All The World Is Not Enough

Something I randomly found in the Pali Canon the other day. This is from the Māgaṇḍiya Sutta (MN 75), translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

“Now what do you think, Māgaṇḍiya? Have you ever seen or heard of a king or king’s minister—enjoying himself, provided & endowed with the five strands of sensual pleasure, without abandoning sensual craving, without removing sensual fever—who has dwelt or will dwell or is dwelling free from thirst, his mind inwardly at peace?”

“No, Master Gotama.”

“Very good, Māgaṇḍiya. Neither have I ever seen or heard of a king or king’s minister—enjoying himself, provided & endowed with the five strands of sensual pleasure, without abandoning sensual craving, without removing sensual fever—who has dwelt or will dwell or is dwelling free from thirst, his mind inwardly at peace. But whatever contemplatives or brahmans who have dwelt or will dwell or are dwelling free from thirst, their minds inwardly at peace, all have done so having realized—as it has come to be—the origination & disappearance, the allure, the danger, & the escape from sensual pleasures, having abandoned sensual craving and removed sensual fever.”

This reminds me of the famous verses from the Dhammapada about a rain of gold coins, or Biggie Smalls song about Mo Money, Mo Problems.


Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only

Hi all,

Recently I had a fun conversation with Buddhist teacher, and this teacher shared some interesting Buddhist texts for me to read. This one is a Buddhist poem by the famous Indian Buddhist Vasubandhu who was an important, early figure in the venerable Yogacara school of Buddhism. It is also called the “Consciousness Only” school.

This text is called the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā (Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only) or in Japanese Buddhism the yuishiki sanjōju (唯識三十頌).

The English translation is as follows:

From the delusion of self and dharmas,
Comes the conveyence of various manifestations;
These are supported and transformed by consciousness,
And there are only three of these which may transform.

These are retribution, thought,
And the perception of external objects.
The first of these is the Ālaya Consciousness,
Which is retribution as well as all the seeds.

Its grasping, location, and knowing are imperceivable,
And it is always associated with mental contact,
Attention, sensation, conception, and thought;
It is associated with neither pleasure nor pain.

It is undefiled and morally indeterminate;
Mental contact and the others are also like this.
Its conveyence is like that of a flowing stream,
And it is abandoned in the stage of the arhat.

Next is the second which is able to transform,
And this consciousness is called Manas.
It is supported by the previous conveyence,
And its character and nature are that of thought.

It is always associated with the four vexations,
Which are delusion of a self, perception of a self,
Identity with a self, and love of a self,
As well as mental contact and the others.

It is defiled and morally indeterminate,
And its location is bound to that of life.
In the Nirodha Samāpatti of the arhats,
And in the Supramundane Path, it does not exist.

Next is the third which is able to transform,
Which is distinguished into six different divisions;
Its appearance and nature are perceiving external objects,
And these may be good, bad, or indeterminate.

It is associated with omnipresent mental activities,
With the external objects, the good, the vexations,
The secondary vexations, and the undetermined,
And it is associated with all three feelings.

Omnipresent mental activities are mental contact, etc.;
Next are those with objects, which are desires,
Determination, mindfulness, samādhi, wisdom, etc.,
And the object of each of these is not the same.

The good are faith, conscience, a sense of shame,
The three roots such as desirelessness, etc.,
And also vigor, peacefulness, vigilance,
Equanimity, and harmlessness.

The vexations are desire, hatred,
Delusion, pride, doubt, and wrong views.
The secondary vexations are anger,
Hostility, obscuration, anger, jealousy, greed,

Deceit, harmful flattery, arrogance,
Lack of shame, lack of conscience,
Acting upon agitations, torpor,
A lack of faith, laziness,

Negligence as well as forgetfulness,
Distraction, and incorrect knowing.
The undetermined are remorse, sleep,
And both types of initial and sustained thought.

With their basis in the root consciousness,
The five consciousnesses manifest according to conditions;
These manifestations may occur together or separately,
Just as waves are formed upon the water.

