“There is no secret about calling upon the sacred name except that we put our heart into the act, in the conviction that we shall be born into the Land of Perfect Bliss.” (Honen the Buddhist Saint, 2006)
In the Dharma, intention is important. It colors a particular action, giving it a certain quality. For example, if one gives a gift begrudgingly, the quality of the action is said to be inferior to one who gives with faith.
The same goes for saying the Name. If I say the nembutsu carelessly, then my heart isn’t in the act and so I more easily turn back to all those things that bother me. But if I say the nembutsu with heart and faith then I find ease, joy, or even just some significant respite from this samsaric world.
I would like to note that, whether one can put their heart into an act or can’t (for human reasons), it’s all still wholesome. In the end, a good action is still a good action. But if one can, even every once in a while, call the Name with all that they are, they’ll find quite a blessing.
Namo Amida Bu
Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (2006) World Wisdom Inc.
Honen emphazised that, in regard to Pureland, oral teachings are just as important as the written teachings. He said that because, the Buddha was talking to an audience of “good” people in the sutras, one might “deprecate themselves” and have doubts about their own ability to realize the Pure Land. Honen found it important for ordinary people to know that though the Buddha was speaking to “good” or saintly people, the Pure Land teaching was still applicable to the ordinary person (Honen the Buddhist Saint, 2006).
I have never thought of this as an issue before, however what I do take from the above is that encounters with spiritual friends are just as important as reading. A more modern view might be that oral teaching is a person-to-person teaching, which may take many forms. This allows for someone with experience to make the text more relatable and inclusive to another. Having been given Dharma in both forms, one can then develop a deep understanding of their own. For example, I’m mostly paraphrasing a particular translation of the above teaching because I find that the translation itself uses language that might be off-putting to some. In this review I’m also elaborating on the term “oral teaching” for a more inclusive understanding. In a sense, this approach follows the spirit of Honen by keeping the audience in mind. This is what we call upaya or skillful means.
Namo Amida Bu
Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (2006) World Wisdom, Inc.
On the morning of Sunday the 11th of September 2016, I was waiting outside the Homewood Friends Meeting house where the Baltimore Dharma Group met for their weekly Zen practice. It was then that I got a call from my mother’s partner, Judy, that Mom had died in the night at the nursing home that she was supposed to be staying at temporarily. At that moment, my world was uprooted.
For me, my mother Tess was a constant. Though she was born on the 11th of June, 1957, as far as my little history was concerned, she hailed from the beginingless begining. It was not until the moment of learning of her death did I understand her as my first refuge.
And then she was gone.
Crying at the steps of the meeting house, I suddenly felt something I had never truly felt before. I felt the utter rawness of true uncertainty. I felt as if I was standing at the gate of something awesome and terrible. It was the gaping maw of impermanence.
It was then that, with sorrow and desperation, the words “Namo Amida Butsu” came pouring out of me. No amount of “coming back to the breath” was going to help. I needed to express my sadness, my fear, and my anger and the nembutsu helped me do that.
And so I grabbed tight to the Buddha’s robes and took refuge.
I had come to the meeting house by bus but decided that I couldn’t bare being around others, so I walked home reciting the nembutsu. As I walked, I noticed another new phenomenon.
I noticed that the nembutsu didn’t necessarily make me feel better but I certainly didn’t feel worse. It was the only thing at that time that was not painful to me. There was an active gentleness to the Buddha’s presence that countered the worst of my grief. The Buddha allowed me to be human and be with my sadness. I was allowed to be bombu, a being of wayward passion.
After I got home, hugged my wife Angie, pet my cats, and called the nursing home, we left to go to see Mom off. At the facility I found her still and blue. It was not my first corpse but it was still surreal, probably more so because, for human reasons, I wanted to believe that she couldn’t die.
After packing her belongings, I asked Angie to wait outside. My mom knew I was a Buddhist and was aware of my nembutsu practice. She would understand that I’d mourn in my own way. Putting my hands together, wrapped with a mala, I said the nembutsu over her body several times. Then, with a bow, I left her to the capable hands of the mortician.
Within months, my cat, Veda, and and my other mom, Judy, died. At the same time of Judy’s death, my good friend, Hoin, of another Zen group I went to, passed as well.
I would still grieve on and off for quite some time, often when I least expected it. Just as pain arises, it ceases. And so it goes with affinities. I lost my interest for Zen as a tradition and turned toward the Pure Land.
In a recent podcast, Dharmavidya talked about how some people, after loss, look to the other world and take relatively little interest in this one. Often the reason they do this is because they wish to reunite with those they love. I find myself among those people. Since mom’s death, I’ve kept my heart in the Pure Land. Though I’ve found this world more precious, beautiful, and important to care for because of it’s fleeting nature, I don’t see it as my home.
