What’s Old Is New Again

So, recently, I have started teaching Buddhism again back at the temple I used to go to; the same temple which I had left in a huff, and had sworn never to return.  Yes, that temple.

It all started this past summer, when I visited the Japanese Bonodori festival around here and ran into some old friends from the temple.  I heard that things had changed, and new minister was in charge and so on.  I kind of shrugged it off at the time, but then ran into some more friends later who said the same thing.

Finally, I decided to visit and see if it was true, and I had a chance to speak to the new minister.  We hit it off pretty well, and he asked if I would consider teaching introduction Buddhist courses again.  As much as I like making videos online and such, I admit I still miss teaching people in person,¹ and decided to send him my old course material.  To my surprise, not only did he read the material, but insisted I teach it.

In our last conversation, I expressed my reservations about getting involved again, but I did agree to teach once more.  So, now one Sunday a month, I teach my old friends and colleagues at the temple again.  It’s been fun, and I am glad I am doing it again.

In truth, my feelings toward Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and the Honganji remain unchanged, and to my own surprise, I feel no desire to try for ordination again since coming back.  All the chanting and hymns and talk about the founder does not resonate with me the way it used to.  It just feels hollow now.

I realize now that I like the teaching aspect of ordination a lot, but not the dogmatic/administrative part of ordination.  I already know how I would like to follow Buddhism based on my own journey, and I don’t want any religious authority telling me how to toe the line anymore.  By the same token, I don’t want to be responsible for telling other people who to live their lives either.  Empower people with information and letting them make their own decisions.  That’s my motto.

But in any case, I am happy to regularly teach again and content to do that.  The old robes I used to wear can stay in the closet.

Anyhow, we’ll see how the rest of the calendar year goes.

¹ I got to teach a few times in the past year for other groups, and I am grateful for that, but the opportunities were not sustainable.

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Looking Back

Recently I stumbled upon an old, funny post I wrote about 7 years ago titled Am I Buddhist Anymore? A Brief Socratic Dialogue. I wrote this post at a time in my life when I was kind of burned out by work and by the hassles of Buddhist communities on the Internet,1 and wanted to go alone for a while and find my own path.

In the last year, I guess I have come full-circle back to this state, but now I am burned out by work, parenting and hassles of Buddhist communities in the real-world.2

After a few abortive attempts to find another Buddhist community to take part in, I just gradually learned to be content with finding my own way along the Buddhist path. If I had been less experienced in Buddhism, as I was when I wrote my old post, I might have felt more lonely, but nowadays I don’t feel the pang of isolation that comes with being without a Buddhist community. I’ve been Buddhist long enough that this is not my first rodeo.

At the same time, I like what I wrote here:

Fact is, when I think about Kannon Bodhisattva for example, I can’t help but smile. I found myself randomly doing that while walking home from work recently. That goes double for Shakyamuni Buddha. Lately, I feel like I understand him better than I did before, and it makes me appreciate him more than I did before.

I feel that way now too. Since I gave up on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and kind of learned Buddhism all over again, this time without the heavy burden of doctrine and sectarianism, I find I appreciate Shakyamuni Buddha more and what he taught, without having to identify myself as one sect or another.

These days I am just a happy, content Buddhist. It sure took a long time to get here, but as I recently told my wife in the car, I think I’ve been happier and more content these past months than I have been for long, long time.

1 I used to spend a lot of time on places like E-Sangha, Beliefnet and so on. I guess it’s where I “cut my teeth” in discussing Buddhism to other people, but also where I learned about the ugly side of religion and the Internet too. I wasn’t all that sad when E-Sangha collapsed, though I have kept in touch with a few people on there since then.

2 Let alone the online ones which I deliberately avoid. Every very once in a while, I’ll log into some Buddhist forum I know (usually after I reset the password I forgot), answer a couple questions, realize I don’t like online Buddhist communities and don’t log in again for another 2-3 years.

Enough is Enough

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while.  I liked the little animated gif above, but couldn’t find a good post to use it in (Youtube version here), then I found this blog post about a certain Tibetan Buddhist group that is … controversial.  This part really spoke to me:

After it’s break-away from Tibetan Buddhism, the NKT became much more fundamentalist and purist than its predecessor. They removed all books from their Dharma centres that were not written by the NKT Guru, and advised their practitioners to only read their Guru’s books. The NKT wants its followers to have only one source of information on the Dharma, or spiritual truth: their source.

When they choose some of their new followers to becomes teachers, they are instructed to teach directly from these books, and not from any other source of information….Over time, the ‘teacher’ becomes like a mindless parrot, with no understanding of their own to share and only speaking the words they have been told to speak. When they are asked a question about the Dharma, they do not refer to their own understanding, but will often begin their thoughts and speech with “my Guru says.”

During my time with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, particularly toward the end when I sought ordination, I started to feel similar pressure.  The Jodo Shinshu community in the US has been recently undergoing a kind of fundamentalist revival, driven by the home temple in Japan, and I started to notice the same patterns.  I was told as a ministerial-candidate to only recite sutras that were part of that tradition, and to only teach sermons that were based on quotations from the founder, Shinran (1173 – 1263).

