Wednesday, August 31, 2011


This talk picks up more accounts of storybook happenings in the history of the Buddha. But first, a modern hot flash from the Internet. If you can’t put your faith in the Internet or in television news, what can you believe?

Jose Maldonado, a 22-year-old bricklayer in Guadalajara, found a live fairy.
“I was picking guavas and I saw a twinkling. I thought it was a firefly. I picked it up and felt that it was moving; when I looked at it I knew that it was a fairy godmother,” Maldonado said.
Sadly, it died, but he pickled it in formaldehyde and allows the curious to take a peek for a fee.

Now, back to the past.

According to folklore, after the Buddha’s awakening he continued to travel and speak of his experience. When he was age eighty his followers wondered if he would appoint an heir to carry on his teaching. The Buddha said he had never considered himself a counselor; therefore, there was no need for someone to step into his sandals.

“Instead of following someone like a pack of hungry dogs,” the Buddha said. “Think for yourselves. Do not blindly accept what you might hear. Weigh everything in your own mind. Be your own person, and concern yourselves with the well-being of all beings.”

And so, according to this story, Buddhism has no central source of authority.

Wait a minute, you say. What about the Dali Lama? Isn’t he the head of Buddhism?

No, the Dali Lama is the chief abbot and spiritual leader of the ritualistic Tibetan school known as the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hats.

That’s all. That’s more than enough.

Let’s stick with Zen, which urges meditation as the way to the realization of one’s true nature.

Getting back to mythology, the Buddha is alleged to have died lying on his right side. Today, many statues in Asia show him this way. True or false, what difference does it make? There is no record whether the Buddha was right-handed or left-handed.

His supposed last words were, “Decay is inherent in all things. Be sure to strive with clarity of mind for complete awakening.”

You may have heard of a pre-Buddhist legend called Radiance mythology. It’s a story that combines a sort of Biblical genesis account with the tale of Pandora’s Box. The Radiance version says the first thing to exist was white light and black light. Then the universe was filled with an enormous egg. From the egg, black light produced evils. However, white light, or Radiance produced happiness and prosperity.

Just trying to picture that boggles the imagination.

The scholar Joseph Campbell said myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths. He also said that every religion is true when understood metaphorically. But if you interpret metaphors as facts, you run into snags.

One of Buddhism’s most stable legends concerns Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, who supposedly left his homeland to bring Buddhist teachings to China. Whether Bodhidharma actually existed is still a matter of conjecture.

In Bodhidharma’s time the Buddhism practiced in China was elaborate and fanciful, and it had countless gods and myths. There is a story that in the A.D. 600s a monk went to China to gather copies of official writings. The monkey god and the pig god joined him and helped him to fight various demons with a magic stick.

Can you picture that?

Other significant Buddhist deities of the time included the four kings of heaven, the four kings of hell, the kitchen god, and Mi-le, known in India as Maitreya. Mi-le is also known as the laughing god. Carved images of him are sold in Chinese schlock shops. He’s the little guy with the big belly and the jolly face.

Most Zen koans are stories of encounters between masters and monks. They are myths designed to bring about awakening, or to explain the meaning of existence by means of metaphor.

One master asked another master, “What does the golden fish that has passed through the net use for food?”

The other master answered, “When you come out of the net, I’ll tell you.”

A monk asked Master Yun Men, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?”

Does either of these koans open the meaning of life to you?

Myths can be entertaining as long as you realize they have about the same weight as fairy tales. Their purpose is to give humans something to believe in other than themselves.

I hesitate rattling anyone’s beliefs, but here are a few facts of life:

◊ George Washington did not have wooden teeth.
◊ Albert Einstein did not fail math in school.
◊ Searing meat does not seal in moisture.
◊ Swallowed watermelon seeds will not grow in your stomach.
◊ Sushi does not mean raw fish. Sushi refers to the vinegared rice used in it.

To wind this up, think for yourselves. Don’t blindly accept what you hear, or read, or are told. Evaluate everything in your own mind. Be your own person.

Dogen was not a myth. He was a real human being, He said:

To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be awakened by all things.
To be awakened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Many oddball claims have been laid on Buddhism by misguided individuals. To name a few: Buddhism is a religion; the Buddha was a saint, or even a magician; the Buddha is a pope-like head of a worldwide religion. And so on and so on. Most claims start from pure ignorance. Other claims pop up from notions that are based on myths and legends.

