A New Chapter

Dear Readers,

Recently I have come to some crucial decisions that affect the blog and the youtube channel.

It began in the early summer when I took an interest in Tendai Buddhist teachings, but later due to a chance meeting, I realized that Tendai Buddhism was right for me. It was first time in many years where I felt all my internal doubts and contradictions about certain aspects of Buddhism were finally reconciled and it “just made sense”.

I assumed that this would go away in a few weeks or months, but so far that hasn’t been the case. In fact, I have decided to pursue the Tendai path exclusively maybe with the hope of becoming a priest some day. Tendai is really cool stuff, and it’s such a shame there aren’t more reliable sources in English about it.

However, this also means changes too. I have come to realize that I understand Buddhism a lot less than I thought I did. Much of this blog and its 10-year history1 has been fueled by2 long-standing contradictions I felt about my experiences with Pure Land Buddhism, particularly Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Sure, I learned a bunch of stuff over the years as a result of that sense of contradiction, and sure, leaving Jodo Shinshu to be an “independent Buddhist” in recent years has been nice, but there’s also something to be said for structured training and education too. Cherry-picking what you like and what you agree with is like a nice, warm blanket, but it only gets you so far.

After meeting people who really live and breathe as Buddhists, I had to face the fact that having a bunch of historical facts and sutra knowledge in your head will only get you so far. You have to really apply it. Not as a weekend-warrior kind of thing, but you really got to make it a part of your life. There are some things in Buddhism that simply can’t be properly learned or explained until you’ve put them into practice first.

So, it’s time to start over as a Buddhist. I want to focus more on training and structured education for an extended period until I feel I can teach Buddhism in more professional manner. That means the blog is basically on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Comments will be turned off too a little later.

The Internet is littered with dead blogs, including dead Buddhist blogs. Some of which are/were quite good. I think it may be time to lay this one to rest as well. Maybe I’ll pick it up again in the future, maybe not. Time will tell. I have a lot of fond memories of this blog, its family memories, meeting readers face to face, posts about KPop and other odds and ends, but I also am really excited about the future, too.

Some parting bits of advice if I don’t pick up the blog again: remember that life is short. There are a lot of stupid things to waste your time on (including many things in Buddhism). Shed the unnecessary baggage, slow down and focus on the things that matter. Remember the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra. Know who your friends are, stop being a fake, always question yourself, and never stop learning.

Best Wishes,
Doug

1 The first post. Note, I did have a previous blog called the Level 8 Buddhist, but it was much of the same content and lasted maybe 3-4 years. I can’t quite remember why I deleted it other than I had posted something I regretted and that I was so sensitive to what the online community said that I felt I had to start over. Having had 10 years to look back, I realize now that the online Buddhist community is a small, and somewhat skewed representation of the much larger Buddhist community and that in the grand scheme of things, none of it really matters that much. If nothing else, age does bring with it wisdom and experience. 🙂

2 Another motivation was sharing much of what I learned about Japanese culture through my wife and our visits there yearly, but having visited almost every year since 2005, there isn’t much novelty to share anymore. Of course I love Japanese culture, but it feels like a well-worn pair of pants now, instead of something new and crisp. Very comfortable, but nothing remarkable to talk about.

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Buddha Nature Everywhere

Recently, I had a good conversation with someone, and they taught me an interesting phrase in Japanese Buddhism:

山川草木悉有仏性
san sen sō moku shitsu u busshō

I believe this means, if taken literally, “Mountains, rivers, grass and tree. All have buddha-nature”, however, I think that the 山川草木 is a metaphor for “all things”. So, this can mean “all things have buddha-nature”.

Something to ponder. 🙂

Soto Zen and the Meaning of Practice and Verification

Recently while reading about Soto Zen in Japanese, I came across a text I had never even heard of called the Meaning of Practice and Verification or shushōgi (修証義). This is not a text written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen,1 but was composed much later in 1890 by a couple of lay followers who wanted to distill the deep, but also voluminous Shobogenzo into something that was more accessible to lay followers. Although not without some controversy at the time, the Shushogi was adopted by Soto Zen and now frequently appears in Soto Zen liturgy.

I found a few translations available in English on the Internets, but this site had multiple, different translations for the same text.

