Stick with the winning team

I had lunch with a good friend of mine I haven’t seen in a year earlier today. He has had a lot of challenges over the last few years, but since I last saw him, he described his life as having changed quite a bit. He said he quit smoking, and stuck with it, as well as lost weight and did martial arts regularly now. The key, he said, was finding a good group of people to be around, and that gave him the necessary support to stay with it.

Interestingly, I also talked with a co-worker yesterday who has been vegetarian for years, and never had meat since. I mentioned I had tried and failed regularly, and he said that for him it was actually easy because all his friends were vegetarian.

Between yesterday’s conversation, and today’s lunch, this reminded me of the famous Upaddha Sutta (SN. 45.2) in the Pali Canon. I’ve mentioned this sutra before, but I think that it bears retelling. In this sutra, the Buddha argues that the entirety of the holy life, as a Buddhist, and as a monk, is to surround yourself with good, like-minded friends:

“…Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.

Whether you are quitting smoking, alcohol, losing weight or trying to follow the Buddhist path, it’s so much easier when you are surrounding by people whom you can learn good qualities from. The “stick-it-out” approach really just doesn’t work. We are social creatures, and if we spend too much time around people with negative habits, we’ll be inclined to pick up those habits, but if we socialize with people with positive habits, they’ll just naturally rub off on us.

After recently talking in person with my friend Kyoushin from the UK, he stated that in the Higashi Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism there is a lot of emphasis on the compassion and wisdom of Amida Buddha through people we meet, whereas the Nishi Hongwanji branch (found here in the US), focuses on direct experience with Amida Buddha. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, just a question of emphasis. I think the Higashi Hongwanji folks are right in that if you really want to see the compassion of the Buddha at work, just look around and see how friends and loved ones support your, even if they’re not consciously doing it.

There is good basis to this in Buddhism, since we have no independent-nature in this existence; we are not separate from anyone around us. This is what is called emptiness (empty of an independent self), anattā (no-self) or independent co-arising. Because we have no independent nature as separate from others and our environment, what people do around us has a direct bearing on who we are and our nature. So naturally, if the people around us follow wholesome habits and lifestyle, our nature will change accordingly. In other words, we’re a product of our environment. So put yourself in a wholesome environment, not a negative one.

Good luck and may the Force be with you! 😉

Namuamidabu

Between reality and fantasy

Nick swore he’d die with his boots on, on some exotic safari, but he found his Kilimanjaro in a hospital on Earth where they’d cured everything that was bothering him, except for the galloping pneumonia he’d picked up in the hospital. That had been, roughly, two hundred and fifty years ago. I’d been a pallbearer.
–Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

Finished reading Isle of the Dead yesterday, and as always, it is a good read. A little dark, but very good reading, and just cool Roger Zelazny as usual. I enjoy the quote above because it reminds me that life often goes against us, no matter how smart or clever or even stubborn we are. Life is surprisingly fragile, and if causes and conditions turn out just so, then that’s it.

I am reminded of Rennyo’s Letter on White Ashes, translated by Hisao Inagaki:

“When I deeply contemplate the transient nature of human life, I realize that, from beginning to end, life is impermanent like an illusion. We have not yet heard of anyone who lived ten thousand years. How fleeting is a lifetime!

Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes. Once the winds of impermanence have blown, our eyes are instantly closed and our breath stops forever. Then, our radiant face changes its color, and the attractive countenance like peach and plum blossoms is lost. Family and relatives will gather and grieve, but all to no avail? Since there is nothing else that can be done, they carry the deceased out to the fields, and then what is left after the body has been cremated and has turned into the midnight smoke is just white ashes. Words fail to describe the sadness of it all.

Thus the ephemeral nature of human existence is such that death comes to young and old alike without discrimination. So we should all quickly take to heart the matter of the greatest importance of the afterlife, entrust ourselves deeply to Amida Buddha, and recite the nembutsu. Humbly and respectfully.”

