Sunday, October 18, 2009

Children of Buddha

Children of Buddha

As children of Buddha, we carry Buddha’s seed, our lives share the same source, move and mature through time to the same shared end. As children of Buddha, we grow, each at our own rate, each in our very own way, to become fully matured Bhddhas—our Buddhahood evolves naturally, blossoms fully when conditions have ripened.

In Buddhist communities, “Buddhas to be” are called Bodhisattvas. This designation also serves to characterize the way eventual Buddhahood is nurtured and sustained, the “food” implied being perspective, attitudes and actions. Over time—again, each in his or her own time—“Buddhas to be” begin to understand the presence of the seed, not just within themselves, but within all others as well. And as they do, they begin to see a universal mutuality of beneficial actions.

We are all of the same seed, our lives woven of the same, many-colored fabric. Buddhahood is not a solo act, but a joint venture in which all beings are participating. The real work and growth of the budding Buddha begins in earnest with this realization.

Much has been written and taught about the shape the Bodhisattva’s life might take; we learn of vows, perfections and precepts, and are fortunate to have deeply instructive resources available for study. I prefer a practical view that suggests the Bodhisattva way provides a tentative example of how ordinary human life, in this body, can manifest its fullest potential. However, since human life, life in general, unfolds moment-to-moment, all preconceived outlines of fulfillment become suspect, right from the start. We can never really be certain about how a Bodhisattva will act. What we do know, I think, is that it will be spontaneous and creative; it will be unpredictable, unknowable before hand and perhaps unrecognizable after the fact.

So we find ourselves, or I should say I find myself, even after many years, to be a bit confused about this Bodhisattva way and of course Buddhahood—what is it really all about? How does it relate to me, to my life? This confusion is to be expected, I suppose. After all, we are taught that it is beyond our capacity to grasp the enlightened mind. And for me this certainly seems to be true.

I mean I do have ideas about wise and compassionate actions. But as my wife will amply attest, I am far from spontaneous—plodding, over-worked logic is more my style. Paradoxically, these “plodding” inclinations of mine lead to the abstract and conceptual—not the places, we are also taught, we can expect to find true wisdom, real compassion. No, the spontaneity of Bodhisattvas is rooted in the blood and bones, the breath-by-breath reality of human existence, where it will actually be of some use.

I like to think of Bodhisattvas as on the ground, in real time---not virtual—and that I am in fact surrounded by them all the time, as they diligently work across the myriad, imagined boundaries I’ve created, patiently showing me, time and again, how to keep sight of the seed in others, how to stay aware of the seed they see so clearly in me. For my part, I mostly just bumble along, mostly don’t recognize them, except after the fact. For my part, I feel particularly lucky that despite my lackluster performance, oh and maybe even because of it, they keep working for me, on my behalf, making it look as if I’m actually working along with them. Yes, that’s what I feel, lucky to be one of the many children of Buddha, surrounded by so many others. Lucky indeed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Poems from June

Poems from June 2009

Looking back, good friends, I see that June was a rich month for me. Hope you’ll find something of value.

We pause to restore ourselves, to rest,

to drink deeply of the stream, anguish shed

like receding echoes, feint imprints slowly lifting

in the dampened air

above the sands along the edge.


Through the fourth floor window,

leaf filled branches swing in shadows

occasioned with flashes of blue.


Sometimes even the smallest drift of air intrudes,

an uninvited guest, lingering at all

--too long—virus spreading in a shuttered room,

locked from the inside.


On training for ordination

The personal turmoil challenged the feeling

I wasn’t there—only later

did I see I’d already gone.


If I lay this old vow down

one more time without use,

it’ll crust over in the sun like a dried up turd.


big winds come,

blowin’ light

up and down the canyons


So much empty talk, so many empty words, words

spewed now even from digital tongues.

How much less can we manage, how little

are we likely to become, buying intentional insincerity

for the sake of convenience?


William Stafford, ever teaching…

If we truly cherish each other, he said

—so deftly revealing the inner voice of ordinary words,

the inner voice, the spontaneous push to the search for the true,

behind those so ordinary words, as heard.

Points, in his off hand way, to the core common

to Pure Land life and the poet’s vocation,

to hear the call

to trace the contours of the truth in this life,

to listen

to discern the inner voice of ordinary words

and then to speak,

is to hear and speak nembutsu,

remembrance of the source, ever remembering the source



When asked what he did when his work

failed to meet his own standards,

Staffords’s response

was that he lowered them.

What, after all, did the music

that carries the words

have to do

with his will,

he, the listener, trying only

to trace the contours

of the true and real…


The first of this season taken on the open deck,

watching first light slowly peeling night away from tree tops

and the tiny, harried birds hidden there, shifting weights,

from shadow to light, revealing everything anew.


I know you were here.

Your feather, inside up on the ground.

What is it of me

that you will see, left behind ?


Morning’s come warm through open doorways,

and dogs bark, and crows, and crows,

the houses collecting between,

from these calls,

the memories the sky refuses to hold.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shinran's Spirit

If we are to truly show our respect and gratitude to Shinran during this anniversary period, I believe we must do our best to understand Shinran’s spirit, and to share that understanding as best we can. What I mean is, we must try to understand Shinran’s deepest motivations and explore how he pursued their fulfillment. In this way, we will come closer to Shinran, we will come to see our own motivations more clearly and come to see how to better manifest these motivations in our own lives.

