Category Archives: Reflections

The big WHY everyone seems to be spending lots of time on in this uncertain age

Data mining the Asita-Subhadra connection: Progress Report 1

Out of 126 clusters, I have gone through the first 20, and found that 7 are chiasmically meaningful, which is much higher than I thought.

Even more surprisingly, the clusters threw up what I previously gleaned by reading and manually comparing those parts.

Here’s a preview of what I have gotten thus far.

ProgressReport1 - clusters

I understand that might not be all that intelligible, but here’s what I gleaned from those clusters.

ProgressReport1 - gleanings

In terms of providing different perspectives of what is chiasmic, I think this method is holding up very well so far, and has generated quite a few matches that I did not pick up on while reading these two sections. (what I did pick up on is briefly presented here)

The most interesting would probably be the one found in cluster 4 – the Buddha was born to end birth. How strange that seems! Have you ever heard of someone doing something in order to stop doing that very same action?

Discussion with Eric brought to my mind how eating can be considered an example of this. We eat to starve off hunger so that we do not have to eat further, but, as Eric quickly points out, that is only a temporary relief. Perhaps that’s the importance of the Buddha’s endeavour – it is said to be the ultimate relief.

A bloodline of a different sort 不一樣的血脈

  1. 中文版請點這裡

In a sense, there really is no need to tell you that the birth of the Buddha-to-be, and His death, supposedly 80 years later, is related to one another. But one it serves as a very clear example of what a chiasmus is supposed to look like – something happens at the start or the story, and it is repeated (although in a different way) at the story’s end. More importantly, this pattern is noticed at the center of the story.

One of the things that struck me, and I hope you too, is the repetition of the non-human assembly at these events. Nagas, Yaksas, Devas, beings of the Suddhadhivasa (Pure Abode) Heavens. Even Mara – or better known as kamadeva, the god of passions – was involved.

Mara probably stands out the most, for his reactions were the very opposite of the other non-human crowd attendant at these events. At Siddhartha’s birth he “did not rejoice” and at the Buddha’s death he “uttered loud laughs” at “obtain[ing] his heart’s desire”.

The drum beaten by the heavenly beings at Siddhartha’s birth, was metaphorically used to describe the resounding Dharma realized and uncovered by the Buddha at his enlightenment. You wouldn’t have to guess that the gay Kamadeva was the one cheering the aged Buddha towards his parinirvana.

But if because of his controversial role we think Mara was the enemy of the Buddha, I think we are quite mistaken. Kamadeva was not trying to be an enemy, he was just sentient. He was the chief god of the realm of the passions, in which we live in. He stood against the Buddha’s realization because he was threatened, his realm could potentially be emptied if we transcended the passions following the Buddha’s instructions.

But that didn’t happen. On his deathbed, the Buddha reminds his disciples that he is the physician who has dispensed the necessary medicine, the onus now falls on them to take the medication. It is a message addressed to us all, even Mara, who was perhaps too etched in his role to notice.

But I might just be subjectively interpreting this passages, so further proof should be offered. Surprisingly, not all beings were so expressive of their emotions at these events. The beings of the Suddhadhivasa heavens are a key example. At the Siddhartha’s birth, they “rejoiced in their pure natures, though passion was extinct in them, for the sake of the world drowned in suffering”, and at the Buddha’s death, they “were composed and felt no agitation of mind; for they despised the nature of the world”. The ways of the world…sounds really familiar, isn’t it?

Before I go on, here’s some information about these beings:

The Śuddhāvāsa (Pāli: Suddhāvāsa; Tib: gnas gtsang ma) worlds, or “Pure Abodes”, are distinct from the other worlds of the Rūpadhātu in that they do not house beings who have been born there through ordinary merit or meditative attainments, but only those Anāgāmins (“Non-returners”) who are already on the path to Arhat-hood and who will attain enlightenment directly from the Śuddhāvāsa worlds without being reborn in a lower plane. Every Śuddhāvāsa deva is therefore a protector of Buddhism.                                                                                                                              (Wikipedia, 31/12/2013)

So we see that there are beings who, while being aloof from the world and partake in none of its emotions, are interested in the enlightenment of the Buddha.

But where do we stand? Whose ways do you inherit?

