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… 😉

Hakuin’s Hymn of Zen

Hi All,

I was doing a bit of research lately on various kinds of Japanese-Buddhist home services by sect, known informally in Japanese as otsutomé (お勤め) or more formally as gongyō (勤行).  While looking at the Rinzai Zen services in particular, I encountered something I had never seen before called Song of Zen by the 17th-century Zen master Hakuin.  The actual name in Japanese for this “song” seems to be the zazen wasan (坐禅和讃) or hakuin zenshi zazen wasan (白隠禅師坐禅和讃).  The term “wasan” probably would be better translated as “hymn”,¹ so for the sake of this post, I call it the Hymn of Zen.

But enough about linguistics, what the heck is it?

This is a kind of Buddhist hymn composed by Hakuin that explains Zen teachings in a simple, accessible series of verses.  Unlike more traditional Japanese-Buddhist writing which uses Sino-Japanese writing (that is Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciation), this hymn was composed in more vernacular Japanese for easy readability by followers.

The translation below is by Trevor Legget (Japanese version can be found on Wikipedia for reference):

All beings are from the very beginning Buddhas.

It is like water and ice:

Apart from water, no ice,

Outside living beings, no Buddhas.

Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar.

What a pity!

It is like one in the water who cries out for thirst;

It is like the child from a rich house

Who has strayed away among the poor.

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

Is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance.

Dark path upon dark path treading.

When shall we escape from birth-and-death?

The Zen meditation of the Mahayana

Is beyond all praise.

Giving and morality and the other perfections,

Taking of the name, repentance, discipline,

And the many other right actions,

All come back to the practice of meditation.

By the merit of a single sitting

He destroyed innumerable accumulated sins.

How should there be wrong paths for him?

The Pure Land paradise is not far.

When in reverence this truth is heard even once,

He who praises it and gladly embraces it

Has merit without end.

How much more he who turns within

And confirms directly his own nature,

That his own nature is no-nature –

Such has transcended vain words.

The gate opens, and cause and effect are one;

Straight runs the way – not two, not three.

Taking as form the form of no-form,

Going or returning, he is ever at home.

Taking as thought the thought of no-thought,

Singing and dancing, all is the voice of truth.

Wide is the heaven of boundless Samadhi,

Radiant the full moon of the fourfold wisdom.

What remains to be sought?

Nirvana is clear before him,

This very place the Lotus Paradise,

This very body the Buddha.

The references to the Lotus Paradise and Pure Land allude to the Pure Land of Shakyamuni Buddha as described in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which Hakuin was deeply devoted to since his youth.


¹ See for example Shinran’s Hymns of the Pure Land (jōdo wasan, 浄土和讃) composed in the 13th century.  These short, melodious hymns are usually chanted during the end of reciting the Shoshinge in Jodo Shinshu services.  Speaking from experience.

The Importance of Buddhist Texts

While cleaning out the bookshelf at home, I was thumbing through the writings of the famous Korean monk, Jinul (지눌, 知訥, 1158–1210), in Tracing Back the Radiance.  I found some great quotes in his greatest work, the Excerpts from the Dharma Collection and Special Practice Record with Personal Notes (법집별항록절요병입사기, 法集別行錄節要幷入私記, beopjip pyeolhaeng nok cheolyo byeongip sagi).

In his preface, Jinul writes:

I have observed that people of the present time who are cultivating their minds do not depend on the guidance of the written teachings, but straightaway assume that the successive transmission of the esoteric idea [of Seon Buddhism] is the path.  They then sit around dozing with their minds in a haze, their labors all in vain, or else they lose their presence of mind in agitation and confusion during their practice of meditation.  For these reasons, I feel you should follow words and teachings which were expounded in accordance with reality in order to determine the proper procedure in regard to awakening and cultivation.  Once you mirror your own minds, you may contemplate with insight at all times, without wasting any of your efforts. (pg. 151-152, trans. by Professor Robert Buswell)

This reminds me of the words of Dogen, where Dogen states that the sutras and texts are there to orient the student of Buddhism toward the correct path.  Sometimes, you hear some Buddhists today disregarding Buddhist sutras and texts as crusty, ancient, while insisting that they need meditation or faith alone.  But the words of Jinul and Dogen are a reminder that such self-confidence is a surefire way to go off the rails.

The Buddhist path is not a trivial path, but it’s systematic, well-organized and reproducible for those willing to invest the time, and willing to set aside ego.

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!

A Brave New World

So, recently one night, I had a quiet moment in my life and spent some time reflecting back on the last six months, starting with the last weeks at my old temple, my resignation, and subsequent efforts to find a new path, new projects, etc.  It’s been a more difficult transition than I thought, and I was definitely burned out and exhausted going into the holidays, but now that a few months have passed I feel a lot better about my decision.

