Posted by David Brazier on April 17, 2016

The Dharma can radically change your life. We are not just made of flesh and blood and the bones of our life are not just the ones made of calcium. Sometimes something else gets into us and the sick get up and dance. Listening to scriptures recited in the morning air, one can be touched by eternity.

Parsva (Japanese: Barishiba) came from central India. Before he was born his father had a portentous dream of a white elephant with a radiant pearl on its back from which shone four light beams. Later it was thought that these four beams represented the four assemblies of Buddhists to whom Parsva would later minister - ordained and lay, men and women.

His mother was old when he was born. His birth was difficult. He was a sickly child, but of a serious turn of mind. When he was young, a sooth-sayer made a prediction that he would become a saint.

Everyone said that
Parsva was too weak

When the sage Buddhamitra was travelling in central India the father met him and, impressed by his teaching and remembering the prediction by the sooth-sayer, agreed to let his son, Parsva, be ordained as a monk. Everyone said that Parsva was too weak to manage being a monk. To be a monk one had to learn a lot of scriptures and do dedicated meditation and Parva, they said, would be incapable of either.

Comments of this kind, however, made Parsva more determined. Soon he was studying all day and meditating all night. It is said that he did not sleep for three years. He served his teacher with extreme devotion. Parsva is held up as a prime example of determination in practice, but this determination did not just come from will power. Parsva felt the presence of Shakyamuni Buddha close at hand. He felt as if the Buddha’s very bones entered into him and given him strength. One day he heard Buddhamitra reciting sutras and explaining the meaning of no-birth. Parsva was enlightened.

Entering the teaching of no-birth one comes face to face with the Buddha’s of all times and directions. One’s purpose transcends circumstance. One no longer minds where one goes or arrives. One is always arriving and departing and worlds appear and disappear, but one is not flustered because one belongs to That which surpasses birth and death. Again, as the Unborn has no favourites, one who knows it lives a life of complete responsibility. Master Keizan says: Everyone is a vessel of the Truth; every day is a good day; every place is a sutra.

Once Master Parsva was travelling when some youngsters came up and asked if they could help him by carrying his books. He gave them the books and they ran off with them, making fun of him. An observer noticed that Master Parsva was not in the least disturbed by this bad behaviour and realised that the master must be something special and came to study with him. Through incidents like this the reputation of Master Parsva grew and grew.

At that time there was a King, Kanishka, who was Buddhist. He was from Sri Lanka but also ruled much of India. He convened a Great Council in Kashmir and put Masters Parsva and Buddhamitra in charge. This is sometimes called the Third and sometimes the Fourth Great Council.

The task of the council was to produce an authorised version of the Buddhist scriptures. Theravadins and Mahayanists have different versions of the story and of which scriptures are the real ones. However, it seems that the Council recognised 18 different schools of Buddhism as all being legitimate and true successors to the teachings of Shakyamuni.

Parsva, himself, followed the Sarvastivadin approach to the Dharma. The Sarvastivada school, which no longer exists, can be regarded as intermediate between Mahayana and Sthaviravada. Sarvastivadins took refuge in the Dharmakaya, recognised the bodhisattva and arhant paths and believed that women had as much possibility of becoming Buddhas as men. The term sarva-asti-vadin, literally all-existence-school, implies "the school that asserts that the Dharma is ever-existing in the past, present and future". 

Thus we see the transformation of Parsva from a weak child to a great spiritual leader. The main features of this story are firstly his devotion to his teacher. Secondly, his great determination to study and practise based on both challenge and inspiration. Thirdly, his arrival at the no-birth state of deep equanimity. Finally, his even-handedness in dealing alike with hooligans, kings and competing sects.

Both Punyayashas and Ashvaghosa benefitted from encounters with Parsva and his legacy comes down to us through many lineages. The ordinary person wants to know what his reward will be before doing good or what the penalty will be before avoiding harm, but when one relies on the Unborn, one needs nothing more. He does not have to know where he is going: wherever he is, it is the same light.

Parsva, who was born a weakling, discovered no-birth and lived to be eighty years old and the spirit of his deeds is still with us.

PUNYAYASHAS: Buddha Child on Golden Ground

Posted by David Brazier on March 20

A Serious Boy
According to the stories, Punyayashas came from a Brahmin family from Saketa, or perhaps from Pataliputra. He was a quiet, serious boy who became interested in the Buddhist religion and became a follower of the Sarvastivada, a school of Buddhism that no longer exists, but which has had substantial influence on some of the great figures of Buddhist history, both in what they agreed with and what they argued against. Getting involved in religion brought him out of himself and he joined a troop of travelling Buddhist minstrels. Thus he became involved in the bhakti style of Buddhist practice.

Bhakti was never a school of Buddhism but it was a widespread and popular style. It did not propose a philosophical system or particular interpretation of the sutras, but was a way of expressing one’s self-surrender. Bhakti is devotion. It is a yoga of total dedication and self-overcoming through song, dance, ritual and entrancement. Bhakti practice often involves chanting a mantra, or calling the name of a deity, and doing so with a fullness of love, emotion and reverence. It is to be in love with the divine. Such practice may lead to trance, rapture and  ecstatic states.

