Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Why the Buddha taught.

Why the Buddha taught.


        In our modern world, it seems that every bad act, every crime and atrocity, every sorrowful thing that happens in our world is instantly reported all around the world.  Every now and then we will see a report of someone doing a compassionate act for other people but for the most part these things simply are not news news.  Certainly, reading and watching history has a tendency to instill a belief that the human race is irredeemable.  We have been slaughtering and killing each other as far back as our memory goes and that’s as far back as history goes. The depravity of humanity would seem intrinsic and without end, a part of our nature that seems to define us above all other things.

                Many if not most of the religions of the world have for all intents and purposes encouraged us to have no faith in humanity but to have faith in something else that will reach down from the heavens and redeem us and change our very nature, or at least forgive our nature. St. Augustine canonized this concept in what he called Original Sin.  And in many religions the belief that humans are fundamentally and irretrievably flawed is part of the teaching.  It’s certainly not hard after you’ve lived a few years to believe this to be the case.  That there is no possibility of man as a species resolving the issue of the depravity of his nature on his own.

                One of the things that separates Buddhism from most other religions is that it has not accepted the concept that man as a species or even that an individual person for that matter cannot change or improve their nature.   I recently put the phrase “why Buddha taught” into a major search engine on the Internet. I received absolutely no results for that inquiry, every single result that I received was entitled “what Buddha taught”. Unless these major search engines are flawed this will be the first essay available on the Internet about why Buddha taught.

              Embedded in several stories about Buddha’s original enlightenment are several short and curt sentences addressing the debate Buddha held with himself after he awakened.  In at least one of them he walks a few paces away from where he had been sitting under the bodhi tree and points to that spot and declares “this cannot be taught”.  In other stories of the Canon the gods themselves come down and plead with Buddha to teach what he has learned, I’ve read most of the Pali canon and the many Mahayana sutras but I have never seen the issue of why Buddha decided to spend his entire life teaching what he had learned to others. Just because I haven’t seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do exist there fairly well hid or considered of little interest.

 I’m going to make some simple deductions here since so little source material seems to address this issue in any depth at all. The very idea of a Buddha, and the man that we called the Buddha and his story demands that we believe that a human can become enlightened or awaken by means of his own human endeavor and his own human nature and intelligence.  If this idea is removed from the story of Buddha there simply would be no Buddha and there would be no Buddhism.  Clearly one of the things to which Buddha was awakened and observed was that a human being could through his or her own effort  overcome what all the other religions would call our Original Sin or intrinsically flawed nature.  That self redemption is possible.

In all of Buddhist teachings it is clear that skillful means are being provided by which each individual can change and improve those things that we despise in ourselves.  One of the very pillars upon which Buddhism stands is that each person with effort, study, and self-observation can move themselves closer to what we now call a Buddha.  In modern day terms, I think it would be clear to say that Buddha taught for over 50 years because he had faith in humanity.  It seems that one could call Buddha the first self-improvement guru, but I think that would be trivializing his teachings.  He framed his original sermon as a diagnosis and prescription for an illness, he certainly didn’t believe that illness was incurable.   The ocean of human suffering  in which he  and all other humans swim  was an illness  not a birth defect .

In our world as a child grows up and starts to seek spiritual awareness and an understanding of the world around them one of the first mistakes they seem to make is to believe it is other people’s responsibility to prove to them that humanity is and can be good. As mentioned above our own personal experience and the centuries of history which we have read shows us a great many people who were what almost any moral system would call bad.  We see centuries of killing and tormenting and torturing each other in what seems like an endless cycle of depravity. This creates a weight upon our soul and often slays our hope and faith for humanity.  Religions occur and reoccur implying that you must get permission from some higher power to be kind and compassionate and loving in your thought actions and words.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we find our present world so disheartening is that we especially in Zen have abandoned the ideas of karma and rebirth and only look at the present from which to take our cues.   It seems simple for the Westerner, the American teacher of Zen to cut these ideas away from their teachings seeing them as primitive superstition.  That in itself narrows their own view and  that of  their students  as to what is possible and what can be done.  In the end most of them conclude that nothing can be done, that one can only accept this horrible world in which we live.   I am Soto Zen and the man  who started the school of Buddhism was a brilliant  Buddhist scholar perhaps one of the most brilliant that has  ever lived.  Anyone who is read anything that he is written cannot honestly say that his teachings and writings can  be summed up into  parking your butt on a pillow and shutting down your mind .  Many of the things that he said were paradox in and of themselves,  if you can't work out that the greatest Buddhist scholar of his age and perhaps any other was speaking about  also relying upon studying the Buddhists teachings, that he didn't consider them to  be useless doesn't need to be teaching  anyone.

