Uposatha: Take 3

I really am a glutton for punishment. I decided to try and observe the Eight Precepts on Uposatha, the Buddhist sabbath, again. I’ve tried this two other times, and it went like so:

  • First attempt: I made it through, but had a lot of nagging (read: paranoid) self-doubt as to whether I made an inadvertent oversight.
  • Second attempt: I gave up in the afternoon. I hadn’t eaten very well in the morning and had some more self-doubt.

However, recently, a conversation came up on e-sangha about observing Uposatha, and people (including myself) asked the monks if “A” broke the Eight Precepts, or if “B” did and so on. The monks provided helpful answered, and made me realize some critical points:

  1. Sitting in a car seat does not violate the Eighth Precept for abstaining from luxurious seats. Neither do office chairs, if it’s the standard issue.
  2. Listening to baby music in order to entertain Baby does not violate the Seventh Precepts on entertainment. For that matter, neither does playing with the Baby at all.
  3. Reading books does violate the Seventh Precepts if they’re for entertainment, not studying the Dharma.

So with that in mind, I will take the Eight Precepts tomorrow and observe Uposatha. Wish me luck!

Buddha-nature and Shin Buddhism

Warning: Long post, but hopefully interesting. 🙂

Jodo Shinshu, or “Shin”, Buddhism is unusual among Mahayana Buddhist sects in that it denies the notion of Buddha-nature in the conventional sense. Buddha-nature is a term that gets used a lot in Buddhism, and is used in positive terms to show that within a person is the potential to be a Buddha. In Soto Zen for example, you often hear that while you are meditating, you are a Buddha, you are expressing your Buddha-nature. A nice Shingon Buddhist priest in my neighborhood, upon hearing about Baby being born, wrote me a friendly email saying “Congratulations on the birth of a new Buddha”. 🙂

However, in discussing Buddha-nature, Shinran once wrote the following:

Karmic evil originally has no form;
It comes from delusions and inverted thinking;
The nature of Mind is originally pure,
but no one has a mind true and sincere.

The notion of “original mind” is another euphemism for Buddha-nature. The idea among Mahayana Buddhists (including Zen among others) is that when we purify our minds of ignorance, then Buddha-nature emerges from deep within our mind and we are enlightened. A typical analogy is a pond whose waters are disturbed. When the water settles, we can see our reflection.

But here, Shinran is saying that no one has Buddha-nature, by default that is.* People are, in Shin Buddhist terms, bonnō (煩悩) meaning ignorant and passionate by their nature. Oftentimes, people don’t even know they’re ignorant (or the extent of their ignorance). Shinran denies the notion of people possessing an original mind that only needs to emerge.

People reading this may find the notion offensive. Buddha-nature has a positive connotation to it, but Shinran is taking a decidedly negative view point instead. However, there is more.

Shinran writes about Buddha-nature in his text Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone:

The Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood. Since it is with this heart and mind of all sentient beings that they entrust themselves to the Vow of Dharmakaya-as-compassion (Amida Buddha), this entrusting is none other than Buddha-nature (Notes, p. 42).

This is a pretty cryptic statement, and although I’ve read it many times, I just never got it. Recently I was re-reading Taitetsu Unno’s book River of Fire, River of Water, which helped shed light on this at last.

What he says here is that though we have no Buddha-nature by default, through entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha, Buddha-nature now becomes a reality within us. Shin Buddhists who have followed for a long time, often describe how they thought they were “practicing” Buddhism, only to realize much later in hind-sight that it was Amida leading them. That awakened aspiration towards Enlightenment does not come from within ourselves, but rather from Amida Buddha.

This is confirmed by excerpts for example in the Nirvana Sutra:

Great joy and great even-mindedness are none other than Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is Tathagata [Buddha].

And in the Flower Garland Sutra:

The Tathagata [Buddha] dispels forever
The doubts of all sentient beings,
And all the aspirations of their hearts
He brings to complete fulfillment.

I thought about this further, and came to a realization that the self (or rather the illusion of self) cannot be used to awaken from the illusion of self. In other words, there’s something fundamentally limited about the notion of an entirely self-oriented approach to Buddhism. As the saying goes “the eye cannot see itself”. It takes something external to reveal what the eye really is.

So, this is where the notion of entrusting one’s self to Amida Buddha becomes something very important.

