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The Emperor Ashoka, Patron of Buddhism

One of the most important figures in Buddhist history was not a monk or sage, but an emperor. The Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE) is credited with making Buddhism a major religion throughout Asia.

Ashoka ruled a vast empire that spread from modern-day Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal, including most of modern-day India. Through his patronage, Buddhism not only spread throughout this empire but into Sri Lanka as well. It is believed Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries may have traveled as far as Egypt and Greece.

For more general biographies of Ashoka, see Ashoka the Great: India’s Mauryan Empire and Ashoka the Great: King of the Mauryan Empire of India. This article is going to look more specifically at Ashoka’s relationship with Buddhism.

The Edicts of Ashoka

The history of ancient times often is pieced together from questionable evidence. There are some things we know for certain about Ashoka, however, because of the edicts he left on pillars and rocks throughout his empire.

Historians believe these edicts are Ashoka’s own words.

In one “rock edict,” for example, Ashoka expressed regret for the deaths caused by his military conquests, in particular the slaughter of the people of Kalinga, which was in the same area as the state of Odisha, India. After the Kalinga War (ca. 265 BCE) Ashoka repented of violence and became a lay Buddhist.

From the edicts, it is clear that Ashoka’s rule was guided by the dharma. Buddhism became Ashoka’s state religion. People were not required to convert to Buddhism, however. Indeed, one of Ashoka’s most famous edicts called for tolerance of all religions in his realm. He desired “that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.”

In his edicts Ashoka did not attempt to teach Buddhist doctrines. Instead, he promoted harmony, peace, justice and compassion, based on Buddhist principles. He instructed officials to help the poor and sick, and he called for restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, both human and non-human. He promoted the virtues of kindnessgenerosityequanimity and truthfulness.

The pillars and rocks bearing the edicts have been found scattered throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. One particularly significant pillar was erected at Lumbini, the site of the historical Buddha’s birth. This site was lost for a thousand years until a German archaeologist found the Ashoka pillar in 1895.

Ashoka pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia Commons.

Ashoka and the Monastic Sangha

Another source of information on the life of Ashoka are Buddhist chronicles kept in Sri Lanka, called the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa. With these texts it is less certain than with the edicts where history ends and legend begins, however. The chronicles tell us that Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta — a monk and a nun — to the court of King Tissa of Ceylon. Soon the King and his court were converted, and Buddhism has been practiced in Ceylon — today’s Sri Lanka — for 23 centuries.

Read More: Buddhism in Sri Lanka

More stories about Ashoka were recorded a text called the Asokavadana, which is believed to have been written by monks living in what is now the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. These accounts probably are more legend than fact, however. In later centuries, Chinese pilgrims to India recorded stories they were told about Ashoka, but by then Ashoka’s life was remembered in myth.

However, it is apparent that Ashoka’s influence had a major impact on Buddhism. Before Ashoka, the Buddha’s teachings could be found only in a portion of present-day India, primarily in the Upper Ganges Valley. After Ashoka, Buddhism was known far beyond India.

Buddhist chronicles say that Ashoka personally convened the Third Buddhist Council in about 250 BCE at Pataliputra, an ancient city in what is now north central India. His purpose was twofold. One, he was responding to reports of heretical views and dissensions among the monks at Pataliputra. Ashoka is said to have interviewed each monk personally and dismissed monks who held beliefs contrary to the Buddha’s teaching — in particular, belief in an eternal, unchanging self.

Second, Ashoka appointed knowledgeable monks to go forth as emissaries to teach the dharma. This part of the story is confirmed by the edicts. These monks were assigned nine destinations, including Gandhara, Kashmir, Greece, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, and Thailand.

Not all missions were successful. Buddhism did not take root in Thailand or Burma for a few more centuries after the Third Council. However, the missions to Greece and Egypt may have had some interesting effects. Scholars have long noted some blending of Hellenic and Buddhist thought that began about that time. There is also some archaeological evidence of Buddhists living in Alexandria.

The Mauryan Empire did not survive long after Ashoka’s death. The pillars and rocks bearing Ashoka’s edicts remained, but the Indo-Aryan language in which they were written faded from public memory. Outside of Buddhist chronicles Ashoka was forgotten, until British scholars translated the edicts in the 19th century. Thanks to this work, Ashoka is remembered today as a great and humane monarch.

Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

Philosophers eastern and western have wrestled with the concept of self for many centuries. What is the self?

The Buddha taught a doctrine called anatta, which is often defined as no-self, or the teaching that the sense of being a permanent, autonomous self is an illusion. This does not fit our ordinary experience. Am I not me? If not, who is reading this article right now?

To add to the confusion, the Buddha discouraged his disciples from speculating about the self. For example, in the Sabbasava Sutta (Pali Sutta-pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya 2) he advised us not to ponder certain questions, such as Am I? Am I not?, because this would lead to six kinds of wrong views:

  1. I have a self.
  2. I have no self.
  3. By means of a self I perceive self.
  4. By means of a self I perceive not-self.
  5. By means of not-self I perceive self.
  6. The self of mine that knows is everlasting and will stay as it is forever.

If you are now thoroughly baffled — here the Buddha is not explaining whether you do or don’t have a self; he is saying that such intellectual speculation is not the way to gain understanding. And notice that when one says I have no self, the sentence assumes a self that doesn’t have a self.

