Friday, 27 March 2015

A Buddhist Perspective of Japanese “Mono No Aware” (物の哀れ)

The more I come in contact with Japanese culture and nature, the more I seem to like them. It does not, of course, mean that Japan is a paradise on earth and that Japanese people are like celestial beings. I am well aware that saṃsāric existence is a deficient existence. Japan is a piece of saṃsāra. It is, in fact, an epitome of saṃsāra. I have come across wonderful colleagues, students, friends, food, shopping centers, winter, mountains, onsens, temples, rivers, trees, bamboos, earthquakes, kilns, Sake factory, Whisky distillery, winery, and above all a foretaste of full-blown cherry blossoms. This time I have either been too early for the full-blown cherry blossoms or full-blown cherry blossoms have been a bit too late. By the way, Fujisan refused to reveal her full glory to me. Not in Yatsugatake, not in Tsukuba. But I did climb Mount Tsukuba. Not a great accomplishment, but nonetheless an accomplishment. I think I understand slightly how mountaineers feel when they arrive at the peak. At any rate, I had been very busy but nonetheless had a good time in Japan. As I pack my things to fly back to Germany, I realize that I feel a tinge of inexplicable sadness. It is not that I wish to stay in Japan or that I do not wish to get back to Germany. Germany is my second adoptive home. In fact, I am looking forward to get back to Germany. Yet, what is this pang? Just recently in Yatsugatake, some Japanese friends mentioned a Japanese expression mono no aware (物の哀れ). I asked them to explain it to me and they fumbled for precise words. So I tried to look up for it and it is supposed to mean “the pathos of things,” and also translated as “an empathy toward things,” or “a sensitivity to ephemera.” It is said to be ‘“an awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.” The term is said to have been coined in the eighteenth century by the Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga and became central to his philosophy of literature and eventually to Japanese cultural tradition. “The phrase is derived from the Japanese word mono (), which means ‘thing,’ and aware (哀れ), which was a Heian period expression of measured surprise (similar to ‘ah’ or ‘oh’), translating roughly as ‘pathos,’ ‘poignancy,’ ‘deep feeling,’ ‘sensitivity,’ or ‘awareness.’ Thus, mono no aware has frequently been translated as “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things,’ life, and love. Awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty, and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing” (Wikipedia, s.v.). I believe that the feeling or emotion that I feel is mono no aware. I also feel that it is somewhat related to the Buddhist idea of saṃskāraduḥkhatā (’du byed kyi sdug bsngal). My German professor has once translated it as “ultimate unsatisfactoriness.” We should not be misled by the component duḥkha and think that it implies “suffering” whereas the idea of mono no aware also includes a sense of empathy and appreciation for the fleeting beautiful things while being aware of their transiency. In fact, saṃskāraduḥkhatā seems to be always related to a feeling or emotion that is related with what we consider pleasant, desirable, and enjoyable (and thus with beautify, enjoyment, and happiness) and accompanied with an awareness (and followed by an emotion of sadness or unsatisfactoriness) that happiness (i.e. subjective) and enjoyable and desirable things or beauty (i.e. objective) will not endure. The realization of the intrinsic transiency of happiness and beauty makes one sad and discontent. In this aspect, saṃskāraduḥkhatā seems to be very comparable with mono no aware. The difference maybe that the element of appreciation and admiration is not accentuated by the concept of saṃskāraduḥkhatā. If I were to try to translate mono no aware into Tibetan, I would propose dngos po’i e ma dang kye ma nyid (lit. “the marvel and pathos of things”). The component e ma should be understood as in the context of e ma ho (an expression of marvel or wonder) and kye ma (in the sense of ‘Alas!’). Interestingly, being sad is not necessarily bad. The Ratnagotravibhāga seems to suggest that sentient beings would not be sad if they had no buddha element. This idea needs to be explored.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Buddhism on Tolerism

Buddhism is usually perceived as proposing a kind of pacifism. Although I am sure some might rush to point out that Buddhism also endorses violence and militantism with an intent to show that Buddhism is as bad as any other religion. It is often disturbing to see when students of Buddhist Studies get carried away by trendy and catchy buzz-words such as “Buddhism and Sex,” “Buddhism and Business,” “Buddhism and Violence,” “Buddhism and Slavery,” and so on. To be sure, any theme, if studied competently and cautiously, should be welcome but those studies that resemble cheap and shallow form of journalism seem to be more damaging to the field and to the society. 

