Prince Shotoku: Founder of Japanese Buddhism and the Japanese nation

 

AHE-Logo-TM-265pxhttp://www.ancient.eu/article/1029/

by Charley Linden Thorp

published on 09 March 2017

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In Japan in 573 CE Anahobe, the wife of the Emperor’s son, had a dream of a priest in golden robes who asked her if he could lodge in her womb as he was about to be born as a world-saving Bodhisattva. The child was born painlessly and unexpectedly in the imperial stables and was named Shotoku (sho meaning sacred, and toku meaning virtue). At the age of 2, he naturally placed his hands together in gassho (reverence), faced the East, and recited the words, Namu Butsu (praise be to Buddha). Buddhism had hardly been heard of in Japan at that time! Prince Shotoku was to rule Japan between 594-622 CE as Regent and to unite his nation of warring clans in the dual roles of the first Buddhist statesman in the world and the lay founder of Japanese Buddhism.

Prince Shotoku as a Youth

Prince Shotoku had several titles:

  • Prince of the Stable Door (Umayodo no Miko) due to the unusual circumstances of his birth.
  • Prince of Eight Ears (Yatsumimi no Miko) because of his special intelligence and his ability to listen to eight people at one time and understand each of them.
  • Prince of the Upper Palace (Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi) because his father, Emperor Yōmei, loved and respected his talented son so much that he created a special part of the palace for him to live in.

ACHIEVEMENTS

The civic contributions made by Jogu Taishi (the title most people in Japan give him) were impressive and are still in place. Among them, he created the ‘cap system’ for government officials which rooted out nepotism with the recognition of merit. He imported Chinese culture along with the lunar calendar, art and scholarship and he resumed the existing practice of dispatching of envoys to import all manner of cultural and religious knowledge to Japan which had been terminated. He initiated irrigation projects to improve agriculture and implemented extensive welfare measures. He created highway systems and he wrote the first chronicle of Japanese history.

BUDDHISM IN JAPAN

How he came to be devoted to this new faith which suddenly appeared in the islands of Japan is something of a mystery as mentioned above. However, though a Buddhist scholar and the first patriarch of Japanese Buddhism, he remained a lay practitioner throughout his life. It is thought that Buddhism first became known in Japan when the ruler of a province of Korea called Baekje visited Japan and presented a beautiful gold-plated image of Buddha Shakyamuni and sutra scrolls to Emperor Kimmei (531-571), Shotoku’s grandfather, who was impressed. However, his enthusiasm to adopt Buddhism threw the principal families of Japan into confusion. 

Japan had been culturally isolated and conservative until then and showed no sign that the indigenous religion, Shinto, the ‘Way of the Gods,’ was inadequate. Shinto develops a deep appreciation of natural beauty and spirituality but there is no ethical element, unlike Buddhism.  Also, at the time there was no formal written language in Japan so the enthusiastic adoption of Chinese pictographs happened simultaneously with the influx of Buddhist sutras in Chinese translation.   

However, Shotoku, now Prince Regent to his Aunt Suiko who succeeded her husband in 593 CE, was to convince the country that Buddhism was exactly what was needed. In fact, at the age of 14, he fought in a brief civil war between the progressive Soga family who favoured Buddhism and the conservative Monobes family.  It was a Holy War fought over the enshrinement of Holy relics in a pagoda (stupa) which Shotoku insisted was essential as the origin of Buddhism was so far away from Japan in India

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Prince Shotoku

Surprisingly, Buddhism replaced Shinto as the national religion of Japan within 50 years exactly due to its values of tolerance, rationality and philosophical depth, none of which featured in the Shinto faith. The only remnant of Shinto which was retained was the link between members of the Imperial family and the Japanese goddess of the Sun and the Universe, Amaterasu, who are still considered to be her direct descendants.

Perhaps the story which best exemplifies Shotoku’s devout Buddhist faith as an adult is when his father became seriously ill. The Prince sat by his father’s bedside day and night meditating on his recovery and as a result, he did recover and became a devoted Buddhist himself.