So, the nature of the no-self is not something that can be grasped intellectually or explained with words. However, without some appreciation of anatta you will misunderstand everything else about Buddhism. Yes, its that important. So lets look at the no-self more closely.

Anatta or Anatman

Very basically, anatta (or anatman in Sanskrit) is the teaching that there is no permanent, eternal, unchanging, or autonomous self inhabiting our bodies or living our lives. Anatman is contrasted with the Vedic teachings of the Buddhas day, which taught that there is within each of us an atman, or an unchanging, eternal soul or identity.

Anatta or anatman is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The other two are dukkha (roughly, unsatisfying) and anicca (impermanent). In this context, anatta often is translated as egolessness.

Of critical importance is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth, which tells us that because we believe we are a permanent and unchanging self, we fall into clinging and craving, jealousy and hate, and all the other poisons that cause unhappiness.

Theravada Buddhism

In his book What the Buddha Taught, the Theravadin scholar Walpola Rahula said,

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of me and mine, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism,and other defilements, impurities and problems.

Other Theravadin teachers, such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu, prefer to say that the question of a self is unanswerable. He said,

In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.

In this view, even to reflect on the question of whether one has or does not have a self leads to identification with a self, or perhaps an identification with nihilism. It is better to put the question aside and focus on other teachings, in particular the Four Noble Truths. The Bhikkhu continued,

In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism teaches a variation of anatta called sunyata, or emptiness. All beings and phenomena are empty of self-essence.

This doctrine is associated with a 2nd century philosophy called Madhyamika, school of the middle way, founded by the sage Nagarjuna. Because nothing has self-existence, phenomena take existence only as they relate to other phenomena. For this reason, according to Madhyamika, it is incorrect to say that phenomena either exist or dont exist. The middle way is the way between affirmation and negation.

Read More: The Two Truths: What Is Reality?

Mahayana Buddhism also is associated with the doctrine of Buddha Nature. According to this doctrine, Buddha Nature is the fundamental nature of all beings. Is Buddha Nature a self?

Theravadins sometimes accuse Mahayana Buddhists of using Buddha Nature as a way to sneak atman, a soul or self, back into Buddhism. And sometimes they have a point. It is common to conceive of Buddha Nature as a kind of big soul that everyone shares. To add to the confusion, sometimes Buddha Nature is called original self or true self. Ive heard Buddha Nature explained as a big self, and our individual personages as a the small self, but Ive come to think that is a very unhelpful way to understand it.

Mahayana teachers (mostly) say that it is incorrect to think of Buddha Nature as something we possess. Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) made a point of saying that Buddha Nature is what we are, not something we have.

In a famous dialogue, a monk asked Chan master Chao-chou Tsung-shen (778-897) if a dog has Buddha nature. Chao-chous answer — Mu! (no, or does not have) has been contemplated as a koan by generations of Zen students. Very broadly, the koan works to crush the concept of Buddha Nature as a kind of self we carry around with us.

Dogen wrote in Genjokoan —

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. / To study the self is to forget the self. /To forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.

Once we thoroughly investigate self, self is forgotten. However, I am told, this doesnt mean that the person you are disappears when enlightenment is realized. The difference, as I understand it, is that we no longer perceive the world through a self-referential filter.

The Mahabodhi Temple

The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya marks the place thought to be where the historical Buddha realized enlightenment. It is arguably the most important of the holy sites related to the life of the Buddha. In spite of its significance, however, much about the temples history has been lost to time. And the temple today is an object of contention between India’s two great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism.

 Bodh Gaya is in the Bihar state of north eastern India, bordering Nepal. Buddhist history says that it was here that the Buddha realized the way to liberation from suffering would be found in mind and not in aestheticism, and he sat in meditation under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa), called the Bodhi Tree, until he realized enlightenment. Historians arent certain exactly when the Buddha lived, but the enlightenment probably happened late in the 5th century BCE.

Read More: The Story of the Buddhas Enlightenment

Early History of Mahabodhi Temple

According to Buddhist history, the first small temple at Bodh Gaya was built by the Emperor Ashoka, a patron of Buddhism who reigned most of what is now India and a great deal more from about 269 BCE to 232 BCE. This temple may have been replaced in the 1st or 2nd century CE. The current temple probably dates to the 5th or 6th century CE, and it remains one of the oldest brick structures in India.

As centuries passed Buddhism declined in India for a host of reasons, and Hinduism became the dominant religion.

In the 12th century northern India was invaded by Muslim Turks, and the area had Muslim rulers for the next several centuries. The Mahabodhi Temple fell into neglect. By the 15th century it had been completely abandoned by Buddhists.

Read More: Why Buddhism Declined in India

Mahabodhi Temple detail by Andrew Moore, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andryn2006/8570930682 , Creative Commons License

The British Exploration

The revival of Mahabodhi came from an unlikely place — Britain. Great Britain ruled India from 1757 to 1947, a period of history called the British Raj. In the late 18th century assignments to India were highly sought after by young English gentlemen seeking fortunes or adventure.

In the mid 18th century the religions of India and southeast Asia had seemed just a hodgepodge of idolatry to Europeans, but the British adventurers began to sort it out. For example, in 1797 a British surgeon named Dr. Francis Buchanan published an account of Buddhism that used the English word Buddhism for the first time in print.

