The Importance of Friends

Kind of rewriting a post from the previous blog. Recently I found this wonderful sutra from the Pali Canon that details the importance of being around a good Buddhist community, and why the “lone-wolf” approach doesn’t work well. The sutra is the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2), emphasis added:

Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.

It’s not enough to be around just any Buddhist community, some are cults or have just fallen into money-making or factional fighting, but rather you need to be around people who are sincere Buddhists and provide inspiration to you to keep going. Without good friends to challenge and keep you going, you’ll either become complacent (as lone-wolf meditation types tend to do), or if around a poor community, you’ll pick up bad habits and views, or just get stressed out more so.

Of course, if you live somewhere where this is no community, you’ve got a problem. Many Westerners still live in areas where Buddhist temples are really hard to come by. That’s not your fault, it’s just circumstance. That’s where you have to be creative and either make concerted trips to good temple somewhere, or meet people online. My experience though so far is that online communities just aren’t as good as the real thing. The conversations I have at the ol’ Temple are something that don’t come up often on the Web. Then again, I’ve met a lot of great people on the Web, so there’s something positive there too.

Don’t consider this a hard-fast rule, but rather as valuable advice from the Buddha.



Imagery of the Pure Land sutras

This came up in today’s Dharma Talk at the ol’ Temple today, and I wanted to share some thoughts on this with folks. People who first encounter Pure Land Buddhism in general are often put off by the fantastic imagery used in describing the Pure Land. It sounds like a paradise realm for small-minded followers who don’t put in the effort to attain Enlightenment themselves. Take for example this excerpt from Rev. Inagaki’s excellent translation of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life:

[14] Again, seven-jewelled trees completely fill that land. There are some made of gold, some of silver, and others made of beryl, crystal, coral, ruby or agate. There are also trees made of two to seven kinds of jewels.

The descriptions of jewelled trees, having any kind of food you want, and so on, all sound just too fantastic to be true. Even Pure Land Buddhists I know at the temple get discouraged when they see this, and wonder if it’s all fake or just someone’s fancy.

Having been doing a lot of reading lately, I noticed this excerpt from Chapter 6 of the Lotus Sutra, with Watson’s excellent translation. After the Buddha Shakyamuni bestows his prophecy to Mahakashyapa, he describes the “Buddha-realm” Mahakashyapa will have after attaining Buddha-hood:

His realm will be majestically adorned, free of defilement or evil, shards or rubble, thorns or briers, or the unclean refuse of latrines. The land will be level and smooth, without high places or sags, pits or knolls. The ground will be of lapis lazuli, with rows of jeweled trees and ropes of gold to mark the boundaries of the roads.

It’s interesting to note that these passages are very similar. It seems that this description of a Buddha-realm as being adorned with jewels and pleasant things is a common literary device for the composers of the Mahayana sutras.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that The Pali Canon often “recycles” certain stock phrases as well, so it’s not just a Mahayana thing.

I think part of this is that when sutras were first committed to memory by the early followers, they had to be heavily edited and rearranged for easier memorization. So, every sutra you ever read always sounds stilted and stylized; it’s probably the only way the early Buddhists could keep track of voluminous sutras in their minds.

In any case, having noticed this a while back, I have had to ask myself “what can I take away from this as a Buddhist?” A literary device, once you notice it, kind of loses it’s meaning. However, having had time to think about this, like Shinran, I believe that the Pure Land really is nothing but Nirvana itself. Not a geographic place, but Nirvana plain and simple.

Once, while listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 10-lecture series on Buddhism, his explanation of Nibbana in the Pali Canon sounded very much like another state of existence, not annihilation. He used terms like “deathless” and “blissful”, which if you carefully analyze, relate to Amida as the Buddha of “Infinite Life” (i.e. deathless) and the realm of the Pure Land which is also described as blissful.

