Priest Myoe: The Deer, the Island, and the Moon

The history of Buddhism features a fascinating cast of characters, some of whom were quite eccentric. One in particular is Myoe, a priest who lived during the very interesting Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism.

Myoe (1173–1232) was not only eccentric, he was also eclectic. He was ordained in both the Shingon (“True Word”) and Kegon (“Flower Garland”) traditions, and he studied Zen. While he was known as a restorer of Kegon school, he was famous as well for popularizing the Mantra of Light, one of the primary mantras of Shingon Buddhism. Most of all, Myoe was respected for being a very “pure” priest, owing to his strict observance of the precepts.

There are many stories about Myoe. Here is one told by Seikan Hasegawa in The Cave of Poison Grass, Essays on the Hannya Sutra:

One day in the snowy morning a deer wandered into his temple garden. As soon as Priest Myoe saw the deer he picked up a stick to chase it out, shouting, “Go out, go, go!”

The deer ran away beyond the garden house. The disciples of Priest Myoe, however, were watching this sight and they complained.

“Our teacher, why should you chase the deer out? He was sorrowfully cold and hungry on the mountain so he came to the village to find food.”

Priest Myoe replied, “I know about it as well as you. But in this village there are many hunters with bow and arrow. I hope he can escape from these hunters and patiently await the coming of spring.”

Outside Japan, Myoe is probably best known for his “letter to the island.” Most people would consider it a bit odd to write to an island. This didn’t bother Myoe, however. He wrote to the island anyway. In fact, he had a messenger deliver it for him, instructing the messenger to “Simply stand in the middle of Karma Island; shout in a loud voice, ‘This is a letter from Myoe of Tonganoo!’ Leave the letter, and return.”

Myoe lived on this island, which is located in Yusa Bay in Wakayama prefecture, during 1190’s. Here is an excerpt from his letter: [1. Myoe’s entire letter can be found in Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton University Press, 1995 and Dharma Rain Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism by Stephanie Kaza, Kenneth Kraft, Shambhala Publications, 2000]

Portrait of Myoe seated in meditation on a tree housed in the Kaisan-do Hall, Kozan-ji, Kyoto.

Dear Mr. Island:

How have you been since the last time I saw you? After I returned from visiting you, I have neither received any message from you, nor have I sent any greetings to you.

I think about your physical form as something tied to the world of desire, a kind of concrete manifestation, an object visible to the eye, a condition perceivable by the faculty of sight, and a substance composed of earth, air, fire, and water that can be experienced as color, smell, taste, and touch. Since the nature of physical form is identical to wisdom, there is nothing that is not enlightened. Since the nature of wisdom is identical to the underlying principle of the universe, there is no place it does not reach. The underlying principle of the universe is identical to the ultimate body of the Buddha. According to the rule by which no distinctions can be made between things, the underlying principle of the universe is identical to the world of ordinary beings and thus cannot be distinguished from it. Therefore, even though we speak of inanimate objects, we must not think of them as separate from living beings . . .

Why do we need to seek anything other than your physical form as an island since it is the body of the radiant Buddha?

Even as I speak to you this way, tears fill my eyes. Though much time has passed since I saw you so long ago, I can never forget the memory of how much fun I had playing on your island shores . . .

And then there is the large cherry tree that I remember so fondly. There are times when I so want to sent a letter to the tree to ask how it is doing, but I am afraid that people will say that I am crazy to send a letter to a tree that cannot speak . . .

Myoe was 26 when he wrote his letter, and he was no more crazy than Dogen, who lived during the same Kamakura period and who equated rivers and mountains with the body of the Buddha. One of the prime characteristics of Kamakura Buddhism was its fierce sectarianism, but when we scratch below the surface a bit, we find that most of the leading figures of that time were pretty much on the same page. Myoe’s grasp of non-duality is similar to not only Dogen’s Zen thought but also that of Tendai and Shingon.

George J. Tanabe, Jr., who translated the letter, says “Far from being eccentric in writing a letter to an island, Myoe was acting out the central fantasy of Mahayana Buddhism: all things are one.”

Well, there are many incidents in Myoe’s life that point to him being eccentric, or perhaps we could say that he had “crazy wisdom,” not in the sense that term is used today to justify misbehavior, but it does take non-linear, intuitive thinking to truly grasp dharma. I don’t believe I would term non-dualism a fantasy, as Tanabe does (assuming he means it literally), but he is correct in that Mahayana indeed teaches that all things are one. Actually it’s so much a case of oneness, after all, we are not teaching monism, rather, it is that all things are non-differentiated. In the ultimate sense, as Myoe states, no distinctions can be made between things.

