Sunday Dharma: Buddhaghosa

Buddhaghosa was the Indian Buddhist scholar who stands out as the pre-eminent commentator on Theravada understanding. His Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, believed written in Ceylon in the beginning of the fifth century CE, is a comprehensive study of Buddhist doctrine and meditation technique.

The Visuddhimagga is divided into four sections: 1) Virtue, 2) Concentration (Samadhi), the Purification of Consciousness, 3) Understanding, the Soil of Wisdom, and 4) Wisdom. This selection is from the introduction to “Description of Virtue,” and is based on the translations of Pe Maugn Tin (Pali Text Society,1922) and Bhikkhu Nanamoli (Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1956).  These are the opening lines to the Visuddhimagga, a nice blend of poetry and dharma.

‘The man who is, on virtue planted firm,
Develops intellect and intuition,
Then as a seeker ardent and perceptive
He may untangle this tangle.’

Thus it was spoken. But why was it spoken?

It is said that to the Awakened One, then staying at Savatthi, there came one night a certain celestial being who, in order to have his doubt removed, asked this question :

‘Tangle within, tangle without,
Sentient things are entangled in a tangle.
And I would ask of you, Gotama,
Who can untangle this tangle?’

Briefly the meaning is this: By ‘tangle” is meant the net of craving. For craving is like the tangle of the network of branches of bamboo-bushes and the like, in the sense of an intertwining, because it arises again and again, repeatedly in connection with such objects as visible things. And it is said to be a ‘tangle within and a tangle without,’ because it arises as craving for one’s own needs and others’, for one’s own person and others’, and for consciousness subjective and objective. Sentient beings are entangled in such a tangle. Just as bamboos and the like are entangled by such tangles as bamboo-bushes, so all living beings, are entangled, enmeshed, embroiled, in that tangle of craving, this is the meaning.

And because of such entanglement, the meaning of, ‘I would ask of you, Gotama, this,’ is to be understood in this way: So I ask you, addressing the Awakened One by his family name, Gotama, ‘Who can untangle this tangle?’ means: Who is able to untangle this tangle which has entangled existence?

When questioned in this way, the Awakened One, walking in unobstructed knowledge of all things, confident with the Four Confidences, bearer of the Tenfold Strength, possessor of unimpeded knowledge and the all-seeing eye, spoke this stanza in answer:

‘The man who is, on virtue planted firm,
Develops intellect and intuition,
Then as a seeker ardent and perceptive
He may untangle this tangle.’

In setting forth, according to the truth,
The meaning of the stanza of the Sage,
which speak of virtue and such other things,
I will expound the Path of Purification,
Which relies on the teachings of the devout
Dwellers at the Great Monastery, and contains
Purest exposition, gladdening even those
Who never may find purity
For all their striving, though they seek it here,
Not knowing of the Path of Purity,
Which holds all virtue, and is straight and safe,
Though they have gone forth as seekers and attained
That which is hard to attain in the Victor’s realm.
Devout men, whose desire is purity,
Listen attentively to the things that I relate.

Here, by ‘Purity’ is meant Nibbana, which is free from all stains and is exceedingly pure. The Path to this purity is the ‘Path of Purification.’ The means of its acquisition is called the ‘ Path.’ I am going to speak of that Path of Purification. This Path of Purification has been set forth in terms of simple insight in which it is said:

‘All things conditioned are impermanent,
When one understands this
And turns away from what is unwholesome and ill,
This is the path to purity’


Busy with what, exactly?

Vietnamese Zen Master, peace activist and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh is the most respected Buddhist teachers in the world today. His teachings are clear and simple, deceptively simple. During the Vietnam War, his work for peace inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace prize in 1967.

In addition to his gentle social activism, Thich Nhat Hanh has also been instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West, and engaging in Interreligious dialogue. He is also credited with coining the term “Engaged Buddhism.”

The Huffington Post has just published an exclusive interview with “Thay”, as he is affectionately called by his students.  In the interview he says,

It’s plain to see that there’s too much violence, poverty and suffering all around us; but we think we’re too small and powerless to make any difference in these things. Maybe there’s suffering right here in our own family; maybe a family member is in so much pain that one day he or she will end up in a desperate situation of drug addiction or violent crime. We tell ourselves we don’t know how to help that person, and we have our own busy lives to lead.

