Taking Refuge in the Buddha

Douwe Bob managed to capture millions of hearts with his song Slow Down, the official 2016 Dutch entry for the Eurovision Festival. In this song, that he wrote himself, he repeats the phrase ‘slow down brother’ as a kind of mantra. It makes up most of the song. Slowing down is also what many “Mindfulness” gurus and teachers tell us to practice. Douwe Bob is all of twenty-three years old and is probably not following courses in mindfulness or meditation. His lyrics contain other words of wisdom, along the slow down lines, in that utterly charismatic way that the young can and do strike the right chord in you. If you are listening, that is. And apparently millions were, because he got quite far in the competition.

“Mindfulness” courses, teachers, books and websites are to be found everywhere one looks. Amongst other practices, it incorporates slowing down. “Mindfulness” is seen as essential to our mental and emotional fulfilment, for committing ourselves to accepting what is in the moment.

Most of us connect “Mindfulness” to Buddhism. Professor of Buddhist Studies, Leiden University Jonathan Silk says that Westerners take on practices inspired by Buddhism freely, without the feeling that it clashes with their own religious background or belief system. No wonder then that a splendid exhibition, The Buddha, is now on display at the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden and will also travel to the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam.

one of the images to be seen in the exhibition

‘The Buddha is one of the most inspiring figures in world history. What makes the life-story of this spiritual leader so intriguing? What are people searching for in Buddhism?’ These are some of the questions that the exhibition attempts to give answers to. The life of the Buddha as well as present day practices, expressions and manifestations in a host of different countries, including the Netherlands, are on display.

A Korean artist’s rendering of the Buddha as a dj in the museum









In the background, in every single room the chant ‘Buddham sharanam gacchami, dhammam sharanam gacchami, sangham sharanam gacchami can be heard’. For those of us who grew up learning about the life of the Buddha through our schoolbooks, this chant is familiar. Simply translated, it means: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in Dharma; I take Refuge in the Sangha’.

The different practices linked to “Mindfulness” could be seen as a refuge from our extremely busy lives in which our balance is at stake. In another time, in another place refuge took another form. On October 14th 1956, three hundred and sixty-five thousand people participated in converting to Buddhism along with Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution. The latter was of the Mahar community and seen as a pariah by caste Hindus, as were all of the other converts of that day. Unlike those of us into Buddhist inspired practises without a sense of it clashing with our other beliefs, for the converts of that day, taking refuge in the Buddha was an act of severance. A clean cut from the Hinduism that labelled them as ‘untouchable’. It is considered the largest one time mass conversion in history. Pity therefore, that this incredible historical act of taking refuge in the Buddha is missing from this exhibition.

















Me immigrant. You….?

Tarzan was an immigrant in the jungle, and the apes that brought him up named him ‘Tarzan’ which means ‘white man’. Then Jane came along and soon after he had saved her from being attacked by a violent leopard, they had a conversation. This is how the conversation went.

Me Tarzan You Jane, scene 1932-8x6

JANE: “Thank you for protecting me.”


JANE: “I said, thank you for protecting me.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her) “Me?”

JANE: “No. I’m only ‘Me’ for me.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at Jane again) “Me.”

JANE: “No. To you, I’m ‘You.’”

TARZAN: (Pointing at himself.) “You.”

JANE: “No. I’m Jane Parker. Understand? Jane. Jane.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her.) “Jane. Jane. Jane.”

JANE: “Yes, Jane! (She points at him) And, you? (She points at herself again) Jane.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her) “Jane.”

JANE: “And you? (Pointing at him) You?”

TARZAN: (Jabbing himself in the chest) “Tarzan! Tarzan!”

