On June 6, the Great Hill in New York's Central Park was the site of Tricycle’s Fifth Annual Change Your Mind Day, graciously sponsored this year by the Henry Luce Foundation. On a crystal-clear, breezy Saturday, the crowds sat in contemplative silence on blankets and zafus while teachers from many different traditions led guided meditations. The day began with Michele Laporte striking a large brass gong 108 times.
Sensei Enkyo O’Hara of The Village Zendo in New York City began with a short intense meditation that set the tone for the day, which at times was as quiet and still as a monastic meditation hall. Co-abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, joined us from California, as did Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery outside of San Diego. Tamara Engel, a co-founder of the New York Insight Meditation Center, continued to provide specific meditation instruction, this time, emphasizing mindfulness in the vipassana tradition.
By the time that composer-musician Jon Gibson broke the silence with a transcendent sax solo CK, the crowds had swelled to well over a thousand very polite, very content, very chilled out New Yorkers. Gibson then teamed up with Philip Glass, on the electric piano, to perform selections from Einstein on the Beach.
The Tibetan tradition was introduced by Lama Surya Das, founder and spiritual director of the Dzogchen Foundation of America, who led a melodic recitation of the Tibetan mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum.” As the afternoon progressed, the hill became shaded by the large trees and the Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa, the Sri Lankan abbot of the New York Buddhist Vihara, bowed and began speaking about the Buddha. A regular and esteemed teacher at Change Your Mind, Bhante Piyatissa courageously led New Yorkers in close to 15 minutes of total public silence (without instruction or encouraging words), a record for this event, and a challenge to the conventional celebration of noise, any noise, that pervades not only this city, but the culture as a whole.
Another familiar instructor, Maggie Newman, a Tai-chi adept and dancer, led a series of movement exercises that emphasized reverence for the body, connection to the ground, and the relationship to one’s “chi.”
The day concluded with Geshe Michael Roach leading a traditional Tibetan debate. Explaining to the audience in English first, and then translating into Tibetan for the two fellow monks on the opposite team, Geshe Michael Roach posed the question: does one have to die? The audience was encouraged to boo Tibetan style, calling out “Dooooochiii!!” when one of the monks seemed stumped. A group of children from the Asian Classics Institute encircled the monks and demonstrated their own wisdom when, in making a point about the nature of reality, Geshe Roach asked whether a pen is something for humans to write with, or dogs to chew on. “BOTH!” they yelled.
As Ms. Laporte struck the gong 108 times to close the day, and the crowd slowly dispersed, one participant from Queens said, “In less than a half hour, an entire year’s stress and unnecessary b.s. vanished!” Maybe one mind was changed.
Maurice Walsh 1911-1998
Maurice O’Connell Walshe, a leading figure in the development of Buddhism in Britain, passed away on April 18, 1998. Best known for his translations of the Buddha's discourses, Mr. Walsh’s commitment to Buddhist studies began in 1951 when he learned the Pali language, and started writing numerous articles and booklets on theory and practice. He took up the dicipline of meditation, visited Buddhist monasteries in South East Asia and returned to England to become the Vice President of the Buddhist Society. In 1956 he helped establish the English Sangha Trust, an organization that helped to found two monasteries - Cittaviveka in West Sussex and Amaravati in Hertfordshire.
After the death of his second wife, Walsh entered the monastic Order of Monks for several months at the age of seventy-seven. Having spent the three month Rains Retreat as a monk in accordance with Thai custom, he remained a regular and much-loved member of Amaravati’s congregation while continuing to travel and write. He joked (or perhaps not) about becoming a monk again when he was ninety in order to finish his days close to the heart of the religion towards which he had given so much.
His published works include a new translation on Meister Eckhart’s work (1987) and Thus Have I Heard, a new Translation of the Long Discourses of the Buddha: The Digha Nikaya (1987).
The bombs went off. The news made the rounds in New Delhi: “The Buddha has smiled again.”
On May 11, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced the detonation of three nuclear devices in the Rajasthan desert. The festival celebrating the birth of of the historical Buddha fell on the day of the test, as it had on the occasion of India’s only previous nuclear test, in 1974.
The code phrase designating successful completion of the 1974 test was “the Buddha is smiling.” This year’s project had been code-named with the more Hindu and militant-sounding term “shakti.” And scientists had notified the government of their success with the phrase “the white house is collapsing.” Yet, it is the Buddha terminology that seems to have stuck with the press and has attracted international attention.
The figure of the Buddha is at once a symbol of national pride for the many Indians who greeted this year’s blasts with euphoria, and a rich source of irony for critics of the event. Denouncing the Hindu nationalist politics of the ruling party, noted intellectual Ashis Nandy commented, “The bomb represents a desecration of India’s sacred traditions that only a party used to the instrumental use of religion could have thought of.”
