Category Archives: Buddhism

Nirvana Day 2016: Nirvana, Why Bother?

Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.” Those were the Tathagata’s last words.

Maha-Parinibbana Sutta

Hi everyone,

Nirvana Day is a Buddhist holiday in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that is observed on the 15th day of the 2nd month. It commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, breathed his last. In Buddhist terms, this is sometimes called parinirvana or “final unbinding”. Upon reaching enlightenment in his younger years, he then reached the state of nirvana. However, as he still had residual karma, he lived out his life until the age of 80 when the karma was exhausted, and he became completely unbound. His last words, recorded above, reminded his fellow monks not to be idle and to strive along the Buddhist path too.

The notion of Nirvana (sometimes called Nibbana) is somewhat confusing to people who are new to Buddhism. Most people think of it as a kind of happy bliss where one is smiling and joyous, almost like they’re on drugs. Or, people see Nirvana as a kind of nihilistic extinction.

Nirvana is neither of these things. It is the state of mind that all Buddhists aspire to in one way or another, but rather than trying to explain it myself, allow me to quote the Buddha:

“This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.”

Ok, peace sounds nice, but why would one want dispassion, cessation and so on? I mean, if you’re reading this, you might be thinking “my life is pretty good right now, why would I give that up?”

The key to Nirvana is insight. The Buddha experienced Nirvana only after he had reached enlightenment, saw into the nature of all things. Once that happened, he couldn’t look at life the same way, and learned to let go of all the things he craved after. It wasn’t a conscious effort, presumably, it was something he saw, and couldn’t unsee no matter how much he wanted. But having seen it, he let go of things he realized weren’t worth it. So, Nirvana is less about bliss and more about peace and contentment. One is perfectly OK with themselves, and everything else around them.

Let’s compare that to the regular state of things. Again, quoting from the Buddha:

There’s no fire like passion,
no loss like anger,
no pain like the aggregates,
no ease other than peace.

Hunger: the foremost illness.
Fabrications: the foremost pain.
For one knowing this truth
as it actually is,
Unbinding
is the foremost ease.

Freedom from illness: the foremost good fortune.
Contentment: the foremost wealth.
Trust: the foremost kinship.
Unbinding: the foremost ease.

Again, for one who can directly perceive how things work, one naturally inclines toward letting go, contentment, Nirvana.

Ok, but is really that bad? I mean, yeah, sometimes you have to deal with people you don’t like, have to do things you don’t like, but you also have friends, loved ones, cool stuff, etc. It’s just a part of life, isn’t it?

That’s exactly right.

People like to pursue things are fun, attractive, tasty, etc. If we encounter something we like, we want more of it. It becomes the new norm. We spend more and more effort to maintain that norm, and if we encounter something else that we like then that becomes our new norm and we have to strive to maintain that. However, the cost of all this is that we also have to endure a lot of things that are unpleasant: work, waiting, discomfort, etc. That’s the cost of enjoying the things you enjoy. You can’t separate the good from the bad.  It makes one weary.

Further, the Buddha perceived that all “fabrications” (that is, all things that come into existence) inevitably fade. This not only applies to physical things, but also states of mind, emotions, and other abstract things like fashion trends, etc. All things in this world have a tenuous existence, and won’t stay the same, no matter how much you want them to be. Your partner won’t stay young and attractive forever, and neither will you. Your favorite TV show has to end sometime, and even if it doesn’t, it just won’t be the same after a while.1 If you have a wonderful moment in your life, you can never go back to it, no matter how much you try to recreate the moment. It’s gone. Forever.

So, there’s no lasting refuge in this world. This is the crux of the First Noble Truth: it’s not that we’re living in constant agony, but that there’s no lasting peace, no lasting refuge in our lives. The rug keeps getting pulled out from under us sooner or later.

In one obscure sutra, the Buddha describes it like moths to a flame:

Rushing up but then too far, they miss the point;
Only causing ever newer bonds to grow.
So obsessed are some by what is seen and heard,
They fly just like these moths — straight into the flames.

