Friday, November 27, 2015

Takamaro Shigaraki on Namu Amida Butsu

Takamaro Shigaraki (信楽 峻麿, 1926 - 2014): Namu Amida Bu(tsu)!

When we earnestly call the Buddha’s Name with a fullness of heart while listening to the Dharma, our lives gradually become directed toward the Buddha. However, as our recitation of the nembutsu deepens, there is an eventual reversal in the direction of that nembutsu. When we say the nembutsu, we are directing ourselves toward the Buddha as we call out the Buddha’s Name and think on the Buddha. However, at the same time, we also awaken to a movement in the opposite direction. That is, we hear the voice of the Buddha that is directing itself to us, as it names itself and calls out to us. Here, a transcendent religious experience takes place, which we awaken to at the deepest level of our consciousness.


Normally, we are always trying to cram ourselves full of things. We are constantly filling ourselves with self-attachment and ego, and so we are unable to see or hear anything truly. However, when our selves gradually become emptied, then the eyes of our mind will open and we will finally be able to hear things for the first time. And we are able to hear other persons’ voices of distress and pain as well.

When we come to know keenly and fully that the current state of our existence is false, then we will become able to hear what we had not been able to hear up until now. We will be able to see what up until now we had not been able to see. Within this structure, finally, we become able to hear the voice of the Buddha within the nembutsu. This is how saying the nembutsu works in Shin Buddhism.

Notes: Nembutsu is the recitation of ‘Namu Amida Butsu (literally, ‘Hail to Amitabha Buddha’), the final syllable of Butsu often being dropped; Shin Buddhism is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism in which Amitabha is called upon for salvation; Takamaro Shigaraki was a Japanese Buddhist philosopher and Shin Buddhist priest and former president of Ryukoku University, Tokyo, Japan. The above quotation is taken from Shigaraki's wonderful book 'Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path,' published by Wisdom Publications. A very important work on the subject of Shin Buddhism.

For more on this subject, click here: Shin Buddhism

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #9

Dhammapada, Verses 19 & 20

Even though reciting sacred texts,
But not acting accordingly,
That heedless one is like a cowherd
Who only counts others’ cows –
He does not partake  of the blessings of a holy life.

Though little reciting sacred texts,
But putting the teaching into practice,
Forsaking greed, hatred, and delusion,
With true wisdom and emancipated mind,
Clinging to nothing of this or any other world,
One indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.

According to tradition, Buddha’s words were memorised by his cousin & attendant the Venerable Ananda, and then recited by Buddhists through the ages. Eventually, after several hundred years, these words were written down and became “sacred texts.” Historically, there have been many different collections of Buddhist teachings, each promoted by different branches of Buddhism. Today, there are three such collections used by Buddhists across the world – the Pali, Chinese & Tibetan. These collections, known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka, are complemented by commentaries & other subsequent writings also considered sacred by those that use them. (Interestingly, at the time of Buddha, when the above verses were said to have been originally uttered, Buddhist texts didn’t yet exist. Was Buddha referring to contemporary non-Buddhist texts or predicting the formation of Buddhist sacred texts in the future?)

Whether the term “sacred texts” used in verses 19 & 20 of the Dhammapada originally meant religious texts existing at the time of Buddha or not, modern Buddhists can interpret these words as referring to Buddhist sacred texts. Reciting such texts has a long history in Buddhism, sometimes as an act of merit-making, sometimes with the intent of remembering & reflecting upon them. It’s interesting, therefore, that Buddha states that merely reciting these texts doesn’t bring much benefit. Instead, he teaches that it’s in putting these teachings into practice that someone may “partake of the blessings of a holy life.” (“Holy life” here indicates living a Buddhist life based on the threefold training briefly described below. ‘Holiness’ in this sense means practicing the Buddhist path, not being a kind of Ghandi or Mother Teresa figure.)

In verse 20, Buddha describes several ways that a wise person benefits from Buddhist practice – even if Buddhist texts are little recited. Firstly, he talks of “putting the teaching into practice.” This teaching includes the threefold training of wisdom, morality & concentration (or, meditation). All major schools of Buddhism include these three types of training, although the details & methods of training may differ from school to school.

Secondly, Buddha promotes “forsaking greed, hatred and delusion.” These are called the three unwholesome roots or three poisons, and are considered the cause of suffering. To forsake them is to remove the causes of suffering and therein achieve awakening (or enlightenment). This awakening is the meaning of the phrase “true wisdom and emancipated mind” in the verse. To achieve this emancipation is the result of living the Buddhist life to its fruition, but even if we don’t reach full awakening, we may still witness the reduction of the poisons in our lives to good effect.