Also, in the Larger Sutra, there are a lot of references to people hearing the Dharma in the breeze, in the singing of birds, etc. I think this is pretty noteworthy, and shows that the Pure Land is not a paradise in the Christian sense, but a state of profound understanding:

One can hear whatever sound one wishes. For example, some hear the sound ‘Buddha,’ some hear the sound ‘Dharma,’ some ‘Sangha,’ others hear ‘tranquillity,’ ’emptiness and non-self,’ ‘great compassion,’ ‘paramita,’ ‘ten powers,’ ‘fearlessness,’ ‘special qualities,’ ‘supernatural powers,’ ‘non-activity,’ ‘neither arising nor perishing,’ ‘insight into the non-arising of all dharmas,’ and so on until the various sounds of the wonderful Dharma, such as ‘the sprinkling of nectar upon the head of a bodhisattva,’ are heard. As one hears those sounds, one attains immeasurable joy and accords with the principles of purity, absence of desires, extinction, and reality.

So, when I ponder the Pure Land Sutras, I think they’re telling us something far more profound than that the Pure Land is some kind of paradise. I am also reminded of the words of Shinran in the Tannishō, section IV:

The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings completely as we desire.

The Pure Land is not a terminal place to live out one’s pleasures; it’s a state of reality where we become something far greater, so that we can help others achieve peace and liberation.


— Doug

Tsukiji Hongwanji

Tsukiji Hongwanji (築地本願寺) is the major Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple in the Tokyo area. Hongwanji just means Temple of the Primal Vow [by Amida Buddha to help all beings], and many Jodo Shinshu temples are called Hongwanji. The name Tsukiji refers to the district in Tokyo by the way.

Anyways, as mentioned in a previous post, I visited a number of famous temples in the Tokyo, Kamakura and northern areas, but Tsukiji Hongwanji really stood out in a special way, so I wanted to talk about it in a separate post. I went there on a cloudy but muggy day with my wife, Baby, and my mother-in-law whose a devout Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. Across the street we enjoyed lunch at a really great Soba shop.*

From the start I would describe Tsukiji Hongwanji as a whole as nice and warm. Not in a cultish “we’re going to suck you in” way, but rather in the sense that staff and followers really cared about the place, and took pride in it. My wife and I both noticed this, and talked about it later. Some of the other temples we had visited felt kind of cold, and stodgy, and almost felt like it was museums soliciting donations.** Tsukiji felt like a real religious community and family.

The main hall, or hondō (本堂), in Japanese, was amazing! Imagine a huge cathedral-like hall, with Indian-style pillars, but the whole thing is tastefully done with Japanese aesthetics.

I think Tsukiji has the most beautiful hall of any temple I have ever seen. It was subtle, warm, but really grand at the same time. We came in the middle of a weekday, so there were a lot of empty chairs. We picked a good spot near the middle aisle, while I wandered the back and sides with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest.

I remember seeing one old man sitting way in the back corner peacefully taking a nap, as well as old ladies making prayers. However, to my surprise, there were also younger businessmen who had obviously stopped in for lunch, and even one teenage Japanese schoolgirl (sailor uniform and all) came in with her rosary and sat down too. You could really feel the devotion among these folks.

The overall layout of the main hall is very similar to the Jodo Shinshu temple I go to at home in Seattle, but on a much grander scale. The colors are the same too. Jodo Shinshu temples use lots of gold color in the altar area, symbolizing the Light (光明 kōmyō) of Amida Buddha. For comparison, I noticed that Shingon Buddhist temples use more red and black lacquer.

In any case, the best part was that we came just before a service. The service began when about 15 young men about my age came out, led by an elder, and lined up in front of the altar. They played very traditional Japanese music, and then began chanting some hymns written by Shinran back in the day.

Later, I went to the next door office and bought a Buddhist altar there. Keep in mind that up to this point, I have been using a homemade altar I built using a box lid and an image of Amida. I’ll talk about it in a separate post.

Anyways, after the service we all were in a good mood so we went to Cafe de Shinran. In the corner of the vast parking lot sits a modern cafe named Cafe de Shinran:

Their iced mocha was quite good, and really hit the spot before the long train ride home.*** I found out later the cafe is only there for a limited time, so if you’re going soon, don’t miss out.

