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.
Below is a dharma glimpse that I presented on 3/29/2020 as a participant in the Lay Ministry program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
Whether looking to the current crisis that this world faces together or even before it, one need not look far to find all sorts of talk, debate or rhetoric about what we deserve or are entitled to. It is a wide field of thought where even among us we are likely to find divergent answers: What do we deserve as humans? What about as sentinent beings? Living beings in general? Simple forms of matter on this one giant living rock? Of course, this isn’t a matter I am going to attempt to spark debate with here. Instead, I wish to offer a different perspective for looking at all of these recent fields of thought: One of simple thanks, of gratitude.
As the current pandemic situation continues to escalate in my state, our State Superintendent of Schools announced this week that our schools would remain closed for another month and declined to offer a definitive answer that they would reopen at the end of that time, citing that the situation needs to be monitored. The school district is the largest employer in my county and as a result countless people are currently out of work. Although we may be largely homebound with everything except the most essential stores closed, the majority of us have less to worry about than some others when it comes to the ability to “get by” financially, as we were assured that all regular, permanent staff would continue to be compensated for their “regular hours”, even if our position (such as a School Bus Driver) is unable to be performed during this closure. Rather than acknowledging this as a “right” or “something we deserve” as an employee, I have found a sense of comfort in simply trying to observe this occurrence with a sense of gratitude, knowing that things could be in a much worse position otherwise.
As I conclude this thought, I find my mind going through daily events or tasks that I take for granted. As we go forward, perhaps it would be in the interest of living a more skillful, happy life to strive to be grateful for more of “the everyday”, even if we wouldn’t normally think twice about whatever form it may manifest in our daily lives.
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.
If there was ever a time for us to seek out new or alternate ways to remain connected with each other, now is the time with the current worldwide situation with Covid-19 or the Coronavirus. One facet of change that is hitting close to home for many of us relates to our beloved houses of worship, prayer or fellowship as they are either choosing or forced to close their doors for the foreseeable future. Many areas are moving to allowing only grocery stores or doctors to remain open, some permitting restaurants to offer services to the public on a carry-out or delivery-only model. While the extent varies from individual to individual, it is an indisputable fact that human beings are social creatures. How do we respond to the social difficulties presented by the pandemic?
We are fortunate to live in a time with countless different social media platforms. We are able to have a video call with programs like Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Skype with several different friends and family members at once. Some faith communities are choosing to adapt to the current situation by offering services temporarily online with similar methods, while others such as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship, Soto-Zen Treeleaf Zendo, Jewish Sim Shalom, our own Jeweled Tree (albeit on a much smaller scale!), among countless others are pre-existing online faith communities geared to offer services and fellowship to those seeking an alternative faith community experience or are otherwise unable to participate in a traditional in-person community. As someone who has written a paper on the topic in the past, I believe that these online faith communities are a taste of the future of religion as a whole. Yet, more importantly, they are a model to remain more closely connected with one another than the level that one would be otherwise able to with a text-based message or social media post.
From my perspective, while as Buddhists we do not espouse attachment, it is completely safe and healthy to treasure these contemporary tools, particularly during these challenging times. Let us remember to remain socially engaged in the lives of one another, bearing the social health and well-being of all in mind for it’s true significance.
This is a Dharma Glimpse that I originally presented on 3/15/20 as a participant in the Lay Ministry program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
At the time I am sitting down to write this, we continue to hear of various restrictions or regulations being set in place with the goal in mind being that COVID-19 or the Coronavirus will slow down in it’s transmission. Various large public events such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Emerald City Comic Con, the NBA Season, NHL practices and meetings have been either canceled or postponed. A travel ban has been put in place to heavily restrict further infection from the European fronts of the virus. Numerous institutions of higher learning have been shut down or are moving to online classes, students being instructed to either “go home” or to simply “not return to campus after spring break”.
Many are certainly going to benefit by not being exposed to the Coronavirus as a result of these restrictions. However, there are certainly those who are going to suffer as a result of them. Countless employees across different fields and industries are going to miss opportunities to work due to these restrictions, potentially making their financial situations difficult in the near future. Many students will likely be “out” of a significant amount of money if colleges refuse to refund their room and board upon closing campus. This doesn’t begin to address the fact that many students don’t necessarily have a “home” other than their college dorms or apartments. Where are these folks supposed to go?
The saying “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” comes to my mind here, although it is more accurately put “one’s caution is the suffering of another”. Let us bear the scenarios being created by this pandemic in mind as examples that while we may benefit from a course of action, that doesn’t necessarily mean another isn’t suffering as a result of it.
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.”
Today at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, we heard a sermon that spoke to the various ethical issues that come with the treatment of various types of animals. Of course, a subtopic at the center here is the observance of vegetarianism and veganism, something which is espoused by countless people for varying religious or ethical reasons, including many (but certainly not all) Buddhists. Since taking up the observance of a Buddhist practice a few years ago, I have personally sought to cut out as much meat as possible from my diet, feeling this is an ethically “right” or skillful thing to do from a Buddhist perspective.
At the conclusion of the sermon today, the preacher offered a beloved Quaker story. This likely fictional tale briefly follows conversations between William Penn (Founder of Colonial-era Pennsylvania) and George Fox (Founder of Quakerism) I paste this story below, obtained from Friends Journal.
“When William Penn was convinced of the principles of Friends, and became a frequent attendant at their meetings, he did not immediately relinquish his gay apparel; it is even said that he wore a sword, as was then customary among men of rank and fashion. Being one day in company with George Fox, he asked his advice concerning it, saying that he might, perhaps, appear singular among Friends, but his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist, and moreover, that Christ has said, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” George Fox answered, “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword, and George said to him, “William, where is thy sword?” “Oh!” said he, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.”
Many of us find ourselves at different places when it comes to the ethical questions and concerns of vegetarianism and veganism. As I reflect on this story, I find myself replacing the wearing of the sword with the consumption of meat. “Should I continue to consume meat”? “Do so for as long as you can”. While many may disagree with this understanding, I find this to be a compassionate, gentle way of treating oneself and others when it comes to life transitions of this magnitude.