TEMPLES & TEACHINGS

The Prince initiated the first two Buddhist temples to be built in Japan. Shitenno-ji  (530 CE), the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings, of the North, South, East and West, was erected because whilst defending his family in battle, he prayed intently to the 4 Buddhist Kings and victory was achieved. Later Horyu-ji was built in Nara to contain many treasured artworks and artefacts, and he went on to build five more. But these temples were not merely places of worship. Shitenno-ji, built at the seaport, was a religious sanctuary providing training in music and the arts, a dispensary for medical herbs, an asylum for the abandoned and a hospital and sanatorium. Monks took many roles in society, as educators, physicians, and even engineers. Temples in Japan today are often cultural and welfare centres.

Prince Shotoku also gave public lectures on various aspects of Buddhism. He authored eight volumes of commentaries on sutras. The Sangyo-gisho (3 Sutras) was popular among lay Buddhists. It focused on the Lotus Sutra which conveyed Buddha Nature and universal enlightenment, the Vimalakirti Sutra which expounded lay Buddhism and national rulers as Bodhisattvas, and the Srimaladevi Sutra which extolled the virtues of a Buddhist Queen to honour his devout aunt, Princess Suiko.

SHOTOKU’S CONSTITUTION

‘HARMONY IS THE MOST PRECIOUS ASSET.  WE ALL ALTERNATE BETWEEN WISDOM & MADNESS.  IT IS A CLOSED CIRCLE.’ SHOTOKU SEVENTEEN-ARTICLE CONSTITUTION

The 5 bonds of Confucius figure in each article: ruler to ruled, father to son, elder to younger siblings, elder friend to younger friend, and husband to wife. Shotoku declared, ‘‘Harmony is the most precious asset.  We all alternate between wisdom and madness.  It is a closed circle.’ According to the Nihon Shoki, a definitive history of ancient Japan written in circa 720 CE, Prince Shotoku created a seventeen-article ‘constitution’ (Jpn. Jushichojo Kenpo) which was implemented as a political tool to unite the warring clans. This was not a modern constitution designed for the governing of state and subjects, but a set of spiritual aspirations inspired equally by Buddhism and Confucianism. It focused on the morals and virtues that should be the aspiration of every subject in the realm and led to him receiving the title ‘Dharma Monarch’ (Skt; Dharmaraja)

The following articles are evidence that this is truly a Buddhist constitution: Article 2: Reverence to the 3 Treasures of Buddhism – Shotoku firmly believed that all beings could benefit from their truth. Article 6: the difference between merit and demerit, reward and punishment – this demonstrates the laws of karma so central to Buddhism. Article 10: self-control and mind-control – the harmony between nature and society, also a strong goal of the Buddhist way of life. They are as follows:

1. Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided.

2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law and the (Buddhist) Priesthood; should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things. 

3. Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. 

4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behavior their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly.

5. Deal impartially with the legal complaints which are submitted to you. 

6. Punish the evil and reward the good. 

7. Every man has his own work. Do not let the spheres of duty be confused. 

8. Ministers and officials should attend the Court early in the morning and retire late, for the whole day is hardly enough for the accomplishment of state business. 

9. Good faith is the foundation of right. 

10. Let us control ourselves and not be resentful when others disagree with us, for all men have hearts and each heart has its own leanings. 

11. Know the difference between merit and demerit.

12. Do not let the local nobility levy taxes on the people. 

13. All people entrusted with office should attend equally to their duties. 

14. Do not be envious! For if we envy others, then they, in turn, will envy us. 

15. To subordinate private interests to the public good — that is the path of a vassal. 

16. Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times. 

17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.  

(Nihon Shoki)

These tenets provide the basis of stable and peaceful Japan today 1500 years later and could be said to be part of the essence of its distinctive culture.

DEATH & LEGACY

In 621 CE, Shotoku became gravely ill and as an indication of his popularity, a statue was commissioned in the form of the Buddha. It can now be viewed in the Hall of Dreams of the Horyuji Temple in Nara.  After his death in 622 CE, he became known as ‘Japan’s Shakyamuni’ and his relics were enshrined in the various temples he established.

The surviving features of the Mahayana Buddhism he founded are as follows: the notion that all beings have Buddha Nature and can be enlightened regardless of spiritual training, class or gender (Jpn. Ekayana); the spiritual aspects of Buddhism are the most important – this remains true today; gender discrimination in monasteries should not exist; Buddhism should be synonymous with the welfare of the Japanese nation and symbolic of prosperity and peace.    

