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Religious Studies and Philosophy: Research that matters, especially now! What constitutes the common ground that we all share?

Snippets of Buddhist texts

In one of my current online classes called “Understanding Japanese Religions,” I made the following suggestion in the forum where students post their views:

Please pick a short passage from a Buddhist scripture that you would like to introduce to others. Buddhist “scriptures” indicate texts included in one of the Buddhist Canons, preserved in the Pāli language, in Sanskrit, or in its Chinese or Tibetan translations. Obviously, it may easier for your readers if you introduce a text translated into English from one of these languages. Here are the four elements that would be helpful if you could include them: 1) A short description of the scripture, its title, either only the translated title, or the title in the original language followed by a translation. 2) What we know about that text in terms of when it was composed or translated, by whom. 3) An excerpt of the text, maybe no more than a paragraph long. 4) Why you selected that piece. This is an open-ended assignment that should encourage you to be curious, and to deal with original sources.

Diamond Sutra

Copy of the Diamond Sutra dated 868. Frontispiece, Diamond Sutra from Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper. This sutra was printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty (868 CE). Currently located in the British Library, London. According to the British Library, it is “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”

See the British Library’s detailed website on the Buddhist Canon: https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/articles/the-buddhist-canon

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diamond_Sutra_of_868_AD_-_The_Diamond_Sutra_(868),_frontispiece_and_text_-_BL_Or._8210-P.2.jpg

Now, how would you respond to this prompt?

Engaged Buddhism, Interbeing, and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings

A spider’s understanding of Indra’s net.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dorena-wm/4942370000 (accessed April 5, 2017, labelled for noncommercial reuse)

Studying Asian religions often involves examining their ethical impact. One significant contribution to reformulating Buddhist ethics for the contemporary context was made by Thich Nhat Hanh, who created the Order of Interbeing during the Vietnam War. Although the first fourteen “principles” articulated in 1966 used a prescriptive language beginning with “do not…,” they were then rephrased as injunctions to meditate on these central issues in the spirit of mindful inquiry. Below is the description provided in 1999.


Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.


Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.


Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever—such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination—to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue.


Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.


Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need. We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.


Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at those we think are the cause of our anger.


Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happen.ing in the present moment. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness.


Aware that the lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.


Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety.


Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.


Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not investing in companies that deprive others of their chance to live.


Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.


Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. We will practice generosity by sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.


(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. We know that to preserve the happiness of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

(For monastic members): Aware that the aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of worldly love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated by the coming together of two bodies in a sexual relationship, but by the practice of true understanding and compassion. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our life as a monk or a nun, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body or to look upon our body as only an instrument, but to learn to handle our body with respect. We are determined to preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.

Excerpt from Nhat, Hanh. 1999. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 17–22. This book then provides a detailed commentary on the fourteen guidelines.

Celebrating the Fortieth Anniversary of Lama Rinchen’s Arrival in Honolulu


In December of this year Kagyu Thegchen Ling (also known as KTL Meditation Center) celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Lama Rinchen’s arrival in Honolulu on December first, 1976.

The Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) lineage of Tibetan Buddhism claims to have been transmitted directly from India by the Indian master Nāropa, via Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. It constitutes one of the Red Hat sects. The Karma Kagyu subschool is headed by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a modern teacher eager to reach out to the younger generation. See his official website: http://kagyuoffice.org.

New website

The website you are seeing here has just been migrated from another hosting platform. Its design still needs improvement but it provides more flexibility and has the advantage of being visible on all electronic devices. It was about time to move away from the venerable “iWeb” application, which is not supported anymore. I hope that you will enjoy the new “minimalist” presentation!

Maitreya’s Temple or Mirokuji in the Nara Prefecture

Mirokuji 彌勒寺

This story begins with my study of Hori Shitoku 堀至徳 (1876–1903), a neglected young Buddhist priest who went to Bengal to pursue his quest for the truth. It proved necessary to look into his initial teacher in Japan, Maruyama Kanchō 丸山貫長 (1844–1927), who initiated an attempt to reform Japanese Buddhism. This drove me to visit one of the temples where Kanchō resided as abbot, Mirokuji 彌勒寺 (simplified 弥勒寺, Maitreya Temple) in Dongo 土庫 (irregular reading), a small village in the prefecture of Nara. Thanks to the introduction by Professor Ikeda Hisayo 池田久代, Reverend Itō Kyōjun 伊藤教純—the current abbot—and his wife Taeko 多永子 extended a warm welcome.