The thought consciousness always manifests
Except for those born in the heavens of no-thought,
For those in the two samādhis without thought,
And for those who are drowsy or unconsciousness.

These various consciousnesses are transformed
As discrimination and that which is discriminated,
And with this basis they are all empty—
Thus they are all Consciousness Only.

Through the consciousness of all seeds,
There are such-and-such transformations,
And from the power of this conveyence,
This-and-that are produced by discrimination.

Due to the habit energy of various actions,
Along with the habit energy of dualistic grasping,
Even when earlier retributions are exhausted,
Still the renewed arising of retribution occurs.

From this and that imagination,
One imagines all kinds of objects;
These pervasive imagined objects
Are without actual self-nature.

From the self-nature of interdependence
Comes discrimination arising from conditions;
The perfection of the fruit comes from
Always being apart from the former nature.

Therefore in relation to the interdependent,
It is neither different nor is it not different,
Just like the nature of impermanence, etc.,
And when one is not perceived, the other is.

On the basis of the three kinds of self-nature
Is established the threefold absence of self-nature;
Thus the Buddha spoke with the hidden intent
That all dharmas are without nature.

The first is the naturelessness of characteristics,
The next is the naturelessness of self-existence;
The last is the detachment from the first,
When the natures of self and dharmas are grasped.

This is the ultimate truth of all dharmas,
And it is also the same as True Suchness.
Because its nature is eternally so,
It is the true nature of Consciousness Only.

So long as one has not given rise to the consciousness
Which seeks to abide in the nature of Consciousness Only,
Then regarding the two types of grasping dispositions,
He is still not yet able to subdue and extinguish them.

Setting up and establishing even something small
And saying this is the nature of Consciousness Only,
Because there is still something which is grasped,
It is not truly abiding in Consciousness Only.

When one regards that which is conditioned
With the wisdom of total non-appropriation,
Then at that time one abides in Consciousness Only,
Apart from the duality of grasping at appearances.

Without grasping and not conceptualizing—
This is the wisdom of the supramundane realm
Which abandons the coarseness of duality
And naturally attains transformation of the basis.

This itself is the realm of no outflows,
Inconceivable, good, and eternal,
The peaceful and blissful body of liberation,
And what the great Muni called the Dharma.

Translated from Taishō Tripiṭaka volume 31, number 1586, translator unknown.

A few terms here are unique to Yogacara Buddhism, and I have an explanation posted here.


Of War

While in Japan, I was re-reading J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Two Towers and found this really great quotation I wanted to share. This was when Frodo and Sam first encountered Faramir’s troops ambushing the Men of Harad:

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.

Anyhow, something to think about.

Toyokawa Inari: Zen and Shinto

Another trip we made during my recent visit to Japan was to see an unusual template named Toyokawa Inari, in the Akasaka district of Tokyo. This temple is a prime example of when Buddhism and Shinto religions blend. The blending of the two religions was more common in the early days of Japanese history, but during the early modern Meiji Period (1868-1912), the religions were forcibly separated by law.

Nevertheless, you can see that blending very much at Toyokawa Inari.


When I first got there, I honestly thought it was a Shinto shrine, but I asked one of the nuns that worked there, and she clarified it was actually a Soto Zen temple. It is technically a branch temple of the main Toyokawa Inari temple in Aichi Prefecture, which was supposedly founded by one Kangan Giin. The plaque says it all:


The temple itself isn’t terribly, but it is very dense with shrines and altars, many of them devoted to the Shino deity Inari. While Inari is a Shinto kami for agriculture, business, prosperity and so on, it was also adopted into Buddhism a long time ago as a kind of guardian spirit. This became known as a dakiniten (荼枳尼天) which comes from Indian-Buddhist dakini.


