The Buddhist Spirit


I haven’t written much lately due to a bad cold and general fatigue. I haven’t felt very inspired either lately, but I consider this a good thing because it means I am wracking my brains over Buddhism less lately while still maintain a sense of forward momentum.

I’ve been watching some interesting threads going on on E-sangha regarding Western Buddhism, and what the right approach to this is. At the same time, I was watching another episode of the Japanese documentary “100-Temple Pilgrimage” (hyakuji junrei 百寺巡礼). In this latest episode, the narrator Hiroyuki Itsuki visited the famous temple of Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, in Kyoto. I actually did visit the related Golden Pavilion in Kyoto back in 2005. Here’s a picture I uploaded to Wikipedia at one point:

The Golden Pavilion in Winter

I have to admit I like the Silver Pavilion over the Golden one, which I find kind of gaudy. At one point, the narrator interviewed the head priest at Ginkakuji, and they started talking about Zen and Pure Land practices. Due to my limited Japanese, I had trouble following the conversation, but I believe the head priest talked about how the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who built the temple, was a devout follower of Zen, but at the same time he recited the nembutsu of Pure Land Buddhism. The conversation got me thinking about the practice and spirit of Buddhism.

In my time as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, I learned some very valuable lessons about life:

  • Humility – Not taking one’s self seriously. We live as we do through the kindness of others, not so much by our own efforts. Too often we can get caught up in our practice, and forget who we are. Honen, in his “One-Sheet Document” summed this up nicely:

    Even if those who believe in the nembutsu deeply study all the teachings which Shakyamuni taught during his life, they should not put on any airs and should practice the nembutsu with the sincerity of those untrained followers ignorant of Buddhist doctrines.

  • Joy – Raising a family, while very challenging, has been a source of joy for me. The early texts of the Pali Canon contain some wonderful poems about the joys of the renunciant life, but Pure Land reminds me of the joys of the lay life as well. As Master Yin-shun said, it’s a matter of inclination, not which life is better.

While watching this documentary, and it’s depiction of Zen, I see some very positive values conveyed there as well:

  • Simplicity – Zen emphasizes a simple life free of obstructions by material goods (and one’s own conceptions). This is in keeping with the Buddha’s repeated exhortations about how a worldly life makes one tangled, flustered and confused. While this did not necessarily mean you have to throw out all your stuff, and concerted focus on a simple untangled life has clear long-term benefits over a worldly, material one. Living life in a simple way is also part of the spirit of renunciation by the way. 🙂
  • Practice – I think one should have a clear practice to follow, whatever that may be. It’s not enough to just pick and choose things that suit you, I think through the guidance of mentors and tradition, one can shed one’s ego, and just follow the practice. This was a point of frustration for me in the past with Jodo Shinshu, and now with my Shingon experimentation, I am finding that without initiation, practice doesn’t go far. I admire Zen for it’s clear approach to practice. Lately, I’ve been looking more deeply into Jodo Shu (another Japanese Pure Land sect), and it’s approach to practice as well.

So, what I saw between Pure Land and Zen was a nice synthesis of the Buddhist spirit:

  • Humility
  • Joy
  • Simplicity
  • Practice

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I think Zen and Pure Land Buddhism really complement one another, such that they are somewhat incomplete on their own. Kyoushin once wrote a great post on his experiences visiting a Soto Zen center years after he gave up the practice. He noticed that many people who just focused on the practice lacked a certain sense of spirit and reverence; it was a self-oriented effort only. I recall recently hearing a story from the Pali Canon where the Buddha said that not having something respect is a form of suffering, which is a very telling statement if you ask me. At the same time, my frustration in Jodo Shinshu was rooted in the sense of aimlessness I felt in that no one around had any interest in practicing Buddhism, ‘cuz we were all saved by Amida anyways. Of course, a real Pure Land Buddhist wouldn’t think this way, but it was just the environment I was in, and I had had enough.

Speaking of the need for practice, I recently read in Master Yin-Shun’s book something regarding practice as well:

Some people practice this or that, without determination and perserverance, and eventually develop bad habits and accomplish nothing. So one much be cautious. Once one has started a practice, one should proceed from the beginning to the end without giving up. Only in this way can one develop firm will power.

This was in reference to the four powers that one develops through a concerted, long-term practice:

  1. Superior Understanding
  2. Firm Willpower
  3. Joy
  4. The power of rest (knowing when to take a break when you’ve pushed too far)

Anyways, this post is a bit scattered, but just throwing out some stuff for consideration.



No more moderation

Just as a heads up (since Jeannie noticed), I disabled comment moderation on the blog yesterday. I want to make the blog a little self-managing since I am getting busier by the week. I’ll be moving to Ireland around July 14th, so before then things will be getting hectic. Also, the core readers here have been very responsible folks (I haven’t had to mark someone as ‘spam’ in a long time for being obnoxious), so no need to filter like before.


