Vesak is kind of confusing to a Shin Buddhist. In the Buddhist Churches of America, we celebrate Shakyamuni Buddha’s birthday on April 8 (and Shinran Shonin’s birthday on May 21), so why are we celebrating Shakyamuni’s birthday again in May?!! I addressed this issue in my Dharma Talk at Buddhist Church of Oakland this past weekend:
TLDW : Vesak is the Theravada commemoration of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing away. It is calculated based on the lunar calendar, and thus the date changes each year, like Easter or Lunar New Year. Nishi Hongwanji, on the other hand, calculates the various events based on the solar calendar. I personally think it is important to acknowledge these differences, even within the greater Buddhist tradition. Plus, it looks like Vesak is getting some more traction nationwide…
On the occasion of Shinran Shonin’s birthday (May 21st, 1173, according to the solar calendar), I would like to ask this question about “love” in Buddhism. In general, from having studied Buddhism for the past 30+ years, I would say that Buddhism acknowledges love, but that it is viewed as something negative to be overcome. This viewpoint might recognize love as “desire,” one of the Three Poisons, and also the cause of samsara found in the Four Noble Truths.
Of course, the question is more complicated than this. We should first ask, “What do you mean by love?” And this isn’t an easy question to answer! Which language and culture are you referring to? And what time period? European notions of love changed over time, for instance, so we want to be careful not to generalize too much. In the case of Buddhism, we might want to look at such terms as taṇhā, raga, and chanda. Each of these has different nuances – in fact, one term might have multiple meanings! Plus, I am not a Pali scholar, so instead, let’s look at the works of Shinran and see what he says.
One place we can find Shinran referencing desire is in the “Shoshin nembutsu ge,” or “Hymn of True Entrusting & Nembutsu,” where he provides a metaphor describing this Entrusting, or Shinjin, as the light of the sun and the Three Poisons as clouds and mist:
The light of compassion that grasps us illumines and protects us always;
The darkness of our ignorance is already broken through;
Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire, anger and hatred,
Cover as always the sky of true and real shinjin.
But though the light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists,
Beneath the clouds and mists there is light, not darkness.
(Collected Works of Shinran, translated by Dennis Hirota, et al.)
The expression “greed and desire” is made up of two Chinese characters: “ton” and “ai.” “Ai” is the term in modern Japanese that is used for “love” (again, in a general, modern sense), but in the English translation it is “desire.” Another term, “yoku,” is also often used for desire – in modern Japanese, it is the word “hoshii” that can just mean “I want that.” So we can see how confusing this is (it doesn’t help that I’m not explaining it well). Even in the Pali, this term can be understood as “desire” (which in English may imply something more sexual but not necessarily), as “greed” (which in English looks more like greed for material possessions), or as “attachment” (which could be more neutral, and that might be more accurate, and yet the Indian words also have the sexual and material senses. Attachment may also refer to attachment to a notion of a self, but that’s going beyond the scope of this post!). But where is love in all this?
In his Koso Wasan, as set of hymns or poems written about the Seven Masters, Shinran uses the term “on-ai” – “on” is often translated as benevolence and “ai” is the term we have been looking at. Although “on” is often used to refer to the benevolence of the Buddha (as in the song “Ondokusan”), here, in connection with “ai” it is used to refer to “the attachment to parents, husband, wife or children, etc. It is regarded as one of the causes of samsara” (this is given in a footnote to “The Koso Wasan: The Hymns on the Patriarchs by Shinran” from the Ryukoku Translation Series and whose translators included Hisao Inagaki, William Masuda and others, page 29). A-ha! Are we getting closer? Doesn’t this look like the kind of love we might be thinking of? And doesn’t it appear to be a bad thing? Family bonds in Buddhism often seem to be viewed as something to be overcome, hence the notion of “leaving the home” and becoming a monk. Even Shakyamuni did it!
But this is also part of the crux of the Buddhism of Shinran. He was a monk – in fact, he became a monk at age 9 – but he was also a monk who got married and had children. So leaving one’s family behind isn’t part of the path of Jodo Shinshu. As Shin Buddhists, I would say that we follow a path similar to that lived by Shinran, living our lives in the midst of the Three Poisons, acknowledging their negative aspects but also not trying to escape or negate them.
