Some History of Buddhism in Asia
Currently Mahayana is in Northern Asia: China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and Vietnam and Theravada is in: Thailand, Myanmar [Burma], Laos, Cambodia, a little in Vietnam and of course, Sri Lanka.
The Indian Early Discourses [Hinayana Suttas] were translated to Chinese about the 7th Century CE. The Mahayana monks use basically the same code of discipline. So the Mahayana monks have basically the same Discourse and Discipline Collections [Sutta and Vinaya Pitaka], but they don’t pay attention to these. They pay attention to their Higher Teachings [Abhidhamma] and other later texts and commentaries which are different to the Theravada Higher Teachings [Abhidhamma] and other later texts and commentaries.
As you would know Theravada Buddhism came to Thailand in the 11th Century CE from Sri Lanka and later the Siam Maha-Nikaya [Great Sect of Thailand] went to Sri Lanka to restore Theravada there after Portuguese persecution. So now in Sri Lanka there is the Siam Maha-Nikaya and the Ramanya Nikaya from Myanma [Burma]. Theravada Buddhist Culture is slightly different in Sri Lanka. Usually the monks don’t go on Alms Round [Pindapat] and there is no tradition of all men ordaining for a short time as there is in Thailand. Consequently ordination is considered a life long commitment and if one disrobes, there is a stigma attached. Also women novices are accepted, unlike Thailand, but there is no Nun [Bhikkhunii] ordination in Sri Lanka, as in other Theravadin countries. As you might know, there are only Nuns [Bhikkhunii] in Taiwan. In Sri Lanka the people share merits too, but they do not Pour Water [Grot Nam] to dedicate merits. The way the people share merits at the time of doing offering things to the monks, is to pass the thing offered around, so that everyone touches it. This communal touching is seen in Thailand when the Pouring Water ceremony is held, one leader pours the water and others often form a chain to the leader by touching each other, or a leader offers something and others form a chain to the leader by touching each other.
Theravada countries are very fortunate. They have maintained the original teaching of the Buddha in the Pali Canon [Tipitaka], but very few can read what the Buddha taught. At SN 20.7 and AN v 79, the Buddha warned that his teaching will be lost in the future because people do not pay attention to what he said and they pay more attention to others. Ajahn Buddhadasa of Thailand and Emperor Asoka of India promoted this warning from the Buddha. Emperor Asoka wrote the name of the discourse [sutta] with this warning on one of the stone pillars he erected.
Christianity is growing fast because about 200 years ago they translated the Bible into the common language. Before that, it was in Latin and old Greek and only the monks could read it. Initially the monks were afraid to translate it into the common language, but later they agreed and it turned out to be very good for everyone. Now the Catholics are learning from other religions and adopting practices like meditation. Some Catholic monks in Australia have learnt Insight [Vipassana] Meditation and are teaching their followers, but they don’t say it is Buddhist Meditation. If we don’t intentionally change the way we do things with the changing conditions, like adopting practices that are working for others, as the Catholics are doing, I think more and more people will be attracted to Catholicism, or Protestantism rather than Buddhism. Also as we lose touch with the original teaching of the Buddha, which is completely logical and as more mysticism and folk law come to be seen as the Buddha’s teaching, Buddhism will lose attraction to the Western mind.
In Thailand the Pali Canon [Tipitaka] is not translated into the common language. It is in a high form of Thai. This makes it hard for the Thai people, including monks, to read the words of the Buddha and they have to rely on others to explain it. The Buddha warned against this. It is the monk’s duty to know clearly what the Buddha taught and to explain it correctly out of compassion for everyone. Monks should also make it easy for people to study by themselves. I think the Pali Canon [Tipitaka] should be translated into common Thai and this will help create clear understanding and spread the Buddha’s teaching more successfully.
The common Chant Book of the Thai Monks is very useful, but it doesn’t help anyone understand what they are chanting. So new chant books with sentence by sentence translations are being produced by different monks. Luangpo Paibun [the former Abbot of this temple] has also created one, which helps people to know what they are chanting.
In my copy of the common Chant Book I have started to put the English translation of each Pali word underneath it, so I can know what I am chanting as I chant it. So immediately I can feel devotion when I’m chanting, since I know what I’m chanting – this is an immediate fruit [akaaliko]. Also in a short time I can explain the English meaning of passages that I have memorized in Pali [bahusutta]. This led me to the idea of creating a new edition of the common Chant Book [Bot Swatmon Piti] with a word by word translation in the Thai common language. [See the sample of the 32 parts of the body, pg 65 in Luangpo’s chant book and write on the board.]