Nowadays we tend to translate the term dhyana as meditation which has a rather cool, intellectual or disciplined and puritan feel, but the word may be better translated as rapture, referring to states of absorption rather than awareness. Bhakti, then, is a highly emotional approach to religion in which one immerses oneself in divine love and adoration. In India, Bhakti was eventually largely taken over by Hinduism, perhaps because more puritan forms became powerful in Buddhism. Some Westerners will have seen Hari Krishna devotees walking in the streets chanting and playing drums or other percussion instruments. This style of religion was formerly Buddhist and Punyayashas was a wandering practitioner of it.

We can tell from these stories that the tenor of Buddhism in those days may have been much more open than it has tended to become. We may remember that when Buddhism was becoming popular in the 1960s and 1970s it was associated with beatnik poets, happenings, and the alternative society. It was a religion of liberation in many senses of the word. Since then it has tended to attract people of a more straight-laced temperament. No doubt this is a pendulum that swings.

Practising Buddha-Bhakti, Punyayashas travelled about with the group of minstrels, young men and women who sang in the bazaars songs of ecstatic devotion, or sad melodies about the vanity of life.

The Encounter
One day Punyayashas met the Buddhist Master Parsva.
Parsva asked: From where have you come?
Punyayashas: My heart does not travel.
Parsva: So where do you live?
Punyayashas: My heart is not attached to a place.
Parsva: So you are unattached?
Punyayashas: Like all the Buddhas.
Parsva: You are not all the Buddhas.

Punyayashas was taken aback and went away. After twenty one days he returned and said: “As for all the Buddhas… then you are not the master either,” and they laughed together.

The Meaning
Punyayashas was a bit of a saint from very early in his life, but he became somewhat over serious about his religion to the point where people were alarmed by him. It is said that before his meeting with Parsva, where he went the ground turned golden. This is an ironic way of saying that he was too holy.

Parsva brought him down a notch and he took it to heart and let go of his attachment to Buddhahood.  Then he and the master were able to laugh together. Being a Buddha and being a master are empty designations, even though they do mean something.

Parsva teased Punyayashas with a gatha:

I knew a sage would come
for the ground changed to gold.
He will sit under the Bodhi tree
and the flower of awakening will bloom.

Punyayashas replied more modestly than before with another gatha:

It is the master who sits on golden ground
forever teaching true realisation.
By turning his light upon me
I was allowed to enter samadhi.

Parsva then ordained Punyayashas saying: “The Treasury of the Tathagata’s Great Dharma Eye I now hand over to you to guard and cherish.”

A Buddha Child
Each person has their own form of koan. Being too holy is one. As a young man he took his religion very seriously. I remember that during the period of "flower power" one sometimes met people who called themselves "Jesus children." Everybody was into getting high in one way or another, and these people were high on Jesus. Perhaps the young Punyayashas was a bit like that.

Well, religion is a serious matter, but when a person takes it too seriously, it is usually themselves that they are taking too seriously. When we think we have got hold of the ultimate meaning of the universe, we can implicitly start to assume that we are something pretty special. So a koan also involves some kind of ego inflation. As we get established in life we each start to rely upon something.

Stepping Up is Stepping Down
In a certain way, every koan is a false refuge and every awakening is a matter of finding a better one. However, as we are self-invested in our chosen attachment, pride stands in the way of change. In order to let go one has to take a step down. Because Punyayashas trusted Parsva he was able to take the latter’s rebuff, go away and think about it seriously, and come back in a good spirit. Then they were about to meet on a more equal footing with all artificial roles dropped away. However, because they were able to meet in this way and Punyayashas was able to see that Parsva was not self-invested in being the master either, Punyayashas respected him the more and treated him as master thereafter.

Soon afterwards, Parsva died. Punyayashas continued his travels and in due course met Ashvaghosa who wanted to know what Buddha is, but that is another story.

 LOVE & DESTINY ~ The Way of Aśvaghoṣa

Posted by David Brazier on March 9, 2016

Mysterious Man of Letters
Aśvaghoṣa was born into a Brahmin family in Saketa in Northern India. He is counted as one of the early masters of Buddhism, teacher of Kapimala who, in turn was teacher of the famous Nagarjuna. In his own right, Aśvaghoṣa became one of the greatest poets in Indian history and was also a playwrite of note. He became a great populariser of Buddhism, especially of that approach in which faith (shraddhā and devotion (bhakti) are central. However, we know very little about his personal life. The Buddha taught effacement and Aśvaghoṣa practised it.

The Vital Encounter
According to traditional stories, he initially became a wandering Hindu ascetic. At that time it was common to hold debates between religious practitioners or philosophers. The loser would become the disciple of the winner. Aśvaghoṣa often challenged Buddhists, but none would debate with him because of his formidable reputation as a debater. Eventually, however, he met his match in an encounter with Punyayashas.

