Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who is 'The Time Traveller's Wife'?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Sep 2, 2009

Dharma Inspired Movie Review: www.thetimetravelerswifemovie.com

Singapore -- Adapted from the bestseller, ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ tells of a man’s peculiar condition, of being involuntarily subject to fading away, only to manifest in another time and place. It is suspected to be a medical anomaly, though Buddhism would see it essentially as karmic.

Time-travel is impossible though – as it would mess up the workings of cause and effect, with some effects becoming causes instead. Irreconcilable temporal paradoxes aside, the romantic story is really a wonderful skilful means for relaying important messages on life, love and loss. With Brad Pitt as the executive producer, who was involved in the making of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, the story bears some similar themes on the passage of time.

When Henry time-travels, he always leaves and arrives naked. Nope, clothes and possessions cannot be brought along. This is reminiscent of how we come and depart from life itself – though when reborn, even one’s body cannot be brought along! The only baggage possible is one’s immaterial karma. Every time Henry re-manifests, he finds himself disoriented. Sounds like rebirth again, with a difference being his ready recollection of his ‘past lives’, which allows him to more readily increase in wisdom. Despite Henry’s repeated attempts to change the course of key unfortunate events in his past, he is unable to do so, which reminds us of how we cannot change our past; only our perception of it.

Being forced to live a new life every time he time-travels, Henry is able to visit many ‘random’ places and times, yet unable to find refuge anywhere. However, he is able to more or less will himself to visit a particular girl time and again, probably due to strong karmic affinity with her. Clare becomes his only anchor amidst the instability of it all. Her love became his refuge. For us Buddhists, the Dharma would be our true refuge, which is the unchanging truth and path that leads us to the transcendence of life and death. Sadly, even worldly love changes in time, which is what makes it worldly… though it can change to be purer, to be ever more spiritual love too.

Like Henry, we too travel back and forth in time. Yes, of course we travel forwards to the future. How do we travel backwards to the past then? By recollection of the past, by reconciling past regrets with remorse and remedial action. What else can we do? In a sense, Henry was stuck in the past too, as he still instinctively tries to alter its course many times. Of course, for the story to progress, he does get to change some minor events. It’s interesting how he sometimes re-manifests in a same place during a different time, as if forgetting the past when he was there… before feeling some deja vu. Sounds like how some recall past lives?

How do you love someone who is absent half or more of the time? How do you care for someone who comes and goes unexpectedly? Clare realises that her love doesn’t have to fade away just because Henry does. She also learns that love does not need to have and to hold always. The story brings the meaning of long-distance relationship to another dimension! The truth is, due to the practical demands and karmic unpredictability of life and death, we too are often unwittingly absent friends and lovers, also liable to ‘depart’ suddenly. Indeed, we can only love in the moment – in this moment; not in any other moment in the past or future. ‘Now’ is all we have. Even when Henry returns to the past, he has no choice but to live in the ‘now’ then.

At some point, Clare becomes frustrated with the cycle of waiting for Henry’s occasional returns, after which she would have to fret his disappearance into thin air. Henry himself said that he never wanted anything he could not stand losing… till he met her. However, all worldly love is mortal, with or without his unique condition. Is love futile then? Not al all. As Stonepeace put it, ‘Because everything changes from moment to moment, we should treasure everything in this moment. Because everything changes from moment to moment, we should not be attached to anything in this moment.’

Love that treasures the beloved despite changes, that is not clingy, must the the truest of love. In the case of Henry and Clare’s extraordinary relationship, it is much less conditional than ordinary love – because it is literally less physical and more ‘timeless’ – for in the heat of passion, Henry can vanish, and when he reappears, he is always younger or older! Then again, if the beloved changes too drastically, beyond recognition, who would the beloved really be? Wouldn’t loving someone else be the ’same’? Paradoxically, when love for one’s True Love becomes truly unconditional, not dependent on any conditions, who the beloved is doesn’t matter! It’s not fickleness though, because all will be loved equally too.