Having understood this, the Buddha stopped grasping at phantoms he knew would fade. He just learned to let go and be ok with who he was right now, how he lived right now, etc. He didn’t fake this, didn’t consciously make himself happy, he just learned to let go because of direct perception because it was ultimately fruitless.

Buddhism is not an evangelical religion; it does not exist to conquer souls or save them from damnation. Instead the Buddha was like a doctor who understood why people were ill in their hearts, and offered a supreme medicine that people could take if they want. No compulsion; it’s just there.  Take it or leave it.  The Buddha himself stood as living proof that there was something better than the regular mode of life we all undergo, thought it’s hard to take on faith. One has to see it for themselves.

At any rate, Nirvana Day isn’t just commenting the Buddha’s accomplishment, it’s also a reminder that there’s more out there, if we’d only step through the door.

1 Firefly fans, take note. ;)

Yoda: Zen Master

Yoda's Words

My 9-year old daughter is a big fan of the Star Wars series. On weekend nights we sometimes watch one of the Star Wars movies together when everyone else is asleep. She also enjoys reading the new “Jedi Academy” series of books

Because of the movies and books, she has become a big fan of Yoda the Jedi master, and she was inspired to compile a little booklet of quotes and phrases by Yoda for herself. :)

Truth is, there are a lot of things about Yoda that can be considered Buddhist. Many years ago, when I was in college, I was studying Kendo (Japanese fencing) for a year at the University of Washington,1 and one of the senior kendo teachers was a librarian at the UW as well. He had a poster of Yoda in his office, and often told me how Star Wars and Zen had much in common. I must have been 21 at the time.  After I quit Kendo,2 I never really thought about it anymore until recently when my daughter became so interested in Star Wars and Yoda.

As we watched the movies together, I started to notice it more. George Lucas was inspired by Asian spirituality so not everything about Star Wars relates to Buddhism, but the influences are certainly there. One great example is in the movie Episode III: Revenge of the Sith when Anakin Skywalker is talking about his premonitions of losing his wife:

Here Yoda is telling Anakin that the more he attaches to his wife, the more he will turn to the dark side. It’s not that he shouldn’t love his wife Padme, but he has to accept that someday she will be gone and make the most of their time together. This is very similar to what the Buddha would have taught, I think.

Another scene from the original trilogy, definitely shows influences from Zen Buddhism in particular:

Here Yoda says to Luke Skywalker that:

  • Things are only different in the mind.
  • He must unlearn what he has learned (i.e. preconceived notions), and
  • “Do or do not”… don’t get hung up on the outcome.

When my old kendo teacher talked about Yoda and Zen, I thought maybe it was just a bit of wishful thinking. But now, I’m older and have a better grasp of Buddhism and can appreciate these things more.

Anyhow, I might explore this more in future posts. Stay tuned!

1 Which is how I met my wife. ;) She had been doing kendo since middle school in Japan.

2 I only did it for a year, which was interrupted by a broken foot, then later by school obligations. I had an argument with my teacher, who felt I should tough it out more. He had a point but looking back I felt the way he said it was mean, and made me disillusioned about kendo since.  Truth is, I still miss the old kendo days sometimes but it’s much too late to go back. 

Faith

This was an interesting quote I found in the Buddhist Immeasurable Life Sutra, which is the cornerstone of Pure Land Buddhism:

“At that time the Buddha Lokeshvararaja recognized the Bhiksu Dharmakara’s noble and high aspirations, and taught him as follows: ‘If, for example, one keeps on bailing water out of a great ocean with a pint-measure, one will be able to reach the bottom after many kalpas and then obtain rare treasures. Likewise, if one sincerely, diligently and unceasingly seeks the Way, one will be able to reach one’s destination. What vow is there which cannot be fulfilled?’ (trans. Rev Hisao Inagaki)

“Faith” in this context is different than faith in the Judaeo-Christian sense, but it is an important feature of Buddhism.  If one lacks faith in the Dharma, and the benefits that derive from putting it into practice,1 then one will simply languish in life and get nowhere.

Of course, you can apply this advice to any pursuit in life, but it is doubly true where the Buddhist path is concerned.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Whatever Buddhist practice that be: meditation, reciting the Buddha’s name, etc.

