A while back, I posted about an elf-samurai character concept I created for Dungeons and Dragons, and from this character concept I created a character for Adventurer’s League named Heian Amakiiro (character sheet here). His backstory was based on my own Hamato Island series of adventures. After playing several adventures in Adventurer’s League, I wanted to share some experiences.
As of writing, Heian has reached level 8, and participated in 6 modules, plus 2 DM rewards I got from running adventures for others.
Not surprisingly, the way I expected to play Heian and the way I actually played Heian turned out to be different. I originally wanted a samurai who was more or less capable of both strength-based melee combat (with a katana longsword) and archery. To help with this, I did a magic item trade in Adventurers League to get Gauntlets of Ogre Strength. That way, I was free to focus on developing his dexterity.
But in reality, Heian rarely ever used melee combat. That’s because I kind of stumbled upon a neat trick that made his archery pretty powerful.
At fourth level I took the feat Elven Accuracy. When paired with the samurai sub-archetype and its Fighting Spirit ability this gave me a handy combination. I use Fighting Spirit to give myself advantage on attacks, and with Elven Accuracy, I can re-roll one of those attack dice. This means when I use the two together, I am effectively rolling 3d20.
Further, at level 6, I took another feat, Sharpshooter, since with an effective attack roll of 3d20, I can safely risk taking a -5 attack bonus to hit for +10 damage.
In a recent tier-2 adventure fighting a Hezrou demon, Heian had a round where he attacked 4 times (two attacks + Fighter’s Second Wind ability) and with the combination above hit 3 out of 4 times causing 50+ damage that round!
Heian has become something of a kyūdō master between his Elvish heritage and samurai training.
Further, at level 5, per Adventurer’s League rules, he picked up a +1 longbow, which for flavor reasons I made as a Japanese-style daikyū (大弓) bow.
As a character he has been surprising fun. His samurai benefits as a courtier have been occasionally helpful in role-playing situations and in combat he clears the house.
Part of the fun of playing an unconventional character is discovering combinations and abilities you didn’t foresee. Plus, it makes the character more memorable in the long run.
So here’s to Heian Amakiiro, the best dang (imaginary) elf samurai archer I know! 🧝🏼♂️🍂🌸
You can also read here for a detailed explanation as to why.
This a pretty exciting change after Season 10 introduced some pretty controversial changes (which have effectively been reversed) in 2020, which led to a lot of grumbling among D&D players on Discord. I remember some people talking about taking their business over to Pathfinder official play instead.1
The AL admin community evidentially did some serious thinking and finally, finally gave us an updated, compact, easy to understand set of player rules. I for one am genuinely excited to play again.
However, I also have a problem. When the transition from Season 9 to Season 10 began, a number of rules were introduced for character conversions, and such, and now with another move to a standard set of rules for the Forgotten Realms, some of my old characters are converting twice. Technically, no conversion is strictly required, but with the end of Season 9 players were encouraged to rebuild for either “historic” or “seasonal” and I did that for at least some of my old characters. Other old characters just got forgotten.
With the new rules, a lot of options opened up and rebuilding again is an option:
Whenever you could gain a level (even if you decline), you may rebuild any aspect of your character.
Adventure’s League Player’s Guide for the Forgotten Realms
With this in mind, I’ve been looking at all my AL characters up to this point, old and new. Some were too old and haven’t been played in so long that I decided retire2 them. I decided to keep my oldest character, Qisandoral, after dragging him out of retirement in season 10 during a brief window when they allowed a one-time rebuild. Using the rule above, I tweaked him a bit more but adjusting his feats a bit (he uses ice magic a lot, so I gave him Elemental Adept).
For newer characters, I have also taken advantage of the rules above, plus new options for character backgrounds and such to rebuild them as well. My elf-samuraiHeian Amakiiro got the Far Traveller background now, which fits his character better. In the end, I wanted to have at least 1-3 characters per tier (I have no tier-4 characters as of writing), and it has been nice to finally “clean house”.
I, like many other players, are excited by the new ruleset, which will hopefully stay somewhat stable going forward. I have seen the rules change a number of times since I started in Season 8, and keeping up with the changing rules has been exhausting. However, my sense is the the AL admins want to come up with a simpler, more flexible set of rules that can run on auto-pilot going forward. And I for one fully support that. 😄
1 Needless to say, I did Pathfinder once and don’t plan on doing it again. To some degree, I blame that particular DM, who just wanted cool combat campaigns without any real plot. But I also got tired of the complicated character creation, tracking feats, and pressure to min/max.
