The Lord Buddha Words

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June 2017

A Buddhist Leader on China’s Spiritual Needs

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Does the mainland leadership support your work?

I support the leadership. They care for us as well. It is mutual. We Buddhists uphold whomever is in charge. Buddhists don’t get involved in politics. But we respect the leadership, ethics and rule of law.

After the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism in China was severely damaged. The new generation of Buddhists lacks talent, education and role models. I encourage fellow Buddhists to strive for kindness.

Are you satisfied with Fo Guang Shan’s development in the mainland?

The mainland is gradually making progress. There are some restrictions on religion. But I have also felt their kindness. They help us to restore temples in the mainland.

When I give speeches in the mainland, I don’t feel any restrictions. There are always thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people listening to me speak. They never stop them. I also have many undertakings, and they never say no to me. The People’s Publishing House even publishes my books. I think they know that I acknowledge Chinese culture, especially Buddhism in Chinese culture.

Chinese believe in karma, which contributes to stabilizing society, rebuilding moral ethics and building people’s confidence. We are here to strengthen it to inspire our compatriots.

What do lay Buddhists in the mainland need the most?

Lay Buddhists most need Buddhist doctrine and a relieved mind. Society is rife with superstition and cults. Fewer people believe in real Buddhism. Real Buddhism is about mercy, wisdom and dissolving confrontation.

Is Taiwan part of China?

President Xi said Taiwan and the mainland belong to the same family. I think the entire human race should love, respect and tolerate each other. The government here gives us land without asking for money. They send people to water the plants for us. I hope the government can treat people fairly like this.

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Is a Buddhist Group Changing China? Or Is China Changing It?

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Fo Guang Shan is perhaps the most successful of these groups. Since coming to China more than a decade ago, it has set up cultural centers and libraries in major Chinese cities and printed and distributed millions of volumes of its books through state-controlled publishers. While the government has tightened controls on most other foreign religious organizations, Fo Guang Shan has flourished, spreading a powerful message that individual acts of charity can reshape China.

It has done so, however, by making compromises. The Chinese government is wary of spiritual activity it does not control — the Falun Gong an example — and prohibits mixing religion and politics. That has led Fo Guang Shan to play down its message of social change and even its religious content, focusing instead on promoting knowledge of traditional culture and values.

The approach has won it high-level support; President Xi Jinping is one of its backers. But its relationship with the party raises a key question: Can it still change China?

Avoiding Politics

Fo Guang Shan is led by one of modern China’s most famous religious figures, the Venerable Master Hsing Yun. I met him late last year at the temple in Yixing, in a bright room filled with his calligraphy and photos of senior Chinese leaders who have received him in Beijing. He wore tannish golden robes, and his shaved head was set off by thick eyebrows and sharp, impish lips.

At age 89, he is nearly blind, and a nun often had to repeat my questions so he could hear them. But his mind was quick, and he nimbly parried questions that the Chinese authorities might consider objectionable. When I asked him what he hoped to accomplish by spreading Buddhism — proselytizing is illegal in China — his eyebrows arched in mock amusement.

“I don’t want to promote Buddhism!” he said. “I only promote Chinese culture to cleanse humanity.”

As for the Communist Party, he was unequivocal: “We Buddhists uphold whoever is in charge. Buddhists don’t get involved in politics.”

That has not been true for most of Master Hsing Yun’s life. Born outside the eastern city of Yangzhou in 1927, he was 10 when he joined a monastery that he and his mother passed by while searching for his father, who disappeared during the Japanese invasion of China.

There, he was influenced by the ideas of Humanistic Buddhism, a movement that aimed to save China through spiritual renewal. It argued that religion should be focused on this world, instead of the afterworld. It also encouraged clergy to take up the concerns of the living, and urged adherents to help change society through fairness and compassion.

