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By subscribing, you will receive our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. BEFORE THE ADVENT of paper, an early book form in the Indian subcontinent was the palm-leaf manuscript, known as pothi. Some of the world’s rare holdings of Indian illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts are currently being displayed in a special exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition of some 30 manuscript folios and book covers focuses on one remarkable Mahayanist Buddhist text, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, ‘Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses’.
Only a few hundred palm-leaf manuscripts providing evidence of east Indian medieval painting are extant. The Manasollasa’s statements support the contention that miniature manuscript painting was part of a larger mural tradition. If the figurative images had a meaning, it was to allude to the power of the Shakyamuni Buddha, which in itself gave the text great authority.
These Indian visual conventions were widely disseminated – both within the subcontinent and without – by the manuscript’s portability. Even today, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra is read and recited as a ritual for blessings by the niwars, a linguistic group in Nepal.
Outside the subcontinent, regular maritime contact with east Indian monastic Buddhism influenced the ‘Indianisation’ of southeast Asia, and was accompanied by related three-dimensional art forms.
The introduction of paper in 12th century India accelerated the palm-leaf manuscript’s demise some two centuries later. Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-leaf Tradition is at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028, until 22 March 2009. CAPTCHAThis question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions. In Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, the ancient Buddhist tradition of Tak Bat, the morning alms round, is practised each day at dawn. The tak bat – also known as the sai bat in Lao – is a source of admiration by most visitors.
To raise awareness of this problem, the art and education project, The Quiet in The Land, created a poster that was placed in many hotels.
Equally concerned is Deputy Head of Luang Prabang’s Provincial Tourism Department, Khamtanh Somphanvilay. It was a tradition that Khamtanh himself participated in as a novice monk when he was younger.
Always monarchical, Luang Prabang’s kings were considered to be descendents of the town’s mythological founders and the ancient Kingdom of Lane Xang.
Among the most important of these wats were Xieng Thong, Tat Luang, Visoun, Mai and Aham, places of ritual and royal worship and important respositeries of knowledge with manuscripts on palm leaf, in Pali, teaching the Buddhist canon, as well as lacquerware and textiles, which resonated with religious symbolism.
The first European to penetrate this remote, mountainous place, Frenchman Henri Mouhot, arrived in 1861 – 150 years ago this year – followed by French colonisers whose influence would change the mythological and ceremonial society structured around the temples. When Luang Prabang was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 to protect its fragile culture, a status extending to 177 sacred structures which make up the 35 temples together with 443 civic buildings, it started to become a key destination for tourists to Southeast Asia. Last year 235,000 visitors descended on Luang Prabang, generating an income of US$180 million. While many visitors witnessing the tak bat adhere to the solemnity of the occasion, the sheer numbers and presence of those for whom it is just another tourist show, mitigate against it. If visitors are made aware of Buddhism, its philosophy and history, they can appreciate the dignity and beauty of this ceremony and its role in the life of Luang Prabang. This comprehensive and detailed survey of the first six centuries of Indian Buddhism sums up the results of a lifetime of research and reflection by one of Japan's most renowned scholars of Buddhism. This is a textbook work -- I think the author wrote this to have material for his students -- but it does have a more fluid reading than other scholar works. It had a long and narrow horizontal format and was seldom more than 60 cm long and 6 cm high. Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-leaf Tradition draws from the museum’s own holdings of illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts, book covers, initiation cards, thangkas and sculptures, in an installation featuring many rarely seen works including some that have never been exhibited.
In the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon, it was highly revered as one of the oldest Mahayana sutras and a fundamental text for understanding emptiness.
On view in the exhibition are those of the Bengal school of West Bengal or Bangladesh where the Pala rulers were great patrons of Buddhist art between the 8th to the 12th centuries. The illustrations were limited by the folio’s size and conformed to a standard format of around 5 cm by 8 cm. The believers, who read, recited, wrote down, taught or propagated such texts to others, accrued a lot of merit.
Following the collapse of Pala rule and the destruction of monasteries in the mid-12th century, an exodus of Buddhist monks brought them to the Himalayan region. The faithful in neighbouring Tibet do likewise as it had been adapted to Lamaism, a complex form of Buddhism, by the 11th century. Although its replacement by the art of the book was almost complete by the 16th century, its miniature illustrations were given a new lease of life.