What is it we’re so busy with, exactly?

“Busy”, by the way, is derived from Old English, besig, meaning “careful, anxious, busy, occupied.” According to, in the 17 th century, busy was a euphemism for “sexually active.” The first use of “busy” in relation to the telephone was in 1893 and the term “busy work” was first coined in 1910.

Well, if you are not too busy right now, you can read the entire Huffington Post interview with Thich Nhat Hanh here.


Dogen and Nichiren, together again

Dogen and NichirenActually, I don’t believe these two 13th Century Buddhists ever met each other, although it is possible. Dogen, however, was Nichiren’s senior by 22 years.

Today, the followers of Nichiren worldwide number in the millions; I have no idea how many practice Soto Zen, founded by Dogen, but it developed into the second largest school of Japanese Buddhism.

There are a number of similarities between the two. Both were outsiders. Nichiren as “the son of an untouchable along the beach” who was not admitted to the clannish circles around the top teachers at Mt. Hiei and while Dogen was from a noble family, his mother had been in an unfavorable situation which checked his acceptance among the aristocracy. Both were ordained into the Tendai sect, studied at Mt. Hiei, and they were both disgusted by the spiritual corruption they found there. And they both relied heavily upon the Lotus Sutra, albeit to different degrees.

To my mind, their philosophical approach, their methodology, are like night and day. Still, in bottom line terms, they were not that far apart, especially in regards to the universal potential of Buddhahood. I imagine that the greatest difference between them was in personality. Nichiren was a fiery street preacher. When I think of Dogen, I think of stillness, quietude. Dogen taught only a few disciples. Nichiren on the other hand envisioned a mass movement. One other significant difference is that Dogen rejected the notion of the Three Periods (Former, Middle and Latter Day of the Law), maintaining that all people could attain enlightenment regardless of the age they lived in. For Nichiren, the Three Periods were crucial and even though his time line was off by 500 years, the faith-only ideology associated with the Latter Day of the Law is the all-important context for his teachings.

I thought it would an interesting exercise to put the writings of Dogen and Nichiren side by side to compare and contrast. I considered putting together a collection of brief quotes but felt there might be some question over objectivity doing it that way, so I looked for writings that were similar in title and/or subject matter. The ideal writings are far too long to quote in their entirety. Instead, I am presenting relatively short excerpts.

The sources are Shasta Abbey’s translations of Dogen’s Shobogenzo and the original Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin published under the aegis of the Soka Gakkai.

The first comes from Dogen’s Soku Shin ze Butsu and Nichiren’s Soku Shin jo Butsu. The titles are essentially the same, meaning “this mind is precisely Buddha” or “attaining Buddahood in this very life.” Nichiren gives his explanation of this well-known Japanese Buddhist concept a slight twist. In other writings, he adheres to the phrase as usually defined, but in this work “Soku shin jo Butsu” takes on the connotation of “earthly desires are Buddhahood.”

Dogen, Soku Shin ze Butsu,

Now you know clearly: what is called ‘mind’ is the great earth with its mountains and rivers; it is the sun, the moon, and the stars . . . The mind that is sun, moon, and stars is simply sun, moon, and stars: there is no fog nor is there any mist to obscure its clarity . . . Since this is the way things are, “Your very mind is Buddha” means, pure and simply, that your very mind is Buddha; all Buddhas are, pure and simply, all Buddhas.

Thus, “Your very mind is Buddha” refers to all Buddhas, that is, to Those who have given rise to the intention to realize Buddhahood by practicing and training until They awaken to Their enlightenment and realize nirvana. Those who have not given rise to the intention to realize Buddhahood by practicing and training until they awaken to their enlightenment and realize nirvana are not those whose very mind is Buddha. Even if, for a fraction of an instant, you give rise to the intention to train and realize the Truth for yourself, your very mind will be Buddha . . .

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

Nichiren, Soku Shin jo Butsu

The sutra states, “The wisdom of the Buddhas is infinitely profound and immeasurable.” “The Buddhas” means every Buddha throughout the ten directions in the three existences. It represents every single Buddha and bodhisattvas of any sutra or sect whatsoever, including both the Thus Come One Dainichi of the Shingon sect and Amida of the Pure Land sect, every Buddha of the past, the future or the present, including the present Thus Come One Shakyamuni himself. The sutra refers to the wisdom of all these Buddhas.