In 1811 this same Dr. Buchanan and a group of assistants traveled to northeastern India and came upon a crumbling ruin of a temple inhabited by Hindu ascetics. Dr. Buchanan recognized that the weathered stone carvings of the temple were images of the Buddha. The Hindu ascetics had treated the old temple with respect but had no idea of its original significance. With much sleuthing Dr. Buchanan learned that the temple had once been a great center of Buddhism, but it wasnt clear to anyone why. It would be a few more years before the significance of the Mahabodhi Temple was fully appreciated by either the British or Indians.

By the 1880s British and other travelers were publishing accounts of the deplorable state of the temple, and the British government undertook a restoration. This drew the attention of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a Buddhist activist of what was then British Ceylon. Dharmapala campaigned to have the temple returned to Buddhist control, a request that met with resistance from Hindu clergy. Hindus had come to regard the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu and considered it to be their temple, too.

Eventually a compromise was reached — control of the temple was taken over by the state government of Bihar, which established a management committee to be made up of five Hindus (including the chair) and four Buddhists. The Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee still is in charge today, although in 2013 policy was changed to allow the Gaya District Magistrate to act as chairman even if he isnt Hindu. There is also an advisory committee that includes representatives of Buddhism from several other countries.

Still, to this day there are Buddhist activists calling for Mahabodhi Temple to be returned to Buddhists.

The Temple Today

The temple today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  According UNESCO, the present temple is one of the earliest and most imposing structures built entirely in brick from the Gupta period. The temple complex covers nearly 12 acres; the main pyramid temple is 180 feet tall. Next to the temple is a huge pipal tree said to be a direct descendant of the Buddhas Bodhi Tree.

For a first-person account of a visit to Mahabodhi, see Review of Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya by About.com India Travel Expert Sharell Cook.

Self-Power and Other-Power: A Beautiful Paradox

One of the delicious paradoxes of the Buddhist path is found in the phrases “self power” and “other power.”  What do they mean, and why do they present a paradox?

Some schools of Buddhism emphasize that realization of enlightenment comes through one’s own efforts; no one can give it to you. This is reinforced by verse 165 from the Dhammapada:

“By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.” (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation)

Yet, at the same time, the teachings say the “self” is an illusion. So what “self” does the powering? This makes no sense!

Read More: Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

Other schools, notably Pure Land, developed an “other power” path. The Chinese monk Tanluan (476-542 CE), a patriarch of Pure Land, thought that the emphasis on self power reinforced self-centeredness, which is an obvious barrier to realization.

Instead, Pure Land emphasizes faith in the power of Amitabha Buddha to bring beings to the Pure Land, a place in which realizing enlightenment is as natural as breathing.

Read More: Pure Lands: Buddha-Fields of Enlightenment

However, the “self power” advocates can be very critical of the “other power” approach, saying that “other power” tends to reinforce the idea of a separate, permanent self that needs to be helped.

Jiriki and Tariki

In Japanese Buddhism, “self power” is called jiriki and “other power” is tariki. Of these, D.T. Suzuki wrote,

Shin Buddhism is tariki (Other Power), Zen is jiriki (self-power), or so it is generally assumed, but that is rather a superficial observation. At bottom, when you really get down to it, there is no jiriki and no tariki. Or you might say that both are jiriki and both are tariki.” [from “Anjin: Zen to Shin,” originally published in the June 1965 issue of Kokoro]

Okay, what’s going on here? In so many words, Suzuki explained that Amitabha Buddha cannot help anyone whose karma has not brought him to a place where he can be helped. And we are responsible for our own karma; we create it by our thoughts, words and deeds.

What about Zen? I’m thinking of these words of Eihei Dogen, from the Genjokoan —

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.

When we forget the self, we are enlightened by the ten thousand things (which is a fancy way of saying “everything”). When we forget the self, what is left? All beings throughout space and time, manifesting their original Buddha Nature. In Mahayana Buddhism especially, enlightenment is realized together with all beings.

And there’s the delicious paradox — practice/enlightenment is something you do with everyone else, because no one is separate. Not one, not many.

This is why bodhicitta is so important in Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhicitta is the sincere desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others. Your “self-effort” is not about you.

Sometimes the spiritual path can be very selfish. It can be all about building a new, improved, minty-fresh self.  No matter what your practice is, if it’s all about you, it’s going to fail. True self-power requires opening up and letting everyone else in.

This is another reason why it’s ideal to practice within a community. I realize that’s not always possible. But it does reinforce the truth that our self-effort is also other-effort. And vice versa.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Tibet’s Declaration of Independence

In 1913, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama issued what many call a “declaration of independence” for Tibet from the Republic of China. The 13th Dalai Lama’s position was that the Gelugpa leadership of Tibet had a relationship with (but were not subjects of) the the Manchu Emperors of China, not the nation-state of China. When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, any ties between China and Tibet were severed, His Holiness said.

His Holiness Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama

The proclamation, given to the people of Tibet, begins by affirming the Dalai Lama’s authority to rule Tibet. He evoked Tibet’s ancient kings and Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet, from whom the Dalai Lamas emanate. This part of the proclamation follows a tradition begun by the 5th Dalai Lama.

His Holiness then described the relationship with the Manchu emperors as a “patron-priest” relationship, which was something significant in the histories of both Tibet and China, going back to the time of Genghis Khan. High lamas of Tibet acted as spiritual advisers to Mongol and Chinese rulers, and in return received protection from their powerful disciples. For example, his patron/disciple Gushi Khan secured the leadership of Tibet for the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Sakya lama named Pagpa gave empowerments and teachings to Kublai Khan (1215-1294), which made the two patron and priest. Since Kublai Khan ruled China, and the Sakyas were the tenuous rulers of Tibet at the time, this patron-priest relationship is sometimes evoked by China today as part of its claim to Tibet. But historians tell us the Great Khan would not have seen Pagpa as his subject, but as his guru.