Emerging silently from the town’s 35 temples, hundreds of barefoot monks in orange robes walk in single file through the streets to collect food from the local people. But it has become so popular as a tourist attraction that in some places monks can hardly process through the streets as they are blocked by raucous tour groups with flashing cameras. In addition, a leaflet entitled Help Us Respect the Almsgiving Ceremony has been distributed throughout the town, published by the provincial tourist office and supported by the Lao Buddhist Fellowship and hotels such as the Amantaka and the Phou Vao Resort which are dedicated to the preservation of such traditions. Theravada Buddhism was adopted in the 13th and early 14th centuries, influenced by the Khmer kingdom, adding further layers to an already complex belief system based on animism and the guardian protectors, devata luang, Pu No and Na No, of the town and its territories. Wats were grouped around the royal residences, built with royal patronage or by affluent individuals, as funding the building of a wat gains merit in Buddhism. Nevertheless, these customs continued to be upheld right into the 20th century, even during three decades of war, civil unrest, revolution and social changes, culminating in the victory of the communist Pathet Lao in 1975.
As the tranquil town of just 452,000 people adapts to the demands and changes this has brought, many materially advantageous and alleviating poverty that previously existed, the risks are a loss of authenticity and identity and commodification of its cultural heritage. Ironically, as the town has improved economically, aspects of daily life have deteriorated, including the rituals  that people were proud of and that made it so alluring to visitors.

Yet, if travel agencies and tour guides show visitors how to respect the ceremony, if hotels distribute and display the leaflets, tourists can understand the religious implications even though their time in a Buddhist country may be short – usually only three days. In this way, the ancient practice can be perpetuated, heralding the start of each day at dawn as hundreds of monks in orange robes walk barefoot through the streets in silence to perform the tak bat. Despite its diminutive size, it was a durable instrument for communicating Indian religious thought for over 2,000 years.
According to John Guy, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the museum’s department of Asian art: ‘Indian illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts of the 10th to 13th centuries are extremely rare, and the few that survived did so outside India, principally in the monasteries of Tibet.
The essence of the text was also personified in a deity of the same name, Prajnaparamita, ‘Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom’.
The earliest surviving manuscript samples were made of birch bark, called bhurjapatra, traceable to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. They presided over a network of monastic workshops of scribes and artists copying and illustrating sacred texts in the monasteries of Nalanda, Vikramasila, Vikramapura and Somarupa. Their style was uniform, usually of a dominant deity in a centralised frame, surrounded by text on either side.
Narratives of the jatakas, stories of the Buddha’s previous existence and significant events in his life however, are rarely found. The manuscript’s conventions were transmitted to shape the artistic achievements of Nepal and Tibet, perpetuating the legacy of Indian art, which was disappearing further south. Devotional images of deities evoked through recitation of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita text later circulated, and appeared in Tibetan initiation cards, called tsakalis. This is because ‘the study of parallel developments in sculpture,’ Mr Guy adds, ‘attests the close stylistic interdependence of the plastic and visual arts in ancient India.’ Buddhist images of Indian provenance found in mainland and insular southeast Asia demonstrate the legacy of monastic contact. In the early morning mist, the lay community – men, women and children – kneel or sit with bowls of sticky rice to await the monks to whom they will offer it, an act performed in serenity and prayer. So disruptive has this become to their religious life that many of them no longer wish to collect alms and the Senior Abbot, Sa Thu Boun Than, is asking for legal help. The leaflet, illustrated with a photograph by Hans Berger who has documented Lao Buddhist life, explains the custom and begs visitors to respect it with appropriate behaviour and dress. For most Laotians, holy rituals have always been fundamental to their way of life, part of every festival and celebration. Buddhism spread slowly and was first declared a state religion in the 14th century by King Fa Ngum, which he did by accepting from his Khmer father-in-law the golden Pra Bang Buddha, the palladium of the Kingdom of Lane Xang. The king employed master craftsmen and architects to build them, specialists in ivory, wood, gold or silver, carving and stencilling, and even today monks themselves work as carpenters, sculptors and painters.
