Thought for the day

“Ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.”

“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, the so-called “Weeping Philosopher”, is reputed to have written these words, though his works are now largely lost. It’s interesting to note that Heraclitus lived around the same time as the Buddha, during the “Axial Age” of Man, and it’s also interesting to note that both arrived at the same conclusion.*

When one can understand that existence, like the river, changes from moment to moment, with no permanent essence, then one can understand that there is nothing lasting with which one can cling to. The self is no exception. We are and we are not. We exist, but there is nothing permanent within us that we can rightly call a self or identity. When we can grasp this thought, we can then see the ego for what it is, an artificial construct, an illusion.

Or as the Buddha said in the Lankavatara Sutra:

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.


* – Perhaps Heraclitus was a Pratyekabuddha, a “private Buddha” and just didn’t know it. 😉


Hanamatsuri: The Buddha’s Birthday

I woke up again in the middle of the night, due to Baby kicking me in the back,* so I thought I’d talk about the Buddha’s Birthday, which we celebrate today in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

In Buddhism, there are two holidays to commemorate the Buddha’s Birthday: Vesak which is pronounced “way-sack”, and Hanamatsuri, depending on which sect of Buddhism you’re following. Hanamatsuri (花祭) is the Flower Festival in Japanese, though in East Asia it’s known by many names.

The difference between Vesak and Hanamatsuri is basically which sect you follow, with people in Theravada, South-East Asian cultures celebrating Vesak, and Mahayana East-Asian cultures typically celebrating Hanamatsuri. This is not always the case though, but just a rough guide.

In any case, Hanamatsuri commemorates the day the Buddha was born. In the Buddhist texts, there are varying stories about what happened when the Buddha was born. It was said as a baby, he immediately took 7 steps (for the six-realms of rebirth, plus one more for Nirvana) and told the people present that he alone was the World-Honored One. This last statement requires some explanation.

A Buddha, or fully awakened one, is said to be incredibly rare in Buddhism. Such beings, who become Enlightened after many, many rebirths and who started as Bodhisattvas** and fulfill their vows are quite extraordinary. Such beings are either called Samma-sam-buddho or Samyaksam-Buddha in Pali and Sanskrit language respectively.

So the Buddha, named Shakyamuni meaning “of the Sakya clan”, is the Fully-Awakened One of this era. It’s because of him the Wheel of the Dharma has been turned so that beings can benefit from it, either through attaining Enlightenment for themselves, or through benefitting others lifetime after lifetime as a Bodhisattva. Because of the Buddha’s accomplishments, this is possible to us today and it’s for this reason he said that he alone was the World-Honored One. 🙂

Amida Buddha and Shakyamun Buddha

In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we take this one step further by saying that Shakyamuni Buddha is a manifestation of Amida Buddha, so although we honor Shakyamuni Buddha we also express gratitude to Amida. I used to think this teaching was really weird when I first went to the temple, but as my understanding of Amida changed it made more sense. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism tends to trim out a lot of the figures in Buddhism (bodhisattvas, Buddhas, guardian kings, etc), so that there are really only two*** figures we focus on: Amida and Shakyamuni.

Shakyamuni appeared in this world and pointed the way out to us, while Amida dwells in the Pure Land and calls beings to Enlightenment. Shakyamuni Buddha is the physical historical Buddha, or nirmanakaya in Sanskrit, while Amida is the timeless primordial one, or dharmakaya in Sanskrit. This notion of a physical, historical Buddha and a primordial Buddha by the way is not limited to Jodo Shinshu at all, but is found in some level or another in every sect of Buddhism.

In more practical matters, our temple celebrates Hanamatsuri with a nice display of fresh flowers, and pouring Japanese sweet-tea (amacha or 甘茶) over the “baby Buddha” statue in the middle with a ladle. Followers also drink sweet-tea which is actually pretty good. In general I am not much of a tea drinker, but I do like sweet-tea, and I remember also drinking it on the day of my wedding, when my mother-in-law made it for us home-made style.

Also, I will practice shōjin today. I’ve talked in the past about Buddhist dietary habits, but let me quote from the Jodo Shinshu Handbook for a better explanation of shōjin:

In Buddhism shojin means persevering devotion and refraining from evil deeds, adherence to good and adoration of the Dharma. But the common understanding is that shojin is abstaining from eating animal flesh and this is a very small and narrow interpretation of the original term.

Therefore, in the observance of shojin , as for instance on a memorial day, it is not just the partaking of vegetarian food alone, but is the reappreciation of all life by abstaining from taking any life, dedication to the Buddha-dharma and single-heartedly hearing the compassion of Amida Buddha with persevering devotion.

That about sums it up for me. Out of respect and gratitude toward the Buddha will try to follow shōjin today. We have a potluck today at the temple, which I hear is vegetarian, so that being around a group of people dedicated to the same effort is a big help. Also, I will just spend the day in wholesome pursuits, such as spending time with Baby, and helping around the house.

Happy Hanamatsuri Everyone! 😀


* – As most parents know, the smallest one takes up an inverse proportion of the bed. 😉

** – In the Pali Canon, the Buddha often refers to himself in his past lives as the Bodhisatta, the Pali rendering of Bodhisattva. Scholars often mistakenly teach that the term Bodhisattva was invented by Mahayana Buddhists, but Mahayana Buddhists simply expanded the term to refer to other beings like the Buddha, who take the “long-route” and help and teach beings along the way.

*** – We also acknowledge the Bodhisattvas named Kannon and Seishi because they are attendants of Amida Buddha so to speak. However, in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Kannon symbolizes Compassion, Seishi symbolizes Wisdom. In a sense, they are the right and left hands of Amida Buddha.

Baby’s First Step!

Our little one, code-named “Baby” has taken her first step at last!


Our little princess has been walking along tables, and holding hands for a long time, since February at least, but she’s hesitant to walk without assistance. Earlier this evening, Baby was standing in front of Mommy, holding her doll, and took a very wobbly step before she fell into Mommy’s lap. She was OK of course, but that was her first step!

We’re happy to see her do this (I almost missed it while cooking), and it gives up hope. Our doctor asked us to come back at 16-months-old if Baby wasn’t walking yet, and Baby will be 16 months by early May. Of course, we don’t really mind going since we have a nice doctor, but Baby is absolutely terrified of the doctor’s office. Now, when she first comes to the reception desk, she gets sullen and quiet, and when she sees the nurse (the same nurse who gives her immunizations), she starts to cry on sight. So, we hope to save Baby the trauma of going back. 🙂 Looks like she just might dodge the bullet!

Good job, Baby! We love you!

P.S. The picture above was taken last month. Baby is once again tearing apart my collection of DVDs by Hiroyuki Itsuki. This famous author is the host of a 25-dvd set featuring Buddhist Temples all over Japan, called hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼) or “Pilgrimage to a hundred temples”. The DVD set is all in Japanese, with no English subtitles, so I get lost often, but with help from Wikipedia and Google, I can usually follow along with the temple they feature.

In any case Baby has a daily ritual of tearing into the DVD set, so I put them back nightly. 🙂 She has watched one episode with me, and amazingly did “namu namu” when she saw a painting of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land. I was incredibly impressed.

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.