It is my hope one day that Zen will go back and begin to incorporate Buddhism in their teachings again and have less of this easy idea that there is nothing to be learned and nothing to be done and that self-improvement through meditation, learning and teaching is a delusion. It’s easy to sell an empty box or so it would seem from what I have observed in recent years.

Buddha thought that change starts with you, that it is entirely possible for you to rid yourself of the kind of thinking that has enslaved humanity into an endless cycle of suffering as far back as anyone can remember. This is why Buddha taught. This is why he spent his entire life from the moment of his awakening walking up and down the world teaching what he had learned. The only humanity you need to have faith in is yourself.  but never forget that you are humanity  in whole and in part .

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Heritage of Human Sorrow

     Somewhere around 567 BC a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini , Nepal.  He grew up shielded from all suffering or at least that’s what we’re told.  But on the birthday of his first son and after being exposed to things like disease , old age and death he ran away from home in search of an answer to life. The fact that Buddha lived, and taught, and died is proved by an overwhelming amount of evidence.   After about five years of searching he sat under a tree and contemplated everything that he had seen and heard and been taught. He considered the human condition and after about 50 days of setting under that tree he had an epiphany. Some people choose to call it his enlightenment the older texts indicate that he himself referred to it as his awakening.  Upon due consideration he gave a sermon. That sermon is often called the first turning of the wheel. It was written down later on in the form of a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription as it would have been given in the time that Siddhartha lived.  What we now call the four noble truths were his observations that he considered self-evident. They are listed below.
Four Noble Truths

   1. Suffering exists
   2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
   3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
   4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

            What we call science presently estimates that the modern form of humanity has been on the earth for about 200,000 years.  All things considered that a young prince should notice 2584 years ago that the most striking thing about the human condition was the heritage of human sorrow is not an amazing thing in and of itself. But it cannot be denied that his turning of this wheel and the medicine which he prescribed for that heritage of suffering changed the world forever.

            His prescription for mitigating this sorrow and the suffering is now called the eightfold path.  Literally thousands upon thousands of Buddhist practitioners, scholars and yogis have written and contemplated and analyzed and re-analyzed those two paragraphs which Siddhartha  taught so many years ago. And of course with each application of each individuals perception and intellect and their own experience of suffering there has resulted an almost endless parade of interpretations of those few words Buddha taught on so many years ago. 

            Modern Zen practitioners for the most part has surgically removed the concepts of karma and rebirth from the teachings. But even with this dissection the truth of Buddha's  observations still hold fast to the human condition.  Anyone who says they have never suffered is lying to you or to themselves or to both. 

     Now comes a few simple questions. Has your practice of Zen reduce the amount of suffering that you have experienced since you started practicing Zen?  Since you started practicing Zen have you changed?  Has your teachers words had the effect of reducing your suffering.  Are you happier now that you have sat for hours meditating than you were before?  Has the obscurity of Zen and it’s amorphous paradoxes  helped you in any way?  When you set under the steely gaze of your Zen master and he says you can expect nothing from Zen what’s really going on in your mind? 

            I only ask that you be truthful with yourself on dealing with these questions. You can brush them aside and ignore their consequence or you can give them due consideration the choice is of course always yours.

            Long ago when I was practicing another form of Buddhism I was taught a fable.  In which the teachings and precepts of Buddhism were boiled down into a little story that even a child could understand.  The ancient teacher of Buddhist wisdom looked up at an all powerful king who had just asked him what the nature of Buddhist teachings were. He responded that:


1.      Do as little harm as you can.

2.      Do as much good as you can.

3.      Try to purify your heart.


I have looked down the tunnel of time and taken unto myself this heritage of sorrow that we all carry with us. I have lived and died and been reborn upon the rising of each sun. It’s useless to tell people to change because change is inevitable.  It’s useless to raise your fist at the sky and curse your fate.  It is however absolutely mandatory that we look within ourselves for the truth that lies within.

If I had but a couple of minutes left of breath, and I wished to tell you something            before I go, it would be:

1.  Do as little harm as you can.

2.      Do as much good as you can.

3.      Try to purify your heart.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hollywood Zen

" He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak " Jackie Chan (Forbidden Kingdom)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving and Gratitude and Zen Buddhists , when the world really sucks.

    I’m writing this on Thanksgiving 2016,  it’s not been a particularly good Thanksgiving for me:  I won’t bother you with the details.     All  of which has inspired me to write this essay.

                 Many years ago I was attending a teaching by very old Tibetan monk.  The subject of the teaching was the "great compassion"  this is the  compassion that Buddha  had and which he taught.  I asked the teacher about compassion without a subject, what I mistakenly called objectless compassion.  This idea of  compassionate for everyone in general and no one particular was giving me a head ache . I had studied very hard and had found selfless compassion the compassion that includes everyone and everything a difficult concept. As it turned out when I finally got the translator to tell the teacher what I was asking him,  he very firmly told me that all compassion should have a subject or object .  That developing the idea of compassion for everyone and everything requires cultivation of a state of mind and it requires work.  Compassion is I think probably the most taught subject at the moment in modern Buddhism. But today I would like to discuss gratitude, I guess I’ll call it the great gratitude or simply selfless gratitude.

