Mantras explained

I found this website on Tendai Buddhism in California (kindly posted on e-sangha by another member), that had a nice summary explanation* of why mantras feature so prominently in Buddhism. I particularly thought this was helpful:

And the recitation of mantra has many other uses and benefits as well. If one with faith in the teacher takes up repetition practice (JAPA), the meaning may not become clear until after 100,000 repetitions, even a million repetitions. However, other benefits will be quickly discovered, things like calming, awareness, becoming concentrated, turning inward and see your thoughts as in a mirror, seeing how quickly thoughts change, and how the two sides of the brain exchange places on center stage. By diligent effort, you will experience how to slow down and stop the replay of the day’s conversations, allowing deeper layers of the mind to become visible, and allowing the Buddhadharma to manifest its power to overcome suffering.

I think this is a great explanation because it helps to demystify mantras somewhat, without compromising their meaning. It has a short-term value in helping to calm the mind and leave it open to reflection, but also has a long-term value in revealing deeper truths. Also it was interesting to note that the article listed the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) as a mantra, which in this definition probably does make sense. In Jodo Shinshu, the nembutsu is treated as a recitation of faith, or more appropriately, an expression of gratitude, but I suppose that it also fits the definitely above if you look at it from another angle.

Anyways, something interesting to pass along.


* – The website sadly uses HTML frames, and in a way that’s kind of awkward, so be patient. πŸ™‚ I’ve noticed that Buddhist masters generally aren’t proficient web designers, which leads me to suspect that HTML 4.01 is not on the path to Enlightenment. Oh well.


Hungry Ghosts are among us

The dead are too much with us.
–Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

Hungry ghosts, or shades, are a part of Buddhism often forgotten in modern interpretations, but encompass an important part of traditional Buddhism. Hungry ghosts, or peta in Sanskrit, are those beings who lived a life of strong cravings so much so that their cravings persist beyond death. Thus, they live as shades, or ghosts, starving and without any comfort. Rebirth as a hungry ghost is thought to be only one step above Hell because you are not actively tormented, but they live life tormented by hunger and thirst.

In the Pali Canon, there is a little-known section called the Petavatthu, containing poems and stories about Hungry Ghosts. This is in the Khuddaka or “short stories” collection in the Canon. Anyways, a friend and reader found this wonderful poem yesterday on, explaining the virtue of offering food to the hungry shades. This practice is also done in Japan during the holiday of Obon (γŠη›†), where people traditionally leave a tray of food outside their door for any hungry ghosts to eat.

Of note in this poem are the lines:

“He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
   they were my relatives, companions, friends”:
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus
on things done in the past.
For no weeping,
   no sorrowing
   no other lamentation
      benefits the dead
      whose relatives persist in that way.

Even in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we are taught that one should reflect on all the efforts of those who came before you, and how we benefit from them. Reflecting thus, we become grateful and humbled by their efforts, and strangely comforted as well. This is also reflected in the Japanese phrase okagesama de, which is a common answer to when someone asks “how are you”? It simply means, “I live in the shadow of others (and thus benefit)”, which is a very Buddhist way to look at one’s life. Because of the efforts of loves ones past, we live and thrive. πŸ™‚

At the same time, the poem dispells the need for excessive grief either. Life is not meant to be one unending sorrow, but rather the efforts of our loved ones is a reason to pause and reflect. Self-reflection is a very important part of Buddhism, of which meditation is just one tool for self-reflection. A Buddhist who does not reflect upon his or her life, is someone who isn’t paying attention. And so, rather than wailing and grieving, one should simply be grateful and appreciate the life and time they spent with those now dead. Life is impermanent and inconsistent; there’s no avoiding this. You can’t fight it, or change it. You can simply come to terms with it, and thereby gain your freedom.

