Lay Buddhists, Monastic Buddhists

While continuing to read Ven. Yin-Shun’s book “The Way to Buddhahood“, I was struck by his explanation of how lay Buddhists and Buddhist monks relate to one another. Typically, Buddhists tend to view the monks as being superior to the lay people, and therefore Buddhism can be wrongly labeled as a kind of “two-tiered” religion where monks enjoy higher status than lay people.

However, Yin-Shun describes how both are considered followers of the Buddha equally:

During his lifetime, the Buddha preached the Dharma to people. After listening to the Dharma or realizing the truth, some volunteered to take refuge in the Three Treasures* to become the Buddha’s lay disciples. Others volunteered to give up the lay life to become the Buddha’s monastic disciples. Between the lay and monastic disciples there were no differences in their beliefs, practices and realizations. Why then did some volunteer to remain at home and others to give up lay life? They did so because of different personalities and lifestyle practices. (pg. 111)

So the question isn’t whether one is better or another, but how each type of disciple suits a person’s inclinations. Regarding lay disciples, Yin-Shun writes:

They remained husbands, wives and children; they continued to live as householders and to work as politicians, servicemen, farmers, laborers and businessmen [e.g. King Bibimsara and General Isidatta]…Although they lived as laity, they practiced the Buddha’s true Dharma, taking refuge in the Three Treasures, keeping the five [moral] precept, practicing meditation and attaining wisdom. As long as they kept the resolution to renounce and as long as living a full lay life did not hinder their practice, they were still able to become liberated from birth and death [the endless cycle of samsara].

Regarding monastics:

People of this category were mostly those from among the monastic non-Buddhists who were transformed by the Buddha’s teaching [e.g. Sariputta and Maudgalyayana]. Such people were accustomed to being renunciates and living solemn lives. Since they were content, had few desires, did not want to save up money, and kept away from sexual desire, they volunteered to give up the lay life in order to be śramaṇas [renunciates]. (pg. 112)

Here, Yin-Shun then warns why someone shouldn’t be a monk unless they’re really, really inclined toward that lifestyle:

Obviously, if people have impure motives or give up home life regretfully, their basic nature may remain that of one who seeks pleasure.

The point here is that unless you are truly committed toward the renunciate life, you should not go in half-way or with reservations. It’s clearly better to be a sincere lay follower than an insincere monk.

Lastly, on the subject, Yin-Shun writes:

In short, whether people stay at home and pursue pleasure or give up lay life and pursue asceticism, they are the Buddha’s śrāvaka [lit. “voice-hearer”] disciples as long as they have a resolution to renounce and live according to the Middle Way — without too much indulgence or too much asceticism.

What’s interesting to note in this statement is that it’s quite possible for both laity and monks to go off the wrong track: lay people over indulging in pleasures and monks becoming too ascetic. The point is that the Middle Way really is what matters in one’s practice of Buddhism, not his status in the Buddhist community. If one adheres is sincere in his or her following of Buddhism, then staying within the Middle Way and sticking with the basics (meditation, moral precepts, etc) will really make the difference.

P.S. This doesn’t take into account the culture of Buddhist countries where monks are held to a much higher level than lay people. The book “Broken Buddha” provides an interesting read on the subject, and appears to be available on the Internets. This is an age-old problem though in society, any society, where some priests or monks develop a serious ego and develop a following around them. It happens in every major religion. In the ideal Buddhist system though, both are disciples on equal footing supporting one another.

* – The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (the community).


Judging the authenticity of Buddhist sutras

In different regions, different sects of Buddhism, different sutras are emphasized. Sutras, for those who don’t know, are recorded sermons of the Buddha. The Buddha preached and taught for over 50 years and his followers, in keeping with Indian tradition, memorized the sermons and passed them onto others. This may sound like a flawed process, but Indian techniques for memorizing and orally reciting texts is highly sophisticated, involving multiple memorizing a text, reciting together to ensure accuracy, and dividing teaches into easier-to-memorize verses.

So, within Buddhism, there is a huge body of sutras, divided into collections, based on topics, or language written down, and different sects of Buddhism will have some collections but not others, and so on. It’s complicated, very complicated. You can’t point to a single “holy book” in Buddhism. The best you can get is one of two collections of texts:

  • The Pali Canon for Theravada Buddhism, named so because it’s recorded in Pali language.
  • The Sarvastivadin Canon better known as the Agamas. These are recorded in Sanskrit, not Pali, but are roughly parallel. The Agamas are the core texts for Mahayana Buddhism.

