Say It Like You Mean It

Recently I’ve been reading a book titled Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan published by Kodansha Press. The book is a biography on Zen masters Ikkyu, Hakuin and Ryokan.

I found a really great quite in there, not by the three masters above, but by another Zen master named Daitō (大燈) better known as Shūhō Myōchō (宗峰妙超, 1282-1337). He was the second patriarch of the main Rinzai lineage that exists today.

While abbot of Daitoku-ji temple, a major Rinzai Zen temple, he gave a final admonition to his students that is still recited there to this day:

All of you who have come to this mountain monastery, do not forget that you are here for the sake of the Way, not for the sake of clothing and food….Address yourselves throughout the day to knowing the unknowable. From start to finish, investigate all things in detail. Time flies like an arrow, so do not waste energy on trivial matters. Be attentive! Be attentive!

After this old monk completes his pilgrimage, some of you may preside over grand temples with magnificent buildings and huge libraries adorned with gold and silver and have many followers. Others may devote themselves to sutra study, esoteric chants, continual meditation, and strict observance of the precepts.  Whatever the course of action, if the mind is not set on the marvelous, transcendent Way of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, causality is negated and the teaching collapses.  Such people are devils and can never be my true heirs.  The one who tends to his own affairs and clarifies his own nature, even though he may be residing in the remote countryside in a hut, subsisting on wild vegetables cooked in a battered old cauldron, encounters my tradition daily and receives my teaching with gratitude.  Who can take this lightly?  Work harder! Work harder! (pg. 16)

There’s something I find really inspiring about this quote.  I feel that what Daito is saying is that whatever Buddhist practice you do, you should really feel committed to the Buddhist path, and not just kind of go in halfway.  Maybe I’m interpreting this wrong, but I can see how someone who’s committed to doing esoteric chants (I don’t) and focused on the Buddhist path will really grow as a person, whereas someone doing it for curiosity and because it’s “cool” or might be looking for some tangible benefit, might not.

You can probably extend this to any Buddhist practice too.

Anyhow, just something cool I wanted to share.

Thank you Youtube Subscribers!

I am grateful to all the subscribers on my Youtube channel.  1000 subscribers may not seem like much by Internet standards, but this is a channel about a guy sitting in front of a wall, talking about the Four Noble Truths, so I can’t tell you how happy I am that the channel has grown this much.

As with the blog, thank you all for your support and your comments and best wishes!

Just Focus On That One Thing

Lately, I’ve been reading a translation of the Bendowa, a 13th-century text written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen (1200-1253).  The Bendowa is comparatively short, compared to other longer texts that he wrote later, but it contains a lot of nuggets of wisdom that I have enjoyed sharing in the blog (here and here for example).

One of the important themes of the Bendowa is the primacy of Buddhist practice.  Dogen frequently criticizes those who study Buddhism but never actually do any practices.  For example here:

Just understand that when a master who has attained the way with a clear mind correctly transmits to a student who has merged himself with realization, then the inconceivable dharma of the Seven Buddhas, in its essence, is actualized and maintained.  This cannot be known by monks who study words.  Therefore, stop your doubt, practice zazen under a correct teacher, and actualize the self-fulfilling samadhi of all buddhas. (pg 148-149, Moon in a Dewdrop, trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi)

This reminded me of some words I had posted in the past here on the blog.  For example in this old post, I talked about sustaining a practice long enough to reach fruition, like applying steady heat to boil water.

But what practice?

Another Zen master, Hakuin (1686-1786), wrote a letter to a Nichiren-Buddhist nun:

At any rate, nothing surpasses the casting aside of all the myriad circumstances and devoting oneself to recitation [of the o-daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra: namu-myoho-renge-kyo].

Yet Hakuin cautions:

But do not adhere to the one-sided view that the title of the Sutra alone will be of benefit. This applies as well to the Shingon and Pure Land schools. The followers of the Pure Land, by the power of the concentrated recitation of the Buddha’s name, resolving to see once the Pure Land of their own minds and the wondrous form of Amida Buddha in their own bodies, give rise to a valiant great aspiration, and devote themselves ceaselessly to the recitation of the name, as fervently as though they were dousing flames on their own heads. Is there any reason that they should not see the form of the Buddha, who is spoken of as not being far off, the trees of the seven treasures, and the pond of the eight virtues? The followers of Shingon, by the mysterious power of the dharani resolving to see without fail the great Sun Disc of the Inherent Nature of the Letter A, give rise to a great aspiration to persevere, just as in Zen one koan is taken up and concentrated upon. Is there any reason that they should not polish and bring out the true form of the Diamond indestructible that Koya Daishi has described as “[attaining enlightenment] without being reborn in a new body”?

