Japanese Pilgrimage Books

A page from my pilgrimage book, showing a visit to Zojoji Temple (right) and Hie Shrine (left), both in the 29th year of the Heisei Emperor (2017).

While many foreign tourists visit Buddhist temples (otera お寺) and Shinto shrines (jinja 神社), few know about a custom that has been around for centuries: pilgrimage books. The pilgrimage book or shuinchō (朱印帳), often called go-shuinchō (ご朱印帳), is a book for collecting stamps, often accompanied with some calligraphy, called a shuin (朱印). This practice, according to the Japanese Wikipedia article, supposedly dates back to the Muromachi Period (12th – 16th century) of Japanese history, but really took off in the Edo Period (17th – 19th century) when the government was more stable, and people could safely travel more on pilgrimages.

These days, most temples and shrines still have such books for sale, and such temples also have places to get your booked signed. The book I have was purchased at the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara way back in 2005, my first visit to Japan:1

…and since I got the book at Todaiji temple, I got my first stamp there:

From there, I visited the venerable Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara, and the 33 Kannon Hall (Sanjusangedō)2 in Kyoto :

Stamps from Kasuga Grand Shrine (right) and Sanjusangedō (the 33 Kannon Statues, left)

My last stamps are from 2019, my last trip to Japan before the pandemic, which also happens to be the first year of the reign of the Reiwa Emperor, so the stamps show 令和元年 (reiwa gannen, “inaugural year of Reiwa”). These stamps were both from Hatonomori Hachimangū Shrine (a very cool and underrated shrine) and probably a fun subject for another post. The “dove” stamps are because the “Hato” in the shrine name also means “dove”.

The last stamps I got, both from Hatonomori Hachimangu Shrine. The left stamp is earned for completing the ascent of the “mini” Mount Fuji there. The right stamp is for visiting the shrine.

What really makes the stamps interesting to me isn’t just collecting stamps, but also the individual calligraphy styles. Each temple or shrine attendant has their own style, and some of them are quite beautiful. My wife is trained in Japanese calligraphy, so it’s interesting to see how she rates each one. Frankly, they all look great to me.

A few things to keep in mind if you’re interesting in getting a pilgrimage book. First, the books usually cost around ¥1000 (roughly $10), and are usually sold at the same and each stamp will cost between ¥300 to ¥500. Each temple sets their own price, and with inflation prices have probably gone up over time. My memory is fuzzy. Also, when you purchase the book, if I recall corectly

You can usually the “stamp office” near the gift shop, with a sign like “朱印帳” and such. If you’re confident in your Japanese, you can simply show an open page in your book and say o-ne-gai-shi-mas (お願いします, “if you please” or “I humbly request”).

Often times, especially in busier temples, they will take your book, and give you a numbered ticket, so you can reclaim your book later. It takes time to sign each one, so you may get put into a queue. You can use that time to peruse the gift shop anyway.

…and that’s how it works! Good luck and happy collecting!

Also, here’s some other great sites on collecting shuin stamps:

P.S. Now that I’ve finally completed my book after 14 years, I plan to start two new ones (see footnote below): one for Shinto shrines and one for Buddhist temples once the pandemic is over and we can visit Japan again.

1 I found out years later that you’re supposed to have separate books for Shinto shrines you visit vs. Buddhist temples that you visit. A warning to other tourists and travelers.

2 The 33 statues of Kannon are really worth seeing if you come to Kyoto. I have no photos from the trip as they are not allowed inside, but take my word for it, it is an amazing site.

The Three Karmic Bonds of the Buddha

Recently, I dusted off an old book from my shelf titled Traversing the Pure Land Path which was published by the Jodo Shu Research Institute (JSRI) which recently moved here. I had a number of their publications at the time, and they were helpful English-language resources for folks of that persuasion. A lot of them appear to be out of print, sadly.

The Buddha Amida (Amitabha) as depicted in Tibetan art

Anyhow, the book has a translation of a famous reply to the Shogun, Yoritsune, by a Buddhist monk named Shōkū (証空, 1177-1247). Shoku was the founder of the “Seizan” branch of Jodo Shu Buddhism, and had been a disciple of Honen. Anyhow, Shoku’s letter to Yoritsune talks about the Three Karmic Bonds (san’en 三縁) that are established through one’s relationship with Amida Buddha:

The first is an “intimate karmic” (shin’en 親縁) bond, which Shoku explains:

…Amida takes us into his embrace no matter how dull or ignorant we may be….This is the reason that when we call, he hears; when we pray, he sees; and when we meditate, he knows, and unfailingly leads us to ojo [rebirth in the Pure Land].

