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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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"When they tasted the savoury earth..."

Buddhist mirror by A.G.S.Kariyawasam

In a profound myth occurring in the Aggana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the 27th discourse in that collection, the Buddha offers a kind of Buddhist Genesis of man and society.

It is a symbolic myth in the sense that it presents a symbolic explanation of the origin of man and his degeneration from a divine state to a state of toiling and suffering, on the basis of a theory of psycho-ethical or moral causation. It represents a mythical drama of a series of events going from cause to effect. The Buddhist theme of Craving - Tanha - and its devastating effect on man is beautifully illustrated here as also the beneficial results of the conquest of this main human weakness.

This discourse is primarily meant to demolish the brahmin pretensions to social superiority based on birth, which theory the Buddha refused outright, replacing it with the doctrine of assessing a person's superiority or inferiority on the basis of dhamma or righteousness of the behaviour of the person concerned.

In the process of this argumentation the Buddha presents a theory of man's origin and social evolution, in a relative sense a course because no absolute beginnings are tenable in Buddhism as such point as a first beginning (pubbakoti) is not traceable anywhere (na pannayati) in the cyclic continuity of the life-process. Here the gradual evolution of man and society from a relatively happy state to one of toiling, labouring and suffering due to man's own cravings is vividly presented in this deeply symbolic story which thus becomes extremely interesting as well as instructive.

Here, the Buddha depicts the world as an ever-continuous cause-effect process going on ad infinitum. This cyclically operative unbroken continuity of change and evolution begins and re-begins in a periodical sequence as expressed by the two Pali terms Samvattati (evolves) and vivattati (involves, contracts).

In the course of its contracting process there comes a particular stage when the earth-dwellers, finding it impossible to survive here owing to the earth's destruction, get reborn in the Aabhassara brahma world where they dwell "with mind-made bodies, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air and continuing in glory."

There they continue to live for a very long period until the universe begins its backward process of expansion. At a particular stage in this process these beings pass away, from the Aabhassara world and become spontaneously reborn on earth, along with all the afore-mentioned etherial privileges because although born on earth they yet remain devas and humans. They continue to live here for a very long period.

At this stage the entire universe, this solar-system, was a single nebulous mass of blinding darkness without sun or moon, constellations or stars. Nights and days were not distinguished, nor the months, years or seasons. Nor was there bisexuality among beings as they were super-sexual, without any differentiation as man and woman were born spontaneously.

Then, after a very long period a savoury earth (rasa-patha) appeared which began spreading itself over the waters above which these beings lived.

This creamy substance was colourful, very tasty and sweet smelling. Captivated by these attractions one greedy deva unable to resist the temptation, tasted it with his forefinger and being taken up, with the fine flavour, there arose in him the evil mentality of craving by giving in to a forbidden attraction to taste, like the Biblical forbidden fruit.

It was more or less an occasion to test the degree of spiritual advancement of the deva, who quite miserably, failed the test and was heavily penalised when his self-luminosity disappeared from him.

All the other devas was followed him by eating the forbidden delicacy paid the penalty through losing the luminosity of their bodies. Owing to this ethereal quality of luminosity there was no need for sun and moon upto this point, but now, with its loss, there appeared the heavenly bodies headed by sun and moon to light up the world. The divisions of years, months, days, seasons also followed suit.

This process of deterioration continued with the progressive strengthening of craving, following which they went on losing one by one all the ethereal privileges they had intended from their aabhassara heritage. This process a loss was in two aspects as with every addition act of craving they committed they lost their ethereal qualities one by one following which they became dispossessed of the heavenly facilities that was freely available on earth.

Along with these changes, the people's physical bodies also naturally became coarser and coarser. Their earlier uniform appearance they shared in common in their subtle bodies also began to show variations from person to person or from group to group. Thus some became handsome and some ugly and the former began to despise the latter saying "We are better-looking than you" thereby assuming a superior attitudes based on appearance. Thereby they became arrogant and conceited as per their looks.

After the disappearance of the savory earth, which was naturally followed by several days of collective mourning, there appeared a kin of tasty mushroom (bhoomi-pappataka) very much similar to the savory earth. Here too, the very same sequence of events took place as is the preceding case of the savory earth and the people's bodies also became coarser with inter-personal differences becoming still sharper.

The mushroom was followed by a creeper which was followed by clear-grained rice, free from powder and husk, fragrant and delicious. With the consumption of rice a very significant change took place in this process in that bisexuality appeared.

Upto the point of eating cereal food these beings were super-sexual or above sex in the sense that they were free from male, female differentiation, which appeared only with the introduction of cereal food into the man's menu. Till then there were no sexual or even gender problems because people, as sexless, were born spontaneously.

This emergence of sexuality with some people becoming men and others women was a vital stage in this process of spiritual degeneration because highly complex problems began to harass humanity with this change.

When these men and women started living close to one another passion began to arise and their bodies began to burn with lust as a result of which sexual activity between men and women had its beginning here. Along with this development, the hitherto extant spontaneous birth also ceased as women began giving birth as it is today.

Those who engaged in the sexual act were looked down upon by others and refused entry into the village for several months as a punishment. Thus, the necessity of buildings arose so that they could engage in it under cover! Hence the problem of housing was added to newly-created food problem. In reality they needed these facilities as by now they had lost all the inherited glories owing to their increasing cravings.

The next important problem in this process was the emergence of the idea of private property as they began gathering the spontaneously grown rice and storing them for days, weeks and months.