When I think about my ancestors, I often think about how my daughter and maybe her children (my grandchildren to-be) will think about my efforts, and my wife’s efforts. Hopefully they will be feel loved and appreciated, and if so, all is well. πŸ˜€


Chinese Buddhism, Amida and Medicine Buddha

This will be my last post on the subject of the Medicine Buddha and Amida, but I wanted to point out a great explanation of the two Buddhas by the Ven. Chinese master Yin-Shun. I’ve been reading his book “The Way to Buddhahood” off and on for a few weeks, and I have to admit Yin-Shun has really done his homework. The book was not written for Western Audiences, but rather for his fellow Chinese students, so his interpretation of things can seem kind of orthodox, but at the same time, he explains things well, and balances tradition with getting to the heart of the teachings. It’s no wonder he’s highly respected among Chinese Buddhists.

On that note, I wanted to quote from his book because Chinese Buddhism is kind of under-represented in Western Buddhist circles,* so here’s his take on how Amida Buddha and the Medicine Buddha relate:

“The doctrine of Amitabha [Amida] Buddha’s Most Blissful Pure Land rejects the reality of this present world. Because Lady Vaidehi [in the Contemplation Sutra] experienced suffering of this world deeply, she did not want to be reborn in this world, so the Buddha told her about the Most Blissful Pure Land…This is a teaching that rejects the human world and emphasizes rebirth after death.

“There are other kinds of people for whom a different way is more suitable. Those people who are presently in this world and who have healthy bodies and harmonious families, live in wealthy and powerful countries, and enjoy world peace are not inclined to reject such things…and in order to enable them to direct themselves toward bodhi [enlightenment], Shakyamuni Buddha also proclaimed the Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land.

“The Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land is in the east, which symbolizes growth, whereas Amitabha’s Pure Land is in the west, which symbolizes retirement. To liberate the dead, Chinese Buddhists chant the name of Amitabha Buddha; to disperse calamity and prolong life they chant the name of the Medicine Buddha.

Note that the Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu approach to Amida Buddha is somewhat different. Both Honen and Shinran felt that Amida Buddha was not really a Bodhisattva-turned-Buddha. They interpreted the story of Amida Buddha in a more figurative sense, treating Amida Buddha not as a literal figure, but as the Dharmakaya itself. So, in that regard, Amida Buddha would encompass both the rebirth after death as well as the life we live now.

In any case, it’s really fascinating to me to see two interpretations of the same Pure Land texts. Both are venerable monks, not beginners, but through their experiences and interpretations, they arrived at slightly different conclusions. Both Ven. Yin-Shun and Honen/Shinran taught the Pure Land teachings with the same basic intent though: to help those followers who were not in a position to take up monastic practices to directly attain Enlightement, so that no one would be left behind.


* – I’ve noticed that Chinese Buddhism is often overshadowed by Japanese Buddhism, which is ironic since Japan owes all of its Buddhist teachings to centuries of Chinese monastic tradition, literature and evolution of teachings. I think this happened because certain Japanese Buddhists like D.T. Suzuki and Shunryu Suzuki did such a great job teaching Buddhism in the West, that people just naturally looked to them and their cultural background for guidance. In any case, although I follow Jodo Shinshu, a Japanese school of Buddhism, I hope that Chinese Buddhism becomes better understood over time in the West because the similarities and contrast both help flesh out East Asian Buddhism. πŸ˜€

Who’s who in Buddhism, part 2: The Medicine Buddha

Lately I’ve been taking a big interest in the Medicine Buddha ever since I started watching that Japanese series of Buddhist temples, η™Ύε―Ίε·‘η€Ό (Hundred Temple Pilgrimage, or hyakuji junrei). The narrator, author Hiroyuki Itsuki, visited Nara Prefecture for the first three DVDs (out of 25), but then moved to Fukui Prefecture, which is on the Japan Sea, but still close to the old capitol of Kyoto. In this part of Japan, the kind of Buddhism established there tends to be much more “old-school” than what you see in east Japan where Zen and Jodo Shinshu are more dominant. I know very little about Japanese Buddhism before the newer “Kamakura-era” schools mentioned, so it’s so fascinating to see how Buddhism looked in an earlier time.