I think I would describe the day at Tsukiji as warm, spiritual and just a really good day. I was really glad to have made the pilgrimage to Tsukiji****, and it made me feel more confident about my own faith as a whole, particularly since Jodo Shinshu Buddhists are such a minority even in the American Buddhist community. I think it was a religious experience if there ever was one.

For the upcoming 750th anniversary of Shinran’s memorial in 2012 (see bottom of link), my wife and I definitely have planned another pilgrimage here.

Namo Amida Butsu

* – If you’re facing the entrance to Tsukiji, go left down the block. Across the street, right at the corner is the soba shop. Look for the word そば (soba) in big, cursive letters on the sign. They don’t speak English, but their tempura soba was just awesome.

** – Tsukiji had the ubiquitous donation boxes too (they all have wooden grills at the top to throw coins into), but I also noticed that near the main hall entrance were donation boxes to help with disaster relief. I never saw this at another temple I visited. I know my temple in Seattle makes donations for disaster relief, but it was really reassuring to see that Tsukiji does too.

*** – In Japan, people don’t drive as much. It’s all about vast the train system. It’s great except when you have to take 3 train lines to go where you want, like we did going to Tsukiji. Overall though, the train system is awesome, and you can get pretty much anywhere. My in-laws happen to live near a station that isn’t popular, so it’s hard to get on a good train line without transfering at least once.

**** – Tsukiji is a major pilgrimage site for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists.

Pure Land Buddhism and Antinomianism

Jon, a reader of my previous blog, wrote and asked recently:

“I was thinking that if a person recites Nembutsu once with the simplistic belief that ‘There, I recited Nembustsu once and I don’t have to ever again and I don’t have to practice Buddhist practice ever again because I am now guaranteed entry to the Pure Land’, then that person did not recite Nembutsu with sincerity and therefore would not gain entry into the Pure Land.”

This notion of “being saved, I can commit all the evil I want” is called antinomianism* in philosophy, and Honen had some things to say about it:

There are those who say that the effort to avoid sin and improve oneself is making light of Amida’s Vow, and that frequent repetition of the nembutsu, and the effort to pile up a large number of them is equivalent to doubting his saving power, and many such like things one sometimes hears. But do not for a moment be misled by such misconceptions. Is there any place in any of the sutras where Amida encourages man to sin? Certainly not. Such things come from those who make no effort to get away from their own evil deeds, and who go on in their former sinful life. By such utterly unreasonable and false sayings, they would mislead ignorant men and women, urging them forward in the committing of sin and stirring up their evil passions within them. Now such person are nothing less than a company of devils, and their work heathenish, and you ought to think them as enemies of your reaching birth into that Pure Land of Perfect Bliss…

(Found on page 39 of Honen: The Buddhist Saint)

So, Jon, you’re right. If people have a flippant attitude toward the nembutsu, thinking that they can commit evil later just because they have taken refuge in Amida, then they misunderstand the point of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran’s own son, Zenran, once tried founding a cult based on similar nonsense, so Shinran wrote him a stern letter saying: Do not take poison just because there is an antidote.**

Shinran did feel that much of the evil within us is due to past karma and conditions which “color” our life here (this is not new in Buddhism), but at the same time, he taught that in spite of one’s evil and passionate behavior, they should take refuge in Amida all the more so.

Hope that helps. 🙂

* – This is an interesting question in Christian theology as well.

** – Section XIII of the Tannisho.

Buddhism, HTML and diacritics

Reposting this reference post since the demise of my previous blog.  I also have an updated page here too with a focus on Sanskrit.

If you want to impress your friends (or your blog readers…*ahem*) when you talk about Buddhism, why not use some HTML diacritics?

