THE SENSIBLE S. DHAMMIKA, MONK

About once a month, I go with a friend or two to a very unpretentious Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant (Van Hanh) far on the other side of the city.  I discovered it a few years ago.  It is operated by Buddhist nuns from Vietnam.  And the food is great.

My usual companion on these visits often repeats two things in relation to the restaurant, usually variations on:

1.  “I don’t know why there isn’t a long long of people waiting outside the door of this place.”  That means something, because he has the money to eat in any restaurant he wishes, but he really likes the food at that vegetarian restaurant, and considers it a still-undiscovered gem for most people in the city.

2.  “There is no good reason to eat meat.”  He says this partly because the Vietnamese restaurant offers very tasty vegetarian “fake meats” in the dishes prepared.  The Mahayana Buddhists of China and of Vietnam have a long tradition of preparing delicious vegetarian meat substitutes, and have made something of an art form out of it.  So as my friend points out, there is really no good reason to eat meat for either taste or health reasons (science in general says that a vegetarian diet is healthier).  And he would also add (as he frequently does) mention of the huge damage done to the environment by the meat industry, for example the continuing cutting of ecologically-valuable rain forest in South America so that immense cattle ranches might take its place.

Any thinking person will ponder such issues, and one person who not only ponders them but writes about them is an Australian-born Theravada Buddhist monk who goes by the name Shravasti Dhammika.  And what is even more interesting is that he writes about challenging subjects in a remarkably straightforward, balanced, and sensible way.  It is a welcome relief from the fanaticism, extremism, and unthinking dogmatism that so often accompanies discussion of controversial topics.

(Photo: S. Dhammika)
(Photo: S. Dhammika)

Of course, being a Buddhist monk, he approaches subjects from a Buddhist perspective.  For example, in the matter of meat eating, he begins with the premise that “both cruelty to and killing living beings is against the first Precept.”  With irrefutable logic he cuts no slack for Buddhists who continue to habitually eat meat:

Farmers do not raise cows or chickens for fun; they do it because they can make a living by selling them to the abattoirs [slaughterhouses]. Likewise abattoirs don’t slaughter animals for fun, they do it to make a profit. They sell their meat to the processors, who sell it to the local supermarkets or butchers who in turn sell it to the consumers. Any reasonable person would agree that there is a clear trajectory, a discernible causal link between the farmer or the abattoir and the consumer. It may be a distant link but it is there. Put in its simplest terms, people would not slaughter animals if other people did not purchase meat. So this is the fifth point — eating meat is causally related to the harming or killing of living beings and thus is connected to some degree to breaking the first Precept.

He does not hesitate to jump into topics such as same-sex marriage, writing:

A tragic number of homosexuals indulge in and fall prey to shallow promiscuous lifestyles. Marriages or partnerships that were recognized by the state and affirmed by society would offer a healthier alternative.

I like his realistic approach to issues such as love, a subject that for the world in general is wrapped in illusion and fantasy.  He approaches the matter head on:

As my reading and reflections proceeded, I soon became aware that a swirl of myths surround love. The most noticeable of these myths is that love is a widely felt and easily evoked experience. It is celebrated endlessly in song and story, it is ardently professed, hailed as the solution to many — sometimes all — human problems. Yet while love is not necessarily rare, it is certainly not as common or as enduring as is generally supposed. The divorce statistics from most developed countries show that between 40 and 55 per cent of marriages end in divorce, many of them acrimonious. And people who stay married do not always still love their spouses. The endless sorry parade of cases that come before family and small claims courts shows that relationships between siblings, in-laws, neighbours and friends are not as enduring as we so blithely suppose.”

He uses such doses of realism as a jumping-off point for a reasoned discussion of what love really is, beyond the illusions.

His writings range far and wide into the problems common to humanity, and into various intriguing byways of Buddhist history, travel, and teachings.

I mention all this because he now has a website offering his essays on a wide range of subjects, all free of charge.  They present much food for thought.  You will find them at:

http:www.bhantedhammika.net

 

 

David

 

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FROM THE GATES OF FAERIE: HENRY MARTYN HOYT

Those who enjoy the fantasy poetry of Walter de la Mare will find a similar atmosphere in this poem by Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920), whose work we have seen before in the posting “Where Throbbed the Thrush.”  Today’s poem continues a tradition of Fairy lore found in old tales and ballads, particularly the so-called “Child Ballads” collected by Francis James Child in his book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882-1898.

THE SPELL

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

And riders passed me on the left, and riders on the right,
Clad in cramoisie so fine
Phantom riders nine and nine,
That faded with the night.

The dawn was flushing in the east as I won to my door,
And there within the ingle dark
One had drawn a cantrip mark
Upon the earthen floor.

The thatch was matted o’er with weeds, the well was choked with stones,
There lay a shroud upon the bed
Draped and drawn from foot to head,
As white as dead men’s bones.

I ran and shouted down the street, but none would heed my cry.
I screamed across the market-place.
Never a burgher turned his face.
In silence they passed by.

Oh, none could hear and none could see the man they used to know.
For he is witched for seven years,
He who in the dawning hears
The elfin bugles blow.

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

This is very much in the tradition of “medievalism” stimulated before Hoyt by the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, and we can link it to the earlier poem “Blow, Bugles, Blow” by Alfred Tennyson, with its second stanza reading:

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Hoyt’s poem, however, goes deeper into the Fairy lore of the British Isles.   In that belief, fairies were not little winged, flitting creatures, but rather a supernatural people of simultaneously this world and of another — a dimension humans entered at their peril.  And sometimes humans were taken — meaning they were abducted from this world by the fairy folk; they might be able to return in seven years, or fourteen, or twenty-one — or never.  That is why the country people spoke of the fairy folk with great respect and not a little fear, speaking of them carefully and only in a roundabout way.

In Wales they were the Tylwyth Teg — the “Fair Folk.”  In Ireland they were the Sidh — pronounced “Shee.”  Similarly, in Scotland they were the Daoine Sith, pronounced somewhat like “Doo-en-uh Shee” —  The “Fairy People,”  or more euphonically, the “Fairy Folk; also Daoine Math (pronounced “ma”), the “Good Folk.”  In older “Germanic” English, they are the Elves.  Both the word “fairy” and the name of their realm, Faerie, came into English from Old French.  So “Faerie” is Elfland, the otherworldly realm of the Daoine Sith.

The classic work on the subject in English is The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, which you will find free, online, in its entirety, here:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34853/34853-h/34853-h.htm

Let’s look at the poem part by part:

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

It is the first light of morning (as we shall find).  A man is walking up a sandy road above the sea.  Suddenly he hears a rooster crow three times, then again three; and following that he hears three blasts on an elf/fairy horn, from the gateway to that otherworldly dimension.  Three times three makes nine, which is a number with sacred significance in old Celtic belief.

And riders passed me on the left, and riders on the right,
Clad in cramoisie so fine
Phantom riders nine and nine,
That faded with the night.

The man finds himself between two lines of finely-clothed riders on horses, nine on his left, and nine on his right.  They are clothed in beautiful cramoisie, meaning “crimson” — a very old-fashioned word borrowed from Old French, which in turn borrowed it from Arabic.  He calls them “phantom riders,” meaning they seem like spirits, and as the last traces of night fade away, the riders fade away as well.

The dawn was flushing in the east as I won to my door,
And there within the ingle dark
One had drawn a cantrip mark
Upon the earthen floor.

He manages to get to the door of his cottage, with the glow of dawn already in the East.  As he enters,  he sees, on the floor by the fireplace, a “cantrip” mark.  A cantrip is a spell or charm, so the mark is a spell placed on the dwelling.  Ingle is a Scots term meaning the fire in the fireplace, and by extension the fireplace itself and the hearth or space immediately in front of it. People in the early 1900s generally knew the word from the term “inglenook,” a recessed space in front of the fireplace, where one could sit cozily.

The thatch was matted o’er with weeds, the well was choked with stones,
There lay a shroud upon the bed
Draped and drawn from foot to head,
As white as dead men’s bones.

Though it seems that only a short while has passed since he encountered the procession of riding Daoine Sith, actually it has been much, much longer.   He finds his thatched roof rotting, and weeds growing in it.  His bed is covered over with a white shroud, as though someone had died and the bed was no more used.  The well where he draws his water seems long unused, and is filled with stones.

I ran and shouted down the street, but none would heed my cry.
I screamed across the market-place.
Never a burgher turned his face.
In silence they passed by.

Alarmed by all he has seen, he runs down the street, shouting to draw attention, but no one can hear him.  He runs screaming across the market square of the town, but not a single “burgher,” — that is, townsman — turns to look at him.  Instead they pass by in silence.

Oh, none could hear and none could see the man they used to know.
For he is witched for seven years,
He who in the dawning hears
The elfin bugles blow.

No one can see him or hear him.  He is neither entirely in this world, nor in the other, because he has been enchanted, “witched,” for seven years.  And all because he heard the blowing of the elfin bugles as the Daoine Sith came out from the hidden gates of  Elfland into our world, and he was caught in their passing.

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

The poet repeats the first stanza to bring the poem to its end, something often done in old songs and ballads to give a sense of completion.

 

David