Buddhism and Thai Society

I just read a transcription of a talk on “Buddhism and Thai Society” by Vichak Panich, Sirote Klampaiboon and Sulak Sivaraksa. The talks are really insightful and one learns a lot from it. Basically these three intellectuals agree that Thai Buddhism as it stands now is out of touch with the changing reality of Thai society, and it functions now mainly as a prop for the state power only. Furthermore, they also agree that Thai Buddhism is also being used as a prop for capitalism. Monks themselves are sucked into the whirlwind of capitalistic desire, either by the demand of the people who see no other ideology or belief except for capitalism and consumerism, or by the monks themselves who in this regard are no different from the people themselves.

There is a talk about how to return Thai Buddhism to the primal state of “pure Theravada” Buddhism that presumably existed during the time of the Buddha. I don’t think this is really possible, and I don’t think that there existed such a thing as “pure Theravada” version either. Obviously there was a kind of Buddhism that was practiced by the Buddha himself and his followers, but I don’t know if this was really “Theravada” as what is usually regarded as “Theravada” is more an adaptation by monks in later period than what existed during the Buddha’s lifetime. For example, state supported Buddhism first took shape in the reign of Emperor Asoka, some three hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Hence I doubt that we can actually return to the state when the Buddha and his followers roams the Indian countryside. The social situation just does not allow it any longer.

Or perhaps the call for the return to “pure Theravada” is a critique of the current situation, where the destination is put forward as an ideal state into which the current situation should be changed. The one who called for the return envisioned that “pure Theravada” meant that the monks are free from state organization, where they really follow and practice the Buddha’s teaching in order to attain cessation of all sufferings. But that is not exactly speaking “Theravada” because what is known as “Theravada,” at least in the Thai context, is always tied up inextricably with state power and state ideology.

There was also talk about how Buddhism and politics could be related. This has always been a problem for Buddhism, because when the Buddha started teaching, he was not affiliated with any state mechanism. In fact he explicitly turned away from such trappings when he escaped the confine of his own palace to seek Liberation. It is when Buddhism became “state religion” that the issue of Buddhism and politics became an issue. In Christianity the issue was solved when Constantine proclaimed that Christians were free to practice their religion and he himself became a Christian, and when later emperor decreed it to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then church and state became one. This lasted for many centuries until the rise of liberalism and modernity, which led to the idea of separation between Church and State. In fact the relation between Christianity and the State is an interesting one because Jesus himself was crucified precisely because he was regarded as an insurgent, a rebel who rose up to challenge Rome’s power.

In the case of Buddhism, of course the Buddha was not arrested and sentenced to death. He simply led a mendicant’s life, challenging no authority at all. The Buddha and his followers lived around the margins of society, accepting alms from the people and invitations from them, kings included, to eat at their houses or palaces. But later on Buddhism was not accepted as “state religion” in the same way that Christianity was. Some Indian kings were Buddhists, and during their reigns they supported Buddhism materially, building temples and providing food to the monks. Buddhist monks did not seek to attain temporal power in the same way as the Christian pope did. The situation in Tibet where the Dalai Lama had temporal power came much later, in a very different circumstance that existed in Tibet.

What happened was that, instead of the monks themselves having political power as the catholic Church did during the Middle Ages, the monks were coopted by kings in Buddhist kingdoms as a prop of their state power. And the monks accepted this in return for state support and protection. This has been the norm in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and in other Buddhist kingdoms (except Tibet where there were no kings, so monks had to assume political power).

But the situation changed with the coming of democracy, and more intensely with globalization. In Thailand, the institutions of Buddhism were made more subservient to the state and the king through the efforts of King Rama IV and his sons Rama V and Prince Vajirayana, who was a very influential abbot during the reign of Rama V. All these resulted in Buddhist institutions becoming more “organized” and bureaucratic, but on the other hand it made them much more resistant to change. Thus when the globalization, post-modern age comes, the monks did not know what to do. Hence all the problems the panel talked about.

I think Thai people are smart enough to figure out a solution by themselves. In fact this is what they are actually doing. They are beginning to listen less and less to the mainstream monks and starting to form their own “Sangha” with no support from the state and certainly none from the Sangha Establishment. This is very welcome. If anything it signifies the spirit of the Buddha when he broke away from his palace. Buddhism in Thailand is becoming more of the property of the people again, and not solely that of the royal court.