Rennyo (1414-1499)

Namuamidabu

Pondering the Iliad

While listening to Stone Temple Pilots’ first album, Core, tonight, I started thinking about the Iliad. You see, I have a habit of listening to certain music that fits a mood when reading a specific book I like. To me it enhances the mood a lot. It’s a habit of mine, but I found it really works.

The two may not seem to go together at first, but give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. The song “Wicked Garden” for example reminds me of the part when the Greeks (called the Achaeans) first marshall on the battlefield. I can imagine legions and legions of bad-ass Greek warriors lined up eager for battle. The song “Sin” reminds me later when the Greeks are hard-pressed by the Trojans and nearly routed.

I haven’t read the Iliad in a while, but I pick up the book once every couple of years and read it again. It still remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The Odyssey is probably more well-known in American culture because of it’s more mythological nature, but I love the Iliad for the sheer human struggle and the wide array of characters. Out of the Iliad, I always liked Telemonian Ajax (the larger Ajax) because he’s the most consistent of the Greek warriors, and Nestor, who though old, can still fight well. The other Greeks had their moments of glory (called “aristeia” in ancient Greek), then were defeated or wounded. With Ajax he simply fought well and keep Greeks alive when their backs were to the ocean.

In a way though, I always sympathized with Hektor the most, given that his brother Paris (called “Alexandros” in the Iliad) stole Helen and brought the wrath of the Greeks upon Troy. Hektor fought bravely through most of the novel, but he was also human, and had his faults. He ran from Achilleus because he knew he could never face him and win, and he gloated over Patroclus’s death, even though Apollo helped smash his armor. Still, I always sided with the underdog, and I always felt bad for Hektor, who never had a real chance to save the Trojans, and simply tried his best to defend them.

Anyways, just some thoughts on the Iliad, nothing more. I love ancient epics, and this plus the Romance of the Three Kingdoms from China, and the Tales of Heike from Japan are among my favorites. If you enjoy epic stories, you can’t go wrong with the Iliad. I recommend the Lattimore translation, which has been my mainstay until recently when the book just fell apart.

Namuamidabu

P.S. Other notable book/song combos of mine:

  • Gibson’s Neuromancer – Gorillaz “Demon Days”
  • Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series – Alice N’ Chains “Dirt”
  • The Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Orgy’s “Blue Monday”

Mythology, Pictures from Kaizozan-Hasedera

(Reposting from old blog, dated Nov. 2007)

While Baby is feeling much better now, I have become sick myself. I should’ve expected that, but I am thick-headed at times. So, right now, I am enjoying the side effects of NyQuil, but before I pass out, I wanted to post some more pictures from Japan, taken in October 2007. These are from another temple I visited named Hasedera, or more formally Kaikōzan Hasedera (海光山長谷寺), in the city Kamakura, just a block or two from the Great Buddha.

I uploaded both pictures to Wikimedia earlier in the day.

Kannon and Jizo and Hasedera temple

This first picture, which I enjoyed most out of this venture, is of a small outdoor incense burner, but features two Buddhist bodhisattvas: Kannon on the left and Jizo on the right. It’s unusual to see two figures standing side by side like this, so I thought it was interesting. The Kannon statue features a crown with 11 heads on it. This is based on an old myth where Kannon was so overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, that his mentor, Amida Buddha, split his head into 11, and gave him 1000 arms to better assist the world. This is more myth than Buddhist religion, but illustrates the notion that Kannon was striving endlessly to help the world.

Jizo features his famous staff which he uses to protect those in need, and allows him to traverse the Hell realms, teaching the Dharma so that beings there can be free. The rings on the staff, when shaken, reverberate with the Dharma, so to speak.

The second picture is from the top of Hasedera itself:

Ocean view from Kaikozan Hasedera

This is out facing the Pacific Ocean and the old city of Kamakura. According to the pamphlet, you can see Sagami Bay and Miura Peninsula, for those into geography. Typical of many Japanese temples, there were vending machines there, but also a nice little cafe. This is tucked in the corner of the temple so it did not interfere with the actual visitation of various buildings.