There is one more aspect of love that Shinran writes about. He calls Shakyamuni and Amida our “Compassionate Mother and Father” (this is found, once again, in the “Koso Wasan,” “Collected Works of Shinran,” page 380), taking inspiration from Shan-tao, one of the most important masters for both Shinran and his teacher Honen. Maybe now we are getting somewhere! This ideal, familial relationship of parent and child is here presented in a positive light. The Compassion of the Buddha is likened to the love of a mother for her child. Yay, I found some good love!
And actually, the answer was there all along in the classic gatha “Buddha Loves You” by Kimi Hisamatsu and Jane Imamura. So to celebrate both a positive valuation of love in Buddhism and the birth of Shinran Shonin, here is a video of that gatha with help from the Buddha Loves You Bunch. Happy Birthday Shinran, thank you for your teachings! Namo Amida Butsu!
Quick post – in my Dharma Message for this Sunday, I talked about “causes & conditions,” and in doing so, I referenced a slide from a presentation by Duncan Ryuken Williams. I used it partly so that people could see the kanji for “go-en” and liked Professor Williams’s translation, “Mysterious Karmic Conditions.” But I wasn’t looking at the slide when I was doing the talk, and when I was inserting the slide from the presentation into the video, I realized it actually says “Mysterious Karmic Connections”! Oops! I wonder if anyone noticed?
They aren’t really that different, and yet the two terms, “conditions” and “connections,” could be seen as having different nuances. The term “conditions” is deeply connected to the discourse of cause and effect – as I discussed during the Dharma Talk, conditions are a more peripheral type of cause. Normally we may think of cause and effect as a one-to-one equation, but there are actually many supporting conditions that bring about the resultant effect.
One place that the discourse of causality can be seen is in the Four Noble Truths, which first explains that “life is suffering.” Next, the cause of that suffering is revealed: desire, or sometimes ignorance & desire. Then the cure is shown – by removing the cause, one removes the result, so if one can get rid of ignorance & desire, then suffering can be removed. This equation is a classic example of cause & effect in Buddhism.
But this isn’t the only way to understand conditions, and maybe Duncan Williams’s use of the term “connections” points to another powerful way they are understood in Buddhism. This is an acknowledgment of the vast inconceivability of the conditions that make up my being here in this present moment. It’s not only the conditions that exist in the present (or previous?) moment, but the conditions that led to them, and on and on. And I am connected to all of them. In fact, I only exist in this present moment in relationship to all of those conditions. Some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, such as the Madhyamika School, find the essential purport of this truth to be the Emptiness of all things. This is Wisdom, the last of the Six Perfections. There is a whole class of Sutra literature devoted to this approach to Buddhism.
But Jodo Shinshu seems instead to focus on the significance those various connections have for my life. Realizing that I only exist because of others, whether because of their efforts or even just their existence. I am only a child because of my parents – even though my parents passed away almost 20 years ago I am still a son. And I am also a nephew, a cousin, a grandson and I am only those things because of my aunts and uncle, my cousins, my grandparents. I am only a Buddhist minister because of so many others – not only my teachers but also the people who I want to keep talking to about the things I discussed in a Dharma Talk. Current temple members, but also people I never even met in person, who may have passed away before I was born. Maybe all of that energy is part of the Compassion energy of the Buddha, the dynamic activity of the Vow whose ultimate goal is for me to attain awakening.
Hey, this was supposed to be a quick post! I should keep going, but also need to get this posted so that I can go to bed! Here is the original Dharma Message:
“Itadakimasu” is one of those interesting Japanese words that doesn’t have an exact counterpart in English. It is usually said before eating a meal. Literally, it means “I receive.” But – and here is where Japanese and English diverge – itadakimasu is the humble form of the neutral form moraimasu, so it might be more accurately said to mean, “I humbly receive.” That’s one clue as to its deeper meaning. The other clue is the kanji that is used: 頂. My favorite online Japanese dictionary, Jim Breem’s WWWJDIC, gives the following for this character: “place on the head; receive; top of head; top; summit; peak.” “Receive” makes sense, but what’s this stuff about the top of the head or placing something on the head?
