Friday, May 30, 2008

The Dalai Lama speaks at the Sheldonian

On the final leg of his official UK schedule, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has come to Oxford for a couple of days. Wherever there are Tibetan connections, the Office of Tibet will seek to guide His Holiness there - whether Tibetan communities, Tibetan culture or the study and practice of Buddhism.

Today he came to present on the topic of 'Buddhist Understanding: How and Why' at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, where many distinguished and honourable people have spoken before - it's a very compact venue, which generally houses just under 1000 people, unless there's a very important debate for University Congregation (in which case a couple hundred more are likely to squeeze in!). On this occasion there were a mixture of academics, practitioners, supporters etc; only a few monks - some Tibetans, one Burmese Bhikkhu, I think, but no Thais.

This event had been organised by the Society for the Wider Understanding of Buddhism (So-Wide), which has at its core the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, under the academic direction of Professor Richard Gombrich. I was fortunate to be present and offer here some recollections, though even within a few hours I forget many things, so must apologise for inaccuracies in any of this. I think a podcast will be available at some point, so I'm just going to relate some aspects that I particularly noted.

I filed in at around 9.30 and made my way to the central part of the lower gallery, where I was delighted to see some friends from a local Dhamma group, who kindly made space for me. With a clear view of the stage straight ahead and some padding on the seats, I had never had such a good seat before!

At around 10am, Geoff Bamford, the Executive Director (the business brains and tireless volunteer worker) gave the warm-up introduction opening (once mic was set and chatter had died down) with "Hi" - it was nice to set an informal tone. He then went on to talke briefly about So-wide and the symbol of the open hand (teachings that may benefit the whole world, not exclusive), an image I think he is very fond of. And so it was fitting that His Holiness was patron of So-Wide.

Soon it was time for His Holiness to make his entrance, preceded by some Oxford academics who took their seats in the front row. The Dalai Lama then came in and made the gesture of greeting - palm to palm - left, right, up, down, in many directions (and duly returned)! Already the audience felt engaged. He then took his seat.

Professor Richard Gombrich then welcomed His Holiness as a Buddhist figure of unique and pre-eminent significance. He then went on to convey the significance of Oxford in the Buddhist landscape, in a characteristically Oxford-centric way - he described a few ancient manuscripts referring to Sukhavati, the Pure Land in the West, with one or two translations as "Ox-Ford" (bringing applause from the audience), going on to relate that there are just one or two minor differences [in that tone of understatement in which academics are so well versed] in the descriptions - the seats in Sukhavati are lotuses (whereas many in the Sheldonian are bare wood). And so the tone of the morning was set - to be informative, yet informal.

His Holiness then came to the podium accompanied by Dr. Thupen Jinpa, his interpreter (of many years, I think). He started off by saying a few things in Tibetan and then switched to English, apologising for how poor he thought it was - "never improving" and said that in fact as he gets old his English gets older too! He responded to Richard Gombrich's opening comments about Oxford being Sukhavati in a very light-hearted dismissive way by quipping that being born from a lotus doesn't allow us to know much about humans!

His Holiness opened by saying he wanted to talk largely about two important things: human values and religious harmony. Human values really lay at the core - and straight off was pointing inside himself for the source of peace - that it must be inner peace. In relation to this, he talked about two kinds of compassion:

  1. Compassion dependent upon attitudes, which i think meant that it is conditional or you give compassion only to those in your good books.
  2. Compassion based in the realisation of every living thing being a sentient being, particularly human beings relating to human beings, doing things out of compassion for human beings, developing empathy. It leads to clearer understanding. In contrast, fear and anger distort the world view and can lead to false projections. When you are compassionate to people, then they are kind in return - you find many friends who can help you out, e.g. when in need, e.g. of money; when that person goes, they are missed. In contrast, someone who is mean, who even is glad that others are suffering ("serves them right") - when they pass away, everyone is glad!

