Bad Buddhism Summary

This Simpsons episode is a great example of a bad summary of Buddhism:

A few things to point out:

  • The “buddha” statue there is not the Buddha, nor do Buddhists worship the fat Buddha.
  • The Dalai Lama is the 14th incarnation of the Bodhisattva (not Buddha) Avalokiteshvara, or so Tibetan tradition teaches.
  • The term “suffering is caused by desire” is a misnomer.  More details here.
  • Carl is such a nice guy.  He would never go psycho on anybody.  Lenny on the other hand…

On the other hand, the writers did nail the “all things are empty of an inherent existence” part.

Family Guy made similar blunders:

  • The fat Buddha.  (sigh)
  • Buddhism teaches “rebirth” not “reincarnation” and yes, while it is possible to be reborn as an animal, there’s a lot more background to that.
  • The “don’t believe in demonstrating emotions” comment is weird and makes no sense.  Buddhism doesn’t teach people to be Vulcans.  Well, maybe a little.


Is The Noble Eightfold Path “Right”?

I found this really nice quotation recently in a book titled The Best Way to Catch a Snake by Karma Yeshe Rabgye:

I also want to say something about the use of the word ‘right’ in describing the eight elements of the [Noble Eightfold] path.  The word in Pali [language] is samma, and ‘right’ is the way it was been translated into English, but it doesn’t capture the meaning quite accurately.  The world right sounds moralistic and makes one think in terms of right and wrong, or correct and incorrect, but that is not how the Buddha intended it to be.  ‘Appropriate’ would be a much better word.  Appropriate actions will lead you away from dukkha, whereas inappropriate actions will lead to more dukkha.  So please bear this in mind when you study the Noble Eightfold Path. (pg. 131)

This is probably one of the best explanations of the Eightfold Path I have come across.  Enjoy!  🙂

P.S. For more on the meaning of the Buddhist term dukkha, see my last post for more detail.

Enough is Enough

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while.  I liked the little animated gif above, but couldn’t find a good post to use it in (Youtube version here), then I found this blog post about a certain Tibetan Buddhist group that is … controversial.  This part really spoke to me:

After it’s break-away from Tibetan Buddhism, the NKT became much more fundamentalist and purist than its predecessor. They removed all books from their Dharma centres that were not written by the NKT Guru, and advised their practitioners to only read their Guru’s books. The NKT wants its followers to have only one source of information on the Dharma, or spiritual truth: their source.

When they choose some of their new followers to becomes teachers, they are instructed to teach directly from these books, and not from any other source of information….Over time, the ‘teacher’ becomes like a mindless parrot, with no understanding of their own to share and only speaking the words they have been told to speak. When they are asked a question about the Dharma, they do not refer to their own understanding, but will often begin their thoughts and speech with “my Guru says.”

During my time with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, particularly toward the end when I sought ordination, I started to feel similar pressure.  The Jodo Shinshu community in the US has been recently undergoing a kind of fundamentalist revival, driven by the home temple in Japan, and I started to notice the same patterns.  I was told as a ministerial-candidate to only recite sutras that were part of that tradition, and to only teach sermons that were based on quotations from the founder, Shinran (1173 – 1263).

I remember asking the minister at the time why, and she had said something to the effect that it’s important not to mix teachings from other traditions because people will get confused.  She was so worried about doctrinal purity, that to me it felt like the purity of the doctrine was more important than what the doctrine actually taught.

But it wasn’t just one minister either.  When I took the online courses for ordination, I remember feeling similar misgivings.  We had a cursory overview of Buddhism as a whole, and Buddhist history, but we spent a lot more time learning the Jodo Shinshu tradition, and why it was so great.  This really bothered me because were just supposed to assume it was a great tradition because the course said so, but since my background in Buddhism had been more eclectic (and by this point I had been studying on my own for almost 10 years) and I just couldn’t see why it was so great.  I discussed with the minister-instructor, who is a great guy and well-versed in Jodo Shinshu tradition, but was still unconvinced. Behind all his great, rational arguments, I still felt the same contradiction.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has some things going for it, but the empty self-praise really started to bother me.  I know other Buddhist traditions do it too (Zen and Nichiren for example), but I didn’t want to just be a mouthpiece for a certain tradition.  I wanted to become a minister so I could actually preach something I believed in, not something I was told to do. Behind all the crappy, low-production videos and blog posts I’ve made is my sincere intent to share what I’ve learned about Buddhism with other people, even when I get it wrong.

