All Good Dharmas

Hello readers,

Been away for a bit, but I am back and wanted to post a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist books, The Way to Buddhahood by the late venerable Yin-Shun (1906 – 2005).  This book isn’t easy to find, and it’s long, but it is one of those rare books that provide a good, intelligent summary of Buddhism overall.  This quote comes at the very end, when it talks about the Lotus Sutra and the general meaning of Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhist practiced across East Asia and including Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, etc.

From the standpoint of the One Vehicle [Mahayana Buddhism as taught in the Lotus Sutra], all good Dharmas lead toward the Buddha Way.  Not only does the good world-transcending Dharma of the Three Vehicles¹ lead there, so do the good dharmas of the Human and Divine Vehicle.² Everything in the world—every iota of kind thought or good deed—leads toward the Buddha Way. The Buddha Dharma is another name for good dharmas.

What are good dharmas, after all? That which goes toward the Dharma, follows the Dharma, and corresponds with the Dharma is good. All that which accords with dependent origination³ with emptiness [of all phenomena] as its nature—in thinking, in dealing with people, in handling affairs— is definitely good. That which is good is the Dharma, and that which is not is non-Dharma.

….So it is not the cast that all sentient beings are without good Dharma; it is just that they have not yet carried it out thoroughly.  If, however, they have good Dharma and aim toward loftiness and brightness, they will eventually turn toward the Buddha Way, stride forward, and ultimately become buddhas.  All sentient beings can become buddhas; this is the ultimate truth.  Those practicing the Buddha Dharma should embrace all good Dharmas and abandon none; such is the real purpose of the Buddha Dharma. (pg. 357-358)

There’s a lot to explain in these paragraphs, but the gist of it is that all beings will ultimately become enlightened Buddhas given enough time, and no small act of good goes unrewarded in the future.  Put another way, you’ve nowhere to go but up.

Also the final statement is really important because there is a tendency toward sectarianism sometimes in Buddhism, and what Yin-Shun is reminding us is that anything that leads toward the Dharma is “good dharma” and therefore should be embraced, not picked apart.

P.S.  The Earth-Store Bodhisattva sutra also teaches the importance of conduct, and that even the smallest deeds (for good or for ill), still have their outcome.

¹ The Three Vehicles is a term in Buddhism referring to the path of the “seeker of buddhahood” (bodhisattva), the path of the “private Buddha” (pratyekabuddha) and the “voice-hearer disciple” (sravaka).  These were seen as three possible outcomes of following the Buddhist path since early Buddhism.  However, one of the big teachings in the Lotus Sutra is that they all ultimately converge at Buddhahood.  Hence the term “One Vehicle”, as opposed to three.

² This refers to non-Buddhist religions or philosophies that focus on ethics, good conduct (e.g. Confucianism, Humanism, etc) or on devotion to a divinity (e.g. Abrahamic religions).

³ This is a universal Buddhist concept that explains how all phenomena, both physical and abstract, arise through other, external causes and conditions.  Like the tree that depends on soil, water and sunlight to grow (not to mention the previous tree that provided the seed), all phenomena depend on each other for their existence, even the conditions are negative.

Only Doing the Bare Minimum

Something I noticed in the Contemplation of Amitabha [Buddha] Sutra recently:¹

7. Then the World-honored One said to Vaidehī, “Whoever wishes to be born there [the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha] should be practice the three acts:
first, caring for one’s parents, attending to one’s teachers and elders,
compassionately refraining from killing, and doing the ten good deeds;
second, taking the Three Refuges, keeping the various precepts, and refraining from breaking the rules of conduct; and third, awakening aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta), believing deeply in the law of causality, chanting the Mahayana sutras, and encouraging aging people to follow the teachings. These three are called pure karma.”

The Buddha further said to [Queen] Vaidehī, “Do you know that these three acts are the pure karma practiced by all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future as the right cause of enlightenment?”

