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.

Sandhi Rules and Sanskrit

My studies of Sanskrit language have continued and I am now, as of writing, have reached chapter 9 of my textbook.  However, things are definitely getting more uphill now as we’ve reached the dreaded “sandhi” (संधि) rules of Sanskrit.

Sanskrit, like nearly every language in the world, has sound changes that naturally happen when certain sounds come together.  This is a natural human phenomena to reduce friction in spoken language, but also influences written language as well.  In the case of Sanskrit, this joining of sounds, and changing is called “sandhi”, but the term sandhi has been expanded in linguistics to apply to any sound changes in any language.

Anyhow, sandhi rules in Sanskrit are particularly complicated.  They make a lot of sense when you get the hang of them, but getting used to all the myriad rules takes a lot of time.

Some rules are kind of straightforward, such as vowel endings.

For example, when certain vowels come together, they either merge or just morph into a different vowel.  For example:

अत्र अश्वः atra aśvaḥ (here horse)

The “a” at the end of the first word, followed by the “a” in the second word, would merge to become ā:

अत्राशवः atrāśvaḥ

Notice how the word gets merged in the process. This commonly happens in Sanskrit, hence the words look super long, but in actuality it’s a multiple words combined together.

The vowel sandhi rule above is not too bad, though.  It gets more complicated with consonant endings and such.  For example:

रामः गच्छति rāmaḥ gacchati (Rama goes)

changes to:

रामो गच्छति rāmo gacchati

but:

रामः तिष्ठति rāmaḥ tiṣṭhati (Rama stands)

becomes:

रामस्तिष्ठति ramastiṣṭhati

Further, sandhi rules aren’t limited to word endings. For example “n” will sometimes become ṇ if preceded by an “r” or ṛ as in:

गजः (gajaḥ, the elephant) ->
गजेन सह (gajena saha, “with the elephant”)

पुत्रः (putraḥ, the son) ->
पत्रेण सह (putreṇa saha, “with the son”)

…but wait! There’s more!

Anyhow, the key to learning Sandhi rules is to see them in practice. Memorizing the rules is nearly impossible because they’re so complicated, but if you see enough examples of sandhi rules in action, then things tend to make intuitive sense.

It takes some patience to get used to it, but over time, you’ll see how sandhi rules smooth out awkward sound combinations in Sanskrit and make it such a lovely language to read and speak.

Awakening and the Original Mind

Another post based on the writings of Jinul (지눌, 知訥, 1158–1210), the Korean Buddhist monk.  As with the previous post, I found this quote in Jinul’s major 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).

Now, the sudden awakening to the constant awareness of the original mind is like recognizing the immutable moist nature of water.  Since the mind is no longer deluded, there is no ignorance.  It is as if the wind had suddenly stopped.  After awakening, mental disturbances naturally come to a gradual halt like waves which gradually subside.  By developing both body and mind in sīla, samādhi, and prajñā, you gradually become self-reliant until you are unhindered in displaying magic and miracles and can universally benefit all sentient beings.  This is called Buddhahood… (pg. 170, Tracing Back the Radiance, trans. Professor Robert Buswell)

There’s a couple things worth pointing out in this quote:

  • Jinul takes an approach of sudden awakening, followed by gradual cultivation.  This is the foundation of Korean Seon Buddhism, but differs slightly from other schools of Zen.
  • Jinul upholds the importance of the three “pillars” of Buddhism:
    • sīla – Personal conduct (e.g. the Five Precepts, Right Action, Right Livelihood, etc).  Personal conduct isn’t just for one’s own benefits, but also benefits those around you, which in turns does benefit oneself.
    • samādhi – A state of heightened awareness and focus, brought about through meditation training.  In other words, the fruits of long-term Buddhist practice.
    • prajñā – Wisdom and insight.  This is more passive, but part of the natural growth and maturation of a Buddhist.

Interesting stuff.

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.

Enjoy!

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.

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!

It’s That Time Again: Yakudoshi!

Dear Readers, Happy 2017!  明けましておめでとうございます。

This New Year came and went so fast, didn’t it?  It was a busy week here at our home.  My daughter celebrated her 10th birthday just before New Year’s eve!  “Baby” is definitely not a baby anymore.  This is one of my first posts about Baby in the blog, by the way. 

New Year’s itself was great.  Lots of food and friends, but nothing terribly different from past years.

One thing that was notable this year is that it turns out I am starting Yakudoshi, my inauspicious year.  I posted about yakudoshi a long time ago, and I haven’t really thought about it much lately since it only impacts a person a few times in their life, if ever.  My wife went through it a few years ago but is over it now. 

Technically, yakudoshi is not one, but three years:

  • Maeyaku (前厄) – the year before
  • Yakudoshi (厄年) – the year of calamity
  • Atoyaku (後厄)  – the year after

It’s based on the year you were born, particularly the Japanese calendar (not the Gregorian calendar).  As I was born in the 52nd year¹ of the reign of the Showa Emperor,² this year is maeyaku for me.

So, for Hatsumode, the first temple visit of the year, we went to the usual Shingon Buddhist temple and in addition to the usual blessings we also signed up for a special purification or yakubarai (厄払い). Then we got our yearly ofuda tablet (we brought back last year’s of course) and I got a special omamori charm to carry in my wallet. 

One might find all this a bit superstitious and people wouldn’t disagree with you. On the other hand, as the sole bread-winner of the family it’s a good idea to not take a chance either. 🙂

Besides, the experience was pretty fun in a way, although Little Guy was really bored with the ceremony. He flopped all over the ground and talked about Pokemon too loud. Life with a three-year old. ;-p

Anyhow hope you all have a great year!

¹ With Japanese imperial years, the first year (元年, gannen) is considered year 1, not year 0.

² Unlike in English, the Emperors are never referred to by their regular names.  Instead, past emperors are called their reign name: Meiji Emperor, Showa Emperor, etc.  The reigning emperor is simply called either heika (陛下, “his majesty”) tennō-heika (天皇陛下, “his majesty, the Emperor”), etc.

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.

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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:

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

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

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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. 

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

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

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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”.