The Significance of Bathing the Buddha

The Significance of Bathing the Buddha

By Zhaxi Zhuoma

Around two thousand and five hundred years ago, located on wide plains on the north bank of the Rapti river in the southwest of what is now Nepal, there was an ancient kingdom called Kapilavatthu. At that time this area was part of India. The ruler, King Shuddhodana of the Shakya clan, and his wife, Queen Mahamaya, were the parents of Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

In the Spring of 623 BCE, while enjoying the beautiful scenery and walking under flowering sara trees at Lumbini Garden, Queen Mahamaya felt her birth pangs. As she held on to a branch of a sara tree, she soon gave birth to a Prince out of the right side of her torso as depicted in the bas relief on the left. During that time, celestial beings offered flowers, celestial kings offered clothes, the heavens played wonderful music, and nine dragons emitted water to bathe the Prince. After His birth, the Prince immediately walked and spoke. He took seven steps. Seven lotus blossoms sprung forth under each place where he stepped. With His right hand pointing towards the sky and the left hand pointing towards the ground as in the photo of the statue on the right, He said, “I am the only Honored one in the heavens and on earth.” He was known as Prince Siddhartha. The Prince became troubled by the scenes of birth, aging, sickness, death, and the sufferings of ordinary people. He decided to leave home and become a practitioner at the age of twenty-nine. After becoming a buddha, He continued expounding dharma for forty-five years. At the age of eighty, lying between two sala trees, He entered Nirvana.

On the holy birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha, followers who participate in the Dharma Assembly of Bathing the Buddha make offerings to establish their karmic conditions with the buddhas and also to wholeheartedly beseech the empowerment of the buddhas and to pray for peace and well being. While bathing the image of the Buddha with auspicious water, they vow to cultivate themselves in attaining the purity of their three karmas (body, speech, and mind) in the past, present, and future. They should receive the great and remarkable teachings and guidance of the buddhas and uphold the correct belief. They must do this without holding to any superstitious beliefs. In this way, they can correspond to the great and compassionate vows of the buddhas and attain accomplishment with the Bodhi state without regression. They should carry out the cultivation of a bodhisattva life after life until they attain the supreme enlightenment of a buddha.


The Tradition of Buddha’s Robe

The Tradition of Buddha’s Robe

A Dharma talk given by Sr. Candana Karuna
At IBMC 9-24-06

During the past year, I’ve noticed a lot of people wondering about Buddhist robes: why are there so many different colors and styles, why are they worn, what do they mean, what’s the big deal?  It can be confusing. Doubly so here at IBMC, where there are not only many Buddhist traditions represented, but there are also differences in robes among those ordained within the American Vietnamese Zen tradition of our founder, Dr. Thich Thien-An. 

Answering questions about Buddhist robes is easy on the surface, but each answer seems to lead to more questions.  For some Buddhists, these answers are important; for others, even the question of robes is extraneous.  Sometimes one explanation contradicts another or even seems to go against the spirit of Buddhism.

I like questions. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, and I still have questions, because in researching this subject I’ve discovered that for almost every statement I’m about to make, you can find a completely different answer.  Sometimes, it’s simply that the different schools of Buddhism have different explanations or ways of doing things; at other times, language issues arise and translations are not reliable.

At any rate, this morning let me present you with what I have learned, my best guess, in trying to demystify the Tradition of Buddha’s Robe.

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become Buddha, was born a son of the Shakya clan and grew to manhood in an entitled and sheltered life during the 6th century BCE in India.  Encounters with sickness, old age and death shattered his complacency and made him question the privileged experiences and assumptions of his life.  He renounced home and family in order to devote himself to answering the questions of suffering and, as was the custom, traded his fine clothing away for that of a mendicant seeker. 

So, what did beggar’s clothing look like?  In most representations of the Buddha, such as the figure on our altar, his clothing looks pretty good: classic simplicity – clean lines and not a hole or stain in sight.   Presumably, that’s because he’s usually shown after his enlightenment, when his robes were cared for by attendants and replenished by donations.
But even if you find a statue of the ascetic Siddhartha – hollowed cheeks, sunken eye sockets and ribs like desiccated bones – although he looks terrible, the loincloth looks neat and tidy.  Take it with a grain of salt, because there are no contemporary portraits extant.  In fact, it was hundreds of years after he passed into parinirvana before anyone thought to make an image of the Buddha.  And art, by its nature, idealizes.  So, don’t look to statues or artwork as a primary source – they simply tell you about the culture in which they were created. 

But here’s what we are told in the sutras about mendicant robes during that time.  They were made from discarded scraps of cloth, or what is called in Sanskrit pāmsūda or pāmsūla.  There are various lists identifying what constitutes pāmsūda. For example, cloth that has been 1) burned by fire, 2) munched by oxen, 3) gnawed by mice, or 4) worn by the dead.  The Japanese equivalent of pāmsūda is funzoe, a polite translation of which is “excrement sweeping cloth” and indicates another potential source.

These scraps were scavenged from the trash, out in the fields, by roadsides or even from the cremation grounds.  Any truly unsalvageable parts were trimmed off and the resulting bits were washed and sewn, piecemeal and without pattern, into a rectangle large enough to wrap around and cover the mendicant. Then the rectangle was dyed, using gleaned roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers or fruits, especially heartwood and leaves of the jackfruit tree, which resulted in a variable and generic color known in Sanskrit as kashaya, denoting mixed/variegated, neutral or earth tones.  It’s also defined as “color that is not pure” or “bad color.” I have also been told that it refers to colors considered ugly, colors chosen to renounce that culture’s values.  This also ties in with another connotation of the word kashaya, which is impurity or uncleanliness, reflecting back to the source of the cloth used.
We’ll return to color and style later, but this is the clothing Siddhartha Gautama wore as he studied with and surpassed several prominent teachers of that time, and undertook to master the most severe ascetic practices.  Even then, he found them as ultimately empty of answers as was his early life.  Finally, he turned away from those paths, sat down under the Bodhi tree with his questions and found the solution to suffering.
After his enlightenment, he began to teach and many of those who heard his teachings – mendicants, former teachers, householders, even his own family and royalty – left their pursuits and followed him forming the Sangha of monks and, later, nuns.  Their clothing was not codified, and various sutras refer to a variety in dress, some of it fairly fantastic.  Tradition has it that those who ordained with the Buddha, as well as the Buddha himself, primarily wore the mendicant clothing of that time, essentially the same worn in India today; they all wore some version of a simple, serviceable, Kashaya robe.

