Dharma Crisis

Chinese in Tibet

The Chinese occupy Tibet and try to destory Buddhism

Dharma crisis

Buddha head severed


religious persecution

Throughout this cycle of articles based on the Dharma, I have focused on Japanese attitudes to the Dharma and Buddhist notions in general. Today, there are few lay Buddhist orders in Japan, so for the most part it is practiced by monastics. This is largely due to the fact that when Buddhism arrived in Japan in 6th century, it was pursued exclusively by the Imperial family so became an elite religion. The majority of the population practiced Shintoism, paying homage to the Kami, deities which initially personified natural phenomena but were later associated with family and national concerns.

Eventually ‘foreign’ Buddhism, brought from India along the Silk Roads to China and so by Kukai to Japan, was absorbed into Shintoism (the national religion), and Buddhist deities accepted as Kamisama. However, today, these different beliefs and customs are really mixed. It is not uncommon to find families which house both a butsudan (Buddhist altar – see glossary) and a Kami-danna (a Shinto altar), and yet profess to have no religious persuasion. This seeming neutrality perhaps comes from periods of Dharma Crisis in Japanese history when it was safer not to admit religious affiliations.

In modern life, we are experiencing what are known as ‘The Last Days of the Law,’ the final stage of the deterioration of the Dharma. So, we do indeed live day after day in a Dharma crisis. The ego has become so cherished and enlarged that people often take decisions entirely in their own hands because they have placed themselves at the centre of the universe. Many of us live in a destructive way, both physically and mentally. We don’t give freely to each other, but instead conditionally, always expecting things in return. This is the materialist way of life, with no attention to building virtue, to sincerely wishing others well, etc.

Our prisons are filled with offenders often trying to cheat the system they live in – this is urban life in which status and wealth must be worn as badges. A recent film called Take (2007) portrays such an urban life of daily crisis.

Saul is lost in his life. He is good but directionless, and so tempted to get rich quick by gambling. He owes money and is threatened with an imminent deadline. He must raise the money but has no means. He visits a friend who offers to lend him the money in return for doing something. This something involves stealing a car, but Saul gets caught and badly beaten up by the owner. He is in possession of a gun and so decides to use it to acquire the money he must pay back. He holds up a supermarket  and accidentally shoots the cashier. A young boy emerges from the toilet in the middle of this crime, and Saul takes him hostage to allow his getaway. He locks the boy in the boot of his car, promising he will let him out when they are at a safe distance, but he skids off a freeway and plunges on to a lower road. He is injured but desperately tries to open the trunk but cannot. The police arrive but the boy is dead. Saul is incarcerated and awaits execution. To the Christian minister accompanying him to his execution, in response to a plea for him to accept that God loves all beings, he says, ‘I was born alone, and I will die alone. Everything else in between was done of my will.’

This common loveless state, this spiritual inertia, this Dharma-lessness, of course is tragic. It is a cringing example of the human mind dominating human life, a spiritual autocracy, joyless, pointless, three-dimensional instead of multi-dimensional.

The Buddha Shyakyamuni was born a Prince into the Shyakya clan, a high caste of Brahmin priests. He renounced his privileged life to seek enlightenment in order to uncover the 4 Noble Truths and the key to accepting the suffering entailed in human existence. Then 4 years after his enlightenment, as he was moving through northern India teaching his pathway, he learned that the entire Shyakya clan were losing the war waged against them. His disciples begged him to perform a miracle to prevent their annihilation, but he insisted that karma, his family’s karma, must run its course. In terrible grief he had to accept that he was the last of his Brahmin clan to survive. His grief galvanized his determination to live for the sake of others’ happiness, to avoid creating bad karma, and to abide perfectly by the laws of Dharma. The Dharma needs to be in balance, and collective negative karma can unbalance it.

As mentioned before, The Dharma is everything in the Universe, so when it is in crisis it means that it is out of balance, which inevitably worsens human suffering. A common saying in Buddhism is that those who are enlightened are attentive to the causes of creating negative karma, whereas the unenlightened are afraid of its results.

In Japan, there was a unique approach to preserving the Dharma during such periods of crisis. Prior to the death of the physical Buddha, he reassured his bereft followers that the Dharma would live on in his teachings for all time. This is called the Dharmakaya, and will be the subject of the next post in this series. So, the Buddha’s teachings were eventually recorded in the written word around 1000 (CE) and became known as sutras (scriptures). The relics of the physical Buddha had largely disintegrated by this time, so sutras became more sacred even than Buddha relics themselves. Thereafter, sutras were enshrined in stupas (Buddha towers) built especially to preserve them.

In Japan however, devotion to sacred texts was taken to an extreme. At the beginning of 11th century, exquisite copies of sutras were made with the finest materials and artistry, and were duly buried deep in the ground. They were effectively placed in time capsules, not to be opened or recited until a certain date. This is thought to symbolize the overcoming of the human concept of time and final death. They will be waiting for the Dharma survivors after the end of the physical world, several million/billion years in the future. This is a most moving commitment to the Dharma during this present time of crisis.

During the lead up to and aftermath of World War 2, Japan had become highly urbanized. Patriotism and material confidence led to colonization and participation in military campaigns. As a reflection of these massive changes in Japanese life, many new religions appeared. This can be explained by the fact that the largely rural population had moved to the rapidly expanding cities, and so had lost touch with their local priest and temple (danka).  To compensate for this, many lay orders were founded to create a substitute. Then, as war approached, the Dharma police ruthlessly examined the authenticity of these lay religions and prohibited many of them from functioning legally.