Myoe was also a poet. Here are three poems on the winter moon quoted by novelist Yasunari Kawabata in his Nobel Lecture [2. Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel Lecture can be read in its entirety here.] delivered on December 12, 1968 :

I shall go behind the mountain. Go there too, O moon.
Night after night we shall keep each other company.

My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;
And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.

Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon.

Kawabata commented on these poems by saying, “Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature.”



Passings: Jackie Guthrie

Jackie Guthrie, who married folk singer Arlo Guthrie in 1969, died Sunday, October 14, of inoperable liver cancer at the family’s winter home in Sebastian, Fla. She was 68.

Since I am battling the same form of cancer, this is something I wanted to blog.

On October 2, the family posted an update on Guthrie’s Rising Son Records website noting,

“When one of every two men, and one of every three women in America are likely to have cancer, something is terribly wrong with the way things are. Jackie has been the best advocate for rectifying that situation for years. Her posts are everywhere throughout the internet warning against vaccines, fluoride, unhealthy GM foods and a host of other concerns.”

I’m not sure why Jackie Guthrie’s liver cancer was inoperable. Perhaps it was diagnosed too late. For some reason that does not make sense to me, when your cancer passes a certain point, doctors will not even consider giving you a transplant. Seems to me that’s when you need one the most.

According to the Wikipedia page on liver cancer, “Globally as of 2008 liver cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death at 700,000 per year, after lung cancer (1.4 million deaths) and stomach cancer (740,000 deaths).”

Jackie Guthrie was born in Salt Lake City and grew up in Malibu, California. She first met Arlo Guthrie in 1968 while she was working as a cashier in The Troubador, the famous music club on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. She had three children with Arlo and a daughter with singer, David Crosby. Writing about his wife, Arlo posted this on Facebook:

Photograph by John Kloepper, Guthrie Family Tour, Socorro NM, 2MAY07

“There are loves, and there are LOVES. Ours was and will continue to be what it has always been – A very great love. We didn’t always like each other. From time to time there were moments when we’d have our bags packed by the door. But, there was this great love that we shared from the moment we met – a recognition – It’s YOU! And we would always return to it year after year, decade after decade and I believe life after lifetime.”

In recent years, Jackie was the videographer during Arlo’s concert tours. This year, there were times when she was so weak that she could barely hold up the camera. Nonetheless, her spirit was resolute to the very end, for as the Guthrie clan also said in their update, “no one in this family is going to sleep without a fight.”

I interviewed Arlo many years ago on the radio, and naturally I’ve loved his music ever since I first hear that famous line, “You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant (excepting Alice).” He seemed like a nice, normal guy. He had a good chance of contracting Huntington’s disease, which killed his father, the legendary Woody Guthrie. As far as I know, it’s passed him by.

Woody once sang, “Dead or alive it’s a hard road.” ‘Nuff said for today.


Autumn Thoughts

It’s been years since I’ve seen a real autumn – I mean a fall of orange and red leaves, when the mornings are crisp, and birds wing south in arrowed columns across the azure sky in the afternoons, and the nights are soft and as sweet as apple cider.

In Southern California, autumn typically means a continuation of summer heat, and smoke from wildfires. The leaves do not change colors, and we have to wait until spring for any leaves to fall, when the lavender flowers on the Jacaranda trees bloom and soon thereafter drop to cover the lawns and sidewalks like purple snow.

For some reason, this year I have been longing to experience a true autumn, like the Indian brown and golden wheat-field autumns of my youth in Kansas. Perhaps, I am simply pining for some change. When you live in an area with a Mediterranean climate, the changing from summer to autumn and winter to spring can be so subtle that you hardly notice. The sameness grows tiresome. Now the days are growing shorter and the shadows are longer, but it seems to be the identical sun and matching sky each day, day after day . . .

Yet there is constant change. It’s easy to forget that not a single moment is like any other. Moments are subtle, too.

Last week we had a day of rain, the first since April, but just one day. By nightfall, the clouds had moved on, and we have returned to the monotony of clear skies and relentless sunshine.

