Death

Flowers on a cross remain, marking an ending scene
Damn it all if blood you spill, turn the grass more green…

–Alice In Chains, “Private Hell”

Recently I took some time away from everything, somewhat abruptly.  It all started with a phone call a few weeks back.  My mother informed me that my grandfather, whom I had not seen in person in about 10 years, was dying of stage 4 lung cancer.  Ever since my grandmother had passed away back in the 1990’s,1 he had become a very private person and didn’t correspond much with the rest of us.  The last time I had seen him was when my first child, Princess, was about 1 year old, and since then we had only talked on the phone briefly for birthdays and such.  He had never even met my second child in person.

After talking with both my mother and uncle, it was clear that grandpa was going to be gone soon, and that he was in no condition to see anyone anymore.  The news wasn’t terribly surprising because I knew he was a lifelong heavy smoker, but I had no idea how ill he had become.  When I spoke to him on the phone, he never gave any indication of his condition, and had sounded like the grandpa I had known all these years.

Finally, while hiking with the family at Mount Rainer National Park (and therefore out of phone signal coverage), I got a phone call from both mom and my uncle that grandpa had finally died.  Yet another missed opportunity.

A few days later, I met my uncle and we went through his house together to try and clean up some of the mess and maybe put some things in order.  Since he had been ill for so long, the house had become somewhat neglected despite his best efforts, and it was kind of surreal seeing all the old Christmas cards and such I had sent him over the years neatly stacked up by the fireplace, old pictures of my daughter (his great-granddaughter) and such.  I saw parts of his life I never really knew, like old photos from his Navy service and met his neighbor who had spent a lot of time with him in his final years.

It’s been quite a while since I had lost someone in the family,2 and the particular way in which he died, coupled with the fact we had very little contact over the years really left my kind of hurt and numb. When I was younger, I looked up to him a lot as the gruff, but lovable old sailor. When I graduated college, he gave me a couple items: a ring he got in South Dakota, and a money clip. No one else in the family had cheered me on like he did (apart from my future wife) and it really meant a lot to me. I still have old pictures of him when I was a kid. My wife and I met him once shortly after we got married, and he talked a little bit about his days in the Navy stationed in Japan just after WWII, but before the Korean War. You could tell he liked Japan even if he never had much chance to get to know the culture or language.

But now it’s all gone. I will not get to meet him again and tell him thanks for all he did for me as a kid. I never got to introduce my son to him either. It’s all done. Over.

Between this and a stressful month at work, I just shutdown in a way. I didn’t notice it at first, and was still being productive at work, but more and more I feel haunted by his memory, and no amount of Buddhist prayer and dedication of merit helps that. When I visited his home just after he died, I remember saying a prayer to him, and also many times that following week in front of the Buddhist altar at home, but it always felt a little hollow. Did any of it make a difference?

Since then, the altar at home has been closed, and I have been feeling kind of numb all the time. I just haven’t been able to pick up the keyboard, make another Buddhist video, or even read another Buddhist book or sutra. I just couldn’t give a shit.

Maybe this is all just the Five Stages of Grief, but I guess I still don’t give a shit. I’ve been playing Magic with friends, playing with my kids or reading old Zelazny books mostly. Some days I don’t even really think about him, but then the memory comes back again. But in general I feel kind lethargic and a bit sullen even at work.

And yet, in spite of all this, I wanted to start writing again, and so I have dusted off some of my half-finished blog posts and started writing again.

Not sure what will happen over the coming weeks and months, but for now please enjoy more (possibly a bit dated) posts and thank you for your understanding.

1 Also due to cancer, and she too had been a heavy smoker like grandpa. I remember she died just days after Thanksgiving (I always get a bit moody after Thanksgiving as a result) and seeing her lying dead in the hospital, her face still wracked with pain. 27 years that memory hasn’t left me.

2 The last death in the family had been my other grandpa. My daughter was just a few months old when he died, and we only had one picture of him holding his great-granddaughter.

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Lifestyle Gurus and Devas

Recently, I was amused to read this article by the New York Times about the business of lifestyle gurus. Definitely read this before continuing. 🙂

I have often noticed a trend where lifestyle gurus frequently and selectively borrow Buddhist teachings and incorporate it into their own, which is confusing for someone who’s not actually familiar with Buddhist religion, and thus conflating the two.

Reading the article above reminded me of the traditional Buddhist wheel of rebirth. Recently, I talked about people who in this live life as if they’re in one of the Buddhist hell realms, undergoing constant torment, or are the tormentors themselves, both doomed to find no peace unless the cycle is broken. Such hells do exist in a sense, for both humans and animals alike.

On the other side of the Buddhist spectrum of rebirth are the devas.1 These are the original gods in India that were worshipped through ancient texts called the Vedas, which researchers now call the “Vedic Religion”, since it predates all known religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

Of these devas, early Buddhist texts mention gods like Indra and Brahma as protectors of the Buddha, and the Buddha explained how the devas dwelt in 33 heavenly realms, with the lower realms focused more on sensual pleasure, and the higher realms on more ethereal, cerebral delights.
Further, the devas live very long lifespans, as time flows differently in the heaven realms:

That which among men is four hundred years, Visakha, is one night and day of the Tusita devas, their month has thirty of those days, their year twelve of those months; the lifespan of the Tusita devas is four thousand of those heavenly years…

— Visakhuposatha Sutta
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.043.khan.html

…but there’s a catch: even the devas die.

