Assisi 2011: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Some folks asked if I got to see the Pope, shake his hand or kiss his ring.  Others asked if I got to speak at the conference and how everything went.  Here are some thoughts and reflections.

A few things about the conference was inspiring.  For one, the Pope in his speech declares that “As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith.  We acknowledge it with great shame. … “.  I thought this is an interesting acknowledgement on his part.  There will be naysayers … but oh well, there will always be.

The other thing is the sheer number of volunteers involved from various centres in Italy who are not directly from the Vatican or the Pontifical Council.  They did a great job making all the delegates feel welcome and at home!

Then there is the public.  They really went wild … in a good way! 😉 … they cheered, they clapped, they shook our hands, took our pictures … we felt like stars! hehe … I think it was partly because Italians are really warm, smiley and friendly people, and partly because some of the public were tourists. … have I mentioned that Italians are very warm, smiley and friendly?

the event, I did get to talk to some fellow delegates and priests from the Pontifical Council.  While the Pope’s message was encouraging, I shared some concerns with them.

Firstly, in practically every inter-faith dialogue, there is an unspoken (or perhaps spoken!) assumption that all religions believe in God(s).  I’ve shared at a few inter-faith dialogues that Buddhists do not have a belief in a (creator) God.  This is often to the temporary horror and shock of the participants and organisers.  Then I tell them that despite this, it does not make us Buddhists, their enemy nor they ours.  To me, whitewashing this fact or glossing over it will undermine inter-faith dialogues and cause our mutual understanding to remain superficial.

In the Pope’s message, “…the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence”.  Buddhism proves exactly the opposite while Atheists are protesting repeatedly online that lack of belief in God (or religion) does not necessarily make one immoral or violent.  Buddhism do not have a belief in creation or in God, but I think Buddhists has so far proven to be of the meeker lot.  While I can understand the Pope’s point of view as a Christian, inter-faith dialogue should recognise that religions include those without a belief in God and that peace is possible and has been attained through such religions as well.

A second point I raised to a fellow delegate is on proselytization or conversion.  While we gather as “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”, will we truly have peace and inter-faith harmony if conversion and evangelism is still around the corner?  While I know of many Christians (Catholics and Protestants alike) who are moderate and do not go around attacking other religions, there are many who do.  By remaining silent on the matter, they are unwittingly endorsing with their silence.  I know of some Buddhists who have lost faith in inter-faith dialogues because of this.  And can we blame them?  How can there be genuine trust and understanding if evangelical Christians continue to disparage and attack other religions (including Buddhism) while moderate Christians remain silent on this?  To have meaningful inter-faith dialogue, we need to address this.

The last interesting thing I want to share is my encounters with people in this trip.  There are many whom I chat with, and at least four to five who through our conversation, professed their liking and affinity towards Buddhism even if they are Catholics.  What is most striking is their reason for doing so.  In their words, they like Buddhism because “it is a religion about Happiness and Love” whereas “Christianity (and Catholicism) is a religion of Sin and Repentance”.  This totally blew me away and I wondered how interesting that Westerners are having such a very positive outlook of Buddhism while Asians (or Singaporeans?) may have a slightly different view of it.  In fact, I felt obliged to defend for Christianity in one instance, especially when the Vatican security staff very openly shared this with me, in front of a Catholic nun.  I think I almost fainted!

Ironically before my Italy trip someone just told me how she has this notion that Buddhism is all about Sin and how there are hundred and one taboo, that every other thing one do is Sinful.  Makes me wonder where she got all those ideas from.  Bad marketing on Buddhism’s end?  *gasp*

Buddhism is a religion of Happiness and Love … what else can it be? 😉

Comments On An Article On The Kalama Sutta

A few weeks ago, Meng Haw wrote an article on the Kalama Sutta

He shared it with me and asked for my thoughts on it.  I finally dragged my bony fingers to pen a reply after handling a series of emergencies and releasing the two apps for Android and Apple devices (this message was brought to you by CGZX Labs – we code to bring you the Dharma).

Here are my thoughts on it.  🙂

Thanks for your thoughts and sharing on the Kalama sutta.

Inference is a powerful tool for a start and is often what we mostly use to begin with.  But mere logical reasoning and inference alone is insufficient.  That is I believe the point that the Buddha was trying to bring across.

Most of the other criteria listed is with reference to how people in those days (and perhaps even today) accept or reject a certain teaching or practice.  The Buddha’s point was how one can and should relate to a teaching or practice and consider it based on its tangible result rather than all the other reasonings, speculations, preconception of the teaching based on the messenger etc.

In my opinion, the Buddha was very utilitarian in his approach.  Choosing to look at the purposes and results as to whether it brings short and long term benefit to oneself and others, and not based on dogmatic doctrines.

It’s interesting that you mentioned about trusting and accepting the truth from the scientists.  I’ve mentioned in my talks about how today, the younger educated generation mostly accept whatever is pandered by folks in labcoats.  While I am not refuting scientific approaches nor its discoveries, I believe our acceptance is grounded in our 10 to 20 years of education that has drilled us into familiarity with modern science and accepting them.