The Controversy Behind Shinran and His Son Zenran

The founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (the Buddhist sect I am affiliated with), named Shinran, had a number of challenges in his life, but probably the most difficult challenge was between himself and his own son, Zenran (善鸞 1217 ? – 1286 ?). Zenran was also frequently referred by this Buddhist name Jishin-bō (慈信房).

The trouble between Shinran and Zenran began late in life after Shinran had been pardoned from exile, and returned to Kyoto in the last years of his life. According to Professor Dobbins in Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan, the trouble began when some members in the Kanto Region (near modern-day Tokyo) promoted the idea that since they were saved by Amitabha Buddha, they no longer needed to be good.  They would indulge in all the evils they wanted since they were covered by the compassion of Amitabha’s vow to save all beings.  This is often called antinomianism or “license evil”, which Shinran discouraged. Zenran was sent to help lead the community there and speak for Shinran, however that’s when things took a turn for the worse.

I was reading through the letters of Shinran, translated here, and there are some interesting letters that Shinran exchanges with followers, and with his own son.  For example, in this letter, year unknown, Shinran described his frustration and concern with Zenran/Jishin-bō:

I have been informed that, following the various things that Jishin-bo has said, the minds of the people have been shaken in different ways. This is deeply distressing. You should entrust all things to the working of the revered Buddha. If conditions [for teaching the nembutsu] in that area have been exhausted, you should think about moving to another place. If you accept what Jishin-bo is saying – that I have instructed people to spread the nembutsu by relying on outside people as powerful supporters, which I have never said – it will be an unmitigated error. The Buddha has taught beforehand that, as the custom of the secular world, there would be attempts to obstruct the nembutsu; hence, you should not be taken aback by it. You should never, under any circumstances, take the various things Jishin-bo is saying as coming from me. Concerning the teachings, he is making groundless remarks. You should not give him your ear. I hear of incredibly erroneous views; it is deplorable….It appears to have been of no value whatever that they have for a long time copied and possessed various writings. I think that Essentials for Faith Alone and the various other writings have now become useless to them. The teachings that they carefully copied out and kept are now all worthless to them. I have heard that all the people, following Jishin-bo, have discarded those splendid writings. I lament this deeply.

It appears that Zenran became heavy-handed and attempted to co-opt local authorities in spreading the nembutsu, while at the same time asserting his own religious authority.  In this letter addressed directly to Zenran/Jishin-bō, year unknown, Shinran is furious at Zenran for trying to claim that Zenran has an exclusive teaching from Shinran (in order to assert his claim to authority), and that past religious work is therefore invalid:

I find it indeed deplorable that people in the various areas are saying in different ways that it is meaningless for people of the countryside to have all been saying the nembutsu for years. Although they have copied and possessed various writings, how have they been reading them? It makes me feel extremely apprehensive.

I have heard that about ninety of the people who had gathered around Chutaro of Obu have all followed you and abandoned the lay-monk Chutaro, because you, having traveled there from Kyoto, declared that only the teaching you have heard here is true and that all their saying of the nembutsu for years is meaningless. How has such a thing come about? It appears to me that, in short, their shinjin had not been settled. How is it that so many people could have been shaken? I find it lamentable. Since there are rumors of this kind, there must also be many false statements. Further, since I have heard that I am being accused of favoritism, I made great efforts to write down the meaning of Essentials of Faith Alone, On the Afterlife, and Self-power and Other Power, and also the Parable of the Two Rivers, and to distribute them to people. But I hear that they have all become useless. How have you been teaching the people? I hear you are saying incomprehensible things and am troubled by it. Please explain matters to me in detail.

and:

I have duly received your reports concerning Shinbutsu-bo, Shoshin-bo, and Nyushin-bo. Although I find it deeply lamentable, there is nothing I can do about it. It is also beyond my powers to correct others who do not have the same mind. Since people are not of the same mind, it is useless to say one thing or another. At this point, you should not speak about others. Please take this fully to heart.