page 119

Next is a “close karmic” (gon’en 近縁) bond. Here, Shoku explains in the letter:

…if we long to see him, he actually appears at our side in a dream or at life’s last hour.

page 119

Finally, the last bond is that of “superior karma” (zōjō’en 増上縁) which Shoku explains at length:

Since this means for us total exemption from the pains that our karma would bring us through countless ages, we will surely fear unethical behavior. Even more, we will give it up and never allow ourselves carelessly to fall into it….Pulled forward by Amida’s mighty power, we find an ever deepening joy in the contemplation of the good we have done….

page 120

The idea of karmic bonds is a common theme within the greater Mahayana Buddhist tradition, not just Pure Land Buddhism, and can apply to buddhas, bodhisattvas, even other people. It also applies to reciting the nembutsu itself toward others around you. But Shoku’s in-depth explanation on the ways in which one’s karmic bonds deepen through practice of the nembutsu, is fascinating, especially in that he argues that no one is only escaping the endless cycle of birth and death, but the sheer magnetism of Amida Buddha also inspires one to do good in this life here and now.

P.S. It’s been kind of fun to re-read old books I haven’t touched in years. A chance to revisit things I learned, but with a few more years of experience behind me. 😄

So Your D&D Character Backstory is a Cliche…

Famous cosplayer and fellow D&D nerd, Ginny Di, recently posted a great video about how to think about making a compelling backstory for your Dungeons and Dragons character.

If you’ve ever played a role-playing game, especially Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll know that your character needs a backstory, a reason for adventuring.

Whether players are in a hurry, or they’ve written an 18-page backstory,1 people frequently make character backgrounds that fall under common themes: such and such character lost their parents, their family, their romantic partner, etc, etc, through some cliched tragedy and so on.

I am guilty of this too, but early on, I’ve learned that I enjoy my characters more when I come up with a more down-to-earth, relatable backstory. There needs to be some reason for the character to strike out and go adventuring, but like most people in real-life who are starting out in their careers, it’s not necessarily a tragic, life-shattering event. It can be something as simple as needing money, a mid-life crisis, annoying parents, eloping with someone, etc.

Further, a backstory can be amusing too. Maybe the character is a teenager who just wants to cheese off his or her parents, maybe they lost a precious item while on a previous trip, or maybe they had an accident and owe someone some money. Who knows?

The point is is have fun, and don’t make the backstory too heavy. It is, afterall, a fantasy character you literally made up from nothing. At the same time, making relatable characters is a great way to take a mediocre concept and turn it into something memorable.

1 True story, I had briefly hosted a D&D campaign at my old company, and one player who described himself as a “dedicated RPG player” submitted an 18 page backstory for his female character. His character’s backstory was …. cringey, included hints of sexual violence, and I wonder whether he was projecting something or not. In any case, the work campaign petered out soon as the players didn’t have good chemistry with one another, and frankly I wasn’t sad when it did. That’s another reason why no D&D is sometimes better than bad D&D.

This One Trick Will Help You Learn Languages Faster

“Language teachers hate it when you do this!”

I couldn’t resist starting this post with some click-bait text. 😬 Recently I saw this post on Twitter:

This leads to a heated exchange on Twitter, including the following:

Basically, the point here is is that if you want to learn a language and communicate smoothly, you need A LOT OF INPUT. Like, a sustained, overwhelming amount of input. It will not make sense at first, but gradually you’ll start to piece together the ineffable patterns in a language, and without thinking, you’ll know how to correctly speak your mind, or respond to someone else’s words.

It took me a long time to realize this, after I had wasted countless hours cramming and studying. The studying does serve a purpose, in so far as it helps get you on your feet, but if you’re starting out on a language, the sooner you prioritize input, the easier you will pick it up and improve. It’s not only stimulating for your mind (great for old folks like me), but also it helps bridge the gap between the “textbook” examples you first learn and real life ones, and the real life ones are the ones you should be imitating the most.

What does input mean here? Any kind of exposure you can find: movies, podcasts (my personal favorite), TV shows, just listening to other people speak in real life, etc. Soak it up like a sponge, and don’t get discouraged if none of it makes any sense even after 3 months, or 6 months. If you are learning classic languages like Latin and ancient Greek, just keep reading. Bit by bit, it’ll all become second nature.

I realized that comprehending adult conversation in real time is like catching a school of fish. If you try to reach out and catch it with your bare hands, the fish will swim away, but if you relax and just let the fish swim around you, they’ll get closer and closer and you can easily catch them. Language comprehension works an awful lot like that.

