28 February 2008

India in Primitive Christianity

The connection between Christianity and Buddhism is unmistakable, both in terms of the traditional narratives of the respective founders, and in their parable-riddled attributed sayings. Some, particularly occultists, have attempted to explain this by proposing a residence in India by Jesus during his 'lost years,' for instance, Notovich, and the derivative work by Dowling. Arthur Lillie here examines possible historical linkages between the two religions from a critical, rationalist, viewpoint.

His theory will be thought-provoking for Buddhists and Christians alike. Lillie explores some of the same issues which John Robertson targets in Pagan Christs, particularly the evolution of sacrificial rites into symbolic forms. Lillie is also trying to open up an additional front here, by attempting to reduce much of Indian mythology to a multiplication of forms of Shiva. This is a radical view which blurs some of the efficacy of this book. He also, curiously enough, ignores the parallels between the Christ and Krishna stories, which many others have remarked on.

On the whole, this controversial thesis is an enjoyable read, and a rare attempt by a free-thinker to confront the issue of diffusion of religious concepts from India to the Near East.

27 February 2008

Yì Jīn Jīng or I Chin Ching

The Yì Jīn Jīng (Chinese: 易筋經; Wade-Giles: I Chin Ching; literally "Muscle/Tendon Change Classic") is a qìgōng manual most notable as the source of the attribution of Shaolin Kung Fu to Bodhidharma.

The Yijinjing is attributed in legend to Bodhidharma who is supposed to have been in China during the early 5th century A.D. However, there are many other versions of how the Yijinjing was handed down through history. The most popular story about Bodhidharma relates that when he went to reside in the Shaolin Monastery, he saw the monks were weak and unhealthy. In order to strengthen them, he devised a system of exercises called the Yijinjing. Before Bodhidharma's death, he gave to his successor, Hui-neng, two sacred books, the Xisuijing, and the Yijinjing. The Xisuijing unfortunately, did not survive history, but the other did. Some suggest the exercises are actually more Chinese and Taoistic in origin than Indian and Buddhistic.

This story is found in the preface of a 1875 edition by Surig Kuang called the Weisheng Yijinjing. The preface is said to have been written by Li Jing, a great military officer of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D). It is dated the second year of the reign of Emperor Tai Zung of the Tang Dynasty (629 A.D). According to the foreword, Li Jing wrote:
In the time of the Hou Wei dynasty (424-535 A.D.), in the year of Tai Ho (477 A.D.) when Emperor Xiao Ming was on the Dragon throne, the Indian priest Bodhidarma (Da Mo in Chinese), arrived at the court of Wu Di, the first emperor of the Liang dynasty. He then went to the Kingdom of Wei in Northern China and lived in the Shaolin Monastery. After a residence of nine years, he died and was buried at the foot of the “Xiung-erh” Mountain, between the present day provinces of Honan and Shansi. After a course of years while his monument was being repaired, an iron box was discovered within his coffin.

The inside of the box was filled with wax which protected the contents. The contents were two books, one termed the Xisuijing and the other the Yijinjing.

The Yijinjing concerned the conservation of the body. The Xisuijing, however, was later lost to the world after several generations. The surviving text of the Yijinjing was written in the language of T'ienchu (as India was then called). There was great difficulty in having the text translated and the real meaning of the Yijinjing was lost.

What the priests of the Shaolin Monastery derived from the Yijinjing was the advantages of self-defence methods. One of the monks at the monastery argued that what Bodhidharma left could not be unimportant and just methods of self-defense. This monk went on a pilgrimage to the O-mei Mountains in the province of Szechwan in Southwestern China in search of one who could translate the work and extract the true meaning of the Yijinjing.

He soon met an Indian priest by the name of Pramiti. Pramiti told him that the language of Buddha cannot be readily translated because it is extra-ordinarily deep in meaning. Pramiti explained the Yijinjing only as far as he was able. The monk was invited to stay at the temple and be initiated by degrees into the details of the Yijinjing. In one hundred days of practicing, he became quite strong. In the second one hundred days, his entire body had received the full benefit. After the third one hundred days, his constitution became as hard as steel, and he felt he could be a Buddha. The visiting monk was so pleased that he accompanied the Indian priest wherever he went.

A person by the name of Xu Hung met the monk and Pramiti and obtained from them the secret method of the Yijinjing. Hsu Hung then gave the texts of the Yijinjing to a red-bearded person who in turn gave it to the writer of this preface.
The basic purpose of Yijinjing is to turn flaccid and frail sinews and tendons into strong and sturdy ones. The movements of Yijinjing are at once vigorous and gentle. Their performance calls for a unity of will and strength, i.e. using one’s will to direct the exertion of muscular strength. It is coordinated with breathing. Better muscles and tendons means better health and shape, more resistance, flexibility, endurance, and is obtained as follows: - postures influences the static and nervous structure of the body - stretching muscles and sinews affects organs, joints, meridians and Qi - torsion affects metabolism and Jing production - breathing produce more and better refined Qi - active working gives back balance and strength to body and mind (brain, nervous system and spirit).

Power and endurance are of paramount importance if we look at becoming qualified in whatever practice we choose, be it Tuina, martial arts, or simply better health and wisdom. Already another known Qigong system, Baduanjin, in its more radical and strong forms was used in the past from schools of Xingyiquan and Tijiquan as bodily preparation to fighting arts, in order to make body strong and flexible. Baduanjin still remains the first, entry-level routine to learn at Shaolin training schools in Song Mountains. We can still see today Japanese Kata like Sanchin, postures and forms like Siunimtao in Wingchung, “Iron thread” in Hung Gar and all sorts of Neigong in Neijia. Martial artists need to be powerful in the martial practice, like non-martial people need to be healthy. But there is also something supple and flexible inside of Yijinjing. Movements are energetic and intense, but you can see through a kind of peace. Yijinjing unifies in fact Yi (intention) with Li (strength), consciousness (yang) with muscular force (yin). The mind is free from thoughts, has a correct and well-disposed attitude, the breathing is harmonious. Internal and external movement must be coordinated, like movement with relaxation. Externally must be fortification; inside must be purification; unifying matter and spirit.

The Five rules of Yijinjing are: - Quietness Like lake water reflects the moon, a calm spirit allows energy to move inside the body - Slowness In order to use and flex muscles deeply, to get maximum extension and move Qi and Xue, slow movements are required - Extension Each movement must be brought to the maximum - Pause Efficacy comes through waiting and keeping tension for longer time - Flexibility Limbs and trunk must be extended so that blood and energy can circulate, so we have flexibility.

26 February 2008

Paradise or Heaven?

While there are abundant and varied sources for conceptions of Heaven, the typical believer's view appears to depend largely on his religious tradition and particular sect. Some religions conceptualize Heaven as pertaining to some type of peaceful life after death related to the immortality of the soul. Heaven is generally construed as a place of happiness, sometimes eternal happiness. A psychological reading of sacred religious texts across cultures and throughout history would describe it as a term signifying a state of "full aliveness" or wholeness.

Some Eastern religions and some Western traditions believe in reincarnation and moksha (liberation) instead of Heaven, but some still include a concept of Heaven similar (but not necessarily the same) as the concept held by Christianity. For example, in Buddhism there are several heavens, all of which are still part of Samsara (illusionary reality). Those who accumulate good karma may be reborn in one of them. However, their stay in the heaven is not eternal—eventually they will use up their good karma and will undergo a different rebirth into another realm, as humans, animals, or other beings. Because Heaven is temporary and part of Samsara, Buddhists focus more on escaping the cycle of rebirth and reaching enlightenment (Bodhi). In the native Chinese Confucian traditions Heaven (Tian) is an important concept, where the ancestors reside and from which emperors drew their mandate to rule in their dynastic propaganda, for example. In Hindu belief, likewise, heaven—called Swarga loka—is seen as a transitory place for souls who did good deeds but whose actions are not enough for moksha or merging (union) with Brahman.

In ancient Judaism, the belief in Heaven and afterlife was connected with that of Sheol (mentioned in Isaiah 38:18, Psalms 6:5 and Job 7:7-10). In Christianity, heaven is either an eternally blessed life after death or a return to the pre-fallen state of humanity, a second and new Garden of Eden, in which humanity is reunited with God in a perfect and natural state of eternal existence and generally they believe this afterdeath reunion is accomplished through faith that Jesus Christ died for the sins of humanity on the cross, was resurrected and "bodily" ascended into heaven.

