A New Chapter

Dear Readers,

Recently I have come to some crucial decisions that affect the blog and the youtube channel.

It began in the early summer when I took an interest in Tendai Buddhist teachings, but later due to a chance meeting, I realized that Tendai Buddhism was right for me. It was first time in many years where I felt all my internal doubts and contradictions about certain aspects of Buddhism were finally reconciled and it “just made sense”.

I assumed that this would go away in a few weeks or months, but so far that hasn’t been the case. In fact, I have decided to pursue the Tendai path exclusively maybe with the hope of becoming a priest some day. Tendai is really cool stuff, and it’s such a shame there aren’t more reliable sources in English about it.

However, this also means changes too. I have come to realize that I understand Buddhism a lot less than I thought I did. Much of this blog and its 10-year history1 has been fueled by2 long-standing contradictions I felt about my experiences with Pure Land Buddhism, particularly Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Sure, I learned a bunch of stuff over the years as a result of that sense of contradiction, and sure, leaving Jodo Shinshu to be an “independent Buddhist” in recent years has been nice, but there’s also something to be said for structured training and education too. Cherry-picking what you like and what you agree with is like a nice, warm blanket, but it only gets you so far.

After meeting people who really live and breathe as Buddhists, I had to face the fact that having a bunch of historical facts and sutra knowledge in your head will only get you so far. You have to really apply it. Not as a weekend-warrior kind of thing, but you really got to make it a part of your life. There are some things in Buddhism that simply can’t be properly learned or explained until you’ve put them into practice first.

So, it’s time to start over as a Buddhist. I want to focus more on training and structured education for an extended period until I feel I can teach Buddhism in more professional manner. That means the blog is basically on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Comments will be turned off too a little later.

The Internet is littered with dead blogs, including dead Buddhist blogs. Some of which are/were quite good. I think it may be time to lay this one to rest as well. Maybe I’ll pick it up again in the future, maybe not. Time will tell. I have a lot of fond memories of this blog, its family memories, meeting readers face to face, posts about KPop and other odds and ends, but I also am really excited about the future, too.

Some parting bits of advice if I don’t pick up the blog again: remember that life is short. There are a lot of stupid things to waste your time on (including many things in Buddhism). Shed the unnecessary baggage, slow down and focus on the things that matter. Remember the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra. Know who your friends are, stop being a fake, always question yourself, and never stop learning.

Best Wishes,

1 The first post. Note, I did have a previous blog called the Level 8 Buddhist, but it was much of the same content and lasted maybe 3-4 years. I can’t quite remember why I deleted it other than I had posted something I regretted and that I was so sensitive to what the online community said that I felt I had to start over. Having had 10 years to look back, I realize now that the online Buddhist community is a small, and somewhat skewed representation of the much larger Buddhist community and that in the grand scheme of things, none of it really matters that much. If nothing else, age does bring with it wisdom and experience. 🙂

2 Another motivation was sharing much of what I learned about Japanese culture through my wife and our visits there yearly, but having visited almost every year since 2005, there isn’t much novelty to share anymore. Of course I love Japanese culture, but it feels like a well-worn pair of pants now, instead of something new and crisp. Very comfortable, but nothing remarkable to talk about.


Buddha Nature Everywhere

Recently, I had a good conversation with someone, and they taught me an interesting phrase in Japanese Buddhism:

san sen sō moku shitsu u busshō

I believe this means, if taken literally, “Mountains, rivers, grass and tree. All have buddha-nature”, however, I think that the 山川草木 is a metaphor for “all things”. So, this can mean “all things have buddha-nature”.

Something to ponder. 🙂

The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation by Zhiyi

Recently I obtained an English translation of a 6th century book by the famous Chinese Buddhist Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597), called the Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. This book focuses on meditation exercises called “calming and insight” meditation or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit. I mentioned another of Zhiyi’s works in a recent post, however compared to the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime which focuses on the mental states during meditation, this book is more focused on the practice in general.

