Ven. Bhikku Bodhi gave an incredible talk last night. Starting off with the story of his life, he shared how he resisted studying Buddhism initially upon finding related books in a bookstore. He finally picked it up, and found himself resonating with it. He wanted to study it formally but at that time, there was no program he knew that offered it. Later, he found out that the University of Wisconsin in Madison did offer it, but he had already enrolled in a program in western philosophy. During that program, he took a road trip with some friends that stopped at Madison for the night. In the morning, as he took a walk through the campus, he saw from the corner of his eye that a monk left a building, passed in front of him and entered another building, along with a western man. Due to his shyness, he could not get himself to meet this monk, but little did he know that he was to meet this monk only two years later, and discover a similarity in purpose (the monk translated the four Nikayas from Pali into Vietnamese, while Bhikku Bodhi has translated three of them into English). The story in its full color may be accessed here (and in a more colorful form here). Bhikku Bodhi then shared the story of the ripple effects of an editorial piece titled “Challenge to Buddhists,” where he pointed out the need for Buddhists to not just go inward, but also to serve outward. Several of his students resonated with this and founded the organization “Buddhist Global Relief,” which has been chosen by the Obama administration to be on a task force on inter-faith action.
The Q&A began, and this is when gems started pouring out one after the other. Someone shared that he was uncomfortable receiving gifts. To which, Bhikku Bodhi replied (paraphrased), “It is important to honor the giver and the space they are coming from. Remember that by honoring them, you are helping them practice giving, which is very important for their development. Often times, we get something that we don’t need. Even then, it is important to take a little bit to honor the giver. When you receive a gift, do not give it away to others immediately. Hold on to it for a little bit so that the giver’s desire to have given is fulfilled, and then you may give it to others.” This last part was a very subtle insight, of great relevance to us, especially in the CF community that places an emphasis on paying-it-forward.
This advice triggered a memory of Rev. Heng Sure at the recent CF retreat. Just after the retreat had concluded, I saw a lady who walked up to the Reverend and said, “I just love your face!” Without batting an eyelid, the Reverend responded, “What a nice thing to say!” He could have said, “Thank you!” but didn’t, and his response was all about honoring the giver of the compliment, without necessarily commenting on its receivability. It seems to me that such simple and authentic responses can only come after a lifetime of mindful practice.
Another question to Bhikku Bodhi was on the distinction between pain and suffering, of which he has personal experience, dealing with an incurable headache for over 25 years. He shared some nuanced thoughts, of which the gist is that pain should not be identified with the ego. When that mistake is committed, the pain turns into suffering, and becomes “my pain.” He also shared a deep insight that comes from meditation - that what we label as pain is not any one thing, but several undesirable sensations, arising and passing away. Meditation is a powerful tool to be able to see this for oneself, and break our revulsion to pain and develop acceptance.
On acceptance, he suggested the four big acceptances (if I remember correctly) of things that are bound to happen: The acceptance of pain, the acceptance of sickness, the acceptance of our death and the acceptance of separation from all our loved ones. Someone asked about the role imagination and creativity, to which he responded that the Buddha didn’t have much to say on it, but if someone was creative, they should definitely use their creativity for the good of others. Another question was on scientific evidence around reincarnation, and Bhikku Bodhi talked about Dr. Ian Stevenson, who has conducted rigorous scientific study around past-life memories, and concluded that in some cases, the hypothesis of reincarnation was the simplest to accept.
My question was on the massive political confusion we see in the world, as also organizational confusion. Everyone wants to help the world, but each believes the others’ methods are flawed and actually harm. The Buddha talked about combining the heart and the head when making decisions. What are some concrete guidelines to help us do this?
Bhikku Bodhi first warned about the dangers of politics - even the best-intentioned people find themselves intertwined with all kinds of constraints where they are unable to do any good without making big compromises on their values. The very nature of politics or a position of power is such that it entraps our ego with the notion of holding sway over others. Then, he shared the Buddha’s advice, captured in the form of “Dasa Raja Dhamma” or “The Ten Guiding Values of Governance.” They were:
- Dana or Practicing Generosity
- Sila or Developing Strong Moral Character
- Pariccaga or Renunciation for the good of others
- Ajjava or adherence to telling the whole truth
- Maddava or kindness/gentleness
- Tapa or restraint of the five senses
- Akkodha or non-anger - holding no grudges against anyone. Bhikku Bodhi talked about this at some length to another question that came up later. If we find ourselves faced with anger, the Buddha said that we should not speak and be silent lest we hurt others with words. We should certainly not act with anger, lest we cause irreparable harm.
- Ahimsa: Nonviolence
- Khanti: Patience and tolerance
- Avirodha: Non-opposition and enmity. The ruler should not oppose the will of the people
I found these ten values remarkable. By the time Bhikku Bodhi had enumerated #4, I wondered if anyone was left in the political establishments I know who would make the cut. #10 also stood out for me as a big deal - the Buddha does not distinguish between one and the many. He does not say, “do what is best for the most,” which is the governing principle behind a democracy. It seems that the only way to be consistent with #10 is to adopt an approach of noncoercion. If even half of these values are seriously practiced in an organization or a political group, that organization or group would be a shining light in the world. I found myself remembering Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise on economics and governance in India, where the central focus is on developing a Rajarshi, or sage-king, with a similar set of values (with some differences :).
Later, Bhikku Bodhi also answered the second part of my question, by suggesting the use of reflection and contemplation along with compassion before making decisions.
Finally, Nipun shared a story about CF Mom. When she was bending down to pick up a morsel of food that had fallen, she suddenly let out a shriek. Nipun was upstairs, and came down - she had pulled a muscle in her back. Nipun, being Nipun, told her, "What better way to be in pain than in the service of others." That she was glowing in the service of others is an understatement - preparing food with a pulled muscle for a 100 people with such a warm smile makes all of this a philosophy of action, and gives us great encouragement to practice it.
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