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.


A Look At Nichiren and the Three-Thousand Realms

One of the major principles that represent Nichiren Buddhism, is a teaching called ichinen-sanzen (一念三千) which means something like “One Thought Contains A Thousand Worlds”.  I’ve heard this concept before bandied about in discussion, but I didn’t really understand what it meant.

In the book Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism published by the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of San Jose, the teaching is explained like so:

Ichinen Sanzen is the theoretical formulation of the main teaching of the Lotus Sutra according to the Tendai school of Buddhism, which Nichiren Shonin studied and practiced before declaring his own teachings.  Like the Three Truths, Ichinen Sanzen is a way of expressing the dynamic and interdependent nature of life to which the Buddha awakened. (pg 61)

The term was originally devised by the founder of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism Zhiyi (538–597) and popularized outside of Tendai by Nichiren.  The “Three-Thousand Worlds” above are comprised of:

  • The Ten Worlds of existence
  • Mutual possession of the ten worlds, but other worlds (e.g. each realm contains each other realm)
  • The Ten Factors of existence
  • The Three Realms

The book breaks it down like so.  The Ten Worlds are the sum total of Buddhist cosmology and represent the ten possible states of existence sentient beings can experience:

  1. Hell – endless suffering, hatred, bitterness, despair
  2. Hungry Ghosts – endless cravings, addiction, etc.
  3. Animals – elementary desires, basic instincts
  4. Asuras (fighting demons) – arrogance, conflict, anger, strife
  5. Humans – morality, reason
  6. Devas (heavenly beings) – bliss, joy (albeit still impermanent)
  7. Shravakas (voice-hearers) – the world according to the Four Noble Truths
  8. Pratyekabuddha (private-buddhas) – the world as seen through Dependent Origination
  9. Bodhisattvas (seekers of full awakening) – the world as seen through compassion and endeavor to complete the Six Perfections.
  10. Buddhas – complete and serene awakening.

The worlds highlighted in bold represent the traditional six realms of rebirth, the six realms that a being could conceivably be reborn in.  The remaining four represent specific states of mind, or milestones, in the Buddhist path.

As stated earlier, the second “10” is the fact that each world possesses one another.  They are not mutually exclusive to one another.  For example, a bodhisattva is motivated by compassion for beings suffering in Hell, and so on.  So, each world is said to “contain” each other world.

The Ten Factors, meanwhile, are a list mentioned in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and are used to describe all phenomena in existence, and what they consist of:

  1. Appearance
  2. Nature
  3. Entity
  4. Power
  5. Activity
  6. Causes
  7. Conditions
  8. Effects
  9. Consequences
  10. Unity

Finally, what are the Three Realms?  Simply put, these are individual, community and the land itself.  As Lotus Seeds explains:

These Three Realms show that the one thousand worlds are present in and manifest themselves through all things without exception.  That is, the possibilities that they point to are possessed by individuals, communities, and even non-human and inanimate phenomena. (pg. 70)

The concept of ichinen-sanzen paints a very fluid, and dynamic picture of the world we live in, and also reinforces that we are contributing to this one way or another through our words, thoughts and deeds.

Rocking Out in Utsunomiya, Part Two

In our last adventure, we visited a famous rock-quarry in Utsunomiya, Japan during my last visit there.  That same day we were treated by a visit to a temple I hadn’t seen in more than 10 years: Ōya-ji Temple (大谷寺).  This temple, part of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism, is close to the rock-quarry mentioned in my last post ( 5 minutes by car? ) and is famous for being a temple built into a rock wall, including the interior walls of the temple.¹

I visited this temple in 2009 I think, but knew very little about Buddhism and Japan back then, so although I took a couple photos, I had no idea where I was, and what the significance of the temple is.  It was nice to finally see it again, and appreciate it more.



This is the main entrance. As you can see, it’s built into the rock face. Behind this entrance is a Buddhist altar devoted to Kannon Bodhisattva with 1,000 arms. Unfortunately, like many Japanese temples, they do not allow photos, so I didn’t take a photo inside.

Similarly, after you walk past the main altar, is a small indoor cave, with images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carved.  There are three Buddhist “trinities” there:²

Again, though, photos aren’t allowed, so I can’t post any.  :-/

However, the temple also had a couple other features.  First, there was a museum dedicated to local relics from the area, including an 11,000 year old skeleton of a prehistoric man. Sadly, with all the kids running around (particularly my own), I didn’t get to take a photo of that either.