Aśvaghoṣa asked Punyayasas: What is Buddha?
Punyayasas said, You want to know that? So Buddha himself does not know.

This expression has a double meaning. At first sight it suggests that Aśvaghoṣa is Buddha even though he does not know it. However, it also means that a Buddha does not know what he is. In fact, a Buddha is endlessly finding out what it is to be what he is. A Buddha is constantly learning.

Later, Aśvaghoṣa became a famous poet. He wrote in classical Sanskrit and is acknowledged even by non-Buddhists as one of the finest poets in the early history of India. Some of his works survive to this day, notably his Buddhacarita (Life of the Buddha) and his poem Handsome Nanda. We can see from his Life of the Buddha that he thought of the Buddha as destined from birth for his role as Tathagata, yet also describes him as a hero struggling with obstacles. These two dimensions are only compatible if we assume that although the Buddha was destined, he himself did not know it, so that he was continually in a process of finding out what he is supposed to be.

Religious Consciousness
This tells us something important about the spiritual life. It is a process of finding out, of investigating Dharma, as Shakyamuni himaself said. In order to do so one must have mindfulness in the Buddha's sense of that term, which is to say, a religious consciousness. One must have in mind one's relationship with the divine – with the eternal Buddha, the Tao, Heaven, however one conceives it – and then encounter each situation in life letting it be problematised by that mindfulness.

Aśvaghoṣa meets Punyayashas and asks, What is Buddha? So here are the three elements: self, other and Buddha. Awareness of Buddha is religious consciousness. If it was just an encounter between the two men it would be a purely humanistic situation, but if it is an encounter in which both have Buddha (or God, or the transcendental) in mind, then it becomes a koan.

Both men are, in that moment, enquiring about Buddha. Punyayashas sees Buddha in Aśvaghoṣa. Punyayashas, being spiritually awakened, is always discovering Buddha. In this instance, he discovers Buddha in his encounter with Aśvaghoṣa. By discovering Buddha in the other he discovers how to be himself and, therefore, we, as outside observers, can say, he is discovering how to be Buddha. Buddha is not a stereotyped role, it is to be genuinely alive in the fullness of one's situation, which, to say it another way, is to fulfil one's destiny.

To Know Each Other Completely
So, to completely fulfil one's destiny is to be Buddha in one way or another. Most people never do. So we can ask what it is that enables a person to do so. This is why Aśvaghoṣa is asking “How can I be Buddha?” Yet, a Buddha is somebody who is all the time finding out the answer to exactly that question. So in that moment, Aśvaghoṣa is Buddha discovering Buddha, and he discovers Buddha in the mirror that is Punyayashas.

Punyayashas, similarly, is finding out his destiny. So at this moment, these two are standing in one line. They know each other completely. Each is contributing to the destiny of the other. This is love.

Destiny does not mean the same as predestination. In predestination, what is fore-ordained must happen, whereas in destiny there is something on offer, but what is meant to happen does not always transpire. What Aśvaghoṣa really responds to in Punyayashas is the latter's love and it is this love, this deep knowing, that creates a destiny for Aśvaghoṣa that he, in turn, discovers through this encounter. In this manner, it is said that the old Aśvaghoṣa is chopped down, as a tree is felled, and a new Aśvaghoṣa appears, but the new Aśvaghoṣa is the one who is fulfilling his destiny.

Horses Wept
We do not know what Aśvaghoṣa's name was originally. The name Aśvaghoṣa means “crying horses”. It seems that he was such an eloquent preacher that when he declared the Dharma even horses wept. His writing expresses a strong poetic tension between sensuality and asceticism. It seems to say that sensual pleasure is exquisite, yet renunciation is even better. He writes as somebody who seems to know what he is talking about so we can assume that this had been an important theme for him himself, yet we know nothing about his love life, nor about why he left home to become an ascetic. In fact, we know hardly any biographical details at all.

To Fulfil One's Destiny
Aśvaghoṣa's sense of the Dharma was connected with an idea of destiny. How are we to understand this? Shakyamuni is commonly presented in Buddhist texts as the successor to a long line of Buddhas going back in cosmic time. Aśvaghoṣa's writing does not include this element. Instead it sees him as the culmination of Indian religious and cultural tradition as a whole, not just Buddhist.

So there is here the sense that each person has something that they are to do, a destiny to fulfil. They may or might not do it. This destiny is shaped by the conditions that impose and the love that is available. The Buddhas are those who love copiously and so create great destinies for many other beings. These are like invitations. The Buddha predicted enlightenment for people when he saw that they had received and accepted such an invitation. To be awakened, therefore, is to set aside one's personal ideas and ambitions about oneself and become willing to receive and accept what the universe has planned for one, and, in doing so, one becomes a devotee and, incidentally, also becomes a maker of destinies for others. This is all by the power of love.