The Canon(s) are the core texts in elaborating the foundation teachings of Buddhism: how karma works, rebirth (not reincarnation, which is different), the life of the Buddha, etc.

In modern Buddhist scholarship, Western techniques have been applied to determine which sutras are authentic teachings of the Buddha, and which ones are apocryphal (where authenticity is in doubt). This has also lead to criticisms by some in one sect of Buddhism claiming the other is following sutras that are not genuine teachings of the Buddha. Oftentimes, I’ve found myself pondering this point as well, and I was delighted to find this article on the web by Prof. Ronald Epstein. He is discussing a controversial text called the Shurangama Sutra, which is very popular in Chinese Buddhism. The Western academic world has been divided as to whether the text is authentic or a Chinese compilation, but Prof. Epstein, rather than trying to prove the text one way or another provides a completely different way to look at the text (emphasis added):

As already mentioned, the Shurangama is connected with enlightenment of the well-known Ming Dynasty Ch’an Master Han-shan Te-ch’ing…Of course, Han-shan did not ascribe to prevalent modern Western scholarly ideas about the historical development of Buddhist texts and believed the Sutra had come directly from Sakyamuni Buddha himself, but that is not the point. What is important here is that Han-shan’s experiential verification that the text is written on the level of non-discriminative awareness reinforced his belief in the genuineness of the text. Such a criterion lies beyond the narrow band of historical and philological issues that have so far dominated modern scholarly studies of textual authenticity. It seems to me that further study of traditional criteria such as this their own terms must be a prerequisite for evaluation of their relevancy, or lack of it, in terms of the methodology and goals of modern Buddhological research.

What I believe Prof. Epstein is saying the question of authenticity may just be an academic one only, and what matters is its effectiveness for those devoted to serious study. Of course, it’s helpful to know the background behind the sutras, but there comes a time when one has to set aside the discriminating mind and just study the texts at face value, regardless of who said them and why. For example, the Heart Sutra is now believed to be a Chinese text in origin (a condense form of the 25,000-line Perfect of Wisdom Sutra), translated back into Sanskrit when Chinese emissaries visited there, but at the same time, it’s still a powerful text written by some brilliant minds.

Buddhism as a religion doesn’t have to depend on strictly Indian sources, as the religion places emphasis on praxis (doing stuff), not just knowing stuff. If the teachings in Buddhism prove to have practical, beneficial results (such as following the Five Moral Precepts), then the teachings are authentically Buddhist.

In the last hours of the Buddha’s life, he told his attendant Ananda in the Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16 of the Pali Canon):

“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.”

Ultimately, we can’t expect such-and-such sutra to teaching to solve all our problems. We still have to roll up our sleeves and practice Buddhism through meditation, the moral precepts, being mindful and through study. There’s just no way around it.


Really bad Linux uptime

This is a real screen shot from a Linux host at work that was having a bad day. It is running some Oracle instances stuck on I/O, due to some really screwey SQL query. The poor thing was so horked it could not restarted, which required a hard reset of the host itself. That revealed a bad controller, which kept the host down even longer, while parts were replaced.

Generally the results of uptime should never exceed the number of processors you have on a computer. So, if you have 2 processors on your computer, your uptime shouldn’t go above 2.00, unless your computer’s overworked. If you had 4 processors, then 4.00, and so on.

So if you work somewhere with busy application hosts, or database hosts, this quick check will give you an idea (though a vague one) of how busy your system is at a given time. Problems with I/O processes (either local processess, or NFS) are usually the number one way systems get horked and stuck, requiring nasty reboots. I remember working with automount in the past, and having this problem a lot. Certain NFS settings can help reduce this, but NFS is best avoided in system administration if possible.

P.S. Changed the blog theme back to the old one. It handled quotations well, but really screwed picture displays since I have put in a lot extra-HTML formatting and it didn’t render well. Ah well.

How to observe the Five Moral Precepts

Lately, I’ve been continuing my read of “The Way to Buddhahood” by the famous Chinese master, Ven. Yin-Shun. The first couple chapters were strongly geared toward a Chinese audience (not a Western one), and I found myself not agreeing with his orthodox viewpoint. However, Ven. Yin-Shun was a highly respected monk, and I am not, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and keep reading. Chapters 3 and 4 are much better as he delves into general Buddhism, and covers teachings that run across all sects, Theravada and Mahayana.

