Racism, Exceptionalism, and the Demise of the Sakyans

The Buddha came from the oligarchic republic of the Sakyan people. This state was actually the vassal of the larger and more powerful Kingdom of Kosala. Though subjugated under Kosala, the Sakyans proudly enjoyed the honor and privileges of being of a higher caste than the Kosala King Pasenadi.

In order to increase his prestige, the king sent emissaries to the Sakyans, requesting a woman to wed so that his heir would be of nobler blood. The Sakyans, proud of their position and caste, were not willing to let him marry into the Sakyan fold. However, they knew he was quick tempered, his kingdom was powerful, and they were a mere province under his rule.

It was then that one of the Sakyans, Mahanama, offered the he could pass off a slave girl by the name of Vasabha as his Sakyan daughter and have her marry Pasenadi. Having accepted Vasabha, King Pasenadi had a son with her, known as Vidudabha.

After some time, Vidubabha visited the capital of the Sakyan republic, Kapilavatthu. Though he was warmly met, the Sakyans sent away their younger princes so that the younger generation would not salute the prince Vidudabha. Upon the conclusion of the visit, a servant was told to clean with milk the seat where the prince had sat because he was the son of a slave. While the servant was cleaning the seat, a member of the prince’s envoy heard her remark that the son of a slave had sat there. It was not long before the member of the envoy took the news to Vidudabha. Feeling humiliated and enraged, the prince vowed to destroy the Sakyan people.

Vidudabha’s anger festered over time and, after usurping the throne from his father, he decided to set his sights on the Sakyans. Not even the counsel of the Buddha would stop him. He and his army slaughtered almost all of the Sakyan people. When he left with Mahanama and his family, the rains came and the river Acirawati flooded, taking the prince and his army with it. Apparently Mahanama’s family escaped. Mahanama himself disappeared.

When hearing the news of this tragedy, the Buddha recounted that in past lives, the Sakyan princes poisoned that river long go, killing it’s fish, and that was the karmic reason for their demise. Regarding the prince and his army, the Buddha said that their unawakened states prevented them from seeing that their actions would also have consequences.

Though it would seem a little odd that the Buddha would attribute something other than the more recent act of racism to the downfall of the Sakyans, it may point to something quite relevant today. Maybe the story of the poisoning of the river points to a collective karma that has been perpetuated over centuries. Perhaps Vidudaha’s actions were the result of a long tradition of exceptionalism upheld by the Sakyan nobility. In the end, that racism and sense of exceptionalism swallowed the nation.

Considering the cyclic functions of samsara, is history repeating itself?

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay

State Violence and Karma

Karma (intentional action) is not always easy to write about. I, as an ordinary person, don’t know the full extent of the result of karma. However, there are very concrete examples being demonstrated in the consequences of state violence.

On Monday, George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer for the city. Chauvin knelt onto Floyd’s neck until he stopped pleaing that he was in pain and couldn’t breath. Floyd died.

Since his death there has been a protests across the country. In Minneapolis, the station for the 3rd precinct was set on fire and looting had been reported at a local Target and other stores.

MPD 3rd Precinct on fire; public asked to clear the area | www ...

I’m not going into the morality of looting and setting property on fire. I will discuss that there is a consequence to to the immoral decisions of state actors.

State actors have a lot of power to act in a moral fashion. Time and again we find that they choose not to. In this particular situation, the response was protests which have included property damage. That’s the consequence. That’s karma.

It’s not that those in power don’t realize this. They know. But they have the weapons and a need to exert their power. Unfortunately, the result of unrest tends to be further state action. Such action, however, will further show the illusion of the state and it’s need to prop itself up with violence.

Some people have condemned the protesters who have looted and damaged property. Instead of condemning them, it’s more useful to work toward dismantling white supremacy. It’s more useful to work toward dismantling the capitalist system that encourages disparity and the looting that is it’s result.

We can do this by building a pure land. How do you do that? We start by making sure everyone has access to healthcare, food, and shelter. We end the conflict for resources. We distribute power equitably. We stop encouraging racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. We can stop destroying the environment. Seems simple right?

