Vassa: A blog for SCUBA

Zeno and the Buddha by Oz
September 29, 2007, 9:05 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Philosophy

“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”

“Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers oneself.”
(Dhammapada 8:103)

“Get rid of the judgement, get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself.”
-Marcus Aurelius

“All things are not-self”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.
-Dhammapada 20: 279

“Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things which are independent of the will.”

“All the suffering of this world arises from a wrong attitude.
The world is neither good or bad.
It is only the relation to our ego that makes it seem the one or the other. “
-Lama Anagorika Govinda

While stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to worldly things, it was a lively and popular philosophy to the ancient Greeks and Romans, influential to it’s many adherents. It appealed to many people of different swaths of life, from the slave Epictetus, to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. And as we’ve seen, it shares some similarities and perhaps even connections with Buddhism. So what is Stoicism and how similar is it to Buddhism? Of course, one person’s definition of Stoicism and Buddhism will differ from another’s so you will have to bear with me as I try to make the connections.

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in 301 B.C.E. He was a merchant who studied under the Cynics and carried with him some of their thoughts. He spoke from his porch (the stoa), and taught his students to ease their suffering by becoming indifferent or “apathetic” to the rising and falling of emotions and desires, our passions. Interestingly, passion is also equivalent to suffering in Christianity, although the meaning and use of the word may be different. While Christians are to live in line with God, Stoics were to live in line with the rational Universe, which to them was virtuous. Zeno taught that by becoming indifferent to the passions that arise in us, we learn wisdom and learn to live in line with the Universe. Ignorance of this leads to suffering.

By becoming less moved by our emotions, it seems, we learn to be restrained without emotion instead of restrained by emotions. This has translated to the modern definition of stoic. For the Stoics, living stoicly was not just to become a stubborn rock, unmoved by anything. Living in such a way means to live peacefully, with a sense of inner tranquility. This is similar to the Buddhist arahats who become awakened through renunciation and letting go of attachments and desires. Both claim to achieve a state of inner peace from suffering, which are the two traditions’ common goal. The Stoics as well as the Buddha and his disciples sought to free people of suffering. The difference however is that Zeno taught the suppression of the passions whereas the Buddha spoke of becoming open and free from passions.

Apparently, the Stoics also used meditation to practice. The Stoics used “contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment” to gain that indifference that they are now so famous for. Contemplation of death is also a practice used by wandering forest monks in Buddhism. They would settle into cemeteries and contemplate the similarities of their own aging bodies with that of the corpses, the only difference being that of time. And the practice of training attention to remain in the present moment is common to all of Buddhism. Known as dhyana, practitioners begin by focusing on the in and out of the breath, eventually extending their attention to other sensations in their body and mind. It is said that a peaceful state of bliss arises during dhyana, and is emphasized in the tradition of Zen (chan, seon, thien, etc).

Stoics had one major difference in their beliefs with Buddhism. Stoics upheld, paradoxically, both determinism and free will. They believed that the Universe was rational and that it carried people along with it. While people had the free will to act in whatever way they saw fit, voluntarily conforming to the Universe led to the freedom of suffering.

It has been said that Marcus Aurelius was the last Stoic philosopher. Stoicism has since then kept itself in the background, but it’s ideas have re-emerged or taken a different representation. Examples include the French expression, “C’est La Vie”, or the Christian serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference….”

P.S. After a little search on the Interwebs, it seems some have already beat me to the punch. There’s even a Japanese Zen monks who wrote a blogpost noting the similarities (though I wish he had a greater command of the paragraphical indentation). There are even some class notes for a philosophy class comparing the two.

Heracles and Buddha by Oz
September 15, 2007, 4:57 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, history

Heracles: Yo, Buddha!
Buddha: Sup, Heracles. Been working out?

Part of my research at school involves looking at the rise and fall of cities, states, nations, and empires. Currently, I’m reading up on some South Asian history and came upon this strange period in history that resulted in a successful melting pot of cultures, specifically that of Greece and Buddhism. One of the kingdoms to emerge after the death of Alexander the Great was the Greek-Indo kingdom. This kingdom bordered the Mauryan empire, most famously led by Asoka, a great patron of Buddhism. The two states were very friendly, leading to a spread of Buddhism into the Greek kingdom, producing some very fascinating art, such as the one linked above.

Coins, busts, statues, Greek pillars, all became infused with Buddhist symbols and depictions of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. This cultural mixing also produced converts, the most well known of which is King Menander I, known to Buddhists as Milinda(in sanskrit). Buddhism has and is still sometimes reduced to Eastern mysticism or related to the mind effects of psychotropic drugs, as a different world ordinarily unknowable to Western minds. This, however, can stand as a successful historical example of West meeting with East, if we want to divide the world in this way. I’m sure this sycretism was made easier by the similarities between the Greek’s own Stoicism and Buddhist monastic practices and teachings. More on these similarities in the future.

Maitreya Project may displace thousands by Oz
September 10, 2007, 9:10 pm
Filed under: News

From Buddhist Channel and the Christian Science Monitor, plans for the construction of the Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, India will displace 15,000 to 20,000 local farmers:

The struggle to construct the statue and surrounding parks and facilities on roughly 700 acres of fertile land is pitting plans by devoted Buddhists against poor villagers who make their living growing rice, sugar cane and wheat on small plots of land that have been in their families for generations.

The farmers are angry, afraid and adamantly opposed to the construction of the giant symbol of love and compassion.

