The 10 Precepts of Shingon Buddhism

Note: This is not to be confused with the 10 Precepts of Theravada Buddhism.

Again, this is kind of a reference post, but in Shingon Buddhism, there are ten “precepts” followers are encouraged to follow called the jūzenkai (十善戒):

  1. I will not harm life.
  2. I will not steal.
  3. I will not commit adultery.
  4. I will not tell a lie.
  5. I will not exaggerate or gossip.
  6. I will not speak abusively.
  7. I will not equivocate.
  8. I will not be greedy.
  9. I will not be hateful.
  10. I will not lose sight of the Truth.

However, this is not something invented in Shingon Buddhism only. The basis for this is actually the Agamas/Pali Canon. For example, in the Saleyyaka Sutta (MN 41), you can see the Buddha very clearly spelling out a very similar set of guidelines. Actually, in the case of the sutra, these are not precepts in the monastic or lay person sense, but voluntary good conduct one strives for.

Interestingly, the Ten Precepts are grouped into three categories:

  • Body – Abstaining from killing, stealing or sexual immorality (adultery, rape, etc).
  • Speech – Abstaining from lying, exaggerating, harsh or divisive speech.
  • Mind – Abstaining from hatred or greed, and focusing on the truth.

This notion of Mind, Body and Speech is important not just to Shingon Buddhism, but probably Buddhism overall. The Buddha, when teaching these ten good conducts, divided them up the same way in the sutra. The message here is that in practicing Buddhism, you have to take speech, action and mind all into account. You can’t neglect any one of the three.


P.S. More on the history of the precepts in Japanese Buddhism in a later post.

The Iroha

The Japanese poem, Iroha, is a famous poem from the Heian Period of Japanese history, and is attributed to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai, though research suggests that this was written as a tribute to him, not by him. The poem, in Japanese (including archaic letters) look like so:


The romanization as it would have been pronounced back then:

I ro ha ni ho he to
chi ri nu ru wo wa ka
yo ta re so tsu ne na
ra mu u wi no o ku
ya ma ke fu ko e te
a sa ki yu me mi shi
we hi mo se su

And this translation comes from Professor Ryuichi Abé’s The Weaving of Mantra:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

Of course, this refers to the impermanence of life, and the notion of “crossing over” to the other shore of Enlightenment.

What’s remarkable about this poem is that each letter in the Japanese alphabet is exactly once. Also, later research mentioned in Professor Abé’s book showed that the last letter of each line, when put together, formed another sentence that read, “[he] died without sin.” This probably refers to Kūkai the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Older generations of Japanese often learned the alphabet by memorizing the Iroha, and the Iroha to this day is still a fascinating and often-used poem in Japanese culture.

It’s amazing what people can do with literature, let along something Buddhist like this. Who said Buddhism was dull and dry? 🙂

Buddhism, vegetarianism, garlic and onions

Note: This discussion refers to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism only. Theravada Buddhism has different dietary restrictions.

Buddhism is often described by people as a “vegetarian” religion, given that some who follow the religion practice vegetarian diets. However, Buddhism and diet are somewhat more complex here, so I hope to provide some information on this. Much of the dietary guidelines for Mahayana Buddhism (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Tibet) derive from certain Buddhist texts, or sutras. One particular sutra of note is the Brahma Net Sutra, which is thought by some to be a revision of earlier monastic rules. Here, the intent of the Brahma Net Sutra was to develop a moral code that would someone on the path to become a Bodhisattva (kind of like a Buddhist saint). So, as with Bodhisattvas who strive to help all beings, the Bodhisattva-precepts are likewise focused on compassion.

The Brahma Net Sutra is divided into 10 major and 48 minor precepts intended for monks, and lay followers who are particularly devoted. The 10 precepts cover all kinds of egregious behavior (lying, killing, etc), while the 48 minor precepts cover more specific actions. Of note in the Sutra are the following minor precepts:

  • 3. On Eating Meat – A disciple of the Buddha must not deliberately eat meat. He should not eat the flesh of any sentient being. The meat-eater forfeits the seed of Great Compassion, severs the seed of the Buddha Nature and causes [animals and transcendental] beings to avoid him.
  • 4. On Five Pungent Herbs – A disciple of the Buddha should not eat the five pungent herbs — garlic, chives, leeks, onions, and asafoetida [used in curry?]. This is so even if they are added as flavoring to other main dishes.

In the case of Minor Precept #3, the belief is that by consuming meat, you are not being compassionate towards animals. Other Buddhist branches limit this to meat that you have killed yourself, or meat that you asked someone to kill for you (either way, intentional killing), but in the Brahma Net Sutra this now includes all meat.

The fourth Minor Precept is kind of an interesting one. I asked around, and monks have told me it relates to Indian medicine, where the “five pungent herbs” were thought to increase anger or passion. Obviously if you are a monk, you’d want to be calm and centered, not passionate, hence this precept. It’s hard to be sure if the effects are real or not. I’ve heard some people say it does indeed help with meditation, but I have little meditation experience myself, so I can’t confirm or deny this.

