A New Chapter

Dear Readers,

Recently I have come to some crucial decisions that affect the blog and the youtube channel.

It began in the early summer when I took an interest in Tendai Buddhist teachings, but later due to a chance meeting, I realized that Tendai Buddhism was right for me. It was first time in many years where I felt all my internal doubts and contradictions about certain aspects of Buddhism were finally reconciled and it “just made sense”.

I assumed that this would go away in a few weeks or months, but so far that hasn’t been the case. In fact, I have decided to pursue the Tendai path exclusively maybe with the hope of becoming a priest some day. Tendai is really cool stuff, and it’s such a shame there aren’t more reliable sources in English about it.

However, this also means changes too. I have come to realize that I understand Buddhism a lot less than I thought I did. Much of this blog and its 10-year history1 has been fueled by2 long-standing contradictions I felt about my experiences with Pure Land Buddhism, particularly Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Sure, I learned a bunch of stuff over the years as a result of that sense of contradiction, and sure, leaving Jodo Shinshu to be an “independent Buddhist” in recent years has been nice, but there’s also something to be said for structured training and education too. Cherry-picking what you like and what you agree with is like a nice, warm blanket, but it only gets you so far.

After meeting people who really live and breathe as Buddhists, I had to face the fact that having a bunch of historical facts and sutra knowledge in your head will only get you so far. You have to really apply it. Not as a weekend-warrior kind of thing, but you really got to make it a part of your life. There are some things in Buddhism that simply can’t be properly learned or explained until you’ve put them into practice first.

So, it’s time to start over as a Buddhist. I want to focus more on training and structured education for an extended period until I feel I can teach Buddhism in more professional manner. That means the blog is basically on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Comments will be turned off too a little later.

The Internet is littered with dead blogs, including dead Buddhist blogs. Some of which are/were quite good. I think it may be time to lay this one to rest as well. Maybe I’ll pick it up again in the future, maybe not. Time will tell. I have a lot of fond memories of this blog, its family memories, meeting readers face to face, posts about KPop and other odds and ends, but I also am really excited about the future, too.

Some parting bits of advice if I don’t pick up the blog again: remember that life is short. There are a lot of stupid things to waste your time on (including many things in Buddhism). Shed the unnecessary baggage, slow down and focus on the things that matter. Remember the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra. Know who your friends are, stop being a fake, always question yourself, and never stop learning.

Best Wishes,

1 The first post. Note, I did have a previous blog called the Level 8 Buddhist, but it was much of the same content and lasted maybe 3-4 years. I can’t quite remember why I deleted it other than I had posted something I regretted and that I was so sensitive to what the online community said that I felt I had to start over. Having had 10 years to look back, I realize now that the online Buddhist community is a small, and somewhat skewed representation of the much larger Buddhist community and that in the grand scheme of things, none of it really matters that much. If nothing else, age does bring with it wisdom and experience. 🙂

2 Another motivation was sharing much of what I learned about Japanese culture through my wife and our visits there yearly, but having visited almost every year since 2005, there isn’t much novelty to share anymore. Of course I love Japanese culture, but it feels like a well-worn pair of pants now, instead of something new and crisp. Very comfortable, but nothing remarkable to talk about.


Buddha Nature Everywhere

Recently, I had a good conversation with someone, and they taught me an interesting phrase in Japanese Buddhism:

san sen sō moku shitsu u busshō

I believe this means, if taken literally, “Mountains, rivers, grass and tree. All have buddha-nature”, however, I think that the 山川草木 is a metaphor for “all things”. So, this can mean “all things have buddha-nature”.

Something to ponder. 🙂

The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation by Zhiyi

Recently I obtained an English translation of a 6th century book by the famous Chinese Buddhist Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597), called the Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. This book focuses on meditation exercises called “calming and insight” meditation or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit. I mentioned another of Zhiyi’s works in a recent post, however compared to the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime which focuses on the mental states during meditation, this book is more focused on the practice in general.