2 “Retirement” here isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. I just exported and backed up their character sheets from DnD Beyond, and saved their logs into a different folder. If I really wanted to, I could still bring them back. Unlikely, though. I would more likely build a fresh, new version of that character instead.
The Moon Festival (中秋節), celebrated across east Asia starts tonight depending on your time zone. I got to celebrate on Animal Crossing: New Horizons by decorating my “home” with regional treats: moon cakes from China at front, colorful song-pyon from Korea on the back-right and white dango from Japan on the left.
In Japan, the festival is celebrated as o-tsukimi, which I wrote about here. We usually go outside and view the moon, weather permitting and enjoy some dango treats or the Korean equivalent (which is easier to get and also tasty).
Anyhow, wishing you all a terrific Moon Festival!!
I have been continuing my read of the new book Chinese Pure Land Buddhism (first mentioned here), and enjoying it thoroughly. This is the first helpful Buddhist book that I have read in a long time.
In today’s post, I wanted to highlight an excellent passage in the first chapter on how the Pure Land Buddhist tradition is organized.
This passage applies not just to the tradition within China, but I believe across most of Pure Land Buddhism to some extent or another. Given Buddhism’s long history in Asia, I believe this passage also helps to explain the particular endurance of the Pure Land tradition.
China’s history, particular its government attitude, toward Buddhism has been rocky to say the least. At times, such as the early Tang Dynasty, it has been heavily supported and patronized, and at other times it has been persecuted, or relegated to the sidelines compared to the more native Confucian and Taoist traditions. Nevertheless, the Pure Land tradition, like its Chan (Zen) counterpart, has proven remarkably flexible and thrived for centuries.
At the end of the first chapter, the author concludes:
One may compare it [the Pure Land Buddhist tradition] to something like the tradition of Marian prayer within the Catholic Church. Practitioners do not seek to break with the Church and will see to it that their practice violates no canon of orthodoxy. At the same time, they will maintain its distinctiveness and hold it out as an option for those in the Church who feel drawn to it. They will provide an appropriate doctrinal justification for those practice to defend it from detractors, and they may at times form associations such as Marian Sodalites for mutual support in the practice. They generally will not disparage other traditions of practice nor call for exclusive commitment.
Pages 31 and 32
Pure Land Buddhism differs from some other more familiar traditions in that it does not usually have a master-disciple relationship. It’s more of a common fellowship among like-minded Buddhists:
A tradition [such as Pure Land Buddhism] does not need institutions or lineages to endure; it simply needs people to engage it and pass it along to subsequent generations.
I personally have always been a bit uneasy about Buddhist lineages that rely on strict master-disciple relationships. It feels like putting all your eggs in one basket. If the basket is rotten, your eggs eventually fall through and shatter, leading to a lot of pain and misery.
As a lay Buddhist, I know in a general sense what I should do walk the Buddhist path: things like observing the Five Precepts, goodwill towards others, and deepening my understanding of the Dharma. Wisdom, conduct, and practice in other words.
At the same time, there is a need, like all people, for some sense of structure and community. I find that Pure Land Buddhism tends to strike that balance about as well as any tradition within Buddhism that I can think of between a concrete set of traditions and practices, without being too narrow either.
But, as I said before, Buddhism has many gates to accommodate many kinds of people, and that I believe is one of its sources of strength.
Long long ago, before Afghanistan was a battleground for Soviet and then American forces, the famed Buddhist Emperor, Ashoka, instituted a series of pious inscriptions across his vast empire. One of these inscriptions exists in the city of Kandahar, the same city known these days as the birthplace of the Taliban.
Afghanistan has been a point of fascination for me since 2001, when all eyes turned to it after September 11th. I knew nothing about the country, and then found a fascinating book (which I’ve long since lost) about its history and realized there was a lot more there than most Westerners were aware of. Afghanistan has a rich history of cultural interchange that stretches very far back in human history as the above inscription hints at.
The Macedonian-Greeks under Alexander the Great were among a long line of conquerors who came to northwest India, but after Alexander abruptly died at the age of 33, his bodyguards and generals strove to carry on his legacy, first as satraps, nominally loyal to the throne in Macedon, and later outright kings of their own better known as the Diadochoi, next as the Seleucid Empire, and finally as a local, independent kingdom called Bactria.
Beginning with Seleukos I Nikator who took over Mesopotamia and the Persian lands, founding the Seleucid Empire, the Greeks had a lively cultural interchange with the new Mauryan Dynasty, first as adversaries, then as allies. and later forged a lasting treaty with the Mauryan emperors. The Seleucids benefited from this exchange in the form of war elephants, and an influx of Buddhist missionaries propagated by Emperor Ashoka, Chandragupta’s grandson. You can see in the inscription above, the inscription has Greek at the top and Aramaic, the other major language in the region (also the same language that Jesus spoke natively).
