Theravada monks file silently across the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth at Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.
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As some people said they liked my review of David Loy’s book (well, two people actually), I thought I would again present some musings on what I have been reading.
Nagapriya’s Exploring Karma and Rebirth is not a new book (it was published in 2004), but I came across it only recently in a secondhand bookshop. I’m glad I did, because although it covers some very familiar ground, it has been very useful in clarifying my understanding of some issues that have long nagged at me.
There are basically three three main strands in the book. One deals with what Nagapriya considers to be misunderstandings of the Buddhist teachings on karma and rebirth. Another explains clearly and in quite a lot of detail what the traditional Buddhist teachings are, and talks about the difficulties many modern Buddhists might have with aspects of them. The third strand explores different ways of thinking about karma and rebirth that could be useful for modern Buddhists who find the traditional interpretations hard to accept. I’ll just focus on one or two points that I found useful and interesting in each of these strands.
To find that place
a place of presence
the simple clarity
this most gentle unveiling
of the sacred
in this moment
of the whole
In October 2016, ancient Buddhist statues were a major presence at the season’s art fairs and auctions in Hong Kong, Beijing, and New York. There was an impressive range. Audiences could view Buddhist art from the Eastern Wei Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, originally from Tibet, Mongolia to Nepal and Central Asia, were showcased in Fine Art Asia and Poly Autumn Auction in Hong Kong, Guardian Fine Art Asia in Beijing, and TEFAF in New York.
Buddhist art has survived for centuries and fallen into the hands of different collectors, proving how its ideas have etched themselves into time across Asia while remaining significant in people’s lives. However, it seems audiences still can’t view this kind of Buddhist art widely at museums or public exhibitions organized by the government or even non-profit making organizations. Still, they are finding their value at art fairs and auction houses, and these are the places for art trading and selling. Viewers can appreciate delicate and exquisite Buddhist art there, while being astonished by its high-selling prices as well.
In June this year, I was invited to present a paper to the 10th International Conference on Conflict Education at the Ohio State University in Ohio, USA. En route to my destination, I made a stop to call on the Bengali Buddhist community at Long Beach in Los Angeles, California.
This was on the recommendation of the Founder of the Bangladesh-American Buddhist Fellowship and head of the Buddhist Temple of Sambodhi Vihara in California.
I stayed three days and had an informative and enjoyable visit.
On the first day, I gave a talk to children who are students at the Sunday Dhamma School. Normally, Sunday School is of course held on Sundays! But on this pleasant Saturday, I entered to find to my delight a large number of children and youth chanting devotedly in the shrine chamber of the temple.
Take a walk on the beach, holding a friend’s hand, and relax. Feel the sand squeezed between your toes and listen to the gently lapping waves. Peaceful, isn’t it?
Well, maybe not. Choose a different beach, and the surface might be sharp edges of volcanic rock, a foam frozen in time and cut by erosion to leave knife-edge broken bubbles. Or perhaps the beach is a long bank of rounded pebbles, tiring to walk on, like the 29-kilometer Chesil Beach in southern England. Each beach has its story, a varied history perhaps of fire and upheaval, or of shipwrecks and smugglers. But even a smooth, sandy beach has secrets. Life teems beneath your feet and the washed-up seaweed is home and food for numerous worms, crustaceans and arthropods. Come back in a few hours, and the broad swathe of sand might have disappeared so the waves pound the bottom of the cliff; the tide has come in.
The creatures of the beach face constant change, dominated by the twice-daily tide. Yet not quite: the major rhythm is every 12 hours, 25.2 minutes because the Moon orbits the Earth in the same direction as the Earth’s rotation. Beach creatures synchronise their activity with the tide, feeding when the food arrives and burrowing or hiding when necessary. Beach visitors, such as gulls, plovers, and curlews, time their visits by the tides too.
Stories have been a beloved pastime of mine since I learned to read. In my childhood I devoured fiction of all kinds: from fantasy novels based on pop culture franchises to my favourite genre of world myths and legends retold in modern prose. Odin, Hathor, and Trickster Raven were my companions as much as my high school friends and classmates. As I became more involved in the great religions of the world I discovered that Buddhists, Christians, and practitioners of all faiths regularly explore the depths of meaning in their traditions’ stories. I’ve always thought of life itself as a tale in progress, and that a life well lived was, in essence, a story that could be told with a sense of poignancy and meaning. How beautiful, even if sometimes impossible, is the simple wish for a happy ending?
The human impulse to produce and consume stories is universal, even if we know those stories are fictitious and can be deconstructed, taken apart, dismissed. In my interview with Sri Lankan poet Ramya Jirasinghe, she made the emphatic point that “artistic creation and working through the Eightfold Path can’t be linked as they have contradictory goals and processes,” since artists and writers need to work from their self and experience and the Buddhist must see through the illusion of the self. No self, no story, just a process that is misinterpreted as a story.
Inspired by the Pilahaka Sutta
Ronnie stood at the mirror and beamed at the pristine reflection that shone back at him. He had greased his hair and parted it down the middle and was wearing his trendiest suit, which he had ironed himself last night. He straightened himself and grinned at the thought of his entrance into the conference room. The partners would nod at him with respect, and he imagined Francine giving him a cheeky wink as he swaggered past her on his way to the whiteboard. He was meant for this position, he knew it, and his reflection confirmed that he would get it.
Now all he needed was the final touch, the tie with the yellow stripes that added a hint of adventure to his classy look—a clever combination which had brought him success time and time again. He walked to his dresser, grabbing his pungent deodorant on the way and dousing himself with it one last time. Odd, he thought, when he got to the closet and saw that his tie was not on the top shelf as it should be. He checked the two lower shelves and cast a quick glance at his watch—he had exactly eight minutes to make it to the bus stop.