Of course, many of them were bogus organizations, but many were not. Japan did indeed enter into a period of Dharma Crisis or cleansing at this time. My own guru, fully ordained as a monastic and lay priest, came under the scrutiny of the Dharma police. His precious Buddhist instruments and sutras were confiscated, and his sangha (spiritual community) forbidden to gather publicly. He and his family were persecuted and ostracized, and one day he was arrested and put in prison. He had been betrayed by one of his potential Dharma successors.

This first-hand experience of Dharma crisis figures strongly in our training as Nirvana Buddhists today. Determination is the key. Like the Buddha Shyakyamuni, my guru was not daunted by such bitter attempts to destroy the Dharma. It deepened his faith immeasurable. So, all around us, the Dharma is in crisis and we must do everything we can to preserve it. I believe such incredible determination and potent faith will overcome any obstacle.

As all other Buddhists, my prime vow as a Nirvana Buddhist is to protect the Dharma, the Sangha, and the Buddha for all eternity. Crises of faith, criticism and persecution, will always feature in the lives of people of faith. But through purification and devotion, the systematic dismantling of the human self-serving ego, the putting of others before ourselves, we can live glorious and joyful lives on the path to enlightenment. We are daunted by nothing and no-one, and every obstacle can be overcome. Such is the legacy handed down by the great Buddha of the Shyakya Clan 2600 years ago!

Today, everyday, we can see disintegration and decline everywhere. We should not pretend that this is not happening, but instead accept it and become even more determined that goodness will be restored to people’s hearts and minds. All we can do is to help people up on to the path and show them the way with our light. We can always keep in the front of our mind the notion that everyone has the potential to be a Buddha, and that with continued purification and meditation, we can be transformed so that we can be inspirational to those who live without hope outside the Dharma.

We are not and were never alone, no matter what our religious focus is. We are each a crucial piece in the puzzle of the Dharma. If all the pieces are slotted into place, then the Dharma will once more become balanced. Actually, there’s no choice!  We have no choice in this fulfilling of our obligation to all human beings. This is known as Bodhichitta in Sanskrit which we work to generate in all our Buddhist practices, and will be the theme of the next cycle of articles.

The Dharma Protectors


Mahakala (Tibetan Dharma Protector)


Achala (Japanese Dharma Protector)

In posts on this theme so far, the term ‘The Dharma’ has been used frequently. We now need to introduce the idea of Nirvana too. If ‘the Dharma’ is the laws of the universe, the absolute truth, the essence of everything, then Nirvana is the state that sentient beings can aspire to which matches the Dharma. If you have not yet attained Nirvana, then there are bound to be struggles about accepting or processing the Dharma, which in all religions we call spiritual training. For us to reach such a state, as we have said, we need guidance form a qualified guru or master, and we need to tame our wild minds and open up our hearts completely.

During this training, we need help not only from our Masters, but also from the Dharma Protectors. They are celestial beings which protect the Dharma from damage or corruption, so that it can continue on having its wheel turned and benefiting all beings. They need to be quite fierce in order to do this, and so we should practice in awe of them. The Dharma Protectors are completely intolerant of impure behavior, unwholesome ways of thinking, etc. like guard dogs at the gate to the Buddha’s world.

At a basic level they are Buddha emanations or versions of various aspects of the Buddhas, but their purpose is to protect the Dharma and so liberate all beings. It is such a good feeling to have such protections, and to know that the Dharma will always be safe, and so our hurrying to the revered state of Nirvana assisted! If we keep them close in our devotions, they will ensure we are on track, awaken our hearts when they slumber, and show us clearly the differences between the human mind and the Bodhi mind, or the lower self and the higher self. Let me give you an example.

In my daily chanting, which consists of a mixture of Japanese and Pali, the spoken language of the Buddha Shyakyamuni, certain Dharma Protectors are named and so given homage or Namu. (Skt. which will be discussed in later posts). Of course, as all devout Buddhists do we should aspire to concentrating fully on the mantras we chant so they will reach the Buddha world. But being human, the mind sometimes wanders unconsciously, tempted away by the mundane mind to waste time thinking about trivial or perhaps even negative things. These are traces which surface from time to time and are difficult to wipe away completely.

When this happens to me outside my control, quite often I am suddenly nudged or woken quite fiercely. In a flash I realize what’s happened and deepen my focus on my chanting. Invariably I am jolted exactly at the moment of Namu to the Dharma protectors! In the nick of time, I can chant their names! To me, this personifies the function of the Dharma Protectors. They purify our negative karma, and protect us from further transgression.

At the temple, the Dharma Protectors are always positioned outside the main sanctified areas designed for ceremonies, precious rituals and devotions so that they can ensure that all attendees are pure and prepared to enter such a space. They are Buddha and Bhodisattva emanations of the Wisdom Buddha, in Sanskrit, Manjushri., so they have all-seeing wisdom. They are also totally non-sectarian and universal so they will protect us from evil forces even if we are not pracitising or have no faith.

