Category Archives: Theravada

For The True Buddhist Nerd: A Review of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism

For The True Buddhist Nerd

Recently, thanks to a helpful conversation with a certain Buddhist Professor (thank you Professor “B”), I got in touch with the Princeton University Press department, who sent me a free copy of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. I was eager to get this book because I saw other reviews of it on blogs and on Twitter, and I was interested in the book because it provides a lot of missing information about Buddhism in languages and cultures you can’t find in other books.

For example, I have been struggling for a long time to find detailed information about Chinese Buddhist schools (Wikipedia entries are sometimes dubious) and for Vietnamese Buddhism in general. I was really happy to flip through this book and find a solid explanation of the Thiền (禪, Zen) tradition in Vietnamese Buddhism. For example, it turns out that there is no separate school of Chan/Zen Buddhism in Vietnam, unlike China, Korea and Japan, but the dictionary explains:

Much of the history is, however, a retrospective creation. The Thiền school is in reality a much more amorphous construct that it is in the rest of East Asia: in Vietnam, there is no obvious Chan monasticism, practices or rituals as there were in China, Korean, and Japan. Thiền is instead more of an aesthetic approach or a way of life than an identifiable school of thought or practice. (pg. 906)

Also, the book has valuable information on the San-lun (三論宗) school of Chinese Buddhism, and on Tian-tai (天台宗) which I was unable to find elsewhere. For the casual Buddhist, this sort of information isn’t really important, but for someone who writes a blog on Buddhist subjects, and spends a lot of time fixing Wikipedia articles, this information is critically important to clarifying vague and poorly understood aspects of Asian Buddhism.

The dictionary even has entries Burmese Buddhism. How many books can you find that even talk about Burmese Buddhism in particular?

The other thing I like about this book is that for the same entry, multiple languages are presented, such as below:

Jingxi Zhanran (J. Keikei Tannen; K. Hyŏnggye Tamyŏn 荊溪湛然) (711-782) Chinese monk who is the putative ninth patriarch of the Tiantai Zong….

While writing this blog, I’ve often struggled to provide the Korean term for something I know in Japanese Buddhism, so it’s great to be able to easily find it now. I’ve used this dictionary probably about 6 times since I received it last week, so I can definitely say it’s useful.

But the book is a big, heavy tome. It’s not something for people who are just curious about Buddhism. Instead, it’s an invaluable reference for Buddhist researchers and people who want to know more about Asian Buddhism in particular. Professors Buswell and Lopez put a lot of work this book and it definitely shows. Plus, the book is nicely printed with good binding, good quality paper and easy to read-formatting which is helpful for me and my worsening eyesight.

Thanks again to Professor “B” and to the folks at Princeton University Press!

Buddhist Thought For The Day

I was reminded of this quote from the Dhammapada earlier today:

186-187. There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. Having understood this, the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Supreme Buddha delights in the destruction of craving.

In particular, I thought about the line: For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. It’s hard to understand this sentence, but if you stop and think about it, it’s true. It’d hard to see, but once you see it, pleasures don’t seem so great.

If you want to stop having pain in your life, stop creating it.

Beginner Buddhism S2, Lesson 8: Buddhism and Monasticism

Hi all,

Busy weekend, but I did find time to post another episode on season 2 of the Beginner Buddhism series on YouTube:

This one helps explore the notion of monasticism in Buddhism, what are monks and nuns, etc. Apologies to Theravada viewers for screwing up the Pali terms. ;p I haven’t had much free time lately, so I pretty much filmed this in one shot and off-the-cuff.

There are 2 episodes left in the BB series, and after that I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to cover, so I don’t really plan on making anymore.

Anyhow, enjoy!

Beginner Buddhism S2, Lesson 8: Buddhism and Monasticism

Hi all,

Busy weekend, but I did find time to post another episode on season 2 of the Beginner Buddhism series on YouTube:

This one helps explore the notion of monasticism in Buddhism, what are monks and nuns, etc. Apologies to Theravada viewers for screwing up the Pali terms. ;p I haven’t had much free time lately, so I pretty much filmed this in one shot and off-the-cuff.

There are 2 episodes left in the BB series, and after that I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to cover, so I don’t really plan on making anymore.

