Appreciating the Diamond Sutra

In a recent post, I talked about the latest Star Wars movie and its parallels with certain Buddhist sutras including the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra is one of several “Perfection of Wisdom” sutras (more details here), but it’s most frequently associated with Zen Buddhism. My feelings toward Zen are mixed, and generally I’ve avoided it other than a few brief experimentations. Thus, I’ve not really spent much time studying the Diamond Sutra even though I own an old, used copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s excellent translation.

But lately, since my little revelation above, I’ve been thinking about the sutra pretty frequently.

I feel one of the strengths of this sutras is that is touches upon many other points and teachings in Buddhism, but with an eye toward the Emptiness of all things.  This covers even the Pure Lands (a.k.a. “Buddha-fields”) of the Buddhas:

“What do you think, Subhuti? Does a bodhisattva create a serene and beautiful Buddha field?”

“No, World-Honored One. Why? To create a serene and beautiful Buddha field is not in fact to create a serene and beautiful Buddha field. That is why it is called creating a serene and beautiful Buddha field.”

The Buddha said, “So, Subhuti, all the Bodhisattva Mahasattvas should give rise to a pure and clear intention in this spirit. When they give rise to this intention, they should not rely on forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, or objects of mind. They should give rise to an intention with their minds not dwelling anywhere.”

The sutra acts as a kind of antidote for getting attached to things, even Buddhist teachings and practices themselves.  It is not about “crazy wisdom” or other such nonsense, but like the earlier Sutra of the Simile of the Water Snake, the Diamond Sutra is about not getting hung up on things.  Even good things.

From time to time, I see Pure Land Buddhists getting really hung up on the Pure Land itself, including a lot of hair-splitting over details about the nature of Amitabha, particulars about the recitation of his name, etc.  These are the people who like to debate about doctrine, and concern themselves with tradition, unaware that the Pure Land they’re obsessing over is all in their heads. It isn’t the real Pure Land.

But the sutra also teaches about not getting hung up on getting hung up on things:

If you are caught in the idea that there is no dharma, you are still caught in the ideas of a self, a person, a living being, and a life span. That is why we should not get caught in dharmas or in the idea that dharmas do not exist. This is the hidden meaning when the Tathagata says, ‘Bhikshus, you should know that all of the teachings I give to you are a raft.’ All teachings must be abandoned, not to mention non-teachings.

This part is really important because I see some Buddhists imitating crazy behavior of past Zen teachers thinking that this will lead them to greater wisdom.  They happily spout some esoteric comment in a Zen story, or make a vague, clever quip online.  But it’s just imitation.  Such people are still getting hung up on something and patting themselves on the back about how clever they are.

At the end of the day, the Diamond Sutra is telling people to just breathe and focus on your life now.  Reel it in, pay attention, etc.

The Pure Land is real, and the formless wisdom of the past Zen masters is real too.  These two teachings are both an essential part of Buddhism too, but if you think you got it figured out, you probably don’t.

It sounds easy for me to say that from a relatively safe position of “authority” on the ol’ Blogosphere, but I still amaze myself from time to time how wrong I’ve been in the past, and how I still keep tripping up over the same things over and over.

So, while a medicine might taste bitter, it is still good to take that medicine nonetheless.  Such is the Diamond Sutra.  🙂

P.S.  Yes, you can get hung up on the Diamond Sutra too.  But then you can also get hung up on not trying to get hung up on the Diamond Sutra, too.  Ok, take a deep breath, and have a seat.

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Stay Flexible

Something interesting that I recently stumbled upon from the famous 12th-century Japanese text, Essays in Idleness, which I talked about at length here.

211) We cannot trust in anything.  The foolish man places great trust in things, and this sometimes leads to bitterness and anger.

If you have power, do not trust in it; powerful men are the first to fall.  You may have many possessions, but they are not to be depended on; they are easily lost in a moment.  Nor should you trust in your learning if you have any; even Confucius was not was not favored by this times.  You may have virtue, but you must not rely on it; even Yen Hui1 was unlucky.  Do not trust the favor of your lord; his punishment may strike before you know it.  You cannot depend on your servants either; they will disobey you and run away.  Nor should you trust in another person’s kind feelings; they will certainly change.  Do not rely on promises; it is rare for people to be sincere.