The monarchy was abolished – the last uncrowned king, Savang Vatthana, and his family died in captivity in northern Laos – and Buddhism was temporarily banned, but these practices never completely disappeared. A place that has historically never been abandoned, as many other ancients sites have, its social elements have remained intact, reflecting a living heritage site, and the preservation of its customs, especially the tak bat, have become part of the tourist attraction. But, as old Luang Prabang residents point out, the town’s traditions are changing because its inhabitants are changing. Hirakawa was an eminent buddhism scholar, so this makes for a great summary on the early history of buddhism (along with A.
The manuscript was intended to preserve and disseminate Indian sacred texts in the service of religion, as well as the great literary epics. The painting style we witness in these earliest surviving manuscripts reflects stylistic conventions developed in Indian temple and monastic mural painting, now almost completely lost to us. The Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra was widely illustrated in manuscript form and, as an iconic representation of the goddess through whom devotion might be directed, became an object of worship itself. It is possible that the palm leaf was used for manuscripts at the time, but none are extant. Two folios from a unique edition of the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript (circa 1090) are featured.
Buddhism was known in Nepal early in the first millennium, and reached its ascendancy between the 12th and 13th centuries when Nepalese artists took the classical manuscript tradition further. These small 13th to 14th century paintings used during Buddhist initiation ceremonies, had letters on their backs indicating the correct sequence. In Burma, a 10th-century bronze Bihari sculpture of a crowned and jewelled Pala Buddha was identified as of the Kurkihar style.
Growing to a large rectangular format, they subsequently featured in Buddhist books as far as China, where they were valued as an independent art form.
By giving, they earn merit and blessings, participating in a living ritual that is practised throughout the country and throughout Southeast Asia. It asks that they participate in the ceremony only if it has personal meaning for them, rather than purchase rice sold by unscrupulous locals to give indiscriminately and thereby trivialise a sacred tradition. Monthly rites and ceremonies connected with agricultural seasons, rice planting, full moons and new year, in which the entire community participates, structure the annual calendar and the way in which they organise their lives. In 1356, he built a wat in Muang Swa, the early name of Luang Prabang, to house this revered image which today, although rumoured to be a replica, is kept within the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum, and for which a new shrine has been built in the grounds.
The upkeep of most wats, and that of the monks living within them, is entirely dependent upon donations from the community, since monks become ascetic and relinquish all possessions except their robes and an alms bowl. The eventual return to peace brought an immediate resumption of the familiar ways of life and of these the tak bat was the simplest and most fundamental, a daily practice of respect and honour.
Transformations are occurring in living arts such as textiles, for example, where weavers now cater for tourists and international trade rather than for local communities.
It is not known when the pothi began to be illustrated as none have survived before the 10th century.
As its name suggests, the palm-leaf manuscript was made of treated palm-leaf folios, usually from the talipot (Corypha umbraculifera) palm whose leaves were first trimmed to a narrow, horizontal shape and then ‘processed’.
Flora and fauna from nature and motifs from the celestial realm intrinsic to Indian religion appeared alongside temple or monastic architecture. One portrays the Buddha standing submerged in water, giving safety (abhayandada) to mariners, a role more usually assumed by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Nowhere was it more elaborate than on the wooden covers able to accommodate continuous illustrated narratives. One set made for the Nyingma (Elder) school of Tibetan Buddhism has a central group forming a meditation mandala dedicated to Vajrasattva, the sixth and ultimate Buddha, accompanied by five tathagatas, celestial Buddhas and four lokapalas, gate-keeper guardians.
Important religious exchanges between India and the Malay archipelago inspired the creation of Borobudur, one of the world’s greatest Buddhist monuments in east Java, by the powerful Sailendra rulers from the mid-8th to the 9th centuries.

His office website contains a plea in English for an understanding of the almsgiving, describing it as a sacred religious ceremony: ‘Tourists may participate and photogaph the ceremony. Religion and society are not separate, but form part of a seamless whole, where spiritual well-being is essential to personal and universal harmony.
During King Sulinya Vongsa’s reign in the mid-17th century, Buddhism was taught in schools.
But supporting the monastery and giving alms brings merit to the donors, improving their karma. Residents are moving out of their homes and leasing them to foreigners so that the town is visibly changing from a living entity into a commercial museum.
However, from at least that time, manuscripts were illuminated with miniature images of deities to whom the text was dedicated.
When magnified, the complexity of these elements reveals the epic proportions and scale of wall painting long since vanished.
