, dwarfing the visitors that shuffle into the yawning, man-made cavern. Move slightly to the left or right of the Buddha’s head, and you will see something extraordinary – the Buddha gazing at you tranquilly, eyes shifting, silently attentive to your presence. It is an intentional illusion put in place by the long-gone sculptor – one that goes a step beyond the usual Dunhuang setup of having the Buddhas and bodhisattvas “meet” your gaze when you prostrate before them (there are several caves with statues that do this). That is, after all, the position you should approach the enlightened ones with.

There is no concept of Original Sin in the Orthodox Church – a concept that has plagued the Latin Church with guilt for more than a thousand years. The Trinitarian motif is also, I find, far more affirming than the Western Church. Three angels are seated at table, representing the Three Persons in One God. Yet there is an empty seat at the table, the one that is closest to the viewer. The viewer is invited to join the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost at the table, in full communion. Only then will the feast be complete.

Holy art that meets the viewer’s gaze with its own invokes the meeting between mortal creatures of decay and consecrated eyes. This art compels confession and conversion. It transforms lives and makes us aware of the greater forces behind them: presences beyond the stars and outside of the universe. Where their eyes wander, we scramble to go too.

Fathers and Sons: The Buddha and King Suddhodana

Raymond Lam

Siddhartha and Suddhodana in the Tezuka-inspired animated feature film Buddha.

This Sunday will be Father’s Day in Hong Kong. Most young people, luckily, will get to enjoy the 18th with their old men. In the grand scheme of things it’s not uncommon for kids to lose their father (or both parents) earlier in life. In the end, we all are destined to be orphans. We just hope to be orphaned as late as possible. We want our parents to stay with us well into our adulthood; by that time we’re hopefully emotionally mature enough to let go when the time comes.

When I look at so much of fiction and pop culture (not just the classics like King Lear or Chinese literature but also Batman, Superman, or Star Wars) I realize just how important the father-son archetypal relationship is to our collective folk memories. The father, be it through presence and nurture or absence and distance (or even a combination of both), shapes what the son becomes. Or, the son becomes what he is in defiance, or in spite, of his father.

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Indian Buddhist Diplomacy: Some Musings

Raymond Lam

Narendra Modi making offerings at the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, 5 September 2015

In 2014 I began to cover the role of Buddhism in the diplomacy of Modi’s India. I have really just one gentleman to thank for setting me along this path. Prashant Agrawal was serving as consul general to Hong Kong and Macau when he organized an exhibit on ancient Indian Buddhist art in the district of Wan Chai. I always thought that the Indian diplomats’ approach to promoting Buddhism was the right one. Because they were serving on the ground in local Chinese cultures, their efforts to promote Indian Buddhism or Buddhism’s heritage in India emphasized the narrowing of differences and broadening of common ground. They didn’t seem as forced as the work of those who are aligned with the Hindutva ideology of Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP.

The diplomats’ method of showcasing information and exhibiting artifacts tends to emphasize the integral role of Buddhism in the evolution and story of Indian civilization. In contrast, attempts within India itself to sell Buddhism have perhaps inevitably coalesced around the personality and self-promotion of Modi (I have heard people, including some Buddhist figures, ridiculously comparing him to a modern-day Ashoka). It comes as no surprise to me that the government’s domestic attempts to project itself as an advocate of Buddhist interests have sometimes fallen flat—especially to Buddhist representatives visiting India during any of the expensive and lavish conferences it has hosted for this purpose.

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Postcard from Raymond: The Old Gods

A scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

What is a god?

Human figures with the heads of animals are intentionally absurd images. They look frightening, ridiculous, inexplicably endearing. They arrest us, shake us out of our dull, seen-it-all before everyday complacency and force us to take a second look at them because they reveal themselves as intentionally strange beings. In ancient Egypt, people envisaged their divinities metaphorically, as beings representing worlds beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.

The god of the sun “is like” a falcon that soars across the sky, and a deity that is fertile and virile has the head of a cow or bull. The gods use a visual language to show us that their abilities go beyond the five senses and our normal perceptions, that they have powers that we see as part of the cosmos and the natural world.

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Postcard from Raymond: What is Dharma?