            My old  Tibetan  teachers  talked about this  ancient teacher or that ancient teacher as having discovered a Buddhist teaching like it had been lying under a rock somewhere and they were looking around and just happen to pick up the right rock.  I’ve never been particularly fond of that idea.  I think that one  today has to  say that Buddha had “invented” Buddhism to solve what he saw as the major problems with life and probably the major problem with life from day one is that it often sucks.  His first observation seems to be that  we swim in an ocean of Dukkha, which is often translated into English as suffering. Of course with every idea and concept in Buddhism there are 1000 people who have a different definition for it when it’s translated into a new language like English.

        When I was studying with  my Tibetan teachers I learned that Tibetan Buddhism and their teachers really {really} liked to list and number everything.  I have attended teachings that lasted three hours as the teacher listed and numbered all the different kinds of suffering including the suffering of suffering so this is a deep well in which I don’t intend to step at the moment. For the purpose of this essay let us just say that life often sucks.  I think that pretty much covers just about anything in the concept of Dukkha.

        So we Americans have been brought up with this holiday called Thanksgiving if you lived in America during your lifetime as a child  I don’t see how you could have not run into this holiday. Thanksgiving basically translates into gratitude. People can and often do sit down and list all the things for which they are grateful. Then the question comes up who are they grateful too? Of course Christians and Muslims and Jews and many other religions have no problem with this question because they are grateful to their God.

       With people being as well informed as they are today it is very often very hard for modern people even Christians to look around and see this world of suffering and to see the things they have lost and the people they have lost and still feel a sense of gratitude to the all seeing all-knowing godfather in the sky. As you turn on your TV and watch the news and see all the wars the killing both in the war and down the street from you it is sometimes very hard to keep up that state of mind that there is this really a nice guy running the joint.

      But Buddhist for the most part do not have the same concept of a God that the other religions do.  As I stated in a previous essay I don’t believe Buddha ever actually said there was no God. What I believe he said  was that  you shouldn’t become attached to your idea of what God and who God is . I admit that’s just my opinion from reading what he said.

             So let’s get back to the point!  Here we are Buddhist, it’s Thanksgiving, at the moment at least our life sucks,  and we don’t really have some big white-haired bearded guy up in the sky that we layoff all our problems on, the one most people call God.  But good things do happen to us and bad things do happen to us. So how can we celebrate Thanksgiving with a real sense of gratitude.  Will that’s where selfless gratitude in my opinion comes in, just as we don’t really need a single individual or even a group of individuals in a particular group to feel compassion  we really don’t need this singular entity to feel gratitude for.

             One of the problems with Zen in America is I believe a failure of our teachers in Zen to teach the idea of cultivating states of mind.  Almost every other school practices cultivating states of mind like compassion and gratitude , but mostly we just sit.   We don’t usually have long list of enumerated obstructive emotions followed by a matching list of antidotal states of mind . Nevertheless many  Zen groups today do teach Metta, the mantras and chants of which are actually meant to help cultivate a state of mind.

      So developing selfless gratitude is not really that far for a  Zen student to stretch.  The trick that the Tibetans learned long ago is that no matter how bad off you are you going to be able to come up with a list of things that you are grateful for, and in the very least a list of thing you can realistically imagine your grateful haven’t happened to you.

            I’m going to make an assumption here that as Zen Buddhist you are at least basically familiar with the eightfold path which includes right view, right aspiration, right speech ,right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness, and  right concentration. If you have even looked at these ideas , even if your teacher never gives you any straight answers to your questions about them, you should be able to find the eightfold path and figure out fairly quickly that Buddhism involves the cultivation of your mind and your attitudes.  So I think I’m on fairly solid ground in suggesting that while you’re sitting  and no one’s looking over your shoulder and into your mind you might actually try and see if you can develop the state of mind of gratitude without the list of things to be grateful for and the one big enchilada that you’re supposed to be grateful too. 