The magnitude of destruction released by nuclear weaponry is so awesome that it seems to summon forth sacred associations. The very first atomic detonation, at Alamagordo in the New Mexico desert in 1945, was code-named “Trinity.” The grandeur of the explosion inspired Robert Oppenheimer, its chief architect, to quote Lord Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” And again, quoting Krishna, Oppenheimer said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Live, from Beijing
On June 27, towards the end of his nine-day state visit to China, President Clinton engaged Chinese President Jiang Zemin in a debate broadcast live on Chinese television. Jiang declared himself ready to open talks with the Dalai Lama, on the condition that the latter recognize Tibet’s status as an inalienable part of China.
The concluding remarks of the debate were Clinton’s description of the Dalai Lama: “I believe him to be an honest man. And I believe if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much.”
Clinton’s words came as a surprise not only to Chinese and Tibetan viewers but also to supporters of Tibetan freedom in the United States, who took heart in this unprecedented interest in their cause.
In early April, Chinese authorities demolished a temple and monastic complex at the pilgrimage site of Drag Yerpa. Most of the buildings at the site were constructed in the early Eighties, when the authorities loosened restrictions on religious practice. Chinese policy officially permits the reconstruction of religious structures, but only on plots recorded as having been so occupied before 1959. The government charged that the demolished buildings had been erected in violation of this policy.
Unofficial sources cited by Tibet Information Network claimed that at least fifty nuns and an unknown number of monks and laypersons had been expelled from Drag Yerpa, and that monastics at another pilgrimage site, Samye Chimpu, had been beaten for verbally resisting an expulsion order there. At both sites, it was alleged that “the monks’ and hermits’ quarters and prayer hall were destroyed completely.”
The following month, when wardens at Lhasa’s Drapchi prison tried to organize a Labor Day celebration before a delegation of European human-rights workers, the Tibetan prisoners shouted pro-independence slogans until fired on by police. A letter from inmates to the Tibet Information Network alleged that many prisoners were put in solitary confinement and tortured. The scenario was replayed three days later, at an attempted rally for “Youth Day,” when slogan chanting was again greeted with ammunition.
Worth its Weight
In an attempt to help rescue Thailand’s ailing economy, a Thai Buddhist monk collected over two million U.S. dollars and 400 lbs. of gold from followers in Thailand and from abroad. Thai Buddhists who believe that making donations to a monk or temple will bring them rewards in another life have been donating their jewelry and other valuables to the monk’s temple in Bangkok since April.
In early July, the eighty-seven-year-old Phra Maha Bua Yanasampanno transferred all monetary donations to the Bank of Thailand, where it is being held in Thailand’s foreign exchange reserve account in New York. “This is the first lot of U.S. dollars to be given to the central bank,” said Colonel Therdsak Chaiyasith, a member of the “Help the Country Project.”
Estimated at over one million dollars, the donated gold will be handed over when the monk has reached his goal of collecting one ton. The Bank of Thailand will hold the gold directly as part of its reserves.
Raiders of the Lost Arts
This spring, two major instances of illegal traffic in Buddhist antiquities were reported within three weeks of each other.
In April, the People’s Daily of Beijing reported that a 1,200-year-old Buddha statue had finally been returned to its home in Lhasa after a five-year hiatus in China and the United States. The “Golden Buddha” had been stolen in 1993 from the Zholma Lhakham monastery and sold to smugglers in the city of Chengdu for $300,000. A search throughout China and Tibet failed to retrieve any trace of it, until three years later, when Lhasa Customs discovered it had been shipped to the United States and to a buyer with eight million dollars. The FBI seized the delivery and then reportedly impounded the statue pending the arrival of photographic evidence from Tibet regarding its identity.
The following month, the Cambodian newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea reported the seizure of a truck with military license plates on its way to the Thai border. Police recovered a haul of no less than three tons of Angkor-era Khmer statuary taken from temple sites in Preah Vihear province. The truckload included carvings of celestial nymphs, a lion’s head, and fourteen Buddha heads hidden among bricks. According to the Associated Press, the complicity of corrupt military officials is a typical feature of temple-raiding operations in Cambodia.
Who says college students are only interested in partying? Thongkhoun Pathana, twenty-three, an architecture major at Syracuse University, is building a Buddhist temple in his hometown of Smitfield, Rhode Island.
Pathana and his family immigrated nine years ago from Laos to Smitfield, joining a Buddhist congregation of some six thousand Laotian-Americans. Three years ago, when he began the project, the young architect faced some initial opposition from the town. But “once our intentions were understood - that we were serving the community - the townspeople became happy and accepting,” says Pathana, who believes a temple is the life-breath of a community. Most of the funds for the building came from Southeast Asian communities along the East Coast.
The temple is scheduled for completion in 2005. After he finishes his last year of architecture studies, Pathana plans to pursue a master’s degree in political science. “In Laos, the temple functions as an educational and community center, as well as a place to teach the Buddha’s philosophy,” says the young architect. “I want to find my own language in Laotian architecture and find new meaning in classical Buddhist architecture.”
