Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Visit the Potala Palace instantly: No need to get up.

As I float over lush Tibetan mountainside in my flying clamshell, I enjoy the sights on my way to the Potala Palace: A fountain shooting rainbows in the air, a temple to sacred geometry housing enourmous spinning platonic solids, the Dalai Lama outside a temple giving teachings. Wait a minute, you say, how is any of this realistic?
Welcome to the Tibet region of Second Life.
Second Life is a virtual reality based world which prides itself on being the forerunner of Web 3.0. It attracts a range of people, from Roleplayers leading literal second lives, to online students studying in virtual universities. One thing I learnt since joining was that most residents dislike SL being labelled a "game", or being called "players". "For most people, SL isn't a game, but an extension to your RL [Real life]... You get to do things you always wanted to, or bring your own skills into the metaverse." said one of my new virtual friends. I learnt that the hard way on my first day when I was exploring someone's house, and found an adult (The main SL server is for over 18s only) pretending to be a child, and got in trouble with its "mother" for not knocking before I entered, and so had to pay her a 50L$ (SL currency, bought with real money) fine for breaking and entering. Despite the strangeness of seeing real world laws upheld in a virtual world (I couldn't have stolen anything from the house), many other aspects were intriguing from day one. For instance, the Potala Palace Virtual World. A real life Taiwanese monk called Bhikkhu Maitreya (Known as Bhikkhu Kamachi on SL) started the project to recreate the entire Potala palace in life-size accuracy as a gift of love to the Dalai Lamas and people of Tibet. So far, the project will require a few more years to complete and at least four sims (Virtual space, basically). And so, dressed as Vajrayogini (And at some points, Green Tara), I set off to explore the land and bring you back some pictures. If ever you are in Second Life, do search for the Tibet region and have a look for yourself. You can also contact me there, I go by the name of Tenzing Ansar (I wanted "Ten" for Tenitachi, but it was taken. Such is life.) Bhikkhu was also kind enough to host some of the drawings made by Tibetan children in exile that I was able to upload back in December (http://chasuma.blogspot.com/2007/12/tibetan-refugees-paint-life-in-exile.html).
Detailed information on the project and how to donate can be found on the official webpage: http://www.potalapalacevirtualworld.org/

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Universal Responsibility in the Modern World: HH Dalai Lama at the Albert Hall, 22nd May 2008

"We love you!"
This is the first sound that's heard after a full five minutes of clapping and cheering the Dalai Lama onto the stage, echoing out over the silent Albert Hall. "Thank you!" is the prompt reply as His Holiness goes to sit down.
"Firstly, let's sit more comfortably" Taking his shoes off, he sits cross-legged on the chair but assures us "Don't worry, I'm not going to meditate in silence. Not yet, anyway. Dear brothers and sisters, I am extremely happy to be here with you." And thus begins his talk on Universal Responsibility in the Modern World, which turned out to be nothing like I expected, in a good way. I remember seeing people outside holding placards saying "Ticket needed", and I also remember my mum dragging me away from giving them one. So, this is for all of those who couldn't make it - A detailed account of what he taught, all of this is written from notes I made during his talk, so there are plenty of quotes and the rest is also from his own words, but I just couldn't remember it word for word.

When me and my mother arrived at the Albert Hall we saw a large crowd of people gathered around the stage entrance, so not wanting to miss this opportunity we managed to get a good place at the end of the line. After 30 minutes of waiting he finally arrived, and headed straight towards us. Sometimes I wish I was less inclined to take pictures of things and record everything I see, rather than be able to sit back and enjoy them. Though through this small sacrifice I get to bring you, gentle reader, some rather nice images and notes.

He began by talking about how we have a responsibility to serve human value and religious harmony above most other things in life. "Generally when I visit in response to invitation... like this visit... it is to promote these two things, but this time due to recent events we will be talking about universal responsibility instead." Indeed, the introductory speech by Philippa Carrick, Chief Executive of the Tibet Society said that when they originally invited His Holiness over a yea ago they had no idea this talk would coincide with such unrest in Tibet. Though I do question this, even over a year ago it should have been fairly easy to predict what would happen here. For all her insistence's that it was an accidental coincidence, she was quick to say that it was "time to give something back to His Holiness!" I'm sure he's not complaining.

Then came some introductory examples as to the nature of sentient beings: "Nobody thinks 'I should have more trouble!' when they wake up in the early morning - Or in the late morning." Which he linked to the Western commercialism. We strive to avoid suffering and gain happiness, and in the West short-term cures for our unhappiness are available wherever we go, but this just cultivates within us a "lack of comprehensive perspective and short-sightedness." We are all connected, and everything is interdependent, which can be seen on a global scale when you look at economic conditions, population sizes and the rise and fall of individual opinion. He linked this to something his Muslim friend told him, that a true Muslim has love for the entire scope of creation as they have for God - "It's the same Buddhist idea of global responsibility!"