Anyways, many of these famous old temples belong to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, which was dominant at the time, and many have the Medicine Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder, enshrined as the main image. It is thought that the Medicine Buddha is a representation of the Buddha-as-a-doctor, so the two can be closely related in a way. But even in more contemporary times, you can see statues of the Medicine Buddha everywhere. My four year daughter took this photo on a recent trip to Japan in 2011 using my camera phone:

Medicine Buddha taken by my daughter

Pretty good for four years old (I did edit a bit). Here again you can see the jar of medicine. At this particular temple, Daienji in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, you can purchase a small bit of gold leaf to place on the Buddha as an offering. Also, notice that in Japanese Buddhist art, the Medicine Buddha isn’t depicted as “blue” as you see in places like Tibet.

In any case, having seen as these old Japanese temples devoted to the Medicine Buddha, I did some homework and learned more about it. I then found a copy of the Medicine Buddha Sutra in PDF format from Buddhanet. It’s the only to mentioned the Medicine Buddha at all. It’s interesting because in many ways the Medicine Buddha and Amida Buddha are so similar, but in some ways very different:

  • They both have a “pure realm”. For Amida Buddha, the Pure Land exists in Indian thought far, far to the west. Here “west” can also be seen by modern thinkers as death, as the sun sets in that direction. For the Medicine Buddha, his pure realm is in the east, and is named Pure Lapis Lazuli.
  • Both made vows to help all beings while they were bodhisattvas. Amida Buddha’s vows are focused on the Pure Land and how beings will be reborn there. By contrast, the Medicine Buddha seems to focus on vows to assist people in this life, and does not offer a way to be reborn in his pure realm.

Also, while the Medicine Buddha and Amitabha have similar backgrounds and have similar roles, they also help sentient beings in complementary ways so it isn’t necessarily an either/or situation. The Medicine Buddha’s vows focus on this-worldly assistance, while the Buddha Amitabha’s vows focus on the world to come.

By the way, as I like to use this blog as a reference, the Twelve Vows from the Medicine Buddha Sutra are in summary:

  1. To illuminate countless realms with his radiance, enabling others to become a Buddha too.
  2. To awakened the minds of sentient beings through his light of lapis lazuli.
  3. To provide the sentient beings with whatever material needs they require.
  4. To correct heretical views and inspire beings toward the path of the Bodhisattva.
  5. To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they failed before.
  6. To heal beings born with deformities, illness or other physical sufferings.
  7. To help relieve the destitute and the sick.
  8. To help women who wish to be reborn as men achieve their desired rebirth.
  9. To help heal mental afflictions and delusions.
  10. To help the oppressed be free from suffering.
  11. To relieve those who suffer from terrible hunger and thirst.
  12. To help clothe those who are destitute and suffering from cold and mosquitoes.

I posted these on Wikipedia last night by the way. Who needs sleep? πŸ™‚

The Medicine Buddha also features in Shingon Buddhism, where the mantra used for the Medicine Buddha is:

On koro koro sendari matōgi sowaka

What I find fascinating about the Medicine Buddha is his close association with the historical Buddha, and also the nature of his vows, which are practical in nature, and helpful to those on the Buddhist path. In a way, the Medicine Buddha is much easier to conceive and understand than Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. Also the notion of “healing” beings both mentally and physically has beneficial applications here and now to people who may be put off by more philosophical, metaphysical concepts in Buddhism.

In fact, on my first visit to Japan ever in 2005, I remember visiting temple in rural Kanagawa Prefecture very close to my father-in-law’s childhood home. I was struck at the time by the notion of a Buddha embodying “medicine” and healing people. It seemed different from the kind of “textbook Buddhism” I read as a teenager, but at the same time, embodied the Buddhist notion of tolerance and compassion so well, so that visit really stayed with me when I came back to the US and started to explore Buddhism seriously.

Anyway, that’s a brief look at the Medicine Buddha. πŸ™‚

On koro koro sendari matōgi sowaka

P.S. Updated this post to include information from 2011.

