As far as posts go, today marks one year of Jeweled Tree!
Writing this blog has been a wonderful practice of journaling my thoughts. In the last year, I’ve pulled some Dharma from bits of experience, pop culture, current events, literature, and ancient texts. I’m grateful that Tommy joined me back in the Fall of 2019 and added his Dharma glimpses to the blog.
After this post, I’ll being going on something similar to a hiatus. I feel I’ve said what I wanted to say so far. You will still see something from me every now and then, but not at the frequency and form I’ve been currently maintaining. Look forward to posts from Tommy and be ready for the possibility of another announcement in the future. We will also continue to hold services at 7:30 om EST every Monday. For more information on that, feel free to contact us!
Again, thanks to those who have been reading regularly here. I’m glad I’ve had an audience to share my ideas with. May you all be well.
This Dharma Glimpse was originally presented on 8/23/2020 as part of my participation in the Lay Ministry Program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
Most of us are likely familiar with the timeless riddle that goes “If a tree falls in a forest but nobody is around, does it still make a sound?”. While there are sometimes different answers given, I typically say “yes” to this question. Lets change this a little; “If a tree falls in a forest with people around but nobody was listening, does it still make a sound?”. As I reflect on this, I still find that I would likely respond with an affirmative “yes”.
Earlier this week, I was out for one of my regular walks throughout the neighborhood. As I was walking through a parking lot, I was examining my thoughts. One of these just happened to be “What will I write about for my Dharma Glimpse this week?”. Suddenly, I find that I become conscious to the loud chirping and buzzing of various insects nearby, likely cicadas. Like many other sounds, this sound is often taking place around us, even if we aren’t conscious to it. We simply “hear past it”, sifting it out of our daily experience of life, unless of course we happen to be listening for it or other sounds in particular.
I find that a number of different teachings in Buddhism can be examined from this perspective. While I am certainly not an authority on the Mahayana, I find that I often associate this line of thinking with dharma teachings, the Buddha Nature in all beings, even the state of spiritual awakening.
What else do we often encounter, yet remain unconscious to in our daily lives?
People often think that renouncing the world means to turn away from the world as it is and live in personal bliss. However, renouncing the world has a different meaning to me, particularly in relation to the nembutsu.
Though I accept the reality of the world, I renounce or reject the idea that it MUST be the way it is.
In brief, I reject the idea that we must live in a world dominated by greed, hate, and delusion. I affirm a better world, a pure land, where all are welcome and none live in fear. The image of the Pure Land of Amida guides me in doing what I can to make this world a little better. For me, the love, grace, generosity, and compassion inherent in every utterance of the nembutsu is a rebellion against the the very system that locks us all in conflict and turmoil.
This Dharma Glimpse was originally presented on 8/9/2020 as part of my participation in the Lay Ministry Program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
We live in dark times. It is indisputable that there is much new and unnecessary suffering in our nation and the global community as a whole. All we have to do is flip on the tv, scroll our social media feeds or listen by word of mouth. The spread of the Covid-19, the neglect of safety measures, injustices being imposed on innocent peoples and the languishing of the unemployed and economically disadvantaged are only a few of the more prominent challenges that are currently being faced by all. Yet, there is hope. Perhaps it is a sign of privilege but all I have to do to find something to push aside a worldview of nihilism or pessimism is to look outside my patio door.
Interspersed on the small patio of our apartment, as well as several places around our apartment are numerous plants which have been cultivated by my wife, Amanda. These plants range in being big and small, vegetables, flowers and others, with even a miniature “tree” being found among them. While some of these plants were acquired in their adult forms, most were grown directly from seed since the beginning of the “growing” season. One might argue that this is an example of new life sprouting in a time where impermanence and death is on our minds far more than usual.
I view these plants as an example that we are never in a situation which is composed exclusively of suffering. In every example of suffering, there is a glimpse of awakening. In every dark, there is some light to be found. In every Hell, there is a view of the Pure Land. What aspect in your life do you feel provides a sense of balance to something which otherwise seems quite dismal?
In a recent conversation with some Dharma friends, a question about other-power and training arose. Sometimes it seems that training is an act of discipline that someone carries out through sheer will. However, how does that work in the context of other-power, where one relies on the Buddha? During the discussion, I gave the example of my mom and how I acted around her.
Being someone of a Christian upbringing, my mom disapproved of people saying the Lord’s name in vain. She especially did not like it when I did it.
When I was not around her, I was much more liberal with my words. It was second nature for me when I was with my peers. However, when I was home, I did my best to keep a check on my vocabulary of expressions. It was not that mom actually punished me for it, it was that she simply disapproved and, for me, that was enough. I imagine that, if I were to visualize my mom here with me in the room, I would likely refrain from certain language.
Training in the context of other-power is much like this. If I think of the Buddha, I tend to be more careful in my actions and speech. It’s not that I then go through a checklist of moral conduct to see if I’m acting appropriately, I just become more gentle in how I go about my business. As Dharmavidya writes “The Buddha-body is delineated by the precepts.” In other words, the Buddha is the model and, in their presence, I try to follow that model as best I can. Even if I can’t follow perfectly, I can at least see my own humanity in my efforts. I still learn.
Much of my training is simply acting within other-power. When I see the house shrine, I put my hands together and pay respects to the Buddha, even if just briefly. When I hear a bell, I bow. When I see my Dharma siblings sitting in meditation, I automatically do the same. When something significant happens, or even if nothing happens, I say the nembutsu. I don’t have to think about it.
It’s not as if I’m going through the motions. When I’m mindful of the Buddha, my actions are done out of the same love, respect, and gratitude that I have toward my mother, my wife, and my other family and friends. And with every gesture, I find some refuge and ease.