This caused a problem for a Buddhist king named Bimbasara, who wanted to pay homage to Buddhist monks but was having trouble picking them out of the crowd.  One day, he complained and asked the Buddha to make a distinctive robe for his monks.  They were walking by a rice field in Magadha at the time, and Buddha asked Ananda, his personal attendant, to design a robe based on the orderly, staggered pattern of rows of the rice padi fields.

This original Buddhist robe comprised three parts, layered depending on activity and weather, and was therefore known as the “triple robe” (tricivara in Sanskrit):

1. Uttarasanga is the normal clerical robe.  It is a large rectangle, about 6 feet by 9 feet, worn wrapped around the torso and covering one or both shoulders. Although all three parts were made of kashaya fabric, this piece was the robe that came to represent Buddhism as it traveled to other countries, and it came to be called the Kashaya Robe.  With its five-fold or five-column rice field pattern surrounded by a border, it is regarded as symbolic of a Buddhist’s relationship with the Buddha and his teachings

2. Antarasavaka is a lower robe, wrapped around the waist to knee like a sarong and tied at the waist with a flat cotton belt.  According to the monastic rules or Vinaya, a monk could wear it by itself if he was on his own, sick, crossing a river or looking for a new Uttarasanga.
3. Sanghati is an extra robe, often made of two layers, which is used for extra warmth or may be used, spread out as a seat or bedding.  It is sometimes folded and placed on one shoulder.

This “triple robe” traveled from India throughout the world as Buddhism spread and was adapted, as Buddhism has adapted, by each country and culture it encountered. 

I’d like to go on a brief tangent and mention robe relics, those purported to be of an actual, worn-by-the-Buddha variety.  A tradition of hand-me-down robes was extant during the Buddha’s lifetime; the sutras tell us when Ananda agreed to become the Buddha’s attendant, he stipulated that he would not take any of the Buddha’s robes because he didn’t want to create the appearance of favoritism. Since the Buddha taught for 45 years after his enlightenment, he undoubtedly went through quite a few robes, and there are quite a few stories of such robes or pieces thereof.
One of these relics was entrusted to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka by the Emperor Asoka in the 4th Century BCE but, unfortunately, the Buddha’s Robe relic disappeared or was destroyed during one of the many Chola invasions between the 9th and 13th Centuries CE.
Another story of such a robe comes from Zen Buddhism, which holds that the Buddha gave his robe to Mahakasyapa in testament to his deep understanding, evidenced when the Buddha held up a flower in silence and Mahakasyapa smiled, the only one to see the Buddha’s teaching.  Some believe the 28th Indian Patriarch/1st Chinese Patriarch, Bodhidharma, brought this very robe to China and go so far as to say that it was passed to succeeding patriarchs until the Fifth Chinese Patriarch passed it to Hui-neng, with the instruction that there would be no more passing of the robe.  Not every Zen Buddhist believes this in a literal sense; I personally suspect the Buddha’s Robe, at least in this case, was more symbolic of Mind-seal transmission than involving any actual original garment.
Back to the “triple robe,” which arrived in China with Buddhism well ahead of Bodhidharma, although it wasn’t Chan (which became Zen), and once it left India, the form of the “triple robe” as well as the terminology began to change. The Sanskrit word kashaya was transliterated into Chinese as jiasha in Mandarin, kasa in Cantonese, and came to be applied specifically to the Uttarasanga, or normal clerical robe.
While India’s climate is temperate, and the three rectangular robes provided sufficient warmth and protection from the elements, even a double-layered Sanghati didn’t cut it in China.  So the Chinese layered additional, Taoist-style robes and jackets, or what we would recognize as kimono (although that’s a Japanese term), under the kasa. These garments had sleeves of various types, from relatively close-fitting to what we Americans think of as the archetypical Asian sleeve, the pendulous dogleg that may or may not be closed at the wrist.
China did not have a mendicant tradition, wherein monastics would be supported by the populace (nor was it likely official support would be forthcoming from a government steeped in Confucianism and Taoism).  In order to be as self-sufficient as possible, Chinese monastics farmed and performed manual labor in addition to religious practice.  Because the wrapped “triple robe” is not designed or conducive to this type of heavy work (especially when it’s freezing), the monks developed wrapped leggings, split skirts (like culottes) or pants as alternate forms of the lower robe or Antarasavaka.

The kasa, itself, also went through some changes.  The original Uttarasanga had five columns in the rice field pattern and was large enough to simply wrap around the body and shoulders.  Once Buddhism had left India, four small squares inside the outside corners and two larger reinforcing squares near the top border on either side of the center column were added to the kasa, modifying the original design.  Ties and straps, or fasteners were attached, often in the form of a ring and spoke.
At some point, perhaps in China, Korea or Japan, a smaller version was developed, like the one I’m wearing which we call the rakusu. It has the five columns and is worn around the neck like a bib. The origin of the rakusu is one of the confusing questions for me.  Some say that it developed during the transition to manual labor in China, because a full kasa was cumbersome.  Some say it was originated during a time of persecution, so that Buddhists could wear the kasa, hidden and safe, under their outer clothing. It’s also been suggested that started as simply the “cloth bag that wandering monks wore to carry alms bowl and other small items,” which was later “formalized as a monastic ‘accoutrement’.”  There are even Japanese scholars who believe that it was developed in Japan during the Edo or Tokugawa Era, as the result of sumptuary regulations which limited the size and fabric type of clerical wear (I suspect a bit of nationalism, here).
The other big change to the full-sized kasa was the addition of columns as the monastic advanced in ordination and power, whether spiritual or temporal.  The basic five-fold robe expanded to accommodate a system of rank modeled after the traditional nine-grade hierarchical Chinese law, so that five grew to seven, to nine, to 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25 strips of cloth, often of rich or rare fabrics, providing a physical proof of one’s status.

