It’s Just A Game

Recently, Ninja, a competitive gamer, took issue with the phrase “It’s just a game” on Twitter. It seems that he finds that there is something very wrong with being okay with losing.

On February 18 Ninja tweeted,

The phrase “it’s just a game” is such a weak mindset. You are ok with what happened, losing, imperfection of a craft. When you stop getting angry after losing, you’ve lost twice. There’s always something to learn, and always room for improvement, never settle.

In most circumstances, one should not be completely judged by one tweet. According to Jim Sterling, in his latest Jimquisition, Ninja acknowledges in his book that many people do not share his views on competitive gaming and he finds that okay. Furthermore, competitive gaming is what makes up his living and identity so he’s likely rather emotionally invested in what he does. There’s also nothing wrong with a reasonable desire to improve oneself. Nevertheless, without context, such a tweet can be seen as encouraging a sort of elitism and an unhealthy perspective of gaming.

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Such a perspective is unhealthy in the spiritual sense as well. Imagine samsara as a battle royale game. Many beings are competing for resources, trying to increase their happiness, largely at the expense of others. Some get to go to a heavenly realm while most do not. However, much like a champion in a battle royale, those who go to heaven eventually fall. And the process keeps going with much blood, sweat, and tears because everyone gets highly invested as their identities become dependent on it. This is Mara’s game.

Now imagine if someone decided that they were not going to play anymore. Instead of competing with their fellow beings, they practiced generosity in giving. Eventually, they take this sense of generosity to such a degree that they refrain from certain actions and so give the gift of safety. They then go on to make a pure land that is, in a sense, outside the game. Finally, they invite others to join them and, little by little, the game breaks.

Much of the Buddhist tradition follows along these lines.* Renunciation can be a way of saying “I’m done.” The Noble Ones are those who have decided to stop playing by Mara’s rules.

We don’t necessarily have to be buddhas and bodhisattvas to pull ourselves from the game. We can let their example help us slowly put it down. Furthermore, we can also accept our losses and stumbles because with them comes wisdom.

And its not that a little competition is all together bad. The Buddha saw some good in healthy competition so long as it lead to awakening, such as in the Gavesin Sutta.

However, the main point of this post is that to whatever extent we can have faith and practice generosity with one another, our collective action will start changing our karmic situation. Maybe, one day, merit and demerit will be a memory as we’ll all walk in a pure land of our own making. One can aspire for that.

Namo Amida Bu

*Spiritual competition can be a problem in Buddhism as well wherein individuals can use their labels of gender and status against others.

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Taking Care Along the Path

Today, I got out of a hole. For the last few days, my body was debilitatingly tired but wouldn’t let me sleep much. That tiredness coincided with a severe depressive episode. Last night, my body finally caved and let me sleep and now I’m rested and feeling much better. In the midst of this circumstance, my only practice was the occasional nembutsu.

Many teachers recommend that one should always practice, even if they don’t want to. This is true, however, it is important to point out that, sometimes, one will have limits. In my own experience, sitting in meditation during times of severe depression and anxiety only amplifies the problem. Its not a learning experience. It’s just self flagellation. This is something the Buddha argued against based on his own experiences.

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Before the Shakyamuni Buddha awakened, he took on extreme ascetic practices. He learned the hard way that those practices didn’t bring him toward any kind of liberation. Had he not stopped, rested, and reconsidered his practice, he might have died before reaching his goal. Fortunately, he considered a different path than extreme asceticism and the rest is history. One does not need to hurt themselves to be in touch with the Dharma.

In very difficult times, its enough to take refuge, say the nembutsu, bow, or light a candle. Whatever simple thing one can do to connect with the Dharma is enough. Faith is enough. While walking the Path sometimes we need to rest and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Buddhas will continue to radiate their love to us and the Dharma will remain a diamond in our minds.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Desktopnexus.com

Simple Faith And Simple Love

An Amidist faith is simple. In my experience, such a faith is free from any dependence upon conditions.

I have, at times, had faith in many things. However, it had to be reasonable. I would spend much of my time trying to think up a reason to have faith in something by having proof. That type of faith is dependent of conditions.

