In Memoriam: Trevor Leggett

Courtesy the Trevor Leggett Trust.
Courtesy the Trevor Leggett Trust.

Trevor Leggett (1914-2000), the prolific Zen author, died on August 1 in London. Leggett was, by all accounts, a man of considerable talents and extensive interests. He was a law graduate, an accomplished pianist, a fluent Japanese speaker, a Sanskrit scholar, and the author of more than thirty books, including many widely acclaimed books on Zen Buddhism, such as A First Zen Reader (Tuttle) and Zen and the Ways (Tuttle).

 

Leggett dedicated much of his life to furthering the teachings of Adhyatma Yoga, which he studied for almost twenty years, and to Buddhism, particularly the Zen tradition. Leggett’s interest in Zen developed during several visits to Japan in the 1930s and while interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. In 1964, he underwent six months of training at Eihei-ji and Daitoku-ji, the main temples of the Soto and Rinzai sects of Japanese Zen.

Leggett worked as the head of the Japanese service of the BBC from 1946-1970. Thereafter he continued to give voice to his spiritual interests through books, essays, lectures, and, in later years, his own website. He remained a student of Japanese and Sanskrit until his eyesight failed him, and he spoke to Buddhist groups until this year. His last lecture was at the Buddhist Society in London in June. Leggett died a month shy of his eighty-sixth birthday.

Panchen Lama Lives?

According to a Chinese state media announcement made in mid-September, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy selected by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, is alive and well. The boy and his family “are in a quiet living environment that enables them to avoid outside interference,” the Xinhua news agency said, citing Raidi, deputy secretary of the Communist Party’s Tibet Committee. “As far as I know, he is now an elementary school student,” Raidi told Chinese and Taiwanese reporters. “He is clever and has gained some academic progress.”

The Dalai Lama formally recognized Choekyi Nyima as the Eleventh Panchen Lama, the second most important religious figure in Tibet, in 1995. Almost immediately, Chinese authorities detained the boy, then six years old, and his family. Several months later they installed their own selection as the Panchen Lama. In the five years since Choekyi Nyima was arrested, no one outside of the Chinese government has laid eyes him, and Chinese officials have repeatedly denied requests for access. During a visit to Tibet in September 1998, Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, failed to obtain any information on the whereabouts or status of the boy. In November 1999, rumors began to emerge that Choekyi Nyima had died in a Gansu prison. The news broke on the website of the China Freedom News Association, which reported that the body of a “major criminal” had been transported from Lanzhou No. 1 prison to a crematorium. Witnesses allegedly identified the body as that of a small child.

 

Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress protest China's policy on the Panchen Lama, New Delhi, India, 1999. AP/Wide World Photos.
Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress protest China’s policy on the Panchen Lama, New Delhi, India, 1999. AP/Wide World Photos.

The latest statement regarding Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the first to be issued in several years, has been met with skepticism by Tibetan groups and human rights organizations. Asked by Tricycle for comment, Thubten Saphel, Secretary of Information in the Central Tibetan Administration, issued the following response: “We are happy to know that the young Panchen Lama is clever and has made some academic progress. But what proof do we have at all that he is alive except the annual assurances by the Chinese representative in Geneva, where the case of the young Panchen Lama comes up every year at the U.N. convention on the rights of the child? In fact, there were unconfirmed reports last year that the young Panchen Lama died and was buried or cremated in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. We ask of China: Show the real Panchen Lama to the world and to the Tibetan people.”

Red Dharma

The Mongolian parliament’s election of Nambariin Enkhbayar as prime minister in late July signified an unexpected shift in the country’s Buddhist fortunes. Enkhbayar’s Communist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) had ruled Mongolia for more than seven decades under Soviet patronage. It was this Communist government that orchestrated the near-complete destruction of Buddhism in Mongolia. In 1937, the brutal Communist dictator Khorloin Choibalsan launched a purge in which 17,000 of the country’s 110,000 Buddhist monks were executed and most of the country’s almost 700 monasteries were destroyed. It was not until Mongolians overthrew their hard-line Communist leaders in 1990 and declared a democracy that the repression of Buddhism was lifted. In the ten years since then, Buddhism has begun a cautious revival. Numerous monasteries and temples have been constructed or rebuilt, and the monastic ranks are beginning to find new recruits.

Mongolia's new Buddhist-friendly prime minister, Nambariin Enkhbayar, at a pre-election rally. AP/Wide World Photos.
Mongolia’s new Buddhist-friendly prime minister, Nambariin Enkhbayar, at a pre-election rally. AP/Wide World Photos.