Confession in Buddhism

Buddhism from the beginning has a tradition of confessing one’s transgressions to others as a way of setting things right. It’s also thought in some schools of Buddhism to also diminish the effects of bad karma by negating conditions that would cause it to come to fruition. At the very least, it creates some small good karma to offset the bad.

Additionally, it helps heal the mind by allowing you to start over and forgive yourself. In doing so, it also helps you treat others with more kindness and patience too.

Confession comes in many forms. The Theravada monk and all-round-nice-guy, Ajahn Brahm, teaches the simple concept of A.F.L.:

  • Acknowledge
  • Forgive yourself
  • Learn

Obviously if you hurt others, you should right the wrongs as much as you can. You can’t take back what you did any more than you can put toothpaste back in the tube,* but you can help set things right after the fact.

In the time of the Buddha, in the kingdom of Magadha, the prince Ajatasatru, then one of the Buddha’s lay disciples, overthrew his father and took the throne, then later waged war on the neighboring kingdom of Kosala. During this time, Ajatasatru supported the renegade Devadatta, who tried to pull monks away from the Buddha with his own teaching. Later in other Buddhist texts, Ajatasatru deeply regretted his actions and came before the Buddha to apologize. The Buddha was not angry, and said he was forgiven and welcomed him as a disciple again. Ajatasatru was present when the Buddha delivered sermons such as the Lotus Sutra and others, so it seems that he was a devout follower after that. He still suffered residual effects of his severe karma but the future was more optimistic by his change of heart.

In Mahayana Buddhism (Northern Buddhism from Tibet to Japan), there is a sense of ritual to confessions, whereby one confesses them before the Buddha or Bodhisattva they devote themselves too. This seems to have begun in the last chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra, often treated as a separate text called the Gandavyuha Sutra, and has persisted more or less in the same format. One confesses something wrong that they did, and states that this action was entirely the result of their own ignorance, greed and/or hatred, and they vow not to commit that action again.

A really vivid example of a Buddhist confession is in the Golden Light Sutra. In this sutra the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu in chapter 3 has had a dream about a great drum radiating a golden light (the Dharma). In chapter 4 he expresses his wish that all beings are awakened by the sound of this drum, and that he can become a refuge to such beings. Then the Bodhisattva confesses his misdeeds in the same chapter:

O buddhas possessed of the ten powers:
Those terrible wicked acts
I have committed in the past,
Before your eyes, I confess them all.

The Bodhisattva then lists the various categories of unwholesome deeds he may have committed before ending it with:

Through misdeeds of body, speech and mind,
I have amassed threefold wrong acts.
In these three ways, whatever I have done,
These deeds I confess in full.

And so on. The point here isn’t that one should follow this formula, or another, but rather that in all these acts of confession, from the simplest to the elaborate, the basic notion is the same. One should acknowledge what they’ve done wrong, and accept responsibility for it. We are all deluded beings, and we all do stupid things that we can’t take back. Too often though we blame others for things gone wrong, but regardless of what life throws at you, ultimately it’s through your own mind, body and speech that acts are committed, wholesome or unwholesome.

However, a wonderful act of humility is to admit when you’ve done wrong and apologize. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but if it is sincere, and meant with wholesome intentions, it can be a wonderful gesture, and a way of setting the mind at ease. One cannot practice Buddhism well if one has such concerns eating away at them for a long time.


* – Where possible, it’s best to avoid the mistake if you can help it. That’s why Buddhists try to cultivate mindfulness, so they can become aware of what’s going on, not just blindly reacting people usually do.

How to have a debate

In light of the recent debates here in the US for the nominee of the Democratic Party (I support Obama by the way), my colleague, Thrig recently pointed out a nice sutra in the Pali Canon about debates, and how to have a constructive one. This is the Kathavatthu Sutta (AN 3.67) and in this sutra, the Buddha explains to the monks what kind of people are worth debating and which aren’t.

For example, this paragraph:

“Monks, it’s through his way of participating in a discussion that a person can be known as fit to talk with or unfit to talk with. If a person, when asked a question, wanders from one thing to another, pulls the discussion off the topic, shows anger and aversion and sulks, then β€” that being the case β€” he is a person unfit to talk with. But if a person, when asked a question, doesn’t wander from one thing to another, doesn’t pull the discussion off the topic, doesn’t show anger or aversion or sulk, then β€” that being the case β€” he is a person fit to talk with.

