Saturday, December 24, 2011

Orphanage Visits in Myanmar

Pan Chan Gone Orphanage Monastery in Bago, Myanmar

Situated in the heart of the Bago town, this orphanage monastery houses about 120 orphanages, aging from 3 to 13 years old. All are boys. This monastery provides shelter to the children whose parents lost their life in the civil war near the Thai-Myanmar border in the eastern Myanmar.

We distributed about 170 sets of stationery and 150 sets of bags, children story books plus sticker books to the children. Before we left, we presented some cash donation contributed by friends from Malaysia and Singapore to the monastery.



Sate Phu Taung, Youth Welfare Development Center, Mon State, Kyaikhto Township, Myanmar

The next day, after our Golden Rock tour, we went to this mountain orphanage which provide food and education to about 636 children from needy families and orphans. During our visit there, we met a big group from Buddhist Mission, Singapore who donated food and clothing to the children. Following that, we were mesmerised by a tribal dance performance by the children from Karan Tribe. Four of us went around distributing sweets to the children to make them happy, and a short tour around the center too. This center covers an area of 81 acres. Children are from as young as 3 months old to the university grad. Some orphans came back to teach after graduating from their teacher's training school.

As usual, before we left, we presented cash donation accumulated from the Malaysian and Singapore friends to Ven Jotika, the abbot of Seik Phu Taung monastery.


"A humane heart
of which loving kindness
and compassion flows
for which we deeply
appreciate and honour."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can someone attain liberation without meditation?

In one of the Dhamma talks by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a distinguished meditation teacher, at the Buddhist Library in Singapore, during the Q & A session, one of the audience asked Bhante this question: “Can someone attain liberation without meditation?” Bhante answered with reference to the five bases of liberation in which one’s mind could be liberated. I have no idea from which Sutta it is stated that way, but certainly it had created much interest not only me, but the Buddhist Library Spiritual Advisor himself to look for the source of the quotations.
Alas, finally, I’ve found it in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, V,26:

There are five bases of liberation:
1.      By listening to the Dhamma from a Teacher: When a certain monk in the position of a Teacher teaches the Dhamma to a monk, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises. When he is gladdened rapture arises; for one uplifted by rapture the body becomes calm; one calm in body feels happy; for one who is happy the mind becomes concentrated.
2.      By teaching the Dhamma to others: The monk himself teaches the Dhamma in details to others as he has learnt it and mastered it. That monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.
3.      By reciting the Dhamma: He recites the Dhamma in detail as he has learnt it and mastered it. As he recites the Dhamma, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.
4.      By investigating the Dhamma: He ponders, examine and mentally investigates the Dhamma as he has learnt it and mastered it. As he ponders the Dhamma, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.
5.      By concentration on certain object: He has learnt well a certain object of concentration, attends to it well, sustains it well, and penetrates it thoroughly with wisdom. As he learns well an object of concentration, that monk experiences the meaning and the Dhamma. When he gains such experience gladness arises…the mind becomes concentrated.

So, when a monk dwells diligent, ardent and resolute in any of the five bases, his unlibrerated mind comes to be liberated, his undestroyed taints undergo destruction, and he attains the as-yet-unattained unsurpassed security from bondage.

The key phrase that is common to all the five here, is “mind becomes concentrated”. Let’s take a look at what commentary has got to say on this: (pertaining to the first base) “As he listens to the Dhamma, he comes to know the jhānas, insight, the paths and fruits whenever they come up (in the course of instruction). When he knows them, rapture arises, and on account of that rapture he does not allow himself to backslide midway; rather, he brings his meditation subject up to the level of access concentration, develops insight, and attain arahantship. With reference to this it is said, ‘the mind becomes concentrated.’”