Tarzan had accidently landed in the jungle long before this conversation. Although he really was an immigrant, he considered the jungle home. Or more his than hers anyway. He taught himself English. Then Jane came along. His version of English became unfamiliar even to himself because he had to take Jane’s version of English into account. However, since she was very pretty, he didn’t get all worked up about it. Anyone who comes into the jungle and is pretty is welcome, as Tarzan felt that the jungle was sparse in preti-ness. And since he was brave and had just saved her from a ferocious leopard, she persisted in helping him by teaching him the difference between ‘me’ and ‘you’ and when one should use each of these words and how they are linked to one’s identity. So, me is me only for me. He got it. At the end of it all, he was able to jab himself in the chest and cry out in pleasure “Tarzan! Tarzan!”

Finally he knew who he was.

This is just one tale on the theme of immigration. There are many others.

Our Apsara is coming!


I don’t think you would see them either, because, most probably you, like me, wouldn’t specifically be looking for them. Her breasts are bare and the slit of her vagina is clearly visible – and in focusing on these, you would probably miss the active marks of love on her body. The first time I saw her, I did not notice them. It was Anna Slaczka who showed me the scratches that her lover had made on her shoulders as a sign of the enjoyment of her body. And the lover is not the only one who lusts after her. The monkeys do too, as they try to free her from the little fabric that still clings to her legs. She stands in front of the windows of this section of the museum peacefully – her gaze turned away from the magnificent dancing Nataraja to the mischievous monkey. IMG_2771

Yet not everybody wants her. The evident excitement in the recorded minutes of the Society for the Friends of Asian Art, ‘our apsara is coming’ turned to bitter disappointment when she arrived in the Netherlands. ‘It could have been her colour, or something else’ says Ms Slaczka, the curator for South Asian art at the Rijks Museum. She did not impress her owners and stands now in the Asian wing of the museum on long-term loan. Ms Slaczka’s research into this figure reveals that she is probably from a Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh in central India. She added that apsaras, such as this one and other erotic figures have a protective function. This is why they often stand at the door or gateway of the temple. These are vulnerable spots – places of transgression – as evil forces can enter from here. Erotic figures remind us of fertility, of children and life enriching processes. So they guard, or I would say, seduce evil forces away from entering a holy space.


In 950 AD, which is about the time that the sculpture is supposed to have stood her ground, possibly on one of two  pillars at another vulnerable spot in the temple, sex was not considered an evil in India. Rather the opposite, if we have to recall the apsara’s function. I had to think immediately of my friend Paromita Vohra’s on-going ‘Agents of Ishq’ project. She’s at work – getting folks to share their articulation of who they are as sexual beings. In some ways, 950 AD was way ahead of where we are now with this discussion in the India of 2016.

The nail marks and the monkeys who want to undress her and Ms Slaczka’s other findings about the apsara, were made possible by Tata Steel. They are responsible for Ms Slaczka’s present position as the curator of the South Asian collection in the Rijks Museum.


Link to Ms Slaczka’s publication on the apsara

Link to ‘Agents of Ishq’ – Paromita Vohra’s project

Link to The Society for the Friends of Asian Art (in Dutch)

“Teacher take your headscarf off !”

These words written by Ebru Umar,a journalist who writes for Metro to a primary school teacher caught my eye. The school comes under the category ‘public’, which means that it opens its doors to students and teachers of all faiths in a spirit of mutual respect. Of the different people who responded in my newspaper to Ebru’s words, here is the one written by Sarah Spruijt.

“Children see the outside world as well

I am a high school student and I grew up in an extremely white environment in the province of Friesland. I have actually never talked to a woman who wears a headscarf and I find that a pity because it is not representative of our society. I find it quite lovely that in the protected atmosphere of Gooi, a primary school teacher chooses to wear one. And let’s be sure of this: she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will. And no – this does not mean that the children of the primary school cannot be brought up to be neutral. You cannot close them from the outside world, and what better place to be confronted with this than in the protected environment of primary school? Apart from the headscarf, the children will not know anything about the religious beliefs of the teacher, and they are anyway going to be coming across headscarves in reality or on the internet. You can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs, Ebru. Even children can’t. This is a part of upbringing, a part of Dutch society. And however much of a pity you find it, a part of the future.”

One other respondent’s argument in the newspaper was this: that while the freedom of expression and faith should continue unabated, the outward display of one’s faith should be set aside, because, we, in the Netherlands do not know how to have this discussion.


Yet young Sarah did her best to open up a discussion. I was struck by the fact that a person under eighteen could argue so simply and clearly, and with such wisdom.


In India, this scenario would not play out in quite the same way.  In principle no one could ask another to take off their headscarf or turban. Many Dutch people equate India with Hinduism. India is not a Hindu country. India’s constitution, while being secular, gives different religions a legal framework through ‘personal laws.’ In this way, people can and do express their religion in a variety of ways. This makes it different from the Dutch constitution. In doing so, it echoes Sarah when she says “you can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs”. The outward expression is not where the problem lies. It lies in the fact that the outward show of faith, accepted by law, is one of the ways by which to unlawfully exploit or turn against people of another faith. This is what happened when innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination as they could be clearly recognized by the turbans they wore. When Sarah writes of the teacher, “she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will”, could she be referring to the risk one takes – opening oneself up to judgement (or worse) with such an outward show of faith?


Many of us here in the Netherlands resort to wearing something by which we draw strength, or which has meaning for us as a way to hold on to our beliefs. I, a teacher have worn a Buddhist pendant in the classroom for the last one year in schools that refer to themselves as having a Christian identity. Yet no one said “teacher take your pendant off”. It appears to me that some symbols or outward expressions of faith are not seen as problematic in the Netherlands, but others are. What would Ebru have to say about my pendant, I wonder.

Unlike Sarah, I have fortunately had the opportunity to talk to women in headscarves in the Netherlands, and have enjoyed the experience.

Here is a link to one such meeting. False Flowers and Real Wasps



Chewing on the intestines of Paris

Here’s a riddle: if the Paris metro lines are the arteries of that great city, then what are its intestines?

paris-centre-mapAnswer – its sewers.

And the intestines of Paris are offered up to visitors just as many of its other attractions. For adults there is a modest fee and for EU children there is none, to descend under the Place de la Résistance in the heart of the great, buzzing metropolis with its treasure troves in abundance.


To my wonder and surprise, I find that, like in India, the profession of the sewage worker is often passed down from father to son. Not so surprising too, that the board is one of the last, because it conveys this bit of information along with the emotion that sums up the entire exhibition. Pride. The son takes up the profession of his father with pride. And Paris reveals the workings of its intestines with pride, and wishes its visitors to know that by making its intestines available for public consumption, so to speak, it is also giving its sewage workers visibility.IMG_3608

Some random thoughts go through my head….

The Delhi metro, the Mumbai local trains, and the Indian Railways are impressive arteries but the intestines of India fail, in some cases appallingly. In the most ‘modern’ of cities, sewage and drinking water pipes can get mixed up, and the consequence on human health is lethal.


I remember the ‘out castes’ – the ‘untouchables’, the ’Harijans’ by other names – who don’t smell so sweet. They are often unprotected and use the most primitive of gear. It is seen as a natural birth-right, or more accurately put, a natural birth wrong. So much so that even the central government hires the same castes to take care of unclean jobs. The latter get a salary, and the employer gets a work force. It is seen as a ‘win-win’. A permanent government job is something to be proud of – anywhere.


It is hard to think with pride about most Indian cities, when it comes to infrastructure. Everyone I know is reeling under the weight of living in them. One insight this Parisian tourist site does give, is the number of years, centuries even, that it took to get its intestines to work as efficiently as they do. Many Indian cities simply do not have that luxury – as they burst at the seams, exploding….

But… I don’t really have the time to digest or absorb much of these intestines …as nausea drives me towards the big metal door with steps leading upwards – back onto the boulevard, allowing me the luxury of air that doesn’t smell like shit.IMG_3600

link to website page of the intestines of Paris