在某層面上,我其實不需要提說悉達多的出生與佛陀的涅槃是有關聯的。可是它卻又非提不可,因爲它是U-型環狀的最佳範例 – 它突現了某樣事件或主題出現在整篇故事中的開頭,結尾以及中間點。

讀著這些片段讓我印象最深刻的是非人類頻繁的出現。您也發現了嗎?龍天夜叉,淨居天眾,就連魔,推廣眾欲望之神也一樣。

魔的角色大概最爲明顯,因爲他對佛陀的態度往往與其它非人是相反的。悉達多太子出生時,他”震動大憂惱“。佛陀入涅是他卻“奏樂以自娛”。

悉達多太子出生時天中所響起的鼓,到了佛陀証道時被用來寓意佛法有多響亮,而到了佛快入涅時,居然是魔在興奮歡慶之餘所鼓奏。

佛所行讚裏記載魔的舉止可能會讓讀者認爲魔就是佛陀的敵人。我認爲這種認知是錯誤的。魔不是存心以佛陀為敵,而只是表現出他被情欲所影響的衆生。他處處阻撓佛陀的成道宣法因爲他認爲他所主宰的欲界受到了威脅。畢竟,如果人人都聽從佛陀的教誨,欲界會清空。

現實狀況當然不是如此。臨終時,佛陀提醒了他的弟子他雖是良醫,也盡其責任把癔病的藥方交給了大家,可是服藥的責任落在病人的身上。這警訊是對我們以及一切的衆生說的,就連魔也是如此,雖然他大概因爲太入戯而無法聼進腦袋裏去。

可是可能我這一些説法只不過是片面的解讀,所以仍然該進一步給大家多些證據。在探討佛陀的生死事故,我發現並不是全部參與的大眾都會表現高昂亢奮的情緒。淨居天眾就是個例子。悉達多太子誕生時,他們“歡喜”因爲雖然“已除愛欲歡”仍然“為法而欣悅”。佛如涅後,佛所行讚記載:

p0050a10-11║ 淨居天來下,虛空中列侍,

觀察無常變,無憂亦無喜。

也就是說他們不順世間之法。雖然如此,他們仍舊參與著佛法在世間流傳的工作。

在這新年之際,大家不妨想想,我這一年來有把努力與實踐用在自己認爲是最重要的目的與人身上嗎?會不會因太入戯而忘卻了最重要的學習呢?

A reading from Zhuangzi on technology 莊子說科技

I was recently telling a Venerable who is a PhD student with our department about how I intend to pursue studies further along the lines of digital humanities in Buddhist Studies. The next day he shared the following with me:

The original in classical Chinese: 「」

子貢南游於楚,反於晉,過漢陰,見一丈人方將為圃畦,鑿隧而入井,抱瓮而出灌,搰搰然用力甚多而見功寡。 子貢曰:「有械於此,一日浸百畦,用力甚寡而見功多,夫子不欲乎?」 為圃者卬而視之曰:「奈何?」 曰:「鑿木為機,後重前輕,挈水若抽,數如泆湯,其名為槔。」 為圃者忿然作色而笑曰:「吾聞之吾師,有機械者必有機事,有機事者必有機心。機心存於胸中,則純白不備;純白不備,則神生不定,神生不定者,道之所不載也。吾非不知,羞而不為也。」 子貢瞞然慚,俯而不對。 

I couldn’t understand the terminology that well, so I consulted various versions translated into common-day parlance available on the web, and to my surprise (though I really shouldn’t be) there were many versions. The versions I am quoting here are from Andrew Lee and Peter Chou.  The first part is usually quite standard, and goes

1 子貢到楚國旅遊,在返回晉國時,路過一個名叫漢陰的小鎮。 

2子貢注意到,一位農人在道旁菜園子裡辛苦地工作。這位農人用桶在井裡舀水,然後提著桶為一顆一顆的青菜澆水。子貢搖了搖頭,認為這個鄉下地方實在是太落伍了,工作如此的沒有效率。一個澆水的動作要花那麼多的時間,那他一天又能照顧多大個菜園呢?難怪他們這麼窮。 

3 子貢一時起了惻隱之心,他覺得有義務告訴當地人,他們在晉國實施多年的簡易灌溉方式。

4 子貢叫車停住,他走下車來,隔著田埂,對這位農夫說:「我知道一種機械裝置,它每天可以幫助農人灌溉上百畝農田,省時省力,非常地有效率,你想不想也裝置一台呢?」 

5 這位農人看了看這位衣冠楚楚的陌生人,說:「它長得什麼樣子啊?」 

6 子貢說:「這是一種木製的機械,主要的結構是一根木棍,利用槓桿原理,一頭重一頭輕,輕的那頭用來提水,人只要輕輕地按重的那頭,水就會自井中舀出注入挖好的水溝中形成持續的水流。有這種工具,灌溉就變得容易了。這種裝置叫槔。你聽說過嗎?」 (Lee)

When Tzu Kung went south to the Ch’u State on his way back to the Chin State, he passed through Han-yin. There he saw an old man engaged in making a ditch to connect his vegetable garden with a well. He had a pitcher in his hand, with which he was bringing up water and pouring it into the ditch,— great labor with very little result.“If you had a machine here,” cried Tzu Kung, “in a day you could irrigate a hundred times your present area. The labor required is trifling as compared with the work done. Would you not like to have one?”“What is it?” asked the gardener.“It is a contrivance made of wood,” replied Tzu Kung, “heavy behind and light in front. It draws up water as you do with your hands, but in a constantly overflowing stream. It is called a well-sweep.” (Chou)

But when it comes to the part on how the old man responses, their understanding (perhaps due to the constraints of translation) differs.

