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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thai Buddhism and Ordaining Women as Nuns.

The Bangkok Post, Dec 30, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand -- The forest monks of Wat Nong Pah Pong want the Council of Elders and the Office of National Buddhism to impose stricter controls on Western monks to stop them from ordaining women. They also want the properties of Thai temples in the West to come under the ownership of the Thai Sangha to ensure complete control. The monks are seeking the changes after the recent ordination of two women at Bodhinyana Temple, a branch of Wat Nong Pah Pong in Perth, Australia. The Ecclesiastic Council is opposed to female ordination. The Wat Nong Pah Pong clergy have excommunicated the dharma teacher Phra Brahmavamso, popularly known as Ajahn Brahm, for sponsoring the ordination.

They are also unhappy about alleged negative comments Ajahn Brahm has made about Thai clergy and Thai Buddhism in his talks overseas. If action is not taken, the council fears that more women could be ordained in the West. "Sooner or later, we'll see female monks everywhere," said Phra Kru Opaswuthikorn. He added that the introduction of the Siladhara order, or 10-precept nuns, which was set up by the most senior Western monk, Ajahn Sumedho, as an alternative to female monks in Thailand was also unthinkable. It would be difficult for the Thai public and the clergy to accept the Siladhara order, he said, because the presence of women creates unnecessary problems for the monks' vow of chastity.

James: I'm not a Theravada Buddhist or an ordained monk or teacher, nor am I a Thai. So I'll try to step lightly here and I hope I do not offend anyone. That said, I need to say something about this issue because it has bothered me for some time that there is still a taboo about ordaining women to be nuns in some Buddhist schools. Perhaps it's my western cultural influence but it seems antithetical to the accepting and open minded nature of Buddhism to deny women monastic status. One of the excuses used in this article and heard elsewhere is that having nuns around would tempt the monks too much. Well, monks need to learn how to master their desires regardless of whether women are physically present or not.

They can just as easily engage in sexual misconduct by masturbation or even sex with another monk. In addition, they are tempted with various other desires in their current situation with the temptation to lie or speak ill of a fellow monk or teacher. The desire for theft, anger or even murder can brew in any environment. And what do they do when they have to go out for their alms rounds and happen to see women? Do they run the other way? I'm not trying to mock these monks but I'm just really perplexed. Couldn't they see a women on their rounds and then go back to the monastery and masturbate while thinking about that woman?

We lay practitioners are surrounded much more by the opposite sex than monks and yet most of us are able to avoid sexual misconduct. So why can't monks resist? Isn't that part of their intensive training to learn how to avoid desire? Isn't it kind of impractical and discriminatory to basically say that the only way that this can be achieved is by denying women entrance to monasteries? In a way, it's a statement that men can't control themselves when around women and so women must be denied access to a deeper understanding of the Dharma. Why should women have to sacrifice a chance to learn the Dharma in a monastery simply because they were born with female body parts? And what does it say of men -- That we can't control ourselves enough to live around women without raping them or whatever the case may be? Isn't that kind of blaming the women for existing? Because if monks can't even resist sexual misconduct by even the sight of women then isn't that kind of a false sense of mastery of your desires? If the only way you can resist attaching to desire is to close yourself up in a box and avoid any contact with women then is that real mastery or one that was created by self-imposed isolation alone?

Another point is that despite some initial reluctance the Buddha himself set up orders for nuns (Bhikkunis). Also, other traditions have allowed the ordination for nuns (such as in my tradition of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh) without any major, systemic problems. As well as Catholic nuns. The sexual temptation excuse seems to be a thin layer of justification covering a deeper issue of sexism. At least from my western perspective. As I said before, I'm not use to Thai culture so perhaps I'm missing something but if the Buddha himself established female orders then I have to question this reluctance by some in the Thai sangha.