Historically, Christianity has taught "Heaven" as a generalized concept, a place of eternal life, in that it is a shared plane to be attained by all the pious and elect (rather than an abstract experience related to individual concepts of the ideal).

From the early second century, we have a fragment of one of the lost volumes of Papias, a Christian bishop, who expounded that "heaven" was separated into three distinct layers. He referred to the first as just "heaven", the second as "paradise", and the third as "the city". Papias taught that "there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce a hundredfold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold".

In the 2nd century CE, Irenaeus (a Greek bishop) wrote that not all who are saved would merit an abode in heaven itself. In Against Heresies, he wrote that only those deemed worthy would inherit a home in heaven, while others would enjoy paradise, and the rest live in the restored Jerusalem.

The Christian Church has been divided over how people gain this eternal life. From the 16th to the late 19th century, Christendom was divided between the Roman Catholic view, the Orthodox view, the Coptic view, the Jacobite view, the Abyssinian view and Protestant views.

Roman Catholics believe that entering Purgatory after death (physical rather than ego death) cleanses one of sin (period of suffering until one's nature is perfected), which makes one acceptable to enter heaven. This is valid for venial sin only, as mortal sins can be forgiven only through the act of reconciliation and repentance while on earth.[citation needed] Some within the Anglican Church also hold to this belief, despite their separate history. However, in Oriental Orthodox Churches, it is only God who has the final say on who enters heaven. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, heaven is understood as union and communion with the Triune God (reunion of Father and Son through love). Thus, Heaven is experienced by the Orthodox both as a reality inaugurated, anticipated and present here and now in the divine-human organism of the Christ's Body, the Church, and also as something to be perfected in the future.

In some Protestant Christian sects, eternal life depends upon the sinner receiving God's grace (unearned and undeserved blessing stemming from God's love) through faith in Jesus' death for their sins, his resurrection as the Christ, and accepting his Lordship (authority and guidance) over their lives. In other sects the process may or may not include a physical baptism, or obligatory process of transformation or experience of spiritual rebirth

In Hinduism, with its emphasis on reincarnation, the concept of Heaven is not as prominent. While heaven is temporary (until the next birth), the permanent state that Hindus aspire to is Moksha. Moksha is seen as the soul's liberation from the cycle of life and death, a re-establishment in one's own fundamental divine nature and may include union with or joining God.

Entry into heaven (swarga loka) or hell (Naraka) is decided by the Lord of death Yama and his karmic accountant, Chitragupta, who records the good and bad deeds of a person during his lifetime. It must be noted that Yama and Chitragupta are subordinate to the supreme Lord Ishwara (God) and work under his direction. Entry into heaven is only dependent on ones actions in the previous life and is not restricted by faith or religion. The ruler of heaven, where one enjoys the fruits of ones good deeds, is known as Indra and life in that realm is said to include interaction with many celestial beings (gandharvas).

According to Buddhist Cosmology the universe is undergoing cycles and beings are spread over a number of existential "planes" in which this human world is only one (though important) "realm" of life.

In Buddhism the gods are not immortal, though they may live much longer than the earthly beings. They also are subject to decay and change, and the process of becoming. The intensity and the manner in which these processes take place however may be different and involve longer periods of time. But like any other beings, they are with a beginning and an end.

However, all heavenly beings are regarded as inferior in status to the Arhats who have attained Nirvana. The gods were also from the lower worlds originally, but slowly and gradually graduated themselves into higher worlds by virtue of their past deeds and cultivation of virtuous qualities. Since there are many heavens and higher worlds of Brahma, these gods may evolve progressively from one heaven to another through their merit or descend into lower worlds due to some misfortune or right intention. One notable Buddhist paradise is the Pure Land of Pure Land Buddhism.

The gods of Buddhism are therefore not immortal. Neither their position in the heavens is permanent. They may however live for longer durations of time. One of the Buddhist Sutras states that a hundred years of our existence is equal to one day and one night in the world of the thirty three gods. Thirty such days add up to their one month. Twelve such months become their one year, while they live for a thousand such years.

25 February 2008

What the Hell?

The Underworld, or Hell, according to many religious beliefs, is an afterlife of suffering where the wicked or unrighteous souls are punished.

Hell is usually depicted as underground. Within Islam and Christianity, Hell is traditionally depicted as fiery. Some other traditions, however, portray Hell as cold and gloomy. In Judaism, existence after life is not concrete, and may be portrayed as a state of neutrality and an eternal existence in nothingness ("Sheol", often mis-translated as hell).

Some theologies of Hell offer graphic and gruesome detail (for example, Hindu Naraka). Religions with a linear divine history often depict Hell as endless (for example, see Hell in Christian beliefs). Religions with a cyclic history often depict Hell as an intermediary period between incarnations (for example, Chinese Di Yu). Punishment in Hell typically corresponds to sins committed in life. Sometimes these distinctions are specific, with damned souls suffering for each wrong committed (see for example Plato's myth of Er or Dante's The Divine Comedy), and sometimes they are general, with sinners being relegated to one or more chamber of Hell or level of suffering (for example, Augustine of Hippo asserting that unbaptized infants, whom he believed to be deprived of Heaven, suffer less in Hell than unbaptized adults). In Islam and Christianity, however, faith and repentance play a larger role than actions in determining a soul's afterlife destiny.

Hell is often portrayed populated with demons, who torment the damned. Many are ruled by a death god, such as Nergal, the Hindu Yama, or concepts of the Christian Satan.

In contrast to Hell, other general types of afterlives are abodes of the dead and paradises. Abodes of the dead are neutral places for all the dead (for example, sheol), rather than prisons of punishment for sinners. A paradise is a happy afterlife for some or all the dead (for example, heaven).

Modern understandings of Hell often depict it abstractly, as a state of loss rather than as fiery torture literally under the ground.

In Norse mythology, Hel, the location, shares a name with Hel, a female figure associated with the location. It is thought that this is where the english term of Hell derives. The Orthodox Christian term of Hades also refers both to the ancient Greek underworld, the abode of Hades, and to the god of the dead himself. Hades in Homer referred just to the god but eventually, the nominative, too, came to designate the abode of the dead.

Buddhism's Nakara

Most Buddhist schools of thought, Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna would acknowledge several Hells, which are places of great suffering for those who commit evil actions, such as cold Hells and hot Hells. Like all the different realms within cyclic existence, an existence in Hell is temporary for its inhabitants. Those with sufficiently negative karma are reborn there, where they stay until their specific negative karma has been used up, at which point they are reborn in another realm, such as that of humans, of hungry ghosts, of animals, of asuras, of devas, or of Naraka (Hell) all according to the individual's karma.

Chinese Di Yu

In Chinese mythology, the name of Hell does not carry a negative connotation. The Hell they refer to is Di Yu (trad. 地獄, simp. 地狱; lit. "underground hold/court"). Diyu is a maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins.

The popular story is that the word Hell was introduced to China by Christian missionaries, who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would "go to Hell" when they died. As such, it was believed that the word "Hell" was the proper English term for the Chinese afterlife, and hence the word was adopted.

The Chinese view Hell as similar to a present day passport or immigration control station. In a Chinese funeral, they burn many Hell Bank Notes for the dead. With this Hell money, the dead person can bribe the ruler of Hell, and spend the rest of the money either in Hell or in Heaven. There is a belief that once the dead person runs out of Hell money, and if he does not receive more, he will be eternally poor.

Christianity's Hades

The Christian doctrine of hell derives from the teaching of the New Testament, where hell is typically described using the Greek word Gehenna. Hell is the final destiny of the unsaved, where they will be punished for sin after the general resurrection and last judgment. Traditionally hell has been viewed as a place of eternal, conscious torment under the wrath of Satan (Lucifer). However, in modern times some Christian theologians have adopted alternative views such as conditional immortality and universalism.

Taoism's Hell?

Ancient Taoism had no concept of Hell, as morality was seen to be a man-made distinction and there was no concept of an immaterial soul. In its home country China, where Taoism adopted tenets of other religions, popular belief endows Taoist Hell with many deities and spirits who punish sin in a variety of horrible ways. This is also considered Karma for Taoism.

24 February 2008

Hidden within Christianity, is Buddhism; and Hidden within Buddhism, is Christianity.

The two great problems facing any attempted holistic understanding of Christianity and Buddhism center on birth; and death.

Christianity argues that the soul is uniquely created at conception, whereas Buddhism posits that the stream of consciousness within a person is a continuation from pre-birth times.

