Self Deception

Recently I found this book on my bookshelf, which was a gift from a certain monk I know online.1 The back of the book has the following statement:

Untitled

The words are:

Self-deception.
Sometimes it can be so complete that you don’t even know.
Defensiveness makes you blind to your own weakness (self-deception).
We deceive ourselves to be happy.
Sometimes it is painful to see our weak points; it takes a lot of courage, honesty and mindfulness.

This is the crux of the Buddha’s teachings: we deceive ourselves all the time. This is fueled by our sense of self-love and desire for continuity among other things. But even with all that, it still has no basis in reality. Believing something doesn’t make it somehow more true.

We build up so much of our world within our own minds, and if someone shows us to be wrong, we still deny it, or try to somehow spin it in a way that seems less harmful. As the character Sam said in the book Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny:2

The moral, therefore, of my sermon on this small mount is this‚ÄĒeven a mirror will not show you yourself, if you do not wish to see.

“Denial” ain’t just a river in Egypt. ūüėČ

P.S. The book in question is called Snow in Summer by Ven. Sayadae U Jotika. You can find a free copy of the book here, among other places.

1 Thank you “A.S.”!

2 Originally posted here.

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Fall Ohigan 2017: The Power of Guilt

As per tradition on the blog, I like to give a little sermon every Ohigan holiday. Ohigan („ĀäŚĹľŚ≤ł) meaning “the Other Shore” is a holiday that started in early Japanese-Buddhist history and is celebrated every Spring and Autumnal Equinox which is a comfortable time of year in between the muggy, hot summers and bitter, cold winters. Started by the pious Emperor Shomu, the holiday was meant to give Buddhists a chance to pause and reflect upon their practice.1And, let’s face it, we could all use a little reminder from time to time.

Today’s “sermon” was inspired by a number of Roger Zelazny books I was reading while I spent some quiet time reflecting and grieving. If you’ll indulge me a moment, you’ll see how this relates to Buddhism…

Take a look at this quote from Roger Zelazny’s novella Home is the Hangman:

“Without guilt, man would be no better than the other inhabitants of this planet….Look to instinct for a true assessment of the ferocity of life, for a view of the natural world before man came upon it. For instinct in its purest form, seek out the insects. There you will see a state of warfare that has existed for millions of years with never a truce. Man, despite enormous shortcomings, is nevertheless possessed of a greater number of kindly impulses than all the other beings, where instincts are the larger part of life. These impulses, I believe, are owed directly to this capacity for guilt. It is involved in both the worst and the best of man.”

In the story Jack of Shadows, one of the (nearly) immortal Darksiders named Jack is now undisputed ruler of the Dark Side of the Earth. However, he is forced to confront his own terrible actions by an old lover that he had spurned, named Rosie:

“I told you long ago that the Baron was always kind to old Rosie. You hung him upside down and opened his belly when you took his realm. I cried, Jack. He was the only one who’d been kind to me for a long while. I’d heard much of your doings, and none of what I’d heard was good. With the power you have, it is so easy to hurt so many; and you have been doing it. I thought that if I went and found you a soul it might soften your disposition.”

Finally, Roger Zelazny explores this same subject again in his famous book Lord of Light when the main character, Siddhartha (not to be confused with the historical Buddha) is possessed by the king of the Rakasha demons. In time, after days and weeks of demonic debauchery, Siddhartha’s will triumphs over the demon and he says:

“Know then, that as we existed together in the same body and I partook of your ways, not always unwillingly, the road we followed was not one upon which all the traffic moved in a single direction….You have learned a thing called guilt, and it will ever fall as a shadow across your meat and your drink. This is why your pleasure has been broken. This is why you seek now to flee. But it will do you no good. It will follow you across the world. It will rise with you into the realms of the cold, clean winds. It will pursue you wherever you go. This is the curse of the Buddha.”

All of these quotations have the same theme of course: guilt is a painful feeling that counterbalances pure instinct and emotion. It’s uncomfortable but tends to make us reconsider our actions, and sometimes gain wisdom from it.

Now, a lot of people who come to Buddhism usually do so leaving another religion, and with that, any moral guilt that is imposed. This is not the same kind of guilt I am talking about. This is guilt from without. It is there to make you feel inferior and keep you in line. What I am speaking of here is a kind of guilt from within. This is a kind of guilt that arises from the wisdom of knowing right from wrong, and reflecting upon one’s actions. In another sense, it is emotional maturity.

But even more than this, the capacity of self-reflection and guilt are seen as part of one’s “Buddha nature”, that intrinsic quality that all beings have to realize full awakening and to break out of the cycle of life imposed by one’s condition, accumulated habits and circumstances.

JŇćkei, a Japanese-Buddhist scholar/monk from the 12th century, wrote of himself:

If I desire to enter the vast and great entrance to the mind, my nature is not equal to the task.
If I want to practice just a little bit of cultivation, my mind is difficult to rely on.
By means of none other than my foolishness, I know my posession of the Great Vehicle [Mahayana] nature.
If there is not even a state of [two-vehicle] extinction, how could I possibly be lacking the [buddha]-nature?

