Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.
Ladakh Celebrates Split from Kashmir
This past week India passed a bill that officially revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status as an autonomous region, dividing the territory into two states: Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir. Despite outcry from citizens in Kashmir and bordering Pakistan, the decision to repeal what was known as Article 370 in the Indian constitution was met with celebration by some officials in the primarily Buddhist region of Ladakh, who have long claimed that the special status was Kashmir-centric. According to Reuters, the bill transforms Ladakh into a distinct district with its own administration, effectively granting the region a “fresh identity” as India’s first Buddhist-majority territory. “We are very happy that we are separated from Kashmir. Now we can be the owners of our own destiny,” said Tsering Samphel, a politician from the Congress party in Ladakh. He indicated that the region could finally step out of the shadow of Kashmir, a majority Muslim area. Citizens in Ladakh hope that the change will spur tourism and help the Indian government counter China’s influence in parts of the western Himalayas. While Ladakh’s economy has traditionally depended on agriculture, in recent years the number of tourists visiting the area’s ancient monasteries has increased. (Tricycle hosts an annual pilgrimage to Ladakh.) Bordering Tibet, Ladakh is a highly mountainous area that spans about 59,146 square kilometers.
Billionaire Says Dalai Lama Inspired $100M Donation for Compassion Research Lab
Saying that he was inspired by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $100 million to the University of California San Diego to create a program to research the neurology behind empathy and compassion, according to a press release. Sanford said he came to the decision after meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2017, when the Tibetan leader gave a commencement speech at the school. “I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” Sanford said. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision.” The founder of First Premier Bank in South Dakota, Sanford has said he wants to “die broke” and vowed to give away all of his money before he dies. He had already donated more than $1 billion as of 2018 but still had enough left over to appear that year’s Forbes billionaires list, his net worth increasing to $2.6 billion from $2.2 billion in 2017.
Rare 2,000-year-old Buddhist Scroll Images Now Public
The Library of Congress recently made public a rare 2,000-year-old scroll from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to CNN, the manuscript retains nearly 80 percent of the original text and has been in the hands of the Library of Congress since 2003, when it was purchased from a private collector. One of the most fragile pieces that the Library of Congress has ever worked on, it took specialists several years to devise a treatment strategy. (They even practiced unrolling techniques on dried-up cigars.) Yet the treatment of the text would not have been possible without the unique means by which ancient Buddhists preserved and worshipped the text in the first place. Gandharan scrolls like this one “were typically buried in terra cotta jars and interred in a stupa, a dome-shaped structure often containing Buddhist texts or relics,” said Jonathan Loar, reference librarian in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress. “Another reason is that the relatively high, arid climate of the Gandharan region helps preserve materials like manuscripts on birch bark.” The scroll offers a glimpse in early Buddhist history. Told from the perspective of Shakyamuni Buddha, the text offers short biographies of the 13 buddhas who came before him, information about his own birth and transformation into Shakyamuni, and a prediction of the future buddha Maitreya. The biographies contain details about the buddhas’ lifespans, the eons in which they lived, the social class they were born into, and some description of their assemblies of disciples and the duration of their teachings. Since the scroll’s fragility renders it unfit for public display, the Library of Congress has shared images of manuscript online.
Submerged Thai Temple Reappears During Record Drought
A Thai Buddhist temple has resurfaced after being submerged when a nearby dam was erected 20 years ago, Reuters reports. A drought has dried up the reservoir in Lopburi, Thailand, where the Wat Nong Bua Yai temple is, and now monks and other tourists are flocking to the site to catch a glimpse before it ends up underwater again. A Reuters video (below) shows visitors exploring the ruins, placing flowers, and offering prayers. However, the temple’s resurfacing comes at a high cost. Thai meteorological authorities say that this is the country’s worst drought in a decade, and for the most hard-hit regions, the worst in 50 years, according to Live Science. Wat Nong Bua Yai also reappeared during a drought in 2015, but this year’s drought is more severe, with the reservoir at only 3 percent capacity. Farmers have been struggling as a result. Rice in particular has taken a hit as rainfall in the main growing regions was 12 percent below average this year. Thailand is the second largest exporter of rice, and industry officials, who have already lowered their yield estimates, believe they will need to further adjust their projections, according to the Japanese newspaper Nikkei.