Kunga Sangbo Rinpoche’s Visit to Thailand 2010

ตามที่พระอาจารย์กุงกา ซังโป ริมโปเชจะเดินทางมาบรรยายธรรมและนำภาวนาตั้งแต่วันที่ 23 กุมภาพันธ์นั้น ริมโปเชมีความจำเป็นต้องเลื่อนการเดินทางถึงประเทศไทยเป็นวันที่ 27 กุมภาพันธ์ ทางมูลนิธิจึงต้องเลื่อนกิจกรรมต่างๆไปเป็นกำหนดการใหม่ ดังนี้

27 กพ พระอาจารย์เดินทางถึงประเทศไทย
28 กพ ประกอบพิธีมนตราภิเษกพระแม่ตารา พิธีเปิดศาลาเตวาวัฒนา และสวดมนตร์สำหรับการตอกเสาเข็มพระสถูป นำภาวนาเนื่องในวันมาฆบูชาที่ศูนย์ขทิรวัน
1 มีค  สอนฝึกสมาธิที่ศูนย์ขทิรวัน เดินทางกลับกรุงเทพฯ
2 มีค  รอการยืนยัน
3 มีค  1-4 pm บรรยายเรื่อง “ทำความรู้จักพระพุทธศาสนาวัชรยาน” ที่จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย 7-9 pm สอนฝึกสมาธิทงเลนที่บ้านมูลนิธิพันดารา
4 มีค  7-9 pm บรรยายที่ห้องโพธิคยา ตึกอมรินทร์โซโก้ (ขอเชิญผู้สนใจมาสนทนาธรรมกับริมโปเชและมาเรียนรู้เรื่องราวของมูลนิธิตั้งแต่เวลา 5 โมงเย็นเป็นต้นไป)
5 มีค พระอาจารย์เดินทางกลับประเทศจีน

ดังนั้นกำหนดการที่เปลี่ยนแปลงจะมีดังนี้ 1. งานมาฆบูชาภาวนาที่ศูนย์ขทิรวัน หัวหิน จะเริ่มในตอนเช้าวันที่ 28 กุมภาพันธ์ แทนที่จะเป็นวันที่ 26 อย่างที่ประกาศไว้ครั้งแรก และ 2. การบรรยายที่จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย เลื่อนจากวันที่ 23 กุมภาพันธ์ ไปเป็นวันที่ 3 มีนาคม


Dear members,

Due to a necessary schedule change by Kunga Sangbo Rinpoche, we need to reschedule the event in Thailand as follows:

27 February: Rinpoche arrives in Thailand

28 February: Empowerment of Bodhisattva Tara; Opening Ceremony of the Dewa Wattana Pavilion; Chanting for the Pilings of the Tara Great Stupa; Meditation on the Magha Puja Day

1 March: Meditation Practice – Rinpoche travels back to Bangkok.

2 March: To be announced.

3 March: 1 – 4 pm –> Lecture on “Introduction to Vajrayana Buddhism” at Room 707, Boromratchakumari Bldg., Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University ;  7 -9 pm –> Tonglen meditation practice at the Foundation House, Lad Prao Road.

4 March: 5 – 7 pm –> Informal talks with Kunga Rinpoche; getting to know the Thousand Stars Foundation and participating in the activities, Bodhgaya Hall, Amarin Sogao Bldg.;  7-9 pm –> Lecture on “Abandoning the Ego” at the Bodhgaya Hall, 22nd Floor, Amarin Sogo Bldg., Ploenchit Road

5 March: Rinpoche returns to China

Buddha Nature

One of the important aspects of teaching in Buddhism is one on Buddha Nature. Actually this is more toward Mahayana, but it’s there in Theravada too but not much emphasized. The idea of Buddha Nature is that every sentient being has the seed of eventually becoming a Buddha inside of it. When the seed is fully realized, then the being becomes an enlightened Buddha.

This teaching is what gives meaning to the practice of bodhisattvas. For those who are new to Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who are committed to becoming a Buddha in order for them to be fully able to help ferry sentient beings across the ocean of suffering to the shore of Liberation. The Buddha Nature teaching tells us that it is possible for everyone to become a bodhisattva and a Buddha. This is not only limited to human beings, but since a human being is but one form that a sentient being can take and since a human being used to be a countless number of animals and other forms of being in their previous lives, an animal can also become a Buddha. Even Shakyamuni Buddha himself used to be born in all animal forms, so who knows that the lowly insect in front of you might actually be a bodhisattva. In fact the insect actually has the potential to become a bodhisattva and the Buddha. This is the gist of the teaching on Buddha Nature.

There is a passage in the Tripitaka that the “original mind” of all of us is essentially pure, and it is only because of adventitious defilements that the original mind become cloudy and thus is subject of wandering around in samsara. This can well be a point for reflection in meditative practice. When the defilements and their root are gone, and the root of all defilements is avidya, or the ignorance of the fundamental nature of reality, then the original mind shows itself forth in its primordial purity. That is the goal of practice, the showing forth of the original mind constitutes entering into nirvana, or the state of totally extinguishing all causes of suffering which lead one to wander in samsara.