Shinran clearly denies that he gave Zenran any special teachings in this letter to another follower:

…thus I have spoken for long years. In spite of this, at the words of a person like Jishin, the nembutsu practicers of Hitachi and Shimotsuke all were shaken at heart and went so far as to cast away all those wholly dependable, authoritative writings which I exhausted my strength in copying out in great numbers to send to them. Hearing of this, I know it is useless to speak about details.

To begin, I have never heard such statements as Jishin’s or even the terminology he uses, much less learned them; hence, what he says cannot be something I taught him privately. Further, I have not instructed Jishin alone, whether day or night, in a special teaching, concealing it from other people.

However, in spite of Shinran’s denials, and stern warning to Zenran, clearly the situation did not improve.  Finally, Shinran resorts to disowning his own son, as captured in this letter composed in 1256:

Further, I have never heard and do not know such statements concerning the teaching as you are making or even the terminology you use. Nevertheless, you have been telling others that I taught them to you privately one night, and so, concerning me also, the people of Hitachi and Shimotsuke are all saying that I have lied to them. Therefore, there shall no longer exist parental relations with you.

Further, it is inexpressibly shocking that you are making groundless accusations about your mother, the lay-nun. The woman of Mibu came bringing a letter that she said she received from you; she left the letter here. I have this letter of yours. In this letter as it stands, it is written that you have been deceived by your “stepmother”; it is indeed deplorable. It is a shocking falsehood to say, while she is still alive, that your mother – whom you call “stepmother” – has been deceiving you.

Further, in the letter to the woman of Mibu you make statements about your birth without knowing anything about it; these are utterly incomprehensible falsehoods. I lament this deplorable matter.

It is distressing that you have spoken such lies and that you have petitioned the Rokuhara and Kamakura magistrates concerning them. Falsehoods of this kind are worldly matters and thus may be dismissed as such. Even so, telling lies is wretched, and how much more grievous is it to mislead others regarding the great concern of birth in the land of bliss, casting the people of the nembutsu in Hitachi and Shimotsuke into confusion, and to make groundless accusations about your father.

I have heard that you likened the Eighteenth Primal Vow to a withered flower, so that all the people have abandoned it. This is truly the offense of slandering the dharma. Further, to favor the five grave offenses and to harm people by misleading them is lamentable.

The offense here of disrupting the sangha is one of the five grave offenses. To make groundless accusations about me is to murder your father; it is among the five grave offenses. I cannot fully express my grief at hearing these things. Hence, from now on there shall no longer exist parental relations with you; I cease to consider you my son. I declare this resolutely to the three treasures and the gods. It is a sorrowful thing. It rends my heart to hear that you have devoted yourself to misleading all the people of the nembutsu in Hitachi, saying that [what they have been taught] is not my true teaching. Rumors have reached as far as Kamakura that I have instructed you to denounce the people in Hitachi who say the nembutsu. It is deeply deplorable.

Here, Shinran summarizes some of what Zenran is accused of doing:

  • Telling followers in Shimotsuke and Hitachi provinces to abandon the existing nembutsu practice taught by Shinran.
  • Instead, Zenran promoted his own teachings and practices, though the letters do not explain what these are.
  • Third, Zenran conspired with local officials to promote his teaching over other teachings.
  • Fourth, Zenran effectively disavowed his own mother calling her his step-mother, in order to further his teachings.

It’s not clear why Zenran went to such bizarre lengths to assert his religious authority over the followers in the Kanto Region, but it’s clear that it caused a great deal of doubt, confusion and turmoil there, and Zenran simply refused to comply with this father.  Thus, he was ultimately disowned.

It’s not clear what happened after that, though it is implied that the issue was ultimately resolved.  Strangely, there is a Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist sect that still reveres Zenran as the second patriarch, after Shinran called the Izumo-ji sect (出雲路派).  The head temple, Gōshōji, in Fukui Prefecture has a website here in Japanese, but in speaking of the history of the temple, it only explains that the property once belonged to Zenran and was given to future generations.  So, even then, perhaps Goshoji doesn’t want to speak of Zenran too much.

So, anyhow, that’s a closer look at the controversy and disaster that befell the Jodo-Shinshu community under Zenran’s authority, and the efforts Shinran went to put an end to it.  It’s a sad tale in Shinshu history, but an important reminder of the need to avoid too much authority in the hands of one person.