Posted by David Brazier on February 29, 2016

Kapimala (lived approx 100AD) was a native of Pātaliputra in the Indian state of Magadha. As a young man he taught a form of Brahmanism and he had three thousand disciples. He had magical powers and was ambitious. His powers enabled him to change his form and appearance and thereby impress people.

One day he encountered Ashvaghosha. Ashvaghosha was not impressed by Kapimala’s powers. Although Kapimala said that he had the power to change the great ocean, Ashvaghosa said he was more interested in the ocean of the truth which Kapimala could not change.

The question is, does one seek the power to change the world or the facility to be changed and enriched by it? Does one really encounter the other or does one subvert it? When one really encounters the other one lives the other, even though one never ceases to live one’s own life thereby. The ocean of truth flows into one yet one does not thereby become something fixed and notable. In the samadhis of Buddhism, everything becomes the truth, everybody becomes a Buddha, just for the time being. Sometimes a Buddha, sometimes a fool, sometimes a foreigner, sometimes a friend. This is emptiness. There is no need to change others into disciples and dominate them. They become true disciples by becoming themselves. Yet, when one is truly oneself, one is a mirror of everything else and such a mirror is empty. Yet, although the mirror is always empty there is always something in it. Not only is there something in it, without the mirror making any effort, the whole universe can be found within it. So it is with ourselves. The greatest teacher is the best learner.

Kapimala ceased to be ambitious and selfish and came to Ashvaghosa as a disciple. He no longer cared about being powerful, yet, for that reason, he received the power of the ocean of truth. Being happy to be a servant he became the master.

Later Kapimala propagated Buddhism in southern and western India. When Kapimala went to see Nagarjuna he simply went in order to meet an interesting man. He had no ambition or selfish intention. Paradoxically, this led to Nagarjuna becoming his disciple because it was exactly this emptiness that Nagarjuna needed.

DRAGON PEARL - The Story of Nagarjuna

Posted by David Brazier on February 26, 2016

Nagarjuna is counted as one of the most important and influential thinkers in Buddhist history and all the major schools of Mahayana Buddhism claim him as a founding figure. On the one hand, he can be seen as an original thinker who put into circulation the ideas that later became the core of Mahayana - emptiness, altruism and other-power - yet, on the other hand, it is equally possible to portray him as simply having, with great skill, reiterated the essence of what had been taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, thereby correcting the course of Buddhism and putting it back on track.

There are many stories and legends concerning Nagarjuna. It is said that he was from a rich family and, as a young man, was a bit of a playboy. One day he and two friends decided to climb over the wall of the raja’s palace and go to see the women in the harem. According to the story they had found a way to make themselves invisible. However,  the guards got wind of what was happening and slashed the air with their swords. Nagarjuna’s two friends were both killed. This incident had a deeply troubling and sobering effect upon him.

He decided to turn to religion and began to study. He studied every religion trying to find the meaning of life. In particular, he wanted to find his true nature which he thought of as a kind of precious and eternal pearl within himself. Gradually he became very learned in matters of religion. However, he was dedicated only to his own salvation. To this end he retreated to a hermitage deep in the mountains.

One day the Buddhist sage Kapimala (Japanese: Kabimora) was travelling in the area. The king of the region had given Kapimala the use of a hall some distance from the royal palace in which to practise and teach. Kapimala gave teachings to animals as well as humans and one day he gave the refuges to a python. From the python, Kapimala heard of Nagarjuna as a hermit living at an isolated place much deeper in the mountains where there were no people. Nagarjuna taught the animals and dragons.  The name Naga-arjuna implies “triumphant over dragons.” If we want to put a symbolic meaning on this we can say that Nagarjuna was concerned with mastering his own dragons in his search for his own inner nature - the bright pearl that he believed was to be found within himself.

Kapimala went to see Nagarjuna. When they met, Nagarjuna wondered if Kapimala was a true sage or not and whether he had found the pearl. Kapimala realised what was on Nagarjuna’s mind and said to him that he should not worry about whether he, Kapimala, was an enlighened sage or not, but that he, Nagarjuna, should become a proper monk. We will come back to the inner meaning of this conversation in a minute.

Nagarjuna questioned Kapimala about whether he had the pearl that Nagarjuna was seeking. Kapimala did have the pearl. Nagarjuna wanted to know what the pearl was like. Kapimala said that the pearl was not like anything. This pearl could take any form whatsoever. The jewels of the ordinary world all have aspects, and consequently are not real jewels, but the pearl of the Dharma was beyond having fixed aspects.

The point of all this conversation is that a real monk is, from the perspective of Kapimala, somebody who lives to help others and is willing to take on whatever is necessary in order to do so. He is not somebody who spends his time chasing after his own enlightenment, own Buddha Nature, own realisations or peak experiences or anything of the kind. Nor is he somebody who has overcome all his own dragons and become a great saint necessarily. Nagarjuna want to know if Kapimala has done what Nagarjuna is trying to do - achieve complete self-mastery and Buddhahood - but Kapimala says, “it really does not matter whether I am such a saint or not. What matters is that you become a proper monk and stop chasing your own spiritual ambition. The pearl that you seek is not the kind that you are looking for. Furthermore, although it is true that this pearl is the most precious in all the world, it is also true that all the world is this pearl.” He means that for the true monk there is nothing in the world that is outside of the Dharma, nothing that cannot be the cause and means of saving sentient beings.

