Thursday, June 17, 2010

Two Talks by Ajahn Chah

In honour of Ajahn Chah's birthday today:
"Not For Sure", translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Maha Mangala Sutta

A revision of my second attempt at translation from Pali. The very popular and beautiful Maha Mangala Sutta:

The Discourse on Protective Blessings.

Thus have I heard. One time the Bhagavan was dwelling at Jetavana, in Anathapinika's vihara. Then a Devata (female other-worldly being) in the early hours of morning, her great radiance lighting up the whole of Jeta's grove, approached the Bhagava. Having approached and paid homage to the Bhagava she stood to one side and addressed him in verse:

"Many devas and humans have wondered about protective blessings,
desiring well-being. Tell, then, the high protective blessing."

{the Buddha}:

"Not befriending fools, instead befriending the wise;
Giving reverence to those worthy of it: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Living in a cultured place, having made merit in the past, 
Directing oneself rightly: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Broad learning, practical skill, 
Well-mastered self-discipline, beautiful speech: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Taking care of one's parents, cherishing one's spouse and children, 
Consistency in one's work: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Giving, living with integrity, 
Assisting one's relatives, deeds that are blameless: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Avoiding, abstaining from evil; 
Refraining from intoxicants, being heedful of what's real: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Respect, humility, contentment, 
Gratitude, taking opportunities to hear Dhamma: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Patience, openness to instruction, 
Seeing contemplatives, taking opportunities to discuss Dhamma: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Ascesis, living the holy life, 
Seeing the Noble Truths, realizing Nibbana: 
This is a high protective blessing.

When touched by the ways of the world, 
A mind that is unshaken, sorrowless, dustless, secure: 
This is a high protective blessing.

Everywhere undefeated when acting in this way, 
People go everywhere in well-being: 
This is their high protective blessing.

 Notes: Mangala refers to a blessing in the sense of a protection or charm. It is often rendered either as protection or as blessing, I opted for "protective blessing". If one doesn't understand that the Buddha is teaching that qualities of mind and behaviour are the true protective charms the force of the whole sutta is lost.

I consulted the versions of Ajaan Thanissaro, Piyadassi Thera, Narada Thera and RL Soni, available at

1. Evaṃ me sutaṃ – ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṃ viharati jetavane anāthapiṇḍikassa ārāme. Atha kho aññatarā devatā abhikkantāya rattiyā abhikkantavaṇṇā kevalakappaṃ jetavanaṃ obhāsetvā yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami; upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ aṭṭhāsi. Ekamantaṃ ṭhitā kho sā devatā bhagavantaṃ gāthāya ajjhabhāsi –
‘‘Bahū devā manussā ca, maṅgalāni acintayuṃ;
Ākaṅkhamānā sotthānaṃ, brūhi maṅgalamuttamaṃ’’.
‘‘Asevanā ca bālānaṃ, paṇḍitānañca sevanā;
Pūjā ca pūjaneyyānaṃ [pūjanīyānaṃ (sī. syā. kaṃ. pī.)], etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Patirūpadesavāso ca, pubbe ca katapuññatā;
Attasammāpaṇidhi [atthasammāpaṇīdhī (katthaci)] ca, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Bāhusaccañca sippañca, vinayo ca susikkhito;
Subhāsitā ca yā vācā, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Mātāpitu upaṭṭhānaṃ, puttadārassa saṅgaho;
Anākulā ca kammantā, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Dānañca dhammacariyā ca, ñātakānañca saṅgaho;
Anavajjāni kammāni, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Āratī viratī pāpā, majjapānā ca saṃyamo;
Appamādo ca dhammesu, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Gāravo ca nivāto ca, santuṭṭhi ca kataññutā;
Kālena dhammassavanaṃ [dhammassāvaṇaṃ (ka. sī.), dhammasavanaṃ (ka. sī.)], etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Khantī ca sovacassatā, samaṇānañca dassanaṃ;
Kālena dhammasākacchā, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Tapo ca brahmacariyañca, ariyasaccāna dassanaṃ;
Nibbānasacchikiriyā ca, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Phuṭṭhassa lokadhammehi, cittaṃ yassa na kampati;
Asokaṃ virajaṃ khemaṃ, etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
‘‘Etādisāni katvāna, sabbatthamaparājitā;
Sabbattha sotthiṃ gacchanti, taṃ tesaṃ maṅgalamuttama’’nti.
Maṅgalasuttaṃ niṭṭhitaṃ.

Freedom From Hostility: On the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

" 'He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me'- for those who brood on this, hostility isn't stilled.
" 'He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me' - for those who don't brood on this, hostility is stilled.
Hostilities aren't stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an immortal truth." (The Buddha)

So goes one of the Buddha's most famous quotes, from the Dhammapada (1:3-6). It's applicability to the current situation in Israel will strike many people as obvious. But in what way it is to be applied will jump out differently to different people, and in telling ways.

Some will say that Israel needs to stop brooding on the violence that Palestinian terrorists have perpetrated against Israel and extend the hand of friendship to the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank. If only they would do this- tear down the wall, open the blockade, and invite Palestinians to live freely in Israel without restrictions of any kind, or to give them their own state on as much land that is currently under Israeli occupation as necessary. These gestures of love, of non-hostility, will solve all problems.