Maitreya, the Buddha of loving-kindness

Everything began by being formally introduced to the main Buddha, Maitreya, whose statue recently came back after undergoing restoration work following its designation as an important cultural property (Jūyō Bunkazai 重要文化財) in September 2012.

Statue of Maitreya Buddha, carved in one piece around the tenth century

This amazing and elegant statue is more than a thousand years old.

Maitreya head, restored in May 2015

Its distinctive long earlobes—which display patterns representing Brahma’s net (bonmō 梵網)—helped determine the date when it was carved because they have been found on other artworks from the same period.

Moreover, it was carved from a single piece of wood, except for the left hand, which was added later. No other known ancient statue of Maitreya shares this feature, since many wooden Buddhist statues are hollow and made of two halves (yosegi 寄せ木) assembled in the last phase of the statue’s completion. Another rare feature is that it represents Maitreya not as a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be in the future) as it is more common but as a full-fledged Tathāgata. Nothing more is known about where this statue came from because it predates the construction of Mirokuji in 1538 (Tenbun 天文 7) as a temple commissioned by the Dongo 土庫 clan. It may have been linked to a period during which belief in Maitreya (Miroku shinkō 彌勒信仰) was becoming increasingly popular during the Heian period. This type of messianic belief consists in believing that Maitreya represents the coming of a new cosmic Buddha, born five billion six-hundred-seventy million years after the Buddha Śākyamuni, who allows those still unaware of his teachings to come in touch with the truth.

Maruyama Kanchō and his family

In any case, Maruyama Kanchō is a fascinating figure, who was also a gifted calligrapher and, apparently gained access to the imperial court to teach the consort of Emperor Meiji. He married at the age of fifty and then divorced before marrying again… As a result, he had six children, five of whom survived and occupied various positions in local Buddhist temples belonging to the same branch of the Shingon denomination (Shingonshū Buzanha 真言宗豊山派).

A sample of Kanchō’s calligraphy

Maruyama Kanchō and Hori Shitoku’s ambitions for reforming Japanese Buddhism can be surmised by the petition they submitted in 1899 to the Interior Minister Saigō Tsugumichi 西郷從道 (1843–1902) for the recognition of their movement under the new name of “the True Teachings of Nonduality” (Funi Shinkyō kōshō negai 不二真教公称願).

You can find additional images related to this temple in the following gallery: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-gJGTSH/i-P9h56RB

Old Kyoto and Hidden Tales of Magic at Sanzen-in

Today’s Kyoto is increasingly getting disfigured by Pachinko buildings, convenience stores, and modern high-rises. Yet this city still harbors some stunning assets, particularly temples and shrines, which testify to its previous beauty. One of them is the Sanzen-in 三千院, in the Ōhara 大原 area Northeast of Kyoto.

View from one of the windows at Sanzen-in

Let me share with you one remarkable image found in this temple, which conjures tales of magic and ancient beliefs. Guess what the following picture represents:

Ganzan Daishi

 Well, as indicated in the caption, this demonic figure is called Ganzan Daishi 元三大師. So far so good but what is more surprising is that this is one of the posthumous names given to Ryōgen 良源 (912–985), the eighteenth abbot of the Tendai school. This name derives from the day of his passing on the third day of the first lunar month (gangetsu 元月).

