Like Reading A Comic Book Or Sometimes The Mind Of The Buddha–Lotus Sutra

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Becoming Reacquainted With Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism

May 1980

It was lonely at first. Carin was living in Scotland’s–or was it England’s Finhorn commune. I never did get that straight. Her parent’s were excited over the idea. (Actually, I think they were just happy to scurry their daughter away form me—a nice guy, but not really good son-in-law material.) At work, I went from midnights to second shift. My new shift, 4:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., helped me deal with Cairn’s absence. The heavy going at the end of a love affair, the late night pain hours, were taken up by work. In fact, I used that time to practice japa– mind discipline. For six hours, I would do mental work. The other two on the job hours, I would read or eat. Since my on the job work did not require a lot of mental attention, I had a lot of free time to silently repeat the mantra that was given to me eleven years ago by the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist group in San Diego. Now I was really putting nam myoho renge kyo to use.

I also was taking a yoga class. It met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Jean, a graduate student in Art, taught the class. She was a good instructor. As it turned out, she was also practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. After I told her about my experience with the Buddhist sect, she said, “It’s not done like that anymore.” I was “street shockabukued,” meaning I became a Buddhist initiate before I had the foggiest notion of what it meant to be one. At the time, however, I had studied Buddhism in an Asian Philosophy class, so it wasn’t as if I was forced into doing something that I didn’t want to do. It’s just that I had no idea what made Nichiren Buddhism different from the Buddhism I had studied in class. As it turned out, there was quite a bit of difference.

Jean was upset because she thought I was–having not studied under a practicing Buddhist before I took my vows–a dishonest Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist. As a “card-carrying” member of the group, she thought I should know more than I did. I agreed, and when she volunteered to teach me, I was more than happy to oblige. Every other week, our worship group met in a house over in Midland, and sitting before the shrine of Gohonzon, a Japanese lady would lead us in the practice of Gong Ho, a 15-minute recitation of Japanese script. Everybody chanted along to the best of their ability. This practice began and ended the worship session. Not knowing the language, I sat quietly while the rest, (usually five or six participants) recited Gong Ho. To make a long story short, I only went with Jean on two occasions, and then politely told her that I didn’t want to continue. I told her I needed more time to read about the Buddhist sect before I continued my Gong Ho practice. She was disappointed, but understood, and, as it turned out, I was disappointed also, but not with Jean, nor even with chanting, I was disappointed in the literature I found on the Buddhist sect. I was not impressed.

The main problem with Nichiren Shoshu, for me at least, was that (I’m actually embarrassed to say it) the followers believed that their Buddhism was the last word on Buddhism, and by extension, the last word on all religion. In Japan, around 1262, the monk, Nichiren, came to believe that his mission in life was to alert his fellow Japanese to abandon all other beliefs and religious practices. Instead, they were supposed to accept the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. For Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra contained the highest truth of Buddhist teaching, and was the only teaching that could be effective in the “mappo”—the latter days of the dharma.

To be fair, the Lotus Sutra, at least according to some authorities, was written at about the time of the Buddha, and, as sutras go, it was quite large. Also, it was considered to be a highly advanced form of Buddhist teaching. It was only taught to the Buddha’s most prized disciples. The Buddha taught “perfect wisdom,” that is, “right teachings” were taught to the “right disciples” at the ‘right time.” The Buddha only taught what the disciple could comprehend. It was commonly believed that this “magical ability,” to teach effectively to all who sincerely listened, set the Buddha apart from all other religious leaders. What made the Lotus Sutra unique was that it taught, allegedly, only the teachings that the Buddha reserved for his most advanced disciples.

Reading the Lotus Sutra, at times, for me, was like reading a comic book. At other times, though, it was like reading the mind of the Buddha. It had a little bit of everything in it. It also had a lot about “who can understand what when.” I’ll leave the heady interpretations to the Buddhist scholars, but what I could not accept was the claim by the monk, Nichiren, that the dharma (knowledge) that led to enlightenment, was complete in the recitation of the title of the Lotus Sutra. The recitation of–Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, or Homage to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Marvelous Law– was enough to guarantee one’s enlightenment. According to the practitioners of Nichiren Shoshu, chanting nam myoho renge kyo was, in the age of mappo, the only “ticket” available for enlightenment because time had tainted all other Buddhist teachings. For the disciples of Nichiren, Buddhist Dharma was obsolete, so chant, chant, and chant some more.

