Clarification on Shingon Initiation, lay practices

Hello all,

I wanted to clarify a mistake I made on the blog in earlier posts. I recently spoke with someone whose an expert on Shingon Buddhism, and he pointed out that my assumption that, as a lay practitioner, I have to obtain initiation was wrong. If you want to ordain as a Shingon priest, you definitely have to receive initiation, but as a lay practitioner, you do not. Traditionally lay practitioners do take part in a ceremony called Kechien Kanjō (結縁潅頂) in Japanese, and this only takes place in certain temples in Japan. However, this is not required.

Instead, what the person explained to me is that lay people develop a close relationship to a Shingon priest over time (attending services, just getting to know people, etc), and the teacher will provide practices that fit that person. So, in my past experience, when I visited the Seattle Koyasan temple, and the priest there taught me some practices related to the Mantra of Light, that was perfectly normal Shingon lay-teacher relationship. Sadly, I haven’t been able to go very often, but if I had, I am sure that he would teach me more over time when the time is right.

In any case there are two things to take from this information:

  • The key to following the Shingon path is not through ceremony as much as it is patience and getting involved.
  • Shingon priests aren’t “mantra machines” either who just give out mantras at will. Don’t go and just ask for stuff. I didn’t, but the priest knew of my interest and just taught the practice one afternoon, so being respectful and patient pays off.

Anyways, please disregard previous statements made. I was being (as usual) over-cautious and thinking too much. Thanks!

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo


In It For The Long Haul

So, I’ve been reading a little more about Jodo Shu Buddhism, of which I have become curious about. Then I came upon this nice website about how to practice Jodo Shu. The site is pretty thorough, and covers pretty much all the basics. I enjoyed reading the part about counting the rosary or o-juzu in Japanese (お数珠), because it just so happened I bought one of these rosaries during my last trip to Japan. I bought the rosary at the Kōtoku-in temple where the Great Buddha statue of Kamakura sits. At the time I didn’t know much about it; I just added it to ol’ rosary collection at home.

Anyways, here’s what the rosary looks like on my kitchen counter:

Jodo Shu Buddhist Rosary 2

Buddhist rosaries in Jodo Shu Buddhism are unusual because of the double-ring, plus extra tassels for additional counting. They are called nikka juzu (日課数珠) in Japanese. Most of my experience has been with the related, though somewhat different, Jodo Shinshu sect, where the emphasis is not on counting recitations.* So, the rosaries I have in Jodo Shinshu style are used more in services where you drape them over the hands, and the number of beads varies quite a bit.

Like the diagram in the website above this rosary has two rings, and two tassels with 10 small and 6 large beads. You can also see the tiny extra bead where the two tassels meet. So, having read how to properly tell the rosary in Jodo Shu tradition, I decided to give it a try tonight. Here’s how it looks when holding the rosary:

Jodo Shu Buddhist Rosary

Like the website says, the first ring goes between the thumb and forefinger, with each bead counting a single recitation of the nembutsu (namu amida bu), while the second ring counts a full revolution. Apparently, according to the website, I bought a “woman’s style” rosary (tee-hee!) which when using all beads, can count up to 60,000 recitations. Without doing the extra tassel beads, the basic two-ring recitation is exactly 1080 recitations.

So anyways, I sat my chair in front of the Amida altar I have (which is Jodo Shinshu style, not Jodo Shu, oh well) and recited the nembutsu 1080 times, give or take any screw-ups.** At first moving the beads between my fingers was pretty clumsy, but I noticed that if I held the beads right at the tip of my fingers, which are more sensitive, I had better control. Later, as the motions became more fluid, my chanting got much better.

I’ve never chanted anything that long in my life, but it was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be, and was actually a very interesting experience. In a way, I definitely like it over meditation, but that’s my style I guess.

Anyways, if you ever get a hold of one of these double-ringed rosaries, definitely try the chanting suggestions above. Or if you have a regular rosary, try some creative ways of chanting there too. Chanting 1000 times vs. 100 times doesn’t make you a better Buddhist, but once you get into it, it is a challenging, but peaceful experience. Master Yin-Shun, the Chinese Buddhist monk, writes how the chanting of the nembutsu is an excellent approach to single-practice leading to samadhi or “concentration”, not counting the obvious benefit of being reborn in the Pure Land.