"There is a nickname for money in Tibetan... [I forget the Tibetan term he used, but I'm trying to find out]... Which means 'That which makes you happy and accomplishes everything. So, money is very important. Perhaps to some, the mantra becomes 'Om money money money peme hum'! Or 'Dollar padme dollar padme... pound padme pound padme!' But, it is physical comfort versus mental comfort - 'I have a lot of money!' is an illusion, you are rich but unhappy... With suspicion and jealousy... More money, more worry... What have you actually gained but worry?"

"Inner peace, inner satisfaction depends on our own mental attitude." We are social animals, a biological fact. We are dependant on our mothers womb, her milk and our parents love and protection. Even animals, like cats for instance, rely on this. Without our mothers care, we would have died. "So, there must be some emotional factor to mother's care. The mother self-sacrifices to protect." He talked about how once, on a place journey there were two children, and the younger one who was about 1 wouldn't go to sleep at all, so he tried to give it sweets to calm it down but to no avail. The father of it fell asleep around midnight, but the mother stayed up all night looking after it, even though her eyes were red and sore. "This compassion doesn't come from religious teaching but fact of nature and biology. Human affection is the human basic value." A good way to cultivate it is to do "give and take" meditations - Take these bad feelings and give them god ones like compassion and kindness. Hence, "the biggest danger we have right now is of losing compassion to the Chinese. In order to keep inner peace, compassion really makes a difference." If no universal responsibility is taken, suffering is inevitable, even to yourself because everything is interconnected. "More enemies, less happiness. More fortune, more fake friends. Less money, less fake friends, even if you telephone them they wont answer, they were not real friends."

He then talked about the sense of self, and how using "me", "my", and "I" actually give you a greater risk of heart attack. It's attachment to your self, which is unreliable. Your 'self' makes even tiny problems seem immense, but if you give it up and take on a universal responsibility suddenly your own problems seem not so big. "Anger, hatred, fear actually decrease our immune system." Compassion on the other hand increases it. If a family is full of hate and suspicion, how can there be inner peace there? You can only solve problems with universal brother and sisterhood. Even those who criticise you are your brothers and sisters. It is possible to have faith for one religion and respect for all. "Most people see a contradiction in 'one truth, one religion and all true, all religions', but it's not because of respect for all of them."

Then came the question and answer session:

Q. What are your opinions of the China earthquake?

HH: Very sad, very shocking. I saw a picture of a young student crushed in a school. Only one, but such unimaginable pain. The one good thing is how there has been such a great and wonderful response from the authorities and the world, just like the tsunami. Even many Tibetans who have suffered under China are helping!

Q. What makes you laugh?

HH: Other people's little mistakes. Too serious people, like this Japanese person at an interfaith conference once... He was sat very seriously, doing his rosary beads. Then suddenly, the string broke, and the beads went everywhere! And he was still sat there austere like this [Makes a grumpy face].

Q. What can we do to keep Tibet and its wonderful tradition alive?

HH: Meaningful autonomy is needed to preserve our country. Please continue your expression of solidarity, your concern and your sincere want to help. If you find the ability to talk to our Chinese brothers and sisters, then do so, educate them!

Q. Would you like to be reborn in London?

HH: Oh no, no, no. Wait [Confers with his translator] Oh, oh... possible! When in Tibet as children we used to describe Westerners as "big nose". So, I could have a big nose one day. Wherever there is some usefulness in my next life, I will go there.

So ended the talk on universal responsibility, to much cheering. There were also some famous faces in the crowd too, me and my mum spotted Joanna Lumley in the line on the way in.

This picture has a story. His exit from the stage was right beneath my seat, so I tried to get a good picture but he started looking at me and smiling so I could only respond. Then the man next to me shouted, I quote, "Holy father, how about a high five?" and leaned over. Hell with it, so did I and we both got a joint hand slap from His Holiness. It took me a while to think straight again so you only get a blurry, dark picture of his exit afterwards.

