As I wrote last Tuesday, I’ve been reading The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus. If you missed that post, it has some background material about Carus, one of the pioneers of Buddhism in the west.

The book is subtitled “Compiled from Ancient Records” which means the Tipitaka. One story I thought unfamiliar concerns the bhikkhus and their robes. I must have seen it at least once since Carus’ source is The sacred books of the East by Friedrich Max Muller (1880). However, I haven’t read much from that since I was in college.

Carus calls the story “Jivaka, The Physician.” Jivaka, almost certainly a mythological figure, is said to be the most famous doctor in India during the Buddha’s time.

“Jivaka, The Physician” begins with this passage:

Long before the Blessed One had attained enlightenment, self-mortification had been the custom among those who earnestly sought for salvation. Deliverance of the soul from all the necessities of life and finally from the body itself, they regarded as the aim of religion. Thus, they avoided everything that might be a luxury in food, shelter, and clothing, and lived like the beasts in the woods. Some went naked, while others wore the rags cast away upon cemeteries or dungheaps.

When the Blessed One retired from the world, he recognized at once the error of the naked ascetics, and, considering the indecency of their habit, clad himself in cast-off rags.

Having attained enlightenment and rejected all unnecessary self-mortifications, the Blessed One and his bhikkhus continued for a long time to wear the cast-off rags of cemeteries and dung-heaps.

When he writes that the Buddha “retired from the world”, Carus is obviously referring to the Buddha’s “Great Renunciation”, which actually was not so great. After all, as the passage above indicates, didn’t the Buddha reject the severe renunciation and austerities of the “naked ascetics” and advocate a Middle Way? The Buddha did not retire from the world, quite the contrary. He was deeply involved in the world. He and his followers did not live in seclusion. They always stayed on the edges of towns and villages and interacted with ordinary people on a regular basis.

Perhaps, this was merely Carus’ choice of words, or maybe he borrowed it from one of his sources, but surely he must have been cognizant of the fact that the Buddha and the bhikkhus were not monastics.

In any case, as the story continues, the bhikkhus were visited with all kinds of disease from wearing the filthy rags. Then, the Buddha became sick. Ananda went to Jivaka, who was physician to King Bimbisara. Jivaka treated and healed the Buddha, Still, the Buddha and the bhikkhus continued to wear only rags. Sometime later Jivaka received a fine robe as a gift and he wanted to donate it to the Buddha.  After going back and forth about it with Jivaka, the Buddha finally consented to wear the robe and then he addressed the Bhikkhus,

Henceforth ye shall be at liberty to wear either cast-off rags or lay robes. Whether ye are pleased with the one or with the other, I will approve of it.”

When the people at Rajagaha heard, “The Blessed One has allowed the bhikkhus to wear lay robes,” those who were willing to bestow gifts became glad. And in one day many thousands of robes were presented at Rajagaha to the bhikkhus.

I was intrigued by the use of the term “lay-robes.” I looked at some of the other accounts, and while it seems that Carus condensed the story somewhat, “lay-robes” is consistent with other translations. Muller describes the robe Jivaka offers to the Buddha as both a lay-robe and “a suit of Siveyyaka cloth.” Hermann Oldenberg and Thomas William Rhys Davids in Vinaya Texts (1881) mention that Buddhaghosa gave two explations of Siveyyaka cloth, one being a cloth used in Uttarakuru for covering dead bodies, and secondly as a excellent cloth made in Sivi. Since all the translations indicate that the cloth was of the best material and other sources say that Siveyyaka cloth was valuable, I think it is safe to assume it was the latter. Vinaya Texts has “lay-robes” and S. Beal in his translation uses “householder robes.”

We should not take literally the stories we find in Buddhist texts, but rather understand them as allegory, and this is true for all ancient spiritual literature.  In creating these stories there was a message the original compilers were trying to convey, hidden in the symbolism or between the lines. What is the message here?

It seems to me that one point is about judging by appearance. Wearing a robe, or certain kind of robe, does not make a person a bhikkhu. It is something else, such as one’s dedication to the path, one’s commitment to the ethical way of life that Buddhism promotes. I think the implication of the story is if the bhikkhus were to wear lay-robes then how would people tell the difference between them and householders? In the relative sense, sure, they are differences, but ultimately, there are none. So, I think a second point is that by wearing “lay-robes” the bhikkhus were symbolically honoring the laity, saying we are essentially a one-fold sangha, not two or four-fold.

Today there is still a prejudice against lay practitioners and lay Buddhism and I feel it is really a divisive attitude. From time to time, I run across individuals who only want to practice with monks or at temples and monasteries. Somehow to them lay Buddhism doesn’t have the right stuff. And in at least one Buddhist tradition I have some experience in, the opposite is the prevailing frame of mind.