Also, for all you scholars out there, the notion of Amida Buddha being not a physical Buddha, but the truth itself manifested as compassion (Dharmakaya-as-compassion above) is not unique to Jodo Shinshu. I had an interesting conversation with another Shingon priest recently who reminded me that in Shingon Buddhism, which is an older sect of Buddhism than Jodo Shinshu, also treats Amida Buddha as Dharmakaya-as-compassion. In Shingon Buddhism, the central Buddha is Mahavairocana, who is the embodiment of reality and truth itself, but Mahavairocana manifests in other forms as shown in the famous Matrix Mandala below:

Womb Realm Mandala

In this Mandala, Mahavairocana the primal Buddha, sits in the middle with various emanations around him. Amida Buddha sits at the bottom, in red robes (typical symbolism in esoteric Buddhism). The point here is that instead of reading the Buddhist sutras about Amida Buddha literally, the deeper meaning is that Amida Buddha embodies truth, but in the form of sincere and boundless compassion.

Entrusting one’s self to Amida is more than just entrusting to some savior figure, it’s something far deeper and more moving, but this does not reveal itself right away. You can’t force it either, it just happens on its own pace, in its own time.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jodo Shinshu starts out such a counter-intuitive teaching, but the more you explore it, the more profound and sensible it becomes. :p


* – In nerd/programmer terms, the person object has a $buddha_nature variable set to 0 by default. Or is that a 1? I always forget. 😉

The 10 Precepts of Shingon Buddhism

Note: This is not to be confused with the 10 Precepts of Theravada Buddhism.

Again, this is kind of a reference post, but in Shingon Buddhism, there are ten “precepts” followers are encouraged to follow called the jūzenkai (十善戒):

  1. I will not harm life.
  2. I will not steal.
  3. I will not commit adultery.
  4. I will not tell a lie.
  5. I will not exaggerate or gossip.
  6. I will not speak abusively.
  7. I will not equivocate.
  8. I will not be greedy.
  9. I will not be hateful.
  10. I will not lose sight of the Truth.

However, this is not something invented in Shingon Buddhism only. The basis for this is actually the Agamas/Pali Canon. For example, in the Saleyyaka Sutta (MN 41), you can see the Buddha very clearly spelling out a very similar set of guidelines. Actually, in the case of the sutra, these are not precepts in the monastic or lay person sense, but voluntary good conduct one strives for.

Interestingly, the Ten Precepts are grouped into three categories:

  • Body – Abstaining from killing, stealing or sexual immorality (adultery, rape, etc).
  • Speech – Abstaining from lying, exaggerating, harsh or divisive speech.
  • Mind – Abstaining from hatred or greed, and focusing on the truth.

This notion of Mind, Body and Speech is important not just to Shingon Buddhism, but probably Buddhism overall. The Buddha, when teaching these ten good conducts, divided them up the same way in the sutra. The message here is that in practicing Buddhism, you have to take speech, action and mind all into account. You can’t neglect any one of the three.


P.S. More on the history of the precepts in Japanese Buddhism in a later post.

The Iroha

The Japanese poem, Iroha, is a famous poem from the Heian Period of Japanese history, and is attributed to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai, though research suggests that this was written as a tribute to him, not by him. The poem, in Japanese (including archaic letters) look like so:


The romanization as it would have been pronounced back then:

I ro ha ni ho he to
chi ri nu ru wo wa ka
yo ta re so tsu ne na
ra mu u wi no o ku
ya ma ke fu ko e te
a sa ki yu me mi shi
we hi mo se su

And this translation comes from Professor Ryuichi Abé’s The Weaving of Mantra:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

Of course, this refers to the impermanence of life, and the notion of “crossing over” to the other shore of Enlightenment.

What’s remarkable about this poem is that each letter in the Japanese alphabet is exactly once. Also, later research mentioned in Professor Abé’s book showed that the last letter of each line, when put together, formed another sentence that read, “[he] died without sin.” This probably refers to Kūkai the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Older generations of Japanese often learned the alphabet by memorizing the Iroha, and the Iroha to this day is still a fascinating and often-used poem in Japanese culture.

It’s amazing what people can do with literature, let along something Buddhist like this. Who said Buddhism was dull and dry? 🙂

Buddhism, vegetarianism, garlic and onions

Note: This discussion refers to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism only. Theravada Buddhism has different dietary restrictions.

