Mythology, Pictures from Kaizozan-Hasedera

(Reposting from old blog, dated Nov. 2007)

While Baby is feeling much better now, I have become sick myself. I should’ve expected that, but I am thick-headed at times. So, right now, I am enjoying the side effects of NyQuil, but before I pass out, I wanted to post some more pictures from Japan, taken in October 2007. These are from another temple I visited named Hasedera, or more formally Kaikōzan Hasedera (海光山長谷寺), in the city Kamakura, just a block or two from the Great Buddha.

I uploaded both pictures to Wikimedia earlier in the day.

Kannon and Jizo and Hasedera temple

This first picture, which I enjoyed most out of this venture, is of a small outdoor incense burner, but features two Buddhist bodhisattvas: Kannon on the left and Jizo on the right. It’s unusual to see two figures standing side by side like this, so I thought it was interesting. The Kannon statue features a crown with 11 heads on it. This is based on an old myth where Kannon was so overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, that his mentor, Amida Buddha, split his head into 11, and gave him 1000 arms to better assist the world. This is more myth than Buddhist religion, but illustrates the notion that Kannon was striving endlessly to help the world.

Jizo features his famous staff which he uses to protect those in need, and allows him to traverse the Hell realms, teaching the Dharma so that beings there can be free. The rings on the staff, when shaken, reverberate with the Dharma, so to speak.

The second picture is from the top of Hasedera itself:

Ocean view from Kaikozan Hasedera

This is out facing the Pacific Ocean and the old city of Kamakura. According to the pamphlet, you can see Sagami Bay and Miura Peninsula, for those into geography. Typical of many Japanese temples, there were vending machines there, but also a nice little cafe. This is tucked in the corner of the temple so it did not interfere with the actual visitation of various buildings.

Hasedera was actually pretty large and contained multiple buildings. The temple also had a long underground cave devoted to the sea goddess, Benzaiten, who apparently is an import of the Hindu god Sarasvatî. When I visited Japan in 2005, we visited the famous temple of Sanjusangendo,* which featured a very long hall containing many, many statues of Kannon. In front of these statues were life-like statues of various other Hindu gods, including Shiva and Vishnu, who had been imported into Buddhism as protector deities.

This is pretty typical of the Shingon and especially Tendai sects of Buddhism, as well as even earlier sects, which created a kind of synthesis between the native Shinto religion, Buddhism, and also Hindu gods. This helped to make Buddhism more palatable for the Japanese government who up to this time followed Shinto and Confucianism (a Chinese import) only. It’s very common at that time to see a Shinto** god, like Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, treated as an incarnation of a Buddhist figure, like Mahavairocana, the Buddha of the Sun. In the epic classic, the Tales of the Heike, you see quite a bit of this, which can be real confusing to Western audiences who aren’t familiar with this association.***

Later Buddhist sects, such as Zen, Nichiren and particularly Jodo Shinshu, eschewed a lot of this, preferring to focus on specific Buddhist figures only.

Interestingly, even in more orthodox Buddhist texts such as the Pali Canon, the Hindu gods do play minor roles. In the Maha-samaya Sutta (DN 20), the Buddha gives a long discourse on the cosmology of the heaven realms, with references to Indra, kind of the Hindu gods, and Vishnu (called Vendu). In the Ayacana Sutta (SN 6.1), another god, Brahma Sahampati convinces him to teach the dharma despite his doubts. In Buddhism, the gods are largely absorbed as protectors of the Dharma.

So anyways, I would certainly recommend visiting this temple along with visiting the nearby Great Buddha. They are so close, that you can cover both in a day, though you’ll have little time for else. I definitely enjoyed the art of this temple, but didn’t connect with it religiously the way I did with Tsukiji Hongwanji. This temple definitely felt more like a museum to Japanese medieval Buddhism, albeit a very fascinating one.

So that’s all for now. Take care everyone!

Namo Amida Butsu

* – Speaking of Kannon statues with 1000 arms…try viewing hundreds of them!