Buddhism spread from China to Korea, and the Koreans adopted the term Kasa.  They also maintain the rakusu or small kasa tradition, but did add a shortened kimono-type robe to be worn under the kasa. 

Korean Buddhists introduced Buddhism to Japan, although eventually it was Chinese influence that overwhelmed and was wholeheartedly embraced by Japanese Buddhists: Taoist-style robes with wide arms, purple kasa, multiple columns, work clothes and all.  The Japanese transliterated the Korean/Chinese kasa to kesa, or okesa, which is simply a polite Japanese format.   The Japanese adopted the distinctive and practical work clothes, which they called samue, as the everyday working uniform of the monastic.  They also created a new form of kesa, by developing a black wide-sleeved kimono-style monk’s robe which conforms to the spirit, if not the form, of the Kashaya Robe in that it is made from the pieces of cheapest fabric, which are sewn and dyed by the monk.

Japanese Buddhist monastics created many different robes, sacred as well as ordinary clothing, and it seems like they have 20 words for each one.  As an example, I will simply mention the rakusu.  In addition to the one we’re familiar with at at this temple, there is the Okau, a larger rakusu worn on the left shoulder (I believe that’s the style that looks a little like you’re wearing a barrel by one suspender), the Hangesa or “half kesa” given to lay people and the Wagesa or “small kesa” also worn by lay people who have taken precepts.

Japanese rakusu have sewn designs on the straps, or on the collar covering, where they fall across the back of the neck to indicate denominational sects: Soto is a pine, Rinzai is a mountain-shaped triangle, and Obaku is a six-pointed star. In addition, Rinzai and Soto traditions sew a large flat ring on the left strap.  This ring is not functional, but recalls the shoulder fasteners of the full-length kesa.  As a result of a reform movement known as the fukudenkai in the mid-20th century, some Soto Zen groups have eliminated the rakusu ring.
Buddhism entered Vietnam from India and later from China, although the Chinese forms became dominant.  The Vietnamese prefer a close-fitting sleeve on the kimono, again illustrating that robe style often begins with an adaptation of a culture’s normal clothing and becomes institutionalized. A similar situation applies to the Vietnamese pajama-like work clothes: a monastic uniform, but not sacred clothing.
Within the Tibetan or Vajrayana tradition, the culture once again adapted the “triple robe.”  Ordained male and female clerics wear a sleeveless tunic and lower robe or skirt.  The Tibetan Kashaya Robe is variously called shamtab (five strips), chogu, or namba (25 strip, for high ordination).

American robes, such as they are to date, are largely determined by a teacher’s tradition.  Variations occur due to personal preference, convictions, understanding, or simply opportunity.  And sometimes, speaking for myself, it’s all about comfort.

Although the essential Buddhist robe was the Kashaya Robe, there have been variations in quality of material ever since the Buddha’s time. In the Pali tradition, six kinds of cloth are allowed for making the upper and outer robes of the “triple robe”: plant fibers, cotton, silk, animal hair (not human), hemp, and a mixture of some or all of them.  There are other lists of materials, but it’s clear that a variety of fabrics were used throughout. Some were sumptuous.  Some were simple or easy-care.  Certainly, most of Asia seems to be using man-made fabrics right now. In the ultimate sense, of course, any material could be used, provided there is no attachment.

With reference to attachment, one interesting thing that is prohibited in the Vinaya is “sewing cowries shells or owls’ wings” onto robes.   Evidently, some of the Buddha’s monks were adorning their robes and had to be restricted in their artistic or preening tendencies.   When the Chinese embroidered scenes in gold thread in their ceremonial kesa, or the Japanese took a single elaborate weaving and simulated the pieced, rice field pattern by appliqueing brocade dividing strips, perhaps sewn to one edge only so that the loosely attached strips swayed like tatters — do you suppose that they were truly not attached?   Not that I’m not appreciative of the craft and beauty of these kesa.  I’m just wondering.
This finally brings me to color, back to the concept of kashaya – broken or variegated color – which probably was in a spectrum from yellow to a reddish brown from being washed and dyed with plant materials, sometimes saffron or tumeric.  Because the materials and dyestuffs vary, colors are not consistent.  They also fade and become soiled.  According to Seung Sahn Sunim, the Korean Zen master, during the Buddha’s time, the monks wore yellow robes, because that was the color of the dirt and didn’t show soil when the wind was blowing.

In modern times, monastics of the Theravadan tradition in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand or Laos usually continue this tradition of saffron or ochre robes.  One source I encountered claimed that forest monks wear ochre while city monks wear saffron, but concluded that this is not always the case. 

Monastics in the Mahayana tradition wear many different colors, according to region, country, sect and ordination level.  When Buddhism came to China, color changed and changed again; different temples in various regions wore different colors: yellow, light golden brown, brown, grey or blue, shades of black: pitch black, grey black.  During the Tang Dynasty, the emperor awarded purple robes and honorary titles to high-level monks.
Japanese monastics usually wear grey or black.  They adopted the purple kesa tradition, which was revoked in the 17th Century under the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The emperor abdicated in protest and monks who resisted, no matter how high, were exiled.

Koreans wear grey, brown or blue robes.
In the Vietnamese Zen tradition the kimono robes are brown or yellow, or somewhere in between, and the kesa are yellow to orange.  At IBMC, after 10 years at high ordination, the cleric may wear a red kesa.

The colorful robes of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet range from the simple to some of the most elaborate in the world, from bright yellow to orange to maroon to a purplish-red according to School and Dharma level.  Their versions of the Kashaya Robe are usually yellow.  If their sleeveless tunic is trimmed with yellow brocade or they are wearing yellow silk and satin as normal attire, they are probably eminent monks or considered living Buddhas.

Americans tend to follow the color coding associated with their teacher’s tradition, although we do have a tendency toward individualism and downright contrariness when it comes to formalization.  Our Rev. Kusala once suggested that American Buddhist robes might be blue denim. 

