Messianic Warriors of the Future Buddha

Some months ago when I called Nichiren (1222-1282) the original face of Buddhist terror, I was probably being unfair. He wasn’t the original, in the sense of being the first, that dubious distinction may belong to a man named Faqing who lived in China during the 6th Century CE. I had forgotten about him.

However, calling Faqing a terrorist is not quite accurate. He was a messianic cult leader who waged a large scale rebellion. A cross between Jim Jones and Mao Zedong.

It started around the year 515 CE when, according to the History of the Wei Dynasty*, “the sramana Faqing from Jizhou started to propagate strange and illusive things.” Faquing married a Buddhist nun and then started a new sect that he called Dacheng, or Mahayana (Great Vehicle), not particularly original considering the northern branches of Buddhism had been calling themselves Mahayana for a few centuries already. Evidently, Faqing not only took the title Dacheng to refer to his own person, but he also identified himself as Maitreya, the “future Buddha.”

Maitreya, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit words maitri (Pali: metta) meaning “loving-kindness” and mitra (Pali: mitta) or “friend”, is a mythical Bodhisattva scheduled to appear on earth at some future time to complete his enlightenment, preach the “true” dharma and lead all people to salvation. In other words, a Buddhist Messiah. Maitreya is first mentioned in the Pali canon, and by the time of Faqing in the 6th century, the “future Buddha” had long been a popular figure and had spawned a number of cults. Belief in Maitreya often coincided with belief in the “end of dharma” or Mappo (“The Latter Day of the Dharma”), a baseless notion about an age when dharma becomes degenerated and Buddhist practitioners can no longer liberate themselves through their own efforts, but must rely on, have faith in, some external Buddha or mystic law to be saved.

In Buddhism in China, Kenneth Chen writes:

Maitreya statue in South Korea.
Maitreya statue in South Korea.

The popularity of Maitreya is easy to understand. During the Northern Wei period there already existed a large number of sutras in Chinese devoted to a description of Maitreya as the future Buddha . . . Such faith in Maitreya had a twofold aspect. First there was devotion to the deity as a bodhisattva, waiting in the Tushita heaven to be reborn on earth as the next Buddha. As part of this there was the earnest wish to be reborn in that heaven so that the devotee might be able to meet Maitreya face to face. Then there was belief in Maitreya as the future Buddha here on earth. As part of this there was the earnest wish to be reborn on this earth at the time when Maitreya makes his descent, so that the individual might hear the teachings from him and benefit from the peace, security, and prosperity that he was to bring on Earth.”

Faqing was so successful in convincing folks he was Maitreya, or at the very least an emissary of the future Buddha, that he was able to attract a large number of supporters and then amass an army of 50,000 soldiers.

He told his soldiers that any man who killed just one man would become a bodhisattva of the first stage, and if he killed ten men then he would ascend to the tenth bodhisattva stage (the Bodhisattva bhumi, is a traditional teaching that involves ten “stages” of the bodhisattva path to awakening). He also gave his followers drugs. The History of the Wei Dynasty reports that “As a result, the minds of his followers became disturbed such that fathers, sons, and brothers did not recognize each other and had nothing in their mind but killing.”

Few of Faqing’s soldiers were monks. Most were common folk duped into his fanatic crusade. His second in command was a man called Li Guibo, whom Faqing named “Demon Pacifying General” and “King who establishes the Han.” It seems that Faqing’s rebellion was based on his religious ideology, as his army’s maxim was “A new Buddha has entered the world; eradicate the demons of the former age!” No doubt another motivation was Faqing’s feeling that he’d make a better emperor than the one on the throne, and assuredly, he suffered from whatever psychological disorders plague individuals who commit genocide.

Faqing and his army murdered scores of magistrates and other government officials, ravaged a number of provinces, slaugtered monks and nuns, destroyed monasteries, and defeated several government expeditionary forces. Eventually, a general named Yao, supported by a force of a hundred thousand men, crushed the rebel army, and Faqing and his wife were beheaded.

Some 100 years later, Gao Tangcheng, who also took a Buddhist nun as a wife and called himself “Great Vehicle”, started a similar rebellion. Once again, belief in the mythical Maitreya inspired people to commit terrible atrocities.

Curiously, Maitreya, the future Buddha, is sometimes confused with Eddy Maitland, the future Bubba.