–Doug (a.k.a. Gerald Ford)

The Heart That Bleeds

Today on my usual morning trip to the local coffee shop, I talked with the morning barista, and he expressed frustration about the influx of drug addicts who come to use the bathroom where he works. A local McDonald’s had closed down recently and the addicts who would use the bathroom there now go this coffee shop instead. Then the barista expressed his frustration about working a part-time job he hates, and the frustrations of living on the West Coast (he’s from the East Coast). Listening to the barista, whose always been nice to me, I felt his frustration and really felt bad for him. He obviously wasn’t happy with his job or his life, and did not have much to look forward to.

Later while pondering this, the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva came to mind:

  1. I vow to save innumerable sentient beings.
  2. I vow to eliminate endless afflictions/delusions.
  3. I vow to learn innumerable doctrines.
  4. I vow to accomplish the unsurpassed Buddha Way.

I thought of the first two in particular, though the third has been my modus operandi for some time now. These vows are pretty deep and serious, but don’t let that frighten one from making the effort. Master Yin-Shun wrote about what a Bodhisattva is in his book “The Way to Buddhahood“:

Generally people associate the term bodhisattva with the great bodhisattvas such as Guan-Yin (Kannon), so they do not dare to call themselves bodhisattvas. Although bodhisattvas with the initial resolution do not yet have great virture, they preside over all sentient beings…For example, they are like the newborn prince who is respected by the elderly ministers or the newborn lion who is feared by all animals.

Earlier he writes:

Once the resolve to attain bodhi [enlightenment] has arisen, it will always be the cause and condition for one to become a Buddha and will not be lost — this is described in the Lotus Sutra’s analogy of the pearl that has been tied on. But this resolve cannot be said to be originally possessed; it is formed from making the resolution and from being influenced by the universal teaching of the Buddha…Gradual practice causes the pure function of the Buddha-seed to grow from the bottom grade to the middle and then to the top…After much practicing one brings forth faultless and pure virtues.

Much of this sentiment above is expressed in the famous Bodhisattvas that people know well. Kannon (Guan-Yin in Chinese, 觀音), sometimes called Kanzeon (觀世音) in Japanese, is named so because he “hears the cries of the world” and strives endlessly to alleviate the suffering of others. Sometimes in Japan you’ll see statues of Kannon with 1,000 arms and/or 11 heads. These express the many efforts Kannon makes to help other beings.

Then there is the Bodhisattva named Jizō (地藏) whose name means “Earth Treasury”. This Bodhisattva vowed to save beings from the Six Realms of Existence*, and is said to journey into the Hell Realms over and over, teaching and helping beings get out. Imagine someone who journeys into the slums and helps junkies and criminals get some relief from their daily sufferings, this is Jizō Bodhisattva in essence.**

The list of Bodhisattvas goes on and on, but the point is is that when one has awakened this desire to help others (called bodhicitta in Sanskrit), this is the beginning of the Bodhisattva path. The person doesn’t have to be a saint; the resolve is what matters. In time, through gradual, gradual changes, the person develops greater virtue, and their compassion and wisdom grow as well. So even the simplest, most ordinary person, will in time become a great Bodhisattva. It may take many lifetimes, but each little effort, however small, is not wasted. It all adds up, like drops of water, to one becoming a great Bodhisattva. Enlightenment is just a forgone conclusion for such a being. 🙂

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

* – The six realms are:

  1. The Heaven Realms (devas)
  2. The Human Realm
  3. The Realm of the Fighting Spirits (asuras)
  4. The Realm of Animals
  5. The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (peta)
  6. The Hell Realms

** – While visiting Dublin on my last trip, I remember walking across the famous Ha’Penny Bridge at night near my hotel. There I saw many of homeless kids begging for change among the tourists and people going out to party. Although I see this in Seattle quite a bit, given its relatively high homeless population, seeing it in Dublin for some reason affected me more. I spent the rest of the night brooding on the thought of Jizō journeying into the darkest realms to help the suffering. We do indeed live in a world of great suffering, even if we’re blind to it by our own selfish ego. Seeing it in its totality can be quite disturbing, but very educational as well.

Sober up, there!

Sad and lamentable are those who have never awakened from their long slumber in darkness. Bitter and painful are those who have been madly intoxicated. A drunkard scoffs at those who are sober. The ones in slumber mock the awakened. If they do not go seeking for the remedies of the King of Medicine, when will they ever be able to see the Light of the Great Sun?

–Kūkai, “The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra”, trans. Prof. Yoshihito Hakeda

In Buddhism we often talk about beings living in delusion, passions, ignorance and such, but here’s another way to look at it. When we talk about living our lives in a delusion, cravings and such, a common analogy used in East Asian Buddhism is like being drunk. Anyone whose been drunk and done something embarrassing or stupid knows how being drunk can make you behave in irrational ways, which at the time seemed perfectly sensible. Contrast this with being sober and clear-headed and watching someone else be drunk and act stupid. Seeing this experience can be kind of eye-opening in a way.

