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The Dangers of Being Attached to Rules: The Story of Two Monks and a Naked Lady

The Dangers of Being Attached to Rules:

The Story of Two Monks and a Naked Lady

Rules 3

A large number of Buddhist monks follow a code of conduct called the Vinaya code. Although there are various elucidations between Buddhist traditions of how to interpret the Vinaya code, some Buddhist monks – especially the younger and less experienced ones – follow this code with great rigour and can be quite intransigent when it comes to deviating from the rules.

One of the ‘rules’ in the Vinaya code relates to comportment towards the opposite sex. The Vinaya Pitaka is quite clear about this matter and the second Sanghadisesa rule states the following: “Should any bhikkhu, overcome by lust, with altered mind, engage in bodily contact with a woman, or in holding her hand, holding a lock of her hair, or caressing any of her limbs, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the community”.

This is a fairly straightforward rule that is intended to prevent Buddhist practitioners – especially those that require and respond well to external discipline – from allowing desire and attachment to overpower the mind. However, it has unfortunately been taken to extremes by certain Buddhist traditions where it is forbidden for a monk to touch a woman or even receive something from a woman directly. For example, if a woman wishes to donate something to a monk in such a tradition (known as a Dana offering), it must not be handed to the monk directly but must be placed on a cloth on the floor from where the monk may then pick it up.

Today’s post recounts one of our favourite Buddhist stories about the dangers of being attached to rules and of being too linear in our thinking:

Two monks were making their way from one monastery to another. They had been practising meditation together for many years and were very good friends. In fact, not only were they close friends, but there was also a teacher-student relationship in place – one of the monks was much older and had been a monk since long before the other monk was even born. The journey was a long one and involved many days traveling on foot. As the two monks walked through the forests and countryside, they spent a great deal of time discussing various aspects of the Buddhist Suttas as well as the various Buddhist commentaries.

At a certain point in their journey, the monks heard the screams of a woman coming from a nearby river. They rushed to see what was happening and in the middle of the river they saw a naked woman who was drowning. The older monk swiftly threw off his robes, dived into the water, and rescued the woman. He brought the naked woman to the banks of the river and proceeded to cover her with his spare robes. After assuring himself that she was safe and well, the two monks continued with the second leg of their journey.

However, the second part of their journey was quite different than the first. The river incident had quite an influence on the younger monk who, for the rest of the journey, had a surly comportment and refused to even speak to the older monk.

A few days later, the monks arrived at their destination – a monastery they were going to be staying at for the next few months. At this point, the young monk started to ostracise the older monk and refused to even acknowledge his presence. The older monk was rather dismayed and worried about the comportment of his friend and so one day he confronted the younger monk saying: “Please, young sir, why have you changed? What have I done to warrant being treated in this manner? If I have said or done something that has hurt you then I am truly sorry and I must have done it mindlessly and certainly without intention”.

The young monk replied: “You are not a true monk – you have broken the rules of the Vinaya Pitaka and as such I may no longer be associated with you”.

The older monk was rather shocked to hear this and asked what rules had been broken. The younger monk replied: “Not only did you touch a woman but you touched a naked woman and gave her the robes of a monk”.

How very true” replied the elder, “I saved the woman and carried her to the banks of the river, I made sure that she was warm and well and then I left her on the banks of the river. However, it would appear that you are still carrying her around on your shoulders! In all these years of so called practice of the Buddhist path, you have learned absolutely nothing. You cannot live without your rules and regulations – what a small and wasted life!”

We suppose the moral of this story is that rules can be very useful when they are utilised as tools, but when we allow those same rules to govern our lives and even to hold us back in our spiritual progress, then we really have to ask ourselves whether we are allowing ignorance to rule our lives.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

The write stuff: Diary writing and psychological wellbeing

A very interesting article written by my friend and colleague Prof Mark Griffiths who is himself a very gifted writer.


Since my first day as a university student back in October 1984, I have kept a diary. What started out as my attempt to write a real-life Secret Diary of Adrian Mole has turned into 30 years of detailed journals where my whole life has been detailed and catalogued in 400-500 words every single day. Sometimes I wish I could stop as they have certainly got me into trouble (as a number of my ex-girlfriends will testify). But I won’t. The advantages of writing about my day-to-day life far outweigh the disadvantages. Even though I have never published any research on diary writing, I did appear on Radio 4’s All In The Mind radio programme where I was given free reign to speculate on why people write diaries.

