Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I am back!

I straightaway present to you the abstract of my thesis. Do enjoy!

Buddhist Elements in Ancient Yakṣa Images of Nepal

Presented by: Suyog Prajapati

The Yakṣa has had multiple meanings, ranging from an abstract concept in the Vedic period to a powerful mythological being. Yakṣas have been shown as images and mentioned in various literary sources for well over two thousand years. They have always been an essential part of various folk cultures. Especially in the Buddhist Pāli texts like the Jātaka stories and Saṃyutta Nikāya they have been treated extensively in relation to the Bodhisattva and the Buddha. They became more prominent in the Indic region during and after the Maurya period (ca 4th to 2nd c BCE) as they began to be widely represented in art forms, most importantly those of the expanding Buddhist religion. As Buddhism reached the Northern regions and the Nepal Proper (NP) or Kathmandu valley, it absorbed the local deities including yakṣas and yakṣiṇīs. The concept of Yakṣa was pivotal for the transition of Buddhist art from the symbolic to anthropomorphic. By the time images began to be made, Buddhism had made a paradigm shift from a monastic movement into a cult, a large part of which was fuelled by the Yakṣa in the form of art.
            This thesis is aimed at describing clearly the influence of Yakṣa on ancient images of Nepal from a Buddhist perspective. For this, the Buddhist notion of Yakṣa has been first derived from literary sources. Then, various yakṣa, yakṣiṇī and related Buddha/Bodhisattva images from NP have been studied, comparing them to similar ones from India. Finally, based on history, iconography and aesthetics, the mode of incorporation of these deities in the Buddhist tradition of NP has been defined.
The demi-god at the National Museum in Chauni, Kathmandu 
Statement of Problem
The following problems have been stated for the purpose of the study:
1.     What or who is the Yakṣa according to Buddhism?
2.     What are the Yakṣa related ancient images of Kathmandu valley?
3.     How has the Yakṣa concept affected the Buddhist art of Nepal?

Objective of Study
Similarly, this thesis was written with the following objectives:
1.     To review the available Buddhist literature and define the Yakṣa concept.
2.     To identify and study the Yakṣa related stone sculptures of Kathmandu valley dated up to the 6th c CE.
3.     To determine how the concept of supra-natural beings and demi-gods (i.e. yakṣa/yakṣiṇī) were incorporated into the aesthetics of Buddhist images of NP.

Methodology and design
            This work is primarily a documentary and field research. Canonical and non-canonical Pāli texts and selected Sanskrit texts (in the form of translations) served as primary sources while other works served as secondary sources. Information regarding the Yakṣa was collected from these and analysed to give its clear concept in Buddhist light. Various yakṣa, yakṣiṇī and Buddha/Bodhisattva related images from NP were located, identified and studied, comparing them to images from India. Among these the Buddhist elements were identified and finally conclusions were drawn.

Limitations of the study
            Only images from selected sites in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur and the National Museum were taken as field data. The time period covered is from the 3rd c BCE to 6th c CE. Only selected Pāli and Sanskrit Buddhist texts were studied. Most of the time secondary sources were referred to.

Chapter contents
Chapter I: Introduction
Chapter II: Buddhist Concept of Yakṣa
Chapter III: Yakṣa and Buddha/Bodhisattva in Art
Chapter IV: Buddhist Elements in Yakṣa Images
Chapter V: Conclusions and Suggestions

Results of the study
            Pāli sources present Yakkhas in ambiguous ways. Some are morally opposed to the Buddha Dharma, some are supportive and some are neutral but later become inclined. The Buddha or Bodhisattva is always presented as superior to the afflicted yakkhas and yakkhinīs. The Sanskrit sūtras also show the Buddha in an exalted position but the animosity of yakṣas towards the Buddha is seen to have largely seceded. Yakṣas mentioned in these later texts are almost always audiences or ardent followers of the Buddha. In some texts, the Buddha/Boddhisattva is also addressed as yakṣa. Primeval deities like Indra and Vaiśravaṇa (among the four great kings, Caturmahārāja) are mentioned as yakṣas as well. So in a Buddhist context Yakṣa gives a range of connotations. Specifically though, any powerful and non-human being is considered Yakṣa.
            The above trend is clearly seen in art. Beginning with narrative arts and then various steles, yakṣas and yakṣiṇīs assume a variety of roles that can be linked to the principles of welfare propounded by Buddhism. Yakṣas in art are of free standing, seated or crouching types, guardian or attendant types and of beautiful voluptuous female types. They were models for humanly representation of the Buddha and Bodhisattva as well as deities related to protection and prosperity that are till today part of the larger Buddhist culture. Examples of the freestanding type include the Jaya Varma idol from Māligāon, the headless torso from Hāḍigāon and their offshoots like the Bāṅgemuḍhā Buddha and attendant Bodhisattvas. Seated and crouching types are represented by the Kuvera from Satyanārāyaṇa temple in Hāḍigāon and various caryatids. Attendants are seen in different steles and plinths. Female figures include Hārītī images from various places. These examples from NP have been compared to those from India, such as the Parkham yakṣa, architectural components from Sāñcī and Bharhut and other sculptures from the Kuṣāṇa and Gupta periods. The use of Yakṣa in Buddhism through these images in a social context served three functions—to bestow wealth, progeny and protection.
            The notion of Yakṣa has always been held in high esteem across all social strata. As Mahāyāna gained prominence in the early centuries of the common era, its devotional aspects and the innate wish of the people to attain benefits therefore most probably allowed for the incorporation of the timeless concept of Yakṣa into the ancient Buddhist art of NP. The core philosophy of Yakṣa lies in the water cosmology and due to its fluid nature it served as a multifarious lexicon to illustrate and spread the liberating principles of the Buddha’s Dharma. The stone images studied here show the variety with which this abstract concept has been treated to meet this purpose. Over the centuries such traits manifested in numerous ways and ultimately gave rise to the ideal pictures of the Buddha, Bodhisattva and their acolytes that have prevailed in Nepal and the world till today.