So, in real traditional East-Asian Buddhist cuisine, you will see that there is no meat, nor any of the pungent herbs above. In Japan, this is called shōjin-ryōri (精進料理) or “devoted cuisine”. The idea here is that someone is devoted to Buddhist precepts, and so only eats meals within this framework. In the case of Jodo Shinshu, which is the Buddhist sect I follow, we only observe shōjin meals on special holidays or after someone has passed away. It’s a gesture of respect and appreciation for the lives we have to take to continue living, but also can be considered wholesome karma given that you are giving up meat and pungent herbs. Other Buddhist sects may differ. For many monks and nuns though in East-Asia, this is a pretty hard-fast rule.

Here’s a picture of a shōjin-ryōri meal I took when I visited the Zen temple of Ryūanji in Kyoto, Japan in 2005:

Ryuanji Vegetarian Meal

I’ll post more on Ryūanji in a separate blog entry (update: posted here). This meal was entirely vegetarian, with tofu and some kind of light broth. The flowers are actually radishes. It was surprisingly good and filling, though meals such as this would be hard to enjoy at home. In a Western context, I’ve been told by a respectable priest in Japan that even peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches can be considered shōjin meals because they fit the precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra just fine. 🙂

Of course, this all boils down to the question: if you are a new Buddhist, do you have to be vegetarian? The answer is no. All Buddhist moral behavior is a conscious, individual choice, and can’t be forced upon you (though some may try). Instead, as you practice Buddhism, and learn to appreciate it more, you may want to challenge yourself a little and then a little more and so on. I’ll be frank in that I am not a vegetarian, but I do try, and I believe that gradually I will become one. It’s hard for me right now since we have a baby in the house, and we want to make sure she gets a well-rounded diet. So for now, I focus on minimizing meat (as well as garlic/onions).

So, that’s Buddhist cuisine in a nutshell. 🙂

P.S. The same restrictions on meat, garlic and pungent herbs are found in the Shurangama Sutra and Chapter 8 of the Lankavatara Sutra.

Cooking advice: shiitake, not crimini

I have noticed lately in some of limited cooking I do that you can substitute Japanese shiitake mushrooms for almost any cooked dish where common, or crimini, mushrooms are used, and get a better flavor. Crimini mushrooms have a great texture when raw, and work well in salads, but I’ve noticed that beyond that, they usually don’ t have all that much flavor.

However, shiitake mushrooms usually have a strong, smoky/salty flavor, and have worked well for me when making a spaghetti sauce (marinara) or in soups. Shiitake mushrooms, when boiled in water and with some konbu (Japanese dried seaweed), also make a good vegetarian broth. If you get them dried, and let them soak before cooking, you can save the water as a broth too.

As a side story, while in Japan, my wife (whose Japanese) and I visited my father-in-law’s home near the mountains. There, we visited a local shrine/Buddhist temple devoted to Yakushi, the medicine Buddha. Anyways, while outside this temple, there was a nice old lady selling shiitake tea. Basically it was boiled mushrooms, filtered and allowed to cool somewhat. The tea was actually really good.

So, shiitake mushrooms are in my mind more versatile than criminis, and make for great cooking. The key to shiitake mushrooms is that you have to cut off the stem which is hard and not all that edible. The head of the mushroom is usually pretty large, so only need about four or five for a meal. That’s good considering they cost more than crimini mushrooms. 😉

If you don’t live somewhere where shiitake mushrooms are sold (thankfully they’re becoming more popular all the time), then ordering a pack of dried mushrooms is a good idea. We get our from my in-laws in Japan, which is pretty convenient.

Anyways, try replacing crimini mushrooms with shiitake ones for all kinds of cooked dishes and see what you get. Better yet, reply back and let me know. Thanks!

Happy Ohigan!

Hello Everyone,

In Japan, during the Spring and Fall Equinox, people celebrate the Buddhist holiday of Ohigan (お彼岸). The idea in the olden days was that the weather was more mild at these times, so people had more time to reflect on things like Buddhism, life and other matters. Even today, people in Japan often visit ancestral graves among other things.

The word ohigan means “other shore”, and is an important Buddhist metaphor. It refers to the idea that we stand on this shore (of ignorance) when we could cross over to the shore of Enlightenment and liberation. This is expressed very nicely in a mantra found in the famous Heart Sutra:

  • English: Gone, gone, gone over, [everyone] completely gone [to the Other Shore], Awakening hail!
  • Sanskrit: Gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā
  • Chinese: 揭諦 揭諦 波羅揭諦 波羅僧揭諦 菩提 薩婆訶
  • Japanese: Gya-tei, gya-tei, ha-ra-gya-tei, ha-ra-so-gya-tei bo-ji so-wa-ka

By the way, you can see the same mantra in Sanskrit calligraphy (Siddham) here.