The belief is that he had acquired supernatural powers (reigen 靈驗), in particular the ability to transform his body into that of a demon. According to legend, this proved useful when the whole area was struck by an epidemic and he was himself suffering from high fever. He swiftly transformed into a horned demon, thus frightening the demon who had come to terminate his life. At that time, there was a widespread belief in epidemic deities (yakubyōgami 疫病神). Thereafter, images of the horned Ganzan Daishi, also known as Tsuno Daishi 角大師, were used to ward off evil and illnesses. Here is a modern example of an amulet from Jindaiji 深大寺 in Chōfu, Tokyo metropolitan area:

What also picks our curiosity is the resemblance of this image with Daoist talismans. These similarities would require further research. The other fascinating aspect is that the same Ganzan Daishi is credited for having invented the usage of O-mikuji 御籤 (fortune-telling predictions written on strips of paper). One doesn’t need supernatural powers to see the resemblance with similar divination devices used in China (língqiān 靈籤), often made of wood.

The Buddha Amida flanked by two Bodhisattvas, Ōjō Gokuraku-in 往生極楽院 hall within Sanzen-in

Should you wish to see more of the Sanzen-in, you can visit my photo gallery.

A Path Toward Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia

This post resembles a bottle thrown into the ocean with a message inside. Will anyone pick it up, or will it keep drifting with all the meaningless information clouding our senses and reason? It results from a dream I had in October 2014. Although it may sound presumptuous, this message is titled “Open Letter to Asia: Soul-Searching on the Occasion of the Seventieth Commemoration of the Pacific War and Suggestions for Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia.” Let me append the full text below. A PDF version if available from the following links: English PDF versionJapanese PDF version, English and Japanese bilingual version. These files are designed to be in the public domain. It depends on each of you whether these small seeds grow. It is only a matter of finding the right soil and the proper conditions, isn’t it? I welcome suggestions for improving the wording in either language, or constructive criticism of the content. If you agree with what is being said, you are encouraged to circulate this message to friends or acquaintances, or even to translate this message into your own language. In this case, please be kind enough to leave a note in the comments. May all beings be happy!


The little piece of rock we call home. Yet this is also our mother Gaia.

Open Letter to Asia

Soul-Searching on the Occasion of the Seventieth Commemoration of the Pacific War and Suggestions for Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia

Although seventy years have elapsed since the conclusion of the Pacific War, wounds are still vivid and even tend to be exacerbated by the lack of sincere reflection and unambiguous apology from the Japanese government. Those of us who love Japan’s traditional emphasis on sincerity (makoto) cannot watch this scene without being appalled and without thinking that with minimal effort Japan could reconcile with its neighbors and finally turn the page of its militaristic past. Coming to terms with past atrocities may sound difficult but is the only way forward. Germany has shown that it is possible. This nevertheless implies genuine reflection on the complex historical factors that led Japan to lose touch with the rest of Asia. It should also be emphasized that this reflection is not limited to Japan and could apply to any country losing touch with reality and treading the path of militarism. Here are a few suggestions on how to express such sincere reflection and apology in the spirit of this open letter. Precisely because nothing can be expected from the Japanese government, intellectuals and private citizens feeling a sense of responsibility must take the lead.

  • Although words cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted on so many people and cannot revive those who died because of absurd ideologies, we express our deepest remorse for the past actions of the Japanese army and civilians abroad. Even if they initially derived from the desire to compete with colonial powers, we feel ashamed by the unfortunate policies followed in Asia since the Meiji era, which led to such devastating militarism until 1945 and harmed so many individuals across the world. There is no justification for the mad militaristic ideology that was used throughout these years to kill and oppress people even within Japan.
  • When necessary, we, intellectuals and responsible citizens, have the duty to stand against our own government and denounce its unjust belligerent actions, its exploitation of other people inside or outside the national boundaries, and to oppose the use of misleading rhetoric to justify such actions. We vow never to repeat mistakes done during the Pacific War.
  • We can only express our sincerest apology and vow never to let similar barbarous acts be repeated, but a small awareness can trigger huge changes. May all individuals be mindful of their actions and of their consequences, and pledge to never blindly follow warmongers!

Written on April 19, 2015.

Oriental Cherry Blossoms: Cliché, Symbol of Impermanence, or What?

