Ryokan: The Zen and Shin Buddhist poet

Here’s something I didn’t know before, but worth passing along. The famous Zen monk and poet, Ryōkan, evidentally had a soft-side for Amida Buddha and Shin Buddhist teachings, in addition to his extensive Zen background.

The Pure Land poems of Ryōkan are not well-known in Ryōkan’s otherwise illustrious career as a poet-monk. I was intending to write something else tonight, but while looking up sources, I found in River of Fire, River of Water a reference to Ryōkan’s poetry. One of his poems reads:

If not for Amida [Buddha]’s inconceivable vow
What then would remain to me
As a keepsake of this world?

Here, Ryōkan clearly talks about the Pure Land notion of the Vow of Amida Buddha to lead all beings into the Pure Land. He describes the knowledge of this Vow as his keepsake, when all around him is empty and impermanent.

Another one, described in the book as “well-known” reads:

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

Here, Amida is the compassionate parent (oya-sama in Japanese) we return to when times are tough, or we lose trust in Amida. Amida never forsakes us, no matter how often we leave him (having done this myself now and again), and always leads us to the Pure Land.

I always enjoy it when Zen and Jodo Shinshu blend. 🙂


The “Easy Path” of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

“I mean to disturb you!” The Preacher shouted. “It is my intention! I come here to combat the fraud and illusion of the conventional, institutionalized religion. As with all such religions, your institution moves toward cowardice, it moves toward mediocrity, intertia and self-satisfaction.”
–Frank Herbert’s, Children of Dune

Recently, DJ Buddha found a great article by Dr. Richard Payne who speaks of faith in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism like so:

When asked to address Shin congregations from time to time, I have told them that they have been tricked by their own religious tradition. Their tradition says it is the easy path. But it is really the hardest path, because it means seeing oneself from a different perspective, of what it means to already be assured of birth in the Pure Land. If you really understood that, it would shake your life down to its very foundations. It would absolutely transform the way that you relate to everybody and the way that you choose to live. Because there’s nothing to hold on to except that stark truth, it’s really a very difficult path.

Much of what Dr. Payne says agrees with my experience so far. I’ve said in the past that the “eye cannot see itself” and that we need something outside of ourselves to show us who we really are. I’ve also stated that Jodo Shinshu is very counter-intuitive and difficult as a Buddhist path. Such has been my experience now in following Jodo Shinshu for three years.

These days, when I recite the nembutsu, I feel no joy. It is dead recitation in a way. When I go to the temple, and we take part in the usual services, I feel nothing anymore. I used to get excited, used to memorize the chants and so on, but that zeal, like a candle flame, has burned itself out. I enjoy teaching others about Jodo Shinshu, because I can see how people do take comfort in it, but when I stop and think about it, I am a great fraud: I cannot even live up to the teachings I pass along to others. I live life as if I am the star of my own show.

But then, there are times, when I encounter something, or awaken to something that shakes me from my pompous life, and makes me pause. In these profound moments, I am deeply humbled and elated. Life is wonderful in these moments. The only way I can describe those moments is that life is simply as it should be, and because of that, it is wonderful.

I don’t know what drives me these last 3 years, seeking more teachings, questioning my own selfish, lazy and idiotic behavior, but if this is the inner awakening that comes with taking refuge in Amida Buddha, then it is good and true. Behind all the pomp and tradition and nonsense that is the established Jodo Shinshu Buddhist faith, there is something Shinran, Honen, the Buddha and others have found, and I encourage anyone reading this to not give up, nor become self-satisfied. Keep moving, keep searching! It is there!

To quote again from the Dune Trilogy:

Duncan Idaho: The greatest palatinate earl and the lowliest stipendiary serf share the same problem. You cannot hire a mentat or any other intellect to solve it for you. There’s no writ of inquest or calling of witnesses to provide answers. No servant — or disciple — can dress the wound. You dress it yourself or continue bleeding for all to see.
–Dune Messiah


Confucius Says, #2

Lately, I’ve been enjoying some of the Chinese classics, particularly the Analects of Confucius. So far, of the Analects, chapter 9 is my favorite. Here Confucius gets to the heart of some of his teachings, his life and good practical advice for life:

4. There were four things that the Master [Confucius] wholly eschewed: he took nothing for granted, he was never over-positive, never obstinate, never egotistic.

By not being “over-positive” I believe the translator meant that Confucius was positive without being idealistic: a pragmatist in other words. In describing himself, Confucius said:

15. The Master [Confucius] said, “I can claim at Court I have duly served the Duke and his officers; at home, my father and elder brother. As regards matters of mourning, I am conscious of no neglect, nor have I ever been overcome with wine. Concerning these things at least, my mind is quite at rest.”

However, he also lamented never having an opportunity to put his teachings into practice as an enlightened sage:

8. The Master said, “The phoenix [sacred bird] does not come; the river gives forth no [magical] chart. It is all over with me!”

In verse 24, you get a good summary of Confucius’s advice to people:

“First and foremost, be faithful to your superiors, keep all promises, refuse the friendship of all who are not like you [not serious about being gentlemen]; and if you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.”

Lastly Confucius reminds people not to ignore even the simplest peasant:

25. The Master said, “You may rob the Three Armies of their commander-in-chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his own opinion.”

Clearly, Confucius was a thoughtful person, and it’s no wonder why he’s so revered across East Asia. 🙂

March of Civilization

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.
— Frank Herbert’s, Dune.

I have been reading Confucius’s Analects again (now on Chapter 10), and one of the main messages of Confucius was acceptance of Man’s place in nature, not the other way around. We tend to view the world as something we can shape and mold in our image, a legacy of our Judao-Christian heritage, coupled with a love for rationalism. But lately when I step back and look at it, look at us generation after generation piling our efforts into what we call civilization, I amazed at how small we are.

What is a city? A city is a concentration of resources. We pool our resources together, because we get more out of it than our individual efforts. There are those who lead this pooling of resources, there is the vast pool of labor itself, and there are the parasites who contribute nothing, but still feed off of it. Generation after generation this goes on, since the earliest days of Man.

One time, while riding the bus to work downtown, I looked around me at all the people sitting there going to work, then I looked out at all the cars that were likewise coming downtown for the same purpose. Day after day we do this. My ancestors in generations past did this. If not going to town by bus, they took a cart there, or if not a cart, they just walked. Ancestors who I have no idea about worked their lives to provide for future generations, of which I am now the beneficiary. In the same way, I provide for generations who I will never know. This march of civilization continues on unabated, whether you contribute to it or not. It’s something ingrained into us as a species.

Our civilization is inherently fragile though. When you ponder the greater Universe our civilization and culture pale in comparison. There’s something very deep and daunting about existence itself that defies explanation in words, and always lurks in the shadows of civilization and our lives. I am reminded of Chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching:

The Way is empty, yet never refills with use;
Bottomless it is, like the forefather of the myriad creatures.
It files away sharp points,
unravels tangles,
diffuses light,
mingles with the dust
Submerged it lies, seeming barely to subsist…

There’s no real point to this post, but it’s something that has been on mind as of late. When you pause and look at it all, it’s really something both amazing and frightening at the same time.

Efficacy of the Pure Land Buddhist path

People often wonder, when they first explore Buddhism, how Pure Land Buddhism relates to Buddhist concepts such as the Eightfold Path, The Four Noble Truths and so on. The line of reasoning here is if you aren’t making a conscious effort to follow the Eightfold Path, how can you call yourself a Buddhist?

Pure Land Buddhism does not negate the Four Noble Truths in any way. Afterall, it’s because we suffer and are mired in our own delusions and craving that Amida Buddha created the Pure Land and the vows to provide refuge to all. However, the Eightfold Path is less obvious at first sight.

People do not consciously practice the Eightfold Path in their following of Pure Land Buddhism, but through self-reflection, hearing the Dharma, and taking sincere refuge in Amida Buddha, the Eightfold Path is gradually fulfilled. The first of the Eightfold Path is Right View, and one cannot appreciate Amida’s Vow without first comprehending the state of one’s own mind, and the fact that there is no lasting happiness in the world. Dispassion and detachment, which the Buddha speaks of, likewise grow as one practices the path. This does not mean that people become cold robots, but rather that they are not so caught up and flustered by life. If life does not go their way, they are not upset by this because they know they are embraced by Amida Buddha’s light. Likewise, when times are good, they enjoy it, but still keep their eye on the prize (the Pure Land).

Rennyo Shonin once wrote a poem stating:

Those who hear
That ‘I’ does not exist
Should all lose no time
In trusting Namo Amida Butsu.

This illustrates that true faith in Amida and effort in being reborn in the Pure Land cannot occur until one has developed Right View.

As for factors such as Right Livelihood and Right Effort, these still hold true in Pure Land Buddhism. Remember that if you are doing devotional practices, you are not spending your time doing naughty stuff. 😉 At minimum, it’s wholesome karma, but in the long-run, it’s a fulfilling practice.

In one story, Honen met a woman who was a prostitute, and she begged him for help. He told her that if at all possible, she should quit what she’s doing, but if this is not possible, then she should sincerely recite Amida’s Name (the nembutsu) diligently. It was said later that she kept up the practice until she died, and Honen, upon hearing this, declared that should would surely be born in the Pure Land.*

As for factors such as Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, this does not necessarily elude to meditation as we know it. The Buddha, as explained by Walpola Rahula, encouraged followers to cultivate skillful behavior (bhavana in Sanskrit), and meditation is one such means of doing this. However, self-reflection is likewise a skillful behavior because we become more aware of our actions than before. I can personally attest to this as a Pure Land Buddhist over the last 3 years. I do not meditate often, but in my reflections, I have learned a lot about myself that I did not realize before. This is, in Pure Land terms, Amida’s Light shining upon one’s own foolish and ignorant behavior.

Honen, also taught that through following the Pure Land path, one developed something called the “Three Minds”, which are:

  1. The Sincere Mind.
  2. The Profound (or Deep) Mind.
  3. The Dedicated Mind (toward the Pure Land).

Also through Pure Land Path, Honen taught that one would give rise to the Four Modes of Practice:

  1. Reverence to Amida Buddha and the Bodhisattvas of the Pure Land.
  2. Whole-hearted and exclusive practice of reciting Amida’s Name.
  3. Uninterrupted practice.
  4. Long-term practice.

So, here we see a person cultivating skillful behavior such as dedication, reverence (and by extension humility) and focus. These traits are also taught in Buddhism in general.

Lastly, D.T. Suzuki said that if you wanted to know the efficacy of reciting the nembutsu, you should just do it. Only if you follow the path can you see its fruits, which is true of any Buddhist path.

Anyways, that’s all for now. Going to bed. 🙂


* – This is notable for another reason in that earlier medieval Buddhist thought generally put women at a disadvantage in terms of rebirth and practice. The idea of a woman, let alone a woman-of-the-night, being a dedicated Buddhist and being reborn in the Pure Land was quite progressive. To this day, Pure Land Buddhism is more popular among woman than men. It’s true at my own temple, and in the broader scheme of things. Men prefer to barrel through difficult practices while woman appreciate the equal salvation of Amida’s compassion I suppose. Whose the smarter of the genders here? 🙂

Thought for the day

This comes from God Emperor of Dune:

Think of it as plastic memory, this force within you which trends you and your fellows toward tribal forms. This plastic memory seeks to return to its ancient shape, the tribal society. It is all around you — the feudatory, the diocese, the corporation, the platoon, the sports club, the dance troupes, the rebel cell, the planning council, the prayer group . . . each with its master and servants, its host and parasites. And the swarms of alienating devices (including these very words!) tend eventually to be enlisted in the argument for a return to “those better times.” I despair of teaching you other ways. You have square thoughts which resist circles.

–Emperor Leto II, Stolen Journals

It’s amazing when you think about it, how much “group instinct” tends to drive our lives, and how much we long for leaders drive us, even though we want individuality and freedom of choice.

P.S. More on “tribal” thinking in a later post.

“Unbeaten by Rain” – A poem

While at the temple one last Sunday morning, I was carrying Baby around during the service trying to calm her down. It seems she was spooked by the audience clapping at one point (awards were being handed out). So, while quietly roaming the halls, I stumbled upon an old Japanese Buddhist poem that someone had framed and hung on the wall. It was a really beautiful poem, so I looked up the author on Google, and to my surprise he’s a famous Japanese Buddhist poet named Kenji Miyazawa. Apparently he suffered from a disease called pleurisy his whole life, and was very devoted to the Lotus Sutra.

Anyways, the name of the poem is “Unbeaten by Rain“. The original poem was posted at the Manitoba Buddhist Church and goes like so:

Amenimo Makezu (Unbeaten by Rain)
by Kenji Miyazawa

Unbeaten by rain
Unbeaten by wind
Neither by the snow nor the summer heat
Having a healthy body
Freed from greed
Never getting angry
Always smiling quietly
Having four cups of brown rice a day
With miso and a small amount of vegetables
Doing all things
Without calculating selfish ego
Seeing, asking, and understanding these things well
And not forgetting
In the shadow of the pine forest in the field
Living in a small thatched house
If there is a sick child in the east
Go and take care of him
If there is an exhausted mother in the west
Go and carry a bunch of rice stalks for her
If there is a man near death in the south
Go and tell him not to be afraid
If there is a fight and a court case in the north
Go and persuade them to stop it
because it is not worth it
Shedding tears on a scorching day
Walking with worry on a cool summer day
Being called a fool by everyone
Neither to be praised,
Nor to be worried
Such a person I want to be

Translated by Fujuwara Sensei, Vancouver Buddhist Temple
Source: Rev. Fujikawa, Vancouver
April 15, 2000

I think this poem is really, really cool. Beyond all the doctrinal stuff, I think this is what speaks to the heart of Buddhism.

Namo Amida Butsu