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


What Evil Lurks In the Heart

Cat Ballou was mean and evil through and through.

I’ve been beating the drum for non-duality a lot lately. I hope I am not overdoing it, but it’s an important subject and deserves a certain amount of attention. In light of recent events, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit the non-duality of good and evil.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i maintained that the mind, although intrinsically enlightened, contains all the potentials for both good and evil, that it is both pure and stained, and that even Buddhas possess evil natures. He developed a meditation in which one “entered” evil in order to cultivate mindfulness of it. This supposedly allowed the practitioner to exercise control over evil.

The focus here is on the negative side of the coin, but there is also the positive side. Neal Donner, in his essay, Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil, writes,

[Chih-i shows] that there is no contradiction between evil and the Way. Even if evil is constantly present in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other . . .”

This notion of the interpenetration of various qualities within the mind is one of the core principles found in T’ien-t’ai philosophy. The other day I mentioned how suffering never actually ceases, it just becomes dormant as we active more positive qualities. Chih-i put it this way:

Although the Buddha does not remove inherent evil (Ch. hsing-er), he fully understands the nature of evil. As a result, he is not defiled by it and can be the master over evil. Additionally, owing to his observation, evil never arises, and the Buddha does not create evil again.

The Profound Meaning of the Kuan-Yin Sutra (Kuan-yin Hsuan-i)

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

Because of my pop (and pulp) culture inclinations, I can’t help but think of The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The Shadow was a crime-fighter who used hypnotism to “cloud men’s mind” so they would think he was invisible. He also had to rely on physic powers to see in men’s hearts. You and I as ordinary beings don’t need physic powers or hypnotism, nor do we really need to enter into esoteric meditations to see inherent evil. As with emptiness, the power of understanding, in this case, understanding of the non-duality of good and evil, combined with self-reflection, will suffice.

However, there is still the question of how make sure that inherent evil remains in a dormant state. One point that seems clear in regards to the recent shooting in Aurora is that it is not just an issue of guns or violence, it’s also an issue of mental health. Most of us will never perpetrate that kind of evil, but we are perfectly capable of committing small wrongdoings, what you might call “little evils.” So, the short answer to the question would be that we should insure that our minds stay healthy. Naturally, I recommend the practice of Buddhist meditation as an excellent way to accomplish that.

Again, it doesn’t seem necessary to engage in esoteric meditations to maintain a healthy mind. Nor, as a rule, do we need to become knee-deep in psychotherapy. Simple, basic meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, is good enough. Along with calming the mind and developing a greater awareness of the present moment, meditation also helps us suppress the negative states of mind that create non-virtuous emotions and actions. When we get up from the meditation mat, our calmness and inner health will serve us well when we face situations in daily life charged with potential negativity.


The “Emptiness of Emptiness”: Emptiness as a tool

Many of you are probably familiar with the idea behind emptiness, but for those who are not, I begin with a short explanation:

The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna in the 2nd Century CE established the theoretical foundation of the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata), which avers that nothing posses an absolute, conditioned self-hood that does not depend on anything else to come into existence. Put another way, everything that comes into existence is mutually dependent on causes and conditions. Everything is interconnected. Nothing stands alone. Additionally, nothing is permanent or eternal. Everything that presently exists will one day not exist. All things are transient.

These seats are empty.

Based on a comment I received a while back, I know some are unfamiliar with the aspect of emptiness that is the focus of today’s post, particularly in respect to Nagarjuna’s teachings, so here I will try to explain for everyone as best, and simply, as I can.

For Nagarjuna, emptiness was not an absolute truth in itself. If all things are empty, then emptiness must also be empty: sunyata-sunyata or “the emptiness of emptiness.” He considered emptiness as upaya, a Sanskrit word meaning “skill in means,” or “expedient means.”

To Nagarjuna, upaya specifically referred to the “skillfulness of non-clinging.” The root of suffering, he stated, is our tendency to “cling,” to form unhealthy attachments to transient things. Understanding the emptiness of things is a tool that helps us break free from our compulsive clinging, and transforms active causes for suffering into dormant ones.

Many Buddhists didn’t quite get this and some still view emptiness as an absolute, or ultimate truth.

There are some who would say everything is empty, and would cling in mind to this empty-nature of things. They are said to hold the wrong-view of non-existence because they cling to emptiness as the ultimate nature of things.

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra

Even views are empty, and emptiness is not a view, it is upaya, a tool. When emptiness becomes a view, it then becomes an object of clinging, and is no longer useful. Nagarjuna maintains that the ultimate truth is not any view at all. He says, “Silence is the ultimate truth of the wise.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to see how a concept like emptiness relates to one’s daily life. It’s also a bit confusing. After all, we have many attachments that do seem healthy, like those we form with our parents, children, friends, pets, favorite works of art, etc. That’s why I like to use the word “clinging” because it suggests a kind of attachment that is obsessive and unnatural.  It’s one thing to love a person, and something else to cling to that love.

So, the hardest part about emptiness might not be in grasping it as a concept, but in seeing how it is at all practical. How do we use emptiness as a tool? Lama Anagarika Govinda, in A Living Buddhism for the West, offers some insight into this question:

In contrast to those religions that are based on unprovable articles of faith, the basis of Buddhism is understanding. This fact has misled some Western observers into considering Buddhism to be a purely rational doctrine that can be completely understood on purely intellectual principles. However, understanding in Buddhism means insight into the nature of reality, and is always the product of immediate experience.