This was what greeted HH outside. What I think of the New Kadampas (And what the Tibetan beside me in the chupa was shouting at them) doesn't need to be said, but I am glad we live in a country where people CAN stage a peaceful protest, even if they are a disgrace. What was worse were the Chinese Nationalists on the other side, who went crazy at me for having a picture of the Dalai Lama, shouting "You're brainwashed!" My mum pulled me away from them because she was so scared of their violent outburst. It made me wonder, how could you call someone brainwashed, when you have such angry and volatile tendencies towards a picture?
There are some shaky hand footage videos of the talk and of the protests on YouTube, if you have trouble finding them leave a comment and I'll give you the direct links.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Bodhisattva ideal, idealised: A Buddhist thought on the Tibet riots.

As many may have heard, riots in Tibet have been happening for a week now, since March the 10th, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibet riots. For those unaware of the proceedings, and to illustrate my upcoming point, here’s a timeline of news headlines:

Tibetans launch historic movement ahead of Beijing Olympics.
"We are calling on Tibetans worldwide to join us at this critical moment when China is trying to spread its Olympics propaganda," B. Tsering, President of the Tibetan Women's Association. "Together, we will seize this unprecedented opportunity to voice Tibetan resistance and reinvigorate our freedom struggle."

Tibetans march despite police ban

Tibetan exiles go on hunger strike
More than 100 Tibetan exiles began a hunger strike Thursday after police in northern India dragged them away from a six-month march to their homeland to protest China's hosting of the Olympic Games.

China pulls plug on YouTube after Tibet riots
Crisis? What crisis?

China warns Tibet of crackdown
Reports: At least 40 dead in clashes


Beijing says Olympic torch plans unaffected by Tibet killings

Deadline looms for Tibetans to surrender

Tibet protester deadline passes
The deadline for Tibetan protesters to surrender to the police has passed, after a quiet day in the city of Lhasa.

When I first heard of this through the YouTube video I commented thus: "I very much support a free Tibet, but this movement is making me uneasy. Tibetans marching home. I wonder, how many hundreds or thousands of people will be killed. What's more frightening is that no-one's mentioning this. I wonder what the Dalai Lama has to say about it. It will certainly work, however. It will be remembered in all time as the moment when the antelope walked straight into the lion's jaws." Now, looking back on the events I feared so much, I'm not relieved that my "hundreds and thousands" of deaths have receded to around 40-100. In fact, the events of the past few days have only confirmed that this whole thing was a bad idea. First of all, I do not see how any protest which has an ultimate aim of martyrdom can be called "peaceful". It's like lying under a tank, or even standing in front of a bullet: these types of actions are NOT peaceful. It is merely altruistic violence. Rather than be violent to them, be violent to me. This doesn't stop the fact that someone is killed or injured, you do not prevent anything. Oh but you say, it's better I die than someone innocent, without even thinking about it. This is not a noble thought, because it does nothing. Maybe, the most needed death is theirs. Maybe, if they died, and not you, the media wold see it differently and hence the world. Maybe, if you lived on, more people could hear of your cause because of you, whereas through that innocent you saved they'd here nothing.
Do not get me wrong, I agree with none of these "maybe"s. My main focus here is this: Buddhist monks and leaders were involved in, and lead, this revolt. Many Tibetan exiles and citizens rioted not just for cultural but for religious reasons. Altruism is regarded highly in Mahayana Buddhism, as seen in the ideal of the Bodhisattva. A person who has achieved enlightenment, yet rather than moving on to Nirvana, chooses to stay present in this world of suffering purely through altruism: The will to lead all other beings to Enlightenment. For instance, the Dalai Lama is the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. Now, it is this very same ideal that gets butchered in protests like this. It is good to be altruistic, so let us go and become martyrs to free our country and raise an awareness of the injustices there. Anyone who has read Shantideva will see a contradiction here. Altruism is good, but why to only so few? Why are Tibet's problems any less than those of Kashmir, Sudan, Iraq? Shantideva states: "People honour someone who gives alms to a few people, saying, "He does good", because he contemptuously supports their life for half a day with a moment's gift of mere food." This sentence underlines the main reasons why I do not directly support the Free Tibet campaign, or the actions of the protesters. Why should I class one country as better than another? How could I, when all beings are universally equal and worthy? It feels selfish. In all things, suffering is equal. Yet to some, a shot fired in Tibet resounds a hundred of times greater than a shot in Pakistan.
Altruism isn't selective, and those monks and laity who have staged or been involved in these protests have done nothing worth merit, they have only succeeded in death.
It hurts me that there is such unrest in Tibet, and if the situation ever arose where a person might be shot and I could take the bullet for them, I probably would. This entire journal is just an ad hoc response to the events I'd been trying in vain to stop for months. I have stated that this blog is non-political, and maybe this one-off entry has shown you why.
Upcoming entries:
Deity File 1# - Vajrayogini: Queen of the Dakini
The teachings of Milarepa
Book Review: Monk, householder and Tantric priest: Newar Buddhism and it's hierarchy of ritual. (Nepal special!)
The mystery of Guge Kingdom.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

