Debating the Dharma: “You should shut your mouth.”

You probably watched the presidential debate the other night, and perhaps as I was, you found the mudslinging disgusting.  The less said about it the better.  But since we are on the subject of debates, here is an interesting Buddhist side bar.

tibetan-dharma-debatingIn the anthology Buddhism in Practice, George J. Tanabe, Jr. presents a transcript of a debate that took place in Japan in 1536 between a Tendai priest and a Nichiren layman.  Dharma debates (or dharma ‘combat’) are a tradition in some forms of Buddhism.  You might be familiar with the Tibetan style of dharma debating (left), which seems rather spirited as each debater punctuates his or her points with a slap of the hand.  In Japanese Buddhism, debates are called issatsu (“challenge”).

Now the Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism (1185-1333 CE) was a particularly contentious time.  Many of the sects were set against each other, calling one another heretics, and so on.  Then there was Nichiren who said that all of Buddhism was in serious decline, a real mess that only he could fix.  Nichiren insulted everyone, including the government, and blamed others for his own misfortunes.  Tanabe says, “Persecution was an important part of Nichiren’s own mentality and religion . . .”

A former Tendai priest, Nichiren accused the Tendai sect of corruption and “losing sight of the principles laid down by their own [school] concerning which teachings are to be adopted and which discarded . . . It is a shameful, shameful thing they are doing!”  (The Tripitaka Master Shan-wu-wei )

In a nutshell, according to Nichiren, everyone who was not listening to him and practicing Buddhism his way, the way of the Lotus Sutra, would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”.  (Essence of the Medicine King Chapter)

I can just imagine Nichiren with a Twitter account . . .

One day a Nichiren lay believer named Matsumoto was in Kyoto and saw a Tendai priest giving a dharma talk.  He interrupted the Priest Keo and proceeded to engage him in a debate.  From our modern view their arguments seem ridiculous, as both men were seeped in a mythological understanding of Buddhism.  Much of the debate revolved around who is the best Buddha, Shakyamuni or Great Sun Buddha (Dainichi), and it got acrimonious a couple of times:

KeoThe Great Sun Buddha is the buddha of transcendent truth and is therefore not something for the ordinary person to know.  You should shut your mouth.
Matsumoto: No, I will not shut my mouth just for that . . .
Matsumoto:  Well, now, [the Shingon school] speaks of becoming a buddha, but there is no such thing.  You should shut your mouth.  Or perhaps Your Eminence knows of people in this degenerate age who have becomes buddhas?
Keo:  What a man of capricious words . . .
Keo:  Nichiren’s belief was such that he slandered Amida Buddha and said that the Pure Land sect was the teaching of the hell of unending suffering.  He is really a criminal guilty of making light of the buddhas.

Alas, no one watching the debate could chant “Lock him up!” because Nichiren had been dead for 254 years by then.

The Matsumoto debate was actually rather mild, but it set in motion a round of strong, violent action.

“Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge.” * Rival factions within Tendai joined forces to attack the Nichirenites.  “Somewhere between 30,000 to 150,000 warrior monks were amassed on the Tendai side, while the Nichiren temples had a estimated 20,000 troops.”** They fought a battle that went on for five days.  In the end, the Tendai troops destroyed 21 Nichiren temples and burned the southern district of Kyoto to the ground.

Although it was the Tendai side that initiated the violence, it was the Nichiren folks who were condemned for it, and I suppose that I will get some comments complaining how I seem to pick on poor Nichiren, that I don’t understand his teachings, and I should shut my mouth.  But I think I understand his teachings well enough, and I take an objective view of them, from the perspective of modern scholarship not ancient mythology or cult propaganda.  I’m sorry but I can’t help but see Nichiren as a kind of medieval Trump.  However, demagoguery is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, don’t harbor doubts about anything you read on this blog.  I know more about dharma than the monks.  Nichiren was the founder of Isis.  The Dalai Lama was not born in the U.S.  I want to make Buddhism great again . . .

– – – – – – – – – –

* Donald S. Lopez Jr., The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, Princeton University Press, 2016

** “The Matsumoto Debate” George J. Tanabe, Jr., Buddhism in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Princeton University Press, 1995


The Rain Rained

Saturday night, the rain rained. That may not be a big deal where you live. Here, it’s a huge deal, especially since we have been in a drought for four years.