** – People often confuse Shinto and Buddhism since they’re both Japanese religions. They couldn’t be more further apart. Shinto is a native Japanese religion dealing with gods, charms, and various superstitions. It has no real structure, or organization, or explanation of metaphysics (i.e. the afterlife). Since Shinto and Buddhism are so far apart, they actually can both be worshipped in Japanese culture without too much conflict. In Tibet, this similarly is the case between Buddhism and the native religion of Bön

*** – On that note, I am currently reading the mysterious Golden Light Sutra, which was very popular at that time in Japanese Buddhism because of its reference to protecting one’s nation. Offices had been setup with monks chanting this very lengthy sutra over and over again to protect the country from calamity.



Japanese Buddhism gets a lot of criticism for having degenerated into what some people call a “funeral business”, but I saw this story on Tricycle Editor’s blog, and thought it was great story:

This article involves a certain famous Japanese monastery called Zenkōji (善光寺), which is a Tendai/Jodo-Shu temple. Originally the temple was slated to take part in the Olympic Torch relay, but decided to take a stand and pull out due to controversies surrounding Tibet. But what I also like was this part:

Buddhist monks said yesterday that they would hold a ceremony of mourning for Tibetans on Saturday at the seventh-century Zenkoji temple, which backed out of being the starting point for the relay.

My family-in-law in Japan have complained in the past that some of the local temples they know are pretty much just business, and don’t really practice what they preach. For example, for the recent holiday of Hanamatsuri, the Buddha’s Birthday, some of the local temples had no real celebration. Also, I remember visiting famous temples in Japan in 2005 and 2007, and some just felt like tourist-traps/museums to me. I didn’t feel anything spiritual there.

However, seeing that Zenkōji is taking an active, ethical stance to the China/Tibet issue makes me feel proud of those monks. I am glad to see these monks of Zenkōji are willing to take a risk politically and speak out on ethical issues they take seriously. That tells me that they these monks are not just interested in collecting donations, but really care about Buddhism, Buddhists and welfare for others.


Mantras explained

I found this website on Tendai Buddhism in California (kindly posted on e-sangha by another member), that had a nice summary explanation* of why mantras feature so prominently in Buddhism. I particularly thought this was helpful:

And the recitation of mantra has many other uses and benefits as well. If one with faith in the teacher takes up repetition practice (JAPA), the meaning may not become clear until after 100,000 repetitions, even a million repetitions. However, other benefits will be quickly discovered, things like calming, awareness, becoming concentrated, turning inward and see your thoughts as in a mirror, seeing how quickly thoughts change, and how the two sides of the brain exchange places on center stage. By diligent effort, you will experience how to slow down and stop the replay of the day’s conversations, allowing deeper layers of the mind to become visible, and allowing the Buddhadharma to manifest its power to overcome suffering.

I think this is a great explanation because it helps to demystify mantras somewhat, without compromising their meaning. It has a short-term value in helping to calm the mind and leave it open to reflection, but also has a long-term value in revealing deeper truths. Also it was interesting to note that the article listed the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) as a mantra, which in this definition probably does make sense. In Jodo Shinshu, the nembutsu is treated as a recitation of faith, or more appropriately, an expression of gratitude, but I suppose that it also fits the definitely above if you look at it from another angle.

Anyways, something interesting to pass along.


* – The website sadly uses HTML frames, and in a way that’s kind of awkward, so be patient. 🙂 I’ve noticed that Buddhist masters generally aren’t proficient web designers, which leads me to suspect that HTML 4.01 is not on the path to Enlightenment. Oh well.

Hungry Ghosts are among us

The dead are too much with us.
–Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

Hungry ghosts, or shades, are a part of Buddhism often forgotten in modern interpretations, but encompass an important part of traditional Buddhism. Hungry ghosts, or peta in Sanskrit, are those beings who lived a life of strong cravings so much so that their cravings persist beyond death. Thus, they live as shades, or ghosts, starving and without any comfort. Rebirth as a hungry ghost is thought to be only one step above Hell because you are not actively tormented, but they live life tormented by hunger and thirst.

In the Pali Canon, there is a little-known section called the Petavatthu, containing poems and stories about Hungry Ghosts. This is in the Khuddaka or “short stories” collection in the Canon. Anyways, a friend and reader found this wonderful poem yesterday on, explaining the virtue of offering food to the hungry shades. This practice is also done in Japan during the holiday of Obon (お盆), where people traditionally leave a tray of food outside their door for any hungry ghosts to eat.

