Monthly Archives: October 2013

New method, new perspectives

Just a note before I head to bed (not before I do some stretching).

My roommate, Eric, and I now have frequent conversations about my thesis, or what I am doing to write my thesis, and a point about perspectives came up recently.

In (re)reading the Buddha’s life story, I found that the main character is the Buddha. That’s no surprise. Everyone else seems to think so, and discuss it from that angle.

But I believe that lens have been overused. Sure, the point of telling the story of the Buddha is to, well, talk about his life isn’t it? But, is that all?

What about all the other characters and events? What can we make of Bimbisara, Devadatta and the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana?

We often think of the first of these as a patron of Buddhism at the time of its founding, and that he seeked the Buddha out before the latter was enlightened. But do you know, according to the Buddhacarita, that Bimbisara might be the reason the Buddha even considered teaching the Dharma?

If you are Buddhist, (or the adherent of any faith, or the practitioner of any discipline or student of any field), what can you learn from this?

What I got: The end-goal may be to become the main character in the story, but (s)he doesn’t exist independent of any context. And to be a Buddha, one can’t just always look to that end. We might be in positions where we can’t be a Buddha, but we can work towards that by being a supporting figure, one who makes the ultimate possible.

For the center does not exist without its periphery, and it’s the flatland that make the peak outstanding. 

Break from Buddhacarita and my thesis

After furiously posting some of my preliminary analysis of the Buddhacarita and the theoretical framework I am using for my thesis, I now have to take a break of about two weeks to write my midterm paper and prepare for a presentation.

Just something before I go off.

Conversations with my girlfriend on her thesis — Context matters

My girlfriend’s (Ah Wan) working on her B.A. thesis and she’s hoping to introduce a yet-unheard of Chan master and (what little seem to have remain) of his teachings. She was progressing well, but seemed to have met with some inertia of late, and she spoke of how she wasn’t experiencing the kind of joy I seem to derive from my research on the Buddhacarita.

I couldn’t help much, but today a professor facilitating her thesis writing class did. Upon reflection, she’s decided to go read up on the context this particular master lived in, and the about his teacher, who is reportedly more famous.

Sometimes what stops us is surprising. Ah Wan reported that she didn’t want to do anymore about the topic not because she did not care about the topic — she sincerely hopes to introduce this master’s thoughts — but the thought of having to go in a whole new direction put her off.

Yet at the very same time, if we learn to take bite-size bits of our big projects, we’ll quickly find that the latter are the very motivations for our progress.

My midterm paper — The way to enlightenment according to Sarvastivadin Abhidharma sources

Not much to say, but I think this should be the part I am most interested in of all the Abhidharmic analyses. I’m thinking of doing some tables to better understand Prof. Dhammajoti’s thoughts on this, as presented in the Sarvastivada Abhidharma. Please tell me if you might be interested.

Midterm presentation — Data Mining!! An exciting (possible) new approach to understanding Buddhist texts

I really should start a new blog to document my forays into this field, but basically I’m hoping to using some data mining techniques (which involves a combination of AI and statistics) to explore Buddhists text. More on this later, once I come up with the presentation.

For some inkling of what data mining might be about (interesting read even if you don’t understand anything about data mining from it anyway), read http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/28/spotting-romantic-relationships-on-facebook/?_r=0

 

The beauty of mathematics and a closer look at correspondence of chapters

What mathematical formulae have informed my work

For the record, I should share with you what I told my girlfriend when she questioned me about this choice of a topic. The main thrust of her question was if my research would be useful to Buddhists and the practice of Buddhism. Putting aside for now the argument of whether one should gain knowledge for its own sake, I think it’s interesting to note something else I learnt (and apparently absorbed) during a class on Mathematics during my time in the National University of Singapore, under the facilitation of Dr. Peter PANG (thank you to Dr. Pang for this great course and initiating/supporting my research into Buddhism).

I surprised myself when I replied thus: “Just like mathematical formulae could be utilized by all without an understanding of their theoretical foundations, so my theoretical chiasmic analysis can (hopefully) generate lessons that can be applied and are applicable to the everyday Buddhists (who I suppose don’t read the Buddhacarita over and over again, or any of the readings I do).” (While editing this, I realized I gave a chiasmic reply, can you spot it?)

I’m surprised on two counts. Firstly, my girlfriend, for the first time, said she does not disagree with such thought. (Usually she always has something to add, or to make me rethink my position). Secondly, on reflection, it’s a tall order, but I hope this blog is a step in this direction.

