A Moment’s Bliss

Lately, my son (a.k.a. Little Guy) and I have been watching classics episodes of the Super Mario Brothers cartoons that I used to watch as a kid,1 including this classic gem:

This episode has some surprisingly Buddhist lessons in it. If you fast-forward to 06:13 you can hear King Koopa say:

Look at those dumb clucks hand over their life savings for a few brief moments of mouth-watering bliss.

This says a lot about human behavior, I think. Of course, we’re not just talking about fast-food but a lot of cheap thrills we sacrifice our labor and dignity for. Look at your own life and I bet you can kind examples big and small.

For me, I tend to buy Starbucks when I don’t need to. My wife buys excellent cold brew concentrate so I can make all the coffee I want at home, but I still find myself wanting to buy Starbucks sometimes. It’s not based on thirst so much as the thrill of buying a Starbucks coffee. I have the same problem with eating out, too.

Or, when I buy certain expensive Magic the Gathering cards so I can defeat my friends or play in some local competition. The cards give me an advantage (usually) and that leads to a few more victories. But the moment’s thrill don’t last very long, and sooner or later, I get trounced again by my opponent. There’s always a bigger fish out there.

All that sweat, labor and saving only buys a few moments of bliss and you’re back to the grind again.

In the Dhammapada are these verses:

260-261) A head of gray hairs doesn’t mean one’s an elder. Advanced in years, one’s called an old fool. But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness, self-control — he’s called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened. (trans. Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Self-restraint rubs against the grain of what we want to do, but it does lead to more dignity and fewer hassles in life, so it’s worth cultivating even just a little bit.

Also, don’t eat anything made by King Koopa. Seriously. ;p

1 I remember watching the original Super Mario Brothers Super Show as a kid (including the Friday Zelda episodes). It was a really fun time to be a kid due to “Nintendo fever“.

Advertisements

Karma Matters

This was a pretty tragic, though somewhat creepy article read from the BBC. Take a moment to read the article if you can.

The first thing I thought of when I read this article was a Buddhist text called the Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra. This is the only sutra that mentions Jizo Bodhisattva, but its primary message is the importance of karma. For example, this famous quotation:

“Karma is tremendously powerful. It is capable of covering Mount Sumeru, is capable of plumbing the vast ocean depths and is even capable of obstructing the holy doctrines. Therefore, sentient beings should not neglect lesser evils as being not sinful; for retribution will be meted out to them after their deaths for every bad intention or violation, even though it be as small or insignificant as an iota. Even beings as closely related as fathers and sons will part their respective ways, and one will not take the punishment of the other even if they chance to cross paths…”

However, it’s misleading to think of karma as a kind of divine punishment. For example, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Ou-I once explained it like so:

When you plant melon seeds you get melons, and when you plant beans you get beans. [Effect follows causes] like a shadow follows a physical shape, like an echo responds to a sound. Nothing is sown in vain. This is called “believe in the result”. (pg. 53, Mind-Seal of the Buddhas)

Finally, don’t discount the impact that one’s actions have on what the Yogacara school of Buddhism called “perfuming the mind“.

Life Goals

Recently, I had a good chat with an elderly co-worker who’s getting close to retirement, and he talked about how his biggest fear was having nothing to do after retirement. This coworker, who had lived a very full life as a pilot and many other things, felt he had accomplished most of his life-goals anyway, so he didn’t really have anything left to do once he retired. He joked about how after retirement, he’ll last a year before he drops dead from boredom.

But it is a bit of a scary truth for all of us: what are our life goals? Are we even working toward those goals, or do we really have any?

I sat down later that night and wrote out some goals in my life. Among them are:

  • Recite the nembutsu 108,000 times. This is using the special Buddhist rosary I have for counting.
  • Memorize the Amitabha Sutra so I can chant it in Japanese. I know the Heart Sutra by memory, but the Amitabha Sutra is somewhat longer, yet and has always interested me.
  • Finish a book I’ve been trying to write on Mahayana Buddhism for a while. Also, ideally, get it published too. 😉
  • Finish learning introductory Sanskrit.
  • Get JLPT level N1 certification. Currently level N2 as of writing. I failed the N1 test pretty miserably.

I don’t know if I will ever complete these goals before I get too old, but I feel these ones were important enough to me that I would at least make a serious effort.

If you don’t have any goals, now might be a good time to jot some down, before it’s too late. 😉

Good Days and Bad

If you’ve ever done Buddhist meditation, you will soon realize that there are times when your meditation goes well, almost seamless, and there are days when you’re completely distracted and your mind just won’t settle down.