      This usually takes 20 years of training or so I have been told,  but I’m going to suggest to you that if you just give it a shot you will find out that it really doesn’t take very long to be able to develop within yourself a feeling of expansive compassion and expansive gratitude, this might also be called selfless compassion and selfless gratitude or the great compassion and the great gratitude.  You might even want to call it objectless compassion and gratitude but when I tried that my Tibetan teacher, slapped me in the head and told me that we always had to have an object for our compassion and our gratitude. Well bugger, just  remember they are  just words folks.  You have to have some place to start
            I’ve often heard it said that you cannot control your emotions or that some people cannot control their emotions or that you can’t help how you feel , ad nausea.   But Buddhist training has for centuries been based upon the idea that you can train your mind and that mind  includes your emotional structure.  Buddhist teachers saw that you can cultivate states of mind like compassion and gratitude through practice and perhaps a little direction from a teacher.  I also know that in a Zendo setting any time you slap more than four words together or words that have more than six syllables there will be  somebody who wants to argue with you, someone who doesn’t like the definitions you used, and someone who is so proud of not knowing anything that they just have to inflict that  upon you.

       So if you get that kind of reaction where you’re taking your Zen meditation and teachings don’t let it bother you.  Don’t give up your teacher or your meditation group just try this out at home when you are alone and give yourself a chance to grow.

            And if you get too much static about thinking during Zen practice just look whoever is giving you the static in the eye, raise one eyebrow and say “ I have the great doubt”. That should keep them busy long enough for you to get out of the room.  So as long as your breathing be grateful.

                                   Have a happy Thanksgiving

Monday, September 26, 2016

No God? Or no attachment to your idea of God?

              In 30 years I have never found an ancient Buddhist Sutra quoting the Buddha saying  there was no God, in fact many have him interactive with the God's of India.  But without a doubt he taught non attachment. How much evil has been done in the name of this or that person's idea of God. Clearly if he taught on God it was to abandon one's idea of God.  Let God be God, give God no name, no culture, no nationality.  Lose your attachment to what you would have God be.  Once you think you know God you then resent others with a different idea of God.  You soon think you even know the mind of God.  Only Evil seems to follow.
    The Buddha's teachings in both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism are for all intents and purpose essentially atheistic, although neither deny the existence of beings that might be called "gods."  In point of fact the Buddha himself rejected metaphysical speculation as a matter of principle, and his teachings focused entirely on the practical ways to end suffering.  Many people have interpreted his teaching on non-attachment as atheism. And many have ignored Buddha's  first sermon where he plainly says his teaching's purpose is to mitigate the heritage of human sorrow. They have chosen to believe he was teaching a path to something they called "enlightenment"  in English.  How much suffering has been both endured and inflicted in the name of this so called enlightenment no man can tell.
        On the other hand, the Buddha did not explicitly rule out the existence of a God or gods.  As Buddhism filtered through many cultures and countries it picked up many hitchhikers.  In both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism the local God's and spirits attached themselves to Buddha. The Hindu god's and deities traveled along for the ride.  In Burma the "Nat" hitched a ride. Among the most popular Buddhist deities in the east  are Kuan Yin, the Medicine Buddha, the Laughing Buddha and the Green and White Taras. As local Buddhist wrote their own sutra's classifications arose for the various Avatars of Buddhist Ideals. there are  Buddha's Gautama Buddha (Shakyamuni) Laughing Buddha/Future Buddha (Maitreya) Medicine Buddha/Healing Buddha Five Dhyani Buddhas Dipamkara (Kasyapa) Buddha. The newer Mahayana Buddhist added the Bodhisattvas Five Bodhisattvas of Compassion Tara Kuan Yin etc. In  Theravada Buddhism you have your
Arhats which spread to Mahayana , at least  16 Sravakas (Tibetan) 18 Lohans (Chinese) . In China just a few of the Chinese Buddhist Deities are Kuan-Yin Jade Maiden Golden Youth Kuan-Ti (Sangharama) Wei-To (Skanda) Four Guardian Kings (Si-Ta-Tien-Wang) . In Tibet the Tibetan Wrathful Deities Yama Mahakala Yamantaka Kubera Hayagriva Palden Lhamo Tshangs pa Begtse Nagas Lha-mo all jumped  aboard for the ride.
   Since this blog is about Zen, the Japanese form of Chan we can't leave out their extensive hierarchy of hangers on. Leading the list of course are the Buddhas, followed in order by the numerous Bodhisattvas, the Wisdom Kings, the Deities, the "Circumstancial appearances" and lastly the patriarchs  and eminent religious people Ad infinitum.

  The actual existence of any of these Spirits, Deities, Gods and Avatars is something I will leave to the reader to decide. I would note that they are often useful tools to mentally crystalize an idea or concept in the teachings. Like the parable of the raft, they are probably best left on the bank once the river is crossed.



Monday, August 15, 2016

Is there such a thing as a Buddhist Priest?

     A few days ago I read an interesting post on Facebook written by a Zen practitioner about a young man who was, according to the writer, studying to become a Buddhist Priest in one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  This amazed me since I had practiced Tibetan Buddhism for years and had never read or heard of any Tibetan school having priests.
   As far as I know the only schools of Buddhism that have people who claim the title of priest are those schools that have come to America from Japan.  All other schools as far as I know ordain only monks.  Generally speaking monks and nuns  are a member of a religious order ordained by other monks and receive religious training in the beliefs of their order. Usually being a monk requires taking vows of poverty, chastity and renunciation. 
    A priest on the other hand is trained in his schools beliefs and  rituals.  His or her ordination conveys the right of the priest to perform those rituals and  usually to preach his religious beliefs to the public. In some religions the preist may also take vows of chastity.  I think it would be fair to see a priest as a specialist in rituals including marriages and funerals. 
      Priests usually are not required to shave their heads, they can eat whatever they choose and in most cases they may and do marry.  In Japanese Buddhism such as Zen the folks in America who call themselves priests are usually householders . 
  I asked myself when or how did Zen monks stop being monks and start being householders.   The answer wasn't as clear cut as I assumed it would be.  As far as I can tell references to monks being married  goes back at least to the early Heian period in Japan  (794 to 1185) .  Shinran  (1173-1262) and Ippen  (1239-1289) there were wandering Buddhist mendicants who were married.
      But what is still not clear to me is what Buddhist schools and teachers made this change from all other schools accepted by the Japanese.  In 1872 the Meiji  government issued
   Edict 133 which appears to be the first codification allowing monks grow their hair, eat meat and marry.  But it appears monks had been doing these things for years, in Japan.  
    Japanese Buddhism and the Japanese government were by then interlocked  Temples all over Japan were now owned and operated by families.  The temples and the priesthood had become inherited property , the priesthood  being passed down from father to son. This practice seems to be unique to Japan. 
     The secularization of Japanese monks then seems to have spread across most of the Japanese buddhist schools. The so called "Temple Families "  supported by national laws that required all japanese citizens to be associated with the nearest Temple , seem to have turned the Temples into businesses providing the government with a means of rooting out nonbuddist and the families a great profit in conducting marriages and funerals. 
       In Japan today their are few celibate monks and any distinction between what we call a priest and what we call a monk  is for any practical matter non existent.  A resident monk in a temple is called a Jushoku.  But I  don't think the Jushoku would call themselves a priest.  A Zen monk living in a temple is a hojo but again I am  not positive this word means a priest as we Americans use the word.
       I  know this will upset many folks but the truth seems to be that the Zen Priest seems to be an American invention.  In Japan the married Buddhist monk seems commonplace.  Everywhere else the married Buddhist monks simply don't exist.  In order to justify the Japanese secularization of monks we invented the Zen priest. 
    The answer to my original question about the monk vs the priest seems to be that buddist preists are a  convenient  fabrication by Americans to explain away an aberration that arose in Japan when religion and government became intertwined.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Bodhidharma and the Dance of death

Bodhidharma and the Dance of death

          Sooner or later when you study Zen your teachers will tell you the story of Bodhidharma.  How much of the story is history and how much of it is legend is unknown.  In all the stories Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the fifth or sixth century CE. The first remark I would like to make is that there are records of Buddhism having been practiced in China as far back as 213 BC.  It is important to realize that Buddhism had been in China for probably five or 600 years when the monk Bodhidharma crossed from India into China. So there were Buddhist temples and Buddhist monasteries of various schools of Buddhism well established in China when Bodhidharma arrived.

The most common story tells that he originally traveled to China in order to meet the Emperor Wu.  This Emperor was a pious man and a Buddhist.  The Buddhist teachers of his day had taught him about merit which is a sort of karmic bank account to which one can add by good deeds and even by sponsoring the good deeds of others. It is said that the Emperor Wu, on the advice of his Buddhist teachers had sponsored the building of many Buddhist temples and sponsored scriptorium’s were Buddhist monks labored to translate Buddhist documents from Sanskrit into the Chinese written language. 

          The Emperor like most emperors had by necessity accumulated a lot of negative karma in his lifetime.  It was his hope that by building the temples and sponsoring the transcription of the Dharma he would gain merit which would offset his past evil deeds. So when this new monk came into his kingdom from India he invited him to the Imperial Palace.  There he showed Bodhidharma the temples he had built and the other good works he was sponsoring to help spread the Dharma in China.  When he had shown Bodhidharma all these things he looked toward him and asked how much positive merit Bodhidharma believed he had accumulated through these good works. It is said that Bodhidharma told him that he had accumulated nothing.  I am not sure if the point was the Emperor had only done these things to gain merit and therefore his intent was wrong, or if the monk simply didn't believe in the concept of merit but he basiclly told the Emperor he could not buy his way into heaven. Needless to say the Emperor was not too happy with  Bodhidharma and that very wisely the monk from India took his leave and went farther into China.