In Buddhist religion, the devas have extremely long lifespans, and live a life of ease and power that is well beyond humans, and yet even they are subject to decline. In one apochryphal story, the king of the gods, Indra (a.k.a. Shakra) forsees his next rebirth as a pig. As the king of the devas, he has nowhere to go but down, and greatly frets about this.

Thus, the heaven realms are not seen as a long-term solution on the Buddhist path. A person who lives an especially good life (regardless of being Buddhist or not) may end up being reborn in the heaven realms, but that is a double-edged sword because on the one hand you have a life of ease and great mental and physical powers, but on the other hand, it’s a distraction and a hindrance until it’s possibly too late.

Getting back to the original point of this post, I sometimes like to compare lifestyle gurus and people who aspire to follow them as devas. They live somewhat removed and oftentimes elevated lifestyles compared to the mundane lives of other people: a life of relative comfort and ease, sumptuous foods, health spas, nice homes, clothing and lively parties with their friends. But there’s something that will inevitably nag in the back of their minds, and that’s their own mortality.

You can eat the nicest organic foods in the world, drink the finest wines, have the best most satisfying sex in your life, or enjoy the taste of victory, but these are temporary things and in the end you will still face old age, decline and ultimately death.

How you face that death is really important, and may be the most important problem to solve in your life.

You can’t buy your way out of that problem, either. It’s something you must work out yourself, and the answer can be a bitter pill to swallow, but a bitter pill is good medicine.

So, it’s important not to conflate lifestyle gurus and their advice with actual Buddhist teachings. The two have little in common, and ultimately arrive at different ends if followed to fruition. One is focused on here and now, while the other is more forward-thinking.

1 Deva is cognate with English words such as “divine” and such.

Buddhism: Financial Advice from the Pali Canon

Hey all,

Hope you’re enjoying the spring weather (and the 3-day weekend if you live in the States).  I wanted to share an article online about managing finances the Buddhist way here:

https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma5/buddhisteco.html

This essay is a bit long, but does a great job outlining practical advice (summary: live within your means) while referencing important Buddhist sutras from the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

As I get older, and am now raising two kids, not one, I’ve had to make some adjustment in my life, including how I spend my money day to day. But while this is painful in the short-term, I’ve also come to realize that the alternative is a whole lot worse, so I am glad I am able to improve my financial situation now before it’s too late.

Enjoy!

Buddhism and Domestic Violence

I was originally going to make a different video tonight, but after hearing my neighbors two houses down fighting (with a toddler crying in the background), I decided to make this video instead.  I wanted to explore how the states of rebirth in Buddhism are real states of being, and that people undergo these states all the time.  Some of these people are living in a kind of hell now, and need help, even if they know how where to find it.

This is even more important where children are concerned because they have no control over their environment.  They are thrust into a terrible situation, and that is all they will know until it is too late.

So, while I don’t have any real concrete advice about dealing with domestic violence, I do want to address people who are tormented (or tormenting others) and tell them to get help.  It doesn’t always have to be like this, especially with children involved.  There is a way out, and it can begin by asking for help.

Thank you,

Doug

Learning Things The Hard Way

Sometimes you just learn things the hard way.  This video I made recently was kind of off-script, but I wanted to talk about some recent experiences I had with Zen.  My experiences so far have been fairly positive (besides the sore knee), but it’s also a matter of finding what’s right for you.

I’ve taken a break from Zen practice,¹ and have kind of dabbled in Jodo-Shu practices lately for various reasons outlined in the video.  I haven’t really quit anything, or committed to anything, but just seemed like the right thing to do for now.

Who knows where I’ll be next year, or even next week.  :p

P.S.  The photo above is one I took at Chion-in temple in Kyoto, Japan. The status is a young Honen, before he took tonsure.

¹ Which is kind of a shame since I had kept it up almost daily for 7 weeks.  Better than being a three-day monk.  ;p

Girls’ Day 2017 Wrap-Up

Hey Folks,

Just wanted to post a few pictures from our Girls’ Day celebration at home.  This is another doll set that Little Guy made in his Japanese preschool:

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Here is the sakura-mochi we had.  Lately, it’s been harder to find it around here, even at Asian-food markets, so we were happy to find this one.  It was delicious as usual.  I enjoy sakura-mochi once a year, but like the Thanksgiving turkey, or Christmas treats, it’s worth the wait.

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My wife also made a nice clam soup.  I can’t recall what kind of clams these are, but usually we get Manilla clams.  The small colored balls are fu, which are dried wheat balls (naturally colored) that expand in water.  The soup itself is made from shira-dashi, which is like a clarified fish broth (dashi).

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Finally the piece-de-resistance: a large plate of chirashi.  Chirashi is basically sushi rice garnished with sashimi and such.  This is mostly maguro tuna, egg, shrimp, and some boiled spinach on the side.  The rice itself is mixed with shiitake mushrooms and such.

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We played lots of karuta games with my daughter.  The particular game we played was a karuta game based on famous Japanese yojijukugo phrases.  Since neither my daughter nor I am that familiar with them, my wife read the cards for us, while we found the right cards to match.  My daughter won most games, though not without some serious competition.  😉

All in all, it was a great Girls’ Day and looking forward to Easter and Children’s Day next.

Happy Girl’s Day 2017

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It’s that time of year again!  March 3rd is “Girl’s Day” or hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) in Japanese.  Time to enjoy excellent sakura-mochi and chirashi, and spend quality time with the kids, especially my daughter “Princess”. My son made this in one of his activity books for the family by drawing in the faces (Mommy obviously did the rest). We are very proud of him.

To all the ladies out there, young and old, happy Girls’ Day!

P.S.  Past Girls’ Day posts for 2015, 2014, among others.