Note that Zhiyi’s “Calming and Insight” meditation seems somewhat more formalized than “Zen” meditation, but in the introduction the translator notes that they are basically the same. However, the translator also notes that Zhiyi was likely drawing on knowledge of early Indian-Buddhist meditation at the time, and this manual is an attempt to compile this information into a single, accessible handbook.

Early in the manual, Zhiyi warns not to take these words lightly:

If one’s mind gauges the import of these words, then, in the blink of an eye, one’s qualities of wisdom and severance will become so great as to defy measurement and one’s spiritual understanding will become unfathomably deep.

If, however, one disingenuously seizes on passages out of context or, due to personal sentiments, distorts the instructions of the text, the the months and years will be needlessly drawn out while actual realization will have no basis for development. One’s circumstance then would be like that of the pauper who spends his time calculating the wealth of other men. (pg. 35)

The manual is pretty detailed about various aspects of meditation as a practice and how to make the most of them. For example in the first chapter on “Prerequisites” for practicing Calming and Insight meditation, Zhiyi lists five:

  1. Observing the Precepts purely (or if one has faltered, having sincerely repented and made amends)
  2. Proper sustenance – modest food and clothing, not being greedy.
  3. Suitable dwelling – quiet, remote and peaceful.
  4. Putting Responsibilities to Rest – excusing oneself from duties, hobbies, social activities, study, etc.
  5. Having good spiritual friends

In the next chapter, Zhiyi stresses the importance of renouncing sensual desire (form, taste, sound, etc) when engaging in calming-and-insight meditation. Zhiyi quotes from a number of sutras including something called the Dhyāna sutras.

In chapter three, Zhiyi talks about the well-known Five Hindrances in Buddhism, and how to overcome them. Karma Yeshe Ragye has a nice write-up on the Five Hindrances which I recommend, but there are plenty of other sources too.

Chapter Four onward is when Zhiyi delves into the meditation practice itself. He begins by detailing proper posture, how to make adjustments to that posture during meditation, what kinds of things to be mindful of or visualize, different kinds of breathing exercises one can do and so on. The text even covers what to do when meditation doesn’t seem to be working, or one becomes afflicted with strange “ailments” during meditation. A lot of this delves into medical knowledge at the time that would seem frankly primitive now, but it does delve into the kinds of vague physical issues one might have during meditation.

The final chapter then covers the fruits of meditation and what one can expect through dedicated practice.

The book is a comprehensive guide for calming-and-insight meditation, and covers just about every aspect one could think of. It definitely assumes that one is serious about the practice and not just doing it to “relax” or anything like that. It is a pretty amazing piece of work, and a pretty invaluable reference for anyone who wants to take meditation practice to the next level.

All The World Is Not Enough

Something I randomly found in the Pali Canon the other day. This is from the Māgaṇḍiya Sutta (MN 75), translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

“Now what do you think, Māgaṇḍiya? Have you ever seen or heard of a king or king’s minister—enjoying himself, provided & endowed with the five strands of sensual pleasure, without abandoning sensual craving, without removing sensual fever—who has dwelt or will dwell or is dwelling free from thirst, his mind inwardly at peace?”

“No, Master Gotama.”

“Very good, Māgaṇḍiya. Neither have I ever seen or heard of a king or king’s minister—enjoying himself, provided & endowed with the five strands of sensual pleasure, without abandoning sensual craving, without removing sensual fever—who has dwelt or will dwell or is dwelling free from thirst, his mind inwardly at peace. But whatever contemplatives or brahmans who have dwelt or will dwell or are dwelling free from thirst, their minds inwardly at peace, all have done so having realized—as it has come to be—the origination & disappearance, the allure, the danger, & the escape from sensual pleasures, having abandoned sensual craving and removed sensual fever.”

This reminds me of the famous verses from the Dhammapada about a rain of gold coins, or Biggie Smalls song about Mo Money, Mo Problems.

Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only

Hi all,

Recently I had a fun conversation with Buddhist teacher, and this teacher shared some interesting Buddhist texts for me to read. This one is a Buddhist poem by the famous Indian Buddhist Vasubandhu who was an important, early figure in the venerable Yogacara school of Buddhism. It is also called the “Consciousness Only” school.

