The Fake Monk

I got tired of my 70’s Crimefighter side-burns and decided I needed a haircut. Being on-call I am stuck at home and can’t go anywhere, and being cheap, I decided to shave my head.

So, having little to do today, I shaved my head:

Me Bald

My wife jokes that I look like a chubby monk. Obviously not living a very austere life. 😉



Fart, fart

Don’t worry, this is a family-friendly post, and a very important one. 🙂

I was listening to another Dharma Talk online by Ven. Sister Fa Xun and she told a story that’s famous in Chinese Buddhism.

During the Song Dynasty, there lived a famous poet who was follower of Buddhism, and one day while meditating out in countryside, he had a great awakening. He was sure he had become enlightened. He wrote it all down in a lovely poem, and then later sent off a copy of that poem to a nearby Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist master.

The Ch’an master replied in a letter that said two words: fart, fart.

The poet read this and became furious. He stormed over to the temple of the Ch’an master and demanded to know why he wrote back such a rude answer. The Ch’an calmly replied “who is it that’s getting angry?”

The poet was floored and humbled, then he understood the master’s point and left the temple a wiser man.

This story is great because it deflates a lot of the images we have of what an enlightened being is, and deflates our own sense of accomplishment.

One reason why I’ve always liked Shinran, he founder of Jodo Shinshu, is that he didn’t take himself too seriously. In section II of the Tannisho, he says:

I believe that the reason you have come here, crossing over more than ten provinces at the risk of your lives, is solely to ascertain the path that leads to birth in the Pure Land. But if you suspect that I know ways other than the nembutsu to attain birth, or that I am versed in the scriptures connected with them, you are greatly mistaken. If that be the case, there are many eminent scholars in the monasteries of Nara and Mt. Hiei, so you should go see them and ask them in detail about the way to attain birth in the Pure Land.

In other words, don’t ask me about doctrinal help; I don’t know any better than you! 😉

Also, section IX is interesting:

“Although I say the nembutsu, I rarely experience joyful happiness nor do I have the desire to immediately go to the Pure Land. What should be done about this?” I asked. Then he responded, “I, Shinran, have been having the same question also, and now you, Yui-en, have the same thought.”

Here both Shinran and Yui-en his disciple have their doubts about birth in the Pure Land. They admit their faith is not rock-solid, nor have they attained some higher transcendental state of mind. Shinran is still Shinran, ever after becoming a follower of Honen and Amida Buddha.

In Soto Zen they also teach that in meditation, one does not really “get” anything out of it. You are still the same person you were before and after. But in the act of sincere meditation for the sake of meditation, you are being yourself in the sense of “I am me, that’s all.”


Detoxing from poison

I never really realized how negative and cynical I am until last night. That negativity doesn’t show up some much on the blog, but in daily life, I realized that I am almost constantly making sarcastic or cynical jokes. I tend to make a lot of jokes in general, and most are just good-natured jokes, but I also have a strong sarcastic side, and that kind of bothers me now that I know it.

Sarcasm, while generally accepted in today’s society, does act like a poison in some ways. As I kind of realized, harsh words seep into conversations and makes the mood more hostile in a subtle way. It’s not the same as just being out-and-out rude, but sarcasm can be abrasive in a way.

I then got to thinking about the 10 Moral Precepts of Shingon Buddhism, the jūzenkai, which are in turn derived from references in the Buddhists texts, such as found in the Pali Canon, and probably other places too. The point here is that these 10 Precepts to adhere to keep one on the straight and narrow, and develop wholesome qualities. It’s a good and comprehensive approach to leading a wholesome, Buddhist lifestyle.

The sarcasm and excessive joking definitely strikes me as violating the 6th of these Precepts. In the Saleyyaka Sutta (MN 41) of the Pali Canon, the Buddha had this to say about proper and improper speech:

“And how are there four kinds of verbal conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, unrighteous conduct? …He speaks harshly: he utters such words as are rough, hard, hurtful to others, censorious of others, bordering on anger and unconducive to concentration. He is a gossip: as one who tells that which is unseasonable, that which is not fact, that which is not good, that which is not the Dhamma, that which is not the Discipline, and he speaks out of season speech not worth recording, which is unreasoned, indefinite, and unconnected with good….

I think sarcasm and cynical speech falls under the part about “censorious of others, bordering on anger” part, hence my concern.

So, having recognized this overnight, I resolved to really work on my speech to make it more wholesome. Wholesome here is not the same as happy speech. The Buddha didn’t teach that one should always say nice things, but he did teach that right speech should be timely, true and with wholesome, not harmful, intentions. With all this in mind, I am taking a good look at the Jūzenkai again and considering it as a serious practice or goal to attain.


Stick with the winning team

I had lunch with a good friend of mine I haven’t seen in a year earlier today. He has had a lot of challenges over the last few years, but since I last saw him, he described his life as having changed quite a bit. He said he quit smoking, and stuck with it, as well as lost weight and did martial arts regularly now. The key, he said, was finding a good group of people to be around, and that gave him the necessary support to stay with it.

Interestingly, I also talked with a co-worker yesterday who has been vegetarian for years, and never had meat since. I mentioned I had tried and failed regularly, and he said that for him it was actually easy because all his friends were vegetarian.

