Good Buddhist practice: sleep

I’ve been in a bad funk all week, especially the last two days, and I think it largely derives from little sleep. I have noticed in the past that I am much more surly, and less mindful when I don’t sleep well. Last night I actually did go to bed early, but Baby, who sleeps in bed with us, was pretty restless and so we didn’t sleep well at all. It’s not her fault, of course. She’s just a baby. The other nights though were all my fault though when I just stayed up too late.

However, this afternoon, I took a small nap, and since then I’ve been feeling much more clear-headed and positive. So, if you’re struggling with Buddhism, or with life in general, go get a good night’s sleep. If you’re not sleeping enough in general, that’s a sign that you may need to adjust your habits (like blogging 😉 ). Remember, there’s only so much time in the day, so use it well. 😀

I remember listening to a Dharma Talk online by Ajahn Brahm, where he mentioned that at one meditation retreat he hosted, two of the guests just slept in their rooms the first day, but he didn’t mind. He figured they were genuinely exhausted and needed the break. The following day they came in and did just fine. Ajahn Brahm also pointed out how in his own monastery, if the monks are up late night chanting, that’s the only time he’s ever observed monks getting into fights. Sleep deprivation is a real problem, even if we think we can take it, so don’t underestimate your body’s need for sleep.

Namo tassa Bhagavato,
Arahato, Sammasambuddhasa

Buddhist-Lite, version 2

This is dedicated to Marcus, who enjoyed this blog post on the old blog, now gone. Oftentimes when I get burned out on doctrinal debates, or when I get on one of my over-achieving fits, I like to return to a simpler practice, which I call Buddhism-lite.* Here, by simpler, I don’t believe in compromising the teachings of the Buddha though. Instead, I try to focus on things here that a simply lay Buddhist, especially those who don’t have access to a good community, or swamped with lay life, can do.

Buddhism at its heart is about:

  • Sila – Good, clean living.
  • Samadhi – Some kind of Buddhist practice or practices.
  • Pañña – Wisdom.

So with that, here’s my approach toward Buddhism-lite. I keep it as doctrinally-neutral as I can, so anyone can try it out:

  1. Each day, try to follow the Five Precepts. If you make a mistake, just try again. Think of the last attempt as a dress rehearsal. 🙂 This is both a challenging and rewarding practice.
  2. Find something good to chant, that’s short and easy to stick with. I like chanting the Heart Sutra, the 10-verse Kannon Sutra, or the Morning Pali chant used in Thailand. Or just recite the Three Refuges in English.
  3. I think people in the West kind of blow meditation way out proportion, but it helps to try and meditate even as little as 10 minutes a week. I sometimes meditate at work in a dark, vacant office if I am burned out that day. Try to make this fit your schedule, not the other way around.
  4. In regard to wisdom, it helps to read books a little, but people can rely on books too much. Wisdom is something acquired through living, not books, but if you don’t watch out for it, you may miss it. Being around other, more experienced Buddhists is a really big help, so find people in your area.

Anyways, enjoy and remember that Buddhism is about kindness, peace and understanding.


* – Now with half the calories! Actually, I think this term Buddhism-lite is often used in a negative sense to mean people who dabble in Buddhism, but don’t take its teachings seriously. I use it here in a positive sense.

The Buddha as doctor

Medicine Buddha

I started reading the Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva recently, and I pondered this quote below in Chapter 10:

This earth is crowded with the insane, so diligent in deluding themselves!

It is a pretty strong statement, but last night while washing dishes, I realized that while it’s exaggerated (probably for dramatic effect), it’s kind of true. In other Buddhist texts, it states that all people suffer from delusion in one form or another, but I think a more modern and readable way, it’s just saying we all suffer from mental illness.

Sometimes when I observe myself, I wonder why I do the things I do. I bet you do too. 🙂 When I pondered this in light of the notion of being mentally ill, a lot of things fell into place, good things. If you think about it, just about every has suffered some kind of trauma in their life, suffers from low-self-esteem, suffers from some kind of insecurity. We’re all mentally ill in some degree or another. But the reason why I felt relieved at this thought is that illnesses can be cured. When someone suffers from a phobia for example, it can seem like a terrible burden, but when you get over the phobia, you realize in hindsight that it’s really small. It’s a big relief.