But the real truth is that it doesn’t matter whether your teachers or the people you practice with wear robes or blue jeans. I’ve encountered liars, fakes, ego-trippers and authoritarians wearing both. All that is important is the quality of the dharma you get. Capturing the spirit of Buddhism and practicing with some effort is all that matters in the long run.

Sessen Doji offered his body to a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. Bodhisattva Yakuo, having no oil, burned his elbow as an offering to the Lotus Sutra. In our own country, Prince Shotoku peeled off the skin of his hand on which to copy the Lotus Sutra, and Emperor Tenji burned his third finger as an offering to Shakyamuni Buddha. Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people. Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.

- Nichiren, “The Gift of Rice”

A person who lives “up to the spirit, not the words” of the teachings can be a good mentor whether they wear a robe or a business suit, rags or t-shirts. And if we have that same attitude, we can practice anywhere, in a temple, in a tent – it’s not important. All we need is to see past appearance and capture the spirit.

April is coming to end, and as well, National Poetry Month. I hope you enjoyed the poetry posts. Since this will probably be the last one for a while and because it’s no fun having your own blog if you don’t showcase your own stuff, a couple of poems from yours truly today.

On this date 19 years ago “not guilty” verdicts in the trial of the policemen involved in Rodney King’s videotaped beating set off six days of riots here in Los Angeles. The largest in U.S. history. I remember the following morning going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, and seeing the fires burning all across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

Here is the poem I wrote some time later, after things had cooled down and the National Guard was no longer patrolling the neighborhood and life had gotten back to something approaching normal:

in the city of angels

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley

By the time you read this, the Royal Wedding should be over, and I say thank goodness for that. Now we can get back to obsessing about Charlie Sheen, or someone equally psychedelic. Needless to say, I did not watch the wedding, nor did I watch the last one with Charles and Diana. Unimpressed as I am with the Royal Family, at first I was equally blasé about Princess Di. Over the years, though, she did come to grow on me, for purely lecherous reasons (after all, she was an attractive woman), and partly because I felt sorry for her. Yet, in spite of any empathy I had, I couldn’t help but also feel that she was essentially a victim of her own desire. It’s an old story. Musicians and actors and other would-be celebrities longing for fame and fortune and when they get it, they can’t handle the pressure. There had to be some part of her that wanted to be a princess, that fantasized about one day becoming the Queen. As the famous Chinese saying goes, be careful what you wish for . . .

I did get up early and watch her funeral. By that time, I had something invested in her story and the part she played in her own tragedy aside, it seemed clear to me that the Royal Family had abused her horribly. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I shed a few tears.

I wrote this poem that same day, and rereading it now, I think I must have been influenced by the song Elton John sang, a reworking of “Candle in the Wind”:


a rose
is cut

no more petals
in a grail
of eyes

shall we kiss
the hand of immortality
that plucked her up
& set her upon devotion’s throne

shall we bow
to all the mornings
she tried to save herself
from the life
that devoured her

princess dreams put her
back against the wall
which is perhaps preferable
to the silence of empty bedrooms

shall we cut some roses
to see
how exquisitely
they fall
our fascinations

how achingly
they wither
in the mad dog sun

© 1997-2011 dmriley

Last week I found a copy of The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop. It was first published in 1894 (this copy is from 1973) and I could tell from the title and from skimming through it that it was like a lot of other books on Buddhism from that period, but at only a $1.50, I couldn’t resist buying it. Besides, I had always thought Carus to be an interesting figure and thought it was time I should finally look at his work.

Painting used on the cover of the 1973 edition.

The writings of early scholars and interpreters of Buddha-dharma are saturated with Biblical language and to me they often seem hopelessly antiquated. This book is no exception. “Gospel” is a word that has almost exclusively Christian connotations. Its meaning in Old English is “godspell” or god (good) + message/news. Calling the teachings of Buddha “gospel” seems to be an unfortunate choice of words. Yet, when I got the book home and began to pursue it, I enjoyed the sections I read. Perhaps the rather spare, straightforward prose style had something to do with it.

Paul Carus (1852 –1919) was an author, a professor of philosophy, and a student of comparative religion. He was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1884. During his life, he wrote 75 books and 1500 articles. Spinoza (1632-1677) who was critical of Western philosophy and maintained that God exists only as a concept, was a major influence on Carus as a philosopher.