As an example of how schools assign colors according to Dharma level, here’s what I think I know about IBMC’s Americanized Vietnamese Zen.  Monks and priests wear some shade of brown robes with yellow/orange kesas.  Fully ordained priests may additionally wear yellow collars or yellow piping around the collar.  Laypeople, whether taking Refuge or atangasilas (eight-precept ordainees such as myself, Nam, Doug and Gary) wear the rakusu and, while not entitled to wear the larger kesa, we do get to wear these spiffy grey non-sacred robes.
One Soto Zen website mentions that Bodhisattvas wear black or dark brown kesas, so I guess IBMC and a large part of Japan are pretty far advanced.
With respect to bib-like rakusu, colors may reflect those of the kesa.  At IBMC, ours are gold.  In Korea, the half-kasa is brown.  Or they may be a different, contrasting color to the kasa.  In China, Chan-style rakusu are white.   The Japanese wear blue, brown or black, with their rakusu first given during Refuge. No matter what color faces out, the Japanese back them with white cloth, on one side of which  teacher writes the “Verse of the Kesa” while on the other, he writes his name, the student’s dharma name and the date of the Refuge ceremony.  In Soto Zen, blue is for laypeople, black is for priests, and brown is the highest, for people who have received Dharma transmission from a lineage teacher.

However, not all Soto temples, even in Japan, follow the Dharma level color coding.  One might receive a brown rakusu at lay ordination at one temple, but be chided at another temple for wearing a color reserved for someone at a much higher level. This actually happened to someone at two American Zendos.

Confusing?  Yes, and that’s simply mundane style and color.  Here’s a quick rundown of the symbolism of the Buddha’s Robe.

Kesa or Kashaya Robes, whether small and large, today are almost entirely “Symbol.” They are the Buddhist’s connection with the Tathagata.  In Buddhist numerology, five is the number of the Buddha, which is echoed by the five-folds and five points of the rectangle: east, west, north, south, and middle.  The Kashaya Robe is the robe of the renunciant, wherein the discards of the world are made pure and precious, yet the rice field pattern also represents and encompasses the world, in all the fecundity of agriculture.  It can also be regarded as a mandala, geometric patterns of squares and lines which represent the universe and serve as a meditation object on many levels.  The little squares on each corner represent the four directions or, perhaps, each of the Buddhist Dharma protectors.  The center column is sometimes said to represent the Buddha, and the two flanking squares his attendants.
“The kesa is the heart of Zen, the marrow of its bones,” said Eihei Dogen, (1200-53 CE) who established the Soto branch of the Zen in Japan.  It is the physical doctrinal symbol, the essence of Transmission, and essential to a sense of legitimacy. Dogen studied in China and received the kesa of a Chinese Zen patriarch who had lived a century earlier.

Dogen was somewhat fanatical on the subject of kesa, proselytizing its profound virtues, lamenting the decadent period wherein it provided the only lifeline and yet was so neglected.  I recommend his Kesa Kudoku (The Merit of the Buddha Robe), Chapter 3 of his great work the Shobogenzo, which waxes poetic on the subject, while providing practical information concerning  the making, care and use of the garment. I can provide copies by email if you are interested.

He wrote, “… one verse of the ‘Robe Gatha,’ [also known as the Verse of the Kesa]… will become the seed of eternal light, which will finally lead us to the supreme Bodhi-wisdom.” The Robe Gatha is a Zen chant which is said before one puts on the Kesa or Rakusu.

Here is one translation:

How great the robe of liberation       
A formless field of merit.
Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching,
We save all beings.

Pretty marvelous, isn’t it?  However, a cautionary story about the robes, appearances and reality comes to us from the founder of Rinzai Zen, Master Lin-chi I-hsuan, who lived in the 9th century CE, who said, 

“… I put on various different robes…The student concentrates on the robe I’m wearing, noting whether it is blue, yellow, red, or white. Don’t get so taken up with the robe! The robe can’t move of itself; the person is the one who can put on the robe. There is a clean pure robe, there is a no birth robe, a bodhi robe, a nirvana robe, a patriarch robe, a Buddha robe. Fellow believers, these sounds, names, words, phrases are all nothing but changes of robe … Because of mental processes thoughts are formed, but all of these are just robes. If you take the robe that a person is wearing to be the person’s true identity, then though endless kalpas may pass, you will become proficient in robes only and will remain forever circling round in the threefold world, transmigrating in the realm of birth and death.”

Perhaps it is not a good thing to become too impressed or too attached, even to the kesa, although Master Dogen might disagree.  Some American Buddhists chafe against robes as representative of the hierarchy of Asian Buddhism; they wonder if robes have any value.  Some wonder if different robes encourage comparisons such as, “who is most enlightened?” or “who is the senior here?” Some believe robes intimidate newcomers or encourage pride as one advances. And some just don’t like the inherent formalism or the implied elitism.  Many Americans, simply wear their robes or just a rakusu over ordinary clothes. Rev. S’unya often replaces his pajamas with Heartland Zen brown overalls.  Perhaps we *are* developing American Buddhist robes.  But then again, perhaps not: the Sangha at Spirit Rock in Northern California has decided not to wear robes or differentiating insignia at all.

As a final point and to thank you all for listening to me, I would like to address one additional aspect of the Tradition of Buddha’s Robe.  Although I’ve run through the quick guide as to who wears what, when and why, I’d also like to leave you with a proactively positive way of approaching life with the help of the Buddha’s Robe. 

In the Lotus Sutra, the great, some say the greatest, Mahayana Sutra, we encounter a specific concept of “putting on the Buddha’s Robe.”  This appears in Chapter 10, “Teacher of the Law,” which addresses how to communicate with others, specifically when discussing Dharma.  But I believe it is applicable to our everyday lives, whether chatting about the weather or politics or sitting, alone, with ourselves. 
In this chapter, Shakyamuni Buddha explains “the three rules of teaching,” one of which is that a teacher must, “put on the Thus Come One’s robe,” before trying to teach the Lotus Sutra. 

In the Sutra, Buddha is speaking metaphorically; he explains that his Robe is “a mind that is gentle and forebearing.”   What does this mean? Gentle seems easy enough. Forebearing, or perseverance, seems to me to be the echo of Zen’s Great Effort, this time applied to communication.  If we, as a people, were able to combine kindness with willingness to stay engaged in dialogue, even when disagreement, criticism or misunderstanding arise, a great many problems might simply be talked away.  Unkindness breeds; if someone does not understand or rejects our position, we are tempted to return the favor.  Rejection leads to anger or disengagement, our cliché of fingers-in-ears “La,la,la, I can’t hear you,” often resulting in frustration and sorrow.  We lose the opportunity to communicate.

I believe that “gentle forebearance” comes from a resolve to develop one’s center –  it nurtures seeds of equanimity.  This requires inner strength, but also an open mind.  Such a tremendous amount of effort is involved in simply acting, rather than reacting, in not becoming too attached to what you believe, to being right – because if you personalize dogma, it becomes a fixed barrier to dialogue, any attempt at discussion swirls around it and crashes.
This is not to say that one should be passively meek and it’s not a quid pro quo kind of situation.  “I’ll be nice if you’ll be nice,” is not the goal here, although it is a nice side effect of being respectful. In fact, I think we should approach communication without expectation of reaching agreement or even understanding.
I may believe that, but I rarely achieve it.  However, I offer this Dharma talk to you all in that spirit!  May you all be warmly wrapped in Buddha’s Robe, open to dialogue but firm in your resolve and effort, and not perturbed by the questions of Buddhist couture.


A Holy Feat: H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III Gave a Proof of True Buddha-Dharma

A Holy Feat: H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III Gave a Proof of True Buddha-Dharma

(Translated from a report in Chinese published in Las Vegas Chinese Newspaper on June 3, 2014)

(Reported from Los Angeles) The H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III Cultural and Art Museum is the first cultural museum named after H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III in this earthly world with the mission of demonstrating His Holiness the Buddha’s enlightenment and accomplishments in the Five Vidyas. The museum is scheduled for its grand opening on June 7, 2014. Before this grand opening, an extremely holy feat happened to H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III. While H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III was traveling on a tour, a flock of birds flew within the view of His Holiness the Buddha at a distance of about 100 meters. Then they jumped on a water surface to splash the water and presented a group dance. The dance was also accompanied by a storm.

This event occurred on May 19, 2014. H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III was visiting Mexico at the time, accompanied by an entourage of more than 20 people. It was shortly after five o’clock in the afternoon. On the way back after visiting an ancient Maya site near the city of Merida, the Mexican tour guide led them to visit the Temozon Resort Hotel, which is a high-class resort hotel built from a manor farm. H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III and two top-notch holy virtuous ones were sitting at a table near the window inside a coffee shop. Right in front of the window at a distance of about 100 meters (328 feet) was a rectangular-shaped swimming pool. At that time, H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III called His entourage together and made an announcement:

“You came on this trip with me and saw many eye-opening scenes. However, today you all will soon see an amazing dance that you have never seen before. In a short while, many birds will fly to this swimming pool to perform a ‘Dragonfly Stepping on Water’ dance. The birds will dive down, shuttling above and treading on the surface of the water. They will step on the water and then soaring upward into the sky. This is also the dance of ‘Spiritual Birds Stepping on Water.’ They will also continue to perform after the rain starts.”

At that time, people within the entourage all looked outside the window but did not see even one bird. However, since H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III had called them over and told them that a world-astounding miracle would occur soon, they were confident that it would definitely happen. Still some of them raised a doubt, “Can a bird fly up after touching the water? Wouldn’t it plunge into the water and drown?”

H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III then asked them, “Do you see birds now?” The disciples replied, “No, there isn’t a bird, not even a bird’s shadow.” H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III said, “If you suspect that they will not come, or they will plunge into the water and drown, just wait and see what happens. Anyway, I will just tell you this. If there are no birds dancing above the swimming pool, the dharma I expounded would be evil views. If they do show up, that means I am truly Dorje Chang Buddha III, representing all Buddhas in the ten directions and, on the other hand, those dharma kings, rinpoches, venerable ones, and great dharma masters who slandered me are either evil masters or swindlers. The fact will be shown when the birds come. You just wait and see. Moreover, in a sudden moment, celestial deities will cast a heavy rainstorm within one or two seconds, providing an accompanying performance to the dance. However, the birds will not be driven away or stop due to the rain. You will soon see, whether Dorje Chang Buddha III expounded true Buddha-dharma or evil dharma and whether those who engaged in slandering and defamation are demonic persons, evil masters, and swindlers or not.”

After only one minute or so, many birds did fly to the sky above the swimming pool. There were no birds at any other place. They were circling and flipping very fast above the swimming pool. Some began dashing downward. Shortly afterwards, just as H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III had predicted a few minutes ago, the birds dived down from the sky and had their feet stepping on the water, and then flew upward back to the sky. The dance repeated this way over and over again.

Then, H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III said, “It is going rain heavily right away.” Everyone started to count silently, one, two, …… Exactly as told, in less than two seconds, a heavy downpour suddenly started. The bird did not stop or leave, and continued to dance within the rainstorm. Every detail of the prediction made ahead of time by H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III came true completely, proving that H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III’s Buddha-dharma is the true dharma and that those who slandered His Holiness the Buddha are all demonic persons, evil masters, and swindlers.

To provide witnesses to this absolutely true holy scene, the disciples who accompanied His Holiness the Buddha on the trip and saw with their own eyes this extremely magnificent holy feat recorded in writing the situation at the time and signed their names. They also took oaths against severe consequences to guarantee what they wrote are ironclad facts. If what they wrote were an untrue fabricated story rather than their own experience, they not only would not become accomplished in this lifetime but also would devolve into the hell of uninterrupted suffering to undergo all kinds of sufferings. On the other hand, if what they stated is true, they will be certain to attain liberation and accomplishment in the current lifetime. They wished that all living beings can learn the true Buddha-dharma from H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III.

The whole process at that time was recorded by video. This live video recording included many world-astounding scenes one after another that proved His Holiness the Buddha’s realization of enlightenment and will be dedicated as a present to the H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III Cultural and Art Museum. The video will be shown to the public at the museum’s grand opening ceremony and will be distributed to people of all walks.