Does that make me too other-worldly? Perhaps. However, my faith in Amida, the Dharma, and the Pure Land, has kept me afloat. It helps me meet this world as it is.
Loss is hard for everyone and we all deal with it differently. Fortunately for me, I found the Buddha. May we all find refuge in the darker moments of our lives.
Prayer has many aspects. It also has many meanings for many people. Growing up, I understood it as some special way of speaking to God. Nowadays, I have a different understanding.
Sometimes, prayer is used as a means to gain protection. For instance, there are many instances when Buddhist may pray to protect themselves, their communities, and their nation. In Japan and other countries, it has been a tradition to pray and recite sutras to protect the sovereign.
Sometimes, prayer is a show of solidarity. I personally consider phrases such as “I’ll keep you in my prayers” as a gesture of support and goodwill.
Still, for some, prayer is seen as a form of development for the mind. The activity of prayer certainly does help create good conditions for practice because it can direct the mind to a wholesome object.
Then there is the cry for help, the petitionary prayer for when there is nothing one can do.
In my case, I cry out to the Buddha.
There is a common teaching in Japanese Pureland that the “Namo” of Namo Amida Bu is the foolish being calling out to that which is compassionate and wise, the “Amida Bu”. In this way, Amida Buddha provides a refuge to feel fear, pain, loss, sorrow and the whole range of human emotions. To cry out to Quan Yin is similar. She too embraces the humanity of the person who calls out to her, taking many forms to do so. In this way, calling out to the compassionate, is a form of prayer.
Such a prayer can be a source of relief, like opening a valve. To me, it’s preferable to holding in pain until it festers and erupts.
To pray is to be human. Humans pray for different reasons and all reasons to pray are valid ways to turn to the Dharma.
Since practicing social distancing, I’ve been thinking more about my solitary retreat at Amida Mandala. My first post was about part of that experience, where, during a 48 hour period, I stayed in one room (with occasional outings to the back garden) and chanted the nembutsu.
I had very little contact with anyone except Rev. Satyavani and Rev. Kaspalita during the retreat. It was lonely and quite frustrating at times but it was also punctuated by moments of joy. Most of those moments came in the form of food.
Satya and Kaspa delivered meals to me three times a day. When they knocked on my door, I felt a great relief. In the brief time that they whispered a greeting and passed along my tray of food, I was elated.
As hard as I try, I can’t remember most of those meals. However, I do remember the cherry tomatoes.
I’m not really a fan tomatoes. I can live without them. However, those cherry tomatoes were an exception. As far as I was concerned, they were a blessing.
As I ate them, I found myself savoring them. Generally, I eat pretty mindlessly, but this was different. For those moments, as I sat alone, nothing could compare to the taste of those cherry tomatoes. As I ate them slowly, one by one, I felt a a rare sense of genuine gratitude.
Slowing down can be a challenge. For me, it can be quite frustrating. However, in the midst of it all, the Light trickles through the clouds illuminating little miracles here and there. For that, I give thanks.
According to many Japanese traditions, today, April 8th, is the Buddha Shakyamuni’s birthday. Happy birthday to the Buddha!
Often, I look at my little statue that represents him and feel the jagged parts of me soften. His teachings have slowly sunk into the depths of my spirit, often bubbling up when my bombu nature starts getting the best of me.
The Blessed One is never far. Shakyamuni once said to one of his disciples, Vakkali, that if one sees the Dharma then one sees the Buddha.
When I look outside I see the Dharma. When I look at the candle burning in the shrine, I see the Dharma. When I feel my breath rise and fall, I see the Dharma. It is my world. And so is Buddha.
I just got done watching a video in which a Shingon monk, who goes by Nobu on his YouTube channel, reacts to some negative reception of another video he posted in a Facebook group about a Shingon-based celebration. For those who don’t know, Shingon is a form of what is known as Esoteric Buddhism, where followers use mantras and certain kinds of ritual in their practice. Shingon is similar (though I can’t say it’s the same) to many of the Tibetan Vajrayana traditions in many respects.
In the Facebook group Nobu was told that the celebration had nothing to do with Buddhism. His post was then taken down for being a “Japanese cultural event.” He stated that there does not seem to be an acceptance of Shingon in a certain country. I would take a wild guess and say that country might be the U.S. Unfortunately, this non-acceptance of certain Buddhist traditions is a common occurrence in much of Western Dharma Discourse™.