Once I took a Christian to the temple and as I explained about the Dharma Protectors to him, he said, “I’m not very keen on praying to deities I don’t know.’ I told him he did know them, and they him, as they know and watch over all sentient beings. They have their counterparts in all religions because religions are by their nature concerned with the subjugation of evil forces, which prevent goodness from flourishing. He apologized to me for saying such an insular thing. I attributed it to the workings of the mundane reactive and often insular human mind.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but because Buddhism is a way of being that encourages each practitioner’s individual nature to shine out – ‘the true self’ – the Dharma Protectors work with our karmic burdens individually. They may not be able to protect us completely from harm or calamity, because karma must run its course, but if we allow ourselves to listen to the kindness behind their often fierce exterior, then we can accept our misfortunes and learn from them. This acceptance is a key in our spiritual elevation.

Of course they have the power to promote our material prosperity and health, but more importantly, they protect the inner Dharma – our Bodhichitta (desire to bring all to enlightenment with us), the endless compassion we’ve received, the varying states of shunyata (emptiness) we have reached, and our experiences of faith in general, and so on.

They are completely intolerant of impurities and defilements of body, mouth or mind, so they keep our levels of moral discipline high. They can be wrathful if mistakes are made, but their wrath is the reverse side of great loving-kindness (Skt: maha meta), so they chide us and then allow us to repent. ‘Wrath’ as opposed to anger will be the theme of a future series of posts. But briefly, anger is negative, potentially damaging to others and to yourself; whereas wrath is positive, constructive, creative in that it produces the conditions for transformation.

On the other hand, the Dharma Protectors applaud our successes and talents, and wish all our dreams to come true. They joyfully encourage us to step forward and fully realize our true nature, allowing the light of our Buddha Nature to dazzle all around us. They want us to be rid of the gremlin that sits inside our head emphasizing our limitations, our plainness, our stupidity, being overly-influenced by what others say to us. We can hear those negative voices in our heads, the threatening voices of the envious, the greedy, the possessive. But the more we polish our Buddha natures, the more the Dharma Protectors will work with us to reach enlightenment.The protectors carry sharp weapons and tools so that they can sever the root of ignorance and wake us up to our spiritual training. Let me give you an example.

I was sitting in meditation working towards elevating surrounded by many other practitioners when I suddenly felt strongly that the people all around me were much worthier of elevation than I was. So I started to withdraw, to shrink away. The mundane voice in my head was telling me I was not good enough, not ready. Then in a flash of light, the Dharma Protectors stepped in and lifted me into my higher self, and I immediately elevated! My higher self had complete confidence and belief in my purity and my enduring practice.

My Nirvana guru is emphasizing the harmonization of the Dharma Protectors that protect our order – The Earthly Protectors and the Heavenly Protectors are becoming one so that we can build up our protections and intensify our practice. This means that we will reach Nirvana more quickly because they are watching over our minds to make certain they are pure. Their role is similar to the protections we get from our parents when we are dependent children.

In the invisible world, the world of prayer and meditation, of emptiness of the human ego, in the same way that it is possible to accrue virtue/merit to dedicate to others in need, it is possible to get protections. In the interface between karma manifestation and the wild roaming of the egocentric mind like a stampeding elephant, conditions can become dangerous and frightening, so we need the strong calm backing of these Protectors.

In my Tibetan practices, Mahakala was the most revered of Dharma Protectors. Mahakala is a wrathful emanation of Avoloketishvara, the Lord Buddha of compassion, known as Chenrezig in Tibetan. Chenrezig is said to be reincarnated in the modern world as the present Dalai Lama exactly because the world needs great compassion at this time. This reincarnation was engineered by the Dharma Protectors so that the suffering can receive as much compassion as possible.

In Japan, Achala is a fierce protector with his sword to cut through human delusions and his lasso to lead stubborn beings to spiritual awakening. It was the warrior-like Achala Buddha emanation that inspired Nirvana Buddhism in Japan. I am truly a devotee of the massive determination this figure generates, the same determination that Shyakyamuni Buddha had 2,600 years ago as he got closer and closer to Enlightenment. So, we can see that all forms of Buddhism have their protectors, and they are all utterly compassionate beings with fierce determination to keep the Dharma inside each of us safe.

The mantras of these strict Buddhas are often rousing and rhythmic to express the incredible determination we need to overcome samsara (the suffering finite human world) and reach Nirvana (the state of blissful and eternal emptiness). In Tibetan Buddhism, my Kagyupa Master, Lama Seunam, was a virtuoso musician and ritual expert. His rich deep Bhutanese voice came into its own when conducting the ritual of Mahakala. He was able to extemporize and produce breath-taking vocal feats which evoked the incredible wrath and strength of this protector. He also played huge cymbals and massive drums to really bring the deity to life. It was awe-inspiring to participate in such a ritual with such a master.I am certain that my Mahayana determination to liberate all sentient beings was set in stone during this period of my practice.

On a human level, in our interactions with each other, we ideally want to behave in the best possible way – fair, considerate, compassionate, patient – which entails listening to others closely and sincerely before acting or commenting. It is the Dharma Protectors who allow us, no urge us, to listen carefully, to really hear the Buddha nature in the voices of those we interact with. All of these virtuous qualities revered by human beings in general, are within our range because we have a Buddha within. So the Guardians or Protectors, deeply cognizant of that fact, and tenderly helping to nurture us until our Buddha can float to the surface and our delusions drain away, accompany us, never leaving our sides until every last delusion is flushed away! This pristine state, this state empty of our human ego, is Nirvana, but without the Protectors nudging us away from our ignorance and delusions, we could never reach it.

