The Memorial Weekend that doesn’t suck

I was stuck at home this weekend on-call, meaning that I carry a pager and am tied to my laptop within a 15-minute radius, such that if I get paged I have to respond within that time. This limits what I can do this Memorial Day weekend, but all things considered, it’s been a great weekend. Yesterday, we had a barbeque at a friend’s house. Our friends have Internet access, so I just setup my laptop there but thankfully wasn’t paged at all. The weather was truly pleasant and couldn’t have been a better temperature. Baby enjoyed playing with the little boy (two months older) and everyone had good Korean-style barbeque* and my wife’s soy/vinegar/honey chicken. πŸ™‚

Today was nice too. My sister, the rap star, came over and announced that she is now officially engaged to her boyfriend. We are really happy for her, because years ago, she was deeply involved with another fellow, who tragically was shot and killed while trying to break up a bar fight. He had just finished basic training in the military, and was just starting to succeed in a life frought with challenges. So, for a long time, my sister took his death hard and had to rebuild her life. The fellow she is engaged to now is another really nice fellow whom my wife and I like alot. They make a good “opposites attract” pair (just like us) and I sincerely wish them the best. πŸ™‚

Baby has been really active lately now that she can walk much better now. At 16, almost 17, months, she is walking pretty routinely now and rarely crawls anymore. However, now we are spending more time chasing her because she is getting more assertive about what she wants and doesn’t want. This is challenging because she’s still too young to really discipline (how do you talk to or rationalize with a 16-month old baby girl?), but at the same time, we have to give her boundaries. She is pretty well-behaved overall, but if she really wants to do something, it’s hard to give it up without finding a more interesting distraction, or just picking her up and enduring the struggling and crying. At the same time though, she’s really developing more personality than before. She’s the same cute and shy girl we knew, but she interacts more with us, and her babbling is more complex before. She also likes to play more games with us than before. Just today, I chased her at the local Starbucks and she was happy and giggling as ever. Quite fun for a father, really. πŸ˜‰

Anyways, compared to a disastrous camping trip two Memorial Day Weekends ago, this has been great. That camping trip involved the same group of friends, our dog Napoleon (now passed away), and a lot of rain. My wife and I had bought the cheapest camping equipment we could and suffered cold and wet in the rain for 3 days. I remember one night, sleeping next to the damp, rain saturated wall, when I had a nightmare in my sleep of drowning in water. As I woke up, I was so disoriented, I flailed about the tent and shook my wife awake yelling “WATER! WATER!”. She was really confused by this, when I suddenly realized it was a dream. Sadly, all our friends in nearby tents awoke to my yelling too. :p We still retell that story from time to time.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day proper, but I don’t have much to say on the subject that 50 other Buddhist blogs will say better (but that may not stop me from writing anyways), so happy Memorial Day all!

Namuamidabu

P.S. One thing I noticed from the barbeque yesterday is that I really, really need to get out more. I was fairly busy outside of work with martial arts classes and temple activities, but after my wife got pregnant, everything ground to a halt, and two years later, I rarely spend time with friends outside of work or anything like that. Starting a new family and working a busy job, with on-call hours, will just do this to a person. When I was at the barbeque yesterday, I was so happy to talk to other people, I kept blathering on the whole night. :p

I realized later that my furious blog writing is probably my one consistent outlet too for communicating to others. That’s kind of sad in a way. πŸ™‚ I really should get out and enjoy life more.

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Pessimism in Pure Land Buddhism

Yesterday I wrote a post about how I had a better grasp of Honen’s approach to Pure Land Buddhism, with emphasis on how it viewed other practices. In particular, I was talking about this article:

http://www.jsri.jp/English/Honen/TEACHINGS/senchaku/process.html

This article, very well written, provides a kind of path that one goes through along the Pure Land Buddhist path, and on first (and second) read, I thought this resolved my confusion over Pure Land and more “traditional” Buddhist approaches, but after re-reading the article overnight, and reading more about Honen’s approach to Pure Land Buddhism, I have changed my mind. I have also removed the previous post as I think it was inaccurate.

Pure Land Buddhism in general assumes a kind of pessimism that we are so far removed from the time of the Buddha that we can no longer put his teachings into practice. It is true that in general Buddhist thought the notion of impermanence applies to Buddhism as a religion as anything else in the world, and the Pure Land approach doesn’t malign these teachings that make up the religion, they simply see people as no longer capable of following them.