Paul Carus

Carus described himself as “an atheist who loved God” and called his own philosophy a “Religion of Science.” In his 1896 book by the same name he wrote,

In order to establish the Religion of Science it is by no means necessary to abolish the old religions, but only to purify them and develop their higher possibilities, so that their mythologies shall be changed into strictly scientific conceptions. It is intended to preserve of the old religions all that is true and good, but to purify their faith by rejecting superstations and irrational elements, and to discard, unrelentingly, their errors.

You could say that Carus was the Stephen Batchelor of his day, although I feel he was closer in spirit to Joseph Campbell, who some seven decades later explained that religious teachings are misunderstood because we take the myths literally instead of understanding them as metaphors for spiritual truths.

In 1893 Carus met a young D.T. Suzuki in Chicago at a meeting of the World Parliament of Religion, where the latter had translated Shaku Soen’s public address. Carus persuaded Suzuki to stay in the US and gave him a job working for his publishing house. In 1898, Carus and Suzuki published the first US translation of the Tao Te Ching. Years later, Suzuki’s individual work would be instrumental in generating interest about Buddhism in the West.

The Gospel of Buddha was one of the earliest translations of Buddhist teachings into English. In telling the story of the Buddha and his dharma, compiled from a variety of Buddhist texts, Carus modeled his approach on the New Testament, which actually is effective as overall Carus toned down both the Biblical language and the mythological elements.

Here’s a short section that I liked, largely taken from S. Beal’s 1876 translation of the Chinese Dhammapada, called “The Light of the World”:

There was a certain Brahman in Kosamba, a wrangler and well versed in the Vedas. As he found no one whom he regarded his equal in debate he used to carry a lighted torch in his hand, and when asked for the reason of his strange conduct, he replied: “The world is so dark that I carry this torch to light it up, as far as I can.”

A samana sitting in the market-place heard these words and said: “My friend, if thine eyes are blind to the sight of the omnipresent light of the day, do not call the world dark. Thy torch adds nothing to the glory of the sun and thy intention to illumine the minds of others is as futile as it is arrogant.”

Whereupon the Brahman asked: “Where is the sun of which thou speakest?” And the samana replied: “The wisdom of the Tath?gata is the sun of the mind. His radiancy is glorious by day and night, and he whose faith is strong will not lack light on the path to Nirvana where he will inherit bliss everlasting.”

As I mentioned, Carus was interested in comparative religion. In the back of the book he put a Table of Reference where he cited the chapter and verse from the book, named the source(s), and then drew his “Parallelisms.” Most of the parallels correspond to verses in the New Testament Gospels, but in the case of this story, it’s with the story of Diogenes and his lantern.

The other James Baldwin

Here is that tale about the famous Greek philosopher as interpreted by James Baldwin – not the author you are probably thinking of, but another – a James Baldwin (1841–1925) who was white, from a backwoods Quaker family, a largely self-educated man who became a teacher at 24 and later embarked on a career in publishing as an author and editor of school books for the American Book Company.  This account of the Diogenes story is from Fifty Famous Stories Retold, a children’s book Baldwin published in 1896:

At Corinth, in Greece, there lived a very wise man whose name was Diogenes. Men came from all parts of the land to see him and hear him talk.

But wise as he was, he had some very queer ways. He did not believe that any man ought to have more things than he really needed; and he said that no man needed much. And so he did not live in a house, but slept in a tub or barrel, which he rolled about from place to place. He spent his days sitting in the sun, and saying wise things to those who were around him.

At noon one day, Diogenes was seen walking through the streets with a lighted lantern, and looking all around as if in search of something.

“Why do you carry a lantern when the sun is shining?” someone said.

“I am looking for an honest man,” answered Diogenes.

When Alexander the Great went to Corinth, all the foremost men in the city came out to see him and to praise him. But Diogenes did not come; and he was the only man for whose opinions Alexander cared.

And so, since the wise man would not come to see the king, the king went to see the wise man. He found Diogenes in an out-of-the-way place, lying on the ground by his tub. He was enjoying the heat and the light of the sun.

When he saw the king and a great many people coming, he sat up and looked at Alexander. Alexander greeted him and said,–

“Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom. Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“Yes,” said Diogenes. “You can stand a little on one side, so as not to keep the sunshine from me.”

This answer was so different from what he expected, that the king was much surprised. But it did not make him angry; it only made him admire the strange man all the more. When he turned to ride back, he said to his officers,–

“Say what you will; if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.”

Have a good day and remember to let your light shine.