The purpose of pointing to this phrase is to examine if it is really that the bases of liberation, at least on the first four, has nothing to do with meditation. Perhaps, commentaries is not the ultimate point of reference as they are not the original Buddha’s words. Hence, falling back to my style, which is non other than resorting to examine the terms used in its original sense:
-          Concentration: The original Pāli word is Samādhi. “One who is happy the mind becomes concentrated (Sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati)”. According to the Pāli-English Dictionary by Rhys Davids and William Stede, Samādhi means concentration; a concentrated, self-collected, intent state of mind and meditation, which, concomitant with right living, is a necessary condition to the attainment of higher wisdom and emancipation. (Samādhi exists in Hindu meditation as well, but the objective of the practice is different from that of the Buddha.)  
-          When we talk about meditation, conventionally, one will associate it with the practice of closing eyes with cross-legged and focusing on breathe. Well, that is a very narrow perception on this rich and broader sense of Buddhist path. It is natural for yogis and ascetics to sit cross-legged when practicing meditation, but it is not so in our time. Perhaps some may have misconception of it being too ritualistic and something mystic. Well, if that is not so, what then, is “meditation” really? When we trace to the original word spoken by the Buddha in which the translation comes from, it is often associated with “Bhāvana”. According to the dictionary, Bhāvana comes from the word “Bhāva” meaning being, becoming, condition or nature. It rarely appears on itself, so Bhāvana is a more meaningful term, which carries the meaning of “producing”, “dwelling on something”, “putting one’s thoughts to”, “application”, “developing by means of thought or meditation”, and “cultivating by mind”. Etimologically, it is said that the Buddha employs the term in the sense of cultivation, pertaining to the farmer performs bhavana when he or she prepares soil and plant a seed, in view of the agriculture background at the time of the Buddha’s dwelling. When it is discussed in relation to the cultivation of mind, this is where the term is used in a richer and deeper sense in comparison to the mere term of “meditation”. It carries the smell of earthiness, the ordinariness, suggesting that no matter how damaged a field have become, it can always be cultivated and enriched, producing satisfactory harvests – the results of cultivation! What do we actually develop and cultivate? It is the development of particular faculty that is intended to: Citta-bhāvana (development of mind/consciousness); Kāya-bhāvana (development of body); Metta-bhāvana (development of loving kindness); Pañña-bhāvana (development of wisdom); Samādhi-bhāvana (development of tranquil-wisdom - covering everything from worldview, to ethics, livelihood and mindfulness). The Theravādan teachers made us of both Samatha-bhāvana (development of tranquility) Vipassana-bhāvana (development of insight) which are added to the above.

What is the relation between Samādhi and Bhāvana then? Can Samādhi, as concentration be explicitly equated to Bhāvana as meditation? I was told that Bhāvana is the process, Samādhi is the result. In Samādhi, rupa and arupa jhānas are the results/fruits of sufficiently sustained concentration. Mind as the “earth” as mentioned above, in its stable condition – free of floods, parasites, and landslide, is a perfect “working place” (kammatthana) for crops cultivation. In the same sense, with a stable and concentrated mind, it becomes a fertile ground for the insights to take place and finally awakened to the true nature of the world.

Visit the five bases as expounded in the AN again, the first four are seemingly not related to meditation practice. But looking at them closely, each of them achieve the concentrated mind via “experience” (paṭisaṃvedī) on the wholesome knowledge he has gained. Take it for example the reciting of the Dhamma, we be reminded of the chanting of the name of Amitabha practice. Chanting (recitation) is the tool, developed and concentred mind is the result, and liberated mind is the fruition. This is “Bhāvana”, glamourly translated as “meditation”. We study the Dhamma, examine it, ponder on it – these are the means to cultivated mind. The whole process… is what we call “Bhāvana”. Bhāvana embodies all the five bases. It also runs through the whole Noble Eightfold Path. Hence, it is not limited to a particular way of folding the body or residing in a particular retreat centre. At the Buddha’s time, many liberated through hearing the Dhamma itself, or merely sweeping the floor. What is important here is what is really “at work”, at the right place and the right fruition will take place.

A Bhikkhu friend of mine told me this after consulting him regarding this topic: “Don’t just read the menu, can see cannot eat”. Similarly, don’t just look at the mere superficial meaning of words and terms, and examining the etimological meaning here and there – more importantly, understand it, experience it, and realise it!

Pāli-English Dictionary by Rhys Davids and William Stede
Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Antology of Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Translated and edited by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tiger's Dhammic Movie Review III: The Aging and Death of “Benjamin Button”

“At Sāvathi, King Pasenadi of Kosala said to the Blessed One: ‘Venerable sir, is anyone who is born free from aging and death?’ The Blessed One replied: ‘Great king, no one is born free from aging and death. Even those affluent khattiyas – rich, with great wealth and property, with abundant gold and silver, abundant treasures and commodities, abundant wealth and grain – because they have been born, are not free from aging and death. Even those affluent Brahmins… affluent householders – rich… with abundant wealth and grain – because they have been born, are not free from aging and death. Even those monks who are arahants, whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, and are completely liberated through final knowledge: even for them this body is subject to breaking up, subject to being laid down.
   The beautiful chariots of kings wear out,
   This body too undergoes decay.
   But the Dhamma of the good does not decay:
   So the good proclaim along with the good.’”