It’s important to maintain a balanced perspective, so there is much for us to keep in mind. Seasons changing cause me to reflect that we humans have no dominion over nature; we only participate in it. When I read how our mind’s aptitude is such that we can build probes to travel to the edge of the solar system, and when I see that our sense of adventure is bold enough for men to fall from the sky faster than the speed of sound, I am awestruck and proud, but I also try to remember that our deficiencies and misadventures are as numerous as leaves scattering in the wind.

It’s similar to what the Chinese poet, Lu Yu, wrote in a poem titled “Autumn Thoughts”:

Great fame can be obtained
By routing an army
With oxen carrying
Burning straw on their horns,
But, after all, it is no more important than
The track of sandpipers on a wave washed beach . . .
Autumn has come
To my withered garden.
I decide to climb to some
High place to enjoy the view.
But I can only manage
The hundred steps of the
Yuan Hung Pagoda.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems From the Chinese, New Directions, 1971


Honesty is Still a Lonely Word

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue.

– Billy Joel

I imagine that, like me, many of you are deeply disappointed to learn that Lance Armstrong was almost certainly lying when he said he didn’t dope. I like the guy and was really hoping that the allegations weren’t true. I feel sorry for the kids who looked up to him.

Children expect adults to be honest with them, and it can be a traumatic experience for a child to learn that an adult has lied. Yet, adults often lie, or withhold the truth, in order to protect kids. My parents shielded me from the awful truth that George Reeves, the man who played my hero Superman on TV, had committed suicide. I don’t know how my 7 year old mind would have processed the information had I had heard the news when it happened. By the time I finally did learn of his death, I could take it in stride. And I’m certainly glad that I was an adult before I learned what a mess Mickey Mantle was. It was much easier to protect kids when I was growing up. Nowadays, they are bombarded with so much information from so many sources I don’t see how it’s possible.

Kids live in a world when the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is blurred. Most experts will tell you that it’s normal for children to make up stories and “fib” in the form of tall tales. But as people grow older, lying is often a sign of emotion problems. Yet, we all lie.

As Billy Joel sang in “Honesty,” everyone is so untrue. It’s a fact. A recent study conducted at the University of Notre Dame indicates that “Americans average about 11 lies per week.” I suspect the vast majority of these lies are what we call “little white lies.” They’re minor, we consider them harmless, even necessary at times.

That we engage in so much lying is troubling. Equally disconcerting is way in which we accept lies and how we are inconsistent about who we hold accountable for telling lies. We’re outraged when government officials lie, and yet we accept, even expect, that politicians will lie. I suppose politicians and government officials have always been liars to a certain degree, just as athletes have lied and attempted to cover up the truth about their consumption of alcohol and drugs. But I wonder why we put up with it. Do we realize that these people are just reflections of ourselves?

The researchers at Norte Dame studied 110 people. Half were told not to lie for 10 weeks. The other half received no instructions. According to a presentation given at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association:

Both groups came to the laboratory each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and white lies they had told that week . . . Over the course of 10 weeks, the link between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group . . . when participants told fewer lies, they reported that their close personal relationships had improved and that their social interactions overall had gone more smoothly that week, the study revealed.”

While it’s by no means conclusive, the study suggests is that when we’re honest our health and our relationships improve. But, you know, there is an even more compelling reason why we should tell the truth: it’s the right thing to do.

When a person feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil deed that he will not do. Thus, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.'”

– Buddha, quoted in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta

That statement might be a bit of a stretch, after all, just because a person tells lies it doesn’t mean he or she would then engage in murder. We could amend it, slightly, to say that when a person feels no shame in telling a lie, there is no lie he or she might not tolerate. Owing to the fact that this is a world in which all things are interlinked through causes and conditions, there must be a correlation between acceptance of our own lies and our acquiescence to the lies told by others.

People lie because they know they can get away with it. Politicians especially know they can get away with it because our attentions spans are short and our level of apathy is high.

The situation is not acceptable and we can change it. When we become stricter with ourselves and practice less lying, it will have a causal effect on those around us, and the world at large.

Buddhism teaches that “self and surrounding environment” (Jp. esho) exist in a mutual relationship (Jp. sogo kankei), and furthermore “self and surrounding environment” are non-dual, they are one (Jp. esho funi). Because of this, it is said that when we change, the world changes. Indeed, this principle is the foundation that supports one of the basic of all Buddhist concepts, self-purification.