When there is sentence by sentence translation, one does not learn the meaning of each Pali word. Also the chanting takes twice as long, as one has to chant in Pali then in Thai. With this method, either we have to reduce the number of things we chant, or we have to increase the time we spend chanting. I think we should try to making chanting enjoyable and if people know what they are chanting they enjoy it more. If people sit for too long, people will start to feel pain and that will discourage people from progressing.
If the sentence by sentence method is used, when Thai Buddhism goes to another country, the native people have to learn Pali, the Thai translation, which is not in simple language, then the translation in their own language. This will discourage people from progressing. If we learn to chant the Pali only, knowing its meaning as we chant, then we don’t need to put in any other languages and everyone will chant the same thing and can chant together, without other languages.
I hope the new edition of the common Chant Book will be made so that all chanting will be enjoyable and educational for all monks and laypeople. With the new edition of the Chant Book, each chanting session will be a lesson in Pali language as well as meditation. I cannot do it now, because my Thai is not good enough.
Kamma-patisarano – Our actions are our refuge
I have come to Thailand to learn Thai and to learn the Thai Buddhist Religious ceremonies. I do this out of respect for the Thai Buddhist tradition, which has maintained the record of the Buddha’s original teaching. I need to know these things in order to help serve the Thai people, when I go back to Australia and live in a Thai temple, but not many Western people are interested in religious ceremonies. They can find religious ceremonies in many other religions.
The Buddha adopted ideas and practices of the culture he lived in, but changed them to fit his teaching, e.g. ideas: Brahmin, moksha; e.g. practices: he changed “worshiping the six directions” from a religious ceremony to a practical teaching of developing good relationships with others in society. This is an example of action-as-refuge [kamma-patisarano]. People following the Buddha’s teaching rely on their actions for purification and happiness. They no longer rely on ceremonies like the one above or on gods.
Buddhism in India died out by the 12th Century CE, but both schools Mahayana and Theravada are slowly growing there. This is partly due to the invitation from the Indian government in the Buddhist year 2500  to all Buddhist sects to build temples in the special places that are know of that the Buddha visited. In 1956 Dr Ambedgar started a revival of Buddhism in India. Those who converted with him are different from the Buddhists in other parts of Asia. When they converted to Buddhism they threw all their statues of gods away, as they wanted to follow the Buddha’s teaching that one’s own actions are one’s refuge [kamma-yoni, kamma-bandu, kamma-patisarano]. This has not happened in South-East Asia. In an interview with one of the Indian Buddhist leaders, he said he believes that even though he worshiped the gods everyday when he was young, the gods didn’t really help him. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a popular belief in the community, since a leader holds it.
South-East Asia had Hinduism before the introduction of Buddhism. Most of the people could not read the Buddha’s teaching directly. So not many people know about all the Buddha’s changes in the meaning of words and the changes in practices.
The ceremony pouring water [Grot Nam] is based on a story in a discourse of the Buddha. King Bimbisara came to the Buddha to ask what he could do about his nightmares of emancipated people begging for help. The Buddha said these were his relatives who had passed away who he had not shared his good works with. The Buddha told him to dedicate the merits of good works he does in the future, to them. This was the Buddha’s solution to a specific suffering the King had and the nightmares of the king stopped. The Buddha did not tell everyone to do this practice.
Once a Thai monk was explaining this discourse and he said the Buddha taught the king to pour water [Grot Nam], but that is not correct. The Buddha did not say to do that in that discourse at all and of course, he did not tell everyone to do it. Nevertheless, it has become the general practice for Theravadins in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar [Burma]. It is not done in Sri Lanka. When I explained this, one Thai monk said, “maybe the Buddha didn’t teach it, but he DID it in Pali Canon.” [I later asked the monk where the Buddha did it and, of course, he couldn’t tell me and has not gotten back to me with the reference.]
Pooring water is a religious practice that has developed to symbolize the transfer of merit. We know that it is not necessary, as sometimes when the necessary items are not available, monks say, “never mind about pouring water, just dedicate the merits in your mind”.
According to the Maha-Parinibbaana Sutta (DN 16, Section 5 Para 3 – 5.3) : D ii 138 the Buddha said this:
Aananda, the twin sala trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. The flowers shower, strew and sprinkle on the body of the One-Thus-Come in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky.... Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky.... Heavenly music is playing in the sky.... Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the One-Thus-Come. But it is not to this extent that one worships a person who is One-Thus-Come, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the male or female mendicant, male or female lay disciple who keeps practising the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practising masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates and pays homage to the One-Thus-Come with the highest homage. So you should train yourselves: ‘We will keep practising the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, we will keep practicing masterfully, and we will live in accordance with the Dhamma.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.
So here again, we can see that the Buddha is encouraging developing personal [internal] qualities: Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom [Sila, Samadhi and Panynyaa], rather that spending time with ceremonies about material [external] things [just like with worshiping the six external directions of the world]. This is another example of action-as-refuge [kamma-patisarano].
Most people believe that the Buddha said, if his teaching is compared to a tree: ceremonies are the outer bark of the tree; Generosity [Daana] is the soft inner bark; Meditation is the sapwood; and Wisdom is the heartwood. But at MN 29 the Buddha said, if his teaching is compared to a tree: gain, honour and renown that a person may receive because of his practice of the teaching are the twigs and leaves; Ethics is the outer bark of the tree; Meditation is the soft inner bark; Knowledge and vision [Wisdom] is the sapwood; and [Panynyaa-visuddhi] Perpetual Liberation, unshakable liberation of mind is the heartwood. He does not mention religious ceremonies at all.
We can see from the Buddha’s words above that he did not teach or encourage any religious ceremonies. He also converted external religious ceremonies into practices that involve people developing inner qualities. In Asia there are many Buddhist ceremonies and even in Theravada countries they are not consistent. Sometimes they are not done at all in some countries, or they are done differently, but the practitioners in each country think they are practicing as the Buddha taught. I think we should remember how the Buddha dealt with ceremonies and remember to “not mistake the unessential for the essential”. [Dhammapada 11+12]
Australia is considered part of Asia and is different again. Most Asian countries are Buddhist. Australia is considered a Christian country, but state and religion are mostly separated. Australia has many refugees from Mahayana countries, mostly Chinese and Vietnamese. So the majority of Buddhists are Mahayana.
Theravada is slowly growing in Australia. Westerners are interested in the original teaching of the Buddha which is found in the Pali Canon [Tipitaka]. They like the Buddha’s teaching because it is very different from other religions. They like that the Buddha changed religious ceremonies to practical action.
Other religions also ask people to believe blindly. They teach that God, the text, the tradition or a teacher is the ultimate authority. Westerners like that the Buddha says not to believe blindly, but to investigate thoroughly and to test in experience [Kalama Sutta]. Westerners like that the Buddha taught that God, the text, the tradition or a teacher is not the ultimate authority, but personal experience is. [Westerners should note that the Buddha didn’t say “don’t believe”. There must be some measure of belief, if we are going to test something, but to believe without testing, is just “blind faith”.]
It is because of action-as-refuge [kamma-patisarano] and these two related points: no religious ceremonies in the Dhamma and no blind faith, that I became interested in the Buddha’s teaching.
As I said before, I am learning the religious ceremonies out of respect for the Thai Buddhist culture and I will need to know them to serve the Thai people back in Australia. If I try to teach the ceremonies to Australian’s, eventually they will probably think the Buddha’s teaching is much the same as other religions and may loose interest. I have seen this happen. We even have examples of senior Western monks disrobing, e.g. Ajahn Jakaro the student of Ajhan Cha and former abbot of Bodhiyana Monastery in Western Australia. He has disrobed and has married a Thai lady. If a monk experiences the fruits of the Buddha’s teaching, he will not disrobe, just like the Buddha, Ajhan Buddhadasa and many Noble People [Ariya Puggala] since the time of the Buddha.
Westerners want to calm their minds, so the Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom [Sila, Samadhi and Panynya] structure of the teaching is better for them. The Buddha often taught about Generosity [Dana] too, but he usually talks about it after Ethics [Sila]. It is part of Right Livelihood in the Noble Eightfold Path, which comes after avoiding the 4 Vices of Conduct by way of body and speech [the 4 Kammakilesa], that is after Ethics. It makes sense that one would first stop gross unwholesome actions before one had thoughts of generousity. Stealing something so one can give to others is not true generosity.
Generosity is also a natural result for those that have received some benefit after practising according to the guidance they have received. One of the benefits of being ethical is said to be wealth. In the ceremony performed in Thailand to receive the 5 training rules from a monk, the monks says: “with ethics one goes to heaven, has wealth and realizes coolness. Therefore purify your ethics.” With wealth, one can be generous, but not without it. If you don’t have things to share, you cannot share them. So please pay attention if someone teaches that the Buddha’s path starts with Generosity, then Ethics, then Meditation [daana, siila, bhaavanaa] and no place for Wisdom at all!!
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