Christianity argues that bodies and souls will be re-united after the Final Judgement, and humans will spend eternity in resurrected bodies; whereas Buddhism posits that eternity is realized in nirvana.

Both the Christian and the Buddhism position are viable, and they stress different aspects of the very same reality.

For the Christian, the "soul" is considered to be the innermost aspect of a human, and the creation of a new body at conception means that the "soul" is also created, because a new human is created. The stream of consciousness in Buddhism is the rapid appearance-existence-disappearance process of mental states. This stream of consciousness appears at conception associated with the newly conceived human -- thus, one can speak of the stream of consciousness as being "created" (by causes and conditions) at conception. Speaking thusly would not negate the reality that the stream of consciousness is karmically related to earlier parts of the stream.

As an analogy, consider a flame on candle A to be the stream of consciousness of a particular person. The flame of candle A is used to light candle B, and the candle A flame is extinguished. The flame of candle B is karmically related (literally "related by action") to the flame of candle A, and yet the flame of candle B is a new "creation" as well: the flame of candle B is both the same and yet not the same, as the flame of candle A. The flame of candle B is the new soul, newly created; and yet the flame of candle B can also be seen as the continuation of the "stream of flame" that was part of candle A.

Regarding death, the Christian vision is that you die, and then after time spent in the realm of the dead, you are resurrected bodily, and spend eternity in the body. In the Buddhist vision, you die, then you spend however long it takes in different bodies, until finally nirvana is realized, which frees you from being limited to any one body. But look closely: to be free from being limited to any one body, is to be free to be associated with all bodies. In Buddhism, the realization of nirvana means that the realizer now realizes no-difference from any body; the realizer realizes non-difference from "this one", and "that one", and "those over there". So, eternity is indeed spent "in the body", once nirvana is realized, but this "body" is not one, but infinite. Buddhism envisions an "unbounded resurrection body". In other words, ultimately, the universe, the cosmos, as a whole is one great body, and realization of nirvana also means the realization of no-difference in relation to the great universe-body. So the Christian idea of the resurrection of the body, signifies the larger process of one's bodily resurrection as the universe-body.

Thus, hidden within Christianity, is Buddhism; and hidden within Buddhism, is Christianity.

Hark! A Child is Born!
A Buddha is Born! Svaha!

23 February 2008

Unified Theory of God and Enlightenment

While Buddhism teaches so many doctrines of dukkha, rebirth, karma, compassion and realms (from coarsest and lowest energy (hell) realm to the most purified, all-powerful Oneness), and path toward enlightenment, it is very interesting to add one more philosophy to make it full for the most-sought-after all-encompassing human religion. It is Christianity.

Christianity offers the doctrine of faith to one's Master and the God.

Combining both, we have the true Unified-Theory-of God and Enlightenment.

Also combining the true effort of what Christianity has done for humanity in all practical endeavor and what Buddhism has served for perfecting human's evolution of mind, we see a true powerful combination of energy to make perfect human, which are saints.

22 February 2008

Being Buddhist by Not Being a Buddhist?

At the Washington Post's On Faith site, Dustin Eaton writes a lovely essay about not being a Buddhist. "I am not a Buddhist," he says. "I've never told anyone that I am a Buddhist and have in fact denied the title on more than one occasion." Yet he studies Buddhism and meditates daily.

Eaton, a Ph.D. candidate studying South Asian religion and culture at the University of Iowa, writes that "being a Buddhist means more than just saying you are one. It means placing yourself within the structure of a particular school, a particular lineage and a particular teacher. It means changing your life, not just changing your mind." Since he lives far away from a teacher or sangha, he isn't comfortable calling himself "a Buddhist."

I avoid calling myself a Buddhist, also, although for different reasons. The primary reason is not making "I am a Buddhist" just another ego attachment. I have enough layers of self-identity to chip through without building another one. When I do say "I am a Buddhist" -- because to say otherwise would be a lie -- I do a little purification ritual in my heart.

However, there's also a danger in wading too far into negation. The Madhyamika teachings of early Mahayana said that although phenomena -- including people -- are void of self-essence, it is incorrect to say that things and beings exist or don’t exist. As I understand it, form and appearance create the world of myriad things, but the myriad things have identity only in relation to each other. Thus, there is neither reality not not-reality; only relativity.

So, perhaps I shouldn't be so squeamish about saying "I am a Buddhist." I don't think Dustin Eaton should be, either.

21 February 2008

The Last Day of the Spring Festival: The Chinese Lantern Festival

The 15th day of the 1st lunar month is the Chinese Lantern Festival because the first lunar month is called yuan-month and in the ancient times people called night Xiao. The 15th day is the first night to see a full moon. So the day is also called Yuan Xiao Festival in China. According to the Chinese tradition, at the very beginning of a new year, when there is a bright full moon hanging in the sky, there should be thousands of colorful lanterns hung out for people to appreciate. At this time, people will try to solve the puzzles on the lanterns and eat yuanxiao (glutinous rice ball) and get all their families united in the joyful atmosphere.

Origins and History

There are many different beliefs about the origin of the Lantern Festival. But one thing for sure is that it had something to do with celebrating and cultivating positive relationship between people, families, nature and the higher beings they believed were responsible for bringing/returning the light each year.

One legend tells us that it was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven in ancient times. The belief was that the God of Heaven controlled the destiny of the human world. He had sixteen dragons at his beck and call and he decided when to inflict drought,storms, famine or pestilence upon human beings. Beginning with Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite the country, all subsequent emperors ordered splendid ceremonies each year. The emperor would ask Taiyi to bring favorable weather and good health to him and his people. Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty directed special attention to this event. In 104 BC, he proclaimed it one of the most important celebrations and the ceremony would last throughout the night.

Another legend associates the Lantern Festival with Taoism. Tianguan is the Taoist god responsible for good fortune. His birthday falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It is said that Tianguan likes all types of entertainment. So followers prepare various kinds of activities during which they pray for good fortune.

The third story about the origin of the festival goes like this. Buddhism first entered China during the reign of Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty. That was in the first century. However, it did not exert any great influence among the Chinese people. One day, Emperor Mingdi had a dream about a gold man in his palace. At the very moment when he was about to ask the mysterious figure who he was, the gold man suddenly rose to the sky and disappeared in the west. The next day, Emperor Mingdi sent a scholar to India on a pilgrimage to locate Buddhist scriptures. After joumeying thousands of miles,the scholar finally returned with the scriptures. Emperor Mingdi ordered that a temple be built to house a statue of Buddha and serve as a repository for the scriptures. Followers believe that the power of Buddha can dispel darkness.

So Emperor Mingdi ordered his subjects to display lighted lanterns during what was to become the Lantern Festival.

In ancient traditions, it was one of the few nights in ancient times without a strict curfew. Young people were chaperoned in the streets in hopes of finding love. Matchmakers acted busily in hopes of pairing couples. The brightest lanterns were symbolic of good luck and hope. As time has progressed, however, the festival no longer has such implications nowadays.

Those who do not carry lanterns often enjoy watching informal lantern parades. In addition to eating tangyuan (simplified Chinese: 汤圆; traditional Chinese: 湯圓; pinyin: tāngyuán), other popular activities at this festival include and guessing lantern riddles (which became part of the festival since Tang Dynasty), often messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity and love.

Until the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century, Emperor Yangdi invited envoys from other countries to China to see the colorful lighted lanterns and enjoy the gala performances.

By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century, the lantern displays would last three days. The emperor also lifted the curfew, allowing the people to enjoy the festive lanterns day and night. It is not difficult to find Chinese poems which describe this happy scene.

In the Song Dynasty, the festival was celebrated for five days and the activities began to spread to many of the big cities in China. Colorful glass and even jade were used to make lanterns, with figures from folk tales painted on the lanterns.

However, the largest Lantern Festival celebration took place in the early part of the 15th century. The festivities continued for ten days. Emperor Chengzu had the downtown area set aside as a center for displaying the lanterns. Even today, there is a place in Beijing called Dengshikou. In Chinese, Deng means lantern and Shi is market. The area became a market where lanterns were sold during the day. In the evening, the local people would go there to see the beautiful lighted lanterns on display.

Today, the displaying of lanterns is still a big event on the 15th day of the first lunar month throughout China. People enjoy the brightly lit night. Chengdu in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, for example, holds a lantern fair each year in the Cultural Park. During the Lantern Festival,the park is literally an ocean of lanterns! Many new designs attract countless visitors. The most eye-catching lantern is the Dragon Pole. This is a lantern in the shape of a golden dragon, spiraling up a 27-meter-high pole, spewing fireworks from its mouth.

Vietnam: "Tết Thượng Nguyên"

In Vietnam, this festival is named "Tết Thượng Nguyên" or "Tết Nguyên Tiêu". People go to pagodas to worship Buddha. It was brought over to Vietnam in the 1300s when the Mongols conquered both China and Vietnam and spread the Chinese culture to the Vietnamese

18 February 2008

Status Update Questions

So it seems we have almost 256 votes on the poll to the left, 128 of which are Buddhists and 100 of which are Christians. I want to ask a new poll questions, but Blogger does not allow open ended poll questions, so I must as in a blog entry. So my question to all of you is this: "Why are you a Buddhist, and when did you become one?" I imagine for many they were born in to a Buddhist family. But even then, there had to come a point when one decided to remain in the faith tradition of their family. In fairness to the non-Buddhists, I also will ask them when and why did you become a member of your particular faith tradition?

17 February 2008

The Dharma of Rambo?

AFP reports that hundreds of Myanmar residents in Singapore gathered on Sunday for a screening of the new "Rambo" film starring Sylvester Stallone.

"The filmgoers, including Buddhist monks in saffron robes, watched largely in silence," according to AFP. "But the nearly full house erupted in loud cheers and applauded after the film's blood-spattered climax, when Rambo arrived to save the missionaries and slaughter the abusive troops."

I haven't seen the film myself, but I infer it does not emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings, including one's oppressors.

Elsewhere -- Adam Karlin writes a lovely essay about his travels to Myanmar (Burma) at World Hum. "The junta certainly likes to take advantage of Buddhist scripture for propaganda purposes," he writes. However, "Buddhism is a major component of Burmese identity, and its sense of right was in lockstep with those monks who risked—and lost—their lives protesting the junta."

The Buddha said, "If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbana, for vindictiveness is no more in you" (Dhammapada 134). Yet compassion moved the Buddha to speak and teach. Our brothers and sisters in Myanmar have a terribly difficult path to walk, pulled between fear and compassion, mindfulness and anger. We might keep them in our thoughts as we stumble along our own path.

16 February 2008

At Buddhist Temple, Cleansing Rituals to Ring in the New Year

Chinese New Year is not, strictly speaking, a Buddhist holiday. However, Chinese Buddhists do begin the New Year with religious observation. This is also the beginning of the New Year for Vietnamese, Koreans, and Tibetans.

Ha Tran was applying the final swipes on Saturday to a 20-foot Buddhist statue inside a Chinatown temple. It took two days, but Mrs. Tran, a 62-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, lovingly washed every one of the deity’s thousand arms and did the same for its 10 heads. Balanced on scaffolding, she painstakingly removed 12 months of accumulated dust and incense in time for the Chinese New Year on Thursday, her yearly rite for 22 years.

“My mom says that we get to bathe once a day,” said Terri Ma, a 34-year-old acupuncturist, translating for her mother, Mrs. Tran. “But Bodhisattva only gets to bathe once a year. So we have to do a good job.”

Ms. Ma accompanied her mother from their Brooklyn home to the American Society of Buddhist Studies on Centre Street in Chinatown, where the enormous golden deity dominates the main worship area of the temple.

The temple, housed inside a five-story building, is also home to about a dozen Buddhist nuns who live in rooms on floors above the worship area. Mrs. Tran is a volunteer as well as a worshiper.

Many passers-by have no idea the temple exists, even though it was established more than 30 years ago and is open daily to the public. The yellow brick exterior is nondescript, and thick security gates pulled across the ground-floor windows mask its ornate interior. Inside, however, the temple is humming with activity in preparation for the new year.

The nuns, wearing yellow robes and with their heads shaved, have spent weeks cleaning every inch of the temple. Volunteers are helping prepare vegetarian foods in the kitchen basement to feed the huge numbers of people expected on Thursday to burn incense and cast their first prayers for the Year of the Rat.

“The people stand in line for hours in the cold,” said Ms. Ma, explaining how worshipers will arrive early in the morning and throughout the day for their opportunity to enter, bowing first to the plump Buddha that sits at the entrance surrounded by glowing candles and offerings of oranges.

“They pray for a better life, good health, marriage, money, grandchildren,” Ms. Ma added. “Whatever it is they want.”

To accommodate worshipers, the nuns opened the doors on Wednesday night, taking turns sleeping and tending to the visitors. For them, however, Chinese New Year is just another day to focus on the eternal and to let go of earthly attachments.

One of the nuns, Sing Yeh See, 45, was born in Vietnam and worked as a nurse in California before deciding to move to New York. As a nurse, Ms. Yeh See said that encountering sickness and death made her more aware of how temporary life can be.

She said that Buddhism, the religion of her upbringing, focuses on “infinity — life is too short.”

Two years ago, following Buddhist tradition, she had incense burned into the top of her scalp to create nine permanent bald spots. “It hurt,” she said, but added that it was an expression of her devotion.

Like most of the nuns, Ms. Yeh See was reluctant to go into much detail about her personal life. She explained that the focus of Buddhist practitioners is on the spiritual journey, not on themselves.

The temple, which relies on donations of money, food and other supplies from people who pray there, was founded in 1974 by Sik Tai Fong, a Buddhist grand master who was born in China and died in 2001 at age 94. The new leader is a Vietnamese-born woman, Sik Wai Fong, who is a master. Some nuns stay for many years before returning to their home countries, which include China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Sing Sun See is from Hong Kong and, at 56, is one of the older nuns at the temple. She rises at 4:30 a.m. to begin her daily routine of studying, chanting and maintaining the temple, while working on the qualities of awareness, kindness and wisdom that define her spiritual path. At the temple, there is no television or radio.

“Outside they have their own life; inside we have our own life,” said Ms. Sun, adding that the nuns lead humble lives so they can cultivate good karma for the next life.

“A lot of things,” she added, “you cannot explain.”

The nuns recite Buddhist chants at specific times of the day while sitting on saffron cushions placed around low tables. They always begin with multiple bows to the 1,000-armed Buddha, which involves getting down on all fours and pressing their foreheads to the ground. At the close of the afternoon chant, one of the nuns deposits some rice or water on a pedestal outside as a symbolic offering for the invisible spirits that they believe wander the streets of New York.

Because some lost souls did not lead good lives, the nuns explained, they are agonizingly stuck between this life and the next. So each night, at precisely 8:30, the nuns take turns striking a large gong with a wooden mallet and reciting a “hell-breaking mantra” to release them from their pain.

“When they hear the bell, they get peaceful,” Ms. Sun said.

A tenet of Buddhism is not to kill animals, and sometimes local devotees request that their donations be used to free caged birds or animals. The temple’s founder used to buy big lots of live frogs, turtles, fish and lobsters from Chinatown vendors and release them into the city’s rivers and ponds. That is, until the New York Police Department threatened to ticket him.

Now, Ms. Sun said, they buy and free animals outside the country. “Everybody likes freedom,” she said. “Nobody wants to be killed.”

15 February 2008

Buddhism and Technological Modernism

Buddhism, one of China's most venerable religions, has been flourishing as China has witnessed the world's fastest annual economic growth, said Buddhist monks attending the First World Buddhist Forum.

"Buddhism gets prosperous only when the economy develops. It's been the case since ancient times," said Master Hubalongzhuang, vice-president of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC).

Master Mingsheng, also vice-president of the BAC, is glad to enjoy the conveniences brought about by rapid technological progress in the country.

"It used to take us three days to go from one temple to another, but now we can visit three in a day by car. Modern technology helps us in preaching Buddhism," he said.

In TV series, Chinese monks are usually pictured in the traditional way of wearing a grey or yellow robe with a bowl in hand and parcel on the back. But in reality, they use cell phones and digital cameras and surf the Internet to follow the latest developments in the world.

"If modernization is a tide, we are just like a boat. We have to ride over the right direction and know what should be or not be done," said Master Yongxin of the world-famous Shaolin Temple.

"Only in this way can we stand ready over the tide instead of being washed away like fish," he added.

Master Yongxin, nicknamed the temple's "chief executive officer," regarded modern development as a boosting force to the publicity of Shaolin's Buddhist doctrines and martial arts.

In the 1980s, a movie called "Shaolin Temple" swept the country and parts of Asia, making the temple "Mekka" for kungfu lovers. With the Internet coming, Shaolin has become a "symbol of Chinese culture," said Yongxin.

People interested in Shaolin kungfu and Buddhist culture have easy access to the temple's website, where they can find once-secretive kungfu documents.

"Promoting Shaolin culture through TV, movie, the Internet and publications is a good way to carry forward Buddhist traditions and have an influence over the general public," he said.

High technologies also helped the four-day First World Buddhist Forum, catch the world's attention.

It was broadcast live by China's national TV station. Simultaneous interpretation by means of high-tech devices helped monks from 37 countries and regions with different languages understand each other during discussions. Their speeches and articles were uploaded online.

The monks moved to Putuoshan, an islet in east China known as "a Buddhist kingdom on the sea," where they held a lantern transmission ceremony to pray for world peace, a pageant that instantly became an online hit.

An Husheng, who runs a website on Buddhism, said the Internet offers the most effective channel for spreading Buddhist teachings and makes public participation in Buddhist practice a reality.

"The era of online Buddhism has come," he said.

More than 1,000 Buddhist monks, experts and politicians from 37 countries and regions attended the forum to discuss how to build up a harmonious world. The forum is the first of its kind in China in more than 2,000 years when Buddhism was introduced from ancient India.

14 February 2008

Who is Saint Valentine and why do we exchange gifts?

Every February 14, couples send flowers, buy chocolate and break out their romantic sides. Few people, however, know how we came to celebrate Valentine’s Day. They may even believe the holiday was invented by the flower and greeting card industry. In fact, a history of Valentine’s Day through the years recounts many mysteries, romantic figures, and smart entrepreneurs.

One legend suggests Valentine was a priest in the third century in Rome when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men because he thought single men made better soldiers than men with wives and families. Valentine secretly continued to perform marriages and when his actions were discovered, Claudius sentenced him to death. He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, about the year 270.

Another story has it that while in prison, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement and who may have been his jailor's daughter. The future saint cured the girl of her blindness and before his death, he allegedly wrote his love a letter, signing it 'From your Valentine,' an expression still common today.

We may owe our observance of Valentine's Day to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a festival that honored Juno Februata, the goddess of "feverish" love. Annually, on February 15th, young men and women would draw names to partner with for romantic game playing. Early Christians frowned on these lascivious activities and tried to transform the sexual nature of Lupercalia by turning the "feast of the flesh" into a "ritual for romance.” The Church selected a single saint, St. Valentine, to represent the new festival. Since Valentine was martyred on February 14, the date was also changed. When the names were now drawn on this day, couples began to exchange small gifts.

One of the earliest known “valentine” cards dates back to 1415. From his confinement in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt, a young Frenchman, Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent several poems or rhymed love letters to his wife in France. One valentine card showed a drawing of a knight and a lady, with Cupid in the act of sending an arrow to pierce the knight's heart.

The holiday that honors lovebirds has not always been so popular, going in and out of favor throughout the centuries. The celebration experienced renewed vigor in England just prior to 1800 when publishing companies came to the aid of tongue-tied romeos by distributing booklets of passages that lovers could recite to each other. Gift giving included cards that were usually hand painted and often lavishly decorated with laces, silk or satin, flowers (made from the feathers of tropical birds), and perfumed sachets.

The first U.S. made valentines were fashioned by a Mount Holyoke College student, Esther Howland circa 1830. Her father imported valentines every year from England as a stationer in Worcester, MA. Esther decided to create her own valentine messages and began importing lace, fine papers, and other supplies for her cards. Her "Worcester" valentines sold an estimated hundred thousand dollars annually! Until the mid-1800's, the cost to send a Valentine through the mail was beyond the means of the average person. The postal service even demanded payment from the recipient, not the sender, of the letter! A hand delivered Valentine became the most popular way to declare love during this time.

The holiday suffered a popularity plunge in the late 19th century, but by the 20th century, Americans businesses had rescued Valentine's Day by turning it into a commercial bonanza. It became common for a valentine to usually accompany a more elaborate gift of candy, flowers, dinner, etc. Nowadays, many schools even enable students to send flowers to each other to celebrate the day. Valentine’s Day cards have emerged to become the second biggest sellers to Christmas cards. Recently, the internet has proved increasingly popular to celebrate the day as well. Now you can send an electronic greeting card, send chocolate and send flowers all without leaving the house!

13 February 2008

Buddha and Christ - Two Gods on the Path to Humanity

An enduring episode in the annals of Christian art is the 'Last Supper' of Jesus Christ. This was the final meal he had prior to his crucifixion. However, before partaking of the food, Jesus rose from the table, took off his outer garments and tied a towel around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of his twelve disciples sitting around him. Intrigued and bashful at the same time, one of them exclaimed: 'You, Lord, washing my feet?' The Great One answered: ' At present you do not understand what I am doing, but one day you will.'

After washing their feet, he put on his garment and sat down again. Addressing them he said: 'Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me master and lord, and rightly so, because that is what I am. If I then, your lord and master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you.'

Yes, the Great Christ himself knelt on the hard floor, and with his graceful hands, cleansed the feet of each and every of his disciple. This inspiring parable gives us a significant insight into Christ's humility and the essentiality of his message:

"He who wants to be great must become the smallest of all." (Mark 9.35).

Buddha was born into a royal family amongst rich and extravagant circumstances. Yet he gave it up all and became a monk, subsisting on the charity of others. Thus from the highest material station he graduated himself to the humblest and lowliest worldly state possible. Hence says Christ at another place in the Bible: "Whosoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14).

As a relevant aside it should be observed that the symbolic washing of the disciple's feet also signifies that by sacrificing himself at the cross, Jesus has in a sense washed away the sins of all humanity.

Jesus Christ and Buddha, born in two different traditions separated by large geographical distances, nevertheless share common characteristics, which is not surprising since they are but both manifested expressions of the universal human yearning for mystical harmony with the rhythms of nature. According to Robert Elinor, 'Buddha and Christ are but local inflections of a universal archetype: the Cosmic Person imaging wholeness.' Beneath the perceived differences underlying these two visionaries, there are subtle unifying attributes which are amply exemplified in the life they led and the message they spread.

An important idea in this context is the belief shared by both in the natural cosmic law of cause and effect, popularly known as 'karma.' Christ says for example:

'Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive earthly men their trespasses neither will your Father forget your trespasses. Therefore all things whatsoever you would like that men should do to you, do them; for this is the law and the prophets.' And of course the popular quote:

"You shall love your neighbor as yourselves." (Mark 12: 31)

The Buddha reiterates whatever Christ puts forward and elaborates:

'Hard it is to understand: By giving away our food, we get more strength; by bestowing clothing on others, we gain more beauty; by founding abodes of purity and truth, we acquire great treasures. The charitable man has found the path of liberation. He is like the man who plants a sapling securing thereby the shade, the flowers and the fruit in future years. Even so is the result of charity, even so is the joy of him who helps those that are in need of assistance; even so is the great nirvana.'

Since they both embodied universal human aspirations and their ultimate realization, it was but natural that the art they inspired too would develop motifs which would elaborate similar principles, though the metaphors deployed would vary, being dependent upon local contexts.

Rather bewilderingly for the interested reader, the first verses of the New Testament are merely a long list of names. Now the New Testament is the sacred scripture from which much of our information about the life and deeds of Christ are derived. Thus this lengthy array of names is bound to have some spiritual import too. It does. These names enumerate the ancestors of Joseph, Christ's earthly father. Significantly, one of the names mentioned is that of David, the second and greatest king of Israel (famous for his victory over the giant Goliath). Thus is Jesus proved to belong to a line of kings. We have already noted Buddha's royal antecedents.

This typical characteristic presented both a challenge and opening to artists. Here was an abstract attribute (divinity) reduced to an earthly metaphor (kingliness), and thus was presented a solution to the difficult task of representing simultaneously their twin nature: fully human and fully divine. The question only remained of developing visual formulae that would convey eloquently the dual personalities of these exalted beings. Both traditions went about it differently:

According to Christian legend, towards the end of one hard December in Palestine, a Jewish carpenter and his pregnant wife traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed by the bureaucrats of Imperial Rome. There was no room for them at the inn, so they lodged in a stable, where the young woman, weary after the long journey, gave birth to a son. Alerted by angels. Shepherds hurried down from the hills to see the baby. Three kings guided by a star, came from the east to offer him gifts. The shepherds signify the Jewish people while the three kings are differently colored: black, brown and white, representing Africa, Asia, and Europe respectively.

