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?

Find out more about the Buddhist Library at www.buddhlib.org.sg. Follow Twitter @genexgirlSG.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Retreat at Buddhist Library

The Buddhist Library organised a free meditation retreat on Singapore's National Day, 9 Aug 2012. About 40 yogis participated in this one-day event to develop one's loving kindness (metta) and mindfulness (satipatthana).

Observing eight precepts and noble silence, yogis started the morning with a puja and offerings to Buddha. Following that, we cultivate and radiate a mind of loving kindness to the whole world, including ourselves. Throughout the day, we were instructed to observe our breathing and walking with mindfulness.

After lunch, the yogis were given a one-hour break to rest and digest the nourishing food. You can see some yogis relaxing and observing their breathing in the corpse position here.

During the Dhamma talk, Bhante Dhammaratana pointed out that people who are impolite, selfish, inconsiderate and crude are difficult to get along. He gave the example of some people who are so troublesome to travel with that nobody wants to travel with them at all! It is also difficult to converse with someone who uses harsh and crude language for that is disturbing to both the minds of the listener and talker.

Bhante emphasised that we should reflect on our own behaviour and be moderate in our speech and actions, thus developing a polite and considerate nature.

If one should be striving to be well-mannered and thoughtful but encounter others who are the opposite of those beneficial qualities, how should one deal with that? Bhante advised that if one is in a position to correct the other party gently and at the right time, one should do so. If not, it will be better for one to avoid such people. Until one's practice is strong and compassionate enough to be beneficial to oneself and others, it is not advisable to engage with unhelpful influences.

Indeed, Buddha had emphasised that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. One should seek the company of noble friends (kalyana mitta) who guide and galvanise us on the spiritual path.

What do you think are the qualities of a kalyana mitta that inspires us towards enlightenment?

You can check out more events from the Buddhist Library at www.buddhlib.org.sg.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Four Boys and a Genie

On a hot sunny day, four boys were trudging up a hill in the sweltering heat. Suddenly, one of them stumbled on a hard piece of metal on the ground which turned out to be a dirty gold oil lamp. Now, having read of the story of Aladdin and the Genie, they promptly rubbed their hands on the lamp and summoned him. Lo and presto, the Genie appeared!

As per previous custom, the Genie asked each of them to wish for something as a reward for their good luck in stumbling upon him.

Boy A, feeling the sweat dripping from his head to his waist, asked for a large ice cream immediately. The Genie made a wooosh and his wish was granted!

Boy B, on seeing Boy A's wish granted, asked for an ice cream factory so that he can have ice cream whenever he wanted. The Genie made another wooosh and fulfilled his wish!

Boy C, who had been observing both boys' actions, decided he could do better. He asked for an ice cream factory and a fast food restaurant to satisfy his favourite food urges anytime he wanted. On top of that, he asked for another three wishes to be used at his pleasure and discretion. In this way, he would have a never-ending supply of wishes!

How do you think Boy D could top Boy C's audacious requests?!

In our materialistic world of never-ending wants, even two Mount Everests made of gold would not be enough for one person. The Buddha had advised us to know that and thus live accordingly.

Kitchen UtensilsUnfortunately, knowing that did not stop me from salivating at the rows of gleaming, new utensils temptingly displayed at our local supermarket!

I am a mediocre cook at best but I've always envisioned having a state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen with all the fanciest cooking gadgets at my disposal hahaha...

With sheer willpower, I only selected a pair of tongs for easy pan frying. I quickly turned away before succumbing to further temptations!

Having safely made my way home, I surveyed the utensils I had in the kitchen - stove, rice cooker, convection oven, microwave oven, steamer, toaster, refrigerator, blender, pans, pots and numerous hand tools. Was I short of anything? No. In fact, I genuinely love all the stuff that I have and they are all that I need for my cooking!

A wise meditation teacher once gave me an excellent piece of advice: "Do not be obsessed by what you don't have. Want what you have instead."

I do not take this to mean that we should rest on our laurels and not strive for anything. We should certainly still aim for the best within our ability. However, cultivating a heart of gratitude for what we already have is important in reducing our attachment to worldly possessions which are not permanent. At death, we can't bring anything with us on our next journey.

May we learn how to strike a balance between our pursuit for a better life with a sense of gratitude and contentment at whatever comes our way.

Have you guessed what Boy D asked for? He wished to be so content that he would never need to wish for anything again. And that is the Buddha.

The story of the four boys was shared by Ajahn Brahm, spiritual patron of Buddhist Fellowship (www.buddhistfellowship.org) during one of his talks in Singapore.