A second inscription, written in particularly sophisticated Greek, and possibly containing the Edicts of Emperor Ashoka has also been found in Kandahar, though it’s whereabouts are unknown now:
But the Indian-Buddhist-Greek interaction wasn’t limited to inscriptions. For example, there exists a Buddhist text called the Questions of King Milinda (example text hosted here) represents a detailed dialogue between King Menander I of Bactria and a Buddhist monk named Nagasena that was recorded around the first century CE. It includes some excellent dialogue on various Buddhist topics. A great example is King Menander asking Nagasena about the Buddhist notion of rebirth, and its rejection of reincarnation (transmigration):
The king asked: “Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn?”
“Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”
“How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy.”
“Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”
“Give me another analogy.”
“Do you remember, your majesty, when you were a boy learning some verse from a teacher?”
“Yes, venerable sir.”
“Your majesty, did this verse transmigrate from the teacher?”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”
Next, we should talk about Greco-Buddhist artwork. Long after, Bactria as a Greco-political entity gave way to the Kushan Empire, Greek culture was still cultivated and applied to the Buddhist culture at the time. This confluence of Greek artwork, Indian Buddhist teachings and Kushan patronage led to a flowering of Buddhist art in the region of Gandhara that we still benefit from today.
The statue of Shakyamuni Buddha to the right shows strong similarities to Greek artwork revering various heroes, gods and goddesses, but the subject matter is obviously Indian-Buddhist. Note that prior to this, Buddhist artwork tended to avoid depicting images of people, instead using symbols such as the Buddha’s footprints, the eight-spoked wheel, etc. So, depicting Buddhist figures as lifelike statues was a new innovation, and was gradually proliferated to East Asia where such images continued, but using a more “asian” style. Those “garden buddhas” you see at your local store are descendants of this artistic style. 😉
Finally, let me touch upon one last topic: Greek philosophy. The Hellenistic Period of Greek history was a flowering many different schools of philosophy, but one of them, Pyrrhonism. I highly recommend the podcast episode by the Hellenistic Age Podcast on the Skeptic philosophies at the time, including Pyrrhonism. One interesting theory is that Pyrrho had spent some time in India, and that Pyrrhonist philosophy has notable similarities to the Madhyamika school of Indian-buddhist philosophy. The relationship between the two is unclear, and it’s not even clear if the story of Pyrrho traveling to India with Alexander the Great is even true. It is a frequent trope in biographies at the time for great minds to “travel to India”, though that could mean anywhere east of the Greco-Roman world, so the evidence for Pyrrho’s travels to India are sketchy, but intriguing.
However, if there is indeed a link, Pyrrhonism would probably represent the closest analogy in Western culture to Buddhism.
Anyhow, all this is to say that places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and such have a long and rich history, far more than can easily be understood at a glance. Its interactions from both West and East, the confluence of cultures, and so on mean that there is a lot of fascinating stuff under the surface. I personally regret that I will probably not be able to travel to Afghanistan in my lifetime, but I hope that in more peaceful times further research can be done once more and shed light into this often misunderstood history.
Also, it’s important to recognize that while Greco-Buddhist culture existed for a short time and had only limited influence on subsequent Buddhism, it still made its mark, and was a shining example of cultural exchange and flourishing.
The book seeks to clarify what defines the Chinese “Pure Land Buddhist tradition” by relying on more native Chinese sources, rather than Western interpretations. I have only started reading the book and it has done much to clarify my own misconceptions.
In particular, one the first chapters attempts to define what Chinese Pure Land Buddhism is rather than what it isn’t (a common trope from earlier Western research). In Japan, due to certain historical and political factors, Buddhism as a religion has been divided into a number of fixed sects 宗 (shū), such as Jodo Shu, Nichiren Shu, Soto Zen Shu and so on. Each has a set founder, a set practice, and set lineage, etc. This is what most Westerners are familiar with and tends to resonate with our own Protestant religious landscape.
However, when you look at mainland Buddhism such as in China, and probably also Vietnam and Korea, you don’t see such a division. Western research has tended to assume that is because there are no explicitly-defined sects, it’s just one syncretic, Buddhist tradition. However, the book demonstrates that if you scratch the surface you will find unique practices, traditions, it’s just that Western scholarship hasn’t adequately defined them yet.