The written testimony was signed by thirteen witnesses of the entourage who took oaths against severe consequences, including Xuan Hui, Wenli, Baima Dorje Cuomu, Hengsheng, Long Zhi, Kuan, Jiawei Dianba, Cideji, Cirong Zhuoma, Gesang Quzeng, Renqing Quezan, Dunzhu, and Tongchang. Their testimony stated:

“This event seems to be plain simple. However, after careful thinking, we can realize that:”

  • “First, this place is quite far off. Except the Mexican tour guide, none of us on the tour has been here. Neither did we know the location, the setting, or anything about this place. We did not know this place had birds either.
  • Secondly, when H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III made the announcement, we all clearly saw that there was not even one bird above the swimming pool and the higher sky above it.
  • Thirdly, birds are of course not human. They have no way to speak to us or communicate with us in other ways. We human are not able to give notice or direction to the birds either to let them tread and dance on the water surface, not to say that they were more than 100 meters (328 feet) away from us.”

“With all these facts, then how was H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III able to inform all of us two or three minutes ahead of time that many birds would fly to the sky above the swimming pool and state definitively that the birds would perform a world-astounding miraculous dance? What was even more astounding is announcing that celestial deities would produce a heavy downpour within 1-2 seconds and the birds would not be driven away by the rain and would continue to dance. Exactly as forecasted, such a world-astounding scene did take place, proving the truthfulness of the announcement made by His Holiness the Buddha. This is not an issue of prediction. Rather, it represents the ultimate truth and Buddha-dharma that is millions of times more powerful than a prediction!!!! This fact fully proved that the world of Buddhas is completely different from living beings’ world, that the truth of Buddha-dharma that the Buddha expounded to living beings is absolutely true without anything untrue, and that living beings must cultivate in accord with the Buddha’s teaching, in order to become accomplished and truly enter the world of Buddha-dharma. This is because His Holiness the Buddha is the sole highest extremely great holy virtuous one. We simply are unable to know all truths and facts that H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III is aware of. Therefore, we cultivate in accord with the His Holiness Buddha’s teaching. Only then can we turn the state of an ordinary being into the state of a Buddha and enter the world of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas!”

“You should not believe literally H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III’s description of this event. His Holiness the Buddha said that He is a humble one, He does not have the ability of telling the birds to present a dance on top of the water or telling celestial deities to rain a heavy downpour as an accompanying performance to the dance, this holy occurrence was a coincidence due to the karmic conditions of all who were present, and He does not have such a power of realization. Rather, you should realize that these statements reflected the supreme virtue of selflessness of a true Buddha. You should think carefully about this situation. Which dharma king, rinpoche, dharma master, or holy one can announce ahead of time when there is no bird seen that many birds will come to perform a dance of treading water? Moreover, within only three minutes, many birds did show up and dance on the water, making many splashes of water.”

“Maybe we can just say that this is not amazing. However, such a statement of announcing the arrival of many birds to perform a dance of treading water cannot be baselessly made by a person with the status of a Buddha when a live video recording was on and there was no bird around. How would the situation end if there weren’t many birds showing up afterwards? Moreover, the announcement said that celestial deities were to pour a heavy rain in two seconds. Two seconds after the sentence ended, a heavy downpour started immediately, manifesting an accompanying performance to the birds’ dance. This is something far more than being amazing. It is truly a holy feat made by His Holiness the Buddha. No other holy one can do so, because he does not have such supreme realization of Buddha-dharma. We know that no eminent monk, dharma king, or rinpoche in history has ever done so. In real life, we do not see any great dharma king, great rinpoche, or great dharma master making such accomplishment either! Looking at the last several thousand years, only H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III has the true dharma of the Tathagata to manifest such inspiration and virtuous realization. In another instance, H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III reversed an aged appearance to that of a youth after only a little over ten minutes. Can any great patriarch master, great dharma king, great rinpoche, or great dharma master make an accomplishment that bears a remote resemblance to this?”c

“Now we know that a true Buddha came to our world. Why don’t you seize this opportunity to follow the Buddha to cultivate and learn the dharma to end the cycle of birth and death? Also, it is certain that you will die soon and you will not be able to escape the death!!! That time will soon come, when your breath will stop and you will die. Your soul, which is the spiritual consciousness you have now, will not have anything that you once possessed in the human world. You will be penniless regardless of how much money you once had. At that time, there will be no food, no house, and nothing. While you are at the stage of bardo, you can see your family members but they can’t hear you talking to them. You will only have loneness, extreme suffering, hunger, and fear. There is no hotel on your way to the afterworld. You don’t know where you can stay for the night. This is not to scare you. That day will come very soon! This is an obvious fact. You are certain to experience the loneness, fear, and the coming together of all kinds of sufferings that never end. The only way to avoid this consequence is to learn the true dharma of the Tathagata right now. Only by doing so can you become accomplished and break away from the fear of death. You should look for the Buddha immediately to learn the dharma. There will be no second chance if you waste this lifetime!!! Then only loneness and suffering with no possibility of being rescued are waiting for your soul.”


Reincarnation now

Reincarnation now

Edited byNigel Warburton

When people outside of Asia think of Buddhism, they tend to think about just philosophy and meditation. Buddhists are often said not to have gods, wars or empires. Their religion isn’t about ritual or belief, but a dedicated exploration into what causes suffering and how to end it through meditation and compassion. Although there’s some basis for this image, Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism have been at pains for decades to show that it’s largely untrue, or at least very partial. The Buddhism that non-Buddhists know today is less an accurate vision of its history than a creation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time period, Buddhists and their sympathisers created this modernised Buddhism. They discarded from it the elements of Buddhist history that didn’t fit the rational, scientific worldview that accompanied colonisation and modernisation. In a remarkable feat of historical reinvention, Buddhism went from degraded other to uplifted saviour in a matter of decades.