Henry catches a manifestation of himself dying in the future, and begins to worry for his family. Is it a curse or blessing to know how or when one will die? It would be a curse if one does not know how to face death graciously. It would be a blessing if one learns to accept one’s mortality, and makes the best of the moment before it becomes the last one. Since we will die eventually (unless we transcend the cycle of life and death in time), why not prepare for a meaningful exit, be we with or without knowledge of when we will leave? If we are able to recall our countless arrivals and departures like Henry, would be able to depart more gracefully?

If you can indeed travel back in time, what would you do? Our wisdom would guide us to undo our mistakes. Our compassion would guide us to help whoever we can help. Out of love for Clare, Henry even contemplated returning to the past, to tell a younger Clare not to wait for him. Before he ‘dies’, he likewise does not tell her of how he might return – also to relieve her of the burden of anticipation. Indeed, True Love releases attachment to the beloved, while not letting go of loving itself. This is how True Love gladly endures… life after life – like that of the great selfless Bodhisattvas and Buddhas!

Who is the time traveller’s wife? Beyond Clare alone, we too are like her at times – when we miss the absent beloved ones in our lives. Who is the time traveller? Beyond Henry alone, we too are are like him at times – when we we live on some other ‘timelines’, different from that of the beloved around us. When we live on the same timeline, we are present to one another. When otherwise, we become absent, invisible. Have you been ‘manifesting’ your presence with your love in the moment recently? Don’t wait until it is too late… because you can’t time-travel!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Wheel And The Crescent

by Juhi Shahin, Dhamma Musings, September 7, 2009

Singapore -- Buddhism and Islam are two religions we do not hear mentioned in one breath very often. So it was with great anticipation that I went to attend the conference, Buddhism & Islam – Encounters, Histories, Dialogue and Representation held at McGill University, May 29 and 30, 2009. The conference indeed turned out to be eye-opening.

Not many know that the encounters and relationship between the two religions commenced almost at the very beginning of Islamic history. The first panellist, Xinru Liu, opened the conference with her research on Tukharistan (northern Afghanistan), Sogdiana (southern Uzbekistan) from 6th to 8th century, which was the junction on the Silk Route for routes going east and west and north and south. This region was Buddhist an[]d Zoroastrian before the Muslims came in as invaders and traders. There was not a sudden conversion because of the fear of the Muslim armies as is generally believed, but close collaboration and cooperation in the region.

The people there greatly appreciated the opportunities that came with joining the Islamic culture and civilization. For some, it was also convenient to be Muslim under the Muslim regime and pay no taxes, since in Umayyad times Muslims did not need to pay taxes. However, once Muslim, they continued to be so and the region produced many philosophers,
scientists and mathematicians who took Islamic civilization to new heights, while as Liu argues, also preserving their pre-Islamic local cultural traditions.

Equally interesting in this panel was Alexandre Papas’ paper in which he discussed the writings of two Ottoman travellers to China in the early twentieth century. The dialogue between the Muslim authors and Buddhist monks was discussed. It was interesting to see that they discussed the similarities and dissimilarities between the two religions as well as political issues with both their countries facing Western domination.

However, the highlight of the day was Georgios Halkias’ paper on
Muslim Queens of Buddhist Kingdoms, which was about the practice of bride exchange in Ladakh and Baltistan. According to Halkias, “the Muslim Queens of the Himalayas stand witness to a rich cultural fusion, an old blend of Arab, Persian, Mongol, Indian and Tibetan elements. Ever since the conversion of the Baltis to Islam in the 14th century, the Muslim princess-brides stood as promises of unity and peace and as a means of alleviating conflict between the warring houses of Baltistan and the Buddhist
kingdoms of Ladakh.”

