Now is as good a time as any

Despite all the Jodo Shinshu stuff I’ve been talking about lately, I have been reading other Buddhist stuff as usual. I was reading Kūkai’s Hannya Shingyō Hiken (The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra), where he includes a cool quote from a Chinese Buddhist monk named Ming-K’uang who wrote his own commentary on the Heart Sutra. I felt it was worth passing along:

The Buddha Dharma is nowhere remote. It is in our mind; it is close to us. Suchness is nowhere external. If not within our body, where can it be found? Since out of our own choice we either remain deluded or attain enlightenment, once we set our mind on enlightenment we will attain it. Since it is not by another’s will that we see light or sink into darkness, if we establish our faith and devote ourselves to religious practice, we will at once realize enlightenment.

Have a good weekend!

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo


Easy come, easy go

I was a silly person yesterday and left my cell phone in my pants pocket yesterday, and those pants ended up in the washer and dryer. My little cellphone didn’t survive a run through the washer. 🙂 My wife, being the wonderful girl she is, called me right away and let me know about it, but I was not mad. I actually laughed because the incident was just so funny.

The problem with having expensive hi-tech stuff is that you have to worry about losing it, or having it broken. That’s the way life works. If you have fancy stuff, something bad is likely to happen, or you will have to spend huge amounts of time and energy to protect it. Is it really worth it?

Of course, it’s helpful to have a cell phone. I call my wife and family all the time, and I use it for work and on-call quite a bit, so my point isn’t that we shouldn’t have cell-phones. The point is that you should expect them to get lost and broken when you least expect. Knowing that, you can make more reasonable purchases: a good stable cell-phone, but not necessarily the latest and greatest.

And at the end of the day, I lose a cellphone, but I have my wife and my daughter and a nice job. Life could be much worse. 😀


P.S. Thankfully I had a third, unused cell-phone lying around that was older but not used much. The fine folks at the cell phone provider switched the phone numbers for free, so I am back in the cellular world as if nothing happened.

Dharma Decline: an example

In Buddhism, one of the most primary teachings is that all things are subject to decline (lit. “all conditioned dharmas are subject to arise and fade”), including Buddhism as an institution. It’s for this reason that when Buddhism utterly fades from existence that another Buddha (lit. a “samyaksam-buddha”, a self-awakened one) eventually appears and revives Buddhism again. This is known as the turning of the wheel of the Dharma. The Buddha for our current age is Shakyamuni, or “of the Sakya clan”. Of course, most people know him as Siddhartha Gautama.

In any case, the Buddha of our current age passed into Nirvana around 2,500 years ago, and since then many Buddhists over the ages have given thought to the decline of Buddhism. It’s not that the Buddha’s teachings weaken, but rather that society becomes less and less able to practice them. In some texts you see formulaic explanations. For example after 1000 years, the first age passes and Enlightenment becomes more remote, and after another 500 hundred it becomes more impossible. This third age, the Age of Dharma Decline (mappō in Japanese, 末法) is marked by extreme sectarianism and a breakdown of society overall. This is explained in such texts as the Sutra of the Great Assembly for example.

Honen, Shinran, Nichiren and other Buddhist thinkers in Japan were convinced that they lived in the Age of Dharma Decline, though technically they were a little off because they assumed the Buddha died earlier than he actually did. This sense of decline compelled them to teach new Buddhist doctrines that tried to reach out to many who would be left out of Buddhism. During their time, the old Imperial govt. was overthrown by their samurai retainers, who in turn fought a nasty civil war called the Genpei War. Also, the major Buddhist institution at the time, Mt. Hiei, had become too closely intertwined with the powerful Fujiwara Family, causing corruption and even the establishment of Buddhist armies.

However, despite all this, the interpretation of Dharma Decline by Honen, Shinran and Nichiren was somewhat subjective. Other parts of the world that were Buddhist had their ups and downs around this time. In China, the Sung Dynasty was approaching it’s end, but on the other hand, the Khmer Empire, another Buddhist society and culture in modern day Cambodia, was at its apex.

So, using dates or historical events to prove the notion of Dharma Decline doesn’t really work. Instead, I thought of a different example.

Suppose you have a certain group of friends, such as a D&D club or poker friends, whatever. At first, the same group of friends meet every Friday, party and have a great time. There’s a lot of energy, jokes are hilarious and people look forward to Friday nights a lot. However, if the circle of friends stays together long enough, things start to change. One friend might get a girlfriend and stop showing up, or someone moves out of town. If things continue long enough, new people start showing up, the old friends don’t come anymore, and the old inside-jokes aren’t quite as funny anymore (or the new people don’t get it). After a while, the group doesn’t resemble the old one after a while: it’s changed.1

When you think of Buddhism the institution this way, it kind of makes sense. It doesn’t mean Buddhism is worthless, but it’s changed irreversibly (like all things) and doesn’t resemble what it once did. I think Westerners who arrogantly proclaim that they follow Buddhism without all the “asian accretions” are just replacing the “superstition” they criticize with Western accretions. Instead, they should just accept Buddhism as it is, and make the most of it.

Lately, after something reader “Stephen” wrote jarred my memory I went back and read some more of Honen’s works this morning, and I think Honen and the Pure Land Buddhist movement weren’t trying to usurp the “Path of the Sages” as some contend, but instead just accepted that the Path of the Sages had changed over time, and lost its energy (like the circle of friends above). So, they sought a different path, hoping to keep Buddhism going.

This I believe is the origin of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.


1 I used to work at the local University in the phone tech-support group there for the campus. This evolution mentioned above comes from direct experience (I am sure others know what I am talking about), though some of the old-timers I know still hang out through a certain campus email list someone created early on, even though almost none them work for the University anymore. Every time I subscribe to that list, they’re rehashing the same old conversations, and the same immature behavior that seemed funny in college, but now in my 30’s seems really sad.

Feeling more like my old self again

I was off-call around 11:00 pm last night, and went to bed soon after. Having slept pretty good over night, then woke up early and thought some things through carefully, I feel more like my old self again.

A few things to point out:

  • Worrying about whether Enlightenment is possible in this life or not is a foolish thing. It’s just ego and craving.
  • In the same token, worrying about whether Dharma Decline is already upon us or not is likewise foolish.
  • Sleep is important. The mind doesn’t function well without it.
  • When Ajahn Brahm says in his Dharma Talks “the door of my heart is open to you, no matter what you have done,” I feel as if Amida Buddha is speaks those words too from the Pure Land.
  • I really, really do need to get out more. This blog, fun as it is, is becoming too consuming.

But as Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that.”


Understanding the deluded person (bonbu)

The term bonbu (凡夫), or a person of “delusions and passions” comes up a lot in Japanese Buddhism, particularly in Pure Land Buddhism. So on the heels of my criticism toward Pure Land for being too pessimistic, I found this nice explanation of what bonbu means in the Pure Land context. In particular:

In Mahayana Buddhism, this notion is applied to oneself, and the common sense of the Chinese and Japanese terms is perjorative, but within the Pure Land tradition the sense is quite different. The common meaning comes from a more relative, social stance, while the Pure Land meaning comes from a more subjective and personally religious one. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is an extremely important notion in that it describes the situation of the sincere practitioner who nevertheless finds him or herself totally incapable of avoiding the acts prohibited by the Buddha.

This echoes something said by Shinran at one point in the Tannisho:

In this life no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent and limited. Only the saying of nembutsu manifests the complete and never ending compassion which is true, real, and sincere.

Here it’s interesting to note that Shinran isn’t denying that people have good intentions or do good acts, but that they are limited or inconsistent. Sometimes we help others, while other times, when we’re feeling grouchy, we would rather tell them off. I think we’ve all observed this behavior in ourselves, but it interesting that Shinran would hit upon in his own experiences.

Food for thought.


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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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. 😉

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!


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. 🙂 I really should get out and enjoy life more.

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:

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.