September of last year, I finally gave up (first post on the blog here…I think), and parted ways with the community, and haven’t been back since.  For a long time, I took down all my old Jodo Shinshu posts, and tried to pretend the whole experience never happened. Despite having been there for years, and letting my kids grow up there, I threw it all away, and to be honest it’s been bitter-sweet.  Mostly bitter.

I miss some aspects a lot, particularly all the wonderful people I knew in the temple, and the fun of teaching “basic Buddhism” courses there.¹  I miss the big community celebrations, and the eclectic mix of people who grew up Buddhist and those who like me had converted.

But now that almost a year has passed, I am so glad I left.  It’s been a painful and lonely year at times, with lots of false starts, but it’s also spurred me to explore new things, and challenge myself.  It also prompted me to learn Sanskrit among other things.  There’ve been times when I missed Jodo Shinshu and Pure Land Buddhism in general so badly that I really thought about going back, but those times have become fewer and fewer, and as I delve into other teachings and traditions,² the hole in my spiritual life has slowly been filled in other, more constructive ways.  The constant tension I felt in my life for years between what Jodo Shinshu taught, and what I felt the Buddhist sutras taught is no longer there.³  It made for good blog material, but in the end I couldn’t reconcile the two.

Since parting ways, a few of my old friends and colleagues at the temple have asked me to come back, but I have chosen not to do so because I wasn’t ready to go back.  I may visit some time soon, just to say “hi”, but I know I am not the same person I was a year ago, struggling with a crisis of faith. I feel a lot more confident about the Buddha-Dharma in general, and thanks to encouragement from people here and on the Youtube channel, I know I made the right decision.

The Buddha-Dharma is like a deep ocean, with lots of treasure. The more you dive in, the more treasure you bring up. When a Buddhist tradition is so insecure about itself that it tells you not to dive in further to find more treasure (or only look for treasure in one particular spot but stay away from other spots), that’s a red flag. Yes, it is vital that you put those teachings into practice too, and not study for study’s sake (a mistake I frequently made), but you should never be told to only stick to tradition, or that it’s wrong to mix teachings.

In the end, a Buddhist tradition is only there to facilitate you on the Buddhist path. It’s important not to just rely on your own intuition, but at the same time, if a tradition is holding you back, you need to let it go, and take up something else that is more appropriate. And if that doesn’t work, try something else. It’s important not to lean on a teacher or teaching:

You have to think for yourself even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.

So, in a sense, I feel like a new student again, but I like what I am learning, and I hope I can continue for the forseeable future.

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa

¹ Those too were getting curtailed because of concerns they didn’t align with Jodo Shinshu teachings, even though the previous year I had submitted the material beforehand for approval, and after some corrections, did get the OK to teach.

² Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s books and podcasts have been particularly helpful for me.  It was something I needed to hear at the right time.

³ I realize some people will take issue with this, and try to demonstrate that the Buddhist sutras teach Jodo Shinshu doctrine.  I respect their opinions, but I’ve already reached my own conclusion and have no interest in debating it.