Following up on my recent post about the situation at Kirti Monastery in Tibet: Reports Saturday that Chinese police killed two Tibetan villagers during a raid on the monastery. The US-based International Campaign for Tibet say two monks were beaten to death Thursday after they tried to prevent police from detaining hundreds of other monks. The deceased were identified as two elderly Tibetans, 60 year old Dhonkho of Thawa Ghongma township and 65 year old Sherkyi of the Rako Tsang house Chashang township. The raid by Chinese police resulted in the arrest of around 300 monks who were taken to an undisclosed location.

Tibetans in exile around the world have gone on hunger strikes protesting the repression in Tibet and demanding the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the monastery.

The Tibetan government-in-exile Saturday once again appealed to the international community to persuade China not to use force against locals in northeastern Tibet.

Still, not a word mentioned on the cable news networks. Nothing on their websites. We know how many were killed in Libya and Syria, but not Tibet. We know what happened to Lindsey Lohan on Friday and how many hours are left until the Royal Wedding, but viewers are not informed about Kirti Monastery. No protests from the US Senate or the House of Representatives. Nothing from the White House.

Friday,  President Obama released a statement on Syria, in which he said “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now. We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the Syrian people in this challenging time.”

And what about Tibet, Mr. President? As a well-known singer-songwriter once asked, “How many deaths will it take . . .”

China is an equal opportunity repressor. This past weekend, Chinese authorities detained several hundred congregants of an “underground” evangelical Protestant church in their homes while arresting 36 others when they gathered in a public square to hold Easter services.  The church is called Shouwang, or Lighthouse, maintains that it is not political and only interested in either returning to its rented space, from which they were evicted earlier in the month (unlawfully they maintain), or be allowed to hold gathering outdoors or in private homes.

This week the Dalai Lama will visit the United States.  On Wednesday, an announcement is expected on the new prime minister for the Tibetan parliament-in-exile . . .

Hopefully the visit will help focus some attention on the situation.

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

It’s Earth Day, when each year we remind ourselves of all the things we can do to help and protect Mother Earth.

I remember the first Earth Day in 1970. It was called a “national teach-in on the environment.” Teach-in is term you don’t hear anymore. The first major teach-in was organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965. What made Earth Day rather epic is that it was really the first mass movement born out of the counter-culture to gain wide-spread support from mainstream America. And that first Earth Day was a big deal. On April 22, 1970, over 20 million people participated – on the streets, in parks, churches and auditoriums, 2000 colleges and universities and 10,000 elementary and high schools.

We had a rally that day at my high school, which was not that big of a deal unfortunately. Just sitting in the bleachers on the football field listening to some students and teachers give speeches. Pretty boring, actually.

It is heartening to see how Earth Day has grown over the years, but disheartening to think that we are still abusing our planet in ways that could have been stopped at any time during the last four decades. Three years after that initial Earth Day celebration, the United States had the first “oil crisis” when OPEC decided on an oil embargo to protest the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war. To save gas, Nixon reduced the speed limit on highways to 55. Here it is 2011 and we are still dependent on oil.

I’ve always thought of Buddhism as a “green” philosophy. Many of the core principles relate directly to our relationship with the environment, particularly interdependency (pratitya-samutpada), which teaches that all things, sentient and non-sentient, are interconnected. Japanese Buddhism has the term esho funi or “self and environment are two but not two.” Our environment is only a reflection of ourselves. If the Buddha were still around and if he was invited to speak at an Earth Day event, I imagine he’d tell us that we will never clean up our outer environment until we clear up our environment within. The green revolution is really an inner revolution. You already know that, yet I don’t think we can remind ourselves of it too often.

Since it’s also National Poetry Month, I think this is the perfect occasion to present Smokey the Bear Sutra, the poem that Gary Snyder wrote for the 1969 Sierra Club Wilderness Conference. It takes the form of a Buddhist sutra with Smokey the Bear as the reincarnation of Vairocana Buddha, a celestial Buddha who first appeared in the apocryphal Chinese text, Fan-wang ching or “Brahma’s Net” (also the origin of the Mahayana Bodhisattva ordination precepts). It is a somewhat satirical piece (some might say sacrilegious), but satire often allows a writer to communicate valuable principles without having to get up on a soapbox and preach.


Ancient statue of Smokey/Vairocana found in Chinese cave



Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago, the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infinite Void gave a discourse to all the assembled elements and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings, the flying beings, and the sitting beings–even the grasses, to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning Enlightenment on the planet Earth.

“In some future time, there will be a continent called America. It will have great centers of power called such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon. The human race in that era will get into troubles all over its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature.”

“The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth. My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger: and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it.”

And he showed himself in his true form of


A handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs, showing that he is aroused and watchful.

Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war;

His left paw in the mudra of Comradely Display–indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the Dharma;

Wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but often destroys;

Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the west, symbolic of the forces that guard the wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the true path of man on Earth:

all true paths lead through mountains

With a halo of smoke and flame behind, the forest fires of the kali-yuga, fires caused by the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind;

Round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her;

Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs, smashing the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;

Indicating the task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned foods, universities, and shoes, master the Three Mysteries of their own Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and prune out the sick limbs of this country America and then burn the leftover trash.

Wrathful but calm. Austere but Comic. Smokey the Bear will Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him…


Thus his great Mantra:

Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana Sphataya hum traka ham mam


And he will protect those who love the woods and rivers, Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children:

And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR’S WAR SPELL:





And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surely appear to put the enemy out with his vajra-shovel.

Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada.

Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick.
Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature.
Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts.
Will always have ripened blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine tree to sit at.


…thus we have heard…

(may be reproduced free forever)


Young monk Phuntsok

On March 16, 2011, coinciding with the third anniversary of the widespread demonstrations that rocked Tibet in 2008, a young Tibetan monk named Phuntsok Jarutsang set himself on fire to protest the Chinese government’s continued repression of the Tibetan people. Police officers extinguished the flames and then proceeded to beat the young monk mercilessly. He died in a hospital early the next morning from injuries sustained from the beating. He was 21.

According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, on April 9th, Chinese security forces cordoned the Ngaba Kirti Monastery restricting the movement of monks with no one being allowed to go in or out. The monks have been living on food offered by locals through the monastery administration as the Chinese authorities have prohibited local Tibetans from offering food to monks directly. Chinese officials maintain that the situation at Kirti Monastery is “normal.”

Yesterday a report surfaced from Tibetan sources that gives a clearer picture of the situation: The source called the monastery “a jail filled with monks.” Monks are not allowed to leave their quarters after 8PM.  The monastery’s medical facilities has been shut down. Chinese authorities have constructed walls around the monastery.  Soldiers and police enter monks’ quarters at random and ransack them, and some one hundred monks have gone missing or are unaccounted for in the area since the March 16th incident. Authorities have also subjected the monks to extensive “Patriotic Reeducation” sessions that in some cases have lasted for hours.

On April 16th, the Tibetan Parliament in exile appealed for the United Nations to intervene. The UN has yet to respond.

From what I have seen, the cable news networks and my local channels have ignored this story. They keep me up to date with what is happening in Libya, but nothing on Tibet. It’s an old story. It doesn’t have the large scope that the Middle East has, there is no oil in Tibet, and I suspect China’s influence has something to do with it, too.

Six decades have passed since China invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama gets lip service from US presidents but little else. In 1990, Iran invaded Kuwait and within months, we were chomping at the bit to go and liberate a country that is but a fraction of Tibet’s size. The disparity is obvious. Tibet is only important to Buddhists and liberals and social activists and people of that ilk. Our president, whom I admire, is two out of three there, so I wish he were more outspoken on the subject, and a few others to boot.

Tibetan Prayer Wheel (Mani Khorlo)

I don’t know what to say except that it’s tragic. I don’t know what else to do other than be one of the voices calling attention to China’s cruel repression, even though, if you’re reading this, chances are you are part of the choir. I may have some strong opinions about the validity of lineage claims and some of the historical misrepresentations about monastic Buddhism, but that does not mean that I am against Buddhist monks or want to see that aspect of Buddhism disappear. We owe so much to the monastic tradition. One thing is sure, without it, there would be no Buddhism today. Had there not been such a tradition in Tibet, perhaps many important sutras and teachings would not have been preserved. This is just one contribution to world culture Tibet has made. Comparing Tibetan texts with Chinese versions has helped scholars understand how the sutras were compiled, how they were revised, which are apocryphal and so on.

Tibet has given us a rich and unique culture to appreciate – and we should not forget that uniqueness is also part of diversity, for diversity means not merely to tolerate or accommodate differences, but to also celebrate and, in some cases, preserve them. Tibet is home to a culture suffused with ancient wisdom, one that struggles to maintain its identity as it faces an uncertain future. Based on the Buddhist concept of dependent arising, their struggle is also ours.

Meanwhile, the siege of Kirti monastery continues . . .

May all types of harm and violence in these snowy lands,
Be swiftly pacified and eliminated entirely.
May precious sublime bodhichitta
Arise naturally in the minds of all beings, human and non-human alike,
So that they never again think or act in harmful, violent ways.

May the minds of all be filled with love for one another!
May the whole of Tibet enjoy abundant splendours, happiness and wellbeing!
And may the Buddha’s teachings flourish and endure!
Through the force of the truth embodied in the Three Roots, the Buddhas and their heirs,
And through the power of all the sources of merit throughout samsara and nirvana,
And of our own completely pure, positive intention,
May this, our prayer of aspiration, be fulfilled!