Writing a diary is nothing new. Millions of people do it. A 2011 article in The Times of India on ‘Why we keep…

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Should Mindfulness be taught to Improve Military and Business Effectiveness?

Should Mindfulness be taught to Improve Military and Business Effectiveness?


During one of our recent talks on mindfulness, we were asked whether we feel it is ethically and morally correct for mindfulness to be taught for the purposes of improving military or business effectiveness. Given that mindfulness was originally taught as a means of fostering peace and spiritual awakening, some people are of the view that it is inappropriate for businesses and the military to teach mindfulness to their employees in order to give them a strategic advantage over the competition. This seems to be quite a hot topic at the moment – especially because projects investigating the applications of mindfulness in military and business settings are already underway. Consequently, we have decided to dedicate this entire post to providing our view on this issue.

In the Buddhist teachings, mindfulness occurs as just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a fundamental teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Although the Noble Eightfold Path (obviously) consists of eight different elements, these elements do not function as standalone entities. In other words, it is not the case that one starts at the first practice of the Noble Eightfold Path (known as ‘right view’) and concludes one’s training in this practice before moving onto the second practice (known as ‘right intention’.). Rather, although the Noble Eightfold Path has eight different elements, it is in fact just one path and just one practice. This means that whenever one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is present and functioning correctly, then all of the other aspects are also present and functioning correctly. For example, without, ‘right view’, ‘right intention’, ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’, ‘right effort’, and ‘right concentration’, there cannot be ‘right mindfulness’.

Thus, if a person in the military is taught mindfulness correctly, then they are also being directly or indirectly instructed in practices intended to cultivate ethical awareness (i.e., ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’), a compassionate and spiritual outlook (i.e., ‘right intention’), and wisdom (i.e., ‘right view’). Accordingly, people in the military or in business that practice mindfulness correctly will also be learning how to become more responsible, wiser, and compassionate world citizens. Therefore, we don’t really need to worry about whether such people will “miss-use” the mindfulness teachings. In actual fact, many accomplished Buddhist practitioners believe that the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness are so potent and effective that anybody that practices them correctly can’t help but become a better human being.

Of course, there is a strong possibility that people in the military or in business could be taught to practice “mindfulness” outside of the above system of ethical and spiritual values. However, we also don’t particularly need to concern ourselves about this because in such situations it is no longer mindfulness that is being taught. In other words, one can’t really raise a grievance that an organisation is misusing mindfulness if in fact what they are teaching isn’t mindfulness.

Apologies if you were expecting a lengthier discourse but we don’t think there is much else to discuss on this topic.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Khyentse D. (2007). The heart of compassion: the thirty-seven verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/a0035859.

Five Original Beauty Tips for Men and Women

Five Original Beauty Tips for Men and Women

beauty 2

Recently, we were en route to a conference in Barcelona and found ourselves with ten minutes to spare at London Stansted airport. We decided to visit the magazine store in order to try to find a classical music magazine (Classic FM) that we sometimes like to read. We couldn’t find the magazine in question, so we took a moment to look at the other magazines on the shelf. We were amazed at the number of men’s and women’s “health” magazines offering beauty tips. Although there appeared to be several shelves full of such magazines, the magazines seemed to be written in a very similar style and we weren’t sure how the advice each magazine was offering differed from that of the competition, or from that offered in the same magazine during the previous month’s edition. Therefore, in today’s post, we adopt a slightly different approach to the magazines we perused and provide what we believe to be five original and effective tips for making oneself more beautiful. We think that these tips will work for both men and women.

1.   Keep anger under control: Research demonstrates that anger is expressed physiologically through facial expressions and body language. Commonly observed physiological responses to anger include contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions. Physiological responses to anger also often include increased heart rate and increased perspiration. Basically, all of this means that when we become angry, our appearance changes significantly. Leaving aside the fact that anger can leave other people feeling frightened and very uncomfortable, it invariably makes the angry person assume an ‘ugly’ complexion. People that become angry quickly show their “true colours” and don’t really have a place amongst the wise and respected. Therefore, always try to remain patient and composed and try not to lose your temper too easily. Taking control of your anger will definitely help you to be a more beautiful person.