This nasty mix of beliefs–the common practice of proselytizing (historically, it was militant), the belief that chanting fulfilled all desires, material and spiritual, and the belief that all other religious groups were wrong– turned me off to the Nichiren Shoshu religion. When I dropped out of the group, I was left with on
e disappointment–my relationship with Jean came to an end. I stayed in her class, even though it felt a bit awkward. She was the best yoga instructor I ever had. Something else felt a bit awkward, too. At work, doing japa with my mantra, nam myoho renge kyo made me uncomfortable. I decided to switch to the Tibetan mantra of compassion, om mani padme hum, but after chanting nam myoho renge kyo for ten years, it was difficult to stay focused on the new mantra. I finally succumbed. “What the hell,” I thought, “its only a ‘tool.’ If it keeps the mind in place and focused, why should the sound syllables matter?”

Immersed in all this fuss over “who’s right,” I was ready to move in a different direction. When a new semester rolled around, I enrolled in a Hindu religion class. I was familiar with some of the concepts already, but I wanted to check out how the new professor taught the course. My old professor, Professor Folkart, was on sabbatical in India doing research on the Jain religion, so there was a new guy teaching his Asian religion courses. (Sadly, my professor never returned to CMU. While riding a motorcycle in India he was killed by a hit and run truck driver.)

Essay Response—The Brahman Experience-The Seat Of Freedom

1980 Hindu Religion Class

Dr. Will had a totally different teaching style. Class discussion was not encouraged. I guess that’s why things didn’t jell between us. He didn’t like the way I interchanged religious concepts, either. I finally stopped doing that, but not before, in an assigned paper on the Upanishads, I continued to discuss what I took to be similarities in the mystical traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism:

Uddalaka and Yajnavalkya share in the fundamental view of a timeless, spaceless, causeless Brahman. This Brahman is the sustaining power of the universe and is also the essence, or most essential quality found in human beings. Brahman is beyond description, but is individualized within a person’s identifiable atman (spirit, divine self). Thus the quest for Uddalaka and Yajnavalkya is to become conscious of their respective atmans, however, their presentations, concerning the aspirant’s spiritual release, reflect slightly different perspectives.

Uddalaka identifies Braham as “tat tvav asi”—thou art that, thou art that (Will’s lecture, Hopkins p.44). For him, all is Brahman, and everything else is “maya,” karmic illusion. Determinateness (appearance), for Uddalaka, is all part of the warp and woof of Brahman. The embodied self–the atman, is only a flicker in Brahman. At death Brahman and the embodied self merge. However, the trajectory of that flicker (its karmic consequences) determines whether or not it will remain in the ultimate, permanent, and undetermined state of Brahman, or spin back into maya as another karmic-cycled life form. If the trajectory continues back into maya then another opportunity arises for the aspirant to work off bad karma. If the trajectory “flickers out,” then sat, chit, ananda– perfect being, perfect consciousness, perfect bliss becomes the experience (Will’s lecture—on liberation).

Yajnavalkya takes a slightly different approach. When he talks about release, he emphasizes desire. For Yajnavalkya, desire fills embodied states. Wipe out desire, and the world dissolves. Wipe out desire, and Brahman takes its place. In order to become desireless, one must desire an end to desire and then act on that desire, and there in lies the problem. How can one desire something when desire itself keeps you from attaining the desired affect? But, says Yajnavalkya, as long as the self—atman–is desired then it is okay to desire, and knowledge, right knowledge, is what is required in order to desire the self only. “Knowledge of the self for Yajnavalkya,” says Hopkins, “brings an end to rebirth because it brings an end to desire for anything other than the self. The self is the one true source of all that has value, and thus the only true object of desire. Only ignorance of the self could bring desire for anything else; when one knows the self, there is nothing more that he could desire. Nothing else need be loved or held dear, because all else is only a manifestation of the self: ’When the self is seen, heard, reflected on and known then all this is known’ —Brihadaranyaka 4.5.6” (Hopkins, p. 42).

Through our choice of activities we create karma. For Uddalaka, Brahman is achieved only when karmic obligations are fulfilled. For Yajnavalkya, we desire karma until we desire “the indestructible, the unattached, the unfettered, the insufferable—our atman” (Hopkins p.39). In other words, for both men, certain kinds of intentional behavior must be eliminated before one can experience Brahman, and, typically, a teacher (guru) is sought out to help us achieve this goal. With the help of this guru, at some point in the educational process, right knowledge takes the place of ignorance. When this happens, all worldly desires are left behind. “According to how a person acts and behaves, so he becomes” (Will’s law of karma lecture). If, however, Brahman is not attained, samsaric existence continues unabated.

