Monday, May 21, 2012

Sensus Communis

I have pointed my old domain,, at this blog. Before I left for Sri Lanka, I used to run a server at that address from my apartment. It was mostly for getting email and for friends and family to play around on, and on the homepage I had put the following definition:
"..we must [here] take sensus communis to mean the idea of a sense shared [by all of us], i.e., a power to judge that in reflecting takes account (a priori), in our thought, of everyone else's way of presenting [something], in order as it were to compare our own judgment with human reason in general... Now we do this as follows: we compare our judgment not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgments of others, and [thus] put ourselves in the position of everyone else..."

(Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar, p160; Ak. 293-294)

My friend Bill actually made a facsimile of the general structure of my old page.

I'm pleased that this idea that I chose to represent my web presence so many years ago (I think I've had that domain for about 15 years) fits so well with my current interest in Buddhism. After all, how could we engage in such common metta practice as contemplating phrases like "Just as I wish to be happy, so do all beings wish to be happy; may all beings everywhere be happy" without something like the sensus communis in us? This ability to put ourselves in the place of others is surely one of the foundations of compassion and sympathetic joy.

Where are you?

Sri Lankans seem to have a particular interest in locations. It is not uncommon to have an average Sri Lankan, and by this I mean not a vendor or guide trying to sell you a product or service, approach you on the street and strike up a conversation. Of course, it's not unusual that they would ask an obvious foreigner: "Where are you from?" But invariably the question also arises: "Where are you going?" I'm still not sure if this is a kind of equivalent of "How are you?", for which we most often do not care for an accurate response.  At any rate, the question inspired me to include another map, showing the route that I took to my first weekend of courses at the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy.

I take two buses to get there. The route from A to B is accurate, but I'm not sure that the route Google shows from B to C is entirely accurate right at the beginning. The bus does have to make that loop around the lake and backtrack though, as the direct route across the top of the lake in this map is closed to all but foot traffic ever since an attempted bombing of the Temple of the Tooth during the long civil war here. The whole route is about 15km, and takes about an hour including catching the buses.  The first bus costs 12lkr (Sri Lankan Rupees, about $0.09) and the second bus 27lkr (about $0.21), so about $0.30 each way. (Didn't keyboards used to have a 'cents' character? Or am I thinking all the way back to typewriters?)

I arrived at 8am and the first order of business at 8:30am was a meeting to discuss the schedule. It seems some of the local monks in the program were not always able to make it to the Sunday classes because of their Temple duties, and the desire was to establish a schedule that everyone could agree on.  We also discussed whether to replace A.K. Warder's book as our Pali text, and I think I spoke out the most forcefully about its deficiencies, but in the end was overruled. Overall, the meeting was a practice in patience and disappointment, and I got the distinct impression that, although the authorities running the meeting were genuinely flexible and open to input, most of the students were just not willing to speak up honestly about their preferences, so not much could be effectively determined. Only the Americans and Russian student were willing to speak up. But that is ok. I am not responsible for the other students' benefit from the classes, and I am content to ensure for myself that I get what I need from my experience here.

The other students consist of a few local Sri Lankan monks, a couple of monks from Vietnam, a retired teacher from the area, Gabe (a fellow American) and Evgenia (Jane) (who is Russian). One of the Vietnamese monks is a Bhikkhuni, the only other female in the class. I'm not going to bother trying to write out the monks' names, as I mostly got vague phonetic approximations and would surely butcher them. This is the first year that the Academy has offered this MA program, and there are only about eight or nine of us in total (attendance was spotty, so an accurate count is difficult.)

The meeting took up the time of what would have been our meditation class, so our first class was Pali. I still have not taken the final from the first semester, which I had offered to do as a way of showing my qualification for the second semester class. But once again I have been assured that this week I will get a call to tell me to come and take the exam.  This is one area where I think it will be up to me to ensure that I learn the necessary Pali. I have already acquired some extra books, and I will proceed with self-study and use the class and exams as a check on my progress. I am looking forward to finally having some people of whom I can ask the many questions that arise as I study these textbooks on Pali. I don't think that just from Warder and this class I would achieve the level of competence that I seek.

The next class was the most exciting at the school. It is a seminar on secondary sources in Buddhist Philosophy. The instructor, Mr. Sumana Rathnayake seems to really know his stuff and struck me as a very likable fellow. I have been intrigued by the glimpses of Buddhist Philosophy that I've gotten from my reading so far, and I'm looking forward to exploring these ideas more deeply. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find all the books he has assigned here in Kandy, including the first one we are to be reading for next weekend. I may have to make a trip to Columbo, where I'm assured there is a very good bookstore that should have everything I need. I could also get Xeroxed copies of any of the books, which the school is making available at cost, but I would much rather have the 'real thing'.  (Attachment to books...)