Given the history of the last seventy years, it might seem unlikely that Mongolian Buddhists would support the return of the former Communist Party to power. However, the charismatic forty-two-year-old Enkhbayar, the former Minister of Culture, has patterned both his campaign and his policies after those of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Under his direction, the MPRP has put forward a new, progressive face. The cautious economic plan of slow privatization endorsed by the MPRP has resonated well among a Mongolian populace in which a third of the country lives below the poverty line. The MPRP won a sweeping seventy-two-seat majority in the national elections on July 2.

Erdenzuu Monastery in Karakorum, the largest functioning monastery in Mongolia, is in the process of being restored. Copyright Deborah Simon.
Erdenzuu Monastery in Karakorum, the largest functioning monastery in Mongolia, is in the process of being restored. Copyright Deborah Simon.

Importantly for Mongolian Buddhists, Enkhbayar is an overtly devout Buddhist. According to The Independent (London), Enkhbayar converted to Buddhism as a young Communist cadre studying in Moscow in the early 1980s. Given anti-Buddhist propaganda by his Communist educators, he claims to have become interested in the religion for the first time. Enkhbayar’s Buddhist background is extensive: He has created a cross-party Buddhist forum within the Mongolian parliament and maintains a close working relationship with Indian Ambassador Sri Kushok Bakula, who is a highly respected Buddhist lama among Mongolians. Enkhbayar was selected, along with the Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa, to represent Buddhist faiths at the recent World Faiths and Development Dialogues in London sponsored by the World Bank. He has pledged to continue to uphold the religious tolerance of democratic Mongolia and to support and strengthen the country’s traditional cultures. Such promises have been well received by Mongolian Buddhists attempting to revive their struggling faith.

Rocky Montain Monument

After thirteen years, the Great Stupa Project of the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center in Colorado is finally nearing completion. Construction on the project began soon after Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987. Trungpa Rinpoche, the beloved Tibetan teacher and founder of the international Shambhala community, had requested in his will that his remains be cremated and placed in a stupa to be built at the Center. The site for the stupa was chosen by the late Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, leader of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and confirmed by the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s primary teachers. According to Bob King, project manager of the Great Stupa Project, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche provided the initial instructions for construction of the stupa and gave the monument its name as well: “The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya Which Liberates Upon Seeing.”

 The Great Stupa at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. Courtesy Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center.
The Great Stupa at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. Courtesy Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center.

Organizers certainly did not expect the project to last thirteen years. King has suggested that several factors contributed to delays in the building process, including the difficulty of maintaining a labor crew made up of volunteers. In addition, the $1.7 million it took to fund the project was raised only gradually through the modest donations of several thousand contributors, and the construction season in the high-altitude Red Feather Lakes region of Colorado is relatively short, limiting the work to the few warm months of each year. Above all, the project has been marked by a single-minded pursuit of perfection and attention to detail.

“Originally, when the project got under way,” said King, “we thought it would take much less time to build. But the project gradually expanded in terms of elaborateness and artistic perfection. The stupa was built with the idea that it should last for 1,000 years, that it should be as good as it possibly can be. We wanted it to stand as one of the best examples of sacred monument in the world. So the project expanded in scope and duration. Everything, right down to the concrete of the structure, was built with the idea of longevity in mind.”

At 108 feet in height, the Great Stupa is now the tallest Buddhist monument in North America. Project engineers have committed to a consecration date at the end of August in 2001 and are racing to finish the remaining interior artwork in time. The consecration process will include a ten-day retreat that will conclude with a final consecration ceremony on August 18, an event which is expected to draw several thousand people.

Persecution of the Hoa Hao

Even in the midst of what is being called the worst flooding of Vietnam’s Mekong River in decades, several thousand followers of the sect known as Hoa Hao Buddhism made their way through floodwaters to protest the trial on September 26 of six compatriots accused of “abusing democracy.” The BBC reports that the six had been arrested “after writing to the Vietnamese government denouncing provincial officials for alleged abuses of power.” The Hoa Hao has been, according to the South China Morning Post, “one of the most suppressed of all Vietnam’s official religions.”

Huynh Phu So (1919-1947), founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism. Courtesy Tsu Chi Foundation.
Huynh Phu So (1919-1947), founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism. Courtesy Tsu Chi Foundation.

Founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So, Hoa Hao is a Buddhism based on the Pure Land School, but containing elements of Confucianism and Taoism, a blend particularly suited to the needs of Vietnamese agrarian society. Followers are currently estimated to number four million and are concentrated in the so-called “Rice Basket” of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta. The sect is oriented toward lay practice, as many of its original followers were farmers, and its founder emphasized practice in the home, stripped of excessive ritual. He instructed that “No Buddha statues, bells or gongs may be displayed on the altar. Only a piece of brown cloth symbolizing human harmony and the color of Buddhism should be used.” A political as well as a religious leader, Huynh Phu So angered first the French colonial authorities, who placed him under arrest in a mental hospital, and then the Communist Viet Minh, who executed him in 1947.

The sect’s current spiritual leader, Elder Le Quang Liem, eighty-one, asserts that conditions for Hoa Hao followers have only been deteriorating in recent years. Mr. Liem himself has been under particularly harsh scrutiny since February, when he publicly announced the full restoration of the Central Hoa Hao Buddhist Association, a group banned by Communist leaders in 1975. Supporters claim that he is under 24-hour surveillance, with phone lines cut.

The Hanoi government has been criticized internationally for its suppression of religious freedom.

The Wheel

  • The craze for those nifty folding scooters has got some parents concerned about safety. But Margery Eagan, a columnist for the Boston Herald turned up a father who thinks we’re coddling our kids. He warns that we’re raising “a nation of baby Buddhas,” locking kids away the way Buddha Shakyamuni’s father did, making sure they never see suffering. He adds ominously that “one day the kid gets outside the castle, sees all this misery, and rejects his father completely.”
  • Courtesy University of Washington Press.
    Courtesy University of Washington Press.
    Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the Taiwanese Buddhist nun known as “Mother Teresa of Asia,” is being honored in Los Angeles this fall with the Noel Foundation’s Life Award for humanitarian service. Previous recipients include Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and Margaret Thatcher. Master Cheng Yen is not well known in English-speaking countries, but has over four million followers. Her Tzu Chi Foundation, founded in 1966, provides disaster relief, helps build hospitals and colleges, and assists in developing educational and cultural programs.
  • The site of a 16th century hall that had once housed a 62-foot Buddha has been discovered on the former grounds of a temple in Kyoto, officials of a municipal archaeological research institute have announced. Before the discovery of this site, it was only possible to estimate the height of the statue from a painting dating back to the Edo period (1603�1868). The statue is estimated to have stood about 13 feet higher than the famous gilded bronze Buddha standing today in Kyoto’s Todai-ji.
  • Sadhu!, a web directory of Theravada Buddhist links, has launched what they’re calling the Net’s first Buddhist radio station, Sadhu! Radio. A recent peek at the playlist turned up such track titles as “Dawn of Dhamma,” “Right Mindedness,” and “Aggo Kamasmi Lokassa.” If you are looking for an alternative to the Top Forty, you’ll find the station at live365.com listed under “religious/other.”
  • After holding them for more than a month, Beijing finally agreed, at the end of September, to release 16,000 copies of the book The Clinton Years (Callaway Editions)—a book picturing President Clinton with H.H. the Dalai Lama. The books were seized by customs after being sent by a Hong Kong printer to be bound in southern China. The book’s U.S. publisher was told by a Chinese embassy representative that it was the policy of the Chinese government to control the “political content” of printed materials. The seizure of the book has alarmed U.S. publishers and printers, who rely heavily on Hong Kong and southern China as a major production center for illustrated books. The impact of the decision on the Chinese book industry is not yet known.

The team of scholars who began the project of deciphering and translating the text of the Gandharan scrolls—the ancient birch bark manuscripts considered to be the earliest written testimony of the original words of the Buddha—have been moving forward at a rapid pace. Starting this fall they’re planning to publish four volumes to succeed last summer’s Ancient Buddhist Scrolls of Gandhara (University of Washington Press) at the rate of one every six months. Their secret? They’re using Adobe Photoshop, the same software in use by most magazines and newspapers today (including Tricycle), to isolate fragments of text, eliminating the need to handle the fragile manuscript itself.

Part of the inscription of the pot that contained the Gandharan scrolls, ancient birch bark manuscripts considered to be the earliest written testimony of the original words of the Buddha. Courtesy University of Washington Press.
Part of the inscription of the pot that contained the Gandharan scrolls, ancient birch bark manuscripts considered to be the earliest written testimony of the original words of the Buddha. Courtesy University of Washington Press.
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