The Three Relationships with Amitabha Buddha

Hey folks,

Lately, I’ve been reading some of the translated writings of a Buddhist monk in Japan named Shōkū (証空, 1177 – 1247), who was a chief disciple of Honen and roughly contemporary to Shinran.  I wrote about him a long time ago, but lately I’ve been re-reading his writings in a book titled Traversing the Pure Land Path.

In a reply addressed to Shogun Yoritsune, who had sent a letter seeking Buddhist advice, Shoku talked about something called the Three Karmic Relations (三縁, san’en).  The concept actually comes from the 7th-century Chinese Buddhist master Shan-dao (善導, zendō in Japanese) and teaches that through devotion to Amitabha Buddha one strengthens three karmic relations with the Buddha.

  • Shin’en (親縁) – intimate karmic relationship
  • Gon’en1 (近縁) – close karmic relationship
  • Zōjō’en (増上縁) – superior karmic relationship

In his letter to Yoritsune, Shoku explained the three karmic relations like so:

But intimate karmic relation, I mean that….the light which streams from his being finds nothing it cannot penetrate. None of the virtues which flow from Amida Buddha’s thoughts, words and actions can fail to affect us, no matter how immersed we may be in affliction and bad karma. This is the reason that when we call, he hears; when we pray, he sees; and when we meditate, he knows, and unfailingly leads us to ojo [Rebirth in the Pure Land], regardless of the good or bad in our hearts, as long as we continue to put our trust in him. This is why Shan-tao says that the three acts of Amida Buddha exactly agree with the three acts of the wayfarer….

By close karmic relation, I mean that when this intimacy between us and Amida has reached its height, not only does he know all about our actions, words and thoughts, but we come to know the significance of his actions, words and thoughts on our behalf. So if we long to see him, he actually appears at our side in a dream or at life’s last hour.

By superior karmic relation, I mean the results which flow from the actions set in motion by the preceding two. As Shan-tao says, “All sentient beings who call upon his name will shed all the karma for which they should suffer throughout countless kalpas of time. Whey they draw near to life’s end, Amida Buddha and his retinue come to welcome them, and all their inherited hindering karmic relations are dispelled.” This is what we call superior karmic relation.

There are plenty of interpretations of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, but I think Shan-tao’s (and by extension Shoku’s) teaching makes sense in all cases. At the very least reciting the Buddha’s name is a positive way to “perfume the mind” as Yogacara Buddhists would say.

P.S. Forgot to mention the book. It is called Traversing the Pure Land Path. I’ve owned it for a long-time, but occasionally re-read it.

1 The book for some reason pronounces this as gen’en but in every modern Japanese dictionary I look at, it’s gon’en. I think this more closely matches the pronunciation of modern-Japanese for 近. The “gen” may be an archaic pronunciation, but since dictionaries in Japanese don’t use it, I used the modern-Japanese reading instead.

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Dog Days of Summer, in Korea and Japan

Summers in Japan and Korea are hot. I grew up in the Seattle-area my whole life and summers here are usually warm, mild and not very humid.

My first time in Japan during summer was a shock. Other than my time studying abroad in Vietnam, I had never felt such heat and humidity. Even people who live there get pretty uncomfortable this time of year. The summers get particularly bad during late July-August because the rainy season is over but the humidity remains. This is known as zansho (残暑).

In the past, I wrote about the tradition of eating unagi eels in Japan around July 15th. This known as doō ushi no hi (土用丑の日), where “ushi” (丑) refers to the Chinese-zodiac sign of the Ox. Foods with also starting with “u” became popular foods particularly unagi eels.

Eel kabayaki,Una-don,Katori-city,Japan

Korea also has its own traditions and summer foods. The period between mid-July to mid-Auguest is called sanbok (삼복, 三伏) or the “three prostrations”. The name comes from the fact that there are three holidays during this period: chobok (初伏, 초복), chungbok (中伏, 중복) and malbok (末伏, 말복). These signal the beginning, middle and end of the dog-days of summer. The days will slightly vary each year depending on the Chinese-calendar, still in use in traditional Korean culture.

A popular dish during this time is samgyetang (삼계탕 蔘鷄湯):

Korean soup-Samgyetang-06

Samgyetang is chicken soup cooked with ginseng, glutinous rice and often with other assorted herbs. At the H-Mart (Korean grocery store) near our home, we’ve purchased Samgyetang before and cooked it at home. It was pretty tasty. It’s a different flavor than any other chicken soup I’ve eaten before, but it was good.  Also, the ginseng, popular in Korean culture, and other herbs are thought to help reinvigorate a person during the terrible heat.

However you deal with summer heat, make sure to get plenty of fluids and rest, though! Enjoy!

P.S. 妻が送ってくれた韓国の参鶏湯や三伏の日ついての記事はこちらです。

P.P.S. You can find more Japanese unagi and summer here. For the Korean tradition, you can read here.

