Drifting towards the stream

Parallel to the shore

Even while learning spells for invisibility, or getting a tattoo of protection from the war-goddess Marishiten, I never really considered myself “into” Buddhism. It was always a peripheral topic to my main interest in Asia and the martial arts.

I don’t really remember a time where Buddhism was unknown to me, even growing up in small town Canada, nestled in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by primarily rural white Anglo Protestant people. For my social studies credit in grade 10 I forwent learning about the Canadian political system to take Asian Studies. That class covered a lot, but I was able to gain a high level understanding of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the difference between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Here is a picture of me, at age 16, by the Sleeping Buddha at Wat Pho, a famous statue in Bangkok. I remember visiting a Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand at the time, and being impressed with the monks there, but I never seriously thought about what they were actually trying to do.

Me standing in front of the Sleeping Buddha
A young me standing in front of the Sleeping Buddha, Bangkok, 1994

Later, in my twenties, when I was seriously committed to learning classical Japanese martial arts, I was exposed to mikkyō and Shingon, and of course Zen. However we were only learning about Buddhist teachings in the narrow sense of how it served the Japanese warrior on the battlefield (I wrote a paper about this for a class, if you want to learn more). Symbolism, spells, basic meditation — the classical martial arts (and even the modern ones) are rich with Buddhist esoterica. But we spent no time on the actual teachings of the Buddha. We were there to learn how to fight. Continue reading “Drifting towards the stream”

Conscious labour and supreme blessings

To be well caring of mother, of father, to look after spouse and children, to engage in a harmless occupation, this is a blessing supreme.

This line is from a discourse with the Buddha known as the Mangala Sutta. The Buddha is approached in a grove and is asked about the “blessings supreme.” He lists 38 (included below) including not associating with fools, abstaining from intoxicants, looking after your family, and other common sense responsibilities that one has to choose to be blessed.

In the above quote, “to engage in a harmless occupation” really stands out to me. Although the Buddha might be referring to soldiery or banditry, two occupations that he was surrounded with on his journey around northeastern India, I have a different reading.

In recent years I have thought long and hard about what work I do. Most recently I spent two and a half years in adtech. Trying to come up with ways to make people click more online ads might be joked away as a “harmless occupation”, but as I became immersed in the business I began to become uneasy about all the negative externalities of adtech: loss of privacy, financialization, content commoditization, botnets and clickfraud. The sheer amount of money in that vertical attracts many entrepreneurs, but the amount of waste is astounding. I only half-joke that the person who actually figures out “The Attribution Problem” (ie. which click lead to which purchase: what digital marketing was supposed to solve for us, but hasn’t by a long shot) would win a Nobel Prize and simultaneously destroy about 80% of the digital advertising space. Ensuring that consumers get what they want in an efficient manner is a bedtime story advertisers tell themselves, and is lost amongst the harmful noise.

So, I left. Continue reading “Conscious labour and supreme blessings”

Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

blog-posts-by-year-2009-2016

This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows:

Mental Flexibility: My first Zen experience

In 1335, a few years after he abdicated the throne, the 95th emperor of Japan Hanazono (1297-1348) decided to become a Buddhist monk. He entered the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism and donated one of his palaces, turning it into a temple complex. Almost 700 years later, the Myoshin-ji (妙心寺) complex houses almost 50 sub-temples, and lays just up the road from the JR Hanazono train station in northeast Kyoto, a station I used to frequent often when I was a student here in 1999.

Last Saturday, on a crisp morning with a cloudless blue sky, I wandered about the temple complex in search of Shunkō-in (春光院). A few times a month, the Reverend Taka Kawakami gives an introductory zazen (seated meditation) lesson in English. Having only done guided mediation on my own, listening to podcasts or books, I was really looking forward to trying zazen, especially under the guidance of a teacher.
Continue reading “Mental Flexibility: My first Zen experience”

Buddha, the manga

Historical drama can sometimes be dangerous. Subtle twists of creative license to fit a narrative can give a false impression of the facts. Osamu Tezuka’s massive 8 volume series on the life of the Buddha is anything but subtle.