All Is Dukkha

Chapter Two of Part Two of Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book The Best Way to Catch a Snake is explanation of the Buddhist notion of Dukkha,1 which he explains like so:

Firstly, I think it will be helpful to try and explain this word dukkha. ‘Dukkha’ is a Pali [language] word and there really isn’t an equivalent word in the English language.  While dukkha can mean suffering, it can also mean pain, both physical and mental, or sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, stress, anguish, misery, and frustration. We all know that life can be difficult at times, even downright depressing.  We have all felt sad, let-down, and dissatisfied with life.  Well, this is exactly what Buddha was getting at when he told us that there is dukkha. (pg. 96-97)

As Karma Yeshe Rabgye further explains, there are basically three kinds of dukkha:

  • The dukkha of pain – this is the obvious one. This comes from feelings of actual physical suffering, but also feelings of loss, guilt, regret,
  • The dukkha of happiness – this one is more subtle since happiness is such a nice feeling. This kind of dukkha comes when the good feelings ebb, and we feel the need to get them back. More on that later.
  • The all-pervasive dukkha – this comes from the general conditions of life, the challenges of growing up, being hemmed in by society, and the inevitable decline in one’s life, among other things.

After reading Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book, I was inspired to make this video and explore the concept further:

The second form of dukkha is, to me, often the hardest to perceive because we all want to be happy and we spend all our energies toward that end. The pursuit of happiness in of itself isn’t wrong, it’s just the way we go about it. A lot of the happiness in life is like sand slipping through the fingers in that we enjoy something, but either we lost interest (for example listening to our favorite song too much) or because conditions outside our control changed and we can longer sustain the happiness we had before.

Case in point, in the video I talked about winning a local Magic the Gathering tournament (well, getting 3-1 which was pretty good for a first-timer), but then the following weekend, I did another local tournament and only got 2-2. Although that is not a bad score, it was worse than my previous score, and so even though I got some great cards from it, I still felt let-down. That right there was dukkha.

I came in expecting to get another 3-1 or even better, but I came away with a worse score, not better. In other words, I couldn’t sustain the same winning record I had from the previous time. And, come to think of it, even if I did, eventually I would get 2-2 or worse. It is foolish to assume I would always have the same record or better. But that’s how the mind works.

This is an example of dukkha in my own life, but if you look at your own life, I bet you can find similar examples.

Essentially, what Karma Yeshe Ragye is saying is that if you look deep enough all things in this world are dukkha in some way or another. Buddhist literature sometimes uses very colorful and elaborate narrative to explain this,2 but basically the message is the same: there is no lasting refuge in this world. It will always slip from your grasp somehow, and you’re left with dukkha again.

Only when you learn to be at peace with yourself can you let go and be content. It’s as simple as that. Actually getting to that sense of contentment is no trivial task though, hence Buddhism has grown and developed as much as it had across the generations.

P.S. As I was writing this post, I accidentally deleted a paragraph for a moment. That caused me a sense of dukkha as well since I was going to have to type it again, though thankfully I found what I typed. 😉

1 For reference, the Sanskrit version of the same word is duḥkham (दुःखम्). This is in contrast to the Sanskrit word sukham (सुखम्) which means happiness, etc.

2 See the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra for example.

Think For Yourself

Another great podcast by Karma Yeshe Rabgye:

Certain Buddhist schools seem particularly vulnerable to a kind of abuse by gurus or teachers who exert unnecessary control over their disciples, but this kind of unhealthy relationship can happen in any Buddhist temple or community.

There are examples of teachers who have abused their students, and it’s interesting to see how some students will still defend their teacher, even make excuses for the abuse, simply because the teachings they offer are so great.  I believe though this is what Karma Yeshe Rabgye means by leaning on a teacher, rather than learning from them.  You want the teaching so badly you’re willing to put up with all kinds of abuse, but as Karma Yeshe Rabgye says, this is just another form of attachment.

Anyhow, something to really think about.

Buddhist teachers in the West are so few and far between, and there’s not always enough oversight on them, leaving room for people to get taken in by charismastic teachers.  However, with the right mindset one can avoid some pitfalls, and thereby avoid a lot unnecessary grief.

Where Does Namu Come From?

The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:

  • Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
  • Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
  • Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
  • Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.

You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc.  What the heck is this?

This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately.  The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc.  This term is not limited to Buddhism either.  It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹

Now, here’s the funny part.  Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places.  This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”.  Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.

The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:

  • namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
  • namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
  • namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
  • namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
  • namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.

So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.²  This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.

From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same.  In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.

But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.

Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.

¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).

² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped.  This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ .  Why?  It just does.