This is a metaphor for life too in that you can’t always control what will happen to you on a given day. Things might start out well then quickly spiral out of control. Other days, everything will just line up right and go the way you want.

A lot of this is outside our control, but our reaction isn’t. If we adopt an all-too-common “why me?” attitude when things of wrong, then we fail to grasp that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Similarly, we should not delude ourselves and think that the good days will last forever.

Getting back to meditation, it helps to approach it the same way and just keep doing it. Good or bad. Or any Buddhist practice for that matter. The short-term ups and downs are nothing compared to the long-term benefits to oneself or others.

Spiritual Renewal and Buddhist Home Retreats on the Cheap

We should often make special times for the repetition of the nembutsu [reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name] to stimulate both mind and body in its practice. In may seem enough if one repeats the sacred name over sixty or seventy thousand times a day. But there is a tendency with us, when our eyes or ears become accustomed to anything, gradually to lose interest in it. And with our daily work pressing in on us morning and night, we are in danger of shortening our practice. So in order to keep our spirits active, we would do well to setup certain special times for the practice of the nembutsu. Both of our great teachers, Shan-tao and Genshin, urged this upon us.

–Honen, quoted from “Honen the Buddhist Saint”

Yesterday, my daughter went camping with some of her friends, and since Little Guy is still a small kid and sleeps early, I suddenly found myself with a little bit of free time. It was amazing. I suddenly had a few extra hours all to myself. What should I do? Should I rebuild that brawl deck I made for Magic the Gathering? Should I finish up some of the old NES games that I still haven’t completed? Should I type more in that book I’ve been writing for almost a year and try to finish another chapter?

No, I decided that what I really needed was a well-earned break. A spiritual one no less.

Normally when people think of Buddhism and retreats, they think of this kind of thing. Buddhist magazines are chock full of advertisements promising a peaceful and insightful week at some ranch or monastery.

Why go through all the time, travel and money spent for that kind of retreat, when the peaceful afterglow will only last until you get back to real life anyway?

So instead, I decided to make my own retreat at home. I took inspiration from the quote above from the 12th-century Buddhist master, Honen, and set a few criteria for myself:

  1. I need to plan it out ahead of time so I don’t change my mind mid-retreat.
  2. It has to reasonably fit into my normal schedule. For me, this means either late evening or early morning.
  3. It can’t be my usual routine home ritual though. It has to be something above and beyond.
  4. On the other hand, the ritual has to fit into schedule (see #2).
  5. Remember to go easy, and give yourself breaks in between. It’s a retreat, not a marathon.

So, the night before, I wrote out my routine on a notepad:

  • Do dishes mindfully – 30 minutes, approximately
  • Chanting – 15 minutes
  • Break – 5 minutes
  • Meditation – 15 minutes
  • Break – 5 minutes
  • Dharma study – 10 minutes

So with breaks and whatnot, this takes about 90 minutes a night. It’s a stretch in my case but it is doable and covers all the essential things (including getting dishes done).

The first night was great. I did everything I needed and it was satisfying and peaceful. I felt the format and time spent was just right, too.

Then the second night I got a bad cold and ended up sleeping early, sleeping poorly due to congestion and spending the rest of the weekend groggy and feeling miserable.

So, the home retreat was a failure in one sense because I only did it for one night. But in another sense, I felt the process worked well and made for a wholesome and satisfying retreat.

It was a lesson learned and worth trying again when I get over my cold.

p.s. Past home retreats that didn’t go well. And past retreats that did.

Writing An Essay In Japanese Language

Essay in Japanese

Writing essays in school isn’t, but writing them in a foreign language as a working parent of two? Even harder.

It’s a long story, but my kids go to an afterschool Japanese-language school, and we’re good friends with the family that runs the school. The teacher knew of my interest in Japanese history, and since I am not Japanese, but can speak some, she gave me a challenge to write an essay for the class. She felt it would be fun for the kids to hear from someone who isn’t Japanese describing why they like Japan and its history, as an inspiration for them.

So, that’s when I realized that I had never really written anything in Japanese since college and that was almost 20 years ago.

Fortunately, at some point in the past, I had picked up this delightful little book:

Untitled

This is another book in a series featuring Chibi Marukochan, one of my favorite cartoons from Japan. I own the book on the Hyakunin Isshu1 and on speaking Keigo, but at some point I purchased this book on how to write essays in Japanese. The series of books is geared toward grade-school kids in Japan, not foreigners like me, but the easier Japanese, helpful explanations and fun characters make them really fun to read.