Monks Save Forests in Cambodia
While it may seem that each new climate report delivers more and more messages of urgency or despair, sometimes there is actually good news. Reuters recently reported that the Monk’s Community Forest, comprised of about 71 square miles of sprawling forest in northwest Cambodia, is the largest community-managed forest site in the Southeast Asian nation. This same stretch of land was once a bloody battlefield in the 1970s during the political struggles of the Khmer Rouge. Now it is heralded as a model for conservation in a nation with one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world. Established in 2002 by the Cambodian monk Bun Saluth, the Monk’s Community Forest is now managed by about a dozen monastics. One monk, Khoeum Saray, said that in addition to his religious duties of prayer, meditation, and alms, he patrols the forest and educates people about conservation. “Earlier, the villagers were cutting down trees and encroaching on forest land. Gradually, we made them understand the importance of protecting the forest—for the environment and for themselves. . . As monks, we are not interested in making money, so people trust us, and we can spread the word widely,” he said. According to Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology, using religion as a means to spread messages of conservation is one of the most effective models worldwide. Some 95 percent of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism, and monks play large roles education, social ceremonies, politics, and peace-building.
Religious Imposters Push Gift Card Scam
Scammers have been posing as religious leaders online to solicit donations via gift cards, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns. Most often, the scammers will reach out through email using the name of a local pastor, rabbi, priest, or imam and an email address that at first glance appears similar to the church or temple’s address. They will send out an appeal for contributions and request that parishioners send the money by purchasing a gift card and emailing them the card and PIN number. Grifters increasingly have been asking for gift cards because unlike other payment options, there is no way to cancel the transfer or get the cash back. The FTC report did not specify if Buddhists have been among the religious groups targeted.
Buddhists Drive Blood and Organ Donation in Vietnam
Over 500 Buddhist monks, nuns, and followers recently registered for blood donation, while at least 150 have signed up to be organ donors, according to reporting by news site Vietnam+. On August 4, the Vietnam Buddhist Academy (VBA), a university established for the education of monks and nuns, hosted a donation festival at its Hanoi campus, partnering with the Vietnam Red Cross Society (VRC) and the Vietnam National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion. Vietnam is seeing a high demand for organ transplantation, and fortunately, the number of willing donors has also skyrocketed in recent years, in part due to the eager participation of Buddhist followers. In the past, raising awareness about organ donation was a challenge in Vietnam, due to a widespread belief that people need all their body parts for the afterlife and concern about the families of donors selling organs for money. However, as of July 2019, more than 25,000 people have become registered organ donors. From now on, blood and organ donation will be part of the academy’s regular activities, according to Ven. Thich Thanh Quyet, head of the VBA and the vice chairman of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS), the only sangha officially recognized by the Vietnamese government. Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binhm, who was in attendance, suggested that the country’s health ministry roll out the program at “all Buddhist facilities nationwide.”
Climber: Buddha-Image Grip Is No Laughing Matter
A company that makes holds for indoor rock-climbing walls stirred up controversy with its Laughing Buddha design, Outside magazine reports. One climber of Indian descent complained to the manufacturer, eGrips, about the depiction of the bodhisattva Budai. “If there was a crucifix up, it would be weird. I couldn’t step on anything that’s sacred to anyone,” she told Outside. But the company responded to the complaint by saying that they thought the hold was respectful and would continue to sell it. The magazine contacted Chris Klinke, president of eGrips, who defended the decision. “You’re assuming my religion isn’t Buddhism,” said Klinke, who is not Buddhist but told Outside that he formed a deep respect for the religion during climbing trips in the Himalayas. Klinke added that the hold’s designer has been “practicing Buddhism in Boulder, Colorado, for ‘several years,’” the article said.