The Tree of Life

Arnold Böcklin - The Isle of the Dead - WGA3029

This term comes from the book, Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny. This is one of my favorite books by Zelazny, but is a lesser-known of his classics. The quote can be found near the very beginning:

There is a Big Tree, as old as human society, because that’s what it is, and the sum total of its leaves, attached to all of its branches and twigs, represents the amount of money that exists. There are names written on these leaves, and some fall off and new ones grow on, so that in a few seasons, all the names have been changed. But the Tree stays pretty much the same: bigger, yes; and carrying on the same life functions as always, in pretty much the same way too. I once went through a time when I tried to cut out all the rot I could find in the Tree. I found that as soon as I cut out a section in one place, it would occur someplace else, and I had to sleep sometime.

I like this book among Zelazny’s as it is one of the more thoughtful and philosophical; dealing with Sandow’s confrontation with mortality (he’s lived 1200 years and is fabulously wealthy), and with the ghosts of his past.

This notion of the tree, with its leaves coming and going, and the process continuing on unabated reminds me of the Lankavatara Sutra in Buddhism, when the Buddha tells the Bodhisattva named Mahāmati that existence is nothing more than:

All that can be said, is this, that relatively speaking, there is a constant stream of becoming, a momentary and uninterrupted change from one state of appearance to another.

and later:

When this entire universe is regarded as concatenation and as nothing else but concatenation, then the mind, by its patient acceptance of the truth that all things are un-born, gains tranquility.

With regard to the comment about “all things are un-born”, this simply means that there’s no clear beginning nor end to any one object or phenomena. A piece of paper started out as a tree, but the tree was as seed, and that seed came from another tree, and so on ad infinitum. Endless concatenation, endless becoming.

So, the analogy of the Big Tree is pretty fitting here, if not for money, then all phenomena. 🙂


P.S. 100th post on the new blog (or as I call it, Blog 3.0). I go through these blogs like Emperor Leto II goes through Duncan Idahos.

P.P.S. Sorry for anyone reading this in 2012. I edited this old post and it must have re-notified people. But if you like it anyway, thank you. 😉


Buddhist Nuns Rock!

…and by “rock”, I mean “deliver great Dharma talks”. Buddhist nuns don’t always get the attention that Buddhist monks like Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Brahm or the Dalai Lama get, but I think there are really some talented and wise nuns who deserve plenty of respect.

This morning, I heard a really great Dharma Talk by a Taiwanese nun named Ven. Fa Xun, who gave practical advice on practicing the Dharma in daily life. The advice was so common-sense, but so true to the Dharma. I liked her story of meditating with the snake as well as her advice toward mindfulness. What a great talk!

Also, I heard a great talk by Ven. Sister Vayama on what a Buddha, or Tathagata, is and why the accomplishment of his Enlightenment was so great. The talk also gave an excellent explanation into why life is ultimately unsatisfying, and we move from one graitifcation to the next in a constant stream. That part still stick with me months later. 🙂

Women in Buddhism, sad to say, do often get treated as second-class followers, but in spite of this, it’s wonderful to see such women endure and become masters of the Dharma, and great teachers.


Pure Land Buddhism: a summary

Beyond all the doctrinal debates about whether Pure Land Buddhism faithfully follows the Buddhist teachings, or is just lazy superstition, I think this poem by Asahara Saichi summarizes Pure Land Buddhism well. This poem was originally posted at Three Wheels Sangha in the UK:

Suffering in heart, are you doubtful of Amida [Buddha]’s compassion?
That would truly be a great misunderstanding.
The suffering of this evil man becomes a great treasure.
Please understand the point of this teaching.
Namuamidabutsu is truly mysterious.
What is mysterious is that
Sea, mountains, food, lumber for building houses,
And everything else related to the life of an ordinary man,
All these are an embodiment of Namuamidabutsu.
Everyone, please understand this well.
This is the compassion of the Parent.
Such kindness fills me with joy!
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu!
The Tathagata possesses a truly mysterious power:
The means to turn Saichi into a Buddha.
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.

I don’t know if people are aware of this or not, but in many ways our lives are very tenuous. The food we eat, the electricity, water and so on are so contingent on the hard work of other people. That’s not even counting nature itself. Without the Sun, where would we be?

In spite of the tenuous and contingent life we lead, there’s so much reason to be grateful. Because we have what we have, because others around us are kind and care for us, we can enjoy this breath, this food, and so on. That’s the beauty of Amida Buddha. Amida is this kindness and compassion that sustains and surrounds us, whether we realize it or not, whether we appreciate it or not.