You may know Osamu Tezuka as the creator of Astro Boy and Simba the White Lion. He is one of the grandfathers of modern manga. In the late 1970s he spent 10 years on a series called Buddha. The series was translated into English and collected into 8 volumes.

buddha_books

Despite being the titular character, the Buddha is just one of a large ensemble cast, featuring many people from the various sutras and stories of the life of the Buddha. In fact, it isn’t until about page 260 of volume 1 that the Buddha is even born!

Tezuka’s genius at character design really shines in this series. Every character is distinct, with one or two simple visual flourishes, a characteristic (flaw), and a distinct voice. Tezuka is irreverent, and often goofy. When Siddartha leaves the palace and meets the ascetics who will one day become his first five disciples, one of the ascetics has taken to hanging upside down as his trial. In every frame he is upside down, his legs out of frame and hanging from something … nothing? It is ridiculous and funny. Characters often make modern references (eg. about movies, or sports) or are often modern themselves. Take for example the doctor who examines the sickly young Siddartha: it is Professor Ochanomizu from Astro Boy!

But it isn’t all silliness. Serious teachings of Buddhism find their way into the pages. Tezuka obviously made a deep study of a number of texts in order to be familiar enough to give it such a spin. And the art can be astounding, especially the landscapes, drawn in painstaking detail.

Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid.
Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid. (Source)

Similar to the way that watching the TV series Game of Thrones helps put a face to the massive cast of characters in the books, making it easier to follow, Buddha does a great job giving you a simple visualization of characters from one of the greatest stories ever told, from the obscure to famous disciples like Sariputta and Mogallana. That is one of the values of historical drama, and books like this. It certainly makes it easier when reading other, more academic histories like Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, or even the Buddhist canon itself. The one thing to remember is: take the details with a giant bag of salt. Tezuka’s Buddha is not historical document, and it helps that he doesn’t deign to pretend it should be. That said, it is a great introduction to the life of the Buddha and some of the basic tenets, and furthermore, is a masterwork in the medium of manga.

500

500

This weekend I passed 500 read books on Goodreads. I started using the site Dec 27th 2009 and added a bunch of read books in early 2010. Since then I have logged 295 reads, averaging about 46 a year.

books_2010-present

My 500th book was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana aka. “Bhante G”.cover_mindfulness-in-plain-english I purchased this book five years ago, and read only a quarter of it before stopping. I wasn’t ready.

After reading about the life of the Buddha, listening to a couple of Jon Kabat-Zinn guided meditations, and prepping for my tour of Buddhist temples in Kyoto, I understood this book much better on the second attempt. I am glad I did. I will continue to explore how to integrate meditation in to my daily life. From the book:

Our mind is analogous to a cup of muddy water. The longer you keep a cup of muddy water still, the more the mud settles down and the water will be seen clearly.

I have tried to take that lesson and apply it to reading. Upon finishing a book, I usually let it settle in my brain for a few days, then look over the annotations I made, to get a good sense of it as a whole. Then I write a short review on Goodreads. When I read a related book, going back and looking at old reviews sparks a lot of interesting conceptual connections — insights I would have totally missed had I merely just picked up the next book. Books are part of a literary universe, you shouldn’t start tabula rasa every time you crack one open. Keeping notes helps you to navigate the connections. It is sort of like how a commonplace book works.

If you are looking for a similar experience, I recommend using Goodreads. If you become a member, connect with me.

Shinran and the Buddhist Evangelical movement of Japan

A fifth of Japanese — about 25 million people — identify as practitioners of Jōdo Shinshū, the largest denomination of Buddhism in Japan. My family in Japan are all Jōdo Shinshū, also known as “Shin” Buddhism. I am currently here in Japan, and this weekend we will be performing the 13th memorial service for my wife’s grandmother’s death. This ceremony will be conducted by a Shin officiant, of course. I have participated in the funeral as well the memorials for the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th anniversaries. This will be the last one. Thus, I took this opportunity to explore the history of the sect, the life of its founder, and visited some of the important historical places in Kyoto linked to his life. Continue reading “Shinran and the Buddhist Evangelical movement of Japan”