31 January 2012

Study Group: Online Tendai Buddhism Class

There has been some interest in forming an informal study group that will take a free online class in Tendai Buddhism together. You can find more information on that here. Everyone's welcome to join in!

30 January 2012

Retreat Photos...

I posted some photos of our recent retreat at the Tendai Buddhist Institute here, at our facebook page. Enjoy...

Contemplation: Harboring

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

With the mind harboring love and hatred,
and thoughts carrying flattery and crookedness,
one is full of confusion and perplexity,
and cannot enter the citadel of enlightenment.
To return to the realm of enlightenment,
desire, anger, and delusion must first be eliminated.
When attachment to the dharma [of nirvana]
no longer exists in the mind,
one can gradually reach accomplishment.

from The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, p. 53

25 January 2012

Introduction to Practice Night & Potluck: March 3, 2012

With the influx of new people we have had in recent months, it seems appropriate to offer a night of instruction and fellowship for beginners, and experienced people who would like a review.

You can find details on the wheres, whens, and what-to-do's at our Meetup page.

Here are some thoughts on why it matters to practice with others. It is, in our view, the heart of practice.

23 January 2012

Contemplation: All Tasks Well Performed

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

When something has been planned and started on,
Attention should not drift to other things.
With thoughts fixed on the chosen target,
That and that alone should be pursued.

Behaving in this way, all tasks are well performed,
And nothing is achieved by doing otherwise.
Afflictions, the reverse of vigilance,
Can never multiply if this is how you act.
Santideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, p. 68

18 January 2012

Issues of Community, Continued

My rather utopian idea yesterday that it might be possible for Buddhist groups of different stripes to organize around a common space in order to build positive connections and save expenses and time in our region has sparked a conversation on cooperation and conversation among sanghas more broadly. Find it here on the DharmaWheel discussion board.

17 January 2012

NoVA House of Dharma: It Just Might Work...

What follows is a set of speculations in response to a concrete problem in our region for Buddhists and Buddhist groups. I put it forward in the hope that some good may come of it.

Arlington, Virginia and its surrounding suburbs hosts many Buddhist groups. Several of them, including ours at the moment, rent space in one of three different Unitarian churches; others meet in private homes, or in yoga studios or dance halls or art galleries. We sometimes meet at Starbucks. This is OK as a stopgap measure, but does not offer the benefits of a long-term, stable location that people feel they can count on, and is often not supportive of meditative practice due to distraction and inconsistency. However, if you have fifteen groups of five or ten or twenty meeting once per week, you do not have a core around which building can be purchased or leased. This is where we are now: a thousand flowers are blooming but their future is uncertain in isolation.

One solution would be to organize several of these practice groups around one location, one building that is committed to hosting Dharma activities of many kinds. To give an example of what I am referring to, consider Ekoji in Richmond, Virginia: six or seven sanghas meet at different times under one roof, and share in the upkeep. Speaking practically, this means that a pan-Buddhist community can build up around the temple, there is less confusion in organizing Buddhist activities because people know where to go to find the Buddhists (instead of fussing over the Meetup site to find out if it really is 7:30pm on Tuesdays at the Unitarian Church or...?), and conditions and supports for practice can be improved. Sanghas would not need to compete for space with choir practice or stragglers from the previous yoga class. Instead, they would build the kinds of connections and habits that support Dharma activity. Call it a House of Dharma. The People's Dharma Hall.

So, what is needed? Oh, not much: just a big pot of money, a plan, a leader, a suitable location, and the cooperation of several Buddhist groups in the area. Can these conditions arise at once in a harmonious and productive way? It may not be likely, but it is possible: it can be done.

I would like to know from others if there is any interest in trying.

16 January 2012

The Awakening of Faith: A Study Guide

A revised version of our sangha's study guide for The Awakening of Faith is available for free download at this link. This should be enough to get us going for a while.

Contemplation: Clear Observation 8

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

It is as the sutra says: 'If a man meditates wholly on Amitabha Buddha in the world of the Western Paradise and wishes to be reborn in that world, directing all the goodness he has cultivated [toward that goal], then he will be born there.' Because he will see the Buddha at all times, he will never fall back. If he meditates on the Dharmakaya, the Suchness of the Buddha, and with diligence keeps practicing [the meditation], he will be able to be born there in the end because he abides in the correct samadhi.
The Awakening of Faith, p. 102

11 January 2012

The Awakening of Faith

For the next several weeks, our post-meditation Dharma discussions will center on a text called The Awakening of Faith. It is canonical in East Asian Buddhism, and for good reason: it gives a clear map of the concepts and categories of Mahayana practice, with an eye toward practice. That is, when it explains how these bits of doctrine fit together into an elegant whole, it does so in order to give a grounding and motivation for practice. This slim volume pulls more than its own weight, and is very much worth the time it takes to dig into it on its own terms.