In any case, this is probably the most famous mantra in Buddhism, and is spoken by the Bodhisattva Kannon (Guan-yin, Avalokitesvara) as an expression of the intention to bring not just one’s self, but all beings across to the Shore of Awakening (Enlightenment). This metaphor is used though in a wide variety of texts, but since the Heart Sutra is one of the most widely chanted, this is where you’ll be likely to see it first.

However, there is a second meaning to Ohigan. Ohigan also refers to the Six Perfections, or Six Pāramitā. Buddhism loves numbered lists, and the Six Perfections are qualities that Buddhists try to cultivate and perfect. The Perfections, in Sanskrit, Chinese and English are:

  1. Dāna (布施波羅蜜): Generosity
  2. Śīla (持戒波羅蜜): Moral Conduct (the Five Moral Precepts fall within here)
  3. Kṣānti (忍辱波羅蜜): Patience, Tolerance, Endurance
  4. Vīrya (精進波羅蜜): Diligence
  5. Dhyāna (禪定波羅蜜): Mindfulness
  6. Prajñā (智慧波羅蜜): Wisdom, Insight

So, on Ohigan, Buddhists stop to contemplate their progress, and make a renewed effort. I like the Six Perfections because of their positive outlook, rather than “don’t do X, Y and Z”. No matter who we are, or where we start from, it’s a great set of goals to work on, no matter how big or small the effort. And of course, no matter who we are, the Perfections are always a work in progress. 🙂

Happy and Peaceful Ohigan everyone!

Odyssey 2008: Rest in Peace, Arthur C. Clarke

Al Billings from Arcanology posted this article (which in turn comes from Reuters) about the passing away of Arthur C. Clarke, the famous sci-fi writer.

A few years ago, I suddenly found myself getting into classic science fiction books I had never read before (Dune, Roger Zelazny, among others), and Arthur C. Clarke was another writer I enjoyed immensely. I read the book 2001 : A Space Odyssey a couple of years ago, and found it much better than the movie (since scenes could be described in words, not imagery). Clarke, unlike Herbert or Zelazny, liked to focus on so-called “hard science-fiction” where real science could backup the advanced technology used in his stories. This was apparent in another of his books, which I enjoyed, The Songs of Distant Earth. Although this book was not my favorite, I thought his view of the universe, and how we would colonize planets, one of the most compelling and realistic. That, and Clarke put in some not-so-subtle praises for Buddhist religion toward the end of the book as well.* 😉

In any case, Clarke was way ahead of his time, and his writings reflected a positive outlook for Mankind, not a dystopian one, and I’ve certainly enjoyed them. Rest in peace, Mr. Clarke!

* – Given that he lives in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country, he probably has some interest in the religion as well.

Festina lente, O discipulus Boddi!

My Latin to English translation: Hurry slowly, O disciple of the Buddha!

Recently, on a nice discussion in the Theravada section of the E-sangha Buddhist forum, someone had offered good advice to practicing Buddhism: relaxed urgency. This reminded me of the Latin phrase, “hurry slowly” or festina lente, hence the title.

I’ve struggled in the past between either giving up, or striving way too hard. Recently I had some very good advice from a monk on e-sangha by the name of Huifeng (different discussion than what was cited above), and his advice helped me to have a clearer picture of where I want to focus my Buddhist practice, and a good idea of how to understand it. So, I feel quite a bit better the last few days and know more about how I want to carry my Buddhist practice in the long-term. It’s not a question of which sect to follow (which was a big part of my understanding), but rather, what do I want to become through the Buddhist past.

So, with all this in mind, I am taking the advice about “relaxed urgency” to heart. That’s the right approach to Buddhism.

As for the Latin used above, the phrase “festina lente” is pretty famous and need not be explained further here. The word “discipulus” is likewise a real Latin word. However, trying to decide how to render “Buddha” into Latin was tricky. On the Latin Wikipedia page, it’s rendered straight from Sanskrit as “Buddha”, which would be 1st declension, fem. That makes sense, but I decided a different approach.

I know for a fact* that in the Greek kingdom of Bactria, the word Buddha was spoken as Boddo (ΒΟΔΔΟ), which based on my notes is a masculine, singular ending. Now, Latin borrows heavily from Greek, and always has, so rather than borrowing from Sanskrit (the Romans had no direct contact with India), I assumed the Latin word would be a transliteration from Greek, therefore, I transliterated Boddo to Boddus (2nd decl, masc.). From there, it is a simple matter of changing Boddus to the genitive case Boddi, or “of the Buddha”.

I spent a while last night reviewing Latin dictionaries at home, and determined that if Boddus was a reasonable choice for “Buddha”, then “Buddhist” would be Boddistus, and Buddhism would Boddismus in Latin. I am pretty certain that these endings are correct, but people with more experience are encouraged to confirm or correct this. I am still very much the amateur.

That is how I arrived at my translation. It’s not necessarily right, but it has a clear etymology. 😀

* – Based on Greek coins and artwork bearing the word.