The Mathematics of Buddhism

Flower Garland Sutra

Recently I discovered the 30th chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra, which is titled “The Incalculable”. This chapter is somewhat shorter but takes a very unique approach to expressing the massive scale of the Universe.  The Buddha begins by saying:

At that time the enlightening being [bodhisattva] Mind King said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, the buddhas speak of incalculable, measureless, boundless, incomparable, innumerable, unaccountable, unthinkable, immeasurable, unspeakable, untold numbers- what are these?”

…The Buddha said, “Ten to the tenth power [1010] times ten to the tenth power equals ten to the twentieth power [1020]; ten to the twentieth power times ten to the twentieth power is ten to the fortieth power [1040]….”

(trans. Thomas Cleary)

From there, the Buddha then just keeps squaring each number.  As you see above, the numbers get extremely large.  I can’t even imagine how big 10101493292610318652755325638410240 is.  That’s a lot of zeros!  For example, a billion is 109 while a trillion is 1012 and so on.  So it’s almost impossible to imagine how big a number that is.1

The point of this mathematical exercise is to demonstrate that the Universe in its totality is almost incomprehensible in scale, even to a bodhisattva who has deep insight.  Only a buddha can truly fathom it.

Also, the same chapter then has a long verse section afterwards which expresses in poetic form how all things are contained within all other things.  Even a single hairtip contains this unfathomably huge cosmos, and in turn the contains contains the hairtip:

The lands [realms?] on a point the size of a hairtip

Are measureless, unspeakable

So are the lands on every single point

Throughout the whole of space.

One of the central themes of the Flower Garland Sutra is the total interconnectedness of all things.  A single kernel of rice contains the sun’s energy, rain, minerals from the soil, the labor of the people who farmed it, and so on.  If you stretch this out far enough, that kernel of rice then contains the universe, but you can apply this same logic to anything else in the Universe big or small.  When you add all this up, this creates a truly profound but almost incomprehensible web of relationships.

Chapter 30 of the Sutra expresses this probably better than any Buddhist literature I’ve read thus far.

1 By the way, if exponential math is intimidating, I found this website provides a nice simple explanation of how it works.

New Buddhism Course

Hello everyone,

Just a quick update, but I’ve recently posted on the blog a new Introduction to Buddhism Series.  I mentioned in the past that I was planning on teaching a series at the local temple, and having finished the first two courses, I felt it was worth posting on the blog as well for a larger audience.  I know some people expressed interest in the past.  :)

As the page states, this is mainly written for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, but I think other folks may find at least the first two courses useful (or maybe not).  Also, I am still in the process of copying some materials to the course, so as of writing, only Buddhism 101 is complete.  I hope to have 102 available in the coming weeks.

Anyhow, enjoy!

Jinen Honi: Made to Become So

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, out of the larger branch of Pure Land Buddhism, has some interesting innovations that I sometimes find compelling and yet challenging at the same time. To me, one of the most interesting is the concept of jinen hōni (自然法爾). I’ve touched on it before in an old post, but I wanted to explore it more here.1

The concept of jinen-honi is translated to things like “made to become so, by virtue of the Dharma” or something along those lines. It is explained in several of Shinran’s letters and writings, but in particular, I liked the explanation in the “Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone” or yuishinshōmon’i (唯信鈔文意).

This is a commentary by Shinran on another text, the “Essentials of Faith Alone” (yuishinshō 唯信鈔) composed in 1221 by a contemporary named Seikaku (聖覚, 1167-1235).2 Both Seikaku and Shinran were originally monks of the Tendai sect, but later left, and became a disciples of Honen. Seikaku’s text speaks from standpoint more familiar with Jodo Shu Buddhism (practice of reciting the nembutsu, the Three Minds, etc), so Shinran made commentaries on Seikaku’s text providing his own viewpoint.