Inari’s primary symbol is the fox, which serves as a messenger for Inari. There were many such shrines in and around the premises:


You also saw the Seven Luck Gods too, such as this shrine to Benzaiten:1Untitled

We even found a small shrine to an obscure, esoteric Buddhist deity named Aizen Myō-ō hidden behind another shrine:


However, that’s not to say there weren’t Buddhist elements either. The temple was roughly divided into two areas: the mainly Shinto one, and the mainly Buddhist one. At this building, you could walk in any time, and we saw the priests there chanting the Heart Sutra.

Also, there was a devotional statue to Kannon Bodhisattva too.

Finally, we wandered just outside the temple and enjoyed some inari sushi (the kind with fried tofu).

Finally, I took a chance and did an omikuji fortune here, but to my surprise I got kyō (凶) or bad luck:


Per tradition, you can tie such fortunes onto a certain, designated wire fence so you can “leave behind” your bad luck at the temple. So, I did. It is already a yakudoshi year for me, and I didn’t need more bad luck. 😉

It was a pretty interesting trip and one of the more memorable Buddhist temples I’ve seen in Japan. The blending of so many different religious aspects into one temple may not appeal to everyone, but I like the idea of “something for everyone”. 🙂

P.S. This year I am full-on honyaku (本厄) which means I am in the middle of the most inauspicious time for a person in their life.

1 Again, you might be tempted to think that this is a Shinto thing, or local superstition, but if you visit Sojiji, one of head temples of Soto Zen Buddhism you will find a big altar to Daikokuten, one of the Seven Luck Gods, as well. Some Buddhists think this might be beneath them, but I do like this sense of community outreach. It also helps the coffers a bit too. 😉

Too Good To Last

Having already renounced the pleasures of the five desires,
One has cast them off and does not look back.
Why would one still desire to gain them,
Like a fool who laps up his own vomit?

–“Verse on Eliminating Hindrances” in The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation by Zhiyi, translated by Bhikshu Dharmamitra

Recently I wrote about my positive experiences with Moon Meditation in Shingon Buddhism, and in truth I had been visiting the same temple a number of times recently. I guess I’ve been motivated by my recent trip to Japan to experiment a little with various Buddhist sects and just try things out. I’ve been enjoying my experience there until last Sunday.

Last Sunday was a Goma fire ritual, something I’ve seen before in Japan, and was somewhat familiar with. Watching a goma ritual was one thing, but actually taking part in it was another. We must have chanted the same mantra over and over again for an hour before the ritual ended and we were all exhausted.

It was at this point that the priest explained the significance of the fire ritual to the congregation. He explained how, despite what Buddhism usually teaches, desire was not wrong, but inherently pure. For example, a child wanting milk.

My mind slammed on its brakes, and I thought to myself “that isn’t what the Buddha taught.” I felt really troubled by this, so I did a bit of research.

Apparently, this is a common teaching in esoteric Buddhist traditions. For example, in one Shingon Buddhist blog, I read how desire is accepted in the tradition as part of the human condition and transformed into something positive. Sexual desire transforms into compassion and zeal for awakening and so on.

While this has an internal logic to it, I still don’t feel right about this. I was reminded of the Sutra of the Simile of the Water Snake (MN 22), an old sutra from the Pali Canon that covered this very subject. One of the Buddha’s monastic disciples, Arittha, started telling other people that the Buddha taught that sensual desires were not in fact obstructions to the path. Other disciples tried to warn him, but Arittha would not listen until finally the Buddha shows up and tells him he’s an idiot:

“Worthless man, from whom have you understood that Dhamma taught by me in such a way? Worthless man, haven’t I in many ways described obstructive acts? And when indulged in they are genuine obstructions. I have said that sensual pleasures are of little satisfaction, much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks….But you, worthless man, through your own wrong grasp [of the Dhamma], have both misrepresented us as well as injuring yourself and accumulating much demerit for yourself, for that will lead to your long-term harm & suffering.”