A few verses I wanted to call out. Translations were done by Translated Masunaga Reihō (1902-1981) in The Sōtō Approach to Zen, Layman Buddhist Society Press (Zaike bukkyo kyokai), Tokyo, 1958, pp. 171-182.:

1. To arrive at a thorough understanding of
birth and death — this is the crucial problem for
all Buddhists. If the Buddha dwells in birth and
death, birth and death disappear. Understand only
that birth-death is nothing to avoid as birth-death,
birth and death disappear. Understand
only that birth-death is itself nirvana; there is
nothing to avoid as birth-death and nothing to
seek as nirvana. You then slough off the chains
that bind you to birth-death. This — the supreme
problem in Buddhism — must be thoroughly penetrated.

and:

8. So let us repent before the Buddhas with
all our heart. Repentance before the Buddhas
saves us and purifies us; it also helps the growth
in us of pure, unimpeded conviction and earnest
effort. Pure conviction, once aroused, not only
changes us but others, and its benefits extend to
all sentient beings and inanimate things.

and:

18. Awakening the wisdom mind means vowing
to save all beings before we ourselves have
crossed to the other shore. Everyone — whether
layman, priest, deva, or man — whether enjoying
pleasure or suffering pain — should quickly awaken
this vow.

19. Though humble in appearance, anyone
who has awakened this vow is already the teacher
of mankind. Even a girl of seven may be the
teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the
compassionate mother of all beings. This emphasis
on the equality of the sexes represents one
of the finest teachings of Buddhism.

Anyhow, something to share. Enjoy!

1 I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I have noticed a tendency among Western Zen Buddhists that Soto Zen begins and ends with Dogen. Dogen is venerated in Western Zen in a way you don’t see as much in Japanese Zen, while downplaying the rich tradition that has developed since then. Keizan alone, as the “second founder”, deserves a lot more attention.

The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation by Zhiyi

Recently I obtained an English translation of a 6th century book by the famous Chinese Buddhist Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597), called the Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. This book focuses on meditation exercises called “calming and insight” meditation or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit. I mentioned another of Zhiyi’s works in a recent post, however compared to the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime which focuses on the mental states during meditation, this book is more focused on the practice in general.

Note that Zhiyi’s “Calming and Insight” meditation seems somewhat more formalized than “Zen” meditation, but in the introduction the translator notes that they are basically the same. However, the translator also notes that Zhiyi was likely drawing on knowledge of early Indian-Buddhist meditation at the time, and this manual is an attempt to compile this information into a single, accessible handbook.

Early in the manual, Zhiyi warns not to take these words lightly:

If one’s mind gauges the import of these words, then, in the blink of an eye, one’s qualities of wisdom and severance will become so great as to defy measurement and one’s spiritual understanding will become unfathomably deep.

If, however, one disingenuously seizes on passages out of context or, due to personal sentiments, distorts the instructions of the text, the the months and years will be needlessly drawn out while actual realization will have no basis for development. One’s circumstance then would be like that of the pauper who spends his time calculating the wealth of other men. (pg. 35)

The manual is pretty detailed about various aspects of meditation as a practice and how to make the most of them. For example in the first chapter on “Prerequisites” for practicing Calming and Insight meditation, Zhiyi lists five:

  1. Observing the Precepts purely (or if one has faltered, having sincerely repented and made amends)
  2. Proper sustenance – modest food and clothing, not being greedy.
  3. Suitable dwelling – quiet, remote and peaceful.
  4. Putting Responsibilities to Rest – excusing oneself from duties, hobbies, social activities, study, etc.
  5. Having good spiritual friends

In the next chapter, Zhiyi stresses the importance of renouncing sensual desire (form, taste, sound, etc) when engaging in calming-and-insight meditation. Zhiyi quotes from a number of sutras including something called the Dhyāna sutras.

In chapter three, Zhiyi talks about the well-known Five Hindrances in Buddhism, and how to overcome them. Karma Yeshe Ragye has a nice write-up on the Five Hindrances which I recommend, but there are plenty of other sources too.

Chapter Four onward is when Zhiyi delves into the meditation practice itself. He begins by detailing proper posture, how to make adjustments to that posture during meditation, what kinds of things to be mindful of or visualize, different kinds of breathing exercises one can do and so on. The text even covers what to do when meditation doesn’t seem to be working, or one becomes afflicted with strange “ailments” during meditation. A lot of this delves into medical knowledge at the time that would seem frankly primitive now, but it does delve into the kinds of vague physical issues one might have during meditation.

The final chapter then covers the fruits of meditation and what one can expect through dedicated practice.

The book is a comprehensive guide for calming-and-insight meditation, and covers just about every aspect one could think of. It definitely assumes that one is serious about the practice and not just doing it to “relax” or anything like that. It is a pretty amazing piece of work, and a pretty invaluable reference for anyone who wants to take meditation practice to the next level.

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.

Enjoy!

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.