Suyog Prajapati
(Supervisor: Dr. Milan Ratna Shakya)
MA Semester IV
Roll no. 5/TU reg. no. 5-1-20-6-2005
Academic year: 2070/71 (semester system 1st batch)
Central Department of Buddhist Studies,
Tribhuvan University,
Kirtipur, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Date: April 11, 2017 (Tuesday)

Thank you for your presence!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Five aggregates and the universality of sufferings

Let’s assume that you possess everything you ever wanted. You have the best home, family, relationships and material objects available in this world. All of your physical, mental and emotional needs are taken care of. You grew up in a well-to-do family, got your education in the best of schools and have a caring and understanding surrounding. Are you not supposed to be the happiest person alive? Think about it!

While you do that let me explain something from the teachings of the Buddha. He expounded that we cannot find anywhere, within, or on us any eternal, everlasting entity called soul. The eye is not the soul, the heart is not the soul, the neurons in our brain do not constitute the soul, nor do the atoms or waves within us constitute the soul. The breath we take and give also does not constitute the soul. None of them form a soul because they are always changing, always in a state of flux. What then are we made of?

As a scientist I can tell that the ultimate nature of our being comes down to the DNA and the information it encodes. But grossly speaking, the Buddha would say that we are all made up of “heaps” or skandhas of matter and intangible qualities. These includes rupa (or form), vedanā (or sensation), sajñā (or cognition), saṃskāra (or habituation) and vijñāna (or consciousness). By form he meant all kinds of vision, sound, smell, taste, touch, thoughts etc. These are immediately accompanied by their corresponding sensations and the state of recognition, which then are habitually recorded in our consciousness. Whatever our situation we can never get rid of these five aggregates.

The ever on-going cycle of the five aggregates.
Now, coming back to the imaginary state of complete hedonistic fulfilment. Even if we have everything we desire, because of the above five aggregates being always actively involved we are never satisfied. The saṃskāra that have built up will always force us to look for new, novel ways of enjoying bodily, emotional or mental forms. It is a vicious cycle – good form causes a gratifying sensation which is longed for by our consciousness as more and more is needed to keep the habituation going. This urge, this need, this desire called triṣṇā that builds up due to the five aggregates is the root cause for our unease, our sufferings, our dissatisfaction.

Whatever our situation, however rich or poor we are, unless we have the proper knowledge and experiential understanding about the workings of the aggregates, desire and the necessary mindfulness of all these, we are bound to suffer. We must understand that everything is changing, everyone changes and that all will end ultimately. So those material possessions, mental gratifications or those emotional fulfilments will all come to their inevitable demise, sooner or later. What then are we to feel? It will be hard but once we realise and remain mindful of the impermanence of things, our sufferings will be kept at bay. This knowledge will help to make our inevitable journey of life more fruitful and happy.
The nature of our being.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Birth of Thought and Conviction

Often, as I meditate to give continuity to the habit of Vipassanā and the techniques that I learned just over two months back, I contemplate also on the physical nature of my body. I not only try to remain focused on the “spiritual” aspects of the ever changing aggregative state of the whole of existence but also draw inferences based on my knowledge of biology (however rudimentary), more specifically physiology and neurology. Here is one of those propositions based on a quiet sitting involving the inquiry into the origin of conditioning after a person descends down to this world.

