Sunday, December 23, 2007

Right Mindfulness...


I last posted about two months ago on this blog. Since mid-October I have been transitioning back to the States from Iraq. It's so good to be back!

In my last post I talked about how following Right Action in the Eightfold Path can help one in their job in the military. Being ever mindful is another important part. Right Mindfulness can be simply called "mental discipline" according to the all-knowing Be ever aware of where your mind is at. This is essential when making decisions in a military environment. I try to keep a Buddhist mindset as I can sometimes let emotions or personal needs get in the way of being a professional. The easy path is to lose your cool and to forget what is the right way to think and rationalize. The Buddha would have thought and spoke rationally and calmly. These are not Marine Corps skills. However it will make you more respected in the long run.

Get to know yourself and you can become mindful of how your body is doing physically. One can be in a better state of health when you are aware of just what your state of "self" is.

A lot of what you will read about mindfulness assumes that you are a monk living in a monastery and meditate 10 hours a day. I wish I had that kind of time on my hands! I think with some modification it all can be integrated into daily life.

I think that one's way of talking is largely what defines a person. I'll go over Right Speech the next time I post. Take Care!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Dazed and Confused!

Hello all!
This past weekend I attended a Christmas Party hosted at the home of one of our Op Ministry Center chaplains. A very nice guy (and a former Marine like myself!), he introduced me to one of his civilian friends in this way:

"This is Chaplain Shin, she's our first Buddhist Chaplain! And...she's the real thing!"
His friend asked, "What do you mean by 'real thing?'" (and by this time I was curious to find out too).
"She's not confused about who she is!"

That was certainly a fascinating insight (to put it neatly), and it left me thinking about what this implied. I was deemed the "real thing" not because I was ordained in Japan, or had a Master's Degree in Buddhism, or because I had an endorsement from the Buddhist Churches of America, but because in our past conversations, I was able to state clearly what I believed, and why I believed as I did...and didn't mumble that I wasn't too sure, or did the "blank stare," I guess! Undoubtedly my chaplain colleague, a devout Christian minister, had met Buddhists before in the service, or rather, persons whom he believed seemed more "confused" rather than a "professing" Buddhist, in his opinion. Now this is an assumption I've encountered among other Christian chaplains and this assumption runs something along the line of: Servicemembers (especially young junior enlisted) who claim to be Buddhist are simply either experimenting with non-Christian religions (this also includes Wicca) out of rebellion against their upbringing in a Christian home (the spiritual equivalent of playing Marilyn Manson in your room, loud), or have rampant curiosity about "Eastern religions" (the result of living away from home for the first time), or are just trying for an "easy out" of their military contract and believe that the act of saying that they are Buddhist will be enough to get it torn up. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to apply to members who are of Asian ethnicity (Buddhism just being a natural part of our ethnic makeup, which is something some academics also believe)!

This is a bit troubling in its way: it implies a belief that there is a certain lack of sincerity, or genuine religious devotion, in American Buddhists, or at least in American Buddhist servicemembers. This is clearly not true for the most part, but I've encountered some of these attitudes myself, so I cannot discard them completely.
This doesn't mean that our chaplains are refusing to facilitate for Buddhists, but it does suggest that they see Buddhists as full of doubt, just going through a phase, and that they are essentially "dazed and confused." Like the Buddhist equivalent of Day One of USMC boot camp!

It shouldn't be a surprise if many Buddhists ARE in fact dazed and confused! As I've pointed out in previous posts, we can find virtually all the different Buddhist traditions that now exist in the world today, here in the USA. We can find them here in California alone! Even more confusing, all these different Buddhist traditions believe and practice different things, the clergy wear different colored robes or no robes at all, and teachers can be Asian, Caucausian, or African-American. Some are strict vegetarians and others eat 100% beef hot dogs. Some meditate for 12 hours a day or more, others reject meditation altogether. Some say that Buddhism is a way of life and not a religion, while others pray for lucky lottery numbers. Some say that Buddhism is an entirely rational philosophy, empirical and scientific, while others pray to Amitabha and Kannon and Ksitigarbha for a better rebirth, and prostrate themselves before images of stone and wood and porcelain. Some Buddhists reject military service, others are dues-paying VFW members. Who WOULDN'T be dazed and confused?

Such apparent contradictions might seem just plain horrific to members of other religions. Instead, we can see this as beautiful. The Buddha said there are 84,000 paths to Enlightenment. Isn't this evidence of the truth of his teachings? Just because there is diversity does not mean that Buddhists don't know what to believe or what to do. Anyone who would describe themselves as Buddhist is, from the very beginning, dazed and confused! We have only just begun to touch the very edge of Lord Buddha's wisdom-compassion. We are working always to lessen our dazed, confused selves.

Education is key: this why we Buddhists must take the time to study for ourselves which path to follow, and take the time to think through what Dharma teachers say and write. Know what you want to learn from Buddha-Dharma. For new Buddhist servicemembers seeking help from a chaplain, be sure that you know what kind of assistance you want: for example, do you want assistance in finding a temple to attend, or just a monk or layperson to speak to? If you are in a personal crisis, do you know if, in that tradition, the clergy have had experience in counseling? Do you want a specific service, like a wedding or memorial service? Do you know what they look like, and what is expected of you? Are you searching for a place to practice sitting meditation, or a place where whole families attend and socialize? Would you be comfortable attending a temple that observes different cultural customs concerning gender, age, social etiquette, etc., and will also expect you to observe them? If you are geuininely seeking conscientious objector status, are you able to clearly explain why to a chaplain? Knowing something of Buddhist practices, cultures, and teachings will help not only you, but also help the chaplain to help you better, and (let's face it) take you seriously.

