An appreciation of mindfulness

The term mindfulness is something that’s talked about a lot in Buddhism, but if your new to Buddhism, it may not make a lot of sense. This is made more confusing when people talk about “being in the moment” or “no past, no future”, blah blah blah. All mindfulness really means is being mindful of what you’re doing. As Ven. Walpola Rahula wrote in the book What The Buddha Taught, mindfulness isn’t about suppressing angry or cravings when they arise, but just being aware that you are angry or craving something. Interestingly, if you try that, you’ll see that angry or craving dissipate once you’re aware of it.

Since we’re born, we live life in a constant state of reaction to external forces. When we’re hungry, we go eat something; when we see a hot girl, we want to be around her; when someone yells at us, we get angry. From birth to death, it’s a constant string of reactions to external and internal forces, and we suffer from a kind of tunnel vision. It’s not really your fault, since conception, you’re bombarded with input and you have to construct your world based on the limited input you receive. If you received different input (i.e. different environment), you would construct your world a little differently. This is what the Buddha referred to as conditioning: all beings have a conditioned existence, and our minds are deeply conditioned.

Mindfulness is training yourself to not just react to things, but to consider things first, then take action. For example, if your husband or wife yells at you, your first instinct is to yell back louder (eye for an eye, and all that), but if you think about it for a moment, yelling more won’t solve the conflict, it will just throw gasoline on the fire. So, if you are aware that you’re angry, you’ll keep yourself from just blindly yelling back. Instead, that extra half-second of thought will give you time to come up with a more rational response.

All this is well and good though, but how do you become mindful of your actions? This is a life-long process, like following the five moral precepts; no one gets it right the first time, or even the first hundred or thousand times. The point is is that you keep trying. As the Japanese say: nana korobi ya oki (seven times down, eight times back up).

I know this from personal experience. I never took the precepts seriously or mindfulness seriously until after Baby was born. I remember very early on that I resolved to make myself as good a father as I could, but I have a lot of bad habits such as swearing, self-centered personality, and so on. So I’ve had to make gradual changes to my behavior (i.e. train the mind) to be aware of what I am doing, and to think about what I say before I say it. This often fails, especially when I am tired and sluggish, but in the last two years, I’ve noticed small, small changes. I practically never swear anymore, even when at work not at home, and I used to dread cleaning the toilet, but having a new perspective on it makes me much more willing to do it. Those small changes give me the confidence to keep going, even when I screw up.

This is also true with the five precepts. I used to forget them all the time, but through gradual training, I am more mindful of the precepts, and am much less inclined to swat an ant or bug than before. I am also less inclined to talk about people behind their back, and praise myself while disparaging others. These are small gains granted, I still can be pretty immature and selfish, but any progress gained is better than no progress at all.

Now, how to become more mindful is tricky, and I am not an expert at this, but let me offer some advice:

  • Reciting something like the five moral precepts, a certain Buddhist mantra,* or a small quote from a Buddhist sutra on a daily or weekly basis helps reinforce wholesome habits. One can certainly recite a little of each.
  • Meditation techniques, like focusing on your breath, help keep your mind focused, and not get distracted so easily.
  • Study, study, study the teachings of the Buddha. The more you are aware of bad behaviors, and the problems they cause, they more motivated and mindful you will be to avoid them. The more you are aware of positive behaviors, and their benefits to you and others, the more motivated and mindful you will be to try to practice them.

Good luck!

* – I have always liked the Mantra of Light myself, but many like the famous mantra oαΉƒ maαΉ‡i padme huαΉƒ.

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New Mac Mini for home

This weekend, my wife and I received a kind donation from the U.S. Government, or as we call it “Uncle Bush’s Money”. πŸ™‚ We promptly saved it in our savings account for about two days before we decided to spend it on a new computer. We own a first-generation Mac Mini I bought about 3 years ago, and it’s worked well for us. Before that I was an avid PC user (and small-time gamer), but the PC I had built was loud and took up a lot of space, so I gave it to someone else. The Mini was something cheap I had bought for my Mac-consulting side-business, so I bought the cheapest, most minimal Mac I could. Thus, it had small disk space, not much memory and so on.

This was fine until it became our main computer. We take very frequent pictures of Baby, and these start to fill up disk space fast,* and the lack of a DVD burner has become an issue with sending home movies to family in Japan. Lastly, my grandmother whose struggling with an old PC running Windows ME, needs a new computer. So, using Uncle Bush’s money, I decided to get us a newer Mac Mini, wipe out and reinstall the older one so Grandma can use it. She only wants to do word processing for letters, and to check her email, so her needs are much smaller than mine.