When a baby is in the womb, within the warm and isolated environs of the mother’s protective world, s/he is in most part unaffected, un-afflicted by the disturbances of the social realm outside. From almost the third month after conception, after the development of the neuronal elements and the ability to make sensations, up to the day of birth, s/he is nearly a blank slate with virtually no serious convictions. Elsewhere I have remarked that it is from within the womb itself that the actual journey begins. True that many of the hereditary physical elements arising from the decoding of DNA and the synthesis of proteins etc. decide the future “potential” of the child while still in utero. But I think the decisive role of whether s/he will be on the right path (or not-so-right path) is largely determined in the initial phases after birth.

Now, let us look at the physical make-up of the nervous system, the bodily aspect that is responsible for what we sense and feel and that which ultimately leads to our cognition and habituations. These habituations in the long run are in fact what cause our frustration over things that are different than what our volitions predicate.

The brain is an organ made up of tiny unit-cells called neurons. Broadly speaking, there are three main sections – the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the medulla oblongata. Developmental biologists will tell you that the medulla represents the most “primitive” portion of the brain, one that is remnant of “lower” animals like fish or reptiles. The cerebellum controls involuntary activities like heartbeat and digestion while the cerebrum is the biggest development in humans, distinguishing us through its ability to store a lot of information and also to reason and judge. The medulla passes through the back of the neck and extends down within the spine from whose various sections arise nerve fibres that end into every organ in our body.

Talking more about the neuron, it is a very specialised little system consisting of basically three parts. The main “body” has all the bio-chemical and biological constituents, including the nucleus responsible for the overall somatic expression of characteristics based on “molecular hereditary” i.e. the information encoded by nucleotide bases of the DNA. The dendrite (“branches”) input electro-chemical signals into the body while the axon takes signals away from it. Overall, there is much plasticity in the way “information is processed” by this basic tangible constituent of our consciousness. Chemicals called neurotransmitters along with the various interconnections between many many neurons (at least 80 billion in an adult human) work together for creating perceptions and finally “storing” them as memories. These further provide tinder for passion and the cycle of craving, attachment and volitions.
The "material cause" for our "immaterial thoughts"

Now, let’s go even deeper and try and understand the chemical process behind the formation of “thoughts”. The first thing to happen once a child is born is that s/he is going to cry. The sudden drop in the temperature outside of the usual motherly abode creates electrical signals from all round the tiny body. They get translated to chemical signals through the receptor neurons and then transmitted through the axon (that form nerve) fibres to the spine and then finally into the various parts of the brain. That reaction to the external environment is probably the first defilement to the otherwise pure mind of the child. Next comes sight. The first images seen through the (set of healthy) eyes create photo-chemical reactions at the nerve-endings in the eye-ball that again give way to nerve signals which stimulate the first attachment to visual objects. Likewise the sound, smell and taste experienced by the child in the first few hours of her/his coming immediately start creating unconsciously the factors responsible for blemishes in her/his consciousness. The child starts having definite craving and clinging attitude. If the physical and ultimately the intangible emotional desires of the child go unfulfilled there is bound to be exhibitions of anguish and affliction. As mutual bonds between the newly born and her/his family members get stronger more chemical messengers like the “love-hormone” oxytocin and the “pleasure chemicals” dopamine and endorphins work in an elaborate way, thus psychologically rooting the emerging person to the inevitable ground of heaped unease and afflictions. All these are “remembered” in various layers of the physical mind as chemical compounds or electrical signals and intuitively guide all of the child’s future actions.

Here we may deduce that there is nothing in it for immaterial “emotions” or “feelings” since all of them are simply results of quantifiable matter. Of course there is also no place for a well-defined “self” or “soul” that remains unchanged throughout. Then we may say that thoughts and convictions arise only as responses to our habitat made through the contact between our sense organs and their sensory functions. This contact, albeit quite physical and chemical at the grosser level, in fact is quite intangible. One may equate the potential energy developed through electronic repulsion between two objects to sensory functions or directly to material reactions. But from a more practical standpoint we can say that the perceptible objective world around and within us gradually lead to a wholly immaterial niche. Therein our ability to quantify things becomes a mere ploy of our aggregated convictions. Numbers, mathematics, labels, identity, name etc. are nothing but conventional devices created by the habituated, “defiled” mental entity housed within the corporeal body of ours. Right from the moment of birth one is almost “brain-washed” into believing all such conventions as the actual “laws of nature and society”. One is “taught the truth” when actually one is being deposited with afflictive made-up knowledge.

