Letting Go

After my grandfather passed away a couple months ago, I spent some time reading Roger Zelazny’s novel Isle of the Dead. This is my favorite quotation:1

Nick swore he’d die with his boots on, on some exotic safari, but he found his Kilimanjaro in a hospital on Earth, where they’d cured everything that was bothering him, except for the galloping pneumonia he’d picked up in the hospital.

That had been, roughly, two hundred and fifty years ago. I’d been a pallbearer.

I mashed out my cigarette and made my way back to the slip-sled….The dead are too much with us.

The last part really stuck with me. Shortly after my grandfather died, and especially around the time of the funeral, I kept thinking about him. I found some old items that my grandfather had given me as congratulations for graduating college (almost 20 years ago, wow) and other momentos from the past. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was still alive somehow and watching over me. I then started to think about other loved ones who had died in the past, even while I continued to live: friends, grandparents and so on.

Indeed, the dead are too much with us.

But then later I started to think about it from another angle: are they really with us, or are we holding on to them and their memory?

For example, my maternal grandmother died from cancer when I was about 14 (I think she was 57 or so).  It happened during Thanksgiving weekend, but it had been a long-battle with cancer that spanned months.  She had been a big influence on our lives, and especially on me and my choice to go into computing more.²  She was greatly loved by the family, and when she passed, it was a hole in our lives that never got filled.  We never really celebrated Christmas or Thanksgiving the same way we used to, and gradually all grew apart.

But that was also 27 years ago.  A lot has happened since then, but at the same time, that part of me is still holding on to memories from 27+ years ago.

That’s the nature of the self.  The “self” as described by the Buddha is a composite.  There is no true, static, underlying self that serves as the foundation.  It is a composite of things, through and through.  These composites are normally grouped into five “aggregates” or “heaps”, namely physical form (brain, guts, nerves, etc), sensations, perception, mental formations and consciousness.  The ancient Pali-language word for these aggregates is khandha and literally would just mean a heap or pile in the mundane sense, like a pile of leaves, etc.

The point here is that as a composite being, we are made up of all the combined experiences, thoughts, genetic attributes and external conditions that come together to make us what we are.  Thus, my memories of Christmas and Thanksgiving are just another thing added to the “pile” as a kid.  They’re great memories, especially the Christmas where I got a He-Man Castle Greyskull set, but they’re just memories.

Holding on to these memories and people is something that can becoming unhealthy if one becomes obsessed by it.  In some ways, it’s a bit silly too, but letting go is hard too.

The fact is is that I am alive here and now.  The past is the past, and the future is unwritten.  There is nothing further to this.

Or, as the Buddha said it in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131):

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.

Whoever lives thus ardently,
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.
(translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

I am grateful to my ancestors and loved ones who’ve moved on, but at the same time, I am alive here and now.  All that matters is here and now.

1 Also mentioned here and here in parts.

² That was back when BBS’s, BASIC and Tandy TRS-80 Color Computers were all the rage.  She was quite an enthusiast back then, and I remember owning a 64K Tandy Color Computer 2 back when it was the latest model.  I inherited her 16K version as a result.


Travelling Without Moving

This is not just a quotation from the 1983 movie Dune,1 but something I read in Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book, The Best Way to Catch a Snake. In it, he quotes from a sutra called the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19) in the Pali Canon, which has the following section:

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.

–trans. by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The point here is that whatever our thoughts incline towards, we keep moving in that direction. Our thoughts and actions bend in that direction. It’s a kind of cumulative habit that’s hard to stop, especially if it’s a harmful one.

On the other hand, if one can keep their mind on something wholesome, they will incline in that direction, move in that direction and so on.

1 Not to mention a good song by Jamiroquai and probably a host of other places…

Nothing To It

This was another great podcast by Karma Yeshe Rabgye on being a Buddhist teacher, but he also delved into what I like to call “Buddhist shortcuts”.

After my unpleasant departure from my last Buddhist community this time last year, I sort of underwent a lot of soul-searching, false-starts, projects I started but never finished. But in the long-run, I feel it’s had a positive result. It forced me to confront some things about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings that I had taken for granted, or things that I never questioned but should have.

Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s explanation on what Buddhism is about and why people need to do the work themselves, rather than hoping a guru or some magic practice or deity will make them enlightenment, rings true with me. I always knew this deep down of course, but I feel that I’ve been kind of running from the problem by blaming it on personal failings or circumstances in my life, then embracing teachings and practices that were basically just full of hot air to compensate.