The next thing we know  Bodhidharma is at the gates of the Shaolin monastery in Henan China.  The story goes that the monks had heard of his disagreement with the Emperor and had refused to allow him entry to the monastery.  The story of Bodhidharma at this point begins to take upon itself the aspects of mythology and legend.  One story says that he just sat in front of the gates and meditated and the intensity of his gaze burned holes into the side of the monastery.   In any case he was eventually allowed to enter the monastery and start his practice of meditation there.  Most of the histories agree that the primary practice at the Shaolin Temple at this time was the transcription of Buddhist writings.  What Bodhidharma found was that the monks spent all their time hunched over tables transcribing Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese.

It would seem that Bodhidharma proved himself to his fellow monks by his dedication and that he spent much of his time in meditation.  It’s clear that Bodhidharma was from a different school of Buddhism than the one the Shaolin monks praticed so he began to teach them his philosophy of Buddhism which was to become known as Ch’an in China and later as Zen in Japan. There are many myths associated with Bodhidharma’s stay at the Shaolin Temple. One story says that he sat in meditation so long that his legs fell off. Another story says that he introduced the drinking of tea to Chinese Zen and used his own eyebrows to make tea for the other monks.

But the  important part of the legend we shall address here is that he found the monks out of shape and overweight.  The monks spent all their time sitting at tables and got very little exercise.  So he developed an exercise routine for the monks to practice.  The exercises that he taught the monks were said to be derived from the hatha and raja yoga practices from his native India.  At the time China was not unfamiliar with martial arts. And it was suggested that many of the monks had probably already had training in different forms of martial arts.  In any case over time the monks took the movements and forms that were taught to them by Bodhidharma and evolved them into a form of martial arts that we now call kung fu.

The stories about Bodhidharma while persistent have never really been shown to be anything but legend.  But what is certainly true is that the Buddhist monks at the Shaolin monastery developed a form of martial arts that was both defensive, offensive and sometimes lethal.  The excuse that is given for this persistent training in a lethal martial art is that the monks would have had to defend themselves from robbers thieves and even wild animals. But this story brings into focus a paradox that is persistent in Buddhism to this day.   How could the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin monastery or any other buddhist monastery reconcile their hours of training in martial arts with the teachings of the Buddha.

The legends of course let Bodhidharma off the hook by saying he merely taught some out of shape over weight monks how to do some yoga exercises in order to stay in shape and preserve their health.  This does not however prevent many a statue or  painting of Bodhidharma in a kung fu stance his prayer beads in one hand he being  balanced on the balls of his feet and having a fierce look on his face, he stands  ready to strike.

So this dedicated Buddhist monk has become known as the father of Chan or in Japan Zen Buddhism and at the same time become known as the father of what is often called Temple boxing, or just simply as the father of kung fu.  And this brings forth the paradox of reconciling violence with the teachings of the Buddha.

I’d like to comment that martial arts were not unknown in India in the century in which Bodhidharma is said to have lived.  There was already a well-established connection between the teachings of yoga and their use in martial arts when Bodhidharma crossed into China.   There is at least one section  found in the Vedas (1700 BCE - 1100 BCE) which contains references to martial arts.    Because yoga, much like Tai Chi Chuan, has been promoted in the West as a health exercise, when most people think of yoga, they think of a series of beneficial physical postures.  But yoga has been integrated into various forms of martial arts and fighting forms in India for centuries. Many of the stories in the Vedas have sections including unarmed combat or combat using only a knife or a sword.  So it is not entirely unbelievable that the yoga exercises taught to the monks at Shaolin were in fact already designed to be part of a martial arts system like tai chi is today.  So it may be very possible that those statues showing Bodhidharma in a combat stance are in fact accurate.

     The teachings in Buddhism against violence are in the very earliest known written text of Buddhism.  Ahimsa, is a Buddhist term meaning 'not to injure', and is a primary virtue in Buddhism.

          Every school of Buddhism teaches the four noble truths and the eight fold path.  This eightfold path is composed of eight parts or areas of pratice that work together to teach the student how to manifest the Dharma. Right action is the fourth aspect of the path.  Called samyak-karmanta in Sanskrit, right action is a fundamental part of the ethical conduct portion of the path along with right livelihood and right speech.  It is said that the practitioner should train oneself to be morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others. One Sutta simply says:


]” And what is right action?  Abstaining from taking life, stealing and illicit sex, This is called right action.”

