28 July 2008

Chinese Valentine's Day and Olympic Love

In 2008, Beijing is undoubtedly the focus of the world, because the 29th Olympic Games will be held here. It is not only a grand affair of the mankind, but also a great honor of Chinese people. We are solicitous of the advent of the Olympics and as well, we warmly welcome you to come to Beijing to appreciate the infinite glamour of the oriental ancient civilizations.

On the occasion of worldwide celebration, the coming of traditional Chinese Valentine's Day adds more festivity to the atmosphere. Double Seventh Day, the Valentine's Day in China on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which falls on August 7 this year, while Aug. 8 is the opening day of 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Quite mysteriously, it seems that the Olympics is destined to be connected with the Double Seventh Day, QiXi.

The indissoluble bond between the Olympics and love was tied since the first Olympic Games. In the old Greek legend, Pelops was the grandson of the Olympian Zeus, the ruler of the Olympus. He fell in love with Hippodameia, the daughter of King Oenomaus of the Elis City. A god once predicted that Oenomaus would die if his daughter had got married. Therefore, he came up with an idea that anyone who wanted to marry his daughter had to race carriages with him. Only the winner could have his dream come true. 12 warriors lost the race and also their lives. Finally, Nelops resorted to Poseidon and won the game with the magic carriage and flying horse borrowed from him. Nelops had his wish fulfilled and also became the king of the Elis City. To celebrate his victory, he launched the world famous Olympic Games.

As well, the will of perseverance lying behind the beautiful love story of Double Seventh Day happens to be similar to the Olympic spirit. The legend goes like this: Zhi Nu was the youngest of the seven daughters of the Queen Mother, while, Niu Lang was a poor orphan cowherd, driven out of his home by his sister-in-law. His only companion was an old magical cow.

Under the direction of the cow, Niu Lang successfully married the youngest fairy, Zhi Nu. They lived happily together and had two children before the Queen Mother discovered Zhi Nu's absence. Queen Mother was so annoyed that she had Zhi Nu brought back to heaven. Again, with the help of the magical cow, Niu Lang was able to follow Zhi Nu into heaven. He was about to reach his wife when the Queen showed up and pulled off her hairpin to draw a line between the two. The line became the Silver River (also called Milky Way ) in heaven.

Zhi Nu went back to the heavenly workshop, going on weaving the clouds. But she missed her husband and children across the Silver River so much that the clouds she weaved seemed sad. Their loyalty to love touched magpies, so tens of thousands magpies came to build a bridge for the Cowhand and Weaver Maid to meet each other. Finally, the Queen showed a little mercy, allowing the couple to meet each year on the 7th of the 7th lunar month on the Silver River. Then for lovers who can not be together temporarily, this day became an important festival.

21 July 2008

Speaking of Faith: Recovering Chinese Religiosities

Put the words "religion" and "China" in a sentence together, and Western imaginations may go to indifference at best, to brutal repression at worst. Yet in grand historical perspective, China is a crucible of religious and philosophical thought and practice. Anthropologist and filmmaker Mayfair Yang says that the upheavals of the 20th century created an amnesia — in the West as in China itself — about this rich, pluralistic spiritual inheritance. She traces some of this story for us, and describes a subtle new revival of reverence and ritual.

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17 July 2008

In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out

The Japanese have long taken an easygoing, buffet-like approach to religion, ringing out the old year at Buddhist temples and welcoming the new year, several hours later, at Shinto shrines. Weddings hew to Shinto rituals or, just as easily, to Christian ones.

When it comes to funerals, though, the Japanese have traditionally been inflexibly Buddhist — so much so that Buddhism in Japan is often called “funeral Buddhism,” a reference to the religion’s former near-monopoly on the elaborate, and lucrative, ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services.

But that expression also describes a religion that, by appearing to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living, is losing its standing in Japanese society.

“That’s the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn’t meet people’s spiritual needs,” said Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple here in northern Japan. “In Islam or Christianity, they hold sermons on spiritual matters. But in Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests do that.”

Mr. Mori, 48, the 21st head priest of the temple, was unsure whether it would survive into the tenure of a 22nd.

“If Japanese Buddhism doesn’t act now, it will die out,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait. We have to do something.”

Across Japan, Buddhism faces a confluence of problems, some familiar to religions in other wealthy nations, others unique to the faith here.

The lack of successors to chief priests is jeopardizing family-run temples nationwide.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion’s rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birthrates remaining low.

Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

Over the next generation, many temples in the countryside are expected to close, taking centuries of local history with them and adding to the demographic upheaval under way in rural Japan.

Here in Oga, on a peninsula of the same name that faces the Sea of Japan in Akita Prefecture, Buddhist priests are looking at the cold math of a population and local fishing industry in decline.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the population is about half of what it was at its peak and that all businesses have also been reduced by half,” said Giju Sakamoto, 74, the 91st head priest of Akita’s oldest temple, Chorakuji, which was founded around the year 860. “Given that reality, simply insisting that we’re a religion and have a long history — Akita’s longest, in fact — sounds like a fairy tale. It’s meaningless.

“That’s why I think this place is beyond hope,” Mr. Sakamoto said at his temple, which sits atop a promontory overlooking a seaside village.

To survive, Mr. Sakamoto has put his energies into managing a nursing home and a new temple in a growing suburb of Akita City. That temple, however, has drawn only 60 households as members since it opened a couple of years ago, far short of the 300 said to be necessary for a temple to remain financially viable.

For centuries, the average Buddhist temple, whose stewardship was handed down from father to eldest son, served a fixed membership, rarely, if ever, proselytizing. With some 300 households to cater to, the temple’s chief priest and his wife were kept fully occupied.

Not only has the number of temples in Japan been dipping — to 85,994 in 2006, from 86,586 in 2000, according to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs — but membership at many temples has fallen.

“We have to find other jobs because the temple alone is not enough,” said Kyo Kon, 73, the head priest’s wife at Kogakuin, a temple here with 170 members. She used to work at a day care center while her husband was employed at a local land planning office.

Not far away at Doshoji, a temple whose membership has fallen to 85 elderly households, the chief priest, Jokan Takahashi, 59, was facing a problem familiar to most small family-run businesses in Japan: finding a successor.

His eldest son had undergone the training to become a Buddhist priest, but Mr. Takahashi was ambivalent about asking him to take over the temple.

“My son grew up knowing nothing but this world of the temple, and he told me he did not feel free,” he said, explaining that his son, now 28, was working at a company in a nearby city. “He asked me to let him be free as long as I was working, and said that he would come back and take over by the time he turned 35.

“But considering the future, pressuring a young person to take over a temple like this might be cruel,” Mr. Takahashi said, after giving visitors a tour of his temple’s most important room, an inner chamber with wooden, locker-like cabinets where, it is said, the spirits of his members’ ancestors are kept.

On a recent morning, Mr. Mori, the priest of the 700-year-old temple, began the day with a visit to a rice farming household marking the 33rd anniversary of a grandfather’s death. Bowing before the home altar, Mr. Mori prayed and chanted sutras. Later, he repeated the rituals at another household, which was commemorating the seventh anniversary of a grandfather’s death.

Increasingly, many Japanese, especially those in urban areas, have eschewed those traditions. Many no longer belong to temples and rely instead on funeral homes when their relatives die. The funeral homes provide Buddhist priests for funerals. According to a 2007 report by the Japan Consumers’ Association, the average cost of a funeral, excluding the cemetery plot, was $21,500, of which $5,100 covered services performed by a Buddhist priest.

As recently as the mid-1980s, almost all Japanese held funerals at home or in temples, with the local Buddhist priest playing a prominent role.

But the move to funeral homes has sharply accelerated in the last decade. In 1999, 62 percent still held funerals at home or in temples, while 30 percent chose funeral homes, according to the Consumers’ Association. But in 2007, the preferences were reversed, with 28 percent selecting funerals at home or in temples, and 61 percent opting for funeral homes.

In addition, an increasing number of Japanese are deciding to have their loved ones cremated without any funeral at all, said Noriyuki Ueda, an anthropologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an expert on Buddhism.

“Because of that, Buddhist priests and temples will no longer be involved in funerals,” Mr. Ueda said.

He said Japanese Buddhism had been sapped of its spiritual side in great part because it had compromised itself during World War II through its close ties with Japan’s military. After Buddhist priests had glorified fallen soldiers and given them special posthumous Buddhist names, talk of pacifism sounded hollow.

Mr. Mori, the priest here, said that after the war there was a desire for increasingly lavish funerals with prestigious Buddhist names. These names — with the highest ranks traditionally given to those who have led honorable lives — are routinely purchased now, regardless of a dead person’s conduct in life.

“Soldiers, who gave their lives for the country, were given special posthumous Buddhist names, so everybody wanted one after that, and prices went up dramatically,” Mr. Mori said. “Everyone was getting richer, so everyone wanted one.

“But that gave us a bad image,” he said, adding that the price of the top name in Akita was about $3,000 — though that was a small fraction of the price in Tokyo.

Indeed, that image is reinforced by the way the business of funerals and memorial services is conducted. Fees are not stated and are left to the family’s discretion, and the relatives generally feel an unspoken pressure to be quite generous. Money is handed over in envelopes, and receipts are not given. Temples, with their status as religious organizations, pay no taxes.

It was partly to dispel this bad image that Kazuma Hayashi, 41, a Buddhist priest without a temple of his own, said he founded a company, Obohsan.com (obohsan means priest), three years ago in a Tokyo suburb. The company dispatches freelance Buddhist priests to funerals and other services, cutting out funeral homes and other middlemen.

Prices, which are at least a third lower than the average, are listed clearly on the company’s Web site. A 10 percent discount is available for members.

“We even give out receipts,” Mr. Hayashi said.

Mr. Hayashi argued that instead of divorcing Japanese Buddhism further from its spiritual roots, his business attracted more people with its lower prices. The highest-ranking posthumous name went for about $1,500, a rock-bottom price.

“I know that, originally, that’s not what Buddhism was about,” Mr. Hayashi said of the top name. “But it’s a brand that our customers choose. Some really want it, so that means there’s a strong desire there, and we have to respond to it.”

After apologizing for straying from Buddhism’s ideals, Mr. Hayashi said he offered his customers the highest-ranking name, albeit with a warning: “In short, that this is different from going to a shop in town and buying a handbag, you know, a Gucci bag.”

16 July 2008

Monks and nuns say the Buddhist leader stifles religious freedom

Those looking for enlightenment Saturday from the Dalai Lama at Lehigh University's Stabler Arena first had to maneuver past 400 monks and nuns protesting a 40-year-old arcane decree by the Tibetan-leader-in-exile that they said violates their religious freedom.

The monks and nuns of the Western Shugden Society weren't hard to miss. Dressed in gold and maroon robes and most of them with shaved heads, the protesters held up signs and chanted -- in Tibetan -- "Dalai Lama! Give religious freedom." And "Dalai Lama! Stop lying."

The beef between the society and the Buddhist leader centers on the worship of the deity Dorje Shugden and specifically a prayer of peace and love Buddhists have used for 400 years.

Kelsang Pema, a society spokeswoman whose given name in her native England is Helen Gladwell, said the Dalai Lama "outlawed the prayer back in the 1970s because he claimed the thousands of Shugden followers saying the prayer did physical and spiritual harm to him."

Pema suggested that non-Shugden devotees persecute those who practice Shugden to the point of throwing all Shugden monks and nuns out of their monasteries and nunneries, denying Shugden followers jobs, getting their children expelled from schools -- even burning their homes and denying them medical care.

As an example, she told of a doctor in India who was about to treat a patient suffering from tuberculosis when an anti-Shugden follower in the room attacked the doctor, beating him.

"We admit this person could have done this on his own, but the Dalai Lama does not speak out against such actions."

No one in the Dalai Lama's entourage could be reached for comment.

Many people leaving Stabler Arena after listening to the Dalai Lama said they thought the protest was to get the Chinese out of Tibet and reinstate the Dalai Lama as the true leader of that Himalayan country.

Tom Howard of Center Valley said of the Dorje Shugden disagreement, "I'd have to know more about it before I could understand it."

The Western Shugden Society composed and delivered a letter dated April 12 to the Dalai Lama asking him to give them freedom to practice Dorje Shugden; to stop discrimination against Shugden people, to allow the Shugden monks and nuns to return to their monasteries and nunneries, and to put the three points above in writing and distribute it throughout the Buddhist world.

"We haven't heard from him," Pema said. "Honestly, we don't understand why he's doing this. It's so bamboozling."

The protest was peaceful, although a line of police officers was on hand and security at the arena was tight; metal detectors were in use.

15 July 2008

Dalai Lama sued for repressing religious freedom

While the Dalai Lama is yelling at China accusing it for repressing religious freedom in Tibet, he himself is being sued in India for heavy-handedly persecuting followers of a deity of Tibetan Buddhism deemed by the Dalai Lama as "non-spiritual" allegedly out of political necessity. As such, the Dalai Lama is accused of being more like a "totalitarian dictator", rather than a reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion that he proclaims himself as.

The lawsuit was initiated by the 13th Kundeling Rimpoche in the high court of Delhi. According to the petition, the Kundeling Rimpoche is a reincarnate Lama believes in "the freedom of worship as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, and is opposed to the ban on the worship of Dorje Shugden, as being illegal and unconsitutional."

The worship of Dorje Shugden has been controversial in Tibetan Buddhism since the Fifth Dalai Lama, who tried to repress his competitor, who worshipped Dorje Shugden, to claim the title of the de facto ruler of the Tibetan government by painting Dorje Shugden as an evil deity.

