Remember Death

Jumping off my post some days ago about the Stoic “premeditation of evils“: Virtually every society since ancient times understood that we should always be aware of death.

Socrates said that good philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as “remember death”, which became the mantra of medieval Christian societies following the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Some adherents of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad himself had once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, already so well known for their obsession with death, had a custom of bringing out a skeleton during festivities and cheer, “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Mexico’s globally iconic Day of the Dead fuses both the Catholic and indigenous fascination with death, putting a more optimistic spin on our ability to remain connected to departed loved ones while appreciative of our time on Earth.

Still Life with a Skull, by Philippe de Champaigne, which depicts the three essentials of existence: life (the tulip), death (the skull), and the time (the hourglass). The original painting is part of a 17th century artistic genre called Vanitas, which encouraged reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

Perhaps the most famous proponents of this idea were the Stoics I quoted last time, who emerged in the Roman Empire the third century B.C.E. In his private journal known as the Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Roman statesman and orator Seneca advised that we go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we:

…prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live and would probably paralyze us with fear (take it from someone with chronic anxiety). But as another famous Stoic, the slave Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terribly doing so, you’ll never have a base thought, nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers cut us off on the road or in line will die; that every time we say goodbye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again. Again, the point is not to be depressed, clingy, or nihilistic, but to help put things in perspective and value each finite second we have.

The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness. Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s every culture and society has been trying to refine this advise for as long as our species has been aware of its own mortality.

Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

The Untold Story of Buddhism’s Struggle in America

Buddhism’s presence in the United States is seen as a very recent, if not trendy, phenomenon, becoming most visible starting from the 1960s and 70s. But like other minority religions, Buddhism has been around far longer than our public consciousness suggests, and its history here has not always been a pleasant one.

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the tribulations of Buddhists in the context of Japanese internment during World War II. Because a large number of early American Buddhists were of Japanese ancestry, the legal and social problems faced by adherents were inextricably tied what Japanese citizens and residents faced as a whole.

73 years ago this week … President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to ten war relocation centers—often called “concentration camps” before that term came to have other connotations.

For the most part, the wartime fears that led to the relocation of Japanese­-born immigrants and their American­-born children were justified on racial rather than religious grounds. Those forced to leave behind homes, farms, and businesses in states bordering the Pacific were not of a single faith. There were Buddhists among them, and many maintained Shinto rituals that provided spiritual connections to their homeland, but there were also Christians of various denominations, as well as those with no particular affiliation.

Religion was not ignored, however. When the FBI set about compiling its list of suspect individuals after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they naturally included members of various American Nazi parties and groups with political ties to Japan. Yet they also paid particular attention to Buddhist priests.

J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals and groups on an A­B­C scale, with an “A” ranking assigned to those deserving greatest scrutiny. Ordained Buddhists like Reverend Fujimura were designated “A­1,” those whose apprehension was considered a matter of urgent concern.

The priests became the first of a relocation effort that would soon detain more than 110,000. Many within this larger group, having heard of the sudden arrests and harsh interrogations endured by Buddhist community leaders, sought refuge in Christianity, hoping—in vain, it turned out—that church membership might shield them from such treatment.

Those who did not go this route were called “Buddhaheads,” an epithet often applied to the Japanese Americans of Hawaii, but more broadly used to suggest a resistance to assimilation. Within the Japanese community, Buddhists were more likely than Christians to maintain their native language, as well as the customs and rituals performed in that language. They were also more likely than Christians to read publications concerned with Japanese political affairs. Subscription rolls of such publications provided the FBI with a natural starting point for building its “A” list of suspects.

Because of the connections and the traditional knowledge Buddhist temples helped maintain, to be a Japanese Buddhist in America during the 1940s was to be considered a greater risk to the nation.

I recommend reading the rest of this piece, which conveys the struggles of Buddhists and Japanese through the experiences of Reverend Fujimura, and looks at a little-known fight to get Buddhist troops due recognition of their faith on their memorials. Very informative look at one of the many neglected chapters of American history.

