Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It was twenty years ago today..., or was it ten?

The Buddhist precepts are rules to help you live the Buddhist life. I did a ceremony to receive the Buddhist precepts from my Zen teacher exactly ten years ago today. I thought this might be a good day to write a bit about it here.

In Zen Buddhism there are sixteen precepts. They're known as the “bodhisattva precepts”. The idea in Buddhism is that the precepts are guidelines to help live the best way. There are no sins in Buddhism, but there is right action and wrong action. Breaking a precept is not a sin, but it might result in some bad effect depending on the situation.

For the record, the sixteen precepts are broken down into three groups. Here they are in the way my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, interprets them. The first three are known as the three devotions. They are devotion to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The next three are the three universal precepts. They are to observe the rules of society, to observe the moral rule of the universe, and to work for the salvation of all living beings.

Those first two groups are a bit abstract. The next group are most concrete. They're known as the ten fundamental precepts. They are: don't destroy life, don't steal, don't desire too much, don't lie, don't live by selling liquor, don't discuss failures of other Buddhists, don't praise yourself or berate others, don't begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things, don't get angry, and don't abuse Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

You can can follow the precepts without doing a formal ceremony. But if you've access to a teacher, you can do a ceremony to formally receive the precepts if you want. After that, you’re officially a Buddhist monk or nun, or layman or laywoman, depending on how you feel about it.

For me, taking the precepts meant some kind of a commitment to Buddhism. I was raised as a Catholic, but lost interest in religion in general when I was a teen. It was no big deal and I didn’t worry about it very much. But after doing Buddhism for a while I felt a bit different. I used to hear Gudo Nishijima talk about “the Buddhist truth”, but I always presumed there was no such thing. But after a while Buddhism began to make some sense. I wasn’t sure how to follow up on it though, so I started thinking about taking the precepts. I’m not entirely sure why, but it seemed like a good idea. I’d been studying with Nishijima for a couple of years and I figured it might make some difference to me.

But I wasn’t exactly sure about turning Buddhist. And I didn’t want to start asking Nishijima about it and then back out. So I waited a while. Then one guy I knew from Nishijima’s Saturday meetings told me Nishijima was planning to do the precepts ceremony for another student, named Denis. I figured he might be able to fit me in at the same time. I decided to ask him about it and I tried calling him one morning at his zazen dojo. I dialed the number and waited and waited, but no-one answered. I tried again a few minutes later. This time I let the phone ring. Eventually a German woman who was staying at the dojo answered. I asked for Nishijima, but she told me they were doing zazen in the zazen hall (zendo) and to call back later. I felt really stupid. The phone was right next to the zendo. Nishijima and the others would have had to listen to the phone ringing for a few minutes while they were doing zazen. I hoped they didn’t mind. Anyway, I called back after lunch and asked Nishijima about it. He said okay and told me to do it the same time as Denis. It was going to be held on January 15 at Nishijima’s dojo. The dojo was in a place called Moto Yawata on the outskirts of Tokyo. The plan was to meet there at about 10 and practice zazen together and then do the ceremony.

So that was it. The arrangements were made. All I had to do was show up and do the ceremony. But I was still having doubts. I was real wary of religions, and even though Buddhism felt different I wasn’t entirely convinced. And those doubts weren’t going away easily. One time I was listening to one of Nishijima’s talks at one of his meetings in Tokyo with about 10 or 15 other people. Some people in the room seemed like dedicated Buddhists who had been studying for a good few years. They had shaved heads and were wearing a rakusu, which is a kind of bib your teacher gives you when you receive the precepts. All of a sudden I started thinking “who are these people, and what am I doing here?”
I felt like getting up and leaving. I didn't though, and after a few minutes I just forgot about it.

The day for the ceremony, January 15, finally came round. It was a Thursday. Normally I’d have work that day, but at that time January 15 was a national holiday in Japan. It was called “coming of age day”. It was the day when people celebrate becoming 20 years old, after which they're legally adults. Nishijima usually arranged to hold any ceremonies on national holidays so they didn’t interfere with people’s work. Doing the ceremony to become a Buddhist on “coming of age day” felt like a nice touch too.

One problem, though, was the weather. It can snow in Japan in January, and sure enough it snowed the day of the ceremony. It snowed really hard too. There were a couple of feet (or at least 5 or 6 inches) of snow on the ground so it was going to be tough getting to the dojo. Nishijima wasn’t staying at the dojo that day either. He had a house in Tokorozawa on the other side of town where he stayed with his wife. He used to only stay at the dojo at weekends. He was going to have to make his way through the snow to the train station and try to make it to the dojo. He was 78 then, so it was a lot to ask.

I should have called up Nishijima and asked him to cancel the ceremony. But for some stupid reason I decided to head off for the dojo. It was kind of dumb. It was going to take hours to get to the dojo, and Nishijima could easily have slipped and fallen on the way. I guess I must have been really nervous about the whole thing and just got carried away. I walked through the snow to the train station and waited for a train. Eventually one came, and I made it to the dojo at around 11. Denis showed up a while later and eventually Nishijima too. He had walked through the snow from his house to the local train station, caught a train to Moto Yawata station near the dojo, and walked from there to the dojo. Not bad for 78. Most people wouldn’t have bothered. It helped dispel my doubts. He’d made a big effort to get there.

The original idea was to do zazen and then do the ceremony. But we were running late so we went straight up to the room to hold the ceremony. The place was freezing. I was still nervous about the whole thing and would’ve liked to do some zazen to settle my nerves first, but we didn’t have time. Nishijima changed into his formal robes and a few of us set up the room for the ceremony.

The person who does most of the work during the precepts ceremony is the teacher. He repeats each precepts three times, and asks the recipient if they can keep it until the end of their life. The recipient says “Yes, I can”. One part in the precepts ceremony that felt important to me was these four lines the recipient says towards the beginning:

"Our wrongs which we have committed in the past,
All came from eternal greed, anger and ignorance.
They were the products of body, speech, and mind.

So now we confess them all."

I’d done a lot of things in my past that were definitely “wrongs” that came from "eternal greed, anger and ignorance". I felt like I was getting a fresh start.

Towards the end of the ceremony the teacher says “You should do your best to keep these precepts”. That’s the basic idea. You’re not expected to spotlessly keep the precepts, just do your best. After that, the recipients do three prostrations and then walk up and sit on the teacher’s chair. The teacher walks round the chair a few times saying that the person receiving the precepts is at the same level as Gautama Buddha and is a child of Buddha. When that’s done the receivers get a rakusu and a certificate from the teacher.

When you receive the Buddhist precepts you also receive a Buddhist name. It's usually chosen by your teacher, but you can sometimes choose it yourself if you like. There’s cloth on the back of the rakusu where the teacher writes your Buddhist name, the date and the teacher’s name. The certificate has the same things written on it. Nishijima also wrote the Japanese version of this poem on the back of the rakusu:

How great is the clothing of liberation,
Formless, field of happiness, robe!
Devoutly wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Widely I will save living beings.

This poem is taken from a chapter titled Kesa-Kudoku (The Merit of the
Kasaya) in Dogen’s book Shobogenzo. Dogen heard a Chinese monk recite it before he put on his Kasaya when he visited China. The Kasaya (or Kesa in Japanese) is the Buddhist robe that’s worn by most Buddhist monks and nuns regardless of which branch of Buddhism they belong to. The rakusu is considered to be a small version of the Kesa.

After myself and Denis received our rakusus, the ceremony ended. We took a few photos, and then went downstairs for a quick cup of tea, and headed home. One of the photos is at the top of this post. Nishijima's in the center, with Denis on the left and me on the right.

So that was it. I’d taken the precepts and gotten my rakusu and certificate, and had a Buddhist name. I had formally turned Buddhist, although I didn’t feel any different. But I felt very grateful to Nishijima for the trouble he went to. There was no money or reward involved for him. He did it because he believes in Buddhism.

The next time I met Nishijima was a few weeks later at one of his talks at Hongo-sanchome. I was on my way into the zazen room. I thanked him for doing the ceremony. He didn't say anything, just shook my hand really strongly and gave me a big, big smile.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Doing Your Best

Let me start by wishing everyone a
Happy New Year!

Hope you don't mind I'm a few days late. I'm still trying to get back to something like normal after the holidays.

I'll start off the new year with a few encouraging words about studying/practicing Buddhism from Gudo Nishijima. It's in reply to a question at one of his talks in Tokyo.

I want to learn about Buddhism, but my family life and work takes up a lot of time. I also waste time watching TV and so on. The gap between what I want to do and what I do causes me some frustration. Have you any advice about the attitude we should have to learn Buddhism?

Nishijima: I usually think that to do my best is the best I can do. And all human beings can only do their best. It is impossible for us to do something more than our best. So even though you have some dissatisfaction in your daily life, including that dissatisfaction, you are doing your best. So I think you can be very optimistic in your daily life, because you are doing your best. So to do our best is the important matter. And even though our best is not so high, we should be satisfied with that low situation in day-to-day life. Because, even though it is low, the low situation is our best at that time. So, to live our daily lives sincerely is our best. And that is Buddhist life. It is not necessary for us to think about more ideal situations apart from our real life.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Winter Solstice and Buddhism

In Ireland, the place to be on winter solstice morning is an old Megalithic Passage Tomb called Newgrange. It was built about 5,000 years ago and reconstructed in the 1960's. There's a passage and a chamber in the tomb that are illuminated at sunrise by the winter solstice sunlight. The sunlight passes through an opening over the tomb entrance and lights up the chamber. It lasts for 17 minutes and only happens on 2 or 3 days each year. It only happens on a clear day, so some years the chamber and passage aren't lit up at all. This year the weather was good, which was just as well, as they had the first ever winter solstice webcast from inside the tomb. The passage and chamber are very narrow, so only a small number of people can fit inside. So they decided to do the webcast so lots of people could watch. The webcast didn't work on the first day though, as lot more people wanted to watch than expected, so the system just shut itself down. But it was up and running alright on the second day, Saturday.

I didn't manage to catch the live webcast, but I took a look at
an archive of it on Saturday. The whole show lasts about an hour. It's got the history of the place and things like that at the beginning, but I was mainly interested in seeing the part where the sunlight comes through the passage, so I skipped on a bit. It was nice to see. Right at the end an Australian professor guy who was inside the chamber comes on and is asked what he felt was so cool about being inside the chamber to see the sunshine coming through. He said it was the fact that people in the 20th century can experience more or less the exact same thing that those ancient people did 5,000 odd years ago.

I thought his answer was spot on. It reminded me of Zen Buddhism in a funny way.
In Buddhism we do a sitting meditation called zazen. Most Zen Buddhists practice zazen everyday. It's the same sitting practice that the first Buddha, Gautama, practiced in India 2,500 years ago - long after the tomb at Newgrange was built. And kind of like what the Aussie Professor said about being inside Newgrange for the solstice, the thing about zazen is that when you do it, you can experience the same thing that Gautama and the early Buddhists experienced all those years ago. Which is pretty cool I think.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Zen Master

I moved back to Ireland a few months ago after 15 years in Japan. As you can imagine it was a big change. Lots of stuff to do - get the kids organized in schools and things like that. Those little things can take ages. Been here about 5 months now, and it's been real busy. But thankfully the weather's been good.

I got an email yesterday from Gudo Nishijima. I sent him some socks and a scarf as a present from Ireland. I hope they'll keep him warm during the winter over there. He wrote to say thanks. He's been studying Buddhism and doing zazen for over 60 years now. He still practices zazen everyday. He's a real Zen master. But he'll still drop you a note to say thanks for the socks.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Buddhism and Death

Most of us have questions about death sometimes. In this video Gudo Nishijima answers questions about Buddhism's ideas on death at one of his talks at Dogen Sangha's old dojo in Japan.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Opening the Sutras - Kaikyoge

Buddhism isn't a spiritual religion. It doesn't say much about spiritual things like god or things like that. Instead it says the universe is god and that god is the universe. Buddhism also doesn't have a special holy book that everybody follows. Instead Buddhism has lots of sutras. All the sutras were written by ordinary human beings. Even Gotama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was a human being, though he was a very special one.

But even though Buddhism isn't a spiritual religion, it does have some things that seem a bit religious to most of us. When I first started to go to lectures on Buddhism in Tokyo, one thing I felt uncomfortable with for a while was reciting a verse in Japanese called Kai Kyo Ge (verse to open the sutras) at the beginning of each talk. I asked my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, if it was necessary for foreigners like me to recite the Kai Kyo Ge. He said it was just the tradition in Japan to do so, and of course nobody had to recite it if they didn't want to. For him, reciting Kai Kyo Ge was a way of expressing his respect and thanks to Gotama Buddha for teaching people about Buddhism.

I started to give talks on Buddhism when Gudo Nishijima retired from lecturing in English to devote more time to his translation work. I didn't bother reciting the verse to open the sutras at the first few talks I tried to give. Instead I just got right into trying to give a "talk". But somehow it didn't feel like a proper talk without having said the verse at the beginning. The atmosphere didn't quite feel right. So I started making sure to recite the verse at the beginning and the one at the end too just like Nishijima did. I realized Buddhist tradition can help sometimes.

Now I know anyone reading this probably couldn't care less about some Japanese verse about opening the sutras, but as this is my first real post I thought I'd just go crazy and put up a short video clip of Gudo Nishijima reciting the kai kyo ge at the start of one of his talks at Dogen Sangha's old dojo in Moto Yawata, Japan.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Stupid Way


This is my first post on my new blog. I call it "the stupid way" because it's the way that I learn about Buddhism. I should probably call it "the hard way", but that title is probably already gone. I hope to post to this blog fairly regularly, so drop by once in a while.