Nagarjuna was greatly enlightened by his encounter with Kapimala who evidently did not care whether people regarded him as enlightened or not but was still possessed of the precious pearl of Dharma that has no fixed aspects. This idea of aspectlessness became a central feature of Nagarjuna’s teaching in the future. He called it emptiness (shunya). He saw that all systems of rational ideas, even Buddhist ones, become incoherent if you push them to their ultimate conclusion and so can never be a basis for the kind of self-validation that he had been seeking. Broadly Buddhism is concerned with cause and effect, but nothing can be said to be wholly caused by something else nor not caused by anything else. There is an essential freedom. However, although these ideas seem ontological, for Nagarjuna they are soteriological. He is not really setting out a philosophy of the nature of being, but rather one of how people are to be rescued from slavery to their own egotism, which so often takes the form of attachment to views and opinions (drishti).

Like so many other great sages we can see Nagarjuna’s enlightenment as falling into two stages. The first stage occurs when his friends are killed. He comes up against impermanence in a way that cuts very deep. At this point he gives up his old ways and devotes himself to religion. He then adopts a method by which he hopes to arrive at his own salvation. Eventually he has his encounter with Kapimala who shows him how his self-power path is missing the point.

Now Nagarjuna became such a great sage - perhaps second in Buddhism only to the Buddha himself - because he realised just how subtle delusion can become. He saw his own spiritual materialism and his teaching thereafter included the most devastating demolition of such self-justifying rationalisation in the whole of Buddhist philosophy.

Nagarjuna’s insights were the foundation of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. It is said that he travelled into the depth of the ocean and received the Prajna Paramita literature from the king of the dragons (Nagas). Interpreting this psychologically we can say that he explored his unconscious and, instead of finding the pearl he thought he was looking for, that would be a kind of ultimate self-justification, what he came up with was shunyata, the essence of prajna paramita, complete freedom from attachment to self-power.

Shunyata, in Nagarjuna’s philosophy, is the opposite of svabhava. You can find a huge amount of literature upon these two concepts. Much of this literature takes an ontological rather than a soteriological perspective but, I suggest, in doing so misses the point. Svabhava is not about the absence of a self-defining essence in entities in the world, it is simply another term for self-power. Sva means self and bhava means becoming. Nagarjuna had been trying to make himself into a saint until he met Kapimala. He hoped by doing so to extinguish the passions that had got his friends killed and so very nearly brought disaster to himself. Kapimala had the jewel of the Dharma but was not interested in whether he was a saint or not. The self-creation project (svabhava) was just an irrelevance.

Much of Nagarjuna’s writing is in the most extreme level of abstraction and therefore of wide application, but the application that is most pertinent is to the personal spiritual path. When he says that there is nothing that arises from itself yet to say that something arises from something else that is not itself is equally incoherent, he is, among other things, saying that one does not wake up spiritually completely by your own effort, yet even if you are awakened by an encounter with somebody else - as he had been - you do not become that person or identical to that person. The spiritual awakening of each person is unique and yet not independent. One relies upon other power. One does not become the other, one is not the other, and yet what one comes to be is not produced independently of the other either.

Nagarjuna’s shunyata is freedom within conditions, not because conditions limit freedom but because conditions are the bright pearl, the substance of the activity that we call Dharma, nirvana appearing in the world. One can always look at the conditioned aspect and see conventional truth (paravritit), or one can look at the unconditioned or ultimate (paramārtha). To live the spiritual life you need both. Again, this is a practical point about the spiritual life. As a “proper monk” in Kapimala’s sense, one should be able to deploy all ordinary circumstances in the service of ultimate ends. Religion is about  ultimate purposes alive within ordinary life.

According to the Pureland tradition, it was also Nagarjuna who originated the idea of an easy path and a difficult path. Again we can see how this relates to his own life and experience. The difficult path was what he attempted in his hermitage in the mountains, trying to cut off his human nature and defeat all his dragons. That is svabhava, self-power, and it is, as he said, as difficult as crossing the Himalayas on foot unaided. The easy path is one in which one gives up the quest for personal perfection, receives the jewel freely bestowed by the Buddhas, and lives a life of faith, finding the Dharma manifest in all the miscellaneous circumstances of life. Rather than crossing the Himalayas on foot, this is like sailing in a boat.

Centuries later Zen Master Gensa was noted for the phrase “The whole universe in ten directions is one bright pearl” and he used this expression to test the understanding of his students. Those who come into spiritual practice are often, like the young Nagarjuna, thinking that they can find the pearl within themselves, but as Dogen says in Ikka no Myoju “as the mind is not personal, why should we worry whether we have got a bright pearl or not got one - even such worry is not separate from the one bright pearl.”


