A Blade of Grass

Ever notice how in a windstorm, tall, strong trees get blown down pretty easily, while blades of grass rarely ever get uprooted? I’ve pondered this point before, and I think it’s a noteworthy point to consider how one approaches their own life. Why is the grass able to endure a powerful windstorm?

  • It is very flexible. If the wind pushes one way, the grass just bends with it.
  • It lies low, not towering above where it gets the full brunt of the wind.

I imagine that in life, learning to be very flexible and take life as it comes is the key to finding peace. Life often doesn’t go the way you want it to, but the winds change all the time, so you just learn to bend with it. Sometimes when someone says something that annoys me or I am in a difficult situation, I just remind myself to “roll with it”* or “bend with it”, which keeps me from getting unnecessarily angry.

As for lying low, this is in my mind, a reminder that humility should be one’s foundation. If we’re overly ambitious, and always trying to stand above other people, we just set ourselves on a tall and narrow pedastal, and that will soon fall over.

Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu

* – This reminds me of the first Matrix movie for some reason, where Neo dodges the Agent’s bullets. If only I could dodge bullets that fast…. 😉

Getting re-acquainted with an old friend…

Recently I pulled out an old copy of the Tao Te Ching, the one translated by David Mair, and have been enjoying its wisdom all weekend. I don’t read much at a time, but I open it up, read a passage and put it back down.

My first experience with the Tao was back when I was 16, and was first turned onto Asian philosophy after watching the movie Kung Fu. I asked my mother to buy a Buddhist book, and she gave me the Tao Te Ching…a little off, but she certainly tried her best. 🙂 That copy of the Tao Te Ching (same as above) stayed with me for many years until I lent the book to someone who never returned. How often does that happen?

Anyways, the Tao has stayed with me longer than any other philosophical book. I couldn’t find any really good Buddhist books as a kid, save for a couple Zen books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind* and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which I lost interest in as I got into college. Neither book at the time could offer me much information other than some witty “zen-like” one-liners. I just didn’t understand them and I didn’t have any access to teachers or (reasonably priced) Zen centers. My subsequent experiences with Zen Buddhists have often been negative as well.**

However, the Tao stayed with me into college, when I dabbled in philosophy courses and general East Asian courses. For a time I really thought myself a true Taoist, but this too was youthful arrogance followed by well-meaning, but flawed, concepts of what a religious path really was. So, later years, I forgot about the book and set it aside as I began a serious study of Buddhism in the last three years (which is around the time my original blog started, of which this is a descendant).

Lately, I feel like I’ve studied Buddhism all I can, save for reading more of the same types of texts. I’ve learned a lot, but don’t feel a whole lot wiser or much better as a person. I am certainly no closer to being an Enlightened person. So, it was nice to open up the Tao Te Ching again, and read another side to Asian wisdom for a change. Simple words like:

Hearing too much leads to utter exhaustion;
Better to remain in the center.

Are refreshing after reading difficult Buddhist sutras or “feel-good” Buddhist books. The Tao is timeless because its words are simple, but profound, and observable in daily life. Few can truly put these words into practice, but in the craze of modern life, even a few sentences can be a wonderful ray of light.

The beginning of the edition I have has a German proverb that goes like so:

Was hilft laufen, wenn man nicht auf den rechten Weg ist?

What is the use of running when we are not on the right way?

This last week, I often think to myself that I might have been running along the wrong path for the last few years, and that I got off track sometime at a younger age. Or perhaps I never left the path in the first place. I don’t know.

P.S. Looking back, I think this last part might have been some of the reason for deleting the last blog: uncertainty.

* – Actually, I got this book again for my birthday, and I have enjoyed it far more than I did when I was younger. I think in all truthfulness, I just wasn’t at a point in my life where I could understand what Suzuki was talking about, but now appreciate it 14 years later. 😛 Better late than never.

** – Contrary to what I am implying here, I actually think Zen is a beautiful fusion of Taoist and Buddhist thought. What annoys me is the way it’s been romanticized here in the West, commercialized, and idolized by hipsters and anti-intellectuals who have plenty of witty one-liners, but no deep substance in their understanding of life. Then again, as mentioned in the post, I’ve come to realize how much I’ve studied and how little I understand. 😦

Good Buddhist practice: sleep

I’ve been in a bad funk all week, especially the last two days, and I think it largely derives from little sleep. I have noticed in the past that I am much more surly, and less mindful when I don’t sleep well. Last night I actually did go to bed early, but Baby, who sleeps in bed with us, was pretty restless and so we didn’t sleep well at all. It’s not her fault, of course. She’s just a baby. The other nights though were all my fault though when I just stayed up too late.

