07/6/14

A Compassionate Buddha?


Buddhist storyThere’s a story in Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the Dhammapada (Penguin Classics, 2010, commentary on verse 6, p 115-116) that caught my eye recently, and it made me wonder what the moral or ethical precept was buried in it.

And it makes me question what it says about the supposed compassion of the Buddha and his attitude towards animals.*

I have not found online the story exactly as Ms. Roebuck tells it**, but I have found many variations on it. It even has its own holiday: Madhu Purnima. In essence the story goes like this:

The Buddha is at the Kosambi monastery where 500 monks get into a doctrinal dispute (i.e. pissing match over minutiae) he cannot resolve for them. So he gives up and heads to the forest to find peace (first stumbling block: where’s the fabled patience?).

Meanwhile, an elephant (often described as a bull elephant), tired of living among the herd, joins him. There the elephant takes care of the Buddha, bringing him water and protecting him from predators.

A monkey joins them and brings the Buddha some honeycomb, which the Buddha accepts. The monkey is so delighted, he swings from branch to branch wildly, but in his excitement, falls to his death. He’s reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, so that’s supposed to be okay.

No indication that the Buddha felt any compassion for the animal, let alone any remorse for being the cause of its death. Personally, I’m not sure the trade-off between life and death is worth it, but maybe I’m just too attached to living. Or maybe I’m just a teensy bit too skeptical about rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, gods and so on (a la Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs).

Meanwhile, the monks come to the forest and beg the Buddha to return, which he does, leaving the elephant in the forest. Roebuck says it was “at the point where the animal might have been in danger from human beings if he had followed him.” Other texts say the elephant followed him to the edge of the city.

Again, no indication of gratitude for the elephant’s service. No thanks, no fond wave of the hand, no blessing.

The elephant dies of a “broken heart” from being abandoned. The Buddha in the tale shows no compassion or remorse. The elephant pops up in Tavatimsa heaven too, though. I suppose that’s okay.

Or is it?

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07/3/14

Reading the Dhammapada


BuddhaOne of the most inspirational, moving books in my library is the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, originally from the Pali canon. I’ve had a version of the Dhammapada in my library since the late 1960s, and read it through many times. It’s good to reread it often.

My first copy I recall was Irving Babbit’s edition, published by New Directions press in 1965. It may still be hiding on a bookshelf upstairs for all I know.

It’s one of my desert island books. You know: one of the list of 10 books you’d want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

Over the years, my favourite version has been the Still Point Dhammapada by Geri Larkin, guiding teacher at the Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit. (Her Buddhist name is P’arang.) I like it because it’s not simply a translation but a witty and wise commentary that clears away the clouds and makes it a very personal work. Larkin helps guide the reader towards the basic tenets of everyday Buddhism, rather than simply offer the words for us to contemplate.

The Dhammapada is not a literary narrative like the canonical gospels. It is more like the verses in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. (Gnostic only because it was found in company of Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi library; it doesn’t profess Gnostic beliefs, however). I also keep it with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as a book I can pick up and read at random for a shot of wisdom.

One version of the Dhammapada on my shelf is the classic Max Muller translation from 1870; popularly reprinted as a copyright-free edition. Another is an older Penguin Classics version from the 1980s. I have a couple of odd versions printed in India and Southeast Asia by Buddhist teachers, somewhere in a box.

There is a more recent Penguin edition, translated by Valerie Roebuck (2010) but I don’t have it yet (on order though).

I’ve never paid that much attention to the translation until recently. It’s tough for Westerners to appreciate whether a translation is good or bad because so few of us can read the original Pali – that falls into the realm of scholars. They may be technically adept but often not poets or even practicing Buddhists. And many of the online translations are by scholars and Buddhists for whom English is a second language. In both cases, the renderings can leave the reader feeling like something’s missing.

This weekend, while in Toronto (and scouring what few remaining bookshops I could find), I came across a new translation by Glenn Wallis (Modern Library, New York, 2007). It’s supplemented by a good reading guide with commentary and notes to help explain the translation, the original language, the various terms and symbols.

Where Larkin makes her version a personal, intimate guide, all about daily life and being in the moment, Wallis spreads a wider net, bringing in much more Buddhist practice and belief in a more scholarly manner. Both are worthwhile approaches and both authors are practicing Buddhists. Wallis is also a professor and a member of the Buddhist punk band, Ruin, which adds another facet when considering his translation.

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09/23/13

The Moral Compass


Wheel of the dharmaI have a laminated card beside me, wallet-sized so it can be carried around easily. I made it at my shop a few years ago; just a simple, two-sided business card with some text. It’s part of my personal moral compass. We all benefit from some guidance, at times, something to remind us of the higher things.

I look at it frequently through the day, as a reminder when I find myself in Dante’s dark wood. Every problem, every concern, every moment of doubt can be worked through using these basic principles, if you step outside the flow and think them through.

One side has the Four Noble Truths. These state the core beliefs of Buddhism in a simple, non-theistic manner.

My card says:

  1. Life means suffering. To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things, and the ignorance thereof.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. It can be achieved through the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment.
  4. The end of suffering is through a gradual path of self-improvement described in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between extremes of self indulgence and self mortification.

Suffering isn’t always what you associate with the English word. The Pali word is ‘dukkha”  and it can also mean anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, unease. A range of emotions. Wikipedia tells us:

Dukkha is commonly explained according to three different categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of developing insight into the nature of dukkha, the conditions that cause it, it how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not pessimism, but rather objective realism that informs this view. We all have anxieties over jobs, money, love, dying, sex, health, politics and more. They cause us stress, they cause us to suffer, to agonize, to hate, to conspire, to hurt.

“Life,” as this BBC page on the Buddhism says, “is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations.”

So true. And we live in a culture where happiness is a marketable quality: we are brought up to believe happiness can be bought.

The Buddha also recognized happiness, but like suffering, he also knew it is impermanent.

We become happy when we get a new toy, a new car, a new pet, a new spouse, a new cell phone or computer, when we get drunk, when we get laid, when we watch a funny TV show, when we hear a good song on the radio – but suffering returns because the new becomes the old quickly. We become disenchanted. Happiness wears thin.

We always want the new, sparkly, shiny things. The newest model, the latest game, the puppy or kitten when the other pet has grown up. We want the emotional surge that new stuff gives us. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

We also get a surge of pleasure when we win a game, when we triumph over another, when we sink the ball into the basket.

Some feel pleasure when they hurt others, too. Suffering makes them angry, bitter, lonely. Frustrated. They attack others in a vain attempt to relieve their own distress. But it doesn’t work. They need to keep attacking and hurting to try to keep their suffering at bay. Hurting others alleviates their own pain.

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