But the visit concluded with a nice view of this shrine in the middle of a pond, dedicated to Benzaiten (弁財天), a goddess of music and arts:


The white snake is a symbol of Benzaiten, as is the lute. The shrine on the island was small but lovely, especially at sunset:


This plaque below explains the origins of the symbolism of Benzaiten and the white snake based on a local legend. 


Finally, after touring the temple we went across the street to another attraction: an outdoor park with a massive stutue of Kannon Bodhisattva called the Heiwa Kannon (平和観音) or “Kannon of Peace”. If memory serves, this was carved after the War, so it’s a modern work of art. 


You can even climb to the top and enjoy a nice view of the countryside. 


The following morning, we enjoyed an excellent ramen and gyoza pitsticker lunch with the extended family before heading back to the Tokyo area:


Ursunomiya is a fascinating area to visit because of its past and because it’s off the beaten path. It’s location near the hills and mountains gives it a local history that you don’t find in more touristy areas. I always enjoy coming here. 

¹ You can see the Japanese Wikipedia article here.

² In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhas are frequently flanked by two “attendant” bodhisattvas forming a kind of “trinity”.

A Brief Look At Edo Period Buddhism in Japan


A while back I read a fascinating book on the life of a famous Japanese monk named Tetsugen who was a prominent figure in the Obaku Zen school. The book also provides a helpful look at Japanese Buddhism during the pre-modern Edo Period also called the Tokugawa Period.

Not much is written in English about Buddhism at this time in Japan. Instead, most writings focus on the much earlier Kamakura Period and Heian Period because of the charismatic founders that loved back then: Honen, Nichiren, Shinran, Dogen, Kukai and Saicho. Some books also imply that by the Edo Period Buddhism, now firmly under state control became moribund and corrupt. The rise of Neo-Confucianism at this time also helped to overshadow and even undermine Buddhism.

However, recently I finished a couple books that helped change my view on this:

So this is a brief look at Buddhist institutions at the time.

Parochial “Danka” System

After 100+ years of civil war in Japan, the victorious Bakufu (幕府) government ran a tightly-controlled, military society designed to prevent any further warfare. Stability was critically important. This was not only to prevent attacks from samurai armies, but also peasant rebellions such as the famous “ikko-ikki” rebellion, and also monastic armies such as Enryakuji on Mount Hiei.

The new government used many tools to help control society, and one of those was religion. As I posted before, the new Neo-Confucian teachings from China became popular, but also Buddhist institutions became tools of state control, using the danka (檀家) system, or “parochial” system.

Japanese Buddhism held a monopoly on funerals and death rites because Shinto considered death to be polluting, while Confucianism was focused on this world. Thus, the new bakufu used this to their advantage and passed new laws requiring all Japanese citizens to register their family at the Buddhist temple of their choice (terauke 寺請). This became a contentious issue for Japanese Christians in the Western regions, leading ultimately to the disastrous Shimabara Rebellion.

This also strongly affected Buddhist institutions as well as monastic institutions were co-opted by the state to track citizens, but also created strong ties between temples and local parishes. Interestingly, this danka system still exists today, though it’s quickly evolving in modern times.

Rise of Scholar Buddhism

One side-benefit of this danka/terauke system often ignored until recently was that it de-politicized Buddhist institutions and led to a scholarly “revival”. As we saw in the case of the famous Zen monk Tetsugen, many monks were rediscovering their own schools and teachings, and doing research that had been neglected in the centuries of warfare and political instability.

The increase in scholastic Buddhism also led to an increased demand for Buddhist texts, which until then were obscure or preserved only in rare hand-copied versions. Unlike mainland Asia, which had developed block-printing centuries earlier, Japan did not use block-printing to mass-produce Buddhist texts until the middle of the Edo Period. Although Tetsugen was not the first, the efforts of his students helped bring a flourishing of Buddhist resources.

But what’s remarkable about the Edo Period in general is the explosion of literature. Japanese society as a whole, not just monks, became very literate and the demand for books of all subjects also increased.