Note that Zhiyi’s “Calming and Insight” meditation seems somewhat more formalized than “Zen” meditation, but in the introduction the translator notes that they are basically the same. However, the translator also notes that Zhiyi was likely drawing on knowledge of early Indian-Buddhist meditation at the time, and this manual is an attempt to compile this information into a single, accessible handbook.

Early in the manual, Zhiyi warns not to take these words lightly:

If one’s mind gauges the import of these words, then, in the blink of an eye, one’s qualities of wisdom and severance will become so great as to defy measurement and one’s spiritual understanding will become unfathomably deep.

If, however, one disingenuously seizes on passages out of context or, due to personal sentiments, distorts the instructions of the text, the the months and years will be needlessly drawn out while actual realization will have no basis for development. One’s circumstance then would be like that of the pauper who spends his time calculating the wealth of other men. (pg. 35)

The manual is pretty detailed about various aspects of meditation as a practice and how to make the most of them. For example in the first chapter on “Prerequisites” for practicing Calming and Insight meditation, Zhiyi lists five:

  1. Observing the Precepts purely (or if one has faltered, having sincerely repented and made amends)
  2. Proper sustenance – modest food and clothing, not being greedy.
  3. Suitable dwelling – quiet, remote and peaceful.
  4. Putting Responsibilities to Rest – excusing oneself from duties, hobbies, social activities, study, etc.
  5. Having good spiritual friends

In the next chapter, Zhiyi stresses the importance of renouncing sensual desire (form, taste, sound, etc) when engaging in calming-and-insight meditation. Zhiyi quotes from a number of sutras including something called the Dhyāna sutras.

In chapter three, Zhiyi talks about the well-known Five Hindrances in Buddhism, and how to overcome them. Karma Yeshe Ragye has a nice write-up on the Five Hindrances which I recommend, but there are plenty of other sources too.

Chapter Four onward is when Zhiyi delves into the meditation practice itself. He begins by detailing proper posture, how to make adjustments to that posture during meditation, what kinds of things to be mindful of or visualize, different kinds of breathing exercises one can do and so on. The text even covers what to do when meditation doesn’t seem to be working, or one becomes afflicted with strange “ailments” during meditation. A lot of this delves into medical knowledge at the time that would seem frankly primitive now, but it does delve into the kinds of vague physical issues one might have during meditation.

The final chapter then covers the fruits of meditation and what one can expect through dedicated practice.

The book is a comprehensive guide for calming-and-insight meditation, and covers just about every aspect one could think of. It definitely assumes that one is serious about the practice and not just doing it to “relax” or anything like that. It is a pretty amazing piece of work, and a pretty invaluable reference for anyone who wants to take meditation practice to the next level.

Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only

Hi all,

Recently I had a fun conversation with Buddhist teacher, and this teacher shared some interesting Buddhist texts for me to read. This one is a Buddhist poem by the famous Indian Buddhist Vasubandhu who was an important, early figure in the venerable Yogacara school of Buddhism. It is also called the “Consciousness Only” school.

This text is called the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā (Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only) or in Japanese Buddhism the yuishiki sanjōju (唯識三十頌).

The English translation is as follows:

From the delusion of self and dharmas,
Comes the conveyence of various manifestations;
These are supported and transformed by consciousness,
And there are only three of these which may transform.

These are retribution, thought,
And the perception of external objects.
The first of these is the Ālaya Consciousness,
Which is retribution as well as all the seeds.

Its grasping, location, and knowing are imperceivable,
And it is always associated with mental contact,
Attention, sensation, conception, and thought;
It is associated with neither pleasure nor pain.

It is undefiled and morally indeterminate;
Mental contact and the others are also like this.
Its conveyence is like that of a flowing stream,
And it is abandoned in the stage of the arhat.

Next is the second which is able to transform,
And this consciousness is called Manas.
It is supported by the previous conveyence,
And its character and nature are that of thought.

It is always associated with the four vexations,
Which are delusion of a self, perception of a self,
Identity with a self, and love of a self,
As well as mental contact and the others.

