Tea House

Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends

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Buddhism is Bhutan’s Key to Working with the Great Buddhist Powers

India and China are right now locked in a dispute over a plateau (known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China) that lies at a junction between China, the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, and Bhutan. My focus today is not on the technicalities of the border dispute (this analysis by Wangcha Sangey, a retired civil servant and former managing director of Bhutan Times, lays out the situation far better than I can), but rather how Bhutan could play its cards over the long term through the piety of its Buddhist people and its Buddhist royal family.

HRH Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck with Bhikkhu Sanghasena

In an age where landlocked Bhutan’s behemoth neighbors, China and India, are going all in with Buddhist diplomacy (not to mention regional neighbors like Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), the Himalayan country’s Buddhist heritage grants it a unique and priceless asset. This is because the idea of “Buddhist kingship” or chakravartin-hood is embodied in its monarchy. I venture to propose that without Buddhism, the moral authority of the royal house of Wangchuk would be diminished whilst one of the country’s key soft power exports (such as its concept of Gross National Happiness) would be compromised. Nowhere else, except perhaps in Thailand, is there a monarchy invested with such a Buddhist mandate.

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Global Travels, Local Practice

This month I am far from my birth home in Montana and my adoptive home in Seattle. I am in China, currently in a monastery outside of Ningbo called “Golden Mountain.” As I told a friend recently when discussing my travels, there is a saying, attributed to Native American wisdom, that a person should not travel further in a day than a horse can carry them. That is, humans are not just spiritual creatures or social creatures, but also local and geographical creatures. We are not just intellects, but bodies, intimately connected to our physical space.

How precious and how liberating it is to really know a place, to know what to expect around each corner, the ebbs and flows of each time of day, the norms and customs, the currencies and laws. How equally demanding and perhaps frightening to be a stranger in a strange land. There is a wonder, no doubt, in being in new places. But this wonder must be born of a security and comfort in one’s body. To explore the globe, one must know one’s self, one’s body.

So here, in my room in the very early hours of a Saturday morning, I meditate.

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Of Statecraft and Sangha: Po Lin Monastery and the Silk Road

Raymond Lam

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover at Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island. From Hugo San

29 June will be remembered as a key date in post-handover Hong Kong: aside from president Xi Jinping’s landmark visit to the fragrant harbor, Po Lin Monastery is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the handover as well as the 25th anniversary of its Big Buddha. It is also hosting a carefully timed, simultaneous symposium: Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism along the Belt and Road (29 – 30 June). This is a statement, at least from Po Lin Monastery and its friends: that the time is ripe for Buddhists, both of the southern and northern traditions, to integrate themselves into the new Silk Road that is China’s outreach to the world.

The conference is packed with guests and VIPs from Southeast Asia and South Asia. There are guests from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and many others. There are many good, old friends here: Ven. Sovanratana, one of Cambodia’s most influential monastic professors. Karma Lekshe Tsomo of Sakyadhita, the world’s largest Buddhist women’s association. Ven. Fa Ren, one of Hong Kong’s most active Chinese Buddhist nuns.

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Reality Cracks

Ivan Latham

The world it shimmers as I call your sacred Name,
Reality is fraying at the seams,
All becomes to me but an evanescent flame
That burns itself away, with all it means;
Your Nianfo sun turns all else into shade,
And all I thought was gold turns into rust;
Like corn that falls before the reaping blade,
Samsara’s wheel lies broken in the dust;
Reality alone is found in you,
O Amitabha, Lord of Life and Light
The scent of lotus petals pure and true
Enfolds me in ineffable delight.
Namo Amituofo!

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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Tears of Tara

Lyudmila Klasanova

White Tara. Drawing by the author

In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Tara is a complex figure that integrates mythical and historical threads and combines different functions. She is presented as a female aspect of Buddha and a symbol of unlimited compassion. The goddess protects humanity and saves people from dangers, protects them from fears, and helps fulfil their wishes. Her compassion to all sentient beings as well as her aspirations to save them from the suffering are described as stronger than a mother’s love for her own child.

Tara is among the most popular deities in the Buddhist world and among the most revered goddesses in Himalayan traditions. She is an object of worship not only for Buddhist monks and nuns, but also for lay Buddhists who invoke her to achieve material prosperity, spiritual healing, and liberation from all kinds of suffering.

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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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