That was Saturday. For Sunday, I had 'volunteered' to teach Dhamma School, which is like Sunday School for Buddhists. I guess it is technically a Sunday School, too.  The local monks in the program already have such responsibilities at their respective temples. I'm not sure what the foreign monks (there are a few from Vietnam in the program) are doing on Sunday mornings. But the other foreign students have all stopped participating in this Dhamma School aspect of the program, out of lack of support. When I mentioned that I didn't know if I was qualified to teach the Dhamma to young Buddhists, the Rector, Prof. Somaratne, assured me that I would be fine, and anyway the kids would be excited to have a foreign teacher with whom to practice their English. Oh yeah, this Dhamma School for young Sri Lankan kids is conducted in English. Is that strange?

As seems typical here, nobody told me what time I should be there or where I should go or whoṃ I should see when I got there. Fortunately, my fellow student Gabe gave me the lowdown, at least on where and when to go. So I showed up at 8am on Sunday. Many little kids from about 5 to 15 were being dropped off by their parents. They were all wearing cute little white outfits, and were fairly well behaved. I started asking around for other teachers and looking for an authority figure, but couldn't find anyone in charge, so I just followed all the kids around to see what they were up to. I was a little uncertain about taking pictures to share here, not knowing if that would be disrespectful or even just unwanted by the parents. Maybe I'll get some next week.

The kids were all lined up at the bottom of the hill below the main shrine room. They all had little baskets of flower petals to offer to the Buddha. After a little while, they marched up the hill in single file, youngest children first, followed by the older ones. When they got to the shrine room they gave their offerings at the Buddha statue and then they were all lined up sitting on the floor and told in English and Sinhalese to sit still and stop talking. A monk came in and led them dryly in some Pali chants and then a brief metta meditation. I recognized the taking of the three refuges (Buddha, Dhamma, Sanga), but the other chants I didn't understand. Then they were led out of the shrine to their classes, and once again I started wandering around wondering what I was supposed to do.

I was about to go off and just watch one of the classes, when a young man, Kaveen, came up and asked if I was the new teacher he had been told about. I said I was, and started getting my hopes up that soon I'd have a class... But he just kept going on about the chaos, that kids were running around everywhere and hiding in the bathroom and so on. The younger kids all seemed to have teachers and had classes going on, but there was a group of young boys and girls who just seemed to be loitering and playing. One young girl, Ishani, 14, came up and started talking to Kaveen about an 'assembly' that was to happen today, prefacing every sentence with 'Sir'. She actually seemed to know more about what was supposed to be happening than Kaveen. Or at least she was more set on seeing that something was going to happen.

Apparently all these loiterers were the class or classes that Kaveen and/or I were supposed to be teaching. After which there was supposed to be an assembly where some of them would perform songs or dances or poems. This sounded like fun to me, and as Ishani seemed to have been selected as the M.C., she asked if I would help her write her introductory remarks.  We wrote a few sentences welcoming everyone and thanking them for coming to see the kids' talents. Some other kids were interested to talk to me about my locations and some wanted to know about being a Software Engineer and if I could come back during the week to teach them programming (a question I dodged).

But there were still no classes for all these kids. I asked what was about, and they said they had no classroom. Or maybe there just weren't enough benches in the lobby area in which we were all loitering. Still, it seemed to me that we were all mostly in the same place and something could be done. But I couldn't get any traction with the kids or Kaveen, who was mostly worried about discipline, but not actually doing anything one way or another. There was an 'Interval' coming up, so obviously we didn't have time to do anything serious. A bell was eventually rung to signal the 'break', and not much changed. The boys were having a contest to see who could punch the wall the hardest. And when one was holding his hand afterwards, I offered him the wisdom that "The wall always wins."  They had a good laugh about that.

Then we discovered that the auditorium in which we were to hold the assembly was locked, and nobody knew where the key was, or maybe someone had gone to get the key, but at any rate the situation was generally accepted by all to be hopeless. In the end, I did get the books that the kids are supposed to be studying, and although no instruction and no assembly took place this time, I got enough of a feel for things that if the same thing happens next week, I think I will be able to assert myself a little more and see that they get something a little more educational from the day. At least I will have been able to read their textbook by then, and I can ask them questions about the material that they're supposed to be learning. They have standardized tests that they are supposed to take, and I've heard from Gabe that at least one parent has complained about their kids not getting enough instruction, so I'd like to try and help them if I can. Besides, they're lots of fun!