If you neither yourself nor in others, you will rejoice when things go well, but bear no resentment when they go badly.  You will then have room on either side to expand and not be constrained.  With nothing too close before or behind you, you will not be blocked.  When a man is cramped for space, he is broken and crushed.  When the activity of the mind is constricted and rigid, a man will come into collision with things at every turn and be harmed by disputes.  If you have space for maneuvering and are flexible, not one hair will be harmed.

Man is the most miraculous of creatures within heaven and earth.  Heaven and earth are boundless.  Why should man’s nature be dissimilar?  When it is generous and unconstrained, joy and anger cannot hamper it, and it remains unaffected by externals.

–translation by Prof. Donald Keene

Compare this with one of the sutras in the Pali Canon, such as the Kakacupama Sutta (MN 21) or the Lokavipatti Sutta (AN 8.6) also mentioned here.

1 Yen Hui, or Yan Hui, was Confucius’s most treasured disciple. He was very poor, but virtuous and dedicated. He died at a young age due to disease. Confucius lamented his loss often in the Analects.  More on Confucius many disciples here.

A Look at Hoa Hao Buddhism in Vietnam

Hello,

This is not my usual post, but lately, I found an interesting book on Vietnamese cultural and religious history called Sources of Vietnamese Tradition, and it has helped to fill in gaps of my knowledge of Vietnam.¹ One example is the Hòa Hảo sect of Buddhism in Vietnam, which I heard a lot about, especially in reference to the Vietnam War, but had surprisingly little other information.

Hòa Hảo Buddhism in Vietnam is an interesting example of an entirely lay-based form of Buddhism. I am pretty familiar with lay-based Buddhist organizations in Japan, going all the way back to Pure Land and Nichiren schools, and their modern offshoots, but I know almost nothing about lay-movements outside of that. I know they exist throughout the Buddhist world, but information is pretty scant outside of scholarly journals.

Anyhow, Hoa Hao Buddhism started in the 1939 by the founder Huỳnh Phú Sổ (Jan 15, 1920–1947) who in Vietnamese seems to be called Đức Huỳnh Giáo Chủ or “Virtuous Founder [of our sect] Huynh”.²  The English translations I have seen so far on Hoa Hao websites call him a prophet, but I don’t see that in the Vietnamese texts, so I suspect this is a mistranslation.  Also, when I looked up English word “prophet” in Vietnamese, it came out totally different.  So, I am fairly certain this is a mistranslation.

On the other hand, English information seems to imply that Hoa Hao Buddhists consider Founder Huynh to be a living Buddha, but I can’t tell if this is poor translation or not.

What is clear is that Founder Huynh was carrying on an earlier lay Buddhist milinarian movement in Vietnam called the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement led by a Buddhist mystic named Đoàn Minh Huyên (Nov. 14th, 1807 – Sept 10, 1856). This movement was based in South Vietnam and many miracles were attributed to Đoàn, so much so that he is referred by Huynh in his writings as “Buddhist Master of the Peaceful West” (Phật Thầy Tây An). In English sources, he seems to also be called the Healing Buddha, for his many miracles in helping the poor and sick during a cholera outbreak in the year 1849.

What does Hoa Hao Buddhism teach?