Of particular interest is the following paragraph, which is translated here (kanji added for clarity):

Ji [自] also means of itself. “Of itself” is a synonym for jinen, which means to be made to become so. “To be made to become so” means that without the practicer’s calculating in any way whatsoever, all that practicer’s past, present, and future evil karma is transformed into the highest good, just as all waters, upon entering the great ocean, immediately become ocean water. We are made to acquire the Tathagata’s virtues through entrusting ourselves to the Vow-power; hence the expression, “made to become so.” Since there is no contriving in any way to gain such virtues, it is called jinen [自然]. Those persons who have attained true and real shinjin are taken into and protected by this Vow that grasps never to abandon; therefore, they realize the diamondlike mind without any calculation on their own part, and thus dwell in the stage of the truly settled. Because of this, constant mindfulness of the Primal Vow arises in them naturally (by jinen). Even with the arising of this shinjin, it is written that supreme shinjin is made to awaken in us through the compassionate guidance of Sakyamuni, the kind father, and Amida, the mother of loving care. Know that this is the benefit of the working of jinen.

The idea here is that through completely entrusting oneself to the vow of Amitabha Buddha to rescue all beings, the virtues of Amitabha help to transform a person without any calculation by the person. It seems like a totally foreign concept in Buddhism, though when I think of the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2) in the Pali Canon, the idea is not so far-fetched, because the idea is that self-power alone is not enough: even monks depend on others to advance on the path. It’s a question of whom and how.3

Anyhow, something interesting I wanted to share. :)

1 I’m surprised that old post is 7 years old! Time flies. :p

2 Interesting bit of historical trivia, Seikaku was also the grandson of Fujiwara no Michinori.

3 It’s also why the sangha (community) is one of the three treasures of Buddhism.

Obeisance

From the Sutra of the Ten Stages, which is chapter 26 of the massive Flower Garland Sutra (華厳経):

If the beings I see by my enlightened vision
Were saints equal to Shariputra,
And one should honor them for millions of ages,
As many as the sands of the Ganges River;
And if someone honored an individual illuminate
Day and night, cheerful,
With the finest garlands and such,
And thereby created excellent virtue;
And if all were individual illuminates,
If one honored them diligently
With followers and incense, food and drink,
For many eons,
Still if one made even one bow to one buddha
And with a pure mind declared obeisance,
The virtue would be greater than all that.

What interests me about this quote is how praising an enlightened Buddha is much greater virtue than a famous monk or saint. There are a lot ways to interpret why, but anyway I just thought it was interesting. It’s hard to find good quotations from the Flower Garland Sutra anyway since it is so long and dense. ;-)

Enjoy!

Yet Another Definition of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Over the years, as I try to make sense of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, or “Shin” Buddhism as all the teenagers say nowadays,1 I have tried a number of different ways to understand and explain it to others.2 However, I wanted to share an explanation that really opened my eyes.

I was recently perusing the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, which I received a while back (and regularly use) as a sample copy.  I was looking up some information on Zhiyi, the famous Chinese Tian-tai Buddhist monk which I then used to rewrite the Wikipedia article on the Five Periods and the Eight Teachings.  But having finished that, I decided to then lookup the entry on Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, and this passage caught my attention (emphasis and links added):

Shinran refers often to the single utterance [of Amitabha Buddha’s name Namu Amida Butsu] that assures rebirth in the pure land.  This utterance need not be audible, indeed not even voluntary, but it is instead heard in the heart as a consequence of the “single thought-moment” of shinjin, received through Amitābha’s grace.  This salvation has nothing to do with whether one is a monk or a layperson, man or woman, saint or sinner, learned or ignorant.  He said that if even a good man can be reborn in the pure land, then how much more easily can an evil man; this is because the good man remains attached to the illusion that his virtuous deeds will bring about his salvation, while the evil man has abandoned this conceit.  Whereas Hōnen sought to identify the benefits of the nembutsu [reciting the Buddha’s name] in contrast to other teachings of the day, Shinran sought to reinterpret Buddhist doctrine and practice in light of Amitābha’s vow [to rescue all beings].  For example, the important Mahāyāna doctrine of the Ekayāna, or “one vehicle,” the buddha vehicle whereby all sentient beings will be enabled to follow the bodhisattva path to buddhahood [full enlightenment], is interpreted by Shinran to be nothing than Amitābha’s vow.