But how do you reconcile this with another statement made later when the Buddha describes the nine-grades of followers who are reborn in the Pure Land?  Here he is describing the situation of the lowest level of the lowest grade:

When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging to be mindful of the Buddha; but he is too tormented by the pain [wracked with guilt and imminent rebirth in the lower realms] to do so.  The good teacher than advises him, ‘If you cannot concentrate on the Buddha then you should say instead, “Homage to Amitāyus Buddha”‘. In this way, he sincerely and continuously says, ‘Homage to Amitāyus Buddha’ (Na-mo-o-mi-t’o-fo) ten times. Because he calls the Buddha’s Name, with each repitition the evil karma tha twould bind him to birth and death for eighty koṭtis of kalpas is extinguished….

The first statement seems fairly clear from a Buddhist perspective: if you aspire for rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha, you should also aspire to assiduously follow the pure Buddhist practices to generate the necessary karma to effect rebirth in the Buddha’s Pure Land.

But the second statement provides a kind of “failsafe” in that if one hasn’t been doing these things, and is otherwise destined to be reborn in the lower realms², then simply reciting the name will extinguish the negative karma and allow one to be reborn.

The trouble though, is that I feel some Buddhists focus so much on the second statement that the whole point of the rest of the sutra is obscured.

I hear (and have met) some Pure Land Buddhists, teachers and writers, describe themselves with a mixture of apathy and self-pity: I am a bad Buddhist, I can’t even follow one precept, I think all kinds of unwholesome thoughts, I’m terrible at meditation, and so on and so forth.  I resonated with this for a long time, but now not so much.

Part of me thinks that this is kind of using the Pure Land teachings as a crutch, especially when one cannot cope with their own failures in Buddhist practice.  They fail, and then just resign themselves using explanations such as Dharma Decline, karmic circumstances, personal faults, etc.

But I really believe this sutra is telling us to keep trying, and keep making an effort, because it’s not just about doing the bare minimum to be reborn in the Pure Land, but to really cultivate wholesome qualities, develop insight, do good, and one’s rebirth in the Pure Land just reflects that.  It’s about effort, not results.  The author of the sutra realized that not everybody can be a great saint, and achieve the highest possible class of rebirth in the Pure Land, hence the second statement is intended to be inclusive.  At the same time, the fact that sutra encourages over and over again to practice wholesome deeds, meditate and live a virtuous lifestyle also means that the sutra doesn’t want you to just do the bare minimum either.

Find your comfort zone, and push the boundaries a little bit, day after day, week after week.  The results will not just speak for themselves in the hereafter, but in this life too.

That’s Buddhism at its best.

¹ Translation by Hisao Inagaki in The Three Pure Land Sutras by BDK English Tripitaka.

² The realms of animals (raw survival), hungry ghosts (constant craving and hunger) and hell (torment, strife, etc).

Coping With Failure

A few months back, I was at the local Half-Price Books and found an old copy of Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken.  Normally I shy away from Western Zen books because they tend to be either self-help books with little actual substance, or too dismissive of traditional Buddhist culture.  But it turns out this book was surprisingly engaging and helpful in understanding the Zen path.  I realized at the time that I had misunderstood a lot from my half-assed encounters online, etc.

One thing that always really stood out was this quote:

All of us fear failure, to one degree or another, and prefer not to try something that seems too difficult….However, it is important to understand that Zen training is also a matter of coping with failure. (pg. 27)

I feel that in a lot of ways, my Buddhist practice and choice of path has been dictated by this fear of failure.  You might even call it pride and arrogance.  Later, Rev. Aitken writes:

In the same way, we train ourselves to find our true nature by ignoring the egocentric whims that say, “No, I will sleep in this morning,” or “No, I don’t feel like zazen just now.” (pg. 32)

I have dabbled in various Buddhist practices, including Zen, but inevitably get frustrated almost immediately, quit as soon as I felt lazy, or fear I can’t do it in the long-run, because I can’t bear to do anything less than perfect.  Seen from the outside, this seems quite stupid, but that’s the kind of internal thinking we can subject ourselves too.

This time around though, I realized that the important thing is not to get caught up in over-thinking about this, and just do it.  This is how I’ve learned to cope with failure at my Buddhist practice: don’t overthink it; just keep doing it.  A few weeks ago, I forgot to practice meditation for 4 days, but I didn’t allow myself to get discouraged.  I just picked it up again, and have been keeping it up for a few weeks since.