Founder Huynh focused his teachings on the vast peasant/agrarian society in Vietnam at the time, and presented Buddhism in a simple, rustic, straightforward way. He encouraged followers to eschew excessive ritualism and worship:

We must respect the way that worship in pagodas is conducted by the monks. But for those who practice their religion at home, there is no need to create more images; let our worship be simple, and let our faith come directly from our hearts instead of aiming at ostentatious presentation….If one’s house is narrow, all one needs is an incense burner on an altar to worship Heaven,³ because religious observance primarily consists of improving oneself rather than overt acts of worship. People who have Buddhist statues in their homes can keep them. But they should not use paper images, and should burn them….When praying and presenting offerings to the Buddha, only fresh water, flowers and incense sticks are required. Fresh water represents cleanliness, flowers represent purity, and incense is used to freshen the air. These offerings are sufficient.
(pg. 442, translation by Jayne Werner, from “Giao-Hoi Phat-Giao Hoa Hao” published in 1945)

Another emphasis of Founder Huynh and the Hoa Hao sect is the Four Gratitudes, which are frequently found in East Asian Buddhism in various forms:

  1. Gratitude towards one’s ancestors and parents.
  2. Gratitude towards one’s nation
  3. Gratitude towards the Three Treasures of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma [the teachings] and the Sangha [the community])
  4. Gratitude toward humanity and all living beings.

On Buddhist precepts, Huynh writes:

We must think very carefully about our actions in our religion and in society and no do crazy and absurd things.  First, we should not take advantage by relying on the powerful.  Second, we should not rely on the help of saints and spirits.  Third, we should not count on the support of our master.  We must always remember the Buddha’s law of cause and effect.  If the cause is well-intentioned, the effect will be beneficial….Let us all use our intelligence to understand our religion’s principles and our master’s teachings and not blindly follow precepts that we have not thought about carefully.  Only by doing so will we be able to progress on the path of religious virtue.   (pg. 443, translation by Jayne Werner, from “Giao-Hoi Phat-Giao Hoa Hao” published in 1945)

Hoa Hao Buddhist practice and ceremony tend to be simple and austere as well. For example, Hoa Hao Buddhists are famous for using simple brown cloth on their Buddhist altars, rather than more garish cloth you might see in more formal temple settings.

Hoa Hao Buddhism definitely has parallels in other lay-Buddhist movements seen throughout East Asia, but I don’t think it’s not gotten as much attention and research as it warrants due it’s influence in Vietnamese society. Hopefully though, further research and dialogue will help clarify misconceptions and foster better understanding. 🙂

¹ Despite the fact my degree in college is South East Asia studies, with a focus on Vietnam, and having studied there for 2 months. It is a part of the world that still needs more study, especially with respect to Buddhism, which tends to get overshadowed or forgotten. Plus, I was much younger then and less experienced. Age does have its uses. ;p

² This was harder to translate than one would think.  I don’t have access to a good Vietnamese dictionary anymore (I rarely ever used it when I did…), particularly the phrase Giáo Chủ.

³ The term “heaven” here should not misconstrued with the Western interpretation. Here “heaven” is a more generic, Confucian term.

Getting Ready for Japanese New Year

Hi all,

The month of Shiwasu is coming to an end and now it’s time for Japanese New Year!  Japanese New Year, or oshōgatsu (お正月), originally coincided with the Chinese lunar calendar and thus coincided with “new year” events in China, Korea and Vietnam.  However, with the reforms in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the solar calendar was adopted, and everything shifted accordingly.1

If I were to describe Japanese New Year, I would say it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined.  It has lots of winter traditions like Christmas, and has lots of good food and gifts for the kids, and lasts 3 days.  It’s something the whole family can enjoy together without all the fuss of holiday shopping.  In another sense, it’s very different than Thanksgiving and Christmas because the traditions have evolved from a different culture.

Still, it is one of my favorite times of the year, so with all the Christmas hullabaloo out of the way, we can ease into Oshogatsu and celebrate the end of the year.

Typically at our home, we celebrate New Year’s Eve (Ōmisoka 大晦日) by watching the yearly Japanese music special Kōhaku Uta Gassen, and my wife making toshi-koshi soba. The term toshi-koshi (年越し) means something like “crossing the year” and is a special kind soba-noodle soup people eat only on New Year’s Eve night. Since I am not exactly young anymore, I don’t really stay up for the whole Kohaku special, plus my favorite groups usually show up in the first half anyway, but I usually stay up long enough to enjoy the soba.