Posted by David Brazier on March 1, 2016

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) was the founder of the Soto Shu, a Japanese school of Zen based on a Chinese tradition. He was an important philosopher and his major work was called the Shobogenzo.

Dogen was an illegitimate son of a high official, Minamoto Michitomo. His mother died when he was seven years old.

He ordained as a Tendai monk. The Tendai Shu taught that all beings are intrinsically endowed with Dharma Nature. Dogen became preoccupied with the question, if this is so, why do Buddhas need to teach?  

Not finding an answer, he went to study Rinzai Zen under the master Myozen who was the successor of Eisai, the founder of Rinzai Shu in Japan.

In 1223, Myozen and Dogen travelled together to China seeking further teachings. In those days this was a hazardous journey.

He was in China five years or so. In 1225 he went to visit Master Ru-jing at Tian-tong temple. Thereafter he often referred to Ru-jing as “the Old Buddha”.

Dogen had a great awakening through an encounter with Ru-jing in which the latter said, “Cast off body and mind (shinjin-datsuraku).”

Dogen returned to Japan in 1227 or 1228. His first distinctive act was to write the text Fukan Zazengi (Instructions for Zazen). 

After several attempts to live and teach closer to the capital and running into conflicts with Tendai Shu, he accepted an invitation, from Hatano Yoshishige, lord of Izumo, in 1243, to move north into the more remote Echizen Province. Dogen and his supporters constructed a temple initially called Daibutsu-ji (Great Buddha Temple). Later it was renamed Eihei-ji and it remains the head temple of Soto shu to this day.

While Daibutsu-ji was being built, Dogen fell into depression. This condition seems to have converted itself into anger and he wrote a strong critique of Rinzai Zen and then went on and on writing, in the next  few years,pouring out texts that are regarded as some of the most challenging and stimulating in the whole of Japanese Buddhism. 

Dogen advocated zazen as the core of Buddhism and described zazen as not thinking of good and bad, not considering pros and cons, and ceasing all movement of the conscious mind, yet Dogen himself was a person of strong opinions. about practice, about such social issues as women’s equality (which he favoured), about monastic discipline, and about doctrine, as, for instance, in his views about Buddha Nature, being and time. He was sharply critical of many of the other schools of Buddhism. While some would claim Dogen’s writing as support for the idea that Dharma cannot be expressed in words, he was, in fact, an attentive scholar of the scriptures, especially the Lotus Sutra, and strongly criticised those who paid too little attention to them. He was a great stylist and his writings are often cryptic, poetic, paradoxical, highly suggestive and philosophically profound so that much controversy goes on over the precise meaning of his words. 

By 1247, Dogen had found more favour with powerful people and was invited by Hojo Tokiyori, the regent shogun, to visit Kamakura and give him lay ordination.

In 1252 Dogen fell ill. The following year he travelled to the capital, Kyoto, seeking a remedy but died on arrival. 

We might ask why did Dogen become depressed. Looking at it psychologically, we immediately focus upon the early death of his mother and the difficulties of being an illegitimate child, both in the sense that his parents were not married and also in that he had fallen out with both of his Buddhist “parents”, Tendai Shu and Rinzai Shu. Until he went north he was fighting for a point of view that was being persecuted. Probably, with the protection of Hatano Yoshishige he may have felt safe for the first time. It is often at such a point that depression comes out. All the accumulated hardship and sense of injustice then came to the surface and, fortunately for us, he was able to sublimate that energy into his great writing endeavour.

His story leaves us with tantalising questions. Is it possible to be enlightened and depressed and/or angry? Can a person be, as, I think, Jack Kornfield asks in one of his writings, enlightened yet still in need of therapy? Is it, in fact, necessary to have some anger or burning animus in order to write works of genius? Is there a contradiction between Dogen’s advocacy of quietism and his strident critiques? When Dogen suggests constant zazen as the essence of practice, is he really talking about sitting in meditation? To what extent are Dogen’s writings purely autobiographical - descriptive of his own spiritual struggle - and to what extent are they generalisable? Was Dogen right in being so critical of other schools of Buddhism? These and more questions have kept scholars and practitioners busy for many years and there is no sign of this activity diminishing. Dogen is nowadays perhaps more studied than ever before.


Posted by David Brazier on February 24, 2016

Ippen is known as the founder of the Ji Shu, an important school of Pureland Buddhism. Here I will tell the story of his early life up to the time when he took the name Ippen. In following this story we can understand some of his spiritual realisations and dilemmas.

Early Life & First Going Forth
He was born on the island of Shikoku in the south of Japan. He came from a samurai family that had seen both glory and defeat. His father, Michihiro, gave up the samurai life and became a Buddhist priest in order to pray for members of he family who had died in the wars. His Dharma name was Nyobutsu.

