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.

The Kaikyoge: Verses for Opening A Sutra

Hello Dear Readers,

I’ve been somewhat preoccupied lately, but actively working on some projects behind the scenes.  In particular, I’ve been looking into how various Buddhist sects in Japan do home services.  Until I recently, when I left my old temple community, I really only knew one way to do it, and since then I’ve been exploring other paths again for the first time in ages.

One of the most common chants I’ve seen done in Japanese home services, and adapted into the West, is the Kaikyōge (開経偈) which can literally be translated as the “verse(s) for opening a sutra”.  This something recited before a home service, or a formal service in a temple, before one starts chanting a sutra.  It’s certainly not required, but I know from experience, and from the experience of others, that it helps put one in the right frame of mind before reading from the sutras.

In most Japanese-Buddhist sects (including Zen and Jodo Shu), the Kaikyoge is as follows:

無上甚深微妙法(mu jō jin jin mi myō hō)
百千万劫難遭遇(hyaku sen man gō nan sō gū)
我今見聞得受持(ga kon ken mon toku ju ji)
願解如来真実義(gan ge nyo rai shin jitsu gi)

An example translation I’ve read is:

The unsurpassed, profound and wondrous dharma is rarely met with, even in a hundred, thousand, million kalpas.  Now we can see and hear it, accept and maintain it.  May we unfold the meaning of the Tathagata’s truth.

Every sect has a slight different translation¹ but all of them basically say the same thing: that throughout the countless, countless eons of being born and reborn again over and over, the chance to encounter the Buddha’s teachings (i.e. the Dharma) is quite rare.  It only occurs when the right conditions line up, based on a variety of things, including past conduct in various past lives.  But the point being is: let’s not squander the opportunity for who knows when we might encounter it again?

Now, the one major exception to the verse above, is the Nichiren-Shu sect, which uses a somewhat different, longer verse:2


Mu jō jin jin mi myō no hō wa hyaku sen man gō ni mo aitate matsuru koto katashi.  Ware ima kenmonshi jujisuru koto wo etari, negawaku wa nyorai no dai ichi gi wo ge sen.  Shigoku no daijō shigi subekarazu. Kenmon sokuchi. Mina bodai ni chikazuku. Nōsen wa hōshin. Shosen wa hosshin. Shikiso no monji wa. Sunawachi kore ōjin nari. Muryō no kudoku. Mina kono kyō ni atsumareri. Kono yueni jizai ni. Myō ni kunji mitsu ni yakusu. Uchi muchi. Tsumi wo messhi zen wo shōzu. Moshi wa shin moshi wa hō. Tomo ni butsudō wo jōzen. Sanze no shōbutsu. Jinjin no myōden nari. Shōjōsese. Chigu shi chōdai sen.

With a translation from the Nichiren-Shu Liturgy book:

The most profound and wonderful teaching is presented in this sutra [the Lotus Sutra].  This sutra is difficult to meet even once in thousands and millions of aeons.  Now we have ben able to see, hear, receive and keep this sutra.  May we understand the most excellent teaching of the Tathagata!

The most excellent teaching of the Great Vehicle [Mahayana] is very difficult for us to understand.  We shall be able to approach enlightenment when we see, hear or touch this sutra.  Expounded is the Buddha’s truth.  Expounding is the Buddha’s essence.  The letters composing this sutra are the Buddha’s manifestation.

Just as perfume is caught by something put nearby, so shall we be richly benefited by this sura, even when we are not aware of being so benefited, because infinite merits are accumulated in this sutra.

Anyone can expiate his past transgressions, do good deeds, and attain Buddhahood by the merits of this sutra.  It does not matter whether he is wise or not, or whether he believes the sutra or rejects it.

This sutra is the most wonderful and most excellent taught by the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.  May we meet and receive it, birth after birth, world after world!

Regardless of what verse you choose to recite, there’s plenty of good reasons to recite a short verse of appreciation (doesn’t matter which language to use) before opening a sutra. After all, who knows when you might do so again?

¹ Even my old temple would recite it in English, though not in Japanese for some reason.  I never even know it was a fairly universal verse until exploring other sects.

2 originally found here, but confirmed elsewhere.

Learning Things The Hard Way

Sometimes you just learn things the hard way.  This video I made recently was kind of off-script, but I wanted to talk about some recent experiences I had with Zen.  My experiences so far have been fairly positive (besides the sore knee), but it’s also a matter of finding what’s right for you.

I’ve taken a break from Zen practice,¹ and have kind of dabbled in Jodo-Shu practices lately for various reasons outlined in the video.  I haven’t really quit anything, or committed to anything, but just seemed like the right thing to do for now.