Kyoto is a place of contrast, and the quick transition from its freezing winter to an explosion of blooming trees is not the least of them. When is the turning point, then? One popular belief is that it coincides with the Buddhist ritual called Mizutori (technically Shunie 修二会 but known as Omizutori お水取り) taking place at the Nigatsudō 二月堂, a subtemple of Tōdaiji 東大寺 in Nara. It used to be performed between the first and the fifteenth day of the second lunar month but now takes place between March first and fourteen. Once this ritual involving a spectacular display of huge burning torches being shaken across the temple (Otaimatsu お松明) is over, this is is believed to mark the end of winter. You can watch a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9V70idM0wA. This year (2015), the cold seems to have miraculously abated on March 13, right after the peak of this ceremony.

Now to the cherry blossoms. Let me introduce the topic with a picture taken today:

Well, this is so pink that it seems almost artificial. Maybe you prefer the white ones:

Aesthetically speaking, I think that the contrast between the various colors is what makes these trees so stunning for a few days:

These petals will soon scatter, following the universal law that whatever is composed eventually dissipates and returns to a state of dispersion. Of course, human beings are no exception but it does not prevent them from enjoying their own transitoriness or the flowers’.

Instead of pontificating about the philosophical implications of the above, dear reader, I want you to make your own conclusions. Let me conclude with yet another color:

Should you wish to see more, you can visit the photo gallery that I just created: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-j6wNbR/i-LFBLThG

Taiwanese Chan in Japan and Reflections about Purity

Everyone living in Japan is bewildered by the unusual status of the clergy in this country, where Buddhist monks (there are also very few nuns) do not pay attention to the monastic precepts of their own tradition. A convergence of complex historical factors created this situation but the result is that supposedly ordained individuals are not held in high regard by the Japanese population, and that they are the object of ridicule in other Asian countries. Being currently conducting research on Taiwanese Buddhism, it was natural to visit one of their branch temples in Japan. Thus, I went to Pǔdōng Chánsì 普東禪寺, the Japanese branch temple associated with Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺, which is located in Kadoma-shi 門真市, slightly outside the center of Osaka. Here is a picture showing the outside of Pǔdōng Chánsì:

Pudong Chansi in Kadoma-shi, Osaka Prefecture

Pudong Chansi in Kadoma-shi, Osaka Prefecture

I was fortunate to be allowed to discuss with the Abbess, Venerable Shì Jiànxuān 釋見瑄, who speaks fluent Japanese because she used to be a teacher of Japanese in Taiwan. Among the topics discussed, I had to touch the delicate question of possible interactions with the Japanese Buddhist schools and ask whether any exchanges were taking place. The reply was that there were no such interactions, because both perceptions of values (kachikan 価値観 ) are so radically different. This was a very diplomatic way to hint at the gap separating a strictly monastic, celibate, and vegetarian clergy from the Japanese pretense of monkhood. More than a century ago, the Indian monk Swami Vivekananda was attracting attention worldwide after his spectacular interventions at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and the following lectures he gave across the United States. Among Japanese figures impressed by his charisma and spirituality was Okakura Kakuzō, who hoped to invite him to Japan. Unfortunately, because of health issues, this project never came to fruition (although Vivekananda made a brief stopover en route to Chicago). In any case, barely one month before his passing, on June 14, 1902, Vivekananda sent a letter to his disciple Dhira Mata, also known as Mrs. Ole Bull or Sara Bull. It included the following passage relevant to the Japanese situation:

Modern Buddhism—having fallen among races who had not yet come up to the evolution of marriage—has made a travesty of monasticism. So until there is developed in Japan a great and sacred ideal about marriage (apart from mutual attraction and love), I do not see how there can be great monks and nuns.
(accessed March 30, 2015)
I think that it bluntly expresses what most observers feel about the hypocrisy of wearing a robe without making the corresponding commitment in terms of adhering to monastic principles. This boils down to the fundamental concept of “purity,” śauca in Sanskrit, often translated into Chinese as qīngjìng 淸淨. It also constitutes the first of the five observances (niyama) in the Yoga approach to training, which emphasizes mental and physical purity.
The puzzling question is why, although there are a few individual exceptions, there is no articulate movement within the Japanese clergy to return to the original Buddhist precepts. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, I fear that this may be linked to the current crisis of Japanese Buddhist institutions, where they are compelled to close one temple after another because they lack resources and support from the public.