In the present petition, Dorje Shugden is said to have been for centuries worshipped as a protector of religion in the Gelugpa tradition, one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Legend has it that the Dorje Shugden, a human being who lived in the 17th century, was the strongest contender for selection as the Fifth Dalai Lama, but was foully murdered. His spirit then emerged and took on the role of a Dharmapala, who vowed to protect the Gelugpa traditions.

The deity of Dorje Shugden is worshipped in the Indian Buddhist tradition prevalent in Himachal Pradesh, Laddakh, Uttaranchal, West Bengal and Sikkim. Dorje Shugden is also worshipped in all areas of the world where the Gelugpa tradition is followed, such as Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, parts of China, parts of the former USSR, various countries in Europe, U.K. and U.S.A.

According to the Kundeling Rimpoche, the Dalai Lama realized in the mid-1970s that he had to reconsider his options after the thawing of Sino-US relations and thus a withdrawal of the funding of the Free Tibet movement by the Central Intelligence Agency of the USA.

"Therefore, in view of the sudden paucity of funds, a stratagem was devised whereby the call for a Free Tibet was to be slowly given up, and in order to divert the opinion of the public (especially Tibetans) from this, a controversy was created regarding the worship of Dorje Shugden," court documents say.

Against such a background, the Dalai Lama was accused to have used his dual role as the temporal head of the Tibetans in exile and as a spiritual guide. He issued numerous statements to the effect that the continuance of the worship of Dorje Shugden would be directly harmful to his health.

In a full-strength propaganda against the worship of Dorje Shugden, the Dalai Lama allegedly adopted a logic that read:

1. The Dalai Lama embodies Tibet.
2. People who dare criticize the Dalai Lama must be Chinese agents
3. The Dalai Lama does not approve of worship of Dorje Shugden
4. Therefore Dorje Shugden worshippers must be Chinese agents

The Kundeling Rimpoche quotes a study saying that while acknowledging that the worship of Dorje Shugden in Tibet goes back to over three centuries, the Dalai Lama has now been making statements against the worshippers of Dorje Shugden. He states that the worship of Dorje Shugden is harmful for the cause of Tibetan unity and is harmful to his own personal self.

"The website of the Respondent No. 4 [the Dalai Lama], www.dalailama.com, from which these Annexures have been downloaded, reveals that the Dorje Shugden issue takes up more webspace than any other issue," the petition filed in court says.

It is argued that the Dalai Lama, through his right-hand man who is a minister of the Tibetan government in exile, refuses to issue various documents, such as identity cards, to the Tibetan refugee community unless the applicants sign a form declaring renunciation of worship of Dorje
Shugden. These forms are not handed out, but are required to be signed there and then.

The Dalai Lama is accused of blackmailing Dorje Shugden worshippers into giving up their religious beliefs. At the same time, Indian citizens who worship Dorje Shugden are reviled and condemned as non-Buddhists and Chinese agents.

Dorje Shugden worshippers are branded as criminals and offenders by the Dalai Lama and his government. This has resulted in a situation where the District Administration is not even prepared to consider any complaints made by the worshippers of Dorje Shugden in respect of the violence committed against them by the supporters of the Dalai Lama. By 1996, Dorje Shugden worship was effectively outlawed.

The sworn affidavit says that Dorje Shugden worshippers have made numerous attempts since 1996 to bring about a rapprochement, but every time they have been spurned by the Dalai Lama, who amazingly still proclaims himself to be a reincarnation of Avalokiteshwara, i.e., the Buddha of Compassion. The acts of the Dalai Lama in this regard are more like that of a totalitarian dictator and not that of a Buddha of Compassion.

Many monks who believed in that practice went and settled in Mundgod in Karnataka, with the express intention of carrying out their religious practices without interference from the Dalai Lama. However, in January, 2008 the Dalai Lama visited the Mundgod area and gave speeches against the worship of the Dorje Shugden. This eventually led to an attack by the followers of the Dalai Lama upon the worshippers of the Dorje Shugden.

14 July 2008

Pilgrims invited to multi-faith prayers

Participants of World Youth Day are being asked to examine Australia's success as a multi-faith society.

The Community Relations Commission of New South Wales has invited the Catholic Church pilgrims to multi-faith prayers on Wednesday with representatives from religions including Buddhist, Orthodox Christian, Jewish and Islamic.

There will also be an exhibition at the Australia Museum for three days on the contributions of migrants to the life of the nation, from early exploration to national politics.

Commission chairman Stepan Kerkysharian says he hopes pilgrims recognise the message of tolerance.

"Through our multi-faith prayers and our 'Did You Know?' exhibition, I'm sure that they'll take back a message of tolerance, of acceptance and mutual respect," he said.

"Some of [those] coming from turbulent societies will see how wonderful it is for people of different religions to live together committed to their own country and that's the message we want them to take back."
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