Archive for April, 2008

In addition to the Shobogenzo, another source of my reading as of late has been Journey to the West. Journey to the West is fascinating enough for its own sake as literature, but it is also interesting how it weaves together the three major spiritual traditions of China into one unproblematic mythology, raising Buddhist questions along the way.

One of my favorite parts thus far, though I have not gotten too far along this one hundred chapter tome, is shortly after the Monkey Kind has been appointed the leader of the monkeys. Soon, amongst their play and frolicking, they realize they are subject to death. Terrified, the Monkey King asks around to find a way to be free from death, and is told by one wise old monkey that the Buddhas, Immortals, and Sages can deliver him from death, but that these great teachers are only present in the human world.

Determined, the Monkey King sets off on a journey to the human world to receive the teaching, and upon getting there he is shocked that none of the humans seem to care or think about the immediacy of death at all.

How typical, huh?

One of the thoughts that I personally find very inspiring, one that drives much of my practice, is the feeling of how fortunate I am to have been born in a time when the Dharma is still known in the world, and that I am in a situation where I am able to learn and practice.

There is a famous simile about how precious a human rebirth is involving a blind tortoise. The Buddha asked us to imagine a planet completed covered in water with a single inhabitant: a blind tortoise. Also on this planet is a single yoke that fits exactly around the neck of the tortoise floating upon the water’s surface. The winds on this planet blow the yoke hither and thither, and every one hundred years the blind tortoise surfaces for just a moment. The Buddha says that a human rebirth is even more rare than how rare it would be for the yoke to fit around the rising tortoise’s neck.

That is just for a human rebirth! Imagine being born as a human being during the age of the Dharma, and being in such a station as to be able to practice it! I imagine an appropriate addition would be some sort of blind mosquito, which flew around randomly and landed every one hundred years, aiming to hit the nose of the tortoise whom is perfectly ensnared by the yoke.

The Monkey King asks around, finding no one who shares his concern, nor anyone who is aware of where he can find a Buddha, Immortal, or Sage to practice under. Finally, when he does find someone to lead him to his first teacher, the man is too busy plowing his field and refuses to go along.

It is difficult, when I consider the rising and falling concerns of my every day life, to think I am doing anything more than plowing my field.

The Sun Wukong illustration was made by Hai Dang Quang and is liscenced under the GFDL

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…Our people are foolish, narrowminded, and petty. They cling tightly to transitory successes and delight in surface virtues. Will such a people, even if they do sit in meditation, succeed in quickly realizing the Buddha Dharma?”

“American Buddhism” is a curious creature. One of the constantly touted accomplishments of Buddhism is that it has transitioned to so many cultures, adapted authentically to suit each culture, while retaining the noble aspects of the Dharma which lead to liberation.

In most instances, pioneering monks and nuns entered new lands, learned the language and the culture, and slowly started to turn the wheel of the Dharma. Wether it is Bodhidharma journeying to China, or Mahinda traveling to Sri Lanka, these tales and treasured and worn, and ring with the resounding resonance that the Dharma is alive and vibrant in the world and expanding.

While America has these stories as well, and I do not wish to diminish them, I feel like American Buddhism, especially amongst non-Asian non-heritage Buddhists, is asked for. Converts contend with the opposing needs of wanting Buddhism just as it is, with all of its cultural trappings in order to indulge in the myth that by being from somewhere else it can solve our capitalistic post-modern ills, while at the same time wanting this mysterious distant answer to conform to a four-dollar coffee venti mocha lifestyle.

In some ways, the clearest picture of an “American Buddhism” can be seen in Japanese American Buddhist organizations like Buddhist Churches of America. Japanese Buddhism has been here for over a hundred years, and has had to change both to protect itself by protestantizing some of its outer trappings as well as changing to serve its members by being a Jodo Shinshu organization that offers meditation instruction. It has become something different though related to the Japanese Buddhism that first came to America, while retaining the liberating qualities at its heart.