There have been other would-be Maitreyas since that time, and today, there are at least two cult-leaders who call claim to be Maitreya (Benjamin Creme, Ronald Spencer). As well, there seems to be no shortage of others who claim to Buddhas, along with Buddhist “teachers” who inspire fanatic followers.

These sort of teachings all have in common a variation of end-time theology, faith rooted in something greater or outside the life of the individual (a buddha, a god or mystic law), and a conviction that the end justifies the means. The latter is what makes these groups potentially dangerous. In the modern age, an individual doesn’t need an army of 50,000 to kill a lot of people, as we have seen from Jonestown to Aum Shinrikyo. These groups have a tendency toward paranoia, often see themselves as victims, and have a urge to paint those who do not belong to the group or who disagree with their agenda as heretics who need to be shown the error of their ways, if not completely destroyed.

Eric Hoffer, the American philosopher who wrote a book that is still a definitive work on fanaticism, The True Believer, once said, “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” Absolute faith becomes absolute power when that faith is placed in a person who claims to be a supernatural being or the sole representative on earth of such a being, or in a mystic force of the universe. Most groups like this are rather benign, but as they are able to convince followers to surrender reason in favor of the cause, or take advantage of those feel isolated and lack adequate feelings of self-worth, there is the potential for harm, not only for the individuals involved but also society. That’s why we need to shine a light on their histories, beliefs and activities.

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* Hubert Michael Seiwert, Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, BRILL, 2003


Marathon Men

Definitely the best part of Sen. Ted Cruz’s marathon anti-Obamacare pitch on the floor of the Senate was his reading of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham. If you recall Seuss story, Sam-I-Am insists that an unnamed character try green eggs and ham, a dish the character says, “I do not like.” In fact, he shouts, “Destroy that egg! Today! Today! Today I say! Without delay!” Sam-I-Am, being rather persistent, suggests that the character might like them, “Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.” Eventually, the character does try green eggs and ham, and whaddya know? He likes it.

“I have not tried it, and that’s a fact,
but still, I hate the Affordable Health Care Act.”

The irony here is almost too obvious. Republicans have not even tried Obamacare and yet they are sure they do not like it – they will not have it in the House, they will not have it with a mouse, they will not have it in a box or with a fox . . . I believe these latest shenanigans represent the 40th time Republicans have tried to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with this attempt, they are willing to shut down the government to get their way. Try Obamacare, try it today, you may learn to like it, I say.

Enough of that nonsense. Today, I’d rather focus on a man who completed a vastly different kind of marathon.

It’s not exactly clear what he did during the war; most reports say he was kamikaze pilot, while others state he worked for Japan’s infamous Unit 731, a biological and chemical warfare program engaged in human experimentation and responsible some of the worst war crimes in history. After the war he ran a noodle shop that burnt down. His wife committed suicide. Depressed, utterly miserable, at age 40 he became a Buddhist priest. He wrote popular books, using simple language to explain not only the teachings of Buddhism but his own philosophy that action was superior to wisdom. He met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1995 and explained Buddha-dharma to him.

His name was Yusai Sakai, and on September 23, he died at Imuro Fudodo Chojuin temple in Japan, age 87.

They called him “Superman.”

Yusai Sakai
Yusai Sakai

He was one of only three men to twice undertake the Kaihogyo (“practice of circling mountains”), an asceticism unique to the Tendai sect (the Japanese branch of the defunct T’ien-t’ai school founded by Chih-i). In this practice, the participants walk around Mount Hiei, home to Enryaku-ji, the temple that was once the center of Buddhist learning in Japan, and still home to Tendai today. It is 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. Only about 40 priests have actually completed the marathon since 1571.

The Kaihogyo is not just circumnavigating a mountain. It’s a pilgrimage that involves offering prayers at over 200 locations on the mountain. It is said that the practice is based on the chapter “The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged” in the Lotus Sutra. Bodhisattva Fukyo went around praising everyone he met and bowing to them, for which he was beaten to death. You can read my rendering of the story here, and an earlier post about the Kaihogyo here.

Sakai was 54 when he completed the marathon for the first time. His second completion was in 1987 at age 61. According to one article that offers a fascinating look at Sakai’s life, and the “Marathon Monks,” he was given the nickname “Superman” because “he once ran – further and harder than anyone in Japan, probably the world, perhaps even the history of the world. Sakai ran to within a breath of death, not just to visit mortality’s brink but to camp there a while. His austerities were so tortuous, it hurts even to recount them.”