Buddhist sources speak of “dregs of views/ideologies (German Ansichten)” (lta ba’i snyigs ma). When I began to study Buddhism it was just one of many categories that I came across in Buddhist sources. The idea, however, began to take a new dimension, a new significance, and a more solemn note during my stay in Europe. Previously I have seen different views spelled out only in texts. In Europe I came across people whose views occasionally surfaced inadvertently. Sometimes glimpse of those views sent a chill through my spine. I became more fearful of views, especially if these are radical and yet subtle, packed with an “intellectual” wrapping. Even very harmless-looking self-declared Buddhists, pacifists, and those who are pro-human-right occasionally revealed views that made me shudder innerly. One such view is on what we would call here “tolerism.” There seems to be a pandemic ideology of not only tolerating what my common sense would tell me is intolerable but intellectually accepting and endorsing as if it were the most natural thing to do. One of the most interesting examples of such a view is one related with “terrorism” (following 9/11). It is amazing that many seem to find a subtle apology and explanation for “terrorism.” Many intellectuals de facto seem to endorse “terrorism.” What I would think is the ideology of hatred, death, and destruction behind the perpetrators of the horrendous acts of terrorism have been banalised, trivialised, relativised, and apologised. What is more shocking is that the motive behind does not seem to their love for people like Bin Ladin but their inexplicable hatred for those who are opposed to people of Bin Ladin’s kind. Even more so shocking is when they happen to be pacifists, Buddhists, and pro-human-right.

This brings me to “Tolerism in Buddhism.” To begin with, I do not think “tolerance” renders well the word kṣānti (bzod pa). I would like to believe that kṣānti in Buddhism means “one’s intellectual and psychological capacity to accept and face the reality as it is.” Reality could be conventional reality such as pain or suffering or their causes and conditions or ultimate reality such as emptiness. Tolerism in this sense does not mean accepting and endorsing what is morally, ethically, socially, and legally unacceptable. Supposing someone practices kṣānti towards the assassin of his or her beloved mother, it by no means means that he or she is endorsing the intention and action of that assassin. By intellectually and emotionally endorsing the assassin’s malicious intention and action, one becomes like a co-perpetrator and sympathiser of the assassin. In such a case, one would not be a true ally of one’s mother but her enemy! 

Is this my view alone? I have at least one Tibetan scholar who would support my view. The tenth mūlāpatti in Vajrayāna is “to be affectionate/benevolent to the hateful” (sdang la byams pa). By being affectionate (i.e. emotionally close) to the hateful opposed to the Dharma, one would by default become an enemy of the Dharma (chos dgra) and one becomes a māra (bdag nyid bdud du gyur pa). See Rong-zom-pa’s mDo rgyas (p. 345). This seems to mean that one should not intellectually and emotionally endorse (or associate and identify with) what is ethically and morally unacceptable. But this by no means imply that one should generate hatred towards them. One could generate compassion towards them. My personal way of dealing with people whom I consider evil is to think that the innate nature of human being is pure (e.g. water in its molecular stage). The evilness of a person is adventitious and mere pollution. It is a disease. I try not to get angry with (or hate) the person because the person is sick with kleśas. The person’s kleśas are to be blamed. Nāgārjuna has said something to this effect. If one takes the bodhisattva ideals seriously, I cannot afford to hate a single sentient being. Is this possible? I think very difficult but not impossible!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


I think that Buddhism should and would endorse the philosophy of “Sentiocentrism.” I particularly like the passage cited from a work of Jeremy Bentham. Most (if not all) Buddhist philosophers would perhaps agree that the capacity of a sentient being to feel pain is what makes a deliberate infliction of pain on that sentient being ethically and morally wrong. What is sentiocentrism? The Wikipedia (s.v. Sentiocentrism) provides the following explanation:

“Sentiocentrism or sentio-centrism describes the philosophy that sentient individuals are the center of moral concern. The philosophy posits that all and only sentient beings (animals that feel, including humans) have intrinsic value and moral standing; the rest of the natural world has instrumental value. Both humans and other sentient animals have rights and/or interests that must be considered. The sentiocentrists consider that the discrimination of sentient beings of other species is speciesism, an arbitrary discrimination. Therefore, the coherent sentiocentrism means taking into consideration and respect all sentient animals. The utilitarian criterion of moral standing is, therefore, all and only sentient beings (sentiocentrism). The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham compiled Enlightenment beliefs in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (second edition, 1823, chapter 17, footnote), and he included his own reasoning in a comparison between slavery and sadism toward animals: 

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor [see Louis XIV’s Code Noir]... What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Peter Singer, in A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation (pp. 73–82); Tom Regan, in The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights (pp. 82–90) and Warren, in A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory (pp. 90–97) they talk about sentiocentrism. Sentiocentrism is a term contained in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff.”

