Bodhi Day, part 2: the best laid plans…

Bodhi Day part 2

I had a lot of fun with my daughter last night before Bodhi Day. I explained to her that the Buddha used to be a prince (she likes Disney princesses and princes) but he became a special teacher. I had brought home a nice chocolate-chip cookie from Caffe Ladro here in Seattle, and we spent some time in the kitchen cutting it up. She got part of the cookie, and the rest we gave to the Buddha. She also wanted to give him mugicha, or Japanese barley tea, so we offered that as well.

She rang the small bell and said to the Buddha statue, “now be a good teacher. Don’t forget what you have to teach.” It was very cute.

We then bowed to the Buddha and I said in Japanese, namo shaka nyorai (南無釈迦如来, “Hail to Shakyamuni Buddha) and she imitated me and repeated the words pretty good.

Over night I ate the cookie, and left a note from the Buddha saying “thank you”. My grandmother used to do the same for me during Christmas by writing letters form “Santa” (we do this for Christmas too). Later on, we gave her a small gift of a toy dog which she could decorate. She decided to name it “nana” for some reason (she makes up silly names often).

As for me, I had every intention of trying to follow the Eight Precepts, but after getting little sleep the night before I simply had no energy, and was in a rotten mood all morning. So, I simply tried to at least avoid meat that day and succeeded there, as well as try to be a little more helpful around the house. The experience reminds me that the best-laid plans don’t always work. I wanted to do something memorable to commemorate the Buddha’s Enlightenment, but accomplished almost nothing.

But on the subject of practice, I am reminded of an old Japanese Buddhist proverb that Lafcadio Hearn listed in his writings: 仏になるも沙弥をへる (Hotoké ni naru mo shami wo heru) – Even to become a Buddha one must first become a novice.

As a novice myself, I am still learning the basics of Buddhism and the Buddhist lifestyle, even amidst my continued follies. I can’t get too upset about it, I can only reflect, learn from it and try another day. Buddhism is as much about experience and self-reflection as it is overt practice.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Bodhi Day, part 2: the best laid plans…”

  1. Doug, this sounds like a very sweet thing to do. But at the same time I wondered if this was a little deceiving? All the Buddhist books I have read and people I have spoken to have always held the belief that the Buddha is not currently in this world in any shape, way, or form…and will not be again until his re-incarnation. So, doesn’t it go against typical Buddhist doctrine to “pretend” the Buddha “came back” to eat some of her cookie? Much less leave her a letter? Wouldn’t you find this a little deceiving? It’s one thing to explain to a child that Santa isn’t real but to have to re-explain a piece of your religion years later is a whole different matter entirely. I am not trying to be rude or question you, I legitimately would like an answer as I would like to understand your motives/practice and belief around this issue.

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    1. Hi Knicky and welcome to the JLR! You ask a great question. To be honest, I mulled this one over myself at the time, so allow me to explain my rationale from a couple standpoints: as a father and from a doctrinal standpoint. This is also good for me too to spell it out, I think. 😀

      As a father, I know my daughter is very excited about the holidays. She has reached an age where she’s become more curious about Buddhism, and likes to read stories and comics about certain Buddhist figures like Kannon and Jizo. She sees them the way she sees other characters like Disney Princesses or Anpanman. As far as I am concerned, she’s using her imagination to explore the world around here, and so I am happy to foster this and focus it in wholesome ways. On a practical level, she likes to write and receive letters from people, so the idea of leaving a letter was motivated in large part because I know she’d enjoy getting a note. Giving cookies and barley tea (mugicha) was also intended to teach her sharing as well.

      On a doctrinal note, this gets somewhat complicated. I am guessing that you, like me, are a convert to Buddhism or are curious about it. I spent many years both as a teenager and later as an adult learning Buddhism through books and related sources, which worked well to a point until I met my wife who’s from Japan. Once exposed to Japanese-Buddhist culture on the ground, I noticed differences between what was written in books and what people practiced on the ground. The knee-jerk reflex is to assume the people on the ground (i.e. native Buddhist cultures) have been somewhat corrupted and lost their way, and I fell into this trap for years until I realized that the problem was me, not the people who had lived and breathed Buddhism their whole life. Thus over time, I learned that as Professors Reader and Tanabe explain, textual Buddhism exists alongside, not in opposition to, cultural Buddhism. It’s something that’s difficult to explain, but I hope more Western Buddhist converts learn in their experiences with Buddhist cultures.

      But anyway, but even if we go by textual sources, this too gets complicated. The standard Western textbook explanation is that the Buddha achieved Nirvana, exhausted the karma accumulated from past lives without generating any further karma (due to his freedom from ego/desire) and thus when he passed away he achieved the final unbinding or Parinirvana. So, in that sense, the Buddha would never return and thus would create a seeming contradiction.

