BUDDHISM A TO Z

I would like to share with you a new web site begun by the Buddhist monk Shravasti Dhammika.  He calls it “Guide to Buddhism A to Z.”  I have always enjoyed his sensible approach to things on his regular “blog” site, Dhamma Musings, and in this new one he provides a similarly sensible approach to Buddhism and how it applies to life.

In addition to large amounts of information about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings, the new site also deals with modern social issues — so it is inclusive and very helpful for people who want to know the traditional Buddhist attitude to things as represented in the Tipitaka — the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Theravada tradition.  Of course one should always use one’s head no matter what one is reading.

Here, for example, is the entry on charging for Buddhist teachings, which of course includes charging for teaching meditation, an entry with which I agree wholeheartedly.

CHARGING FOR DHAMMA

The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Puṇṇa was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or even worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, return to their homelands and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma, certain Tibetan teachers being the worst offenders. In doing so such people turn the precious Dhamma into a commodity although the Buddha clearly said: ‘One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma.’ (Ud.66). When the Buddha said: ‘The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts’ (Dhp.354), he clearly meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold.

During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (ācariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). There is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called ‘sponsorship’ or to announce that a ‘donation’ of a certain amount is expected, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.

And here is the entry on the teacher-student relationship:

TEACHERS AND DISCIPLES

A teacher (ācariya or garu, Sanskrit guru) is a person who imparts skills or knowledge, and a disciple (sāvaka) is one who learns from a teacher. In some religions, and even within the Vajrayāna branch of Buddhism, the disciple is expected to dedicate himself or herself totally to the teacher and obey him unquestioningly. This is very much at odds with what the Buddha both taught to and required from his disciples. He advised that before learning under a teacher, and even while receiving instruction, the disciple should maintain a respectful but questioning and discriminating attitude. First, the disciple should investigate (vīmaṃseyya) the teacher by watching and listening to see if his or her behaviour is consistent with what is being taught. Continuing to investigate over a period of time, the disciple should try to see if the good qualities the teacher appears to have are internalized or only the result of making an effort or trying to impress. Other things that might indicate a teacher’s true worth are seeing if they act differently in public than in private and whether they are affected by fame and success (M.I,318-20).

The Buddha approved of respect and reverence by a disciple towards a teacher. He said: ‘A teacher should look upon his student as a son. A student should look upon his teacher as a father. United by this mutual reverence and deference and living in communion with each other, both will achieve increase, growth and progress in this Dhamma and discipline.’ (Vin.IV,45). However, the truly sincere teacher wants the disciple to attain the same level of virtue and knowledge as himself or herself or even to surpass it, and this can only be done in an environment where questioning and free expression are encouraged.

The new site does not hesitate in criticism where criticism is due.  For example, the entry on human rights, after discussing how they are supported in Buddhist teaching, ends with this declaration:

Despite this, Buddhist civilisations never developed the concept of human rights, probably because from an early period they adopted Hindu political theory in which the king was considered divine. Today, most traditional Buddhist countries have had an uneven or poor human rights record.

The site is also helpful in providing a sensible perspective on issues such as homosexuality.  The entry for this says in part:

Homosexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to persons of the same rather than the opposite gender. In the Buddhist scriptures homosexual males are called asittapaṇḍaka and females are called women of uncertain femininity (sambhinna) or masculine women (vepurisikā, Vin.II,271). Today the first are called gays and the second lesbians. Today male homosexuals are called gays while females are referred to as lesbians. According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being ‘the third nature’ (tṛtīya prakṛti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, by the intention behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept. If a homosexual avoids the sensuality and license of the so-called ‘gay scene’ and enters into a loving relationship with another person, there is no reason why he or she cannot be a sincere practising Buddhist and enjoy all the blessings of the Buddhist life.

While not all entries seem quite adequate as they now stand (and of course more entries are to be added), it will be interesting to see how the site develops.  But just from its criticism of those who charge for Buddhist teaching, the site looks to be a healthy dose of medicine.

Here is the link:

http://www.buddhisma2z.com/

David

ROBERT HARRY HOVER

ROBERT HARRY HOVER (Rathmines, Australia, Spring 1975 (photo courtesy of Leslie Vanderham)
ROBERT HARRY HOVER
(Rathmines, Australia, Spring 1975; photo courtesy of Leslie Hover)

Yesterday I learned, quite by chance, that a person very significant for me died in December of the last year.  That person was Robert Harry Hover — “Mr. Hover” — who was my direct teacher in a meditation course that changed my way of viewing the world.

Robert Hover (February 22, 1920 – December 15, 2008) was an American aerospace engineer who went to Burma and studied Vipassana meditation under a teacher named U Ba Khin.  U Ba Khin, in turn, was a lay teacher in a tradition going back through his lay teacher Saya Thetgyi to another noted meditation master, the monk Ledi Sayadaw.  U Ba Khin commissioned Mr. Hover — as well as several other individuals — to teach Vipassana in that tradition in the West.

Robert Hover taught 75 Vipassana courses in 9 countries and in 15 different states in the U.S., from November 21, 1971 through May 29, 1988.

With Robert Hover there were none of the frills — no images or incense or pictures at his meditation course.  There was only this Western man with a fringe of hair on the edges of his head, stepping onto a platform in front of us, wearing a Burmese-style longyi — a cloth wrapped around his waist — and seating himself with crossed legs to give us the Dhamma — the Way Things Are.