Interestingly, these Muslim queens ruled the Buddhist kingdoms as well, longest rule having been of 13 years, and were patrons of both Buddhist monasteries and mosques. Muslim and Buddhist interactions in Tibet discussed by José Ignacio Cabezón, was also quite absorbing. According to him, “Muslims­both Muslims of Kashmiri origin and ethnic Chinese Muslims­have lived among Tibetans for centuries.” However, he argues that the “Chinese annexation of the Tibetan plateau has exacerbated the tensions between these two groups.”

The two papers presented on Buddhism in Muslim Indonesia by Karel Steenbrink and Hudaya Kandahjaya were complementary and explained a unique situation really well. Buddhism and Islam have lived together in the region since the arrival of Islam in 1200, Buddhism these days being mainly represented by the Chinese community. Indonesia, in spite of having the largest Muslim population in the world, does not call itself an Islamic state. Six religions are recognized by the state of Indonesia.

However, people of all religious communities have to accept the Pancasila ideology, one of its principles being, “belief in the one and high divinity.” This leads to the development of a unique situation for the Buddhists, since in their belief, the presence or absence of God is left undefined. Some Buddhists in compliance with Pancashila and also because of Muslim influence are using the concept of Adi Buddha, a form of divinity. This is seen as problematic by others who perceive it as forming a
new kind of theistic Buddhism.

The two papers on Thailand brought about two contrasting pictures of the region. Charles Keyes of University of Washington gave more of a historical perspective telling us that by the beginning of twentieth century, Muslims were a distinct minority in Thailand, they came from South Asia, China, Malaysia and some were also ethnic Thais. However, with the restructuring of the state in the late 19th century and growth of nationalist feelings, promotion of Buddhism became fundamental to Thailand. The result of this being that the Muslims then became the “others” or what is called khaek in Thailand.

This rhetoric of difference has led to “some Muslims, especially Malay-speaking Muslims, have embraced fundamentalist versions of Islam and some Thai politicians and Buddhist leaders have accentuated Buddhist nationalism.” On the other hand, Alexander Horstmann’s paper focused on the small village of Ban Tamot in Southern Thailand, where the Muslims are mainly concentrated. He talked about an ancestor-worshipping ritual held in the cemetery, in which local Imams as well as Buddhist monks participate. Very interestingly, “the basis of this ritual is the mutual bond of kinship relations that criss-cross through the religious communities and the local elites. Thus, the Imam of Ban Klong Nui is related to the old Buddhist abbot of Wat Tamot. Second, the village spirit is believed to be of Malay-Muslim origin ... Thus, while not explicitly announced, the participation of Muslims is crucial to the ritual.”

An interesting project on Islam in Tibet has just been finished by the Warburg Institute of the University of London. Two of the papers presented on Rashid al-Din’s (1247-1318) Life of the Buddha were part of the project. Rashid al-Din’s book is considered the oldest World History book, in which he dedicates a separate section on the life of the Buddha. Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim highlighted the aspects from Tibetan Buddhism that are present in the work and also attempted to give evidence of the presence of Buddhists in the Ilkhanid court.

Commenting on the same text, Anna Akasoy brought out the use of Islamic terminology by Muslims in trying to understand Buddhist concepts. This is what the two scholars called a 'cultural translation', where Buddhists concepts were Islamicized in order to be understood.

The conference ended with another interesting panel on Religion and Local/Global Identities, where an effort was made to understand how one community perceives another in various places, Japan, India, Thailand and Malaysia.

And how contemporary scenarios like the 9/11 affect relations, although needless to say, do not alter them completely. This conference gave a much needed comparative religious perspective. More such efforts are needed to bring out the fact that most religious people when left to themselves are able to live together in a collaborative and cooperative way, enriching all the cultures and religions involved.

This “cultural translation” is an ongoing process, in spite of the hoopla surrounding fundamentalisms of all sorts today. (The picture shows the mosque in Lhasa).

Excerpted from Juhi Shahin's book "Rethinking Islam".