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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Sri Lankan Pastor Closes Church After Intimidation from Buddhist Monks

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Sri Lankan Pastor Forced to Close Church After Threats from Buddhist Monks 

After facing threats and intimidation from Buddhist monks, a Christian pastor in Sri Lanka was forced to close his ministry. According to the Christian Post, the pastor, referred to as “Daniel” to protect his identity, shut down his church after being detained by police and threatened by Buddhist monks. On October 18, police arrived at Daniel’s home in Bakamuna, a town in Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa district, the Barnabas Fund, a Christian aid agency, reported. The police immediately ordered Daniel to report to the police station, where he was taken to an office packed with Buddhist monks. Daniel had received similar threats in the past, but this time was different, he said. The monks, Daniel said, showed him that they had acquired a list of people who attended his church and demanded that he close his ministry. 

“In recent years, we’ve seen a steady increase in mobs orchestrated by Buddhist extremists. . . These mobs especially target Christian converts from Buddhism,” Storm Hendrik, Barnabas Fund’s international CEO, told the Post. Christians make up 8 percent of the nation’s population, and face persecution from both the nation’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, according to Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors. Some of the persecution is rooted in nationalism, Hendrik said, as many Sri Lankans see conversion to Christianity as a betrayal of their nation’s heritage: “They’ve become Christian; their allegiance is now with Christ,” he told the Post. “They are seen as rejecting that which everyone else holds to.”

Paintings Discovered in Buddhist Temple May Be 1,300 Years Old

Researchers recently discovered that paintings of bodhisattvas on pillars in the Saimyoji temple in Kora, Japan, may date back more than 1,300 years, Smithsonian Magazine reported. The paintings were originally thought to be from the Heian era (794–1185 CE), but art historian Noriaki Ajima of Hiroshima University said that the depictions of the bodhisattvas’ inner ears, palm creases, and clothing suggest that the works are most likely from the later part of the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 to 794 CE. If the new estimations are correct, the paintings are the second-oldest known paintings in Japan. 

Monks in Cambodia Help Families After Devastating Floods

Cambodia, which has already been struggling economically from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been experiencing heavy rains and flooding caused by intense tropical storms. As of October 21, about 156,137 homes were reported to have been damaged; flooding has also unearthed mines and other military weapons and destroyed farmland, Buddhistdoor Global reported. 

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Finding Power in Peril

For Celts living 2,000 years ago, the days between the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of a cold, dark, and often-deadly winter were a time when the boundaries between worlds thinned, allowing hostile spirits to slip through and wreak havoc upon the living. To placate the dead, Celtic priests built sacrificial fires and wore costumes made from animal heads and hides as part of the festival of Samhain, which eventually evolved into Halloween. Although this holiday is now more associated with trick-or-treating and jack-o’-lanterns, even skeptics will admit that part of its lore still rings true. We all have experienced moments when the darker parts of our emotional and spiritual life bleed into the everyday. 

Buddhist mythology emerged independently of Samhain and Halloween but it reflects the same impulse to tame the threatening aspects of our experience. In Buddhist folklore, supernatural beings are believed to haunt forests, mountains, cemeteries, and other liminal spaces between life and death. Our fear of the unknown is made manifest in these spirits who dwell in hallowed grounds, and our desire to channel their benevolent side is associated with Buddhist practices that can bring us closer to coexisting with the things that haunt us. Approaching images of protector deities from an art-historical perspective, as I do, can be a creative, intimate process that lends insight into their multifaceted nature and our own. Learning more about the role these unsettling figures play in Buddhist literature, art, and ritual practices can point to neglected aspects of our being. At the very least, this fearsome pantheon may rouse us into recognizing the macabre and insidious creatures lurking in our midst. 

One of the most wild and dangerous of these beings is Parnashavari, a feared pisaci [class of wrathful spirit] in Nepalese and Indo-Tibetan Buddhism infamous for her ability to cause disease and incite conflict. Hailing from humble Indic folk origins, the “Leaf-Clad Mountain Woman” was absorbed by later Tibetan traditions into the Vajrayana pantheon, where she enjoys elevated spiritual status as a manifestation of the female bodhisattva Tara

As with all wrathful deities, her powers go both ways—protection or destruction—which is why a substantial body of indigenous Tibetan literature is dedicated to ritual practices designed to invoke and propitiate her. Parnasavari’s dharani [short incantation] has circulated in India since as early as the 8th century, and it has remained an effective and popular rite of invocation for over a millennium. In light of the ongoing coronavirus, reciting her mantra has quite literally gone viral among today’s Tibetan Buddhist communities:

oṃ piśāci parṇaśavari sarvamāripraśamani svāha
Om hail to the pisaci Parnashavari who pacifies every pestilence!

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From “Just Culture” to a Just Culture

For the past three years, I have had the good fortune of living at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple and monastery in Hawaii founded and still led by Asian Americans. This is exceedingly rare in American Zen. For decades, Zen (but also Theravada and Tibetan) Buddhist institutions in the West have been handed down to younger generations of mostly white leaders by founders from Asia who didn’t fully understand racism in America and who may not have been aware of their own biases. Although Asian or “heritage” Buddhist temples and churches have existed in the West for more than 100 years, many convert Western Buddhists don’t know or dismiss the role they’ve played in the flourishing of Buddhism here. The faces of Asian teachers—whether Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Bhutanese, or Cambodian—rarely grace magazine pages or ads for teacher trainings. (This is all against the backdrop of the history of the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, who were often targeted because of their Buddhist beliefs.)

