Twenty-four Thai commandos are currently protecting 289 kg of gold at Bodhgaya—the site of the Buddha’s awakening. Yes, that’s happening—right now. This is not a scene from a Buddhist version of James Bond or—better yet—the rumored, much-anticipated National Treasure 3. No, the Thai King and a group of his countrymen have donated 660 lbs of gold for a newly rebuilt dome at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bihar, India. The renovation will take approximately 40 to 50 days, so Thai security specialists will spend the next several weeks guarding 13 boxes of the precious material, which they hid throughout the temple premises.
Some prominent Buddhists have looked beyond the story’s secret-agent intrigue, however, and expressed frustration with what they deem a display of extreme opulence—an especially ironic one, they add, considering its vicinity to the exact location where the Buddha renounced emotional states like greed and envy. Thubten Samdup, author and Representative of the Dalai Lama in Northern Europe, speculated about the likely disapproval of His Holiness:
[The Dalai Lama] said [for] those of us who are spiritual leaders, it’s not enough to pray in our houses of prayer, we have to act, that’s more important. He made very clear his feelings that we’re too hung up on rituals and he does not see that as very important. It’s very nice of the King of Thailand to give $14 million in gold. But knowing what I know about [the Dalai Lama], that’s not important because it’s not going to help anyone.
We will probably never know what the Dalai Lama actually thinks, as His Holiness will almost certainly not speak on the issue. Imagine the headline: “Rare Frown From Dalai Lama Over Gold.” But the point is not what one religious leader thinks of the latest temple-beautifying project. This uproar marks a deep split in modern Buddhism between ritual and veneration on the one hand, and meditation and social engagement on the other. And, before we mock the crass materialism associated with the former camp, we best heed the mantra of Tricycle-featured scholar David McMahan: context, context, context.
Traditional prayer to and glorification of the Buddha may sound off-key to the Western ear, but it has resonated meaningfully to Southeast Asian practitioners for generations. While our American brand of Buddhism focuses on individual engagement with mind or ethics, we should restrain our impulse to righteously criticize Buddhism’s social and cultural functions—especially as they play out thousands of miles away. Where there is space for constructive dialogue, though, we should have at it.
Buddhists Join Hunger Strike
Ten days ago, Yeb Sano—the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines—began a hunger strike in protest of stalled talks at the UN Climate Change conference in Warsaw, Poland. The hunger strike followed Sano’s tearful address to the conference, during which he recounted the search for his brother in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Scientists have asserted that climate change exacerbates the severity of a variety of weather phenomena, though they cannot determine how it affects any particular case.
In solidarity with Sano and other developing nations, an interfaith religious group joined the hunger strike. The group, called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, includes Buddhist temples and practitioners throughout Connecticut. In a letter addressed to Sano, the Eco-Justice Network pledged to “voluntarily tak[e] part in fasting as prayerful and reflective witness to the current negotiations.” Though the UN Climate Change conference seems a lamentable example of corporate power on a global scale, we can draw inspiration from Sano and other fellow Buddhists who have brought attention to the issue’s urgency.
A Sit Down or a Stand-Up?
Amid this news of climate change, typhoons, and Buddhist infighting, we shan’t forget to laugh every now and again. Thankfully, we have Wes Nisker. A longtime San Francisco radio personality and author, Nisker has taught for many years at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center. In 2003, he also proclaimed himself—to a New York Times journalist, no less—the first ever Buddhist stand-up comedian. (It seems like the Buddha had some riffs every now and again, but I hate to quibble.) Barring time travel back to an ancient Indian open-mic, we’re stuck with this Wes Nisker rendition of the Buddhist blues (below). You’ll never think about (or giggle at) the First Noble Truth in quite the same way.
—Max Zahn, Editorial Intern
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