The nice thing is that the practice has gained momentum, and I have learned to enjoy the practice more, and see it less as a chore.

So, the problem was never the Buddhist practice itself, it was my own inability to cope with failure, but that’s all part of the growth that comes with walking the path.  🙂



Hakuin’s Hymn of Zen

Hi All,

I was doing a bit of research lately on various kinds of Japanese-Buddhist home services by sect, known informally in Japanese as otsutomé (お勤め) or more formally as gongyō (勤行).  While looking at the Rinzai Zen services in particular, I encountered something I had never seen before called Song of Zen by the 17th-century Zen master Hakuin.  The actual name in Japanese for this “song” seems to be the zazen wasan (坐禅和讃) or hakuin zenshi zazen wasan (白隠禅師坐禅和讃).  The term “wasan” probably would be better translated as “hymn”,¹ so for the sake of this post, I call it the Hymn of Zen.

But enough about linguistics, what the heck is it?

This is a kind of Buddhist hymn composed by Hakuin that explains Zen teachings in a simple, accessible series of verses.  Unlike more traditional Japanese-Buddhist writing which uses Sino-Japanese writing (that is Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciation), this hymn was composed in more vernacular Japanese for easy readability by followers.

The translation below is by Trevor Legget (Japanese version can be found on Wikipedia for reference):

All beings are from the very beginning Buddhas.

It is like water and ice:

Apart from water, no ice,

Outside living beings, no Buddhas.

Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar.

What a pity!

It is like one in the water who cries out for thirst;

It is like the child from a rich house

Who has strayed away among the poor.

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

Is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance.

Dark path upon dark path treading.

When shall we escape from birth-and-death?

The Zen meditation of the Mahayana

Is beyond all praise.

Giving and morality and the other perfections,

Taking of the name, repentance, discipline,

And the many other right actions,

All come back to the practice of meditation.

By the merit of a single sitting

He destroyed innumerable accumulated sins.

How should there be wrong paths for him?

The Pure Land paradise is not far.

When in reverence this truth is heard even once,

He who praises it and gladly embraces it

Has merit without end.

How much more he who turns within

And confirms directly his own nature,

That his own nature is no-nature –

Such has transcended vain words.

The gate opens, and cause and effect are one;

Straight runs the way – not two, not three.

Taking as form the form of no-form,

Going or returning, he is ever at home.

Taking as thought the thought of no-thought,

Singing and dancing, all is the voice of truth.

Wide is the heaven of boundless Samadhi,

Radiant the full moon of the fourfold wisdom.

What remains to be sought?

Nirvana is clear before him,

This very place the Lotus Paradise,

This very body the Buddha.

The references to the Lotus Paradise and Pure Land allude to the Pure Land of Shakyamuni Buddha as described in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which Hakuin was deeply devoted to since his youth.


¹ See for example Shinran’s Hymns of the Pure Land (jōdo wasan, 浄土和讃) composed in the 13th century.  These short, melodious hymns are usually chanted during the end of reciting the Shoshinge in Jodo Shinshu services.  Speaking from experience.

A Brave New World

So, recently one night, I had a quiet moment in my life and spent some time reflecting back on the last six months, starting with the last weeks at my old temple, my resignation, and subsequent efforts to find a new path, new projects, etc.  It’s been a more difficult transition than I thought, and I was definitely burned out and exhausted going into the holidays, but now that a few months have passed I feel a lot better about my decision.

Years ago, I switched my job from a certain online company (starts with an “A”) where I had been for 9 years.  That job was a huge part of my life, and I had been there so long, that even though it was a toxic, stressful environment¹ it was familiar and I was hesitant to leave.  I wanted to make it still work somehow, but after 9 years, it was enough.

Changing my job to a new company (think talking mouse) was challenging at first.  I was unfamiliar with the environment, I had to relearn a lot of things, and had to start over from the bottom.  I felt really stupid sometimes.  But after a couple years, I am so glad I changed.  My stress is much less than before, and it’s rubbed off on my family who’s a lot happier.