No-self and Morality: Ethics for those who don't exist

Within the Buddhist tradition lies the belief in “no-self”, anatman/anatta. Nagasena gives the example of the chariot to explain this concept. He explains that people are like chariots, in that both are made of many different components which cannot be defined per se as “a chariot” or “a person”, and so the inherent existence of the overall self or chariot is found in none of them, yet we still insist that a self or chariot exists. He concludes that the true nature of the self lies in dependence of all these aspects. If you remove a hand, or a leg, or a heart, or anything else, people would still say that what was left was “you”. What they do not realise is that this is not in fact the case, that what makes you “you” is ever-changing and dependent on not only the amalgamation of your components, the thirty-two parts of the body and the five skandhas, but also time, space and karma. This leads to a second example Nagasena gives us, of the lamp and the flame. He states that a flame is never the same from one moment to the next, just as a person changes with each second. You are a different person from the one who went to school, just as you are different from the one who will one day retire. The nature of the flame is shown well in Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s question: “Why does death seem such a threat when the present disappears every moment, scarcely having had a chance to arise?” Our lives, like the present, are fleeting and filled with change, making us impermanent, yet we cling to the idea that we are always the same being, thus creating suffering when the true nature of the world is revealed to us. This shows us a key concept in the Buddhist concept of anatta, that the world is an illusion, ever changing, misleading us into thinking that things really exist as we perceive them, such as ourselves.

Through these two examples it is evident that the Abrahamic notion of an everlasting human soul doesn’t fit with the Buddhist concept of anatta, and yet that is not what is meant by “self” in this context. Self and soul are fundamentally opposite ideas. Self here refers to a false sense that certain impermanent aggregates constitute an unchanging, real whole. The soul is seen as unchanging and real, your true essence which could not give you suffering, but only certain beings are given a soul. In Buddhism, even animals have a sense of self. Rather, the soul corresponds more to the notion of every sentient being having an inner Buddha nature, the only truly real immortal essence which allows them to awaken. The self and the Buddha nature are two of the four inverted views in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, meaning that either people can recognise the true nature of them, but not recognise the reality, or not see the true nature of them but see the reality: “Thinking that the self is the selfless or thinking that the selfless is the self.” This is relevant, as is shows that an apparent contradiction can arise in the understanding of “no-self”. In it the Buddha states that “Saying that the Tathagata (The Buddha, “One who is gone”) is Eternal is a Self-centred view. From this Self-centred view arise innumerable sins. Thus, one should say that the Tathagata is non-Eternal…The Tathagata's being non-Eternal would entail suffering. If [there is] suffering, how could one expect [to find] Bliss therein?” Thus a paradox over the existence of the Buddha nature arises, though most schools get around this by saying that Buddha nature is completely empty, not of it’s own reality, but of the reality of karma and suffering. This shows that “No-self” is a rather misleading term to use, it might be best appropriate to understand the concept purely in terms of the interdependence of reality than use “no-self” at all.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead states that “There are no phenomena extraneous to those that originate from the mind, so there are no modes of conduct to be undertaken extraneous to those…from the mind.” Here, the mind is the ability all sentient beings have to understand and experience both samsara and Nirvana, the self here is extraneous from the mind and therefore is not a good source for modes of conduct, including ethics. Buddhist ethics focus on how to act morally so that your accumulated karma has a positive effect on your present and future lives. Karma literally means “action”, and is the driving force behind samsara, the cycle of rebirth. This leads on to the fundamental teachings of Buddhist ethics; the Four Noble Truths. These being: All existence is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, suffering can have an end, the way to the end of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. Holding on to a view of the self is seen as a form of craving and attachment, which generates bad karma. The nature of the world, as we have said before, is ever-changing, so to cling onto one aspect of it is bound to bring on suffering when the inevitable happens. In this sense, the concept of anatta has a very little role to play in Buddhist ethics. Rather than an idea to inspire them, it is merely the negation of an idea, that shouldn’t inspire them. Just as if you said, “You cannot find morality in this apple”, it may be true in context, but it is self-evident and irrelevant to what you should and shouldn’t do ethically. It does however raise a good question: Why have ethics when people as individuals do not exist? The Buddha himself said that even good karma trapped you in the cycle of rebirth, so why is it so important to attain when it keeps you in suffering? There are many varied answers to this question. One is that karma can be donated to others. After meditation a Buddhist may dedicate their good karma attained in that particular sitting to helping all other sentient beings to awaken, or for all lesser beings to be born in a higher state. This means that they have helped others reach a higher understanding, and have gained no karmic effects in the process, a win-win situation. Another answer is that without compassion (wanting all beings to be free of suffering) and loving-kindness (love for everyone equally) you cannot possibly enlighten, as it shows that you are being selfish, grasping after your own release without care for others. This too leads to suffering as, also with the paradox of the four inverted views earlier, to grasp even after no-self, enlightenment, or any other truth, is to defeat the point. However, a criticism of this outlook is that Buddhist ethics is no more than a set of rules to keep your mind on the right path, and though the individual might feel real compassion, the concept itself is empty of meaning. If it were the case that nastiness caused people to become non-selfish and unattached to desires, then logically Buddhism should endorse it. This is also supported in the Buddhist belief that there are many different methods of teaching to different people, as even “[The Buddha] taught what was suitable according to the disposition of his listeners.” This lack of inherent moral value, or at least the low position of the good karma it attains, is limited more to doctrine than to practise. For a layperson, attaining as much good karma as possible is fundamental to offsetting all the bad karma they attain just by doing daily tasks, such as slaughtering the family goat, getting married or going to battle. They might do these things in the name of Buddhism, despite the fact that it goes against it’s teachings, such as Ani Pachen, a Tibetan nun who supposedly was prepared to kill in order to support her cause. This, however, is nothing new in religion. For instance, the Christian view of ‘love thy neighbour’ often doesn’t extend to enemies, or even “irreligious” folk, even if this irreligious behaviour is still Christianity.