After fleeing the Communist Revolution, Master Hsing Yun took that message to Taiwan and founded Fo Guang Shan in the southern port of Kaohsiung in 1967. He sought to make Buddhism more accessible to ordinary people by updating its fusty image and embracing mass-market tactics. In sports stadiums, he held lectures that owed more to Billy Graham than the sound of one hand clapping. He built a theme park with multimedia shows and slot machines that displayed dioramas of Buddhist saints.

The approach had a profound impact in Taiwan, which then resembled mainland China today: an industrializing society that worried it had cast off traditional values in its rush to modernize. Fo Guang Shan became part of a popular embrace of religious life. Many scholars say it also helped lay the foundation for the self-governing island’s evolution into a vibrant democracy by fostering a political culture committed to equality, civility and social progress.

Fo Guang Shan expanded rapidly, spending more than $1 billion on universities, community colleges, kindergartens, a publishing arm, a daily newspaper and a television station. It now counts more than 1,000 monks and nuns, and more than one million followers in 50 countries, including the United States.

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The Zen of Dying

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Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Anthony Valentine, 72, is a hospice nurse at the nonprofit Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.

Q. What is the difference between traditional hospice and Zen hospice?

A. The difference is the level and quality of attention the Zen hospice approach can give. At the Zen Hospice Project, our whole idea is to help dying people live fully right up to the end. Drawing on the principles of Zen Buddhism, we bring a strong sense of simply being 100 percent present, with, and for, them. As well, we focus on offering a healthy dose of compassion and a lot of personal touch.

Do staff members have to have a meditation practice or background?

No, one doesn’t have to be a practitioner of any Eastern philosophy to work or volunteer here. Nor, for that matter, do residents or their families.

What was your work experience leading into your current job?

My first career was as a flight attendant for 10 years. Based out of Japan, I worked routes from the Far East to Europe. Then, when I moved to San Francisco in 1980, I received a nursing license and practiced as a nurse for 34 years, after which I retired.

Then you rejoined the work force? Why?

I felt something missing. I’m a very giving person and found I wanted to make that a priority in my life. One day, I visited a friend who works at the Zen Hospice Project, and as soon as I came to the front door — it’s in a big Victorian house in the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco — something spoke to me, like I belonged here. I decided that day to dedicate my life to providing comfort, care and compassion to residents and families transitioning to their next stage.

Had you worked in any hospice situation before?

No, but I was there with my mother, my sister-in-law and my closest friend as they died in hospice care. My work now is in essence my living memorial to them.

What are the best and worst parts of sitting with someone who’s dying?

Getting to witness the last phase of someone’s life cycle is a sacred time, really a gift. Ironically, it has put me more in touch with life; it reminds me to live this life fully. It’s heart-opening and heartbreaking at the same moment. Either way I’m not afraid of the process, for them or for myself. The hard part is letting go, even after a short time, of people you get to know.

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50 Years of Marriage and Mindfulness With Nena and Robert Thurman

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Nena von Schlebrugge’s quest for larger truths began when she was a schoolgirl of 14 in Stockholm. “No one there was even asking the right questions,” she said. Scouted by Norman Parkinson, the British fashion photographer, and then recruited by Eileen Ford, a founder of Ford Models, Ms. von Schlebrugge became a successful, if ambivalent, model, arriving in New York City after a rough passage on the Queen Mary. (Photos of her at the time show just how much the actress Uma Thurman resembles her mother.)

Unimpressed with uptown mores, she found a salubrious crowd in Greenwich Village, which included the poets Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. One night, she, Mr. Corso and others rented a car and drove up to Cambridge, Mass., where a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary was testing the effects of small doses of mescaline. She remembered Dr. Leary, 20 years her senior, as being boring and overweight. Yet a few years later, she married him.

“I must have been hallucinating,” she said, “but it turns out I had a father complex, which I got completely cured of.”

She and Dr. Thurman met in the kitchen at Millbrook, the New York estate given to Dr. Leary, Richard Alpert and their followers by scions of the Mellon family. She was there to persuade Dr. Leary to sign their divorce papers. Dr. Thurman was there to persuade Dr. Leary to stop taking so many drugs — though he too had indulged in a bit of hallucination. Dr. Thurman was not looking his best: He had thrown kerosene on a brush fire and his face was covered in soot. He had given up being a monk, and the hair on his shaved head had just begun to grow in.


