What would the Buddha do? Practical Buddhism for modern times

by Kurt Barstow, Los Angeles Religion & Spirituality Examiner, October 23, 2008

Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- The Bodhi Tree Grows in L.A.: Tales of a Buddhist Monk in America (Shambhala, 2008) by Bhante Walpola Piyananda is a testimony to the simplicity and therefore applicability of Buddhist teachings.

In twenty short, easily digestible chapters, Bhante (a Pali word that can be translated as "Venerable" or also "teacher") Piyananda, the founder-president and abbot of Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, a temple on Crenshaw Boulevard, interacts with and advises members of his community.

As a Theravadan Buddhist monk he is a representative of the oldest of the three Buddhist traditions, which is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka (where he is from originally), Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. This tradition uses texts in Pali, a language that coexisted with Sanskrit in the Buddha's time.

He refers to these texts throughout the book as he helps people in need with problems including anger, gambling addiction, jealousy, racism, dead pets, and the interpretation of monastic rules. What shines through in all these stories is not only his compassion but also his deep knowledge of the Buddha's history and thought as well as an ability to always find concepts, teaching stories, or practices appropriate to a given situation.

In the first story, for example, a man whose supervisor has been tormenting him and passing him up for promotion (a situation with which all too many of us can probably identify) wants to buy a gun but is convinced by a friend to first see Bhante Piyananda.

He first reminds the man of the Eight Worldly Conditions, four pairs of desirable and undesirable conditions that every human being must face: gain and loss; fame and infamy; praise and blame; and happiness (sukha) and unhappiness (dukkha). The good news (and the bad news as well) is that none of these conditions is permanent.

Bhante Piyananda then goes on, citing the  Maharahulavada Sutta: "Tom, the Buddha taught us, 'We have to be like the five elements—earth, water, fire, wind, and space. The earth does not get upset by the various things thrown upon it. Nor does water get upset by the various things that it is used to wash. Nor fire, which burns things clean and dirty without complaint. Nor air which blows on clean and dirty things equally. Nor space, which is not established anywhere. We need to develop our minds so that like these elements, things that arise that are either agreeable or disagreeable do not invade our minds and remain there. If we conduct ourselves like these five elements, we, too, can remain calm and peaceful, not bothered by whatever happens.'"

He also advises Tom to practice as an antidote to his anger Metta (loving-kindness), in which one extends that emotion first to oneself, then to beloved people in one's life, then to neutral people, then to difficult people, and eventually to all sentient beings. In the end, Tom doesn't buy the gun, things get better with the supervisor, and he eventually gets promoted.

In another story, Bhante Piyananda's temple gets involved in fundraising efforts for victims of the 2004 Tsunami that most affected Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Here some mistaken and limiting views about karma come into play. It is suggested that the disaster occurred because of bad karma accrued by the people.

One leader in the group suggests that by helping the fishermen, who kill things for a living, the temple members will themselves accrue bad karma. After a moving talk on the spaciousness and generosity of compassion Bhante Piyananda tries to correct the man's narrow view of Karma by putting it in the context of the Buddha's discourse on the five laws (niyama) that govern all things.

The first is utu niyama, the law of energy, which governs changes in the body and things like climate. The second is bija niyama, the law of germs and seeds, which states that each one produces a different kind of plant or animal. Importantly, this law also states that there is only one kind of human seed, meaning that all are the same despite differences in race, class, gender, and so forth. The third law is kamma niyama, which states that whatever one does, good or bad, one reaps the consequences. The fourth is dhamma niyama, the law of nature. This governs all of physical manifestation and includes things like the earth's plates moving and causing tsunamis. The fifth is citta niyama, the law of mind that governs manifestation and says, in effect, "we create our world with our thinking."

As Bhante Piyananda explains, "Kamma (the Pali word) is only one of the five laws in play at all times, each one exerting its influence as it may. Therefore, we must realize that our life experiences are not only due to the law of kamma." The conversation leaves the objector more knowledgeable about the complexity of these interacting laws and more sympathetic to the Tsunami victims.

In a final example, a woman's treasured pet--a dog named Buster--is hit by a car and killed. In an initial visit to her home, Bhante Piyananda cites the Buddha in the Salla Sutta: " Here in this world life is not predictable nor is it certain.

Here, life is short with difficulties and suffering. Being born one then dies, without exception,..." A ceremony for the animal is held at the temple, but she is so bereaved that she cannot place the picture of the dog on the altar, instead clutching it with all her might as she cries.

At this point Bhante Piyananda tells the story of Kisa Gotami, a woman whose firstborn child died and who could not accept it, running from house to house with the dead baby searching for medicine to revive it. She is eventually directed to the Buddha and, laying the baby at his feet, begs him to work a miracle and revive it. The Buddha speaks to her with love and compassion, telling her he will do that on the condition that she bring him some mustard seeds from a house in which there has not been death. Of course, she is not able to carry out this task since, as she eventually comes to understand, every household experiences death.

As Bhante Piyananda concludes. "Death does leave a scar that cannot be erased when we are very close to the departed one. I'm not telling you to forget Buster, but you must get on with your life. Keep the happy memories of your pet, but also remember that nothing in physical form is forever." She is then able to place the picture on the altar and the memorial service goes on.

Other subjects of the book include the Taliban's destruction of the huge Buddha statues in Bamiyan, alcoholism, marriage ceremonies, meditation, spiritual friendship, and reincarnation, among others.

These are real, contemporary issues viewed within both the context of modern, multicultural Los Angeles and the context of Buddhist tradition. Bhante Piyananda's love and concern for the people he counsels is as evident as his love of his spiritual tradition, making that tradition a contemporary, living thing and a relevant resource in the lives of many Angelenos.

Bhante Piyananda's teaching in this book is filled with humility, grace, and wisdom that can be of benefit to all.

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