Crying at a Buddhist Funeral

The room is a blurry haze; the bright orange of monastic robes saturate her vision and her feet seem to hover as she moves to an open chair. Her mind is distant and she can’t feel a thing but for a sensation of cold emptiness that presses against her chest, growing and growing, threatening to freeze her. She raises her eyes – they are heavy and wet with tears – but the faces of those around her are tranquil; at ease, as if someone has not just died.

*****

Having just finished a two week Vipassana meditation retreat in Burma, I was impressed by the calm, serene and balanced composure of the Sayadaws (teachers). I couldn’t help but wonder, would they cry at a funeral? What keeps equanimity from becoming indifference, or rather, isn’t equanimity indifference?

The mental state of upekkha, equanimity, is essential to attain enlightenment. It enables us to maintain mindfulness (sati) in every situation. We could be eating good food or tasteless food, experiencing immense pain or pleasure, cursed or praised, and upekkha will protect us from being carried away by these experiences. Nonattachment is unbroken in its presence, and Right View is affirmed as we recall that everything breaks down to nama-rupa, or mind-matter phenomena which arises and ceases in each moment. One technique I have come across to generate equanimity is to think of someone’s misfortune or fortune as the reaping of his or her kamma.

Wait. What does that really mean? If a bus is out of control and unable to steer itself away from an oblivious man, should we warn him? If we don’t, is it not because of his kamma that he will be killed and his own fault? This is simplistic, I know, but it gets to the point – if bad fortune is due to that person’s bad kamma, should we feel responsible to help those who are vulnerable? If so, where does that sense of responsibility come from?

In Sayadaw U Pandita’s book, “In This Very Life”, he writes “equanimity is not insensitivity, indifference or apathy. It is simply nonpreferential. Under its influence, one does not push aside the things one dislikes nor grasps at things one prefers. The mind rests in an attitude of balance and acceptance of things as they are.” If not insensitivity, then is equanimity sensitivity? If not indifference and apathy, is it caring? And finally, how can we be “nonpreferential” while exercising another of the sublime mental states (Brahmin Vihara) – compassion? To me, compassion (karuna) necessarily implies a preference, namely that I am unpleased with the current situation and wish to improve it.

In U Pandita’s discourse, he emphasizes the importance of cultivating compassion alongside wisdom, so action is be guided with precise aim to effectuate positive change. Compassion without wisdom can be extremely dangerous; we act with a desire to do good, but in fact cause more harm! We may justify the impact of our actions by proudly standing behind our intentions. But as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Clearly, compassion isn’t enough.

Wisdom (panna) and equanimity go hand-in-hand. One of the three characteristics of existence (tilakkhana) is anatta, or non-self. Anatta is a profound concept and definitions like “devoid of an inherent existence” can be misleadingly vague. I will not elaborate on anatta here, but I encourage you to see link below for an in-depth description. Instead, I’d like to point out the implication of anatta: we are not truly in control of ourselves or the world around us; we cannot stop aging, nor can we control the choices our loved ones make. Some things will not go as planned no matter how hard we try; inevitably yielding results that can be disappointing. And it is undeniable that the more we invest ourselves in effort, the more attached we can become to the result. Anatta reminds us the folly of such investment.

Understanding this aspect of anatta, equanimity is steadfast and strong. Actions are not influenced by attachments but guided by the clarity of wisdom. Neither “success” nor “failure” distracts us from our goal, allowing us to reassess and invest ourselves in the situation free from emotional antagonisms. Fortified by equanimity, compassion takes its noblest form: accurate, effective, and unquestionably selfless.

 

“What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula, online & free: https://sites.google.com/site/rahulawhatthebuddha/the-doctrine-of-no-soul

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Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise, Yangon, Burma

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four religions, one mission: peace

A Buddhist monk, Christian priest, Hindu priest and Muslim imam walked into the room… It sounds like the beginning of a cheesy joke, but these religious leaders were serious.