Nyobutsu went to Kyoto and became a disciple of Shõkū (1177-1247), who was a leading disciple of Honen (1133-1212). When he returned to Shikoku he married and set up a Pureland temple. His second son was born in 1239 and called Shõjumaru. This boy was the man later to be known as Ippen.

In 1248 Nyobutsu’s wife, Shõjumaru’s mother, died. Shortly afterwards, aged nine, Shõjumaru became a monk in the Tendai School. In 1251 Shõjumaru travelled to the main island of Japan to study Pureland with Shõdatsu (1203-1279) another important disciple of  Shõkū and a friend of Nyobutsu. 

Second Going Forth: The Non-duality of Ten and One
In 1263 Nyobutsu died and Shõjumaru went back home to assume family responsibilities. He married and became immersed in family life. However, one day, while playing with children spinning a top, he had an awakening moment. He realised that samsara is like the top. If you keep whipping it it keeps spinning, but if you stop whipping it it slows down, falls over and stops.

In 1271, Shõjumaru was caught up in a violent incident in which he nearly lost his life. Attacked by four armed men and seriously wounded he fought back, disarmed one of the assailants and fled. At this point he decided to once again go forth from the household life and he went once again to see Shõdatsu. This meeting seems to have led him to reassess the practice he had formerly done with this teacher, coming to the conclusion that it had been a period of self-power effort on his part.

He left Shõdatsu and went on to the temple of Zenkõji at Nagano, a temple associated with Shõkū, the teacher of Shõdatsu and of Shõjumaru’s father Nyobutsu. During his retreat at Zenkõji Shõjumaru made a copy of the painting of the White Path between the Rivers of Fire and Water, an important Pureland icon. This retreat had a profound effect upon him and we can see the seeds of much of his later work in his experience there. At Zenkõji he met hijiri (wandering holy men) and he encountered the practice of distributing fuda, papers on which the six syllables of the nembutsu were printed. The Zenkõji temple still exists and I have visited it. It is closely associated with the notion that it is the ordinary deluded person who is saved by Amida.

He then returned to Shikoku and made himself a hermitage hut. He placed the painting on the east wall. He then dedicated himself to continuous nembutsu practice for three years, imitating, thereby, a three year retreat that had been done many years before by Shõkū. During this time he summed up his understanding in the following verse, entitled “The Non-duality of Ten and One”

Perfect enlightenment ten kalpas old pervades the realm of sentient beings.
In ichinen is birth in Amida’s land.
When ten and one are not different, no-birth is actualised.
When land and realm are the same, we sit in Amida’s great congregation.

I have left the word ichinen untranslated because it can be rendered in several over-lapping ways. Ichi means one or singular. Nen, as in nembutsu, means thought, remembrance and mindfulness. So ichinen can means one thought moment, or wholehearted mindfulness, or a single recitation of nembutsu, or simply sincerity of heart. It is a key term in Ippen’s teaching often carrying all of these meanings simultaneously.

The non-duality of ten and one means the unity of immediacy and eternity. Ten refers to Amida’s enlightenment which transcends time and space while one refers to the singularity of a moment of pure hearted utterance of the Name. The meaning is very close to William Blake’s “the universe in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”

Becoming a Hijiri
He then left his hermitage and went deeper into the mountains to an area noted for yamabushi (mountain ascetics) in order to pray for clarity and guidance. He is said to have had many important dreams during this time.

After this further retreat he returned home briefly, gathered together some basic essentials and a few key scriptures and then took to the road, never again to live in a house. He set out together with three companions who are believed to have included his wife and daughter.

They first went to Shitennõ-ji, a Pureland pilgrimage site (in present day Osaka). Here he conceived the intention to spread the nembutsu to the whole population of the country. In the sutra, Amida vows to save every person who says the nembutsu even once. Shõjumaru, therefore, resolved to save beings by getting them to utter the nembutsu once. “Once nembutsu” or “One time nembutsu” is, in Japanese, ippen nembutsu.

He adopted the practice of approaching people, saying the nembutsu, inviting them to say it, then giving them a fuda. They could then, if they wished, use the fuda as an object of worship in a home shrine.

In his thinking, the one utterance automatically invoked the ten kalpas of Amida’s enlightenment. In other words, one moment of sincerity was direct connection with an eternity of grace. The fuda constituted evidence of the person’s acceptance by Amida and also, of course, connected the practitioner with the holy man.

The Arising of Great Doubt
From Shitennõ-ji a pilgrimage route led to Mount Koya and it was natural for the party to go on. Koya is the holy mountain of Shingon Buddhism and is where the founder of Shingon, Kukai is entombed and believed to be still alive in deep samadhi waiting for the arrival of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Shingon means "true word" and in the thirteenth century for many people the true word was the nembutsu. Koya was thus, at that time, another great centre for hijiri and a natural place for the group of four to go to pay respect to the great bodhisattva.

