Sun and Moon: A classic Japanese haiku

Recently while watching the Japanese children’s show with my kids, nihongo de asobo, they showed this haiku poem:

菜の花や Na no hana ya
月は東に Tsuki wa higashi ni
日は西に Hi wa nishi ni

Which means something like “Ah, Rape Blossoms!¹ The moon is in the east, the sun is in the west”.

According to this website in Japanese, the poem was composed in the year 1774 by the famous poet Yosa Buson (与謝蕪村 1716-1784), when he was standing in a field of rape blossoms in what is now the city of Kobe during a sunset when the moon was also rising in the east.  The sunset cast a golden glow over the field of flowers, while the rising moon in the east cast a silvery glow too.

Pretty cool imagery, and one of those moments that stays with you your whole life.

¹ Also known its botanical name Brassica Rapa.

Is It Worth It?

I follow a few pro Magic the Gathering players on Twitter, and recently one pro player posted the following:

Owen Turtenwald‘s tweet above is really important because competition for competition’s sake isn’t always worth it.

Coincidentally, an article was posted on Channel Fireball about how professional players can get so caught in winning they forget how to have fun.  The article further argues that the key to getting better is to have fun, not the other way around.  As someone who loses more games than I win, it is easy to get caught in winning, but as the article says:

The bottom line is this: Never allow your ability to have fun and enjoy the game to be contingent solely on your results. The moment you do that, you’re making your ability to have fun and enjoy the game become completely dependent on a temporary condition being met.

Chasing contingent, fleeting happiness like this is obviously a bad idea in the long run.

Because life is so short (something very Buddhist if you think about it), it’s important to have one’s priorities straight.  It’s a terrible feeling if you look back on your life and realize you wasted weeks, months, even years on something that you later realized wasn’t worth the effort.

So, regardless of who you are, every once in a while it is nice to take stock of your life determine what your priorities are. 🙂


Staying Motivated

I was inspired to write this post after hearing a good podcast from a Buddhist teacher named Karma Yeshe Rabgye:

In this podcast, Karma Yeshe Rabgye lists five hindrances to one’s meditation, and how to counteract them.  I recommend listening to the podcast because it is both short, and easy to follow, but in short they hindrances and remedies are:

Hindrance Remedy
Desire Contemplate impermanence
Ill will Reflect on good will toward others
Laziness Have a break, move around, etc.
Anxiety Use calming meditation techniques
Doubt Research Buddhist doctrines

This reminded me of something that Ven. Yin-Shun wrote in his book The Way to Buddhahood regarding hindrances of achieving Right Concentration in Buddhism, and how to counteract them:

Faults Remedy
Laziness Faith, Diligence, Aspiration, Tranquility
Forgetting the Holy Words (sutras) Right Mindfulness
(Mindful breathing, or visualizing a Buddha/Bodhsiattva)
Restlessness Right Knowledge
(Recognition that the mind is scattered)
(Not changing things that should be changed)
(Realizing the harm of not taking action)
Action(The desire to eliminate such faults) Equanimity
(Don’t over do it, relax and keep practicing)

There are many other examples too in Buddhism where a specific behavior or attitude has a corresponding “antidote”, a way to counteract it. Sometimes these can get a little extreme, such as the practice of monks meditating in a charnel ground, but they usually don’t have to be.

As both Karma Yeshe Rabgye and Yin-Shun show, oftentimes, the solutions are very simple and straightforward and don’t require a heroic effort, just recognition of a negative state of mind, and some way of diminishing or counteracting it. It’s just about staying the course.

Lifestyle Gurus and Devas

Recently, I was amused to read this article by the New York Times about the business of lifestyle gurus. Definitely read this before continuing. 🙂

I have often noticed a trend where lifestyle gurus frequently and selectively borrow Buddhist teachings and incorporate it into their own, which is confusing for someone who’s not actually familiar with Buddhist religion, and thus conflating the two.