I stole “the rain rained” from one of my favorite crime fiction novels, Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home) by the late Ted Lewis, which was made into a pretty decent film in 1971 starring Michael Caine.  It’s the book’s opening line. I love it. What does rain do?  It doesn’t actually pour, does it? It certainly does not come down like cats and dogs. Rain rains. Simple.

IMG_3422b2So, it rained during the night when I was asleep and I missed it. But this morning, when I awoke, the sky was still wonderfully gray, the air cool and refreshing, and drops of rain were lingering on the leaves of trees and plants.

The 13th century Japanese Zen teacher, Dogen wrote in the Mountains and Water Sutra, “Even in a drop of water innumerable buddha lands appear.”

Dogen wrote about the rain in this famous waka poem,

As I listened
I became
the sound of rain
on the eaves.

In both of these, he is expressing nonduality, emptiness, and the mutual interpenetration of all things.

Did you know that a single drop of water weighing 0.1g contains about 3 billion trillion (3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules?

A “buddha land” refers to the principle taught by the Tendai school of Buddhism, sanzen sekai or a billion worlds. According to the Dogen anthology, Moon in a Dewdrop, “This ‘universe’ is regarded as the realm influenced by one buddha’s teaching. Thus it is called a ‘buddha land.’” Tendai also contributed the concept of ichinen sanzen or the universe in a single thought.

If we understand about nonduality, then we know that ultimately there is no difference between molecules and human life. This way, Dogen or you or I, can become the rain.  And a single thought can contain the entire universe.

All things simultaneously interpenetrate into one another and this helps reveal to us the deep underlying harmony that permeates reality.


Marathon Men

Definitely the best part of Sen. Ted Cruz’s marathon anti-Obamacare pitch on the floor of the Senate was his reading of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham. If you recall Seuss story, Sam-I-Am insists that an unnamed character try green eggs and ham, a dish the character says, “I do not like.” In fact, he shouts, “Destroy that egg! Today! Today! Today I say! Without delay!” Sam-I-Am, being rather persistent, suggests that the character might like them, “Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.” Eventually, the character does try green eggs and ham, and whaddya know? He likes it.

“I have not tried it, and that’s a fact,
but still, I hate the Affordable Health Care Act.”

The irony here is almost too obvious. Republicans have not even tried Obamacare and yet they are sure they do not like it – they will not have it in the House, they will not have it with a mouse, they will not have it in a box or with a fox . . . I believe these latest shenanigans represent the 40th time Republicans have tried to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with this attempt, they are willing to shut down the government to get their way. Try Obamacare, try it today, you may learn to like it, I say.

Enough of that nonsense. Today, I’d rather focus on a man who completed a vastly different kind of marathon.

It’s not exactly clear what he did during the war; most reports say he was kamikaze pilot, while others state he worked for Japan’s infamous Unit 731, a biological and chemical warfare program engaged in human experimentation and responsible some of the worst war crimes in history. After the war he ran a noodle shop that burnt down. His wife committed suicide. Depressed, utterly miserable, at age 40 he became a Buddhist priest. He wrote popular books, using simple language to explain not only the teachings of Buddhism but his own philosophy that action was superior to wisdom. He met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1995 and explained Buddha-dharma to him.

His name was Yusai Sakai, and on September 23, he died at Imuro Fudodo Chojuin temple in Japan, age 87.

They called him “Superman.”

Yusai Sakai
Yusai Sakai

He was one of only three men to twice undertake the Kaihogyo (“practice of circling mountains”), an asceticism unique to the Tendai sect (the Japanese branch of the defunct T’ien-t’ai school founded by Chih-i). In this practice, the participants walk around Mount Hiei, home to Enryaku-ji, the temple that was once the center of Buddhist learning in Japan, and still home to Tendai today. It is a 1,000 day event stretched over the course of seven years, in which the participants run approximately 50 miles per day for 100 days. Only about 40 priests have actually completed the marathon since 1571.

The Kaihogyo is not just circumnavigating a mountain. It’s a pilgrimage that involves offering prayers at over 200 locations on the mountain. It is said that the practice is based on the chapter “The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged” in the Lotus Sutra. Bodhisattva Fukyo went around praising everyone he met and bowing to them, for which he was beaten to death. You can read my rendering of the story here, and an earlier post about the Kaihogyo here.