We know these things but just as the Pure Land is not far, it is also an unfathomable distance from us. Just as creating a just society seems simple, there is a vast political machine with self-interested Maras bent on keeping it from happening.

I don’t know how to actually go about dismantling this system. I can do what I can personally in everyday life and that may be all I can do. A pure land seems to be something of an impossibility. However, it’s better to turn toward it and progress toward it than settle for what we have now.

Buddhism is about getting to the heart of the matter rather than just focusing on symptoms. As we do that socially we can see that the power of the state and the power of capitalism is as illusory as the power of samsara. And maybe, just maybe, we take the long road toward improving our conditions.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from WDIO.com

The Love of the Buddhas

The Buddhas need no reason to love me.

They don’t consider my faith.

They don’t consider my practice.

They don’t consider my morality.

They don’t consider my foolishness.

They don’t consider my Buddha-nature.

They just love me.

It’s a love that depends on nothing.

A love that springs forth

Without justification.

Like flowers raining from the sky.

 #FreeToEdit

Namo Amida Bu

Image from PicsArt

A Dharma Glimpse – Ti Sarana

This is a dharma glimpse that I originallyed presented on 5/24/2020 as a participant in the Lay Ministry Program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.

This month marks two years since I participated in a Ti Sarana Confirmation Ceremony with a Bright Dawn Lay Minister, Levi Shinyo Sensei. I initially stumbled upon Sensei through Bright Dawn’s Lay Minister directory and found that at the time he and my wife were attending the same university. After a period of dialogue and my expressing the desire to participate in a Ti Sarana Ceremony, Levi, my wife and I gathered early on a Sunday morning in the meditation/holistic shop space owned by a friend of his who I later learned is also a Bright Dawn Lay Minister.

The Ceremony itself was quite simple. It involved a brief period of meditation, reciting refuges in the three treasures, five lay precepts, a short dharma talk, a symbolic hair cutting/shaving, the giving of my Dharma name, Manyo (Myriad Sun), along with a few other verses interspersed throughout the service. While the ceremony was wonderful and is among my favorite memories of my Buddhist practice thus far, I have come to recognize over time that my past participation in this ceremony, which is often equated to the baptism of Christianity, is not what “makes” me a Buddhist.

Who is a Buddhist? It is often said that a Buddhist is one who takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. How do we do this? Is it participation in a Refuge, Jukai, Ti Sarana, etc. Ceremony? While these ceremonies and other ritualistic practices are part of the lives of many Buddhists (including myself) I don’t think this is the exclusively the case. From my perspective, I feel that the first time we “take refuge” is when we begin to strive to integrate the teachings into our lives in some way which we find meaningful. Perhaps this means our adopting a meditation or chanting practice, gradually making a change in diet, studying the teachings through sutras or other books, among other different practices. To me, participation in a class or discussion like this one is another act of taking refuge.

As we go forward this week, let us each ponder what we feel “makes” each of us a Buddhist. Let us consider what practices or actions we feel are expressions of us seeking guidance in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Golden Lotuses

Taitetsu Unno (1998) once wrote about the symbolic nature of gold and lotuses in relation to Pureland Buddhism. He discussed Dharmakara’s vow that all beings in his pure land would be of the color of gold, signifying their enlightenment and their equality. Unno also notes that the lotus is a metaphor for the uniqueness of every person of the Pure Land. In brief, all beings of Sukhavati share a common awakened nature while still recognized as individuals in their own right.

Flower, Lotus, Ao, Blooming, The Leaves, The Garden

In my particular religious community, Amida Shu, we recognize a common bond through Amida but we are respected as very different people. Some of us are psychotherapists and some of us are nurses, while others are college students and parents. I’ve found that same quality in the Oneness Buddhism community, which also stems from the Pureland school of Shin. It’s ministers share a common love for Dharma but come from many different walks of life and share their experiences in unique ways.

Even going back to the first Sangha, the Buddha recognized the different talents and affinities of his disciples. He never dismissed their identities for some “higher” truth of sameness. A healthy tradition respects unity and difference at the same time.