What is meant by the ‘wisdom’ of the Buddhas! It is the entity of the true aspect, or the ten factors, of all phenomena, the entity that leads all beings to Buddhahood. What then is the entity! It is nothing other than Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A commentary states that the profound principle of the true aspect is the originally inherent Law of Myoho-renge-kyo. The true aspect of all phenomena indicates the two Buddhas Shakyamuni and Taho seated together in the treasure tower [jeweled stupa]. Taho represents all phenomena and Shakyamuni, the true aspect. The two Buddhas also indicate the two principles of the truth as object and the wisdom to grasp it. Taho signifies the truth, as object and Shakyamuni, the wisdom. Although these are two, they are fused into one in the Buddha’s enlightenment.

These teachings are of prime importance. They mean that earthly desires are enlightenment and that the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana . . .The Juryo chapter of the Lotus Sutra says, ‘At all times I think to myself: How can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?’ And the Hoben chapter states, ‘All the characteristics of the world are eternal.’ The entity is none other than Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

The second example comes from Dogen’s Bendowa and Nichiren’s Nyosetsu Shugyo Sho. As you will see, they had vastly different takes on what Shakyamuni Buddha taught.

Shasta Abbey translates Dogen’s work as “A Discourse on Doing One’s Upmost in Practicing the Way of the Buddha,” while others use “The True Way of Practicing the Teaching of the Buddha,” or “The Wholehearted Way.” Nyosetsu Shugyo Sho appears in Nichiren’s Major Writings as “On Practicing the Buddha’s Teachings.” Others have translated the work as “On Practicing According to the Preaching” and “Buddhist Practice as Taught by the Tathagata.”

Dogen, Bendowa

This is why even the meditating of just one person at one time harmonizes with, and is at one with, all forms of being, as it tranquilly permeates all times. Thus, within the inexhaustible phenomenal world, across past, present, and future, the meditator does the unending work of instructing and guiding others in the Way of Buddhas. It is the same practice, in no way different for all, just as it is the same realization and personal certifying by all . . .

You have now heard just how great and vast the virtues and spiritual merits of this seated meditation are. However, someone who is befuddled by doubts may ask, “Since there are many gates into the Buddha’s Teachings, why bother to do just seated meditation?”

I would point out in response, “Because it is the proper and most straightforward entryway into what the Buddha taught.” He may then ask, “Why is this the one and only proper and straightforward entryway?”

I would then point out, “Undoubtedly, the Venerable Great Master Shakyamuni Transmitted it directly as the most excellent method for realizing the Way, and Those who embody the Truth in the three temporal worlds, alike, have realized, do realize, and will realize the Way by doing seated meditation. Therefore, They pass it on generation after generation as the proper and most straightforward gate to the Dharma. Not only that, the Indian and Chinese Ancestors all realized the Way by doing seated meditation, which is why I have now indicated it to be the proper gate for those in both human and celestial worlds.”

Nichiren, Nyosetsu Shugyo Sho

[The Hokke Gengi says] “The practice of the Lotus Sutra is shakubuku, the refutation of the provisional doctrines.” True to the letter of this golden saying, the believers of all provisional teachings and sects will ultimately be defeated and join the followers of the king of the Law. The time will come when all people, including those of Learning, Realization and Bodhisattva, will enter on the path to Buddhahood, and the Mystic Law alone will flourish throughout the land. In that time because all people chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo together, the wind will not beleaguer the branches or boughs, nor will the rain fall hard enough to break a clod . . .

Question: How should one practice if he is to be faithful to the Buddha’s teachings?

Answer: The Japanese people of this age are one in their opinion of what practice accords with the Buddha’s teachings. They believe that since all vehicles are incorporated in the one supreme vehicle, no teaching is superior or inferior, shallow or profound, but that all are equal to the Lotus Sutra. Hence the belief that repeating the Nembutsu chant, embracing Shingon esotericism, practicing Zen meditation, or professing and chanting any sutra or the name of any Buddha or bodhisattva equals following the Lotus Sutra.

