Monday, October 06, 2014

Buddhism & Beef

Many nominal Buddhists in Singapore and Malaysia have the misconception that Buddhists should not eat beef but are not really sure why it should be so.

In my opinion, if Buddhists are not supposed to eat beef, then we might as well abstain from all meat and not just beef. Let me try to clear the air on this matter.

First and foremost, Buddha was not a vegetarian. Basically, he ate whatever decent food was offered to him, just so long it's not poisonous and not an animal that was deliberately killed for him. Yes, Buddha ate meat; he was not a vegetarian.

However, during the period that Buddha lived in India, it was, and still is, a very strong custom for Indians not to eat beef. The reason was because the ox tilled the lands for the farmers and was an utmost valuable contributor to the livelihood and economy of the people. Hence, most folks then regarded the bovine creature as part of the family, conferring on it a status close to that of a precious family member.

Being the wise and ultimately sensitive person that he was, the Gautama Buddha abstained from eating beef too so as not to upset the general social customs then.

Then Buddhism travelled to China via the Silk Route starting from around the 1st century AD. It was through a natural evolution that Buddhism took on certain practices from Confucianism and Taoism while maintaining its core teaching of salvation through the realisation of non-self.

In Chinese culture, there were numerous myths that made its way into Taoism, especially those involving deities and gods. It so happens that there was an interesting story originating from Taoism mythlore that explains why many Chinese do not eat beef. It goes something like this:

A few thousand years ago, there was a huge famine in the land of the Central Kingdom*. The common folk suffered from bad crops and an incredible shortage of staple foods.

The Heavenly Emperor, upon seeing the destitute commoners, decided to send the Horned Ox Deity to convey a message to them and to shine a ray of hope on their poor stomachs. Hence, the Horned Ox Deity lumbered down to earth and made a proclamation on behalf of the Heavenly Emperor:

"Under the auspices and power of the all-mighty Heavenly Emperor, it is hereby proclaimed that his Celestial Majesty will provide at least three meals a day for everyone!"

Everyone jumped up for joy and raised their hands to heaven, thanking the Heavenly Emperor. Many touched their heads and lips to the ground in their jubilation. Riding on a wave of gratitude and thanks from the humans, the Horned Ox Deity flew back and reported the glad tidings to the Heavenly Emperor.

Imagine his surprise when the Heavenly Emperor gave him a tongue lashing upon his return!

"You fool! I said that I'll provide at least one meal every three days for everyone. Not three meals every one day!" fumed the Celestial All-Mighty. "For that, you are banished to earth and shall slog for eternity in order to provide the humans with three meals every day!"

Hence, it came about that the ox had to plough the fields to provide people with proper meals thrice a day. As a result, the Chinese looked upon the ox as a deity and refused to eat its meat.

As Buddhism spread in China and absorbed certain social customs of Taoism, practitioners of Buddhism also adopted the practice of not eating beef, which actually originated from Taoism.

In reality, Buddha did not specify the practice of not eating beef over other types of meat. So, not eating beef certainly does not make one a better Buddhist. If you really want to be compassionate to all beings, how about abstaining from all types of meat and not just beef?

*中国 (China in Chinese characters) is often translated as the Middle Kingdom because 中 literally means 'the middle'. However, my opinion is that the ancients had meant 中 as 'the centre', another less oft-used meaning of 中.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Heart and Mind

Tending to lean more towards my left brain (intellect) than the right brain (emotions), I can easily see where the problem lies in most situations and can think of the remedy to it. My main problem is to apply the remedy with kindness and heartfelt compassion without coming across as harsh and unfeeling.

Right after Buddha attained enlightenment and realised the way to be free from samsaric afflictions through his wisdom, compassion arose in him to show the way of salvation to others, supposedly at the behest of the heavenly being, Brahma Sahampati. 

In the forty-five years of his ministry, Buddha had continuously demonstrated the immeasurable depths of his wisdom and compassion in instructing others on the Noble Eight-fold Path for the attainment of enlightenment. If he had not exercised patience and compassion in his undertaking, his wisdom alone would not have sustained him in this arduous undertaking. Gautama Buddha could have been a Pacceka Buddha like many others before him, knowing the taste of nirvana but unable to extoll it. 