The quote that opened this blog sounds like it is describing Americans, or perhaps Westerners in general: a flighty bunch short on virtue and addicted to instant gratification. But its not talking about that at all.

That is from the Shobogenzo, and it is talking about Japan about eight hundred years ago.

Here is part of Dogen’s response to the question:

“…Shakyamuni’s instructions have been spreading through the three thousand worlds for something like two thousand years. The countries within these worlds are of all kinds and are not necessarily lands of benevolence and wisdom, nor are their people necessarily always astute or intellectually brilliant! Even so, the true Dharma of the Tathtagata has always possessed a marvelous, unimaginably great, meritorious strength so that, when the time is ripe, It spreads throughout those lands.”

What is there to do? Plenty of work! We can work together, grow together, reach outward, and search inward. The American Buddhist Community needs engagement and protection. However, I do believe, and I think it is a reasonable belief, that the greatest protection that Buddhism in America has, and indeed, Buddhism in the world, is that the truth is there to be known, and we all yearn to know it.

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Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture
Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture (from Awakening Mind Zen blog)

The Pew Forum recently published a survey of American religion, and this sparked an interesting discussion in the Buddhist community. If you want to see PhDs analyze it to death and tear it apart, go visit H-Buddhism. I’m going to refrain from tossing in my opinion on the survey. I’m primarily interested in the Buddhist (blogging) community’s reaction on two points, and what this says about the community.

Many people took the survey at face value. Charles Prebish seemed keen to note some surprises. For some, this survey was proof that American Buddhism is in decline, even dying out, especially due to a lack of children. Some found particular interest in the fact that the Pew survey reported more non-Asian Buddhists than Asian Buddhists in America, and vastly more converts than heritage Buddhists.

The first reaction is one that I’ve heard a lot over the past eight years: American Buddhism is getting old. In fact, Sumi Loundon found her inspiration to compile Blue Jean Buddha based on her experience in a retreat kitchen as the lone twentysomething among a crowd of Baby Boomers. Of course, she eventually found young Buddhist voices. But the reaction on these blogs suggests that Boomer Buddhists still get together in groups where active young Buddhists are a tiny minority, if they’re even there at all.

The second reaction — more of a surprise — is nested in the notion that American Buddhism is predominantly Asian American. According to the Pew survey, it’s not. Some bloggers expressed a bit of satisfaction in this result (see here and here, but also note there is some methodological controversy.) The bloggers’ emphasis on this particular result suggests that the division between Asian and non-Asian Buddhist America is just as real as ever. For me, the force of this reaction means that many Buddhists out there still have a strong insecurity with regards to their American Buddhist identity.

These two reactions are often framed as American Buddhism’s two great challenges. How do we perpetuate our community? How do we cross the cultural divide?

I’d like to think that these questions don’t need answering. Maybe I’m overly optimistic. If John and I (your humble “dharma bloggers”) are a representative slice of Buddhist America, then we have already solved both the issues. We are active young Buddhists, of Asian and non-Asian heritage, who work together in the Buddhist community.

There are many more out there like us. But for some reason, we aren’t noticed.

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It; The Shobogenzo

Recently, I have found myself doing something that I had hoped for but had never thought possible: reading the Shobogenzo and loving it.

Let me explain. I have a long standing difficulty with koans because they are commonly [and perhaps unfairly] characterized as having an alien logic all their own, designed to allow those who consider them to escape their wordly views which are immersed in duality and come to the realization of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that is and ever will be and thus gain all kinds of groovy zen powers…


I’m sure that much of this is true, but what I find unhelpful is English translations that play up grammatical ambiguities in Chinese and Japanese for overflowing obtuseness and maximum mysticality. While these problems are assuredly reduced by a good student-teacher relationship, a parable that cannot be understood doesn’t have a whole lot of value.

