Discerning the Right Dharma

In this day and age, when I read about various Buddhist sects and their teachings, and everyone’s spin on what the Buddha “meant”, it’s frustrating to find helpful information. Being in a state of doubt lately with regard to Buddhism, and my life as a Buddhist thus far, I’ve found information on the Internet rather frustrating. Talking to ministers at the temple too hasn’t helped at all.

So I was happy to read a sutta from the Pali Canon again, called the Gotami Sutta (AN 8.53). In this sutta, the Buddha’s step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, asks the Buddha to teach her the Dharma so that she is confident enough to go and practice on her own. The Buddha replies:

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may definitely hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.'”

So, when trying to understand what the Buddha meant, he taught a path, that if followed correctly, led to:

  • Dispassion
  • Unfettered
  • Shedding
  • Modesty
  • Contentment
  • Seclusion
  • Persistence
  • Not burdening others

Interestingly, much of this is also taught in the Tao Te Ching as well:

Evince the plainness of undyed silk,
embrace the simplicity of the unhewn log;
Lessen selfishness, diminish desires;
Abolish learning* and you will be without worries.
–Chapter 19


The pursuit of learning* leads to daily increase,
hearing the Way leads to daily decrease.
Decrease and again decrease, until you reach non-action.
Through nonaction, no action is left undone.
–Chapter 48

Such simple words by both the Buddha and Lao-Zi, but it’s funny how much we complicate them. Why do we do that?

In the end, I am reminded of the quote (thank you Dougsamu) that comes from a Chinese Zen (Ch’an) monk Po-Chang who told his disciple, Huang Po:

“When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep.”

Speaking of which, I am going to bed.

P.S. Another great poem on the subject is the poem “Unbeaten by Rain“. 😀

* – Learning here is meant in the sense of philosophical, moral studies, not practical subjects. The point is to not get your head full of rules, morals and obligations.


The Law, not the Teacher

Chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra is a short chapter, and easy to overlook, but there is a deep and subtle message there worth exploring. In Chapter 10, the Buddha talks about how anyone who reveres, read and teaches the Lotus Sutra is as worthy of praise as a Buddha himself. Or rather, in his own words:

The Buddha said to Medicine King: In addition, if after the Thus Come One has passed into extinction there should be someone who listens to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, even one verse or one phrase, and for a moment thinks of it with joy, I will likewise bestow on him a prophesy that he will attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. [Full Buddha-hood]

At first glance this looks like just a promotion of the sutra itself. There are other sutras, such as the Golden Light Sutra or Diamond Sutra that similarly state that reverence of itself, the sutra, is important. However, in the case of the Golden Light Sutra, reverence of the sutra (by the king) will bring peace to the nation, and reverence of the Diamond Sutra will bring about great merit.

The Lotus Sutra, however, assures the readers that those who revere it are guaranteed of full Buddha-hood sometime far in the future. This is wonderful in one sense, but also reminds one of the enormity of the task as well.

While reading the commentaries of this Sutra, by Thich Nhat Hanh, he made an interesting observation: chapter 10 is telling listeners to revere the teaching, not the teacher.

This is actually a pretty profound, and something oft forgotten for us Buddhists. Buddhism often veers into a cult of the Buddha when we’re not paying attention. I’m not talking about Asian Buddhists who make offerings and show gratitude; that’s perfectly normal Buddhism, and reverence is a very wholesome practice. Instead, I am talking about people who obsess over what the Buddha said, or who he really was, and so on. There are movements in Buddhism to emulate the Buddha as much as possible, and I think this is good up to a point, but there is also a point when one should look beyond the Buddha to his teachings instead.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The teachings he left behind were far more important. Consider the words of the Buddha in the last sutta of the Pali Canon, the Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16), emphasis added:

[2:33]. “Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

So, the Lotus Sutra, which is supposed to be the ultimate and most comprehensive of all sutras and teachings of the Buddha (in the Mahayana tradition at least) is thus a refuge in its own right. 🙂


Confucius Says…

Confucius from a 1687 Catholic guide (in latin)

In addition to reading the Tao Te Ching, I have been enjoying other Classics of Chinese culture. In particularly I have been enjoying the Analects by Confucius. Confucius, or Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子), and the literature surrounding him are considerably less popular among Western readers than the Tao, because Confucius hardly ever spoke on spiritual or mystic issues, while the Tao is short, but full of mystery and spirituality. However, Confucius’s contribution to Asian culture should not be understated. He taught a no-nonsense, straightforward approach to life through sincere study, ethics and the life of a gentleman. It’s this ideal that has inspired millions of people over many generations.