One place this character can be found is in Junirai, a text attributed to Nagarjuna, the first of the Seven Masters selected by Shinran. Every fourth line of this text repeats “ko ga cho rai mi da son” meaning “Thus I bow my head to Amida” – cho is the same character as in itadakimasu, and rai means to bow. Lowering one’s head and bowing are expressions of deep respect towards someone. This can be seen in the deepest bow: the full five-point prostration where one gets down on the knees, puts the elbows and hands on the ground, and touches the forehead to the floor. (I remember my uncle getting me to do this to my grandmother when I went to visit them in rural Japan decades ago.) But what does it have to do with eating?
Another movement you may see at temple is when we open the sutra book. Not everyone does it, but the ministers do. Before we open it, we hold it up to our head first. This is the lowering of one’s head as a gesture of respect to the words of the Buddha. I have heard it said that when we do this we “itadaku the book,” in other words, we hold it up to our head to express our reverence for the Buddha’s teachings, the words that we have received. So this word itadaku can also be done with bodily action.
Inversely, one of the interesting things about language is that we can sometimes “do” things with words. This idea was propounded by the British philosopher J. L. Austin, in a lecture released as the book, “How to Do Things with Words.” Examples that he gives include the naming of a ship by stating “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” or a priest or minister marrying two people by stating, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It is the words that perform the action. And it looks to me that itadakimasu is one such word. By saying “itadakimasu,” I symbolically hold what I am receiving up to my head. Maybe we could actually hold up our plate, but it doesn’t really work in Japan because a lot of times the food is in a bunch of small bowls instead of all mixed together on a plate!
But why are we treating our food with such respect? I’d like to answer this with a story about my chanting teacher, Reverend Haruyoshi Kusada. Among other things, Kusada sensei was the chanting teacher for several generations of BCA ministers. Once, at the end of the semester, he took our chanting class out for lunch. After we said “itadakimasu,” one of the students said to sensei: “I asked my Japanese teacher what itadakimasu means, and she said it doesn’t mean anything, Japanese people just say it before they eat.” Kusada sensei looked appalled, and said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” The student responded with, “No, my teacher said it doesn’t mean anything,” and Kusada sensei again said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” He then went on to explain: “The food we are eating is plants and animals that gave their lives. And the plants and the animals need the earth, the rain, the sun. All of those things are in the food we are eating, along with innumerable other causes and conditions. So we say thank you to the entire universe by saying itadakimasu.” Those weren’t his exact words, but you get the idea. I still remember many bits of that day, the ride over with Kusada sensei driving us in his van, the restaurant. Of course I forget most of the other parts, but I’m glad that conversation happened and that I still remember it, and of course I am moved thinking about my teacher, Reverend Kusada. Amazing to think that his words continue to resonate in me today.
So during this time of the Coronavirus and social distancing and Stay at Home/Shelter in Place, when the future is uncertain and many things we used to take for granted are now not so easy and convenient, maybe we should try and incorporate itadakimasu into our daily routine. And if we already do it, to do it not out of habit, but to actually try and experience this gratitude. Taking things for granted means that we consume them mindlessly – instead, we can try and be mindful and aware of how special each meal is, each item we eat, down to a single grain of rice. One way to do this is to say itadakimasu each time we eat something. Of course we should also say Namo Amida Butsu, but I think that itadakimasu means and expresses something special that we can incorporate into our routine and that can help us during this difficult time.
This essay is related to the Dharma Message for Sunday, April 26, 2020:
Continuing with the Buddha images theme, this is another image that I expected to be huge but was surprised when I saw it in person. One of the ways that I really got into Buddhism was through art, whether in my discovery of one of my father’s books on Japanese art, a set of postcards I discovered at the end of a semester abroad in Japan during college, or art books I would find in used bookstores. I forget where I picked up the catalog book The Great Eastern Temple but I remember being struck by the image of Maitreya Buddha – it looked so huge and imposing. Imagine my surprise when I went to Nara and saw the image in person – it’s only a little over 3 feet tall! Of course, if I had carefully read the description I would have seen that it was only 39 cm, but the metric thing probably didn’t help.
I found the Japanese book at a used bookstore called “Book Off” – picked it up for 105 yen – that’s basically $1!