Shitenno-ji Temple, Osaka

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In the Middle Ages, Shinran (1173-1262 CE), the founder of Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land), the largest school of Japanese Buddhism today, worshipped Prince Shotoku as the saviour of Japan. Shinran is famous as the first ordained monk to reject his clerical vow of celibacy which set a trend for Japanese clerics. He openly married and had children with Eshinni and the reason for this departure was that Prince Shotoku appeared to him in a dream as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, who assured him that he would be incarnated in Eshinni.  So, in a way, Shinran married his greatest hero. Shotoku is also said to have reincarnated as Bodhisattva Eshi of the Tendai faith and later as Amida Buddha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land School.

In conclusion, as Prince Shotoku firmly believed, it is certain that our sincere relationships with each other are the most important factor of all in society and that individual power and success must only be viewed through that lens. But this 17-article constitution could and can only be successful if humans put aside all their self-seeking ideas and temper their dominant egos and temporal desires. This can best be achieved by cultivating Buddha Nature and embodying our divine mission of unconditional love and light. Altruism – sincerely looking after others before ourselves – is an ancient universal tenet of the human species which Prince Shotoku spent his life embodying.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHARLEY LINDEN THORP

Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Buddha World
  • Anesaki, M, The Foundation of Buddhist Culture in japan. (Monumenta Nipponica, 1943), 1-12.
  • Anonymous, An Introduction to Buddhism: teachings, History and Practices. (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Anonymous, Nihon Shoki
  • Banarsidass, M., “The Birth of Japanese Buddhism,” Buddhist Spirituality vol II.
  • Buswell, J.R.E. (Ed), Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillan Reference, 2004)
  • Carr, K.G., “Pieces of Princes: Personalized Relics in Medieval Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 38(1): 93-127.
  • Fujiwara K., Shotoku Taishi Derek
  • Kitagawa, J.M., “The Buddhist Transformation of Japan,” History of Religions 4 (2): 319-336.
  • Soper, A.C., A Pictorial Biography of Prince Shotoku (The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 1967), 197-215.

Prince Shotoku: Peace and Salvation for all beings of the realm

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According to the Nihon Shoki, the definitive history of ancient Japan, written in Japan in 720, Prince Shotoku created a seventeen-article ‘constitution,’ which was adopted  during the reign of Empress Suiko, his aunt.  This was not a modern constitution designed for the governing of state and subjects, but a set of regulations inspired equally by Buddhism and Confucianism which focused on the morals and virtues that should be the aspiration of every subject in the realm. It is one of the earliest constitutions in history which is as it should be perhaps, ie. more spiritual than legal or civic. 

Prince Shotoku had several titles which provide a neat outline to his biography, as follows:

  1. Prince of the Stable Door (Umayodo no Miko).  This is due to the legend that his mother gave birth to him unexpectedly and without any pain whilst inspecting the imperial stables.
  2. Prince of Eight Ears (Yatsumimi no Miko). This came about because of his special intelligence and his ability to listen to 8 people at one time and understand each of them.
  3. Prince of the Upper Palace (Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi). His father, Emperor Yomei, loved and respected his talented son so much that he created a special part of the palace for him to live in.

 

prince-shotoku-1

 

His character was naturally strong and devoted to creating a new Japan, and his influence is unquestionable although his absolute authorship of the first constitution Japan is now in question. Jogu Taishi’s civic contributions are impressive, among them: creating a ranking system for government officials which abolished the existing nepotism with a system which recognized merit; importing Chinese culture along with the calendar, art and scholarship, resuming the dispatching of envoys to import all manner of cultural and religious; irrigation projects and welfare measures; highway systems; and writing the first chronicle of Japanese history.

But perhaps he is best known for the remarkable constitution which he accomplished from a brilliant combining of Buddhist and Confucian principals based on Chinese models. In addition, he introduced Buddhist practice which unified a collection of Shinto or animistic cults. His personal faith was quickly awakened which he continued to act on in daily life throughout his life.

Perhaps the story which best exemplifies this is when his father became seriously ill.  The prince sat by his father’s bedside day and night meditating on his recovery and as a result he did recover and became a devoted Buddhist himself.