The 13th Dalai Lama’s proclamation begins:

“I, the Dalai Lama, most omniscient possessor of the Buddhist faith, whose title was conferred by the Lord Buddha’s command from the glorious land of India, speak to you as follows:

“I am speaking to all classes of Tibetan people. Lord Buddha, from the glorious country of India, prophesied that the reincarnations of Avalokitesvara, through successive rulers from the early religious kings to the present day, would look after the welfare of Tibet.

“During the time of Genghis Khan and Altan Khan of the Mongols, the Ming dynasty of the Chinese, and the Ch’ing Dynasty of the Manchus, Tibet and China cooperated on the basis of benefactor and priest relationship. A few years ago, the Chinese authorities in Szechuan and Yunnan endeavored to colonize our territory. They brought large numbers of troops into central Tibet on the pretext of policing the trade markets. I, therefore, left Lhasa with my ministers for the Indo-Tibetan border, hoping to clarify to the Manchu emperor by wire that the existing relationship between Tibet and China had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. There was no other choice for me but to cross the border, because Chinese troops were following with the intention of taking me alive or dead.

“On my arrival in India, I dispatched several telegrams to the Emperor; but his reply to my demands was delayed by corrupt officials at Peking. Meanwhile, the Manchu empire collapsed. The Tibetans were encouraged to expel the Chinese from central Tibet. I, too, returned safely to my rightful and sacred country, and I am now in the course of driving out the remnants of Chinese troops from DoKham in Eastern Tibet. Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky.”

The remainder of the proclamation, which you may read on this page, lists the 13th Dalai Lama’s intentions for the future direction of Tibet.

Also in 1913, the provisional president of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, wrote the Dalai Lama asking for his allegiance to his “mother country.” The letter promised to overlook the Dalai Lama’s “former errors” and bestow on him a long title that began with “Loyal and Submissive Vice Regent.” His Holiness replied that he hadn’t asked for any titles, and that he “intended to exercise both temporal and ecclesiastic rule in Tibet.”

 [This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

The Fifth Dalai Lama

Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama

His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, was the first Dalai Lama to become spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The story of his life is pivotal to Tibet’s history. It is also a story of political intrigue that began before he was born and continued for many years after he died. He is remembered by Tibetans as the “Great Fifth.”

The Dalai Lama is a high lama of the Gelug school (also called Gelugpa) of Tibetan Buddhism.

Before the birth of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Gelug school had suffered a blow. Some years earlier central Tibet had split into two small, warring kingdoms, U and Tsang. The rulers of U were patrons of Gelugpa, but the rulers of Tsang supported another school, Kagyu. The strife escalated into fighting between monks of the two schools.

During the time of the short-lived 4th Dalai Lama, the king of Tsang defeated the king of U and proclaimed himself king of central Tibet. The Gelug school had lost its patron and found itself in a precarious position. The king of Tsang even banned Gelugpa from ordaining a 5th Dalai Lama.

A Lama Reborn

In 1617 a boy was born into a family of wealthy aristocrats and named Künga Nyingpo. This remarkable boy caught the attention of Karma Kagyu and other schools, but secretly an attendant of the 4th Dalai Lama had identified Künga Nyingpo as his master’s rebirth.

To complicate matters, when Künga Nyingpo was only three his father was been imprisoned for conspiring against the king of Tsang. The father would die in prison without seeing his son again. Künga Nyingpo’s mother raised the boy in seclusion in her family home, away from the king of Tsang’s court. A few years passed.

Some accounts say that Gelugpa kept its finding of the boy secret until the king of Tsang reversed the ban. Other accounts say that squabbling among the schools caused the king to relent and let Gelugpa have him.

When his identity as the 5th Dalai Lama finally was revealed, however, he had to go into hiding once again.

The Mongolian Connection

Years earlier, the 3rd Dalai Lama and a Mongol tribal leader named Altan Khan had forged an alliance. In fact, it was Altan Khan who coined the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” The Third gave Altan Khan teachings and initiations in return for Altan Khan’s patronage. The Mongol-Gelugpa alliance was reinforced when a Mongol boy was identified as the 4th Dalai Lama.

When the identify of the 5th Dalai Lama was made public, Mongols in Lhasa loyal to the old alliance wanted to take the boy to a Mongol stronghold. The Gelug elders were anxious for the boy to begin his life as a monk, however. To keep him from being spirited away by Mongol admirers he had to hide for another year.

At long last, the ten-year-old tulku was taken to Drepung Monastery, where the 3rd Panchen Lama ordained him as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Dalai Lama’s Education

Lobsang Gyatso had a precocious intellect and a love of study. By all accounts he mastered Buddhist philosophy easily. He also studied astrology, medicine and poetry.

At the age of 19 the 5th Dalai Lama became the student of Paljor Lhundrup, abbot of Pahongka monastery. Paljor Lhundrup was an unconventional teacher who combined Gelugpa with Nyingmapa, an older school of Tibetan Buddhism. Through Paljor Lhundrup, the 5th Dalai Lama secretly took up Dzogchen, or “great perfection,” a central practice of Nyingmapa that at the time was hotly criticized by the elders of Gelugpa.