In the context of Pure Land Buddhism in China, Chinese Buddhist writers have rarely used the equivalent term 宗 (zōng, sounds like “tsohng”) as in 浄土宗 (jìng tǔ zōng, “Pure Land Sect”) to describe the traditions therein. Instead, the book shows that the term 法門 (fǎmén, sounds like “fah-muhn”), or Dharma-gate, was much more commonly used throughout Chinese-Buddhist history. For clarity, the “Dharma” here refers to the Buddhist teachings as taught by the historical Buddha, or in a broader sense, the nature of reality. The Buddha didn’t invent the Dharma, he awakened to what was already there, just as other Buddhas supposedly did, and shared with others.
In any case, the notion of Dharma Gate, rather than “sect” kind of blew my mind.
The idea of gates is nothing new in Buddhism: many Buddhist temples, including urban ones, have a “gate” representing one’s entrance to the Buddhist path. Even becoming Buddhist is sometimes referred to as “passing through the Gate of the Dharma”,
However, in this context, it means something bigger. In the famous Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses the analogy of a burning household, and the efforts to lead the children out of the house with promises of gifts, only to reveal that all the gifts were the same (and much better than what was originally promised). A frequent theme in the Lotus Sutra is thus “expedient means” or upāya in Sanskrit: using a variety of teachings and methods to suit the backgrounds and inclinations of various living beings to help them take those first steps. Ensure no one is left behind, in other words.
This gives rise to the idea of many different “gates”, usually based around specific Buddhist practices rather than a sectarian interpretation, all converging on the same point in the middle.
Imagine someone going through one gate at the local sports stadium versus a different gate. Sometimes, this is less about choice, and more about which parking lot you parked in,1 but other times it might be because you like to stop and get some garlic fries on the way in, or maybe you like taking the less crowded gate even if you have to walk a bit further to your seat. Maybe you just really want that beer. In any case, you arrive at your seat, but the experience leading up to it will be different until you converge to your seat. It’s all the same stadium one way or another, but you have some agency about which gate you pass through and how you will get to your seat.
I like this expression of the various “dharma gates” of Buddhism because it doesn’t divide Buddhism into competing sects, nor does it necessarily imply one gate is better than another (they’re all roughly equidistant to the goal). It’s more about choice.
And the concept of a “dharma gate” isn’t limited to particular traditions. As the book shows, the Pure Land “dharma gate” has within it many different sub-gates, based on particular practices (reciting sutras, prostrations, meditation practices, etc). Zen-based traditions might also vary somewhat by practices, the degree they do this or that, and thus there’s not just “Zen gate”, but many gates within.
I like sects as much as the next person,2 but I think describing Buddhism as a large religion with many “dharma-gates” rather than denominations or sects, is a more accurate model. Imagine the Buddhist religion as the Colosseum of Rome. Buddhism as whole tends to place heavy emphasis on practice and less on dogma, so it’s more of a matter of finding a practice (e.g. a dharma-gate) and entering through that gate. In time your practice and understanding will converge with other Buddhists over time.
1 In the same way, sometimes we living beings are hemmed in by our past karmic circumstances and thus our options for practicing Buddhism are more limited.
This season is in the old Japanese calendar is known as hakuro (白露) or “white dew” due to increasing cool humidity in the mornings.1 The days are getting mild again, and the family and I had a terrific Labor Day weekend.
Something to share for today, a poem from the Hyakunin Isshu anthology. This is the first poem of the anthology, and the only one to really cover the life of the peasantry, but it also does a nice job capturing that early autumn mood.
The theme of “dew” appears over and over again in Japanese literature and poetry, and even appears in kimono patterns for fall, known as tsuyu-shiba (露芝). You can see an example of it here.
1 Related post. The traditional calendar was subdivided into many smaller periods each covering the seasons, weather and so on. Because the lunar calendar is prone to moving around, the dates didn’t always reflect the actual weather, but it still captured the sense of progression from season to season, plus it’s very poetic.
The twilight years of the Heian Period of Japan (8th century to late 12th century) mark the high-point of the refined Imperial Court, its aristocracy and their literary culture. Poetry at this time, epitomized by the Hyakunin Isshu, was a popular past-time and frequent means of corresponding between men and women (often on the sly). A person’s career or reputation could be made or broken by a skillful, or clumsy, poem. Many of the ladies-in-waiting serving the court aristocracy would go on to become famous writers in Japanese literature beyond their skills as poets:
Lady Murasaki (Japanese: murasaki-shikibu 紫式部) – who wrote the first Japanese novel, the Tales of Genji, and her own diary is a fascinating read. She is part of the social circle around Empress Shōshi. She is also known for poem 57 in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology.
Sei Shonagon – who wrote the Pillow Book, a free-form thought about the minutia of Heian Period society. Sei Shonagon was part of a rival social circle centered around Empress Teishi. She is known for poem 62 in the Hyakunin Isshu.