Reading the article above reminded me of the traditional Buddhist wheel of rebirth. Recently, I talked about people who in this live life as if they’re in one of the Buddhist hell realms, undergoing constant torment, or are the tormentors themselves, both doomed to find no peace unless the cycle is broken. Such hells do exist in a sense, for both humans and animals alike.

On the other side of the Buddhist spectrum of rebirth are the devas.1 These are the original gods in India that were worshipped through ancient texts called the Vedas, which researchers now call the “Vedic Religion”, since it predates all known religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

Of these devas, early Buddhist texts mention gods like Indra and Brahma as protectors of the Buddha, and the Buddha explained how the devas dwelt in 33 heavenly realms, with the lower realms focused more on sensual pleasure, and the higher realms on more ethereal, cerebral delights.
Further, the devas live very long lifespans, as time flows differently in the heaven realms:

That which among men is four hundred years, Visakha, is one night and day of the Tusita devas, their month has thirty of those days, their year twelve of those months; the lifespan of the Tusita devas is four thousand of those heavenly years…

— Visakhuposatha Sutta

…but there’s a catch: even the devas die.

In Buddhist religion, the devas have extremely long lifespans, and live a life of ease and power that is well beyond humans, and yet even they are subject to decline. In one apochryphal story, the king of the gods, Indra (a.k.a. Shakra) forsees his next rebirth as a pig. As the king of the devas, he has nowhere to go but down, and greatly frets about this.

Thus, the heaven realms are not seen as a long-term solution on the Buddhist path. A person who lives an especially good life (regardless of being Buddhist or not) may end up being reborn in the heaven realms, but that is a double-edged sword because on the one hand you have a life of ease and great mental and physical powers, but on the other hand, it’s a distraction and a hindrance until it’s possibly too late.

Getting back to the original point of this post, I sometimes like to compare lifestyle gurus and people who aspire to follow them as devas. They live somewhat removed and oftentimes elevated lifestyles compared to the mundane lives of other people: a life of relative comfort and ease, sumptuous foods, health spas, nice homes, clothing and lively parties with their friends. But there’s something that will inevitably nag in the back of their minds, and that’s their own mortality.

You can eat the nicest organic foods in the world, drink the finest wines, have the best most satisfying sex in your life, or enjoy the taste of victory, but these are temporary things and in the end you will still face old age, decline and ultimately death.

How you face that death is really important, and may be the most important problem to solve in your life.

You can’t buy your way out of that problem, either. It’s something you must work out yourself, and the answer can be a bitter pill to swallow, but a bitter pill is good medicine.

So, it’s important not to conflate lifestyle gurus and their advice with actual Buddhist teachings. The two have little in common, and ultimately arrive at different ends if followed to fruition. One is focused on here and now, while the other is more forward-thinking.

1 Deva is cognate with English words such as “divine” and such.

Finding Common Ground

….A lot of people want to separate the left and the right, think that everyone on the right is like Trump, and they’re not. They have grown up where they’ve grown up, experienced what they’ve experienced and see the world the way they see it. But if you can sit down and have a good conversation with them instead of calling them stupid or condescending to them, you can actually accomplish some things over time.

I really like this article above. It’s so easy these days to get caught up in heated arguments with political opponents, and forget that they’re people too. 

One of the teachings in Buddhism is that of right speech, which the Buddha explains like so in the Pali Canon courtesy of the Magga-vibhanga Sutta (SN 45.8):

“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

— trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This is because the Buddhist religion is grounded in goodwill toward all beings as shown in the famous Metta Sutta:

Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

— trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

You can’t just wish goodwill toward those who agree with you. Goodwill includes all beings from all walks of life, and all inclinations.

Further, in the Buddhist teachings, people do not exist in isolation. People need one another. All living beings need one another in some manner or form, thus the further one tries to assert their own way, the further they isolate themselves and the further they sink into unease, despair and conflict. 

