Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Buddhism’s Three Baskets (Tripittaka)

The term often used by Buddhist traditionalists to describe their various canons of scriptures is “Tripittaka”, which literally translates to “Three Baskets” in the English language.   The expression Three Baskets refers to the original three containers in which the scrolls of the Buddhist scriptures were first stored.   So you could say the Tripittaka contains three baskets of teachings: The Sūtta–pitaka (“basket of teachings”); the Vinaya–pitaka (“basket of discipline”); and the Abhidharma (“higher teachings”).   In other words, The Tripittaka or The Three Baskets is the three chief categories of the various texts that make up the canon of Buddhism. 

It’s difficult to say conclusively exactly what Buddhists believe, for example the Zen Buddhist considers rigidly held beliefs to be barriers to realization.  Students of Buddhism are often handed lists of doctrines – the Four Noble Truths, the Five Skandhas, and the Eightfold Path – which are intended to provide basic guidelines of the faith. Beginners are told to first understand the teachings and then to practice them.

“Believing in” various doctrines about Buddhism is not the point of Buddhism but to say that Buddhism is not about believing things doesn’t mean there are no Buddhist beliefs.   You see, over the centuries Buddhism has developed various schools of thought with individual, and sometimes contradictory, principles  So if you read somewhere that “Buddhists believe” such and such a thing, it’s likely that that particular doctrine belongs only to only one school and not to all of Buddhism. 

For example, throughout Asia one can find a kind of “folk Buddhism” in which the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, and other chief characters from Buddhist literature are thought to be divine beings that can not only hear prayers but can also grant wishes.

This train of thought may be inspired by the fact that Gautama’s date of birth and time of death are not documented: However most historians in the early 20th century dated his life span to be between 563 BC and 483 BC; a more recent opinion dates his death to fall between 486 and 483 BC.   In any event, he departed those living a really long time ago so it’s easy to imagine how over the years Mr. Gautama, among others, could have somehow have been transformed into divine beings.

Although the doctrine is wide and varied the Core beliefs of Buddhism are as follows:

One fundamental belief of Buddhism is often referred to as Reincarnation – the concept that people are reborn after dying.  The notion is that most individuals go through many cycles of birth, living, death and rebirth. But keep in mind that a practicing Buddhist differentiates between the concepts of rebirth and reincarnation. When reincarnated, the individual may recur repeatedly; while in rebirth, a person does not necessarily return to Earth as the same entity ever again. The analogy often sited for reincarnation is when the withering leaf falls off; a new leaf will eventually replace it. It is similar to the old leaf, but it is not identical to the original leaf.

On the other hand, typically after many such cycles of reincarnation, when a person or persons release their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana or rebirth which is the ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability, or joy.  This, in turn, places the individual into a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

The majority of Buddhists believes / teachings . . .

The Three Trainings or Practices:

1) Sila: Virtue, good conduct, morality. This is based on two fundamental                    principles:
a. The principle of equality: that all living entities are equal.
b. The principle of reciprocity: This is basically the “Golden Rule” in
          Christianity – “do onto others as you would wish them to do
          onto you”. This is found in all major religions.
2) Samadhi: Concentration, meditation, mental development. Developing one’s mind is the path to wisdom which in turn leads to personal freedom. Mental development also strengthens and controls our mind; this in turn helps us maintain good conduct.  

3) Prajna: Discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. The theory being that wisdom will emerge if your mind is clean and tranquil.

The Four Noble Truths:

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths explore human misery. They may be defined (somewhat simplistically) as:

1) Dukkha: Suffering exists: (Suffering is real and almost universal. Suffering has many causes: Loss, sickness, pain, failure, the briefness of pleasure). Life is constantly changing and therefore is full of suffering.

2) Samudaya: The cause for suffering: The desire to have and control things. It can take many forms . . . craving of sensual pleasures; the desire for fame; and the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations, like fear, anger or jealousy.

3) Nirodha: There is an end to suffering. Suffering ends with the on-set of Nirvana (a.k.a. Nibbana). Once achieved, the mind experiences complete freedom, liberation and non-attachment. You might say the mind lets go of desires or cravings.