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Cultism, Guruism, Scandalism, and Blind-Faitheism in Buddhism

As I am wont to claim, I philologize because I have to but I philosophize because I want to. Someone posted a list of Buddhist teachers who are potential cult figures. The list and the issues connected with it made me reflect on, or so to say, “philosophize” the phenomena of what I like to call “cultism,” “guruism,” “scandalism,” and “blind-faitheism” in Buddhism. In this regard, I would like to reflect as an independent Buddhist thinker without committing my loyalty to any specific master or tradition. I can, however, only make a few random statements here. First, I think we should recognize that there are elements and tendencies of what I call “cultism,” “guruism,” “scandalism,” and “blind-faitheism” in Buddhism. By “cultism” I wish to express a “phenomenon of excessive, irrational devotion to a particular religious leader (guru: bla ma), who and whose followers leave no room for a healthy, commonsensical, and constructive criticism of the main figure and his or her religious institution.” Such a form of “cultism” often tends to be “an irrational form of guruism” (i.e. guru-devotionalism) based on “blind-faitheism” and is often a cause of “scandalism.” Such cultism should be seen as unhealthy and undesirable development within the Buddhist traditions. Second, it may not always be easy to separate “Buddhist cultism” from what one might call “main-stream Buddhism” because one person’s “Buddhist cultism” may turn out to be another person’s “main-stream Buddhism” and vice versa. A Buddhist master or institution that is ruled by a strong sense of Buddhist rationality and sensibility of ethical-moral integrity, responsibility, and accountability, and promotes compassion and wisdom, should not be considered a cult. Any master or institution that is ruled by a ideology of violence, bondage, death, and destruction should be cognized and recognized as dangerous. Third, it is also important to recognize that not all masters who have been scandalized are power-hungry, sex-hungry, and dangerous. Having said that in any given “cultism,” I hold the cult figures primarily responsible. Fourth, the antidotes for “cultism,” “guruism,” “scandalism,” and “blind-faitheism” in Buddhism can be found in Buddhist teachings themselves. If Buddhist teachers and disciples adhere to the adhiśīlaadhicitta, and adhiprajñā, there would be no “cultism,” “guruism,” “scandalism,” and “blind-faitheism.” Everyone involved with Buddhism should try to open their prajñāic eyes, stick their asses to samādhic cushion, and self-guard themselves by remaining within the bounds of self-restraints, which includes avoiding causing mutual harm. Buddhist rationalism should be an antidote to “blind-faitheism.” It is crucial to remind ourselves that our masters are human beings (even when we are supposed to see them as an Awakened Beings). Just like ourselves, our masters, too, have their strengths and weaknesses. In contrast to the Buddhist tradition, I do not believe that there is such a thing as a perfect person. For the Buddhists, may be the Buddha can be regarded a perfect person. But what would this mean? A person with whom no one will have a problem? I do not think such a person is possible. If the Buddha were my roommate, I am afraid, I may start disliking some of his behaviors. So our masters (and note that even one’s enemy can be one’s master) are masters only insofar they impart dharma that is supposed to benefits us. A master is a like a doctor who prescribes medicine. A master should be, by no means, idealized or idolized as an infallible person. A master’s private life (so long as it does not harm others) should not be a disciple’s personal matter. If a master deliberately harms the disciple, however, he or she should be held accountable just like a doctor who deliberately harms his or her patients should be held accountable. My personal stance is that if a master abides by his or her śīla, there should be no scandalism. It seems very beneficial for all masters to realize that they are all fallible mortals and should mend mistakes whenever they make, and be modest enough to admit that they are human beings with all kinds of intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa: nyon mongs pa). Masters would easily fall into a trap when they claim that they are Awakened Beings with no intellectual-emotional defilements. Being an honest human being is a prerequisite for being a good Buddhist. Being a good Buddhist is a prerequisite for being a good master. Fifth, I personally do not find attempts to “black-list” and “criminalize” certain masters or traditions particularly beneficial or constructive. Such campaigns have been rampantly pursued in Tibet beginning from the tenth century but have only fueled sectarianism and polemicism. Using one master’s argument to ostracize another master is like attacking one form of cultism by following another form of equally dubious cultism. Raising awareness of self-responsibility and self-reflection is, of course, fine. Of course in very obvious cases where a cult figure robs off freedom, self-determination, independence to think for oneself from his or her followers, and propagates an ideology of hatred, death, and destruction, the society as such must take appropriate measures. Sixth, just as I accept my parents (with all their strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses), I personally accept my teachers (with all their strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses) because they are bka’ drin can for me. The Tibetan word bka’ drin does not mean “kindness.” A master may be kind or unkind to me but he or she is still bka’ drin can for me because he or she happens “to be one who deserves (or is worthy of) my gratitude.” I may not, however, totally share the ideology of my master. In sum, a very imperfect disciple like myself cannot demand a perfect master. If one does not like one’s master, or if one’s master does not suit one, one may leave him or her. Just like one leaves one’s girl-friend or boy-friend. If the master does not allow one to leave, be warned. That is a sign of cult! This is all the more a reason to leave! Seventh, by changing our attitude or perception, we can even change adverse conditions or bad masters into factors conducive to bodhi and hence into kalyāṇamitra. On the other hand, if our attitude or approach is worldly, we can change everyone and everything into factors opposed to bodhi and hence into pāpamitra. Because no one or nothing is by nature kalyāṇamitra or pāpamitra, we can change anyone and anything into either kalyāṇamitra or pāpamitraEighth, ultimately, the Teaching (bstan pa), in many regards, is the best Teacher (ston pa).