Bodhi Leaf, Pipal Leaf, Green Leaf

Simple faith arises from a simple love. The Buddhas send their love to all beings. This is a love that, according to Dharmavidya in his essay Emptiness, “signifies nothingness.” The Buddhas’ acts of love are not dependent on anything. They do it for nothing. Spiritual love is based on shunyata. In other words, the Buddhas simply love.

When a person turns to the love of the Buddhas, they can experience its simplicity. They are changed by it and eventually learn to love in the same way. When such a love arises in a person, it changes their faith. Eventually, one’s faith is dependent on nothing at all.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay

A Dharma of Earthsea

I recently got around to finishing Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The novel follows Ged, a talented magic user, as he pursues his dream of becoming a great wizard. Though his aspirations were great, his education was frustrating for him, particularly at the beginning.

His first teacher was a renowned wizard in his own right, known as Ogion the Silent, who was famous for stopping a great earthquake that almost destroyed Ged’s homeland of Gont. As his name implies, he was a very quiet person. “He spoke seldom, ate little, slept less. His eyes and ears were keen. and often there was a listening look on his face.”

It was during their walk together, to what would be Ged’s new home, that the young wizard-to-be became suspicious of his new teacher.

Book cover featuring Ged

Ged thought that he was going to learn “the mystery and mastery of power.” However, the old wizard kept quiet as the two traveled.

Nothing happened. The mage’s oaken staff that Ged had watched at first with eager dread was nothing but a stout staff to walk with. Three days went by and four days went by and still Ogion had not spoken a single charm in Ged’s hearing, and had not taught him a single name or rune or spell.

After some time, Ged asked the wizard “When will my apprenticeship begin, Sir?.” Ogion replied, “It has begun.” When Ged states that he has not been taught anything, Ogion answered “Because you haven’t found out what I’m teaching.”

After instructing Ged on the value of patience, Ogion asked Ged the name of some herbs along the path that they were walking. Ged answered that one of them was called strawflower but he didn’t know the name of the other, to which the wizard answered that it was called fourfoil.

Ged, having picked up a seed pod from the plant, asked “What is its use, Master?”

“None that I know of,” Ogion replied.

After pondering the wizards answer, Ged then tossed the seed pod aside.

It was then that the wizard gave his first real teaching

When you know the fourfoil in all its season root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?” Ogion went on a halfmile or so, and said at last, “To hear one must be silent.”

Listening is not the easiest thing to do. When I started first started down the spiritual path, I just wanted to be told what I would experience. I wanted to find a way to get control over myself and, likely, to be able to take control of things around me. Just like Ged.

I, like many people, entered into Buddhism because I saw it had a use. It was a means. It was not not a refuge but a tool to calm the mind and become enlightened. Though there is some immediate benefit to coming into contact with it, the Dharma is a vast expanse, not a quick set of instructions.

When we spend much time in the light of the Dharma, listening with our hearts, something happens that we are rarely conscious of. It’s teachings slowly sink in and and, one day, we may eventually know it like the fourfoil, “in all its season root and leaf and flower.” This takes time, some silence, and a willingness to just listen.

Namo Amida Bu

Just Sitting With the Buddha

There was a time when I was very enthusiastic about sitting meditation, particularly in the style demonstrated by Soto Zen followers. I would sit as still as possible. My hands would be in the proper mudra and while I counted to ten. And I would try to do it all perfectly.

There was a real rigidity to my practice. I was worried that I wasn’t doing it properly, and that, for every moment I wasn’t doing it properly, I was wasting my life away. I also became addicted to the occasional euphoria that would arise during practice, thinking “This is it! This is where I need to be!”

After a while, meditation became a chore and a hell.

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It was about this time that I had also learned about the nembutsu. In an attempt to calm my mind, as counting no longer worked, I began to repeat the nembutsu in my mind while I sat. To my surprise, it worked far better than any amount of counting or attention to the breath. Even when my mind was at its most turbulent, I could find a rock in the nembutsu and sit on that rock until the storm passed.

Eventually, I grew to revere the nembutsu as I realized that the space provided in seated meditation was the same space provided when I was just going about my business, uttering an occasional “Namo Amida Bu.” It didn’t matter whether I was still or engaged, the refuge was the same.

With reverence came faith and a realization that every bow, every candle lighting, every ceremonial gesture, and every nembutsu was a moment of refuge. There was no need for rigidity when I could simply trust the Buddhas.