Living Yogacara by Shun’ei Tagawa, trans. by Professor Charles Muller

Here, Jokei, a Buddhist monk reflects on himself, and realizes that although he wants to a good and dedicated monk, he struggles with his himself to stick to even basic Buddhist practice. This is human nature of course, but what Jokei says here is that the very fact that he reflects on these things and knows right from wrong means he possesses the Buddha-nature, and thus maintains hope for the future.

Happy Ohigan everyone!

1 Culturally speaking, it is also a time in Japan to return to one’s hometown and pay respects to one’s ancestors and reconnect with family. As it is a public holiday, the Buddhist aspect is not necessarily foremost on their minds, just as many Americans tend to focus on Christmas shopping than the actual message of Christmas. Such is the way of Man.

Death

Flowers on a cross remain, marking an ending scene
Damn it all if blood you spill, turn the grass more green…

–Alice In Chains, “Private Hell”

Recently I took some time away from everything, somewhat abruptly. ¬†It all started with a phone call a few weeks back. ¬†My mother informed me that my grandfather, whom I had not seen in person in about 10 years, was dying of stage 4 lung cancer. ¬†Ever since my grandmother had passed away back in the 1990’s,1 he had become a very private person and didn’t correspond much with the rest of us. ¬†The last time I had seen him was when my first child, Princess, was about 1 year old, and since then we had only talked on the phone briefly for birthdays and such. ¬†He had never even met my second child in person.

After talking with both my mother and uncle, it was clear that grandpa was going to be gone soon, and that he was in no condition to see anyone anymore. ¬†The news wasn’t terribly surprising because I knew he was a lifelong heavy smoker, but I had no idea how ill he had become. ¬†When I spoke to him on the phone, he never gave any indication of his condition, and had sounded like the grandpa I had known all these years.

Finally, while hiking with the family at Mount Rainer National Park (and therefore out of phone signal coverage), I got a phone call from both mom and my uncle that grandpa had finally died.  Yet another missed opportunity.

A few days later, I met my uncle and we went through his house together to try and clean up some of the mess and maybe put some things in order.  Since he had been ill for so long, the house had become somewhat neglected despite his best efforts, and it was kind of surreal seeing all the old Christmas cards and such I had sent him over the years neatly stacked up by the fireplace, old pictures of my daughter (his great-granddaughter) and such.  I saw parts of his life I never really knew, like old photos from his Navy service and met his neighbor who had spent a lot of time with him in his final years.

It’s been quite a while since I had lost someone in the family,2 and the particular way in which he died, coupled with the fact we had very little contact over the years really left my kind of hurt and numb. When I was younger, I looked up to him a lot as the gruff, but lovable old sailor. When I graduated college, he gave me a couple items: a ring he got in South Dakota, and a money clip. No one else in the family had cheered me on like he did (apart from my future wife) and it really meant a lot to me. I still have old pictures of him when I was a kid. My wife and I met him once shortly after we got married, and he talked a little bit about his days in the Navy stationed in Japan just after WWII, but before the Korean War. You could tell he liked Japan even if he never had much chance to get to know the culture or language.

But now it’s all gone. I will not get to meet him again and tell him thanks for all he did for me as a kid. I never got to introduce my son to him either. It’s all done. Over.

Between this and a stressful month at work, I just shutdown in a way. I didn’t notice it at first, and was still being productive at work, but more and more I feel haunted by his memory, and no amount of Buddhist prayer and dedication of merit helps that. When I visited his home just after he died, I remember saying a prayer to him, and also many times that following week in front of the Buddhist altar at home, but it always felt a little hollow. Did any of it make a difference?

Since then, the altar at home has been closed, and I have been feeling kind of numb all the time. I just haven’t been able to pick up the keyboard, make another Buddhist video, or even read another Buddhist book or sutra. I just couldn’t give a shit.

Maybe this is all just the Five Stages of Grief, but I guess I still don’t give a shit. I’ve been playing Magic with friends, playing with my kids or reading old Zelazny books mostly. Some days I don’t even really think about him, but then the memory comes back again. But in general I feel kind lethargic and a bit sullen even at work.

And yet, in spite of all this, I wanted to start writing again, and so I have dusted off some of my half-finished blog posts and started writing again.

Not sure what will happen over the coming weeks and months, but for now please enjoy more (possibly a bit dated) posts and thank you for your understanding.

1 Also due to cancer, and she too had been a heavy smoker like grandpa. I remember she died just days after Thanksgiving (I always get a bit moody after Thanksgiving as a result) and seeing her lying dead in the hospital, her face still wracked with pain. 27 years that memory hasn’t left me.

2 The last death in the family had been my other grandpa. My daughter was just a few months old when he died, and we only had one picture of him holding his great-granddaughter.

Staying Buddhist in Crazy Political Times

Hi guys,

With all the nonsense happening in the past weeks in the news, I wanted to share some advice from the Buddha:

This video was also inspired by a book I got from Powell’s City of Books during our family trip to Portland, Oregon last year.

Enjoy and please be safe out there!

P.S. Here’s a really great essay by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the subject too.

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 ‚Äď 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 Vehicles¬Ļ lead there, so do the good dharmas of the Human and Divine Vehicle.¬≤ Everything in the world‚ÄĒevery iota of kind thought or good deed‚ÄĒleads 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 origination¬≥¬†with emptiness [of all phenomena] as its nature‚ÄĒin thinking, in dealing with people, in handling affairs‚ÄĒ 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.

¬Ļ 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.