Yet another side-effect of the danka/terauke system was the increasing sectarianism between Buddhist sects that persists today. Whereas mainland Asia tended to merge various strands of Buddhism into a single cohesive religion, the Bakufu’s system of control prevented this. Instead, various Buddhist schools were encouraged to “stand out”, but promoting their own system, their own teachers, their own temple network and their own history. This coincided with the scholarly revival, but also forced a clean division between Buddhist sects that might have otherwise merged over time.

As with the danka/terauke system overall, this too is gradually changing, and it is more common to see temples that blend practices such as a Pure Land temple holding meditation classes, but still when compared to Korea, which unified Buddhism under Jinul and the Jogye Order around the same time, Buddhism in Japan is considerably more sectarian and plays out today even in overseas communities.1

Popular Buddhism

In addition to monastic communities in Edo-Period Japan, popular religion also flourished and became an important part of daily life for Japanese both in the countryside and in the urban settings. For example, the constant moving back and forth of the samurai class meant that remote temples often established branch temples in the capital of Edo. In time, Edo became a very religiously diverse place, drawing sects and teachings from all over Japan.

Additionally, pilgrimages to remote locations were very popular. Among the most popular Shinto shrines for pilgrimages were Mount Kumano, Konpira shrine in Shikoku and the Ise Grand Shrine.

Buddhist pilgrimages were popular too, even if they were often an excuse people to relax, and let their hair down. Among the most popular were:

  • The Shikoku 88 sites pilgrimage associated with Kukai, which is still very popular to this day. Due to the cost and luxury of the trip, abbreviated versions appeared in places like Edo.
  • Shinran’s 24 holy sites of Pure Land Buddhism. This pilgrimage was comparatively more solemn and not popular with beggars who would otherwise line up along pilgrimage roads and make considerable profit.

Many of the traditions that surround popular Buddhist holidays celebrated today in Japan, such as Hanamatsuri, had their roots in Edo period popular religious trends.


Far from being moribund, Japanese Buddhism in the Edo Period was a tightly-regulated, but stable and flourishing institution that developed a mass appeal and scholarly revival not found in previous generations. Modern Buddhism has many roots that grew out of the Edo Period, and although times have changed, the echoes of the past can still be seen in the Buddhist community today.

1 I never really grasped this until I visited a local Vietnamese Buddhist temple which was so familiar in some ways, yet so different.

Seriously, what is a Bodhisattva? Part Two

In part one, we talked about the evolution of the “bodhisattva” from the original meaning to the broader definition found in Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhism from Tibet through China to Korea and Japan. In this post, we’ll explore how Mahayana Buddhism defines a bodhisattva through the sutras and other crucial writings.

To summarize from part one: a bodhisattva is one who seeks achieve full Buddhahood, in order to liberate others from the aimless wandering of Samsara, and the endless frustrations it brings.

As the 10th century text, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana1 succinctly explains:

The Buddha-Tathāgatas, while in the stages of Bodhisattva-hood, exercised great compassion, practiced pāramitās, and accepted and transformed sentient beings. They took great vows, desiring to liberate all sentient beings through countless aeons until the end of future time, for they regarded all sentient beings as they regarded themselves. (pg. 67, trans. Yoshito Hakeda)

Let’s take a look at each one of these traits:

The Bodhi Mind

As stated above, the “bodhi mind” is what marks the turning point in one’s path as a Buddhist away from a self-centered practice toward liberation into aspiration to rescue all beings and become an enlightened Buddha. As the Sutra of the Ten Stages (chapter 26 of the Flower Garland Sutra) explains:

“Now then, in beings who have well-developed roots of goodness, who have done their tasks well, who have accumulated provisions for the Path, who have attended buddhas in the world, who have consolidated pure practices, who are in the care of spiritual friends, who have thoroughly purified their intentions, who have great determination, who are endowed with supreme zeal, and who actualize pity and compassion, the aspiration for enlightenment is aroused….for the salvation of all beings, for the purification of great mercy and compassion, for the attainment of knowledge of all in the ten directions, for the unobstructed purification of all buddha-lands, for awareness of past, present, and future in a single instant, and for expertise in turning the wheel of the great Teaching [the Dharma]. (pg. 703, Cleary)

Thus, the awakening of the Bodhi Mind isn’t something a person decides so much, as a kind of maturation of one’s progress along the path. In the Lotus Sutra starting in chapter five, the Buddha’s chief disciples including Shariputra and Maha-kashyapa have a change of heart and resolved to achieve full buddhahood. Thus they are examples of disciples who have crossed the threshold from being a noble disciple or arhat, to the Bodhisattva path.