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Buddhist Blasphemism? Blasphemism in Buddhism?

Recently the topic of blasphemy, or, let us call, “blasphemism,” in Buddhism became an issue. Many scholars commented on it and I must admit most comments seemed to remain at the periphery of the topic. The first question is whether there is at all what one might call “blasphemy” in Buddhism? What would be the terms used in Buddhist sources that might indicate blasphemy? What types of blasphemy may be found? Most importantly, what does it mean in Buddhism to commit a blasphemy? And do/should a Buddhist react to (or deal with) blasphemy? Is there such a thing as Anti-Blasphemy law/rule/ regulation in Buddhism? These issues are perhaps important so as to raise awareness among Buddhist intellectuals and spiritual leaders so that they can impart a clear understanding of blasphemy and educate Buddhists not to think and behave in a way that would make one a “Buddhist Taliban” or a “Buddhist Ayatollah.” Let us look at the word itself. The word is said to come from Latin blasphemia and Greek blasphēmía. It is said to mean not just any kind of “slander” but “the action or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things.” Some of the words listed as synonyms or quasi-synonyms of “blasphemy” are “profanity, profaneness, sacrilege, irreligiousness, irreverence, taking the Lord’s name in vain, swearing, curse, cursing, impiety, impiousness, ungodliness, unholiness, desecration, disrespect; formal imprecation; archaic execration,” and “reverence” is said to be its antonym. The first important question for me is if there is “blasphemy” (in any sense of the word) in Buddhism? The answer should be certainly in the affirmative. In a narrow sense, “blasphemy” in Buddhism may be defined as “mental, verbal, or physical actions involving depreciation/deprecation, desecration, defamation, or, destruction of the Buddha, Dharma, and Saṃgha and of anything or anyone that represents them.” In a broader sense, “blasphemy” in Buddhism may be defined as “mental, verbal, or physical actions involving depreciation/deprecation, desecration, defamation, or destruction of anyone or anything that is worthy of respect.” The greatest difficulty in this regard is whether the idea or concept of “worthy of respect” would differ from person to person; from culture to culture; from religion to religion; and so on, or whether we can we talk of a universally valid idea and standard of respect. I would personally think that while the mode or manner of expressing one’s respect may differ from culture to culture, “respect” (in the sense of “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”) is something universal. This would be true also with “disrespect.” The matter then seems to be not about whether there is an idea, concept, or norm, of “respect” or “disrespect” in any given cultural tradition or religion but rather about how does or should one deal with “respect” and “disrespect” (especially of what one considers to be “sacred” or “holy”). From a Buddhist philosophical perspective, so long as there are beings with intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa: nyon mongs pa)—such as ignorance, hatred, and desire—there are bound to be “blasphemies.” Just as our “blasphemies” are symptoms of our unchecked intellectual-emotional defilements so too are our negative or destructive reactions to blasphemies symptoms of our unrestrained intellectual-emotional defilements. Both of these are caused by one’s obsessive attachment (or addiction) to one’s own religion (and ultimately to oneself) and excessive aversion against anything that is associated with others, and both addiction and aversion are rooted in ignorance/confusion/disorientation. To be sure, all human beings, defined by the notion of “I” or “self” and “mine,” are prone to addiction/passion and detestation. We tend to be pleased if other people praise, for examples, us and our religion. We tend to be hurt and angry if other people blame, for examples, us and our religion. That may be natural. But the question is how should we react if other people