The problem with that hopeful analysis is that while many Israelis live in fear and hostility towards Palestinians, the situation is magnified when we take an honest look at contemporary Palestinian culture. The Palestinians  two contesting governments, Fatah and Hamas, are both openly hostile to Israel's existence in any form. Both fund propoganda and education which presents Israel to Palestinian children as an evil state which kills children, poisons arabs, steals land- murderers, thieves and worse. The Zionists illegitimate state will eventually be removed entirely from Palestine, their schools teach.  Both fund terrorist campaigns against Israel and celebrate "martyrs" who die or are imprisoned attempting to kill Israeli civilians. In Hamas's case, their charter promises to kill all Jews in Israel and destroy the Jewish state. These attitudes of fear and hatred of Israelis and paranoid Anti-semitism are rife in modern Palestinian culture and major obstacles to the peace process.

We can thus see that while Israeli hostility and fear towards Palestinians is obviously harmful, it is only one side of the story. As Amos Oz once said very well (in his great book "How To Cure A Fanatic"): "The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not a wild west movie." It is not a tale of good guys vs. bad guys. Our task does not lie in attending to the CNN reports, choosing who we think is the good guy, and then routing for them. The situation is complex, and if we choose to make it a concern of ours it behooves us to understand it in its full complexity.

Certainly it will not help if we add our voices to the chorus of people shouting about who robbed who, who beat who, who insulted who. Surely if we choose to judge we must do so judiciously, sifting through reports, claims, evidence. But let us remember that what we are studying is a human tragedy with many actors and causes where everyone involved is in some way implicated. The situation of the Palestinians is difficult and tragic. So is the situation of the Israelis. For those of us fortunate enough to be armchair spectators to a horrible situation, let us try not to be too quick to render judgement on those trapped in the conflagaration, faced with existential pressures we can not easily imagine.

While we sit in our armchairs watching the flames of the conflict burn, let us at least try not to throw more logs on the fire.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Karma is one of those words we don't translate. Its basic meaning is simple enough — action — but because of the weight the Buddha's teachings give to the role of action, the Sanskrit word karma packs in so many implications that the English word action can't carry all its luggage. This is why we've simply airlifted the original word into our vocabulary.
But when we try unpacking the connotations the word carries now that it has arrived in everyday usage, we find that most of its luggage has gotten mixed up in transit. In the eyes of most Americans, karma functions like fate — bad fate, at that: an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. "I guess it's just my karma," I've heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance. The fatalism implicit in this statement is one reason why so many of us are repelled by the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous myth-making that can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice in the status quo: "If he's poor, it's because of his karma." "If she's been raped, it's because of her karma." From this it seems a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer, and so doesn't deserve our help.
This misperception comes from the fact that the Buddhist concept of karma came to the West at the same time as non-Buddhist concepts, and so ended up with some of their luggage. Although many Asian concepts of karma are fatalistic, the early Buddhist concept was not fatalistic at all. In fact, if we look closely at early Buddhist ideas of karma, we'll find that they give even less importance to myths about the past than most modern Americans do.
For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear and complex. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a simple straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.
So, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are — what you come from — is not anywhere near as important as the mind's motives for what it is doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we've been dealt, for that hand can change at any moment. We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we've got. If you're suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. If you see that other people are suffering, and you're in a position to help, you focus not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present: Someday you may find yourself in the same predicament that they're in now, so here's your opportunity to act in the way you'd like them to act toward you when that day comes.
This belief that one's dignity is measured, not by one's past, but by one's present actions, flew right in the face of the Indian traditions of caste-based hierarchies, and explains why early Buddhists had such a field day poking fun at the pretensions and mythology of the brahmans. As the Buddha pointed out, a brahman could be a superior person not because he came out of a brahman womb, but only if he acted with truly skillful intentions.
We read the early Buddhist attacks on the caste system, and aside from their anti-racist implications, they often strike us as quaint. What we fail to realize is that they strike right at the heart of our myths about our own past: our obsession with defining who we are in terms of where we come from — our race, ethnic heritage, gender, socio-economic background, sexual preference — our modern tribes. We put inordinate amounts of energy into creating and maintaining the mythology of our tribe so that we can take vicarious pride in our tribe's good name. Even when we become Buddhists, the tribe comes first. We demand a Buddhism that honors our myths.
From the standpoint of karma, though, where we come from is old karma, over which we have no control. What we "are" is a nebulous concept at best — and pernicious at worst, when we use it to find excuses for acting on unskillful motives. The worth of a tribe lies only in the skillful actions of its individual members. Even when those good people belong to our tribe, their good karma is theirs, not ours. And, of course, every tribe has its bad members, which means that the mythology of the tribe is a fragile thing. To hang onto anything fragile requires a large investment of passion, aversion, and delusion, leading inevitably to more unskillful actions on into the future.
So the Buddhist teachings on karma, far from being a quaint relic from the past, are a direct challenge to a basic thrust — and basic flaw — in our culture. Only when we abandon our obsession with finding vicarious pride in our tribal past, and can take actual pride in the motives that underlie our present actions, can we say that the word karma, in its Buddhist sense, has recovered its luggage. And when we open the luggage, we'll find that it's brought us a gift: the gift we give ourselves and one another when we drop our myths about who we are, and can instead be honest about what we're doing with each moment — at the same time making the effort to do it right.