Frankly, my idea of a marathon is an hour-long walk in a park. I can understand staying in shape; I can even appreciate training oneself to perfection. Punishing the body, on the other hand, strikes me as the sort of austerity that the Buddha rejected. But then, I’m not really qualified to judge. What’s important here is simply that Sakai was an remarkable individual. His life and his approach to the path to enlightenment was so very different from our own, but many paths lead to the same truth. Some of those paths encircle mountains . . .

Sakai spent his remaining years at the temple where he died of heart failure. He once said, “Leaves thrive when they are fresh green but fall when the time comes. But they are green again the next year. The sight of such workings has made me realize that life is not over when it is finished once but does go on and on. That’s probably the sort of wisdom that Buddha bestows on us.”


The Navy Yard Shooting: A Look at Good and Evil, and Mental Afflictions

The horrific Navy Yard shooting a week ago has produced some discussion about the gunman’s involvement with Buddhism. The picture is yet unclear. Some friends of his say he was a devout Buddhist, while others suggest he only went to the temple in Ft. Worth to meet Thai women. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle.

A few of the television commentators I watched the day after the incident seemed positively aghast at the thought that a Buddhist could commit such evil. One anchor on CNN questioned if the gunman was a legitimate Buddhist since Buddhism is a spiritual philosophy that advocates nonviolence. A Washington Post blog claimed that the gunman “was no Buddhist” because a “Buddhist is who Buddhism does,” which I’m not sure even makes sense.

Buddhism is not the only philosophy that preaches non-violence, and while a history of violence in Buddhism is not as extensive as in some other religions, it is there nonetheless. Still, the peaceful image Buddhism has managed to project is so pervasive that it is difficult for some to imagine that Buddhists, like anyone else, can kill.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, violence is “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” When sanctioned by law, violence can be perceived as good. When unsanctioned, it is a form of evil. Yet, the behavior itself is essentially identical.

Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands in the 1955 film, “The Night of the Hunter.”

In Western religious traditions, people tend to think of good and evil as two fundamentally and diametrically opposed principles or forces in the universe. Two primary wills directed towards opposite ends. Buddhism, however, teaches that good and evil are not separate; they are entwined aspects of life.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, in the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), says, “Good and evil have no self-nature.” In Buddhism, when we talk about self-nature (svabhava), we are referring to the ability of anything to exist on its own, separate from other things. Neither good nor evil exist from their own side as independent functions of human nature.

Further, Chih-i notes that “If one realizes that evil is not evil, that everything is One Reality, then the Way of the Buddha is realized . . .” Simply put, he means that life is not black and white. Nothing exists as either completely good or totally evil. As Neal Donner explains an essay on “Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil,” there is no real contradiction between good and evil: “Even if evil is presently in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other.” Just as good and evil do not function independently, neither is subordinate to the other, they are both equally part of the whole of reality.

This is the view from the ultimate truth, which differs from that of the relative or conventional truth. In the reality of conventional human life, evil is a destructive force that must be avoided in favor of producing goodness. Yet, it is not rational to think that evil can be completely eradicated. Indeed, evil is necessary. How would we recognize what is good if evil did not exist?

The fundamental, primary aim of all beings throughout the world is toward the same end, happiness. Thieves, murderers, even terrorists, want to be happy, although their notion of happiness may differ greatly from our own. Evil is the result of false beliefs on the part of an individual who mistakenly thinks that negative actions will result in the fulfillment of the primary aim. Evil is merely a result of ignorance and the wrong belief that something is a means to happiness when it is not.

The man who killed 12 people at the Navy Yard last Monday carved two cryptic messages into the wooden stock of the shotgun he bought two days before the shooting. One of the messages read, “Better Off This Way.” This suggests that with both good and evil coexisting in his mind, mental illness, and the extreme delusion it produced, actualized his potential for evil. The gunman,  impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder as a 9/11 responder, who heard “voices,” drank alcohol and played violent video games excessively, and frequently displayed angry and aggressive tendencies, became convinced that only through committing a desperate act could he find happiness. His primary aim was to liberate himself from suffering, an aim the suffering itself twisted into the act of inflicting suffering on others.

Two days following the Navy Yard shooting, Stephen Prothero, a professor in Boston University’s religion department, authored an editorial in USA Today. After citing some examples of violence in Buddhism’s past (two of which are myths), he wrote, “But it is simply not the case that Buddhism is a ‘religion of peace.’”