The top-half of this quotation is pretty standard Jodo Shinshu teaching.  I’ve read this before, and share it here more as a background reference.  What gave me pause was the second-half where it talks about how Shinran interpreting Buddhist doctrine in light of the Buddha Amitabha’s vow to rescue all beings.  In all my years of learning about Jodo Shinshu, I simply never noticed that.  I admit I’ve always approached it the way Honen did: finding a way for Pure Land teachings to fit within the greater Buddhism, but Shinran’s approach is kind of radical in a way.

The Lotus Sutra teaching of Ekayana is a great example of this, because I do consider myself a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, but it never occurred to me that his would be an expression of Amitabha Buddha’s compassion toward other beings.  Usually the Lotus Sutra describes itself as the king of all sutras, the pinnacle teaching, and much of Buddhism tends to follow this line including me.  In such a framework, the Pure Land sutras and practices are part of the overall “vehicle” preached in the Lotus Sutra. However, Shinran turns this on its head.  It kind of blew me away.  For example, the verses in chapter five of the Lotus Sutra, when seen in the light of Amitabha’s compassion take on a whole new meaning for me.

I found this passage last week, and I’ve been mulling it over since then, appreciating the implications.  I may explore this again in future posts.  Stay tuned.  ;)

1 Just kidding. I just wanted to sound like a cranky old man. ;)

2 I know I have more posts buried somewhere in the last 8 years of blogging, but I didn’t have the time to search. Thankfully there’s Google! ;)

Just As You Are

Hello,

There’s a famous Japanese poem that you will often see in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist literature usually translated as “Just Right” or “Just As You Are” or “Sono-mana”. Rev. Taitetsu Unno, who passed away a couple years ago, translated the poem in one of his books, and it has been popular since among English-speaking Shin Buddhists.

Recently, I remembered this poem, and tried to find the original in Japanese, and when I did, I realized that there were some problems with the English translation. Nothing serious, but worth sharing.

The actual name of the poem in Japanese is 仏様のことば(丁度よい)or hotoke-sama no kotoba (chōdo yoi), which means “The Buddha’s Words (Just Right)”. It was composed by one Maekawa Gorōmatsu at the age of 93.

Here is the original poem in Japanese (source here):

「仏様のことば(丁度よい)」
お前はお前で丁度よい
顔も体も名前も姓も
お前にそれは丁度よい
貧も富も親も子も
息子の嫁もその孫も
それはお前に丁度よい
幸も不幸もよろこびも
悲しみさえも丁度よい
歩いたお前の人生は
悪くもなければ良くもない
お前にとって丁度よい
地獄へ行こうと極楽へ行こうと
行ったところが丁度よい
うぬぼれる要もなく卑下する要もない
上もなければ下もない
死ぬ月日さえも丁度よい
仏様と二人連の人生
丁度よくないはずがない
丁度よいのだと聞こえた時
憶念の信が生まれます
南無阿弥陀仏

In English, the translation is usually this (source Spokane Buddhist Temple):

You, as you are, are just right.
Your face, your body, your name, your surname,
they are, for you, just right.
Whether poor or rich, your parents, your children,
your daughter-in-law, your grandchildren
they are, for you, just right.
Happiness, unhappiness, joy and even sorrow,
for you, they are just right.
The life that you have walked
is neither good nor bad.
For you, it is just right.

However, when you look at the Japanese, that’s only about two-thirds of the original poem. Here is a rough-translation of the rest:

うぬぼれる要もなく卑下する要もない
No need to take pride in anything, no need to be humble either.

上もなければ下もない
If there’s nothing above, there’s nothing below either.

死ぬ月日さえも丁度よい
Even the day and time of your death is just right, too.

仏様と二人連の人生
A life hand in hand with the Buddha

丁度よくないはずがない
Isn’t supposed to be wrong for you.

丁度よいのだと聞こえた時
Rather, when you hear that it is just right for you,

憶念の信が生まれます
Enduring faith [confidence in the Buddha] is born.

南無阿弥陀仏
Namu Amida Butsu
(Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light)

Enjoy!