The Pope: Part II

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In the Winter 1994 issue, Tricycle reported on the response of the Catholic Church to the rise of Buddhism in Italy. That article, based in part on “Why So Many Religions?”—an advance chapter of Pope Paul II’s new book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf)—represented the Pope’s views regarding non-Christian religions as being in alignment with those of the Second Vatican Council of 1962–66—in other words, moderate. 

Since that time, Crossing the Threshold of Hope has been published in its entirety, triggering protests by Sri Lankan Buddhists who have vowed to boycott the Pope’s visit there this January unless he offers a statement of withdrawal and an apology for the comments contained in the chapter “Buddha?”. In that chapter the Pope writes:

The Buddhist doctrine of salvation constitutes the central point, or rather the only point, of this system. Nevertheless, both the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusively negative soteriology [doctrine of salvation].

Another passage proclaims:

Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world.

In an effort to soothe tensions prior to his departure on an eleven-day trip across Asia, the Pope stated, “I happily take this opportunity to assure followers of the Buddhist religion of my profound respect and sincere esteem. I trust that my visit to Sri Lanka and to the other countries will help strengthen dialogue and understanding among religions and foster closer cooperation for peace and solidarity among peoples.”

The following day, Sri Lankan Catholic bishops reiterated their regrets for the “hurt caused by this publication to our Buddhist brethren,” and assured Sri Lankan Buddhists that “His Holiness will make every effort to assuage any apprehension that may have been caused, and reaffirm his deep respect and esteem for all that is good and valuable in all religions and especially for the major religions of Asia, during his visit.” However, Gallage Punyawardena, a spokesman for the Federation of Buddhist Organizations, said, “It is not enough. What we want is an apology and for the Pope to withdraw what he has written in his book.”

Tooth of Time

RANGOON, Jan. 11 (Reuters) – China has agreed to a request from Burma’s military government to allow another visit of a tooth of the Buddha, official newspapers reported Wednesday.

Chinese Premier Li Peng agreed to the request for a return of the 2,500-year-old relic in 1996 during his visit to Burma last month, the reports said.

Hundreds of thousands of Burmese Buddhists turned out to pay their respects to the tooth when it was carried throughout the country in an elaborate 45-day procession that began last April.

Donations of more than 180 million kyat ($29 million at the official exchange rate and $1.6 million at the black market rate) and thousands of pieces of jewelry were collected and will be used to build pagodas to house replicas of the tooth relic, the reports said.

The Burmese government gave $500,000 to China in return for the relic’s visit last year.

A Ministry of Religious Affairs official said the dates of the 1996 visit have yet to be decided.

Global Ordination

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On November 27, nearly five thousand people gathered at Saddhamma Pradeep, a Buddhist retreat center in India, to witness the ordination of fifteen men into the Western Buddhist Order (WBO). Founded in 1968 by the Venerable Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist ordained as a Theravadin monk in 1950, the order includes approximately seven hundred members worldwide. Included among those ordained were three Americans, eleven Indians, and one Australian.

The Indian branch of the WBO., Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha, developed among ex-untouchables, the most disadvantaged group in Indian society. Today that branch comprises one quarter of the membership of WBO, giving credence to the order’s claim to be “perhaps the first truly global Buddhist Order, one that includes, on an equal basis, both men and women, those who live a celibate monastic lifestyle and those who live with their family, as well as . . . rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and people from a couple of dozen different nationalities.”

Risking Peace

Tibetan Buddhist protesters are planning a march from India to Tibet. The Tibetan Peace March, which plans to leave New Delhi on March 10, will arrive in Lhasa after having traveled through Nepal. According to Lobsang Nyandak, General Secretary of the Tibetan Peace March Movement, “The peace march is being launched solely by the Tibetan people, and there is no support from the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.” March organizers maintain that the principles of nonviolence conceived by Mahatma Gandhi will be observed throughout the Tibetan Peace March, and that no laws are being challenged or broken. However, some sources suggest that the Indian government, whose ties with China have improved as of late, may find itself unwilling to allow the march if pressured by the Chinese government to prevent it.

Should the journey through India be successful, marchers will still need to persuade the Nepalese government to allow their passage through to Tibet. Now that the Communist Party controls the government of Nepal, the marchers may face additional difficulties there. Once in Tibet, they intend to highlight such issues as the massive transfer of Chinese population to Tibet, the destruction of the natural environment, and the imprisonment of anticommunist protesters.

While the Tibetan Peace March Movement has no official support from the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, Rinchen Dharlo of the Office of Tibet in New York City told Tricycle that Tibetans have organized similar protests in major cities around the world on March 10 as a gesture of solidarity.

Cyberlama

This month Alexander Besher’s Rim: A Novel of Virtual Reality will become the first work of fiction to be serialized on the Internet’s World Wide Network. Published by HarperCollins West, the novel will be serialized in four or five segments as part of a new on-line service, Hotwired, provided by the publisher in conjunction with Wired magazine.

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The novel, which takes place in the year 2027, portrays a world in which the line dividing reality and virtual reality has disappeared. Following the crash of Satori Corporation’s global interactive computer network, people become trapped in cyberspace and must be rescued by Frank Gobi, a “consciousness detective” who joins forces with a Tibetan Buddhist lama to track them down.