After all, how does one sell emancipation based on profound, ineffable descriptions such as "there exists a state of non-being, non-becoming, non-birth, non-death, non-life, non-ceasing"? Only one with inconceivable merit and extraordinary persuasive skills like the Buddha can achieve this.

in his forty-five years of ministry, Buddha continuously demonstrated his wisdom that was always tempered with huge compassion for all beings in the grip of dukkha, conventionally understood as suffering. His stellar example had shown us that the light of compassion cannot be separated from the sword of wisdom. Without the sword, the light cannot penetrate the darkness. Without the light, the sword may inflict more harm than good.

I am slowly realising that it is not always about me being right. Usually, it's also about being kind, although being kind without wisdom is also dangerous. 

As I continually struggle between the inclinations of my left brain and efforts to engage my right brain, I try to keep to a daily 30-minute practice of metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Some days are better than the rest and I do feel somewhat more sensitive and patient as compared to a year ago. I am encouraged by the results and will keep at it. If I can improve by 10% every year, I can achieve complete compassion in 10 years' time!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

10-Day Retreat at Cameron Highlands

On 14 September 2012, approximately 140 yogis descended upon Sam Poh Buddhist Temple in Cameron Highlands for a 10-day retreat, led by Sayalay Dipankara from Myanmar.

Given the large number of participants and limited space in the temple, we were allocated in groups of between 9 to 20 to a room. Some were lucky to get beds while some had to share a single long mattress with several others. Limited living and toilet facilities shared by 140 people were stretched to say the least.

Amazingly, what could possibly be the reason for the absence of quarrels, fights or discontentment amidst such crammed living conditions during this 10-day period? It could only be the forbearance, patience and compassion exercised by all of us that created such a wonderful and peaceful environment for our practice.

We were there for one thing and one thing only - to focus and train our minds through meditation to achieve insight and lasting happiness in our lives.

Temperatures in Cameron Highlands were very low, especially during sunset hours. Sometimes, even during the day, I could see my breath condensing to join the low-hanging clouds in the highlands.

Our days started at 5.30am with the first sitting and ended at 9pm with the last sitting. The 1.5-hour sittings were interspersed with walking meditation and meal breaks. Effectively, we spent 10 days mostly eating, sleeping and meditating and nothing else. While it might have seemed arduous for the uninitiated, all of us felt that we had benefited immensely from this intensive focus on the mind and austere lifestyle for the sennight-plus duration.

Noble silence was practised throughout the retreat to maintain the peace and calm conducive for our practice. The only talking was done during interview time with Sayalay who advised us on the problems and development of our individual meditation practice.

During the fourth day of the retreat, Sayalay humorously spoke about the various wondering thoughts that distracted us from our breath, which was our object of meditation. Oh yes, she knew our secret desires even though we did not speak of them to anyone else! She must have sensed our longing for some non-vegetarian food, given the vegetarian diet we had to undertake for the 10 days. I was guilty of thinking of tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork cutlets) during the retreat and had even started planning for the dishes that I wanted to cook when I come back home.

So, it was fortuitous that Sayalay warned us not to think about fried chicken too much. Otherwise, we might end up as a chicken (or pig in my case) in our next life!

During her talks held on alternate nights, Sayalay traversed a variety of topics from Winston Churchill, Jackie Chan, meditation techniques, rebirth, six realms of existence, the importance of sending metta to Lord Yama of the hell realm, renunciation, the teaching of Dhamma during this world epoch to arahantship.

As Sayalay described how she had defeated her various illnesses, including cancer, using vipassana meditation, tears welled up in many yogis' eyes at her determination to continue teaching the Dhamma even in the face of such adversarial physical conditions. Despite her obvious tiredness, she spoke without pause and gave us so much wisdom during those talks that not one heart could possibly remain untouched.

Personally for myself, this retreat had helped me to put the various relationships in my life in a clearer perspective. I could understand my emotions, wants and cravings towards various people and objects with enhanced clarity. Of paramount importance is the reaffirmation of my faith in the Dhamma that continues to guide, benefit and inspire me towards the attainment of enlightenment.

Many thanks to the committee in Malaysia that organised this retreat, which was a humongous and complex task by any measure. Many thanks too to Sister Henrietta Wong and volunteers from Singapore who arranged for two busloads of people from Singapore to participate in this meritorious event. And finally, my deepest gratitude to Sayalay Dipankara, who advised us to "never never never never never give up"!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's the Government for?