While there’s much wrong with colonisation forcing such changes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Indigenous thinkers recreating their religions. Religions reinvent themselves all the time in response to changes both internal and external. What Buddhists such as D T Suzuki did wasn’t particularly different from what Martin Buber did for Judaism, Paul Tillich for Christianity, Muhammad Iqbal for Islam, or Swami Vivekananda for Hinduism. All of these thinkers returned to elements of their traditions to create a version of their religion that spoke better to the modern world. They also effectively rebutted claims from outsiders about their inferiority. Buddhists, here, were extremely successful, especially in the eyes of non-Buddhists, for whom Buddhism became the modern, rational religion par excellence. Indeed, they were so successful that Buddhism is often said to be just a philosophy that one can embody, regardless of one’s religious affiliation.

This success, however, has come with costs. At the very least, it has turned outsiders’ understandings of Buddhism into a set of rather unfortunate stereotypes, such as when the Tibetan studies scholar Robert Thurman spoke of Tibetans as ‘the baby seals of the human rights movement’. At worst, it has provided cover for atrocities committed by Buddhists in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It has also had potentially negative effects on those who engage with modern Buddhism. Critics today write of ‘McMindfulness’, a pop version of mindfulness that, rather than overcoming suffering and delusion, in fact makes them worse by letting people believe that they can do whatever harm they want, so long as they meditate once a day. According to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, this means that Buddhism’s advice to ‘let things go’ and focus on your breathing equates to letting go of fighting against all the cruelty and injustice in the world. By focusing on the presentness of your own breath or body posture, you might very well come to feel at ease in a world that’s full of disease and devastation.

People who want to really understand Buddhism in all of its complexity should spend time in Buddhist countries (not just at monasteries), learn ancient and modern languages, and study the works of scholars around the world who offer a more detailed history of Buddhism and Buddhists. But for those who are interested only in the modern, cleaned-up version of Buddhism, yet want to avoid the problems of modern Buddhism – both in terms of its ignorance of history and its politics of the present – I would offer this advice: take reincarnation seriously.

hat probably doesn’t sound right. Reincarnation (also called transmigration or rebirth) is the idea that some part of consciousness lives on after death, and keeps returning to this or other realms of existence until liberated by Buddhist practice. And it seems like exactly the kind of thing that modern, secular Buddhists would reject, often with good reason. After all, reincarnation has often been used to justify why some people deserve good or bad things, based on the actions that they supposedly made in their past lives. But when I say that people should take reincarnation seriously, I don’t mean that they should embrace every detail of the classical doctrine. Whether or not one does is a question for practising Buddhists and others – a question about which I have neither the right nor the capacity to speak. What I mean, rather, is that we should seriously consider what a contemporary version of the idea of reincarnation would look like.

Thinking about reincarnation today is, first of all, a reminder of the complexity of Buddhism, and the fact that individual practices can’t be neatly separated from broader institutional histories. Any change in our personal lives is inseparable from change in the world around us. Second, reincarnation offers a way of thinking about the present as connected to the deep past and to any potential futures as well. We needn’t think of the specifics of the reincarnation doctrine to realise that we’re all the inheritors of a past that we didn’t create and the bequeathers of a future we won’t live to see. Third, this temporal relation is also an ethical one, because it suggests that we’re the products of other lives and the creators of other futures, and thus share a global and temporal interdependence. And fourth, it follows that part of our task as humans is to be aware of what we might accidentally replicate from our past and thus unknowingly recreate in the future.

The Buddhist ideal of ending the cycle of reincarnation has a secular corollary in the ideal of removing all traces of our past mistakes – truly living in a society without patriarchy or poverty or violence. If we take reincarnation seriously, then we can move past injunctions to just ‘be more in the present moment’ and understand how real presence means being connected to much more than our breathing. It forces us to come to terms with the possibility that we’re connected to many more lives and beings – across both time and space – than we can ever realise.

In Tibet, the doctrine of rebirth was used to identify the consciousness of a deceased monk in a newborn child

Rethinking reincarnation isn’t unprecedented. As with other elements of Buddhism, the concept has changed over time. And it’s worth recalling that part of the origin of Buddhism was to challenge prevailing theories of reincarnation in the place where Siddhartha Gautama was born – in what is now the India-Nepal border, around the 5th century BCE. In these belief systems, some part of the person (which part is interpreted differently both across and within religious movements) would live on in a cycle of rebirth called samsara. There’s also diversity of thought about the meaning of this cycle, but Gautama and his followers criticised a variety of their contemporaries’ ideas. One was the notion that only a few were able to leave this cycle and become part of the divine. Another was that the aim was, indeed, to become part of something. According to Gautama, everyone, regardless of their place of birth, is capable of exiting the cycle of reincarnation. And to do so doesn’t mean joining with something; it means disjoining entirely, or ‘extinguishing’ the fire of life. In one image, consciousness is like a flame being passed from candle to candle. After enlightenment, no more candles will be lit.

Buddhism, then, began in part as a new set of views about reincarnation. And throughout its history, Buddhists have debated and expanded the potential for what reincarnation entails. For example, in Tibet, probably beginning in the 13th century, the doctrine of rebirth took a significant twist: it was used to identify the consciousness of a deceased monk in a newborn child, and thus grant to that child the religious and political title of the previous monk. This is the background for what became the tradition of the Dalai Lamas. Although this was based on the existing doctrine that someone who had achieved nirvana could ‘emanate’ their consciousness on Earth in order to guide humans to liberation, it took on a whole new meaning and history in Tibet.

More recently, Buddhists, as well as outsiders seeking to modernise Buddhism, have continued to reinterpret the doctrine of reincarnation for their own times. From the mid-19th century, as the theory of evolution developed, thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson began to suggest that the doctrine of transmigration was an intimation of the understanding of the transmutation of species. As he put it: ‘The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were; but men and women are only half human.’ This kind of assimilation was also advocated by Buddhists such as the Chinese reformer Taixu, who spoke of evolution as describing ‘an infinite number of souls who have evolved through endless reincarnations’. And contemporary, ecologically minded Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh have extended this to the whole of the planet: ‘I know that in the past I have been a cloud, a river, and the air. And I was a rock. I was the minerals in the water … gas, sunshine, water, fungi, and plants.’ This fits within the contemporary understanding that the components of a human body pre-existed that body in the natural world. It also expresses a genuine sense of interdependence between humans and their environment.