Really, it’s a simple as that. It is only your deluded ego-centric mind which separates you from your own Buddha, your incredible potential. If we clean away our delusions – negative emotions like anger, envy, drunkenness, greed, lust – we will reach Nirvana and take up our rightful positions in the universe. Just think therefore that there are millions upon millions of potential Buddhas around you every day, as well as millions already in the celestial realms and Buddha Worlds. You have the potential to behave like a wise and compassionate Buddha in your daily life, but only by enlisting and appreciating the close surveillance of the Dharma Protectors.

The human behavior of a true Buddha is exemplified in the Nirvana Sutra. Chunda, a local blacksmith, had heard that the Buddha Shyakyamuni lay on his deathbed in a forest grove. The congregation of those coming to pay their last respects was huge, its members enlightened disciples, Kings, other nobles. They were competing in offering opulent gifts such as herds of oxen, treasure chests full of priceless gems, and so on, each in the hope that the Buddha would accept their offerings to liberate the multitude from suffering.

Chunda however had come to pay his respects bringing with him his 15 friends and a modest offering of home-cooked food. His motivation was completely pure. He was not seeking fame or fortune or favour, not interested in wielding power or influencing anyone, but instead genuinely seeking the final blessings of the Buddha in his final teaching. Chunda’s offerings were the only ones the Buddha accepted, and he was rewarded with instant enlightenment and entrance into Nirvana.

What are the qualities of a Buddha? A Buddha is simply a reflection of our pure potential.

‘A human life, a Dharma Body, power, a tranquil and immovable state, and unhindered eloquence to convey the Dharma to anyone, and all of these gifts will be ever-present.’

This is what the Buddha bestowed upon Chunda, and by so choosing this lay man (householder) above all the dignitaries present, he disclosed his intention that all sentient beings should achieve enlightenment in their human lives, not only the ordained monastic practitioners.

Some people around me say that I am an idealist trying to become a Buddha, to live like a Buddha. But this way of being is simply the pinnacle of goodness and purity and sincerity, which we all have the potential to be; we all, secretly or not secretly, strive for. I do not hide my desire to become the epitome of human goodness and purity and sincerity. Why should I? After all, we only have one human life in which to reach this pinnacle.

Think of those we admire: great musicians and writers, in whatever tradition, miracle workers like Mother Theresa, Princes and Princesses, Heroes and Heroines, etc. We all have the potential to be these things if we simply get some guidance from qualified gurus, and gradually learn to believe in ourselves totally: in other words, to let our Buddha Nature shine through all the delusions and ignorance like a massive uncut diamond. So with the Dharma Protector’s constant vigilance and compassion, we can all become Chunda.

Post 6: The Dharma Crisis and the Last Days of the Law is next in this Dharma theme.

The Dharma Stream.You can choose.

pouring water

The Dharma is often seen as liquid, fluent, flowing. As we elevate our faith, we can become a bigger vessel so that we contain more of this magical substance, the Dharma. In Japan, we make daily offerings of water or green tea to the Buddha on our butsudan or home altar, and then at ceremonies we pour clear water from one vessel to another. Transmitting the Dharma is said to be like pouring water from teacher to pupil, from trainer to trainee, from guide to guided. This implies total purity, water being the most common of the five elements of existence. In the Nirvana teachings, water is of cardinal importance. It is said that all the earlier teachings of the Buddha and all religions flow into the great Ocean of Nirvana like a diversity of rivers, and are amalgamated there. Through the image of vast stretches of water we can grasp the fathomlessness of The Dharma, its infinite and eternal nature.

In my case, water and especially the ocean, is frequently indicated in my meditations. I have always had an affinity with water, so in the early days of my Buddhist training when the Dharma was explained to me as a fast crystal-clear running mountain stream, I understood very quickly. I easily could place myself in the shallows of such a stream, the water gushing and spraying around my feet, and the bubbling sound of the flow ringing in my ears. There in the cool water, I realized that the Dharma is something you cannot possess or remove. The condition and consistency of the water is constantly transforming itself, and the flow can only be stopped if we dam the stream, or if it turns to ice or dries up at the height of summer, which are conditions Universe forces arrange!

Dammed water eventually stagnates, becomes silent and dark. It maybe reliable to have a supply of water nearby, but then many problems of ownership and usage of this pool may occur. It was exactly that quality of not being able to capture the mountain water, which inspired me to understand another Buddhist notion called  ‘attachment,’ which I will be explaining in later posts.

In my novel ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy’ (Linden Thorp, January, 2013) which is based on the view of the world of the indigenous people of Australia, Ninija is the traditional land owner of her tribe, and Lumaluma is a white Australian come to exploit her and the rich resources of her lands. As Ninija paddles him in her handcrafted boat through the flooded mangroves in the Wet season, he grumbles and groans about the damp, and is poked and prodded by the low hanging branches. He roars out of the side of his mouth at her.

‘Get me out of this godforsaken jingle! Why doesn’t somebody build a dam to control all this flood water?’

They paddle through the tangle of roots and quietly Ninija asks, ‘What “dam” Lumaluma?’

He tuts and grunts and sniffs:

‘You people don’t know anything.’

Condescendingly, with an aggressive raised voice as if he is addressing a deaf-blind mute, he explains what he would do with his diggers and trucks and dynamite, blasting away the Buga Hills to build a concrete dam. He points his nicotine-stained finger in the direction of his intended construction.

‘There! That would mean this valley would stay dry. And you could have all the Water for drinking and washing that you need, stored behind the dam!’