This is not something that can be done institutionally; it is not a “program.” True religious life is never top down; it is an individual matter that declares its importance in the inner world of personal motivation and intention. How long Shinran’s influence lasts in this country and how vital a role it may play in its broad religious fabric, will, as it always has, depend upon the seriousness and intentions of individual followers. To this end, I offer the following personal thoughts.

We don’t really know why Shinran entered the monastic life. For a host of reasons, it was not unusual for nine year olds to do so at the time. I suspect then that the decision was made for him, not by him. More important than why he entered is the fact that he stayed. He studied and practiced as a monk, not for just a few years, but for twenty. That his decision to leave was stressful and traumatic further suggests the depth of his personal dedication.

Upon leaving the monastery, he immediately undertook a one-hundred day vigil, engaging in meditation and contemplation, trying to clarify for himself the path he needed to take. And he decided to seek out the Pure Land teacher, Honen, well known, well respected, who himself had left monastic confines in order to offer the Buddhist teachings to anyone who wanted to follow.

It was within Honen’s teaching of nembutsu that Shinran experienced the religious awakening that radically altered the direction the rest of his life would take, as well as his understanding of his struggles as a monk. This part of Shinran’s story is very familiar to many us and is readily available, but there is something fundamentally important that is often overlooked: Shinran desperately wanted to live a Buddhist life.

Shinran left monastic life because he had been unable to realize his own religious goals and aspirations; for all his dedication, he was unable to reach awakening. He was unable to control his passions. And scholars tell us he was probably disillusioned with institutional practices and the attitudes of many of his fellow monks. All of that said, at the end of almost one hundred days of intense introspection, he did not abandon religious life, but instead he turned to Honen. That is to say, despite the shortcomings he saw in himself, despite the flaws he saw flaunted in the religious community, Shinran wanted more than anything to live a fulfilled Buddhist life. This was his primary motivation and therefore the only point where we can meet him.

Shinran went on, like most of us, to live a life of family concerns and challenges, joys, attachments and losses. He characterized himself as neither monk, nor lay. A more relevant interpretation for us today suggests that Shinran began to live a life that was both fully secular and fully Buddhist. But if we are to really learn from him, we must not race ahead, we must start at the beginning. We must first ask ourselves, individually, how important it is, to me, that I live a Buddhist life. Honestly looking into ourselves in this way, we come to meet Shinran as our personal teacher for the very first time, there in the quiet depths of our own introspection, in the examination of our deepest motivations.

And if we so choose, we can also follow his lead, the example he set with his living. For Shinran, the how of living a Buddhist life took place within the continuous processes of deep self reflection in light of the Dharma—deep listening, study, discussion—and the continual recitation of nembutsu.

The source and apex of this life for him, and that which he wished and urged for all beings, is in the religious awakening or insight he called shinjin; but this center swims in the sea of continuous nembutsu. Throughout his letters to followers, Shinran advises those who feel their shinjin is not settled, to say nembutsu and aspire for birth; for those who feel their shinjin is settled, he urges that they say nembutsu and pray for the spread of Dharma and peace throughout the world.

For Shinran, nembutsu practice was both the beginning point and the fulfilled end of religious life, the bookends, the context within which religious life—dharma study, self reflection--was conducted. To “aspire for birth” is to want to live a fulfilled Buddhist life; to want the Dharma and peace to spread through the world, is the expression of a Buddhist life fulfilled.

Our personal efforts to understand, to aspire, to realize awakening, are to my way of thinking never in question for Shinran; looking at his life, we can only conclude that he expended his utmost efforts throughout its entirely. And he urged those around him, and by extension he urges us, within the contexts of our lives and our times, to do the same.

And urge is a critical term here. It is not about requirements. Shinran urges us to consider teachings and activities that were important for him—we choose to take the offering, or not. Shinran knew full well that each of us must make his or her own way. But it was his way to kindly offer what he knew and loved.

An authentic Buddhist life is one of personal integrity and effort. What Shinran awakened to, what he finally understood, did not suggest to him that he should not expend his personal efforts, but that Buddha was the real force behind the fruition of those efforts. He came to understand that Buddha knows far better than we, the limitations of our capacities, as well as our inherent, and deeply hidden, religious receptivity. And he offers the practices that will, not may, but will bring us fulfilled realization and awakening, just as we are.

Trust in Buddha is the realization that Buddha gives us all we need; trust frees us from unnecessary anxieties and enables us to give ourselves completely, unreservedly, joyfully, to the Buddha’s way. As Haneda Sensei of the Maida Center once said, our nembutsu before shinjin is the same as our nembutsu after shinjin. What changes is our attitude, the motivations behind saying it. Before shinjin, we recite because we think we have to; after shinjin, we recite because we want to, because we cannot help ourselves.

As a final note, I add this. Shinran’s perspective that real practice is Buddha’ practice is not unique to Shinran; and Shinran never once claimed he was introducing anything new—the terminology of Other Power in contrast to self power is unique to Pure Land schools, but the underlying principles can be found, explicitly, in both Soto and Renzai teachings and I would think elsewhere within the broader Buddhist community. I do feel however, for the purposes of lay Buddhist life, these principles have been more maturely developed in Shin. Therefore, rather than being a point of sectarian distinction, a rallying point for why we are different from other Buddhist traditions, Shin’s deep traditional understanding of the dynamics of Buddhist practice and awakening might better serve as a site of common concern and mutual study. A rich resource and contribution indeed.