Of note in this poem are the lines:

“He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
   they were my relatives, companions, friends”:
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus
on things done in the past.
For no weeping,
   no sorrowing
   no other lamentation
      benefits the dead
      whose relatives persist in that way.

Even in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we are taught that one should reflect on all the efforts of those who came before you, and how we benefit from them. Reflecting thus, we become grateful and humbled by their efforts, and strangely comforted as well. This is also reflected in the Japanese phrase okagesama de, which is a common answer to when someone asks “how are you”? It simply means, “I live in the shadow of others (and thus benefit)”, which is a very Buddhist way to look at one’s life. Because of the efforts of loves ones past, we live and thrive. 🙂

At the same time, the poem dispells the need for excessive grief either. Life is not meant to be one unending sorrow, but rather the efforts of our loved ones is a reason to pause and reflect. Self-reflection is a very important part of Buddhism, of which meditation is just one tool for self-reflection. A Buddhist who does not reflect upon his or her life, is someone who isn’t paying attention. And so, rather than wailing and grieving, one should simply be grateful and appreciate the life and time they spent with those now dead. Life is impermanent and inconsistent; there’s no avoiding this. You can’t fight it, or change it. You can simply come to terms with it, and thereby gain your freedom.

When I think about my ancestors, I often think about how my daughter and maybe her children (my grandchildren to-be) will think about my efforts, and my wife’s efforts. Hopefully they will be feel loved and appreciated, and if so, all is well. 😀


Chinese Buddhism, Amida and Medicine Buddha

This will be my last post on the subject of the Medicine Buddha and Amida, but I wanted to point out a great explanation of the two Buddhas by the Ven. Chinese master Yin-Shun. I’ve been reading his book “The Way to Buddhahood” off and on for a few weeks, and I have to admit Yin-Shun has really done his homework. The book was not written for Western Audiences, but rather for his fellow Chinese students, so his interpretation of things can seem kind of orthodox, but at the same time, he explains things well, and balances tradition with getting to the heart of the teachings. It’s no wonder he’s highly respected among Chinese Buddhists.

On that note, I wanted to quote from his book because Chinese Buddhism is kind of under-represented in Western Buddhist circles,* so here’s his take on how Amida Buddha and the Medicine Buddha relate:

“The doctrine of Amitabha [Amida] Buddha’s Most Blissful Pure Land rejects the reality of this present world. Because Lady Vaidehi [in the Contemplation Sutra] experienced suffering of this world deeply, she did not want to be reborn in this world, so the Buddha told her about the Most Blissful Pure Land…This is a teaching that rejects the human world and emphasizes rebirth after death.

“There are other kinds of people for whom a different way is more suitable. Those people who are presently in this world and who have healthy bodies and harmonious families, live in wealthy and powerful countries, and enjoy world peace are not inclined to reject such things…and in order to enable them to direct themselves toward bodhi [enlightenment], Shakyamuni Buddha also proclaimed the Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land.

“The Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land is in the east, which symbolizes growth, whereas Amitabha’s Pure Land is in the west, which symbolizes retirement. To liberate the dead, Chinese Buddhists chant the name of Amitabha Buddha; to disperse calamity and prolong life they chant the name of the Medicine Buddha.

Note that the Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu approach to Amida Buddha is somewhat different. Both Honen and Shinran felt that Amida Buddha was not really a Bodhisattva-turned-Buddha. They interpreted the story of Amida Buddha in a more figurative sense, treating Amida Buddha not as a literal figure, but as the Dharmakaya itself. So, in that regard, Amida Buddha would encompass both the rebirth after death as well as the life we live now.

In any case, it’s really fascinating to me to see two interpretations of the same Pure Land texts. Both are venerable monks, not beginners, but through their experiences and interpretations, they arrived at slightly different conclusions. Both Ven. Yin-Shun and Honen/Shinran taught the Pure Land teachings with the same basic intent though: to help those followers who were not in a position to take up monastic practices to directly attain Enlightement, so that no one would be left behind.


* – I’ve noticed that Chinese Buddhism is often overshadowed by Japanese Buddhism, which is ironic since Japan owes all of its Buddhist teachings to centuries of Chinese monastic tradition, literature and evolution of teachings. I think this happened because certain Japanese Buddhists like D.T. Suzuki and Shunryu Suzuki did such a great job teaching Buddhism in the West, that people just naturally looked to them and their cultural background for guidance. In any case, although I follow Jodo Shinshu, a Japanese school of Buddhism, I hope that Chinese Buddhism becomes better understood over time in the West because the similarities and contrast both help flesh out East Asian Buddhism. 😀

Who’s who in Buddhism, part 2: The Medicine Buddha

Lately I’ve been taking a big interest in the Medicine Buddha ever since I started watching that Japanese series of Buddhist temples, 百寺巡礼 (Hundred Temple Pilgrimage, or hyakuji junrei). The narrator, author Hiroyuki Itsuki, visited Nara Prefecture for the first three DVDs (out of 25), but then moved to Fukui Prefecture, which is on the Japan Sea, but still close to the old capitol of Kyoto. In this part of Japan, the kind of Buddhism established there tends to be much more “old-school” than what you see in east Japan where Zen and Jodo Shinshu are more dominant. I know very little about Japanese Buddhism before the newer “Kamakura-era” schools mentioned, so it’s so fascinating to see how Buddhism looked in an earlier time.

Anyways, many of these famous old temples belong to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, which was dominant at the time, and many have the Medicine Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder, enshrined as the main image. It is thought that the Medicine Buddha is a representation of the Buddha-as-a-doctor, so the two can be closely related in a way. But even in more contemporary times, you can see statues of the Medicine Buddha everywhere. My four year daughter took this photo on a recent trip to Japan in 2011 using my camera phone:

Medicine Buddha taken by my daughter

Pretty good for four years old (I did edit a bit). Here again you can see the jar of medicine. At this particular temple, Daienji in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, you can purchase a small bit of gold leaf to place on the Buddha as an offering. Also, notice that in Japanese Buddhist art, the Medicine Buddha isn’t depicted as “blue” as you see in places like Tibet.

In any case, having seen as these old Japanese temples devoted to the Medicine Buddha, I did some homework and learned more about it. I then found a copy of the Medicine Buddha Sutra in PDF format from Buddhanet. It’s the only to mentioned the Medicine Buddha at all. It’s interesting because in many ways the Medicine Buddha and Amida Buddha are so similar, but in some ways very different:

  • They both have a “pure realm”. For Amida Buddha, the Pure Land exists in Indian thought far, far to the west. Here “west” can also be seen by modern thinkers as death, as the sun sets in that direction. For the Medicine Buddha, his pure realm is in the east, and is named Pure Lapis Lazuli.
  • Both made vows to help all beings while they were bodhisattvas. Amida Buddha’s vows are focused on the Pure Land and how beings will be reborn there. By contrast, the Medicine Buddha seems to focus on vows to assist people in this life, and does not offer a way to be reborn in his pure realm.

Also, while the Medicine Buddha and Amitabha have similar backgrounds and have similar roles, they also help sentient beings in complementary ways so it isn’t necessarily an either/or situation. The Medicine Buddha’s vows focus on this-worldly assistance, while the Buddha Amitabha’s vows focus on the world to come.

By the way, as I like to use this blog as a reference, the Twelve Vows from the Medicine Buddha Sutra are in summary:

  1. To illuminate countless realms with his radiance, enabling others to become a Buddha too.
  2. To awakened the minds of sentient beings through his light of lapis lazuli.
  3. To provide the sentient beings with whatever material needs they require.
  4. To correct heretical views and inspire beings toward the path of the Bodhisattva.
  5. To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they failed before.
  6. To heal beings born with deformities, illness or other physical sufferings.
  7. To help relieve the destitute and the sick.
  8. To help women who wish to be reborn as men achieve their desired rebirth.
  9. To help heal mental afflictions and delusions.
  10. To help the oppressed be free from suffering.
  11. To relieve those who suffer from terrible hunger and thirst.
  12. To help clothe those who are destitute and suffering from cold and mosquitoes.

I posted these on Wikipedia last night by the way. Who needs sleep? 🙂

The Medicine Buddha also features in Shingon Buddhism, where the mantra used for the Medicine Buddha is:

On koro koro sendari matōgi sowaka

What I find fascinating about the Medicine Buddha is his close association with the historical Buddha, and also the nature of his vows, which are practical in nature, and helpful to those on the Buddhist path. In a way, the Medicine Buddha is much easier to conceive and understand than Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. Also the notion of “healing” beings both mentally and physically has beneficial applications here and now to people who may be put off by more philosophical, metaphysical concepts in Buddhism.