                                         — Saccavibhanga Sutta

       In Buddhism, to take refuge in the Dharma - one of the Three Jewels- one vows to not harm other sentient beings.  There can be absolutely no doubt that from the very beginning Buddhism taught nonviolence as a fundamental part of its teaching. This aspect of Buddhism is literally found throughout Buddhist literature from beginning to end. The Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada as saying, "All are afraid of the stick, all hold their lives dear. Putting oneself in another's place, one should not beat or kill others".   The Nirvana Sutra says, "By taking refuge in the precious Dharma, One's mind should be free from hurting or harming others".  One of the Five Precepts of Buddhist ethics or śīla states, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing”

       Many forms of martial arts have resolved themselves into dance execises, this can be seen in tai chi and in certain forms of yoga. speed up the dance and it transforms into a dance of death.  Whether one is learning a dance or learning a way to bring devastating harm to another person may have nothing to do with the substance of what is learned and have everything to do with intent.  The fact is Bodhidharma came from a society with many forms of yoga and many forms of dancing and many forms of martial combat training. The legends we hear tend to preserve Bodhidharma’s character by saying that he only taught them as exercises and that later the monks who by the way were also Buddhists evolve these movements into fighting forms. The one truth we know for certain is that these dances of death became bound up with buddhism over the years.
          The Chan Buddhism that Bodhidharma brought to China eventually found its way to Japan, and Korea and other Eastern countries. In many of these countries the buddhist teachers brought the combat teachings with them as well.  In Japan there was a warrior class known as the samurai that used the focus and concentration taught by their Zen monks to make themselves superior warriors. The pratice of Zen augmented the samurai's combat skills.  

   The   “Sohei”  were Buddhist warrior monks of both medieval and feudal Japan.   These Buddhist warrior monks first appeared during the Heian period ]when bitter political feuds began between different temples, different subsects of Buddhism over imperial appointments to the top temple positions (abbot, or zasu). Much of the fighting over the next four centuries was over these sorts of political feuds, and centered around the temples of Kyoto, Nara and Ōmi namely the Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera, the four largest temples in the country. Historically entire Buddhist organizations developed a culture of violence. 
          Several monasteries in East Asia, specifically in China, Korea, and Japan, employed warriors, many of them highly trained, for protection and to exercise what they considered to be their rightful political and economic rights in the premodern period, mainly before 1600. In many cases, these warriors had monastic names, though they rarely had extensive religious training. These warriors were not truly warrior monks they were basically mercenaries hired by the monasteries to defend what they saw as their rights in a corrupt political system. These warriors were not interested in religious doctrine they were being paid to defend a monastery and had no religious convictions concerning why they were there and what they were supposed to do. Nonetheless their employers were Buddhist monks and as such these monks were bound by the teachings of the Dharma, But the temptations of the material world corrupted them. Buddhist were as susceptible to this kind of corruption as the Catholic Church was.

          It can be argued that these monasteries existed in violent times and were simply trying to survive, but nowhere in the teachings of the Buddha is there a get out of jail free pass if you live in hard times.  There have been many political wars in the past that have disguised themselves as religious wars . That is in fact  what is happening today in many parts of the world. The fact is most of the religious terrorists today are seeking power, make that political power, they are not trying to fulfill the requirements of their religion. they simply seek political power over others.

          Today political pressures are pushing people in and out of countries and across cultural as well as national lines,  upsetting  the cultural and religious balance in these countries. There are political propagandist in the West as well as in the East that are working 24 hours a day ; trying to represent Buddhism as a religion of violence.  In fact there are journalists that are making an entire career out of trying to convince people that Buddhism is the violent religion in the world today and religions like Islam and Christianity and Judaism are the peaceful religions. While this is a pretty hard job still they’re working at it diligently and have been able to convince many people in the West that it is Buddhism that is causing the problems and the violence in places like Burma and Bangladesh.

          I have written this piece to show that from the turn of the first century A.D. there has been a strain of violence woven into the teachings of Buddhism. But unlike in many religions this teaching of violence is not a fundamental part of the Buddhist teaching. In fact it is very alien to the Buddhist teaching. That has not prevented the rise of the warrior monk in medieval Japan. It has not prevented certain Tibetan monks taking up arms against the Chinese when they invaded their country.  And undoubtedly there are people who practice Buddhism that are committing violence in our modern world. But what I would like everyone to realize that this is something that has been brought into Buddhism and is not part of it or its teachings.

         Whenever anyone sets out to demonize one particular group whether it’s Buddhist or Muslims or Christians or Jews the first thing they do is stop appealing to the people they  are talking to's rational brain and start appealing to their fundamental emotional makeup. When a propagandist can get you to start thinking simply with your glands and your hormones and to stop thinking with your brain they have found the path directly into your hate center and that is where your fear lies and fear is what drives people to commit violence in the name of religion. 
           One of the more endearing teachings, probably better described as an approach to teaching , in  Buddhism is to ask the students to think  critically and to demand evidence. The teachings of Buddha recognize that the human mind is composed of both an emotional component and a rational logical component and that the two need to be observed and balanced.  Whatever paradox is created by Bodhidharma being a patriarch of Buddhism and a patriarch of the martial arts can be dealt with by critical thinking and looking for the evidence.  The Buddha never taught violence and while he may have rejected other religious he never ordered that those who praticed these other religiouns be harmed. Buddhism has never taught that the heteric be slain or the unbeliever be killed. Over  the centurys deluded  and power hungery people have used the excuse of Buddhism to do these things, but that is not Buddhism

