Saturday, May 19, 2012

Basic Buddhist Concepts: Generosity (Dana)

While reading Stay Alive My Son, the brilliant and chilling memoir of Pol Pot times by Pin Yathay (and absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in Cambodia), I came across this casual reference to the Cambodian understanding of Dana, the Buddhist concept of generosity. In  this passage he is discussing the forced exodus from Phnom Penh in the days immediately following the Khmer Rouge takeover, as people became gradually hungrier and more desperate:

"Even though Buddhists would normally give generously, we refused them all, except an old lady with her grandchild, to whom I gave a handful of rice. It could have been my own mother out there, and my heart went out to her. But as she went on down the line of people and vehicles, my mother said from the back seat, 'Don't do that again, Thay. Think of your own family first.'" 

Apart from brilliantly evoking the mood of those horrendous days, this passage also helps us see the natural association Buddhists make between the practice of their religion and the practice of generosity, known in Pali as Dana. It means not just giving, but finding joy in giving, in seeing generosity as an expression of one's own humanity. It is indeed a beautiful idea.

This word Dana has become well-known in Western Buddhist circles because many Buddhist associations host what they call "Dana Days" in which the community collects together to assist the temple materially and financially.

The British Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita says that Dana is the fundamental Buddhist virue - without giving no other cultivation is possible. Giving, and delighting in that giving, is the first evidence of a higher thought, of a more moral intention. It is the action of a Bodhisattva. Those who are unwise and immoral are easily identified by their selfishness. Interestingly, being called "stingy" is a gross insult across Buddhist Asia - obviously connected to the Buddhist moral imperative towards Dana.

The Recollection of Generosity is one of the Paths to Purification suggested in the Visuddhimagga, one of the most influential commentary texts in Theravada Buddhism. In that text the scholar-monk Buddhagosa suggests that the Buddhist cultivate extreme generosity by vowing: "From now on, when there is anyone present to receive, I shall not eat even a single mouthful without having given a gift."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cambodian Buddhist Statuary

People far away often ask me what are the major differences between Vietnam and Cambodia.
Now, to answer that question would require several hefty volumes, but to me, a regular habitue of Buddhist monastic spaces, one of the most significant differences is that between Buddhist statuary in each of the countries.

This is my special interest area, you see, though I have zero training in Buddhist art and iconography. I am merely a keen amateur.
I have long been in love with Khmer Buddhist art, particularly if it is popular or modern.

Of course, it is easy to wax lyrical about the exquisite transcendence of the Buddhist statuary of the Angkorean period. It is without equal. 
But I am talking about the everyday stuff, the statues rendered in cement and plaster, gaudily painted and often left open to the elements in small temples across Cambodia.

These are the images that interest me most, and I think they are possessed of their own special beauty.