(excerpt from Sayutta Nikāya 3:3, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

No one can escape aging and cheat death. Even with the advancement of the medical sciences today, you may only delay them, but not “skipping” them. Aging begins from the very moment we are born, and the more often we celebrate our birthdays, the closer we are to the day of death. Haha, I’m sure no one will ever like to hear this in his or her birthday celebrations!

The excerpt from the Saṃyutta Nikāya as illustrated above serves as the prolouge to a man called Benjamin Button. Who is Benjamin Button anyway? He is the main character in a very special film called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, the winner of three 81st Academy Awards. In this movie, he is born with an extremely weird disease: he comes to the world with a body of an old man in his 80’s. But over the years he becomes younger physically even as he ages mentally, which is in the reverse of everyone else. Struggling with his extraordinary condition, he finds that it is becoming impossible for him to live together with his loved ones: his beloved woman, Daisy and their daughter, Caroline. He “enjoys” his youthful days towards the last few chapters of his life, and eventually dies as a baby in his beloved woman’s arms.

Benjamin Button is not a hero, he is not enlightened either. He is merely a normal person like any of us, gaining wisdom and insights throughout the years of various life experiences. Just like any of us, he is unable to stop the time. Reflect on what is illustrated in the excerpt of the sutta above: “no can ever escape aging and death”. But what does “aging and death” mean to Benjamin Button? He does not experience the usual aging process in the same of what we all have to go through. But for him, aging nevertheless is still happening “inside” him. In the film, Benjamin made a remark to Daisy stating that he looks young only in the outside. Youthfulness is only a statement of mind, given the maturity gained over the years, one would become more and more seasoned with life. Impermanence is one of the main characteristics of the world we live in, nothing in our fathom-long carcass can escape that.

It also seems that Benjamin is very much “immune” to the process of dying and deaths. Well, perhaps this is because he spent most part of his “childhood” life in a nursing home filled only with old folks who were at the doorstep of the end of their life. Nothing indeed was common than the news of death of those residents there. In the beginning, Benjamin thought that he was just one of them, but over the course of time, he felt that there’s something he did not have in common with those folks. He was later convinced that he was not heading towards the destined direction (aging and death), instead he gained more “will” and “energy” to live each day. The tragic death of Captain Mike in a battle with German U-boat and the unusual appearance of Hummingbird in the middle of ocean had somehow changed his understanding towards death. Surrounded by deaths at every corner of his life, he was not very much saddened by the demise of his long-lost biological father, and his beloved foster-mother, Queenie. But I guess we don’t really need a “shower of death” for us to understand life and the inescapability of death, certainly contemplating death meditation as taught by the Buddha does serve as a good tool to achieve that.

The unusual circumstance of Benjamin being aging backwards leaves a significant impact on the people around him. Quoting from a phrase in the movie trailer, “Life can only be understood backward, it must be lived forward”, surely that mirrors the fact that every single experience in our life becomes our real “teacher”. Daisy did earnestly hope to lead a normal life with Benjamin till the end, but eventually realised that she was too old for Benjamin who came back to meet her in a much younger appearance. Similarly in our daily life, we should learn how to let the bygones be bygones. If Daisy chose to cling on to her “good-old-days” with Benjamin, both would suffer. Grasping to the past does not help us to grow, it will only retard us from gaining wisdom in understanding life.

We tend to grasp at a lot of things in our life, from the food we eat to various social achievements in the society. Once, Captain Mike told Benjamin this: “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” In the Mahādukkhakkhandha Sutta (MN 13), the Buddha rightfully testifies how attachment to sensual pleasures, form and feelings could lead to the downfall of many, and hence the removal or abandonment of desire and lust towards them would therefore lead to the escape of it. Likewise, a person whose beauty we once admire the most, being consumed by age and time, would then appear crooked, wrinkled, and at the end remains just a foul corpse lying lifelessness. But even in the case of Benjamin who is at the reverse, the conditionality of the whole thing works the same: he could not stop himself from growing younger, no one is able to live a normal life with him till the end. Reaching the stage of a pre-teen just hitting puberty, Benjamin could not even escape dementia which has robbed him of his memories, both long and short. No one can ever escape the reality of conditionality, be it the forward or “reverse” direction of aging! 

Somewhere in the movie, Benjamin remarked to Daisy, “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” To which she replies, “Some things last.” As exclaimed in the opening sutta, nothing in this world, as long as they are conditioned, can escape change and decay. But something lasts, something which stands the course of time. It is the everlasting Buddha Dhamma that resonate the timeless message of “All conditioned things are subject to decay…”