Category Archives: Theravada

Not Worth It In The Long-Run

Recently, I read a Theravada Buddhist pamphlet at my local Thai restaurant by the famous teacher Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. In the pamphlet I found this great quote:

Nothing is worth clinging to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’.

Usually when people try to explain Buddhism in English, they use big words like impermanence or attachment and so on. But not everyone understands what this means. What Buddhadasa Bhikkhu is saying makes more sense: most things in life are not worth it in the long-run.

For example, imagine that you spend a lot of money on a new iPad or game console, or you stay up overnight so you can be the first to buy it. Will it still be fun 30 years later? Looking back, was it worth the money and effort? What about getting an attractive partner? You might feel proud having a “hot girlfriend” but will she stay attractive forever? Will you two get along years later? What about being famous? What if you spend years finding the perfect job and then realize you hate it?

This is not to say that there are fun, pleasant things in life, but that in the long-run, they’re usually not worth the time, money or effort you put into it.

People often live for short-term gratification, without thinking about the future until it’s too late. They act like they are constantly drunk. By “drunk”, I mean that they think and act impulsively without considering the long-term cost or benefit. Then when it’s too late they sigh and regret many things in life.

Like the famous Iroha poem says:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

So, it’s good to sober up and think long-term. Someday you will thank yourself.

Adding Insult To Injury

This is an interesting Buddhist sutra from the Pali Canon, named the Akkosa Sutta (SN 7.2). In this sutra, a local priest (a brahman) gets really angry at the Buddha and starts yelling and insulting him. The Buddha’s reply is very interesting:

Thus reviled, the Blessed One spoke to the brahman Akkosa Bharadvaja: ‘Well, brahman, do friends, confidants, relatives, kinsmen and guests visit you?”

“Yes, Gotama [the Buddha], sometimes friends, confidants, relatives, kinsmen and guests do visit me.”

“Well, brahman, do you not offer them snacks or food or tidbits?”

“Yes, Gotama, sometimes I do offer them snacks or food or tidbits.”

“But if, brahman, they do not accept it, who gets it?”

“If Gotama, they do not accept it, I get it back.”

“Even so, brahman, you are abusing us who do not abuse, you are angry with us who do not get angry, you are quarreling with us who do not quarrel. All this of yours we don’t accept. You alone, brahman, get it back; all this, brahman, belongs to you.

In other words, the Buddha doesn’t get angry at all. He doesn’t “accept” the brahman’s insults. So, as we say in American culture, the brahman is “left holding the bag”, or “with egg on his face”.

Kind of clever, I think.:-)

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches Recollection of the Buddha

Hello,

Since today is the Buddha’s Birthday in the solar-calendar (April 8th), I wanted to post this. It’s a really long post, but I hope people find it useful.

In the past, I’ve read a certain Buddhist book by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh1 called Finding Our True Home. It’s a book that talks about Pure Land Buddhism, but from a Vietnamese-Buddhist/Zen perspective.

The first time I read this book years ago, I didn’t really like it much. I disagreed with his interpretation, and felt it was somehow contradicting with my understanding of Pure Land Buddhism. But recently I read it again (twice) and now appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings more than before. He emphasizes a Pure Land practice called “recollection of the Buddha”, which he explains like so:

The practice of recollecting the Buddha is called anusmrti in Sanskrit. Even in the Buddha’s lifetime, there were many of the Buddha’s disciples who practiced Recollecting the Buddha. For thousands of years, people recollected the Buddha in this way in order to feel more solid, free, peaceful, and happy. Thus, Recollecting the Buddha has been an accepted practice in the Buddhist tradition, from the time of the Buddha. (pg. 96)

I went and checked on this, and Thich Nhat Hanh is right. If you look in the early Buddhist sutras, they often teach the practice of recollecting the Buddha, or the Dharma, or the Sangha. For example, in this passage from the Dhammapada:

296. Those disciples of Gotama [the Buddha] ever awaken happily who day and night constantly practice the Recollection of the Qualities of the Buddha.

In Theravada Buddhism (上座仏教, jōza bukkyō in Japanese), this is called Anussati. In Chinese Buddhism, this became nian-fo (念仏), which is none other than the nembutsu that is practiced in Pure Land Buddhism. However, the meaning has changed over time. By the Middle Ages, 念仏 meant to recite the Buddha’s name as a way of recollecting the Buddha, but the original meaning was a little different. The practice of Anusmrti/Anussati/念仏 was to recollect the qualities of the Buddha as a source of inspiration and to help cultivate similar qualities in oneself.

As Thich Nhat Hanh explains further:

The Buddha embodies solidity, freedom, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Whenever we recollect the name of the Buddha, we very naturally feel the ease, solidity, and freedom of the Buddha. That is one reason why in our own time many people follow this practice. (pg 97)

But, how does one do this? He explains next:

When Recollecting the Buddha, the practitioner begins by supposing that the Buddha is a reality outside of himself or herself. He or she might visualize the Buddha in the Jeta Grove (祇園精舎, Gion Shōja in Japanese) or on the Vulture Peak (霊鷲山, ryōjusen) in India. However, gradually the Buddha becomes a reality both within and without. In our own consciousness, there are the seeds of solidity, freedom, love, compassion, joy and equanimity….If we are successful in the practice, we will realize that the Buddha is always present within us. Because of this, we need not grieve that the Buddha is no longer alive. We know that the Buddha is always in us and that he can never die. The principle of Recollecting the Buddha is as simple as that.(pg. 98)

But there’s also more to it. Thich Nhat Hanh points out that the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀経, amidakyō in Japanese) and an older sutra called the Satipatthana Sutta (The Four Frames of Reference, MN10 in the Pali Canon) both talk about the importance and benefits of concentration and focus. In the Satipatthana Sutta:

“Now, if anyone would develop these four frames of reference in this way for seven years, one of two fruits can be expected for him….Let alone seven years. If anyone would develop these four frames of reference in this way for six years… five… four… three… two years… one year… seven months… six months… five… four… three… two months… one month… half a month, one of two fruits can be expected for him.

and in the Amitabha Sutra:

Shariputra, if a good man or woman who hears of Amida Buddha holds fast to his Name even for one day, two days, three, four, five, six or seven days with a concentrated and undistracted mind, then, at the hour of death, Amida Buddha will appear before them with a host of holy ones.