In fact, on my first visit to Japan ever in 2005, I remember visiting temple in rural Kanagawa Prefecture very close to my father-in-law’s childhood home. I was struck at the time by the notion of a Buddha embodying “medicine” and healing people. It seemed different from the kind of “textbook Buddhism” I read as a teenager, but at the same time, embodied the Buddhist notion of tolerance and compassion so well, so that visit really stayed with me when I came back to the US and started to explore Buddhism seriously.

Anyway, that’s a brief look at the Medicine Buddha. 🙂

On koro koro sendari matōgi sowaka

P.S. Updated this post to include information from 2011.

Confession in Buddhism

Buddhism from the beginning has a tradition of confessing one’s transgressions to others as a way of setting things right. It’s also thought in some schools of Buddhism to also diminish the effects of bad karma by negating conditions that would cause it to come to fruition. At the very least, it creates some small good karma to offset the bad.

Additionally, it helps heal the mind by allowing you to start over and forgive yourself. In doing so, it also helps you treat others with more kindness and patience too.

Confession comes in many forms. The Theravada monk and all-round-nice-guy, Ajahn Brahm, teaches the simple concept of A.F.L.:

  • Acknowledge
  • Forgive yourself
  • Learn

Obviously if you hurt others, you should right the wrongs as much as you can. You can’t take back what you did any more than you can put toothpaste back in the tube,* but you can help set things right after the fact.

In the time of the Buddha, in the kingdom of Magadha, the prince Ajatasatru, then one of the Buddha’s lay disciples, overthrew his father and took the throne, then later waged war on the neighboring kingdom of Kosala. During this time, Ajatasatru supported the renegade Devadatta, who tried to pull monks away from the Buddha with his own teaching. Later in other Buddhist texts, Ajatasatru deeply regretted his actions and came before the Buddha to apologize. The Buddha was not angry, and said he was forgiven and welcomed him as a disciple again. Ajatasatru was present when the Buddha delivered sermons such as the Lotus Sutra and others, so it seems that he was a devout follower after that. He still suffered residual effects of his severe karma but the future was more optimistic by his change of heart.

In Mahayana Buddhism (Northern Buddhism from Tibet to Japan), there is a sense of ritual to confessions, whereby one confesses them before the Buddha or Bodhisattva they devote themselves too. This seems to have begun in the last chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra, often treated as a separate text called the Gandavyuha Sutra, and has persisted more or less in the same format. One confesses something wrong that they did, and states that this action was entirely the result of their own ignorance, greed and/or hatred, and they vow not to commit that action again.

A really vivid example of a Buddhist confession is in the Golden Light Sutra. In this sutra the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu in chapter 3 has had a dream about a great drum radiating a golden light (the Dharma). In chapter 4 he expresses his wish that all beings are awakened by the sound of this drum, and that he can become a refuge to such beings. Then the Bodhisattva confesses his misdeeds in the same chapter:

O buddhas possessed of the ten powers:
Those terrible wicked acts
I have committed in the past,
Before your eyes, I confess them all.

The Bodhisattva then lists the various categories of unwholesome deeds he may have committed before ending it with:

Through misdeeds of body, speech and mind,
I have amassed threefold wrong acts.
In these three ways, whatever I have done,
These deeds I confess in full.

And so on. The point here isn’t that one should follow this formula, or another, but rather that in all these acts of confession, from the simplest to the elaborate, the basic notion is the same. One should acknowledge what they’ve done wrong, and accept responsibility for it. We are all deluded beings, and we all do stupid things that we can’t take back. Too often though we blame others for things gone wrong, but regardless of what life throws at you, ultimately it’s through your own mind, body and speech that acts are committed, wholesome or unwholesome.

However, a wonderful act of humility is to admit when you’ve done wrong and apologize. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but if it is sincere, and meant with wholesome intentions, it can be a wonderful gesture, and a way of setting the mind at ease. One cannot practice Buddhism well if one has such concerns eating away at them for a long time.


* – Where possible, it’s best to avoid the mistake if you can help it. That’s why Buddhists try to cultivate mindfulness, so they can become aware of what’s going on, not just blindly reacting people usually do.