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The Unvarnished Nembutsu

A long time ago, I posted about a Jodo Shu monk named Shoku who was one of the chief disciples of the famous monk Honen, and established the Seizan (西山) branch of Jodo Shu Buddhism. Although it is a smaller branch of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, it is still sizable, and centered mainly in the Kyoto area. One of his most famous writings was on a concept he called the “unvarnished nembutsu” (shiroki nembutsu 白木念仏). He explains the nenbutsu (念仏), or ” repeating the name of Amitabha Buddha“, and ōjō (往生), rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, like so:1

People who depend on themselves for their emancipation discolor the nenbutsu itself. One person gives a different color to it, because of the convictions he has reached regarding the Mahayana teachings. Another does the same by the understanding he has of other Buddhist principles. Another does it by her way of keeping the precepts, while a fourth by his method of meditative absorption (samadhi). In the end, those who color their nenbutsu practice with many meditative and non-meditative practices boast that they will definitely attain ojo.

Meanwhile those who cannot develop these practices and whose nenbutsu is utterly colorless grow discouraged about their ability to attain ojo. Well, both the boastful and the discouraged are illusions coming from self-dependence. The fact is that the nenbutsu taught in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life for people who live a hundred years after the Dharma has perished, and the nenbutsu taught in the Meditation Sutra for those who belong to the lowest of the nine ranks of sentient beings is the very nenbutsu I mean when I use the term “unvarnished wood”.

….Now if a person just says the nenbutsu, he or she will attain ojo — no matter whether the person leads a pure or impure life, whether their karma is bad or good, whether the person is of high class or low, a scholar or a fool….this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in the nenbutsu of people either deeply or just ordinarily knowledgable of the Mahayana teachings, or those who keep the precepts. It’s very important to avoid all confusions of thought here.

The key here, I think is not who’s right or wrong, or how deep one’s understanding of Buddhist doctrine is, because Amitabha will lead all such beings to the Pure Land simply on the basis of them uttering the nenbutsu.

1 Quoting from Traversing the Pure Land Path, which is a book I’ve owned for years, but occasionally like to re-read. :)

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Buddhism: Do What Works

Recently I’ve been reading (started last year) Professor Robert Buswell’s book on Korean Buddhism: the Zen Monastic Experience. Toward the beginning he talks about how he became a monk, first in Thailand, later Korea. In one encounter in Thailand, the young Buswell meets a famous teacher near the Laotian border named Maha Bua:

I arrived at Maha Boowa’s monastery expecting to be immediately taught his meditation method and exhorted to to get started with my practice. Instead, for the first week he didn’t even notice my presence and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that he finally consented to talk to me. 

When I was finally able to meet with him, the first question I asked was, “Please tell me your meditation method and what I should do in order to achieve enlightenment.” His response to me was telling, and proved to be extremely influential to my own vocation; still today, some two decades, I recall it vividly. “I can’t tell you how you can become enlightened,” he told me. “I know what I did for myself, but I can’t tell you what is going to work for you. Each of us is different and unique. Each of us has his own predilections, backgrounds, and interests, and these things can only be understood by you personally. So if you ask my meditation method, all I can tell you is to watch yourself, to watch your own life, try different things out and see what works for you. What works, keep doing; what doesn’t work, discard and go on to something else.” So here I was, an immature, idealistic nineteen-year-old, expecting to be some method, and instead I was being told that the only method is no method. (Page 73)

Just something i wanted to share. :-)

P.S. For anyone interested in Zen or Korean Seon Buddhism I definitely recommend this book. 

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The Illusion of Romance

While reading the book about Tetsugen, a Japanese Obaku-Zen monk who lived in the 17th century, I found this passage, translated from Tetsugen’s main surviving work, the Dharma Lesson in Japanese (鉄眼禅師仮名法語 , tetsugen zenji kana hōgo). In it, he writes:1

Thinking that something is repulsive and thinking that something is attractive are both figments of your own imagination….As we gradually get to know someone, feelings of intimacy deepen toward a person we find compatible, and we create the feeling that they are attractive. It is precisely because of this circumstance that when we follow the paths of affection, however much it changes our lives, to that extent the ties of tenderness likewise increase. When you develop feelings of love in this way, loves seems inevitable, and whichever way you turn it over in your mind, it is love without a trace of hatefulness. When you love reaches an extreme, and you think that even if you were to live one hundred million kalpas [vast eons] your feelings wouldn’t change, you are mistaken.

Tetsugen elaborates here:

Though you are intimate friends, you will have some differences of opinion, and will quarrel. Then the quarrels grow into arguments. Or, as is the way of live, if your [lover’s] feelings shift to another, however deep were your feelings of love at the beginning, that is how deep your hate will now become. These feelings of hatred and bitterness are so deep that you may even think that they will eventually kill you….If the thoughts of love were not false in the first place, then you would probably not have changed your mind in a short time… (pg. 69, trans. Professor Baroni)

The reason why it is “false” is because your feelings of desire for that person, are a kind of projection of all your hopes and needs onto that person. When they don’t live up to that expectation, your feelings of love or friendship turn into anger. The greater the expectations, the greater the disappointment and frustration.

