Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gudo Nishijima's 90th Birthday




Today is Gudo Nishijima Roshi's 90th birthday. To mark the occasion we asked him to give a talk at our zazen class at the Young Buddhists Association in Tokyo yesterday. He agreed, and asked me what topic I'd like to hear him talk about. Seeing as it was his 90th birthday, I said it’d be nice to hear him talk about his own life.

We arranged to meet at his apartment around noon yesterday, and to take a taxi together to the meeting place. While we were in the taxi, he said he felt very happy to be celebrating his 90th birthday. He said so many things had happened in his life, but now that he had reached 90 he felt really happy.

We reached the Young Buddhists Association with time to spare. Nishijima had time for some tea and rice crackers before his talk. There was a good number of people there, with the room more or less full. During his talk, Nishijima spoke about his family and upbringing and what caused him to become interested in Buddhism. Then we had time for questions. The talk was scheduled to last an hour, but there were plenty of questions, so we ended up running well past the hour.

I made a video recording of Nishijima's talk. In the following clip, he talks about his first teacher, Master Kodo Sawaki.
 




After the talk we presented Nishijima with some gifts and cards from his students in Tokyo and overseas. He seemed very happy to receive them and thanked everybody.

Later on we held a small birthday party at an Indian restaurant. Now that I think of it, we forgot to arrange a birthday cake. But I don't think Nishijima cared. He seemed very happy.

All the best,

Peter

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Heart Sutra









Gudo Nishijima didn't do any chanting at his meetings or retreats. He preferred to just stick to zazen and afterwards give a talk and answer questions. Sometimes someone would ask why there was no chanting. Nishijima usually answered that he liked to follow Master Dogen’s ideas on Buddhism, and he felt Dogen didn’t particularly recommend us to chant as part of Buddhist practice. If he was pressed a bit on the subject, Nishijima would quote something or other Dogen wrote about chanting that indicated his preference for zazen. If you've read the Shobogenzo a bit you might have come across one or two passages on the subject.


But there are always exceptions. In Nishijima’s case, the exception to his chanting policy was the Heart Sutra. He used to chant this once each day after early morning zazen at his dojo. I was a bit surprised the first time I heard him chanting the Heart Sutra, because I'd listened to his opinion about chanting before. So afterwards I asked why he'd started to chant it. He told me that one time some Buddhist nuns stayed at his dojo for a while and they asked him if it would be okay to chant the Heart Sutra in the morning. He agreed, and so they started to chant it together at his dojo each morning after zazen. After the nuns left, Nishijima decided to keep chanting it each morning.


The Heart Sutra is a discussion between Gautama Buddha and his disciple Sariputra about something called prajna. Prajna is a Sanskrit word. The first part pra means “before” or “prior to”. The second part jna means “knowledge”. Nishijima usually translates prajna as “intuition”. A lot of people translate it as something like “real wisdom”. Whatever way you want to translate it, prajna is referring to something that’s completely different to what we normally consider to be knowledge or wisdom. We usually assume that we accumulate knowledge by studying or learning. But with prajna it’s a bit different. Buddhism says we develop prajna by practicing zazen. I know that sounds a bit strange, but that’s the Buddhist idea.


Another thing about prajna is that we don’t have any particular control over it. It’s either there or it's not. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it and sometimes we don’t. But if we get a few glimpses of it or experience it a few times we can get a feel for what it is. If we don't get a glimpse of it or notice it at all, it's a bit harder to believe such a thing actually exists.


Like I say, the theme of the Heart Sutra is prajna. Below is one part where the Buddha says that bodhisatvas rely on prajna. It’s a nice idea. To me it suggests that if you practice zazen everyday you can rely on prajna to help guide your actions. Mind you, it's not quite as simple as that, and sometimes we mess up, but the idea at least seems to be like that. Of course, the hard part is trying to rely on something you can't see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or even grasp mentally. But that's Buddhism for ya. Anyway, here's that part where the Buddha says bodhisatvas rely on prajna:


With nothing to attain,

bodhisattvas

rely on prajna-paramita,

and their minds are without hindrance.



They are without hindrance,

and therefore without fear.




Far apart from all confused dreams,

they dwell in nirvana.



All buddhas of the past, present and future

rely on prajna-paramita,

and attain full, complete realization.



Therefore, know that prajna-paramita

is the great transcendent mantra,

the great bright mantra,

the supreme mantra,

the unequalled balanced mantra,

that can eliminate all suffering,

and is real, not false.


Regards,

- peter


Monday, November 9, 2009

Tale of the Two-eyed Monkey


I don't get as much time as I'd like to read books. Like a lot of people, I've plenty of books that I bought ages ago but haven't managed to read yet. Recently though, my older son and I have started reading books together for about 20 or 30 minutes before he goes to bed. He's still in elementary school, and until recently I used to read him children's books at bedtime. But nowadays he prefers to get his own books at the library and read them himself. So we sit beside each other in the evening reading our own books.

A few nights ago, my son asked me about a book I was reading at the time, called “Everyday Zen”. He asked if it was about Buddhism. I told him it was. Then he asked what Buddhism is about. Now, my son knows I teach some kind of zazen class, and he sees me doing zazen at home, and he even does some zazen himself once in a while, but this was the first time he ever asked about Buddhism as such. I was a bit surprised. I wasn't too sure what to tell him, but I figured he might like the story about the two-eyed monkey. It's a fairly well-known story in Zen Buddhism at least. Here it is :

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Once there was a monkey with two-eyes who lived on an island. One day there was a terrible storm and the monkey got washed out to sea on a log. The monkey drifted on the log for weeks until he was washed ashore on another island far away from where he used to live. The monkey was hungry so he ran up to the edge of the jungle to look for food. At the edge of the jungle he saw another monkey. But the other monkey had only one eye, so the two-eyed monkey was very surprised. But when the other monkey saw the two-eyed monkey, the other monkey began laughing and howling. Then more and more monkeys came to see what was going on. All the monkeys who came had only one eye. When those one-eyed monkeys saw the two-eyed monkey they all started laughing and howling. They all pointed at the two-eyed monkey and said “Look, look, he's got two eyes! He's got two-eyes! Ha, ha, ha, ha...”

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I wasn't so sure if my son would enjoy the story, but he seemed to think it was alright. After that, I also told him that what's important in Buddhism is not so much what we say, but what we actually do. I gave him the example of someone saying they're going to do their homework tomorrow, but when tomorrow comes they forget all about their homework and just watch TV instead. That made sense to him too, although I'm not sure he liked the example.

When he's older, if he asks me what Buddhism is about again, I'll probably tell him that in some ways Buddhism isn't really about “Buddhism” at all. It's just about being himself. So he doesn't have to worry about being a Buddhist, or a Christian, or a Hindu or things like that. He can just be himself all the time, and that's all he needs to do.

Of course, it's not always easy to be ourselves. Because we think maybe there's something wrong with us, or other people won't like us or we won't fit in and things like that. But one thing we can learn from Buddhism is that just to be ourselves is the best way. That's why we're here.

Regards,

Peter

 
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