Between yesterday’s conversation, and today’s lunch, this reminded me of the famous Upaddha Sutta (SN. 45.2) in the Pali Canon. I’ve mentioned this sutra before, but I think that it bears retelling. In this sutra, the Buddha argues that the entirety of the holy life, as a Buddhist, and as a monk, is to surround yourself with good, like-minded friends:

“…Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.

Whether you are quitting smoking, alcohol, losing weight or trying to follow the Buddhist path, it’s so much easier when you are surrounding by people whom you can learn good qualities from. The “stick-it-out” approach really just doesn’t work. We are social creatures, and if we spend too much time around people with negative habits, we’ll be inclined to pick up those habits, but if we socialize with people with positive habits, they’ll just naturally rub off on us.

After recently talking in person with my friend Kyoushin from the UK, he stated that in the Higashi Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism there is a lot of emphasis on the compassion and wisdom of Amida Buddha through people we meet, whereas the Nishi Hongwanji branch (found here in the US), focuses on direct experience with Amida Buddha. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, just a question of emphasis. I think the Higashi Hongwanji folks are right in that if you really want to see the compassion of the Buddha at work, just look around and see how friends and loved ones support your, even if they’re not consciously doing it.

There is good basis to this in Buddhism, since we have no independent-nature in this existence; we are not separate from anyone around us. This is what is called emptiness (empty of an independent self), anattā (no-self) or independent co-arising. Because we have no independent nature as separate from others and our environment, what people do around us has a direct bearing on who we are and our nature. So naturally, if the people around us follow wholesome habits and lifestyle, our nature will change accordingly. In other words, we’re a product of our environment. So put yourself in a wholesome environment, not a negative one.

Good luck and may the Force be with you! 😉


Between reality and fantasy

Nick swore he’d die with his boots on, on some exotic safari, but he found his Kilimanjaro in a hospital on Earth where they’d cured everything that was bothering him, except for the galloping pneumonia he’d picked up in the hospital. That had been, roughly, two hundred and fifty years ago. I’d been a pallbearer.
–Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

Finished reading Isle of the Dead yesterday, and as always, it is a good read. A little dark, but very good reading, and just cool Roger Zelazny as usual. I enjoy the quote above because it reminds me that life often goes against us, no matter how smart or clever or even stubborn we are. Life is surprisingly fragile, and if causes and conditions turn out just so, then that’s it.

I am reminded of Rennyo’s Letter on White Ashes, translated by Hisao Inagaki:

“When I deeply contemplate the transient nature of human life, I realize that, from beginning to end, life is impermanent like an illusion. We have not yet heard of anyone who lived ten thousand years. How fleeting is a lifetime!

Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes. Once the winds of impermanence have blown, our eyes are instantly closed and our breath stops forever. Then, our radiant face changes its color, and the attractive countenance like peach and plum blossoms is lost. Family and relatives will gather and grieve, but all to no avail? Since there is nothing else that can be done, they carry the deceased out to the fields, and then what is left after the body has been cremated and has turned into the midnight smoke is just white ashes. Words fail to describe the sadness of it all.

Thus the ephemeral nature of human existence is such that death comes to young and old alike without discrimination. So we should all quickly take to heart the matter of the greatest importance of the afterlife, entrust ourselves deeply to Amida Buddha, and recite the nembutsu. Humbly and respectfully.”

Rennyo (1414-1499)


Pondering the Iliad

While listening to Stone Temple Pilots’ first album, Core, tonight, I started thinking about the Iliad. You see, I have a habit of listening to certain music that fits a mood when reading a specific book I like. To me it enhances the mood a lot. It’s a habit of mine, but I found it really works.

The two may not seem to go together at first, but give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. The song “Wicked Garden” for example reminds me of the part when the Greeks (called the Achaeans) first marshall on the battlefield. I can imagine legions and legions of bad-ass Greek warriors lined up eager for battle. The song “Sin” reminds me later when the Greeks are hard-pressed by the Trojans and nearly routed.

I haven’t read the Iliad in a while, but I pick up the book once every couple of years and read it again. It still remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The Odyssey is probably more well-known in American culture because of it’s more mythological nature, but I love the Iliad for the sheer human struggle and the wide array of characters. Out of the Iliad, I always liked Telemonian Ajax (the larger Ajax) because he’s the most consistent of the Greek warriors, and Nestor, who though old, can still fight well. The other Greeks had their moments of glory (called “aristeia” in ancient Greek), then were defeated or wounded. With Ajax he simply fought well and keep Greeks alive when their backs were to the ocean.

In a way though, I always sympathized with Hektor the most, given that his brother Paris (called “Alexandros” in the Iliad) stole Helen and brought the wrath of the Greeks upon Troy. Hektor fought bravely through most of the novel, but he was also human, and had his faults. He ran from Achilleus because he knew he could never face him and win, and he gloated over Patroclus’s death, even though Apollo helped smash his armor. Still, I always sided with the underdog, and I always felt bad for Hektor, who never had a real chance to save the Trojans, and simply tried his best to defend them.

Anyways, just some thoughts on the Iliad, nothing more. I love ancient epics, and this plus the Romance of the Three Kingdoms from China, and the Tales of Heike from Japan are among my favorites. If you enjoy epic stories, you can’t go wrong with the Iliad. I recommend the Lattimore translation, which has been my mainstay until recently when the book just fell apart.


P.S. Other notable book/song combos of mine:

  • Gibson’s Neuromancer – Gorillaz “Demon Days”
  • Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series – Alice N’ Chains “Dirt”
  • The Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Orgy’s “Blue Monday”

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.