 

prince-shotoku-2

 

He initiated the first two Buddhist temples to be built in Japan.  Shitenno-ji  (530 AD), the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings  – North, South, East and West – was erected because at the age of 15 whilst defending his family in battle, he prayed intently to the 4 Buddhist Kings and victory was achieved. Shitenno-ji in Osaka is dedicated to the Kings. (below left) Later Horyu-ji was built in Nara to contain many treasured art works and artifacts. (below right)

 

 

Shotoku’s reign marked the beginning of the era of the unification of many independent states in Japan in which the emperor was to be regarded as the highest authority. The Prince, choosing to remain a lay practitioner throughout his life, also introduced the Three Treasures or JewelsBuddha (the awakened One), Dharma (the Law) and Sangha (the community) as the national object of worship.  He invited outstanding Korean Buddhist priests to tutor him while Confucian scholars became his advisors.

The 17-article constitution speaks for itself of balance and ethics.  He achieved an ideal combination of ethical and spiritual values and an openness to other more sophisticated cultures and systems of government unknown until then.  Japan had been in turmoil until his succession, moral values thwarted and gross unfairness dominating. But in each article the 5 important relationships or ‘bonds’ of Confucius – ruler to ruled, father to son, elder t0 younger siblings, and husband to wife – are apparent and harmonized with the Buddhist aspirations to altruism and the Great Truth. 

Read them for yourself to decide.

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1. Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided. Everyone has his biases, and few men are far‐sighted. Therefore some disobey their lords and fathers and keep up feuds with their neighbors. But when the superiors are in harmony with each other and the inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevails.

2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law and the (Buddhist) Priesthood; should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things. Few men are so bad that they cannot be taught their truth.

3. Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys when the superior acts. Consequently when you receive the commands of your Sovereign, do not fail to carry them out or ruin will be the natural result.

4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behavior their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly; if inferiors behave improperly, offenses will naturally result. Therefore when lord and vassal behave with propriety, the distinctions of rank are not confused: when the people behave properly the Government will be in good order.

5. Deal impartially with the legal complaints which are submitted to you. If the man who is to decide suits at law makes gain his motive, and hears cases with a view to receiving bribes, then the suits of the rich man will be like a stone flung into water, meeting no resistance, while the complaints of the poor will be like water thrown upon a stone. In these circumstances the poor man will not know where to go, nor will he behave as he should.

 

6. Punish the evil and reward the good. This was the excellent rule of antiquity. Therefore do not hide the good qualities of others or fail to correct what is wrong when you see it. Flatterers and deceivers are a sharp weapon for the overthrow of the state, and a sharp sword for the destruction of the people. Men of this kind are never loyal to their lord, or to the people. All this is a source of serious civil disturbances.

7. Every man has his own work. Do not let the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If corrupt men hold office, disasters and tumult multiply. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man and they will be well managed. Therefore the wise sovereigns of antiquity sought the man to fill the office, and not the office to suit the man. If this is done the state will be lasting and the realm will be free from danger.

8. Ministers and officials should attend the Court early in the morning and retire late, for the whole day is hardly enough for the accomplishment of state business. If one is late in attending Court, emergencies cannot be met; if officials retire early, the work cannot be completed.

9. Good faith is the foundation of right. In everything let there be good faith, for if the lord and the vassal keep faith with one another, what cannot be accomplished? If the lord and the vassal do not keep faith with each other, everything will end in failure.

10. Let us control ourselves and not be resentful when others disagree with us, for all men have hearts and each heart has its own leanings. The right of others is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can anyone lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all wise sometimes and foolish at others. Therefore, though others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we may think we alone are in the right, let us follow the majority and act like them.

11. Know the difference between merit and demerit, and deal out to each its reward and punishment. In these days, reward does not always follow merit, or punishment follow crime. You high officials who have charge of public affairs, make it your business to give clear rewards and punishments.

12. Do not let the local nobility levy taxes on the people. There cannot be two lords in a country; the people cannot have two masters. The sovereign is the sole master of the people of the whole realm, and the officials that he appoints are all his subjects. How can they presume to levy taxes on the people?

 

13. All people entrusted with office should attend equally to their duties. Their work may sometimes be interrupted due to illness or their being sent on missions. But whenever they are able to attend to business they should do so as if they knew what it was about and not obstruct public affairs on the grounds they are not personally familiar with them.