Hakuin’s point I think is that not even steady practice is enough.  The aspiration is what really counts.  If you work up the right resolve, the practice becomes a means toward that end, and in time you will see the fruition of your practice.

But how do you work up the resolve?  This is where things like studying the sutras, and the writings of past masters, visiting various temples, and looking for other inspirations really come in handy.  Dogen’s warning is right: simply studying in an intellectual capacity isn’t enough, but at the same time, it is sometimes helpful to get support from other Buddhist sources.  But the important thing to bear in mind is why you’re doing it.

Best of luck to my fellow Buddhists out there!

Dogen and the Nembutsu

While reading the Bendowa, a 13th-century Zen Buddhist text written by Dogen, I was struck by this statement:

Question 3: We understand that you have correctly transmitted the tathāgata’s excellent method and studied the tracks of the ancestors.  It is beyond the reach of ordinary thoughts.  However, reading the sūtras or chanting Buddha’s name [the nembutsu] of itself must be a cause of enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?

Which Dogen replies:

When right trust arises, you can practice and study. If not, you may wait for a while and regret that you have not received the benefaction of dharma from the past.

Also, do you understand the merit attained by the act of reading sūtras, chanting Buddha’s name,¹ and so on? It is hopeless to think that just moving the tongue and making a sound is meritorious Buddhist activity. If you regard these as the buddha’s teaching, the buddha’s teaching will be further and further away.

Actually, the meaning of studying sūtras is that if you understand and follow the rules of practice for sudden and gradual realization taught by the buddha, you will unmistakably attain enlightenment. In studying sūtras you should not expend thoughts in the vain hope that they will be helpful for attaining wisdom.

To try foolishly to reach the buddha way by the practice of chanting myriad times is just like trying to go to the southern country of Yue with your spear heading towards the north, or to fit a square post into a round hole.  To look at letters but be ignorant of the way of practice is just like a physician forgetting how to prescribe medicine; what use can it be?  People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever.  Even worse off are those who, deluded by name and gain, cannot give up such practices, because their greed for gain is so deep.  There were such people in the past.  Are there not even more?  What a pity, indeed!

(Pg. 148, Moon In A Dewdrop, trans. by Kazuaki Tanahashi

Reading this gives me mixed feelings. Dogen makes a valid point in that just repeating sounds over and over is no real way to Enlightenment. Afterall, if it were that easy, we’d see it taught over and over again in the earliest scriptures, and yet we don’t.

Also, I see where Dogen is coming from in that the real value in Buddhist scripture (sūtra) is providing guidance on Buddhist practice. In other words a means to an end, not the end itself. Interestingly, unlike some of the more unconventional Zen monks of the past, Dogen taught the importance of the sutras because he felt they were in accord with the Buddha’s teachings.  He even revered the Lotus Sutra as show in the previous link.

However, Dogen’s focus was on the primacy of practice, and for him the only true practice was seated meditation.  Anything else in Buddhism was clearly intended to be a supportive role.  Honen had a very similar approach, though ironically replacing meditation with the recitation of the Buddha’s name:¹

If one cannot practice nembutsu as a monk, one should take a wife and recite nembutsu.  On the contrary, if cannot practice nembutsu with a wife, one should recite nembutsu as a monk.  If staying in one place makes nembutsu possible, go on a pilgrimage and recite nembutsu.  Conversely, if nembutsu is difficult on a pilgrimage, stay in one place and recite nembutsu…. (pg. 318, The Promise of Amida Buddha: Honen’s Path to Bliss, trans. by Joji Atone)

Both monks, also ironically both ex-members of the Tendai sect, treated practice as the most important thing, and that all other aspects of one’s life should support this, even if they totally disagreed on which practice was the best.

¹ The nembutsu, or chanting the Buddha’s name, was central to the Pure Land Buddhist movement that started in the 12th century under Honen, a couple generations before Dogen was born, and still remains overwhelmingly the most popular Buddhist branch in Japan.

Do or Do Not

Many people probably remember this famous scene from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back:

Recently while reading a translation of the Bendowa, an early essay written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen.  This quote really caught my attention:

Those who practice know whether realization is attained or not, just as those who drink water know whether it is hot or cold.

(Pg. 156, Moon In A Dewdrop)

I tend to be the kind of person who likes to overanalyze something, and hesitate until I make a decision, which may never come.  This has always hampered my Buddhist practice long-term as I tend to overthink it and let self-doubt take over.

But this quote (and Yoda’s) are a reminder not to try.  Just do.  In other words, don’t worry about the outcome and such.  Just do it and see first-hand.