However, this afternoon, I took a small nap, and since then I’ve been feeling much more clear-headed and positive. So, if you’re struggling with Buddhism, or with life in general, go get a good night’s sleep. If you’re not sleeping enough in general, that’s a sign that you may need to adjust your habits (like blogging 😉 ). Remember, there’s only so much time in the day, so use it well. 😀

I remember listening to a Dharma Talk online by Ajahn Brahm, where he mentioned that at one meditation retreat he hosted, two of the guests just slept in their rooms the first day, but he didn’t mind. He figured they were genuinely exhausted and needed the break. The following day they came in and did just fine. Ajahn Brahm also pointed out how in his own monastery, if the monks are up late night chanting, that’s the only time he’s ever observed monks getting into fights. Sleep deprivation is a real problem, even if we think we can take it, so don’t underestimate your body’s need for sleep.

Namo tassa Bhagavato,
Arahato, Sammasambuddhasa

Buddhist-Lite, version 2

This is dedicated to Marcus, who enjoyed this blog post on the old blog, now gone. Oftentimes when I get burned out on doctrinal debates, or when I get on one of my over-achieving fits, I like to return to a simpler practice, which I call Buddhism-lite.* Here, by simpler, I don’t believe in compromising the teachings of the Buddha though. Instead, I try to focus on things here that a simply lay Buddhist, especially those who don’t have access to a good community, or swamped with lay life, can do.

Buddhism at its heart is about:

  • Sila – Good, clean living.
  • Samadhi – Some kind of Buddhist practice or practices.
  • Pañña – Wisdom.

So with that, here’s my approach toward Buddhism-lite. I keep it as doctrinally-neutral as I can, so anyone can try it out:

  1. Each day, try to follow the Five Precepts. If you make a mistake, just try again. Think of the last attempt as a dress rehearsal. 🙂 This is both a challenging and rewarding practice.
  2. Find something good to chant, that’s short and easy to stick with. I like chanting the Heart Sutra, the 10-verse Kannon Sutra, or the Morning Pali chant used in Thailand. Or just recite the Three Refuges in English.
  3. I think people in the West kind of blow meditation way out proportion, but it helps to try and meditate even as little as 10 minutes a week. I sometimes meditate at work in a dark, vacant office if I am burned out that day. Try to make this fit your schedule, not the other way around.
  4. In regard to wisdom, it helps to read books a little, but people can rely on books too much. Wisdom is something acquired through living, not books, but if you don’t watch out for it, you may miss it. Being around other, more experienced Buddhists is a really big help, so find people in your area.

Anyways, enjoy and remember that Buddhism is about kindness, peace and understanding.

Namuamidabu

* – Now with half the calories! Actually, I think this term Buddhism-lite is often used in a negative sense to mean people who dabble in Buddhism, but don’t take its teachings seriously. I use it here in a positive sense.

The Buddha as doctor

Medicine Buddha

I started reading the Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva recently, and I pondered this quote below in Chapter 10:

This earth is crowded with the insane, so diligent in deluding themselves!

It is a pretty strong statement, but last night while washing dishes, I realized that while it’s exaggerated (probably for dramatic effect), it’s kind of true. In other Buddhist texts, it states that all people suffer from delusion in one form or another, but I think a more modern and readable way, it’s just saying we all suffer from mental illness.

Sometimes when I observe myself, I wonder why I do the things I do. I bet you do too. 🙂 When I pondered this in light of the notion of being mentally ill, a lot of things fell into place, good things. If you think about it, just about every has suffered some kind of trauma in their life, suffers from low-self-esteem, suffers from some kind of insecurity. We’re all mentally ill in some degree or another. But the reason why I felt relieved at this thought is that illnesses can be cured. When someone suffers from a phobia for example, it can seem like a terrible burden, but when you get over the phobia, you realize in hindsight that it’s really small. It’s a big relief.

Most if not all of the behavior we do, good and bad, is due to external causes and conditions. Why do we have the nervous habits we have? Why do we vote Democrat not Republican? Why do we eat beef, but hate onions? These mental habits have accumulated in our minds over a lifetime of experiences, wholesome and traumatic, and shape who we are. But at the same time, they are not really our own thoughts. I think this is why Buddhists don’t believe in the notion of a true, permanent sense of self. There’s nothing really in our minds we can truly call our own, or something intrinsic. When born, we start as a clean slate, but as experiences shape our minds, we develop more of a personality that we carry around the rest of our lives.

So I think that’s why the Buddha is often referred to as a doctor. He rightly diagnosed people as mentally ill, victims of their own mental habits, but offered a clear analysis of the problem, and then a way to free yourself from these mental habits and accumulations. The picture above depicts a celestial Buddha called the Medicine Buddha. The Medicine Buddha represents the Buddha as a doctor or healer, who diagnoses the affliction, and offers a way to cure it. Pretty cool when you think about it. 🙂

Namuamidabu

The Importance of Friends

Kind of rewriting a post from the previous blog. Recently I found this wonderful sutra from the Pali Canon that details the importance of being around a good Buddhist community, and why the “lone-wolf” approach doesn’t work well. The sutra is the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2), emphasis added:

Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.