This is not to say that meditation has no use. It was through both meditation and nembutsu that I found a common thread. Both practices have taught me much about the spiritual life.

Nowadays, I don’t quite sit as I used to. I no longer sit “properly” with my hands in a mudra, trying to attempt a state of perfection. I just sit with the Buddha and with faith that there is nothing else that needs to be done.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Eleusis

The Language of the Immortals

Before Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, accompanied Xuanzang in the Journey to the West, he had quite a few adventures himself. One of his most famous ventures was the time he set out to learn the ways of the immortals. To learn from one, however, he had to find one, as they were quite secretive.

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While he was searching, he came across a poor woodsman who was singing in a forest. His song went:

I watch chess games, my ax handle’s rotted.

I chop wood, zheng zheng the sound.

I walk slowly by the cloud’s fringe at the valley’s entrance.

Selling my firewood to buy some wine,

I am happy and laugh without restraint.

When the path is frosted in autumn’s height,

I face the moon, my pillow the pine root.

Sleeping till dawn

I find my familiar woods.

I climb the plateaus and scale the peaks

to cut dry creepers with my ax.

When I gather enough to make a load,

I stroll singing through the marketplace

And trade it for three pints of rice,

With nary the slightest bickering

Over a price so modest.

Plots and schemes I do not know;

Without vainglory or attaint

My life’s prolonged in simplicity.

Those I meet,

If not immortals, would be Daoists,

Seated quietly to expound the Yellow Court.

Upon hearing what the woodcutter was singing, Sun Wukong was convinced that the man was an immortal. He then approached the woodcutter. “Reverend immortal! Your disciple raises his hands.”

The woodcutter, who was quite surprised, denied that the label of immortal. The Monkey King then asked that, if he was not an immortal, then why did he speak their language?

Laughing, the woodcutter explained that the song was called A Court Full of Blossoms and that it was taught to him by his neighbor, who was an immortal. He continued that the immortal taught it to the woodcutter because he noticed that the woodcutter was worried about many things. The song was a way for the woodcutter to calm himself when he was under stress.

This is how the Dharma often works. As Dharmavidya writes in the Eight Verses on Practice, “The purpose of our practice is to be a pure container” (From the Nienfo Book). As one basks in the light of Buddha, they are filled with the Dharma. At times, in ordinary moments, such as when one is chopping wood, writing a document, or cooking, it spills out. One is, without intent, speaking the language of the immortals.

As the Dharma radiates from them someone else might notice and may become inspired. The inspired person may think that the Dharma-drenched person is the source but, in reality, they are just a messenger. Even the Buddhas, in all of their wisdom and splendor, are messengers of that which is deathless. Through them, the Dharma shines, and illuminates the world.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from https://observer-reporter.com



So This is Trust…

For many followers of the Buddha Dharma, trust/faith, known as shraddha in Sanskrit, is the foundation of practice. In my case, it is a powerful phenomenon that is essential to spiritual maturity. To demonstrate its importance, I will discuss how trust prevails at the end of the Tournament of Power in Dragon Ball Super.

In the Tournament of Power, various fighters demonstrate different virtues. For instance, Vegeta demonstrates pride, Ribrianne demonstrates love, and Toppo demonstrates justice. All of these fighters eventually fall.

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Jiren, Goku’s main rival in the tournament, reveals that he values strength above all else and trusts no one. He maintains this belief until he is confronted by the trust between two very unlikely allies: Goku and Frieza.

For those who are not familiar with the Dragon Ball series, Frieza is the last person one would expect to be an ally to Goku. In the Dragon Ball Z series, Goku what no other person had done to Frieza before, he challenged Frieza’s genocidal sense of superiority by defeating him in battle.

Unlike many of Goku’s former foes, Frieza has never really had a change of heart. He is still a despotic imperialist.

However, Goku may be the only person that Frieza has learned to trust. Before the tournament, Frieza was previously condemned to Earth’s Hell. In order to complete a fighting team for the tournament, Goku traveled to Hell to ask Frieza to join him. Frieza agreed on the condition that Goku was to use the Dragon Balls to summon the Eternal Dragon and wish Frieza back to life.