Hasedera was actually pretty large and contained multiple buildings. The temple also had a long underground cave devoted to the sea goddess, Benzaiten, who apparently is an import of the Hindu god Sarasvatî. When I visited Japan in 2005, we visited the famous temple of Sanjusangendo,* which featured a very long hall containing many, many statues of Kannon. In front of these statues were life-like statues of various other Hindu gods, including Shiva and Vishnu, who had been imported into Buddhism as protector deities.

This is pretty typical of the Shingon and especially Tendai sects of Buddhism, as well as even earlier sects, which created a kind of synthesis between the native Shinto religion, Buddhism, and also Hindu gods. This helped to make Buddhism more palatable for the Japanese government who up to this time followed Shinto and Confucianism (a Chinese import) only. It’s very common at that time to see a Shinto** god, like Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, treated as an incarnation of a Buddhist figure, like Mahavairocana, the Buddha of the Sun. In the epic classic, the Tales of the Heike, you see quite a bit of this, which can be real confusing to Western audiences who aren’t familiar with this association.***

Later Buddhist sects, such as Zen, Nichiren and particularly Jodo Shinshu, eschewed a lot of this, preferring to focus on specific Buddhist figures only.

Interestingly, even in more orthodox Buddhist texts such as the Pali Canon, the Hindu gods do play minor roles. In the Maha-samaya Sutta (DN 20), the Buddha gives a long discourse on the cosmology of the heaven realms, with references to Indra, kind of the Hindu gods, and Vishnu (called Vendu). In the Ayacana Sutta (SN 6.1), another god, Brahma Sahampati convinces him to teach the dharma despite his doubts. In Buddhism, the gods are largely absorbed as protectors of the Dharma.

So anyways, I would certainly recommend visiting this temple along with visiting the nearby Great Buddha. They are so close, that you can cover both in a day, though you’ll have little time for else. I definitely enjoyed the art of this temple, but didn’t connect with it religiously the way I did with Tsukiji Hongwanji. This temple definitely felt more like a museum to Japanese medieval Buddhism, albeit a very fascinating one.

So that’s all for now. Take care everyone!

Namo Amida Butsu

* – Speaking of Kannon statues with 1000 arms…try viewing hundreds of them!

** – People often confuse Shinto and Buddhism since they’re both Japanese religions. They couldn’t be more further apart. Shinto is a native Japanese religion dealing with gods, charms, and various superstitions. It has no real structure, or organization, or explanation of metaphysics (i.e. the afterlife). Since Shinto and Buddhism are so far apart, they actually can both be worshipped in Japanese culture without too much conflict. In Tibet, this similarly is the case between Buddhism and the native religion of Bön

*** – On that note, I am currently reading the mysterious Golden Light Sutra, which was very popular at that time in Japanese Buddhism because of its reference to protecting one’s nation. Offices had been setup with monks chanting this very lengthy sutra over and over again to protect the country from calamity.

Awesome!

Japanese Buddhism gets a lot of criticism for having degenerated into what some people call a “funeral business”, but I saw this story on Tricycle Editor’s blog, and thought it was great story:

http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=753769

This article involves a certain famous Japanese monastery called Zenkōji (善光寺), which is a Tendai/Jodo-Shu temple. Originally the temple was slated to take part in the Olympic Torch relay, but decided to take a stand and pull out due to controversies surrounding Tibet. But what I also like was this part:

Buddhist monks said yesterday that they would hold a ceremony of mourning for Tibetans on Saturday at the seventh-century Zenkoji temple, which backed out of being the starting point for the relay.

My family-in-law in Japan have complained in the past that some of the local temples they know are pretty much just business, and don’t really practice what they preach. For example, for the recent holiday of Hanamatsuri, the Buddha’s Birthday, some of the local temples had no real celebration. Also, I remember visiting famous temples in Japan in 2005 and 2007, and some just felt like tourist-traps/museums to me. I didn’t feel anything spiritual there.

However, seeing that Zenkōji is taking an active, ethical stance to the China/Tibet issue makes me feel proud of those monks. I am glad to see these monks of Zenkōji are willing to take a risk politically and speak out on ethical issues they take seriously. That tells me that they these monks are not just interested in collecting donations, but really care about Buddhism, Buddhists and welfare for others.