Prothero, who a number of times in the past has demonstrated he has little understanding of Buddhist teachings, once again fails. In my opinion, no other spiritual philosophy than Buddhism deals as systematically and comprehensively with the underlying causes and conditions that lead to violence – the mental afflictions that delude the mind and pervert behavior.

At the end of the day, it’s not about religion, good or evil, violence or non-violence. It’s about the mind and the afflictions that disturb it. In terms of the shooting itself and how to prevent incidents from this from being repeated, there are numerous discussions we should be having, not the least of which is how can we deal more effectively with mental illness.

For the longevity of all other enemies is not so enduring, beginningless, and endless as that of my enemies, the mental afflictions.

Everyone becomes favorably disposed when tended with kindness, but when these mental afflictions are honored, they bring about suffering all the more.

Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara (“A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) *

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* Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997


Suffering is Beneficial

Yesterday I underwent a rather complicated medical procedure that is part of my on-going treatment for cancer, and needless to say, it wasn’t much fun.  First of all, getting up very early in the morning and having to fast (going without food I don’t mind, but no coffee sucks), does not put me in the best frame of mind for these things. I start with a rather begrudging attitude. After all, it isn’t a procedure that anyone in their right mind would want to go through, and no one would want have my medical problem. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that having this disease is a great opportunity.

Raoul Birnbaum, author of the definitive work thus far on Bhaisajyaguru (The Healing Buddha, 1979), wrote another book, Healing and Restoring (1989), which includes a chapter entitled “Chinese Buddhist Traditions of Healing and the Life Cycle.” The chapter is devoted to a discussion of healing based on the Sutra of the Master of Healing and T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i’s healing methods. Towards the end of the chapter, Birnbaum provides an excellent explanation of what I mean by disease being an opportunity.

The scripture and rituals dedicated to the Master of Healing are pervaded by a sense of transformation, by a sense that healing is a profound process of change . . . For Buddhists, sickness may provide a jolt of urgency, a vivid sense of the immediacy of suffering and the necessity of conquering it. It provides a striking reminder on the tenuous grasp one may have on human incarnation . . . Further, the enormous focused effort required to harness the mind for curing when the body is in a weakened state may be precisely what is required to attain enlightenment . . . Thus, disease – a very great source of suffering – may be viewed as beneficial by Buddhists intent on enlightenment.”

This point of view is not some great Buddhist revelation. There are many people of faith, doctors, psychologists, self-help gurus, etc., with similar viewpoints. But the diverse methods of healing Buddhism has to offer are unique, that is, uniquely Buddhist.

Healing Buddha
Healing Buddha

The “Master of Healing” is Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, one of the most popular Buddhist archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Birnbaum notes that “In the texts, this buddha continually pledges to assist devotees not only to become healed, but to attain enlightenment in the process.” The “texts” are works from a long-ago age, written and read by individuals who may have taken such statements literally. From a modern perspective, the Healing Buddha is a mythological figure, but also an archetype representing the natural healing powers of the mind and body. The Healing Buddha can assist only in the sense that by meditating on this figure, by contemplating the qualities represented, one can identify with, and “become” a healing buddha.

In the process of becoming a healing buddha, one can undertake to fulfill the third great vow made by Bhaisajyaguru: “I shall cause all beings to obtain what they need.” Obviously, what they need most is to be able to overcome their sufferings. This is exactly the same as the first of the Bodhisattva Vows, “to liberate all living beings.”

I mentioned the other day that suffering (dukkha) is a sort of ill-ness, a dis-ease. It is a cancer that can cause out-of-control growth of cells of pain, dissatisfaction and disconsolation, a malignant malaise. In this sense, all forms of suffering are a disease that must be conquered.

In Chih-kuan for Beginners, one of the works Birnbaum relies on in his discussion of the T’ien-t’ai approach to healing, Chih-i states, “While in his own practice or when working for the welfare of others, a practitioner should be acquainted with the causes of disease and the method of healing them . . .”