      But also, especially in Mahayana Buddhism (Buddhism from Tibet to Japan), you see the doctrine of Three Buddha Bodies:
      1) The Nirmanakaya: a physical historical Buddha (i.e. Shakyamuni Buddha)
      2) The Samboghakaya: a Buddha who achieved all his/her vows as a Bodhisattva and thus reaches Enlightenment (e.g. Amitabha Buddha)
      3) The Dharmakaya: the “Buddha” who embodies the Dharma in its entirety, the source of all truth. (e.g. Vairocana Buddha)

      This doctrine exists in all the well-known sects you see in Asia from Tibetan Buddhism to Zen to Pure Land, etc, in various degrees. But to complicate matters, who’s which kind of Buddha gets blurred and obscured. If you read the Lotus Sutra, which is a difficult but highly illuminating text, there’s the historical Buddha in the beginning, but soon changes into the Dharmakaya-as-Shakyamuni Buddha. In Chapter 16, the Buddha states that he has always existed and that he is always coming back in physical, historical forms to teach and awaken people once more before achieving extinction again. Here, when the Buddha speaks as such, this is referring to the Dharmakaya taking form as a historical Buddha (Nirmakaya) for a limited time. But the meaning is the same: the Buddha always exists because truth always exists.

      Likewise, similar sentiments can be found at times in Theravada Buddhism as well where the Buddha tells an ailing nun that she need not see him physically because wherever she sees the truth, she sees him. The Three Bodies doctrine is not found in Theravada Buddhism, but they do share various sentiments with Mahayana Buddhism, even if not explicitly so.

      But then to make things even more complicated, which Buddha is the Dharmakaya and such changes depending on the sect. Pure Land sects tend to really blur them such that Amitabha Buddha is the Dharmakaya Buddha, and Shakyamuni Buddha is a manifestation of him, etc, etc. Contrast this with Shingon esoteric Buddhism which treats Vairocana as the supreme Buddha, or the Lotus Sutra schools which place Shakyamuni in that role alongside his historical one.

      Anyhow, the point of all this is that for many Buddhists, myself included, the Buddha always exists. Not as a physical, historical person, and not relegated to the past. The Buddha is there when people see the truth, there when someone does an act of generosity, and when people have a moment of self-reflection into their own habits and so on. So, part of me as a father doesn’t want my daughter to see the Buddha as a dead figure long ago. I want her to see the Buddha as kindness, as a “nice teacher” and as someone who guides and aides people even now. This is me speaking from my experience with the Lotus Sutra and the Pure Land teachings I guess.

      Likewise, as a parent, when I tell my daughter that go to the Pure Land [of Amitabha Buddha] when they die I don’t feel a sense of contradiction. Such people may not have said the nembutsu or had any knowledge or dealing, and it may seem at odds with the textbook explanation of the cycle of rebirth (which again varies slightly between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism), but I find it is a good way to explain death and the afterlife because the Pure Land is such a positive and reassuring image. I don’t teach to deceive her either, because I too believe in the Pure Land and Amitabha Buddha, but I don’t want to weigh her down with logistics of the Pure Land until she’s ready for it. When she’s old enough to start asking questions, that is when I start teaching her the weightier stuff.

      The solution I came up with for Bodhi Day may not be a perfect solution, but it was motivated not by deceit, but because it was something I felt she would genuinely enjoy (she did), and would provide positive memories and a positive mentor, while allow her to enjoy exploring her imagination. As she gets older and develops her young little mind, I hope to introduce her to Buddhism at large, but for now, I really just want her to have fun and some nice memories to build on. Thanks!

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      1. Doug, I must admit that I am not overtly familiar with the Lotus Sutra, at least not in its full form. I don’t know if I consider myself a convert or not since I never really had a religion before hand but you are right about the differences between textual Buddhism and practiced belief’s. When I stayed in Japan I witnessed the various complexities in religion and the Japanese tendency to say that they are not religious. Mostly because religion is a way of life and not “something you do on Sunday’s.”
        But back to what I was saying before, you make an interesting point about the Lotus Sutra: “In Chapter 16, the Buddha states that he has always existed and that he is always coming back in physical, historical forms to teach and awaken people once more before achieving extinction again.” I had never really heard of this before (or perhaps other’s also had it confused) and now I must get a book on the Lotus Sutra and read it! If you have any recommendations I would appreciate it.
        You have made a personal interpretation that I find fascinating which prompted my original question since I really did want to know why.
        Thank you for such a well thought out and coherent reply. You have given me something to mull over. I have actually been reading your blog for a while but this was the first time I had felt compelled to comment since I have a 7 year old daughter myself and have just started delving into Buddhism with her now that she is starting to ask “those questions” and have been looking for ideas to blend daily Buddhist practice in a way she can understand and relate to.

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      2. Hello,

        Glad to be of help. I think you really hit it in the head: Japanese is a part of life more often than an overt set of rituals and practices.

        Reader and Tanabe have a good book on Japanese religion called “Practically Religious”, which explains Japanese religion through lots and lots of on the ground research and shows how some Western assumptions have no basis on the ground. It’s a bit scholarly but pretty interesting to read.

        As for Buddhist book recommendations, check out the Buddhists’ Field Manual above. In there I have a link to recommended books including the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is kind of a tough read because the language is so poetic and bombastic so I highly recommend Thich Nhat Hanh’s supplementary Lotus Sutra reader if you can. Reading the Sutra and the reader will help I think. 🙂

        The Manual also contains other recommended books at various levels of experience with Buddhism so definitely check it out. 🙂

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