In other words, people need communities, not cliques.

But all of this starts with right understanding.  Being able to see yourself in other people and other beings is the first step to wisdom, and that will gradually change your point of view from one of cliques and antagonism, to one of inclusiveness.

How to do Buddhist Prostrations or “Kowtow”

Recently, I visited a certain Vietnamese Buddhist temple north of Seattle for the Buddha’s Birthday.  Vietnamese Buddhism, along with Chinese Buddhism and such, celebrates the buddhist holidays according to the lunar calendar, so this year it was in May, rather than April 8th.

Anyhow, my family and I all went because we had toured the temple long ago and liked the atmosphere a lot.

Unfortunately, as we toured the temple, and paid respects to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, we realized that we were a little bit like a fish out of water. Vietnamese Buddhism has its own customs which we were not familiar with, including subtle differences in how incense was offered, how bowing was done, etiquette, etc. We just weren’t sure what to do.

So, lately I’ve been doing some fact-finding and found this helpful video about doing Buddhist prostrations or “kowtow”.1

Prostrations are something that are frequently done in some Buddhist groups, but not necessarily others. For example, in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we just never did it, but in Rinzai Zen services I attended, people did. It runs the gamut.

But it’s a good skill to get familiar with in case you go to a temple where people practice that.

Some folks, especially if you’re converting to Buddhism, may find the practicing a bit over the top, but like so many other things in Buddhism, there’s a reason for everything. The first real step in Buddhism for any one, regardless of Buddhist school, is to take refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Buddha (i.e. the teacher) is a deeply humbling acknowledgement that you need help, and that you don’t have all the answers. Let’s face it, you don’t. If you did, why go do all the self-destructive and stupid things you do in life, even when you know better?

So, prostrations are one way to express that humility, to reaffirm one’s taking refuge in the Buddha, like a rock upon a stormy sea.

Further, in a practical sense, paying respects to the Buddha is a good karma, and good karma helps pave the way along the Buddhist path by avoiding and diminishing obstructions. Will power alone isn’t sufficient, you need to foster an environment conducive to the Buddhist path, and that isn’t just your immediate environment.

In any case, the video above is a good thing to watch and learn if you decide to learn prostrations. Typically they’re done in groups of three, and after talking with one of the monks that the local Vietnamese temple, he confirmed that this is done in Vietnamese Buddhism as well, though people often just bow at the waist too, especially when you’re outside and it’s not feasible to kowtow there.

P.S. More on my efforts to learn Vietnamese Buddhist customs in a future post. I got in touch with a local monk there at the temple, and he offered a lot of good advice, but also suggested coming to the temple so he could explain in person. If you visit a similar temple in your area, don’t hesitate to contact them first and just ask about local temple etiquette. I’m sure they’ll appreciate you asking.

1 The term “kowtow” (or Kou-tou/Ke-tou in Mandarin) tends to have negative connotations in English, and Western culture, but in Chinese culture it simply refers to this act of prostration, whether that be to the Emperor as dictated by Confucian norms, or to the Buddha, or something else.

Crossing the Stream

Moraine Park RMNP

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi does a nice job explaining what the Buddhist path entails in this article:

Like any other stream, the stream of mundane existence inevitably flows in the direction of least resistance: downward. The task the Buddha sets before us is not the impossible one of reversing the direction of the flow, but the feasible one of crossing the stream, of arriving safely at the far shore where we will be free from the dangers that beset us as we are swept along by the stream. To cross the stream requires a struggle, not against the current itself, but against the forces that carry us down the current, a struggle against the defilements lodged in the depths of our own minds.

The Buddhist path isn’t meant to be a heroic struggle against the forces in the Universe, but rather a kind of slow, determined effort with a clear goal, and support when you need it when you find yourself slipping on the rocks, or feeling the pull of the currents.

P.S. Don’t cross the streams, though. 👻