Sakai was 54 when he completed the marathon for the first time. His second completion was in 1987 at age 61. According to one article that offers a fascinating look at Sakai’s life, and the “Marathon Monks,” he was given the nickname “Superman” because “he once ran – further and harder than anyone in Japan, probably the world, perhaps even the history of the world. Sakai ran to within a breath of death, not just to visit mortality’s brink but to camp there a while. His austerities were so tortuous, it hurts even to recount them.”

Frankly, my idea of a marathon is an hour-long walk in a park. I can understand staying in shape; I can even appreciate training oneself to perfection. Punishing the body, on the other hand, strikes me as the sort of austerity that the Buddha rejected. But then, I’m not really qualified to judge. What’s important here is simply that Sakai was an remarkable individual. His life and his approach to the path to enlightenment was so very different from our own, but many paths lead to the same truth. Some of those paths encircle mountains . . .

Sakai spent his remaining years at the temple where he died of heart failure. He once said, “Leaves thrive when they are fresh green but fall when the time comes. But they are green again the next year. The sight of such workings has made me realize that life is not over when it is finished once but does go on and on. That’s probably the sort of wisdom that Buddha bestows on us.”


Going for the Gold, Buddhist Style

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are in full swing. I thought this might be the perfect time to talk about some Buddhist monks that could put even the most accomplished and medaled Olympian to shame. They’re known as “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei.”

That’s also the title of a wonderful book by John Stevens. It’s out of print now, I believe, but a new copy is available on Amazon for only $324.36! I paid $18.95 for my copy, purchased at a used book store some fifteen years ago.

Tendai Marathon Monk

The marathon here is something called kaihogyo (“practice of circling mountains”), a 1,000 day event stretched over the course of seven years, in which the participants run approximately 50 miles per day for 100 days. I’m  pooped out just thinking about it.

This “challenge” has been in existence in one form or another since at least 830 CE, and it’s sponsored by the Tendai sect (the Japanese branch of the defunct T’ien-t’ai school founded by Chih-i), and held at Mount Hiei, the mountain monastery that was once the center of Buddhist learning in Japan, and still home to Tendai today.

Just how monkish these monks actually are, I’m not really sure. In Japan most “monks” are actually priests who can marry and raise families. According to Stevens, all candidates for the Tendai priesthood (both male and female) are required to participate in a sixty-day training period at Gyo-in, the Priest’s Training Hall, and they must do kaihogyo at least one day during this training period. Those who wish to go further are called gyoja (Skt. acarin) “a spiritual athlete who practices (gyo) with a mind set on the Path of Buddha.”

The kaihogyo is considered a form of walking meditation, and it corresponds with the four types of samadhi (meditation) set out by Chih-i in the Mo-ho Chih-kuan: constant sitting, constant walking, half-walking and half-sitting, and neither walking nor sitting.

In this practice the gyoja circumnavigate the “sacred space” of Mount Hiei, following a prescribed course that includes stops at various temple halls and shrines, graves, mountain peaks, trees, rocks, waterfalls, and ponds, where they meditate and recite mantras, particularly the mantra of Fudo Myo-o, a “deity” in esoteric Buddhism who is the central figure in the kaihogyo.

A more detailed description of the marathon is too involved for me to detail in this post. However, you can read more about it at Wikipedia’s article on kaihogyo here. The monks are truly awe-inspiring: they adhere to a vegetarian training diet, engage in a 9 day fast (doiri) of no food, water or sleep, and run on hand-made straw shoes. One of the highlights is the Taiko Mawashi (“Drum Turning’) festival where new gyoja leap from a huge rotating drum made of old katsura wood into a crowd of spectators (Maybe this inspired Springsteen? Nah). At one point the gyoja actually throw themselves off a waterfall, an act that symbolizes the ancient beginnings of the marathon, when the Grand Patriarch So-o (in 859) supposedly leaped into the falls of Katsuragawa to embrace Fudo Myo-o who had suddenly appeared before him.

I engage in a vigorous walking meditation somewhat similar to this myself. Several times a week I circumnavigate my block, and I stop at various locations to do ikitsuku, which means to “rest and catch one’s breath.” My doctor suggested I do 45 minutes of hard walking each day, and I said, “Doc, sometimes it is hard walking.”