Speaking from personal experience when my wife and I are happy and romantic in the morning, and then furious at each other in the afternoon, I know it happens. We’ve all probably felt it at least once in our lives. One misstep, one forgotten thing, and it can change so fast.

Instead, the Buddha taught the need for goodwill for all beings. A balanced, level-headed kind of goodwill.  True compassion and love is something entirely separate from passion. It’s based on the welfare of others not how they make you feel. As I get older, I appreciate this more and more.

But if blinded by passion, one is capable of all kinds of harm, even when they believe they are doing good. 

That’s why wisdom is so important. :-)

P.S. The Buddha’s teaching on what true friendship is. :)

1 Compare with the Buddha’s own words in the Vina Sutta (SN 35.205) of the Pali Canon:

“Monks, in whatever monk or nun there arises desire, passion, aversion, delusion, or mental resistance with regard to forms cognizable via the eye, he/she should hold the mind in check. [Thinking,] ‘It’s dangerous & dubious, that path, thorny & overgrown, a miserable path, a devious path, impenetrable. It’s a path followed by people of no integrity, not a path followed by people of integrity. It’s not worthy of you,’ he/she should hold the mind in check with regard to forms cognizable via the eye.

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Transitions

Recently, I was watching a new video by one of my favorite Youtube channels: Andrew’s Game Display. In this video, he explains that he isn’t able to make videos often anymore due to the demands of college, work and life in general, and apologies to his readers for not keeping up with his old schedule. I always liked Andrew’s because he’s a very genuine guy and makes gaming fun and accessible.

When I watch Andrew’s video, I can see that his life his changing. He’s in college now, working full-time, etc. He is transitioning from one life to another. In the same way, I feel I am transitioning too. I was upset about neglecting my hobbies, but when I look at from the perspective of transitions, it made me feel better. I am not being lazy, but my life is changing and that means some of my old hobbies are fading away, while new things occupy my time.

For me, the main changes have been my new job, which I enjoy very much, raising two kids, preparing for ordination, etc. At first, I thought that once Little Guy got older, life would return to normal and I could resume things like Youtube videos, and blogging regularly. The reality though is that it’s getting harder to maintain the blog and I rarely make Youtube videos anymore.

Also, this year I won’t even be able to go to Japan because I started a new job and don’t want to take that much time off. So I won’t be able to talk about visiting Japan. I am not sure I have enough motivation to take the JLPT N1 exam either this year.

But when you think about it, life is just a series of transitions. There’s no clean break, usually, just constant changes and transitions. Looking back, I can see that in the last year my life has been transitioning, but I was in denial. You can never really go back to the way things were, you can only go forward.

Looking forward to the future, I feel my blog will start to wind down more and more. I don’t plan to quit the blog, but I don’t plan to follow a schedule anymore. It’s just not possible anymore. That means I might not post for a while. It could be a long while. It just depends on other things.

But for you faithful readers, thanks for all your support over the years, and I will continue posting interesting things I find, but I can’t promise I will post regularly anymore. Since the blog has been around for 7+ years (February 2008), there’s plenty of content for new readers as well. I wish I could post more and better content, but I hope readers are not disappointed with the changes coming.

Thanks for your patience and please continue enjoying this blog. :)

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The Seven Pure Land Masters of Jodo Shinshu

Hi Everyone,

Today, I wanted to post a photo I took (with permission) from the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple:

The Seven Pure Land Masters

This is a picture of the Seven Pure Land Masters or shichi kōsō (七高僧) in Japanese. In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, it is taught that these Buddhist teachers, from India, China and Japan, helped develop Pure Land Buddhism into what it is today. For this reason, they are usually enshrined in the main shrine, often on the far-left side.

The Seven Pure Land masters are, in historical order:

  1. Nagarjuna, India, (150–250)
  2. Vasubandhu, India, (ca. 4th century)
  3. Tan-luan, China, (476–542?)
  4. Daochao, China, (562–645)
  5. Shandao, China, (613–681)
  6. Genshin, Japan, (942–1017)
  7. Hōnen, Japan, (1133–1212)

Similarly, the Shoshinge hymn that I’ve been studying and practicing explains in great detail the lineage too. I spent some time recently on Wikipedia updating the article on Jodo Shinshu to explain what each one has done. In general, each of these esteemed Buddhist teachers has built upon the previous one, and refined the Pure Land Buddhist teachings to what we know today.

Thus, if you ever go to a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple, you will typically see them enshrined on the far-left, opposite of Prince Shotoku.

Anyway, just wanted to share this photo. :)

P.S. The same lineage is used in the related Jodo Shu sect, but obviously Honen the founder is omitted from the list above. ;)

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