He is pleased with his solution. Ninija is quiet. She stops paddling.

‘No Wet season!?’

She steadies the trunk boat with her paddle.

‘Here no Water? No eel? No water-lily?’ She goes on. ‘No give Lands big-big drink so she make flower and food and cool and dry?’

Incredulous questions are flushed out of her mouth as if by wind-spirits.

‘Yes. You have understood. No Water here. Instead you and your people can store it behind the dam. Then you will never be thirsty of filthy again.’

‘But Lumaluma. You not change Lands like that! You change all this?’

She moves her arms around in a large arc, her intonation incredulous.

‘Yes! It’s easy.’ He laughs.

‘Lumaluma why you people think you make better plan than Great Mother Nature. Why? Why you not listen her? She make all this. It work like this for special reason.

(pp 183-4, see ‘Works’)

Another notion which has guided me is the idea, hinted at by Ninija’s attitude above, that we borrow everything for the span of our human life, thanks to the compassion and support of many beings and phenomena. We even borrow our bodies as a vessel for our spirits, so we must treat them with due respect during our tenancy. We also borrow the air we breathe in at each breath. If we remember this, we will always be respectful and grateful that our human existence is so strongly supported.

However, every human spirit can choose how they relate to this stream of Dharma, which constantly cradles us. Or more accurately, we can choose what we want to hear about it, or to accept. In my case, actually I had no choice. Because of the watchfulness of the Dharma Protectors, I was able to recognize my pathway, and my guru guides who showed me the way. Nowadays I often think to myself, ‘Who would choose the mundane and limited human mind above the magical and all-encompassing Dharma pathway!’ There is something glorious about the mystical, which I believe we are each born to embrace in our own unique way, and which I could never access alone, without connecting to the Dharma current. Unless we are destined to become a spiritual leader, it’s impossible to deal with the Dharma flow without a qualified guide. It would be like going down the Amazon or climbing Mount Everest without any advice or equipment.

In practical human terms, a simple way of describing the stream or current of Dharma is an energy flow, like a channel or stream of water or light, or, in this modern age, as an electrical or radioactive current. By practicing a certain teaching, or linking yourself to a certain lineage or guru, you become connected with that certain current. Each has its own character, but each is connected to one of the many Buddhas, celestial beings or gods. Of course, this aspect of the Dharma stream is rather different to the mountain stream. Here. the force of Dharma has been harnessed by a qualified Master or Guru so that is can be perpetuated by being handed on to the right successor. So that it can be poured into the pure wide vessel of the successor, and go on developing and spreading. And if you are awake, the guru will find you and show you the way.

We can make a decision when we stand in the fast-running stream. We can block it for our own purposes, we can enjoy the sensation simply for itself, we can force our ego on to the stream, change its nature, conquer it, or we can let if flow on to the great ocean to nurture other beings and weather forms. The Dharma is mainly  two things: the great Universal truth supporting all sentient beings, and the teachings and rituals of the Buddha, which allow us to show our gratitude for such relentless compassion and loving kindness. Such deep gratitude is a rare thing in today’s world.

When I take a moment every day to realize all the benefits and comforts we have today, and that I couldn’t have these if it weren’t for my determined ancestors and the wonders of the Universe, I go weak at the knees. This realization, this awakening to the vastness of the invisible and infinite Dharma, reaffirms the reason for my human existence and makes my mission clear. I recommend it to you. Just find a quiet place and let this incredible feeling of awe loose. It will fuel all your further adventures from that point on, and your life will become enchanted and precious once again, as it was perhaps when you were a young child.

In Buddhism, there are two types of Dharma stream (Jpn: horyu): monastic and lay. As a Nirvana Buddhist, I am a lay practitioner practicing out in the world, as what the Buddha called ‘a householder.’ It is indeed difficult to lead a normal human life with all of its stresses and strains, and keep the Dharma flowing through your fingers. But without doubt this is the best training ground of all, which with practice enables us to distinguish the human mind from the Buddha mind, to be able to simply walk out of the closed room that our mind contrives whenever we like.

If we want to have harmony and light all around us in our daily lives, we must not allow the Dharma flow to stop, we must not short-circuit it with attachment or negative emotions. It needs to continue to flow as we accept everything and avoid becoming attached to anything. The Dharma stream I am connected to stretches in an unbroken line back to the Buddha Shyakyamuni, 2600 years ago. My daily practice links me constantly with the Buddha’s life, and what a glorious life it is flowing joyfully on to the great Ocean of Nirvana.

The Dharma is everywhere and everything, present, past and future.

You may have heard this word ‘Dharma’ bandied about, but see it as a rather vague and perhaps mysterious term which only people in the know are qualified to use. Actually, the original Sanskrit dhr means ‘to support or bear.’ It is recognized as a term of great significance, which relates in two ways to the Buddha Shyakyamuni’s enlightenment. First, it refers to the actual reality the Buddha experienced as he sat in meditation, determined to reach enlightenment, for 6 days; and second, it refers to his conceptual and verbal expression of that enlightenment experience which is represented by his teachings in the sutras and discourses.

Another way to say this is: first, The Dharma is the universal truth or law or principles – an objective way of looking at the Buddha’s experience; and second, The Dharma as the doctrine or the teaching – the way the Buddha expressed his experience solely for the benefit of others. In a non-Buddhist context and beginning with a small ‘d,’ with relation to ancient India, dharma has many meanings – phenomenon, law, thing, mental object, state or condition of existence (which we are particularly concerned to control in Buddhism), and so on. If you go to India today you will hear it used often. But as Buddhists need above all to practice Buddhism, then we should not get too academic about the meaning of this phrase, ‘The Dharma.’

