This week, after the Moon Festival is Ohigan in Japanese Buddhism.1 It is a time to visit family, pay respects to one’s ancestors, etc. It’s also a time in Buddhism to pause and reflect. So, the next few posts are “Buddhist-themed”. Well, more Buddhist themed than usual. ;p
Anyhow, recently I was watching NHK (via TV Japan) and they had a show about a small town in northern Japan that had been badly affected by the Tohoku Earthquake. The show featured the different lives of people there; many of them had lost loved ones including children. One person that really impressed me was the local Buddhist monk. He was well-respected by people in the town (you could see people happily greeting him down the street), and he would regularly visit people, take part in community events and just listen to people.
They held activities like building small “Jizo” statues out of clay for lost ones, engaging people in song, etc. I was really impressed with his community outreach. He seems like a great monk.
I’ve seen plenty of Buddhist services and sermons in Japan and in America and I have noticed some significant differences. When I see Japanese sermons and such, they don’t talk about Buddhism too much. They talk a lot about social issues, and problems people are having, etc., but they don’t mention too much Buddhist “doctrine” unless it’s appropriate for the subject. There’s nothing cryptic or mystical in the sermons, it’s often just practical advice. When I see American Buddhist services, they talk more about doctrine (Buddhist teaches this, Buddhism teaches that), and sometimes relate current issues to the”Buddhist view”.2 There’s less practical advice.
I think there’s good reasons for this though: Most Americans who become Buddhist don’t know anything about it, so they ask questions like “what does Buddhist teach about….?”, “as a Buddhist can I do …?” and so on. Even Asian-Americans who come become actively Buddhist as an adult may have to “re-learn” Buddhism again. Also, I think American culture makes a big deal out of “religious” identity. If you are Christian, it’s important to identify yourself as a Christian. If Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc, it’s important to identify yourself that way. Similarly, Buddhists in America want to know what makes them Buddhist. In other words, what should they do as a Buddhist?
But Japanese, and Asian people in general, don’t have to learn Buddhism because they grow up with it all their lives. Even if they are not consciously aware of it, they still learn little bits of Buddhist wisdom over time from family, elders, and such. Some people learn more than others, of course. But there’s less need to talk about doctrine.3 Also, it’s not as important to have a Buddhist “identity” because the culture is Buddhist anyway. There’s nothing to prove. A Japanese person may not identity themselves as Buddhist, but they do visit Buddhist temples, pray, and might think in a more “Buddhist way” than other people. So such people are more interested in Buddhist “advice” than Buddhist “teachings”.
Going back to the example above. When I see this priest I am reminded of this old, old post I wrote. The lesson from that post (and the sutra I quoted) is that if you judge a teacher or monk by external forms, you are being misled. If you judge a monk or teacher by how much they teach Buddhism, how much they meditate, who their teacher was, or how many sutras they know, you are missing the point.
But when you see a monk like this who works hard to help restore the community after the Earthquake, you can be sure that he is a true disciple of the Buddha. He may not be a saint, he may not be well-known outside his community, and he may not have an impressive lineage, but you can be sure that he puts the teachings into practice, even if he doesn’t teach a word.
Like the Buddha says in the Dhammapada:
9. Whoever being depraved, devoid of self-control and truthfulness, should don the monk’s yellow robe, he surely is not worthy of the robe.
10. But whoever is purged of depravity, well-established in virtues and filled with self-control and truthfulness, he indeed is worthy of the yellow robe.
What really matters is one’s conduct. Monks, lay-people, everyone. Meditation and chanting mean nothing if your conduct is poor and you live a selfish lifestyle. Buddhist practices like meditation, reading and chanting can help you achieve these things, but it’s important to have your priorities straight.
1 Thanks to reader “Johnl” for reminding me of Ohigan. I’ve been distracted with the baby (due date is 3 weeks away!). :p
2 I’m guilty of this too especially in the earlier blog posts.
3 There are a lot of Japanese books about “beginner Buddhism”, but they talk more about practical subjects (how to arrange a shrine, how temples are laid out, etc) in addition to doctrine. I like the comprehensive approach. A lot of Buddhist “self-help” books provide good advice too, but sometimes the best advice really is to just be nice, patient and generous to others. No need to worry about mindfulness, tantra and such. Start with the basics.