“Prayer for Peace and Stability”, Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé (1813-1899)

I live in Los Feliz.

It’s a section of Los Angeles just below the hills that borders Hollywood. Feliz is Spanish for happiness or joy, so sometimes I like to call my neighborhood, The Joy.

Living in The Joy is not always a joy. But, today it was. Spring decided to show up for a while. The air was warm and the birds sang love songs to one another all day.

The word “joy” comes from the Anglo-French joie, as in joie de vivre, “joy of life.” Joy is one of those words we use a lot but probably don’t spend much time thinking about. When we use “joy” it’s usually as a synonym for happiness, in the context of pleasure.

In the Treatise on the Great Prajnaparamita Sutra, Nagarjuna says,

Happiness is bodily happiness; joy is mental happiness. We call happiness the happiness associated with the five sensory consciousnesses; we call joy the happiness associated with the intellectual consciousness. We call happiness the happiness that arises from among the five types of sense objects; we call joy the happiness that arises from the dharmic objects of mind.

In this work, Nagarjuna uses “joy” in three different contexts, but they all have selflessness at their root.  One nuance of joy is priti, a sense of joy, referring to the seven factors of enlightenment: “the bodhisattva puts his joy (priti) into real wisdom (bhutaprajna): this is true joy (bhutapriti).” Then, joy as one of the Four Immeasurables (Love, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity). Here the term for joy is mudita or sympathetic joy: “Mudita is to wish that all beings obtain joy as a result of happiness (sukha).” And lastly, altruistic joy, one of the four elements of boundless heart (apramana).

Shantideva, an adherent of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy, summed it up: “All joy in this world comes from wanting others to be happy.”

As I write this on Sunday evening, the daylight is fading and fog is moving in. They say it’ll be cloudy tomorrow, cooler. Might rain. The birds may not be crooning again . . . The happiness we find in a day may be fleeting, but joy we find in life is a constant thing, when it is the sort of joy that Nagarjuna and Shantideva talked about.

That’s the kind of joy I found today. While savoring the sensual pleasures of a fine Spring day, in my mind I thought how all things reflect the nature of awakening . . . a simple but sublime thought that transformed the singing birds into chanting bodhisattvas, the rays of the sun into rays of compassion, and made each flower a serene and omniscient golden Buddha, pollinating the world with innumerable Buddha-dharmas . . .

And I know that tomorrow, come rain or come shine, that joy is not fleeting, it will remain if I want it to – that greatest joy is constantly unfolding, mine to realize in each present moment, mine to live in.

I live in Los Feliz.

I live in The Joy.

Maybe you saw Google’s video tribute to Charlie Chaplin on his 122th birthday yesterday. Maybe you know a little about him. Filmmaker, comic actor, composer, kicked out of the US for his left-wing sympathies, returned 20 years later to accept an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards where he received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history (lasting twelve minutes). Maybe you saw Robert Downey Jr.’s outstanding performance as Chaplin in the 1992 film directed by Richard Attenborough.

Cao Dai main temple

Betcha didn’t know that Chaplin was a religious icon. Yes, the Cao Dai sect of Vietnam, described as a “monotheistic religion”, worships the immortal Charlie Chaplin. In The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence, James P. Harrison writes,

[The] Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) was a remarkable syncretic religion, claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin. Founded in 1919 and organized after 1925, it established a “Holy See” under its Grand Master at Tay Ninh, southwest of Saigon.

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint. And actually, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually  left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

I don’t know if Chaplin had any interest in Buddhism, but I know he was a great admirer of Gandhi. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

“Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.

It took me many years to learn how to appreciate Charlie Chaplin’s artistry. Watching silent movies is a different sort of filmgoing experience than watching “talkies.” I’d see a Chaplin movie and feel that it didn’t live up to the hype. Then I saw a three-part documentary, Unknown Chaplin, by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (and narrated by the late James Mason), that shines a light on Chaplin’s filmmaking methods and techniques. Using rare footage and previously unseen outtakes, the documentary shows Chaplin rehearsing and experimenting, and reveals how he developed many of his gags. I got it after that.

For those who are unfamiliar with Charlie Chaplin and want to check him out, (in addition to the documentary) I recommend Modern Times, as it may be his most accessible work for us modern folk. Although it’s a comedy, it’s also a social protest film, a commentary on technology and economics that is just as relevant today as it was when he made the film in 1936. It’s also the film that debuted the classic song, written by Charlie, “Smile.”