The main cause for the disease of suffering is self-cherishing and the main method for healing is cherishing others. Chih-i is credited with composing the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and he said that if a person cannot fulfill the first vow of saving all living beings, he or she can never fulfill the fourth vow of attaining enlightenment. The first vow is figurative because it would be impossible to save all living beings. Yet, the conundrum presented by the idea of enlightenment juxtaposed with the goal of liberating all beings from their suffering, points to the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism, and this message was conveyed exquisitely by the Dalai Lama during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, a statement that I’ve presented a number of times before:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”

Attaining enlightenment, becoming a Buddha with a big “B” is not as important as becoming a healing buddha. Suffering is beneficial when we use it to benefit others. Healing others is as important as healing ourselves. That is the kind of understanding all healing buddhas should adopt.


The Pendulum of Life

If you’ve been on Google today then you have seen their interesting graphic of Leon Foucault’s Pendulum, saluting the physicist’s birth on this date 194 years ago.

One of my favorite places in Los Angeles is the Griffith Observatory, which I really think should be named the James Dean Memorial Observatory in honor of the fact that Rebel Without A Cause was shot there, but that’s beside the point, which is that one of the treasures of the observatory is the Foucault Pendulum in the Rotunda.

Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (
Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (

The pendulum has been a feature at the observatory since it opened in 1935, and it’s one of the largest pendulums in the world.  The device demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. It has a 240-pound brass ball, suspended by a cable 40 feet long, that swings in the same direction all the time. To an observer it appears that the ball changes direction, but it’s actually the earth that is moving. Every eight minutes the ball knocks over a dowel to illustrate the rotation.

Now, everyone knows that the Earth rotates once in about 24 hours. But that is from the point of view of the sun. From the point of view of the stars, it’s once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds. And what you may not know is that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. That means days are longer than they were in the past. Because of Los Angeles’ latitude, the rotation time for the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is 42 hours.

Recently, I blogged about Soyen Shaku, the first Zen master to visit the West. In 1906 he wrote a piece called “The Pendulum of Life”:

[People] want to live, and they do not know that their living is really their death. This contradiction causes them an immeasurable amount of suffering. Apparently they are living, that is, they are moving bodily in the world of contrasts and opposites, of pleasures and pains, of sorrows and joys, of good and evil; and yet they want to escape from this actual state of things, they want to enter into a region where they have only monotony, stagnation, and abeyance, and even extinction. For are they not trying to keep the pendulum of life always up on one side only? The pendulum owes its existence to a constant swinging from one side to the other. When this is stopped, it ceases to be itself and exists no more. To live is to move, to change, to walk up and down, to come in and out, to enjoy and to suffer, to -smile and to weep. To refuse to do so is simply courting death.”

This reminds me of the famous quote by Norman Cousins that the greatest tragedy is when something inside of you dies while you’re still living. Cousins was a American journalist who fought heart disease by taking large doses of Vitamin C and laughing. He claimed that Marx Brothers movies were a key factor in his healing, and he was no quack, but rather served for a time as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the UCLA School of Medicine. Another way to describe his struggle is to say that he beat death by learning how to live.

What Soyen Shaku meant when he wrote that so many people court death is that they don’t know how to live. And what Buddha meant when he taught that life is suffering was that there is a undeniable quality of suffering in life, a malaise, an ill-ness, and that its cause is that we live the wrong way, for the wrong things. We often feel we are seeking enjoyment, happiness, but the things that we think will make us happy, bring pain and unhappiness in the long run.

Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory
Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory

Later in his piece, Soyen Shaku says, “Life, according to Buddhism, is worth living, because it enables us to do something.” Is this “something” merely to live fast and die before our time like James Dean? Or to learn to live while we are alive?

There is suffering, and there is happiness, too. The Buddhist way of life is to cling to neither suffering nor happiness, to be like Foucault’s Pendulum, without changing direction in our plane of swing between the two extremes. Through the practice of equanimity, the state of psychological stability, we can learn to remain undisturbed by life’s rotations.

Evidently, the gunman in Monday’s Navy Yard rampage was a convert to Buddhism. His last known residence was in Fort Worth, TX where he shared a place with the owner of a restaurant whom he’d met at a nearby Thai Buddhist temple. According to the roomate, the gunman spent a great deal of time at the temple “meditating and chanting.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the depth of his Buddhist practice, to wonder if the teachers at his temple had ever mentioned equanimity. I doubt it would have made any difference. The gunman was a pendulum swinging wildly and his psychological problems were so severe that he needed the kind of help that only professionals can provide. We may never know exactly what was in this man’s mind, but it seems that such individuals reach a point where they feel there is nothing left for them except to kill others and be killed.

For the rest of us, or most of us at least, we can do something else, we can learn to live while we are alive.