Day 1: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Buddhism is a Skill

A “mountain orchid” growing near the Shingon Temple my family has attended for four generations.

Welcome to the first day of the Bodhi Season of 2018! December 1, 2018.

I was chatting with a friend of mine yesterday who has often heard people say, “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.” Meaning that the focus is not on worshiping an other-worldly deity, a god. Buddhism is a way, a philosophy, to live this life with compassion, without suffering.

However, my personal experience having grown up Buddhist leaned much more toward religion. The services and practices I experienced myself and through observation of my elders focused on worshiping Kobo Daishi and the Bodhisattvas and praying for some sort of preferred outcome or maybe protection from spirits. Ironically such desires are actually very far away from Buddhism, since Buddhists are genuinely fearless.

For the bulk of my life, my understanding of Buddhism was that of a collection of chants and mantras in a language I knew nothing about, Sanskrit. I suppose I thought it was some sort of Japanese or Chinese. I later learned it was Sanskrit. But a “Japanese-ized” version, so even people who understood Sanskrit probably wouldn’t recognize it.

Until a few years ago, I had not even heard of any sutras, particularly the Heart Sutra – which I knew as the Hanya Shingyo. Or the Lotus Sutra, from which the Buddha’s primary teachings lie in the Four Noble Truths. I knew nothing of the intricate meaning of concepts such as dukkha. With absolutely no disrespect intended, I honesty can’t imagine what my grandparents would have said if I asked them to explain what it means to get to “the other shore“.

Certainly, my childhood experience of Buddhism isn’t like that for all other Buddhists. It does seem like the Shingon Buddhism I grew up with seems more prone to be practiced as a religion if one is only casually interested. Very roughly speaking, a large part of the idea behind Shingon practice is training the mind via thousands of repetitions of chants and mantras to transform one’s mind into a Buddha’s mind. For example, it is said that Kobo Daishi attained enlightenment through a million reps of the Morning Star Mantra.

For some, that’s a much more feasible path to Buddhahood than dealing with insane koans and perplexing sutras that still can take decades to fully understand. I certainly think there is much merit to reciting chants and mantras over and over. I still incorporate that practice today, but more as a supplemental exercise – like being a weight-lifter, but doing some cardio. Eventually, as you go through life and dutifully recite the chants and mantras, eventually something may click and you’ll say, “Oh!!! so that’s what ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form‘ means!”

I just wish I knew what I was saying back then. Use a translation in your language, not the traditional Hannya Shingyo I learned. Unfortunately for me, there was no Internet to Google a translation back then.

However, I prefer the more direct approach of directly “seeing” – that’s just the programmer in me. But the text is so un-Western that for Western-style thinkers, Buddhism can sound like flowery, gratuitously contradictory, totally inaccessible crap at first. That can easily scare away some poor soul searching for the meaning of life.

Saying that, I’m recalling what I thought of Takuan’s (yes, like the turnip pickle) book, “Unfettered Mind”, when I first tried to read it twenty years ago … hahaha! At least my childhood experience with Buddhism didn’t scare me away as that book would have if that were my first encounter.

Buddhism is a skill. Buddhism treated as a philosophy is just knowledge. We would not say that a basketball player is one who simply knows the rules of basketball and can carry on a discussion of the merits of it as a team sport versus baseball or football. A basketball player is one who actually and skillfully plays basketball.

The real skill is not chanting in Sanskrit without tripping over your tongue. Or wearing malas, or graceful obon dancing, or being vegan. It’s not even directly about kindness and compassion as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama emphasizes. They are among the effects of Buddhist skill. Buddhist skill is training your mind to overcome this ugly stage we find our sentience caught between animal and a of force of the Universe. It’s hard to be compassionate while you’re suffering.

What is this ugly stage I refer to? Simply, the suffering we endure being aware of our mortality – that very same awareness that enables us to invent things that physical forces alone would take billions of years to stumble onto. It is a journey to the other shore takes constant practice, just as it would take with higher math, a new language, a martial art, playing a musical instrument.

Buddhism is not a religion or a philosophy but the practice of finishing up the tweaking of our sentience past the ugly stage of the journey. In fact, some of the people I think of as the best Buddhists aren’t Buddhists at all! I know great “Buddhists” of many different faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahai … some atheists, some scientists, some parents, some janitors. They are those who do not suffer even though they aren’t rich and much is asked of them.

So how does one practice that Buddhist Skill? Well, that’s what this site’s sister site, Teachings of the Eternal Fishnu, is about. But where to start? One good place would be my series of posts during the lunar Bodhi Season of 2017 (a year ago) when I posted a message for each of the eight days, starting with Bodhi Season Eve.

Faith and Patience to You,

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku


Links to the other posts belonging to this set of Bodhi Day 2018 posts:

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