It’s not enough to be around just any Buddhist community, some are cults or have just fallen into money-making or factional fighting, but rather you need to be around people who are sincere Buddhists and provide inspiration to you to keep going. Without good friends to challenge and keep you going, you’ll either become complacent (as lone-wolf meditation types tend to do), or if around a poor community, you’ll pick up bad habits and views, or just get stressed out more so.

Of course, if you live somewhere where this is no community, you’ve got a problem. Many Westerners still live in areas where Buddhist temples are really hard to come by. That’s not your fault, it’s just circumstance. That’s where you have to be creative and either make concerted trips to good temple somewhere, or meet people online. My experience though so far is that online communities just aren’t as good as the real thing. The conversations I have at the ol’ Temple are something that don’t come up often on the Web. Then again, I’ve met a lot of great people on the Web, so there’s something positive there too.

Don’t consider this a hard-fast rule, but rather as valuable advice from the Buddha.

Namuamidabu

Imagery of the Pure Land sutras

This came up in today’s Dharma Talk at the ol’ Temple today, and I wanted to share some thoughts on this with folks. People who first encounter Pure Land Buddhism in general are often put off by the fantastic imagery used in describing the Pure Land. It sounds like a paradise realm for small-minded followers who don’t put in the effort to attain Enlightenment themselves. Take for example this excerpt from Rev. Inagaki’s excellent translation of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life:

[14] Again, seven-jewelled trees completely fill that land. There are some made of gold, some of silver, and others made of beryl, crystal, coral, ruby or agate. There are also trees made of two to seven kinds of jewels.

The descriptions of jewelled trees, having any kind of food you want, and so on, all sound just too fantastic to be true. Even Pure Land Buddhists I know at the temple get discouraged when they see this, and wonder if it’s all fake or just someone’s fancy.

Having been doing a lot of reading lately, I noticed this excerpt from Chapter 6 of the Lotus Sutra, with Watson’s excellent translation. After the Buddha Shakyamuni bestows his prophecy to Mahakashyapa, he describes the “Buddha-realm” Mahakashyapa will have after attaining Buddha-hood:

His realm will be majestically adorned, free of defilement or evil, shards or rubble, thorns or briers, or the unclean refuse of latrines. The land will be level and smooth, without high places or sags, pits or knolls. The ground will be of lapis lazuli, with rows of jeweled trees and ropes of gold to mark the boundaries of the roads.

It’s interesting to note that these passages are very similar. It seems that this description of a Buddha-realm as being adorned with jewels and pleasant things is a common literary device for the composers of the Mahayana sutras.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that The Pali Canon often “recycles” certain stock phrases as well, so it’s not just a Mahayana thing.

I think part of this is that when sutras were first committed to memory by the early followers, they had to be heavily edited and rearranged for easier memorization. So, every sutra you ever read always sounds stilted and stylized; it’s probably the only way the early Buddhists could keep track of voluminous sutras in their minds.

In any case, having noticed this a while back, I have had to ask myself “what can I take away from this as a Buddhist?” A literary device, once you notice it, kind of loses it’s meaning. However, having had time to think about this, like Shinran, I believe that the Pure Land really is nothing but Nirvana itself. Not a geographic place, but Nirvana plain and simple.

Once, while listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 10-lecture series on Buddhism, his explanation of Nibbana in the Pali Canon sounded very much like another state of existence, not annihilation. He used terms like “deathless” and “blissful”, which if you carefully analyze, relate to Amida as the Buddha of “Infinite Life” (i.e. deathless) and the realm of the Pure Land which is also described as blissful.

Also, in the Larger Sutra, there are a lot of references to people hearing the Dharma in the breeze, in the singing of birds, etc. I think this is pretty noteworthy, and shows that the Pure Land is not a paradise in the Christian sense, but a state of profound understanding:

One can hear whatever sound one wishes. For example, some hear the sound ‘Buddha,’ some hear the sound ‘Dharma,’ some ‘Sangha,’ others hear ‘tranquillity,’ ’emptiness and non-self,’ ‘great compassion,’ ‘paramita,’ ‘ten powers,’ ‘fearlessness,’ ‘special qualities,’ ‘supernatural powers,’ ‘non-activity,’ ‘neither arising nor perishing,’ ‘insight into the non-arising of all dharmas,’ and so on until the various sounds of the wonderful Dharma, such as ‘the sprinkling of nectar upon the head of a bodhisattva,’ are heard. As one hears those sounds, one attains immeasurable joy and accords with the principles of purity, absence of desires, extinction, and reality.

So, when I ponder the Pure Land Sutras, I think they’re telling us something far more profound than that the Pure Land is some kind of paradise. I am also reminded of the words of Shinran in the Tannishō, section IV:

The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings completely as we desire.

The Pure Land is not a terminal place to live out one’s pleasures; it’s a state of reality where we become something far greater, so that we can help others achieve peace and liberation.

Namuamidabu

— Doug