Ep. 011: "Are You a Buddhist?"

I am NOT a Buddhist--and how I became officially one

"Ni Xin Fo Ma?"

Bouncing around from one Chinese Buddhist temple to another, I was frequently asked by curious strangers, "Ni xin fo ma?" which I understood to mean, "Do you believe in Buddha?" or more simply, "Are you a Buddhist?" (The Chinese have few boundaries when it comes to personal questions; I wish I had a yuan for every time I was asked my weight, or how much money I made.)

Lacking the language skills to explain the subtleties of my position, I generally answered, "Wo xin," which I hope meant, "I believe."

But this could be misleading.

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There are two ways to understand this question. One is, "Do you believe in the Buddha's power to help you when you call on him?" The second is, "Do you believe that the Buddha's teachings can be helpful to you in daily life?"

To the second question, a resounding YES! I believe the Buddha's teachings would be useful even if a man named Siddhartha Gautama had never lived. Unlike the saving action of Christ (as Christians teach it), there is no specific action of the Buddha that saves. We can live better lives by following the teachings, regardless of the source. In this respect, Buddhism is clearly more of a philosophy than a religion.

But das volk WILL apotheosize. There's a word for ya! It means to deify someone, turn her or him into a god. It has happened with everyone from emperors to people's mamas, informally at least. And it is what I believe people have done with the Buddha.

If I did believe in a Buddha, it would be this one: Vairochana, or the "Great Sun" Buddha. What could be a more reasonable thing to believe in than the sun? Daci'en Temple, Xi'an, China

Whatever connection I have with Buddhism, it has no supernatural elements. So I would answer no to the first way of understanding the question, "Do you believe in Buddha?" I don't believe that some Buddha (or Bodhisattva, for that matter) is "up there" somewhere waiting to do my bidding.

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In fact, one of the primary characteristics of the historic Buddha is that he has achieved nirvana, from a verb that basically means "to snuff out" (like a candle). He was trying not to come back, in any realm. That is the foundation of his story: if life is suffering, more lifetimes equal more suffering, and he wanted off the wheel!

One word used to describe the Buddha is "the Tathagata." I won't bore you here with the intricacies of the Sanskrit--it's a task better done with a white board--but suffice to say that the word can mean either "thus come" or "thus gone." That the Buddha is gone is a primary tenet of original Buddhism. That he is come--and still available to us--is a matter of later, more wishful thinking.

This, by the way, is where the idea of the Bodhisattva comes into play. In the Mahayana tradition--the one most commonly found in East Asia--a Bodhisattva is one who has vowed not to go--to stick around through multiple incarnations until all sentient beings are ready to "cross over."

Chanting the Heart Sutra before a Buddha at Engaku-ji in Kamakura, Japan

So yes, I accept the validity of at least most of the Buddha's teachings, and am trying to realize them in my life. And yes, I kneel and light incense and chant before statues, and do all kinds of other worshippy things. But no, I don't believe these actions make a lick of difference outside of my own mind. For my money, prayer only changes the pray-er.

Self and Other

From Joseph Campbell I learned of two terms from Japanese Buddhism: Tariki (他力) and Jiriki (自力), pronounced in Chinese tali and zili.

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Tariki refers to "Other Power." In religion, it means the help given by an outside deity or other supernatural figure, available to faithful followers who petition him or her. This concept should be quite familiar to adherents of the so-called "Western" religions, including Christianity.

The paradigm for this in Buddhism is the Pure Land sect, which teaches repeating the name of the Amitabha Buddha. The claim is that even one sincere recitation will land a devotee after death in Amitabha's Pure Land, called Sukhavati in Sanskrit. The practice is to recite "Homage to the Amitabha Buddha," called the nianfo in Chinese and the nembutsu in Japanese. The words are, in China, "Namo Amituofo," and in Japan, "Namu Amidabutsu."

Amitabha Buddha with a lotus in his hand, at Xuanzhong Temple in Shanxi, China, a contender for the founding place of Pure Land Buddhism. Note the Amitabha "votives" in the case behind.

This, by the way, is the Western Pure Land; followers of Bhaishajyaguru, the "Medicine Buddha," strive for rebirth in his Eastern Pure Land. Thus, on some temple altars, we see Amitabha on the left end, which is the west (assuming the hall faces south, as usual), and the Medicine Buddha on the right or east end, with Shakyamuni in the center.

In either Pure Land, Western or Eastern, the point is that practicing in a sort of "heaven" (though not an eternal one) until one attains enlightenment is easier than doing so in this "world of red dust" (a term referring to the tsuris of mundane life).

The Pure Land practice is the most common one found in both Japan and China. After all, who would want to go through the hard work of meditation, when a spiritual Tom Sawyer type can get someone else to do the work for him--or at least, get him to where he can do it the easy way?

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The opposite of Tariki or "Other Power" is Jiriki or "Self Power." This is the practice in which one must pull oneself up by one's metaphorical bootstraps. The epitome of this in Buddhism is, as mentioned, Zen. That overly-familiar word comes from a character (禅) pronounced Zen in Japan, but Chan in China--which, in turn, imitates the sound of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which simply means "meditation."

Bodhidharma, possibly-legendary First Patriarch of Chan in China. The sign above his head reads "One Flower, Five Petals," alluding to the five patriarchs who followed him, Hualin Temple, Guangzhou, said to be his first "home" in China.