Gandhi once observed that the Buddha used self-purification “to to overcome the oppression, injustice, and darkness around him.” [1. Y.P. Anand, Mahatma Gandhi on Lord Buddha and Buddhism, New Delhi, National Gandhi Museum] Gandhi undertook the same practice because he understood that self-purification is the best way to build a better society, and his accomplishments were a living testament to that truth.

Honesty is still a lonely word, but it’s also, as has been said many times, the best policy. For better health, for better relationships, for a better world – perhaps it is time that we demand more honesty from ourselves, if we do not then we cannot demand it from others, and everyone will continue to be so untrue.




Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West?

The headline jumped out at me: ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’ to Give “Buddhism Naturalized” Talk. Wow. Most dangerous? Really? I had to learn more.

The man’s name is Slavoj Zizek, and he’s a Slovenian philosopher who will be speaking at the University of Vermont this Oct. 16. Now, what I wanted to know was why is he the ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’. Unfortunately the article, actually a press release posted on the UVM website, didn’t tell me. But it did say that Slavoj Zizek has also been called the “Elvis of cultural theory.” Whoa, that’s a big claim.

Sorry, Slavoj, but Elvis is still the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory’ to me.

Naturally, I dug deeper. According to a post I found on what makes Zizek so dangerous is “his analysis of the worldwide ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, and apocalyptic economic imbalances.” Hmm, does that make him more dangerous than say, Al Gore? Maybe, but I’m not sure about it. Nor am I sure about why he’s the “Elvis of cultural theory” either. Maybe he swivels his hips when he gives talks.

Not yet satisfied, I went to Zizek’s Wikipedia page and found out that he was born in 1949, and that his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology (which makes me think of the 1977 Bunuel film, That Obscure Object of Desire for some reason) was published in 1989. He has a lot more accolades than just the two I noted above; he’s also “one of the world’s best known public intellectuals”, “the thinker of choice for Europe’s young intellectual vanguard”, and according to the Telegraph in the UK, “the hippest philosopher in the world.” Damn, he must be a force to be reckoned with then.

I also learned that he’s a dogmatic Marxist. Cool! Me too! Who other than Groucho had more insight into society, economics and politics?

I am the most dangerous Marxist in the world.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”

Yep, for my money, Groucho’s dogma can’t be beat.

If you go to Zizek’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see about half-way down a notice that reads: This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Well, that stopped me right there. I don’t want to read something I can’t understand. What’s the point?

I did learn one final fact, and that’s that Mr. Zizek is an atheist. Which begs the question, why is an atheist giving a talk on Buddhism? I wish people would stick to their own area of expertise. I’m a Buddhist so I don’t go around giving lectures on Zurvanism. Of course, one reason for that is because I’m not sure what it is. I have a sneaky suspicion that Zizek doesn’t know much about Buddhism either.

So, what does Slavoj Zizek have to say about Buddha-dharma? Here’s one example, from an essay titled From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism:

“Western Buddhism” is such a fetish. It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

I never thought of it that way before. I think when I was in college I thought a lot about the frantic pace of the capitalist game, but it was too frantic. I couldn’t keep up. I was 32 when I officially became a Buddhist (my kind of Marxism and Buddhist don’t conflict). Since then, I’ve just been trying to overcome some suffering, find some enlightenment, and maybe help a few people along the way. But now, I may have to rethink things, because I certainly don’t want to have a fetish.

And while I’m thinking about it, I would like to know where you can withdraw your inner Self. Perhaps at a spiritual ATM? My ego tells me I’ve given too much of my self away. I think I want some of it back.

Zizek also says that “Nowhere is this fetishist logic more evident than apropos of Tibet, one of the central references of the post-Christian “spiritual” imaginary.” I think that means he’s not too hip on Tibet, but I can’t really tell because that sentence makes no sense to me. It must be too technical to understand.

I should be ashamed of myself for making fun of this guy. Obviously, I don’t know anything about him. I’m sure he’s a fine fellow, a great thinker, and probably a blast at parties. But then, in my book anyone who allows themselves to be billed as the most dangerous philosopher in the world West is sort of asking for it.

Besides, I feel there are too many philosophers around these days anyway. I’m all in favor of a moratorium on new philosophies.  Do we really need any more? I can’t handle what we got now. I say just say no to any new “isms.”

Or, as Groucho put it, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

The one and only Groucho in Horse Feathers.