The benefits of living the Buddha’s teachings to their conclusion is summed up in the words “clinging to nothing of this or any other world, one indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.” This is true freedom without clinging, clinging being an integral part of the arising of suffering. Such absence of clinging must also include not clinging to the Buddhist teachings themselves. For, if clung to, the idea of awakening will prevent the realization of its reality. This fact reveals an important reason why the recitation & remembrance Buddhist texts won’t lead to awakening: awakening is beyond words, even those of Buddha!

This isn’t to say that Buddha’s teachings should be shunned. They still supply us with the blueprints that most of us need to enable us to awaken. Verses 19 & 20 are telling us that if we know, understand & apply the basic teachings of Buddha to our lives consistently, we will awaken. Cramming our minds full of texts but not putting them into practice is useless if our intent is to become awakened. Ultimately, awakening lies beyond the reaches of the intellect; it can be a useful tool, but it does not liberate us.

All of this doesn’t mean that Buddhist texts shouldn’t be studied or recited, of course. It simply means that these activities are no substitute for actually walking the Buddhist path. We can study the teachings – and we need to so to gain a sound idea of what Buddhism is all about – but it’s in their application to our lives that they will truly benefit us. The wisdom contained in Buddhist sacred texts like the Dhammapada is to be valued, but only as far as it inspires in us a realisation of the “blessings of a holy life.”

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ajahn Jayasaro on Two Kinds of Desire

Ajahn Jayasaro (1958-present): Know your desires.

Buddhism distinguishes two kinds of desire: the first (tanha) to be abandoned and the second (chanda) to be cultivated.

Tanha is the desire that arises from a basic misunderstanding of the way things are: perceiving permanence, happiness and selfhood where they do not exist. Desire for the pleasures to be had through getting, getting rid of and becoming is tanha. Tanha leads to personal suffering and is the basis of almost all social ills.

Chanda is the desire that arises from a correct understanding of the way things are. At its heart lies the aspiration for truth and goodness. Desire to do well, desire to act well, desire to act kindly, desire to act wisely all desires based on an aspiration for the true and good lead to personal fulfillment and healthy communities.

The distinction between chanda and tanha is not philosophical but psychological. By looking closely at the raw experience of life the distinction between desires that lead to genuine happiness and those that do not becomes increasingly clear.

The above is extracted from the book ‘Without and Within’ which is freely downloadable here. Ajahn Jayasaro was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1980 and studied with the famous Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah. He was abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat in Northeast Thailand for several years and now lives in a hermitage near the Khao Yai mountains.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Keiji Nishitani on Our Dharma-Nature

Keiji Nishitani (西谷 啓治, 1900 – 1990)

Since Buddhism opens up an altogether revolutionary view of the essential nature of man, it is not surprising that it should offer a more fundamental and permanent principle of social transformation than could ever be offered by a mere ideology. From its very beginning, Buddhism was a religion that showed a way to transcend the “world.” According to Buddhism, all that is needed is to become emancipated from the innumerable attachments that arise spontaneously from within ourselves and tie us to things of this world. Hence it speaks of nirvana as the extinguishing of the fire. The Buddhist way of transcending the “world” as well as the “self-in-the-world,” is not a mere “otherworldliness,” but an awakening in which we become aware of our original and authentic nature (our Dharma-nature) and may thus live in accord with it. The possibility of attaining this enlightenment depends upon ourselves alone. That is to say, the ability to attain it lies deeply hidden in the Dharma-nature of each one of us. All that is required from us is that we cut the threads of attachment and so become “homeless” in the world. It was for this reason that the community of Buddhists, the Sangha, was from the beginning based on an absolute negation of all “worldly” differentiations, social as well as psychological, of the differentiation between the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlearned, and so forth, and in particular of distinction between castes…

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Buddha Eye’ edited by Frederick Franck, published by World Wisdom. Keiji Nishitani was an author & professor of philosophy, having studied with both Kitaro Nishida and Martin Heidegger.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lucky Buddha?

Budai: Feeling lucky, punk?

Many Buddhists like to do stuff for luck. They wear amulets, consult oracles, or ask monks for lottery numbers. Some have statues like the one above and rub his big belly to bring good fortune. All this may be comforting or fun, but is it Buddhism? In other words, is it part of Buddhist practice as extolled by Buddha in the various texts attributed to him? Or, is it something added to these teachings, something that even contradicts or conflicts with Buddha’s instructions on how to live a Buddhist life? This author feels the latter is nearer the truth, and that believing in luck & seeking to be lucky is a distraction from real Buddhist practice.

