A Discussion with Bhante Dhammawansha
Fourth Session of the Middle Way Buddhist Association, May 19, 2007
Bhante Dhammawansha (center).
Notes on Bhante Dhammawansha's discussion session at MWBA, 5/19/07. (by Rick Ferriss and Tom Lacey)
Tom Lacey started off the discussion by asking Bhante about his recent trip to Sri Lanka, from which he had just returned the previous week. Bhante said he had recovered from the plane flights and was already back hard at work teaching and visiting groups and preparing fro Buddha's Birthday, which we will help him with..
Bhante's visit to Sri Lanka:
Quick recovery from the tsunami (people don't dwell on suffering). Bhante contrasted the acceptance of the tsunami disaster by the Buddhist island of Sri Lanka and the quick recovery efforts made there, even though there was utter devastation and massive loss of life, with the slow recovery and mental suffering of some parts of the United States hit by hurricanes in which the loss was mostly to property, with much less loss of life. We tend to be spoiled here because of our prosperity but also because of our attachment to having made it, the material world, rather than seeing the transitory nature of things, including life itself.
Vesak is celebrated for a week throughout the country. Liquor stores close; many people offer free food at roadsides. There is an appreciation of life itself through the celebration of this holiday, with much visiting and enjoyment of the company of friends and visitors from other localities and abroad.
All year, there is no smoking out doors. They passed a law prohibiting smoking outdoors in public places in order to discourage people from this ruinous drug addiction. Cigarettes are a legacy of drugs that were imported into the third world countries, such as opium in China, and even today, the smoking rates are much greater in poor countries. Education increases healthful living and there is a need for such remedial public policy to protect the health of the people.
Bhante went on a forest retreat. There were lots of monkeys running around. There are two kinds of monkeys. Some people released cows and other animals, which then are protected from slaughter for their rest of their natural life. Buddhist discourage eating of meat because it is the taking of life. There is not the idea that all creatures are here just to serve us in some way.
Visited schools -- much more interest in meditation by young people. Buddhism is growing in popularity and even among lower caste Hindus. Buddhism is seen as a more egalitarian philosophy, and somewhat more rational, as it depends on logical thinking, the use of one's own mind rather than on traditional belief.
Diversity of climates. The northern part of Sri Lanka is very beautiful and has many forests. The climate is similar to Florida's near the coast, but it is much cooler at higher altitudes. One area is known as 'Little England'.
Possible foreign interference in the Tamil conflict. There is an uncontrolled border in the north of the Island and a history of religious division stemming from the legacy of colonialism;
Tom asked Bhante about the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism and castes.
Bhante said that Buddhists do not believe in a soul as in Hinduism and that Hinduism has many gods. Anyone can be worshiped as a god. There is a lot of variation in Hinduism as beliefs followed tradition and a caste system. Buddhism is more egalitarian, more of a reform of Hinduism, more abstract. There is only one core teaching in Buddhism even though customs may vary by country. It adapts better as a philosophy in different cultures because it is based on philosophy. In India cows and mice are sacred, and there are not many cats, because they eat the mice.
More Discussion of Buddhist Philosophy
Tom asked Bhante about the popularity of soul mates in the US and also about Gurus, as teachers. Where should one focus one's energy?
Bhante answered that Spiritual Friends are more important than 'Soul Mates' (getting along with a spouse/mate requires developing/understanding ourselves). Spiritual friends are important on our journey of awakening: both teachers/gurus, and others who are serious about it. Everyone is both a teacher and student. Bhante related a story of Buddha & Ananda, quoted here (from the Upaddha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya XLV.2)):
Buddhism is very diverse (particularly compared with Islam, where visits to Mecca expose many believers to similar ideas). People couldn't visit holy sites until recently. Different traditions developed in different areas (China, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc), but the Middle Way ties all types of Buddhism together.
The Four Noble Truths are called Noble because they not ordinary truths; they are eternal and universal.
The Three Great Principles of Buddhism are Sila (ethics, morality), Samadhi (meditation, concentration) and Prajna (wisdom, insight).
People must accept the Buddha's teachings on the basis of their own experience. Sila (morality) is based on people realizing that a behavior is not desirable -- not in their best interests. It is based on guidelines, rather than rules. Precepts evolve from particular events.
One reason that meditation is important is that it helps us train for dealing with events in our lives. By learning to be mindful, we can better decide what to do, and not be swept away by automatic reactions. For example, if someone is angry at us: if we react with anger, the fight just becomes worse; if we abandon anger, we can better find out the cause of the persons unhappiness, and maybe help find a solution.
Note that abandoning is not suppressing: in meditation, we observe thoughts and let them pass, we do not try to suppress them (which usually only reinforces them). Thus we practice not perpetuating unwholesome thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Buddhism rejects both aestheticism and hedonism. In some religions, some people believe that God wants us to suffer, and they then try to suffer more. Some other people try to suppress suffering by pursuit of selfish indulgences. In Buddhism, suffering is accepted as an inevitable part of life that can be dealt with (the third Noble Truth).