What about setting up monasteries that are just for women? Wouldn't that work if the monks aren't willing to share a monastery with women? The only male could be the abbot and if he's older then his chances for a rampant sexual desire would be low. It just seems like there's another way than to just simply ban women from a chance for deeper study that is found in monastic settings. I hope I haven't offended anybody and if I have I sincerely apologize. I am honestly trying to figure out in my mind why this is happening and how we can achieve some kind of middle-ground. After all, Isn't treading the middle-ground the core of much of the Buddha's teachings?

If I'm missing something here please let me know. All thoughts and comments are welcome so long as you remain respectful of others.

---End of Transmission---

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I Haven't Been Kidnapped.


I know I haven't been writing here much lately but it's not a permanent trend. I'm simply overloaded with holiday stuff and have been spending a lot of time with my family. The big thing though that has taken up most of my time is a new project I'm working on. It's a new blog but it has nothing to do with Buddhism -- well, it does but it's not the main theme there. I just wanted to write a quick note to let you know that I haven't abandoned you and I'm not getting bored with this blog. I'm just spreading myself too thin. After the first of the year I'll have stuff squared away and can devote more time here as I want to do. In the mean time, thanks for your patience. May this message find you well.

-James

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Magic of Winter.

Snow descends upon Earth from the Buddha realms cascading softly to surround the bustling humanity in tranquility. Methodically it falls, bringing with it the silence of a morning meditation at a mountain temple. Winter offers the jewel of reflection, which allows us a vivid and stark yet peaceful reminder of impermanence. The snow doesn't ask why it falls or why it melts -- It is at peace being snow, water or vapor. May peace be upon you regardless of the moment.

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"The Magician of Lhasa," a Book Review.

It is rare to find a book of fiction based on Buddhism and even rarer still to find one worthy of reading. Well, "The Magician of Lhasa" by David Michie. The first 50 pages are kind of slow but keep reading because after that the story explodes into an exciting, fascinating, mysterious, suspenseful literary ride. Upon receiving the book I was dreading to hear how Buddhism would be presented and used in a novel as in the past many fiction writers have badly misrepresented Buddhist philosophy.

However, this books does a pretty good job of staying true to the teachings while offering up just enough mystery to keep you turning the pages. The book not only does a good job of explaining the Dharma it also teaches actual, helpful, applicable lessons mixed in with a entertaining story. What more could you want in a book? I don't want to say much more for fear of spoiling the secrets and plot of the book but It's a very fun book to read and suggest it highly. It is as good as any Dan Brown novel and I'd say is actually better than Brown's current book, "The Lost Symbol." I give "The Magician of Lhasa" a 9 out of 10 stars -- 10 being best.

~Peace to all beings~

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"The Novice," a Book Review.

Who amongst us hasn't fantasized about a spiritual pilgrimage to for secret, life-changing wisdom. It seems that many of us, (Westerners especially) come to Buddhism with wild imaginations of climbing the Himalayas to get enlightenment from a 200 year old monk. That was what author of "The Novice" Stephen Schettini seemed to set out looking for on his pilgrimage to the East -- mostly India.

He learned, like all of us must at some point that Buddhism can be practiced anywhere in the world and that practicing it in the historical heart of the religion doesn't necessarily give ones Dharma practice an advantage. He also reminds us that Buddhism isn't always perfect or immediate in showing results. It's very much a book about not expecting Buddhism to immediately change your life. The story is mostly a coming of age story of a young man living during the first Buddhist boom in the West during the 60s and 70s. It was a chaotic, exciting and confusing time for Westerners studying a religion that was very new in their culture and reading about it is a fascinating view into the early days of Western Buddhism.

Reading about his travels on the way to India are just as interesting as his time training in the monasteries. He has some unique and curious stories to tell as he goes from Europe to Turkey to Iran to Afghanistan to Pakistan and then into India herself. It is fascinating to read about the people he meets along the way and how he views the cultures that he comes into contact with. He traveled very light and with little concern for safety, which would be near impossible today. As you read the book you can't help but feel a pull toward desiring your own adventurous journey to personally meet the world. It is a serious book reflecting on the difficulties of this life and the struggles we have in seeking to liberate ourselves from suffering, which is often done in humorous ways throughout the book.