The essence being that not only the people of Israel rather rulers from all over the world came to venerate the infant Christ. That he was glorified thus by kings representing the majority of humanity reconfirmed his own status as the king of kings, or ruler of the world. Of related interest here are the individual offerings made by the three kings. These were namely:

a). Gold: Symbolic of Christ's earthy kingship.
b). Frankincense: This incense is used in worship and hence is a metaphor for his divine status.
c). Myrrh: A resin used in the embalming of the dead, thus predicting Christ's imminent and unnatural death.

Here it needs to be observed that the identification of the three visitors as kings is a later modification in Christian art as the Bible itself does not specify their royalty, rather only mentions them as 'wise men from the east.' But more importantly when they came, they asked for the 'newborn King of the Jews.' (Matthew 1:2)

The Buddhist aesthetic too was faced with a similar dilemma, namely the simultaneous depiction of humanity and divinity. But rather than take the Christian route of narrative theology transformed into verbal metaphors, the art of Buddhism presents a hard-hitting picture of the Buddha himself bejeweled and crowned as a king would be.

But if only things were so simple. This leaves the issue of divinity wide open and also a logical basis needs to be given to the representation. Both are resolved in a single and graceful stroke of artistic ingenuity. The answer lies in the gesture Buddha makes with his hands (mudra), the thumb and index finger of both hands touching at their tips to form a circle. This circle represents a wheel, and herein lies the key to the whole symbolism. In Sanskrit, the word for wheel is 'chakra,' and in ancient times the title of Chakravartin or 'wheel turner' was conferred upon a powerful and mighty ruler. The idea being that as the chariot of majestic and warrior king rolls along, all impediments on his path get crushed and no obstacle can stand in his way, expanding his empire endlessly. Similarly is Buddha glorified as a Chakravartin, the circle which his fingers make signifying the wheel, visualized as the wheel of dharma. The wheel's swift motion serves as an apt metaphor for the rapid spiritual conquest wrought by the teachings of the Buddha.

Not to be interpreted in a literal sense, Buddha and Christ are of course not sovereigns over material kingdoms, but rather cosmic emperors, ruling the spirit rather than the body. Verily does say Christ: 'My kingdom is not of this world.' (John 18:36)

One of the prominent Jews of the city once invited Jesus for dinner. Jesus arrived and took his place at the table. Just then, a woman with a bad reputation in town entered. In her hands was an alabaster jar containing an ointment.

And she stood at his feet behind him weeping, and she began to wash his feet with her tears, and wipe them with her hair, and she kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the host saw this he said to himself, if this man was a prophet he would have known who and what sort of woman this is that is touching him: for she is a sinner.

Jesus (as if reading his thoughts) said to him, Simon I have something to say to you.

There was a creditor who had two debtors: one owed five hundred pounds and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he freely forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most?

The host answered, I suppose that he to whom he forgave most.

And he said, You have judged rightly.

And he turned to the woman, and said to Simon, Do you see this woman? I entered your house, and you gave me no water for my feet. But she has washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.

You gave me no kiss: but since the time I came in this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet.

You did not anoint my head with oil: but this woman has anointed my feet with ointment.

Wherefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven. For she loved much. But he to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

This tale from the Bible illustrates Jesus' all embracing forgiveness. In Christ's kingdom of heaven there is mercy for all. Thus said Buddha: 'No sin is so great that a person cannot be purified of it. Imagine that you had murdered several Buddhas; you could still be purified.' (Dhammapada 295)

Yes. A person can be great enough to forgive even his own murderers, as Christ said when he was hung on the cross:

'Father, forgive them, for they not what they do.' (Luke 23: 34)

It is well established that both these luminaries evolved out of the latent reaction against centuries of blind ritualism that plagued the local communities. The original meaning and symbolic structure of the rituals had been lost and what remained was exploitation and subjugation of the masses by the priestly class. Not surprisingly thus, Buddha and Christ offer refreshing insights into religious behavior. Christ says for example:

When you pray, don't pray like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by others.

Enter your closet, shut the door, and pray to your father in secret; and your father who sees you in secret shall reward you openly.

And when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the hypocrites do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore do not be like them. (Matthew 6:5-8)

Dull repetition of sacred verses does nothing to remove rust on the soul. (Buddha in the Dhammapada 240).

In a beautiful simplification Christ also elaborates upon the sup eriority of brotherhood of man over mere ritualism:

If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5: 23-24)
Views on Charity:

Many people appear to be generous, but in fact are trying to gain advantage for themselves. (Dhammapada 249).

Take heed that you do not give alms making it a show. When you give alms, do not sound a trumpet. But rather when you give alms, let your left hand not know what your right hand does. Your alms be in secret and your Father who sees it in secret shall reward you openly. (Matthew 6: 1-4)

On Being Non Judgmental:

It is easy to see the fault of others, but much harder to see your own faults. You can point out other people's faults as easily as pointing out chaff blowing in the wind. But you are liable to conceal your own faults as cunning gambler conceals his dice. (Dhammapada 252)

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged; and with what measure you give, it shall be measured to you. And why behold the speck that is in your brother's eye but do not consider the log that is in your own eye? How will you say to your brother, Let me pull the speck out of your eye, when you are blind to the log in your own eye. First pull the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7: 1-5) And also: You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you , Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, Do good to those that hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you. That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, And sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5: 43-45)

Right he is. Who are we to make judgment on what is right or wrong? They are both twin aspects of the same reality manifested on the earth by the divine powers above.
The World NavelThe Cross and the Tree:

It is well known that Buddha attained enlightenment under a tree. In popular parlance it is known as the bodhi tree or 'tree of knowledge.' It is not without significance that Buddha found grace under a tree. The tree, with its annual renewal of foliage, reminds us of life's continuity and suggests that Buddha was that day reborn (spiritually), as each of us will be on our own day of resurrection (Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3: 3)).

According to legend, the denuded tree on which Christ hung was made from the wood of Eden's Tree of Knowledge. It is through ascending this tree of knowledge that an ordinary human can transcend all that is material and mundane in life, gaining the heights of heaven. Thus by ending his life at the cross, the great Christ in a sense infused us with the promise of a new, spiritually enlightened life. Thus was the tree of knowledge transformed into the 'tree of life.'

Tree of Life

The tree of life is a common feature of salvation mythology and is said to be standing at the axis of the cosmos. It is the place where divine energies pour into the world, where humanity encounters the absolute, and becomes more fully itself. Buddha and Christ, as incarnations of god, are themselves the navel or axis of the world, the umbilical point through which the energies of eternity break into time. More than a physical point, it is a psychological state which enables us to see the world and ourselves in perfect balance. Without this psychological stability and this correct orientation, enlightenment is not possible. The tree of life grows throughout the world as the principal symbol of cosmic centering and regeneration. Continually reborn through its seed at the world axis, its root thrust down through the earth to the underworld, its trunk rises through the world, where it grasps everything in its immeasurable arms, and its crown glances heaven.

Indeed, the cross is a cosmic symbol, its vertical and horizontal lines spanning the universe. According to Rutherford: 'The cross of Christ on which he was extended, points, in the length of it, to heaven and earth, reconciling them together; and in the breadth of it, to former and following ages, as being equally salvation to both.' It is the heavenly ladder, the only ladder high enough to touch heaven's threshold.

A beautiful thing about the cross is that its center of gravity is not at its exact center, but upwards where the stake and the crossbeam meet. In simple terms it symbolizes the tendency to remove the center of man and his faith from the earth and to "elevate" it into the spiritual sphere.

In a mystical dissertation on the notion of cosmic wholeness, Jesus describes himself as a tree:

I am the true vine and my father is the gardener. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away; and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, to make it clean and bear even more fruit. You have already been made clean by the teaching I have given you. Dwell in me, as I dwell in you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself, but can only bear fruit if it is united with the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you are united with me. (John 15: 1-4)

Heaven is god's throne and earth his footstool (Isaiah 66:1), and Christ, suspended on the cross, is the connecting link.

Indeed, just as Buddha gained enlightenment by conquering the five senses, Christ, pinned in five places (the two hands, the two feet, and the head crowned with thorns), nails down the five senses.

Conclusion:

Christ and Buddha, two manifestations of divinity, showed us that true salvation lies only on the path of humanity and compassion towards all. Indeed, through their humanity they are both related to us, and through their divinity, to god.