This text is called the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā (Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only) or in Japanese Buddhism the yuishiki sanjōju (唯識三十頌).

The English translation is as follows:

From the delusion of self and dharmas,
Comes the conveyence of various manifestations;
These are supported and transformed by consciousness,
And there are only three of these which may transform.

These are retribution, thought,
And the perception of external objects.
The first of these is the Ālaya Consciousness,
Which is retribution as well as all the seeds.

Its grasping, location, and knowing are imperceivable,
And it is always associated with mental contact,
Attention, sensation, conception, and thought;
It is associated with neither pleasure nor pain.

It is undefiled and morally indeterminate;
Mental contact and the others are also like this.
Its conveyence is like that of a flowing stream,
And it is abandoned in the stage of the arhat.

Next is the second which is able to transform,
And this consciousness is called Manas.
It is supported by the previous conveyence,
And its character and nature are that of thought.

It is always associated with the four vexations,
Which are delusion of a self, perception of a self,
Identity with a self, and love of a self,
As well as mental contact and the others.

It is defiled and morally indeterminate,
And its location is bound to that of life.
In the Nirodha Samāpatti of the arhats,
And in the Supramundane Path, it does not exist.

Next is the third which is able to transform,
Which is distinguished into six different divisions;
Its appearance and nature are perceiving external objects,
And these may be good, bad, or indeterminate.

It is associated with omnipresent mental activities,
With the external objects, the good, the vexations,
The secondary vexations, and the undetermined,
And it is associated with all three feelings.

Omnipresent mental activities are mental contact, etc.;
Next are those with objects, which are desires,
Determination, mindfulness, samādhi, wisdom, etc.,
And the object of each of these is not the same.

The good are faith, conscience, a sense of shame,
The three roots such as desirelessness, etc.,
And also vigor, peacefulness, vigilance,
Equanimity, and harmlessness.

The vexations are desire, hatred,
Delusion, pride, doubt, and wrong views.
The secondary vexations are anger,
Hostility, obscuration, anger, jealousy, greed,

Deceit, harmful flattery, arrogance,
Lack of shame, lack of conscience,
Acting upon agitations, torpor,
A lack of faith, laziness,

Negligence as well as forgetfulness,
Distraction, and incorrect knowing.
The undetermined are remorse, sleep,
And both types of initial and sustained thought.

With their basis in the root consciousness,
The five consciousnesses manifest according to conditions;
These manifestations may occur together or separately,
Just as waves are formed upon the water.

The thought consciousness always manifests
Except for those born in the heavens of no-thought,
For those in the two samādhis without thought,
And for those who are drowsy or unconsciousness.

These various consciousnesses are transformed
As discrimination and that which is discriminated,
And with this basis they are all empty—
Thus they are all Consciousness Only.

Through the consciousness of all seeds,
There are such-and-such transformations,
And from the power of this conveyence,
This-and-that are produced by discrimination.

Due to the habit energy of various actions,
Along with the habit energy of dualistic grasping,
Even when earlier retributions are exhausted,
Still the renewed arising of retribution occurs.

From this and that imagination,
One imagines all kinds of objects;
These pervasive imagined objects
Are without actual self-nature.

From the self-nature of interdependence
Comes discrimination arising from conditions;
The perfection of the fruit comes from
Always being apart from the former nature.

Therefore in relation to the interdependent,
It is neither different nor is it not different,
Just like the nature of impermanence, etc.,
And when one is not perceived, the other is.

On the basis of the three kinds of self-nature
Is established the threefold absence of self-nature;
Thus the Buddha spoke with the hidden intent
That all dharmas are without nature.

The first is the naturelessness of characteristics,
The next is the naturelessness of self-existence;
The last is the detachment from the first,
When the natures of self and dharmas are grasped.

This is the ultimate truth of all dharmas,
And it is also the same as True Suchness.
Because its nature is eternally so,
It is the true nature of Consciousness Only.

So long as one has not given rise to the consciousness
Which seeks to abide in the nature of Consciousness Only,
Then regarding the two types of grasping dispositions,
He is still not yet able to subdue and extinguish them.