Fulfillment of the Six Perfections

The six perfections, or pāramitās in Sanskrit, are six virtues that a bodhisattva must master to become a Buddha. For example in the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it states:

For the sake of the bodhisattvas he [the Buddha, Sun Moon Bright] responded by expounding the six paramitas, causing them to gain supreme perfect enlightenment and to acquire the wisdom that embraces all species.

The list, in summary is:

  • generosity
  • moral conduct
  • patience/forbearance
  • effort
  • contemplation
  • wisdom

Here, the idea is more than just being generous and living a clean life; it implies total commitment. Even when one is normally acting generous, typically there is a trace of selfish intent behind it, or one’s ego relishes in one’s own accomplishments in moral conduct. Therefore, while this kind of generosity or moral conduct is good, and encouraged for Buddhists, it is not the “complete”. One has not mastered these virtues. As Professor Conze explains:

When giving, for instance, one [who has perfected the virtue of generosity] gives without grasping at any ideas concerning the gift, its recipient, or the reward which may accrue to oneself. Likewise one is patient without any idea of patience, or of oneself as being patient, or of the one who gives an opportunity to be patient. (pg. 215, Buddhist Thought in India)

In the Sutra of the Ten Stages, which is chapter 26 of the Flower Garland Sutra, the stages that a bodhisattva accomplishes are called bhūmi (“grounds”) in Sanskrit. Professor Conze points out in Buddhist Thought in India how the first six stages are described in very elaborate terms similar to the six perfections, plus four more:

  1. Joy – Generosity
  2. Purity – Moral Conduct
  3. Refulgence – Patience/forbearance
  4. Blazing – Effort
  5. Difficult to Conquer – Contemplation
  6. Presence – Wisdom
  7. Far-Going – Skillful Means
  8. Immovable – Resolution
  9. Good Mind – Spiritual Powers
  10. Cloud of Teaching – Knowledge/Teaching of the Buddhas

In either case though, the perfection of even one virtue, let alone all of them, is implied to take eons. Along the way, the bodhisattva accumulates countless, overwhelming good merit while assisting and teaching the Dharma to others people, but the actual completion of one stage to the next (i.e. completing one virtue, moving onto the next) is described as VERY long: three asaṃkhyeya kalpas, or three massive eons. In a literal interpretation, this would take trillions of years of time.2

This is why later Buddhist sects, particularly the esoteric schools, tried to tackle this issue by finding a shorter path. Also, as the Awakening of Faith points out, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas often try to help people along the way too:

…for the sake of weak-willed men, they [the Bodhisattvas] show how to attain perfect enlightenment quickly by skipping over the stages [of the Bodhisattva]. And sometimes, for the sake of indolent men, they say that men may attain enlightenment at the end of numberless aeons (pg. 87, trans Yoshito Hakeda)

Thus, how long or how short the Bodhisattva Path takes may depend on the individual, as well as on the grace of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Vows to Save All Beings

Probably the most widely-known feature of the bodhisattva is their determination to assist all beings. As the Golden Light Sutra epitomizes:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.” (trans. FPMT)

Some of the most well-known Bodhisattvas in traditional Buddhism are paragons of this sentiment to help others. For example, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (a.k.a. “Jizō”), made the following vow in the Earth-store Bodhisattva Sutra:

The Brahman girl [Ksitigarbha] awoke as from a dream. She realized the situation and then made a great vow in front of the stupa and image of the ENLIGHTENMENT-FLOWER-SERENITY-SELF-SOVEREIGNTY-KING TATHAGATA: `May I, through all future kalpas [aeons], provide extensive expediencies for the deliverance and liberation of all sinful, suffering beings.`

Later, Shakyamuni Buddha entrusts Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva with the care and salvation of all sentient beings until the coming of the next Buddha: Maitreya.