Overall, the influence of the concept of anatta on the ethical nature of Buddhist tradition is very limited. It is perhaps cultural that we as westerners expect the self, or even the soul, to play a major part in it. Christianity focuses heavily on the intrinsic good of God’s commands, and how you will be given eternal life in heaven for your goodness, and also be blessed in your life with worldly goods and spiritual insights. All of these things are things to be desired, which Buddhism says cannot exist in this world, and so disagrees with the claim that your self should be given rewards. They do not disagree with the idea of your self attaining rewards through good deeds, only that overall, the cessation of all attachments is best. Buddhist ethics focuses instead on how to generate compassion to all beings, regardless of self, centring on the inner Buddha nature inside everyone. Indra’s web is the idea that the universe is like an infinite net, with a jewel in each gap, we are the jewel and as such, in our facets we reflect every other jewel on the web and they reflect us. Everyone is connected through Buddha nature, and so to cultivate an ethical approach to others helps every other living being as well. It is with this idea that Buddhism accepts morality without the need for a self.

Further Reading
Chamberland, S., Mahaparinirvana Sutra, 1st Edn, 2000, London, Nirvana Publications.
Coleman, G., Ed., The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, 1st Edn, 2006, London, Penguin.
Dalai Lama, The Four Noble Truths, 1st Edn, 1997, Thorsons.
Donnelly, A., Pachen, A., Sorrow Mountain, 1st Edn, 2000, Doubleday.
Gyamtso, K., T., Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, 2001, Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Trust.
Keown, D., Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, 1st Edn, 2005, New York, Oxford University Press.

1. Nagasena - Often depicted cleaning his ear with a stick to symbolise the purification of the sense of hearing. "An adherent of Buddhism should avoid listening to gossip and other nonsense so that they are always prepared to hear the truth." - Wikipedia.
2. The death of the Buddha Sakyamuni, his (Maha)parinirvana. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra is said to be the last teachings of the Buddha before his death.
3. The Wheel of Life.
4. Ani Pachen.


Apologies for some of the terminology in this post not being explained, I wrote this a while ago and found it difficult to change. Please, leave a comment if you need any further clarification. I thought I'd put up some in-depth philosophy while I plan my next post, which focuses on the life of Milarepa.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Party Animals

Dance is a medium well used in all parts of Tibet and indeed across the world. Rarely appreciated to it's full extent in western cultures, which seems to prefer books and movies to tell it's stories, dance can amaze those who are not used to it. Well, to be honest I would choose a book or a movie over a dance theater as well, but probably woudn't if the said dance was anything like the Sacred Yak Dance I was treated to by the monks of Drepung Lubum monastery last month. So hilariously funny and emotive, it was such a pleasent suprise to see a "real" yak come out and dance while his owner asks the audience "Excuse me, have you seen my Yak?" I'd rather share the experience than write about it, so here you are, a video of the same dance, possibly the same performers.

Another interesting and very amusing video I found is the Dance of the Snow Lion: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=P4mNzvMaFt0 . Embedding is not allowed for this one though, so you'll have to click on it and everything.