A more detailed correspondence of the chapters of the Buddhacarita

For those with an appetite for with the details of my analysis, here’s a closer look, and follow up, to what I posted yesterday. Here I have put up (again, another tentative) table and some guesses as to what links the two chapters up.

You will of course smartly note that not all chapters are represented here, but that awaits further work. Of these, the most interesting to me is how the Bodhisattva (Siddharta) went from lamenting and shock over old age, illness and death (and how it applies to all man, including himself) to comforting Ananda (his personal attendant for several decades), the Licchavis and Mallas over his own old age, illness and death. The Buddha even told the Mallas, who witnessed his nirvana, to be joyful for their teacher is about to attain what he has aimed for the earlier part of his life.

What is the Buddhacarita like?

Tomorrow is D-day. Well, it isn’t all that severe, but it is the day of I meet my thesis adviser to decide if I should continue on this topic. I think it’s a foregone conclusion, but it still bugs me if he would come up with questions to fall my proposition. But, that aside, I think it is right to give you an idea of what the Buddhacarita looks like.

First of all, the was composed entirely in Sanskrit verses. I can’t read Sanskrit, and so right now I’m depending on the English and Chinese versions, the latter of which comprises of about 60,000 characters. It comes in 28 chapters which are titled, but the titles are misleading because they might contain more events or characters they claim to be about. An example is chapter 12, titled “Visit to Arada” but it really also talks about the Bodhisattva Siddharta meeting Udraka (both Arada and Udraka are major teachers of the Sramanic tradition) and even the five ascetics.

So, the chapters are:

And if I may order them chiastically, they would roughly be:

You might notice that the ordering might not align according to specific themes or characters at this point, but that is work-in-progress. At the same time the question remains as to what is the center of the entire story. Certainly many Buddhists would be pretty confident that it is the Buddha’s enlightenment, without which the whole story would not have been passed till this day. But the magic of the chiasmic structure is that the matching of content on both sides of the center point might lead us to a very different conclusion than what has been normally assumed.

A few things, though, are clear at this point. The Bodhisattva’s birth probably matches the Buddha’s nirvana, and his leaving home can correspond to the “Meeting of Father and Son”. Closer to the time of enlightenment, the Bodhisattva met the five ascetics, who he duly first taught after his enlightenment. Yet another match is in Srenya’s (Bimbisara), King of Magadha, appearance before and after the Buddha’s enlightenment.

But, is the enlightenment really the most important point of the story? What do you think?

 

What happened around the time of the Buddha’s enlightenment? (And perhaps an alternative understanding of transactions and giving)

I must first admit — I started this blog too late. If I had started posting when I first started reading the Buddhacarita, and was toying with the idea of writing on it, you would have been presented with my earlier editions of its summaries. Perhaps that can still be presented somewhere down the road, but now I’m way more interested to tell you about some interesting points gleaned today through discussions with my fellow researchers, Eric and Gabo.

Discovering almsgiving and the continuation of the teachings with Gabo

Speaking to Gabo was an opportunity to see how our individual research connects, hers being on the liminality protrayed in tales of Buddhist heroes, like Vessantara and Siddharta. When describing to her about my currently difficulty in trying to find a chiasmic match to the occurrence of Nandabala offering milk rice to the Bodhisattva close to the time of enlightenment, I gave Gabo a sequence of events that went:

Heavenly being tells Nandabala to offer food to the Bodhisattva; Nandabala offers food

On the other side of the story, in the post-enlightenment portion, the Buddha was approached by “two chiefs of the heavenly dwellings” and requested to endow the world with his spiritual teachings and realizations.

It immediately became apparent that what was common was the role of the heavenly beings. The divine instigator caused the offering of food to the Buddha and the heavenly chiefs requested for teachings — which struck me..,that this is the exact model that the Buddha and his ordained community was to live by during the Buddha’s day. Lay devotees would invite the Buddha and his disciples to partake of a meal, and, at the end of the meal, the Buddha delivered a suitable discourse to the almsgivers.

We postulated that perhaps every act of almsgiving symbolically reenacts the Buddha’s enlightenment, and thereby cause the passing down of the spiritual teachings possible. And Gabo said she has received new inspiration for her thesis.

