A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 9 Compassion

January 9, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 9 – Compassion

Kataragama is a place of pilgrimage in the south of Sri Lanka, holy to both Buddhists and Hindus. In 1989, I went to their annual festival. On the final night, as elephants, drummers, and dancers were slowly and gracefully moving along the path between the shrine to Lord Kataragama and the Kiri Vehera, the Buddhist temple, with its milk-white dagoba, two powerful grenades were lobbed into the crowd, made up mainly of poor villagers but containing one political dignitary. About fifteen people were killed and many more were injured, especially in the rush to escape the sacred area. It was the time when the JVP, the People’s Liberation Front, was attempting to seize political power through the gun and the death threat.

At Kataragama, religious devotion was shattered by blood in a pattern not unfamiliar in Sri Lanka. Both Hindus and Muslims have also been attacked when worshipping. Political concerns and religion have touched. In this context, the inter-religious encounter that I began in 1986 as a student of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, also became a journey into suffering and painful political reality, which included the violent death of friends and sharing the fear of those who were threatened. An important question for me at this time was how to cope with the suffering around me without being destroyed, how to empathize with others and deal with my own fear for the safety of dear ones.

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A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 8 Buddhism and Social Justice

January 8, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 8 – Buddhism and Social Justice

Among such humans, brethren, there will arise a sword period of seven days during which they will look on each other as wild beasts; sharp swords will appear ready to their hands, and they thinking, “This is a wild beast,” will with their swords deprive each other of life.

These words from the Pali Canon come towards the end of the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. Here the Buddha describes the process whereby a society slides into a state of absolute anarchy and violence, reaching the point where all respect for the preciousness of human life is lost and humans kill each other without guilt or remorse. Stealing appears first, then murder; false speech and sexual promiscuity follow. Religion is undermined; respect for elders disintegrates; human life loses its worth. It is a horrifying picture of growing bestiality that is as relevant today as it was when first spoken.

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A Journey into Buddhism – Part 7 Detachment and Compassion

January 7, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 7 – Detachment and Compassion

A Christian missionary in Sri Lanka once said to me with great sincerity, “The Buddha image speaks to me of coldness, of non-involvement, of a turning away from life. I prefer the image of Jesus Christ with his robes dirty with the sweat of the poor.”

One stereotype of Buddhism is that it supports a withdrawal from the suffering of the world, a renunciation of active involvement with society. An inter-religious conference I attended a few years ago stays in my mind because one of the western participants insisted that outward-moving compassion was not an important part of Buddhism. My encounter with Buddhism forces me to challenge this stereotype. I did so at that conference and I continue to do so. It is outsiders — European observers and those seeking an escape from the world — who have projected onto Buddhism the encouragement of indifference to the agony within human life. It does not rise from within. Buddhism certainly speaks of destruction, renunciation, and detachment, but it is detachment from all those things which prevent compassion from flowing — from possessiveness, competitiveness, and selfishness. Viraga, one of the Pali words translated as detachment, actually means “without raga” — without lust, without possessive craving — not without concern for our world.

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A Journey into Buddhism – Part 6 The self in Buddhism and Christianity

January 6, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 6 – The Self in Buddhism and Christianity

Sri Pada, in Sri Lanka, is over 7,000 feet high and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. At the summit is a huge footprint, claimed variously to be that of the Buddha, Adam, and Lord Shiva. From December to May is the pilgrimage season. Each night during this season, thousands of devotees climb up an illuminated, lengthy ascent of steps. From a distance, the dark shape seems to have a diamond necklace thrown down its side. Sometimes the crowd is so large that pilgrims have to pause at each step they climb. The pressure on the leg muscles is incredible. An elderly Buddhist friend of mine climbed on such a night. She told me that the only way she could force her legs through the ordeal was to say of the pain, “This is not mine, this is not me.”

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A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 5 Vesak

January 5, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 5 – Vesak

In May 1991 I travelled from war-torn Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka to the South. It was at Vesak, the time when Buddhists celebrate three major events in the life of their Master: his birth, his awakening into Buddhahood, and his passing away into final Nibbana. It was like moving from one world into another. In the North, the tension was palpable — towns gutted by fighting, vast stretches of empty roads, people with hardship in their eyes. But as we crossed over into the South, there was celebration. Groups of boys flagged down our car to thrust fruit drinks into our hands. Lanterns of wire and coloured paper hung in porches with their streamers flowing in the breeze. And nearer Colombo came the first of the pandals — massive, temporary structures by the road, brilliantly lit, telling in pictures Buddhist stories of how self-sacrifice triumphs over violence, how compassion vanquishes hatred.

Vesak is the most important religious festival of the Buddhist year. It is marked by light, pilgrimage, and the re-telling of stories. At its heart is remembrance of the Buddha’s solitary striving in meditation under a tree near Gaya in India 2500 years ago.

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A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 4 The Brahmaviharas

January 4, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 4 – The Brahmaviharas

A professor of Theravada Buddhism once asked me, “Why is it assumed, at all the interfaith gatherings I attend, that God is the uniting factor among the religions? We should be concentrating on humanity rather than divinity.”

When it is taken for granted that all people of faith worship a Supreme Creator and Sustainer God, Buddhists and Jains are excluded. Although Buddhists believe that there are gods living in heavens, they do not ascribe creative power to them, nor do they believe that these gods have any influence over ultimate human liberation.

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A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 3 Non-Retaliation

January 3, 2006

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 3 – Non-Retaliation

In one sermon of the Majjhima Nikaya, one of the five sections within the collection of sermons in the Pali Canon, the Buddha says to his disciples:

Monks, as low-down thieves might carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, yet even then whoever sets his mind at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching. This is how you must train yourselves: neither will my mind become perverted, nor will I utter an evil speech, but kindly and compassionate will I dwell, with a mind of friendliness and devoid of hatred.

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