I couldn’t articulate my sense of Pure Land Buddhism lately, but now I think I know how to describe it: Pessimistic.

There are wonderful teachings, especially in Jodo Shinshu how people are supported by others through compassion and kindness throughout their lives. Then of course, the imagery of the Pure Land itself, especially when taken in light as a refuge for practicing the Dharma, is also lovely. I also love the persona of Honen and Shinran reaching out to forgotten and lost peoples and teaching them in ways other people didn’t. The story of Honen talking with the prostitute and offering her hope out of her situation is really touching to me, as is the story of Honen and the ex-thief Kyō Amidabutsu.

But there’s a nagging sense of pessimism to Pure Land that still bothers me. It makes a blanket negative statement that people can’t put the Buddha’s teachings into practice, but experience has taught me that this is not always true. I’ve met people, people I know well personally, who do live a pretty wholesome lifestyle. If they aren’t following all five precepts, they’re pretty close. These people may not be enlightened in this lifetime, but I am sure they’re well on their way. In the same light, I’ve met many people who even if Buddhist, certainly don’t act like it (this applies to me as well).

The point is is that I think assuming that people are pretty much incapable of attaining enlightenment is a distortion of the truth; it’s overly pessimistic. In the same light, Buddhists who strongly advocate the “innate enlightenment” teaching found in Zen and other groups, are being naively optomistic.

No pun intended, but I do believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Buddha taught that there were three kinds of arrogance:

  1. Assuming you were better than others.
  2. Assuming you were worse than others.
  3. Assuming you were the same as others.

The Buddha was teaching that one should hold no thoughts about how one compares to others, as this is just another form of ego. In the same way, assuming that people are innately enlightened, or hopeless is just another distortion. One or the other may be true, or neither, but in any case, it’s pointless to speculate; better to just focus on one’s situation and practice as the Buddha taught.

Make no mistake, the road to Enlightenment is hard, but if one even tries, they’ve nowhere to go but up. If one adopts even one moral precept, they’ve advanced that much further down the path. If a person resolves to stop swearing, to help out more at home, or whatever, than those too are advances on the path.

The Buddhist path is not an all-or-nothing path (am I Enlightened? am I not?). It’s a series of progressions, such that if one progresses long enough, they’ll look back and say “wow, I’ve come far”.

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa

P.S. Oddly enough, I find myself mentally coming back to the Heart Sutra after writing this:

Sariputra, the emptiness character
of all dharmas
[all conditioned phenoma],
neither arises nor ceases,
is neither pure nor impure, and
neither increases nor decreases.

Japanese language: the difference between “wa” and “ga”

Just wanted to point something out. The key to speaking good, fluent Japanese and the awkward, newbie stuff (like me!) is understanding how to use the right words to efficiently convey some meaning. Learning how to use the particles “wa” and “ga” is especially important. These two particles are very similar in one way, but they have subtle differences that change what you’re trying to say.

This site does a pretty nice job of highlighting the differences. It’s not clear-cut, but this helps one decide when speaking which one is more appropriate for what you want to say. πŸ™‚

Have a good weekend!

P.S. More updated and thorough explanation in later post.

Japanese Calendar system

I’ve been brushing up on my Japanese lately in anticipation of a trip we’ll be taking this December for Japanese New Year, and I’ve been learning more about keeping time, dates and such. I was going to write a big ol’ explanation of what I found so far, but then I found delightful Wikipedia article that talked about Japanese calendars in depth. My wife and I get calendars from her parents in Japan (who in turn get them from others), and although the days and months are the same, there’s a lot of extra information I did not know before such as:

  • The 6 unlucky/lucky days or rokuyō (ε…­ζ›œ).
  • The traditional names for the months. These kanji are definitely poetic because even the readings (on-yomi) are obscure or at least don’t show up in any of my dictionaries.
  • The reign names for Japanese Emperors.

This is the part that I think is the most misunderstood. People in the West usually call the Emperors by their given names, which is kind non-sensical since we never do that with any other royalty in the world (Rama the IX of Thailand, Queen Elizabeth II, etc). No one in Japan calls the current Emperor Akihito for example, they call him by his reign name, which in this case is Heisei (平成). The last emperor, Hirohito, is called Shōwa (ζ˜­ε’Œ) and so on. These refer to the “era” of that Emperor.