The penalty for this additional phase of craving was the rice grains losing their special taste and beauty and their developing the husk powder combination which necessitated more and more labour to prepare a meal! The usual mournings "welcomed" the change and the inevitable now followed when they began demarcating land-boundaries and the private property concept invaded society with full force.

Now another greedy fellow misappropriated a neighbour's plot of land. The others reprimanded him and elicited a promise not to repeat the crime, which he repeatedly violated.

He was caught and beaten up with 'fisticuffs, sticks and stores. In this manner there arose stealing, lying and punishment.

This origin of crimes and punishments was followed by the election of a ruler as an executive head to inquire into such matters and mere out suitable punishment. He was elected by common consent and was accordingly called Mahasammata, "the people's choice.

With the passage of life in this set-up some people thought of getting rid of the evil that had come upon society, and the individual and decided to practise asceticism and overcome this evil - the defilements. They became the brahmins and the ascetics, some of whom resorted to forest and practised meditation, living on the alms received from the people.

In this manner rulers traders, farmers, fighters, hunters, clergymen etc., as components of society, came into being when the needs arose for these with the changing conditions.

Society in its normal sense became established. This theory of evolution after a great lesson for all the problems besetting mankind today. While the Nirvamic solution Buddhism offers is a somewhat unclear and a remote possibility, here is the same solution but from a different perspective, closer at hand and more discernible as achievable.

As the man's lord of suffering is his own creation through craving getting the better of him down the ages, there is the possibility for him to eradicate this evil by reversing the joining towards the Aabhanara level by a gradual elimination of those acts of craving. Man's latent proclivity for sensual gratification is his hidden enemy who robs him of his inherited happiness.

Silently and unknowingly the victim was dragged towards the unwanted acts of craving when the "forbidden fruit" of the savoury earth was eaten. Human weakness did not allow him to "let it be".

What needs highlighting here is the hope which is "springing eternal in the human breast", that it is within the man's ability to reverse the process and undertake the backward journey towards an ideal world, a trouble-free society of the Aabhanara type.

The sexless life with spontaneous birth, a society free from personal ownership of private property, a society that is class-less where people have stopped the perennial race for better and tastier for where fun-making is replaced with serious living, where ethnic and racial conflicts have no place etc. etc. cannot be ideals only as shown by the Agganna Sutta.

Can man achieve this, at least to a certain level? Whenever attempts it will benefit himself and others.


Tibetan Buddhists find peace in Scottish hills

ESKDALEMUIR, Scotland, Nov 3 (Reuters) A towering gold statue of the revered Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna sits cross-legged in the middle of an ornamental lake.

Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze and Buddhist monks in crimson and orange robes stroll across the courtyard in front of the ornate facade of a temple.

It could almost be the Tibetan capital Lhasa or a remote retreat in the Himalayas. But this is southern Scotland, home to the largest and oldest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Western world.

Samye Ling - the name means "place beyond imagination" in Tibetan - was founded in 1967 by two Buddhist monks who fled to India as teenagers after Chinese communist troops took over their remote mountain homeland in the 1950s.

They found refuge in a school for young Buddhist priests in Delhi and from there came to Britain.

Drawn to the remote, peaceful hills of the Scottish borders, they set up a Buddhist learning centre in an old stone country house near this quiet village.

Since then, they and their followers have expanded the centre, building the temple, guest houses, a 14 metre (45 feet) high "stupa" - a consecrated tower - Tibetan tearooms and a shop selling Buddhist books, trinkets and compact discs.

There is even an Internet cafe.

While there are only around 20 monks and nuns based at the centre, hundreds of Buddhist lay practitioners flock to Samye Ling for lectures, courses and retreats.Some courses, which teach everything from Tai Chi to Buddhist-Christian dialogue, attract up to 700 people.

Samye Ling, a startling, incongruous sight against the backdrop of Scotland's dun-coloured hills and fields of heather, has also become a major tourist attraction.

The main draw is the shrine, designed by a Tibetan artist and opened in 1988. It contains a large gilded statue of the Buddha surrounded by 1,000 smaller golden Buddhas.

"The Scottish Tourist board tell us it is now the 10th most visited site in Scotland," said the centre's leading lama, or Buddhist cleric, Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche.

"There seems to be something about Tibetan Buddhism which appeals to people in the West, where so many people are disillusioned with the stress and the lack of a spiritual aspect in their lives," he told Reuters.

Lama Yeshe, the younger brother of one of the centre's co-founders Akong Tulka Rinpoche, says the centre has had a major impact on the local economy.

"When we arrived this was an area that people were leaving," he said. "The local school and the local post office were about to close but the area has recovered since then."

British Buddhists have moved to the area to be close to the temple and some of them work in the centre's vegetable gardens.

The centre runs a soup kitchen in Glasgow and oversees projects abroad. Its charity arm, originally set up to help Tibetan refugees, funds projects as far afield as Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Buddhism is gaining in popularity in Britain, as it is in most Western countries.

The latest British census lists 145,000 Buddhists and London, where many of them live, is soon to have its first permanent Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Lama Yeshe, now 60, has spent more time in Scotland than he has in Tibet, which he left aged 16.

Asked if he would go back to his homeland if the political climate there improved, he smiled and said: "I would like to go as I still have sisters and other relatives in Tibet".

"But Buddhism teaches us to be very patient and tolerant," he added. "Who knows when we will go back?"

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