To explain: on one occasion I stopped inside a Tower Records which was going out of business and, while passing the vastly marked down book section, found a modest collection of Buddhist books. I picked up a translation of the Chinese Shobogenzo, a collection of koans collected by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Though this translation featured some ambiguity, the translator’s original commentary attempted to resolve these by layering on further flowery confusion. Consider this excerpt from the commentary on the much cited koan “Juzhi holds up one finger:”

“…Although the boy lost a finger, he gained his nostils. Don’t you see? The truth of Juzhi’s teachings is not to be found in the finger. This being the case, you tell me, if the truth is not in the finger, then where is it?”

I’m not sure, but this editor has decided not to include anything so silly as the answer in his commentary.

So such has been the case with me and koans, and my experience with the Shobogenzo. That is why Shasta Abbey’s Rev. Hubert Nearman’s translation of the Shobogenzo has been such a delight.

The Reverend’s translation is thoughtful, analytical, and helpful. When linguistic ambiguities are resolved, they are done so consistently, providing an overarching reading designed to develop understanding. The Reverend also takes care to tell you what it is he is resolving, so you can revisit those ambiguities on your own if you like.

It has been a great joy to read, and I hope to mention it more as I continue onward. I would recommend the translator’s introduction to anyone interested in truth and good writing from any walk of life with variable leanings towards the Dharma.

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Man wanders lonely as a cloud; meditates.Man wanders lonely as a cloud; meditates.

Like many folks, one of the Buddhist websites that opened a whole new world for me was Access To Insight. In addition to being an incomparable resource for sutta translations and the writings of the Thai Forrest Masters, it also contains some of the clearest and most helpful Buddhist writing for beginners I’ve ever come across.

One such article is John Bullitt’s own Befriending the Suttas. Befriending the Suttas is a great introduction to reading Canonical Buddhist Literature, and offers many helpful points for approaching and understanding suttas. However, the first time I read it, so many years ago, one provision always struck me as odd:

A good sutta is one that inspires you to stop reading it.
The whole point of reading suttas is to inspire you to develop right view, live an upright life, and meditate correctly. So if, as you’re reading, you feel a growing urge to put down the book, go sit in a quiet spot, close your eyes, and attend to the breath, then do it! The sutta will have then fulfilled its purpose. It will still be there when you come back to it later.
(From Befriending the Suttas)

When I first encountered Buddhism I could only vaguely hope to read something that would powerfully move me, and could never imagine being moved to meditate of all things. More than anything it was Bullitt’s italics that sold me, which I imagined being expressed with a grin, a gesture, and a boisterous ‘thumbs up’ pointing towards the sky.

While the most important aspects of meditation happen day to day when we Commit to Sit as my esteemed colleague so eloquently blogged before me, I do wonder about these moments of romantic meditation – when one is either inspired or filled with the sense of wanting to or the importance of meditation – when one is gripped with the need to sit right now.

There are many times in Buddhist legends when meditation is made heroic and inscribed within an epic frame. The Buddha, immediately before his awakening, vows that he will not move from his spot until he has released himself from birth and death, and withstands the myriad armies of Mara in his pursuit. But I wonder if these times of inspired meditation in our own lives can lead to great fruit, or if they are the products of too much mental formation.

I’d love to hear your own stories of inspired and uninspired meditation in the comment section.

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Recently, I was cleaning up the list of Theravada Buddhist monks on Wikipedia. Sometimes names get accidentally sorted by their honorific. For example, Ṭhanissaro Bhikkhu should be sorted by ‘T’, and not ‘B’, since bhikkhu is a title, not a last name. I was making sure each name was sorted right. It’s fun because you have to visit each page, and then you get to learn about monks you’ve never heard of before.

One such monk was Bhante Kassapa.

He’s described as the “first non-Vietnamese Monk in the Vietnamese Theravada Sangha in America”. I didn’t read on because I was still hung on the first question that popped into my mind. There’s a Vietnamese Theravada Sangha in America?