So, we can only put our hands together and say, “thank you!” or “namuamidabu”.


Buddhism and HELL

But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do.
–Shinran, Tannisho, section II

Hell is a subject in Buddhism that is talked about much, just as it is in the Western Religions. In Buddhism, we are taught about the different states of rebirth that happen, based on one’s karma, from highest to lowest:*

  1. The Heaven Realms (birth as a deva, or god-like being)
  2. The Human Realm
  3. The Realm of the Fighting Spirits (Asuras)
  4. The Animal Realm
  5. The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (Peta)
  6. The Hell Realms

As with Western Religions, the descriptions of Hell are vivid and include all manners of pain, torment, and creative punishment. In his book, The Way to Buddhahood, the Venerable Master Yin-Shun describes some of the hell realms like so:

The four kinds of periphery hells are, first, the hell of host ashes, a glowing hot pit filled with ashes; second, the hell of corpse feces, a manure pit inside of which there are worms with sharp mouths similar to maggots; third, the hell of sharp weapons, which consists of roads covered with knife blades, forests of sword-like leaves inhabited by fierce dogs, and forests of iron thorns inhabited by big birds with iron beaks…and fourth, the hell of the boundless river, a river of boiling ash-water that fries beings like beans in hot oil.

Hell, like other realms is not permanent, but one can be tormented for eons and eons. Devadatta, who betrayed the Buddha and tried to kill him, is said to dwell in the lowest of all Hell realms, the Avīci, or “Never-ending Hell”.**

However, there is another way to look at Hell in Buddhism. When you read these descriptions, some might think that Hell is just a medieval fantasy designed to scare people straight, but when you look around us, there are those living in Hell as we speak. Here, I am speaking of life itself.

Among many Buddhists is the notion that Hell and other realms of rebirth aren’t just physical states of rebirth, but are mental states as well. This dovetails nicely with the notion that there is no permanent self. The mind and the self constantly shift between states, with no permanent state of mind:

  • Elation and joy – the Heaven realms
  • Reason – the Human realm
  • Anger – the Realm of the Fighting Spirits, Asuras
  • Satisfying basic needs – the Animal Realm
  • Powerful cravings – The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts
  • Hatred, Pain – The Hell Realms

In this view of Buddhist cosmology, one shifts between the various mental states (i.e. the various realms) regularly depending on what’s going on your life right now.

In either case, Nirvana is seen as liberation from this aimless wandering between the various realms, to a state that is steady, peaceful and stable. It is liberation from the stresses of constantly shifting between states, both mentally and physically. In Pure Land Buddhism, we equate the Pure Land with Nirvana (which is a blog subject in its own right), so when we take refuge in Amida Buddha, and long for rebirth in the Pure Land, in the end, we believe we will experience Nirvana as well.


P.S. Been busy lately, and I’ve been writing this post bit-by-bit for five days. Finally done! 😀

* – However, the Buddha also pointed out in the Pali Canon that the outcome of one’s rebirth depends on a very complex array of factors, not just a single act, or set of acts. Karma of past lives, and additional karma in the current life all tie into this rebirth.

** – In the Lotus Sutra though, the Buddha predicts that even Devadatta will one day become Enlightened and a Buddha. He also states that in a past life long ago, they were good friends.

Ryokan: The Zen and Shin Buddhist poet

Here’s something I didn’t know before, but worth passing along. The famous Zen monk and poet, Ryōkan, evidentally had a soft-side for Amida Buddha and Shin Buddhist teachings, in addition to his extensive Zen background.

The Pure Land poems of Ryōkan are not well-known in Ryōkan’s otherwise illustrious career as a poet-monk. I was intending to write something else tonight, but while looking up sources, I found in River of Fire, River of Water a reference to Ryōkan’s poetry. One of his poems reads:

If not for Amida [Buddha]’s inconceivable vow
What then would remain to me
As a keepsake of this world?

Here, Ryōkan clearly talks about the Pure Land notion of the Vow of Amida Buddha to lead all beings into the Pure Land. He describes the knowledge of this Vow as his keepsake, when all around him is empty and impermanent.

Another one, described in the book as “well-known” reads:

Return to Amida,
Return to Amida,
So even dewdrops fall.

Here, Amida is the compassionate parent (oya-sama in Japanese) we return to when times are tough, or we lose trust in Amida. Amida never forsakes us, no matter how often we leave him (having done this myself now and again), and always leads us to the Pure Land.

I always enjoy it when Zen and Jodo Shinshu blend. 🙂


The “Easy Path” of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

“I mean to disturb you!” The Preacher shouted. “It is my intention! I come here to combat the fraud and illusion of the conventional, institutionalized religion. As with all such religions, your institution moves toward cowardice, it moves toward mediocrity, intertia and self-satisfaction.”
–Frank Herbert’s, Children of Dune

Recently, DJ Buddha found a great article by Dr. Richard Payne who speaks of faith in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism like so:

When asked to address Shin congregations from time to time, I have told them that they have been tricked by their own religious tradition. Their tradition says it is the easy path. But it is really the hardest path, because it means seeing oneself from a different perspective, of what it means to already be assured of birth in the Pure Land. If you really understood that, it would shake your life down to its very foundations. It would absolutely transform the way that you relate to everybody and the way that you choose to live. Because there’s nothing to hold on to except that stark truth, it’s really a very difficult path.

Much of what Dr. Payne says agrees with my experience so far. I’ve said in the past that the “eye cannot see itself” and that we need something outside of ourselves to show us who we really are. I’ve also stated that Jodo Shinshu is very counter-intuitive and difficult as a Buddhist path. Such has been my experience now in following Jodo Shinshu for three years.

These days, when I recite the nembutsu, I feel no joy. It is dead recitation in a way. When I go to the temple, and we take part in the usual services, I feel nothing anymore. I used to get excited, used to memorize the chants and so on, but that zeal, like a candle flame, has burned itself out. I enjoy teaching others about Jodo Shinshu, because I can see how people do take comfort in it, but when I stop and think about it, I am a great fraud: I cannot even live up to the teachings I pass along to others. I live life as if I am the star of my own show.

But then, there are times, when I encounter something, or awaken to something that shakes me from my pompous life, and makes me pause. In these profound moments, I am deeply humbled and elated. Life is wonderful in these moments. The only way I can describe those moments is that life is simply as it should be, and because of that, it is wonderful.

I don’t know what drives me these last 3 years, seeking more teachings, questioning my own selfish, lazy and idiotic behavior, but if this is the inner awakening that comes with taking refuge in Amida Buddha, then it is good and true. Behind all the pomp and tradition and nonsense that is the established Jodo Shinshu Buddhist faith, there is something Shinran, Honen, the Buddha and others have found, and I encourage anyone reading this to not give up, nor become self-satisfied. Keep moving, keep searching! It is there!

To quote again from the Dune Trilogy:

Duncan Idaho: The greatest palatinate earl and the lowliest stipendiary serf share the same problem. You cannot hire a mentat or any other intellect to solve it for you. There’s no writ of inquest or calling of witnesses to provide answers. No servant — or disciple — can dress the wound. You dress it yourself or continue bleeding for all to see.
–Dune Messiah


Confucius Says, #2

Lately, I’ve been enjoying some of the Chinese classics, particularly the Analects of Confucius. So far, of the Analects, chapter 9 is my favorite. Here Confucius gets to the heart of some of his teachings, his life and good practical advice for life:

4. There were four things that the Master [Confucius] wholly eschewed: he took nothing for granted, he was never over-positive, never obstinate, never egotistic.

By not being “over-positive” I believe the translator meant that Confucius was positive without being idealistic: a pragmatist in other words. In describing himself, Confucius said:

15. The Master [Confucius] said, “I can claim at Court I have duly served the Duke and his officers; at home, my father and elder brother. As regards matters of mourning, I am conscious of no neglect, nor have I ever been overcome with wine. Concerning these things at least, my mind is quite at rest.”

However, he also lamented never having an opportunity to put his teachings into practice as an enlightened sage:

8. The Master said, “The phoenix [sacred bird] does not come; the river gives forth no [magical] chart. It is all over with me!”

In verse 24, you get a good summary of Confucius’s advice to people:

“First and foremost, be faithful to your superiors, keep all promises, refuse the friendship of all who are not like you [not serious about being gentlemen]; and if you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.”

Lastly Confucius reminds people not to ignore even the simplest peasant:

25. The Master said, “You may rob the Three Armies of their commander-in-chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his own opinion.”

Clearly, Confucius was a thoughtful person, and it’s no wonder why he’s so revered across East Asia. 🙂