A New Mongol Patron

Since the time of Altan Khan, Gelug Buddhism had spread throughout Mongolia. And as the 5th Dalai Lama grew to adulthood, a newly converted tribal leader of western Mongolia fought his way toward Tibet.

Gushi (sometimes spelled Gushri) Khan (1582-1655) and his army reached the edge of Tibet in 1637. Then Gushi Khan made his way to Lhasa to pay his respects to the Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama, now 20 years old, was impressed by the battle-hardened warrior, and the meeting went well.

The Dalai Lama accepted the patronage of Gushi Khan and gave him the title “Dharma King, Upholder of the Teachings.” He also gave Gushi Khan a gold statue of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school. A bond was formed between the lama and the warrior.

The Conquest of Tibet

At that time Gelugpa monasteries in eastern Tibet were suffering under a ruler who favored Bon, a religion indigenous to Tibet. With the Dalai Lama’s permission, Gushi Khan moved into eastern Tibet and secured the territory for Gelugpa. But Gushi Khan did not stop there. He and his army continued eastward into central Tibet, attacking and eventually deposing the king of Tsang.

Historians believe that the young Dalai Lama himself did not order the attack on central Tibet. Instead, permission to attack came from older Gelugpa lamas and from the Desi, an official appointed by the Dalai Lama to manage his political affairs.

However it happened, when the king of Tsang surrendered in April 1642, the Dalai Lama and Gushi Khan met once more, this time on a battlefield, to exchange titles and gifts. Here it was that His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama was proclaimed political and spiritual leader of Tibet.

But Tibet was not yet conquered. The 10th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school and his monks occupied a stronghold called the Encampment. The Dalai Lama sent a message to the Karmapa asking him to agree to not challenge Gelugpa authority, and in exchange the Encampment would be left alone. When the Karmapa refused, the Encampment was surrounded by Tibetan and Mongol soldiers. Soon the Encampment was destroyed, many monks were slaughtered, and the Karmapa was a refugee in the mountains of Bhutan.

A revolt by followers of Karma Kagyu and the king of Tsang was brutally repulsed by Gushi Khan, accompanied by the Desi. The king of Tsang was captured and killed. Kagyu monasteries were forcibly converted to Gelugpa. Teachings of other schools critical of Tsongkhapa and Gelugpa were banned. Even Nyingmapa lamas thought to have performed spells to repel the Mongols were imprisoned.

Potala Palace

In the spring of 1645 the 5th Dalai Lama climbed a hill overlooking Lhasa to stand in the ruins of an ancient palace. It had been the palace of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo, who lived in the 7th century and who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.There, in the presence of many monks and laypeople, the Dalai Lama performed a ritual to prepare the ground for the building of a new palace.
At some point in the proceedings a woman came forward to present a statue of Avalokiteshvara that had belonged to Songtsen Gampo. At that moment a soft rain began to fall, and the Dalai Lama told the assembly that Avalokiteshvara had come home.

The new structure that would be built on this sacred ground was Potala Palace. It would be the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seat of Tibetan government until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama would be driven into exile by the Chinese. Symbolically, the great palace tied the authority of the Dalai Lama to the ancient emperors and to Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet.

Although the 5th Dalai Lama moved into a section of the palace five years later, the entire structure took 45 years to complete.

Relations With China

In 1644, as the 5th Dalai Lama planned for the building of Potala Palace, the Ming Dynasty of China was toppled by invaders from Manchuria. The new Manchu dynasty would call itself the Qing Dynasty, and it would survive into the 20th century.

Advisers of the new Shunzhi Emperor — a child at the time — respected the military prowess of the Mongolians. The Qing court had no desire to make enemies of Gushi Khan and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Manchus also were Buddhists with ties to Tibetan Buddhism. Good relations with the Dalai Lama and his fearsome Mongol patron must have seemed a good idea on several levels. In the next few years three invitation to visit the Qing court were sent to the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness and a huge entourage finally began the journey to Beijing in 1652. When the Tibetans drew near, the Shunzhi Emperor sent horsemen with gifts to greet them and guide them to Beijing. The 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in January 1654.

The Qing court welcomed His Holiness with lavish ceremonies, and at one banquet the two rulers sat side by side on thrones. Today, China portrays this visit as one in which the Dalai Lama submitted to the rule of China, but most historians say that is nonsense. By all accounts, His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state with whom the Qing court wished to have friendly relations.

His Holiness remained in Beijing for two months, and then he began the long journey back home.

The Great Fifth Secures His Legacy

As time when on, the 5th Dalai Lama increasingly delegated political matters to the Desi so he could devote more time to meditation and to writing.

It appears the Dzogchen practice he began in his youth became more important to him as he grew older. He wrote of visions of Padmasambhava, founder of the Nyingma school. He encouraged Nyingmapa lamas to gather together the records and teachings of the school to preserve them.

The Great Fifth was a prolific writer. His 24 volumes of written work include a history of Tibet and his own autobiography, the Dukulai Gosang.

The 4th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), was the 5th Dalai Lama’s teacher and ally. In fact, the title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was given to Lobsang Gyaltsen by the 5th Dalai Lama and conferred to his predecessors posthumously. When the 4th Panchen Lama died in 1662, the 5th Dalai Lama took charge of the search for his rebirth. This began the tradition of successive older Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas acting as mentors for the younger and determining the next lama’s rebirth.