In the olden days, Imperial “eras” changed frequently in the life of an Emperor in Japan. They were not tied to a person, but just a way of inaugurating a new period. Emperors often did this too right after a natural disaster in order to “start fresh”. So, a typical era might only last 3-4 years. After Emperor Meiji though, a lot was changed for Japanese calendars, and now each Emperor had one era, one reign name.

It’s still very common for people in Japan to track their birth year by Reign name and year. Of course, they know the Western system, but at the same time, they also will know that they were born in Shōwa 40 (40th year of the Shōwa Emperor) or Heisei 2 (2nd year of the Heisei Emperor).

By the way, there is a really nice Reign Name Gregorian converter found here. I was born in Shōwa 52 by the way. πŸ™‚

Anyways, just wanted to pass that along. Have a great weekend!*

* – 3-day weekend here in the US, though I am on-call. Doh.

Weird Buddhist Dream II

I woke up kind of early this morning, due to my alarm clock (my cell phone) being set to the wrong time, so at 4:50 I went back to sleep. Then I had a weird dream I thought I’d share.

My wife and I were in a small Buddhist shrine room, in some modern looking building, like an office. It was well-lit, with a window to my right facing the street below (we were on the 2nd or 3rd floor). The back half of the room was this elaborate Buddhist altar, vaguely similar to the one seen here on Wikipedia. There at the back end was a statue with 6 arms, and a brilliant gold color again similar to the one seen in the link. I sat in the back corner of the room for a moment, when my wife said I should go up and make an offering. For some reason, the thought popped into my head, “this is Akashagarbha Bodhisattva“.

So, I stepped up on the raised part of the floor and found an incense brazier, with some sticks of incense for sale. I noticed I had a bunch of $20 bills in my wallet (yay!) and I thought to myself, “I hope I have some one’s”. Sure enough, I had two crisp one-dollar bills which allowed me to buy a stick of incense (for some reason the incense sold for $1.67). I noticed some hot stones nearby for lighting incense, so I lit my incense stick, which for some reason now was broken into 4 pieces. Before I could offer the incense though I woke up.

This is the second time I’ve dreamt about a Bodhisattva (hence the “II” in the title…the old post was lost on the old blog though). The first time, I dreamt about my wife and I offering a huge, huge bundle of incense to a statue of Kannon (Avalokitesvara), but this time it was Kokuzo (Akashagarbha). I don’t necessarily think they’re prophetic or anything like that, I think it’s just my mind projecting what I am feeling at the time, but it’s interesting nevertheless. I was asking about Akashagarbha last night on E-sangha, so obviously it was fresh on my mind.

I did ask a Shingon priest about my first dream (of Kannon) and his interpretation was surprisingly thorough, but also very reassuring. I won’t discuss what he said, but it’s funny a similar dream has come again almost two years later.

An afternoon with the Heart Sutra

Lately, as my interest in Buddhism has moved away from Jodo Shinshu, I have been taking time to read other materials, particularly Zen-oriented ones. The reason for doing this was actually from the post I wrote recently on judging the authenticity of Buddhist sutras. The gist of what Prof. Epstein said was that sutras be judged, in addition to historical context, in how they inspire awakening in people. This in turn got me thinking over the last few days about how to approach Buddhist teachings in general.

In the past, when I used to fret about this school of Buddhism or another, I took it from the (mistaken) view of which one taught the Dharma right. I realize now that this is a wrong way to look at it. Instead, lately I’ve been asking myself the question “what Buddhist teachings resonate with me most?”

This thought also occurred after reading Ven. Yin-Shun’s book and how different people have different inclinations. I realized that people are just different, and have different backgrounds for looking at things. So if person A and person B read the same Buddhist sutra, person A might really learn something from it, but person B might not. Or person B might learn something while person A just finds it boring. Everything responds differently, and that’s reflected in the texts by the way that the Buddha taught different teachings to different people.*

So, looking back, I realized that Pure Land teachings just don’t resonate with me the way that other texts and teachings did. Why? Who knows. It’s the way things seem to have worked out. When I read something lately like Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Heart of Understanding or the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki**, I feel deeply inspired the whole day. Somehow it just works for me, even though it effectively teaches the same truths that I find in Jodo Shinshu texts and books. I guess it’s all a matter of inclination.