What the Doctor Ordered - NOT
Ulan Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia in the Russian Far East, was the site of clashes between Buddhist monks and police this Spring.
On Monday, May 4, the Interfax news agency reported that fifty Buddhist monks were detained by police for their attempt to prevent the temporary removal to the United States of a sacred manuscript. Authorities denied the report, only to be discomfited by footage broadcast by Russian commercial television of masked police in riot gear beating and handcuffing maroon-robed monks and marching them off. The following day, monks held a vigil outside the parliament building in protest. The cause of the dispute, a manuscript of the Atlas of Tibetan Medicine compiled between the 16th and 19th centuries, was slated to be displayed in four American cities through December.
Ethnic Buryats have historically practiced in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. They make up about a third of the population of the Republic of Buryatia, located on the Mongolian border. According to the ITAR-Tass news agency, the transfer of the medical document had been approved by both the Russian cabinet and the Dalai Lama. But the monks’ concern that the text might be lost on its journey was not allayed. They pointed out that in the last century, it had been taken from Tibet and put up for sale in Moscow - which is presumably how it had wound up in Buryatia in the first place.
Wake up and Smell the Lotus
Featuring a fountain in the shape of a lotus blossom and a soaring suspension roof symbolic of a crane in flight, the 110,000-square-foot Sho-Hondo, or “Grand Main Temple” of Nichiren Buddhism, is considered a landmark statement of Japanese postwar architecture. Designed by Kimio Yokoyama, the temple was completed in 1972 at a cost of U.S. $100 million from eight million contributors worldwide. It is now under threat of demolition, largely because most of those contributors belonged to the controversial lay movement Soka Gakkai.
Soka Gakkai was affiliated with the Nichiren, or “Pure Lotus” school of Buddhism, through most of this century. But the increasingly troubled relationship came to a break in 1991, with the excommunication by the Nichiren High Priest of all 15 million members of Soka Gakkai, a move that followed the expulsion of their politically influential leader, Daisaku Ikeda, the year before.
As part of a campaign to divest Nichiren of all identification with Ikeda’s movement, High Priest Nikken has since razed an architecturally acclaimed reception hall - as well as 300 Soka Gakkai-donated cherry trees - from the temple grounds. With demolition of the Grand Main Temple next on the agenda, some of the most prominent names in international architecture have rallied to the Sho-Hondo’s cause.
Feeling the Pinch
This June, Thailand’s highest religious governing body, the Sangha Supreme Council, issued a call for an end to “profiteering” by monks and temple management committees. The directive follows guidelines issued the previous month, in response to government pressure, that mandate lower rates for funeral rites and free services for the destitute. The Sangha stopped short of acting on another government proposal to have assets of all temples audited.
The current concern about the materialism of some monks comes at a time when Thailand’s economy has suffered a severe slump and perhaps a million people have been thrown out of work. The boom of the Eighties and Nineties saw contradictory trends in Thai Buddhism flourish. The Dhammakaya sect, popular with the country’s business elite, disposed of U.S. 400 million dollars in a land purchase for a massive temple complex outside of Bangkok and received an award for its “market planning strategies” from the Business Management Association of Thailand. At the same time, the anti-consumerist Santi Asoke sect also gained prominence among both rural and urban, middle-class Thais.
“I think it’s that Zen Buddhism stuff,” Michael Jordan said, attributing yet another NBA championship for the Chicago Bulls to coach Phil Jackson’s teachings on court Zen. Buddhist-oriented Naropa Institute will be blowing in the wind as it becomes the first institution of its size in the state of Colorado to be fully wind-powered, eliminating 600,000 pounds of atmospheric pollution. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now using the title “Buddhist Chicken” for chickens that don’t have their heads and feet cut off. The Minnesota Zen Meditation Center is offering a $1,000 reward for the return of statues of Avalokitesvara and Manjusri as well as a bell to announce zazen that were stolen during a break-in. Monkish Business: a poll of 937 urban Thai monks found that forty-six percent bet on Brazil to retain the World Cup, with decreasing percentages for England, Italy, and Germany respectively. Queried on the ethics of this convention, the monks explained, “Sport is not gambling”; also in Thailand, a Buddhist monk has been charged with murder for allegedly participating in a lethal game of Russian Roulette; and, for all the concern about sex in the sangha on the Western Front, it has not yet - as far as we know - been treated as an assault or an incident for which cops are routinely called, but in Phnom Penh, fellow monks had the police raid the quarters of twenty-seven-year-old Yong Polak, who was subsequently expelled for having an affair with a widowed cigarette vendor.
Image 1: courtesy Wisdom Publications
Image 2: left: monastery at Drag Yerpa in Tibet. Photo © Hugh Richardson; right: after the demolition. Photos courtesy Tibet Information Network
Image 3: The Nichiren Shochu sect's Sho-Hondo temple, marked for demolition. Courtesy International Committee to Save the Sho-Hondo