After the 'school' was over and the kids all ran off to meet their parents who had come to pick them up, Kaveen and I went to the 'canteen' to talk and wait for Gabe, who was arriving soon for our afternoon classes. Kaveen told me about his job teaching English in the city, and asked if I could come once a week to his class. I offered to go one time. We talked a bit about Buddhism. It was mostly at what felt to me like the platitude level, but I suppose talking to the average Buddhist about Buddhism should be expected to be something like talking to the average Christian about Christianity in that regard. There was a hint of the social tensions in the country when he told me that if you really look at all the wars in the world, you will always find Muslims to be responsible. Since he seemed to be asserting Islam was the only religion that 'causes' people to go to war, I offered that Christianity was at least as guilty of this, but I didn't press this topic.

Jane and Gabe soon arrived and we all had lunch (75lkr/$0.58) and looked at some pictures on Gabe's laptop. Then Jane and I went for a walk while Gabe shared some TESOL materials he had gathered with Kaveen.  Our next class was one that I don't think will help me much, as it just consisted of trying to watch the recording of Prof. Anālayo's class, which I had already attended on Thursday. Oh yes, about this. We have one class that is being conducted remotely by Prof. Anālayo from Hamburg. He is comparing the different recensions of various suttas in the Pali Canon with their equivalents in the Chinese translations. While the Pali Canon preserved here in Sri Lanka is the only complete collection from the early schools of Buddhism, there are collections of translations in Chinese and Tibetan that draw from several of the other schools' collections that were lost in India when the Muslims invaded beginning in the 12th Century. Anālayo is a great teacher and having these texts to compare is a great way to see what kinds of things changed in the early oral transmission and later translations. This is another really good class, but since I can participate live online when he holds the class on Thursdays, it doesn't do me much good to watch it again with the other students. But some of them don't have the opportunity to watch it otherwise, so it's not a bad idea to hold this session.

The final class on Sunday is our Research Methodology class, which will also not  be of much use to me in terms of its content, but it looks like a lot of what we will be doing is reading various Buddhist Studies articles and examining their methodology, so I will still profit from reading those articles. And perhaps this is a place where I can help the other students with less background in writing than I have. In fact, since this class is only to be held every other week, I have offered to help the others with their studies during this time on the off-weeks. Some do not have the English-language skills to keep up with the level of reading and writing that we will be doing, so this is an area where I can help out. Last semester, Mark, who is out of the country this semester and in whose apartment I'm staying, was doing this for the monks, and he suggested it would be helpful if I did the same.

So, there is a fairly lengthy description of my first weekend of classes. The classes are a mixed bag, but my main goal in coming here was to be able to spend my days reading and meditating, and to learn Pali, and all of that I'm sure I can accomplish. The opportunity to teach the Dhamma School seemed at first kind of daunting and awkward, but now I'm actually looking forward to it. I forget sometimes how much I generally like being around kids. These kids seem great, and I only hope I will be able to do something useful for them.

There are of course all kinds of other things going on, and I will be updating my pictures post at some point and telling you more about other things I've been up to and other people I've met, but I don't intend to write a book here, and I do have lots of books to go read!


I was asked via email about the course schedule. It looks like this:


 5:45 -  7:15 - The Madhyama-āgama (e-learning)


 8:00 -  9:30 - Meditation
 9:30 - 11:30 - Pali
12:30 -  1:30 - Pali
 1:30 -  4:30 - Buddhist Philosophy


 8:00 - 11:30 - Dhamma School
 1:00 -  2:30 - The Madhyama-āgama (repeat)
 2:30 -  4:30 - Research Methodology

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why not be a man?

I just read about a humorous early Mahāyāna sutta and I thought I'd share a little about it. My source is A.K. Warder's "Indian Buddhism", pp.377-379. The text is called "The Exposition of Vimalakīriti", who is presented as a bodhisattva who lived as a Householder (a.k.a. layperson, as opposed to monk) who visits taverns, casinos and prostitutes, but only of course to show people "the disadvantages of pursuing pleasure." Hey, enlightenment and bars? I think I know a few people who would sign up for that gig!