 

Dharma is the cosmic law of reality. It is simultaneously the Buddha’s teaching, meaning two very important things. First, it means that the Buddhist teachings and reality itself are one and the same; they correspond to each other. The Dharma is the fount of all things which lies beyond the universe and the wheel of becoming.

Secondly, since Dharma is beginningless and endless, the Buddha did not invent this teaching out of thin air. He discovered it as Siddhartha Gautama, and by attaining Buddhahood, Siddhartha became a perfect embodiment of the Dharma. Every Buddha represents the Dharma, and point to “the way things really are” in their own unique way. To gain insight is to know Dharma, and become one with it as a bodhisattva and then finally a Buddha. Namo Amitabha!

Postcard from Raymond: Cosmic Lotus

From bestyleshare.online

What will I see when I leave this world? Will my “sight” even be the kind of visual “seeing” that I’ve known all my life? What will I hear when I have no auditory organs?

What will I bring with me when I sigh farewell?

Nothing.

I will have nothing.

I can take zilch, nada with me to the grave, the crematorium, or the seas where I might be sprinkled like flakes dissolving into a great foam of abyssal waters.

I am nourishment-in-waiting for the creatures and bacteria that feed on expired engines of fluid and meat.

But I am also made from the cooled gas and minerals of exploded stars. I am stardust from cosmic entities that suffuse the universe. Suffusing spacetime and consciousness itself is the invocation “Namo Amitabha Buddha,” which was revealed to mysterious visionaries in the Indic wilderness. We’ve received a personal invitation from a place beyond existence and nonexistence. We respond with our devotion and faith in “Namo Amitabha Buddha” and await our welcome.

I have no eyes in the earthly sense. But I can glimpse the celestial, inner flesh of a bud. I have no mortal sense of touch, but I can feel its softness. I have no more human ears, yet I can hear the most delightful music and gentle intonations. I take no breath, yet I gasp in joy.

Postcard from Raymond: How interconnected do you feel?

This image is a simulation of the “cosmic web,” a network of the scaffolding holding together the structure of the universe. This structure constitutes galaxies, dark matter, the gas that coalesces into stars, and “filaments”: regions of galaxy clusters woven together through what resembles slender, cobweb-like threads. This image from UC Riverside highlights how these filaments’ galactic properties formed the backbone of the cosmic web and the stars we see throughout our reality.

If we think about it, isn’t it extraordinary that, we human beings that are literal constituents of the universe—we are made from it—able to map it, to chart it, to study it to even the limited extent we have? At the same time we congratulate ourselves as the beings that the universe has chosen to help it understand itself, we should remain humble in the face of the unfathomable interconnectedness that we share with not just all beings but with all matter seen and unseen in the cosmos, reaching back into the untraceable deep past and onward into the infinite future.

It is true that the endless darkness can be frightening. But doesn’t this “web” almost remind one of a cosmic incarnation of Charlotte the spider, weaving a beautiful gossamer lace of stars while nurturing and advising the lonely pig Wilbur?

And we haven’t even gotten into the profundity of what lies beyond—the life after our life in this inconceivable organism of the universe… and the insight that was briefly unveiled by a sage on this little blue and green planet.

Moonscape Riders: Moon Reverie

Raymond Lam

A young girl discovers a magical secret entombed within an ancient grotto in the Chinese desert. What wonders will reveal themselves to her as she sets out to discover a mysterious secret of the long-lost Tangut Empire?

(Link to part 1 here)
(Link to part 2 here)
(Link to Water’s Moon, Mirror’s Flower)

They set off from the caves of Yulin, and like snaking streams of light, four spectral horses exploded in the direction of the Tangut Empire’s Imperial Tombs. The entourage, winding its way through the starry night, was like four lanterns shining in the vast wasteland, a quartet of miniature comets streaking across the dark sandscapes.

Xiaomao’s freezing hands—she chastised herself bitterly for forgetting to put on her mittens— were shaking so much in excitement that she was terrified that she might accidentally release Rong Rong and tumble off. Teeth chattering uncontrollably, she hung on, watching the ghost of Laosuo intently as his steed rocketed across the dark desert plains below the empyrean. The skin of her palms were worn, flakes of it rubbed and scratched off painfully from her grip on her horse’s reins.

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