Monday, August 23, 2010

How to Read the Buddhist Sutras (Part 2)

In the Contemplation Sutra (one of the sutras of the Pure Land School) which tells the story of Queen Vaidehi's acceptance of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, she is visited by the Buddha and his disciples Ananda and Maudgalyayana. They do not simply get a prison pass and walk in the prison, but they appear to her seemingly out of thin air. The Buddha shows her a vision of the Pure Land, and Vaidehi decides to be born there. In many other sutras, the Buddha manifests supernatural powers and accomplishes deeds which could be described as "miracles" or, activities which defy scientific laws.

Much of this can disturb readers who are expecting a more "rational" form of teaching (the idea of Buddhism as only philosophy comes to mind), and who could be uncomfortable with concepts like "miracles," which we assume to belong solely to the Christian tradition (yet even some Christians, like Thomas Jefferson, was uncomfortable with this)! However, these can be present in many other religions, including Islam.

How can we understand the sutras with their descriptions of incredible beings, and abilities manifested by the Buddha and his disciples? Should we just accept them "literally" that these beings and powers existed in history, or just dismiss them as elaborate yet impossible depictions created later by imaginative scribes? Should we accept one explanation without question, and then deny absolutely the opposite opinion? If the sutras contain "impossible" depictions, how can it be reliable? Where is the truth in its pages? Can it speak to us in today's worlds, with 21st-century issues?

I believe that the answer may lie in between these explanations. The sutras Pure Land or other schools, were not written to be a only a dry, historical account of the Buddha and his teachings, they were also written to convey the idea of the Buddha's uniqueness, to encourage devotion and adherence to the Pure Land teachings, and the wider Mahayana tradition. In the Lotus Sutra, it is encouraged to follow the teachings within this particular text, while other sutras say that this sutra is best. Is one false and the other true? Yes, some Buddhists have argued one is true and the others all heretical, as the Japanese monk Nichiren did in favor of the Lotus teachings. Other monks have made arguments for the validity of the sutras they follow, over others. Depending on the school, one sutra, or several, is preferred over others.

The sutra is not only a primer of "philosophy" but a text that is, perhaps pardoxically, irrational. It is meant to take us to a separate level of understanding, perhaps similar to the purpose of the Zen koan. When we read the sutras, we also read with the mind of faith. This mind of faith is not the mind of "blind faith" (of which many people criticize organized religion for) but rather the mind of opening the mind to the Buddha-Dharma. We may compare queen Vaidehi's example, of receiving the manifestation of the Pure Land in her mind.

However, we have to combine our reason with our devotion TOGETHER, to read the Buddhist scriptures. Simply stating that everything in the sutras is "literally" true or that everything in the sutra is merely smoke and mirrors for another "intellectual" meaning is falling to another extreme, which we should always try to avoid. A Buddhist has this responsibility, and should carefully consider thus the ways to read the sutra for himself/herself. Many individual Christians struggle also with reading the Bible, and take great care how they approach it as both a literary text and as a devotional text; as the sutras are our "holy text" we should take an approach of equal respect and critical reading towards the sutras (which exist in several different versions). Not to do this can lead us to error and the calamities of doubt, or perhaps worse, to what we see afflicting the religions today. Most people only see this played out on our TV screens. Seeing it in person, in Afghanistan for example, leads me to understand that how we read the sutras is crucial to our own understanding of why it is so important to read the sutras, with always the goal of the Buddha in mind - to achieve peace and compassion, beginning with oneself.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Adopts Vietnam War Killed in Action

[The following article is from the August 2010 issue of Wheel of Dharma, the official publication of the Buddhist Churches of America]

Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple(VHBT) is participating in the Japanese American Vietnam War Killed in Action (KIA) adoption program. In this program,community organizations/temples/churches would “adopt” the names of eight to 12 KIA and honor and remember them. Organizations also participating to date include the Pacific Southwest JACL,Centenary United Methodist Church, and the Venice Santa Monica Free Methodist Church. Adopting organizations were invited to participate in the annual Japanese American Veterans’Memorial Service at the Japanese American National Memorial Court at the Japanese American Culture and Community Center by presenting a single flower with the adopted serviceman’s name attached. This service took place on May 29 with members of VHBT present.Danny Nakagiri of VHBT presented a floral tribute on behalf of the Japanese American Vietnam War Veterans. Danny and his wife, Nancy, rushed to the Memorial Service immediately after the birth of their first grandchild, Leah Matsubayashi, daughter of Cindy and Erik Matsubayashi and granddaughter of Rev. and Mrs. George Matsubayashi. The website for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is There is no cost to participate in the program. There is,however, an endowment fund campaign which is raising money to maintain the Japanese American National Memorial Court at JACCC in perpetuity. VHBT will also honor these young men during our Atom Bomb Memorial Service on Sunday, Aug. 8. Other temples interested in participating in this program should contact Ken Hayashi at

Friday, August 6, 2010

UK Buddhist Chaplain to the Gurkhas

Recently I had the honor of meeting with Acharya Chewang Gurung, who serves as a civilian Buddhist chaplain for the UK Armed Forces. He is visiting Afghanistan to minister to Gurkha soldiers. Gurkhas are Nepalese, and have a long and proud history of service in the British military. Many Gurkhas practice Buddhism, also Hinduism, and a minority are Christians or other faiths; I've been told that Gurkhas do attend each others' services, with Buddhist Gurkhas attending Hindu services, and vice versa. Nepalese Buddhism is primarily Mahayana; there has been some scholarship on Nepalese Buddhism, but still is a new field of study. We had a good discussion, and hopefully will continue to meet and assist with ministering to Buddhist servicemembers wherever they are.
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