Think For Yourself

Another great podcast by Karma Yeshe Rabgye:

Certain Buddhist schools seem particularly vulnerable to a kind of abuse by gurus or teachers who exert unnecessary control over their disciples, but this kind of unhealthy relationship can happen in any Buddhist temple or community.

There are examples of teachers who have abused their students, and it’s interesting to see how some students will still defend their teacher, even make excuses for the abuse, simply because the teachings they offer are so great.  I believe though this is what Karma Yeshe Rabgye means by leaning on a teacher, rather than learning from them.  You want the teaching so badly you’re willing to put up with all kinds of abuse, but as Karma Yeshe Rabgye says, this is just another form of attachment.

Anyhow, something to really think about.

Buddhist teachers in the West are so few and far between, and there’s not always enough oversight on them, leaving room for people to get taken in by charismastic teachers.  However, with the right mindset one can avoid some pitfalls, and thereby avoid a lot unnecessary grief.

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.

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.

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!

It’s That Time Again: Yakudoshi!

Dear Readers, Happy 2017!  明けましておめでとうございます。

This New Year came and went so fast, didn’t it?  It was a busy week here at our home.  My daughter celebrated her 10th birthday just before New Year’s eve!  “Baby” is definitely not a baby anymore.  This is one of my first posts about Baby in the blog, by the way. 

New Year’s itself was great.  Lots of food and friends, but nothing terribly different from past years.

One thing that was notable this year is that it turns out I am starting Yakudoshi, my inauspicious year.  I posted about yakudoshi a long time ago, and I haven’t really thought about it much lately since it only impacts a person a few times in their life, if ever.  My wife went through it a few years ago but is over it now. 

Technically, yakudoshi is not one, but three years:

  • Maeyaku (前厄) – the year before
  • Yakudoshi (厄年) – the year of calamity
  • Atoyaku (後厄)  – the year after

It’s based on the year you were born, particularly the Japanese calendar (not the Gregorian calendar).  As I was born in the 52nd year¹ of the reign of the Showa Emperor,² this year is maeyaku for me.

So, for Hatsumode, the first temple visit of the year, we went to the usual Shingon Buddhist temple and in addition to the usual blessings we also signed up for a special purification or yakubarai (厄払い). Then we got our yearly ofuda tablet (we brought back last year’s of course) and I got a special omamori charm to carry in my wallet. 

One might find all this a bit superstitious and people wouldn’t disagree with you. On the other hand, as the sole bread-winner of the family it’s a good idea to not take a chance either. 🙂

Besides, the experience was pretty fun in a way, although Little Guy was really bored with the ceremony. He flopped all over the ground and talked about Pokemon too loud. Life with a three-year old. ;-p

Anyhow hope you all have a great year!

¹ With Japanese imperial years, the first year (元年, gannen) is considered year 1, not year 0.

² Unlike in English, the Emperors are never referred to by their regular names.  Instead, past emperors are called their reign name: Meiji Emperor, Showa Emperor, etc.  The reigning emperor is simply called either heika (陛下, “his majesty”) tennō-heika (天皇陛下, “his majesty, the Emperor”), etc.

No Birth, No Death

This is another cool passage from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Opening the Heart of the Cosmos:

One day while practicing walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet, I looked down and saw that I was about to step on a golden-yellow leaf.  It was in the autumn, when the golden leaves are very beautiful.  When I saw that beautiful golden leaf I did not eat to step on it and so I hesitated briefly.  But then I smiled and thought, “This leaf is only pretending to be gold, pretending to fall.”  In terms of the historical dimension, that leaf was born on a branch as a new green bud in spring, had clung to that branch for many months, changed color in autumn, and one day when a cold wind blew it fell to the ground.  But looking deeply into its ultimate dimension, we can see that the leaf is only pretending to be born, to exist for a while, and to grow old and die.  The teachings of interdependence and no-self reveal to us the true unborn and undying nature of all phenomena.  One day that leaf will pretend to be born again on the branch of another tree, but she is really just playing a game of hide and seek with us. (pg. 75)

This idea of “no birth, no death” is not unique to Thich Nhat Hanh.  The Perfection of Wisdom series of sutras talk a lot about this, including the Heart Sutra, where we see passages such as:

Listen Shariputra,
all dharmas are marked with emptiness.
They are neither produced nor destroyed,
neither defiled nor immaculate,
neither increasing nor decreasing.  (trans. Thich Nhat Hanh)

Not surprisingly you see this kind of teaching a lot in Zen, and to some degree in Shingon Buddhism as well, but I find it has a kind of universal appeal.   Next he writes:

…It is not only the Buddha who pretends to be born and to enter nirvana, we also pretend to be born, to live for a while, and to pass away.  You may think that your mother has passed away and is no longer here with you.  But her passing away was just a pretense, and one day, when the causes and conditions are sufficient, she will reappear in one form or another. (pg. 75-76)

 Something we can all appreciate. 🙂