“Deity-tchotchkes,” as Dr. Thurman calls them, on display in a room that houses the Thurmans’ yoga studio.

Andrew White for The New York Times

Yet Dr. Thurman “had all kinds of answers and interesting questions and new ideas,” Ms. Thurman said, and learning about Buddhism felt like “déjà vu.” “Life is full of serendipitous happenings. It’s like a skateboard is hovering just outside your door. You can close the door, or you can jump on and take the ride.”

Money was tight for the ex-monk and the ex-model. Dr. Thurman spent some weeks trying to be a waiter, but his bad eye led to serving calamities, like the time he tipped a salad into a woman’s handbag (though she was drinking heavily and didn’t notice, he said). At the urging of his family, Dr. Thurman returned to Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in Buddhology.

“‘In the ’60s, you guys thought you knew everything,” the admissions director said to him. “You wrote, ‘infinite leave of absence,’ and now you’re back.’”

“How do you know it wasn’t infinite?” Dr. Thurman replied.

Ms. Thurman had a small inheritance, and the couple bought nine acres on a hill here in Woodstock for $7,000, cleared the land and put up a few tents and a tepee. When the VW Microbus in which they had traveled through India died, it became a planter. Then Dr. Thurman had a commission to translate a Tibetan sutra. He saved $3,000 to build a house, Ms. Thurman said, “which was enough to either hire people and dig a cellar, or buy lumber — we decided to buy the lumber.”


Dr. Thurman’s most recent book, a biography of the Dalai Lama in graphic-novel form.

They began with a post-and-beam cabin, sketched out by Dr. Thurman and added to in fits and starts by his children, other family members and graduate students pressed into service over the years. Visiting lamas urged them on. “A triumph of American do-how over know-how,” Ganden Thurman, now the executive director of Tibet House, likes to say. “My father is maybe not a master carpenter. His tendency is to solve problems with a liberal application of force.”

“Why do it right when you can do it yourself?” he likes to tease his father.

Robert Thurman will reply: “Why do it yourself when you can pay someone else to screw it up for you?”

They named the place Punya House — “punya” means “merit” in Sanskrit — though Ms. Thurman’s brother, recruited on weekends to work, called the cellar he was digging the Gulag. Taya Thurman, Dr. Thurman’s eldest daughter, said, “You can see that my dad’s house was drawn and made by hand, which is a beautiful feeling.”

Inspired by Buckminster Fuller, a hero of Dr. Thurman’s, he topped the cabin with a geodesic dome built from shingles and plexiglass. (You can see this iteration of the place in “Woodstock Handmade Houses,” the indie classic from 1974.) But it leaked badly. And the couple needed more rooms for their four children, Ganden, Dechen, Uma and Mipam. So Dr. Thurman took it down and built a second floor.

By then, he was a professor at Amherst College, where the Buddhist family found themselves outliers among his conservative colleagues, whose hobbies ran to hunting, golf and baseball. One professor, an avid hunter, ended up teaching a course with Dr. Thurman on the karma of killing animals. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said in a toast years later. “Now every fall when I go hunting, I keep missing!’”

The Thurman children drank goat milk from a nearby farm and dealt with being different in other ways.

“When Uma was 6 or 7, she told me that a classmate had said she would go to hell because she didn’t believe in Jesus Christ,” Dr. Thurman said. “I thought a bit and then told her, ‘Just say we’re from New York, and Jesus isn’t worried about us.’ For some reason, that seemed to do the trick.”

When the children were teenagers, Ms. Thurman said, they tried on Western names. “I was at a dance rehearsal for Uma, and the teacher said, ‘Oh, here comes your Diana!’”


Andrew White for The New York Times

Theirs was a lively, and somewhat Darwinian, dinner table, filled with graduate students, Tibetan refugees and a rotating cast of monks and lamas. “One night my brother Dechen kept asking my father to please, please pass the salt,” Ganden said. “My father was debating heatedly, talking shop, and finally the telephone rang. It was Dechen phoning my father to ask him to please, please pass the salt.”