So, in a sense, we often live our lives in a kind mental drunkenness, doing stupid things and not really being aware of it. We’re not even aware we’re drunk. This is part of the basic reaction/response we do throughout our lives. The root of this is what’s called the Four Afflictions, which are in Sanskrit and English:

  1. Satkāya-dṛṣṭi: A view of self-existence, as in self as apart from the rest of reality.
  2. Asmimāna: The conceit of “I am” or “ego”.
  3. Ātmasneha: Love of self, or self-importance.
  4. Avidyā: Ignorance of reality around us.

Buddhism teaches that when these root afflictions are realized and shown for what they are (i.e. distortions of reality), then one experiences awakening, better known as Enlightenment. This is not something you can just will yourself to understand, especially at an intellectual level; you have to see it with both eyes open in a sense.

So, from Theravada to Zen to Tibetan to Pure Land, Buddhism is all about how to awaken ourselves from these afflictions and achieve awakening from our drunken mind. The underlying theology differs little, for the Buddha was a powerful teacher and knew how to teach the same message in a variety of ways to a variety of people, but the intention is the same: sobering the mind and see reality and the self for what it is.

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

Accept no substitutes

Something Kūkai, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, wrote in 813. The writings are unusually stern, but I find them highly motivating, even if you’re not into esoteric Buddhism:

It goes without saying that we are not aiming at getting petty worldly success and reward. If we aspire to go far, unless we depend on our feet, we cannot advance; if we wish to walk the Way of Buddha, unless we observe the precepts, we cannot reach the goal…All of these precepts [Exoteric and Esoteric] have their foundation in the Ten Precepts. The essential nature of our mind is not distinct from that of the Buddha; no difference exist between our mind, the mind of all sentient beings, and that of the Buddha. To abide in this mind is the practice the Way of the Buddha…Observe these precepts sincerely and practice the samadhi of Mahavairocana [Buddha]. Having been freed quickly from the three fetters [greed, anger, and blindness], realize enlightenment. Improve yourselves, help others, and fulfill your four obligations. If you do all of these, you are no other than bodhisattvas.

The “samadhi of Mahavairocana” here refers to the central practices of Shingon, which according to Hakeda’s book “Kūkai and Major Works”, can mean any practices related to Mahavairocana or his manifestations: Shakyamuni Buddha, Amida Buddha, Kannon (Guan-Yin) and so on.

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

Just like at work

The morning has not gone well here at the Big Ol’ IT Company (BOITC), and even under the best of circumstances it’s hard to avoid getting irritated. I’ve been told by teammates that I am too nice in helping other people, so they forward me this wacky video clip from the UK. Maybe I’ll start ignoring phone calls too. 🙂

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

Parting ways with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

On Sunday I mentioned that I am making some changes to the blog, but I alluded to the fact that not all the changes are cosmetic. I am also changing the focus of the blog to reflect my change in Buddhist views as well. I no longer consider myself a Jodo Shinshu Pure Land Buddhist. I am leaving the faith to pursue Buddhist paths elsewhere. I debated even mentioning it, since in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not a big deal, but the blog will change as a result, so I wanted to give everyone a head’s up.

As to why, that’s a long story. I’ve had a series of good conversations through email lately with a few people, some Pure Land Buddhists, some not, and I realized that my views just didn’t fit assumptions that Jodo Shinshu makes. It’s not that Jodo Shinshu is wrong (and I am right), I just disagree with it. My voluminous writing, and reading/buying of books over the past two years has been (I realize now) my attempt to reconcile my assumptions with what’s taught in Jodo Shinshu. Now that I know all this, I feel much relieved.

Speaking of practice, someone very wise gave some recent advice when he said I should focus more on practice rather than what people teach. This was fantastic advice (thank you), and was the final straw in parting ways with Jodo Shinshu. So lately, I revived an old practice I once learned while visiting a Shingon Buddhist temple in my area. The priest there knew of my deep interest in the Mantra of Light, and taught me some intro-level practices to go with it, so I have been doing that practice nightly, along with the Heart Sutra, which I really appeals to me. I also have been making a concerted effort to follow the 10 good precepts, which are taught in Shingon Buddhism, but also in Theravada and Chinese Buddhism.* Someone else I know gave me good advice that one can’t go wrong with finding a dedicated practice you can stick with and following the precepts, and since I know I can stay with this more than I could with Pure Land practice, I know I am doing the right thing.

I am not necessarily leaving the temple I go to because I have a lot of friends there, and Baby enjoys Sunday School, but I no longer consider myself a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, and this blog will no longer be about Pure Land Buddhism.

Thanks all!

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

* – Master Yin-Shun calls them the “10 good precepts”, not to be confused with precepts in the Tendai or Zen context.

P.S. Another, longer post on why I gave up on exclusive Pure Land Buddhism.