Under the Great Fifth’s governance, the territory of Tibet expanded to include most of the Tibetan plateau. He and his advisers organized a functional bureaucracy, including a tax and census system. The nation forged by the 5th Dalai Lama survived into the 20th century.

The Great Deception

In 1679, the Great Fifth appointed a new Desi, Sangye Gyatso, and announced he was retiring from public life. The Great Fifth died three years later, at the age of 65.

What happened next was one of the most remarkable, and controversial, episodes in Tibetan history.

Desi Sangye Gyatso kept the Great Fifth’s death a secret for 15 years, while the 6th Dalai Lama secretly was identified and prepared for his position. According to some accounts, this was done at the request of the Great Fifth. Others think it was entirely the Desi’s idea.

In any event, the deception was carried out masterfully. People were told the Dalai Lama was in retreat and could not be disturbed. Sometimes his presence was suggested by laying his empty robes on his throne. When a face-to-face meeting was unavoidable, an elderly monk who bore a resemblance to the Great Fifth played the role.

The obvious reason for the deception was to prevent a power struggle that would throw Tibet back into political chaos. Some historians think there was concern the increasingly powerful Qing court in Beijing might try to interfere with the identification of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The deception worked. In 1697, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama was announced and the 6th Dalai Lama was enthroned. The Great Fifth finally passed into history.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Eight Common Meditation Mistakes

There are many different ways to meditate. Even within Buddhism, the various meditation schools don’t all approach meditation exactly the same way. Further, the “best” way to meditate varies from one person to another; there isn’t necessarily any “one size fits all” practice.

However, having participated in a number of “introduction to meditation” classes and having answered lots of questions over the years, I’ve noticed some common problems that often come up, and not just among beginners. So, while the best meditation practice for you may not be exactly the same practice as mine, I can provide some general advice about avoiding these problems — or, how not to meditate.

1. Stress Reduction Versus Spiritual Practice

First, clarify why you are meditating. Meditation has been sold in the West as a stress-reduction technique. It can help reduce stress, but its original purpose is to help you wake up, not chill out.

If you are looking for a safe and natural practice to relieve stress, small daily doses of mindfulness may be just the thing.

 

If you are interested in Buddhist meditation as a spiritual practice, however, your approach to meditation will be somewhat different. And be advised that the experience of meditation will not always be relaxing. However, if you stick with it you probably will find that you cope with stress and “roll with the punches” much more skillfully than before.

Read More: The Mindfulness Controversy 1: Work and WarThe Mindfulness Controversy 2: Mindfulness Therapy.

2. Don’t Expect Bliss

The Sanskrit word for “meditation” is bhavana, which means “mental cultivation” or “mental development.” The word “mental” in this case does not refer just to thinking and reason, but to a wide spectrum of mind-body functions — sensation, awareness, emotions, attitudes, predilections.

Read More: The Misunderstanding of Mind; the Three Kinds of Mind

One way to think of bhavana is that it’s a kind of training. You are training mind to understand and experience in a different way. Contrary to popular notions of Buddhist meditation, however, the point is not to “bliss out” or go to some happy place away from your problems while you meditate. A regular meditation practice will enable you to confront the root causes of your problems and let them go, but this is the opposite of escapism.

If you are practicing in a school of Vajrayana Buddhism you may be instructed to visualize tantric deities or mandalas. However, most of the time in Buddhist meditation you are advised not to push yourself to conjure up visions or out-of-body experiences. You may have unaccountable sensory experiences, but most of the time these are just your neurons misfiring; they don’t mean anything. Don’t attach to them.

What about satori? Isn’t that supposed to be a rush? Perhaps, but there really is such a thing as premature satori, which happens when people push themselves into a deep meditative state before they are properly prepared for it. This is a bit like attempting to compete in a marathon without training for it. The results will be frustrating and best and dangerous at worse.

3. Don’t Judge

By “don’t judge” I mean don’t judge your meditation practice. If you’ve begun a meditation practice and you are fretting that it isn’t what you expected, stop fretting. If you are doing your best then your practice is fine; it’s your expectations that were screwy. Let them go. (However, see Item 7, below.)

More experienced meditators sometimes judge themselves during intensive meditation retreats. We may find ourselves slogging through meditation periods sleepy or uncomfortable, or unable to focus because we keep thinking about our jobs or marriages or the Visa bill. And when the period ends we are frustrated and unhappy with ourselves, because we think we aren’t doing it right.

This judging is a problem in two ways. One, if we hang on to that negativity it will spill over into the next meditation period and the one after that. Second, the truth is that sometimes the sessions when our knees ache and our mind will not be still are great training. It’s like lifting weights; when you struggle, you’re getting stronger. And sometimes a really “awful” meditation period will be followed by an amazing one. Just don’t judge.

4. Posture Is Important

Some schools of Buddhism are stricter about meditation body positions than others, and most give you a choice of leg positions and may even allow you to meditate in a chair. But that doesn’t mean teachers who insist on a particular body position and who correct you if you slouch are just being anal.

There are two primary reasons why some Buddhist schools make a big bleeping deal about meditation body forms. One reason is that schools in which the practice involves sitting still for long stretches of time have learned there are safe and not-so-safe ways to do that. Especially if you are in less-than-peak physical condition sitting still can be remarkably painful. And if you aren’t doing it right you could damage joints, squeeze organs or cut off circulation in limbs. Many generations of practitioners figured out exactly how to position themselves to avoid serious pain or injury, and this experience has given us the “approved” meditation positions.