Myths are cozy little tales that may have a basis in fact. On the other hand, they may be far removed from reality. They are usually devised to simplify teachings for a particular, often unsophisticated, audience. Unfortunately, many people take myths as dogma.

Let’s see. There is Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth
Fairy . . . .

Oh, and did you know that angels play harps while they fly? That’s like texting while driving.

I don’t put much stock in fanciful legends. Instead, I prefer practical, living issues. Still, some of the Buddhist myths are worth mentioning because they are a historical part of the tradition. Also, a few people actually believe in them.

There is no existing biography that deals with the life of the Buddha. Such records were unknown some twenty-five hundred years ago. However, certain key episodes stand out.

When it comes to the Buddha’s birth the fanciful stories fly off the chart. His expectant mother dreamed that a baby elephant entered her side. Second-guessers of the time interpreted this to mean the child would become a great political leader or else grow up to be a great religious teacher. How those interpretations arose, I can’t imagine.

An elephant? Maybe back then India was heavily Republican.

Historically, the birth took place at Lumbini, a city that is honored as a holy site to this day. There were no elephants involved.

Another myth: At his birth the Buddha infant supposedly tottered a few steps and announced this was the last time he would be born. That was taken to mean he had experienced several Hindu-style reincarnations.

Flash forward.

Fact: At age sixteen Guatama Siddhartha married a woman named Yashodhara, and they had a son they named Rahula. Though Siddhartha valued family life, when he was twenty-nine he left home in an attempt to seek knowledge. After six years spent wandering and investigating various disciplines, at age thirty-five he attained what we refer to as “enlightenment.” He was then known as the Buddha, or the Awakened One.

Over the next forty-five years he wandered in northern India, teaching what he had realized in his awakening.

As we have heard many times over, when the Buddha went out from his royal home he witnessed four incidents. He encountered an aged person, an ailing person, a dead person, and a beggar. He was so struck by these indications of suffering that he left home to try to understand the nature of human existence.

According to some scholars, when the Buddha was out on the streets he was first taught a form of serene meditation. He thought this was well and good, but that there was more to understanding life than tuning out. Another teacher introduced him to a mystical state of consciousness, a sort of mental negation of existence.

“But, I don’t want to remove myself from humanity, the Buddha thought. I want to be an integral part of it in order to comprehend it.”

Then the Buddha practiced rigorous breath control, but that only gave him headaches. He practiced self-mortification by fasting to the point of emaciation. He went without sleep. He may even have stretched on a bed of nails or broken glass, or walked on hot coals, as do many pious Indian ascetics.

Although none of these activities helped the Buddha to understand life, he did come to see that such extremes were unproductive. As the writer Damien Keown said, “The most appropriate lifestyle, accordingly, would be one of moderation in which the appetites were neither denied nor indulged to excess.”

So the Buddha sat under the branches of a fig tree, and went back to straightforward meditation—what Dogen would later call shikantaza: Zazen in which the mind and body are totally involved in nothing but the sitting itself.

It was then the Buddha had his awakening, which often is called enlightenment.

1. He understood that life is dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction is common to all humans.
2. He saw that we, as humans, cause our own dissatisfaction.
3. He perceived that we can end dissatisfaction by avoiding what causes it: greed, craving, and discontent.
4. He decided that dissatisfaction can be overcome by following a certain pattern of behavior.

These realizations came to be referred to as The Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths may sound like a grocery list, but they form the basis for the tradition and practice of Buddhism.

Myths and fairy tales may make for entertaining reading, and may serve as adolescent guideposts. Just remember that Buddhism doesn’t deal in beliefs and rituals. Buddhism is about looking at our own lives and understanding ourselves.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


By now I suppose most of you have at least a sketchy notion of the early journeys of Zen in Asia, and later in the Western world. Here is a very brief review of some of its travels.

-- The Indian teacher Bodhidharma brought Zen from India to China.

-- The Nichiren monks Dogen and Myozen traveled from Japan to China to study Ch’an.

-- Soyen Shaku, D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hahn, and other Asian teachers and academics moved from Japan to the United States and Europe.

