Category: Writing

Snark Attack!

I have a new favorite piece of Buddhist snark!

I think a lot about the writing of seemingly uncomposed things—restaurant menus, instruction manuals, catalog copy, and all those things we assume are not the work of artists. They are, of course. I have been moved by a fine and readable terms of service (google writes the best ones) much like a poem describing a summer day. I enjoy good writing, and all the more when it is a type of writing we ask very little of, because such composition is an intense act of caring.

The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, put out by the now websiteless Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada, tries to come off as an uncomposed text: it is a amalgam of entries from different sources, indexed and cross-referenced. The selection of articles is extremely broad, though sometimes lacking in depth, and I keep one by my desk to turn to when more scholarly references works fail me.

If you begin to appreciate the writing of uncomposed things you realize two things: one is that a sentence describing vacuum cleaner assembly can be beautiful, and the other is that everyone, everyone everyone exerts authorial intent, and it is there to see for those who look. Read more

Master Yin Guang: Buddhist Epistolary

There are not many great Buddhist writers. This is not an accident; good writing is just not an aspiration for most Buddhist teachers. The Dharma is shared in words, practice, shared experience, and community. Writing carries with it the necessity of saying something new and valuable to as many people as possible, while the domain of a good teacher is to impart what is old and worn and true in the way which speaks to the heart of the individual whom most needs to hear it.

That is why I am fascinated by the curious case of Master Yin Guang (印光), a pre-Civil War Chinese Pure Land master. Master Yin Guang lived most of his life in seclusion on the Buddhistically sacred Mount Putuo off the coast of southern China. He did not perform lavish ceremonies or amass skads of lay and monastic disciples. But he did write.

He wrote letters.

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Historiography and How to Talk About Buddhism

When I find myself in the company of loud and proud Buddhists during a quiet moment, I like to ask the question: How do you talk to people about Buddhism for the first time?

I have gotten many answers, and coupled with most responses is an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the endeavor. Buddhism is a huge topic, awash in a jargon whose impenetrable status drops farther and farther from mind with each attended retreat.

I’ve seen Buddhism described in opposition to other religions, stressing the non-godliness of the Buddha and the rationality its teachings, but this seems to be not stating Buddhism on its own terms. I’ve seen explanations grounded in the Buddha’s life which do a great job of framing the concerns of Buddhism, but can make Buddhism seem less immediate and relevant. I’ve seen and attempted personal appeals, drawing out the differences and benefits measured in my own life. This approach is only effective for people who are willing to listen to me describe the intense Buddhist significance of giving up potatoes.

Of course, people have been answering this question since the time of the Buddha, in one form or another. My favorite are historical accounts of interactions with Buddhists; because they answer a related but slightly different question: How does a non-Buddhist talk to people about Buddhism for the first time? What are the most pertinent details. Read more

Well-worn Words: The Brahma-viharas

I’ve found that the hardest Buddhist concepts to understand are those which predate Buddhism in one way or another. One of these is the Buddha’s teaching on the four Brahma-viharas: metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

In the Pali suttas they are almost always mentioned as a set without additional descriptions, such that it is hard to know where each begins and ends.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article Head and Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas does a really great job of explaining the Brahma-viharas and their interrelationships in a way this hapless practitioner can understand:

Of these four emotions, goodwill (metta) is the most fundamental. It’s the wish for true happiness, a wish you can direct to yourself or to others. […] The next two emotions in the list are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: It wants the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (mudita) is what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness: It wants the happiness to continue. Equanimity (upekkha) is a different emotion, in that it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help.

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