Buddhism is a lot like exercise and losing weight. You can start where you are and at anytime just by doing exercise and cutting calories in some combination.  Further, the results just speak for themselves. What’s usually blocking you is not the action itself, but mental hang-ups, excuses, and self-infatuation (“I suck” or “I don’t feel like it” or “I’ll do this other thing first”, etc).

Anyhow, definitely take a listen if you can. Enjoy!

P.S.  More posts on the subject here, here and here.

Self Deception

Recently I found this book on my bookshelf, which was a gift from a certain monk I know online.1 The back of the book has the following statement:


The words are:

Sometimes it can be so complete that you don’t even know.
Defensiveness makes you blind to your own weakness (self-deception).
We deceive ourselves to be happy.
Sometimes it is painful to see our weak points; it takes a lot of courage, honesty and mindfulness.

This is the crux of the Buddha’s teachings: we deceive ourselves all the time. This is fueled by our sense of self-love and desire for continuity among other things. But even with all that, it still has no basis in reality. Believing something doesn’t make it somehow more true.

We build up so much of our world within our own minds, and if someone shows us to be wrong, we still deny it, or try to somehow spin it in a way that seems less harmful. As the character Sam said in the book Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny:2

The moral, therefore, of my sermon on this small mount is this—even a mirror will not show you yourself, if you do not wish to see.

“Denial” ain’t just a river in Egypt. 😉

P.S. The book in question is called Snow in Summer by Ven. Sayadae U Jotika. You can find a free copy of the book here, among other places.

1 Thank you “A.S.”!

2 Originally posted here.

Secular vs Traditional: A Tale of Two Buddhisms

During my time in Japan this summer, I was reading the two books shown above. The book on the left is Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book, which I’ve talked about in a number of recent posts, while the book on the right is a Japanese-language introduction to Jodo-Shu Buddhism which I encountered early on in my pursuit of Buddhism, and still have many fond feelings of. I picked this book because I was partly curious to see what native Japanese language books teach versus the translated ones usually found in the West.1In a way, these two books represent two different streams of Buddhism we all fall into in some way or another. Karma Yeshe Rabgye is a self-proclaimed secular Buddhist. While trained in the Tibetan tradition, and well-versed in it, he also openly eschews many of its traditions and superstitions to focus on the core teachings, both in Tibetan tradition and in the older Pali Canon references.

The Jodo Shu book above is written by and for Japanese audiences who grew up in Buddhism, and its focus is specifically on Jodo Shu traditions and practices. Content-wise it doesn’t delve very much into things you’d expect to see in a Western-secular book, and glosses over Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings in favor of the teachings of Honen the founder of Jodo Shu Buddhism.

Here we see one stream that tries to cut through all the cultural trappings to get to the heart of Buddhism. The other stream asserts that the cultural trappings are Buddhism.

People who follow Buddhism inevitably will gravitate to one extreme or another. It’s kind of human nature.

A lot of people new to Buddhism treat it the same way they approached their old, usually Protestant, religion. They see the texts as the final word (sola scriptura), and focus on those teachings while avoiding rituals and trappings they may seem to contradict it. So, naturally they gravitate toward a secular approach, and in particular Zen or Theravada Buddhism while other traditional Buddhist communities are seen as moribund, hidebound and exclusive.

On the other hand, these communities are vibrant and thriving in ways that, frankly, Western secular communities are not. If you go to any number of Western-style temples, you’ll get lots of limp handshakes, small talk, and endless dry debates about the Dharma. In a more traditional community, you can see families raised together, monks who earnestly care for their community and a lot of fervent followers, even if the way the practice may not seem like it’s “in the book”.

Let’s face it, we can’t go back to 5th-century BC India and live the pristine life that the early Buddhist community did. It doesn’t stop people from trying, but there’s an inherent flaw in “reconstructed” religions that eventually manifests over time and causes communities to die out. The fact that traditional communities even exist at all is a testament to finding something Buddhist to hold on to and making it a living tradition.