I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was related to the English book that I had – they both appear to be related to exhibits, the Japanese one in 1980 at the Nara National Museum (which I believe is where I saw the image, though many years later), the American one in 1986 at the Art Institute of Chicago. They feature many of the same images, and yet the presentation varies slightly.
For instance, the Japanese book also has a picture of the Maitreya image from an alternate angle:
I was fortunate too that both books came with documentation of the exhibits.
I might also point out the interesting identification of the image with Maitreya Buddha as opposed to Maitreya Bodhisattva. Usually Maitreya is considered a bodhisattva who will eventually attain Buddhahood in our world, but he is sometimes referred to as Buddha. This may be partly due to the understanding of Maitreya as having achieved the highest Bodhisattva stage, with the next stage being supreme enlightenment and perfect Buddhahood. A high level Bodhisattva such as this is basically a Buddha. Also, Maitreya is living his last life now in the Tushita Heaven, so when that life ends he will become the next Buddha of our Saha world. In a letter to a follower, Shinran Shonin mentions this:
…The Larger Sutra speaks of “[the stage] next [to enlightenment], like Maitreya.” Since Maitreya is already close to Buddhohood, it is the custom in various schools to speak of him as Maitreya Buddha. (Collected Works of Shinran, 528)
Shinran goes on to say that the person of Shinjin, the Entrusting Mind, is “like Maitreya.” One of the implications of this is that the person of shinjin, at the end of their life, will be born in the Pure Land of Amida and instantly attain Buddhahood, much like Maitreya at the end of his life in the Tushita Heaven.
Even though Jodo Shinshu stresses exclusive reliance on Amida Buddha, it is still interesting and enriching to study and enjoy other forms of Buddhism – there may be connections that we haven’t expected or foreseen. There may even be no connection, but it is also important to respectfully engage traditions other than one’s own. And actually, art may be one of the best ways to do this!
One of the people I follow on social media is Bootsy Collins. He began his rise to fame as the bassist for James Brown, later joining George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic consortium. But Bootsy became a star in his own right, with hit singles from Bootsy’s Rubber Band, his Star basses and glasses, numerous collaborations with Bill Laswell, and guest spots with various artists such as Deee-lite & Fatboy Slim. I have actually been fortunate to meet Bootsy a couple of times – you may have seen this as my profile picture:
You might expect this in my hieronymous music blog, but why here in my Gyokyo Buddhist blog? Well, this is what Bootsy posted on Twitter the day before Easter:
The “One” for Me, might not be the “One” for U & Vice-Verse. Funk says; We have different taste! Yr Father Don’t have to be My Father for us to be in the Same Family. Families fight too. Funkateers we all gotta Share the Air, it Makes Good Sense to Care! Bootsy baby!!!
The "One" for Me, might not be the "One" for U & Vice-Verse. Funk says; We have different taste! Yr Father Don't have to be My Father for us to be in the Same Family. Families fight too.😲 Funkateers we all gotta Share the Air, it Makes Good Sense to Care! Bootsy baby!!!🤩 pic.twitter.com/HNt1r1q0f2
I find this to be a profound message of diversity and acceptance. Bootsy has been talking about the “One” for decades – it is the essence of funk taught to him by James Brown. He can be seen and heard describing the approach in this video clip from the BBC Rock School series from the ‘80s (I have vague memories of my friend Tobin playing this for me while we were in high school in Tokyo.):
Basically, you hit the downbeat – the “One” – hard, then you can fill in all the other spaces, or leave space in the other spaces. But is this the “One” that Bootsy is talking about here? The introduction to a 2017 interview with Vibe suggests otherwise:
Bootsy Collins is a firm believer in the creator, or as he likes to say, the one. His faith, paired with drive and patience have kept him sane in an ever changing world.
This seems to be backed up later in the interview:
I would hope that someone who isn’t aware of funk would learn something from this album.
That’s pretty much the key. I didn’t know anything. I was 19 traveling around the world with James Brown. I couldn’t believe it at the time. You just never know what the one has for you. You just take what you got and you do the best you can with it. You just have to keep moving.