I’m joking of course, but seriously,  kaihogyo does sound rather extreme. John Stevens explains the rationale behind it:

Some may condemn this type of severe training as a violation of Sakyamuni’s Middle Way, but such death-defying exercises lie at the heart of Buddhist practice. There would be no doctrine of the Middle Way if Sakyamuni had not nearly fasted to death, subjecting himself to the most rigorous austerities to win enlightenment. Asceticism did not get him enlightenment, but it did lead to his transformation into a Buddha. This is why the emergence of a marathon monk from doiri is compare to Sakyamuni Buddha’s descent from the Himalayas following his Great Awakening.”

In Tendai Buddhism, enlightenment is not something attained in the distant future. An essential  teaching of the school is “original enlightenment” (hongaku shiso) and the “gold” to be captured in the Olympiad or marathon of life is sokushin-jobutsu or “enlightenment with this very body.” In Tendai, the potential for awakening is inherently present within all people and that process is accessible within this present life.

Enryaku-ji, the famous Tendai center of learning

At one time, Tendai was perhaps the most influential of all the Japanese schools. It was from the Tendai tradition that such major branches as Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren arose. Today, it is little known. The various Nichiren sects rely heavily on Tendai teachings, although they are often filtered through Nichiren’s very dogmatic perspective.  Owing to my experience in that tradition, I feel a connection with the teachings of Chih-i’s T’ien-t’ai and with Japanese Tendai. While the kaihogyo is awesome and Tendai’s affinity with nature admirable, I can’t help but feel that if Tendai today spent more time engaged with the world at large, more people could benefit from exposure to their important teachings.

The mountain itself is a mandala. Practice self-reflection intently amid the undefiled stones, trees, streams, and vegetation, losing yourself in the great body of the Supreme Buddha.”

So-o, quoted in The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei

Enryaku-ji photo: 663highland


Even Plants and Trees Have Buddha-nature

My apartment is located in the rear of the building. There used to be four beautiful trees right outside my windows. They provided cooling shade and great ambiance. In springtime, birds would come to sit on the branches and chirp their love songs to one another, making lovely music. In the summertime, I loved to look out at the trees in the afternoon,  beguiled with the way the sunlight fell upon the leaves so perfectly . . .

Two of these trees were destroyed by over-trimming and eventually cut down. Incompetent tree-trimming is a real problem here in Los Angeles. None of the people who do this sort of work seem to have any idea of how to prune a tree properly. They engage in topping and tipping, two practices that are extremely harmful to trees.

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of large upright branches, sometimes in order to reduce the height of a tree. Tipping is basically just hacking off lateral branches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and any responsible arborist will tell you that proper tree trimming does not include topping and tipping.

After the two trees were removed, obviously only two remained. One was a wonderful red berry tree that subsequently had the heart cut out of it by these so called “tree trimmers”:

Today they cut away at it some more, and now, it’s just ugly.

Then there was this small tree, which at one time was not so small.  The tree trimmers nearly destroyed it, and for  years now, it has struggled to survive and regrow:

When I received a notice regarding the impending tree timing, I contacted the property manager and practically begged her to leave this tree alone.  I sent her the above photo to show that the tree was coming back to life, finally thriving.  They cut it down anyway.  It’s gone, and I have a difficult time not calling it murder. A pretty strong word, but trees are living things. What else would you call the senseless act of killing a living thing? There was absolutely no need to destroy that tree.

If simply the fact that they are alive is not reason enough to cherish trees, and plants, and hold them sacred, then consider this: In Mahayana Buddhism, “even non-sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature” (Ch. wu ch’ing yu hsing). Yes, even plants and trees have a Buddha-nature.

William R. La Fleur has noted that,

Chi-t’sang [549–623 CE], a native of Turkestan and a master of Madhyamika dialectic in China, was the first to use the key phrase “Attainment of Buddhahood by Plants and Trees.” He made the first, although highly qualified, step in the direction of seeing Buddhahood in the nonsentient. In his Ta-ch’eng-hsuan-lun he stated that in theory plants and trees, since they are essentially like sentient beings, can achieve Buddhahood, but he allowed this as a possibility only within the realm of theory.”*

Around the same time, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i (538–597 CE) put forth a theory on the Buddhahood of plants (Jp. somoku-jobutsu) based on his concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen). In his Chin-kang Pi (“Diamond Blade”), the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, Chan-jan, wrote,

“A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Elsewhere in the same work, he stated,