The Buddha then explains how important it is to properly grasp the foundations of the Dharma, like grasping a water snake. If you grasp the snake incorrectly, you will get bitten with deadly poison. In the same way, if you grasp the Dharma wrongly, you can easily lead yourself astray. In Arittha’s case he made a total arse of himself and also gave the Buddha’s community a bad reputation.

Rooted in this ignorance is the sense of self. The Buddha contrasted the view ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’ with the Dharma. When observing the self through the Dharma one realizes that such feelings and sensations are ‘not mine, not my self, not what I am.’

I feel that the justification by estoeric Buddhism that desire and self are pure and can be transformed by the Buddha-Dharma into something wholesome is just a bunch of mental gymnastics. In the same sutra above, the Buddha pointedly said:

The Dhamma thus well-proclaimed by me is clear, open, evident, stripped of rags.

By this he meant that there were no hidden meanings, mental gymnastics or justifications. What he taught was what he meant, and since he taught that craving is unproductive and base, that’s exactly what he intended to convey.

That said, one question that inevitably comes up is whether desires are always evil? For example, the desire for a child’s wellbeing.

This is why it’s important to have a good foundation in the basics of Buddhism. The English word “desire” is a loaded term with many meanings, but in the Pali language used for the sutra above, the term tanha is used. Tanha more narrowly refers to sensual craving, thirst, etc. Rev. Brad Warner’s article does a nice job explaining that such things must be confronted, observed and one should not follow the knee-jerk reaction to satisfy them. He even quotes a New York Times piece about how the “If it feels good, do it” advice is basically a path to ruin:

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

This is the great trap (e.g. Samsara) that the Buddha spoke of: this persistent need for gratification in every shape and form.

Desiring for the well-being of others, if sincere, is compassion or goodwill (metta). Here, you are putting yourself in the other’s shoes, empathizing with them, trying to understand what they are going through, and wishing to help. Desiring for gratification is tanha. This is putting yourself in the center, trying to relieve your own dissatisfaction, scratching that itch, and wondering why you itch again so soon after. Like a mosquito bite, scratching feels good at first, but it just makes the bite swell and get more red. If you keep scratching, eventually you tear the skin and bleed. After spending 3 weeks in Japan during the hot, humid summer, believe me I learned this the hard way. Eventually I just learned to not react to the itching bites and just stop scratching. The itching still persisted a little, but it never got worse.

Also, remember the Buddha taught the Middle Way in his first sermon:

“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure in connection with sensuality: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathāgata—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.

The alternative to indulging in sensual craving, self-neglect, was equally wrong. The Buddha taught a middle way between these extremes.

…and that’s why the Buddha warned against grasping the water snake incorrectly. Anyone can reach out and grab a snake, but if you do it wrongly, you’ll end up dead.

Thus, while I can see many positive things about the esoteric Buddhist path, I feel there’s a lot of danger to it too, and I personally disagree with its assertions. The Moon Meditation was great, and I met a lot of nice people, but this is definitely a path I cannot follow.

P.S. More on sex desire and Buddhism.

Shingon Moon Meditation

Recently I had the experience at the local Shingon Buddhist temple I had the opportunity to take part in Moon Meditation or in Japanese gachirinkan (月輪観). This is a practice that (as far as I know) is unique to Shingon Buddhism, and is thus different from the more familiar Zen meditation most people come across. I have moon meditation once before back in Japan, but I didn’t have enough language experience to really understand what I was doing, plus I was sitting in a bad position and the room acoustics were hard to hear. Plus, I mistakenly thought it was Ajikan Meditation, which is something a bit different.

In any case, I always wanted to give it another try. However, I was afraid I would fail again, so I hesitated until recently. Finally, I decided to give it another try.

Unlike the crowded room of 40+ people I sat with last time, I got to be in a smaller, more intimate setting with seven other students. There was plenty of space, and the atmosphere was very calm and welcoming.