The sentiment lies not only with the Maitreya Project and it seems to be common throughout rural parts of India as the government clashes with local farmers over developing lands for tourist and industrial projects. The planners of the project have said they do not have any involvement with the acquisition process:

Linda Gatter, who works with the Maitreya Project’s UK office, says it is the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, not the project organisers, who are energetically pursuing the construction of the Buddha and the development of the area.

“The Maitreya Project has no part whatsoever to play in the acquisition process which is – and which by law can only be – entirely the responsibility of the government of Uttar Pradesh,” says Gatter. ”

However, the project did choose Kushinagar as the site for construction. Struggles like this are bound to happen in developing countries like India as the old world meets the new. One local cafe owner makes an interesting comment:

T.K. Roy, a cafe owner who stands to profit from the increased traffic from pilgrims and tourists, says that about half of the people in the area are ready to give up their land, while the other half are skeptical and may need to be forcibly removed. “The whole of Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, and India will benefit, undoubtedly,” says Mr. Roy. But he adds wistfully, “the tranquility of the place will be lost.”

Some farmers, says Roy, are holding out for higher compensation packages, but that the government cannot pay those farmers a higher rate for their land without paying more to those who have already moved.

There are many vested interests that make it a complicated issue to tackle:

    The construction of the statue for supporting Buddhists
    People in the future who will benefit from the school and hospital being built
    An influx of money into the Indian economy
    Business contracts for construction
    Local business owners who benefit from tourists
    Farmers who want to stay
    Farmers who want bigger compensation packages

I’m hoping the government, Maitreya project organizers, and local farmers can settle this peacefully.

Awakened to what? by Oz
September 8, 2007, 2:03 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Dharma


During one of our meetings, a question was raised, “What is Buddhism to you in one word?”

We went around the room and came up with about three general answers: compassion, awareness, and awakening or enlightenment.

After that we went around explaining our answers. Compassion, although definitely a part of Buddhism, was thrown out as not being exclusive to practice. We can be compassionate and be Christian, atheist, or whatever faith we want to bring up. There really wasn’t such a thing as Buddhist compassion, as much as there was simple empathy for our neighbors.

The other two, awareness and awakening were generally agreed to be unique to Buddhism, but we were unsure exactly what it meant. I went with awareness, awareness of my actions, impulses, compulsions and how they affected myself and others. I was pretty satisfied with this answer for a while but felt that it still wasn’t complete. With such an awareness, I could choose to be more compassionate, although it was not necessary. Without the goal of compassionate living, a person can be very self-aware but still act maliciously. Awareness or awakening in itself was only part of the answer.

So now I’m wondering, aware of what? Awakened to what? What was it that the Buddha was awakened to, that led to his freedom from suffering, his turning of the wheel of dharma, and the beginning of his teachings that still persist 2500 years later?

I put off answering this question, but came up on something during my summer reading that could answer it. On the night of his awakening, the Siddartha Gautama awakened over the three watches of the night. In the first watch he gained knowledge of his past lives and of the cycle of death and rebirths. In the second watch, he awakened to karma and the effects it had on people’s rebirths. In the third watch he awakened to dependent origination. Since I don’t have much of a penchant for the supernatural, I only garner significance from the last two. Gautama, in the second and third watch of the night, became aware of the karmic conditions of suffering and to dependent arising, or dependent origination, or the contingency in everything. From there, Siddartha was awakened and declared himself the Tathagata.

These conditions of suffering came from the karmic result of our actions, of which the Buddha put emphasis on our intentions. He puts so much emphasis on intention that he equates it to karma. Awareness of our selves, of the mind, then becomes of prime significance to living a good life. Ethics and morality are centered more in the quality of our intentions, which we each can have control over, rather than in ritual deeds over which a priest-class has monopoly.

The third watch makes the most sense to me, not only because it is lacking any overtly supernatural cause, but because it puts the whole message of Buddhism in an understandable context. Karma, emptiness, impermanence, interdependence, the four noble truths, and other things make sense in light of the awakening in the third watch. They all seem to be ways of stating the doctrine of dependent origination which is nothing more than this:

When this is, that is
This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

What could be simpler than that? So this is what I think the Buddha awakened to. Of course, I could be overlooking something. But that’s what this blog and teachers are for.

Ksitigharba Bodhisattva Root Vow Sutra recitation by pemadorje385
September 5, 2007, 9:32 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Dharma, Experiences

By Michael

Earlier today I was at the Buddha’s Wisdom Center, hidden in my area, to pay respects as Ullambana season comes to a close.

During Ullambana, the center recites the Ksitigharba Bodhisattva Root Vow Sutra on and on for thirty days. So I decided to go and help them with their recitations. Unfortunately I arrived in between sessions, but I was invited to do my own recitation of the sutra, and so I did.

Ksitigharba Bodhisattva…the brave Bodhisattva that will not attain enlightenment until the hell realms of existence are empty…

At first I had a little bit of difficulty keeping my focus since the shrine room is quite warm and sweat rolling down my face and onto my robes while trying to turn the pages of the sutra text and striking the wooden fish to maintain the flow of recitation at the same time.

After the first session I decided to take a break and sat outside in the patio area. I then realized even though the area was so crowded, noisy, and humid outside the gates of the center, I felt this cool breeze and this calm, peaceful state of being. I might not have been sitting in the proper position but this sure was a good opportunity to go into meditation, but I do have two more sessions of the sutra to finish.

I decided to do the last two sessions in one sitting, that way I can save a little more time. as I started chanting, it didn’t feel so warm anymore, and bursts of cool wind were bowing into the room, could it be that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas knew of my efforts and blew in a few cold shots of air to cool me off during my chanting? I don’t know.

Has anyone else had that type of feeling while chanting or meditating?

Ksitigharba Bodhisattva at Mount Jiu Hua in China