On the other hand, Karma Yeshe Rabgye is right in that there is also a lot of accumulated things in Buddhism that are simply distractions at best, or counterproductive at worst. For example, in the Jodo Shu book above, there is a section on installing a new Buddhist altar for the home, and the final phase is to ask a priest to perform the “eye-opening ritual” or kaigen-shiki (開眼式) in Japanese. This ritual, which is something you’ll often see in Asian Buddhist traditions, consecrates an object of veneration, so that it’s no longer just a statue or image. This tradition might be fine if you live somewhere where you know the local neighborhood priest, and don’t mind him/her coming over for a brief ceremony. However, if you’re a lone Buddhist practitioner in the middle of nowhere and want to setup an altar of you’re own, this would be somewhat impractical, and might cause one to lose faith in their practice.

In any case, this tension between secular versus traditional Buddhism is something I can’t even resolve in my own life. Having married to my wife, and by extension to her culture, Japanese Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me, but at the same time, my Western-Protestant upbringing still bristles at it some times.

Both of the books above were great in their respective ways. Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book illuminated a lot of details about Buddhist teachings that I admit I had been kind of fuzzy on. It’s provided a lot of good content for the blog.  😉  The Jodo Shu book above is great because it provides a gentle introduction and practical explanations about Jodo Shu daily life and practice, and clarified some aspects of Japanese Buddhist tradition that I admit I was fuzzy on too. For me, I like both books and both traditions.

I feel the best advice I ever got on the subject though was from an old gentleman at my previous community. He would sometimes tell us when we have doubts about Buddhist tradition, to thoroughly understand it first, and then adjust or remove what you don’t need.

I hope this makes sense to readers as well. If you’re new to Buddhism, get to know your tradition first as best as you can. Own it, immerse yourself in it2 and such. Once you are comfortable with the tradition, like a child who’s finally learned to swim, then you can make informed decisions about how best to put it into practice.

Both traditional and secular Buddhism have somethings to offer, but it takes time to appreciate both, and learn how to make them work.

P.S. An interesting article on the challenges of secular Buddhism.

1 Surprisingly, the differences were small, and mainly due to cultural differences only (Japanese homes often maintain Buddhist memorial tablets while Westerners typically do not). Compare this with Zen books which are quite different in Japanese and English.

2 Of course, if you happen to have any inklings that your community is a cult, just back away now and save yourself a ton of grief.

Why Me?

Recently the good folks at the Limited Resources podcast talked about bad habits when playing Magic the Gathering. These are small habits that drain on your gameplay and mental acuity while potentially annoying friends and such. I am guilty of about half of these habits. I like to gripe when I lose, I peak at my cards if I mulligan the opening hand, i gripe when my Sealed pool is bad, etc.

What was interesting, even for non-Magic players, was that as host Marshall Sutcliffe explained, these negative thought patterns basically all extend from a kind of “why me?” attitude. Magic is kind of unforgiving and very random, and it certainly doesn’t care about your feelings, but people tend to personalize these bad turns of luck and assume it is all about them somehow.

In my Sealed pool with my friends, I ended up with 4 Djeru’s Renunciation cards, which is statistically pretty unlikely, but also it’s not a very playable card.  Between this and a lack of “bomb rare” cards, my pool hasn’t been particularly stellar.  I did have some good removal spells and some good creatures, particularly in green and black, but overall my pool is kind of lackluster.  Having lost quite a few games against my friends, I really started to think “why did I get such an unlucky pool”?

But with advice from Limited Resources, I took a step back and remembered that the game is very, very random.  The fact that I got 4 Djeru’s Renunciation cards shows just how random things can get.1Instead, following their advice, I learned how to get the most “equity” from playing my pool that I can. After losing many times, I went back and spent more time learning how to build better decks, particularly improving the mana curve and not focusing quite so much on synergies and tricks. Once I did that, I started winning more often. There were some decks my friends that I still couldn’t beat regularly, but overall my win percentage started to go back up again. Finally!

Similarly, when misfortune happens in life, it’s easy to assume a “why me?” attitude. A fear years ago, our house sprung a leak near the fireplace during a bad winter rainstorm, and I found myself thinking over and over why this could happen to me at a time like this. We even joked that maybe we had a curse on us or something.

Then I stepped back and thought about why this leak probably occurred. It turns out that too much debris had built up behind the chimney and caused water to flow back up into the roof tiles and flashing. Once we managed to clear the debris, the leak never came back (now 5 years later).

This is how you take control of a situation, rather than let anxiety and fear overwhelm you (or tilting). You have to step back and look at how you got into that situation. In the case of home improvement, what preventative maintenance could you have done to avoid this? In the case of Magic, what improvements can you make to building your deck?