Anyhow, enjoy!

Beginner Buddhism S2, Lesson 7: Samsara and the World Around Us

Hi all,

I finished another video in the BBS2 series:

This one was something I came up with a couple weeks ago while driving in the car for a while, but basically I wanted to explore two subjects: Samsara and how we view the world. I didn’t quite cover everything I wanted to, but I decided to keep it short and simple instead.

Special thanks to my daughter who allowed me to use her Legos, “but not too long” she said. :)

No Lasting Refuge

Turner-The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

From the Assu Sutta (SN 15.3) in the Pali Canon (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

There the Blessed One said: “From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?”

“As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.”

“Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

Or from the Lotus Sutra, chapter 3 (Gene Reeves translation):

“He [The Buddha] sees how living beings are scorched by the fires of birth, old age, disease and death, anxiety, sorrow, suffering, and agony. Moreover, because of the five desires and the desire for wealth, they undergo all kinds of suffering. Because of attachment to desire and striving, they endure much suffering in this life and later will suffer in a purgatory, or as animals or hungry spirits. Even if they are born in a heaven, or among people, they will experience many kinds of suffering, such as the suffering of poverty and hardship, the suffering of separation from what they cherish, or the suffering from encountering what they hate.

“Absorbed in these things, living beings rejoice and amuse themselves, without knowing or seeing or being alarmed or frightened. And never being dissatisfied, they never try to liberate themselves. In the burning house of this threefold world they run about here and there, and, though they encounter great suffering, they are not disturbed by it.”

Something I felt like posting tonight.

Shopping For A New Buddhist Temple

Hi all,

As mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been thinking about some changes to my Buddhist practice1 and I hope to elaborate on that here.

I’ve been more or less a Pure Land Buddhist since 2005 when I visited the temple of Chion-in and was greatly impressed what I saw there. It motivated me to learn about Buddhist, do regular practice, etc. For years I also went to a Buddhist temple here in Seattle that is related to the Jodo Shinshu sect and my baby girl used to grow up there.

About two years ago though, I wrote a fairly scathing criticism about Japanese Pure Land Buddhism in particular, using the criticism from the famous Hosso Buddhist scholar, Jōkei from the 12th century. But at the same time, I didn’t really find a good alternative so I kind of fell back on old habits over time. Pure Land Buddhism was something I could easily practice at home as a working parent, and is decentralized enough that I didn’t have to worry about teacher/student relationships which didn’t fit my life schedule.

But then on my recent business trip to Arizona, I visited a local Rinzai Zen temple and had a nice experience. I never really took part in meditation sessions before except for one awkward experience in Ireland, so it got me thinking that I would like to do more.

I’ve been to many Buddhist services, mostly in Japan, but public, lay services are often kind of passive unless you attend special classes above and beyond the lay services. Also, since I only visit Japan occasionally, it’s hard to keep it up.2 So, having tried a Zen temple here in the US, I decided I should keep it up here in the US. Plus, Jōkei’s criticism of exclusive Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu sects) has been stinging in my ears lately. Pure Land Buddhism was very helpful for me in “getting on my feet”, and I still believe in the Pure Land, but having taken the five precepts and such, I feel I need to do more than wait for death.3 On the other hand, I can’t do it alone. A community helps so much.

But as I said earlier, schedule is still an issue. Thanks to my recent transfer at work, my oncall schedule is more consistent and lighter than before; I can finally live a normal life again. But as a parent who’s daughter is very sad when Daddy is not home, it’s important to spend time with her too.

So, lately, I’ve been looking at Buddhist temples in north Seattle looking for a temple/community that is:

  • Close to home. This increases the likelihood I can keep up attendance. My family comes first.
  • Preferably Japanese Buddhism. I’ve married into the culture and am most familiar with it. If I ever move to Japan, it would also be easier to keep it up rather than starting up a new tradition. I could be flexible on this one though.
  • Has a flexible schedule. My wife and I discussed it, and weekends are not ideal because it’s our only chance to spend time together as a family.
  • Something traditional. I am leery of newer temples that are devoted to a single, charismatic teacher (potential cult), or tend to reinterpret things too much.

So, below is a map of Seattle with Buddhist temples marked in my area:

As you can see, Seattle is fortunate to have variety of temples, but they’re pretty spread out, and there aren’t too many options. If you want a church in the US, you can very easily find them. If you don’t like one church, you can just go to another one in your neighborhood. For Buddhist temples, you have to put in some more work to find and research before you visit.

So, over the coming weeks, I plan to visit several likely temples starting with the ones closest to my house (unless they violate the criteria above).

I haven’t committed to Zen yet or anything else. Zen Buddhism in the US is probably has the largest and most developed community, but when I see how Zen clergy and followers behave online, I wonder if it happens in person too. I would love to attend the local Seattle Shingon temple as well, but it’s pretty far and not the best neighborhood at night. The closest Theravada temple is quite far away and doesn’t really advertise services as far as I can tell.

So, it’s like finding a life-partner: if you expect perfection, you’ll be disappointed, but if you find something compatible and work with it, you’ll get more satisfaction and maybe find unexpected joys.

Time will tell.

Wish me luck. :)

Namo Shaka Nyorai

P.S. Double-post today. :)

P.P.S. I’m currently taking suggestions for new topics to discuss on the Beginner Buddhism series. One suggestion was finding a Buddhist temple and this will be a video topic in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

1 Or “lifestyle” I guess you could call it. I am not sure. :P

2 Due to costs of travel, and the high exchange-rate, I think I will be staying home this year and not traveling to Japan. My wife and daughter will go, but I don’t think I can afford to go. Hoping the new Japanese government can fix that exchange rate soon. :-/

3 I know Japanese Pure Land Buddhism encourages other things than the nembutsu, but it’s still secondary to the Pure Land itself. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be Pure Land Buddhism. ;)

What Mayan Apocalypse? Teachings From the Buddha

Xunantunich El Castillo 2011

For those panicking over the end of the world, remember this quote from the Lotus Sutra, chapter 16 (translation by Gene Reeves):

Throughout the countless eons,
I have always lived on Holy Eagle Peak
And in various other places.

When the living witness the end of an eon,
When everything is consumed in a great fire,
This land of mine remains safe and tranquil,
Always filled with human and heavenly beings.

In other words, for one who dwells in the Dharma, who dwells in wisdom and goodwill toward others, there is nothing to fear. One will always be safe, and with a peaceful mind.

Elsewhere the Buddha teaches in the Maha-Mangala Sutta (Sn 2.4 in the Pali Canon):

Respect, humility, contentment, gratitude, hearing the Dhamma on timely occasions: This is the highest protection.

There is no need to stock up on guns, food, bomb-shelters or whatever. The world will continue as it always does. Only fools will make themselves miserable.

P.S. Don’t be like this guy. ;)

Financial Advice, the Buddhist Way

Tapussa and Bhallika

Hi all,

This post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with a relative who asked me for financial advice, plus I was thinking about all the money people spend during the Holidays (Christmas, Hanukah, お正月, etc).

The Buddha was not only a great teacher, but he was also very understanding and pragmatic. The Buddha recognized two groups of disciples: the monastics and the “householders” (lay people). The term “householders” refers to disciples who are still making a living in the mundane, material world. While a monastic makes a vow to renounce possessions and to focus solely on the Buddhist path, a householder has a lot of obligations in the material world and thus can’t renounce possessions and can’t focus on the Buddhist path all the time.

So, the Buddha’s teachings were often tailored for the audience. In many sutras, he offered advice to monastic disciples because they were “full-time” disciples, but he also gave advice to lay people too in some sutras. The Buddhas advice to lay people often involved the Five Precepts, or how to have a happy and harmonious home, but also financial matters.

For example, in the Dighajanu Sutta (AN 8.54), he talks about the importance of spending within your budget:

And what does it mean to maintain one’s livelihood in tune? There is the case where a lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], ‘Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.’ Just as when a weigher or his apprentice, when holding the scales, knows, ‘It has tipped down so much or has tipped up so much,’ in the same way, the lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher

This is true even today. A person should keep track of their finances and make sure they don’t spend more than they can afford, but also avoid being a miser. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, but how you spend it.

In fact, the Buddha encourages a husband to spoil his wife a little in the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31):

“In five ways, young householder, should a wife as the West be ministered to by a husband:
(i) by being courteous to her,
(ii) by not despising her,
(iii) by being faithful to her,
(iv) by handing over authority to her,
(v) by providing her with adornments.

But also, the Buddha praised the importance of hard work, not get-rich-quick schemes as the Dighajanu Sutta explains:

“And what does it mean to be consummate in vigilance? There is the case when a lay person has righteous wealth — righteously gained, coming from his initiative, his striving, his making an effort, gathered by the strength of his arm, earned by his sweat — he manages to protect it through vigilance [with the thought], ‘How shall neither kings nor thieves make off with this property of mine, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ This is called being consummate in vigilance.

In the Adiya Sutta (AN 5.41), the Buddha explains the benefits of maintaining honest wealth:

“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones — using the wealth earned through his efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of his arm, and piled up through the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained — wards off from calamities coming from fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs, and keeps himself safe. This is the third benefit that can be obtained from wealth.

But in the same sutra, the Buddha encourages many times to use that wealth to benefit others:

He provides his mother & father with pleasure & satisfaction, and maintains that pleasure rightly. He provides his children, his wife, his slaves, servants, & assistants with pleasure & satisfaction, and maintains that pleasure rightly.

Lastly though, the Buddha also warned followers in Dighajanu Sutta and the Sigalovada Sutta how to destroy one’s wealth:

“What are the six channels for dissipating wealth which he [a noble disciple] does not pursue?
(a) “indulgence in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness;
(b) sauntering in streets at unseemly hours;
(c) frequenting theatrical shows;
(d) indulgence in gambling which causes heedlessness;
(e) association with evil companions;
(f) the habit of idleness.

So, in short, the Buddha encouraged honest labour1, fiscal responsibility (not using credit), being diligent about one’s wealth, and avoiding a decadent lifestyle that will drain resources.

Maintaining honest wealth and being generous to loved ones will lead to a peaceful and fruitful life.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. On a practical note, I highly recommend this book on personal financing. It helped me out a lot about 10 years ago when my wife and I were first dating. I had run up a lot of credit card debt and finally got it under control and paid off. No secret tricks in this book, just good, general advice.

1 In the Dighajanu Sutta above, he described honest labour like so:

There is the case where a lay person, by whatever occupation he makes his living — whether by farming or trading or cattle tending or archery or as a king’s man or by any other craft — is clever and untiring at it, endowed with discrimination in its techniques, enough to arrange and carry it out.

So it wasn’t just working in the fields, but any kind of honest, reputable work.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism: A Fresh Perspective

The Buddha's Arahats 3

(Taken recently with permission at Kannon-ji temple in Japan, this shows some of the Buddha’s “arahat” disciples. Sorry for the poor quality. The room was very dark, and I only had a camera phone.)

Hi all,

Folks who are new to Buddhism usually become aware that there are two broad “traditions”: the Theravada and Mahayana. These traditions are not quite the same as you find in other religious traditions, they are not born out of schism or mutual ex-communication. Purely in terms of geography, Mahayana can be thought of as “Northern Buddhism” because it is much more common in Asian countries north of India: Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Theravada can be thought of as “Southern Buddhism”: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos. A lot of the issue is geography, but there are differences in style and thought as well.

In high school when I was 16, I first became interested in Buddhism and remember reading textbook definitions that seem kind of naive and inaccurate now. “The Mahayana Buddhists were focused on compassion and their ideal was the bodhisattva; the Theravada Buddhists were focused on wisdom and their ideal is the arahant.” This is what such books sounded like to me.

It’s a persistent stereotype that confuses a lot of new people to Buddhism. Thankfully, I recently found a great article by Bhikkhu Bodhi that challenges this view with a very well-written, thorough explanation of both schools and their origins. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, for those not familiar, is a Theravadin Buddhist scholar that worked a lot with the late Venerable Yin-Shun, a Mahayana Buddhist scholar from Taiwan. I deeply revere both men myself within the Buddhist world a lot more than slick-talking gurus you sometimes see on the Internet. My blog has a lot of posts over the years talking about their writings. :)

Anyhow, I high recommend reading all of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article if you can, but it is pretty long and scholarly. If you don’t have the time, consider reading Section V if possible. It begins with the line:

I said above that each extreme attitude — “Nikāya purism” and “Mahāyāna elitism” — neglects facts that are discomforting to their respective points of view.