Beyond Mount Koya, in a southerly direction, the pilgrimage trail goes toward  the great Shinto shrine of Kumano. At this stage of Japanese history, the supreme deity of Shinto had come to be regarded by many as a manifestation of Amida Buddha, so widely had the nembutsu teaching spread. On the way to Kumano, however, an incident occurred that threw Shõjumaru into doubt.

On the road he met a Ritsu monk. Ritsu is the vinaya school of Japanese Buddhism. Ippen offered the monk a fuda, saying, “Accept this, awaken ichinen, say Namu Amida Butsu.” The monk said, “I cannot do so. At present ichinen faith does not arise in me. If I take the fuda I will be breaking my precept against telling a lie.”

Shõjumaru said, “Don’t you believe the Buddha’s teaching? Please take the fuda,” but the monk replied “I have no doubt about the teaching but there is nothing I can do about the fact that faith does not arise in me.”

By this time a goodly crowd of pilgrims had gathered around. Ippen realised that if the monk did not take the fuda the others would not do so either. He therefore said to the monk, “Even if you don’t have faith, please accept the fuda.” The monk did so and in due course so did the other pilgrims. The whole incident had, however, thrown Shõjumaru into a turmoil.

Some of the dilemma here turns on the meaning of ichinen. Ichinen can mean one nembutsu, so the request can be taken as, “Please say one nembutsu and I will give you a fuda.” However the monk takes ichinen to mean “with sincerity of heart” and he realises that as yet he does not find such faith in himself. Rather than be dishonest, he elects not to receive the fuda. Is nembutsu only real when uttered with sincere faith?

Encountering the God
Shõjumaru was much affected by this incident and believed that it must have happened for a reason. He went on to Kumano and prayed there for guidance. Was his mission misguided? Was he asking people to be insincere and colluding in lies by getting all and sundry to say the nembutsu? Should the monk have taken the fuda or not? What a bundle of dilemmas!

Sitting in the main hall at Kumano, he had a vision. A yamabushi with white hair and a long hood appeared before him. Behind him a host of other yamabushi all prostrated. Shõjumaru realised that this must be the deity of the shrine. The yamabushi god spoke, “Hijiri! Spreading the yuzu nembutsu, why do you do so in the wrong manner? It is not through your effort that sentient beings attain birth (in the Pure Land). In Amida Buddha’s complete enlightenment ten kalpas ago all that was needed for the salvation of beings was already settled and is Namo Amida Butsu. Do not discriminate between the pure and the impure. Give the fuda regardless of whether people have faith of not.”

The vision faded away and Shõjumaru found himself surrounded by many children who had come to receive fuda. They took the slips of paper and all ran off saying “Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!”

From this time on Shõjumaru called himself Ippen and it is by this name that we know him to this day. In the single moment, there is no self-power. The vision at the Kumano Shrine finally broke Ippen’s attachment to self-power. Even though he had transcended his desire to practice for his own salvation, still he had been stuck with a different kind of hubris, the belief that by his power he could save all others.

Some Reflections
Ippen gives us a fascinating example of a faith that cares little or nothing for sectarian boundaries. He follows his father’s Pureland faith, but initially does so in a Tandai temple. Later he studies with Pureland teachers and has a major revelation at Zenkõji but goes on to have further insights at the Shingon mountain and his most impressive experience occurs in a temple that is not even Buddhist. He can be said to  bring together the Way of the Buddhas and the Way of the Gods. He is also sensitive to holy places and makes his whole life into a pilgrimage.

The succession of stages in his early spiritual development show us a series of steps from self-power to other-power. At the Tendai temple and under Shõdatsu he studied nembutsu teachings but when he later reflects upon it he sees that he did so in a self-power manner. When he goes to Zenkõji he receives a more direct inspiration of the spirit of Shõkū and this precipitates him into doing his own hermitage nembutsu retreat with the White Path icon. This leads him to a doctrinal conviction expressed in the non-duality of ten and one, which releases him from the need to seek his own individual salvation, but he realises that he still needs guidance and goes off into the mountains where he finds some further resolve. This leads him to the hijiri path and he sets out on his endless pilgrimage, hoping to live up to the ideal of saving all sentient beings.Then he has the encounter with the Ritsu monk (Quan Yin in disguise?) which leads him to his pivotal encounter at the Kumano Shrine where he faces the ambition involved even in this high ideal.

Each person has a path and the stories of great exemplars show us examples. Each of us has to walk his own way, but the kinds of challenges and dilemmas that we encounter are essentially similar. Whether we say nembutsu or sit in zazen, whether we recite the mantras of Shingon or say the prayers of Shinto, whether we live in a house, a temple or walk the highroad as a hijiri, we all face the barriers created by pride, ambition and conceit and the challenges of loss, violence, attachment, separation and failure. In becoming Ippen, Shõjumaru found his own way to celebrate ten kalpas of perfect enlightenment in each single utterance of the Holy Name.


The map is from http://japan-magazine.jnto.go.jp/en/1506_kumano.html

You can meet the yamabushi at http://www.ruff.co.nz/Blog/Blog.php?id=2183182434734552568

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