Clodagh, the Irish designer who collaborated with Nena Thurman on Menla, the Tibet House outpost and retreat space in Phoenicia, N.Y., said Thurman events were “always very Irish, with everyone laughing and telling stories. They understand the elements and they understand the senses.” Her husband describes the couple as “Enlightenment Within Reach.’”

Downstairs at the Thurmans’ house, a rope swing was looped over a beam; a climbing plant seemed to be growing up the wood stove, and deity-tchochtkes, as Mr. Thurman called the house army of Buddhas and other Indo-Tibetan figurines, were marshaled along most of the horizontal surfaces.

On the second floor, beams were painted with lotus flowers and other so-called lucky signs. In an anteroom, there is a wall of 500 or 600 Tibetan sutras, each wrapped in a bright orange cloth, that Dr. Thurman has promised the Dalai Lama he will translate. Finally, up another twisting staircase, a 16-sided bedroom is overseen by a fearsome, gilded figure with 16 feet. “I call it the terminator exterminator,” he said, “because it’s a fierce symbol of overcoming death.”

He explained how the theory of relativity is expressed in the 16 emptinesses that are the core of Buddhist teachings. “The relative universe means there is no absolute container,” he said. “And so we are empty of any isolated, separated identity, if you follow me. We are a complete nexus of interrelatedness, which means there is nothing to do but improve.”

Ms. Thurman, meanwhile, had some tips for successful marriage. “If you share a spiritual outlook,” she said, “it’s an area you can return to when you are having your petty struggles, which are nonsense compared to what you really care about. On a practical note, you have to take turns, so that no one partner becomes dominant in the relationship.”

Ganden Thurman had another theory about his parents, gleaned from reading about some early work at the MIT Media lab having to do with interactivity, and the essential elements of human conversation..

“Turns out it’s a high degree of mutual interruptibility,” he said. “You had to have a high tolerance for that in my family. There were always a lot of ideas — and grudges, too — pouring forth. Being somewhat social oddballs who were often left to our own devices, we became, as people who are marooned together often do, a little funky.”

Correction: May 28, 2017

An article last Sunday about the prominent Buddhists Nena and Robert Thurman referred incorrectly to Mr. Thurman’s vision. He lost sight in his left eye, not his right.

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Ultranationalist Monks in Myanmar, Facing Crackdown, Say They’re Unrepentant

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Sectarian tension is a fact of life in parts of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country dotted with monasteries and gilded pagodas. But interfaith conflict has escalated sharply since 2012, when communal violence in the far-western state of Rakhine left dozens dead and displaced more than 100,000 members of the Muslim minority group Rohingya from their homes.


The nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, center, in 2013. Under his leadership, Ma Ba Tha has been accused of promoting violence against Muslims.

Adam Dean for The New York Times

Other sectarian clashes were later reported in the country’s heartland, and Buddhist mobs killed more than 200 Muslims. Ma Ba Tha has long denied promoting violence, but critics say that its statements — which often go viral on social media — have clearly fueled it.

“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ma Ba Tha’s best-known ultranationalist monk, Ashin Wirathu, said in a 2013 sermon, referring to Muslims.

Analysts say the Buddhist authority’s directive, and Ma Ba Tha’s headstrong reply, illustrate a central challenge facing the governing National League for Democracy, the political party led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The government’s crackdown on Ma Ba Tha, they say, could ease pressure on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from rights advocates overseas who have criticized her inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to curb state-sanctioned violence against Rohingya who live in western Myanmar.

However, the analysts said, it could also drive Ma Ba Tha’s supporters toward political parties that increasingly embrace hard-line Buddhist rhetoric, including one party that is linked to the military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades until 2011.

The National League for Democracy “continues to ignore this movement in general at its peril,” Matthew J. Walton, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies religion and politics in Myanmar, said of Ma Ba Tha.


Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. Sectarian tension is a fact of life in Myanmar, a majority-Buddhist country, but interfaith conflict has escalated sharply since 2012.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Popular support for Ma Ba Tha did not hurt Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in Myanmar’s 2015 general election, the first since the end of military rule, because many people voted for broad change instead of specific policies, Mr. Walton said. But because that could change by the next general election in 2020, he added, the National League for Democracy must ask monks who support it to “articulate an alternative discourse of protecting and promoting the Buddhist religion that doesn’t require expelling Muslims.”

The state-run Buddhist authority’s directive on Tuesday came two weeks after a raid on a Muslim neighborhood in Yangon by Buddhist vigilantes who were searching for Rohingya they believed were hiding there illegally. There is a widespread view in Myanmar that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, regardless of whether their families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The raid led to street clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, a rarity in Yangon, and left at least one person injured. A Buddhist nationalist group, the Patriotic Monks Union, later claimed responsibility for the raid, and several people were charged with incitement to commit violence.

Sectarian tensions have been especially high in Myanmar since the fall, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers at a border post in Rakhine, inciting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that sent tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. In March, widespread reports of state-sanctioned rape and killing in Rakhine led the United Nations to call for a fact-finding mission to investigate accusations of rights violations by Myanmar’s Army and security forces.

In another potential blow to religious harmony, U Ko Ni, a Muslim lawyer and a top adviser to the National League for Democracy, was shot and killed outside Yangon’s international airport in January, in what appeared to be a political assassination. Mr. Ko Ni had been working on a plan to replace Myanmar’s military-drafted Constitution with one that would strip the military of its political powers.

Tuesday’s order by the state-controlled Buddhist committee is the latest in a series of moves by the country’s religious authorities to push back against Ma Ba Tha’s influence. Last summer, for example, a top Yangon official said that the group was “not necessary” for the country, and the committee rebuked an assertion by Ashin Wirathu, the nationalist monk, that Ma Ba Tha was operating under the committee’s authority. And in March, the committee barred him from preaching for a year.


Police officers guarding an Islamic religious school on the outskirts of Yangon last month after protests by Ma Ba Tha supporters.

Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

U Khin Maung Lwin, a taxi driver in Yangon, said he welcomed the Buddhist authority’s moves to clamp down on Ma Ba Tha’s activities. “We don’t need Ma Ba Tha” because Myanmar already has an official Buddhist clergy, he said. “It will only create divisions among monks.”

Ma Ba Tha was formed in 2013 and gained prominence by promoting a package of so-called race and religion laws that were passed by a military-backed government just before the 2015 election. The laws cover topics like monogamy and interfaith marriage and are widely seen by scholars and human rights groups as discriminatory toward Muslims.

After the Buddhist authority’s directive this week, Ma Ba Tha canceled an event that it had planned for this weekend in Yangon to celebrate its fourth anniversary, according to reports in the local news media. But the group’s leaders have asked their supporters to gather in Yangon anyway for a briefing about the group’s next steps.

Few expect Ma Ba Tha to go quietly. Mr. Walton said that the group had recently created a spinoff, called Dhamma Wunthanu Rakita, “to do the things that monks can’t do, like bring defamation lawsuits.” He predicted that the group would essentially rebrand itself.

“This isn’t going to spell the end for extremist monks affiliated with Ma Ba Tha,” said Matthew Smith, the chief executive of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group based in Thailand that has urged Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to curb state-sanctioned violence against the Rohingya. “They’re still mobilizing, they still have a sizable following, and they’re still attempting to influence the minds of young people.”

But even though the National League for Democracy’s patience for hard-line Buddhist groups has “clearly worn thin,” the party remains unwilling to challenge the race and religion laws and other policies that institutionalize discrimination, said Gerard McCarthy, the associate director of the Myanmar Research Center at the Australian National University.

“Anti-Muslim sentiment is ubiquitous in Myanmar and has not been challenged by the N.L.D. in any substantive or legislative sense so far,” he said.

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