Most if not all of the behavior we do, good and bad, is due to external causes and conditions. Why do we have the nervous habits we have? Why do we vote Democrat not Republican? Why do we eat beef, but hate onions? These mental habits have accumulated in our minds over a lifetime of experiences, wholesome and traumatic, and shape who we are. But at the same time, they are not really our own thoughts. I think this is why Buddhists don’t believe in the notion of a true, permanent sense of self. There’s nothing really in our minds we can truly call our own, or something intrinsic. When born, we start as a clean slate, but as experiences shape our minds, we develop more of a personality that we carry around the rest of our lives.

So I think that’s why the Buddha is often referred to as a doctor. He rightly diagnosed people as mentally ill, victims of their own mental habits, but offered a clear analysis of the problem, and then a way to free yourself from these mental habits and accumulations. The picture above depicts a celestial Buddha called the Medicine Buddha. The Medicine Buddha represents the Buddha as a doctor or healer, who diagnoses the affliction, and offers a way to cure it. Pretty cool when you think about it. 🙂


The Importance of Friends

Kind of rewriting a post from the previous blog. Recently I found this wonderful sutra from the Pali Canon that details the importance of being around a good Buddhist community, and why the “lone-wolf” approach doesn’t work well. The sutra is the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2), emphasis added:

Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. 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.

It’s not enough to be around just any Buddhist community, some are cults or have just fallen into money-making or factional fighting, but rather you need to be around people who are sincere Buddhists and provide inspiration to you to keep going. Without good friends to challenge and keep you going, you’ll either become complacent (as lone-wolf meditation types tend to do), or if around a poor community, you’ll pick up bad habits and views, or just get stressed out more so.

Of course, if you live somewhere where this is no community, you’ve got a problem. Many Westerners still live in areas where Buddhist temples are really hard to come by. That’s not your fault, it’s just circumstance. That’s where you have to be creative and either make concerted trips to good temple somewhere, or meet people online. My experience though so far is that online communities just aren’t as good as the real thing. The conversations I have at the ol’ Temple are something that don’t come up often on the Web. Then again, I’ve met a lot of great people on the Web, so there’s something positive there too.

Don’t consider this a hard-fast rule, but rather as valuable advice from the Buddha.


Imagery of the Pure Land sutras

This came up in today’s Dharma Talk at the ol’ Temple today, and I wanted to share some thoughts on this with folks. People who first encounter Pure Land Buddhism in general are often put off by the fantastic imagery used in describing the Pure Land. It sounds like a paradise realm for small-minded followers who don’t put in the effort to attain Enlightenment themselves. Take for example this excerpt from Rev. Inagaki’s excellent translation of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life:

[14] Again, seven-jewelled trees completely fill that land. There are some made of gold, some of silver, and others made of beryl, crystal, coral, ruby or agate. There are also trees made of two to seven kinds of jewels.

The descriptions of jewelled trees, having any kind of food you want, and so on, all sound just too fantastic to be true. Even Pure Land Buddhists I know at the temple get discouraged when they see this, and wonder if it’s all fake or just someone’s fancy.

Having been doing a lot of reading lately, I noticed this excerpt from Chapter 6 of the Lotus Sutra, with Watson’s excellent translation. After the Buddha Shakyamuni bestows his prophecy to Mahakashyapa, he describes the “Buddha-realm” Mahakashyapa will have after attaining Buddha-hood:

His realm will be majestically adorned, free of defilement or evil, shards or rubble, thorns or briers, or the unclean refuse of latrines. The land will be level and smooth, without high places or sags, pits or knolls. The ground will be of lapis lazuli, with rows of jeweled trees and ropes of gold to mark the boundaries of the roads.

It’s interesting to note that these passages are very similar. It seems that this description of a Buddha-realm as being adorned with jewels and pleasant things is a common literary device for the composers of the Mahayana sutras.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that The Pali Canon often “recycles” certain stock phrases as well, so it’s not just a Mahayana thing.

I think part of this is that when sutras were first committed to memory by the early followers, they had to be heavily edited and rearranged for easier memorization. So, every sutra you ever read always sounds stilted and stylized; it’s probably the only way the early Buddhists could keep track of voluminous sutras in their minds.