Here is a clip from one of my favorite Chaplin shorts. It’s a gag you’ve seen many times before. I doubt Chaplin invented it just I doubt that anyone has ever done it better. Filmed in 1918, A Dog’s Life:


Originally, becoming a bhikkhu was a simple matter. You’d ask, and the reply was “ehi bhikkhu” – “come, bhikkhu” – and that was it. This is consistent with our understanding that upasampada, the rite by which one undertakes the spiritual life, of other sanghas was similar and consisted of merely going before the central figure and saying “I take you as my teacher.”

Somewhere along the line, either during the Buddha’s lifetime or after (I say the latter is more likely) upasampada became a huge complicated process and remains that way today.

Frankly, I am uncomfortable with the whole notion of “ordination” in Buddhism. The Buddha was not “ordained” and since he was not starting a religion, it is safe to assume that he had no interest in founding a “system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique” as one writer, David Brazier in The New Buddhism, has described it. Indeed, that is exactly the sort of thing that by all accounts the Buddha criticized in the Brahman system and to which he offered an alternative.

In the original 18 schools, there was some variation in the vinaya (rules) each followed. The Gobun-ritsu (Mahishasaka Vinaya), which is still extant, put forth the concept of zuiho bini, “adapting the precepts according to the time and locality.” Zuiho is short for zuiho-zuiji, which literally means ‘according’ (zuiho) ‘at any time or as occasion calls’ (zuiji), and bini is the Japanese transliteration of the Indian vinaya.

Painting of Saicho, the founder of Japanese Tendai

I recall reading years ago, probably in an SGI publication, that zuiho bini was one of the arguments Saicho used in his struggle to establish Mahayana ordination in Japan during the 9th century. I don’t know if this is accurate or not. Paul Groner’s book, Saicho, so far the definitive biography on the founder of the Tendai school, does not mention it. Although it’s not possible to have clear picture of Saicho’s entire rationale, I feel sure that it was partially based on an even more fundamental Buddhist concept, said to be taught by the Buddha himself: annica – impermanence – change.

If everything else in the universe is subject to change, then why not the rules and procedures under which Buddhists operate, why must these alone remain static, frozen in time, unchangeable.

And why should change not also include the formation of new institutions?

In Theravada, only fully ordained Bhikkhus can deliver discourses (bana) to the laity. However, there is no reason why Mahayana schools should follow Theravada in anything, and within Mahayana, there is no doctrinal reason that would prevent schools from instituting programs that would certify non-ordained persons to fulfill teacher roles. They do not have to “teachers”; they could be called guides or facilitators. In the Zen traditions, I know there are dharma teachers who are not ordained as priests, but I’m not clear on how that works. It’s definitely something that other Mahayana schools could adopt and all could work either collectively or individually to create more opportunities to develop more teachers.

Another solution is the idea of Buddhist “ministers.” That is the route that I took. Officially, I am a Buddhist minister, allowed to use the title of “Reverend” but not “Venerable” which would apply to a fully ordained Bhikkhu. I prefer, though, to use Dharma Teacher. The only real advantage to the Minister designation that I can see is that it does authorize one to conduct certain rites and ceremonies, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist (such as marriage ceremonies).

There are a few programs for Buddhist Ministers in operation now, including one here in my area that has received some support from an entity called the Southern California Sangha Council, a so-called governing body that really has no authority outside of the Theravada tradition.

I participated in this program as a candidate. It was to be a year-long process, and it was a horrible experience, one that left a bitter taste in my mouth that remains today. There was no structure to the program, no training and sadly, they had no clue. Essentially, they were rubber-stamping individuals based on personality and securing for them an ordination that would be “legit” in the eyes of most Buddhists. Because I clashed with a couple of the strong personalities involved, and I might also say, because of some underhandedness on their part, I was rejected, for which I am eternally grateful.

Training programs must have substance. Otherwise, they’re worthless. And the ways in which training for dharma teachers and ministers can be approached is myriad.

In terms of working within an individual tradition, it would be nice to see the Ch’an/Zen traditions take a lead on this. Realistically, Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen (and perhaps Korean Zen) are the only schools that have a significant enough presence in the West to make any impact. The Nichiren and Tibetan schools are rather insular, and the latter is a bit too fractured, not to mention busy pulling itself into the modern age. Tendai and Shingon are even more closed-off and barely visable here in the US.

To give one example, I don’t know how many Zen centers there are in the US but I feel there must be quite a few. Why couldn’t each one offer a mentoring program to would-be dharma teachers and ministers even if it amounted a single priest or roshi offering individual, personal instruction based on a tradition-wide model? Other traditions could do the same. Eventually it could lead to more expansive and intensive programs.