2.  Do things gently and in awareness: In our opinion, it is not particularly beautiful to be boisterous and heavy-handed. We believe it is much better to be careful and gentle as one goes about one’s affairs. Consistent with this point of view, research demonstrates that being mindful reduces both psychological and physiological tension. Therefore, living in awareness not only facilitates the adoption and maintenance of a calm and centred demeanour, but it also has numerous health benefits. As we discussed in our post on Teaching Mindfulness to Children, an analogy that has been used in the Buddhist teachings to explain the principle of living in awareness is that of a graceful swan. The swan is confident and elegant in the way it moves, and it glides effortlessly through the water without disturbing it too much. Thus, try to emulate the swan and be mindful of your being – try to walk around your home or place of work whilst being fully conscious of each and every breath, and of each and every step. Try not to upset and disturb things too much as you go about your business. This will help you to assume a calming presence that will not only make you more beautiful but also the environment in which you find yourself.

3.  Say less rather than more: As Buddhist monks, we spend a reasonable amount of time in silence. In fact, although it is certainly enjoyable to engage in light-hearted mindful conversation, we generally adopt the approach that if there isn’t something particularly meaningful to say, then there is no point in just opening one’s mouth and making noise. It seems that a lot of people are uncomfortable with moments of silence when in the presence of others. Obviously, there are occasions when people really need to talk but in general, we believe that not allowing yourself (and others) time to breathe and to just simply be is not a particularly beautiful quality. Therefore, try to be comfortable with yourself in the presence of others and try not to always feel the need to have something to say. If you relax and centre yourself in your breathing, you will invariably find that the other person begins to relax too. Make an effort to talk gently and quietly – there’s really no need to talk in a very loud voice or to laugh boisterously so that everybody around you can hear. We think that saying less rather than more is a very beautiful way to be and that it will help you to have more meaningful dialogues with other people and with yourself.

4.   Be generous with yourself and others: According to the Buddhist teachings, there are numerous advantages associated with being generous. Leaving aside those that are spiritual in nature, Buddhism asserts that generosity fuels generosity. In other words, people enjoy being at the receiving end of kindness – and there is a good chance that they will respond with kindness in return. Generosity takes on many shapes and forms including being generous with one’s words and time. This includes giving a person your full and undivided attention, and listening carefully to what they are saying – as well as what they are not saying. We can also be generous with the amount of space that we give to ourselves and others. Creating space in our own and others’ lives facilitates personal growth and introduces time for determining what is important in life. This helps to nourish the beauty within each of us.

5. Try not to be too beautiful: Emerging research insights suggest that there are benefits to be gained by not having a huge ego. This is consistent with the Buddhist view that ego is the underlying cause of all suffering and psychological stress. It is important to understand what is meant by ego in Buddhist philosophy because ego can take on many different guises. For example, a person that is successful and that has confidence because of their success doesn’t necessarily have a big ego. Rather, it might be the case that their less-successful peers who feel threatened by them are actually the ones with the bigger ego – because it is strong attachment to an “I” that gives rise to jealousy and/or inferiority complexes. Thus, ego is not always easy to spot and it invariably has many layers. Nevertheless, we would be surprised if people who are caught up with becoming more physically beautiful were not in some way lumbered by “ego issues”. Therefore, although it is good to take care of one’s appearance, try not to become too obsessed with how you look. Real beauty goes well beyond physical appearance. Remember that not trying overly hard to be beautiful can actually be a very beautiful thing.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

DeFoore, W. (1991). Anger : Deal with It, Heal with It, Stop It from Killing You (1st ed.). Health Communications, Inc.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Khyentse D. (2007). The heart of compassion: the thirty-seven verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Novaco, R. W. (2000). Anger. Encyclopedia of Psychology, Oxford University Press.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Work-related mental health and job performance: Can mindfulness help? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI: 10.1007/s11469-014-9484-3.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds: Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Summer Issue, 14-18.

Face[book]ing the future: A brief look at social networking addiction

Another interesting article written by my friend and colleague Prof Mark Griffiths


In many areas of behavioural addiction, there has been debate about whether some excessive behaviours should even be considered as genuine addictions (e.g., video game playing, internet use, sex, exercise, etc.) and the same debate holds for addiction to social networking. I recently published an editorial in the Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy examining the empirical research on the topic.

I have has operationally defined addictive behaviour as any behaviour that features what I believe to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse). I have also argued that any behaviour (including social networking) that fulfils these six criteria can be operationally defined as an addiction.