The second part - on religious harmony - should draw on the virtuous qualities. The validity of other faiths was evident to him through the deeply impressive quality of practice he had encountered through others - he particularly expressed appreciation about this following his participation in a colloquium the previous day at Blackfriars [I had wanted to attend, but couldn't get a place]. This kind of encounter has convinced him of the importance of looking at the world from different angles. Even though Buddhist views might be based on dependent origination without God, whilst a Christian view might be centred on God, the practices - inner and outer - are very worthy of respect.

His Holiness said with a lot of convictin that he thought that Buddhists, especially Sangha, could learn from Christians in their outreach in society - he had discussed this with His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, who had pointed out "correctly" that the Sangha choose a separate existence, and the Dalal Lama joked that the interaction was limited "for food". I was naturally disappointed that the Thai Sangha had by implicaton been given a rather remote image, whereas in fact only a couple of weeks ago I met a senior member of the Thai Sangha from Wat Thepsirin, Bangkok, who was in the UK to promote Buddhist study among lay practitioners - he even persuaded me to sit the exam without any preparation (in English, though)!. Traditionally Thai temples are part of a wonderful eco-system of mutual support in the local communities - they would provide schooling for children, medical help as well as spiritual advice. There's definitely plenty of room for Thais, especially the Sangha, to communicate better - the Dalai Lama has really mastered this and the Thai Sangha could learn from him, how to build more of a rapport with audiences of other cultures.

His Holiness extended the angles to the secular sphere and I could see the mutual interpenetration: the study of the physical universe - e.g. through particle physics - was an area where Western science had a useful role; the study of the mind was an area where Buddhism had a lot to offer Western Psychology. When asked about whether taking meditation from the religious into the secular sphere (e.g. in western psychiatry) whether it lost something, his main response was that he simply wanted to share in a way that most benefited humanity [like the open hand].

Whilst discussing compassion, there were some very vocal protests outside - it has been widely reported, e.g. by local news (I hope they cover what happened inside as well!) They could easily be heard inside the theatre. I wondered if HH would proceed without any direct reference to them (which was what I was hoping he would do, if only to stay more focused on the topic in hand), but he took a few minutes to explain the details relating to practices of a specifc deity worship and issues that went back as far back at the 5th Dalai Lama.

On a much smaller scale, another issue, which this time probably most people are familiar with is the mosquito - in Q&A His Holiness wondered how to be compassionate to them. (Coincidentally I had chatted before the talk with the lady sitting next to me about dealing with mosquitoes; my Thai Aunt had said a long time ago that if I want to love Thailand, I must love mosquitoes too!). The Dalai Lama said if he is in a good mood, then he is happy to donate blood for 1 min or however long it takes (and then get the swelling); the second mosquito he will blow off and the same, I guess for the others; but when his peaceful sleep is disturbed (he made motions and sounds of mosquito darting in and around his head) his emotional state doesn't fare so well! So he asked one of the Profs about the intelligence of insects, I think whether their small brains can support compassion or are they so small that they only live to survive?

His responses were very human and humane, very appealing to the audience - generally when he giggles, the audience enjoys this and joins in with laughter. When His Holiness had finished speaking, he walked past Prof. Gombrich and adjusted his gown, one of many kindly gestures.

A Q&A session followed. One question was about compassionate action following animal experiments - and he cited some practices where an animal used for the greater benefit of humanity might in some cultures be given a special ceremony. (Was this question predicated on questionable assumptions?) His Holiness, expressed appreciation for acknowledging animals and went on to promote the importance of vegetarianism. This response may have left some people concluding that one could justify harming animals for the sake of [supposedly more noble] human beings.

The Dalai Lama was also asked about termination of pregnancies of those foetuses diagnosed to contain severe anaemia - the questioner indicated that there were differences in attitudes between Western countries and some Asian countries. His Holiness replied that as a monk you are trained to observe the rule that it is basically wrong to kill. However, he went on to provide what looked like loopholes, offering an analogy with the vinaya rules - first monks can't take meals after midday, but some monks who became seriously ill would have to have some food in order to survive, so there could be some flexibility in these cases [is that saying that he introduced the rule that medicines are allowed any time?] So by implication, there could be some leeway in severe cases of illness, perhaps as here. The questioner seemed delighted with the response, but I hope he doesn't now go back to these countries and say the Dalai Lama supports his view etc... because the Dalai Lama did at least say that these need to be viewed on a case by case basis [and I think advanced meditators would look very carefully at karma involved- that's what really needs to be studied experimentally,instead of just intellectually speculating].