See, I regularly attend a Vietnamese temple, but my practice is more in line with what I’ve learned from my Theravada teachers. For me this means that I could actually merge my temple and my personal practice! Anyway, I did a search, and found an article by Binh Anson all about the history of the Theravada Sangha in Vietnam (also here). I’d previously thought that all Theravada Buddhists in Vietnam were Khmer Krom, but Vietnamese in fact have their own recently conceived Theravada sangha. How cool.

Now all I have to do is find a Vietnamese Theravada temple in Southern California.

Ordination of a new Vietnamese monk
Photo of Vietnamese Theravada ordination from Bhante Kassapa’s site.

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Commit to Sit

Commit to SitMy practice of meditating every morning and evening fell apart about a week before the deadline for filing taxes. I’d kept it up every day for a month, but for the past couple of weeks I’ve been avoiding it. All this on-and-off meditation reminded me of one of Tricycle magazine’s cover articles: Commit to Sit.

Commit to Sit is a 28 day vipassana meditation challenge to basically “go on retreat without leaving home.” The goal is to integrate meditation into your daily life. I looked at discussions about it on past blogs and found a wide range of reactions: a starter course that some weren’t going to try out, a month of reinforcing a dedicated practice, or a chance to jump back on the path again. Others dove right in (while others sort of waded their way in).

It’s tempting for me to try out something new and do the Commit to Sit. But this time, I think I’m just going to go back to what I was doing before taxes. All I have to do is set aside the time. In my view, falling off my meditation schedule isn’t much different from when my mind wanders. Just gotta to catch myself and come back to the breath.

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I was looking over Dharma Forest and on the top was a mention of the recent DRBY conference. Back when I was in college, we had always hoped to make a national Buddhist youth conference. I did attend one, in fact, for the Student Buddhist Network in Boston.

The SBN conference was a tradition that died before it took off. The conference was not really national (I was the only one not from the Northeast), not well planned (I remember spending the night in the Brandeis University library) and no one really stayed in touch afterwards (although I did get to meet Sumi Loundon). Anyway, running across this site made me begin to wonder about what’s going on with Buddhist student groups across the country. Are there conferences going on that I’m completely unaware of?

I couldn’t find many. I found a few conferences overseas, including Mitra (Australia), and ANZBYC (Australia & New Zealand). There was also ARBYC (Hong Kong), but that looks like it was really for kids. Too far for me.

In the US, I know of few such recurring conferences. One of the biggest conference organizers is the Buddhist Churches of America, the Shin Buddhist group. At least of a year ago, their Young Buddhist Association (YBA) was headed by Rev Fumiaki Usuki (or just Rev U). There is also the conference of Gia Định Phật Tử Việt Nam (Vietnamese Buddhist Family) held every year, but needless to say, it’s oriented towards Vietnamese. Aside from these two organizations, the only one I know of is DRBY.

It’s a bit sad to look at all these conferences, and then realize that I don’t really fit in. For one, these are all Mahayana Buddhist conferences. I doubt they’d ever reject me, but I really lean more towards the Theravada. Plus, I’m not really Japanese or Vietnamese either (maybe DRBY is the safe bet then).

If anything, I’m really looking for a conference that has a more general Buddhist theme to it: ‘What does it mean to be a Buddhist American?’ I guess I’m looking for something like an Asian American student conference, but for Buddhists. I’m still interested in the same questions as ever. Where do you go to temple? Where can I buy a cheap zafu? (Or show me how to make one!) Of course, I most want to know about other people’s questions and stories.

Guess this means I won’t be going to any conferences soon, but do write me a little note if you know of any that I didn’t mention here.

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I would love to tell you a story about seasoned potatoes, but in order to tell that story I need to share some clunky theoretical stuff. Care to humor me?

In most strains of Buddhist practice there seem to be two somewhat opposite and complementary notions: one being that a wholesome intention empowers any action to become wholesome, and the other is that a wholesome action has the power to shape one’s intentions.

To serve up a rather simple example, consider bowing. One way to look at bowing is to fill the elements of a full prostration up with noble thoughts and intentions. Perhaps the practitioner mentally takes refuge in the triple gem in each of a series of three bows, or uses that time to reflect on humility or gratitude.