Researchers have suggested that the excessive use of new technologies (and especially online social networking) may be particularly problematic to young people. In accordance with the biopsychosocial framework for…

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A Monk’s Life

A Monk’s Life

monks life

Recently, a short poem I composed entitled The Offspring of Spring was accepted for publication in a forthcoming book called Candlelit Thoughts – A Collection of Poetry (published by Forward Poetry). The following poem has been adapted from The Offspring of Spring and is called A Monk’s Life. This four-verse poem follows a very simple format of five syllables per line and a rhyming couplet in each verse.


A Monk’s Life

Nurtured by nature
In the wild I dwell
A contented heart
But no one to tell

The heir of the air
I float on the clouds
Such freedom such bliss
No hustle no crowds

The son of the sun
Ablaze with pure light
Never ending joy
That brightens the night

The off-spring of spring
Alive and aware
Transmitting the law
Without fear or care

Ven. Edo Shonin

Further Reading

Shonin, E. (2014). The Offspring of Spring. In: Candlelit Thoughts – A Collection of Poetry. Peterborough: Forward Poetry.

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

sentient beings

The question of whether God exists is arguably one of the most debated questions of all time. Nonetheless, given that it is common knowledge that Buddhism does not assert the existence of a supreme being or creator, it may seem strange that we have decided to write a post that explores this question from the Buddhist perspective. Indeed, we suspect that many people – including many Buddhists – would automatically assume that the “official” Buddhist response to this question would be a straight forward “no”. However, here we argue that depending upon how the term God is defined, there may actually be grounds for accepting the existence of God within the Buddhist system of thought.

The Oxford English dictionary defines God as: “(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being”. As a religion or philosophical system, Buddhism does not reject anything that can be established as “true” by either robust scientific investigation or flawless logical reasoning. In other words, if it could be scientifically or logically proven that God exists, then Buddhism would also accept the existence of God. However, based on the above Oxford English dictionary definition, there is currently no robust scientific proof affirming the existence of a supreme creator.

In fact, not only is there an absence of verifiable evidence supporting the existence of a creator being, both modern science and logical reasoning actually indicate the non-existence of such an entity. For example, the laws of thermodynamics forbid the existence of perpetual motion – motion that exists independent of any energy input. Since, by their nature, phenomena are in a constant state of flux and change (i.e., a form of motion), this means that it is impossible for phenomena to exist autonomous of any input. In other words, phenomena (and therefore beings) do not exist as isolated occurrences but manifest in dependence on their causes and components. For this exact reason – the fact that phenomena are composite and do not exist of their own accord – they cannot endure indefinitely and are subject to impermanence. “Impermanence” here, refers to both the ultimate “death” of phenomena when they cease to manifest, and to the fact that phenomena do not remain static between two instances of time (please see our post on Exactly what is the Present Moment?).

Therefore, if an “eternal” God-being existed, this would mean that they were not subject to the laws of impermanence and causality and that they existed in complete independence of the universe and reality they had created. However, since established definitions of God assert that they “rule” the universe and are its “moral authority”, then this automatically rebuts any assertion that God exists in isolation of the universe that they are purported to have created. Thus, it is logically and scientifically implausible to assert that a God exists that created and interacts with the universe, but that such interaction takes place outside of the law of causality (because “interaction” implies that God’s choices and actions must result in some kind of effect).

Accordingly, Buddhism is unable to accept the existence of a creator being that exists in an anti-septic corner of the universe and has dominion over it. However, if the definition of God is modified such that God becomes more of a principle rather than a person, then there may be scope for accepting the existence of “God” within the Buddhist system of thought. To explain this further, we have decided to separate out each of the key components of the abovementioned Oxford English dictionary definition of God and provide an alternative interpretation of these terms:

