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.
When I was just starting to practice the nembutsu, I was working as a maintenance helper at a skilled nursing facility. Behind the building, near the maintenance shop door, the air was always moving. It seems that the wind would often be caught at that corner of the facility. It was there that I experienced something quite profound.
It was a habit of mine to recite the nembutsu while I was at the back of the building while there was no one around. One rather breezy day, the wind picked up as I walked back to the shop after putting away some equipment in the facility’s shed.
Just as I made it up to the door I began reciting the nembutsu. At the same time, the wind crashed against the building. I was nearly knocked off my feet and, within that moment, my perspective changed.
My mind was only aware of the nembutsu, my breath, and the wind. The three phenomenon combined into one object and my mind was filled with that object.
It was all one intimate encounter.
I was not having the experience.
The experience had me.
For the first time that I could remember, I had a taste of what it was like to be completely absorbed in something greater than myself. Since then, I’ve had an association with Amida and air. I would later cultivate this association through zazen practice by combining the nembutsu with the rhythm of my breath. Little did I know how relevant this association was in Buddhism.
I would eventually learn in Yoshito S. Hakeda’s Kukai: Major Works, that Kukai, the founder of Shingon, associated Amida with the wind element, based on the tradition of the Mantrayana master Pu’ Kung. Kukai’s Buddhism, also known as Esoteric Buddhism, influenced much of Japanese spirituality, including the Tendai school where it seems Amida’s relationship with the wind element was also present.
In another book, No Abode: The Record of Ippen by Dennis Hirota, I found a passage attributed to Ippen’s teacher Shoku who, like many Pureland ancestors, was trained in the Tendai school.
Amida is originally wind. Wind is the body (tai) of boundless space. Boundless space is the original body, the true body, of Dharma-body Tathagata….At the moment [the Buddha] enters into the minds of all sentient beings, our life is breath. Breath is wind. Further it is boundless space. Hence, the minds of beings are wholly the body of Amida.
It seems that Shoku and Ippen placed a strong connection between the breath and nembutsu. Ippen himself would go on to say:
When breath expended
in saying the Buddha’s Name
is drawn again
you sit on a lotus in the Pure Land.
This was just one of the ways Ippen, who trained in both Zen and the Tendai school, connected the breath with the nembutsu and birth in Sukhavati. For Shoku and Ippen, Amida likely sits at the very cusp of that which is unborn, acting at a gateway to wisdom. To find that Amitabha’s relationship to wind was already a subject of Dharma discussed by old masters was a wonderful confirmation of my experience at my old job.
For me, to remember the breath is to remember the Buddha. When I feel a gentle breeze, that too is the Buddha. Amida is not some far away deity but a teacher that’s as close as the air that fills our lungs and dances on our skin. Though these thoughts aren’t original, as all practices can be a form of nembutsu, it helps to be reminded of these things from time to time.
I did some very light research on how many breaths a human takes daily. According to Ann Brown in a 2014 post of the EPA Blog, “The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. That’s a lot of breaths.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.