The other reason is that body position really does affect meditation experience. Buddhist meditation isn’t something you do only in your head; it engages the entire body and mind. Experienced meditators nearly always come to appreciate that exactly how the spine is aligned, what hand mudra you use, whether the chest feels “open” or “closed,” all color the mind and can make a huge difference in the meditation experience.

5. It’s Not Outside, It’s Not Inside

Usually in beginner meditation class the teacher will explain that wisdom isn’t “out there” somewhere and is something you must find within yourself. This usually sets us up for a few years of prodding around inside ourselves, so to speak, looking for the elusive E (for Enlightenment) Spot.

The truth is, it’s not outside, it’s not inside. Or it’s both outside and inside; either one. “Outside” and “inside” are arbitrary designations that don’t signify anything important. When you’re ready the E Spot will be everywhere. Just practice.

6. Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose

The Buddha compared practice to a stringed musical instrument. If the strings are too tight they will break; if they are too loose they won’t play notes.

Sometimes people begin Buddhist practice with huge enthusiasm and set impossible meditation schedules and goals for themselves. And they burn out, and quit. This is like the tight string that breaks. And others sometimes don’t commit to practice and only meditate occasionally; this is being too loose.

People who are trying to fit a meditation practice into a life already stuffed with job, family and other obligations are advised to set a moderate meditation pace; say, five to ten minutes a day. You can always add time if you want to. But it’s better to meditate for five minutes every day than for two hours every Saturday.

7. The Role of a Teacher

There are many books and websites that provide good instructions for how to meditate. Even so, I strongly recommend seeking the guidance of someone recognized as a meditation master by an established school of Buddhism.

If you are committed to the do-it-yourself ideal, please note that I’m not saying you have to commit your life to a guru and live in an ashram. If may be that your meditation mentor is someone you see only once or twice a year at a weekend retreat. Having someone who knows you and who can give you one-on-one advice when you need it can make a huge difference, however.

Read More: Finding Your Teacher

There really are pitfalls and dangers on the meditation path, and the established traditions have cataloged these pitfalls and have worked out ways to deal with them. Because of the popularity of meditation a lot of people are teaching meditation and leading retreats who have no training in a Buddhist practice tradition and don’t fully appreciate what can go wrong, so watch out for this.

Read More: Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night

8. Don’t Wall Yourself Off

An important aspect of Buddhist meditation is loosening the bonds of ego. The Four Noble Truths teach us that our problems stem from the delusion that “I” am something enclosed within this skin, and everything beyond this skin is “other.”

For this reason, it’s long been recognized that if we practice only to benefit ourselves it’s probably not going to work. Although we all may begin practice seeking remedy for ourselves, if our practice is sincere we will become more sensitive to the suffering of others and wish to benefit them, also. Otherwise, our meditation practice can amount to marinating in our own egos, reinforcing the self-and-other dichotomy instead of dissolving it.

For this reason, the experience of meditating with others is hugely beneficial. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to join a sangha. Maybe just once a week or so you take part in a meditation group in your community.

One of the potential perils of a solo practice is that practice can become this intensely personal thing that is yours and yours alone and which may be compromised if shared with others. This is a common phase many of us go through, actually, but it’s important to not stick there.  One of the fruits of practice is a natural turning away from self-clinging as the wall between self and other dissolves. Sharing practice with others facilitates this.

On the other hand, if you remain stuck in “I can do this by myself” mode, you’re stuck, period. If you find yourself becoming edgy and self-defensive at the idea of meditating with others or consulting with a teacher, consider this a warning sign that there’s an unhealthy amount of ego-attachment in your practice.

Nearly all of us who engage in a meditation practice smack into one or more of these problems eventually; some of us smack into all of them. I hope you find this list helpful.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Buddhism in Cambodia

The population of Cambodia is approximately 95 percent Theravada Buddhist, as high a percentage as anywhere in Asia. Cambodian Buddhism is associated with the historic Ankgor Wat temple, a jewel of Khmer civilization. The Khmer, who have lived in what is now Cambodia since the 9th century, are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia.

Buddhism reached Cambodia before the Khmer, however. It is recorded that the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to that part of Asia in the 3rd century BCE (see “The Third Buddhist Council: Pataliputra II“). However, the mission seems to have failed.

There is evidence that Buddhism was being practiced in Cambodia by about the 3rd century CE. This was a Sanskrit lineage, possibly Sarvastivada or early Mahayana. Hinduism was also prevalent in the region, resulting in a kind of Buddhist-Hindu hybrid practice that included veneration of Shiva. Chinese travelers recorded that by the 5th century Buddhism was thriving in the region.

The first Khmer king, Jayavarman II (802-869), appears to have associated himself with Shiva, but he also was supportive of Mahayana Buddhism. By then the form of Mahayana being practiced also included elements of tantra yoga along with elements of Hinduism. This religious fusion was practiced by the Khmer through the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181–1215), a great patron of religion.

It was about this time that Theravada Buddhism was making gains among the Khmer, probably brought there by Sinhalese monks from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). One of Jayavarman VII’s sons became a monk and studied in Ceylon, and after he returned the Khmer began to convert to Theravada Buddhism.

Within a few decades, Mahayana had faded away was entirely replaced by Theravada.

Buddhist monks in front of the reflection pool at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo by Ekabhishek, courtesy Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License.