Many Westerners who have an interest in Buddhism are given a certain narrative about the tradition. Generally, this narrative often is rooted in little bit of the Theravada, Zen, or Tibetan traditions and then presented through a lens largely based on psychology and secularism. This narrative appeals to those who might have become disillusioned with their former faith or are looking for a way to calm their minds. I don’t have a problem with Buddhists who might tend toward this perspective. After all, that’s how I entered the Dharma.
However, when Western converts treat ancient traditions and those who practice those traditions with a dismissive attitude, there is a problem. And it’s not just dismissiveness that’s the problem. There are converts who, in their ignorance, try to dominate the narrative about what Buddhism is. This leads to an othering of Buddhists who’s roots run much deeper than that of converts.
Within the context of Buddhism in the U.S., it’s another example of how White Supremacy ruins things. Asian American Buddhists have dealt with this it for a long time. For more on that, I suggest the Angry Asian Buddhist blog by the late Aaron J. Lee.
And I’m not saying I’m innocent in this. I’m complicit as well. Learning about Pureland opened my prejudices to me quite profoundly. And I’m still learning. I may be a foolish being but that doesn’t excuse me from being dismissive toward other other traditions and writing off their practices and beliefs as “baggage.”
Speaking of Pureland Buddhism, Honen, the founder of the Pureland tradition in Japan, had a similar problem as some of his disciples causing trouble with Buddhists of other traditions. This lead him to write the Shichikajo-kishomon or Seven Article Pledge.
1. Refrain from denigrating other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and from attacking Shingon and Tendai, for you are not versed in any of their teachings.
2. In your state of ignorance, refrain from indulging in disputes with men of wisdom or when encountering people with other religious practices.
3. Toward people of other persuasions or practices, refrain from saying, with your mind ignorant and biased, that they should abandon their practice. Refrain from wanton ridicule of them.
4. Refrain from saying that there is no observance of the clerical precepts in the nembutsu path, from avidly encouraging sexual indulgences, liquor, or meat eating, from occasionally calling those who adhere to the precepts men of indiscriminate practice, and from teaching that those who believe in Amida’s original vow have no reason to be afraid when committing evil deeds (zoaku muge).
5. As an ignorant being who is unable to distinguish between right and wrong, you should refrain from deviations from the scriptural teachings, from what is not the teachings of your master, from arbitrarily putting forward your own doctrines, from needlessly seeking out disputes, from being laughed at by the wise, and from leading the ignorant astray.
6. In your state of ignorance, refrain from delighting so much in rhetoric, since you know nothing of the true teachings, from expounding various heresies (jaho), and from converting ignorant priests and lay people to the various heresies.
7. Refrain from expounding heresies which are not the Buddhist teachings, and from regarding them as true teachings. Refrain from the deception of calling them the teachings of your master.
It think it would be beneficial that we heed Honen.*
I hope that Nobu does not get discouraged from sharing his love of Shingon. I also hope that converts remember that Buddhism is much more than what’s found in Tricycle or some group on Facebook.
To those converts who think Buddhism is this or that based on quotes and introductory books, there is still much to learn. The Dharma is vast. Be kind and learn.
If you can’t learn, then be kind.
Namo Amida Bu
*The seventh article could be debatable as to what is a heresy but the gist of the Seven Article Pledge is rather useful in a multicultural context.
One of the Three Jewels is the Sangha. Depending on the tradition, this could mean the sanghas of monks and nuns or larger sangha that includes lay people. It could even mean something else. In Amida Shu, there is a piece of liturgy in the Nienfo Book that we often affirm as we take refuge.
I take refuge in the Sangha,
The community that lives in harmony and awareness
Though the ideal of a community that lives in harmony and awareness may seem to be little more than an ideal, it gives members of the sangha something to work toward. It is important to remember that the spiritual life involves traveling toward perfection but not perfection itself. As a sangha, we travel together.
It’s also important to remember that what we are taking refuge in is the sangha as a body and not the individuals themselves. This can help keep one from getting hung up on every little quirk that different members may express.*
The sangha helps us in many ways. Members of the sangha can act as mentors or even just a sounding boards. As I have mentioned before, the spiritual life is not all nectar and lotuses. Sometimes when we go into contemplation, we fall into dark places. Spiritual support is very important in this regard.
Even just the presence of one’s sangha, whether in-person or online, can be a source of strength. When I see members of my various sanghas, whether they are discussing the Dharma or just being themselves on Facebook or wherever, I know that I’m not alone, even if I’m stuck in my home.
And then there is the ocean of buddhas. When I sit, I often think of the countless buddhas filling space like the stars in the night sky, much like what is described in the Pratyuptpanna Samadhi Sutra. Those buddhas, along with their bodhisattva and arhat disciples, are truly a community that lives in harmony and awareness. Pointing my mind toward them, no matter where I am, I trust that I’m loved and supported by a most noble and unfathomable sangha.