Thus, we bought a new Mac Mini. We bought the one with the Superdrive (i.e. DVD burner), and it has worked great. The newer Minis have 4 USB ports instead of two, so that helps relieve the problems we had before with switch USB cables and such, and the newer Mac is considerably faster owing to twice as much RAM.

So, thank you Uncle Bush! My grandma will thank you too. πŸ™‚

* – Someone showed me about a year ago how to use Amazon’s S3 web-storage service to backup files on a Mac (hint: buy a copy of the application “Transit“, which has a built-in S3 module). This helps a lot to relieve disk space, and is much, much cheaper than the .Mac service. I pay about $1 a month to store gigs of pictures. Since the usage is dynamic, you only pay for what you use.

Another great Dharma talk

This Dharma Talk is by a famous Sri Lankan monk and professor by the name of Dhammavihari. The talk is a comprehensive look at Buddhist practice, the important of the five precepts, and why compassion (i.e. respect for all life) is first and foremost. He also touches on Buddhism at large, both in traditional countries and western countries, and provides some good insight there.

Ven. Dhammavihari is in his 80’s and has a strong Sri Lankan accent, but he’s very witty, and very well read. I also enjoyed the frequent injection of quotes in Pali language (from the sutras); clearly he has been reading the suttas for a long, long time. πŸ™‚

The Dharma Talk is about 90 minutes, but I highly recommend it. Enjoy! πŸ™‚

P.S. Other great dharma talks can be found here and

Happy Birthday Shinran

Shinran Shonin

Today at the ol’ Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple we celebrated the birth of the founder, Shinran. This is a holiday in Jodo Shinshu called Gōtan-E (降θͺ•δΌš), or literally “Birthday Gathering”. For temple service today we recited Shinran’s poem, the Shoshinge, which is something people in Japan often chant daily, but we reserve for special occasions due to its length.*

From there, the service mostly talked about Shinran’s life and contributions. Though I do have my fair share of disagreements with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism,** I have to admit that I have always held a deep appreciation for Shinran himself. People who follow Jodo Shinshu normally talk about Shinran the great social Buddhist, who broke the control of the corrupt monasteries in Kyoto, blah blah blah. Or they talk about how he was deeply humble and very self-critical. Most of this I think it just propaganda though. The #1 problem with Jodo Shinshu, in my opinion as a follower for 3 years, is that it tends to veer toward a cult worship of Shinran too often, and places Shinran just below the Buddha himself, ignoring the vast Buddhist tradition before it (except where convenient).

It’s hard to really appreciate Shinran until you look at the wider tradition, and especially to contemporaries of his time. I don’t think Shinran necessarily invented or devised a teaching that was revolutionary, but rather he synthesized his background in Tendai Buddhism (having been a monk of 20 years) with the populist teachings of Honen, plus some genius of his own. It’s been said that the best inventions are the ones that repackage existing ideas in the right way,*** and I think Shinran succeeded where previous Pure Land efforts had failed. He had found the right combination of teachings that were both profound and yet accessible and not intimidating to people. This is a problem you still see in Buddhist efforts today, by the way. πŸ˜‰

Pure Land Buddhist movements had existed in Japan for centuries, including efforts by Genshin, Myōe (who promoted the Mantra of Light as a means to rebirth in the Pure Land), and Ennin the second Tendai patriarch. None succeeded in reaching the masses beyond the immediate temple area, or long after the founder died, but Shinran’s teaching is another matter; Jodo Shinshu is the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan by a long-shot (Shingon is the second by the way).

Shinran was indeed humble because he was acutely aware of his own failure, but at the same time he was complex and very intelligent and well-read. That’s the Shinran that interests me most I suppose because I can empathize with his inner turmoil. Where contemporaries of Shinran were lambasting other sects, or writing obtuse treaties no one understands, Shinran wrestled with his own doubts while trying to help people the only way he knew how: teach the Dharma of the Buddha.

So Happy 835th Birthday Shinran! πŸ˜€

P.S. The Nishi Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu celebrates Shinran’s birthday around this time, but in the “old” calendar used by Higashi Hongwanji branch, Gotan-E is celebrated around April 1st. I consulted the “Jodo Shinshu” calendar my wife got from her parents in Japan. πŸ˜‰

* – Though long (20+ minutes), it really is a great poem to recite, and I wish we’d do it more routinely. I recently took a class on chanting the Shoshinge, and having practiced it several times, it’s really not hard, and is cool in how it gradually builds from a low-drone to a higher intensity toward the end.