14. Do not be envious! For if we envy others, then they in turn will envy us. The evils of envy know no limit. If others surpass us in intelligence, we are not pleased; if they are more able, we are envious. But if we do not find wise men and sages, how shall the realm be governed?

15. To subordinate private interests to the public good — that is the path of a vassal. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will be resentful, and if he is influenced by resentment he will fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, the public interest will suffer. Resentment interferes with order and is subversive of law.

16. Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Employ them in the winter months when they are at leisure, but not from Spring to Autumn, when they are busy with agriculture or with the mulberry trees (the leaves of which are fed to silkworms). For if they do not attend to agriculture, what will there be to eat? If they do not attend to the mulberry trees, what will there be for clothing?

17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many people. Small matters are of less consequence and it is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of important affairs, when there is a suspicion that they may miscarry, that one should consult with others, so as to arrive at the right conclusion.

As a permanent resident of Japan and a practicing Buddhist, I find my life in Japan stable and harmonious. In the globalization process of my adopted country, it is to be hoped that this spiritual and civil symmetry first established by Shotoku Taishi almost 1500 years ago, will survive.  

 

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It is certain that our sincere relationships with each other are by far and away the most important of all, and that individual power and success must only being viewed through that lens.  If the teachings of the Buddhas are utilized as a raft to travel to Nirvana, the other side of human suffering, and we can then let go of them and encourage our True or Buddha Nature to flow, we can cohabit with tolerance and respect for each other.

But this constitution can only be successful if we put aside all our self-seeking ideas, and temper our dominant egos and temporal desires.  This can best be achieved by cultivating our Buddha Nature and embodying our divine mission of unconditional love and light. Altruism – sincerely looking after others before ourselves – is an ancient universal tenet of the human species which Prince Shotoku spent his life embodying.

 

 

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images courtesy of megapixyl.com, Linden Thorp and Mariko Kinoshita.

References:

Masaharu Anesaki, Prince Shotoku, the Sage Statesman(1948); nine entries in Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, translated by William G. Aston (1896; repr. 1956); many entries on the prince in the Nihongi are quoted in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958); George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (3 vols., 1958).

 

 

Temple Chronicle: Winter Training

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Our human lives are a process, a means whereby, but what is the result, the end-product? Our story began with the moment of birth and it will end with the moment of death. Or will it? Between these two points our physical form develops and matures, and then as its season draws to a close, it starts to shrink and slow.

We, our spirits, are temporarily housed in a flesh form to participate in the visual material world which is subject to varied and numerous conditions. It is logical then that the conditioned mind expects results from the progress through the years of our lifespan.

Religions use certain terms for this end-product, this resolution of the years and the effort – Heaven or Hell, Nirvana, Enlightenment, Paradise, Zion, Avalon, Swarga, Valhalla, and so on. But words and images die the moment they appear or are uttered or thought. ‘Birth’ and ‘Death’ are also only words, but we identify ourselves with them – ‘my birth,’ ‘his death,’ and so on, and once again they are dead, in the past, dropped like a heavy stone into a deep pool.

 

 

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Without using any special labels or grand proper nouns, we have always flowed in the vast wide river of all energy, and we always will. Energy is vibration and light which is subject to no conditions, not even human’s facile notions of ‘time’ or ‘space.’ It goes where it will dependent on nothing, consuming the darkness, flowing and flowing. There are no rewards or results in any dimension except the joy of being and loving with company in our human boats, and breathing in concert.

The conditions throw up obstacles in the way of our flow which create detours, sluggish pools, and rapids. The build up of the heat of negative emotions and violence acted out in the form world, the jarring of separations and limitations, the tattering and fraying of the fabric of the universe at our human hands, causes drought and the flow dwindles to a trickle, or floods which extinguish the divine flame of the flow.

 

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Can you desist from throwing obstacles into the flow now and here? Can you give up your addiction to collecting, to hoarding, to getting and spending, to violent acts of separation from your fellows? Can you say you will no longer depend on creating parallel worlds in your mind with words and images so that you can just flow and flow, laughing and loving?

Slap bang in the centre of this moment and in no place in particular, can you accept that there is nothing you have to do except be, and in your full being the flow flows without end?

 

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In Japan, this is the most intense season of spiritual training – Winter Training. Over the next few days I would like to share with you some insights as we consider our previous year of practice and awareness.

