By Jonathan Landaw
Does the phrase “8 and 10 of PHR” mean anything to you? If you are a veteran Dharma note-taker, you probably recognize it as shorthand for one of the major topics discussed in the initial scope of the Graded Path (lam-rim) teachings, namely “The Eight Freedoms and Ten Endowments of the Precious Human Rebirth.” As our lam-rim teachers never tire of telling us, through appreciating the incomparable value of our present situation – as defined by these freedoms and endowments – we become motivated to take full advantage of the rare opportunity we now have to make this fragile life of ours truly worthwhile. When we come to appreciate fully how these 18 qualifications – such as having been born a human with functioning senses and without major impediments to study and practice – uniquely enable us to progress along the path of spiritual development, we will not waste the time between now and our death on meaningless activities.
One of the 18 factors (the second of the 10 endowments, to be precise) is generally referred to as “birth in a central land.” A so-called “central land” is a place in which the Buddhadharma is well-established and flourishing, thereby providing its fortunately endowed inhabitants the opportunity of contacting, studying and practicing the teachings leading to higher rebirth, liberation and full enlightenment.
According to traditional explanations, such a central land can be defined in two ways: geographically and religiously. The original geographically central land was that portion of India surrounding Bodhgaya, the site of Shakyamuni’s demonstration of Buddhahood, and included those places, such as Sarnath, where he turned the Wheel of Dharma for the present age. Two thousand years ago, therefore, North India was certainly “central” as far as Buddhism was concerned, while Tibet remained a distant and barbarous area beyond the “civilizing” influence of the Dharma. Several centuries later, the situation had changed radically: Tibet had become a place where the Buddha’s teachings thrived while in much of north India, including Bodhgaya itself, waves of invaders had so effectively eradicated the living Buddhist traditions that little or nothing of them remained. Even the once-famous Mahabodhi Stupa fell into disrepair and became shrouded in cultural forgetfulness; few if any of the local inhabitants were aware that this partly buried structure was the site where Shakyamuni had manifested complete and perfect enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.
Because there is no certainty that a particular tract of land will remain “central” in terms of the flourishing of the Dharma, we need to examine what it means for some place to be a “religiously” central area. What prerequisites have to be met before we can fairly claim that the Buddhadharma has been established in a particular country? I remember Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey questioned us somewhat rhetorically about this many years ago. Is it the existence of Buddhist texts in the language of a particular society that makes that society Buddhist? Or perhaps the gathering there of serious Dharma practitioners? Or maybe it is the presence of bodhisattvas that is the crucial factor? In fact, none of these is the essential prerequisite at all. What determines whether or not Buddhism has taken root in a particular land is the presence or absence there of a number of people (the texts seem to specify four) maintaining Buddhist ordination.
I remember being a bit taken aback by Geshe Dhargyey’s answer to his own question. But after some thought and discussion I came to appreciate at least part of the reasoning behind it. If several fully ordained monks, for example, are able to live together in a particular country while following their rules of discipline purely, this says something rather definite about that country’s commitment to the Dharma. Following the example of Shakyamuni himself, these monks will necessarily depend upon the generosity of the surrounding lay community for their worldly needs; for example, in Thailand Buddhist monks continue to observe the ancient custom of begging for their daily meal. Instead of contributing economically to the larger community, the monks rely on it for their very survival. Therefore, the mere fact that such a group continues to exist means that the general inhabitants of the area must feel that the monks are doing something worthwhile, something that contributes to the welfare of the society as a whole. And once the general populace has come to value the Buddhadharma to such an extent, then it is appropriate to maintain that Buddhism has indeed become an integral part of that culture.
What brought up these thoughts about a place becoming a central Buddhist land was something I saw on television the other night. One of the story lines on “Family Law” – a popular and respected new drama about a law firm that deals with cases involving marital strife, divorce, child custody and the like – centered upon a young boy from California who was recognized by certain Tibetan Buddhist monks as the reincarnation of their guru. The mother wanted to send the child to their monastery in Nepal so that he could pursue his religious education, but the boy’s father – who had long been separated from the mother – was strongly opposed.
What struck me most about this particular program was how calmly and soberly it dealt with a topic which, not many years ago, would have been considered too unusual to be part of prime time viewing. In the past, if such a topic had been addressed at all it would probably have been ridiculed. As it happened, even though there were some characters in the program who definitely found the notion of a Los Angeles boy’s being a Tibetan tulku unbelievable, the show’s general attitude towards the monks and their faith and towards the mother’s desire to have her child educated in Nepal was quite respectful. Also, certain aspects of the story – such as the methods used for finding and testing an incarnate lama and the testimony one of the monks gave regarding His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s own discovery – were far more accurate than I would ever have expected from the popular media.
Watching this program made me realize that Buddhism has entered into the public consciousness of the United States much further than I had imagined. Although misconceptions still abound and such terms as “karma” are bandied about with little concern for their actual meaning, somehow the general level of Dharma awareness seems to be rising, if only a bit. Whether this is truly a positive development or not, I cannot say. After all, when the sound of Tibetan monks’ chanting serves as the background for an automobile commercial, have we moved closer to becoming a central land, or further away?Tags: jonathan landaw