The part I really wanted to relate though, concerns Sāriputta, one of Buddha's main disciples. This is a later text though, so as one of the elders he comes in for some abuse. He's treated as a comical character here. At one point, Sāriputta asks the "house-goddess" of Vimalakīriti's house why, if she is so powerful, she does not make herself male, which would obviously be an improvement in the eyes of most of the contemporaries to this tale. The real point of the sutta is about the lack of essences, so she first tells him that she doesn't recognize this principle of femininity, which is just an illusion. But then she turns Sāruputta into a (beautiful, I presume) goddess and herself into an unkempt old man like Sāriputta, and confronts him as to whether he wants change his sex now! I really liked the image of this old coot suddenly transforming into a beautiful goddess, seeing the image of his former self, and realizing how much better off he is in his new female condition. Of course, after he has learned his lesson, she turns everybody back the way they were before, adding that nothing had really changed anyway.

Now it's probably not fair to read any kind of feminism into this 3rd century sutta, which as I mentioned above is really about the lack of essences. And of course I'm importing my own ideas about goddesses into this. But it's hard for me today not to see it as a little feminist rebuke. "Oh really, I'm a goddess and you think I'd be better off as a man like you? Here, feel the difference for yourself!"

Monday, May 14, 2012


I'm trying something a little different for sharing pictures this time.  Here is a little slideshow I've put together of pictures taken on the walk I do every day.  You may want to mouse down there and pause it so you can control how fast it progresses.  Be careful though, don't click on the picture itself - that will take you to the Picasa website.  So will clicking on the big 'play' button when the show ends. You can click on the black border to get the controls back though. How annoying. I'm trying to present content on my blog, not create links to something somewhere else. It's odd - since Blogger and Picasa are both Google properties, I don't know why they can't make a better embedder that keeps you on the Blogger page. Oh, and the second picture of the rooster on the pipe is actually a video - there's a little video icon down in the lower left corner - which of course takes you to the Picasa website to view the video...

Here's a little album with some samples of some of the food I'm eating here:

And finally, it's time to do laundry!  There was supposed to be a maid who would do the laundry, but she didn't come, so I decided I could do it myself...

Well, that's enough for now.  I'm still not real pleased with my editing options here, but I'll keep working at it.  I've got a couple more sets of pictures I could put up already!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Arrival in Sri Lanka

Well, I guess this is where the blog really gets going.  I'm imagining it will be part travelogue and part reflections on Buddhism.  This post is of the former sort.  I set out from Kansas on May 1st, departing at 3:50pm, flying first to Chicago, then Abu Dhabi, and finally arriving in Columbo, Sri Lanka at 4:30am on the 3rd (Sri Lanka is 10.5 hours ahead of Kansas).

My main worry along the way was dealing with Etihad Airways' 15lb carry-on restriction.  I had read accounts from people who said nobody paid attention to their carry-on and others who said they were asked to remove 20 grams from their bag!  I was carrying 30lbs of stuff, including my laptop, its power cord, and a few books that I was studying.  My strategy was to carry the laptop outside my bag and stick the heaviest stuff in the pockets of my jacket.  When I got to the check-in counter, they were indeed weighing the bags, so I approached with 20lbs under my arm and placed my bag on the scale.  What remained therein was only 10lbs, so they were happy and let me pass.  Wacky.

When I got off the plane in Sri Lanka's capital, Columbo, this friendly fellow was waiting to pick me up. His name is Tisya (sp?) and he had brought the former residents of my house, Mark and Elaine, to the airport the previous evening, then slept in his van, and drove me back in the morning.  His English was spare, but his attitude was great, and it was a relief to not have to worry about arranging transportation on my arrival.

We drove down a two-lane highway that was being used as if it had up to five lanes.  Here's the best video I got of a typical vehicle passing another.  The action starts about half-way through. I believe the honking in cases like this is intended to mean something like "I'm going to pass you no matter the circumstances.  So if there's an accident, it will be your fault for not having gotten out of my way."  Luckily, Tisya was a relatively conservative driver, so I wasn't overly concerned for our lives. video

Although we presumably went from one 'big city' to another through the 'countryside', I could never distinguish the beginning or end of any city, even the largest.  The entire highway was crowded on either side with stalls and shops, with only an occasional break.  As the sun came up, I did see that there was lots of rice growing along the side of the road though.  Ok, I guess in those pictures I can tell we're not in a city - but it felt like the road was developed from one end to the other.

Here's a typical vendor along the way. The little pottery bowls are for placing oil and a wick to make lanterns for Vesak.  The hanging lanterns in the background are also for this festival, celebrating the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (or death.)  More on Vesak later.