This is a very important aspect of practice for me. We don’t have to be something we’re not to be held by Amida. The Buddha loves every being just as they are and we can honor the Blessed One by doing the same as best we can.

Namo Amida Bu

Reference:

Unno, T. (1998) River of Fire River of Water: An introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism. Doubleday

Image from Pixabay

Ananda’s Spirit

The Buddhadharma if full of amazing characters who, in there own way, contributed much to the tradition. Other than Shakyamuni himself, few figures have had as much influence over the evolution of Buddhism as Ananda. He might also be one of early Buddhism’s more relatable figures.

Ananda was a cousin of the Buddha who is most well known for being Shakyamuni’s devoted attendant, traveling throughout India, acting as the Buddha’s spokesman and secretary. He is also known for lagging behind in his development of the practice compared to his comrades, possibly due to his responsibilities. Ananda was, however, gifted with a good memory, able to recount the Buddha’s plethora of teachings. Due to his years of being in the near constant presence of the Buddha, he became a living book of Dharmic knowledge even if he wasn’t always able to understand it.

Ananda was also a well-loved friend to the nuns of the early Sangha because he successfully advocated for their inclusion. Finally, on a more Amidist note, because the Buddha transmitted the teaching of what would come to be called nembutsu to Ananda, he is responsible for furthering those teachings to the present day.

Ananda, however, did have his critics. Kasyapa was probably his most vehement opponent in the Sangha.

Kasyapa could be quite critical toward Ananda and his criticism seemed to come to a boiling point after the Buddha’s parinnirvana. It is possible that Ananda’s relatively liberal views toward a democratic Sangha with no head, his relaxed teaching style, and his advocacy for women to be part of the order were not welcomed by Kasyapa, who may have likely had a more authoritarian and conservative perspective due to his brahmin background.

This tension between the two disciples reflects not only a possible power struggle but also two different approaches to spirituality. Kasyapa emphasized a self-power path of discipline and meditation. Ananda, on the other hand, represents an Other-Power path of faith, dedication, and friendship. Though Kasyapa’s discipline helped hold the monastic order together after the Buddha’s passing, the spirit of Ananda’s celebratory faith helped the Dharma thrive among the the more devotional order members as well as the laity. Today, this legacy can be found in sculptures, paintings, prayers, and poetry.

Ananda was a relatively ordinary person living in the presence of wisdom and compassion. And though he was an ordinary person, the Buddha spoke through him. In this way, he represents those of us who have not mastered all of the wisdom of the Dharma but celebrate it with great faith nonetheless.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from britannica.com

Little By Little

In Just As You Are: Buddhism for Foolish Beings, Rev. Satyavani Robyn writes that when exploring something new, like Pureland Buddhism, we can take from it the things that we like and set the rest aside. We can then later explore the tradition more deeply in our own time (Thompson & Robyn, 2015).

Flower, Nature, Plant, Summer, Flowers, Floral, Color

I find that my journey to Pureland has been much like this. At first, I started practicing just because I liked the Vietnamese phrase “Namu A Di Da Phat.” I had my doubts about the Pureland in general, but the phrase was nice. Little by little, however, I further explored the teachings and found a rich spirituality and many wonderful friends in the Dharma. It took some time but I’ve definitely found a home in Pureland Buddhism.

If you too are wading into this tradition, take it slow. If you are saying the nembutsu and find something good in it, that’ great. If you decide to explore the practice a little more, then all the better.

Namo Amida Bu

Reference:

Thompson, K., Robyn, S. (2015) Just As You Are: Buddhism for Foolish Beings. Woodsmoke Press.

Image from Pixabay

Put Your Heart Into It

“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)

Bleeding Heart, Ornamental Plant, Garden, Spring

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

Reference:

Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (2006) World Wisdom Inc.

Image from Pixabay

Skillful Means

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).

pink rose flowers

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

Reference:

Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (2006) World Wisdom, Inc.

Image from Pixabay

When Mom Died

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.

Candle, Smoke, Wick, Flame, Burn, Mood, Blown Out, Glow

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.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay