Monthly Archives: October 2010

Hungry Shades Outside the Walls

A spectre is haunting your town – the spectre of Halloween! Today, there was a Halloween parade in town. All the little kids got to dress up, go “trick-or-treating” at local businesses, and march in the parade. Also, it seems this Saturday, at a local antique shop, there is going to be a Halloween-themed costume party. Apparently, some people from the Travel Channel are also going to be staying the night there – as it is supposedly “haunted”.

So, in the spirit of Halloween, I thought I would share a post on what are commonly referred to as “hungry ghosts” or “hungry shades” in Buddhist culture. In the cyclical existence of Samsara, depending on their karma, some beings may be reborn in the realm of peta loka –  which is a realm where ghosts and unhappy spirits wander hopelessly about, searching in vain for sensual fulfillment. Rebirth in this realm is usually due to the vipaka (result, reaction, etc) conditioned by the karma (intended action, volition, etc) of the ten unwholesome actions or a lack of virtue and holding to wrong views.

In his talk called Knowledge, Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo gives this colorful depiction of the realm of hungry shades:

“Or, if you want, you can travel in the world of the hungry shades. The world of the hungry shades is even more fun. Hungry shades come in all different shapes and sizes — really entertaining, the hungry shades. Some of them have heads as big as large water jars, but their mouths are just like the eye of a needle: that’s all, no bigger than the eye of a needle! Some of them have legs six yards long, but hands only half a foot. They’re amazing to watch, just like a cartoon. Some of them have lower lips with no upper lips, some of them are missing their lips altogether, with their teeth exposed all the time. There are all kinds of hungry shades. Some of them have big, bulging eyes, the size of coconuts, others have fingernails as long as palm leaves. You really ought to see them. Some of them are so fat they can’t move, others so thin that they’re nothing but bones. And sometimes the different groups get into battles, biting each other, hitting each other. That’s the hungry shades for you. Really entertaining.”

The title of this post comes from the Tirokudda Kanda:

“Outside the walls they stand, and at crossroads. At door posts they stand, returning to their old homes. But when a meal with plentiful food and drink is served, no one remembers them: Such is the kamma of living beings.

Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives give timely donations of proper food and drink — exquisite, clean — [thinking:] “May this be for our relatives. May our relatives be happy!”

And those who have gathered there, the assembled shades of the relatives, with appreciation give their blessing for the plentiful food and drink: “May our relatives live long because of whom we have gained [this gift]. We have been honored, and the donors are not without reward!”

For there [in their realm] there’s no farming, no herding of cattle, no commerce, no trading with money. They live on what is given here, hungry shades whose time here is done.

As water raining on a hill ƒlows down to the valley, even so does what is given here benefit the dead. As rivers full of water fill the ocean full, even so does what is given here benefit the dead.

“He gave to me, she acted on my behalf, they were my relatives, companions, friends”: Offerings should be given for the dead when one reƒlects thus on things done in the past. For no weeping, no sorrowing no other lamentation benefits the dead whose relatives persist in that way. But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha, it works for their long-term benefit and they profit immediately.

In this way the proper duty to relatives has been shown, great honor has been done to the dead, and monks have been given strength: The merit you’ve acquired isn’t small.”


My Birthday and Regarding the Cries of the World

Monday was an amazing birthday. Since I’m pretty much starting my cd collection from stratch (again…although my vinyl collection, of course, remains intact to this day), my girlfriend gave me brand new copies of Group Sex and Carnival of Chaos! She also made me an amazing dinner, which I still feel kinda full from! My brother also gave me a dart to use to punch small holes in my jacket to make studding a lot easier. Also, as a random fact, my eldest cousin shares the same birthday. Yet, we live in separate states so we can’t exactly throw an extravagant party as celebration. Perhaps one year!

However, the festivities aren’t over. Tuesday also marked the celebration of Guan Yin‘s attainment of Bodhisattvahood. In Sanskrit, the term “bodhisattva” means “enlightenment (‘bodhi’) essence (‘sattva’)”. The Bodhisattva is compassionately dedicated to assisting all sentient beings in achieving complete Buddhahood (Buddhabhaava) – the highest state of enlightenment. This means that the Bodhisattva doesn’t practice for their own enlightenment, but rather for the enlightenment of all. Out of compassion, the Bodhisattva remains in this world of ignorance, illusions/delusions, sickness, and death while experiencing what everyone one else experiences until all sentient beings are liberated. In short, the Bodhisattva has delayed their entrance to Nirvana (unbinding) and thus remain in Samsara (the cycle of life and death) by taking the Bodhisattva Vow to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible so that they can teach Dharma until all have awakened to enlightenment and can enter Nirvana.

The Bodhisattva is primarily motivated by bodhicitta (lit. “enlightenment mind”) which is the wish to attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings who are trapped in Samsara (cyclic existence). There are two types of bodhicitta. They are aspiring or relative bodhicitta in which the practitioner works to free all beings from bondage and suffering, and engaging or absolute bodhicitta in which the practitioner clearly sees that the bondage and suffering are illusory and never existed in the first place.

A Bodhisattva can chose either of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving Buddhahood. They are King-like Bodhisattva, or one who aspires to become Buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings full-ƒledged; Boatman-like Bodhisattva, one who aspires to achieve Buddhahood along with other sentient beings; and Shepherd-like Bodhisattva, one who aspires to delay Buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve Buddhahood.

The Four Great Vows of the Bodhisattva are:
Ordinary-beings are innumerable, I vow to liberate them all
Defilements are endless, I vow to eliminate them all
Buddha’s teachings are unlimited, I vow to learn them all
The ways of enlightenment are supreme, I vow to achieve them all

Guan Yin is the archetypal Shepherd-like Bodhisattva of compassion. Guan Yin’s name comes from the Sanskrit Avalokitesvara. As the offspring of the Buddha Amitabha, MahaBodhisattva Avalokitesvara is the archetype of universal compassion. The name “Avalokitesvara” has been translated as “the Lord Who Looks Down on the World”, “the Regarder of the Cries of the World” or even “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds”. Avalokitesvara is also referred to as Padmapani (“Holder of the Lotus”) and simply as Lokesvara (“Lord of the World”).

Although Avalokitesvara is often portrayed as a male prince in India with the Buddha in his crown, he is also well known for his female form known as Tara, Lokanat, Lokesvara, Guan Yin/Kwan Yin, Kannon, Kanzeon, etc. Although mainstream Theravada does not worship any of the Mahayana bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara is popularly worshiped in Burma, where she is called Lokanat, and in Thailand, where she is called Lokesvara. In Tibetan, Avalokitesvara is known as Chenrezig, and is said to be incarnated in the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and other high lamas.

In chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, aptly named “The Universal Gate of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara”, it states that Guan Yin/Kannon/Avalokitesvara/etc appears in many ways and in many forms (e.g. male, female, god, monk, nun, some kind of important figure, or even that homeless guy on the corner, etc.), to help sentient beings according to their level of understanding. This is because Guan Yin has taken a vow to relieve the suffering of sentient beings whenever one should recite his/her name (“Namo Avalokitesvara Bodhisattvaya”, “Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa”, “Homage to the Bodhisattva Who Perceives the World’s Sounds”), and is thus the archetype of the boundless compassion found deep within us all.

Indeed, the thousand armed and thousand eyed Kannon (Sahasrabhuja Avalokitesvara) represents the many compassionate skills and techniques which one should develop, such as the compassion that arises when one sees suffering (with 1,000 eyes), and those actions taken to relieve this suffering (with 1,000 hands).

Namo Avalokitesvara Bodhisattvaya
Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa
Om Mani Padme Hum

The Iceman Cometh

Today was an exceptionally beautiful day. I love the autumn weather. There is no extreme, ball-sweating heat and you’re not freezing to death like Otzi the Iceman.

Otzi the Iceman

I also got my order of cone studs today. Naturally, I’ve been working on my jacket. It’s actually coming along nicely, and I can’t wait to finish this one.

There was also an all-day benefit show today for a local movie theater. My brother took his little girl there and she had a blast. It was her first show, and I highly doubt it will be her last. At an age when she can appreciate both Dora the Explorer and the Misfits, she’s definitely the most hardcore (little) kid in this town.

This nice weather today brought to mind the question of who was really appreciating this weather? Also, is my aversion to heat and cold the product of my privileged conditioning (e.g. homes and cars with AC)? This all kind of reminded me of this koan* (which is like a Zen “riddle”, “parable”, etc) from the Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Tôzan, “When cold and heat come, how should one avoid them?” Tôzan said, “Why not go to a place where there is neither cold nor heat?”  The monk said, “What kind of place is it where there is neither cold nor heat?”

Tôzan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you; when it is hot, the heat kills you.”

The macabre, anticipatory title for this post was naturally inspired by the crust punk legends Amebix:

* [It should be noted that the purpose of a koan is not to have a definitive, unique answer. Instead, students are required to demonstrate their own understanding of the koan and of Zen through their responses.]

A Time for Change

Last night was the last game at the local high school football stadium which opened in 1937. They are tearing this one down and building another one closer to the school. Of course, to commemorate this end of an era, they had a fireworks display light up the night sky at the end of the game.

Coincidentally, this time also marks the end of another, albeit shorter, era known as Vassa – or “Rains retreat”. Also known as Pavarana Day or Sangha Day, it is usually observed around the full moon of October.

During Vassa, Buddhist monks and nuns usually stay in a certain place (to get out of the rainy season, hence “Rains retreat”) and take some time for the study and practice of Dhamma-vinaya (or “teachings and discipline”).

After Vassa, and during Pavarana, the monks and nuns may begin to “go forth” and travel again, after asking the Sangha (the “community” of monks and nuns) to advise, counsel, and/or reproof them for any fault “seen, heard or suspected” so that they could “amend their ways” and improve in the future. Pavarana is also a day of celebration, when the limitations adopted during the Vassa season are relaxed.

It is in the following month, after Pavarana, that the kathina ceremony is held. During this time the laity gather to make formal offerings of robe cloth and various other requisites to the monks and nuns of the Sangha.

Achtung! Attention! Atencion!

Today, there were some customers who conducted themselves in an extremely rude way. They were obviously intoxicated, and were too busy talking to themselves rather than paying attention to anything around them. I had to repeat myself multiple times, becoming increasingly louder each time, just to get their attention. This kind of behavior is a total lack of skillfulness as they were inevitably inconveniencing themselves. It’s a shame that they don’t know anything about “right mindfulness”, as they weren’t even in their “right state of mind”!

One aspect of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path is what is called “right mindfulness” (samma-sati). This is defined as keeping your mind ardent, aware, and mindful,  thus seeing things as they truly are, and putting away greed and distress with reference to the world. This means that one should stay alert, focused, and aware of things as they occur naturally without becoming attached, engrossed, or even averse to them. This allows you to naturally see things as they truly are – in and of themselves.

Bhikku Bodhi once observed that, “The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped.”

Five Subjects for Contemplation

Since my birthday is coming up, I thought I would post the Upajjhatthana or the “Five Remembrances.” These are five subjects that all people (male and female, lay followers and monastics) should constantly bear in mind (abhinha-paccavekkhana).


1. Jaradhammata: I am subject to aging, I have not gone beyond aging.

2. Byadhidhammata: I am subject to pain and illness, I have not gone beyond pain and illness.

3. Maranadhammata: I am subject to death, I have not gone beyond death.

4. Piyavinabhavata: I will grow different, I separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.

5. Kammassakata: I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

The first three remembrances are antidotes to the “threefold pride” of youthfulness (yobbana-mada), health (ārogya-mada) and life (jīvita-mada). The fourth contemplation is to weaken or overcome lust (rāga); and, the fifth contemplation is to weaken or overcome irresponsibility embodied in improper (duccarita) acts, speech and thoughts.

“Subject to birth, subject to aging, subject to death, run-of-the-mill people are repelled by those who suffer from that to which they are subject. And if I were to be repelled by beings subject to these things, it would not be fitting for me, living as they do. As I maintained this attitude — knowing the Dhamma without paraphernalia — I overcame all intoxication with health, youth, & life as one who sees renunciation as rest. For me, energy arose, Unbinding was clearly seen. There’s now no way I could partake of sensual pleasures. Having followed the holy life, I will not return.” – Upajjhatthana Sutta

Attempting to Explain the Four Noble Truths

After Buddha’s enlightenment, he taught what is known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are comparable to a medical diagnosis:

1. Disease and symptomsDukkha (unease, stress, suffering, anguish, unsatisfactoriness, imperfection, etc).
When you’re born, the doctor slaps you on the ass and you begin crying. When you get older, things start changing and eventually some things just don’t make sense or work the way they used to. You can catch a cold or H5N1; you have bills and mortgage payments; the beer can get warm. Eventually, you’ll die. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, and sometimes you can lose things that are dear to you. But cheer up emo kid, there is hope.

2. Cause or diagnosis Samudaya (Tanha or craving)
We’re not born as Rhodes scholars or little Einsteins. In fact, we’re not completely developed and, quite frankly, we’re pretty ignorant. Born out of ignorance, we crave for material things, sensual experiences, opinions and ideas, beliefs and concepts, existence, etc.- and when disappointed, we even crave for extinction. However, because these things are impermanent, changeable, perishable, etc. we always fail to satisfy our desires and it thus causes disappointment and suffering. It is by not seeing things clearly as they truly are that we continue to desire and crave attachment.

3. PrognosisNirodha (cessation of that same craving)
Hey, there is a bright side to all of this. We don’t have to be ignorant, crave for existence or nonexistence, or suffer. This is achievable by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path.

4. PrescriptionAryastangamarga (the Noble Eightfold Path)
The Noble Eightfold Path can be explained briefly as follows:
1. Right view or understanding of the Four Noble Truths – that is, knowledge with regard to dukkha, the origination of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha. This may seem redundant at first, but we will find that we have to keep coming back to this throughout our practice.
2. Right aspiration (or resolve) is for the renunciation of selfish desires and ill-will for benevolence and harmlessness.
3. Right speech is abstaining from lying, slander, and frivolous idle talk.
4. Right action is abstaining from taking life, stealing, and promiscuity.
5. Right livelihood is abstaining from profiting in dishonesty, corruption, or harm.
6. Right endeavor (or effort) is to develop skilled mental states.
7. Right mindfulness is to see things as they truly are, in and of themselves, and putting away greed and distress with reference to the world.
8. Right concentration is jhana (or dhyana), or meditation.

Buddha and the Creator God that Wasn’t

Baka Brahma (literally “crane-Brahma”) is a deva who believes that his world is constant, permanent, eternal and without decay (and that therefore he is immortal), and there is no higher refuge. The Buddha counters Baka’s claims by relating the concept of annicca (impermanence), but one of Baka’s attendants (under the influence of Mara, the archetypal personification of unskillfulness) claims that Baka is “the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be”, and that those who praise him will be rewarded – but those who defied the word of Brahma would be like someone who chases fortune away with a stick and accomplishes nothing. Yet the Buddha identified that the real speaker was Mara, and stated that he is free of his power and control.

Baka then claims that his domain is universal and that if Buddha depends upon any of the things within Bakas jurisdiction, he will be within his realm thus Baka can do whatever he sees fit. The Buddha responds that Baka does in fact have this much power, might and influence – but that there are also realms beyond Baka’s understanding, and that the Buddha’s knowledge places him beyond Baka’s power.

Baka is at last convinced by a display of the Buddha’s “fabrication of psychic power to the extent that Brahma, the Brahma assembly, and the attendants of the Brahma assembly heard my voice but did not see me. Having disappeared, I recited this verse: ‘Having seen danger right in becoming, and becoming searching for non-becoming, I didn’t affirm any kind of becoming, or cling to any delight.'”

Buddha was also able to explain Baka’s present situation by reference to his past lives. Baka was in a past life a human ascetic named Kesava who by various means saved many people (e.g. giving drinking water to many people who were dying of thirst). For his meditative prowess he was born as a Brhatphala deva (lit. “having great fruit”), and in successive rebirths gradually sank through the levels of the Rupadhatu (“Form Realm”) until he became an ordinary Brahma.

On another occasion, Baka believed that no monk or contemplative can enter his world (through the supramundane powers of manifestation), but the Buddha himself and several of his disciples visit him to prove him wrong.

Skill in Means

The Buddha Dharma has always had the unique ability of being able to adapt to the culture in which it is practiced. This may, in part, be because of the “universality” of its teachings, but it is more likely due to the Buddha’s skill or methods of teaching.

When Buddha taught, he utilized upaya-kaushalya (Pali: upaya-kosalla; expedient or skillful means), which refers to strategies or methods that are targeted to the capacities, circumstances, likes and dislikes of each sentient being – thus being able to lead each of them to Enlightenment. This is evident in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta:

“Now there are eight kinds of assemblies, Ananda, that is to say, assemblies of nobles, brahmans, householders, ascetics, of the Four Great Kings, of the Thirty-three gods, of Maras, and of Brahmas.

And I recall, Ananda, how I have attended each of these eight kinds of assemblies, amounting to hundreds. And before seating myself and starting the conversation or the discussion, I made my appearance resemble theirs, my voice resemble theirs. And so I taught them the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened them. Yet while I was speaking to them thus, they did not know me, and they would inquire of one another, asking: ‘Who is he that speaks to us? Is it a man or a god?’

Then having taught them the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened them, I would straightaway vanish. And when I had vanished, too, they did not know me, and they would inquire of one another, asking: ‘Who is he that has vanished? Is it a man or a god?’

And such, Ananda, are the eight kinds of assemblies.”

So Buddha would appear at an “assembly” and initiate a discussion with an appearance and voice like theirs. Yet even though he roused their attention, taught them the Dhamma, and edified them, they didn’t even know who he was. As soon as the discussion was over, he vanished. They never knew if he was truly a man or god.

The Lankavatara Sutra clarifies even more that the Buddha appears, teaches and is understood according to one’s own circumstances and capacities:

“The same, Mahamati, can be said of myself, for I come within the range of hearing of ignorant people, in this world of patience, under many names, amounting to a hundred thousand times three asamkhyeyas, and they address me by these names not knowing that they are all other names of the Tathagata.

Of these, Mahamati, some recognise me as the Tathagata, some as the Self-existent One, some as Leader, as Vinayaka (Remover of Obstacles), as Parinayaka (Guide), as Buddha, as Rishi (Ascetic), as Bull-king, as Brahma, as Vishnu, as Isvara, as Original Source (pradhana), as Kapila, as Bhutanta (End of Reality), as Arishta, as Nemina, as Soma (moon), as the Sun, as Rama, as Vyasa, as Suka, as Indra, as Balin, as Varuna, as is known to some; while others recognise me as One who is never born and never passes away, as Emptiness, as Suchness, as Truth, as Reality, as Limit of Reality, as the Dharmadhatu, as Nirvana, as the Eternal, as Sameness, as Non-duality, as the Undying, as the Formless, as Causation, as the Doctrine of Buddha-cause, as Emancipation, as the Truth of the Path, as the All-Knower, as the Victor, as the Will-made Mind.

Mahamati, thus in full possession of one hundred thousand times three asamkhyeyas of appellations, neither more nor less, in this world and in other worlds, I am known to the peoples, like the moon in water which is neither in it nor out of it. But this is not understood by the ignorant who have fallen into the dualistic conception of continuity.

Though they honour, praise, esteem, and revere me, they do not understand well the meaning of words and definitions; they do not distinguish ideas, they do not have their own truth, and, clinging to the words of the canonical books, they imagine that not being subject to birth and destruction means a non-entity, and fail to see that it is one of the many names of the Tathagata as in the case of Indra, Sakra, Purandara. They have no confidence in the texts where the self-standing truth is revealed, since in their study of all things they follow mere words as expressed in the texts trying thereby to gain into the meaning.”