Who knows where I’ll be next year, or even next week.  :p

P.S.  The photo above is one I took at Chion-in temple in Kyoto, Japan. The status is a young Honen, before he took tonsure.

¹ Which is kind of a shame since I had kept it up almost daily for 7 weeks.  Better than being a three-day monk.  ;p

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.  🙂



A Look At Rinzai Zen Home Services

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been looking recently at Japanese home services for various Buddhist sects.  In the case of some sects, these aren’t clearly explained in English, or differ somewhat between English and Japanese versions.

One example I wanted to share was for Rinzai Zen Buddhism, which admittedly I have been exploring more actively lately.¹  Japanese language sites so far seem to be pretty consistent about what a home service would look like in the Rinzai sect, though each of the lineages differs slightly.  The example here is from the Myoshin-ji lineage, which is one of the larger and most well-known.

The format is often:

  1. Verse for opening the sutra (kaikyōge 開経偈) – this short verse helps to set the right frame of mind when starting a home service, so it’s pretty helpful, and can be found almost universally in Buddhist home services.  The text may vary a bit, but they basically all say the same thing.
  2. The Heart Sutra (hannya shingyō 般若心経) – a sutra frequently associated with Zen teachings, but has almost universal popularity.
    • Another popular option is to recite a certain part of the Kannon Sutra (kannon gyō 観音経), which is the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. In particular the last verse-section of that chapter, called either the kannon sesongé (観音経世尊偈) or just sesongé (世尊偈) for short, is recited.
    • Or recite both.
  3. Recite one of a couple different dharanis:
    • The Dharani of Kannon Bodhisattva with 1000-arms and 1000-eyes. In Japanese this is called the daihishu (大悲咒) for short.
    • The Dharani Against Calamities.  I’ve personally seen this recited 3 times due to its brevity.
    • In both cases, the aim of the dharani is general protection of the Buddhist practitioner so they can be protected from obstructions and hassles, and thus be able to focus on the Buddhist path more easily.  Also, dharani are typically not translated, so they may sound like nonsensical syllables.  This is due to their origin in esoteric Buddhism.
  4. The Hymn of Zen by Zen master Hakuin (hakuin zenji zazen wasan 白隠禅師坐禅和讃).  Since all existing Rinzai lineages originate from Hakuin (1686 – 1768), it makes sense.  Plus the hymn does a nice job of summarizing Rinzai Zen teaching in a series simple verses.
  5. The Four Bodhisattva Vows (shigusei ganmon 四弘誓願文).  Since the practice of Buddhism is not just for one’s own benefit, but also for that of all sentient beings, this popular Buddhist verse is recited to reaffirm one’s commitment.

All of this is pretty optional, and you can add/remove things as needed.  Unlike some other sects, there is no required sutra that you must recite, but these are often the most common.

In some Rinzai Zen websites I’ve seen, the recommended service is as simple as:

Now, you might be asking yourself “hey, why is there no mention of meditation?”.  This is because meditation is separate from chanting and reciting.  Both serve an important purpose in Rinzai Zen (and any Zen), but they’re treated as different aspects.  Zen, above all else, is all about zazen-meditation.  As the Hymn above states, all other Buddhist practices come back to the practice of meditation, but in addition to meditation, Zen practitioners will often do services like this either for devotional reasons, or maybe to help foster wholesome karmic conditions that will help keep them on the path.²

Anyway, hope this helps.  Happy Zen’ning!

P.S.  If you’re feeling ambitious, and can read some Japanese, you can also get yourself a home Rinzai Zen service kit on Amazon JP.

P.P.S.  I am probably going to make similar posts for other Japanese Buddhist sects as well.  My next goal is Jodo Shu Buddhism.  Stay tuned.

¹ For whatever reason, I found that I have never really resonated with Soto Zen.  I know Soto Zen has more resources in the West, but I find I can’t maintain any interest in it, and so far my experiences with Soto have been less than positive.  Although Rinzai resources in the West are fewer, I have generally had more positive experiences.

² Really, both reasons go hand in hand anyway.  It’s not worth splitting hairs over.

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.

Mindfulness Works

There are plenty of articles on the Internet explaining the benefits of meditation, including Buddhist mindful meditation, but I felt this article was particularly interesting, because it explains why the alternative (a wandering mind) can be harmful.  The idea is that the wandering mind builds up all sorts of anxiety and unease that may have no actual connection to real-life, but tends to take on a life of its own within our minds.  If left unchecked, this can make us suffer when there’s no need for us to.

Although I haven’t been very diligent about meditation in the past, I found this article made a lot of sense for me.  I found that when I get really worked up about something, it helps to stop and take a deep breath for a moment, and just take a moment to pay attention to whatever I’m doing.

Certainly better than the alternative… 😉