In Confucius’s words, the ideal man was the gentleman, or to quote from the Analects:

Master Tseng [Confucius] said, “The man whom one could with equal confidence entrust an orphan not yet fully grown or the sovereignty of a whole state, whom the advent of no emergency however great could upset – would such a one be a gentleman? He I think would be a true gentleman indeed.” (8:6)

Confucius, like the early Taoists, lamented the decline of politics in his time. Both Lao Zi and Confucius lived during the famous Spring and Autumn Period, when the Zhou (pronouced “Joe”) Dynasty was falling apart, and local Dukes and Kings were grabbing more power. At this time, few rulers were loyal to the Zhou Dynasty anymore, and it was “every man for himself”. The history of the Spring and Autumn is fraught with civil wars, assassinations, and general abuse of power, which broke down even worse into the all-out Warring State period.

So, like Lao Zi, Confucius sought a way to resolve the breakdown of society by returning to the “good old days”. The interpretation of what the good ol’ days is differs somewhat between Confucius and the Tao Te Ching. Both revere ancient mythical Emperors such as Yao, Shun and , but in the Tao Te Ching, the ancient days were seen as an example of Minarchism, or minimal government. Confucius on the other hand, focused on the ancient religious rites the kings were supposed to observe, as well as the histories, songs and literature of those days. Confucius thought that if society would restore the rites, study the ancient histories and songs, this would inspire people to a better mind-set, rather than selfish one.

This sounds silly to the modern Western reader at first glance, but even in American politics, you see the same sentiments. People remember the “good ol’ days” before the Internet or modern Materialistic life, and feel that if we could go back to a simpler time, life would be better. In effect, this was what Confucius advocated in his culture and time.

But a gentleman, in Confucius’s mind, isn’t just some ultra-conservative. On the contrary, a gentleman was someone who:

  • Very humble in lifestyle (7:15)
  • Emulates the good habits of people around him (7:27)
  • Well-educated, loves study (6:25)
  • Submits to ritual (6:25)
  • Honest (6:17)
  • Proficient in the arts (7:6)

…and so on. Here, it’s interesting to note that Confucius stressed the importance of ritual time and again. This seems at first glance superstitious, but after careful thought, I think I understand his train of thought. In Confucius’s mind, the adherence to ritual was a way of humbling the self, and turning your mind toward the good of the state (or society’s general welfare). In other words, Confucius advocated the welfare of society over the welfare of one’s self. This is pretty sensible given that all the great people in history were known for being selfless, rather than self-centered (the infamous, by contrast, are usually self-centered to an extreme).

So anyways, that’s Confucius in a nut-shell! 🙂

More words from Confucius:

P.S. The picture above is from a 1687 work, in Latin, about Confucius and his life. Confucius in Latin, how cool is that? 😀 Two Chinese characters above his head read Gynasium Imperio or “National Studies” by the way. The actual meaning of the characters (read from right to left) is of course, the same.

Thinking about Buddhism anew

The youth peered up at him owlishly, said: You see Stil? Tradition isn’t the absolute guide you thought it was. –Children of Dune

Earlier tonight, I was pondering my recent rant against the Western Zen Buddhist movement toward reductionism. It occurred to me that although I criticize those who don’t believe in rebirth, or in study of the sutras, the truth is I really have no right to say anything in its defense. The truth is, I am just being arrogant.

Do I really know for sure whether rebirth happens as Buddhist tradition holds? Do I really know which sutras are genuine words of the Buddha and which one are apocryphal? Really, I don’t really know anything for sure. Studying and memorizing Buddhist doctrine as a means of being Buddhist is strangely counter-intuitive. I have no empirical experience to back any of this up. I don’t know what will happen when I die, nor do I know what the Buddha looked like, or what he really said.

What I do know is that Buddhist texts and traditions are an important guide, but that is all they are. The quote above comes from the third Dune book. The young Leto II is challenging the Stilgar’s belief in the Fremen tradition. Arrakis is changing and younger generations no longer observe water discipline, and yet, Leto reminds him how beautiful the young women look. This reminds Stilgar that there is more to life than dry tradition, and raw survival in the desert. His traditions fall apart around him, but he begins to see a much deeper truth.

The Theravada monk, Ajahn Sumedho, said it best when he said: “We don’t use the Pali Canon as a basis for orthodoxy, we use the Pali Canon to investigate our experience.”

So, like Stilgar, as I challenge everything I’ve learned in the last few years, I realize that I really don’t know any of this stuff for sure. Instead of memorizing doctrine and theory, I should respectfully set it aside and just observe reality, and observe myself. In the Tao Te Ching, I remember a great quote in chapter 54:

Observe other persons through your own person;
Observe other families through your own family;
Observe other villages through your own village;
Observe other states through your own state;
Observe all under heaven through all under heaven.

How do I know the nature of all under heaven?
Through this.

The last two lines are by far the most important. How can I truly understand life, reality, myself? Observe!