 

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images courtesy of Linden Thorp and megapixyl.com

O Bon: profound gratitude to ancestors in 21st century global Japan

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 tropical 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. 

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 right at the back of the butsudan.

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 ancestral spirits. 

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 ancestors.

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.

7: Making Bonds with the Universe

 

universe

The Buddha made it clear that we should create and maintain bonds with the universe even though we have been born into human life. The Cathars also were constantly connected to the spiritual or invisible world, regarding death, the ending of human life, as a simple veil that could be easily removed. The halo (a circle of light around the head of a holy being depicted in Christianity) and the aureole (a circle of light around the head and/or body of a deity in Buddhism), were and still are used as reminders of the spiritual origin of all things manifest in the material plane. In both systems of living out the lessons and struggles of human life (Christianity) or samsara (Buddhism), we aspire to make the transition back into the spiritual, formless world, taking all sentient beings with us.

reclining Buddha aureolehaloed beings

 

 

 

 

 

Cathars, who were vegetarians apart from eating fish occasionally, prescribed the endura, a form of ritual suicide, as a practitioner approached death, preceded by the administering of the consolamentum. (see post Consolamentum https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/consolamentum/  in this series on the Cathars)  In Buddhism, the diet is always important as it is important to allow the subtle inner winds (vayu– in Sanskrit) to blow naturally through the channels of the body, the body and mind being unable to function at subtle levels without these winds being balanced. So, in both cases, the awareness of what substances from the earth we put inside our bodies is central to the way we use them. These rules about living allow us to connect with mystical knowledge, to be able to be a channel for such energy, to fine tune in order to receive the countless messages and signs from invisible sources.

teachers

The mystical has always drawn me personally since being a young child. I could never accept that worldly achievements were the pinnacle of all existence, always being certain there was much more than that.  Of course, children are usually not yet conditioned as adults are: they are pure and still close to the universe before their intellectual capacities develop. I always dreamed of touching the mystical and my dream came steadily true through the Buddhist pathway and gnostic traditions such as Catharism and Sufism. Indeed, in my present practice, the Nirvana Teachings of Shinnyo-en, it is possible to become a spiritual medium so that through intense training and empowerment, one can channel messages from the Buddha and other deities, which will touch the hearts of those receiving them. I am almost at the end of such a training now, and so looking forward to devoting myself to being that empty pure channel to help guide people to true and lasting happiness in Nirvana.

mandala 1 Mandala 2

In Esoteric Buddhism, the mandala is the traditional way of mapping out the Dharma Lineage passed down through the ages from Buddha Shyakyamuni. It represents the whole universe, and if you are correctly connected to the Dharma Stream, there is nothing and no-one outside you, no ‘us’ and ‘them,’ you are actually in the centre of that universe.

Buddhists strive to release themselves from attachment to objects and people because attachment means separation: attachment requires the attached and the attacher. Once we are truly one with the universe and all sentient beings, then we have realized emptiness and the native silence and stillness of the heart. All cravings are extinguished, and it is said that we have crossed the great Ocean of Nirvana to the other shore.

waterfall training waterfall training

In Japan, there is a strong tradition of mountain asceticism, shugendo in Japanese.  Yamabushi  in Japanese (one who likes mountains) follow a special doctrine, which combines esoteric Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. They are usually solitary and today mostly lay practitioners. Emphasis is placed on physical feats of endurance in the open air where the aspirants live in the primeval forests of rural Japan, and their goal is to find supernatural powers through such practices.

Shingon Buddhism, which my own practice is connected to, emphasizes enlightenment through isolation, the study and contemplation of oneself and nature, and of mandalas.  Yamabushi can often be seen engaged in waterfall training – standing under waterfalls in freezing winter, ridding themselves of their ego so that they can receive the esoteric. My own masters did this practice regularly, as did many other key teachers in my lineage of Shinnyo Buddhism.