4) Magga: In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path (displayed below).

The Five Precepts:
These are rules to live by. They are somewhat similar to the second half of the Ten Commandments found in Christianity and Judaism. However, they are recommendations, not demands. Followers are expected to use their own intellect in deciding exactly how to implement these rules.
1) Do not kill. This is sometimes translated as “not harming” or the absence of violence.
2) Do not steal. This is generally interpreted as including the avoidance of fraud and financial abuse.
3) Do not lie. This is sometimes interpreted as including name calling, gossip, etc.
4) Do not misuse sex. For monks and nuns of the faith, this means any departure from complete celibacy. For the worshipers, adultery is forbidden, along with any sexual harassment or exploitation, including that within a given marriage. Since the Buddha did not discuss consensual premarital sex within a committed relationship; Buddhist traditions do often differ on this issue. On the other hand, most Buddhists are likely influenced by their local cultures, when they condemn same-sex sexual activity regardless of the nature of the relationship between the people involved.
5) Do not consume drugs or alcohol.The main concern here is that intoxicants cloud the mind. Some sects have included as a “drug” other methods of divorcing oneself from reality such as movies, television, and the Internet.  

*Those persons preparing for “monkish” life or who are not within a family are expected to avoid an additional five (6 - 10) activities:
            6.  Taking untimely meals.

            7.  Dancing, singing, music, or watching grotesque stimuli.

            8.  Using of crowns, perfumes and personal adornment.

            9.  The Use of high seats.

10. Accepting gold or silver.

The Eightfold Path:
The first two paths listed in the Eightfold Path, described below, refer to judgment; the middle three are related to virtue; the last three belong to concentration.

Panna: Judgment, discernment, wisdom:
1. Samma ditthi (Right Understanding), of the Four Noble Truths
2. Samma sankappa (Right Thinking): Following the right path in life

Sila: Virtue, morality:
3. Samma vaca (Right Speech): No lying, criticism, condemning, gossip, harsh    language
4. Samma kammanta (Right Conduct): By following the Five Precepts 

5. Samma ajiva (Right Livelihood): Support yourself without harming others

Samadhi: Concentration, meditation:
6. Samma vayama (Right Effort): Promote good thoughts; conquer evil thoughts
7. Samma sati (Right Mindfulness): Become aware of your body, mind and feelings
8. Samma samadhi (Right Concentration): Meditate to attain a higher state of consciousness  

In summation, whatever outlook a student of Buddha may have, Buddhism, which is generally said to be the 4th largest religion on Earth with more than 350 million followers, basically teaches him or her to hold those views in an open hand and not in a tightly closed fist.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ethiopia’s ‘New Jerusalem’

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

It’s been said that the sight of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches are enough to disorient the senses. Like no other place on earth the home to some of the most awe inspiring structures on the African continent, a total of eleven, nearly 900-year old churches have been carved from solid rock, set amid a magnificent mountainous backdrop. Here, it’s not difficult to believe that myth and reality have somehow merged. Most visitors to this community say that historical fact is often difficult to extract from the jumble of legends and remembered half truth’s .  

According to local legend future King, Zagwe Lalibela (1189 to 1229), while in a three day coma after being poisoned by his brother (who was King at the time), was instructed by God to build a New Jerusalem in the rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia in response to the recent capture of old Jerusalem, capital of Israel, by Muslims in 1187.  To achieve the monumental task of engineering and construction, King Lalibela allegedly enlisted the help of a legion of angels to assist in building the churches each night.

Each of the 11 structures are carved out of volcanic rock, and have been constructed in a variety of styles inside and out. Some of them were chiseled into the face of the rock, while others stand as isolated blocks, like the iconic church of Saint George (depicted above), constructed in the shape of a cross. The churches remain in use today and have a complex and extensive system of tunnels, drainage ditches, and subterranean passageways connecting to each other. While some say these structures make the wise old saying “they don’t build them like they used to”, have real or significant meaning; others say these carvings are the actual source of the adage.