The session ended at around 11.40, with a great sense of friendliness and support. This was carried on to the reception afterwards, where His Holiness urged the work to continue for the benefit of humanity.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Paris: a chapel amidst a shopping complex

Peter and Kristina (who kindly allowed me to stay at their Paris apartment) had informed me that nearby was to be found a pilgrimage site, right in the midst of a large shopping complex called Le Bon Marché, off La Rue de Sèvres, which ran parallel to la Rue du Cherche Midi where I was staying. So on Tuesday (29th April) I duly headed to La Chapelle Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse (made famous especially by the visions of St. Catherine Labouré) - you can read about its significance on the Web site.

It's located officially at 140 Rue du Bac, not far from the turning off Rue de Sèvres; personally, knowing that it was in the area I had no difficulty locating it, but it's worth noting that there is a drive and the entrance to the church itself is at the far end, hidden from view from the road. The following is taken a little way down the drive:

Looking towards the Chapelle Notre Dame de La Médaille Miraculeuse

Just go to the covered area and the entrance to the church is on the right. You pass on the left a statue to St. Vincent de Paul, were behind the statue are rows of small bricks or tablets that record many expressions of gratitude for prayers answered.

St. Vincent de Paul near the Chapelle Notre Dame de La Médaille Miraculeuse

I proceeded into the church, where Mass was in progress, with a considerable number in attendance. I would like to explore the chapel more, but on this occasion just stood for a few minutes at the back and observed the considerable lightness in the designs. Coming out I then popped into a little shop and donated towards souvenirs - the nun who received payments was very pleasant and light, the opposite of the harshness so characteristic of urban life. She seemed to reflect the uplifting atmosphere of the chapel itself.

I then emerged and sought some more worldly souvenirs, particularly of the edible variety, to share with relative, friends and colleagues. So I dived into the Grand Epicerie(?) next door. To be honest, I'm not sure, but it certainly had some expensive food labels! I then entered another section of Le Bon Marché, which looked like this:

Le Bon Marché

I bought one more item. Can you guess what it was...?

A Travel Scrabble set in French (for me to practise ahead of future visits!) However, I didn't find this so easily: I initially wandered to the top and only then identified from a chart that the toys section was in the basement, so I only found it after traipsing through furnishings, clothes, books etc. The toy department was quite extensive and I could have quite easily spent longer there! One corner was devoted to origami and among the instruction manuals was one with a foreword by Brigitte Bardot. Whereas I can imagine an English foreword talking a little about the ancient tradition of orgami and how fun it is, here was a philosophical reflection on how origami was harmonious with nature, consistent with the urgent need to protect the environment! Her religious expression in secular life, perhaps?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Paris: chapels, churches and cathedrals (2)

Being my first time in Paris, I naturally wanted to take a look at two of the most famous churches – the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Basilica of Le Sacré Coeur. Accordingly, I set aside Sunday for exploring these and made my way from the apartment onto La Rue Vaugirard, a street that was now more familiar, having already followed it to reach the Jardins du Luxembourg. On the previous day, I passed by the Chapelle St Joseph des Carmes, which during the Revolution of the late 18C witnessed bloody scenes resulting in more than 100 martyrs.

Chapelle St Joseph

I was just in time for a quick visit - I tagged onto a tour group and when lingering at the front of the church I got a call from their guide, who had the key. Afterwards I said "I was lucky", actually meaning that I was lucky to get a look, but the guide thought I meant something else, "Yes, you could have been locked in there all night." Maybe that would have been even more interesting, however I think I would have preferred another church with a more harmonious record! On this occasion, I just took a snap to record its history:

Histoire de Paris: Les Carmes

There are lots of these triangular information points that look like metallic oars - perhaps to symbolise the navigation through the munipal information waters! In any case, they are useful - here relating the discalced Carmelite origins of the early 17th century.