I remember asking the minister at the time why, and she had said something to the effect that it’s important not to mix teachings from other traditions because people will get confused.  She was so worried about doctrinal purity, that to me it felt like the purity of the doctrine was more important than what the doctrine actually taught.

But it wasn’t just one minister either.  When I took the online courses for ordination, I remember feeling similar misgivings.  We had a cursory overview of Buddhism as a whole, and Buddhist history, but we spent a lot more time learning the Jodo Shinshu tradition, and why it was so great.  This really bothered me because were just supposed to assume it was a great tradition because the course said so, but since my background in Buddhism had been more eclectic (and by this point I had been studying on my own for almost 10 years) and I just couldn’t see why it was so great.  I discussed with the minister-instructor, who is a great guy and well-versed in Jodo Shinshu tradition, but was still unconvinced. Behind all his great, rational arguments, I still felt the same contradiction.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has some things going for it, but the empty self-praise really started to bother me.  I know other Buddhist traditions do it too (Zen and Nichiren for example), but I didn’t want to just be a mouthpiece for a certain tradition.  I wanted to become a minister so I could actually preach something I believed in, not something I was told to do. Behind all the crappy, low-production videos and blog posts I’ve made is my sincere intent to share what I’ve learned about Buddhism with other people, even when I get it wrong.

September of last year, I finally gave up (first post on the blog here…I think), and parted ways with the community, and haven’t been back since.  For a long time, I took down all my old Jodo Shinshu posts, and tried to pretend the whole experience never happened. Despite having been there for years, and letting my kids grow up there, I threw it all away, and to be honest it’s been bitter-sweet.  Mostly bitter.

I miss some aspects a lot, particularly all the wonderful people I knew in the temple, and the fun of teaching “basic Buddhism” courses there.¹  I miss the big community celebrations, and the eclectic mix of people who grew up Buddhist and those who like me had converted.

But now that almost a year has passed, I am so glad I left.  It’s been a painful and lonely year at times, with lots of false starts, but it’s also spurred me to explore new things, and challenge myself.  It also prompted me to learn Sanskrit among other things.  There’ve been times when I missed Jodo Shinshu and Pure Land Buddhism in general so badly that I really thought about going back, but those times have become fewer and fewer, and as I delve into other teachings and traditions,² the hole in my spiritual life has slowly been filled in other, more constructive ways.  The constant tension I felt in my life for years between what Jodo Shinshu taught, and what I felt the Buddhist sutras taught is no longer there.³  It made for good blog material, but in the end I couldn’t reconcile the two.

Since parting ways, a few of my old friends and colleagues at the temple have asked me to come back, but I have chosen not to do so because I wasn’t ready to go back.  I may visit some time soon, just to say “hi”, but I know I am not the same person I was a year ago, struggling with a crisis of faith. I feel a lot more confident about the Buddha-Dharma in general, and thanks to encouragement from people here and on the Youtube channel, I know I made the right decision.

The Buddha-Dharma is like a deep ocean, with lots of treasure. The more you dive in, the more treasure you bring up. When a Buddhist tradition is so insecure about itself that it tells you not to dive in further to find more treasure (or only look for treasure in one particular spot but stay away from other spots), that’s a red flag. Yes, it is vital that you put those teachings into practice too, and not study for study’s sake (a mistake I frequently made), but you should never be told to only stick to tradition, or that it’s wrong to mix teachings.

In the end, a Buddhist tradition is only there to facilitate you on the Buddhist path. It’s important not to just rely on your own intuition, but at the same time, if a tradition is holding you back, you need to let it go, and take up something else that is more appropriate. And if that doesn’t work, try something else. It’s important not to lean on a teacher or teaching:

You have to think for yourself even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.

So, in a sense, I feel like a new student again, but I like what I am learning, and I hope I can continue for the forseeable future.

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa

¹ Those too were getting curtailed because of concerns they didn’t align with Jodo Shinshu teachings, even though the previous year I had submitted the material beforehand for approval, and after some corrections, did get the OK to teach.

² Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s books and podcasts have been particularly helpful for me.  It was something I needed to hear at the right time.

³ I realize some people will take issue with this, and try to demonstrate that the Buddhist sutras teach Jodo Shinshu doctrine.  I respect their opinions, but I’ve already reached my own conclusion and have no interest in debating it.

Where Does Namu Come From?

The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:

  • Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
  • Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
  • Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
  • Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.

You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc.  What the heck is this?

This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately.  The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc.  This term is not limited to Buddhism either.  It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹

Now, here’s the funny part.  Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places.  This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”.  Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.

The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:

  • namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
  • namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
  • namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
  • namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
  • namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.

So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.²  This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.

From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same.  In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.

But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.

Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.

¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).

² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped.  This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ .  Why?  It just does.

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.  🙂