The photo above is that of Budai, a popular Chinese character originating in Zen Buddhism, a common sight across the Far East, and now the West. He’s also been dubbed ‘the Laughing Buddha’ for his jovial countenance, and is called Hotei in japan. He is a kind of St. Francis of Assisi figure in that he was a poor monk associated with the welfare of children. He is said to have wandered around ancient China giving gifts to children and dispensing Zen wisdom, mainly through the example of his behaviour. More popularly, though, he is considered a source of luck, in that if you rub his large stomach it will bring you fortune, especially in the form of money.

Are you ready for the belly?

Budai can be appreciated for other qualities than bringing luck, however. He also symbolizes the pithy wisdom of Zen, and personifies a life of simplicity and compassion. Having an image of him can be used to remind us of these qualities in our lives, so that each of us becomes something of a laughing buddha ourselves. Such symbols, whether it’s Budai, Buddha, Guan Yin, et cetera, can assist & inspire our practice of the Buddhadharma. However, if we attach supernatural characteristics to these images that require us to treat them more than inanimate symbols, we risk replacing Buddhist practice with superstition.

This tendency to treat objects as having miraculous abilities isn’t limited to statues & paintings. As mentioned above, amulets are also widely believed to bring fortunes to those that wear them. In Thailand, where this author resides, superstitious beliefs regarding amulets is commonplace, and the trading of such items can be a lucrative business. Every so often, certain amulets will become the focus of a nationwide craze, people believing that these objects can bring wealth, virility, fertility, success, and even protect the wearer from injury or death. There news accounts to counter this latter belief where wearers of prized amulets have died in accidents in the belief that this couldn’t happen! This doesn’t deter people from putting their faith into protective amulets, however. It seems that people will believe anything given the right conditions for such irrational beliefs to arise.

Laughing with mindfulness.

Often, it appears that belief in luck replaces application of Buddha’s teachings in people’s lives. Linked to superstition and an overblown emphasis on merit-making, seeking luck concerns more people than studying Buddha’s teachings, behaving ethically, or meditating. Is it that rubbing Laughing Buddha’s paunch is easier than studying the Buddhadharma, that making merit is more convenient than keeping precepts, and that wearing an amulet is much less demanding than sustaining mindfulness? Surely, the answer is Yes. Walking Buddha’s path takes much effort & focus, whereas images, amulets and merit-making take up less of our time & effort. But which is of more benefit to ourselves and others? Which will help us to awaken to reality and alleviate suffering if not eradicate it altogether? Buddhists need to be clear what Buddha’s teachings are, and which he promoted – seeking luck or seeking awakening? When we find out the answer to this question, we will be ripe to practice Buddhism as Buddha intended, with or without a rub of Budai’s corpulent tummy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ajahn Nyandhammo on Faith & Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Nyanadhammo (1955-present): A kick reminder

When the Buddha described faith he talked about faith in four aspects; faith in the Buddha, the person who has become fully enlightened in this world and teaches the path out of dukkha, and in the Dhamma, those teachings of the Buddha; and in the Sangha, those monks, nuns and lay-people who have realized that truth in their own lives; and in the training. This last one means having faith that this practice we’re doing will yield results. Faith in the training also intrinsically implies faith in our own abilities to realize truth: faith that we can do it.

The lack of conviction in our own ability to do the practice is a common obstacle, so one of the responsibilities of a teacher is to encourage and uplift people. This was one of the things that Ajahn Chah often did. I remember one time having a few difficulties and  going to him. He was chatting, and he turned to me and said, “Tan Nyanadhammo, you’ve got very few defilements.” That was at a time when it seemed like my mind was full of defilements! But just those few words gave encouragement.

There was another occasion when I was newly ordained. The food in Ajahn Chah’s monastery was extremely basic: sticky rice, leaves, curries – which were all put in one pot together – and a few bananas, and that was it. As there was very little, some of the monks would get up to serve out the food. You sat with your bowl in front of you and they put the food in your bowl: you didn’t have a choice, you could only say what you didn’t want. One of the Western monks was asked to get up and hand out the food, but he refused, because if he got up then he couldn’t watch his bowl and thereby prevent the Thai monks from putting things in it that would upset his stomach. And because of that they asked me to get up in his place.

A couple days later we went on the same alms round together into the village, and, as we were coming back to the dining-hall, this monk started complaining about the monks who hand out the food. Self-righteous anger came up in me, and I said to him, “Instead of complaining about the other monks, why dont you get up and help us?” And then I stormed off in a huff.