It's a fast and interesting read with the exception on the long, drawn out description at the beginning of the book about the author's childhood. Though even that had some funny, interesting spots. I just think it could be a bit shorter as I wanted more written about the actual monk hood period but that's a minor quibble with an otherwise interesting book. I'd highly recommend this book for anyone interesting in reading first hand experiences of Westerners discovering Buddhism. I give it a 7.5 out of 10 -- Ten being best.

---End of Transmission---

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Happy Belated Winter Solstice to my Pagan Friends.

Yesterday, December 21st is winter solstice, otherwise known as Midwinter. This is the shortest day and longest night of the year, which is the last blast of darkness before the sun rises slowly but surely to offer longer and longer days and increased sunlight. So it is a day of rebirth, which is very much in-line with Buddhist beliefs. I welcome the suns rebirth with great happiness. So, Happy Solstice everyone!!

PHOTO CREDIT: Winter Solstice occurring at Stonehenge in Great Britain.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yet Another Abbot Asked to Expel Thich Nhat Hanh Monastics.

(Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh -- Pictured above with brown robe showing)

James: As many know, monastics in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh were forcefully removed from Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam by the communist government and local mobs. However, communist dictatorships are historically notorious for staging mob riots by secret police dressed in plain clothes to appear as peasants. The government claims the abbot of the monastery was the one who initiated the demand for expulsion, however, he has yet to say anything publicly about it. Another favorite trick of communist dictatorships is to force people into saying things via threats of violence or imprisonment if they refuse. Anyway, this expulsion took place this past October, which suspiciously came soon after Nhat Hanh called for Vietnam to be more open about religious freedoms. Following the expulsion the monastics fled to a pagoda whose abbot had invited them to take refuge within but now they are being pressured to leave there as well. This time the abbot is speaking out and confirming suspicions that the initial abbot was pressured.
Vietnamese authorities have ordered the abbot of a pagoda to evict some 190 members of an unofficial Buddhist group who had taken refuge there, the abbot said Monday. "They asked me to evict the nuns and monks from the pagoda before December 31," said abbot Thich Thai Thuan of Thuoc Hue pagoda, in the south-central province of Lam Dong. Thuan said he had met Friday with Duong Van Vien, deputy chair of the People's Committee in the town of Bao Loc, and Nguyen Thanh Tich, head of the religious committee. Last week a mob of some 100 people surrounded Phuoc Hue pagoda for three days. The mob attempted to prevent a fact-finding delegation of EU diplomats from visiting the abbot on Wednesday. "I have no choice but to sign a document saying the pagoda will ask the nuns and monks to leave," Thuan said. "If I don't ask them to leave, [the mob] will carry me away too."
James: They can push Buddhism outside the confines of Vietnam but they can't push Buddhism from the hearts of the people. Nor will they ever be able to fully crush Thich Nhat Hanh's influence in that country. Their fight against spiritual freedom and freedom in general is like trying to prevent a dam from breaking by putting your finger in a crack that opened. The artificial barrier might hold up for awhile but after years of pressure they can't keep up with all the fissures and cracks forming throughout the obstacle. Change always finds a way through any barrier -- just not always in the time frame that we might desire. The time will come when the Communists will no longer be able to hold back the people. That especially goes for online access to information that is pouring through the cracks appearing in that country's internet dam. Information is power and will quite likely, eventually be the catalyst of liberation for the people of Vietnam. May it happen in our lifetime.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Help the Vietnamese Zen Monks of Bat Nha Monastery.

James: Please write your leaders to urge them in assisting the violently oppressed Vietnamese monks who follow in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh at Bat Nha monastery in that Southeast Asian country. They seek temporary asylum until they can return to their beloved, beautiful homeland. May their pure wish to peacefully practice the Dharma be fulfilled. Svaha!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Art of Happiness in a Trouble World.

I just finished reading the follow-up book to the #1 bestseller, "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD. The follow-up is titled, "The Art of Happiness in a Trouble World. I found things that I liked in this book, however, I wouldn't be honest if I said it was an excellent book. I don't like to be critical in life but I won't say I liked something if I didn't. I must say though that this wasn't the Dalai Lama's fault in the least but rather the author who came across as almost pestering His Holiness when he didn't like the answer the Tibetan monk gave.

For example, the author Mr. Cutler spent the first part of the book (five full chapters) on one subject -- the importance of diversity. Now, this is a very important and noble subject to be sure. That said, the author could have covered the subject in breadth within two chapters but spending 109 pages talking about all the different ways one can say, "Diversity is important" gets frustrating and a bit annoying. Of course, I'm not the most patient person in the world but after 109 pages I was somewhat exasperated.

At one point Cutler even writes that the Dalai Lama appeared exasperated with the line of questioning as to why the author couldn't understand that it's not "Me or We" but "Me and We" when relating to others and yet taking care of one's own needs. The Dalai Lama said:

"So, we are not saying to forget about oneself, one's own concerns. That is not realistic. We are saying that you can think about both one's own welfare and the welfare of others at the same time."

Sounds simple enough but not for the annoyingly minutia dwelling author. He apparently thought that wasn't a good enough answer. So he writes, "Nonetheless I persisted with my original question..." which is understandable at first but this was an obnoxious trait of pushing the Dalai Lama persisted through the book. Even someone with unlimited patience like Dalai Lama can't take that much philosophical rambling. So the author continues, "We continued along the same lines for several more moments, as I pressed him for a way to deal with the "opposing" sensibilities of a Me or a We orientation. The Dalai Lama absently rubbed his palm over the crown of his shaved head as I spoke, a gesture of frustration that was also reflected in his rapidly shifting facial expression. As his expression on a priceless mixture of three parts bewilderment, one part amusement, and a dash of disgust, he shook his head and laughed. "I'm just not clear as to where the contradiction lies! From my perspective there is no inherent opposition here."

I realize that I should have more patience for absolutist, black and white thinking such as the one shown by the author in these interviews but such desire for clear-cut, definitive solutions to broad human problems doesn't make for very easy book reading. After awhile you lose focus as the reader and your mind becomes a bit blurry, numb and confused as to what the original point of the author was. Finally, on page 114 I found something useful and insightful brought about by the interviews as the author asked the DL about September 11th and how could human nature be inherintly good in the face of such horrific acts. The Tibetan monk responded wisely:

"Perhaps one thing is that I look at such events from a wider perspective. When such things happen we often tend to look for one person or a group of people to blame. But I think it is wrong just to look at one individual or group of individuals and isolate them as the sole cause. If you adopt a wider view, you'll see that there can be many causes of violence. And there can be many factors contributing to such events. So many factors. In this case, for example, I think religious belief is also involved. So if you reflect on this event more deeply," he explained, "you realize that many factors contributed to this tragedy. To me, this reinforced one crucial fact: It showed to me that modern technology combined with human intelligence and guided by negative emotions -- this is how such unthinkable disasters happen." This made total sense to me and seemed clear but once again the author responded with confusion saying, "Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?" I understand he wants a clear cut answer that fits neatly into his psychiatric, scientific background. That said, by this point it was starting to give me the impression that he was dragging this out, in part to squeeze more juice out of the "Art of Happiness" turnip for another book.

The next 50 pages was more drilling down and getting lost in the minutia of a subject. This time the subject was on the sources of violence, which while important was done at a depth that just frustrated me. Once again the author dissected the subject down so finely that there wasn't much left to take away. The next chapter, chapter 9 about dealing with fear was really good but by page 181 I was exhausted mentally. Unfortunately this was the point at, which I stopped reading because I just couldn't read anymore of the author's pushing the Dalai Lama to say things the author wanted to hear. However, I'll end my long review with quoting something that I did really like from the author in speaking about violence and having hope for reducing it in the future.