I’ve been enjoying Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. And like many folks, I’ve grown quite fond of Iroh, the old cool-headed firebender who does his best to guide his honorable yet stubborn nephew Zuko. Not only is the tea-loving ex-general a spin on the “old wise man” archetype, but he is later revealed in the Avatar series to be a prominent member of a group known as the Order of the White Lotus. The secretive order is made up of leaders from different nations who work to maintain balance between the powers of the various peoples of the world, much like the Avatar. In the The Last Airbender, they fight the expansion of Iroh’s own country, the Fire Nation.
The Order of the White Lotus shares similarities with, and is very likely inspired by, the lotus societies of China. The lotus societies were also rather secretive and, at times, rebellious. They also have their origins in the work of the first Pureland ancestor, Huiyuan.
Huiyuan founded the White Lotus Society, a group of monastic and lay Pureland Buddhists who gathered together to revere Amitabha. Not only did these Buddhists share a practice, they were also dedicated to each other, promising to meet one day in Sukhavati. After the successful establishment of the first lotus society, it is said that Huiyuan planted others.
After Huiyuan, the lotus societies would grow, and soon a spirit of community and political engagement evolved. Although largely keeping a Pure Land tradition, lotus societies would also form their own syncretic traditions, combining Taoism and Mancheism. The movement would also become millenarian in the idea that many adherents believed that Amitabha or Meitraya Buddha would descend upon the Earth and bring peace. They would also prove to be formidable and successful cells of opposition. The teachings of the White Lotus were the basis for the Red Turban Rebellion between 1351 and 1368 which lead to the downfall of the Yuan dynasty.
Centuries later, from 1796 to 1804, the White Lotus Rebellion would prove to terminally weaken the Qing dynasty, even after being crushed. Out of the movement rose the White Lotus military leader, Wang Cong’er. Her success in guerilla tactics against the Qing were noted by her admirers who compared Wang Cong’er to Hua Mulan.
In a time when this country is witnessing fascism, including the government’s use of federal police to beat, shoot, and kidnap protesters, I am finding inspiration in the lotus societies both historical and fictitious. They are a reminder that Buddhism has always been engaged in the world. Sometimes its followers bring down regimes.
In our home, Angie and I have two altars. One is where I perform Buddhist services and the other is where my wife practices traditional witchcraft.
Our practices address two realities or two truths. Generally, the Buddhist altar represents the transcendent nature of spirituality while the witchcraft altar represents the relative everyday nature of spirituality. I chant the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas while Angie makes offerings to the local spirits. Both of these activities are equally important.
Kukai, on of the greatest authorities on Shingon, planned the construction of the Mount Koya complex with these two realities in mind. Danjogaran, the large pagoda of the Koyasan Shingon tradition is nestled in the mountain with Sanno-do, an assembly hall dedicated to the Shinto Kami that protect the mountains. Though steeped in what is known as Esoteric Buddhism, Kukai, in his wisdom, saw the importance of acknowledging the realities of everyday life. Not only did he respect the Kami, but he would often leave the mountain to work on civil projects, such as the repair of a local reservoir and the creation of the first free School for Arts and Sciences for boys of poor families.
Buddhism has always had a practical side as well as a transcendent side. The Buddha gave advice on basic wise acts, such as the benefits of generosity. At the same time, he could lecture on increasingly abstract psychological concepts. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha describes Quan Yin’s ability to help protect people from worldly dangers as well as protect monastics from the dangers on the Path to awakening. In the Larger Pureland Sutra, the Buddha says that Amida’s Light can be a balm in this world just as the Pureland is a gateway to Buddhahood. Some needs are concrete while others are abstract and the wise prescribe medicine for both.
No matter how other-worldly one’s practice is, one’s situation is subject to the relative world. I must eat and sleep. I am affected by worldly systems, societies, and norms. Though all phenomena are empty, my conduct is still important. Though Sukhavati is bliss, I live in this world at the moment. Just as it’s a wholesome act to make offerings to the Tathagata, so too is it wise to make offerings to earthly spirits.
I am deeply grateful for my wife’s practice. In her way, she protects us with her offerings and plants seeds of generosity into the world. All in all, her offerings are a reminder for me to dedicate my practice to the unseen in my midst.
A few weeks ago, I was in a virtual class meeting where each classmate was offering a report on the text that was currently being looked at in this section of the course. At the conclusion of the session, one of my classmates briefly mentioned that they were confused as his page numbers and content were not adding up with the other members of the class. Seeing the cover of the text that my classmate was holding, I asked if it was another text, ultimately finding that my classmate was using the incorrect text. Being a somewhat socially awkward person, my reaction to this was the same reaction I have for a number of other social situations: Laughter. It’s not that I was laughing at my classmate, its just a reaction of mine to the sort of situation I found myself in.
A few hours after the class had ended, I decided to reach out and message my classmate, feeling that I might have chuckled a bit too much and have offended them. The night went on and soon it was the next class session and I had still not received a reply form my classmate. I became concerned that I may have left my classmate highly offended and that they had chosen to completely ignore my message. A couple of weeks later, my classmate had finally seen my message and not only expressed that they did not take offence to my chuckling but were apologetic that it took them two weeks to notice and respond to the message. Finding myself suddenly presented with a feeling of relief, I again smiled and let out some additional laughter, such an ironic result!
Laughter is truly a wonderful part of our human experience. Yet, it can certainly serve as a potential conduit for trouble from time to time. Going forward, let us strive to laugh merrily and wholeheartedly, while being mindful of it in our daily lives.