Setting up and establishing even something small
And saying this is the nature of Consciousness Only,
Because there is still something which is grasped,
It is not truly abiding in Consciousness Only.

When one regards that which is conditioned
With the wisdom of total non-appropriation,
Then at that time one abides in Consciousness Only,
Apart from the duality of grasping at appearances.

Without grasping and not conceptualizing—
This is the wisdom of the supramundane realm
Which abandons the coarseness of duality
And naturally attains transformation of the basis.

This itself is the realm of no outflows,
Inconceivable, good, and eternal,
The peaceful and blissful body of liberation,
And what the great Muni called the Dharma.

Translated from Taishō Tripiṭaka volume 31, number 1586, translator unknown.

A few terms here are unique to Yogacara Buddhism, and I have an explanation posted here.


Too Good To Last

Having already renounced the pleasures of the five desires,
One has cast them off and does not look back.
Why would one still desire to gain them,
Like a fool who laps up his own vomit?

–“Verse on Eliminating Hindrances” in The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation by Zhiyi, translated by Bhikshu Dharmamitra

Recently I wrote about my positive experiences with Moon Meditation in Shingon Buddhism, and in truth I had been visiting the same temple a number of times recently. I guess I’ve been motivated by my recent trip to Japan to experiment a little with various Buddhist sects and just try things out. I’ve been enjoying my experience there until last Sunday.

Last Sunday was a Goma fire ritual, something I’ve seen before in Japan, and was somewhat familiar with. Watching a goma ritual was one thing, but actually taking part in it was another. We must have chanted the same mantra over and over again for an hour before the ritual ended and we were all exhausted.

It was at this point that the priest explained the significance of the fire ritual to the congregation. He explained how, despite what Buddhism usually teaches, desire was not wrong, but inherently pure. For example, a child wanting milk.

My mind slammed on its brakes, and I thought to myself “that isn’t what the Buddha taught.” I felt really troubled by this, so I did a bit of research.

Apparently, this is a common teaching in esoteric Buddhist traditions. For example, in one Shingon Buddhist blog, I read how desire is accepted in the tradition as part of the human condition and transformed into something positive. Sexual desire transforms into compassion and zeal for awakening and so on.

While this has an internal logic to it, I still don’t feel right about this. I was reminded of the Sutra of the Simile of the Water Snake (MN 22), an old sutra from the Pali Canon that covered this very subject. One of the Buddha’s monastic disciples, Arittha, started telling other people that the Buddha taught that sensual desires were not in fact obstructions to the path. Other disciples tried to warn him, but Arittha would not listen until finally the Buddha shows up and tells him he’s an idiot:

“Worthless man, from whom have you understood that Dhamma taught by me in such a way? Worthless man, haven’t I in many ways described obstructive acts? And when indulged in they are genuine obstructions. I have said that sensual pleasures are of little satisfaction, much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks….But you, worthless man, through your own wrong grasp [of the Dhamma], have both misrepresented us as well as injuring yourself and accumulating much demerit for yourself, for that will lead to your long-term harm & suffering.”

The Buddha then explains how important it is to properly grasp the foundations of the Dharma, like grasping a water snake. If you grasp the snake incorrectly, you will get bitten with deadly poison. In the same way, if you grasp the Dharma wrongly, you can easily lead yourself astray. In Arittha’s case he made a total arse of himself and also gave the Buddha’s community a bad reputation.

Rooted in this ignorance is the sense of self. The Buddha contrasted the view ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’ with the Dharma. When observing the self through the Dharma one realizes that such feelings and sensations are ‘not mine, not my self, not what I am.’

I feel that the justification by estoeric Buddhism that desire and self are pure and can be transformed by the Buddha-Dharma into something wholesome is just a bunch of mental gymnastics. In the same sutra above, the Buddha pointedly said:

The Dhamma thus well-proclaimed by me is clear, open, evident, stripped of rags.

By this he meant that there were no hidden meanings, mental gymnastics or justifications. What he taught was what he meant, and since he taught that craving is unproductive and base, that’s exactly what he intended to convey.