The concept of the One works not only in music but in life, y’know – you gotta figure out what that one is for you, and keep coming back to it. And for me, that just meant being in a great band. Playin’ it is one thing, livin’ it is a whole ‘nother thing, but when in doubt, just come back to the One.
As a multiracial ½ Buddhist Minister ½ Bassist, this is fascinating for me. On one level, he is talking about music, and on another, possibly talking about a greater, deeper spiritual reality. I love the fact that music (funk) and spirituality (?) are interwoven. But going back to the post I began with, the recognition that there are multiple “Ones” is the key insight that we need right now. Whether with freedom of religion in the United States, or religious tolerance throughout the world, as long as we cling to our own teachings as the only Truth then we will always have conflict and discrimination. One of the hardest things to do is to allow the Other to be themselves, even if “they” are completely different than “we” are. As a multiracial person of a minority religion, I often feel “Othered” in the current climate of the United States, and yet I also need to beware of doing the same thing to others/Others.
This morning’s bomb attacks in Sri Lanka are a chilling reminder that there is still so much hate in the world – as of yet no one has claimed responsibility, but the fact that Christians were targeted on Easter seems to point to a religious agenda. The words of the Dhammapada – “Hate is not overcome by more hatred; hate is only overcome by the absence of hatred” – and Martin Luther King Jr. – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” – are especially relevant today. As soon as we give in to hate, accepting it and allowing it to be a driving force in our lives, then we begin to slide down a slippery slope. I hope that Bootsy’s suggestion that we can be different and yet still be part of the same family touches some hearts – at the very least it reinforces a view that I hold personally and reminds me to resist hate and instead listen and try and learn.
This article won’t come out until the March issue of the Busshin (the newsletter of the Buddhist Church of Oakland), but my blog readers get a sneak preview!
Sometime early this year – within the first couple of weeks I believe – I made a New Year’s Resolution. I talked about it at a couple of services, but here is the way I stated it on Twitter: “…if I get into a difficult situation, to try and see things from at least one more perspective.”
Have I been successful? Well, actually I have been fortunate that I haven’t been placed in any particularly difficult situations so far this year. But I have seen other people having difficulties and it affirmed for me that the ability to see things from multiple perspectives can be helpful. In fact, only being able to see things from one’s own perspective could have something to do with a situation being difficult.
We need to be careful, however. Of course, it would be great if we could see every situation from multiple perspectives – it might help us make better decisions and have less suffering. But it is almost impossible to do! Notice that I said “multiple perspectives,” not just “two perspectives.” Because the reality is that there are many different angles from which we can look at anything. And sometimes, those multiple perspectives may be irreconcilable, as in the film “Rashomon” by Akira Kurosawa (based on short stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and themselves worth reading).
Also, if the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives was a requirement, then those who couldn’t do so would be excluded, and that is not how Jodo Shinshu Buddhism works. Amida Buddha made the Vow and established the Name – Namo Amida Butsu – precisely for foolish beings; i.e., people who can’t see things from multiple perspectives.
And yet, realizing that my personal viewpoint is limited can help remind me that I am a foolish being. And trying to do this in my daily life can help me incorporate Buddhism outside of the temple. Church services, whether just a regular Dharma Family Service, a Shotsuki Memorial Service, or a special service like Spring Ohigan which we are observing on March 18, allow us to listen to the Dharma so that it can permeate our lives wherever we are.
I wrote this capsule summary of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life for a newsletter article, but ended up going in a completely different direction and scrapped it. But I thought I would share it here:
The historical Buddha was born a prince, and spent his early life sheltered in the palace. But at the age of 29 he embarked on a spiritual quest, renouncing his kingdom and setting off in search of something different than a worldly life of pleasure. Early attempts at meditation were swiftly mastered, so he shifted to difficult ascetic practices. After six years, he was exhausted and no closer to his goal. So at age 35, he quit the ascetic practices for good and sat under a tree. Reinvestigating the meditation he had experimented with earlier, he penetrated to the true nature of reality and attained awakening. Recognizing that others could benefit from what he had learned, he stood up and embarked on a forty-five year teaching career. At the age of 80 he became ill, passing away surrounded by disciples, and leaving behind a tradition that grew and transformed into the various forms we have today.