Japanese essays, or sakubun (作文) are normally written on special grid-like paper called genkō yōshi (原稿用紙), which looks like this (source: Wikipedia):

624px-genkoyoshi1

You begin writing your essay from the upper-right, downward. There’s some important rules to bear in mind as far as formatting goes, but I already covered this in a different post from a few years ago.

But the Chibi Marukochan book wasn’t focused on the format, it was focused on how to actually write an essay.

For example, the book helped explain that there are basically 3 types of sentences in Japanese:

  1. What something is doing, for example: まる子が歌う (maruko ga utau, “Maruko is singing”)
  2. What something is like, for example: 水が冷たい (mizu ga tsumetai, “water is cold”)
  3. A is B, for example: これは教科書 (kore wa kyoukasho, “this is a textbook”)

It’s important to recognize this, even if you know some Japanese, because it’s easy to forget. For example here’s a sentence from the book, slightly modified:

私は、冬休みに見た映画はとても面白かった。

To a Japanese learner, this sentence might look right, but it’s actually not. This is a better version:

私は、冬休みに見た映画はとても面白いと思った。

Both of these, if translated into English, would mean “the movie I saw during Winter Break was interesting”, but the second one is correct because it uses correct patterns consistently. The first pattern 私は、…思った (I thought, e.g. what something is doing) while the second pattern is 映画はとても面白い (the movie is/was interesting, e.g. what something is like).

A separate example is to not repeat the same words in the sentence, by using です to substitute. For example, this sentence is awkward (again, adapted from the book):

私の家の庭にあるのは、高い木があります。

Where as this sounds more smooth:

私の家の庭にあるのは、高い木です。

Again, both of these in English mean “In the garden of my house is a tall tree.” The difference is that the first sentence uses the verb ある twice, where as the second sentence substitutes the second ある with です. More on using です can be found in the most excellent Japanese language guide by Tae Kim.

But also, I learned a lot of other useful tips that would work in English too:

  • Decide on your topic ahead of time. It will help focus your essay more.
  • Use your five senses to describe things, rather than just explaining them.
  • Write the first draft out first, then edit. Don’t get bogged down halfway through trying to fix things.
  • Don’t be afraid to proofread.
  • Brevity is good; it’s OK to break up long, droning sentences into shorter ones.

So, how’d my essay go? Pretty good actually. The Japanese moms probably enjoyed the essay more than the kids did, but overall it went pretty well, even though I started speaking too fast (a perennial issue).

If you’re in the same boat, and looking for tips on writing essays in Japanese, hopefully this page will help. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not actually that hard, and is even kind of fun. There’s nothing quite like expressing your thoughts and feelings in a foreign language. 🙂

1 Which was a huge help in writing my other blog. 🙂

Which is the Highest Teaching in Buddhism?

One of the features of Buddhism is that it has no central authority. The Buddhist advised his disciples in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16 of the Pali Canon):

Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ananda, “Now, if it occurs to any of you — ‘The teaching has lost its authority; we are without a Teacher’ — do not view it in that way. Whatever Dhamma & Vinaya I have pointed out & formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone. (trans. Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

However, over countless generations, across many parts of the Buddhist world, this has led to a lot of question and discussion about what is the highest and most important of the Buddha’s teachings?

Countless priests and teachers have tried organizing the jumbled mess of disparate Buddhist teachings and sutras that comprise the corpus of Buddhism into a hierarchy. Inevitably there is some teaching at the top that is the highest teaching with other texts and teachings complementing or leading up to it.

Many Buddhist schools even today are basically built around one hierarchy or another. Then there is the anti-intellectual strain that tries to throw it all away claiming “fingers pointing at the moon”.

So how does one make sense of all this? Which one is the highest teaching?

I tend to take the practical approach and say that whichever teaching or sutra is the most meaningful for you is the one you should treat as the highest teaching. I don’t mean this as an “anything goes” approach, but rather the one the inspires and benefits you the most and keeps you motivated to follow and practice the Buddhist teachings.

This utilitarian approach runs against the more theoretical arguments of Buddhists past and present but I don’t really care. If a teaching is touted as the best and most important in Buddhism, but has no resonance or is incomprehensible, what use is it to you?

Further, your outlook will change and evolve as your understanding of Buddhism also deepens so what seems like the best and most useful sutra to you will change. In my younger years, I was really fixated on the Heart Sutra, then later the Amitabha Sutra (a.k.a. The smaller Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra), and these days it’s a mix of the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. And it may change again.

That’s normal and nothing to be ashamed of. The point is, don’t stop moving forward. Always be growing, learning and maturing as a person until the very end.