Even before the recent wave of protests against police brutality and for racial justice, more Buddhist teachers of color have been gaining prominence. They bring with them an honest reckoning with how racism shows up in and shapes their own sanghas, or communities. This is part of a broader effort on the part of many Buddhists to support a collective awakening around racial justice that is much needed and long overdue. Still, from where I sit, I see one area in our own house that calls out for attention: the erasure of Asian cultures, and of Asian and Asian American people, in mainstream Western Buddhism. There is no equivalency to be made here between Asian erasure in Western Buddhism and the murder of Black people in America. But confronting and learning about this erasure of Asian cultures is necessary in order for us to address the full spectrum of racism and white supremacy. Doing so will make it possible for us to truly wake up in the broadest political and Buddhist senses of the word.

As a Korean American Buddhist, now an ordained priest and monk at Chozen-ji, I am for the first time experiencing an authentic and lively Asian American cultural life—Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino, as well as Native Hawaiian—suffusing throughout a serious Buddhist training environment. Over the fifteen years before coming to Chozen-ji, I sat with more than a dozen different Buddhist communities where I was often the only Asian and sometimes one of the only non-white people in attendance. When non-Asian Buddhists (particularly at American Zen centers) wore Japanese clothes, bowed to me theatrically, referred to me as “Cristina-san”, responded to requests in English with “Hai!”, and expressed rigid attachment to the technical accuracy of certain Japanese and Buddhist forms, it looked more like cosplay than a means to enter Zen. These actions were, in retrospect, performative rather than being a way to sincerely throw away one’s small self through the embodiment of Japanese and Zen culture.

Today, in contrast, I feel a new comfort in my own skin, seeing myself reflected in the faces of a majority Asian local population wherever I go. In my time here, I have also learned a new way to approach Zen and Buddhism altogether. 

The Peace Bell at Chozen-ji

Seeing how Asian Americans in Hawaii and non-Asian locals approach Buddhism and sangha has truly transformed my Buddhist training. I have repeatedly been amazed by the local students who grew up in a majority-Asian state where Buddhism is the second most practiced religion. They show up to Chozen-ji ready to give first rather than receive—asking to pull weeds or clean bathrooms, for example, to earn the privilege of learning zazen (seated meditation). Right now, the fridge is bursting with homegrown papayas and avocados from dojo members who know we have monks to feed. Several days a week, one of our Zen priests comes to trim the grass for hours in the hot sun, his visage covered in grass clippings. We practically have to force him to get reimbursed for equipment repairs. A few months ago, a new student who had sat zazen with us only a few times made an unceremonious, unexpected, and very large donation—a gift reflecting his planned future attendance or perhaps just to express his appreciation.

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Dalits Convert to Buddhism After Rape of Dalit Woman

Over 200 members of India’s Dalit community converted to Buddhism after the brutal rape of a young Dalit woman, Sri Lankan monks oppose an amendment giving the president more power, and the Rubin Museum of Art plans a new space for emotional and social learning. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen JensenOct 24, 2020

Students and teachers at a school in Patiala, India, commemorate Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birthday in 2016. Ambedkar was a jurist, economist, politician, and social reformer who spearheaded the Dalit conversion movement. | Rajesh Sachar/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Dalits Convert to Buddhism After Rape of Dalit Woman 

As many as 236 people in the Indian Dalit community, the lowest group in the caste system, converted to Buddhism in the city of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, on October 14, Yahoo India News reported. For many Dalits, the decision to convert came after four upper-caste men allegedly abducted and raped a 19-year-old Dalit woman in the city of Hathras last month. The attack damaged the young woman’s spine, and she died two weeks later. “The Hathras incident was the tipping point for most of us,” a Buddhist convert who used the name Kamlesh said. “Converting to another religion is not an easy decision. It means leaving behind old rituals, but we are now tired.” Another Dalit community member, identified as Pawan, agreed. “We thought of converting in the past. . .but this incident shook us up—the way state machinery is grilling the victim’s family, the way she was cremated at 2:30 am without her family’s permission.” 

In order to escape persecution, Dalits, sometimes referred to as “untouchables,” have been converting to Buddhism en masse ever since activist and scholar B.R. Ambedkar spearheaded the movement in the early 20th century. The Dalits who converted last week did so in the presence of Rajratan Ambedkar, the great-grandnephew of Ambedkar. The conversion also took place on Dhammachakra Pravartan Day, which marks the 64th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion of approximately 600,000 followers. Four days later, fifty more Dalits converted in the region of Udupi, Karnataka, Yahoo India News said. Despite their new faith, Dalits still face obstacles in Indian society. 

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How to Survive Election Night and Beyond

Holy Buddha. . .it’s almost the election. There’s no doubt that there is a lot going on, so it’s natural to feel paralyzed or despondent. But we invite you to consider what you can do in this moment and the moments to come: vote, volunteer, and take care of yourself and others. At the very least, we encourage you to pause before refreshing the homepage of your most frequented newsite as the results roll in. 

To help you out, we’ve put together the following guide to keeping your head in the days before, during, and after the 2020 election. 

Preparing for Election Day:

You might be feeling powerless lately. But one thing that is within our control is the ability to vote. “True acceptance is not inertness,” writes meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “In my mind, voting is a direct reflection of the Buddha saying everyone has innate dignity, or innate worth.” In fact, voting may serve as an antidote to despair.

But first, make a plan to vote. Whether you decide to do early voting, complete a mail-in ballot, or vote in person, make a concrete plan and stick to it. To find out more about voting in your state, check out vote.org for more information.

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