But I insist that this is wrong. The most important thing in practicing Buddhism is to follow and uphold the Buddha’s golden teachings, not the opinions of others. Our master, Shakyamuni Buddha, wished to reveal the Lotus Sutra from the moment of his enlightenment. However, because the people were not yet mature enough to understand, he had to employ provisional teachings for some forty years before he could expound the true teaching of the Lotus Sutra.

Finally, here are writings from each man that have the exact same title, Shoho Jisso. Dogen’s piece is translated as “On the Real Form of All Thoughts and Things,” and Nichiren’s as “The True Entity of Life.”


All Buddhas and Ancestors fully manifest Their thorough realization of what is real.  What is real are all Their thoughts and the things around Them.  All Their thoughts and the things around Them comprise Their form just as it is, Their True Nature just as it is, Their body just as it is , Their mind just as it is, Their world just as it is, Their ‘clouds and rain’ just as they are, Their daily activities—walking, standing, sitting, and reclining—just as they are, Their moving or being still within Their joys and sorrows just as they are, Their traveling staff and Their ceremonial [staff] just as they are, Their flower raised aloft and Their face breaking into a smile just as they are, Their inheriting the Dharma and Their prophesying Buddhahood just as they are, Their training under a Master and Their doing the practice just as they are, and Their pine-like fidelity and Their bamboo-like integrity just as they are.

Shakyamuni Buddha once said: “Only a Buddha is directly able to fully realize the real form of all thoughts and things, just as all Buddhas have done. What is called ‘all thoughts and things’ is form just as it is, True Nature just as It is, physical body just as it is, spiritual abilities just as they are, as well as actions just as they are, causes just as they are, conditions just as they are, effects just as they are, and consequences just as they are, for all things are Ultimate Reality, from beginning to end, just as they are.”

The Tathagata’s phrase ‘Ultimate Reality from beginning to end’ was His own way of expressing the reality of all thoughts and things. It is the way our Master Shakyamuni personally expressed it. It was His exploring through His training that all things are equal, because when we explore the Matter through our training, all things are seen to be equal.

Each and every Buddha is the real form of the True Dharma, and the real form of the True Dharma is each and every Buddha . . .


Question: In the Hoben chapter of Volume One of the Lotus Sutra is the passage: “The true entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas. This reality consists of the appearance, nature…and their consistency from beginning to end.” What does this passage mean?

Answer: It means that all beings and their environments in any of the Ten Worlds, from Hell at the lowest to Buddhahood at the highest, are, without exception, the manifestations of Myoho-renge-kyo [title of the Lotus Sutra/Mystic Law]. Where there is an environment, there is life within it. Miao-lo states, “Both life (shoho) and its environment (eho) always manifest Myoho-renge-kyo.” He also states, “The true entity is invariably revealed in all phenomena, and all phenomena invariably possess the Ten Factors. The Ten Factors invariably function within the Ten Worlds, and the Ten Worlds invariably entail both life and its environment” And, “Both the life and environment of Hell exist within the life of Buddha. On the other hand, the life and environment of Buddha do not transcend the lives of common mortals.” Such precise explanations leave no room for doubt. Thus, all life in the universe is clearly Myoho-renge-kyo. Even the two Buddhas, Shakyamuni and Taho, are the functions of Myoho-renge-kyo who appeared to bestow its blessings upon mankind. They manifested themselves as the two Buddhas and, seated together in the Treasure Tower, nodded in mutual agreement.

No one but Nichiren has ever revealed these teachings . . .

The two Buddhas, Shakyamuni and Taho, are merely functions of the true Buddha, while Myoho-renge-kyo actually is the true Buddha. The sutra explains this as “the Tathagata’s secret and his mystic power.” The “secret” refers to the entity of the Buddha’s three properties and the “mystic power” to their functions. The entity is the true Buddha and the function, a provisional Buddha. The common mortal is the entity of the three properties, or the true Buddha. The Buddha is the function of the three properties, or a provisional Buddha. Shakyamuni is thought to have possessed the three virtues of sovereign, teacher and parent for the sake of us common mortals, but on the contrary, it is the common mortal who endowed him with the three virtues.

I’m not sure much is revealed by this exercise, other than Dogen and Nichiren had similarity and difference in their approach to Buddha-dharma. Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to contrast them, as their forms of practice are still followed by many today.