** – Lately, quite a few, but that’s another story.

*** – I think that was in reference to guns, but it’s close right? For some reason the band name “Guns n’ Buddhas” comes to mind.

A Prayer to China and Myanmar

It’s a little late I suppose, but I have been wanting to write this post for a while.

For what it’s worth, I want to sent my prayers, well-wishes and condolences to people in China and Myanmar for the sufferings they’re enduring right now:

  • China – For the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake, and the terrible losses from that.
  • Myanmar – For the recent typhoon and the lack of food, water and shelter many are facing right now.

That was about it, but please feel free to leave a comment here too. Thanks!

–Gerald Ford

Update

Gerald Ford (i.e. me) has been pretty quiet this week, and that’s due to me being slammed with a busy on-call week. I’ve been working until 12:30 am routinely this week, so I finally took Friday off, which was a big relief. Suffice to say blog writing suffered this week, though I’ve been building up plenty of things to write about (hence the two long posts earlier this evening).

I have other thoughts I may be sharing in the near future but we’ll see. Right now, I am going to bed.

Lay Buddhists, Monastic Buddhists

While continuing to read Ven. Yin-Shun’s book “The Way to Buddhahood“, I was struck by his explanation of how lay Buddhists and Buddhist monks relate to one another. Typically, Buddhists tend to view the monks as being superior to the lay people, and therefore Buddhism can be wrongly labeled as a kind of “two-tiered” religion where monks enjoy higher status than lay people.

However, Yin-Shun describes how both are considered followers of the Buddha equally:

During his lifetime, the Buddha preached the Dharma to people. After listening to the Dharma or realizing the truth, some volunteered to take refuge in the Three Treasures* to become the Buddha’s lay disciples. Others volunteered to give up the lay life to become the Buddha’s monastic disciples. Between the lay and monastic disciples there were no differences in their beliefs, practices and realizations. Why then did some volunteer to remain at home and others to give up lay life? They did so because of different personalities and lifestyle practices. (pg. 111)

So the question isn’t whether one is better or another, but how each type of disciple suits a person’s inclinations. Regarding lay disciples, Yin-Shun writes:

They remained husbands, wives and children; they continued to live as householders and to work as politicians, servicemen, farmers, laborers and businessmen [e.g. King Bibimsara and General Isidatta]…Although they lived as laity, they practiced the Buddha’s true Dharma, taking refuge in the Three Treasures, keeping the five [moral] precept, practicing meditation and attaining wisdom. As long as they kept the resolution to renounce and as long as living a full lay life did not hinder their practice, they were still able to become liberated from birth and death [the endless cycle of samsara].

Regarding monastics:

People of this category were mostly those from among the monastic non-Buddhists who were transformed by the Buddha’s teaching [e.g. Sariputta and Maudgalyayana]. Such people were accustomed to being renunciates and living solemn lives. Since they were content, had few desires, did not want to save up money, and kept away from sexual desire, they volunteered to give up the lay life in order to be śramaṇas [renunciates]. (pg. 112)

Here, Yin-Shun then warns why someone shouldn’t be a monk unless they’re really, really inclined toward that lifestyle:

Obviously, if people have impure motives or give up home life regretfully, their basic nature may remain that of one who seeks pleasure.

The point here is that unless you are truly committed toward the renunciate life, you should not go in half-way or with reservations. It’s clearly better to be a sincere lay follower than an insincere monk.

Lastly, on the subject, Yin-Shun writes:

In short, whether people stay at home and pursue pleasure or give up lay life and pursue asceticism, they are the Buddha’s śrāvaka [lit. “voice-hearer”] disciples as long as they have a resolution to renounce and live according to the Middle Way — without too much indulgence or too much asceticism.

What’s interesting to note in this statement is that it’s quite possible for both laity and monks to go off the wrong track: lay people over indulging in pleasures and monks becoming too ascetic. The point is that the Middle Way really is what matters in one’s practice of Buddhism, not his status in the Buddhist community. If one adheres is sincere in his or her following of Buddhism, then staying within the Middle Way and sticking with the basics (meditation, moral precepts, etc) will really make the difference.

P.S. This doesn’t take into account the culture of Buddhist countries where monks are held to a much higher level than lay people. The book “Broken Buddha” provides an interesting read on the subject, and appears to be available on the Internets. This is an age-old problem though in society, any society, where some priests or monks develop a serious ego and develop a following around them. It happens in every major religion. In the ideal Buddhist system though, both are disciples on equal footing supporting one another.

* – The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (the community).