With much gratitude,
*This does not mean overlooking abuse of any kind.
With the COVID 19 (Coronavirus) outbreak, many people have had to make hard choices and major changes. Right now, I’m thinking of those people.
The Kucchivikara-vatthu of the Pali Cannon discusses a particular incident when the Buddha and Ananda came upon a monk who was sick.
Now at that time a certain monk was sick with dysentery. He lay fouled in his own urine & excrement. Then the Blessed One, on an inspection tour of the lodgings with Ven. Ananda as his attendant, went to that monk’s dwelling and, on arrival, saw the monk lying fouled in his own urine & excrement. On seeing him, he went to the monk and said, “What is your sickness, monk?”
“I have dysentery, O Blessed One.”
“But do you have an attendant?”
“No, O Blessed One.”
“Then why don’t the monks attend to you?”
“I don’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to me.”
Then the Blessed One addressed Ven. Ananda: “Go fetch some water, Ananda. We will wash this monk.”
“As you say, lord,” Ven. Ananda replied, and he fetched some water. The Blessed One sprinkled water on the monk, and Ven. Ananda washed him off. Then — with the Blessed One taking the monk by the head, and Ven. Ananda taking him by the feet — they lifted him up and placed him on a bed.
After attending to the sick disciple, the Buddha asked the other monks if they knew of the sick one. They said yes. When he asked why no one was attending him, they said it was because the monk does nothing for them.
The Buddha then said, “Monks, you have no mother, you have no father, who might tend to you. If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you? Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.”
As I read this story, I think of the elderly, very young, and those dealing with being immunocompromised. With the quick spread of the virus and the shortage of medical supplies at the moment, this could be a dangerous situation for them. I can’t imagine how scary it is.
There is also other costs to this the outbreak, particularly as social distancing has become necessary. This can have an effect in ways we don’t think of. On Twitter, Jeffrey Marsh, an author and advocate for LGBT+ rights, discussed those effects when they learned about the closing of DragCon LA.
Marsh noted that for people who find certain events to be freedom from the isolation that comes from a lack of kin or oppressive circumstances, social distancing has an impact.
School closures can also be hard as many children depend depend on the food and services they get at school. Parents who are required to work during the event of an outbreak may have to choose between a crucial paycheck and making sure their child is supervised.
As demonstrated by the Buddha and Ananda when they bathed the sick monk, we need to take care of each other, even if we are not affected ourselves. In some situations we need to wash our hands. In other situations, we may need to avoid congregating. At the same time, we should try to reach out (in an appropriate way) to those who may experience grief from social distancing. We need to have compassion for all affected by the spread of this virus and remember them as we speak and act.
Like many people in my particular Buddhist tradition, I adopted a vegetarian diet. Doing so took some time, patience, and a little negotiation with myself. That negotiation would often come int the form of a non-meat food dressed up like an animal product.
Lately, I had a craving for scrambled eggs but I was not willing to go buy actual eggs. I remembered a tofu scramble I had from a vegan diner in Baltimore which was quite good. Confident that I would find the recipe online, I looked it up.
What I found was nearly as simple as scrambled eggs themselves. According to the recipe, all I needed was firm tofu, salt, pepper and turmeric. The turmeric is in the recipe to make the tofu yellow so that it looks more like scrambled eggs. It doesn’t really serve any other purpose.
Some foodies dislike a veggie equivalent to certain animal products, finding that it’s much better to just eat non-meat foods as is. Essentially, one should be trying not to eat stuff that mimics meat because the point of vegetarian/vegan lifestyles is to avoid those things. I imagine some of them might even question using the turmeric.
However, sometimes we need some upaya (skillful means) in order to make a change, whether that change is on a culinary level, or a spiritual level. The Buddha is famous for using skillful means to teach the Dharma. For Shakyamuni, it was important to meet a person where they were and teach in a way that they would understand.
Some of the most famous examples of upaya are in the Lotus Sutra. In one parable, the Buddha tells the story of the leader and his band of travelers. These travelers were exhausted from a long journey and were ready to give up. In order to encourage them to go on, the leader conjured the illusion of a spectacular city. After the group took some time to rest in the city, the leader told them that it’s all an illusion and that a better treasure was at the end of the journey.
Sometimes one needs to conjure a spectacular illusion. Sometimes one just needs to sprinkle some turmeric on tofu. The yellow in my tofu scramble may cast an illusion but it helps me stay on my journey.
Namo Amida Bu
P.S. Tofu Scramble is delicious. If you haven’t tried it, here’s the recipe I mentioned.