Buddhism and Bonnō

Based on experience of being a Buddhist (with a few interruptions) since I was 16, I’ve learned that reading about Buddhism and living Buddhism, especially within a Buddhist culture, are two different things. My wife, who is Japanese and whose father worked in the funeral industry, has always had a good, intuitive understand of Buddhism even if she has seldom studied it. Me, on the other hand, approached it for a long, long time from a more scholarly (more precisely an “amateur scholarly”), analytical standpoint. It was only in recent years, that I started to realize the short-comings of “academic-only Buddhism” and kind of started over.

Case in point: in Japanese culture, you sometimes hear the Buddhist term bonnō (煩悩).1 I heard this term over the years, but especially lately while listening to a certain Japanese language Buddhist + comedy podcast.

Anyhow, bonnō in Japanese is derived from the Sanskrit term klesha, which in English is translated as “mental defilements”, “mental delusions”, etc. From a textbook perspective, these deluded mental states are the ones that cloud judgment, and cause people to do unwholesome conduct, further creating negative karma and conditions that keep one bound on the never-ending cycle of birth and rebirth (not to mention suffering in this life). Further, the most fundamental kleshas are defined as greed, anger and ignorance, leading to other kleshas and so on.

I mean, that kind of makes sense. It might be interesting from an intellectual standpoint, but it’s not very practical. It doesn’t resonate with one’s life much.

But, while listening to the podcast, I realized that bonnō just means all the stupid shit we do, think or expect that causes us more grief.

  • That time I said something snarky to my wife and we got into a big fight? bonnō.
  • That time I (again) ate too much at the company holiday party and made myself sick? bonnō.
  • That time I played a Magic: The Gathering draft at my local game store without any practice or research, and got upset about a 0-4 ? bonnō.
  • That one session of Adventurer’s League I was super excited about, and waited all week for, and then it turned out to suck? bonnō.
  • That one girl that I really wanted to date in college, and when we finally did go out, it was super obvious we weren’t compatible? bonnō.

And so on. Bonnō is an interesting concept because we create grief for ourselves all the time, in small ways, in big ways, and so on. All of it derives from fundamental misunderstandings with other people, bad assumptions based on limited information, or unrealistic expectations that didn’t accord with reality.

Bonnō is not something limited to “trashy” people, though. People who are “well-educated” or come from other backgrounds are just as afflicted by bonnō as anyone else; the nature of their afflictions may be different, but you’d be fooling yourself into thinking that just because you went to college and had a class on European Colonialism in the 18th century that you’re somehow more enlightened than other people. From the Japanese-Buddhist perspective, you are still bonpu (凡夫, sometimes pronounced “bonbu“): literally, a run-of-the-mill person subject to the same basic afflictions, same basic patterns of behavior, selfish ego, etc.

Nor is this some red pill vs. blue pill nonsense either.2 People who consider3 themselves smarter or more awakened like to think that it’s a matter of awakening to some higher truth, and suddenly BAM you’re a new, better man.

No, as far as Buddhism is concerned, it doesn’t work that way. In the end, you just need two things:

  1. Self-reflection. You can’t stop being a dick-head if you aren’t aware you’re acting like a dick-head.
  2. Cultivating wholesome qualities. Every defilement has a corresponding wholesome quality to counteract it: Anger is counteracted with good-will, greed with self-restraint, ignorance with wisdom, and so on.

Oh, and patience. A lot of patience. Even if you’re dead-set on the path to Enlightenment, you can not overcome old habits easily. A river does not change course overnight. Lots of mistakes are made, but remember to keep reflecting on your own behavior and see what’s wholesome and what’s not.

As the Buddha said to his step-mother (who became a nun):

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma [the Buddha’s teaching], this is the Vinaya [the Buddhist monastic community], this is the Teacher’s instruction.'”

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (with emphasis added by me)

The results of putting the Dharma into practice speak for themselves, if given time.

1 Pronounced “bohn-noh”.

2 Sorry, Neo, that was just a Dayquil you swallowed, lolz.

3 People consider themselves a lot of things. Welcome to the world of bonnō.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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