But how can one get rid of avidya? That is the subject matter of the Buddha’s 45-year teaching career and countless number of texts and commentaries. The trick is that the original mind should not be thought of as something existing objectively for there to be cleaned. The original mind is not a crystal ball that you can clean up. Talks about the original mind being “pure” and adventitiously “polluted” by the “defilements” are only metaphors. At this level we can rely only on metaphors because language fails us. The reason is that it is the very nature of language itself that is part of the root cause of suffering itself. But we can get very far into this and easily get lost, so enough of this for now.

In any case, the original mind shows that there is Buddha Nature in all of us. When you come to Buddha Nature, then it can be said that you come to who you yourself really is from the beginning. Total disclosing, no concealment whatsoever. This is what the Zen masters say when they tell you to look for “your own face before your father and mother got married” …

(Actually I have written a post on this topic before, but the content is not the same, I think.)

Nirvana, Parinirvana, Enlightenment, Buddhahood

A follower of mine on Twitter asked what are the differences between ‘nirvana,’ ‘parinirvana,’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ This is a very good question, but to answer it in Twitter is like walking with the feet tied together, so I have to answer this in more detail here. I have already gave an answer in Twitter, but my tweets there are necessarily too short. This might not be clear enough, especially for those who are new to Buddhism.

Nirvana is the goal of Buddhist practice. This is why people became a Buddhist in the first place, and it is the goal that the Buddha taught everybody to pursue since he began his teaching career soon after he had attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Etymolotically, ‘nirvana’ means ‘extinguished,’ like when a fire is extinguished, in Sanskrit one would say the fire is ‘nirvana.’ This sense of ‘being put out’ then is transferred to refer to the state where the suffering is ‘put out’. There is no more suffering. Thus, one gains total liberation from samsara.

‘Parinirvana’ literally means ‘being put out all around;’ that is, it is all extinguished. In this sense it means the same as nirvana, only that there is the emphasis on being totally extinguished. However, it is more commonly used to refer to the dissolution of the body of one who has already entered nirvana. So when one has entered nirvana while one is alive, his ego attachment is completely dead, and when that one finally ‘dies,’ it is said that he enters ‘parinirvana.’ In Theravada tradition this is only used for the Buddha.

‘Enlightenment’ is the state where one gains complete Knowledge. This is what the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree that enabled him to become a Buddha. A ‘Buddha’ means ‘one who is awakened.’ Those of us in samsara are not awakened because we live in the dreamworld of thought construction and conceptual fabrication, believing that they are real. So we believe that our egos, our “I’s” are real and so on. The Buddha, on the other hand, realizes that this is an illusion, and in reality there is nothing but pure state of naken, unadorned, expansive being. This is what an enlightened being knows. In Pali one says, sammasambodhi, meaning perfect, complete Knowledge (actually I have to put in the diacritical marks on the Pali or Sanskrit terms, but it takes time to do that and I don’t think it’s really necessary here as we are focusing more on the meaning.) ‘Knowledge’ here, by the way, does not refer to one’s ordinary, commonplace knowledge that relies on concepts, but the complete knowledge obtainable only when one lets go of all concepts. Thus ‘Knowledge’ with the capital ‘K’ refers to the state of complete knowledge, or the Buddha’s state of Enlightenment, and ‘knowledge’ with a small ‘k’ to refer to ordinary, conceptual knowledge.

Since all sufferings are caused by not realizing this truth, the state of complete Knowledge here is their direct antidote. So one who is enlightened naturally is free from any and all sufferings. So in a sense Enlightenment and nirvana mean the same in that they refer to the same situation. But literally they mean differently.

Now, there is still another distinction between those who have attained nirvana and have totally abandoned samsara, and those who, though they have attained nirvana but chose instead to remain in samsara to help beings. This is a key idea in Mahayana Buddhism. In Theravada, the goal of practice is to eliminate all causes of suffering and entered nirvana, becoming an ‘arahat.’ In Mahayana, on the other hand, that goal is commendable, but it is not the complete or ultimate goal of one’s practice. The aim of a Mahayana practitioner is not just to liberate oneself from samsara, but to be able to help all sentient beings to attain nirvana also. Thus the goal of the Mahayana practitioner is to become a Bodhisattva, or one who has the aspiration to attain Buddhahood, that is to become a fully enlightened Buddha, in order to be able to help beings.

So this is all for now. I’ll write more about all these in later posts. Those who would like to know more might want to read my earlier post on Nirvana and Samsara.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the Four Noble Truths

Here is a video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s talk in 1996 on the Four Noble Truths. This is a long video, more than an hour, and it’s only the first part. So set up some time for yourself and enjoy His Holiness’ teaching.

The Four Noble Truths is the essence of Buddhism. It’s the first thing the Buddha taught to his future students after having attained Enlightenment.

Each video is about one hour and a half long. So be prepared.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4