I think when watching the Debates that will be going on until November, it’s worth watching the debates and seeing if any of the candidates follow the Buddha’s criteria of an unfit, or a fit person to talk with. It’s wishful thinking, but how people debate can also be an indication as to their mindset, even more so than the rhetoric and cliches they use.

Of course, this also applies to debates with people of other religions, political discussions in one’s own life,* or any other such debates. Some people can carry on a constructive debate, while some just don’t have the mental furniture to listen to the other side, and just ignorantly cling to their own view, no matter how wrong it is.

In any case, the sutra also provides excellent advice on what right speech in this set of verses below:

If wise people, knowing the right time,
want to speak,
then, words connected with justice,
following the ways of the noble ones:
That’s what the enlightened ones speak,
without anger or arrogance,
with a mind not boiling over,
without vehemence, without spite.
Without envy
they speak from right knowledge.
They would delight in what’s well-said
and not disparage what’s not.
They don’t study to find fault,
don’t grasp at little mistakes.
don’t put down, don’t crush,
don’t speak random words.



* – The older I get, the more I realize that talking politics, and to some degree religion, are never a good idea with someone you don’t know well. Unless they happen to share the same view, it’s almost guaranteed to turn into an ego-battle on both sides and drive a wedge between them. As the Buddha said, right speech should be “timely, honest and with kind intentions”.

Baby grows and grows

This week, I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time with Baby, as I took the week off from work. It’s been a great time, even though Baby has really tired Mommy and me out. I can really appreciate what Mommy has to go through daily by herself; that’s even more tiring than with the two of us. :p

Recently, Baby has begun taking two or even three steps at a time. People were right: once the baby stands up (our baby is 15 months), they learn to walk pretty fast. Baby was just shy I think, and since she is large for her age, I think she had more challenges with balance and weight. In any case, she loves to stand up, take a couple steps and fall down. She’s also learned how to drink from her own cup tonight. Not a baby’s sippie-cup, but a real cup. She tried this before, and would get water all over herself, and during dinner, she did that again, but then the second time around, she was more careful with the cup and drank her fill.

She’s also learned to use sign-language more effectively to ask for things. Mommy and I take turns playing with Baby in the bathtub, and Baby is more able to say “please” and “give me” than before. She looks at the shelf of toys above, and use both to tell me that she wants toys from there. Even more surprising is that she’s learned to put her hands together in the Buddhist gesture of gassho by herself without asking. In Japanese culture, when people are done eating they say gochisōsama deshita (γ”γ‘γγ†γ•γΎγ§γ—γŸ), which means “it was a wonderful meal”. My wife teaches Baby this as part of Japanese etiquette. When Baby wants to get out of her high chair, she just puts her hands together as a way of saying she’s done. If we ask her, “gochisōsama?” she also does this. She knows that when she’s done she should put her hands together in gassho. It’s good to see the etiquette (religious and non-religious) is coming to fruition in Baby. πŸ˜€

Lastly, we often buy her books, but one book in particular has turned out to be a real hit with Baby. I love the classic Golden Book series, particularly books by Richard Scarry himself. I enjoyed them often as a young kid at my Grandma’s house. In any case, I’ve been them individually on regularly in the past, but yesterday while shopping at a different bookstore, I found Richard Scarry’s “Best Storybook Ever“. This book is wonderful because it contains not only long and short stories, but lots useful pages to teach kids about boats, trains, food and other useful information a young child should learn. I wrote a little message to Baby inside her copy, because I feel this was the best gift I could offer her as a baby girl. πŸ™‚

I can’t say this enough: it really pays to spend time with your children. If it eats into your project time, or work time, it’s still worth it. You may not make the Big Deal, or finish a project at work as early as you’d like, but on the other hand, helping a young child grow and develop is just so much more rewarding.