Or to quote again from Children of Dune:

He [the Preacher] repeated it in a rolling stentorian shout: “Abandon certainty! That’s life’s deepest command. That’s what life is all about…”

Or in the words of the Diamond Sutra:

“All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them,
that is how to observe them.”

Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu

Who’s who in Buddhism, part 1: Maitreya Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva Chuguji

The Bodhisattva Maitreya seems to be often misunderstood by Westerners, and even in Buddhist countries, and this leaves people vulnerable to charlatans who claim to be Maitreya, or that Maitreya spoke to them. Worse yet, this gives Buddhism a bad image, and confuses it with the New Age movement.

So in an effort1, let me try to clarify what Maitreya is, and why you should disregard anyone who claims they are Maitreya.

Buddha Shakyamuni, who founded Buddhism, was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, and through his own insight he became a Buddha, a fully-awakened one. But the term Buddha is misunderstood by Westerners. The term Buddha is really just a title like the Pope, or the President. The proper term is actually sammā-sambuddho, or fully and self-awakened one. This refers to the fact that before the Buddha, there was no Buddhist religion or anyone to teach him the truth; he just discovered it through his own talents.

In Buddhism, it is believed that the institutionalized teachings of the Buddha will decline over time, since all things in existence are subject to change and decline. The Buddha knew this, and taught that in the early era, many beings would become Enlightened easily because they were so close to a Buddha, but in later ages, it would become more and more difficult.

It’s not that the truth would decline, but people would not be able to put it into practice. They become so far removed in place and in time from the Buddha, the teachings become obscured and so people can no longer put Buddhism into practice. This is the concept of Dharma Decline.

But now things get interesting. The Buddha also taught that this process is cyclical, and that before him, other beings reached Enlightenment without anyone to help them and became Buddhas.2 Different sutras record slightly different numbers, but generally dozens of fully, self-awakened beings have existed, preached the truth, and their teachings faded over time.

A Buddha is said to appear when the Dharma has thoroughly faded, and becomes utterly unknown to society, and there can only be one such being in existence at one time.

With that said, the Buddha, both in the Theravada Pali Canon and in Mahayana sutras predicted that the next Buddha who would emerge, when his teachings had utterly vanished, would be Maitreya (Metteya in the Pali Canon). In the Pali Canon, Maitreya is only mentioned once in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26) where Buddha describes his coming:

[The Buddha:] And in that time of the people with an eighty-thousand-year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now.

As people do not have an “eighty-thousand-year” life-span at this time, it’s likely the Buddha that Maitreya is a long, long way off from coming.

Currently, Maitreya is said to dwell in the heavenly realm of Tuṣita (Tushita), where he awaits his time to be reborn in our existence. Thus, many statues of Maitreya, such as the one above, show him seated in thought, with one foot on the ground. This implies he is awaiting his time to return to the world as a Buddha (like the historical Shakyamuni Buddha), and preparing.

In the Shingon Buddhist tradition in Japan, Kūkai, the founder was reborn into the Tuṣita realm and waits upon Maitreya. So some Shingon followers who devote themselves to Kūkai or Maitreya hope to regain birth there in their next life. Also, Buddhist art featuring Maitreya will often show him sitting, but with one foot down (ready to step into the world) and looking downward in contemplation.

In Shingon Buddhism, the mantra used to represent Maitreya is:

On maitareiya sowaka
Om Compassionate One hail!

Maitreya (弥勒菩薩, miroku bosatsu in Japanese, mireuk posal 미륵보살 in Korean) also figures prominently in Mahayana Buddhist texts, such as the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, where the Buddha lectures him on how to be virtuous and to be a proper Bodhisattva. During this time, Maitreya existed as a Bodhisattva (almost a Buddha), and stayed among the Buddha’s disciples to learn all that he could. Other Bodhisattvas such as Kannon spent time with the Buddha as well, which gave rise to teachings such as the Heart Sutra.

Maitreya as a Bodhisattva is also one of the main characters in the Lotus Sutra as well, where he asks the Buddha pointed questions about his own existence among other things.

What’s clear in Buddhism though is that Maitreya would not be reborn in this existence until long after Buddhism the religion ceased to exist. In the Buddhist texts, he is studying under the Buddha, learning everything he can, preparing his next rebirth, etc, but the sutras state over and again that the rebirth of Maitreya here would be eons from now. Some texts say he would return 5 billion years from now, others say 500,000 years from now, but in either case, it would be a long time.

Another sammā-sambuddho cannot exist until everything we know that is Buddhism has utterly disappeared. That right there means that anyone now claiming to be Maitreya is a fake, because Buddhism, although declining, is still strong and vibrant.