Recently, there was some furore over Lee Kuan Yew's (former Singapore prime minister) call for Singaporeans to  procreate to raise the sinking birth rate of the city-state. His precise words were "If we go on like that, this place will fold up..."

It seems that it is one's national duty to procreate and ensure that one has created a new being to take his or her place so as to ensure the continuity of the nation.

With LKY's lament that Singapore will fold up if Singaporeans do not have children, is he indicating that the state should come before the people? If so, he has strayed from the primacy of people's welfare to the welfare of the state.

The purpose of the state is to protect, help and benefit the people who make up the jurisdiction of the state. The state is created for the people; people are not created for the purpose of the state. We should be careful about putting the cart before the horse.

In the Agganna sutta, Buddha described the beginnings of a state. A fair, strong and capable person was selected as the Maha-Summata (meaning Great Elect), as a preventive and corrective measure against prevailing crimes, on grounds of his qualifications and attributes. He served the people by ensuring safety, security, law and order amongst the people, who supply him with a portion of their income for his duties. That was the origination of Income Tax.

A social contract between the Maha-Sammata and the masses was thus formed; the people paid him to do his job. His duty was to serve the people, not the other way round. If he should renege on his duties or become unsuitable, a new Maha-Sammata would be chosen by the people as he had to be accountable for his duties.

However, as time went on, this role began to be passed down from father to son, or within the family. Descendents of the current ruler automatically ascended to the role after the passing of the old one. Hence the electoral process took a hit and even if existing, had descended into a farce. Those who were aligned with the next ruler would ensure his ascension to the throne to obtain the continuity of their power and privileges that sprung from their greed.

The Buddha had encouraged the spirit of consultation and the democratic process within his Sangha community which was a significant precursor to the democratic parliamentary system used today. Serious questions and issues concerning the community were put forth and discussed openly.

The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.

In the Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta, the Buddha said that immorality and crime, such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, cruelty, could arise from poverty. Kings and governments may try to suppress crime through punishment, but it is futile to eradicate crimes through force.

In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha suggested economic development instead of force to reduce crime. The government should use the country's resources to improve the economic conditions of the country. It could embark on agricultural and rural development, provide financial support to entrepreneurs and business, provide adequate wages for workers to maintain a decent life with human dignity.

In the Milinda Panha,it is stated: 'If a man, who is unfit, incompetent, immoral, improper, unable and unworthy of kingship, has enthroned himself a king or a ruler with great authority, he is subject to be tortured‚ to be subject to a variety of punishment by the people, because, being unfit and unworthy, he has placed himself unrighteously in the seat of sovereignty. The ruler, like others who violate and transgress moral codes and basic rules of all social laws of mankind, is equally subject to punishment; and moreover, to be censured is the ruler who conducts himself as a robber of the public.' In a Jataka story, it is mentioned that a ruler who punishes innocent people and does not punish the culprit is not suitable to rule a country.

Going back to the original point, the purpose of the ruler or government is to do what is in the best interest of the people, as opposed to the best interest of the economy, state or its own pocket.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why Relationships End

Upon learning that the Buddha was about to pass away into parinibbana, Venerable Ananda leaned against the doorpost and wept, saying, "I am still but a learner. I still have to attain perfection. But alas, my master who is so compassionate towards me is about to pass away."

When the Lord Buddha heard of it, he sent for Venerable Ananda and said, "Enough Ananda, do not cry. For have I not taught that it is the nature of all things beloved that we must suffer separation from them and be severed from them? For that which is born, come to be and compounded is also subject to dissolution. How could it be otherwise?"
The ending of a valued relationship (e.g. romantic, platonic, kinship etc) often brings sadness, grief, sorrow and tears. As the Chinese saying 天下无不散之宴席goes, all merry feasts must come to an end, regardless of whether the end is premeditated or natural.

There are many reasons why relationships may end, such as unresolvable conflicts between both parties, physical separation, objections from other parties, death etc. Leaving aside death, let us investigate how we can seek a harmonious separation from a relationship.

Buddha identified several factors that lead to the appropriate termination of a relationship: the other party's continued wrong conduct which goes on unchecked, danger arising from the relationship, or the identification of the futility of continuing it.

In deciding to end a relationship, Buddha does not support hasty, adamant and lopsided conclusions; rational and ethical evaluations should precede any final decisions. One must make sure that one's decision will benefit, rather than adversely affect, the people involved in the relationship, including oneself.

Buddha also advised that one should first leave aside hatred and revengeful thoughts toward former companions even if they have caused distress in a relationship as one would never find inner peace as long as one clings to the misdeeds done by another person in the past. Taking appropriate actions against maltreatment is always recommended. However, pursuit of hatred would only aggravate the agony that has already sprung from an unhappy relationship.

People make their lives miserable by dwelling on broken relationships, but they may find harmony in life by learning to forgive and forget. Also, numbing ourselves from our feelings with intoxicants or addictions (e.g. shopping, eating, gaming) will not help to alleviate our suffering. If we can cultivate a mind of loving kindness and be grateful for what the relationship and the other party has taught us, that will be most beneficial.

In his final words to Ananda, the Buddha praised the former's efforts and showed him the way out of grief: "For a long time have you, Ananda, served the Tathagata with thoughts, words and deeds of love, graciously, pleasantly and with your whole heart. You have gathered great good. Now you should put forth energy and soon you too will be free from the defilements."

The only way to be truly free from grief and sorrow is to truly see our feelings for what they are and to reduce our attachment to them. In truth, our mind loves misery for that leads to pity for ourselves and thus reinforces our false sense of a lasting self as we believe those transient feelings are ours. Let us be able to call our feelings bluff for they are but ephemeral emotions and thus steadily progress to a state of peace and equanimity.

May we accumulate wonderful wholesome karma for the attainment of nibbana and be liberated from grief and sorrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Twelve Bowls of Rice

At the Sunday puja at Buddhist Library today, Bhante Dhammaratana spoke of renunciation in lay life. He elaborated that renunciation is not all about giving up lay life and donning the monastic robes. Renunciation in a more significant sense is the abandonment of harmful practices and eradication of craving.

In his humorous manner, Bhante told the story of King Pasenadi and his overeating habits to illustrate his point.

King Pasenadi of Kosala was a very devout and loyal supporter of the Buddha. He often visited the Buddha for his teachings when the Blessed One was residing in Jetavana Monastery in Savatthi, the capital of Kosala.

King Kosala was an ardent pleasure-seeker, particularly where food and drink were concerned. Well known for his huge belly, he developed a close friendship with the Buddha. Once after a huge meal, panting and visibly discomforted, he visited the Buddha.

Buddha asked the king the contents of his meal and the king sheepishly admitted that he had twelve bowls of rice in addition to a multitude of other savoury dishes, which was his usual intake.

Observing the king's situation, Buddha smiled and spoke a verse that praised eating in right measure, and he stated that one who knew the right measure of food would get rid of physical discomfort and enjoy a long and healthy life. The Buddha then advised the king to cut down to eleven bowls of rice initially. After the king was used to eleven bowls, then he could reduce to ten and so on.

Buddha's compassion was evident from not asking King Pasenadi to go cold turkey and stop at one bowl of rice immediately. Having understood that change takes time, Buddha taught King Pasenadi to reduce his craving gradually so as not to discomfit the mercurial king and run the risk of him giving up altogether.

Heeding Buddha's advice, King Pasenadi gradually worked his way down to three bowls of rice! Having lost some weight, he now presented a trimmer and fitter form in front of the Buddha. He also became more energetic and healthy as a result of his moderate diet.

This story again illustrates Buddha's teaching on the Middle Path. The enjoyment of sensual pleasures in our lives through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body is not wrong in itself. However, when we stray from the moderate path and become ensnared and addicted to those pleasures, many problems will ensue. Therefore, the key phrase here is "right measure": right measure is what keeps one within the zone of physical comfort and health, mental well-being and social acceptance.

Before he attained enlightenment, Buddha as the bodhisattva then experienced two contrasting types of diets: ambrosial delights in the palace and one grain of rice per day as an ascetic. Having discovered that both diets were not satisfactory, he discovered the Middle Path and proceeded to demonstrate an exemplary life based on the view of not falling into extremes.

Is there any sensual pleasure you are particularly fond of and might be in danger of taking it to the extreme?

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