On-line readers of Rim will be able to draw from an array of interactive functions, including music, video images, and hypertext commentary by the author on key terms. Film rights to the novel have been bought by TriStar Pictures.

Legal Matters

A complaint for damages was filed November 1 in the California Superior Court in Santa Cruz naming Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and author of the best-selling book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, as a defendant in a ten-million-dollar lawsuit alleging “a pattern of physical, mental and sexual abuse.” Also named as defendants were Rigpa Fellowship and The Spiritual Care for Living and Dying, organizations that promote the teachings of Sogyal Rinpoche. The plaintiff, a former student of Sogyal’s who uses only the name Janice Doe, claims that Sogyal Rinpoche promised her “that in pleasing and offering herself to him, she would be helping to heal her family and attain spiritual enlightenment.” The complainant further alleges that Sogyal Rinpoche required her “to perform degrading acts to prove her complete devotion and belief” and that he advised her to leave her husband and to cease treatment with her therapist. Theodore Phillips, the San Francisco attorney representing the former student, said that “a major reason for this litigation is to stop this kind of behavior from harming other women.”

Sandra Pawula, National Coordinator for Rigpa Fellowship, replied on behalf of Rigpa in a statement claiming that “these allegations are unfounded, and we are confident that in time the agenda motivating this complaint will be revealed, making it clear that there has been no wrongdoing. . . . We have full confidence in Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings, and in his capacity to act as spiritual director of Rigpa Fellowship.”

At the present time it is unclear how this matter will be resolved.

Never Again: Auschwitz to Hiroshima

An Interfaith Peace Convocation in Auschwitz-Birkenau, near the town of Oswieciem, Poland, was conducted December 4–8 “in order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the liberation of the concentration camps and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The event marked the beginning of the Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life 1995.

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The peace walk was conceived by Sasamori Shonin, a Japanese monk of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order, whose vows include working toward world peace and putting an end to all weapons and warfare. The pilgrimage, which began at the site of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on December 10, will trace a path through the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines before reaching its final destinations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August.

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According to organizer Paula Green, the opening convocation brought together more than two hundred people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds and nationalities, including children of survivors of Nazi concentration camps and children whose parents had participated in those atrocities. Activities over the four-day convocation included talks, group meetings, meditation sessions, chanting, and various religious services. Buddhist leaders participating in the convocation included Rev. Sasamori, Maha Ghosananda, and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. On the first evening, which fell on the last day of Chanukah, participants left lit menorahs at the gates of Auschwitz, below the infamous words Arbeit macht frei, “work makes us free.”

Inward Bound

At the Explorer’s Club on East 70th Street in Manhattan, members filled the main hall on December 11 to witness a traditional Tibetan Buddhist geshe (scholars’) debate. In the club once frequented by Theodore Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, the Explorers took a turn inward by inviting Tibetan Buddhist monks to debate on the existence of past lives.

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Topics ranged from the state of mind of a child in utero to the difference between mind and physical matter. Tibetan Buddhist monk Michael Roach, who is also a diamond dealer and founder of the Asian Classics Input Project, served as both a participant and translator in his debate with Ngawang Thupten and Jampa Longrikan, monks from Sera May monastery in South India.

Stolen Monks

The two most prominent members of Vietnam’s Unified Buddhist Church (UBC) were arrested by the Vietnamese government in late December and early January. On December 29, Vietnamese security police removed Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang from Hoi Phuoc pagoda in Quang Ngai province two days after he began a hunger strike in protest of the continued detention of UBC monks arrested in November. Then, on January 4, security police in Ho Chi Minh City took UBC Chief Deputy Venerable Thich Quang Do into custody from Thang Minh pagoda. According to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch/Asia, “Both temples have now been surrounded by security police, and it is not known where the two monks are being held.”

Both leaders had already been subject to government confinement and/or exile since the early eighties, when Vietnam’s communist government banned all independent Buddhist organizations, creating in their stead a single, state-supervised organization called the Vietnam Buddhist Church. The UBC, however, formerly the largest Buddhist Church in Vietnam, refused to disband, thereby making its members the target of continuous persecution by Vietnam’s security police.

In 1963, UBC leader Thich Quang Duc drew international attention to the issue of religious persecution in Vietnam when he immolated himself on a Saigon street corner. In a country where passion for religious freedom runs so high, it is perhaps not surprising that tensions between the UBC and the Vietnam government have risen steadily since 1992, when Venerable Thich Huyen Quang’s call for official recognition of the UBC and the return of its property and religious prisoners was met only with searches and further arrests by security police. As of this writing, it is still not known where Thich Huyen Quang is being held.

Absolute Vodka

While Buddhists in Sri Lanka are still smarting over the Pope’s nihilistic descriptions of Buddhism, the packaging of a vodka and pineapple drink has offended Thai Buddhists for what they feel is yet another instance of Western disrespect for their religion.

Bottled by the French firm Le Clerc, the vodka-pineapple concoction bears on its label an image of the Buddha. The indiscretion was first spotted in Paris by Thai students, who subsequently informed the Thai Ministry of Education (also responsible for religious affairs). Now the government of Thailand is being asked to lodge an official complaint against Le Clerc.

Le Clerc has not commented thus far, and it remains unclear whether the problem for the Thais is the association of the Buddha with any commercial packaging whatsoever, or specifically with liquor—assuming pineapple juice is in the clear.

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