[Because of i-nien san-ch’ien] we may know that the single mind of a single particle of dust comprises the mind-nature of all sentient beings and Buddhas…. The man who is of all-round perfection, knows from beginning to end that Truth is not dual and that no objects exist apart from mind. Who, then, is “animate,” and who “inanimate”? . . . In the case of grass, trees, and the soil (from which they grow), what difference is there between their four kinds of atoms? . . . How can it still be said unto today that inanimate things are devoid (of the Buddha-nature)?”*

This notion of the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees was extremely popular in Japan. In Tendai (the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai), scholars advanced the theory further. Chujin (1065-1138), in a work called Kanko Ruiju (“Classified Collection of the Light of the Han”) put forth seven “arguments” in this regard [see below], stating that “trees and plants do not posses Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas”, and so, according to the principle of “original enlightenment” trees and plants posses Buddha Nature. What he is saying is that it is through the faculty of enlightened wisdom that we can recognize the precious entity of life in all existing things and recognize that they all posses Buddha-nature.

Other Japanese Buddhists such as Kukai and Dogen, and the great poet Saigyo, also championed the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees. Dogen was critical of those who couldn’t get it. He once wrote,

Students . . . consider the mind to be thoughts and perceptions and do not believe it when they are told the mind is plants and trees.”

A person who thinks in non-dualistic terms finds no separation between the mind and the world of nature.

There is no excuse for the senseless destruction of trees. Ignorance is not a defense. People in the tree trimming business should be knowledgeable about their business. They should know what is good for trees and what isn’t. I’ve tried to protect our building’s trees . . . to no avail.

And this is why I am feel sad today. With the destruction of the small tree, I feel as though I have lost a dear friend. I lamented its near-destruction.  I rooted for it to come back.

On this last day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of Saigyo’s poems. Read it in reverse, not as a human speaking to a tree, but instead, as if the little tree that struggled so hard to survive but was cut down anyway, was speaking to us . . .

Pine, of you I ask
Some services … of mourning
For aeons … of concealment;
There’s here no human being
Who might think of me when I die.

Chujin’s Seven Arguments for the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees*

1. Shobutsu no kangen. Trees and plants do not possess Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas.

2. Gubosho no ri. Trees and plants are in possession of Buddha-nature (bussho or Buddhata). “Buddha” means “enlightenment.” The inner (or mysterious) principle of the Buddha-nature is a purity of original enlightenment (hongaku) and has nothing of impurity in it. This is something which plants and trees are in possession of.

3. Esho funi. There is an inner harmony of the achievement of the right reward (shobo) – in this case the Buddha’s enlightenment  –  and all the attendant (eho) circumstances – for example the earth, etc., upon which he depends. The enlightenment of him is accompanied by that of all these others. Therefore, plants and trees are already in possession of Buddha-nature.

4. Totai jissho. Of their own nature the myriad things are Buddha, and “Buddha” means enlightenment. In their inner nature the things of the 3,000 worlds are unchangeable, undefiled, unmoved, and pure; this is what is meant by their being called “Buddha.” As for trees and .plants, there is no need for them to have or show the thirty-two marks (of Buddhahood); in their present form-that is, by having roots, stems, branches, and leaves, each in its own way has Buddhahood.

5. Hongu-sammi. Like all sentient beings, trees and plants have three bodies: the Dharma-body, the Sambhoga-body, and the Nirmana-body. Therefore, trees and plants can attain Buddhahood as sentient beings can.

6. Hossho fushigi. The self-nature of trees and plants is not capable of being described and, therefore, the Buddha-nature possessed by trees and plants is also ineffable.

7. Guchuudo (Tendai mediation principle) and ichinen-sanzen. The principle that the 3,000 realms (i.e., all phenomena) are contained in one thought means that the mind (shin) is all things and all things are the mind. Trees-and-plants as well as sentient beings both possess all things. This is why sentient beings can conceive of trees and plants. If this were not so, there could be no cognition. The real and original nature of all things (hossho or dharmata) has two aspects. Its quiescent aspect is the one mind and its illuminating aspect is the 3,000 realms of being. The internal unity of these two aspects makes both for knowledge and for the fact that essentially plants and trees have the Buddha-nature.

*La Fleur, William R., Saigyo and the Buddhist Value of Nature. Part I. In: History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov., 1973), pp. 93-128. The University of Chicago Press