The Operations of Thought

Karl Jaspers (1883 –1969) was a German  psychiatrist and philosopher. He wrote a book called The Great Philosophers. This is from his chapter on Nagarjuna, the first section, “The Operations of Thought.” I like it.

All existence is dharma. The goal of this thinking is stated to be “nonattachment” to the dharmas.

By breaking free, the Enlightened One “will stand outside appearance, outside sensation, outside concepts, outside forms and outside consciousness. “

A Bodhisattva does not learn any dharmas, “to him the dharmas are present in a different way.”

Detachment require a last step. I might suppose that at least the doctrine exists, that his one dharma has being, that the Buddha existed, that the Bodhisattvas who attain Perfection of Wisdom exist. Are they not reality? No, this too is empty.

“I do not see that dharma Bodhisattva, nor a dharma called Perfect Wisdom.”

Perfection of Wisdom cannot be perceived, it is not present as an existing thing. For we cannot speak of appearance in the face of that which is no perfection of appearance, nor speak of consciousness where there is no awareness of sensation, concept, form, this is the fundamental and radical idea: to detach myself from all things then from detachment; to cling to nothing.


Good and Evil are indentical

Superficially most people tend to think of good and evil as two fundamentally and diametrically opposed principles or forces in the universe. Two primary wills directed towards opposite ends. However, if we analyze the situation objectively, we discover that the fundamental, primary will of all beings throughout the universe is toward the same end, happiness. Thieves,  murderers, even terrorists, want to be happy, although their notion of happiness may differ greatly from our own.

We also discover that evil is merely a result of ignorance and false beliefs that something is a means to happiness when it is not.  Evil can also be a result of conflict between certain individuals, all of whom desire the same end, but get in the way of each other, and as a result, take actions that are destructive to the common good.

We often hear talk about riding the world of evil. This is a common aim and most people believe it is necessary in order to establish a state of happiness for all. However noble it may be, it is not practical in either the ultimate or relative sense, because evil, being that designated the opposite of the common good, must exist, for without it how would we know what is good?

Chih-i, the great Chinese Buddhist philosopher, once said:

“In evil there is good; apart from evil there is no good. It is the overturning of various evils upon which the tenability of good is based. The situation is like the bamboo in possession of the potency of fire. This potency is not actual fire, therefore the bamboo does not burn. But when the potency meets subsidiary causes and is actualized, the bamboo can burn things. In the same way, evil is the potency of good, though it has not actually become good. When it meets subsidiary causes and is actualized, it can overturn  evil. Similar to the potency of fire in the bamboo, which burns the bamboo when actualized, the potency of good in evil will overturn the evil when actualized. Therefore the aspect of evil potency is identical to the aspect of good potency. “

Seen in this light, good and evil are not two antithetical forces, but the same forces. In Chih-i’s philosophy, the universe as a whole is good, and while he asserts the non-duality of good and evil, to say that a bad act is good if viewed from a perfect understanding does not excuse the act nor prevent the suffering that follows from it. Additionally, if there was no such understanding there would be no act, since the act only occurs because of a lack of understanding. Suffering is necessary because it is through suffering that understanding is improved which makes the act no longer desirable.

This is why Chih-i also says,

“If amid evils there were nothing but evil, the practice of the Way would be impossible and people would remain forever unenlightened, but because the Way is present even amid evil it is possible to attain sageliness even though one may engage in negative actions, for example, even Buddhist monks can be angry.”

Evil is the result of false beliefs on the part of an individual who thinks his or her subsidiary aims are in accord with his or her primary aim, when they are not. When an individual realizes this, then the evil can be overturned because the new understanding acquired will prevent the actualization of the evil. The potency will still remain.

It will require more growth, more spiritual evolution, and perhaps innumerable generations before all individuals collectively have sufficient understanding to overcome many of the specific evils that exist in the world. A single individual, developing this understanding, can contribute toward it.

The question then is not why does evil and suffering exist in the world; rather the question should be how an individual should confront his or her own evil and how one overturns sufferings.

That, however, will have to be discussed some other time. For now, a good first step in that direction is to follow the Buddha’s guidance:

“Do not commit any evil deeds
Try always to perform virtuous acts
Subdue your own mind
This is my teaching”