I would like to suggest that in any teaching that calls for spiritual progress, the most important thing to realize is first, where you are at, and second, where do you want to go. With that knowledge all philosophizing stops. You turn in the right direction, or you go nowhere. It’s all in that first step, however small, —in the direction toward more freedom. To be continued…


10 Responses to “Like Reading A Comic Book Or Sometimes The Mind Of The Buddha–Lotus Sutra”

  1. sue s Says:

    Its Findhorn–with an h—and its in Scotland the average Scotsman would be cross if you were to lump England and Scotland together–no–not cross–absolutely furious!!

  2. dave Says:

    Thanks for giving me this opportunity to explain myself sue. Warts are ugly. Sometimes, though, they can reach out and teach us something important about ourselves. I know today that Findhorn is located in Scotland, but at the time I wrote the above I was angry at Carin for leaving me. (I was actually a bit confused as to where she was going. She had family in England.) To be able to write that her destination was not important to me, that Findhorn was not an important to me, was, for me, a pleasurable (and selfish) experience. I seriously considered changing that sentence before the post, but I thought that would be dishonest. Being able to look in the mirror and recognize the person looking back at you/me is one of life’s most enlightening gifts. Recognizing who I am is important to me, and it is one of the reasons that I’ve kept journals for extended periods of time. Oh, and by the way, I also thank God for the computer spell check–my apologies to the Scots.

    Take care,

  3. sue s Says:

    I know your writing is from some time ago—personally?–I find your writings–though v.interesting extremely intense and personal–almost as though I am reading someones diary without their permission–and I pick over spelling mistakes—always have–probably some deep seated problem rooted in my childhood!
    As for poisoning the bats! Words fail me–for once—they have been protected here for such a long time that I suppose we are just grateful that they choose to roost in our roof spaces–I have an elderly friend who lives alone in a vast old house–she has a colony of rare bats living in her attics–their babies hang onto the mothers bellies–rows of them hanging upside down on the rafters–and a constant procession of wild life folk coming to look and count and examine—I do not actually mind the mice–I do mind the germs and damage they do though–and they breed–like rabbits?!!
    I read once –female mice being described as ‘little slappers–who are no better than they should be’—still feel guilty when the traps squash the poor little beggars though–odd isn’t it? the way different people deal with problems in different ways–the ‘art’ of being human—-take care Dave

  4. dave Says:

    Before I called in the exterminator we tolerated the critters, but when my then six year old daughter woke up screaming (waking all of us including her sleeping three year old brother in the next room) because of a bat that was dive bombing her hair, I realized it was time to do more than tolerate the critters. As I pointed out, the poison didn’t work well anyway, but the loud music in the attic (my other solution) at least make a bad situation more manageable. We still have bats, but rarely do they find their way into the family quarters now. Thanks for your comments, and by the way, from reading your blog I know how misspellings upsets you. Speaking for myself, all I can say is thank God for the yahoo spell checker.

  5. sue s Says:

    OK–Ok—white flag flying here!!!!

  6. dave Says:

    The white flag is appreciated, but not necessary. Enough has passed between us already to make you a real friend. Real friends can disagree (the more disagreements the more interesting) and remain friends.

  7. Suze Says:

    Just stopped by to read things above my head – like those clouds in that photo of yours. I need to check out the sixth grade section once more on world religions to catch up to speed….LOL! Bats can drive you, well….batty, eh? 😉

  8. dave Says:

    Hi Suze. Thanks for your comment. Don’t worry about not knowing what I’m talking about. Back when I first encountered this material, I was throughly confused. I’m not even sure why I kept at it. I think it had something to do with seeing, either my own pseudo connections or connections of a more substantial nature, to these multiple descriptions of “nothing” (Seinfeld chuckles). Anyway, I started looking at this material as pieces of a puzzle, which, when completed, would make perfect picture sense. In the end, at least for me, that is exactly what happened. Eventually (after my next bicycle trip), I will talk more about what I saw and how the pieces came together in a cohesive fit. However, all the pieces are not on the table yet. If there’s anything that holds this blog together, it is my quest to understand what I don’t understand,–agreeing or disagreeing with me is not that important.

    Take care,

  9. wings Says:

    Well said…it is the quest that charts the road ahead. And always starting from where we are. Sometimes we need to get to where we are first, before we can go from there. You know? It seems that way to me. It is not about skipping steps or bridging gaps. More about scaffolding…just thinking out loud at you. (Smile) Wings.

  10. dave Says:

    Thanks for the comment wings. I very much agree with your thought: “sometimes we need to get to where we are first.” Speaking for myself, staying where we are requires energy. It’s like going up a downward escalator. All to often, especially at this stage in my life, the harder I try, the farther behind I get. Kierkegaard said it best I believe (paraphrasing): Of those who have encountered the abyss, many have become causalities. They returned to a life of sensuality and immediacy, but not for enjoyment, for forgetfulness.

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