References and Further Reading
  • Campbell, Joseph. Myths of Light (Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal): Novato, 2003.
  • De Weyer, Robert Van. 366 Readings from Buddhism: Mumbai, 2003.
  • De Weyer, Robert Van. 366 Readings from Christianity: Mumbai, 2003.
  • Elinor, Robert. Buddha and Christ (Images of Wholeness): Trumbull, 2000.
  • Finaldi, Gabriele. The Image of Christ: London, 2000.
  • Gideons International. The Holy Bible: Tennessee, 1978.
  • Jung, Carl. Man and his Symbols: New York, 1968.
  • Kumar, Nitin. Buddha - A Hero's Journey to Nirvana (Exotic India article of the month): April 2003.
  • Macgregor, Neil. Seeing Salvation (Images of Christ in Art): London, 2000.
  • Manser, Martin. Bible Stories: Bath, 2000.
  • Menzies, Jackie. Buddha Radiant Awakening: Sydney, 2001.
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey (compiler). The Wisdom of Jesus: Oxford, 2000.
  • Ramakrishna Mission. Thus Spake The Christ: Chennai, 2000.
  • Ramakrishna Mission. Thus Spake The Buddha: Chennai 2000.
  • Taylor, Richard. How to Read a Church: London, 2003.

12 February 2008

Practice Dhamma on Saint Valentine's Day

Thailand's Department of Religious Affairs is asking schools nationwide to lead students to practice Dhamma at temples on Makha Bucha Day to divert their attention from mainstream culture's celebration of Valentine's Day, Department Director-General Preecha Kanthiya said Wednesday.

The department has asked all provincial culture offices to co-ordinate with local schools in organising religious activities for students, including Dhamma teaching by monks, either in schools or nearby temples Feb 13-15.

In addition, the department will co-operate with the World Buddhist University to organise a grand Buddhist sermon and celebration at Sanam Luang during the same period.

Makha Bucha Day takes place on the full moon of the third lunar month, commemorating the day Lord Buddha recited the "Ovadha Patimakkha" (Fundamental Teaching) to his disciples. This year Makha Bucha Day falls on Feb 13, one day before Valentine's Day.

According to the Department of Religious Affairs Director-General, Buddhist- related activities to be attended by students nationwide would help reduce the younger generation's enthusiasm for Valentine's Day, considered as a western materialist cultural intrusion.

"Instead of letting our young people become obsessed with the day of love," Mr. Preecha said, "we should enrich their minds and souls with Dhamma teaching that will keep their lives healthy, both morally and spiritually," he said.

11 February 2008

Thai youths value Makha Bucha Day more than Saint Valentine's Day

Thai young people give more importance to Makha Bucha Day than Valentine's Day, according to a new poll on the eve of the western holiday known for expressing affection with heart-shaped greeting cards, red roses and chocolates.

The poll conducted by Assumption University (ABAC) Feb 1-9 indicated that 70 per cent of 1,569 young respondents in Bangkok were aware that this year's Makha Bucha Day fell on Feb 13, one day before Valentine's Day, which is always celebrated on Feb 14.

While 48.7 percent of the young Thai respondents said that Makha Bucha Day was more important than the Valentine's Day, 13.8 percent said the day of love--as Thais have named the western festival--was more important, and 37.5 percent said both days were equally important.

Macha Bucha is a Buddhist holy day and marks a point in history when 1,250 of the Lord Buddha's followers gathered as if they had been notified by a simultaneous awareness, from widely separated areas to hear his sermon and without previous arrangement.

On Macha Bucha Day, a national holiday, Thai Buddhists throughout the country usually make merit by giving alms to monks and go to temples to listen to Dharma.

Asked what to do on the Makha Bucha Day, more than 90 percent of the teenage respondents preferred staying home for togetherness with their families and at least 87 percent said they intended to commit themselves to doing good things, reducing and ending bad behaviour.

10 February 2008

Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

From the author of the best-selling Living Buddha, Living Christ comes a journey into healing one of the greatest wounds of our time: alienation from our own spiritual traditions.

Living Buddha, Living Christ opened the door to a dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers takes us on a journey into the practice of revitalized Christianity. Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddha and Jesus say "hello" to each other. In Going Home, they sit down together and have a lengthy conversation. They ask each other for advice. They talk about how they can be united. They demonstrate their theological convergence. They talk about each others' prayers, rituals, and forms of practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates the life-affirming roots of two ancient spiritual traditions. As he says, "Redemption and resurrection are neither words nor objects of belief. They are our daily practice. We practice in such a way that Buddha is born every moment of our daily life, that Jesus Christ is born every moment of our daily life."

When it comes to contemplation and living the monastic life, both Buddhism and Christianity share many similarities. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and poet, explores these commonalities in many books, but this one is a quiet, easy-to-read summary of his insights in the matter.

The book (Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers) is perhaps easier to read than some of his others because it is largely a compilation of talks he has given to groups of pilgrims at his retreat house in Paris. So, while reading it, one has a sense of hearing the voice of this very gentle, learned man. Hanh draws interesting comparisons between the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Christianity and the discipline of mindfulness in Buddhism.

The Christian monastic father, St. Benedict of Nursia, for instance, asks us to treat kitchen utensils as if they were the vessels of the altar. Hahn urges us to eat slowly and mindfully. Then, he says, even a simple bit of toast and warm milk can seem like a sumptuous meal.

Hanh also delves into his other familiar themes: how to cope with our anger, how fear of the other leads to conflict, and how we can make compassion a daily spiritual practice.

09 February 2008

Cai Shen: Kung Hsi Fa Tsai!

Cai Shen (traditional Chinese: 財神; simplified Chinese: 财神; pinyin: Cáishén) also called (Wade-Giles romanization) Ts'ai Po Hsing Chün, is the Chinese god of prosperity. He can be referred to as Zhao Gongming or Bi Gan. Though Cai Shen started as a Chinese folk hero, later deified and venerated by local followers and admirers, Taoism and Pure Land Buddhism also came to venerate him as a god.

Cai Shen's name is often invoked during the Chinese New Year celebrations. He is often depicted riding a black Tiger and holding a golden rod. He may also be depicted armed with any one of several iron weapons. During the two-week New Year celebration, incense is burned in Ts'ai Shen's temple (especially on the fifth day of the first lunar month), and friends joyously exchange the traditional New Year greeting “May you become rich” (“Kung hsi fa ts'ai”).

The Ming-dynasty novel Feng Shen Yen I relates that when a hermit, Chao Kung-ming, employed magic to support the collapsing Shang dynasty (12th century BC), Chiang Tzu-ya, a supporter of the subsequent Chou-dynasty clan, made a straw effigy of Chao and, after 20 days of incantations, shot an arrow made of peach-tree wood through the heart of the image. At that moment Chao became ill and died. Later, during a visit to the temple of Yüan Shih, Chiang was rebuked for causing the death of a virtuous man. He carried the corpse, as ordered, into the temple, apologized for his misdeed, extolled Chao's virtues, and in the name of that Taoist god canonized Chao as Ts'ai Shen, god of wealth, and proclaimed him president of the Ministry of Wealth. (Some accounts reverse the dynastic loyalties of Chao and Chiang.)

Another account identifies Ts'ai Shen as Pi Kan, put to death by order of Chou Hsin, last Shang emperor, who was enraged that a relative should criticize his dissolute life. Chou Hsin is said to have exclaimed that he now had a chance to verify the rumour that every sage has seven openings in his heart.

This is the end of my short series on the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. When I return to this blog after a short New Year's break with my family, I shall return to the main focus of comparing Eastern Religions and Philosophies such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism to the Western Religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism.

08 February 2008

Feng Shui: Most prosperous year is 2009

The Year of the Mouse threatens to see a build-up of international tensions, natural and air disasters, and a more turbulent stock market, soothsayers and analysts say.

As the Year of the Pig ends, followers of Chinese feng shui will be scurrying to consult fortune-tellers, astrologers, feng shui geomancers to guide their year ahead.

Chinese fortunes are based on a belief that events are dictated by the different balances in the elements that make up the earth -- gold, wood, water, fire and earth.

Feng shui master Raymond Lo says this year will see the earth element sitting atop water, suggesting an outward solidity built on sliding foundations.

"The earth on top is Yang earth which symbolises a mountain, and mountain gives a sense of stability and firmness. But such floating earth in the ocean is weak in foundation and the stability appears to be fragile," Lo said.

"This elemental relationship will bring a year which apparently is more stable but there are a lot of underlying tensions and confrontations."

Lo added that the Chinese calendar follows a 60-year cycle, so 2008 will be similar historically to 1948, when Israel was established and the blockade of Berlin started, both events part of the build-up to long-standing conflict.