The Cathars also had a strong reverence for and involvement with nature. The sacred caves of Sabarthes in Languedoc are known as the ‘doors to Catharism.’ Part of initiation as a Parfait was to climb a steep path leading up to these caves (a practice common in shungendo) to the cave of Bethlehem. There were four important elements inside the caves involved in this initiation before receiving the consolamentum, or making the final vow: first, a square niche in the wall which could have conceivably contained a mandala or manual of some kind; second, a rough granite altar; third, a pentagram carved into the wall, possibly symbolizing the 5 elements of the universe (a common symbol in Esoteric Buddhism); and finally, the telluric currents emitted from the rock walls and cave floor. The atmosphere in these caves fills one with awe. I was particularly sensitive while inside, and after visiting had a series of Cathar dreams which have recurred since that time.

The Sacred Caves of Sabarthes.

The Sacred Caves of Sabarthes.

Buddhists work to achieve emptiness and liberation from all attachments. If you step out of the enclosure of your mind, the view of the world you construct with your intellect, then you step into the Buddhafield or mandala where you are protected and qualified to receive by oral transmission the wisdom of the Dharma stream. At this moment, you become unified with the universe, and this is reality. You can take refuge in this powerful mandala whilst struggling in samsara to liberate all sentient beings and bring them to enlightenment with you.

Buddhafield

It could be said that the notion of making ‘bonds with the universe’ began with the young Prince Siddartha’s first experience of meditation. He was 7 years of age and already showing promise in his training to succeed his father and become King of the Shyakya clan. One day, he accompanied his father and entourage to an agricultural festival dedicated to the earth deity. While there, the young prince noticed a small bird pecking at a worm that had been turned up by a plough. He felt such compassion for the worm that he was inspired to sit in a nearby grove under a jambu (roseapple) tree and soon entered into an advanced meditative state. The sun was high in the sky, but the shade provided by the surrounding trees stood still, keeping the young child cool and sheltered from the hot sun. This first meditation inspired by nature demonstrated the highest respect and reverence for the treasures of the universe.

In my own meditations, I often use the image that everything inside me, beneath the thin membrane of my skin, can amalgamate with everything outside. That my heart can beat in unison with all the hearts in the universe, that I can breathe as one with all in the universe. It is easy to transcend the thin membrane of skin and realize deeply that this is all that makes me a physical individual being, acting in the world, fulfilling my own unique mission.

The Universe is the Spiritual Source. The Moon and Sun are our protectors. We climb the mountains, flow into the oceans down wide rivers, swing from stars and planets. It is only the mundane mind that sequesters us in its synthetic reality, away from the glory of the great Universe.

deep meditation

Bodhisattva

the moon

As you may be able to imagine, following on from the last article on Bodhi and the aspiration for enlightenment, a Bodhisattva is someone who is working towards enlightenment, or oriented towards it. He or she is the spiritual embodiment of someone who puts the Buddhist precepts (the moral codes) and practice (working to purify and cleanse Buddha nature in order to summon Bodhi and the paramitas) in the centre of their lives, and models themselves on the Buddha’s life before he became enlightened. Enlightenment? The extinguishing of all cravings and worldly anxieties.

So the first thing a Bodhisattva does is to generate the aspiration to become enlightened for the sake of all beings, making a strong vow. These words are rare in modern English – ‘aspiration,’ ‘vow,’ etc – an indication of how secular our lives in developed countries have become. But once, when there were divine beings living amongst us, to ‘aspire’ and to ‘vow’ were commonplace expressions. In the last days of the Dharma or Law however, mentioned in the first cycle of articles on Dharma, the possibility of encountering the divine in human life, is quite remote, and yet all beings have the potential to become Bodhisattvas. Some of you may already be Bodhisattvas but not realize it.

The Buddhist precepts are the basic laws of moral discipline. At first you may think they bear some resemblance to the Christian or Muslim Commandments, laid down by a divine authority. But the precepts are rational principles of sheer goodness, intended to promote human well-being. They are flexible according to the period of history, the society in which precept-abiders live in, etc. They are not laws, but a kind of warning or guidance. Remember, there is no omnipotent ‘God’ in Buddhism who exercises compassion or wrath on his flock depending on whether thy sin or not. We followers of the Buddha are each potential Buddhas, equipped with all we need to realize that potential. There is no intervention from on high! Of course, as we saw in the Dharma article cycle, we do have Dharma Protectors who vary in the nature of their support, some are strict, some compassionate, etc.