Proceeding onwards, I made my way to a square by the Sorbonne. I wanted to find a guided tour to explore this ancient seat of learning, but whereas there had been quite a bit of activity the day before, with quite a few students gathered around posters commemorating the 1968 uprisings, this was Sunday morning - not known to be a time for so much student engagement! So I contented myself with a coffee and croissants, watching people amble by and relaxing through the sound of the fountains:

Fountains by the Chapelle de la Sorbonne

I crossed over the Seine and soon came to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I immediately saw the long queues and was instinctively put off from going in, so I aimed to just take a photo or two of the main entrance:

La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

But then I reconsidered and reflected that I ought to be more patient and go with the flow, so I joined the queue and found it was snaking its way very quickly. After a few steps, I looked up again and saw the sky had changed - there was now a halo above the cathedral.

A Halo Around La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

I've seen this effect before (I like rainbow effects and often spot them). The scientific explanation is that they are the result of sunlight refracting through ice crystals, but as to how this combination arises in the first place ... :-)

Inside it was very crowded - Mass was just starting and the clergy filed past close to where I was standing, carrying the cross before and appearing completely unruffled by all the motion around them. They were well aware of the grand ceremony of the Mass being the real spectacle, centre stage. Even so, it felt strange to have this proceeding surrounded by so many tourists clicking away as though this was just another series of exhibits. I too was part of the crowd, taking the odd photo; I thought that my father might be interested in proceedings, but generally the light was very poor. At least the cross was clear enough:

Cross at Notre Dame cathedral

Videos were a bit better: I took a couple of short videos, including the following, which shows how popular the cathedral is:

It was easy to get distracted from the cathedral's purpose as a place of worship, but I just made my way slowly and it was alright.

I saw some people praying earnestly in the side chapels, some with drooping shoulders and generally sunken posture looked to be heavily burdened; I wanted to touch them lightly and say not to worry, but I didn't have the courage (or temerity). Buddhist practitioners are instructed that whatever their circumstances, the meditation posture should be upright, which can help brighten the mind; it doesn't mean a loss of humility. I think such advice would be helpful here.

Emerging from the cathedral, I took a few more photos, one showing paintings on sale and the other a view further along the river:

La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris View of La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris from the South East

After lunch I headed North, initially to the Ile de Saint Louis, now a very well-to-do place to reside. I visited Saint Louis church, where they had some information on a noticeboard about Christian Meditation, as inspired by Desert fathers. They featured St. Bruno's simplicity in being still in God, but primary attention was given to the practise of Father John Main and the community he established. Actually, there exist many methods for Christians; some of the deepest states of stillness I encountered in church were when people were praying silently in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Afterwards I took the Metro to Montmartre to visit Le Sacre Coeur. Weaving in and out of the throngs, I approach from the South and beheld its bleached white Château-Landon stone:

Le Sacré Coeur, Montmartre

It was the strictest church i've come across so far - inside no photos or videos were allowed; gentleman had to remove hats and ladies especially were requested to be dressed modestly, very similar to a Thai temple :-) At 4pm there was Vespers, with very prominent roles given to the nuns: forming the choir, they sung very bright alleluias. The organ accompaniment built up very gradually until it was booming, making quite a statement!

Emerging, after taking in the view into the distance, I took a route down one side and took a photo from a corner:

Le Sacré Coeur

Having done quite an ecclesiastical tour, it was time to go home for evening reflections (browsing the photos on the Eee PC in the comfort of the apartment :-).

Paris: chapels, churches and cathedrals (1)

France is a secular state, but for centuries was Catholic, and the historical legacy, at least, is evident for all to see through many buildings that are still places of worship.