In particular, he gives a good explanation of the five moral precepts (panca sīla in old Pāli language), and strongly emphasizes the need to make them a cornerstone of one’s Buddhist practice. But it’s not enough to blindly follow the precepts, there has to be a good reason for doing so. Master Yin-Shun writes:

Not understanding the meaning of keeping the precepts, some people keep them because they want the merit to be obtained from so doing. Though this is good, it is not ideal. From the Āgama Sūtra* and the Dharmapada** to the Mahāyāna sūtras, the Buddha has clearly stated that keeping precepts means “to use one’s own feelings to measure those of others” for the purpose of controlling one’s sensual desires toward others. In the sūtras, using one’s own feelings to measure other people’s (all sentient beings) feelings is called the Dharma of taking oneself as the yardstick against which to measure things. This is the same as the principle of reciprocity in Confucianism.

In other words, the right spirit for following the Five Moral Precepts is one of “treating others as you want to be treated”. This is the essence of Buddhist compassion, and takes away the notion of “accumulating merit” and such.

Of course, being diligent in follow all five precepts is hard at first. I still struggle with them, but my diligence toward the precepts has gotten better over months and years. It all started when Baby was first born, and I resolved to be a good father for her. That’s when I started taking those teachings more seriously, and at least making a mental note each day as to whether I’ve followed them all or not.

Master Yin-Shun discusses the challenges of the precepts later when he writes:

The enormously compassionate Tathāgata (Buddha), however, felt that lay devotees’ habits are so severely contaminated that they cannot immediately accept and keep all the precepts with purity…To allow for their different abilities, the Tathāgata spoke of four groups of devotes: the one-precept upāsakas (lay followers), who have the ability to keep one precept; the few-precepts upāsakas who keep two precepts; the more-precepts upāsakas, who keep three to four precepts; and the complete upāsakas, who keep all five. Among all of the lay devotees, those of the last group are excellent.

Here, this statement is strongly implying that although one commits to the Five Precepts as a Buddhist, they’re not expected to get it right the first time. Instead, it’s a life-long growing process where a person may only follow one precept faithfully for a time, but as they get more confident, they strive to faithfully observe two, three, four and so on. That’s been my experience as well. This was a kind of relief to me, as it didn’t put unrealistic expectations up front.

Anyways, there’s a lot more I want to share from the book (there’s a great section on why not everyone has to be, or should be a monk, to reach spiritual awakening), but I will save that for another post. πŸ™‚

Namo Amida Butsu

P.S. Changed blog theme, if you hadn’t noticed. I like how this one handled quotations better than the previous one.

P.P.S. Also, big congrats to Marcus who recently took the Precepts formally, officially becoming a Buddhist. I haven’t been able to do this yet, but hope to someday.

* – This is the Chinese/Sanskrit version of the Pali Canon, known as the Agamas or the Sarvastivadin Canon. Most of it hasn’t been translated into English, but most scholars agree that it is very similar to the more widely translated Canon, which lends credence to the idea that both “Canons” are accurate representations of what the Buddha taught.

** – Again referring to the Sanskrit/Chinese version, not the Pali version of Theravada Buddhism.


Haven’t written in days. I’ve been trying to get off caffiene and caffinated drinks, and the withdrawal hasn’t been fun. The first couple days were the worst because of the splitting headache, the constant spacing out, and the irritability. The fact that I hadn’t slept well on those two days for other reasons only made things worse. By day 3, Mother’s Day, the symptoms got somewhat better, and I felt more level-headed than I had in a long time. I think all the coffee consumption made more moody as I went through daily caffiene highs followed by lows. Now that I am drinking decaf coffee regularly*, I started feeling more even-keel and clear-headed.

Today is day 4, and the symptoms are still there, but getting even better. The headache is nearly gone, but I still feel often feel spacy. The level-headed feeling continues to grow stronger though, which is a really good feeling.

Another nice effect is the lack of craving. I use to absolutely crave coffee every morning, it was a bit of an obsession, but today I felt the craving much weaker than before.

So, coupled with not feeling good this weekend, I also had lots of fun with Mother’s Day. My mom and wife celebrated on Saturday, while Sunday we spent time with my grandmother (Baby’s great-grandmother), who also celebrates her 80th birthday this week. It was a pretty fun but tiring weekend, and I am really burned out on restaurant food at present.


P.S. If you’ve been reading the blog before, you’ll note I’ve tried this before, and got pretty far before back-sliding after a nasty on-call weekend. This time around, I’ve learned from mistakes, and have some Buddhist wisdom from Bhikkhu Bodhi on the subject, which I will share sometime soon hopefully.