Exploring an alternative way of understanding the dynamics of giving with Eric

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Mentioning this to Eric quickly pushed me to think deeper about this issue. What surprised me was that he didn’t find the point that the heavenly beings were the ones who first initiated the giving food-receiving teachings pattern quite as interesting as I thought it was. For him, this was a well-established practice among the ascetics during the Buddha’s time, and Chinese Buddhist thought has always seen the act of giving food as one to be met with the return of the favor through delivery of the sermon.

This made me go back to the text, to see if perhaps there was something more, And I struck gold (hopefully)! It turns out we can talk about the function of this giving of food to spiritual practitioners, which is essentially to sustain their lives and thus wisdom, and in turn so they can share and spread their realizations.

Eric then pointed to how there were discussions of how some scholars conceptualize giving as an exchange for spiritual brownie points — merit or good karma — and how our discussion reveals an alternative way to this supposed paradigm of spiritual exchange. But I believe what we are looking at is widely relevant to even mundane economics of trading.

Instead of looking at an exchange as one which involves giving money for good, we can perhaps think of how our obtaining of a product through the payment of cash as an act of sustaining the producer(s) of the good. In other words, we are voting for the continued supply of the good by sustaining the model and producers that makes the good/service possible.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this could be the start of my project on a Buddhist view of economics.

Buddhacarita: What and Why?

So if the Buddha’s life story could be thought of as chiasmic, why choose one particular work like the Buddhacarita?

Before I start on this topic, I would first like to tell you why I even got interested in the Buddha’s biographies in the first place. At some point during my current course (that is supposed to lead to a Masters of Arts in Buddhist Studies) it occurred to me that, as a Buddhist, I should learn more about the personality that allegedly started the faith/religion. It was a pretty simply impulse which I’m sure many more Buddhists share, and a powerful one, for I couldn’t help but feel there was so much to be gained reading these stories – so much that I had to continue reading and understanding them.

Take my word on these: reading well-written, meaningful stories of the Buddha (or I’m sure that is true for all other religious figures) is energizing, to say the least!

But still, why the Buddhacarita? The answer to that has to start with my initial searching into the Taisho Shinzokyo edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon for the Buddha’s life stories (unfortunately, I can’t read any other canonical Buddhist language). I found 14 extent versions of the stories, and because I didn’t have the time to read them all (in time for my paper), I worked with those with were organized into chapters (with chapter titles to tell me what they were roughly about). That left me with 7 of them, of which only 2 had complete — from birth to death (nirvana) — stories of the Buddha’s life.

One of which is Buddhacarita, much better known, and as I were to later find out, has extent portions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Another plus is that quite a few scholars — Samuel Beal, E.H. Johnston, Friedrich Weller — have worked on critical editions of the Sanskrit text, and they translated it into English. (And if you are interested, I highly recommend Johnston’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha.)

The author of this work is well-established as Asvaghosa, whom we know lived in North India during the 1st to 2nd century C.E. Although I can’t read the original Sanskrit work, it is reportedly in Classical Sanskrit, and the author displays very deep knowledge of Brahmanic literature, as evidenced by the many allusions to Vedic and Brahmanic stories within conversations in the Buddhacarita. The translation itself is wonderfully poetic, which is some testament to that it was meant to be performed/read in the royal court during the author’s days.

There were days when I spent, in the attempt to familarise myself with the text, just reading the translations aloud, and I truly enjoyed them. As a Venerable, who is a PhD student with our department puts it, it is indeed a luxury (not all can or will learn to enjoy) to light some incense, have cups of tea, while reading/reciting/learning about the Buddha or his teachings.

Chiasmus

What is a chiasmus? Oxford Dictionaries (Online) defines it as “a rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order”. Quite a mouthful. But I think, put simply, it’s a bidirectional road with a U-turn, where there are features on both sides that correspond to one another.

It is quite easily found in poetry and shorter pieces of work, but what inspired my search for such a structure in the Buddhacarita is (beside Ven. Huifeng’s class on the Buddha’s biographies) is that longer texts have been found to be constructed along similar lines. Mary Douglas, in Thinking in Circles, calls the structure a ring composition, and gives the wonderful example of this occurring in the Robert Murray’s work on the first few chapters of Genesis. See here because I can’t quote it at length here.

In our very brief (and increasingly deeper) conversation (between Ven. And I), we believe that the Buddha’s life story does seem to exhibit signs that it is chiasmic, thus the current explorations!