A rare 10th- to 11th-century cover from the Karnata-Malla period is devoted to Prajnaparamita who became one of Nepal’s principal female deities. Tibetan thangkas in distemper on cloth made for monasteries also carried portraits of Lamas as well as Buddhist deities heavily influenced by the Pala tradition, often in a riot of colour.
During the reign of the third Pala king Devapala (815-854), the Sailendras also constructed one of Nalanda’s main monasteries in India itself. It was added to animistic practices, including spirit, phi, worship, and images of Buddhism were surrounded by ritual offerings of food, fruits, flowers, incense and candles. Scholars refer to the ‘UNESCO-isation’ of the site and managerial aspects are being questioned as heritage conservation clashes with urban and tourist development. The palm-leaf manuscript thus became a repository of the Indian pictorial convention, whose preservation was hindered by the subcontinent’s humidity.
The public recitation and worship of texts, as well as the display of the manuscript itself, still forms an important of Buddhist and Jain worship,’ Mr Guy explained. In north, west and east India, a calligrapher using a reed pen or brush wrote the text in ink directly onto the folio surface.
Inscriptions bearing the name of the painter do not appear, suggesting he was perhaps of a lower caste. Submitting to the Buddha’s calming powers in the sea is the deity Rahu, who causes eclipses and is associated with storms. Seated at the centre, the goddess is holding in her raised left hand, the sutra text of which she is the personification, as her principal attribute. Thereafter manuscript editions of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra circulating in Sumatra and Java instigated the cult of the ‘Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom’. By the 19th century, 63 Buddhist temples had been built in Luang Prabang, although today only 35 remain. Museumification is inevitable, in particular at the most important temple, Wat Xieng Thong, where the impact of so many tourists renders it difficult to function as a wat where monks can meditate and study scriptures. Apart from monumental wall murals, such as those at Ajanta, little evidence of classical Indian painting has survived the passage of time. The unbound folios were given to the painter to make the illustrations, using obviously, vegetable pigments and dyes, and filled with paint of opaque quality. Yet the Manasollasa, a 12th century manual of technical information on painting placed much emphasis on the painter’s formal accomplishments. Bodhisattvas served as the embodiment of compassion to all living creatures and delayed their own enlightenment in the process.
Supported by a cast of Buddhist deities, she is attended by two bodhisattvas, Padmapani and Vajrasattva. A 9th-century Sailendra style bronze sculpture with traces of lacquer, was made in Prajnaparamita’s honour in the Palembang area of Sumatra. They were destined for the lay community as well as the sangha, monkhood, for meditation and listening to the monks’ chanting.
A custodian of possibly the earliest surviving Indian painting traditions, the humble manuscript became an important medium documenting what might otherwise have been lost. He was to be a ‘master of fine draughtsmanship, proficient in painting according to the prescribed methods and adept in the use of colours and modelling’ because he was ‘not only a fresco painter, but was (also) well-versed in the technique of miniature painting on palm-leaf (patra-lekhana)’. Typically they provide an iconographic representation of a deity, or a scene from a jataka story not described in the text.
A Bodhisattva plays the vina, a stringed musical instrument, in a mountain grotto whose depth is conveyed by a deep blue, encased by colourful angular rock fragments. On the left are two scenes from the Shakyamuni Buddha’s life; his miraculous birth at Lumpini and the subduing of the angry elephant Nalagiri at Rajgir. The folios were threaded, bound and secured by cords through holes and protected by flat wooden covers. Their function therefore would appear to be limited to assisting the devotee in concentrating his worship, giving focus to his meditation,’ said Mr Guy. A seated and bejewelled Future Bodhisattva Maitreya with a stupa represented in his headdress appears in a 12th-century Pala-period folio from an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript.
On the right, the Buddha is giving his first sermon at Sarnath to an assembly of monks and bodhisattvas.
Flanked by two white lotuses, he is inside a terraced shrine or bhadra, preaching to a female devotee prostrated at his feet.
Another Bodhisattva is bestowing boons to a gathering of the devoted against a background of lush foliage. Other deities represented include the four-armed Kurakulla, an emanation of the Amitabha Buddha. An aspect of the Red Tara, he is completely in red, and wears a flame-emitting aureole while dancing on a corpse in a mountain grotto.

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