So yes, Zen is hard work. It is also a much-misused word. Though it may be possible to find zen-with-a-small-z in motorcycle maintenance or writing or business or stand-up comedy or even changing diapers (seriously! It's on Amazon!), Zen for reals is a disciplined practice unto itself. (I blame this crappo marketing trend on Eugen Herrigel's 1948 book Zen in the Art of Archery, an excellent if possibly specious approach to Zen-with-a-big-Z that has influenced generations of Western readers.)

Anyway, Zen/Chan couldn't be too arduous, since it and Pure Land are the only two of China's "Eight Schools" that survived the Great Persecution of 845 intact, though Pure Land is far more popular with the masses. One source indicates that among Japanese Buddhists, 25 million are Pure Land followers versus only 12 million Zen practitioners. Numbers for China are harder to come by, since the lines between the sects there are more flexible. I have been in evening services at temples where early on we circumambulated the altar chanting the nianfo, and later in the same service sat in Chan meditation!

To sum up these two practices, here's a homely story often told by Joseph Campbell. In India, he says, Tariki or "Other Power" is called The Way of the Kitten, as the mother cat takes her baby by the nape of the neck and carries it from place to place. But Jiriki, "Self Power," is The Way of the Monkey, whose baby must cling to its mother's back by its own strength.


How I Became a Buddhist (NOT!)

Lovely little Hongyuan Temple, my former Buddhist "home" in China

Okay, Temple Guy, so you believe in the Buddha's teachings, but you don't believe he's up there waiting to fill your orders (i.e., prayer requests). But are you a Buddhist?

Well, yes and no.

No, I have never gone through the proper initiation to become a Buddhist. The ceremony, called "Taking Refuge," means standing in front of a recognized Master and saying "I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma [his teachings]; I take refuge in the Sangha [his followers]." This usually comes after some sort of training. I did once ask a good friend, a monk, to "induct" me, and he waffled a great deal: "I can introduce you to another Master," etc. I guess he knew me too well to think me worthy!

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With my "inductor," other lay Buddhists, and non-Buddhist friends at Hongyuan Temple

But yes, I do have the paperwork which says "I'm official." It happened like this:

For a period of over a year while living in China, every new and full moon day--so, every couple of weeks--I visited a temple a little over 10 miles from where I lived. A bus passed right by the gate of the school where my dorm was located, and had its terminus at the entrance to a park at Shiyan Lake. Though the entry to the temple itself was free, I was paying 10 yuan--about a buck and a half--to get to into the park.

After a few months, the monks had gotten used to seeing me moving from statue to statue reciting "prayers" in English, so one day one of them said to me, "Are you paying for park entry?" When I said I was, he took me to a small office, where they issued me a sort of passbook. Without ceremony (literally!) I had become a disciple of one of China's greatest living Masters, Benhuan, who died at age 104 a little over a year later. (I got "in" just in time!) This was a few years before we left China.

Two pages from my Buddhist "layperson's certificate." That's Master Benhuan on the left, and me on the right, in case you couldn't tell.

Incidentally, the dates in the book read "16th day of the 12th month of the Buddhist year 2554," and on the common calendar, January 19th, 2011. Some quick math would show that they accept the traditional year of the Buddha's death as 543 BCE (2554 - 2011); modern dating puts it later by anywhere from around 50 to 175 years.

Also, this is the only document I have from China that records my chosen Chinese name, Bo Ximing (柏西明). Bo (meaning cypress, and sometimes pronounced "bai"), is simply an imitation of the first part of my family name, Baquet. On a friend's advice, I chose this over similar-sounding characters because it has a little tree (木) in it, alluding to the Buddha's enlightenment. And Ximing means something like "Western Brightness" (but the latter can also mean "understanding" as a noun). In assigning my fa-ming, or "Dharma name," they made the first character Chang (常), an "adverb of frequency" (hooray for my ESL training!) which has a range of meaning from "always" to "often." It's standard to use a common name for all lay inductees in a given period of time, and Chang was the one in use at that time. And they used the Ming from the Chinese name I gave them. This made me Chang Ming (常明).  Sadly, some Chinese friends looked at my certificate and translated it "Everbright," the English name of a commercial bank in China!

An old photo on the wall in Hongyuan Temple's tearoom shows Master Benhuan (right) as a young man with Master Xuyun, one of the greatest monks of the 20th century

I was actually able to flash my pass for free access in a few other places as well (but no government-run site would accept it). Here's one example of success: I had visited Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan, Guangdong, one day in late July, 2012. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, and perhaps significantly, Benhuan had been abbot of Nanhua for a couple of decades, until his 1958 arrest and 17-year imprisonment under Mao.) The day after my first visit, having a little time left over and being in the neighborhood, I decided to go back and see some things I had missed. Since I had paid the 20 yuan ($3.00) entry fee the first day--reasonable enough for such a well-known temple, perhaps because it wasn't surrounded by a government park--I decided to have a little fun with the nun in the ticket office: I showed her my layperson's certificate, and, recognizing me from the day before, she said I could have used it to get in free then as well. I replied that I didn't mind paying 20rmb, but 40 was too much! We had a good laugh.


So, there you have it. Am I a Buddhist? Do I "believe"? You be the judge.

As you think about that, let me wish that you and your loved ones and all sentient beings may be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: We'll look at the fate of deceased children toiling away on the banks of the "River of Souls," and see how one Bodhisattva attempts to help them.