I should tell you that ever since I started to practice and use this term The Dharma, I experience a tingling sensation behind my eyes and around my heart when I pronounce it! Truly, I feel the power of these ancient syllables reaching me from 2,600 years ago when the Buddha Shyakyamuni became enlightened.

Back Camera

The flow of The Dharma
Mariko Kinoshita, Japan 2012


I think an important image of The Dharma is the wheel of Dharma with its 8 spokes representing the Eightfold Path, a recipe for reaching Enlightenment in stages. A wheel has no beginning and no end, and neither does The Dharma. It is not bound by intellectual man-made limitations of time or space. Since the Buddha’s first teaching, The Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law, this wheel has been in motion. Later, you will learn about the significance of the second and third turnings of the wheel of Dharma. But for now, I think it is useful to see The Dharma as a well-lubricated wheel, turning without end.

So, as the heading of this post implies, The Dharma is everywhere and everything. It is the past, the present, the future. It is me. It is you. And all sentient beings, all beings who sense, or feel, are part of this huge spinning wheel of Dharma. The Nirvana Teachings, the very last teachings of the Buddha given on his deathbed, insist that we should embrace all beings regardless of whether they are friend or foe. And if we look closely, tenderly and without emotion, we can see that we all have the potential for the same gifts and the same shortcomings as each other. That’s due to the Buddha nature which each of us has. Our Buddha Nature is our essence, which is perfectly good and pure, as is the Universe itself.

So, each of our vastly different real natures are interchangeable, are part of the timeless, ‘spaceless’ Dharma! This is a lot to take in if you are new to Buddhist ways of thinking and being. But perhaps while you are digesting this exciting and mysterious concept, which I will come back to again and again, let me allow you to experience one aspect of this continuum via Japanese customs.

I believe that all Japanese people, regardless of whether their religious views are engaged or not in the way they live, greatly revere their ancestors. As we saw in the last post, August is the high point of the celebration of ancestors in Japan. Tonight I am on my way to join in a special celebration for the ancestors, mine too, in Kyoto. I will be trying hard to let you experience this through this post. But first, a little about ancestors, or ‘those who came before us.’

In the west, most of us tend to forget about our ancestors because we can’t see or feel them. In a way, perhaps we refuse to feel them because we are scared of ghosts and so tend to sublimate any thoughts of spirits or non-human phenomenon as ‘the paranormal.’ This is quite understandable as our intellectual prowess and status is paramount, and our education is a matter of our identity like our job and our wealth.

But by refusing, we are blocking the acknowledgment of the vastness of the entire invisible world, and instead becoming rigidly attached to what we see, what we can prove, what we know in our heads. In other words, inhabiting a world of concepts, in one of the rooms of the mind, which is rather closed.

One way we have recently come to classify such invisible things is through the notion of DNA, the genetic fingerprint, which each sensing human being is endowed with. Now, we can precisely identify our uniqueness, which has become a keen tool in solving crimes, identifying biological parents, and other extreme situations that occur in human life.

So, what about facing up to the fact that each of the infinite number of our ancestors also possessed our DNA, and that it is impossible to destroy that link we have with them. According to this, we are therefore the most recent version of our ancestors. No doubt we can only see a small collection of ancestors in photographs or paintings to check our likeness with, but the fact exists that we are indisputably the product of our ancestor’s lives. Without their struggle to survive and their desire to procreate, without their spiritual merit and virtue, without the beating of their hearts, we could not exist!

In so-called developed communities, we are often deluded into thinking that we have created ourselves, with all our hard work and cleverness, and these days I must confess that I see this as arrogance. We would be nothing without our ancestors, and our ancestors would not exist if it were not for the elements that make our world possible like the sun, air, water, etc. So, it’s really simple to just accept that this is true, and feel the blessings that our forebears had and have passed on to us.

Once we can accept that The Dharma consists of the invisible as well as the visible, and can generate trust in our unique ancestral line and the part it has played in the evolution of the human species, we can start to cast off some of our arrogance which an untrained mind often creates.

Standing looking over the rooftops of Kyoto with many local people last evening, eagerly awaiting the start of the Daimonji celebration of ancestors, I was so moved. There were many young lively children excited by the dark rooftop, and many older, more fragile people, perhaps a little scared or exhausted by the incredible heat (around 37 degrees). We waited together for our ancestors to arrive for their visit.

Our party consisted of many foreigners: Brazilian, Nepalese, English, Japanese, etc., but it was no coincidence whatsoever that we were there on that rooftop overlooking the sweltering basin of Kyoto, flanked by the Kyoto hills. The spirits of all of our ancestors are intimately connected. This realization can bring us together in one heart, in one massive Dharma congregation. As we waited, I felt strongly part of everyone around me, even the strangers, and was overjoyed to be so! This is The Dharma at its most breathtaking.

Briefly, there are five massive Chinese characters built into the sides of the hillside in Kyoto, first created about 500 years ago. They consist of lines of small fires forming the strokes of each character, and at a certain time on 16th August every year, these many fires are lit, and one kanji is illuminated after another during a period of 40 minutes. Each of these symbols will guide their brief trip around the mountains of the human world, known as samsara by most Buddhists.