So lately, as I told my wife this morning, I feel a strong pull toward Zen teachings. I don’t consider myself a Zen Buddhist (I haven’t even gone to a Zen service, not counting Jundo Sensei’s online ones) but lately I think that’s where I am inclining to. I still believe in Amida and the Pure Land, but I feel like appreciating from a more Zen perspective (like the poet Ryokan), than a strictly Jodo Shinshu one.

Either way, we’ll see how it turns out.

Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. One of these days I want to do a commentary on the Heart Sutra, just because I’ve read it so much and chant it routinely. I am eminently UN-qualified to do so, but why not? πŸ™‚

* – This is reflected in the Pali Canon, when you see various people asking the Buddha the same question (more or less) and he delivering different answers depending on their temperament. Also, this is well epitomized in Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra.

** – I feel like I am coming full-circle in reading this book. It was one of the first Buddhist books I owned when I was 16 (now 30), but my understanding of things matured, I never appreciated this book.

An appreciation of mindfulness

The term mindfulness is something that’s talked about a lot in Buddhism, but if your new to Buddhism, it may not make a lot of sense. This is made more confusing when people talk about “being in the moment” or “no past, no future”, blah blah blah. All mindfulness really means is being mindful of what you’re doing. As Ven. Walpola Rahula wrote in the book What The Buddha Taught, mindfulness isn’t about suppressing angry or cravings when they arise, but just being aware that you are angry or craving something. Interestingly, if you try that, you’ll see that angry or craving dissipate once you’re aware of it.

Since we’re born, we live life in a constant state of reaction to external forces. When we’re hungry, we go eat something; when we see a hot girl, we want to be around her; when someone yells at us, we get angry. From birth to death, it’s a constant string of reactions to external and internal forces, and we suffer from a kind of tunnel vision. It’s not really your fault, since conception, you’re bombarded with input and you have to construct your world based on the limited input you receive. If you received different input (i.e. different environment), you would construct your world a little differently. This is what the Buddha referred to as conditioning: all beings have a conditioned existence, and our minds are deeply conditioned.

Mindfulness is training yourself to not just react to things, but to consider things first, then take action. For example, if your husband or wife yells at you, your first instinct is to yell back louder (eye for an eye, and all that), but if you think about it for a moment, yelling more won’t solve the conflict, it will just throw gasoline on the fire. So, if you are aware that you’re angry, you’ll keep yourself from just blindly yelling back. Instead, that extra half-second of thought will give you time to come up with a more rational response.

All this is well and good though, but how do you become mindful of your actions? This is a life-long process, like following the five moral precepts; no one gets it right the first time, or even the first hundred or thousand times. The point is is that you keep trying. As the Japanese say: nana korobi ya oki (seven times down, eight times back up).

I know this from personal experience. I never took the precepts seriously or mindfulness seriously until after Baby was born. I remember very early on that I resolved to make myself as good a father as I could, but I have a lot of bad habits such as swearing, self-centered personality, and so on. So I’ve had to make gradual changes to my behavior (i.e. train the mind) to be aware of what I am doing, and to think about what I say before I say it. This often fails, especially when I am tired and sluggish, but in the last two years, I’ve noticed small, small changes. I practically never swear anymore, even when at work not at home, and I used to dread cleaning the toilet, but having a new perspective on it makes me much more willing to do it. Those small changes give me the confidence to keep going, even when I screw up.

This is also true with the five precepts. I used to forget them all the time, but through gradual training, I am more mindful of the precepts, and am much less inclined to swat an ant or bug than before. I am also less inclined to talk about people behind their back, and praise myself while disparaging others. These are small gains granted, I still can be pretty immature and selfish, but any progress gained is better than no progress at all.

Now, how to become more mindful is tricky, and I am not an expert at this, but let me offer some advice:

  • Reciting something like the five moral precepts, a certain Buddhist mantra,* or a small quote from a Buddhist sutra on a daily or weekly basis helps reinforce wholesome habits. One can certainly recite a little of each.
  • Meditation techniques, like focusing on your breath, help keep your mind focused, and not get distracted so easily.
  • Study, study, study the teachings of the Buddha. The more you are aware of bad behaviors, and the problems they cause, they more motivated and mindful you will be to avoid them. The more you are aware of positive behaviors, and their benefits to you and others, the more motivated and mindful you will be to try to practice them.

Good luck!

* – I have always liked the Mantra of Light myself, but many like the famous mantra oαΉƒ maαΉ‡i padme huαΉƒ.