Akazome Emon – another accomplished poet in the same social circle as Lady Murasaki. She composed poem 59 of the Hyakunin Isshu among her many other accomplishments.
And finally we come to perhaps the most the most controversial and one of the most brilliant ladies among this generation of ladies-in-waiting turned writers: Lady Izumi.
Like all women at the time, her real name is not known, and instead she is named after her husband’s region of administration (Izumi province) and her father’s role in the Imperial court as master of ceremonies (shikibu 式部). Thus, Lady Izumi was born into the elite aristocracy in Heian society of the time, but she distinguished herself both with her particular skill in poetry and with her tendency to get involved in scandalous relationships.
While unhappily married to her husband, Tachibana no Michisada, she had an affair with Prince Tametaka, the third son of Emperor Reizei, which caused her to be divorced and shunned by her family. The prince also takes custody of their only child, a daughter named Koshikibu no Naishi (poem 60 in the Hyakunin Isshu). However, before long Prince Tametaka died due to illness.
Later, Prince Tametaka’s brother Prince Atsumichi approached Lady Izumi and a romantic relationship began. Lady Izumi’s “Diary of Lady Izumi” (izumi shikibu nikki 和泉式部日記) covers this period of time, and their correspondences to one another. For example, she composed the following as a reply to Prince Atsumichi:
Since she was divorced anyway, her relationship with Prince Atsumichi was an open scandal for the Court as she moved in with the Prince, and would be seen riding his carriage. Prince Atsumichi’s wife was furious about the affair, and returned to her family, while public criticism of the couple became increasingly harsh and unavoidable.
For all that, Prince Atsumichi, like his brother, died from illness at the age of 27. Lazy Izumi was once again heartbroken.
By this point, Lady Izumi had few options, and no support from her family, so she was taken in as a lady in waiting for Empress Shoshi,1 where she served alongside another notable ladies Akazome Emon and Lady Murasaki. Empress Shoshi’s father, the ambitious Fujiwara no Michinaga, wanted to gather as much talent under his household as he could. However, Lady Murasaki didn’t think too highly of her:
Izumi Shikibu is an amusing letter-writer; but there is something not very satisfactory about her. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate. Indeed it does not seem to me that in herself she is really a poet at all.
— trans. Waley, “Diary of Lady Murasaki”
Later, Lady Izumi married Fujiwara no Yasumasa and moved to the provinces. She was reunited with her beloved daughter by this point, but sadly, her daughter died soon after, in her 20’s and leaving behind two children of her own. Lady Izumi was devastated by this loss, but thinking of her grandchildren, she wrote:
Left behind [grandmother and grandchildren]
tare wo aware to
whose loss do you
think is more pitiful?
ko wa masaruran
The children’s loss is worse
ko wa masarikeri
Indeed, the children’s loss is worse.
Rough translation by me, please take it with a grain of salt
By this point, she devoted herself to the Buddhist path as a lay nun named Seishin Insei Hōni (誠心院専意法尼). One of her last poems she composed, poem 56 in the Hyakunin Isshu, is:
Lady Izumi is a fascinating figure to me. She was obviously quite attractive as men of very high rank, who risked scandal in the narrow, closed society of the time to be with her. Thus, she is the subject of many romantic manga (Japanese comics) for young women in Japan:
Or even stories about her life:
But Lady Izumi was also more than a femme fatale, she had many poetic talents, plus she was a loving mother (and grandmother) and a devout Buddhist who suffered many losses in her life. She epitomized the bittersweet life of being a woman in Heian Period aristocratic society.
1 As Empress Shoshi was the second wife of Emperor Ichijō and a pawn in the power-struggles between two rival branches of the Fujiwara clan (the other faction tied to Emperor Ichijo’s first wife Empress Teishi), this was not a great position to be in, at least until Empress Shoshi successfully gave birth to a son.
This Twitter post by MK Taxi (also linked here) is a great example of sacred space in Japanese religion. The “gate” you see above is known as a torii (鳥居), and is only used for Shinto shrines. It helps to mark the boundary between the sacred interior and the mundane exterior, and are nearly universal in Shinto.
Buddhist temples by contrast, do not use torii gates. Instead, they use sanmon (山門) or “mountain gates”, a throw back to Buddhist temples in China which were often built on top of mountains. Even city temples still have such a gate, even if a small one. While Buddhism and Shinto are quite different religions, the sanmon fulfills a roughly the same role: marking the boundary between temple interior and mundane world outside.
The notion of sacred space is not limited to Japan, but it’s interesting to see how it manifests from culture to culture.