In any case, having noticed this a while back, I have had to ask myself “what can I take away from this as a Buddhist?” A literary device, once you notice it, kind of loses it’s meaning. However, having had time to think about this, like Shinran, I believe that the Pure Land really is nothing but Nirvana itself. Not a geographic place, but Nirvana plain and simple.

Once, while listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 10-lecture series on Buddhism, his explanation of Nibbana in the Pali Canon sounded very much like another state of existence, not annihilation. He used terms like “deathless” and “blissful”, which if you carefully analyze, relate to Amida as the Buddha of “Infinite Life” (i.e. deathless) and the realm of the Pure Land which is also described as blissful.

Also, in the Larger Sutra, there are a lot of references to people hearing the Dharma in the breeze, in the singing of birds, etc. I think this is pretty noteworthy, and shows that the Pure Land is not a paradise in the Christian sense, but a state of profound understanding:

One can hear whatever sound one wishes. For example, some hear the sound ‘Buddha,’ some hear the sound ‘Dharma,’ some ‘Sangha,’ others hear ‘tranquillity,’ ’emptiness and non-self,’ ‘great compassion,’ ‘paramita,’ ‘ten powers,’ ‘fearlessness,’ ‘special qualities,’ ‘supernatural powers,’ ‘non-activity,’ ‘neither arising nor perishing,’ ‘insight into the non-arising of all dharmas,’ and so on until the various sounds of the wonderful Dharma, such as ‘the sprinkling of nectar upon the head of a bodhisattva,’ are heard. As one hears those sounds, one attains immeasurable joy and accords with the principles of purity, absence of desires, extinction, and reality.

So, when I ponder the Pure Land Sutras, I think they’re telling us something far more profound than that the Pure Land is some kind of paradise. I am also reminded of the words of Shinran in the Tannishō, section IV:

The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings completely as we desire.

The Pure Land is not a terminal place to live out one’s pleasures; it’s a state of reality where we become something far greater, so that we can help others achieve peace and liberation.


— Doug

Tsukiji Hongwanji

Tsukiji Hongwanji (築地本願寺) is the major Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple in the Tokyo area. Hongwanji just means Temple of the Primal Vow [by Amida Buddha to help all beings], and many Jodo Shinshu temples are called Hongwanji. The name Tsukiji refers to the district in Tokyo by the way.

Anyways, as mentioned in a previous post, I visited a number of famous temples in the Tokyo, Kamakura and northern areas, but Tsukiji Hongwanji really stood out in a special way, so I wanted to talk about it in a separate post. I went there on a cloudy but muggy day with my wife, Baby, and my mother-in-law whose a devout Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. Across the street we enjoyed lunch at a really great Soba shop.*

From the start I would describe Tsukiji Hongwanji as a whole as nice and warm. Not in a cultish “we’re going to suck you in” way, but rather in the sense that staff and followers really cared about the place, and took pride in it. My wife and I both noticed this, and talked about it later. Some of the other temples we had visited felt kind of cold, and stodgy, and almost felt like it was museums soliciting donations.** Tsukiji felt like a real religious community and family.

The main hall, or hondō (本堂), in Japanese, was amazing! Imagine a huge cathedral-like hall, with Indian-style pillars, but the whole thing is tastefully done with Japanese aesthetics.

I think Tsukiji has the most beautiful hall of any temple I have ever seen. It was subtle, warm, but really grand at the same time. We came in the middle of a weekday, so there were a lot of empty chairs. We picked a good spot near the middle aisle, while I wandered the back and sides with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest.

I remember seeing one old man sitting way in the back corner peacefully taking a nap, as well as old ladies making prayers. However, to my surprise, there were also younger businessmen who had obviously stopped in for lunch, and even one teenage Japanese schoolgirl (sailor uniform and all) came in with her rosary and sat down too. You could really feel the devotion among these folks.

The overall layout of the main hall is very similar to the Jodo Shinshu temple I go to at home in Seattle, but on a much grander scale. The colors are the same too. Jodo Shinshu temples use lots of gold color in the altar area, symbolizing the Light (光明 kōmyō) of Amida Buddha. For comparison, I noticed that Shingon Buddhist temples use more red and black lacquer.