Reincarnation has also been used to think about politics. In his essay ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), Karl Marx wrote:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

I’m not sure what Marx might have known of Indian doctrines of reincarnation. He more likely had in mind the ideas of transmigration that one can find in Pythagoras and Plato. But he was closer to the Buddhist critique of Brahmanism than anything else, because the Platonic system – like the Brahmanic one – had no particular end: people could reincarnate forever. Marx’s point wasn’t that reincarnation went on forever, but that we needed to take concrete steps to end it: we should awaken to something new, beyond the nightmare of histories of oppression.

But taking reincarnation seriously doesn’t just mean thinking about the ecological or political potential of its doctrines. It also means thinking seriously about the failure of any doctrine to realise its mission. This is another reason why we shouldn’t excise reincarnation from the modern understanding of Buddhism. Consider, as an example, the work of the writer and scholar Robert Wright and his popular book Why Buddhism Is True (2017). According to Wright, Buddhism is true because it understands something very specific about the effect of natural selection on the human condition. Namely, that evolution is driven by fleeting pleasure. Humans seek satisfaction through eating and copulating, only to find that the pleasure from these activities is remarkably evanescent. And yet, nevertheless, we get up and try to find satisfaction through them every day. Wright says that this is a neat trick of natural selection, which is driven simply by the blind will of the species to continue. If we were completely sated by our meals or sexual encounters, we wouldn’t have the same urge to keep doing them. So evolution tricks us into thinking that we’ll achieve satisfaction, when we never will. The trouble is that this cycle of pleasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction is, well, rather unsatisfying. And this is what Buddhism understands and what mindfulness meditation can help cure. To perpetually pursue satisfaction is suffering. To become aware of this process and gain distance from it through mindfulness provides relief.

Early in his book, Wright makes a qualification about what he thinks is true in Buddhism. He writes: ‘I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – reincarnation, for example.’ But if we look at the story that he’s told us about the truth of Buddhism, we will actually see reincarnation at work. First, in the sense that every human bears traces of historical processes that happened long before any of us were alive. Second, in that humans are driven by a fundamental process of the endless reincarnation of pleasure. Third, that when we think we’re moving past a problem, we’re often just creating a new version of it. Thus evolution, for example, solved the problem of how to keep the species going by creating other problems of survival for that very species – whether through epidemics of obesity or the greed for pleasure that leads people to pillage and destroy others. This tendency to recreate failures was Marx’s point in his essay about the failure of revolutionaries in France. And it would later become the devastating problem of many who followed Marx himself.

To take reincarnation seriously isn’t only to develop a more sophisticated understanding of where we come from and what we owe to what comes after us, but also to face up to our tendency to bring screaming into the future the mistakes that we’ve made in the past. The hope of this reckoning is that we might better understand these conditions and awake from these nightmares. This is the point at which Gautama and Marx and many others agree: for there to be progress in ending suffering, some elements of the world – poverty, racism, hatred – simply must cease to be reincarnated.

The politics of reincarnation refuses to see the world as broken up into friends and enemies, victors and losers

The political demands to end negative reincarnations are, in part, made possible by the ethical view of human interdependence that reincarnation affords us. One of the ideas that we learn in the classical doctrine is that reincarnation links many of us across the histories of our being. In the words of Steven Collins, one of the most important Anglophone interpreters of the doctrine, stories of reincarnation are ‘narrative ways of connecting identities one to another’. Someone whom we don’t know, and might never know, could very well be part of our chain of existence. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of the classical view is that not everything or everyone is actually connected. Some other humans and elements are connected to us as individuals, in that we’re linked across time through our past or future selves. But some people and things always remain separate. Collins points out that, except for the enlightened few, most of us never know whether or how we’re related to others. The ethics here is thus not one in which I act kindly to others because I know that I am related to them, but rather precisely because I don’t know.

Reincarnation, then, isn’t about providing certainty, but a means of developing ethics within conditions of uncertainty. We might think of it as a kind of Pascalian wager. That is, just as the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal wagered that it would be better, after this life has ended, to have believed in God, just in case God is real, the ethics of reincarnation suggests that we’re better off believing in our interconnectedness to any given person or animal or plant – whether we ever meet them or not – just in case we are. The immediate payoff of the wager is this: because I don’t know how I’m connected to the Universe, and the people, plants, animals and bacteria that I share it with, it’s best that I act kindly and calmly toward everything and everyone.

There are analogies in other traditions. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus said that all who fed or clothed or cared for him, when he was downtrodden, would go to heaven. When someone asked how they could do this for him, he replied: ‘[J]ust as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ There’s also a Jewish tradition that speaks of 36 hidden, just people who maintain the stability of the world. The scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem argued in 1971 that this myth led to ‘a somewhat anarchic morality: your neighbour may be one of the hidden just men.’ The version of reincarnation that I’m advocating for here adds to these traditions by urging us to extend this ethics beyond how we treat our neighbours or those we meet. Our lack of knowledge about our specific connections to the world should make us behave ethically toward the whole world. The politics of reincarnation that one can develop from this ethics refuses to see the world as broken up into friends and enemies, victors and losers. It suggests that we’re all patchworks of each other, bound together on a wheel of time. Our task in such a world can’t be to defeat each other, for there’s no one who is an other.

Of course, there are ways to arrive at all of these thoughts without engaging reincarnation. The basic ideas can be formulated through any number of traditions. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the doctrine of reincarnation has its own potential downsides, especially when it’s used to justify people’s positions within a social order. But the value of taking reincarnation seriously is that it might lead us to grasp more readily where and how we’re recreating such troubled social formations. Perhaps we see this in today’s supposed meritocracies, which create new, caste-like justifications for hierarchy and inequality, as several recent critics have suggested. Or perhaps we see it in some modern Buddhist monasteries in the West, where histories of sexual harassment keep recurring. To take reincarnation seriously is to think about how we can end these histories of suffering. This means working not just on a personal or even national scale, but through a global ethics based on our interdependence to all creatures and the natural world. It’s hard to think of anything less ‘McMindful’ than that.