Angkor Wat

This famous temple complex is nearly 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, but when construction began it was at the heart of the Khmer civilization. Construction is credited to the Khmer King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1131 to 1150. The complex covers 200 acres and is surrounded by a moat.

The temple originally was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Much of the art in the temple, such as the bas-relief carving, depicts scenes from Hindu mythology. It was crafted at the height of Khmer culture and the quality of the art is superb.

By the time Jayavarman VII reigned in the late 12th century, the temple already was being rededicated to Buddhism. But in the 15th century the Khmer civilization collapsed, possibly in part because of food and water scarcity. Although some monks continued to live there, the surrounding population moved elsewhere. Slowly, the temple complex was reclaimed by the jungle.

The complex was unknown to the outside world until French explorers discovered it in the mid-19th century.

The French were so astonished at the beauty and sophistication of the ruined temple that they refused to believe it had been built by the Khmer. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work to restore the temple is ongoing.

Cambodia After the Khmer Empire

After the Khmer Empire collapsed the population shifted to what is now Phnom Pehn. Buddhism continued to flourish and even proved to be resistant to the efforts of Christian missionaries, who began arriving in the 16th century.

Cambodian society and civilization were much disrupted by European colonialism, however, In the 19th century Cambodia became part of French Indochina, and monks occasionally stirred up resistance to the French.

However, the darkest phase of Cambodian Buddhist history took place under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which took control of Cambodia in 1975. The Khmer Rouge were determined to destroy Buddhism. In a very few years Cambodia’s monks had been either forcibly de-frocked or executed, and nearly every Buddhist temple and library had been destroyed.

The Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded and took control of Phnom Pehn. Buddhism continued to be suppressed during the Vietnamese occupation, however, which continued to 1991. When Cambodia returned to self-government, Buddhism was declared to be the state religion.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Dedication of Merit

The dedication of merit is a spiritual practice that, as far as I know, is unique to Buddhism. Further, it appears to be a practice found in all schools of Buddhism. However, it’s often a practice overlooked by westerners who may find the whole idea of “merit” confusing.

The English word “merit” means to be good or worthy of praise. Buddhists sometimes speak of “making” merit, and describe merit as something one accumulates through good deeds.

But of course, to a Buddhist this also begs the question, “if the self is an illusion, who is it that accumulates? Who is it that is worthy?”

Read More: Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

It may help to look at the Sanskrit or Pali words translated as “merit,” which are punya or punna, respectively. These words are sometimes defined as an inner sense of well-being. This inner sense comes from doing the right thing.

The Theravada monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu said that developing merit provides an essential foundation for Buddhist practice. “To paraphrase a modern Buddhist psychologist, one cannot wisely let go of one’s sense of self until one has developed a wise sense of self,” he wrote.

However, other dictionaries define punya or punna as “actions leading to good fortune.” In some schools of Buddhism, practitioners traditionally were told that accumulation of merit would eventually lead to a more fortunate rebirth that allows for the realization of enlightenment. If this doesn’t work for you, just think of it as a kind of provisional teaching that is helpful for others.

But very simply, dedicating merit simply means to share the merit with others. The dedication of merit is one way to not “cling” to your good deeds, or to not allow your merit-making to turn into a strategy for constructing a self. For this reason, merit dedications are a common part of Buddhist liturgy.

How to Dedicate Merit

There are many merit-making chants, but before we get to those let’s look at intention and understanding.

It’s often taught that a proper dedication must be purified of the three conceptual spheres, or the three spheres of an action. These are (1) the individual performing the action, (2) the object or subject of the action, and (3) the action itself. To be purified of the three spheres means that one fully realizes that the self, the “others” receiving the merit, and the merit itself are empty of a permanent self-essence.

One way to understand this is to consider that the dedication is not about you or your merit or the recipient; it is about all beings in space and time. In their book Natural Great Perfection: Dzogchen Teachings and Vajra Songs, Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche and Lama Surya Das said,

“When we practice bodhicitta prayers or meditations, it may look like we are alone, like we are practicing for ourselves, but we are not practicing for ourselves, and we are not alone. All beings are interconnected, and in that sense they are present or affected. Milarepa sang, ‘When I am alone, meditating in the mountains, all the Buddhas past, present, and future are with me. Guru Marpa is always with me. All beings are here.'”

Two Dedication Chants

There are infinite chants dedicating merit, some brief and some long. This is from the Theravada Forest Monk tradition:

May all beings always live happily,
free from animosity.
May all share in the blessings
springing from the good I have done.

From Tibetan Buddhism, here is a short dedication attributed to Nagarjuna:

By this merit may all attain omniscience.
May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing.
From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death;
From the ocean of samsara, may I free all beings!

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Amitabha, Buddha of Boundless Light

Amitabha Buddha is one of the most prominent “celestial” Buddhas of Mahayana. In China and Japan he is the principal Buddha of the Pure Land school and one of the most commonly represented figures in Buddhist iconography. He is also a popular object of devotion in Vajrayana Buddhism.

The name Amitabha is a compound of the Sanskrit words amita (infinite or boundless) and abha (“light”). Amitabha is the Buddha of Boundless Light.

According to tradition, many ages ago Amitabha was a great king who renounced his throne to become a monk named Dharmakara. Dharmakara vowed to become a buddha and maintain a paradise in which enlightenment was easily realized. He took 48 bodhisattva vows, pledging to help all beings on the path to awakening. Continue reading