As long-time readers know, I like to write blog posts around certain Buddhist holidays.1 This week in Japan is the fall Ohigan holiday which is a time to visit family, pay respects to one’s ancestors, etc.
It is also a very good time to pause and reflect on the Buddhist path because the weather in Fall and Spring are mild and pleasant. Having been in Japan recently, I appreciate what this means.
I’ve been actively Buddhist since 2005, now 7 years ago. Before that, I dabbled in Japanese Zen when I was a teenager but I didn’t really know much about Buddhism. I just wanted to be cool and rebellious. I even quit for a while and dabbled in other religions sometimes (Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Taoism, New Age stuff, etc) when I was in college.
In the 7 years I’ve been Buddhist, a lot has changed. At first, I was very eager. I spent a lot of time on Buddhist forums, wrote blogs about Buddhism (e.g. the former “The Level 8 Buddhist”), and when I visited Japan I couldn’t wait to see real Buddhist temples, get sutras, rosaries, etc. I had elaborate daily practices I did almost daily and I wanted to be a priest at my local temple in Seattle. Also, I used to read lots and lots of Buddhist books hoping to find the one big answer I was looking for. Here’s an old photo I found from about the time I first converted to Buddhism. It was my first trip to Japan, and was taken at the famous Zen temple of Ryuanji:
But over time, things have changed. I stay away from Internet discussions now, I don’t write Buddhist posts often anymore and my efforts to become a priest fizzled out (for now). Here’s a photo from a few years ago when I was training to be a priest for the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple:
Also, my daily practices have gotten smaller and smaller and less and less often. Most of the books I read now are more practical and either Japanese manga (i.e. to improve reading skills) or language learning books. When I go to Japan I still visit Buddhist temples, but I don’t buy nearly as much.
So what happened?
I was worried for a while that I had somehow become a failed Buddhist. But when I explored other religions, I just couldn’t buy into their viewpoint. I had learned so much from the Dharma that I couldn’t see things another way.
By this time, I had become a father so I had to focus my energy on helping my wife and daughter but this was a good thing. It made me stop fixating on myself. Suddenly I wasn’t depressed as I used to be and wasn’t obsessed with doctrine as I used to be. In fact, after becoming a parent, I mellowed out a lot.
But more importantly, the Buddhist teachings had sunk in for me by then. I no longer felt I had to prove myself as a Buddhist. It became something I quietly followed here and there in my daily life. Instead of focusing on external rituals, I tend to focus on daily conduct. I still have my little Buddhist home services, usually on Sunday, and when I am in Japan, but I don’t obsess about daily practices anymore. I don’t really obsess about which sect in Buddhism I follow either.2
But another painful lesson I’ve learned is that in 7 years, I’ve made little progress on the path. Not because I am stupid, or lazy, but because when I first converted, I underestimated how hard it is to fully uproot anger, greed and ignorance. That doesn’t mean I haven’t changed in a positive way, but I realize that I still have a long way to go. I still do stupid things like fight with my wife, talk bad about people at work, and so on. Through Buddhism I’ve learned a lot about myself in 7 years. Much of it is petty and ugly, but I’ve also learned from this too.
When I first learned Japanese, I focused a lot on grammar and vocabulary, which helped somewhat, but I still couldn’t really speak much. So, once I had the knowledge, I had to focus on the hard part: practice and exposure, which I’ve been doing for years. Similarly, with Korean, I am just now transitioning away from grammar into practice now.
So it is with Buddhism. I was eagerly learning as much as I could early on, participating in group discussions, and so on. But now, I feel I’ve transitioned to the longer-term lifestyle where I practice and perfect the teachings for the rest of my life. It’s long, slow and sometimes dull, but I know that slowly and surely I am making positive changes in my life. Anything I do in this life will also help pave the way for future lives, and efforts there, so it doesn’t just end when I die.
With language learning or Buddhism, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.
The focus of Ohigan is on the Six Perfections, the six virtues a bodhisattva must totally and thoroughly master before reaching the stage of a Buddha. These are generosity, moral conduct, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom. The idea is that as one perfects these virtues, they cross to the Other Shore (hence “ohigan”) to Awakening. This is a long journey, but I am happy to see that the Buddhist teachings have slowly sunk in. I’m not the silly, rebellious teenager I was, and I am glad the old zeal has quieted down.
So on this Ohigan week, where we pause and reflect on Buddhism, the Dharma and ourselves, it helps to consider what direction we are heading in. It doesn’t matter how fast you are heading that direction, as long as the direction is wholesome and leads to peace.
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Shaka Nyorai
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
Edit: Added some photos to the post after a lucky find. 🙂
P.S. Posts this week are Buddhist-themed more or less. Enjoy!
1 The main 3 are:
- Nirvana Day, Feb. 15th – The final Unbinding of the Buddha.
- The Buddha’s Birthday, Apr. 8th – Sometimes called the Flower Festival.
- Bodhi Day, December 8th – The day Siddhartha Gautama became Shakyamuni Buddha
2 If you really want to know, I consider myself a Jodo Shu Buddhist, but only in a looser sense.