This kind of thinking may not be first nature, but you’ll feel a lot better and see things more rationally and clearly if you do.

1 Speaking of very random, one time I opened three packs of Kaladesh booster packs and each one had an Aether Hub in there, which is an uncommon. Now that was random.

Translating Japanese politeness

Japanese and English are pretty different languages, and although I’ve been studying it more or less for 10 years (essentially since my daughter was born), I am still fascinated by the differences.  Human feelings and sentiment are the same everywhere, but it’s intriguing how each language approaches how to express those sentiments.  In the case of Japanese, I find its polite expressions or keigo (more on keigo here thanks to Tae Kim) one of the more challenging aspects to translate.

Here are a couple examples I found on my last trip and often see.  These are kind of stock-phrases in Japanese, and while I have come to intuitively understand them, if you try to take apart and find English equivalents, it can be tough.

First example:

go-kyōryōku onegai-itashimasu

To me, the best way to translate this is “thank you for your cooperation”, and usually is found on plaques that warn pedestrians to be careful, or refrain from smoking at such and such place, etc. Basically, a polite and formal warning.

The phrase kyōryōku (協力) means cooperation. Easy enough. The “go” in front of it is an honorific that makes the noun more polite and respectful because they’re asking for your cooperation.

The verb onegaishimasu (お願いします) can mean something like “if you please” and is used in all kinds of polite circumstances like introducing yourself (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) or just when you’re formally asking a favor of something. You’ll often see in dramas where one character bows deeply to someone he’s asking for help and says “onegaishimasu!” in the process.

Except here, the verb is onegai-itashimasu. The itashimasu is not just polite, but also conveys deep humility. This is the sort of thing you might only use when talking to someone much higher ranking than you, or a very formal situation.

So, if you try to translate this literally, it’s more likely “we humbly ask for your cooperation.” That’s all well and good except Westerners just never talk like this because the sense of “humble” and “honorific” just isn’t as strongly expressed in English. Hence “thank you for your cooperation” is more than sufficient and probably more natural-sounding in English.

Another example that might be even harder is:

go-meiwaku ni narimasu no de go-enryo-kudasai

This lengthy phrase probably might be best translated in English as “please refrain from (annoying others by doing) X”.

Whoa, all that for 3 words in English?

Let’s break it down. First, the word meiwaku which means something annoying or a nuisance. Again, as we saw above, the leading particle “go” is added because they are speaking to you the customer, passenger, etc and therefore it should be more polite and honorific.

The next part of the sentence, ni narimasu no de, is just normal Japanese grammar meaning “because it becomes …” but the narimasu here also expresses state, so “because it’s a …”. In this case, “because it’s a nuisance…”.

The next part of the sentence, go-enryo-kudasai, is another phrase you see a lot in Japanese and just means “Please refrain from”. The word enryo means to refrain or restrain oneself and often times you’ll housewives and nice old ladies tell you something like “enryo shinakute ii” or something like that when offering treats. They’re telling you don’t be shy and help yourself. As with meiwaku and kyōryōku, this is a noun, you so can make it polite by prefixing it with “go” because of your target audience.

Kudasai is probably one fo the first things you’ll learn in Japanese and is one of many ways to say “please”, and one fo the most useful. In polite Japanese, when you’re suggesting something to someone, like “come into the house”2 or “take a look”2 rather than saying “please do X” like in English, instead you often say “go-(noun) kudasai” or sometimes “o-(noun) kudasai”. It has the same nuance as “please do X”, but is grammatically quite different because there’s no actual verb in the sentence.1As with the previous phrase we looked at, even if you translate literally though it doesn’t sound that natural in English where it is sufficient to say “please don’t do X” or more politely “please refrain from X”.

Anyhow, Japanese, like all languages, has its own internal logic, but that logic may be very different than one’s own native language, and so it can be hard mechanically translate things from one language to another.  The key is getting enough exposure to intuitively understand what is being said, because then you can find a suitable feeling or expression in your own language.

Good luck and happy language studying!

1 The word “kudasai” comes from the verb “kudasaru” (to oblige) but is not exactly in verb-form here. It basically is just another set-phrase.

2 These are o-agari-kudasai (お上がりください) and go-ran-kudasai (ご覧ください) respectively by the way. 😉