So, given that framework of moral discipline, if we follow the guidance, we can be sure we are in the right condition to become enlightened. If we break the precepts, perhaps by accident, then as there is no punishing agent, we can easily repent and vow never to make that mistake again. If we remain awake and mindful, the Dharma Protectors will make sure we are on the right course. Then, given that strong foundation of moral discipline, we simply practice.

On the Buddha’s pathway to enlightenment, as was the way in ancient India, ascetic practices were undertaken by those seeking enlightenment. Such things still go on in India today, but eventually after almost dying, the Buddha realized that his pathway should be the middle way, balanced and within human endurance. There are more subtle ways to rid ourselves of the deluded ego than acute pain or deliberate attrition. So, the core of our practice is the 6 paramitas  – which are: giving; moral discipline; patience; courage or exertion; meditation; and wisdom. These are compatible with living a normal life in society. In fact, they can be joyfully executed amongst people around us. I find I can usually generate unlimited Bodhi for all the people I encounter in my daily life.

In Japan, as we also saw in the Dharma articles, we can, through ancestor veneration, generate Bodhi for beings in the past. Especially our maternal and paternal lineages, going back through the ages. We want to take their spirits to enlightenment with us too, and they are often with us as we practice. Through my own bodhicitta generating and meditation I made contact with an ancestor of mine who belonged to a religion pre-dating Buddhism and Christianity, who led an ascetic life high in the mountains. He was a healer who people and creatures flocked to, and he handed on his gift to me. It’s true that I am qualified as an Alexander Technique (a method of body-reeducation) teacher and do use healing powers on my pupils. I feel this ancestor is very close to me, working with me towards enlightenment.

So, how can we become a Bodhisattva? You may have a feeling that you are not of this time, that the suffering both psychological, social and physical is so acute, and at times too much to bear. Remember that it is highly likely that your ancestors were Bodhisattvas, and that they exist in all faiths – Mother Theresa in Christianity, Ghandi in Hinduism, Kukai in Shingon Buddhism, and numerous other Buddhist Saints too numerous to list here. etc. Those traces of the divine are in our DNA somewhere and surface at some point. So, the spiritual path can choose us, as it did me, so that we can continue on from where our ancestors left off.

Finally, I am certain my mother and father were both Bodhisattvas, and of course after their decease I could appreciate that even more than when they were alive because of my great arrogance as a younger person. My mother became ill and died about 10 years ago and I and my two siblings were amazingly able to be with her alone when she shifted her spiritual being out of her physical body, despite the long queue of loved ones waiting outside her hospital room to say goodbye. The three of us were talking closely holding her hands, touching her tenderly, when suddenly her heart jumped in her chest and she passed away. It was a breathtaking moment for each of us as a part of her body, but it was peaceful and deliberate. My mother chose to die when only the three of us were there. Tearfully, we made a pact to carry on her bright light into the world, perpetuating the legacy.

Later after the funeral as so many family members and friends filed out to say thank you to us, some of them were visibly shocked when they shook my hand because they thought I actually was my mother! I had always had a strong physical resemblance to her and a similar energetic character, but as they remarked I truly felt I was my mother.  The DNA, the spirit, all amalgamating into one! Bodhisattvas begetting Bodhisattvas, continuing on the goodness of enlightenment and the Bodhi mind. She certainly loved everyone equally and did everything she could to make them smile, their dreams and pain being singularly her own. She was not a practicing Buddhist herself, but before she died I did talk to her about general Buddhist ideas and she accepted them.  I am certain this made her passage into the spiritual world smooth.

two water pots

A story:

There were two water pots: a watertight one and a leaky one. The water carrier would carry the two pots filled with fresh water on a yoke across his shoulders every day to the king. By the time they arrived, the leaky pot was half empty. This pot was very unhappy feeling guilty that he couldn’t do the job expected of him; was failing in his life’s mission. But the kind water carrier advised him not to worry, and instead to notice the beautiful flowers along the pathway on his side. The water pot noticed them, but still felt uneasy that he was a failure in some way. He told the water carrier about his dissatisfaction, but the carrier asked him if he noticed how healthy and abundant the flowers he passed were, and how everyday they could be picked and taken to adorn the king’s palace. Perhaps the leaky pot didn’t realize his real mission in life, which was to water the flowers rather than supply a full pot of water to the king.

Every Bodhisattva has a unique mission which Buddhist practice to attain a Bodhi mind will reveal.