As I was walking, I heard Ajahn Chah’s voice saying Good morning in English. (The only words he knew in English were “Good morning” and “Cup of tea.”) I turned to see him standing only three feet away with a big radiant smile on his face. And I said, “Oh, good morning, Luang Por.” And he radiated loving kindness to me, and the aversion completely disappeared and I was really happy.

That evening I decided, “As Ajahn Chah was very friendly to me, I’ll go over and offer him a foot massage”; that was a way to do some service for him, and often he would teach Dhamma at that time. So he was sitting on a cane seat with me sitting on the floor and massaging his foot when the bell rang for evening chanting. He told the other monks to go to the chanting and I was left together with Ajahn Chah. It was a beautiful cool evening, with the moon coming out full, and the sound of some seventy monks chanting – it was just wonderful. Ajahn Chah sat in meditation as I was massaging his foot – and my mind was on cloud nine, uplifted with joy.

At that point Ajahn Chah kicked me in the chest and knocked me flat on my back! I looked up in shock, and Ajahn Chah pointed at me saying, “See? In the morning someone says something you don’t like and you’re upset. Then someone else just says “Good morning” and you’re uplifted all day. Don’t get caught up in moods and emotions of like and dislike at what other people say.”

Then he gave me a Dhamma talk, and I raised my hands in añjali, and listened to this Dhamma. I remember it to this day, and it always brings a sense of how much compassion he had: he saw a person was walking past with his head steaming; he said “Good morning”, and then he waited until the opportunity arose. Out of the seventy monks in the monastery, and all the nuns, he thought, “Today I’ll teach this person. This one’s really stubborn, I’m going to have to give him a kick! He won’t remember if I dont do it tough.” What has stayed with me is a sense of faith that the teacher is concerned, is motivated by compassion, and motivated to release you from suffering.

The above is extracted from the book ‘The Spiritual Faculties’ which is freely downloadable here. Ajahn Nyanadhammo has been a Buddhist monk since 1979. He was a student of Ajahn Chah, a famous meditation master. He has been abbot of the Buddhist forest monasteries Wat Pa Nanachat & Wat Ratanawan in Northeast Thailand.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Masao Abe on Realizing Emptiness & Suchness

Masao Abe (阿部 正雄, 1915 – 2006): Horizontal eyes, vertical nose.

Trying to grasp one’s self from the outside may be likened metaphorically to a snake trying to swallow its own tail. When the snake bites its tail, it makes a circle. And the more it tries to swallow its tail, the smaller that circle becomes. When the snake carries this effort to swallow its own tail to its final conclusion, the circle turns into a small dot, until finally it must disappear into emptiness. In more concrete terms, the snake must die through its effort. As long as the human self tries to take hold of itself through self-consciousness (out of which feelings of inferiority, superiority, etc. develop), the human ego-self falls into an ever-deepening dilemma. At the extreme end of this dilemma, the ego can no longer support itself and must collapse into emptiness. When the attempt of self-consciousness to grasp itself is pressed to its ultimate conclusion, the human ego must die. The realization of no-self is a necessity for the human ego. Some individuals only come to realize the necessity of confronting this dilemma on their deathbed. Others may existentially intuit the need for resolving this dilemma while still quite young, and thus embark on a religious quest. In any event, the realization of no-self is a “must” for the human ego. We must realize that there is no unchanging, eternal self.

In order to realize emptiness or suchness it is essential to face this dilemma and break through it. This realization of emptiness is a liberation from that dilemma which is existentially rooted in human consciousness. Awakening to emptiness, which is disclosed through the death of the ego, one realizes one’s “suchness.” This is because the realization of suchness is the positive aspect of the realization of emptiness.

In this realization you are no longer separated from yourself, but are just yourself. No more, no less. There is no gap between you and yourself; you become you. When you realize your own suchness, you realize the suchness of everything at once. A pine tree appears in its suchness. Bamboo manifests itself in its suchness. Dogs and cats appear in their suchness as well. A dog is really a dog. No more, no less. A cat is really a cat. No more, no less. Everything is realized in its distinctiveness.

Then for the first time you understand the familiar Zen phrases: “Willows are green, flowers are red,” or “The eyes are horizontal, the nose is vertical.” Trees, birds, fish, dogs or cats – from the beginning they always enjoy their suchness. Only man has lost that suchness. He is in ignorance. Therefore he does not know the reality of human life and becomes attached to this life and fears death. But when ignorance is realized for what it is through the realization of no-self, one may waken to “suchness,” in which everything is realized in its uniqueness and particularity.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Buddha Eye’ edited by Frederick Franck, published by World Wisdom. Abe Masao was an author & professor of religious studies in both Japan & America, and was a close associate of D.T. Suzuki.