* – I’ve confirmed from a few sources that Jodo Shu doesn’t insist that you have to recite the nembutsu X number of times, but simply stresses it as a practice, where one’s mind is gradually transformed and reaches a point of anjin or “peaceful mind” similar to the notion of shinjin, or “entrusting or clear mind” in Jodo Shinshu.

** – If you’re not careful, your speech starts to slur badly, and the recitations run together. It’s a good exercise in mindfulness. 🙂

Edit: Finally figured out what the double-ring juzu are called in Japanese. 🙂

P.S. Speaking of all things girly, my wife points out that I have girly hands. 😀

My hands for some reason are pretty soft and have no scars. Considering I worked for years in a restaurant chopping veggies, doing dishes in caustic chemicals, and such, it’s amazing my hands look as soft as they do. It doesn’t help that they are chubby too. 😉

P.P.S. The actual design of the double-ringed rosary is credited to Honen’s follower, Awanosuke. Awanosuke was a sincere follower of Honen, but due to his past as a fortune-teller, other disciples tended to pick on him sometimes, or see him as foolish. Apparently, he deserves lots of credit for such a clever design.

Eyes down, there!

I was reading something about the famous Chinese Ch’an master Xu Yun (Empty Cloud), who is among the most famous of Chinese Buddhist masters in the 20th century. One of the most interesting parts of his life (among many) was his intense study of a certain Buddhist sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, which is extremely popular in Chinese Buddhism, but not generally elsewhere. The sutra itself isn’t the focus of this post, but rather, in his autobiography he claimed that the year he spent studying this one sutra was more valuable to his time than the previous practices he did.

I also remember reading a post on Kyoushin’s blog about reading the Kyogyoshinsho (the main text of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism) 6 times and appreciating it more as a result.

From the examples above, I can see some important lessons for those studying Buddhism (including myself):

  • Reading a Buddhist text multiple times is very helpful in appreciating the meaning.
  • Sometimes it’s better to study one text well, than to glance over 10 of them.

So, I am not personally advocating a particular text as something to read, but rather, if you have a text that is important to you, it’s good to study it really in depth, to the point you can quote scripture-and-verse. Once you’ve really internalized that text, then it’s probably more applicable to you. Westerners like myself, tend to do an a la carte approach to Buddhism where we read lots of various sources (unlike previous generations, we have a ton of information at hand), and make judgements based on surface-level understanding. I know that Nichiren Buddhists, for example, read and study the Lotus Sutra quite a bit, so veteran Nichiren Buddhists really know the text well, and it reflects in their appreciation of it. Naturally this can apply to other Buddhists sects as well.

If it worked for Master Xu Yun, it has to say something. 🙂


Appreciating Emptiness

Emptiness is a concept in Buddhism that is both hard to grasp, and tends to get misunderstood by non-Buddhists, or Buddhists just starting on the path. I stumbled on this explanation by Master Yin-Shun in The Way to Buddhahood that I thought bears repeating (citations added by Yin-Shun):

The nonexistence of independent nature is emptiness; emptiness is the nature of things that neither arises nor perishes, and this can be called Buddha nature. These statements are true because otherwise — if all things were not empty and had independent natures of their own — the existence of ordinary people would be real and they would forever be ordinary people. Likewise, the existence of defilements would be real, and they would forever be defilements…there would be nothing for anyone to sever and nothing for anyone to practice, so no one could become a buddha (as is explained in the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā).

Fortunately, all things are empty and without an independent nature, so defilements can become pure, confusion can become enlightenment, and the common can become holy…Therefore, it is said, “Because existence is empty, all things can be formed.”

I’ve read similar comments from Francis Cook’s book Hua-Yan the Jewel Net of Indra, which I think is the most thorough explanation of what emptiness is. All of this of course relates back to Nagarjuna, but also back to the Buddha’s sermons, the sutras, themselves.

Emptiness is no more than flux and change. If you steer the change in a positive, wholesome direction, the results will be self-evident. If you set your mind on Enlightenment, it will occur. The rest is just details.


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)