On New Year’s day, we enjoy some kind of osechi-ryōri (お節料理), which is a special kind of New Year’s platter that includes a lot of traditionally “auspicious” foods. When the kids were younger2 and we used to spend New Year’s in Japan, the osechi would be pretty elaborate and we’d be eating for 3 days. Inevitably, some of the food gets picked over, and kind of goes to waste, and since there’s only 4 of us to celebrate here in the US, we usually make our osechi much smaller and finish it by the second day.

Finally, there is the tradition of Hatsumōde. This is the first visit of the year to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Both religions have co-existed in Japan for many centuries (not always easily), and so they’ve influenced one another to the point that it’s not always easy to tell the difference at first glance. For many people in Japan, the tradition of Hatsumode might be one of the few times of the year they visit a temple/shrine3 and is a time to solicit a blessing for the rest of the year.

We typically go to a certain Shingon-Buddhist temple that is fairly removed from our house for hatsumode even though we rarely ever go during the rest of the year. None of us are particularly inclined toward esoteric Buddhism (we are even less inclined toward Shinto religion), and it is pretty far from our house, but it’s one of the few temples in the area that does a proper hatsumode service and isn’t clingy.4

Anyhow, that’s Oshogatsu in a nutshell. I will be posted more soon. Stay tuned!

1 Buddhist holidays in Japan also shifted similarly, hence they don’t coincide anymore with same holidays in mainland Asia.

2 With our kids being older and enrolled in school here in the US, it’s easier to visit in the summer. Either way, airfare to Japan is super expensive for both times of year. I would love to travel during Spring or Autumn, but haven’t done so in many years.

3 Just as many families in the West might only visit Church for certain holidays.

4 Japanese temples in the US can be either clingy due to lack of community, or so Westernized that they don’t follow any Japanese traditions. Or they just don’t cater to family (i.e. Zen temples). Hard to find a proper “family” Japanese temple for this reason.

Devanagari and Siddham: a brief comparison

Hello,

My studies of Sanskrit continue and I am starting to get more familiar with the Devanagari writing system used in the textbook, and for modern Sanskrit studies.  However, I also branched out a little bit into learning Siddham as well.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Sanskrit language has no “native” script so various writing systems have been used for time.  Devanagari is widely-used script across many northern-Indian languages (Marathi, Hindi, etc) and is great for reading/writing Sanskrit, however, many ancient Buddhist texts were written before Devanagari’s invention, so many texts used older writing systems.

Siddham on the other hand was frequently used for ancient Buddhist writings and is still used in esoteric Buddhist sects, particularly Shingon Buddhism in Japan.  So, I’ve dabbled in Siddham a little along with learning Devanagari.

In one of my Japanese language books1 on Sanskrit and Siddham, はじめての「梵字の読み書き」入門 (hajimete no “bonji no yomikata” nyūmon) contains a great chart comparing the Siddham alphabet with Chinese characters, Japanese pronunciation, etc. The chart is very useful, but obviously I can’t post it here since it belongs to the author.  So, instead, I am constructing my own chart using information gleaned from the book and my own studies, plus additional information. This chart is not complete, but I will continue updating as time goes on.

Devanagari Siddham Romanization Japanese Katakana
カタカナ
Siddham a a as in “uh”
Siddham aa ā as in “ah-ha!” アー
Siddham i i as in “ee”
Siddham ii Ī as in “ee” but longer イー
Siddham u u as in “oo”
Siddham uu ū as in “oo”, but longer ウー
Siddham e e as in “ay” エイ
Siddham ai ai as in “aye” アイ
Siddham o o as in “oh”
Siddham au au as in “ow” アウ
Siddham ri
Siddham rii リー

Since Siddham and Devanagari are “genetically” related scripts (though, one did not descend from the other), you can see how some letters look similar, while others look quite different.

Note: Siddham is available in Unicode, but it is difficult to view without the right fonts, so I am (shamelessly) posting image files from Wikimedia Commons.

Enjoy!

