What’s Mindfulness Meditation For?

I saw this advertisement on my Facebook feed recently and did a double-facepalm.

People often assume that Buddhist meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is a practice to calm the mind, attain peace and by extension happiness. Peace of mind and happiness are central to Buddhism, but it’s also important to understand how Buddhism approaches the issue, and where mindfulness meditation actually fits into that.

Buddhism approaches the issue of life from the perspective of dukkha, which is a Buddhist term for things like stress, unease, dissatisfaction, pain, strife, etc. It’s a pretty big term, but as mentioned in a recent post, describes a lot of things in life. Further, while some aspects of dukkha are just a part of life (you can’t control the weather for example), a lot of it is self-inflicted because we are infatuated with ourselves, and always expect things to go our way. When someone else gets promoted and we don’t, we get mad, jealous and resentful. Maybe they were the better candidate (objectively speaking), but we don’t see it that way because we naturally tend to see things from our self-centered world-view.

Or, we inflict dukkha on ourselves because we tend to indulge in things we shouldn’t, or we indulge in something without moderation. Chocolate is good. Too much chocolate will give you indigestion. This is not because we are necessarily stupid or anything. A lot of smart people still inflict a lot of dukkha on themselves. Instead, it’s because people want their happiness “fix” without realizing that there’s often a hidden cost. At the very least, you’ll get dissatisfied again and chasing happiness once more, but oftentimes there’s the upfront cost too that you had to do to get that “fix” in the first place.

This is why meditation alone won’t bring peace. Meditation will calm your mind, and give you some clarity, but if you still live a lifestyle geared toward chasing happiness (either physical gratification, or more cerebral/emotional gratification) you’ll be unhappy again soon. Ironically, using meditation to make you happy will just repeat the cycle of chasing after happiness, and when that fades, chasing after it again. It’s just another fix, but a more cerebral one.

The Buddhist approach to getting out of this endless cycle of chasing happiness, temporary gratification, sense of loss, and chasing again is to not get yourself in that cycle in the first place. This requires a kind of dedicated, lifetime training of the mind not to knee-jerk react whenever we encounter something we want (e.g. craving), or something we don’t like and want to avoid (e.g. aversion).

This training requires a kind of three-pronged approach:

  • Conduct – Buddhism spends a lot of time talking about personal conduct. This means curtailing the more egregious behavior we do, using guidelines like the Ten Wholesome Acts.1
  • Practice – Buddhism has a wide array of practices to help cultivate wholesome states of mind, and to help facilitate conditions to help continue following or advance along the Buddhist path.
  • Wisdom – This helps create the right frame of mind for the other two. Or, the other two help give rise to wisdom. They go hand in hand.

The nice thing is that these three things are kind of mutually reinforcing, so it’s best to start building all three of them.

Mindfulness meditation falls under “practice”, because the intention is to train your mind to be able to step back and think rather than react blindly to things you encounter. This can lead to happiness over time because you avoid self-destructive behavior (i.e. maintain conduct) and maintaining wholesome conduct does further and further create peace of mind, because you are not wracked with guilt, regret and such.

But mindfulness meditation is only a small part of the Buddhist path. It is a holistic path that covers many aspects, and if you don’t follow the path in entirety, you’ll only gain temporary benefits.

1 The Ten Wholesome Acts are:

  1. Abstain from destroying life
  2. Abstain from taking what is not given
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct (adultery, abuse, etc)
  4. Abstain from false speech
  5. Abstain from slander
  6. Abstain from harsh speech
  7. Abstain from idle chatter (gossip, inappropriate conversations, etc)
  8. Abstain from greed
  9. Abstain from ill-will
  10. Abstrain from wrong views (e.g. view that don’t align with the Dharma)

The key with the Ten Wholesome Acts are to treat them like a gold-standard to work towards. You may not get them right the first time (or first hundred or so), but you keep at it. Like rehearsing for a play.

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.

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

無上甚深微妙の法は百千万劫にも遭いたてまつること難し。我今見聞し受持する事を得たり。願わくは如来の第一義を解せん。至極の大乗思議すべからず。見聞觸知。皆菩提に近づく。能詮は報身。所詮は法身。色相の文字は。即ち是れ応身なり。無量の功徳。皆是の経に集れり。是の故に自在に。冥に薫じ密に益す。有智無智。罪を滅し善を生ず。若は信若は謗。共に仏道を成ぜん。三世の諸仏。甚深の妙典なり。生生世世。値遇し頂戴せん。

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.  🙂