It is defiled and morally indeterminate,
And its location is bound to that of life.
In the Nirodha Samāpatti of the arhats,
And in the Supramundane Path, it does not exist.

Next is the third which is able to transform,
Which is distinguished into six different divisions;
Its appearance and nature are perceiving external objects,
And these may be good, bad, or indeterminate.

It is associated with omnipresent mental activities,
With the external objects, the good, the vexations,
The secondary vexations, and the undetermined,
And it is associated with all three feelings.

Omnipresent mental activities are mental contact, etc.;
Next are those with objects, which are desires,
Determination, mindfulness, samādhi, wisdom, etc.,
And the object of each of these is not the same.

The good are faith, conscience, a sense of shame,
The three roots such as desirelessness, etc.,
And also vigor, peacefulness, vigilance,
Equanimity, and harmlessness.

The vexations are desire, hatred,
Delusion, pride, doubt, and wrong views.
The secondary vexations are anger,
Hostility, obscuration, anger, jealousy, greed,

Deceit, harmful flattery, arrogance,
Lack of shame, lack of conscience,
Acting upon agitations, torpor,
A lack of faith, laziness,

Negligence as well as forgetfulness,
Distraction, and incorrect knowing.
The undetermined are remorse, sleep,
And both types of initial and sustained thought.

With their basis in the root consciousness,
The five consciousnesses manifest according to conditions;
These manifestations may occur together or separately,
Just as waves are formed upon the water.

The thought consciousness always manifests
Except for those born in the heavens of no-thought,
For those in the two samādhis without thought,
And for those who are drowsy or unconsciousness.

These various consciousnesses are transformed
As discrimination and that which is discriminated,
And with this basis they are all empty—
Thus they are all Consciousness Only.

Through the consciousness of all seeds,
There are such-and-such transformations,
And from the power of this conveyence,
This-and-that are produced by discrimination.

Due to the habit energy of various actions,
Along with the habit energy of dualistic grasping,
Even when earlier retributions are exhausted,
Still the renewed arising of retribution occurs.

From this and that imagination,
One imagines all kinds of objects;
These pervasive imagined objects
Are without actual self-nature.

From the self-nature of interdependence
Comes discrimination arising from conditions;
The perfection of the fruit comes from
Always being apart from the former nature.

Therefore in relation to the interdependent,
It is neither different nor is it not different,
Just like the nature of impermanence, etc.,
And when one is not perceived, the other is.

On the basis of the three kinds of self-nature
Is established the threefold absence of self-nature;
Thus the Buddha spoke with the hidden intent
That all dharmas are without nature.

The first is the naturelessness of characteristics,
The next is the naturelessness of self-existence;
The last is the detachment from the first,
When the natures of self and dharmas are grasped.

This is the ultimate truth of all dharmas,
And it is also the same as True Suchness.
Because its nature is eternally so,
It is the true nature of Consciousness Only.

So long as one has not given rise to the consciousness
Which seeks to abide in the nature of Consciousness Only,
Then regarding the two types of grasping dispositions,
He is still not yet able to subdue and extinguish them.

Setting up and establishing even something small
And saying this is the nature of Consciousness Only,
Because there is still something which is grasped,
It is not truly abiding in Consciousness Only.

When one regards that which is conditioned
With the wisdom of total non-appropriation,
Then at that time one abides in Consciousness Only,
Apart from the duality of grasping at appearances.

Without grasping and not conceptualizing—
This is the wisdom of the supramundane realm
Which abandons the coarseness of duality
And naturally attains transformation of the basis.

This itself is the realm of no outflows,
Inconceivable, good, and eternal,
The peaceful and blissful body of liberation,
And what the great Muni called the Dharma.

Translated from Taishō Tripiṭaka volume 31, number 1586, translator unknown.

A few terms here are unique to Yogacara Buddhism, and I have an explanation posted here.


The Bodhisattva Precepts in Tendai Buddhism

One of the more unusual features of the Japanese Tendai sect of Buddhism compared to its parent Tiantai sect in China, is how it approaches monastic discipline.