Throughout history, there are plenty of cult leaders and crackpots who claimed that they were Maitreya, but these people twist and distort Buddhist theology to suit their own sense of ego. Maitreya is simply another fully-awakened being in a long succession of beings who have existed far back into the mists of time, and after Maitreya, other Buddhas will emerge when the time is right.

Maitreya is a very, very long ways from appearing in the world, so please be careful when you hear claims of Maitreya’s imminent arrival, or that he has already come. With Maitreya so far in the future, a wise Buddhist will focus on the teachings that exist now, that were given by the present Buddha Shakyamuni.

P.S. For a better explanation of what a Buddha is, listen to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Dharma Talk on the life of the Buddha.

P.P.S. Repost from previous blog, but somewhat edited and expanded.

1 – Sitting on my chair at home while doing laundry.

2 – Amida (Amitabha) Buddha is considered one of the Buddhas of the past. Before becoming a Buddha himself, he had been inspired by the teachings of yet another Buddha named Lokesvararaja (world-sovereign in Sanskrit), who was the 53rd Buddha to have ever existed.

The Ten Vows of Samantabhadra

I am posting this more as a reference to anyone interested, but recently I heard a great Dharma Talk about these vows (which I had never heard of before) by the venerable monk Fa Shu. The Ten Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Fugen Bosatsu in Japanese, 普賢) are:

  1. Pay homage and respect to all Buddhas.
  2. Praise the Buddhas.
  3. Make abundant offerings. (i.e. give generously)
  4. Repent misdeeds and evil karmas.
  5. Rejoice in others’ merits and virtues. (i.e. wish them well)
  6. Request the Buddhas to teach.
  7. Request the Buddhas to remain in the world.
  8. Follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times.
  9. Accommodate and benefit all living beings.
  10. Transfer all merits and virtues universally.

If you’d like to know more about these vows, enjoy the Dharma Talk linked above. It’s about an hour, but time well-spent I think. 🙂

The Buddha as Rain

I am resuming my study of the Lotus Sutra lately, and decided to revisit something I posted in my old blog, but I am coming to this in a pretty different light than before.

Of all the chapters in the Lotus Sutra, I find that I’ve always considered Chapter Five: The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs my favorite. I am not saying that either because it’s short. 🙂 Chapter Two, defines the notion of Skillful Means, or the idea that the Buddha taught the Dharma to each person according to their level of understanding, their background and so on. According to commentaries by Thich Nhat Hanh, chapters 3 through 9 reiterate this point using a variety of parables, similes and so on. Chapter Three and Four are more well known chapters, but I just find the examples don’t resonate with me.

It’s said that when you read the Lotus Sutra, you’ll usually find a chapter or two that will speak to you (hey, skillful means!), and in that light Chapter Five speaks to me most.

In the fifth chapter, the Buddha describes himself and his teachings like rain on parched land. The rain falls upon all plants and trees equally, but each plant drinks the water according to its size, need and so on. Or as the Buddha said in verse form:

Root, stem, limb, leaf,
the glow and hue of flower and fruit-
one rain extends to them
and all are able to become fresh and glossy,
whether their allotment
of substance, form and nature is large or small,
the moistening they receive is one,
but each grows and flourishes in its own way

This set of lines is basically the gist of Chapter Five, but there is one other interesting line I wanted to point out. Earlier in the chapter, the Buddha, again likening himself to a great rain cloud, said to the myriad beings:

Those who have not yet crossed over I will cause to cross over, those not yet freed I will free, those not yet at rest I will put to rest, those not yet in nirvana I will cause to attain nirvana.

I was kind of struck by this line, for it strongly reminds me of Jodo Shinshu notion of Other Power or tariki (他力) in Japanese. I prefer to translate tariki as “Other Strength” not “power” as power can take on magical connotations, and just sounds active, not passive. In any case, when I read this passage, it definitely resonates with me because I read the passage as “no matter how stubborn or deluded, I will help you to cross over to Enlightenment”, which is the same basic vow that Amida Buddha made to help all beings in the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life.

So, taken together, Amida and Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as other Buddhas, are all striving to lead beings out of cycle of suffering, rebirth and ignorance, but in different “forms” and means.

Anyways, all this is getting a little off-track, but I just found that sentence kind of fascinating. Recently, I had read how Pure Land Buddhists often study the Lotus Sutra, even though it’s not explicitly a Pure Land Buddhist text, and now I can see why. Rennyo Shonin, the 8th head of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, spoke rather highly of it. The themes presented in the Lotus Sutra include:

* Enlightenment for all beings.
* The Dharma is taught to each according to their ability (it should never be too easy or too difficult for someone).
* The Buddhas leave no one behind.

These are all hallmarks of Pure Land Buddhism as well, and is in keeping with the whole Mahayana notion that all beings will eventually be enlightened, even if it takes us countless and countless eons.

It’s not like I had much to do this weekend anyways. 😉

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo