Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sukhavati: No Lines, No Waiting


At the end of May our temple website received two similar requests from young men – one was leaving prison and the other was leaving his good-paying job at Apple. Both wanted to join a Buddhist monastery to devote the rest of their lives to working towards enlightenment. Then this past weekend two young men came to the temple also talking about a joining monastery. One was a white guy who was going to start a job overseas and wanted to spend his summer at a monastery. I told him what I told the two on-line inquirers – to look at the ads in Tricycle Magazine and search on the internet.

But on Sunday an Asian guy with a shaved head came to attend our morning service. I’ll call him “Yul” (didn’t quite catch his real name) and he said he was Mongolian but was leaving soon for Thailand to become a Buddhist monk. I remarked that his own culture was Buddhist, part of the same Vajrayana tradition as Tibet and Nepal, but he responded, “Vajrayana really screwed up Buddhism. Only Theravada preserves pure Buddhism.” I said, “Buddhism in all the Asian countries are going to have cultural elements that weren’t part of original Buddhism. I bet you’ll find that in Thailand there’s a lot going on at temples that are just cultural customs.”

I asked why he was going to Thailand instead of finding a monastery in the U.S. and he said every place he looked into had a waiting list of one to two years. I found it interesting that he was told “one or two years.” I imagine it’s not because they expect senior monks to be passing away soon, but based on past experience the monasteries predict a number of people starting out now will drop out after one or two years of monastic living.


Yul in his dead seriousness and impatience is probably not so different from how the great teachers such as Shinran and Dogen were in their youth. Or like most of us when we first enter the adult world – we expect everything to be transparent and uncorrupted and are quick to accuse our elders of having messed things up.

As I told both of the website inquirers and tried to get across to Yul in my Dharma talk, you don’t need to join a monastery to enter the path of awakening. Of the millions of people worldwide who identify themselves as Buddhist, only a tiny percentage are living as monks and nuns. The path of seeking is open to all people – those who don’t have the time or money to join a monastery can still participate in learning the Dharma and performing practices at gatherings for lay people led by trained leaders who may not necessarily be ordained.

In Jodo Shinshu we learn that the idealistic concept of purity that we cling to is as much a lie as believing we could be forever young and able-bodied. Rev. Gyoko Saito said it’s like the image of a deep pool of still, clear water – after a time of being enclosed the stagnant water becomes foul and cloudy. His teacher, Haya Akegarasu said real purity is symbolized by a babbling brook – the water is continually moving and being refreshed. This purity is what is meant by the “pure” in Pure Land. The Sanskrit “sukhavati” also points to this. Sukha is the opposite of dukha, that is, freely flowing with the dynamism of life as opposed to being stuck in one’s fixed ego-centered concepts.

It’s okay if you young men like Yul out there still want to join a monastery. But while you’re on the waiting list or slowly saving up money for your trip to Thailand, India, Japan etc., please visit your local non-monastic Sangha and discover the ever-renewing purity of down-to-earth ordinary life.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Many Fingers Pointing to the Moon - Or Not

My planned speech for tomorrow’s event (what I’ll actually say may be different)

Keynote Speech – Int’l Buddhism Festival - June 2, 2012

This year’s theme for the Buddhist Council of the Midwest’s International Buddhism Festival is “Buddhism in the Digital Age.” What we call “Buddhism” – the texts, customs, institutions etc. – is the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon.” Buddhism itself is not “the Truth” but it is a collection of paths that lead us to awakening to the truth. Words and pictures, rituals and practices – are all expressions for guiding us beings deluded by selfish concerns to awaken to actual reality. What goes on and around the internet are just new versions of fingers pointing to the moon. But there is a danger that some of those fingers are not pointing to the Truth and are instead sending people into further delusion, into traps that shut them away from the bright vibrancy of life.



Some ages ago, the term “night stand Buddhist” was coined to describe the millions of Americans who identify themselves as Buddhist even though they do not participate in any Buddhist organization. They are called “night stand Buddhists” because all they know about Buddhism is from the books that sit on the end table by their bed, books that they’ll read a bit of before going to sleep. Now with the internet, that trend has morphed into what we could call “laptop Buddhists” – people whose only contact with Buddhism is what they read on-line.

Although Buddhism started out as an oral tradition, it was able to spread throughout Asia through the written word, translated in several different languages. Though there may have been some scholarly hermits holed up alone behind their stacks of scrolls, we don’t hear about “night stand Buddhists” in the history of Asian Buddhism.

I think one reason for this is that the sutras and commentaries in the Asian languages somehow inspire the reader to seek out active participation with other people. It’s like when you read an exciting book with an ending that leaves you hanging. You want to find others to discuss it with to get their interpretations. You want to seek out the author and ask questions of him or her, or if that person has passed on, you hope to find experts who could clarify the book’s meanings for you. And in joining with others who were moved by the book, you learn from them that there are many lessons in the book that changed their lives for the better.

Too much of what is written about Buddhism in English in books and on-line encourages a smug passivity in the reader. The reader can think, “Yes, I get it now and I’m well on my way to enlightenment, while the stupid people around me have no clue.” The night stand Buddhists might be the ones who’ll pay big bucks to be in a crowded auditorium for a glimpse of the Dalai Lama, but they don’t believe they need to learn from anyone on an up-close and personal level.

In other words, the digital and printed fingers that claim to be pointing to the moon are instead encasing people in one-seater cars on a dead-end road of self-congratulation. There is no arousing of the Bodhi heart/mind that makes you question your limited ego-centered thinking and seek out real-live people already on the road of awakening.

The internet can work as a positive force in leading people to the Buddha, the Dharma and most importantly, to the Sangha. Although there’s a lot of misleading and sloppy information on-line, anyone can easily access many of the major Buddhist texts in English. One of my heroes in Buddhism today is Thanissaro Bhikkhu (fka Geoffrey DeGraff) who set up the website accesstoinsight.org where you can find most of the Pali canon and many great essays and commentaries. Even though he and his monastery are Theravada, I would call them truly Mahayana – for transmitting the large vehicle of Buddhism, open to all.

For our temple in particular, having a website and Facebook page has brought people to us through e-mail that might have been too shy to phone or show up in person unannounced. I tell them they should come to our temple, or any of the Buddhist gatherings in the Chicago-area, to meet people face-to-face. Otherwise if they continue as “do-it-yourself” Buddhists, they will end up in the worst state of delusion, cutting themselves off from the living truth by getting caught up in a fixed state of “enlightenment.”

For all of you here representing the groups in the Buddhist Council of the Midwest, I hope you take full advantage of the internet, to use it as a conduit bringing people to the path of self-transcendence, instead of letting them get mired in the on-line quicksand of delusions. Give them the finger – the digital digit that brings them into the company of live and in-person seekers enjoying the light of the moon.