1 Another book I highly recommend if you’re serious about the subject is 梵字必携―書写と解読 (bonji hittei: shakyo to kaidoku)

The Past Must Die

Hello Dear Readers,

By now, you’ve probably seen the movie Star Wars: the Last Jedi. If you haven’t, you may want to skip this post.

(Warning: spoilers below)

I watched the movie recently with the family (courtesy of the company, thank you!), and enjoyed it more than I expected. My wife, who is not a Star Wars fan at all and never watched any of the movies, enjoyed it and now is curious to see other movies. My daughter, who is a Star Wars fan, really liked Rey’s growth into a Jedi.

That said, a lot of other Star Wars fans didn’t like the movie, and so it has become a  divided opinion.

This article does a nice job of reviewing the movie and why the disappointment was necessary to keep the franchise alive. I agree with the article a lot, so I won’t belabor it here.

The point of this article was the recurring theme in the movie: the past must die. It was frequently mentioned in the movie by multiple characters, and refers to the need for the fragile Jedi Order to finally die off.  For Kylo Ren, a new order would be built under his guidance and obviously inclined toward the Dark Side of the Force. For Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Order had simply become stale with tradition and hubris and wasn’t worth salvaging.

The really defining moment, for me though, was when Yoda appears to encourage Luke to destroy the first Jedi temple. Yoda’s point was that the living Force is all around and that’s what mattered, and while the ancient Jedi texts contained much wisdom, it wasn’t worth getting attached to them either.

This has obvious Buddhist themes.

First of course is the famous Buddhist sutra, the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65), where the Buddha says:

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”

(trans. Soma Thera)

But I think a better example is in the Vakkali Sutta (SN 22.87):

Vakkali: “For a long time, Lord, I have wanted to come and set eyes on the Blessed One, but I had not the strength in this body to come and see the Blessed One.”

The Buddha: “Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”

(trans. Maurice O’Connell Walshe)

And finally in the later Mahayana Buddhist text, the Diamond Sutra:

The Buddha: “What do you think, Subhuti? Is it possible to grasp the Tathagata by means of bodily signs?”

Subhuti: “No, World-Honored One. When the Tathagata speaks of bodily signs, there are no signs being talked about.”

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “In a place where there is something that can be distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception. If you can see the signless nature of signs, you can see the Tathagata.”

All of these teachings are not denigrating tradition or the past, but at the same time they’re a warning to disciples not to get hung up on them either. The real Dharma is all around you. No, you can levitate objects and shoot lightning like the Force, but like the Force you can find it everywhere if you calm your mind down a little and pay attention.

This is important because in medieval times, Buddhist institutions became very concerned with the notion of Dharma Decline, and it still deeply influences certain kinds of Buddhism, particularly Pure Land Buddhism (including Jodo Shinshu Buddhism) and Nichiren Buddhism. I used to strongly believe in it myself.  But I also think that Buddhism sometimes gets held hostage by this obsession with Dharma Decline to the point that people become paralyzed with doubt and fail to get started on the path even if they could.

And yet, I am reminded of a passage from the Lotus Sutra, chapter sixteen:

When beings see the eon ending
And ravaged by the great fire,
My land is peaceful and secure,
Always filled with gods and humans,
Gardens and groves, halls and pavilions,
And various precious adornments.

And:

All who have cultivated merit and virtue,
Who are compliant, agreeable, and honest
They all see me
Here, speaking the Dharma.

Where people see traditions dying and Buddhist institutions failing, a person who sincerely puts Buddhist teachings into practice will see the Living Dharma all around them even if they practice alone. The Lotus Sutra assures us that a person who sincerely follows the path will eventually “see” the Buddha, and his teachings.  After many years of trial-and-error, I am beginning to appreciate this in my own life.

The teachings of Buddhism are never truly gone, nor do they ever really “arise”. Only the mind makes it so.

May the Force be with you!

The Luminous Mind

This is a good explanation as to why Buddhist practice is a worthwhile investment:

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind.”

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind.”

From the Pabhassara Sutta (AN 1.49-52). This is kind of an obscure sutra in the Buddhist Pali Canon, but it’s very instructive too.