While doing so is mostly ok, and in fact convenient for our daily life, it actually goes against the very principle of science.  We should accept the scientific findings with the openness that it can be disproved, or that it stands or holds true within certain known parameters, beyond which it fails.  The thing science has going for it is that for most intents and purposes, our daily encounter with science and technologies fall within the parameters and
boundaries of scientific discoveries and its applications.  So we are quite safe to assume that they are “truth” although a scientist would say “it is true within the following premise XYZ”.

I take a somewhat similar approach to Buddhism.

I like to ask the question “So what?”.  So what if all phenomena is permanent or impermanent?  So what if there is God or no God?  So what if there is self or no self, big or small self?  So what if there are aliens or not?  So what if we were created by God, aliens, evolved through evolution or born, driven by our karma?  So what?

I found that asking this question is many times, more meaningful than answering or discussing those preceding questions.  While those questions are intriguing, inviting and seductive, many times, it is the implications of the conclusions themselves that serves any purposes at all.

Whether a monkey was created by a God believed to exist or evolved from single-celled organism, the fact is, if you snatch the banana from a hungry monkey, you are in some deep monkey trouble!

The same applies to us human beings, whether we exist through our karma, created by aliens or God, or evolved to where we are, if our prized possessions are snatched from our grubbing little fingers, we fret and get upset or angry.  That much is true.


Sharings from An Atheist Who Was Once A Pastor, A Missionary and An Evangelist

Dear Friends, Below is a sharing from an atheist who was once a pastor, a missionary and an evangelist.

I am quite moved by the length at which he goes to really understand his religion and its teachings.  While I can only say that I read one over times, the English translation of the Pali Nikayas (Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara (anthologies) Nikaya and some of the available suttas in the Khuddaka Nikaya), with repeated readings of some suttas that I have special affinity to, he read all 66 books a total of TWENTY-SIX (26) times!  That is not to mention that of the Chinese Mahayana Tripitaka where I have mainly focused on sutras and sastras (commentaries) from the Prajna (Wisdom) sections 般若部 and Yoga (Cultivators1) sections 瑜伽部 (唯識) and spent more time learning certain sutras or commentaries as needed.

I am posting it here as there may be something we can glean from his personal journey.  How are we Buddhist equally dogmatic or not?  How are we cultivating and verifying the Dharma as the Buddha invited us to?  Or are we merely accepting everything while praying for the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to come do the change for us?

Many people ask why someone like me, who came from a Christian home, went to a Christian high school and then went on to spend five years in seminary and become a pastor, a missionary, and an evangelist, would turn his back on the God he spent a lifetime worshiping and serving and give up all faith in the supernatural. The answer is very simple, and I’m about to give it. First, however, let me tell you what the reason is not.

Most people, upon hearing my story, all unanimously decide regardless of their own spiritual beliefs or religious affiliations that I must be mad at God. They tell me I just had the wrong religion, or that I just needed to try their particular name-brand. It’s the one thing religious people of all stripes can actually agree on, and it isn’t even true.

I did, in fact, have a rough time in religion. My formative years of trial and tribulation didn’t weaken my faith in
the least. In fact, it was because of these troubles that I spent many nights on my knees praying that I might not be like “those other Christians,” and that God would show me the path to becoming his choice servant. It was because of this that I began to take my studies of the Judeo-Christian god very seriously, and it was this in-depth study and reflection that led to my current state of unbelief.

Let me share with you the ten main reasons I found that reflect why I went from a Fundamental, Independent Baptist minister to an ardent Atheist.

Debaptism in UK or Is It Ok for A Buddhist to Attend Church Service

When I was a teenager, I’ve heard of how Buddhist parents were afraid when their children get drawn to attend church services because if their child should get baptised, then it is a one
way path, and their children in future, could not or would not pay respects to them, or remember and honour them with an ancestral tablet either in the temple or at home.

I myself went to, let me see, three or four services when I was a student in JC and in NTU.  The first1 when I was in NTU was through the invitation of my then girlfriend who was a Christian Catholic (I was a lay person back then!).  Actually, she was not quite my girlfriend yet but we were more or less headed in that direction.  I was not about to jeopardise my prospects with her.  My mom had a very different idea.

When she saw me wake up early (7+8am or so) on a Sunday morning, her mommy-spidey senses alarms went off faster than you can finish reading this line!  She grilled me on where I was going and basically charged me with LIM (Clan of the Forest) Family Penal Offence #348 Section 28A Clause 132, “… wherein a member of the family shall make an attempt to enter the premise of a church for the purpose of attending a service, either intentionally, unintentionally, wilfully, knowingly, or otherwise, with premeditation, in person or proxy, alone or with groups of two or more, such a member shall be … “, you get the idea. Read More …

Righting A Wrong: Faith & Atonement

There is an EIF dialogue session on Saturday, 23rd October 2010 and I was invited to participate.  Unfortunately, I am unable to attend the dialogue, so I decided to pen down my thoughts in relation to the suggested discussion points and share them with the participants and on this blog.