  1. Supreme being: According to the Buddhist teachings, the capacity for enlightenment exists within every sentient being. This enlightenment capacity or “God nature” never goes away – it is indestructible. However, most people can be likened to a wave on the ocean that forgets that it is also part of the ocean. In wanting to express its creative potential the wave gets caught up in itself. It starts to think it is completely independent of all other waves, and of the ocean more generally. The wave becomes more and more concerned with itself and with its own preservation. It wants to become bigger and better than the other waves and it wants to live forever. However, as the wave continues to develop and feed its “ego”, it becomes increasingly ignorant of its impermanent and interdependent nature. The more the wave gets involved with itself, the more ignorant it becomes. The only thing that the wave can experience at this point is suffering because the wave has developed impossible ideas about itself – it is going to be let down.Although the wave has become very selfish and ignorant, never once does it actually separate from the ocean. All the wave has to do is deconstruct some of its false ideas so that it is able to awaken to the fact that it is part of the ocean. In fact, when the wave “wakes up” or becomes enlightened in this way, it doesn’t just realise that it is connected to the ocean, but it actually becomes the ocean. Now the wave is everywhere all at once, and it knows each single drop of the ocean in intimate detail. The wave doesn’t have to go to great lengths to learn about the ocean, it knows about the ocean without trying. Now that the wave knows that it is both the wave and the ocean, it is a supreme being – it has defeated death. This supreme being has infinite and unconditional compassion for all of the other “potential supreme beings” who choose to suffer and remain ignorant of their true nature. The newly-awakened supreme being does their best to bring these ignorant beings to the understanding that they do not have to search outside of themselves to find God.
  2. Source of all moral authority: From the Buddhist perspective, there is an infallible and all-pervasive law or principle that is the source of all moral authority. What we are referring to here is known as karmic law. Karma has absolutely nothing to do with being judged for our “sins”. Rather, karma (which actually means “action”) basically refers to the law of cause and effect – it asserts that there are both short and long-term consequences to each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions. This is common sense.The more a person “practises” a particular type of mind-set (e.g., greed, anger, hatred, etc.), the more that person will be inclined to continue engaging such a mind-set in the future. According to the Buddhist teachings, dominant thought patterns and emotions leave an imprint upon the mind. In turn, this imprint influences not only the way we see the world, but also the way the world sees us. For example, a person full of anger and hatred is likely to provoke certain (mostly negative) responses from other people, and they are also likely not to notice life-opportunities that require a balanced, patient, and open perspective. Thus, an angry person may frequently encounter what they perceive to be adversities and may feel they are having a difficult time of things. But the cause of such adversity is nobody and nothing other than themselves – a supreme being has nothing to do with it.

    Furthermore, due to the imprint left on the mind by such a person’s propensity for anger, the Buddhist teachings assert that this anger will cause them to be attracted to certain (unfavourable) conditions when taking rebirth. Again, there isn’t a supreme being involved here – it’s just that the angry person has conditioned themselves to see things in a certain way. Exactly the same principles apply for positive emotions (e.g., love, generosity, patience, compassion, etc.) but these tend to lead to more favourable outcomes (e.g., if you are a kind person then people are invariably kind in return). Thus, it is the human being that asserts moral authority over their thoughts, words and actions – we are our own judge, jury, and executioner or saviour.

  3. Creator and ruler of the universe: As human beings, and whether we like it or not, we are creators. Every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds has an influence on the world around us. Our past endeavours have created the world as we know it today, and today, we are creating the world that we will live in tomorrow. If we want to create a house, we build it. If we want to create new life, we have sex. If we want to create death and destruction, we wage war. If we want to create heaven on earth, we put aside greed and selfishness and cultivate peace, love, and compassion. Human beings are inherently creative. We create our world and then we live in it and rule it.Phenomena – the outcome of our creative work – exist in dependence of our ability to perceive them. If there is no perceiving mind, there can be no perceived phenomena. The entire universe only exists because there are minds that are able to perceive it. We will discuss this further in a future post but the Buddhist teachings assert that for as long as mind remains confused and continues to perceive itself as an independent entity, universes materialise in order to provide a seat for the mind. In essence, Buddhism asserts that mind creates matter and is inseparable from it. Mind itself is the creator of reality and mind’s creativity is self-existing – it happens all by itself.

In summary, if the definition of God is modified such that rather than an all-powerful universal ruler, God is thought of more as a principle – the principle of all-pervasive and self-existing wisdom that is the indestructible nature of reality and of every single sentient being – then it seems that there is scope for accepting the existence of God within Buddhism. Perhaps this is the definition of God that is conveyed in the Christian Gospel of Thomas where Christ is recorded as saying “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, as we discussed in our post When Buddha and Christ Met for Tea, perhaps the Buddha’s and Christ’s teachings were essentially the same. As a final thought, it is important to highlight that although Buddhism does not accept or believe in the existence of an all-powerful creator being, it does accept and respect those people and religions that advocate such a belief. Ultimately, we suspect that each individual has their own unique understanding or experience of what constitutes “God” and each of these constructions are undoubtedly meaningful in their own right.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

Tsong-kha-pa. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. (J. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & T. L. Committee, Trans.) Canada: Snow Lion.