You see, most of the Buddhist terms you read about derive from one or more non-European langauges:

  • Sanskrit: the holy language used in Hinduism, religious literature. Now a dead language.
  • Pali: an ancient language in India, mostly used for trade. It was popular as a lingua franca. Also a dead language.
  • Classical Chinese: this is how Chinese was in the olden days. There are more Buddhist texts preserved in Classical Chinese than any other language.
  • Japanese: actually, most Japanese Buddhist terms are really just Classical Chinese with Japanese pronunciations, as was the style back then.

None of these languages natively use a Romanized script like Western European languages do, so it’s up to translators to figure out how to Romanize things. So, to capture all the sounds that don’t exist in English, linguistics experts recycle Roman letters, but add extra characters: diacritics.

Until real recently, it was pretty difficult to print non-standard Roman characters on a webpage. Back then, users had to download special fonts, and your browser had to be able to read them.

Now though, as the Internet becomes more international, you can pretty much print any Romanized character you want using special “extended-ASCII” codes in HTML.

For example, let’s say I want to print an ā character. In the old days, I could use a Character Palette program on Windows or Mac to copy/paste it (if I could find it), but now I can just use the HTML extended-ASCII code & # 257 ;. This is, all one word, an ampersand, a pound sign, the HTML code number and a semi-colon. If you put these together the web browser will automatically translate it into the right letter you want.

All extended-ASCII letters in HTML have the format of


So, the trick is just remembering what number you want, and fill in the blanks. Remember that you have to do this for each special letter you want to print. Here’s a helpful chart for some commonly used diacritics and letters for Buddhist terms. Most are for Pali/Sanskrit, but for Japanese, the long vowel sounds are used too (ā, ī, ō, ū):

  • á – 225, the a with an acute mark
  • é – 233, the e with an acute mark
  • ñ – 241, the n with a tilde over it
  • ú – 250, the u with an acute mark
  • ā – 257, the long “ah” sound
  • ī – 299, the long “ee” sound
  • ō – 333, the long “oh” sound
  • ś – 347 (346 for upper case), the s with an acute mark
  • ū – 363, the long “oo” sound
  • ḍ – 7693, a “d” sound in Sanskrit
  • ḥ – 7717, a breathy “h” at the end
  • ḷ – 7735, the nasal “l” sound
  • ṁ – 7745, a soft “m” sound
  • ṃ – 7747, the “ng” sound
  • ṅ – 7749, another “ng” sound
  • ṇ – 7751, the soft “n” sound
  • ḍ – 7693, the nasal “d” sound
  • ṛ – 7771, the deep “r” sound in the back of the throat.
  • ṝ – 7773, a longer, deep “r” sound.
  • ṣ – 7779 (7778 for upper case), the emphatic “s” sound
  • ṭ – 7789, the nasal “t” sound

Try it out on your webpages and see if it works well for you. After a few times, it gets much easier to accurate represent Buddhist terms in English, and you can pass yourself off as a Buddhist scholar or something. 😉

For further reference, checkout this excellent reference:

Namo Amida Butsu

Living with 84,000 delusions

The famous Jodo Shinshu poet/writer/sandal maker named Asahara Saichi (浅原才市) once wrote a tiny, cryptic poem:

84,000 delusions
84,000 lights
84,000 joys abounding

Speaking from experience, it’s hard sometimes to practice Buddhism without a nagging sense of guilt. We read all the time in various texts about 108 defilements or klésas, that suffering is caused by desire, the illusion of the self and so on. But Saichi expresses this in a different light.

Imagine two people, one with 10 delusions, and the other with 100. If the person with 10 delusions awakened and became Enlightened, he would be pretty happy. But if the person with 100 delusions became awakened and Enlightened, how much more happy he would be. Also, think of how much more his accomplishment would be praiseworthy.

Here, when Saichi talks about 84,000 delusions, he’s using an old Buddhist cliché for “vast or many”. So Saichi is saying that his vastly deluded mind is cause for great joy because of the great potential for transformation. The 84,000 lights here refers to the Light of Amida Buddha, which of course means both wisdom (which sheds light on delusion) and compassion (which is accepting and uplifting).