The Tiantai sect uses the traditional 250 precepts for monks (348 for nuns) called the Prathimoksa or in Chinese si fen lü (四分律). For devoted lay followers the Five Precepts are upheld.

The Tendai sect during the time of Saicho the founder, made an explicit choice to not use the si fen lu precepts and instead chose to use the Bodhisattva Precepts. In Japanese these are called the endonkai (円頓戒, “perfect precepts”) or daijōkai (大乗戒)

The Bodhisattva Precepts are defined in a Buddhist text called the Brahma Net Sutra.1 The sutra lists Ten Major and 48 minor precepts that bodhisattva disciples were expected to follow. However, typically the Bodhisattva Precepts are only the ten major precepts:

  1. Not to take life, or induce others to take life
  2. Not to steal
  3. Not to have sex
  4. Not to tell lies
  5. Not to sell intoxicants
  6. Discussing the faults of the Sangha (Buddhist community)
  7. Praising oneself and criticizing others
  8. Not to be stingy
  9. Not to harbor anger
  10. Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha)

Priests in the Tendai Order ordain in the Bodhisattva Precepts and not the Prathimoksa precepts.

In the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, the author explores the question of why the Tendai school explicitly broke away from Buddhist convention. Other more established schools in Japan ordained their monks in the traditional way and Saicho was ordained that way too.

So why the break in tradition? Professor Groner hypothesized that Saicho was trying to distinguish the Tendai Order from their rivals, particularly the powerful Hossō (Yogacara) school which it had a difficult relationship with. By using a more “pure” Mahayana set of principles for its monastic order, Saicho meant to make his Order a more purely “Mahayana” school.

Further, Saicho argued that the original Prathimoksa rules were given by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, at a particular time and place. In contrast, the Bodhisattva Precepts are universal and suitable for all times and places.

It’s an interesting argument. Indeed, if you look in the Vinaya Pitaka where the Prathimoksa are defined, many rules were situational to address misconduct by various disciples. On the other hand, the some of the Bodhisattva Precepts are kind of vague and open to interpretation. Traditionally in China both precepts were administered: first the Prathimoksa and then the Bodhisattva Precepts on top of it. This covers both bases I suppose.

In any case, the choice by the Tendai to use the Bodhisattva precepts for ordination had a huge effect on Japanese Buddhism because many existing schools are offshoots of the Tendai: Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, Jodo Shu, Nichiren Shu and so on.

P.S. This article in Wikipedia that both Korean and Japanese Buddhism use the Bodhisattva Precepts but does not cite sources. More research required.

1 There are actually two entirely separate sutras of the same name, one in the Pali Canon (Theravada) and the Mahayana version. This is the latter.

One Vehicle Buddhism

Still reading the Japanese-language introduction to Tendai Buddhism called うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”). One thing the book talks about a lot is the Tendai-Buddhist concept of ichijō bukkyō (一乗仏教) or “one-vehicle Buddhism”.

The idea is not necessarily unique to Tendai though. In the Lotus Sutra, chapter two, the Buddha surprises all his followers by stating that all the different “vehicles” of Buddhism are in fact one vehicle because they all converge to the same endpoint anyway.

To clarify, Mahayana Buddhism has always listed three basic types of disciples:

  • Śravaka or “voice-hearers” (Japanese: shōmon, 声聞) – These are the students who “hear” the Buddha’s teachings and try to practice them in their life in order to attain liberation. Such people, if they attain awakening, would become arhats (or arahants) which means “noble ones”.
  • Pratyekabuddha or “private buddha” (Japanese: engaku, 縁覚) – these are beings who come upon the Dharma by the themselves and attain liberation. For whatever reason, they lack the capacity for teaching to others, hence they differ from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who had an active ministry.
  • Bodhisattva or “seeker of Enlightenment” (Japanese: bosatsu, 菩薩) – these are beings who seek Enlightement as part of a series of vows to liberate and help others. More on Bodhisattvas here.