Moon meditation in Shingon Buddhism involves sitting in a seated meditation position in front of a scroll with a picture of a full moon on it, just like the one shown here. Before you do the actual meditation, you undergo some guided relaxation breathing exercises to help settle your mind for a while, and then you begin the actual meditation. It doesn’t make sense to just jump right in if your mind isn’t in the right space first.

I won’t describe the actual meditation technique,1 but I will say it was both simple to do and yet peaceful and profound. I think it took all of about 15 to 20 minutes total. I really liked the experience. In a practical sense, it was quite peaceful, but in a more religious sense, it made an impression on me in a lot of ways.

After the meditation we did some more relaxation exercises, and then went out to the kitchen for tea and snacks. I had a great time chatting with other students, and it was one of those rare times where I really felt at home. I realized I was not alone and that were other people like me.

I am glad I gave Moon Meditation another try and I hope to take part in it next week as well.

1 Shingon Buddhism places a premium on person to person transmission, so it’s better to experience in person under the guidance of a trained teacher, rather than going alone and possibly going off the rails. ;p

Practice and Result

While in Japan recently, I had some time to read (such a rare thing these days), and I was reading some books in Japanese language on Buddhism. I mentioned the Tendai Buddhist book in a few recent posts, but I was also reading about Zen, Shingon and so on. It was nice reading in Japanese to get a more “native” as a way of practicing my Japanese more, but also it was interesting to see how these Buddhist schools are explained in the native Japanese versus how they are explained in English.1

One book I read titled うちのお寺は曹洞宗 (uchi no otera wa sōtōshū, “My Temple is Soto Zen”) provided some much needed clarity for me on Soto Zen, which was founded by Dogen in the 13th century. Soto Zen is something I know surprisingly little about, despite its popularity here in the West. I’ve never even been to a Soto Zen temple here in the West, despite some in my area. I guess I’ve always been a bit turned off by the hype surrounding it, and by some of the personalities in Soto Zen that dominate its image.

One thing that came up in the book was the Soto Zen view on Enlightenment and Practice. Normally, in Buddhism, we use analogies like “path” or “crossing a river”, etc to describe this sense of progress from our current state of ill-content, unease, frustration, etc to Enlightenment, which leads to a letting go and freedom we call Nirvana. However, with respect to Soto Zen, the book said the following:

修行と悟りは別のものではありません。修行を手段、悟りを目的と考えのは大きな間違いです。これを「修行一如」と言います。 shugyō to satori wa betsu no mono de wa arimasen. shugyō wo shudan, satori wo mokuteki to kangae no wa ōkina machigai desu. kore wo “shugyōichinyo” to iimasu. (pg. 148)

In English, this is saying (rough translation by me):

Practice and Enlightenment are not separate things. Thinking of [Buddhist] practice as a means, Enlightenment as an aim is a big mistake. This is what is called “the Oneness [or unity?] of Practice”

Further the book explains:

禅の修行は座禅に限りません。掃除や畑仕事などの作務、食事や睡眠、日常生活のすべてが修行なのです。 Zen no shugyō wa zazen ni kagirimasen. sōji ya hatashigoto nado no samu, shokuji ya suimin, nichijōseikatsu no subete ga shugyō na no desu. (pg. 148)

Which translates as:

Zen is not limited to zazen [meditation practice]. The samu of cleaning the home, field work, eating a meal or sleeping, everything in our daily lives is Zen practice.

The key term here is samu (作務) which Wikipedia explains is mindfully doing one’s work. The key here being mindful as one goes about one’s daily life.

Anyhow, what’s interesting is that Soto Zen isn’t about seeking Enlightenment, but rather engaging in daily life in a mindful way.

Does this appraoch actually lead to Enlightenment (even if only unintentionally), or is it really Enlightenment in and of itself?

Something to think about.

P.S. More on Zen and Food from the official Soto Zen website.

1 Actually, the books didn’t really differ all that much than English, though some subjects were emphasized more in Japanese than English, and vice-versa. Certain aspects of history and structure were greatly clarified, for example.