Further, well-known Buddhas such as the Medicine Buddha and Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, made great vows to assist others during their stage as a Bodhisattva. In the Medicine Buddha Sutra is the following quote:

Manjushri, when the World-Honored Medicine Buddha was treading the Bodhisattva path, he solemnly made Twelve Great Vows to grant sentient beings whatever they desired.

These vows included not just material things like health and goods, but also confidence in the Dharma, strength to maintain the precepts, and encouragement to seek rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land.

Similarly, when Amitabha Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he made 48 vows before a Buddha named Lokesvararaja to create a refuge for all beings (i.e. the Pure Land), and to allow beings to be reborn there even if they merely uttered his name, as described in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

I have made vows, unrivaled in all the world;
I will certainly reach the unsurpassed Way.
If these vows should not be fulfilled,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

If I should not become a great benefactor
In lives to come for immeasurable kalpas
To save the poor and the afflicted everywhere,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment. (trans. Inagaki)

Shakyamuni Buddha then explains to Ananda that Amitabha Buddha fulfilled his vows 10 eons (kalpas) ago, and thus the Pure Land was established as a refuge for all beings.

In Conclusion

As we can see from traditional Mahayana Buddhist literature, the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s long quest for enlightenment became the archetypal story behind many other Buddhist figures. Whether Amitabha Buddha really did exist 10 kalpas ago or not is less important than the repeated themes found among all bodhisattvas, including Shakyamuni. These are the quest for enlightenment, the resolution to help others along the way, and the perfection of Buddhist virtues.

In part three, we’ll explore the implications of all this in contemporary Buddhism. Thanks for reading!

1 The Awakening of Faith is probably the best example of a pre-modern “text-book” on Mahayana Buddhism. While it reflects mid-to-late Mahayana Thought, and is likely of Chinese, not Indian origin, it does a great job synthesizing various concepts in Mahayana Buddhism into a more straightforward, succinct text. Sadly, the text is not well known in modern Buddhism, and few translations exist. Hakeda’s translation is the best, in my humble opinion.

2 The Known Universe is about 15 billion years if that gives you any idea of the scale. Granted, ancient Indians were not aware of modern astronomy, but clearly they wanted to convey a strong sense of scale in there undertaking of the Bodhisattva Path.

Anyone Can Do It

Here in Seattle, we are getting excited for the Super Bowl, the yearly football championship. Our local team, the Seattle Seahawks, have only been to the Super Bowl once before (and they lost), so people here are quite excited. Everywhere you go, people are wearing blue, green and silver, and my daughter can’t wait for the game to start. We went grocery shopping earlier so we could get pizza and other snacks before the game.

But I think there’s another reason to celebrate: one of the players, Derrick Coleman, is one of the first deaf players in football.

Derrick Coleman has been deaf since he was 3 years old, and people told him to give up, but he kept trying and trying, and now he is a star player in the Super Bowl. What a wonderful story, don’t you think?

The lesson of this story is that all people have potential to be great. They just have to keep trying.

It reminds me of the Buddhist text called the Lotus Sutra (Hokkekyō 法華経 in Japanese, beophwa gyeong 법화경/法華經 in Korean). The message throughout the Lotus Sutra is that anyone, everyone can become a Buddha (become fully enlightened). Some of the stories are intended to surprise the reader, because it was written at a time when Indian culture was very patriarchal. For example, in Chapter 13, the Buddha assures his mother-in-law, Mahaprajapati, and his wife, Yashodhara, that they will both become fully-enlightened Buddhas in the future.

In chapter 12, there is a scene where the Dragon Princess tells everyone that she will become a Buddha immediately. Everyone is surprised and skeptical since she is a young girl, is non-human, etc. But then she accomplishes her goal instantly.

The Lotus Sutra isn’t intended to be historically accurate; it teaches important lessons through dramatic stories and legendary characters, and the lesson here is that everyone has potential to be great, and it’s important not to discourage or criticize others.

There are other kids out there like Derrick Coleman who need encouragement, not discouragement. There are men and women who have given up because they don’t have confidence. But if they just try, and keep trying, then they will succeed. You can help mentor people like that and give them hope.

So, regardless of who wins the Super Bowl, people like Derrick Coleman have already won. 🙂

Update: Seattle won the Super Bowl! It is a good day to be in Seattle. We crushed our opponents and won the championship for the first time in team-history. We have redemption. 🙂