Forty religious leaders arrived at the Sarvodaya Trincomalee District Center to attend an inter-religious workshop. This workshop was part of a year and half project to bring together religious leaders from the Eastern provinces – Trincomalee, Padaviya, and Batticaloa – to learn about each other, build relationships and work together to achieve a brighter future. But Sarvodaya was not coordinating this project alone… USAID (“from the American people”) is providing the funds for this project while the Karuna Center in Massachusetts is co-facilitating it alongside Sarvodaya. The entire project’s duration is a year and a half, this workshop being the third one at the close of one year. In previous workshops, the leaders, eighty in total, established community projects that would bring together members of different faiths to unite around one goal, whether learning how to sew, speak English, or use the computer.

Participants of a sewing project in Padaviya receive certificates for completion of their training. This vocational project brought Sinhalese Buddhist and Christian women to sew side by side

 

Olivia, executive director of Karuna Center in the US, came to Sri Lanka to lead the workshop. Having worked in several countries and in various conflict contexts, she was very familiar with the post-war symptoms experienced by the Sri Lankans – distrust of the government and their ethnic neighbors, fear of the “other” (whether it be Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian) and, more significantly, uncertainty on how to proceed into the future. While her expertise allowed her to engage and address a variety of conflicts, Olivia’s international workshop model meant she was distant from this conflict. Some history cannot be understood by having a conversation or reading the news; they can only be understood through forming deep relationships with the locals and cultivating an awareness that is possible only with time and patience.

I remind myself that the goal here was not to attain such an understanding, but to teach the religious leaders certain tools which they can use in their communities. At this, the workshop was quite successful.

The bulky headsets used for translations appeared misplaced on the heads of these leaders. I don’t think the majority of them ever used a headset before.

The workshop contained many lessons. The leaders were taught the differences between dialogue (“a conversation that seeks understanding”) and debate (“an argument where one side wins, one side loses”). They were introduced to the Do No Harm model for peace and development. The model is founded on the principles of critical analysis and self-critique with the aim of determining the circumstantial outcomes of peace and development projects. The model presupposes a deep division in society that can be seen through identifying “connectors” and “dividers” between people. A project is then analyzed in terms of connectors and dividers to determine how a project may exacerbate dividers or increase connectors. The idea behind this entire analysis was, of course, to ensure the project utilized and maximized the connectors while avoiding increasing dividers.

This analytical process was foreign to the participants. They did not readily see the connectors and dividers between themselves, which meant they had difficulties determining how their community projects ‘fit’ in the broader scheme of establishing peace. But many did see their language as either a divider (between Sinhalese Buddhist and Hindu Tamils) or connector (between Muslims and Hindu Tamils). Thus, language education classes (Sinhalese-Tamil) were seen as advantageous, since they minimized the significance of their language divider.

Perhaps what impressed me most about this workshop is the degree to which the Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus became comfortable with one another. I was not here last year at the start of the program, but I was told that there was a tangible tension between members of the different faiths. Now – especially a day into the program – the participants were sitting together regardless of their faith, and I could see them laughing often and exchanging words freely.

While this workshop was a reflection of Sarvodaya’s interest in establishing peace, it strayed far from the spiritual and cultural approach of Sarvodaya. There was discussion on cultivating certain qualities, like the ability to listen to others and mediate disputes while maintaining neutrality. But spirituality was absent altogether, and so too were discussions around qualities like metta (loving-kindness), mudita (empathetic joy) and uppekkah (equanimity). It was a Western model imported to address a particularly Sri Lankan problem, the consequences of which are still unclear to me. But the foreign nature of the program was palpable to the naked eye, from the large logo of USAID and KARUNA CENTER to the bulky headsets the participants had to use.

As a matter of US State policy, Olivia options for lodging were restricted to the top-end hotels with nightly price-tags that exceed the cost of 200 Sri Lankan meals. Is such a foreign aid and development policy irrelevant to the project’s goal? Or, rather, does such a policy reflect the project’s more covert – unintentional I’m sure – agenda? The walls surrounding Olivia’s hotel “protect” her from Trincomalee. Elements of Sri Lanka seep into the establishment only after being carefully filtered and organized to please the wealthy guests. Excursions outside of the fortress are escorted and manicured in an attempt to conceal the awkwardness and confusion that arises when two cultures come together. The “power of the West” is locked to the Westerner, and she cannot untangle herself from it no matter where she goes. Exposure is thus controlled and a hierarchy of power imposed. I fear that moral equality, the idealistic precondition for genuine exchange and growth, was quarantined with the Western stamp of approval.

Participants of Session I of the Inter-religious cooperation workshop