Years ago, I switched my job from a certain online company (starts with an “A”) where I had been for 9 years.  That job was a huge part of my life, and I had been there so long, that even though it was a toxic, stressful environment¹ it was familiar and I was hesitant to leave.  I wanted to make it still work somehow, but after 9 years, it was enough.

Changing my job to a new company (think talking mouse) was challenging at first.  I was unfamiliar with the environment, I had to relearn a lot of things, and had to start over from the bottom.  I felt really stupid sometimes.  But after a couple years, I am so glad I changed.  My stress is much less than before, and it’s rubbed off on my family who’s a lot happier.

In the same way, I feel that way about my path with Jodo Shinshu.  I liked many things about the temple community I was a part of, and even now I miss a lot of people there, but I also had lingering personal misgivings about Jodo Shinshu teachings for a long time. However, since I had already invested so much though, and I really wanted to have an opportunity to teach Buddhism in person, I still tried to make it work for a long time.  But all it did was stress me out further.

Now that I’ve finally made a break with that tradition, it’s taken a while to adjust to the change in my life.  After my post about the primacy of practicing Buddhism, I decided that the best way to find my path was not to read about Buddhist schools, but to try them out.  I started a 28-day practice where I did some kind of Buddhist practice (chanting, meditation, etc) for 10 minutes a day.²  Each day I could choose whatever I wanted, but I had to do something.  Within the first week, I quickly lost interest in certain practices and settled on a personal routine that worked well for me.  I am now on day 23, and have stuck with it much longer than I thought I would.

So, in the end, a change in environment was probably the right thing for me.

Losing my community and friends was difficult, rebuilding my blog was painful too, but as the dust has settled I feel I have stepped into a brave new world, and am looking forward to many more years of blogging, exploring the many facets of Buddhism, and sharing with readers and viewers on Youtube.  🙂

P.S.  Double-post today.  Haven’t one of those in a while.

¹ The fact that I started having gastritis attacks almost monthly was a symptom of that.  These days my attacks are much less frequent partly due to improved eating habits, but also probably due to decreased stress.

² My idea was based on Dogen’s advice that all other aspects of Buddhism (sutras, chanting, etc) should be guide to and support for your practice, not an end of themselves.  How I wish I had read this years ago.

If It Were That Easy…

Recently in the book Moon in a Dewdrop, a translation of works by Soto Zen founder, Dogen (1200-1253), I read another text he wrote called the gakudō yōjinshū (学道用心集, “Guidelines for Studying the Way”) composed possibly in 1234.  In it, Dogen provides a lot of advice about how to approach not just Zen practice, but the Buddhist path in general.

In one section, he criticizes other Buddhist movements of the time (without mentioning them by name) that espouse an “easy practice” as opposed to the traditional monastic Buddhist path:¹

People of the present say you should practice what is easy to practice.  These words are quite mistaken.  They are not at all in accord with the buddha way.  If this alone is what you regard as practice, then even lying down will be wearisome.  If you find one thing wearisome, you will find everything wearisome.  It is obvious that people who are fond of easy practices are not capable of the way. (pg. 37, translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi)

Dogen makes a good point that if you find something wearisome, you’re not going to do it.  You’ll just makes excuses and procrastinate.  We have done this in our lives.

This reminds me of something that Ven. Yin-Shun (1906-2005) once wrote in The Way to Buddhahood, originally posted here:

It is better to examine one’s own preparedness!…After making the resolution, they [such Buddhists] want to be enlightened suddenly and want to become buddhas immediately. Without examining themselves and their own resolve, they think that such and such is the great teaching that will enable them to become a buddha easily. This can be compared to wanting to become a leader and deciding to run for president without first pausing to examine one’s academic record and experience. (pg. 346)

Yin-Shun in particular criticizes people who are eager to become a buddha quickly without actually putting the time and effort into it.

All of this makes a lot of sense for me, and is kind of inspiring in a way.  The trouble though is that I have never been good about sticking with a particular Buddhist practice for long.  I allow things like self-doubt, and doctrinal misgivings get in the way.  Sometimes, I am just plain lazy too (and find Buddhist practice “wearisome” ;-p).  Other times, I just overthink the issue because I am “detail-oriented”:

Recently though, I came to realize that the best Buddhist practice for you is the one you can stick with.  Buddhist practice isn’t particularly easy, rubs against our worst instincts and the “payoff” can take a while.  However, it’s a worthwhile investment in one’s life.  If you can find something you like and can stick with without forcing yourself, you’re off to a good start.  Sometimes the issue isn’t you, but a change in environment.

At the same time, there are no easy solutions either.  It will take time and effort.  There’s really no way around it.

¹ This is a common feature of Japan’s Kamakura-Era Buddhism.  Due to social upheaval, and a frequent belief in the notion of “Dharma Decline”, that is the concept that even Buddhism as a religion is impermanent and subject to decline, a lot of Buddhist thinkers at the time sought Buddhist practices that would help people in the latter ages.  Many of these schools of thought are now prevalent today in Japan if not the world as a whole.