I Am Not My Favorite Book: How Buddhist Education Really Works

I’ve known Arunlikhati for a number of years now, and he carries with him an ability common to old friends: he knows what things really twist my ears. And so I receive from my old friend this article from About.com’s Buddhism page, where the guide Barbara O’Brien wrote:

Schools that emerged in China and spread to Korea and Japan — e.g., Zen, Pure Land, Tendai — each have their own canon of Mahayana sutras and pretty much ignore the Pali Canon.

In the interest of full disclosure: I have an axe to grind. I am a member of a Chinese Buddhist temple and the Pali Canon means a great deal to me. So we exist. But behind the About.com article I see a great deal of misunderstanding regarding how Buddhists have educated generations of disciples, and what it means to value a text. Read more

Shinnyo-En temple visit

I recently had the chance to visit a Shinnyo-En temple with my girlfriend and learned more about this relatively new form of Buddhism.

Though Shinnyo-En’s followers are mainly Japanese, it has managed to establish a foothold in several other countries as well. The temple we visited was in the Los Angeles region and we joined a bazaar hosted by the temple where they offered food and entertainment on an overcast day.

Founded by Shinjo-Ito and his wife, I heard much about as much about their practice as I did about the followers’. Shinjo-Ito and his wife are said to have had visions of the Dharma in their dreams and set off to realize their vision. Shinjo-Ito retired from his career as an engineer and they adopted Dharma names, Kyoshu-sama and Shojushinin-sama. Kyoshu-sama went through many strict practices through Shingon Buddhism. One of his practices include meditating with lit candles on arms to train in pain tolerance and “become one with the God of Fire.” He also meditated under a waterfall. His lay followers believe they are able to pick up in their spiritual training where Kyoshu-sama left off.

Practicing meditation is a big emphasis among followers, which progress in meditation divided into 4 levels: Daijo, Kangi, Daikangi and Reino, with tests organized for followers to demonstrate their advancement. Those who attain the highest level, Reino, are able to give spiritual advise during sesshin and can assess advancement during the meditation test. Reino, however, are still lay persons.

Interestingly, the last person to practice as a monastic within Shinnyo-En was Kyoshu-sama, making Shinnyo-En a strictly lay organization. The community is now led by Kyoshu-sama’s daughter, Shinso-ito, who decided not to marry and have children so that the next leader that is chosen would be based on a consensus of merit.

Their sangha arrangement is certainly different than the traditional monastic-lay arrangement and I have respect for their succession model and am curious how they will continue practicing without a monastic tradition. Do you all know of other streams of Buddhism without a monastic tradition?

Democracy’s Dharma and Buddhist Pluralism

Recently I read a really good Buddhist Book: Richard Madsen’s Democracy’s Dharma. I don’t read a lot of really good Buddhist books, because most Buddhist books are dreadful. This is because so many of them fly too close to New Age and self-help and are more concerned with making the reader feel good than communicating something new and vital.

Democracy’s Dharma has something to say. It is a study of four major religious groups in Taiwan: Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum, and a predominantly Daoist group called Xingtian. The three former groups, all very active in the United States, are often underrepresented in English Buddhist writing, and they each receive in-depth treatment in Madsen’s book. A study and analysis of each of these groups’ founders, culture, and history would be valuable in its own right, but the book is more ambitious: Madsen looks at how each group was fostered by the democractizing and industrializing forces of Taiwan over the last few decades, and how the culture and character of each group serves a specific segment of Taiwan’s changing society. Read more

The Dharma of Trick or Treating

As a Buddhist Sunday School teacher one issue of great importance to me is that my students see Buddhism as part of their lives, rather than a packaged and defined category that exists for a few hours on Sunday morning and then vanishes in a puff of smoke. So when I have the chance to relate Buddhism to something that is already a part of their lives, I take it. Last Sunday I talked about how Halloween secretly teaches awesome Buddhist principles.

Think about it: Halloween is the only holiday celebrated in the US in which we do not give exclusively to our family or loved ones, but to complete strangers. We give unconditionally. This is carried even further in the symbolism of Halloween through the use of costumes, for even if our loved ones arrive at our doorstep to trick-or-treat they would be shrouded in disguise. I talked about how giving was the first thing the Buddha taught as part of the gradual training, and how giving even the smallest thing teaches us how to help others and let go.

The next day no trick-or-treaters came to my door. This bummed me out significantly. Read more

The True Story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha Statue

While preparing notes for a lesson for this coming Sunday I recalled the story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha statue. It is a peculiar story, showing up in anecdotes and talks in a variety of different forms depending on who is telling it. It goes something like this:

Winston Churchill kept a Buddha statue by his bedside, or on his desk throughout the Second World War. Some versions of the story explain his reasoning for doing so, while others will even evoke words of Mister Churchill himself, and recall the serenity the peace that the statue gave him during the most trying of times.

None go so far to claim that Winston Churchill was a Buddhist; and that is not really the point. The story is trying to get at those self-evident elements of Buddhism that change minds and move mountains; things like compassion and harmlessness that sit on the surface of Buddhism, inspiring many to delve deeper, but moving far more people simply by their presence.

Its a great story; but it is the kind of story that sounds like a story. So I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of it! Read more

That could be my mother

Compassion and rebirth are two basic tenets of traditional Buddhism that both came together for me recently as I sat reflecting on how I nearly drove my mother off the road. That incident occurred another night long ago. Irritated by a slow driver ahead of me, I tailgated the vehicle so closely that I could not even see the license plate. I persisted until the car turned off onto a side road.

But that side road was the very road that I intended to take to visit my parents—and the driver was my mother.

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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

Engaging the Buddhist Community

Last weekend I participated in a small panel on Buddhism, where a Buddhist student in the audience asked me how I incorporate Buddhist practice into my everyday life. I gave her a fairly lame response along the lines of, “I meditate daily and—gosh, Buddhism practically permeates my life!”

Here is my attempt to give her a slightly better idea of how I have been engaged with the Buddhist community, along with the types of opportunities she likely will have in the Buddhist community after graduation.

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