Thought I would also include this incredible statue of Shakyamuni from around the time that he quit the ascetic practices and attained awakening. Often people think the Buddha was obese (actually those images are one of the lucky gods, Hotei) but actually he must have been emaciated after five years of fasting.
Whenever December rolls around, I can’t help but think about Christmas. I have ambiguous feelings about it – my family celebrated it when I was a kid in Massachusetts, but when I was 11 we moved to Tokyo and it was never the same – I think my dad even had to go to work! Even after we moved back to the US, we never really celebrated Christmas anymore, especially not like we used to.
It seems that there are several possible Buddhist reactions to Christmas. The most common one that I see is to just do it unproblematically. In this case it’s not the Christian version of Christmas that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, it is what we might call either the Pagan or secular version with Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and of course PRESENTS!
Another response I have seen is to try and integrate it somehow with Buddhism, for instance, having a “Bodhi Tree” instead of a Christmas Tree, using a Dharma Wheel or other Buddhist symbols as ornaments, or conflating Santa Claus with Hotei, the smiling monk with a cloth sack who entertains children.
The third possible response is to reject Christmas. I have heard stories that this was much more common in BCA temples before I got involved in the 1990s. It does still exist here and there – sometimes we put Christmas lights on the Bodhi Tree in the office, and I have heard one or two people say “We don’t celebrate Christmas” with the implication that we shouldn’t have the lights.
Which option do you choose? I have taken all three at different points in my life. When I was a student I used to contemplate integrating it (that’s when I came up with the Hotei idea) – in the years since, I just kind of accept the secular version. But I also appreciate the attitude of rejecting it. I remember having Jewish friends when I was a kid that didn’t celebrate it at all – I found out that they would often go to Chinese restaurants because those were the only ones that were open. If I am truly Buddhist, why would I need Christmas? The United States of America is supposed to be a land of freedom and diversity – I embrace the difference that I embody as a multiracial person and as a follower of a minority religion, and I shouldn’t have to celebrate Christmas.
But I also get that one of the most important aspects of Christmas for many of our members is FAMILY. Maybe we can appropriate Christmas as part of the Gratitude Season that I have written about before – spend it with the people you love, and express that love and appreciation, allowing it to energize us through the winter so that we can face the New Year with the renewed hope and inspiration given to us by the Wisdom and Compassion of the Buddha.
(Reprinted from Buddhist Church of Oakland Busshin Newsletter, Dec. 2017)
What do you think of when you think about Hanamatsuri? Shakyamuni Buddha’s birthday? Lumbini’s Garden? Kambutsu (bathing the Baby Buddha)? How about a six-tusked elephant?
Right now, I’m wondering if maybe there’s a Baby Buddha ready to be born within each of us. Maybe each time I feel a twinge of caring when I see someone else suffering, each time I get an insight into myself or the world around me, maybe my “inner Buddha” is born. Can I then cultivate it, nourish it, so that someday I become a Buddha myself? There are theories in Buddhism where we each have this potential for awakening within us – this is one understanding of the term “Buddha Nature.”
But maybe it’s harder than it looks. Those insights I mentioned don’t happen for me that often. And even if I do have one, it’s so easy to start thinking more about myself than others again. Maybe my Baby Buddha waits patiently for the next time I have a selfless thought to help someone else, or realize something else about the true nature of things.
If I don’t have this Baby Buddha inside of me, it’s ok. Shinran Shonin did not emphasize this potential for awakening. In fact, in looking at himself he felt that he had NO Buddha Nature inside him – that he was among “those who lack the seed of Buddhahood” (icchantika). And yet even someone like that – someone like me? – can still become Buddha. In fact, this type of person is precisely the object of Amida Buddha’s compassion. Becoming aware of this, one entrusts in the Buddha with great joy and gratitude.
I know that Hanamatsuri is a service that also brings us great joy, to get to bathe the Baby Buddha and listen to the Dharma. For Buddhist Church of Oakland’s 2017 Hanamatsuri Service on Sunday, April 9, our guest speaker is Sensei Blayne Higa, a student from the Institute of Buddhist Studies. If you have a Baby Buddha then bring it along, if not then come bathe ours at the Buddhist Church of Oakland – remember, Kambutsu begins at 9:30!