In the same way, I feel that way about my path with Jodo Shinshu.  I liked many things about the temple community I was a part of, and even now I miss a lot of people there, but I also had lingering personal misgivings about Jodo Shinshu teachings for a long time. However, since I had already invested so much though, and I really wanted to have an opportunity to teach Buddhism in person, I still tried to make it work for a long time.  But all it did was stress me out further.

Now that I’ve finally made a break with that tradition, it’s taken a while to adjust to the change in my life.  After my post about the primacy of practicing Buddhism, I decided that the best way to find my path was not to read about Buddhist schools, but to try them out.  I started a 28-day practice where I did some kind of Buddhist practice (chanting, meditation, etc) for 10 minutes a day.²  Each day I could choose whatever I wanted, but I had to do something.  Within the first week, I quickly lost interest in certain practices and settled on a personal routine that worked well for me.  I am now on day 23, and have stuck with it much longer than I thought I would.

So, in the end, a change in environment was probably the right thing for me.

Losing my community and friends was difficult, rebuilding my blog was painful too, but as the dust has settled I feel I have stepped into a brave new world, and am looking forward to many more years of blogging, exploring the many facets of Buddhism, and sharing with readers and viewers on Youtube.  🙂

P.S.  Double-post today.  Haven’t one of those in a while.

¹ The fact that I started having gastritis attacks almost monthly was a symptom of that.  These days my attacks are much less frequent partly due to improved eating habits, but also probably due to decreased stress.

² My idea was based on Dogen’s advice that all other aspects of Buddhism (sutras, chanting, etc) should be guide to and support for your practice, not an end of themselves.  How I wish I had read this years ago.

Sanskrit Misuse in Buddhist Teachings

This is why I do it. This is why I study Sanskrit:

Buddhist books and their authors sometimes like to give themselves an air of legitimacy by sprinkling in ancient Sanskrit phrases but the usage of sanskrit in this paragraph is unfortunately incorrect

Case in point, the original Sanskrit phrase of the nembutsu (namo amida butsu) is actually namo’mitābhāya (नमाेऽमिताभाय) not Namo-Amita-Buddha. Second Namo does not mean “I put my trust in”, etc. The word is variation on namaṣ (नमष्) meaning “praise” or “hail”.2 That’s why people say “namaste” in Yoga classes in such: you’re greeting/praising the divinity in the other person.

Also, for clarity, the phrase for “to trust or take refuge in” is śaraṇaṃ gam (शरणम् गम्).1 There are probably other words too but I am not aware of them.

So the actual translation of namo’mitābhāya is “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” not “I entrust everything to …”. The translation provided has an overtly sectarian bias that ordinary readers would miss. In any case this translation is simply incorrect.

I would encourage anyone who is spiritual or religious to learn the ancient language of your tradition whether that be Koine Greek for Christianity, Hebrew for Judaism, or Arabic whatever. Don’t blindly believe what religious leaders tell you. Be skeptical, and validate for yourself.

1 Hence when taking refuge in the Three Treasures people say buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi, etc.

2 Sandhi rules, or sound-shifts in Sanskrit, is a topic for another post.

Welcome to Hell!

Happy 2017 Dear Readers!

Posted this on the Youtube channel recently while answering a question about Buddhism and Hell:

One thing I regretfully forgot to mention in the video is the influence of Hell “artwork” in medieval Japanese Buddhism. 

A long time ago I visited a museum exhibit in Kamakura, Japan featuring a lot of medieval artwork and tapestries found in nearby monasteries. There lots of images of the Hell realms juxtaposed with the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. 

It had a very Dante’s Inferno feel to it but in a Buddhist context. 

While Buddhism teaches many realms of rebirth, I think people naturally fear Hell the most and since people are bound to be reborn there sooner or later depending on their karma. There’s no guarentee they won’t unless they are firmly on the Buddhist path (e.g. a stream-enterer).  

So not surprisingly people then and now turn to the compassionate vows of Amitabha Buddha. Even though I have left behind Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, I still believe in the Pure Land myself and the Buddha’s vow to rescue all beings. I just don’t let the Honganji tell me what to think and how to interpret/practice.

Anyhow, Buddhist hells seem silly and weird at first glance, but are an important aspect of understandinh and appreciating Buddhism and Buddhist culture.