Friday was my first full day and en route to the Hôtel National des Invalides, I popped into the Church of St. Francis Xavier:

Church of St. Francois Xavier

It's not much to look at from the outside and it is located in the midst of busy roads, but inside it's quite ornate (at least compared with churches in the UK) and generally they are quiet and peaceful, very convenient when wishing to pause for reflection or simply escape the milieu:

L'Eglise St François Xavier: view along nave to the altar

(the ceiling depicts the apostles of Jesus, including Paul, "Apostle to the Gentiles")

Moving on, I soon came to the Eglise du Dome at the Hôtel des Invalides - architecturally grander, more elegant, more eloquent:

l'Eglise du Dome, l'Hotel des Invalides

Inside it is more elaborate, with classical scenes depicted on a large scale inside the dome,

Ceiling art, Eglise du Dome

It's conveys a lot of power, but not much spirituality - like most of what was on display in the building it celebrated battles, wars etc of the rather mundane kind. :-( However, at least the nursing role - as indicated in the title of the building - continues to this day, so many thousands of wounded have received good care and treatment.

I did a lot of walking on Friday - I proceeded towards the Eiffel tower, lingered for a short while underneath it, crossed the river and headed into the Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine, a high profile architecture and heritage museum, where there are several hundred plaster-cast reproductions of church architecture spanning medieval, Gothic and Renaissance periods, complete with accompanying murals:

Mural, Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine

However, one of the most interesting exhibits depicted a famous Catalan church, La Sagrada Familia, in Meccano ...!

La tour en jeu: La Sagrada Familia

This corner of the museum was a competition area, containing many toy building blocks waiting to be composed into fabulous monuments. When I was a young child, Lego was one of my favourite toys and I would would have wanted to stay hours and hours designing skyscrapers!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Arrival in France

I have for quite some while being using a domain,, 'chez Paul' is French, meaning roughly 'at Paul's house.' Yet, as of the start of this year, the only place I had visited in France was Charles de Gaulle airport! However, in March, a couple of friends kindly offered me the chance to stay at their apartment in Paris. I looked at my work schedule (and also mindful of the celebrations at the temple) and indicated the last week of April. That was ok, so the holiday was on!

I only gradually learnt whereabouts I was staying - information was passed on little by little. "It's about 20 minutes from the Gare du Nord" - so I located the station and initially thought it would be North of that location, but actually it was south, far more central than I expected, in the 6th arrondissement, la Rue du Cherch Midi. Being excited and inquisitive about the prospect, I tried to learn more about the locale and came across a video that conveys quite well the environment:

Like most streets in Paris, there are many layers of construction history. I think the bâtiment (building) in which I stayed and many in the environs were from the early part of the 19th century. You can see a number of such buildings in the following photo was taken a couple hundred meters down the road:

La Rue Du Cherche Midi, 6eme, Paris

I was up on the 4th floor - quite a traipse with no lift, especially when I arrived with my luggage after a long journey! (However, I wasn't that tired because I had arrived via Eurostar, which was far more comfortable than a plane).

Winding staircase at Rue du Cherche Midi

On proceeding through the main entrance and entering a little courtyard, I was struck by the smells in the air, quite an interesting atmosphere, a sense of antiquity; and the quarterly sounding of a small church bell nearby added to the charm. The block itself is not so grand in terms of structure and apartments may not be huge, but certainly the apartment where I stayed was very nicely decorated, had what I needed, prompting me to muse over the idea of swapping with my own little flat in Oxford!

I was told that about 10 years ago one could purchase such an apartment at a modest price, but now that's no longer the case (even with the credit crunch) - confirmed when I looked at property being advertised in estate agents' windows! The locale's appeal is evident when looking at the list of names associated with the apartments - there is a wide range of nationalities: as far as I could tell, in addition to the French, there were English, Germans, Spaniards, Russians, Chinese and Japanese.

There are quite a number of reviews of this street (see e.g. a quite detailed exploration from a hotel site). They talk mainly about the cafes, restaurants, a bakery, and expensive shops - especially clothes and antiques. However, there's a lot more to it, especially when you investigate it's history - for instance one site was a military garrison and then became a prison, and is now the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. Ideally, the best way is to get to know the people living and working there - but I couldn't do that in less than a week!

So what was the first shop I visited? Discounting a tabac, where I bought a carnet for the metro, it was actually a supermarket on la rue de Sèvres!