Two concerns about this text have been expressed to me. The first is that the text may not be authentic, because even though it is attributed to the Indian pundit Asvaghosa, it is probably of later Chinese composition. The second is that it seems weird to contemporary Americans to talk about faith in a Buddhist context, because isn't Buddhism some kind of ancillary to humanistic psychology or cognitive science and not really a religion? And isn't faith just a cipher for cultish behavior? Hm. These questions should be taken seriously.

On Authenticity: It is true that the Awakening was probably written by a Chinese author (or authors). This does not make the text any less authoritative or useful, however. There is an entire canon of Chinese-authored Buddhist materials that are by contemporary standards apocryphal, but from the point of view of practice, make a real contribution in that they present the Buddhist teachings in a way that is tangible to the community it reaches. Some examples of this would include the Surangama Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, and the Brahma Net Sutra. I do not think it is plausible that the historical Buddha actually gave these texts orally. I do not need to think he did in order to accept the premise that they may have something to offer contemporary readers. They do. The Awakening is like that: it is a text designed to reach people with the Mahayana message.

On Faith: It is true that Buddhism is a religion. There are matters of faith. But what is meant by "faith" here? The premise of the Awakening (and of our school of Buddhism generally) is that meaningful practice begins when someone trusts his or her capacity for awakening, or Buddha-nature. You have to believe in yourself. This is part of the meaning of taking refuge. The world is screwed up and sorrowful, so we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha: we put our faith in the enlightened mind, in the teachings of liberation, and in the community of those who are committed to the good work. Faith in a Mahayana context connotes an attitude of devotion, commitment, respect, trust, and openness to learning. It is not the same as accepting a doctrine at face value because you are told to do so; it is not doctrinaire. At the risk of over-generalizing, in my experience Buddhists are better debaters than believers.

If you would like to follow along with the discussion, purchase a copy of the Hakeda translation of The Awakening of Faith at a bookseller of your choice, or find it at the library. I recommend checking for used copies through Bookfinder.

09 January 2012

Contemplation: Clear Observation 7

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

Next, suppose there is a man who learns this teaching for the first time and wishes to seek the correct faith but lacks courage and strength. Because he lives in this world of suffering, he fears that he will not always be able to meet the Buddhas and honor them personally, and that, faith being difficult to perfect, he will be inclined to fall back. He should know that the Tathagatas have an excellent expedient means by which he can protect his faith: that is, through the strength of wholehearted meditation on the Buddha, he will in fulfillment of his wishes be able to be born in the Buddha-land beyond, to see the Buddha always, and to be forever separated from the evil states of existence.

From The Awakening of Faith, p. 102

02 January 2012

Jikan's Office Hour: Cherrydale Redux

Our sangha began in an Arlington neighborhood called Cherrydale. So it feels right to meet there still from time to time. The next installment of Jikan's Office Hour will be held on 22 January 2012 (Sunday) at 1pm at the Starbuck's at 3125 Lee Highway. For more information, check out our meetup page. I look forward to seeing you there!

Contemplation: Clear Observation 6

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

The practice of 'cessation' will enable ordinary men to cure themselves of their attachments to the world, and will enable the followers of the Hinayana to forsake their views, which derive from cowardice. The practice of 'clear observation' will cure the followers of the Hinayana of the fault of having narrow and inferior minds which bring forth no great compassion, and will free ordinary men from their failure to cultivate the capacity for goodness. For these reasons, both 'cessation' and 'clear observation' are complementary and inseparable. If the two are not practiced together, then one cannot enter the path to enlightenment.

The Awakening of Faith
, pp. 101-102

A note on terminology: here, "cessation" refers to shamatha or "calm abiding," and "clear observation" refers to vipashyana or "insight." Together, the two practices form Shi Kan meditation: "calming the mind, discerning the real." Second, in this context, "hinayana" refers simply to the mistake of taking up Buddhist practice for selfish reasons, such as an escape from one's problems, rather than the proper motivation of bodhicitta. This is not a polemic against any particular school of Buddhism, but a warning to those who aspire to the Mahayana to check their motivations.