* – I do enjoy drinking coffee for social reasons too with my wife and friends, but my wife switched to decaf coffee when she was pregnant (as caffiene may have negative effects on babies), so I decided I will just follow-suit. Decaf does have about 2% caffiene in it, so I am not really caffiene-free, but considering I used to drink 4 shots of espresso per drink, I think it’s a huge reduction. That much caffiene per day per drink can’t be good in the long-run.

Adventures in Learning Japanese

I continue to push hard to study Japanese in anticipation of my trip to Japan this December for Japanese New Year. This will be the first time celebrating for Baby and I, and my wife has told me many times that it’s quite fun. My impression of Japanese New Year is that it’s like a 3-day Christmas holiday. πŸ™‚

Anyways, part of learning a new language is learning to get the right resources. I found that self-study can work, but it requires lots of time and patience because the results are not quick to show themselves. It also takes a consistent study schedule. I subscribed to the online Japanese lessons,, and have made it a point to listen to at least 3-4 of the 10-minute lessons a week. Instead of bunching them all up on the same day, I try to spread them out over the week, so that I have time to absorb (and practice with my wife) a new lesson each time. This has been greatly helpful in building practical vocabulary,* particularly in given situations where I don’t have much experience (banks, post-office, etc) as focuses on living and working in Japan.

I actually do intend to take the JLPT language certification while living in Ireland later this year (test center is only in London, UK), so I realized that practical vocab is not enough. I need to brush up my reading, writing skills as well, so I invested in some good Kanji flashcards last month, and I am really glad I did.

I used to do homemade cards, but making the cards and deciding what information and format to write was confusing and rarely worked. In general, when learning Japanese, you have to learn the so-called jōyō kanji to have any level of reading proficiency. These are the minimum standard for literacy according to the Ministry of Education of Japan. The nice thing is that the flash cards above teach the jōyō kanji, starting with the easiest and moving on up. I knew some of the kanji already, but I didn’t know some of the ways it could be read, so even the simple kanji proved harder than I thought, but with proper resources, now I can read more easily than before. For example the well-known character “δΈ‹” has many, many ways to read it.

Anyways, the point of all this is not only have I learned Japanese lately, but I am also learning more about how to learn, which makes the difference between wasting time and not learning much, and making clear progress.


* – In college I did study Japanese for a year, but I realize now that they taught it poorly, and I came away with a lot of vague explanations and bad grammar habits that I am not trying hard to undo.

Dynamic Buddhism

Return to Amida,
Return to Amida,
So even dewdrops fall.


I have been pondering this wonderful poem by the famous Zen monk/poet and also enjoying some of the excellent comments on my recent Zen/Shin post.

One of the things that can drive you crazy with Jodo Shinshu, or “Shin” Buddhism, is that there is nothing to do. No Precepts to adhere to, no monastic vows, no meditation, no practices. We are taught that through entrusting of Amida Buddha, we’re born into the Pure Land, not after death, but in this very life. It’s not that Jodo Shinshu rejects the precepts, meditation and such, but doesn’t impose a bar or cut-off point.

Shinran taught that much of our behavior, good or bad, is condition by past karma or past circumstance*, so we can’t judge others by what precepts they follow or don’t follow. Recently I heard a great Dharma Talk by the monk Ajahn Brahm about some of the prisoners he meets. One story about a murderer from North Ireland was very moving. The man had grown up in a violent and rough background and had committed murder himself. But while in prison he had an experience which completely changed him (you should listen to the Dharma Talk if at all possible).**

When we try to practice Buddhism with the intent of making ourselves more compassionate by self-effort and set practices, I think this is like putting the cart before the horse. However, when we live a life of gratitude and humility, then however little or often we meditate, chant sutras or whatever, it is an expression of gratitude and joy. This is how I often approach meditation, and one of the ministers I know at the Temple meditates regularly too simply because he likes doing it. In this light, it is much less stilted, more dynamic and even if my practice fails, like Ryōkan says, I simply return to Amida Buddha and appreciate the Vow to save all beings. This assurance of Amida’s compassion sustains us in in life and inspires us to try again.

Shinran taught that birth in the Pure Land happens in this life when we entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha, not after death, and more and more I appreciate this point.


P.S. Post the poem above by Ryōkan before, but it’s such a great poem and has been on my mind much lately. πŸ™‚

P.P.S. I had a longer, much better post, but WordPress had a hiccup, and the draft got badly truncated. *sigh*

* – Section XIII of the Tannisho.

** – This story really compels me to become a vegetarian, but sadly the spirit is willing by the flesh is weak. The conditioning we carry around with us is far stronger than we give it credit for.