It might be too much to expect various schools to work collectively in offering training programs, or to be concerned about practitioners outside of their own traditions. However, a few people could come together to form some sort of organization that would offer multi-traditional training, with “apprentice” programs or “student exchange” programs in which a person from one tradition could stay at a center or temple belonging to another tradition for a period of time to learn the practices and doctrines of those schools. Someday I hope to see dharma teachers and ministers with a working knowledge of more than one tradition who could run already existing temples and centers or start dharma/meditation groups that would serve a wide variety of Buddhist practitioners.

Western models for developing religious leaders, teachers and clergy are viable options, based on zuiho bini, which holds that as long as there is no violation of the main tenets and precepts, it is acceptable to adapt to the customs and practices of one’s locality.

You may ask how would it be possible for a layperson that has to earn a living, and perhaps has a family, to just take off and travel across the country to stay at temple for a few weeks or a month or longer, or relocate temporarily in another city to participate in a training program? Well the answer is that if a person has a desire to follow this path they should be willing to make some sacrifices and endure some hardships. As I wrote the other day, teaching is a form of practice. Becoming a teacher should not be a piece of cake.

When Saicho wanted to abandon the Ssu fen lu precepts and adopt the Fan wang precepts for Tendai ordinations, he had to obtain government approval. In the United States, there is no government oversight when it comes to religion. Anyone is free to start a religion, a sect, a domination, a religious school, and within these entities conduct their affairs as they see fit, especially in regards to the manner in which they ordain their clergy. This applies to Buddhism as well. Again, there is no central authority in Buddhism. And the general rule is that once a person is ordained, that ordination is retained whether one stays in the tradition he or she was ordained in or not, unless that tradition later nullifies the ordination. That being the case, there is nothing stopping anyone from leaving their tradition and starting a new one. Even if the ordination is nullified, there are ways to become ordained again.

So if you are an duly ordained Buddhist monk, priest or teacher, and you start a sect, found a school, or form a religious corporation, and you identity whatever it is as Buddhist, and then ordain others as Buddhist clergy, there is no one who has a right to say that it is not Buddhist all the way. You are legal, so to speak, both in secular terms and, as far as I feel, in Buddhist terms.

It is the “going rogue” approach and many may be fearful that it would result in a lack of credibility. Non-traditional ordinations are generally considered invalid. Even Saicho had to scramble to cover his bases and have his monks ordained with both set of precepts in order to maintain legitimacy for the Tendai school. I feel that was unnecessary then and it’s unnecessary now.

The Buddha is said to have refused to appoint a successor or lay down rules for lineages. He said, “Do not know them by their lineage, know them by their deeds.”

I like the non-sectarian approach. I think it is the wave of the future: new institutions for the purpose of providing quality training to teachers, but with a nod of respect to and an eye to preserving many of the traditional aspects. If the established schools gave recognition to these endeavors and even cooperated with them, I think it would be to everyone’s benefit.

The important thing is to maintain the spirit of the teachings, not the technicalities, which must change with time. The purpose of lineage, dharma transmissions, and ordinations as they stand now is essentially to make sure that a qualified person authorizes another qualified person to teach dharma. If that can be achieved in non-traditional ways, what is the harm? And if the spirit of transitioning from one life to another can be maintained when revamping the ordination process, why not?

And if the objection then is that it would lead to unscrupulous characters, fakirs and poseurs going around starting new Buddhist sects, well, that’s happening now, so what’s the difference?

Not all the obstacles are institutional, of course. There are the geographical and financial issues to be considered, how to conduct training and what that training should consist of, the question of vows and precepts, what sort of lifestyle lay teachers should maintain – a thousand and one other areas to be thought over and discussed. This is a vast and involved subject, and no doubt boring to most readers. I have barely scratched the surface, but I will wrap it up.

In China, there were periods when Buddhism was a dynamic and rather liberal movement. During these periods, which coincided with liberal governments, new sects were created, many of which we have never heard about. According to historian Kenneth Chen, in one dynasty there was a system of lay priests, most of whom were village priests, which, unfortunately, died out when the political climate became more repressive. During another period, lay women’s organizations took a leading role in Buddhist affairs. All this says that Buddhism has adapted to the times and the localities in its past, and if it had not, it never would have spread across Asia. And in the midst of adapting, somehow the core principles were preserved.

The only limitations we have are the ones in our own minds. Those involved in online sanghas are using their minds to come up with innovative ways to spread dharma in the modern age. I think it is time for the brick-and-mortar sanghas to do the same.

It is still morning for Buddhism in the west. Let’s seize the day.