Faith & Atonement

I’ll go with the two definitions of atonement and move on from there:

1. Amends or reparations made for an injury or wrong;
2. Reconciliations or an instance of reconciliation between God and humanity.

When I first read it, I zoomed into the part of reconciliation between God and humanity.
Throughout history, humans have worshipped and prayed to multitudes of God(s). However, Buddhist do not have a belief in creator God(s). Hence, there is no concept to receive reconciliation between God and humanity. Some may posit that Buddhists merely replace “God” with “Buddha” and draw arbitrary delineations to differentiate themselves. Consequently, some think that Buddhists worship Buddha and seek forgiveness from him, in order to not incur his wrath. In fact, it cannot be further from the truth.

We may perhaps first examine how wrong or injury can occur. It can occur if say, harm or injury were inflicted or it could occur if certain rules are broken. Many times, the two coincide, other times, they diverge.

eg, it is illegal to park along the road at certain hours or not at all. No one may be harmed in a sense, but a breach of the law has occurred.

Another example I like to share is wearing of seat belts. Some people dislike seat belts and wear them only when absolutely needed, and takes them off whenever they can. As some say in Singapore (or worldwide?), “just don’t get caught”. The funny thing about this rule is that, even if you don’t get caught by the traffic police, getting caught in an accident would result in harm nonetheless.

So we can see that sometimes rules and harm coincide and sometimes don’t.

In Buddhism, if you harmed someone, the best thing to do is to seek forgiveness from the person or group we harmed. We have a joke about asking Buddha for forgiveness after slapping someone. Nope, not gonna work. Apologising to the person involved is the most
direct way of atonement and of gaining closure on the matter.

In the case of a breach of Buddhist precepts, it is not a breach against the Buddha, but against ourselves. Consequently, Buddhists in a way do not really apologise to the Buddha. Let’s take a look at Buddhist precepts to understand better.

Buddhist precepts are training rules taken up voluntarily to help us change and become better. It is like a person with high blood pressure prescribed a ‘precept’ of not taking too much salt and oil. If he take a lot of salt and oil, would the doctor be angry? Would he need to apologise to the doctor? I think the doctor would not be angry (ok, some may!), but may feel sorry for the patient, for the patient is the one who is being harmed, and not the doctor. Out of compassion, the doctor may rebuke him and suggest for ways that the patient may adopt a healthier diet, but in the end, it is still up to the patient to adopt the diet, and to follow through with it.

So when Buddhist did something against the precepts, they are really doing something against themselves and others (where their actions also harm others), and not the Buddha. Just like the doctor in the above analogy, the Buddha do not get angry with people for doing wrong things. Instead, He feels compassion for us, for He sees clearly the harm that we do to ourselves and others by breaching the precepts.

Hence ‘atonement’ is not so much an apology or seeking reconciliation from the Buddha, but ‘atonement’ refers more towards the steps we take to right the wrong.
This consist of (1) confession 忏, (2) repentance 悔 and (3) aspiration 发愿. (Some communities may develop this further and hence be more comprehensive).

In Buddhism, if we do some wrong, the first step is to (1) confess the deed, (2) recognise that our deed was (2a) harmful, was wrong, ignoble, blame-worthy, unworthy, and hence, should be (2b) abandoned, removed, eradicated etc. We should, having recognised the wrong, then (3) make a firm resolve not to repeat it. But easier said than done. So, within the Buddhist text, there are very comprehensive teachings, outlining how the human psyche ticks and what triggering factors lead to others that inclines towards harmful actions that are driven by greed, anger and delusion.

Follow-up Steps
We then (1) practise distancing from triggering factors while (2) applying reflections, contemplations and other practices that transform our perception of the triggering factors so that future contact with it do not lead to the same actions. Meanwhile, we also (3) strengthen mindfulness so that if (1) fails and we encounter the trigger before we have mastered (2), then mindfulness can kick in and prevent a repeat of our earlier actions. (4) Applying proper attention is also most useful while we distant ourselves. Why preoccupy ourselves with something that upsets us?

In modern day Buddhism, repentance puja (chants) are recited as part of a devotional practice that encompasses the above steps. These may be done infront of the Buddha’s image as a reminder of our spiritual direction, towards this state of perfection, Nirvana, that is humanly possible and attained by the Buddha, the Arahants and Enlightened Bodhisattvas. Where possible, confession and repentance is also done with one’s guidance teacher who knows our habits, both good and bad, and knows our tendencies and inclinations. In this way, done methodologically, it can lighten the emotional burden of wrong, while developing the mind so that we can practise restrain and not repeat our mistakes again and again.

These steps leading to an eradication of harmful actions is the full ‘atonement’ of that wrong, a full purification of that wrong.

Good news is that while difficult, it is humanly possible.

Happy thoughts! ^_^