Bad Day

Recently, I had a pretty rough day.  Nothing really unfortunate happened, but it was a constant series of small, frustrating events throughout the day, culminating in some bad news I got at work.  By the time I got home from work, I was just exhausted.

But, sometimes these days just happen.

The Buddha described the conditions of life as fluid, constantly in flux, changing, without anything to rely upon.  In the Lokavipatti Sutta of the Pali Canon (AN 8.6) he explains about eight conditions of the world:

“Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions.

He goes on to explain that both the wise and unwise experience these conditions, but there’s a key difference: the wise know not to get attached to them.

Getting pulled around by the ups and downs of life lead to more inevitable frustration. Why? Because there’s no guarantee the Universe will always go your way.

Life is always one step beyond your grasp, so sometimes it’s best to just let it go.

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Getting Ready for Bodhi Day 2017

It’s my second favorite time of year!  Christmas is coming up, as is Japanese New Year, or oshōgatsu. But there’s another holiday I am looking forward to: Bodhi Day.

Depending on which Buddhist tradition you follow, you might celebrate Vesak instead, but many traditions observe the Buddha’s enlightenment (bodhi) on the 8th day of the 12th month. For the solar calendar, that’s December 8th.

Bodhi Day 2010

This is a photo we took from when my daughter, Princess, was maybe 4 years old. We setup a fake Christmas tree as a “Bodhi Tree” and added a few offerings like satsuma-oranges and such. You can read more about it here.

A couple years ago we got a better, more sturdy mini-tree:

Bodhi Day 2017

We haven’t finished decorating the tree, but it’s a start.

Since the kids aren’t really actively Buddhist (nor do I really want to force it upon them), we keep things kind of simple. I usually read a story about the life of the Buddha on Bodhi Day “eve”, and also on the morning of, we give the kids some kind of wholesome gift, particularly books. Then we just have lots of fun family time.

The point is to just keep it fun and simple, not hit the kids over the head with too much religious stuff.

As for adults out there, a happy and peaceful Bodhi Day to all!

P.S. My favorite time of year is early November when Halloween is over and we can look forward to Thanksgiving.  That, and my birthday.  😉

What’s Old Is New Again

So, recently, I have started teaching Buddhism again back at the temple I used to go to; the same temple which I had left in a huff, and had sworn never to return.  Yes, that temple.

It all started this past summer, when I visited the Japanese Bonodori festival around here and ran into some old friends from the temple.  I heard that things had changed, and new minister was in charge and so on.  I kind of shrugged it off at the time, but then ran into some more friends later who said the same thing.

Finally, I decided to visit and see if it was true, and I had a chance to speak to the new minister.  We hit it off pretty well, and he asked if I would consider teaching introduction Buddhist courses again.  As much as I like making videos online and such, I admit I still miss teaching people in person,¹ and decided to send him my old course material.  To my surprise, not only did he read the material, but insisted I teach it.

In our last conversation, I expressed my reservations about getting involved again, but I did agree to teach once more.  So, now one Sunday a month, I teach my old friends and colleagues at the temple again.  It’s been fun, and I am glad I am doing it again.

In truth, my feelings toward Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and the Honganji remain unchanged, and to my own surprise, I feel no desire to try for ordination again since coming back.  All the chanting and hymns and talk about the founder does not resonate with me the way it used to.  It just feels hollow now.

I realize now that I like the teaching aspect of ordination a lot, but not the dogmatic/administrative part of ordination.  I already know how I would like to follow Buddhism based on my own journey, and I don’t want any religious authority telling me how to toe the line anymore.  By the same token, I don’t want to be responsible for telling other people who to live their lives either.  Empower people with information and letting them make their own decisions.  That’s my motto.

But in any case, I am happy to regularly teach again and content to do that.  The old robes I used to wear can stay in the closet.

Anyhow, we’ll see how the rest of the calendar year goes.

¹ I got to teach a few times in the past year for other groups, and I am grateful for that, but the opportunities were not sustainable.

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving here in the US is one of my favorite holidays of the year.  It doesn’t have the rampant commercialism of Christmas, with all the stress it brings, and it doesn’t have the blatant consumption of Halloween.  I like both holidays, but they are kind of exhausting.  Thanksgiving always feel a little more low-key, even though people just want to stuff their face with turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce.

But the idea of giving thanks and showing appreciation is of course very Buddhist.

The First Thanksgiving cph.3g04961

Buddhism teaches the (possibly poorly-named) concept of “no-self” or anātman (also called anattā).  This just means that we have no permanent, static self like a soul, essence or anything like that.  We arise through our parents, our environment, circumstances and so on, and none of that we can truly call our own.  Further, all that we are is fluid, subject to change like the seasons and so on.

But it also means that everything we are is due to the kindness and goodwill of others, even if it’s not always due to noble intentions.  The food we eat, the clothes we wear and so on comes from other living beings, their sweat and labor, or even their lives.  We tend to forget this for the sake of self-interest, but it’s still true.

When a person takes a moment to reflect on all the things that makes this life possible, then that person steps outside their own self-centered viewpoint and sees things as they are.  It fosters goodwill and compassion toward others, clarity of mind, and equanimity.

So, on this Thanksgiving day, take a moment to reflect on those things you are thankful for, and have a great holiday!

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—even a mirror will not show you yourself, if you do not wish to see.

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

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.

Fall Ohigan 2017: The Power of Guilt

As per tradition on the blog, I like to give a little sermon every Ohigan holiday. Ohigan (お彼岸) 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.

Jōkei, 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.