Buddhism is often described by people as a “vegetarian” religion, given that some who follow the religion practice vegetarian diets. However, Buddhism and diet are somewhat more complex here, so I hope to provide some information on this. Much of the dietary guidelines for Mahayana Buddhism (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Tibet) derive from certain Buddhist texts, or sutras. One particular sutra of note is the Brahma Net Sutra, which is thought by some to be a revision of earlier monastic rules. Here, the intent of the Brahma Net Sutra was to develop a moral code that would someone on the path to become a Bodhisattva (kind of like a Buddhist saint). So, as with Bodhisattvas who strive to help all beings, the Bodhisattva-precepts are likewise focused on compassion.

The Brahma Net Sutra is divided into 10 major and 48 minor precepts intended for monks, and lay followers who are particularly devoted. The 10 precepts cover all kinds of egregious behavior (lying, killing, etc), while the 48 minor precepts cover more specific actions. Of note in the Sutra are the following minor precepts:

  • 3. On Eating Meat – A disciple of the Buddha must not deliberately eat meat. He should not eat the flesh of any sentient being. The meat-eater forfeits the seed of Great Compassion, severs the seed of the Buddha Nature and causes [animals and transcendental] beings to avoid him.
  • 4. On Five Pungent Herbs – A disciple of the Buddha should not eat the five pungent herbs — garlic, chives, leeks, onions, and asafoetida [used in curry?]. This is so even if they are added as flavoring to other main dishes.

In the case of Minor Precept #3, the belief is that by consuming meat, you are not being compassionate towards animals. Other Buddhist branches limit this to meat that you have killed yourself, or meat that you asked someone to kill for you (either way, intentional killing), but in the Brahma Net Sutra this now includes all meat.

The fourth Minor Precept is kind of an interesting one. I asked around, and monks have told me it relates to Indian medicine, where the “five pungent herbs” were thought to increase anger or passion. Obviously if you are a monk, you’d want to be calm and centered, not passionate, hence this precept. It’s hard to be sure if the effects are real or not. I’ve heard some people say it does indeed help with meditation, but I have little meditation experience myself, so I can’t confirm or deny this.

So, in real traditional East-Asian Buddhist cuisine, you will see that there is no meat, nor any of the pungent herbs above. In Japan, this is called shōjin-ryōri (精進料理) or “devoted cuisine”. The idea here is that someone is devoted to Buddhist precepts, and so only eats meals within this framework. In the case of Jodo Shinshu, which is the Buddhist sect I follow, we only observe shōjin meals on special holidays or after someone has passed away. It’s a gesture of respect and appreciation for the lives we have to take to continue living, but also can be considered wholesome karma given that you are giving up meat and pungent herbs. Other Buddhist sects may differ. For many monks and nuns though in East-Asia, this is a pretty hard-fast rule.

Here’s a picture of a shōjin-ryōri meal I took when I visited the Zen temple of Ryūanji in Kyoto, Japan in 2005:

Ryuanji Vegetarian Meal

I’ll post more on Ryūanji in a separate blog entry (update: posted here). This meal was entirely vegetarian, with tofu and some kind of light broth. The flowers are actually radishes. It was surprisingly good and filling, though meals such as this would be hard to enjoy at home. In a Western context, I’ve been told by a respectable priest in Japan that even peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches can be considered shōjin meals because they fit the precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra just fine. 🙂

Of course, this all boils down to the question: if you are a new Buddhist, do you have to be vegetarian? The answer is no. All Buddhist moral behavior is a conscious, individual choice, and can’t be forced upon you (though some may try). Instead, as you practice Buddhism, and learn to appreciate it more, you may want to challenge yourself a little and then a little more and so on. I’ll be frank in that I am not a vegetarian, but I do try, and I believe that gradually I will become one. It’s hard for me right now since we have a baby in the house, and we want to make sure she gets a well-rounded diet. So for now, I focus on minimizing meat (as well as garlic/onions).

So, that’s Buddhist cuisine in a nutshell. 🙂

P.S. The same restrictions on meat, garlic and pungent herbs are found in the Shurangama Sutra and Chapter 8 of the Lankavatara Sutra.

Cooking advice: shiitake, not crimini

I have noticed lately in some of limited cooking I do that you can substitute Japanese shiitake mushrooms for almost any cooked dish where common, or crimini, mushrooms are used, and get a better flavor. Crimini mushrooms have a great texture when raw, and work well in salads, but I’ve noticed that beyond that, they usually don’ t have all that much flavor.

However, shiitake mushrooms usually have a strong, smoky/salty flavor, and have worked well for me when making a spaghetti sauce (marinara) or in soups. Shiitake mushrooms, when boiled in water and with some konbu (Japanese dried seaweed), also make a good vegetarian broth. If you get them dried, and let them soak before cooking, you can save the water as a broth too.

As a side story, while in Japan, my wife (whose Japanese) and I visited my father-in-law’s home near the mountains. There, we visited a local shrine/Buddhist temple devoted to Yakushi, the medicine Buddha. Anyways, while outside this temple, there was a nice old lady selling shiitake tea. Basically it was boiled mushrooms, filtered and allowed to cool somewhat. The tea was actually really good.

So, shiitake mushrooms are in my mind more versatile than criminis, and make for great cooking. The key to shiitake mushrooms is that you have to cut off the stem which is hard and not all that edible. The head of the mushroom is usually pretty large, so only need about four or five for a meal. That’s good considering they cost more than crimini mushrooms. 😉

If you don’t live somewhere where shiitake mushrooms are sold (thankfully they’re becoming more popular all the time), then ordering a pack of dried mushrooms is a good idea. We get our from my in-laws in Japan, which is pretty convenient.

Anyways, try replacing crimini mushrooms with shiitake ones for all kinds of cooked dishes and see what you get. Better yet, reply back and let me know. Thanks!

Happy Ohigan!

Hello Everyone,

In Japan, during the Spring and Fall Equinox, people celebrate the Buddhist holiday of Ohigan (お彼岸). The idea in the olden days was that the weather was more mild at these times, so people had more time to reflect on things like Buddhism, life and other matters. Even today, people in Japan often visit ancestral graves among other things.

The word ohigan means “other shore”, and is an important Buddhist metaphor. It refers to the idea that we stand on this shore (of ignorance) when we could cross over to the shore of Enlightenment and liberation. This is expressed very nicely in a mantra found in the famous Heart Sutra:

  • English: Gone, gone, gone over, [everyone] completely gone [to the Other Shore], Awakening hail!
  • Sanskrit: Gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā
  • Chinese: 揭諦 揭諦 波羅揭諦 波羅僧揭諦 菩提 薩婆訶
  • Japanese: Gya-tei, gya-tei, ha-ra-gya-tei, ha-ra-so-gya-tei bo-ji so-wa-ka

By the way, you can see the same mantra in Sanskrit calligraphy (Siddham) here.

In any case, this is probably the most famous mantra in Buddhism, and is spoken by the Bodhisattva Kannon (Guan-yin, Avalokitesvara) as an expression of the intention to bring not just one’s self, but all beings across to the Shore of Awakening (Enlightenment). This metaphor is used though in a wide variety of texts, but since the Heart Sutra is one of the most widely chanted, this is where you’ll be likely to see it first.

However, there is a second meaning to Ohigan. Ohigan also refers to the Six Perfections, or Six Pāramitā. Buddhism loves numbered lists, and the Six Perfections are qualities that Buddhists try to cultivate and perfect. The Perfections, in Sanskrit, Chinese and English are:

  1. Dāna (布施波羅蜜): Generosity
  2. Śīla (持戒波羅蜜): Moral Conduct (the Five Moral Precepts fall within here)
  3. Kṣānti (忍辱波羅蜜): Patience, Tolerance, Endurance
  4. Vīrya (精進波羅蜜): Diligence
  5. Dhyāna (禪定波羅蜜): Mindfulness
  6. Prajñā (智慧波羅蜜): Wisdom, Insight

So, on Ohigan, Buddhists stop to contemplate their progress, and make a renewed effort. I like the Six Perfections because of their positive outlook, rather than “don’t do X, Y and Z”. No matter who we are, or where we start from, it’s a great set of goals to work on, no matter how big or small the effort. And of course, no matter who we are, the Perfections are always a work in progress. 🙂

Happy and Peaceful Ohigan everyone!