"Aren't we essentially compelled to conclude that human nature is fundamentally aggressive? Fortunately the answer to that is, No! According to researchers, during the age of hunter-gatherer socieites, 30 percent of the male population died by violent means, at the hands of others. What was the percentage during the bloody twentieth century, even with the war, the genocides, the constant warfare? Less than 1 percent! And as the new century and millennium has dawned, this rate has continued to fall dramatically."

I wish I had more good to say about this book because as I said, I don't like being critical but I also don't want to be misleading as I think some reviewers tend to be. I often read snippets of reviews on all these book jackets that just gush over them. However, I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed to find out for myself that what they were saying didn't square with my reading. So while there are some nuggets of insight within this book the majority of it is pretty annoying and again, that's not the fault of the Dalai Lama.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Biocentrism.

I have recently come across an interesting science theory call Biocentrism as proposed by scientist Robert Lanza. I was fascinated with the many connections between it and much Buddhist philosophy. I will give you a quick run-down of what Biocentrism is about via wikipedia, which isn't the best source but it's the easiest for my purposes but I encourage you to read about it further. Biocentrism posits that life created the universe and not the other way around as traditional science has taught us. This blends nicely into the Buddhist concept that reality is what our limited and deluded mind makes of it. The seven principles of Biocentrism are as follows. Note the similarities between it and Buddhist thought:

1). What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An "external" reality, if it existed, would by definition have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.

2). Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

3). The behavior of subatomic particles, indeed all particles and objects, is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

4). Without consciousness, "matter" dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.

5). The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The "universe" is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.

6). Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

7). Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

James: Then there is this following excerpt from a different article about how scientist Robert Lanza rediscovered this idea that Buddhists have believed for eons. It is a nice image of what is being talked about with this theory and startlingly reminds me of Indra's Net metaphor:

The farther we peer into space, the more we realize that the nature of the universe cannot be understood fully by inspecting spiral galaxies or watching distant supernovas. It lies deeper. It involves our very selves. This insight snapped into focus one day while one of us (Lanza) was walking through the woods. Looking up, he saw a huge golden orb web spider tethered to the overhead boughs. There the creature sat on a single thread, reaching out across its web to detect the vibrations of a trapped insect struggling to escape. The spider surveyed its universe, but everything beyond that gossamer pinwheel was incomprehensible. The human observer seemed as far-off to the spider as telescopic objects seem to us. Yet there was something kindred: We humans, too, lie at the heart of a great web of space and time whose threads are connected according to laws that dwell in our minds.
James: As Nobel physicist John Wheeler once said, “No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.” I look forward to reading more about this theory as I am very fascinated with interactions between science and Buddhism. If everyone and everything is interdependent and interconnected then I see no reason why Buddhism and science have to be mutually exclusive. It seems to me that many of the theories posited by both are quite similar.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Chicago Press

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Happy Rohatsu!! Otherwise Known as Bodhi Day.

Today is the day that we Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of Buddha and thus rejoice in the path of peace and liberation from suffering, which he so selflessly offered up to us and made his life's mission. It is a day that changed the world and I seek to keep that vision and energy alive today. I dedicate this next year to working harder at better representing Buddha's teachings and essence and I apologize for my faults in this area whenever they pop up as they inevitably do and will. In particular, my wish is that next Rohatsu be one that greets a liberated Tibet, a liberated China, a liberated Burma and liberation in all forms for all of us. I hope you all had an insightful and peaceful Rohatsu and I bow to you all.

PHOTO CREDIT: Wat Khmer Tepthidaram

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, December 04, 2009

The Balancing Buddha.