Dai, the first symbol to appear, represents the human or spirit arriving from the spirit world. Of course, it represents all sentient beings, starting out on a journey.


Next is Myo Ho and Renge Kyo combined. This represents the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teachings of the Buddha before his death, which largely prevails in Japan. At this point, the spirit travelers pay reverence to the Buddhist teachings.


Third is the ship, Fune-gata. This is where the travelers can board this vessel and voyage around the human world.


Fourth is Hidari Daimonji, a mirror image of the first image, meaning that we can see our spirits, connect with them and with our karma.


Finally, is Torii, the gateway. This signifies that it is time for the travelers to return to the spirit world, taking with them all the prayers and blessings of the human world, as well as supplies of food and drink.

So, in the 21st century in modern Japan, with all its super-technological advances, its aspiration to be a world player, the importance of ancestors continues to exist. Some Japanese people may say that this is simply a matter of custom, and that they do it automatically, unconsciously. But the fact that they have not rejected it outright as outmoded, as fanciful, speaks volumes.

I admire this spirit, which exists even amongst young people. (see Gratitude and Reverence to Ancestors: the belief abides in 21st century Japan, Linden Thorp, 2008, Kyoto Sangyo Daigaku, Journal of Humanities, in ‘works’) In this paper, in a survey I conducted amongst young university students recently, one of the respondents said,

“If it is (‘it’ is the return of the ancestral spirits at O Bon) true, are we also to return to the human world to see our descendants? …..if it is true, I want to see my ancestors to know what kind of people they are, and also I want to see my descendants when I die.’

This notion of the onward motion of the generations is inspiring, positive, life-giving. This is The Dharma, the laws of the good majestic universe, being put into everyday practice. Gratitude is so important if we are to live with grace, with awareness, to live fully. This simple notion can change our ways of thinking, of being. Having gratitude is acting, actively stepping outside the closed room of our mind.

Nurturing that small sacred space inside our hearts, feeling even a twinge of emotion for the incredible efforts of our forbears as they prepared the way for our comfortable lives today, is like lighting a small candle to chase away the shadows of doubt and mistrust, of fear and isolation! It’s like giving some new feeling to our lives outside the busy thinking and highly conditioned mind. So, please explore and become aware of the diverse nature of The Dharma, both in form and no-form, both visible and invisible.

The importance of fire as a purification rite in Japan will be discussed in more detail later. If you want to explore the Daimonji Fire festival in more detail, please read the extract from ‘Temple of the Phoenix’ in works.

O Bon: the return of the spirits to the visible world

It is sizzling summer here which induces a panic in non-natives used to more temperate climates. We cannot survive without air conditioning, so it is difficult to stay long in the open air, even for native Japanese, born in the far south in Kagoshima and Okinawa. So, driving in the car with cold air rushing in through the vents, is so calming as well as tantalizing.

This land is exquisite when away from the rather careless and pragmatic urban areas. We drive north-west of bold and brassy Osaka, into the mountains. The forests of mixed pine and bamboo are dense with rigorous and ancient energy, and sure to be full of brown bears, raccoons and monkeys. The sky is cloudless and will soon mingle with the sea. I want to be out there with the Dharma, with the Buddha, protectors and gurus, but know that I would never survive this slab heat. My unequivocal mission is to accept everything, to be content entirely, and to serve others.

It is 3.45 in the morning, and we set out to join the crowded motorway, filled with people returning to their hometowns in order to clean and adorn their family graves, and to wait for the return of their ancestors from the world of spirits. Dawn approaches as we dive into the forests interspersed with rich green rice paddy, and I marvel at this glorious land of rock and tree and bear. My partner Mariko chants he Heart Sutra in Japanese as we drive on, followed by iced Oolong tea and freshly sliced Japanese pear, nashi.

Three hours later, we arrive in Takeno, a tiny seaside village, Mariko’s hometown, and park our little ‘k’ car (economy car) in the small shale yard of the old family house. Her cousin and her daughter with her children are waiting for us, offering us a cool shower, and iced Barley tea. After we have cooled down, we prepare to chant for Mariko’s mother’s 27th death memorial, putting on our robes and preparing the giant home altar (butsudan) with candles and incense. Every one sits behind us holding their juzu (rosary beads) being sure to copy our bowing and gassho (palms together at the level of the heart).

The chanting is more of a challenge and pleasure than usual because the ancient owner of the house has abandoned real Buddhist practice to join Sokka Gakai, a Japanese religious organization which has prohibited any Buddhist images. So, we must focus extra hard in order to slice through this misguided diversion from Dharma to reach the golden reclining Nirvana Buddha.

Afterwards, we take flowers to the family grave and chant again, being sure to wash the tall head stones with fresh water so that the spirits will not be thirsty. In the hottest part of the day, the local people will retreat indoors, closing all sliding doors to create a cool place, and relax together drinking sake (rice wine) to wait for the arrival of their ancestors. Later, when the sun has set, they will go again to the graveyard with lanterns and food to offer at the grave. They have come together from all parts of Japan to meet together at the family house and celebrate their ancestral spirits.