All I need to do is just start a Buddhist practice, ideally something that is suitable for my circumstances.  Now if I only I could decide on one first… ;-p

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. 

Adventures at Zojoji and Tokyo Tower

One of the highlights of our trip to Japan was a visit to a famous temple in Tokyo named Zōjōji (増上寺).  This is one of the main temples of the Jodo Shu sect, which is closely related to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, but different in subtle ways.

The story behind this trip was interesting.  I was actually doing some work during my vacation by visiting the local office, which was located in Toranomon (虎ノ門), a high-class business area of Tokyo.  My wife, kids and a good friend went to nearby Tokyo Tower to wait for me.  Once my meeting was done, I changed my clothes (it was sweltering that day in business casual clothes), and walked about 20 minutes to Tokyo Tower.  By then I was sweating all over again.  :-p

Tokyo Tower is a large transmission tower and symbol of the city of Tokyo, but has been eclipsed in recent years by the Tokyo Sky Tree, which we’ve also seen.

Tokyo Tower

Here’s a view of Tokyo Tower.  By the time I got there, everyone already had lunch, so I quickly grabbed Mos Burger’s special “Tokyo Tower Burger”:

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It was, not surprisingly, smaller than advertised, but still too tall to fit in my mouth:

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Mos Burger was delicious as usual though. The burger had a nice chili-burger taste and the fries were awesome. 

Anyhow, by early afternoon we were ready to walk a few blocks down to nearby Zojoji Temple.  We ended up arriving through the back entrance, but were treated with an excellent view of the main temple building:

Zojoji Temple

Some parts of the complex seemed closed and covered up.  I think they were either preparing for a festival, or were cleaning up after one, I couldn’t tell.

Zojoji Temple

The main building was open, and unlike many temples in Japan, they openly allowed photographs (except during memorial services of course).  Here’s the main hall:

Zojoji Temple

When I see this hall, it kind of evokes the image of Amitabha Buddha sitting in the Pure Land amidst lotus ponds and other imagery from the Amitabha Sutra.  It was quite beautiful.  I am not sure if that was intended, but that’s certainly what came to mind.

To the left and right of the central were images of Jodo-Shu’s founder Honen, and I believe of Shan-tao the famous Chinese Pure Land master and inspiration for Pure Land Buddhism in Japan.  I believe this is Honen, but I might be wrong:

Zojoji Temple

After this we went to the gift-shop next door, and picked up some omamori charms, and got our travel books stamped and signed.1  Here’s the smaller altar in the gift shop, which was also lovely:

Zojoji Temple

Afterwards, we went behind the main building and saw this gate:

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Inside there was a mausoleum to some of the ancient Tokugawa family that ruled Japan for 268 years during the Edo Period.  The founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and other immediate family members were interned further north in Nikko, but here you can see the later generations of the Tokugawa family and shoguns:

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The mosquitoes here were terrible, due to all the stagnant water in and around the tombs, so we couldn’t stay too long.  Little Guy and Princess were covered in bites around their ankles by the time we got home.  Luckily, I was wearing jeans that day, but I feel bad for my kids. But it was a really interesting piece of history to see some of the Shoguns interned there.

On the way backed, we passed through the Roppongi (六本木) district where a lot of foreign expats live.  You definitely see some interesting girls hanging out there. Not the kind I would take home to my parents.  Still, daytime wasn’t bad, and although Roppongi has both a glitzy and shady reputation, there is still lots of good things to see.

We stopped at a branch shrine (bunshi 分祠) of the famous Izumo Grand Shrine way out in Shimane Prefecture.

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We made our obeisance, got our books signed again and returned home happy.  It was a tiny shrine, and they didn’t allow photos (sigh).  Interestingly, per tradition at Izumo Grand Shrine, you are supposed to clap four times, not two.

Zojoji as a temple was great.  There was something about the vibe there that reminded me many years ago when I went to Chion-in Temple in Kyoto (another Jodo Shu temple) and saw a monk chanting to Amitabha Buddha. That was in 2005 and I visited again in 2010. It was an old feeling, but also a warm, familiar one. That is what first brought me to Buddhism more than 10 years ago.2

Also, as it is really close to Tokyo Tower, you can easily make it a day trip to both. 

1 This is something you never find at Jodo Shinshu temples.  Charms and such are never sold there, because as Shinran taught, once one is grasped by the compassion of Amitabha Buddha, good luck charms, Shinto shrines, merit from traveling to temples and such is simply unnecessary.  Amitabha Buddha’s compassion is much greater and therefore sufficient.  I get the point, but I’ve always felt it’s a little one-sided, and maybe a bit puritanical.

2 Sadly there are no Jodo Shu temples anywhere near here.