That said, one question that inevitably comes up is whether desires are always evil? For example, the desire for a child’s wellbeing.

This is why it’s important to have a good foundation in the basics of Buddhism. The English word “desire” is a loaded term with many meanings, but in the Pali language used for the sutra above, the term tanha is used. Tanha more narrowly refers to sensual craving, thirst, etc. Rev. Brad Warner’s article does a nice job explaining that such things must be confronted, observed and one should not follow the knee-jerk reaction to satisfy them. He even quotes a New York Times piece about how the “If it feels good, do it” advice is basically a path to ruin:

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

This is the great trap (e.g. Samsara) that the Buddha spoke of: this persistent need for gratification in every shape and form.

Desiring for the well-being of others, if sincere, is compassion or goodwill (metta). Here, you are putting yourself in the other’s shoes, empathizing with them, trying to understand what they are going through, and wishing to help. Desiring for gratification is tanha. This is putting yourself in the center, trying to relieve your own dissatisfaction, scratching that itch, and wondering why you itch again so soon after. Like a mosquito bite, scratching feels good at first, but it just makes the bite swell and get more red. If you keep scratching, eventually you tear the skin and bleed. After spending 3 weeks in Japan during the hot, humid summer, believe me I learned this the hard way. Eventually I just learned to not react to the itching bites and just stop scratching. The itching still persisted a little, but it never got worse.

Also, remember the Buddha taught the Middle Way in his first sermon:

“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure in connection with sensuality: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathāgata—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.

The alternative to indulging in sensual craving, self-neglect, was equally wrong. The Buddha taught a middle way between these extremes.

…and that’s why the Buddha warned against grasping the water snake incorrectly. Anyone can reach out and grab a snake, but if you do it wrongly, you’ll end up dead.

Thus, while I can see many positive things about the esoteric Buddhist path, I feel there’s a lot of danger to it too, and I personally disagree with its assertions. The Moon Meditation was great, and I met a lot of nice people, but this is definitely a path I cannot follow.

P.S. More on sex desire and Buddhism.

One Vehicle Buddhism

Still reading the Japanese-language introduction to Tendai Buddhism called うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”). One thing the book talks about a lot is the Tendai-Buddhist concept of ichijō bukkyō (一乗仏教) or “one-vehicle Buddhism”.

The idea is not necessarily unique to Tendai though. In the Lotus Sutra, chapter two, the Buddha surprises all his followers by stating that all the different “vehicles” of Buddhism are in fact one vehicle because they all converge to the same endpoint anyway.

To clarify, Mahayana Buddhism has always listed three basic types of disciples:

  • Śravaka or “voice-hearers” (Japanese: shōmon, 声聞) – These are the students who “hear” the Buddha’s teachings and try to practice them in their life in order to attain liberation. Such people, if they attain awakening, would become arhats (or arahants) which means “noble ones”.
  • Pratyekabuddha or “private buddha” (Japanese: engaku, 縁覚) – these are beings who come upon the Dharma by the themselves and attain liberation. For whatever reason, they lack the capacity for teaching to others, hence they differ from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who had an active ministry.
  • Bodhisattva or “seeker of Enlightenment” (Japanese: bosatsu, 菩薩) – these are beings who seek Enlightement as part of a series of vows to liberate and help others. More on Bodhisattvas here.

In some Buddhist schools, these are seen as separate, distinct paths or “vehicles”, but the Lotus Sutra turns things on its head by saying that these ultimately converge anyway, so it’s really just one single path.

According to the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, this led to a very intense debate in China between the Tiantai and Faxiang schools, and this debate carried over in Japan too. Saicho from the Tendai school debated heavily with the Hosso (Faxiang / Yogacara) school particularly with a brilliant scholar-monk named Tokuitsu who defended the Hosso school’s Five Natures Doctrine.

Even today it’s still an interesting argument to consider: are there really three possible outcomes for Enlightenment or one? Is everybody destined to become a Buddha or only some?

The Pali Canon subtly implies that there are three vehicles, not one. But the Lotus Sutra asserts a more idealistic vision.

Which one do you think is right?