To paraphrase the book The Roaring Stream, “[Historically] . . . so many Japanese monks had embarked for China that there was a stock phrase that said, ‘longing for the Dharma, entering the land of Sung.’

Interestingly, some of the Chinese masters were so awed with the numbers of Japanese seekers that came to their country that several of them went the other route to share the Dharma. They headed out of China and into Japan.

One notable Chinese master who went that route was named Lan-ch’i. Once he arrived in Japan he spent thirty-three years teaching Zen in that country, and he became so revered that he was given the posthumous title, Daikaku Zenji, Zen Master of Great Enlightenment.

I’d like to say a few words about Daikaku.

When Daikaku was a thirteen-year-old kid in China, he left home, determined to visit monasteries in the east of his country and to study under numerous Ch’an masters and teachers. Eventually, although he spoke only Chinese, he wangled his way into Japan, where he established himself in Kyoto.

Later he settled in Kamakura. It was there he met Hojo Tokiyori, a court official who was tired of the rules and regulations of Japanese Buddhist teachings and had a burning interest in the ways of Zen.

Tokiyori was drawn to supporting Daikaku, because he felt Zen added an air of cultural authority to the political scene.

Quoting from The Roaring Stream: “The leading position that Ch’an held in Sung China made Zen an attractive alternate to those Japanese institutions that had previously served as legitimators of power.”

In plain words that means if the great Chinese government was vitalized by the recognition of Zen, the practice might be good for Japanese politics.

Even though Daikaku was a popular teacher in Japan, there was a curious dilemma in his teachings, owing to the fact he spoke only Chinese.

Many of the Japanese students and monks understood written Chinese, which in most forms is similar to written Japanese, However, very few could comprehend spoken Chinese, and only a handful understood Daikaku’s idiomatic dialect.

So, how could he give an comprehendible Dharma talk?

This reminds me of a book I recently read about Britain’s King Richard (known as The Lionhearted) and his role in the Third Crusade to reclaim Palestine.

At one point Richard seemed to be winning a siege against the Muslim leader, Saladin, when the king became ill and lost his voice. Imagine the Monty Python sort of scene.

Richard shouts, “Mmmmwanov.”

“What did he say?” asks a general.

“I think he wants us to advance. Either that, or he said to fall back.”

“Mmmmwanov. Bracklesnog!”

“Ill be darned if I know what we’re supposed to do,” said another general. Let’s just pretend we didn’t hear him.”

Back to Japan.

After much trial and error, Daikaku adopted a three-stage teaching method.

His words were first written in Japanese phonetic characters. Next these symbols were turned over to another Szechwan monk who changed them into Chinese characters. These signs, in turn, were finally translated into spoken Japanese. It was a complicated process, but it eventually fell into place. A later Chinese master described the method as brush talk, and wrote:

“I express my mind using a brush instead of my tongue, and you seize my meaning hearing my words with your eyes.”

Usually the tactic succeeded, but there were many instances in which a student was completely baffled. History doesn’t mention them.

Another answer was to create koans as teaching tools.

Daikaku’s temple, Kencho-ji, became a desirable training center, and he was popular with the Japanese shogunate. However, he had his detractors.

Remember America’s hysterical Cold War hysterics in the 1950s?


Rumors circulated that Daikaku was a Chinese spy. He was exiled to a rural post, which would be like today sending him off to a hick church out in Arkansas’ Newton County.

Fortunately, after several years the accusers decided Daikaku was clean, and he was reinstated at Kencho-ji in Kamakura. He died there in 1279.

Daikaku may have instituted a bizarre teaching method, but he is honored as a respected Zen master as well as a skillful calligrapher and a sensitive poet.

A few sayings of Daikaku:

-- Zen practice is not clarifying abstract distinctions, but discarding one’s preconceived notions and views and discovering the self behind them.

-- The man resolute in the way must from the beginning never lose sight of it.

-- Understand that hearing a sound is to take it as sound; seeing a form, is to take it as form. Turn the hearing back until hearing comes to an end; purify awareness until awareness becomes empty. Then perception will become immediate.

-- Heaven and earth and I are of one root; the thousand things and I are one body.

-- Every day you should go into the calm quiet where you really belong.

Here’s a question from me. What does that last saying mean to you?

I’ll say it again.

Every day you should go into the calm quiet where you really belong.

To me, that says meditate.