This profound gratitude to all their descendants without whom they could not be alive today, is most moving. This is supreme Dharma, identical in the human world and the world of the spirits! I have learned so much from this most inspiring Japanese custom.

note: if you would like to read more detail of O Bon, please go to the side bar – Nohmen and Kokoro Talk Dharma, Chapter 6, Ancestors. You can check the meaning of gassho, butsudan, Sokka Gakai and juzu unique to Japanese Buddhism in the glossary. Also for more description of ancestor celebration – Temple of the Phoenix,  pages 128-150

Dharma in 21st century Japan

Step away from status, wealth and fame to find your true nature and the secrets of the universe!


Angel’s Wood by Mariko Kinoshita, Japan, Dec 1986

Karma considerations
Of course, as committed Buddhists, we need to be always watchful of karma, both past, present and future. Karma arising and subsiding, karma cut through purification and mindfulness, and karma attaching itself as a result of wrong views, of arrogance and ignorance. I find it useful to see this as a great ocean of karma, with estuaries and tributaries taking water inland, and tides pulling water back into the massive body of water. Thus all sentient beings are submerged in this living ocean, and the aspects of behaviour from the begingless beginning to the endless end appear and disappear continuously, salt water and fresh water mixing. When we are sufficiently evolved we can see all species of oceanic elements, and one day, when everything has been balanced through practice, the ocean is completely calm and clear and we are completely integrated.
When I first tiptoed into the Buddhist teachings in this human life, the brilliance of karma was the single most impressive element for me. I was at pains to grasp it and live it as quickly as I could. It became one of the driving forces behind my mindfulness practice when I realized the enormity of the notion that every single thing we do, say and think affects everyone and everything in the universe, as well as determining the future for each of us. I still remember vividly what a genius holistic system it seemed to me compared with the limited Christian measures of sin and grace, of god-fearing and displacement of responsibility which I had been brought up into. It seemed so much more hopeful to become balanced, happy and full of light the Buddhist way. Of course, no criticism of Christianity is intended or implied in this comparison.
So, long before I found myself in the enchanted land of the Rising Sun, I was immersed in karmic considerations and doing my best to live in the great ocean, very much aware of the potential effect each moment lived in my unique way would have on my future life. Of course the Nirvana teachings are full of references to karma, and monastic Buddhist orders here have many practices which moderate karma, but this notion is not uppermost in the minds of lay practitioners in the way I was used to when practising in the west. My present Nirvana sangha members find my ideas rather strange. They cannot believe that I do not kill any creature intentionally, emulating the Buddha Shakyamuni himself, and that I breathe in the Dharma all around me and don’t ever want to be separated from it.
They see me as an idealist, saying that such ways are not practical in everyday life, tending to leave all such responsibility to our root gurus. They can hardly bear me to allow myself to be stung by mosquito rather than kill them, or see me go hungry rather than eat live seafood or a lot of meat (vegetarianism here is virtually unknown and completely misunderstood). They cannot seem to comprehend my urgency and determination on these points, but I am 100% certain that I must continue to abide by the laws of karma if I truly wish to become enlightened in this life. This is perhaps viewed as culture differences, but it is not connected to our differences of east and west.
The Dharma as it is for lay people in Japan
Sumi and Koichi come, the owners of our seaside holiday villa. They are determined to get rid of the beautiful spiders we have given house room to during our short stay, the spiritual visitors that Mariko is starting to be relaxed with. Sumi irrationally and indignantly says she will not permit them to stay in her house.
Our visitors are hot, so we have to put the aircon on and close out the sea air and sound of the waves! I feel locked away from anything natural, away from the Dharma. This is real suffering to me, and I realise that life in Japan consists of long periods of being sealed away from the Dharma, from the natural air, and that these last few days by the sea, of open air, will soon be over for me. It is difficult to be outside in the searing heat of summer in Japan, but by the ocean there is some cool spray.
I feel so sad that this power and materialism blinds them to the Dharma, to the natural way. Sad that their secularism pulls them so far away from the sacred. I try to reach them with my mantras, and I thank them for allowing me to know the Dharma even more deeply. I vow, pushing back the tears, to take them to Enlightenment with me.
Earlier, we went to the fish market situated right on the coast. These dark dirty places are full of the suffering of sentient beings, their substances and dying flesh mixed with the smell of cheap cigarettes. All kept in close confinement: eels wedged together in plastic pipes, huge shell creatures like elephants swelling out of their modest shells, shooting out water from their pale trunks at spectators and potential buyers; massive crabs their legs tied together and labelled with a price; many species of tiny identical fish mounted in line on their crafted plastic pallets like badges.
Standing there, almost paralyzed by horror and helplessness, my eyes catch the wriggling of an eel in the giant fishmonger’s hands who is getting it ready for the kill. I want to turn away, but know I have to witness this, have to experience it. It wriggles and jumps, wriggles and jumps, many times, until the knife clamps its neck to the stained plastic board, still furiously wriggling, and then the pronged instrument is bashed into its brain with several hammer blows, but still it wriggles. It’s head pinned to the board, the giant swiftly slides the knife in under the spine and strips it away in a flash, and still it wriggles! This is the relentless energy of life refusing to be extinguished.
I want to bring the great light of Shinnyo, the brightness of Nirvana to shine into these places. I must be a beacon which shines out even in the greatest storm, even when the electricity is cut, even when there is such terrible karma! And I have to say ‘yes’ without frills, without conditions, without provisos – especially to Mari-chan, my Dharma partner!!
I have been led to a teaching which is not about retreating from the world, but instead about every moment of mundane existence, and that’s why we can board the shinkansen, and are going forward extending friendship and really striding across high barriers like the wind!