A neat looking house we passed.
These are perhaps more typical.

Tisya stopped to show me these giant bats resting for the day in these trees.  He called them 'owls'.  These things had a wingspan of 3 or 4 feet.

The bats are in the tree in the upper left.

These picture above were taken to either side of a bridge that we crossed.  Here's a video where I tried to capture them flying.

We stopped again for a view of Adam's Peak (which Tisya called "Bible Peak"). There is a temple on top with a footprint that Buddhists claim is Buddha's, Muslims claim is Adam's, and Christians claim is St. Thomas's.  That's definitely a trip I'll have to take sometime while I'm here.

Not too long after this, we arrived 'home'.  Below are my hosts, in whose house I am renting the 'annex'.  Rane and Dilani.  Rane is a Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering at the neighboring Univeristy of Peradeniya, with a PhD from Cambridge.  Dilani is a fantastic gardener and cook.  She provided me with a tasty chick pea breakfast on my arrival.

Here I am standing awkwardly in front of their beautiful indoor garden.  What are you supposed to do with your hands in a picture like this.  Nothing feels natural.  Finally, below I've provided a tour of the annex where I'm staying.  I already have many more pictures and things to tell, but I'm not sure about this whole blogger layout deal.  This post was a lot more difficult to create than I had hoped.  We'll see what I can come up with next.

Farewell Xena

Edward took this picture of Xena looking out the window of his room. However much I proclaim not to believe in any kind of afterlife, I cannot help but see this as Xena looking out to her next, bright destination. Her size relative to the picture seems to represent the distance she is traveling. I don't feel like the darkness of the room represents any darkness in her life, just that the destination is so much brighter. May all beings everywhere be safe, well, happy, and at peace.

Xena's cancer went from invisible a month ago to sizable lumps on her face and throat, and it was getting harder for her to eat every day with one side of her mouth looking very sore. When you looked into her mouth, there was a hole where her teeth had been that looked too big to fit in the space on that side of her head. This is where food would get stuck whenever she ate, and it would quickly be a smelly mess if it wasn't rinsed out right away. As always though, she was calm and patient with all of this, allowing me to do whatever was necessary with minimal fuss. She probably could have gone on for a few more weeks, but I thought it was better for everyone if I was there to make the decision and to be with her when the time came. Xena passed away calmly on Monday, April 30, 2012.

We seem to take euthanasia for granted with pets but go to any extreme to keep humans alive no matter what. I've always thought I wouldn't want to be kept alive artificially if it got to a point where I could no longer appreciate life. Similarly, I like the idea of Xena passing before her life is nothing but suffering. I recall reading Nietzsche on dying at the right time, which when I read it now isn't as congenial as I remembered it, but nonetheless serves to raise the question of dying while one is still vital, rather than waiting to wither away. But then you have to actually end things when there's still potential left for some quality of life, and one is therefore abandoning that potential. This lost potential is particularly difficult here because Xena couldn't tell me her opinion, I had to decide whether to 'take' it from her. Additionally, the decision was pushed up because of my departure for Sri Lanka. If it were not for that, I would have waited longer. But as it was, if we waited someone else would have had to make the decision, which is a lot to ask of anyone. And Xena wouldn't have known as well whoever she was with at the end.

I've only ever had one other pet 'put to sleep'. That was my cat Antigone, who suffered organ failure when she was only five. I was living day-to-day then, driving an uninsured car with an expired registration in LA because I couldn't afford anything, and by the time I took her to the vet, she had stopped eating, and the vet said there was nothing to do but let her go. I adopted Lagi and Xena a few months later, when the emptiness of my apartment outweighed the sadness of the loss, and it no longer felt disrespectful of Antigone's memory. Lagi passed a couple of years ago, at about 14, of some similar organ failure. We didn't even know he was sick, he just started gasping one day, and was gone I think by the time I ran crying in to the vet's office with him in the carrier.

Xena's death was different because I knowingly chose the day and time. No matter how much I'm convinced it was the best course of action given the circumstances, that part still made it feel wrong. When someone's death is 'premeditated', we are especially harsh on the perpetrator. It's hard not to turn that same harsh judgment towards myself, and it's even harder not to feel like I'm “getting away with something” if I don't judge myself so. Maybe part of it just that, when I think of her and experience the pain of missing her, it's easy to confuse that pain with a judgment that I've done something wrong.

Farewell Xena. Say 'Hi' to Lagi. Lick him on the head for me.