The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and associates each of the 12 years forming a partial cycle with an animal. Fortune-tellers base their predictions on the relationship between the zodiac animals and the characteristics of each.

The Mouse is the first of the 12 animal signs, so marks new beginnings, which Lo said will be reflected in changes of leadership in the United States and Russia.

It is followed by ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

The rodent is also seen as a "flower of romance" which means the year will stimulate romance, but also sex scandals.

More worryingly, it provokes a clash between water and fire which could mean heavy flooding or a tsunami, Lo added.

"The most famous water disasters in history, such as the south Asian tsunami in 2004 and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, both incidents happened on a date with prominent appearance of the Mouse," Lo said.

He also said that the previous Year of the Mouse, 1996, witnessed more than 20 plane crashes including the Trans World Airlines Boeing aircraft which exploded over the Atlantic, killing 230 people.

Lee Sing-tong, a third-generation feng shui master, said China may suffer a water shortage in the next 12 months.

But after the property bubbles in the US and China's tightening monetary measures, Lee believes the US and China property markets will enter another chapter and will see stable development.

Although the subprime crisis has caused concerns in the global economy, unexpectedly the property market will stabilize in 2008.

He predicts a better economy for China after the 2008 Olympics. "2009 will be its most prosperous year in history," he added.

Kenny Lau, head of the small-cap sector at Credit Suisse, said the last three Mouse years had all seen very strong stock market growth in Hong Kong. It grew 232 percent in 1972, 30 percent in 1984 and 18 percent in 1996.

But he said high inflation -- he predicted 5.1 percent in Hong Kong and 6.5 percent in the Chinese mainland -- would provide a threat to economic growth and turbulent times were ahead.

His colleague Vincent Chan, head of China research, said the markets will not repeat the record returns of the past few years.

"It is likely that the volatility of the market in 2008 will be comparable to that of 2007, but the chance of significant absolute returns is rather remote," he said.

07 February 2008

The 15 Days of the Spring Festival

First day of the new year

The first day is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year's Day, so all food to be consumed is cooked the day before.

Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time when families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended family, usually their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Lunar New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. Members of the family who are married also give red packets containing cash to junior members of the family, mostly children and teenagers.

Second day of the new year

The second day of the Chinese New Year is for married daughters to visit their birth parents. Traditionally, daughters who have been married may not have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently. On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods. They are extra kind to dogs and feed them well as it is believed that the second day is the birthday of all dogs.

Business people of the Cantonese dialect group will hold a 'Hoi Nin' prayer to start their business on the 2nd day of Chinese New Year. The prayer is done to pray that they'll be blessed with good luck and prosperity in their business for the year.

Third and fourth days of the new year

The third and fourth day of the Chinese New Year are generally accepted as inappropriate days to visit relatives and friends due to the following schools of thought. People may subscribe to one or both thoughts.
  1. It is known as "chì kǒu" (赤口), meaning that it is easy to get into arguments. It is suggested that the cause could be the fried food and visiting during the first two days of the New Year celebration.

  2. Families who had an immediate kin deceased in the past 3 years will not go house-visiting as a form of respect to the dead. The third day of the New Year is allocated to grave-visiting instead. Some people conclude it is inauspicious to do any house visiting at all.
Fifth day of the new year

In northern China, people eat Jiǎozi (simplified Chinese: 饺子; traditional Chinese: 餃子) (dumplings) on the morning of Po Wu (破五). This is also the birthday of the Chinese god of wealth. In Taiwan Province, businesses traditionally re-open on this day, accompanied by firecrackers.

Seventh day of the new year

The seventh day, traditionally known as renri 人日, the common man's birthday, the day when everyone grows one year older.

It is the day when tossed raw fish salad, yusheng, is eaten. This is a custom primarily among the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Singapore. People get together to toss the colourful salad and make wishes for continued wealth and prosperity.

For many Chinese Buddhists, this is another day to avoid meat.

Ninth day of the new year

The ninth day of the New Year is a day for Chinese to offer prayers to the Jade Emperor of Heaven (天公) in the Taoist Pantheon. The ninth day is traditionally the birthday of the Jade Emperor.

This day is especially important to Hokkiens and Teochews (Min Nan speakers). Come midnight of the eighth day of the new year, Hokkiens will offer thanks giving prayers to the Emperor of Heaven. Offerings will include sugarcane as it was the sugarcane that had protected the Hokkiens from certain extermination generations ago. Tea is served as a customary protocol for paying respect to an honored person.

Fifteenth day of the new year

The fifteenth day of the new year is celebrated as Yuánxiāo jié (元宵节), otherwise known as Chap Goh Mei in Fujian dialect. Rice dumplings Tangyuan (simplified Chinese: 汤圆; traditional Chinese: 湯圓; pinyin: tāngyuán), a sweet glutinous rice ball brewed in a soup, is eaten this day. Candles are lit outside houses as a way to guide wayward spirits home. This day is celebrated as the Lantern Festival, and families walk the street carrying lighted lanterns.

This day often marks the end of the Chinese New Year festivities.

06 February 2008

Pre-Spring Festival Festivities

On the days before the New Year celebration Chinese families give their home a thorough cleaning. There is a Cantonese saying "Wash away the dirts on ninyibaat"(年廿八,洗邋遢), but the practice is not usually restricted on ninyibaat(年二八, the 28th day of month 12). It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes their homes ready for good luck. Brooms and dust pans are put away on the first day so that luck cannot be swept away. Some people give their homes, doors and window-panes a new coat of red paint. Homes are often decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets. Purchasing new clothing, shoes and receiving a hair-cut also symbolize a fresh start (though, as described below, it may be considered bad luck among some.)

In many households where Buddhism or Taoism is prevalent, home altars and statues are cleaned throughly, and altars that were adorned with decorations from the previous year are also taken down and burned a week before the new year starts, and replaced with new decorations. A paper effigy of the Kitchen God, the recorder of family functions, is also burned in order to report to the Jade Emperor of the family household's transgressions and good deeds.

The biggest event of any Chinese New Year's Eve is the dinner every family will have. A dish consisting of fish will appear on the tables of Chinese families. It is for display for the New Year's Eve dinner. In northern China, it is also customary to have dumplings for this dinner. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape is like a Chinese gold nugget. This meal is comparable to Christmas dinner in the West. After the dinner, some families go to local temples hours before the new year begins to pray for a prosperous new year; however in modern practice, many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the new lunar year.

05 February 2008

Chinese New Year Dates

The lunisolar Chinese calendar determines Chinese New Year dates. The calendar is also used in countries that have adopted or have been influenced by Han culture (notably the Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese) and may have a common ancestry with the similar New Years festivals outside East Asia (such as Iran, and historically, the Bulgars lands).

Chinese New Year starts on the first day of the new year containing a new moon (some sources include New Year's Eve) and ends on the Lantern Festival fourteen days later. This occurs around the time of the full moon as each lunation is about 29.53 days in duration. In the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, a date between January 21 and February 20. This means that the holiday usually falls on the second (very rarely third) new moon after the winter solstice. In traditional Chinese Culture, lichun is a solar term marking the start of spring, which occurs about February 4.

The dates for the Spring Festival from 1996 to 2019 (in the Gregorian calendar) are at the right, along with the year's presiding animal zodiac and its earthly branch. The names of the earthly branches have no English counterparts and are not the Chinese translations of the animals. Alongside the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac there is a 10-year cycle of heavenly stems. Each of the ten heavenly stems is associated with one of the five elements of Chinese astrology, namely: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The elements are rotated every two years while a yin and yang association alternates every year. The elements are thus distinguished: Yang Wood, Yin Wood, Yang Fire, Yin Fire, etc. These produce a combined cycle that repeats every 60 years. For example, the year of the Yang Fire Rat occurred in 1936 and in 1996, 60 years apart.

Many confuse their Chinese birth-year with their Gregorian birth-year. As the Chinese New Year starts in late January to mid February, the Chinese year dates from 1 January until that day in the new Gregorian year remain unchanged from the previous Gregorian year. For example, the 1989 year of the snake began on 6 February 1989. The year 1990 is considered by some people to be the year of the horse. However, the 1989 year of the snake officially ended on 26 January 1990. This means that anyone born from January 1 to January 25, 1990 was actually born in the year of the snake rather than the year of the horse.

Many online Chinese Sign calculators do not account for the non-alignment of the two calendars, incorrectly using Gregorian-calendar years rather than official Chinese New Year dates.
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