History has shown that organized Buddhism has been used as a political tool by governments in Japan and other countries   to control and  oppress  their subjects. A good example is the The danka system (danka seido), also known as jidan system (, jidan seido)  was  a system of voluntary and long-term affiliation between Buddhist temples and households in use in Japan since the Heian period. . In it, households (the danka) financially support a Buddhist temple which, in exchange, provides for their spiritual needs. Although its existence long predates the Edo period. (1603–1868), the system is best known for its repressive use made at that time by the Tokugawa, who made the affiliation with a Buddhist temple compulsory to all citizens.
           During the Tokugawa shogunate, the system was turned into a citizen registration network; supposedly intended to stop the diffusion of Christianity and help detect hidden Christians.  it soon became a government-mandated and Buddhist temple-run system to monitor and control the population as a whole.  For this reason, it survived intact long after Christianity in Japan had been eradicated. The system as it existed in Tokugawa times is sometimes called terauke system (, terauke seido) because of the certification (or terauke, because the tera, or temple would issue an uke, or certificate)  a document   issued by a Buddhist temple that a citizen was not a Christian. The now mandatory danka system was officially abolished after World War II, but continues nonetheless to exists as a voluntary association between the two sides, it constitutes a major part of the income of most temples and defines as before the relationship between households and temples.  This system lead to a hereditary priesthood with thousands of   small    family run Temples spread across Japan. Fathers would teach and certify their children to be priests in the family temple. The temple  beacame a source of family income.

      As demographics have changed this system is now in the process of collapse. Over the next 25 years, 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 temples are expected to close, in one of the biggest existential crises facing Japanese Buddhism  since it  was  first  introduced from Korea in the sixth century. Its decline mirrors that of hundreds of small communities that have traditionally helped finance their local temple. In a report released last year, the Japan Policy Council warned that if the exodus, particularly among young women, from rural areas to the cities  continues at the current rate, almost half of Japan’s municipalities will disappear by 2040, along with their places of religious worship. In the past centuries Buddhist temples have turned their temples into funeral parlors. The Japanese priest has become a specialist in the funeral ceremony business.  But modern Japanese have found that these priests and temples have priced themselves out of business.
     In truth none of these certificates and ceremonies have anything to do with the Teachings of the Buddha. The danka system (danka seido) is not a buddhist system, it was and is a political system. I can think of nothing more unbuddhist than a system like the Danka system used to cull out Christias and Buddhist heretics. A system  created as a means of social  control   and    turned   into a means of extotion and blackmail. It was and is a form of  social violence.      


     This is not to say that over the years organized Buddhism has not been ued as a political tool by governments in Japan and other countries   to control and  opress  their subjects. A good example is the The danka system (danka seido), also known as jidan system ( jidan seido) this was  a system of voluntary and long-term affiliation between Buddhist temples and households in use in Japan since the Heian period. . In it, households (the danka) financially support a Buddhist temple which, in exchange, provides for their spiritual needs. Although its existence long predates the Edo period. (1603–1868), the system is best known for its repressive use made at that time by the Tokugawa,  who made the affiliation with a Buddhist temple compulsory to all citizens.
           During the Tokugawa shogunate, the system was turned into a citizen registration network; supposedly intended to stop the diffusion of Christianity and help detect hidden Christians.  it soon became a government-mandated and Buddhist temple-run system to monitor and control the population as a whole.  For this reason, it survived intact long after Christianity in Japan had been eradicated. The system as it existed in Tokugawa times is sometimes called terauke system (寺請制度 terauke seido) because of the certification (or terauke, because the tera, or temple would issue an uke, or certificate) issued by a Buddhist temple that a citizen was not a Christian. The now mandatory danka system was officially abolished after World War II, but continues nonetheless to exists as a voluntary association between the two sides,    It stitutes a major part of the income of most temples and defines as before the relationship between households and temples.  This system lead to a hereditary priesthood with thousands of   small    family run Temples spread across Japan.
      As demographics have changed this system is in the process of collapase. Over the next 25 years, 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 temples are expected to close, in one of the biggest existential crises facing Japanese Buddism  since it  was  first  introduced from Korea in the sixth century. Its decline mirrors that of hundreds of small communities that have traditionally helped finance their local temple. In a report released last year, the Japan Policy Council warned that if the exodus, particularly among young women, from rural areas continues at the current rate, almost half of Japan’s municipalities will disappear by 2040, along with their places of religious worship.In the past centuries Buddhist temples have turned their temples into funeral palors. But modern japanese have found that these preists and temples have priced themseles out of business.