This is why study is important. Don't read only one book on Buddhism, because not every Buddhist book on the shelf at Borders is necessarily objective, or even accurate. Every author writes with their own agenda in mind, including myself - for example my agenda is pro-military and pro-Jodo Shinshu, obviously! Therefore ensure that your own Dharma study is a study! We can do critical study in Buddhism! Again, remember the teaching of the Buddha to the Kalama clan: put the Dharma into practice for yourselves, and your confusion [over what is a good teaching] will lessen.
Namo Amida Butsu

Friday, December 7, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Happy Bodhi Day!

Hello all!
December 8th is a day in which some Buddhist traditions (including the Jodo Shinshu tradition) commemorate the awakening to Enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha. Our temples usually have a special service around this time (often with good food)! This is a typical time to talk about what the Buddha's Enlightenment means for us. So...what does it mean for us? Does it have anything to do with us, in fact?

Each human being has to consider his or her own path to Enlightenment. The Buddha himself said, that the Tathagatas ("Awakened Ones") only showed the way, that we ourselves must make the effort. So in the centuries from the Buddha's time to now, many, many paths to Enlightenment have been blazed by people inspired by the Buddha's teachings, and his personal example. However, what goes into this "effort"? This is the tricky part! Why are there so many different Buddhist practices? Why do some teachers say you must do meditation, and others say that only faith is required? What about everything in between? What is the more "authentic" Buddhism: Theravada or Mahayana? How can all these be reconciled with what the Buddha taught?

It's easy to become confused, even discouraged, by so much diversity! We can easily stumble into a pothole on the path by encountering contradictions in the teachings, imperfect teachers, bizaare cultural rituals, and what not. We could try to go back to what the Buddha "originally" said, but he never wrote anything down in his own hand, and neither did his disciples - we still have to rely on what the Dharma texts (those that survived to this day anyway) stated that they said and did (so even doing this requires a leap of faith)! How can we be sure that we are on the right path to Enlightenment?

Some people assume that Enlightenment for Buddhists is something that they are trying to reach in their lifetimes, that it is essentially the completion of our religious life ("So, your goal is to become Enlightened?"); this has always sounded problematic to me, as if we are struggling to obtain something wonderful, yet a something which is intangible, rather vague, and always out of reach. Occassionally when I am quizzed on this, I can see the confusion (for lack of a better word) in people's faces, as if they are imagining that Buddhists are just waiting, day by day, to become Enlightened!

In my tradition, we say that the Buddha "awakened" to Enlightenment, rather than "attained" Enlightenment, as it is usually put. I do not beleve that Enlightenment is like a prize to be won, it is not even a goal to be reached. This may sound puzzling, but please think about it: what would an Enlightenment mean to you? Does it represent the climax of many years' study and practice? Would be a constant state of euphoric bliss? Would it enable you to know the past, present, and future, give you special "powers" as if you discovered you were actually Spiderman? Is it the equivalent of "Heaven?" Is it the end of samasara? If people ask you to describe it, what could you say?

Enlightenment can possibly mean many different things to different people. I am sure we can read many treatises discussing it, and discussing around it: Enlightenment has always been described as not possible to describe in the human language. While other aspects of Buddhist practice, such as meditation, can be described very thoroughly, now, even scientifically, Enlightenment itself is something more mysterious, more primordial. The word "Enlightenment" itself (bodhi) may not even be adequate. Yet what Buddha awakened to, we do know, was something that has always existed, and something that was, and is, possible for all people. It is a beneficial something, yet it cannot benefit others without the wisdom and compassion shown by the Buddha's personal example, and without our willingness to hear it. Why did the Buddha not just become Enlightened, and ignore the rest of us (this is called becoming a pratyeka-buddha, or "solitary Buddha")? This must be something that calls for our own personal involvement, to follow the Buddha's example, perhaps not 100% like pretending to live like an ancient Indian, but to put into practice in our own lives the principles of Buddhahood. I think that this is the real effort required by us. It can't be forced upon anyone. It can't do anything for us unless we are, at least, willing to try to hear and understand. How do we know it is any good? The Buddha advised the Kalama clan, who had asked him that very question, to simply put it into practice for themselves and witness its fruits. Some Buddhist practices may help people, others may not be so helpful. There is no "one size fits all" Buddhist practice! Is there a "one size fits all" human being?

Personally, the Buddha's Enlightenment for me is a teaching of hope; as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, I am not worried if it does not happen in my lifetime. I don't think most Buddhists anyway are walking around constantly thinking about when they will reach that most mysterious and beautiful possibility of Being. For most of us, it is enough simply being on the path, with fellow travelers, heading towards what we imagine to be an Other Shore, but truly the authentic Awakening must be when we truly appreciate our samsaric existence.
Namo Amida Butsu
Creative Commons License
Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at