ostracize and criticize, for example, us and our religion. In this regard, it is surprising that we tend to be infantile and immature and think and act like spoiled children. I cannot speak for other religions, but I feel that Buddhist religion in this regard is quite mature, that is, even when Buddhists (who fail to see the very purpose of Buddhist religion being under the sway of intellectual-emotional defilements) may misbehave or think and act adharmically. Of course, admittedly the ideal Buddhist teachings and the real Buddhists may not and cannot always conform. Buddhist teachings prescribe several ways of combatting one’s own intellectual-emotional defilements. Reacting negatively or destructively to an act of (perceived) blasphemy (e.g. wanting and seeking to kill someone on its account) would be seen in Buddhism as becoming a slave of one’s own intellectual-emotional defilements. A Buddhist should be able to cope with any form of “blasphemy” against Buddhism by considering many arguments. First, it would be completely preposterous to assume that everyone will respect the Three Jewels. Everyone should but not everyone will. Second, as a mature Buddhist, one should be able do deal with both respect and disrespect of any kind, or with all “eight worldly concerns.” Third, by generating hatred (or by giving in to hatred) towards those who seek to destroy, desecrate, or depreciate the Three Jewels and their representations, a Buddhist would stoop to the same level as those who perpetrate those acts of disrespect. Fourth, those who perpetrate those acts of disrespect should be objects of one’s compassion but not of one’s hatred. One is primarily responsible for sowing one’s “positive” or “negative” seeds and for reaping one’s desirable or undesirable “fruits.” People are free to sow any kind of seeds in the Three Jewels that are fertile “fields” (kṣetra: zhing). They are free to respect or disrespect the Three Jewels and their representations. If they respect these, they do so for their own benefit. If they disrespect these, they do so at their own risks. By disrespecting or insulting, for example, the Buddha, one would accrue “negative earnings” or “detrimental resources” (pāpa: sdig pa) so that one brings about one’s own destruction, downfall, pain, or suffering. By respecting, for example, the Buddha, one would accrue “positive earnings” or “beneficial resources” (puṇya: bsod nams) so that one brings about one’s own wellbeing and happiness. Fifth, those who perpetrate those acts of blasphemy against the Three Jewels and their representations are de facto one’s wholesome teachers insofar as they teach one to practice moderation and toleration. They teach one to be more humane in the face of inhumanity; tolerance in the face of intolerance. Sixth, instead of being concerned about other people committing blasphemy, one should be more concerned that one does not commit oneself not just blasphemies but any negative deeds especially those five infinitely heinous deeds and five that resemble them. Charity begins at home, so it is said. Here it would more appropriate to say: Responsibility begins with self-responsibility! There is, however, one difficulty in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Is it not permissible to exterminate those who seek to exterminate Buddhism or those seek to annihilate countless sentient (or human) beings? Perhaps only precariously and conditionally! If a bodhisattva is capable of doing so, that is, if he is able to do so without being tainted by intellectual-emotional defilements, he would be principally permitted to do so, but how can one and who can guarantee that such an act comes to be beneficial? In the light of inadequate insight and compassion, such an endeavor, though theoretically permissible, would hardly be feasible or implementable. If a bodhisattva decides to go ahead and should it turn to be beneficial or disastrous, he should bear full responsibility for his motivation and action. Sometimes, a bodhisattva may be willing to take full responsibility of his motivation and action and if necessary even be prepared to go to the deepest hell!