I had never heard of either term, but they’re both kind of appropriate in describing certain attitudes that one sees in Theravada and Mahayana. “Nikāya purism” as Bhikkhu Bodhi describes earlier:

An opposing attitude common among conservative advocates of the Nikāyas rejects all later developments in the history of Buddhist thought as deviation and distortion, a fall away from the “pristine purity” of the ancient teaching. I call this attitude “Nikāya purism.” Taking the arahant ideal alone as valid, Nikāya purists reject the bodhisattva ideal, sometimes forcefully and even aggressively.

and of “Mahāyāna elitism”:

Now some people argue that because the arahant is the ideal of Early Buddhism, while the bodhisattva is the ideal of later Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Mahāyāna must be a more advanced or highly developed type of Buddhism, a more ultimate teaching compared to the simpler, more basic teaching of the Nikāyas. That is indeed an attitude common among Mahāyānists, which I will call “Mahāyāna elitism.”

Indeed in the Buddhist community you can see this attitude among some disciples, both past and present. Unlike some other religions, the two branches have never had conflict or wars, but unfortunately, Buddhist texts sometimes contain childish or snippy comments about the other. Occasionally, you meet a Buddhist teacher or disciple who wants to vent his spleen on the other. It happens when people get too worked up for religion. As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

It is much simpler to adopt either a standpoint of “Nikāya purism” or one of “Mahāyāna elitism” and hold to it without flinching. The problem with these two standpoints, however, is that both are obliged to neglect facts that are discomforting to their respective points of view.

Anyhow, the rest of the article helps to explain why these two strains of thought even exist at all, and then carefully shows how the differences are often greatly exaggerated. It’s clear that the Nikāyas, the core texts in the Theravadin tradition (i.e. the Pali Canon) and in the Mahayana tradition (the Agama Sutra), are the oldest and most historically accurate of the Buddhist texts. One would have to be very naive to believe that the Mahayana sutras that came after are literal, historical teachings of the Buddha.1 But Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article also shows how both have their blind spots and their virtues.

In the end, he argues:

The kind of tolerance that is needed is one that respects the authenticity of Early Buddhism so far as we can determine its nature from the oldest historical records, yet can also recognize the capacity of Buddhism to undergo genuine historical transformations that bring to manifestation hidden potentials of the ancient teaching, transformations not necessarily preordained to arise from the early teaching but which nevertheless enrich the tradition springing from the Buddha as its fountainhead.

Indeed, if you read Yin-Shun’s book, The Way to Buddhahood, he describes his approach as “humanistic Buddhism”, which is essentially Mahayana in nature, but strongly rooted in the historical Buddhist tradition as well. I think this is a good model for future generations.

For my part, I think the comment about transformation by Bhikkhu Bodhi is also very true. I noticed a while back while reading certain Mahayana sutras, that they often sound like summaries or “re-hashing” of earlier texts. This is not always the case, since some Mahayana sutras are very focused and topical, but for example, try reading the last-half of the Immeasurable Life Sutra. The first half sounds like a typical Mahayana sutra, replete with dramatic narrative and language, but the second-half which most people don’t read, is a good summary of the Buddhist doctrine in general, the Four Noble Truths, the impermanence of existence, the importance of conduct, etc. I don’t believe that the Mahayana Buddhists abandoned the original teachings, but they can get somewhat obscured in the dramatic narrative sometimes if you are not familiar with the text. Likewise, the Theravadin Arhat isn’t just a guy who has a lot of wisdom, but really embodies the virtues of teaching the Dharma to others, and being selfless having uprooted the conceit of self.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, the key to healing the Buddhist community is recognizing the virtues of both, and also recognizing that both contain the same truths, but may express them somewhat differently.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 To be fair, past Buddhists didn’t have the benefit of modern archeology and very, very few had ever been to India. So, many did believe the Mahayana sutras were literal and historical, but I can’t fault them for it.