I guess this is one of the sad realities of this world – we have to first sucker-up all delusions, realise the ensuing vicissitudes and only then seek for clearer “correct ways”. One good aspect however is that this realisation may come at any stage in life. One can take off from there and still manage to reach quite far ahead into removing those delusions and remain in balance for the rest of the time. It is never too late to give birth to a universally beneficial thought and to foster truly altruistic convictions. The past has passed and immediately the present instance is prodding us into a future of undefined consequences. Being in sync with this fundamental reality does and always will aid to the well being of us individuals and those around.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Treating life like a credited university course

Having completed a 10-day Vipassanā course from Dharmaśriṅga (Buddhanilakantha, Kathmandu) on 12 Jan 2016 I feel that any life event can be treated as a credited university course. Ten years equals almost 3650 days. Twenty-four hours of work equals one credit. So ten years equals nearly 3650 credits, counting even sleep, since the brain and body don’t stop even then. The most important thing is not to consider any course, that we have completed, good or bad. It’s not being indifferent. It’s only being non-judgemental. As a master of chemistry, I can tell that all things are quantum mechanical waves. During my time at university I convinced myself “intellectually” through mathematics and superficially through some documentaries by Dr Green. But no one has actually even observed (in empirical sense) these supposed dualistic particle/wave. If we were to base all of our presuppositions of quantum mechanics and in fact the whole of “modern” science on 17th century Newtonian mathematics are we not limiting ourselves and our conceptual understanding of the world to this one dude? What if he was wrong? What if the philosophy that motivated Sir Isaac was (actually) wrong? Must we even take mathematics at face value? Can you even trust your brain? Now, this is getting pretty existential, so I will move away from this never-ending circle of undue questioning…

My point is that this very short personal introspective course allows one to not only intellectualise but to actually see at an experiential level. Unlike mathematics one does not need any visual object or rule or words or statements or symbols [or god(s) for that matter] to remain focused on what is real. The first three days were dismal since I had just returned from a long hike down Chitlang to Thankot. I was awfully stressed out and sitting cross-legged for fourteen hours (yes, 14 intermittent hours!) a day wasn’t doing my mind any good. All of us one hundred or so participants (male-female about 60:40 in segregated zones) were asked to remain focused around a patch of skin below the nostrils with normal breath. Since we were “thinking” only about the inflow/outflow of air (“which is neither Hindū/Buddhist/Jain/Christian/Muslim/Tao/Nepālī/White/Black/… but universal!”) we weren’t interested in remaining attached to it nor were we feeling animosity towards it. We were simply observing it like actual real scientists. We had no reasons (or time) to be entwined in any dogma since the breath changes every moment. The chance of breathing in the same oxygen atom twice is well… need I tell? Anyway, after we got convinced by the associate instructor that all the “head-spinning” and “excruciating pain” or “subtle (pleasurable) sensations” we were experiencing were only hallucinations, we became more used to this habit pattern. Of course for the entire period we could neither utter a word or use any form of gestural communication or even gaze at co-workers/colleagues. We could not even read or write in our personal spaces and we could not use perfumed items. The food was almost vegan and of course we had to be confined to our area remaining “non-coeducational”. Sounds like a prison? Well, we even had bleak dark cells called “śunyāgārs” i.e. “emptiness-holes” where, voluntarily, we could remain during non-group-sittings to focus on, hmmm… “nothing”!!

However tough the 140 hours (nearly equivalent to 6 university credits) spent “working” on the mind and body, matter and mind, we in fact became quite used to the daily 04:30 to 21:30 hours schedule. Since I already did a “theoretical” course on Vipassanā/Vipaśyanā (“Vi”=deep/insightful, “paśyanā”=seeing/observing) in the first semester of Buddhist studies it wasn’t that hard to grasp the evening discourses or the actual method/technique that the master instructor was teaching us. After the fourth (actual Vipassanā) day we now had to use the attentiveness that had developed in the previous days to sweep each and every constituent entity of our body-mind. We had to observe without any ignorance, craving or abhorrence our own feelings, sensations, emotions, our bodily pain, bodily pleasures and thoughts/imaginations and remain stable in the fact that all things are impermanent, that all events are transitory and that all atoms in our corporeal body are transient. Often on the fifth and sixth day I personally experienced moments of extreme elation and in the night times extreme anger. But then, again, all of them were only fleeting sensations and it was futile to grasp any of those. By the ninth day the whole group remained quiet in perfect harmony throughout the compulsory sittings, neither making any sound nor any sudden movements. That was perfect practice. The tenth day (counting Jan 1 as day zero) progressed with the gradual release of our “noble silence” vow. We were allowed to have friendly conversations in limited areas of the complex and to smile at each other. The course ended the next morning with a whole lot of (im)personal insights and love, compassion and kindness for all the volunteers and friends and also the whole world around us who directly and indirectly helped achieve this profound state of being.

Now, all this “meditation stuff” may sound like pseudo-science or all this talk about remaining stable and love, kindness etc may seem like “mumbo-jumbo”, but who are we to judge without actually having experienced it and without actually taking this course? Like stated above, life can be treated like a credited university course. Every second, hours, days, months, years and decades are all adding up making our life unique. Does not matter what courses we took are how we were “graded”, the important thing is we completed them and earned our credits. So my dear friends, be happy, be thankful, serve all, work for the good of everyone/thing and remain. Just remain. Be liberated. Live. Happiness and prosperity for all!