James: This is a long article and I wanted to add my usual analysis and personal note with a quoted story but I think the author, Joan Gattuso says it all in this very well done article. So I'm going to quote the entire article here. It's a Tricycle piece and while I've been critical of them of late it was mostly in relation to one specific article and I will always recognize good writing regardless of the publication or person. It'll be a bit long but it's a really thoughtful article on the dangers of aestheticism in relation to the Middle Path of balance between aestheticism and extreme sensual indulgence:

"THE MIDDLE WAY is achieved when one reaches that point of cosmic balance between austerity and the creature comforts of the world. The ascetics who were with the Buddha were critical of him because he was no longer living an austere lifestyle. They considered his life too “cushy.” He was eating beautiful food and wearing a fine robe, while they existed on a few grains of rice and slept uncovered on a bed of nails.

The ascetics asked the Buddha, “What kind of teacher and yogi are you? You are soft, weak, indulgent.”

To which the Buddha replied, “I, too, have slept on nails; I’ve stood with my eyes open to the sun in the hot sands beside the Ganges. I’ve eaten so little food that you couldn’t fill one fingernail with the amount I ate each day. Whatever ascetic practices under the sun human beings have done, I, too, have done. Through them all I have learned that fighting against oneself through such practices is not the way.”

Through the years I have known a few ascetic-type personalities who forever deny the body, its needs, and its care. One young man I knew was so physically beautiful and so unhappy and grim. His eating habits were very austere and unpleasant. He always seemed to be miserable in the pursuit of his spiritual awareness. He munched on raw garlic cloves like they were peanuts and insisted they left no pungent odor on his breath. The rest of the world did not agree. I recall one acquaintance saying to this fellow that he would probably throw himself under a train rather than eat a Frito. His response was, “What’s a Frito?” If misery, self-denial and selfimposed suffering were the way to get “it,” we would all have gotten “it” a long time ago.

The Buddha emphasized the Middle Way, which he likened to the successful playing of the lute, the strings being not too taut, not too loose, but with just the right amount of pressure. We all need to seek a way to bring forth such balance in our own lives.

I deeply believe that it is vital to our spiritual practice that we become spiritually disciplined. Without spiritual discipline we are never going to wake up or advance on our soul’s journey through this life. But our discipline must be wedded to joy, and we must find pleasure in the myriad wonders that this life offers.

I smile when I recall taking Buddhist friends, Tibetan and American, to the airport. A young monk asked the American Buddhist if he could wheel her carry-on through the airport, because it was maroon and better matched his robes than his own tan one. We all laughed, the woman complied, and the monk was color-coordinated. He may have given up much of this world’s offerings, but within him remained an artistic sense of color—balance.

It isn’t that we can’t enjoy the finer things in life, we just need to know they are not our life. Those practicing the Middle Way know this. They can take in what is offered and available without being consumed by it. Their eyes discern beauty, even from the mundane. Their ears discern harmony from discordant notes. Their taste discerns pleasure from bland food. Their noses discern subtle notes of pleasant fragrance from the rancid.

We would have to be a bit off to choose the mundane, discordant, foul, and putrid to believe these will lead to spiritual awakening. So we choose the pleasant and do not allow it to possess us. When we don’t get what we would prefer, we don’t allow ourselves to become unbalanced and miserable—adding to our own suffering. We see it for what it is, and we are able to remain detached and move on." ▼

From The Lotus Still Blooms: Sacred Buddhist Teachings for the Western Mind, © 2008 by Joan Gattuso. Reprinted with permission from the Penguin Group.

PHOTO CREDIT: The Starving Buddha. Stunning photo by Chiang Mai. The Buddha had thought he would be able to escape the pain of reincarnation and attain nirvana, if he focused on the godhead to the exclusion of all else. So he decided not to eat and drink. The skin slowly shrivelled up and the Greek god-like body, a common feature of Hellenistic art of the time – as well as of scores of other Buddhas in that room -- was consumed in the trauma of wilful self-abnegation. The Buddha’s eyes receded into dark hollows, his cheeks became blades of bone and his rib-cage a shocking skeleton. The facial hair is grey on the dark-blue stone. (James: It was after this starvation period that Buddha settled upon the balanced path of moderation between the two extremes).

~Peace to all beings~

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