7 這位農人放下手上的水桶笑著說:「哦!你是說槔啊!我不喜歡它,也不喜歡所有機械的工具。我的老師告訴我,凡是喜歡使用機械以求省時省力者,他們在處事上也一樣的喜歡尋捷徑走後門。而做事喜歡尋捷徑走後門的人,他們就一定會投機取巧,欺上矇下,而這些都是一位修行者應該避免的。 

8 我的老師也曾這麼說過:『機心存於胸,則純白不備,純白不備,則沉穩寧靜就變得不可能』,沒有一顆沉穩寧靜的心,修行就上不了路。。 

9 你說的槔我們這兒也有,只是我不喜歡用它罷了。」 

10子貢在孔子那兒學習已經有相當長的一段時間了,他也一直被公認為是孔子的大弟子之一,今天從這位鄉下農人這兒聽到“神生不定者,道之所不載也” 這樣的教訓,真把他羞的無地自容,他不覺低下了頭,一句話也說不出來。 

A translation:

7. This farmer puts down his water bucket and smiles replying thus: “Oh! You are referring to a water pulley! I don’t like that, neither do I like any mechanical tools. My teacher told me that all who are inclined to use machinery (mechanical tools) in order to save effort and time, they similarly would take shortcuts in dealing with (other) affairs. And as for those who taking shortcuts, they will definitely be opportunistic.

Whereas Peter Chou renders it as:

Thereupon the gardener flushed up and said, “I have heard from my teacher that those who have cunning implements are cunning in their dealings, and that those who are cunning in their dealings have cunning in their hearts, and that those who have cunning in their hearts cannot be pure and incorrupt, and that those who are not pure and incorrupt are restless in spirit, and that those who are restless in spirit are not fir vehicles for Tao.

So, both of these translations interpret Zhuang Tzu as saying that machinery (mechanical means) cause us to take shortcuts, be opportunitistic, or be cunning. But I think we don’t have to have to make a moral claim here to explain what can go wrong when we use mechanical means without being aware of such a state.

Many a times, such means are useful and save us time, but they often also cause us to forget or neglect the true nature and purpose of our work. In suggesting the building of the well-sweep, the purpose is to draw water, but if we were not careful, the improvement and tending to the means might cause us to neglect the ends – drawing water. Today our machines efficiency and computing power has increased exponentially, but what is its purpose?

An example that might strike closer to home is the means of money/cash. In the study of economics, having a commonly recognized store of value facilitates the exchange and trading of goods/services. That is to say, money is a way to store up resources, but more often than not, most people now pursue cash as if it were the final goal, and neglect that it is meant as a store of value.

Similarly for grades, it is a convenient means to determine the depth of a student’s understanding of the subject. However, in many Asian societies today, grades have become the end all and be all of education.

So, how do we return to the “purpose” of our mechanical tools?

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

Image

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.

Motivation, and what I’m trying to do with this platform

This morning, Venerable Huifeng, who leads our meditation session every morning without fail at our dormitory took the opportunity, at breakfast, to remind the 40-odd students that they should be aware of the five reflections to be done before taking food.

The first of these is to consider the source of the food. Certainly this refers to who grew, purchased and cooked the food for it to be present before us, but, more importantly, who paid? In our case, our food is sponsored by our benefactors who are also paying for our tuition and boarding.

That leads to the second reflection – to consider if we are worthy of accepting such an offering. It might seem unseemly that I call this food an offering, but if we consider carefully, all that is within our “possession” are offerings, simply because they do not come wholly by our own efforts and because others have kindly contributed to their availability.

Am I eligible for this food? 

In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha accepted food once a day, and after completing his meal, he would gift the giver with a discourse on the truths.

I am inspired by that, and hope to share what I’ve been learning in the course of researching for my thesis. I am writing on the possibility of a chiasmic structure of the Buddha’s life story, as instanced in the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosa.

More on what all that means later, but I hope that the lessons I glean is accessible to all who are interested. Above that, I would be thrilled if you would share with me your thoughts on my work.