In any case, the best part was that we came just before a service. The service began when about 15 young men about my age came out, led by an elder, and lined up in front of the altar. They played very traditional Japanese music, and then began chanting some hymns written by Shinran back in the day.

Later, I went to the next door office and bought a Buddhist altar there. Keep in mind that up to this point, I have been using a homemade altar I built using a box lid and an image of Amida. I’ll talk about it in a separate post.

Anyways, after the service we all were in a good mood so we went to Cafe de Shinran. In the corner of the vast parking lot sits a modern cafe named Cafe de Shinran:

Their iced mocha was quite good, and really hit the spot before the long train ride home.*** I found out later the cafe is only there for a limited time, so if you’re going soon, don’t miss out.

I think I would describe the day at Tsukiji as warm, spiritual and just a really good day. I was really glad to have made the pilgrimage to Tsukiji****, and it made me feel more confident about my own faith as a whole, particularly since Jodo Shinshu Buddhists are such a minority even in the American Buddhist community. I think it was a religious experience if there ever was one.

For the upcoming 750th anniversary of Shinran’s memorial in 2012 (see bottom of link), my wife and I definitely have planned another pilgrimage here.

Namo Amida Butsu

* – If you’re facing the entrance to Tsukiji, go left down the block. Across the street, right at the corner is the soba shop. Look for the word そば (soba) in big, cursive letters on the sign. They don’t speak English, but their tempura soba was just awesome.

** – Tsukiji had the ubiquitous donation boxes too (they all have wooden grills at the top to throw coins into), but I also noticed that near the main hall entrance were donation boxes to help with disaster relief. I never saw this at another temple I visited. I know my temple in Seattle makes donations for disaster relief, but it was really reassuring to see that Tsukiji does too.

*** – In Japan, people don’t drive as much. It’s all about vast the train system. It’s great except when you have to take 3 train lines to go where you want, like we did going to Tsukiji. Overall though, the train system is awesome, and you can get pretty much anywhere. My in-laws happen to live near a station that isn’t popular, so it’s hard to get on a good train line without transfering at least once.

**** – Tsukiji is a major pilgrimage site for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists.

Pure Land Buddhism and Antinomianism

Jon, a reader of my previous blog, wrote and asked recently:

“I was thinking that if a person recites Nembutsu once with the simplistic belief that ‘There, I recited Nembustsu once and I don’t have to ever again and I don’t have to practice Buddhist practice ever again because I am now guaranteed entry to the Pure Land’, then that person did not recite Nembutsu with sincerity and therefore would not gain entry into the Pure Land.”

This notion of “being saved, I can commit all the evil I want” is called antinomianism* in philosophy, and Honen had some things to say about it:

There are those who say that the effort to avoid sin and improve oneself is making light of Amida’s Vow, and that frequent repetition of the nembutsu, and the effort to pile up a large number of them is equivalent to doubting his saving power, and many such like things one sometimes hears. But do not for a moment be misled by such misconceptions. Is there any place in any of the sutras where Amida encourages man to sin? Certainly not. Such things come from those who make no effort to get away from their own evil deeds, and who go on in their former sinful life. By such utterly unreasonable and false sayings, they would mislead ignorant men and women, urging them forward in the committing of sin and stirring up their evil passions within them. Now such person are nothing less than a company of devils, and their work heathenish, and you ought to think them as enemies of your reaching birth into that Pure Land of Perfect Bliss…

(Found on page 39 of Honen: The Buddhist Saint)

So, Jon, you’re right. If people have a flippant attitude toward the nembutsu, thinking that they can commit evil later just because they have taken refuge in Amida, then they misunderstand the point of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran’s own son, Zenran, once tried founding a cult based on similar nonsense, so Shinran wrote him a stern letter saying: Do not take poison just because there is an antidote.**

Shinran did feel that much of the evil within us is due to past karma and conditions which “color” our life here (this is not new in Buddhism), but at the same time, he taught that in spite of one’s evil and passionate behavior, they should take refuge in Amida all the more so.

Hope that helps. 🙂

* – This is an interesting question in Christian theology as well.

** – Section XIII of the Tannisho.