In the Amitabha Sutra, the specific term is 一心不乱, which means something like a “single mind, without being scattered”.2 So, both sutras have a strong emphasis on concentration, mindfulness, etc.

Thich Nhat Hanh clarifies this further:

To practice mindfulness with a one-pointed mind which is not dispersed means that while we are recollecting the Buddha our mind does not think about anything else. We only think of Buddha. This is what was practiced in the lifetime of the Buddha and the practice was called Buddhanusmrti, remembrance of the Buddha. (pg. 105)

and then:

To be successful in undispersed recollection of the Buddha we need a process of training. In the beginning our mind is still disturbed but we do not lose our patience. For a long time we may only recite the Buddha’s name ten times and for nine out of those ten times our mind is dispersed in forgetfulness. We are only mindful of what we are reciting once, but once is better than nothing. Later on we shall recite twice in mindfulness and only eight times in forgetfulness. That is progress.(pg. 106).

Also, this teaching is not limited to Thich Nhat Hanh alone. In Venerable Yin-Shun’s book, The Way to Buddhahood, he teaches something very similar:

For example, if one can follow—single-mindedly and without scatteredness—the easy path method of chanting a buddha’s name, one can attain the samādhi of mindfulness of a buddha. But the key point in this method is mindfulness of a buddha’s physical appearance and virtues….Following this method can lead toward superior world-transcending dhyāna contemplation and thereby further leads to enlightenment. On a more superficial level, being mindful of a buddha acts as a repentance for one’s karmic obstructions and as a means to gather good roots….

One should know that practice that takes mindfulness of a buddha as the object of focus is mental practice. Even the ordinary mindfulness of a buddha—inattentively chanting his name—emphasizes the mind, although not as much as focusing on the form of a buddha to practice cessation.(pg 259-260)

Anyway, the point of this long, long post is that I realized that my understanding of Pure Land Buddhism was pretty narrow in the past Pure Land Buddhism is a large subject in Buddhism, and I still have a lot more to learn. I hope people learned something new too. :)

Happy Birthday Buddha!
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa

1 Pronounced like “Tick Nyat Hain”, or “Tick Nyat Han” in southern Vietnamese Dialect, if I recall right. My memory is getting pretty rusty.

2 In modern, colloquial Japanese, this has become a phrase meaning someone is super-focused on something like a project, homework, etc. It is pronounced isshin furan.

No One In Charge

Anicca vata sankhara
Upada vaya dhammino
Upakituva nirujihanti
Tesang vupasamo sukho

All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.

— Theravada Buddhist funeral chant

A while back, I posted about a Buddhist analogy of waves and water, which describes everything around us. The idea is that everything around us (including our feelings, thoughts, trends and such) are like waves: they arise, then disappear again, and then more waves arise, disappear, etc. This is a very popular analogy in Mahayana Buddhism (daijōbukkyō in Japanese 大乗仏教), but I’ve never seen it used in Theravada Buddhism (jōzabukkyō in Japanese 上座仏教).

However, when I saw this chant above today, I noticed that it basically expressed the same thing. I have noticed before that Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism often mean the same thing, but use different styles and different words to express it. Still, the meaning is the same. If someone is not familiar, they can seem like very different branches of Buddhism, but if someone is familiar enough with one kind of Buddhism, they can see the same teachings in other schools of Buddhism.

Anyhow, the title of this blog post comes from an article by respected monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, when he says:

We learn to see the true nature of the sankharas, of our own five aggregates: as unstable, conditioned processes rolling on with no one in charge.

The Pali word sankhara means “formations”, as in something that arises from causes and conditions. In other words, the “waves” I mentioned before. 😉 These waves keep rolling on, with no one in control. People keep making more waves because of things like ignorance and selfishness, and the cycle keeps going, whether you want it to or not.

The “five aggregates” (go-un 五蘊) mentioned above are the five pieces, five components, that make a living being:

  • Physical Form (色) – Your body (physical brain, etc)
  • Sensation (受) – Sight, sound, touch, etc.
  • Perception (想) – Awareness of sight, sound, touch, etc,
  • Mental Formations (行) – Thoughts like “it’s hot”, or “I see a tree”, “I smell bacon”, etc.
  • Conscious thought (識) – Further thoughts like “That’s a big tree”, or “That bacon tastes good”.

You can see the Five Aggregates mentioned in the famous Heart Sutra (hannya shingyō 般若心経) here for example:

觀自在菩薩行深般若波羅蜜多時照見五蘊皆空度一切苦厄

Kannon Bodhisattva saw into the nature of the Five Aggregates and found them equally empty [unstable, conditioned processes, with “no one in charge”] and overcame all pain

I’m digressing, but it’s interesting how these Buddhist truths get expressed both in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.

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.