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

The Leshan Giant Buddha

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, located near the city of Leshan in Sichuan Province, China, is a 233-foot (71-meter) tall stone statue built during the Tang Dynasty. It is carved out of a cliff face facing Mount Emei, lying at the confluence of three rivers that flow below his feet. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

Construction was started in 713 under the leadership of Chinese monk named Haitong, who hoped that Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it so happens, the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located was thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha now being at its heart.

However, the project stalled due to insufficient funding and the eventual death of Haitong. About 70 years later, an unnamed jiedushi (regional military commander) decided to sponsor the project, and construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.

As it turns out, constructing the massive statue resulted in so much stone being removed and deposited into the river below, that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the water safe for passing ships as Haitong intended.

In addition to being a marvel of design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is an impressive engineering feat, featuring a sophisticated drainage system carved into various places on the body to carry away rainwater and reduce weathering (hence why it is one of the few stone statues built in a wet environment to remain in fairly good condition). This ancient systems works to this day, although today the Buddha and its surrounding area is threatened by pollution more than anything (the government has promised to restore it).

The Leshan Giant Buddha, along with the Mount Emei area, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The photo below demonstrates just how large and impressive this monument is.

Giant Leshan Buddha

Ten Places You Wouldn’t Believe Are in Russia

This looks like something you would see in Tibet or China, right?

Well, this is the Ivolginsky Datsan, located in Buryatia, Russia. A datsan is a Buddhist university in the Tibetan tradition that is typically divided into a philosophical and medical department. This particular one was opened in 1945 and remained the only Buddhist spiritual center in the USSR. It hosts unique samples of old ethnic Buryat art, a collection of old Buddhist manuscripts written in Tibetan language on natural silk, and a greenhouse with a sacred Bodhi tree.

Buddhism has had a presence in Russia since the 17th century, and is now considered one of the nation’s traditional religions, with legal recognition as a part of its historical heritage. Aside from Buryatia, Budhissm has is a major faith in the regions of Kalmykia and Tuva, and is now widespread throughout Russia, with many ethnic Russian converts. As of 2012, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people profess Buddhism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a Buddhist revivalist movement and many schools and temples opening across the nation.

See more unlikely sites in Russia here.

Greco-Buddhism

Below is a sculpture of the Buddha, dating back from the 1st to 2nd century CE, found in what is today eastern Afghanistan (but what was then called Gandhara).

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Notice the resemblance to a traditional Greek sculpture? That’s not a coincidence: this unique piece reflects a rare art form known Greco-Buddhist style.

This remarkable fusion of Greek, Indian, Persian, and Buddhist culture developed between 300 BC and the 400 AD in what is now modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It was the result of a long chain of interactions begun by Greek forays into India that began with Alexander the Great. Even though his empire collapsed almost right after his death, what most people don’t know is that it broke into various Greek-ruled kingdoms that remained for centuries and fused local cultures with Greek (also called Hellenic) culture.

Examples include Greek rulers claiming to be reincarnations of previous local leaders, certain Buddhist figures being portrayed as Greek gods (and visa versa), a combination of clothing styles, transmission of rituals, and even the creation of new languages and philosophies.

In fact, to this day, you can still find some Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians who are descended from Greeks. It’s claimed that Buddhism may have influenced Western thought through Greece too: some have found similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Stoics with that of the Buddha (though the connection is disputed and difficult to trace).

Below are more fascinating examples of this unexpected cultural syncretism, the influence of which has reached as far as China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Read more about it  here.

The bodhisattva Vajrapani depicted as Hercules as the protector of the Buddha, 2nd century.

The Greek Titan Atlas, supporting a Buddhist monument.

 

Casket depicting the Buddha in Greek-style (contrapposto pose, Greek himation, bundled hairstyle, realistic execution) flanked by Indian gods.

Gandhara frieze with Buddhist devotees, holding plantain leaves, in purely Hellenistic style, inside Corinthian columns, 1st-2nd century CE. Buner, Swat, Pakistan.