Namuamidabu

Mantras explained

I found this website on Tendai Buddhism in California (kindly posted on e-sangha by another member), that had a nice summary explanation* of why mantras feature so prominently in Buddhism. I particularly thought this was helpful:

And the recitation of mantra has many other uses and benefits as well. If one with faith in the teacher takes up repetition practice (JAPA), the meaning may not become clear until after 100,000 repetitions, even a million repetitions. However, other benefits will be quickly discovered, things like calming, awareness, becoming concentrated, turning inward and see your thoughts as in a mirror, seeing how quickly thoughts change, and how the two sides of the brain exchange places on center stage. By diligent effort, you will experience how to slow down and stop the replay of the day’s conversations, allowing deeper layers of the mind to become visible, and allowing the Buddhadharma to manifest its power to overcome suffering.

I think this is a great explanation because it helps to demystify mantras somewhat, without compromising their meaning. It has a short-term value in helping to calm the mind and leave it open to reflection, but also has a long-term value in revealing deeper truths. Also it was interesting to note that the article listed the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) as a mantra, which in this definition probably does make sense. In Jodo Shinshu, the nembutsu is treated as a recitation of faith, or more appropriately, an expression of gratitude, but I suppose that it also fits the definitely above if you look at it from another angle.

Anyways, something interesting to pass along.

Namuamidabu

* – The website sadly uses HTML frames, and in a way that’s kind of awkward, so be patient. 🙂 I’ve noticed that Buddhist masters generally aren’t proficient web designers, which leads me to suspect that HTML 4.01 is not on the path to Enlightenment. Oh well.

Hungry Ghosts are among us

The dead are too much with us.
–Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

Hungry ghosts, or shades, are a part of Buddhism often forgotten in modern interpretations, but encompass an important part of traditional Buddhism. Hungry ghosts, or peta in Sanskrit, are those beings who lived a life of strong cravings so much so that their cravings persist beyond death. Thus, they live as shades, or ghosts, starving and without any comfort. Rebirth as a hungry ghost is thought to be only one step above Hell because you are not actively tormented, but they live life tormented by hunger and thirst.

In the Pali Canon, there is a little-known section called the Petavatthu, containing poems and stories about Hungry Ghosts. This is in the Khuddaka or “short stories” collection in the Canon. Anyways, a friend and reader found this wonderful poem yesterday on Accesstoinsight.com, explaining the virtue of offering food to the hungry shades. This practice is also done in Japan during the holiday of Obon (お盆), where people traditionally leave a tray of food outside their door for any hungry ghosts to eat.

Of note in this poem are the lines:

“He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
   they were my relatives, companions, friends”:
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus
on things done in the past.
For no weeping,
   no sorrowing
   no other lamentation
      benefits the dead
      whose relatives persist in that way.

Even in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we are taught that one should reflect on all the efforts of those who came before you, and how we benefit from them. Reflecting thus, we become grateful and humbled by their efforts, and strangely comforted as well. This is also reflected in the Japanese phrase okagesama de, which is a common answer to when someone asks “how are you”? It simply means, “I live in the shadow of others (and thus benefit)”, which is a very Buddhist way to look at one’s life. Because of the efforts of loves ones past, we live and thrive. 🙂

At the same time, the poem dispells the need for excessive grief either. Life is not meant to be one unending sorrow, but rather the efforts of our loved ones is a reason to pause and reflect. Self-reflection is a very important part of Buddhism, of which meditation is just one tool for self-reflection. A Buddhist who does not reflect upon his or her life, is someone who isn’t paying attention. And so, rather than wailing and grieving, one should simply be grateful and appreciate the life and time they spent with those now dead. Life is impermanent and inconsistent; there’s no avoiding this. You can’t fight it, or change it. You can simply come to terms with it, and thereby gain your freedom.

When I think about my ancestors, I often think about how my daughter and maybe her children (my grandchildren to-be) will think about my efforts, and my wife’s efforts. Hopefully they will be feel loved and appreciated, and if so, all is well. 😀

Namuamidabu