Interestingly, many features of the community have Biblical names; the town’s river is known as the “River Jordan” and there’s even graves identified as those of “Adam” and “Jesus Christ”. Regardless, the chiseled creations have turned the mountain settlement into a place of pride and pilgrimage for worshipers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, attracting 80,000 to 100,000 visitors every year.


Modern scholars believe that the churches were “excavated” during the 12th or 13th Centuries, which does at least coincide with King Lalibela’s reign. They do however dismiss the “assisting angels” theory altogether. The same academics have estimated that a workforce of some 40,000 workers would have been necessary to construct the churches.  Historians also point out that construction was completed at a remarkable pace for the era, just a bit more than 23 years; which kinda makes you wonder some about the alleged night shift help.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Goldilocks Zone

They’re Like Us!
A Tiny Corner of Space

Extra-terrestrials or Aliens who visit Earth might not only resemble us but are likely  to have many of our failings; such as greed, violence and the tendency to exploit  resources other than their own.  In fact they could be disturbingly like us, and you guessed it, that’s not necessarily a good thing – after all, we really don’t have a great record when it comes to getting along.

While they could come in peace they are just as likely to be searching for somewhere to live or just hell bent on helping themselves to Earth’s abundant water supply and other minerals.

The US space agency’s search for extra-terrestrial life is based upon the intonation: “Follow the Water”, a strategy based upon the fact that, on Earth, where there’s water, there’s life. With this thought foremost in mind, you might want to take note that more than 400 planets outside our solar system, several of which are situated in the – “Goldilocks zone” – where the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to form, have been confirmed to have H2O.

The broad based idea held by some  “contact” enthusiasts believe any alien civilization capable of reaching Earth can only do so because they have survived long enough to develop the necessary technology; that just makes sense, but more importantly, this belief typically contends that these far-away civilizations have also solved major social problems, such as war, poverty and discrimination.  These folks believe the Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny are real live cridders and that Storkes deliver New Born Babies to most any given Cabbage Patch.   This attitude also dictates that they’re friendly; a long, long way off; and they can’t get here from there. But if you wake up in the morning and there’s an armada of extra-terrestrial spaceships circling Earth that prediction won’t necessarily hold water and we can only hope seawater is all they’ve come for.

In recent times, the most commonly encountered alien species is known as the “Greys” due to the greyish color of their bodies. Interestingly, several species of Greys have interacted with humankind in one form or another even beyond Earth’s “modern” era.

Some folks place such interaction into the “Ancient Alien” theory of contact with humanity and has been suggested by various sources, both oral and written.   For example the Tengu Beings are found in Japanese folklore; they are reportedly horrific forest and mountain dwelling humanoids having the wings, claws and at times the beak of a bird. The Early Mesopotamian writings speak of the Anunnaki from the planet Nibiru and my favorite the “Shining Ones” described in several cultures. Archaeological digs have worked for years trying to find evidence supporting conclusions regarding the Shining Ones’ culture or sociology, but then, for every theory which seems true there is a contradictory theory which seems equally correct. 

The Shining Ones appear in many myths and cultures with diverse names and portrayals, but they are often described as gods or beings that are made up of light. They’re generally described as tall ghost like creatures. Some cultures actually viewed them as what they probably were, aliens (the Mayans for example), from beyond this world.

The Argument is often made that the good folks of planet Earth are better served by their various governments to with-hold information disclosing the truth about intelligent extra-terrestrial life.  However, Albert Harrison, a noted Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, refutes fears of public alarm when alien life is revealed, at least of the kind which apparently followed Orson Welles’ now infamous radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” in 1938.  In that regard he said “The public reaction was overstated. Most people who thought the broadcast was real took sensible actions to protect themselves,” further, Harrison noted: “Surveys suggest most people think they will be fine, but they worry about others freaking out.”

Yet another public concern often placed forward as being a direct cause & effect of such “disturbing” information is the potential collapse of Earth’s religious institutions.

But consider this: Ted Peters is a professor of systematic theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in California; he has surveyed several religious groups in an attempt to understand whether confirmation of extra-terrestrials could result in such a calamity.  The result of his surveys & research suggests not, but he believes Christians, for example, should clarify whether creation covers the entirety of space or just Earth.

Sources . . .