Understanding is like a Swiss Army knife, with a file to scrape away delusion and attachment, a screwdriver to rivet insight, a can opener to unlock wisdom, and of course, the blade of emptiness to cut through everything else. In this way, understanding emptiness makes the experience of emptiness, or reality as it truly is: multifaceted, interdependent, and open, immediately available to us, and we can use this understanding for many different situations in everyday life. Just like a Swiss Army knife.

But the knife, of course, is empty. And it is meant to be used as a tool, not as an object of clinging. This also applies to the emptiness of the knife. That is nothing to cling to, either.

They cling to words and names. If they hear that emptiness is empty, they cling to this. If they hear that all things in their ultimate nature is peace, Nirvana, where the entire course of words stops, even to that they cling.



Guilt Is Not a Buddhist Concept

Guilt, according to some scholars, is something that can be overcome. It does not exist in Buddhist terminology.

– Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

A commenter to Sunday’s post on moral responsibility said he did not believe in collective guilt. I don’t either. However, I am not always sure what people mean when they use the word “guilt.” I don’t believe in guilt period. Buddhism views guilt as a negative. Guilt is an emotional attitude that produces nothing but unproductive shame and an unnecessary sense of unworthiness.

Perhaps it is only a matter of inference, yet “responsibility” seems to be a different matter. Buddhism encourages us to take responsibility for our lives, the choices we make, the actions we take. And since we are not alone in this world, life is a collective affair. That seems to me to imply that we have a collective moral responsibility in regards to shared problems.

A murderer may feel guilty about the act committed, and yet may try to escape responsibility. Guilt is passive, while responsibility requires some action, if only to pay a debt to society or to resolve never to do it again.

I’ve always felt that the idea of Buddhist monks secluding themselves in monasteries or hiding away in forests was not in the true spirit of the Buddha’s original teachings. I don’t believe the Buddha advocated becoming so detached that one’s responsibility as a member of society was abolished. He and his followers did not seclude themselves. They always stayed on the edges of cities and villages, and interacted with ordinary people on a daily basis. The Buddha envisioned the bhikkhus with a different kind of responsibility, a more spiritual one, to show the way to overcome suffering. While few of us live in monasteries or forests, it is easy become insular and detached from the problems of the world as we abide in the present moment.


In Japanese Buddhism, a word used for mercy or compassion is jihi. It consists of two Chinese characters. The top character means “to care, to cry,” and the bottom one, “to remove the cause for suffering.” From a Buddhist perspective, it is not enough merely have to empathy with others; we must do something about their suffering.

Based on what I have heard and read in the last few days, it seems that many Americans have given up on removing the cause of gun violence. It is sheer insanity for people to have automatic weapons that fire 50 to 60 rounds per minute. Other countries have been able to do something about this, and while they still have violence, they don’t have the kind of mass violence committed by “ordinary” citizens we have in America.

Gun control is not the only solution, but it is a practical one. How you feel about it is up to you. I’m just stating my opinion, for whatever it is worth, that we have a collective responsibility to prevent massacres like the Aurora movie theater shooting. However, I am not suggesting that we assume some huge guilt trip. Guilt, to paraphrase John Webster, is tedious. Guilt is just another suffering.


Sharing The Moral Responsibilty: “After all, it was you and me”

Another violent tragedy. Another massacre, now the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

It’s 8:06 on Saturday evening. I’m on the website for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. On the right side of the page is a ticker that reads,

People Shot in America This Year: 54, 788.

Shot So Far Today: 248.

In the aftermath of the Aurora movie theatre massacre, we question how many more of these events we will have to endure. We wonder what is wrong with our country. We look for someone to blame.

Obviously, the shooter is first. The nation’s gun lobby is an easy second target, as they continue to spread the odious lie that the Obama Administration wants to take their guns away. Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, writes, “Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened . . .”

A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wants to blame our leaders: “Until our leaders find the courage to do what’s right, the massacres will keep happening. And that is the most senseless tragedy of all.”

Others blame President Obama in particular for sidestepping the gun control issue, for signing into law more repeals of good gun laws than Bush, for knocking down rules that kept loaded guns out of our national parks, for dismantling policies that kept trains safe from armed terrorist attacks.

It’s 8:15 PM. 250 people have been shot in America today.

But, who is really to blame? The answer is you and I. We, the people of the United States. There are many citizens who are too lazy to actually study the Second Amendment and learn what it really means. Too many citizens are uninterested the facts behind the specious claims of the NRA. Those of us who support gun control have been content to sit back, expecting our leaders to do something. Then, disappointed, because the sad truth is our leaders don’t lead anymore, we have lacked the will to hold them accountable.

This is our country, and we are to blame for this madness because so many of us, myself included, have failed as citizens to fully participate in our democracy. We all share the moral responsibility.

It’s 8:27 PM. 252 people have been shot in America today.

I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys?
When after all it was you and me

Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones

I don’t have the solution. Maybe we need an Occupy Guns movement. All I know it that it is too easy for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them. All I know is that we need to take responsibility for the gun problem ourselves. We can’t allow massacres like this to keep happening. It is time to stop blaming and stop expecting others to do the work. We need to take action.

It’s 8:52 PM. 258 people have been shot in America today.

In the time it has taken me to write this and post it as a draft, 10 people in this country have been shot by a gun.

Ever see a face in the crowd?
Ever hear the sound of the tears rollin’ down?
But, it’s all right, tonight
While we’re cuddled up tight.
In the name of victory,
It’s a shame that you and me
Can’t stop them guns.

Guns, Flo and Eddie