In some Buddhist schools, these are seen as separate, distinct paths or “vehicles”, but the Lotus Sutra turns things on its head by saying that these ultimately converge anyway, so it’s really just one single path.

According to the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, this led to a very intense debate in China between the Tiantai and Faxiang schools, and this debate carried over in Japan too. Saicho from the Tendai school debated heavily with the Hosso (Faxiang / Yogacara) school particularly with a brilliant scholar-monk named Tokuitsu who defended the Hosso school’s Five Natures Doctrine.

Even today it’s still an interesting argument to consider: are there really three possible outcomes for Enlightenment or one? Is everybody destined to become a Buddha or only some?

The Pali Canon subtly implies that there are three vehicles, not one. But the Lotus Sutra asserts a more idealistic vision.

Which one do you think is right?

Tendai Buddhism and the Four Integrated Schools

Lately, as I continue my read of Tendai Buddhism in the Japanese-language introduction うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”), I was introduced to a concept called sōgōbukkyō (総合仏教) which means “integrated Buddhism”. Elsewhere the book uses the term shishūyūgō (四宗融合) which means something like “Blending the Four Schools Together”.

The idea in Tendai Buddhism is to bring together the four major practices into a single school. These are:

  • Meditation (禅)
  • The Pure Land (浄土)
  • Precepts (律)
  • Esotericism (密教)

The Tendai approach is that all of these schools are not mutually exclusive, but rather part of a larger path. A senior teacher or ajari (阿闍梨) will need to have training in all four2, but for a regular follower any one of them can be a starting point and a life-long practice.

All of these are united under the theoretical teachings in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra including “expedient means” and “one-vehicle buddhism” so there’s no conflict.

Further, in terms of sutras important to the Tendai tradition, it varies depending on which of the four traditions your talking about:

But also, as part of general Mahayana tradition, the Tendai school’s important sutras include the Flower Garland Sutra, the Sutra of Benevolent Kings, the Golden Light Sutra and of course the Lotus Sutra. Also, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way among others.

Anyhow, what’s interesting about the Tendai approach is that it is both broad and comprehensive. In my past experiences with certain Buddhist schools (not just one), I always felt pressure to “toe the line” and do things according to that particular school without mixing other things. Always the bugbear among some of the more orthodox people I met was blending other teachings and “causing confusion”. Because of my eclectic background, this always puts me in an awkward position and makes me only want to commit half-heartedly.

Whereas in Tendai, these approaches are given equal weight, and with a theoretical foundation (i.e. the Lotus Sutra) which I agree with anyway.

The more I’ve studied Buddhism over the years (why it’s become such an obsession I’ll never know), the more I’ve come to appreciate the whole thing.

Consider the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

However immeasurable the Buddha’s Teachings are, I earnestly aspire to comprehend them all.

However incomparable the Enlightened Mind is, I earnestly aspire to attain it by all means.

Mahayana Buddhism is big and messy sometimes, and suffers from constantly trying to one-up itself. However, Mahayana Buddhism also likes to think on a grand, cosmic scale, and thus meditation, the Pure Land, the Lotus Sutra, conduct and even esoteric Buddhism are all useful and important. None of these are the ineffable Dharma in and of itself, but each one is an expression of it.

Further, I also think people should have the freedom to choose and practice one or all of them without guilt or fear of orthodoxy. Granted, they need a well-trained teacher and some discipline at the outset, but each one of us comes into the world with a different background and different inclination so we naturally gravitate toward certain things. As long as the we’re all heading on the same long-term direction, that’s fine.

So, suffice to say I really appreciate the Tendai approach to integrated Buddhism.

1 This is one of things that makes Tendai differ from its parent Tiantai school, which focused exclusively on meditation and pure land practices. Monastic codes differed too, with the Chinese Tiantai following the traditional monastic model, and the Tendai school using the Bodhisattva Precepts instead.

2 Which makes sense if you think about it: a senior teacher needs adequate training and experience in order to teach others.