Before the final battle of the tournament, Frieza asks Goku if he remembered his promise. Goku responds by saying,

“So long as you don’t break your promise, I’ll keep mine. You know that better than anyone, don’t you.”

If there is anything to say about Goku, it’s that he stands by his word. He has, on repeated occasions, done what he said he would do, particularly when showing mercy to his foes. Frieza has witnessed this on many occasions and even tried to use that trust against him.

After some protest, Frieza acknowledges his trust in his own way,

“That naive part of you makes me want to vomit. But, right now, I am grateful for it.”

And so, despite his animosity toward the saiyan, Frieza has faith in Goku.

In turn, Goku has faith in Frieza. The two fighters become an unstoppable force against Jiren. Before being knocked out of the tournament, Jiren, witnessing the bond between the two fighters, remarks,

“So this is trust…”

At the end of the tournament, faith wins over pride, love, justice, and strength. It even prevails over hatred.

This has made me consider why much of the Buddhist tradition centers trust/faith as a foundation of practice. In the Pali Canon shraddha is one of the faculties one must have to properly develop. For Honen and Shinran, it helps pull one to the Pure Land.

The spiritual life, in my experience, can be an ocean of the unknown and unfathomable. It’s also a bumpy road, full of joy and sorrow. That’s why it’s my faith in the Buddhas that carries me along.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Funimation and Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Super.

Note: I’m using subtitled translations from the original Japanese production.

Here’s the fight, if you are interested!

Bodhi Day Thoughts 2019

It’s almost Bodhi Day, which is celebrated on December 8th in my tradition. Right now, I’m thinking of the temple, Amida Mandala, which is thousands of miles away. In a few days, members of the Amida Shu community will congregate at the temple in celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It will be a time of retreat and lots of chanting.

I could probably talk about Shakyamuni’s enlightenment in this post, but I’ll just be thankful for it. Over the years, I’ve become less concerned with how buddhas become buddhas and more about letting their light sink into my bones. As it stands, only a buddha may truly know another buddha.

Instead, I’m taking this time to pause and reflect on my time as someone involved in a spiritual practice.

At the time of the publication of this post, I am looking at about five or six years of dedicated practice. When I first got into Pureland, it was because I found something that was a religion “of the people.” It was an easy practice that did not necessarily require prohibitively expensive retreats or extensive meditation regimens. All I had to do was say “Namo Amida Bu.” This particular approach to religion aligns well with my universalist tendencies.

Pureland also allowed me to practice devotion in a simple way, particularly without the trappings of Christianity as I knew it at the time. Not to say there aren’t some problematic elements within the Pureland tradition, they were just easier for me to set aside when I began.

This practice helped me do things I never thought I’d ever be capable of. In the Spring/Summer of 2018, I traveled to another country to stay at the Malvern Temple. I also hosted a rather popular Buddhist teacher. This, to me, is one of the treasures of faith. It allows me to truly come out of my comfort zone and try new things.

It hasn’t all been rainbows, however. Practicing a religion in isolation much of the time, as a beginner, was rather hard. Many Western Buddhists don’t understand Pureland as they tend to be drawn to the more meditation-based aspects of Buddhism. There is also a stark contrast to practicing communally at the temple and practicing by oneself. Some days solitary practice is beautiful and some days its down right lonely. That is, at times, the nature of the spiritual life.

I think my feelings on Pureland have also changed a bit. At first, my practice was a singular dedication to Amida. Now, I find myself reflecting not just on Amida, but also on how Amida, Quan Yin and Sukhavati can be an inspiration for progressive social change. I’m not the only one in my community to holds this view but it took some time and some self-realization for the concept to go from my head to my heart. I might talk more about that in another post.

Since my wife and I moved back to Hagerstown, a new chapter in my journey has begun. First, I started the Jeweled Tree project, having a desire to say something about what I’ve experienced. Soon after the launch of the project, Tommy, a new friend in the Dharma, became part of what is now the Jeweled Tree team and has been helping me establish a sangha.

Right now, I’m grateful to be writing this post. I’m also grateful for meeting so many wonderful Dharma friends. Maybe next season I’ll write another summary of my experiences through the year.

Until then, I hope everyone reading this has a great Bodhi day.

Namo Buddhaya

Image from https://redclaysangha.org/event-3228184