Another perspective on bowing is that the physical practice of placing yourself in a humble and vulnerable position, lowering your head and placing it on equal footing with your heart, can itself create feelings of humility and gratitude over time. This perspective relies on the theory of cognitive dissonance: that we all must conceive of the world as reasonable and governed by rules, and that we adjust our mental attitudes to be in line with our behavior when there is a conflict.

Alright. Keeping all that good stuff in mind, can we proceed to the potatoes now? Are we all together?

On one occasion, not long ago, I was enduring a week of particularly stringent exams at university. On a given day I had gotten up in the morning, rushed out to class, and had been on campus studying or attending meetings with my professors up until the early evening. As the day rolled to an end, I took my last few dollars and I bought some Panda Express. Now, Panda express can very often be a terrible thing, but at this point I was famished and it was the largest amount of food available for the smallest amount of money. Additionally, I had chosen some delicious chicken and potatoes.

I had never seen such a thing before: the chicken, as it typically is, was just chicken, but the potatoes were golden crinkle cut rectangles of luscious loving- ever so gently moistened with a brilliant amber sauce. They were not crispy, but firm, flaky, and flavorful.

As I paid for my food, I tasted one or two such potato chunks, and upon biting into their starchy flesh harpy paeans erupted from the four quarters of my mind and danced in circles around my tongue. I was hungry, and now I was fed. All was right with the world.

I walked down into the brisk evening air down a flight of stairs to a street which would take me back to my apartment. There was a bus stop filled with the typical students waiting to be transported to their homes, but among the students, hunched over the rubbish bin, was an old woman. As I walked by, she made wide steps, and with a thick Eastern-European accent and a gaze that saw beyond me, she formed one word into a question: food.

What she was asking for was my carton of rice and potatoes, which I had been hungrily eating as I walked. She had asked me for something to eat, and I had food. And I had to give it to her.

So I did. I gave the old woman my potatoes. For that moment I am very proud. What I am not proud of were all of the thoughts on the long, heavy walk home.

Why did I have to walk home that way? If I had not encountered her, I could have kept my food. Why didn’t she ask me for money, which I did not have? Why didn’t I eat my food inside instead of walking down the street parading my tubers about for all the world to see?

I spent the walk home, and a great many moments beyond that, wishing away that act. When that happens, can it be called generosity? My intentions were not good at all: I gave because I felt I had to. That it was my responsibility. I did not give with an open heart.

When I remember that time, I try to remember that second kind of practice that I talked about earlier: that hopefully giving will transform my terrible attitudes. That maybe the next time, or the time after that, I can be glad to let go of my potatoes.

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Recently I had the opportunity to look over a manuscript of a collection of Buddhist parables that was going through the editing process. I was reading a plain spoken rendition of the Sutra to Vacchagotta on Fire, when something just didn’t seem right.

One thing I noticed is that the story from the manuscript I was reading used the Sanskrit rendering, Vacagotra, instead of the Pali which I am more used to. But that wasn’t it. There was something more.

The Buddha didn’t sound quite right.

It is a funny thing to think, because to even make that sort of assumption, one would have to have the borderline arrogant idea of what the Buddha should sound like. Yet I found that I did have certain expectations, and this translation of a loose and lucid retelling didn’t carry the same firm but compassionate nobility that I had become used to.

This string of wonderings made me realize that the Buddha has many voices folded into one in the Sutras. The Buddha is caring without being syrupy. He speaks with a seriousness that comes through even in his humor, when we laugh because something has been described so accurately, not because reason and expectations have been bent here and there. But more than anything, the Buddha is apt- he speaks what is beautiful, what is beneficial, at the right time with the right phrasing.

I’m not sure that I would have been able to notice these elements so much if I did not encounter a portion in which they were lacking. That voice, that cadence, is such a comfort to me that I feel it very much when it is not there, and it is a comfort to be able to know it.

What is the Buddha’s voice to you?

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