Seated there before us — a mixed group of rather shabby-looking individuals in a little retreat camp between Portland and the coast — Robert Hover proceeded to teach us basic Buddhism in practice, beginning with the fundamentals of existence — Dukkha, Anicca, Anatta — the unsatisfyingness of all things, the impermanence of all things — the absence of any permanent “I” or self.  And  he taught us the means for seeing into these things — the two meditation forms of anapana — attention to the in-and-out flow of the breath at the nostrils — and vipassana — awareness of other bodily sensations, which when practiced correctly and persistently leads to insight into the nature of reality.

I had never experienced anything so remarkable and beyond my ordinary experience.

And quite by chance I learned something else.  Very early in the course, I developed a headache.  For me, at that time, a headache usually lasted at least a whole day, perhaps as many as three days.  When — no doubt feeling sorry for myself — I approached Mr. Hover after the group meditation, he very kindly invited me into his cabin, asked me to sit down in front of him, and proceeded to have me pay very close attention to my headache.  Where was it located?  How deep?  How large was the area?  How was it shaped?  What was its texture?  What were the edges like, vague or definite?  He asked me to look inward and to describe it in detail, which led to a kind of inner seeing that I had not experienced before.  He told me to be in that area — not outside my body, or thinking about it, but to literally BE in that area.  Then he told me to position myself behind the “object” of pain, and then “Now, PUSH!”  I pushed from my new, inside-the-body position, against the object in front of me.  Instantly it slipped and moved right though my skin and outside the body, and my headache was gone — IMMEDIATELY!

I was astonished, to say the least.

The healing method he taught me — which was a particular interest of his in later years — was not at all a regular part of the course I attended.  In fact, had I not had a headache and mentioned it to him, I doubt that I would have had any awareness that he could teach such a thing.  I am sure that most if not all of the others who took that Vipassana course ended it and went home without any knowledge whatsoever of the healing method he so kindly shared.  It was something he kept separate from his teaching of Vipassana, though the method was apparently derived from his experiences with Vipassana.  It certainly came in handy for me at that time.

As for his Vipassana teaching, my impression was that he was deliberately conservative; that he took no liberties with what had been passed on to him, but seemed to want to stick very closely to what he had been taught by U Ba Khin in Burma.  This extended even to such a culturally-conditioned (in my opinion) matter as asking students not to sit with the the bottoms of one’s feet pointing at the teacher, something which is considered very impolite in southeast Asian religious culture, where one never points one’s feet at a teacher or a Buddha image.  Though it was no doubt a puzzlement to his American students, he maintained it in his course; and that he did maintain it is an example, I think, of his attempt to adhere closely to what he was taught in Burma.

During the course, we were taught awareness of the passage of the breath at the nostril area for several days (anapana), and just when I finally began to “get” it, we then moved on to awareness of sensations throughout the body, starting from the head and going down the whole body part by part.  I expressed to Mr. Hover a certain reluctance to leave anapana so “quickly,” and his response was that anapana could indeed take one “all the way” — but that we should also learn the other method — I think he described it as having another tool — and my impression was that after having learned both during the course (the basics of both) one could then use either.

I talked to Mr. Hover by phone — rarely — from time to time (he was in one state and I in another),  and I recall that during one conversation he happened to mention that he received “posthumous” teachings from U Ba Khin.  “Posthumous” of course means “after death,” and when I asked him to clarify, in typical Mr. Hover fashion he did not go into detail, but just indicated that death is not the end.

That reminds me of two things I recall particularly about our conversations:  he always seemed very moderate in his speech, and reluctant to talk about anything that might enhance him personally, always being very modest; and second, when asked about other teachers or rumors of “controversial” events among those teaching in the U Ba Khin tradition — events that puzzled students then and still do to this day — he would never say anything negative about anyone, remarking only that there had been a split in the Sangha, with no elaboration upon that simple statement.  He never said a word to discourage one from studying under other teachers in the tradition.  At least that was my experience.

Many years ago, in a memorial  text to his own teacher U Ba Khin, Robert Hover wrote:

I am indebted to Sayagyi U Ba Khin for the rest of my lives.”

I am certainly grateful to Robert Hover for what I experienced through his meditation course.

Those who may be interested in Robert Hover’s method of healing will find his “how-to” book on the subject at:  http://www.amazon.com/Internal-Moving-Healing-Manual-Instruction/dp/1418438855

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Update 2020:

I notice that an online forum has re-posted the segment about my “headache” experience with Mr. Hover.  Someone there made this comment:

This sounds like hypnotherapy to me (healing by faith). The presence of an authoritative figure is [sic] probably helps a lot in aiding the faith in the subject that the method works.

To me that is a complete misunderstanding of what happened.  When I seated myself in front of Mr. Hover, I had no idea what he was going to do, nor did I have any inkling he even knew of a healing method.  One can hardly have “faith” in a method one does not even know exists, or an “authority” one does not even know is an authority.   Nor did Mr. Hover tell me what to expect, or even just why he was running me through this process of internal examination and mental action.  There was no “hypnotherapy” involved.  In fact the process reminds me rather of a scientific methodology.  My astonishment was due to the fact that the instantaneous disappearance of my headache was completely unexpected, and came as a complete and unanticipated surprise to me — certainly not as a result of any “faith.”

 

David