Hard to explain, but if you’ve ever learned another language well, you’ll realize that you’re mind has somehow transitioned to a state where it fluently comprehends it without having to mentally translate from your own native language, which is what a lot of new students tend to do. No conscious thought here, just comprehension.

Enjoy and happy language learning!

Reciting The Nembutsu in 3 Easy Steps!

The nembutsu (念仏),1 whose origins and doctrinal place within Buddhism I’ve written about here, is the central practice for Pure Land Buddhists across all of East Asia. However, today I am focusing on the Jodo Shu sect’s practice specifically. I decided to write this post after I discovered recently that an old English language site for Jodo Shu Buddhism had been archived and will not be supported anymore. I loved that site when I first explored Buddhism back in 2005, and before Youtube, I loved to listen to the chanting of the nembutsu there. This site was a direct inspiration for me.

The site explains that there are three styles for reciting the nembutsu in Jodo Shu Buddhism, and these are (with Japanese added):2

  1. Jūnen (十念) – this just means to recite the nembutsu ten times consecutively, and is insipred by the 18th vow of Amida Buddha from the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (alternate link here). There’s a particular style that Jodo Buddhists use to recite this, which we’ll get into shortly.
  2. Nembutsu Ichi-é (念仏一会) – this just means to recite the nembutsu over and over without a particular number in mind.
  3. Sanshōrai (三唱礼) – this means the “three prostrations”. It’s a particular style of nembutsu recitation used in some services where you recite the nembutsu three times slowly, drawn out (e.g. naaaamuuuu aaaamiiidaaa buuuuu), then bow at the end of the third recitation. Then repeat the cycle two more times (3 x 3 = 9 times total).
A couple examples of nembutsu recitations (highlighted with blue arrows) from a Jodo Shu service book I got in Japan years ago.

By far the most common is the jūnen style of recitation, and this is the default practice when someone mentions the nembutsu. It basically just goes like this:

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu-tsu

na-mu-a-mi-da-bu

Notice that the 9th recitation adds the extra “tsu” at the end. Typically, the jūnen is recited within the span of one breath, but if you can’t quite make that work, please don’t kill yourself over it. You can see a nice, clear example of this in the morning liturgy at Zojoji temple in Tokyo (my wife and I have been there many times, one of our favorite). The jūnen is recited starting at 0:48:

You can hear the junen recited starting at 0:48 in the morning service video of Zojoji Temple.

For completeness, you can also hear it in the evening service, starting at 23:00:

The evening service at Zojoji Temple. You can hear the junen recited at 23:00.

Also, when doing this, you should put your hands together in gasshō (合掌). You can see an example of this on the official Japanese page. Notice that your hands do not go through the rosary (o-juzu) if you have one. Instead, the rosary is sort of draped over the thumbs and hangs behind them.

Anyhow, happy nembutsu-ing !

P.S. How often should you recite the nembutsu? My opinion on the subject here.

P.P.S. Sometimes people ask if they can recite the nembutsu in another language: their own language, Sanskrit language (namo’mitābhāya buddhāya), whatever. In my humble opinion as a lay person, “yes”. But within Jodo Shu tradition, the nembutsu is always recited as namu amida butsu, so for consistency’s sake I use that here, and in my own practice.

1 Technically, in modern Japanese-romanization, it’s nenbutsu (“n”, not “m”), and that’s how it is spelled in Japanese hiragana: ねんぶつ. However, romanization of Japanese into English has a long and messy history, and it’s a pain to get people to adopt the correct spelling now. So, for convenience and consistency with other sources, I am spelling it as nembutsu. Since this is a free, volunteer blog don’t expect quality work. 🤪

2 The Japanese language site, which is more actively maintained, also explains this here. No English, sorry, but I did review it before writing this post.

Buddhism for Everyone: the Pure Land Gate

A medieval scroll depicting the life of Honen. This is the famous scene where Honen preaches the Dharma to a prostitute, who sought his advice, at Murotsu (modern day Hyogo Prefecture) on his way to exile. Courtesy of Wikipedia, originally from a 14th century biography about Honen titled hōnen shōnin e-den (法然上人絵伝, “a pictoral biography of master Honen”)

One of my favorite stories about the life of Honen, the 12th century Buddhist monk who started the Pure Land Buddhist movement in Japan is from his time of exile in 1207. From the capitol (modern day Kyoto) he and many followers were banished to the hinterlands, a common punishment at the time. In Honen’s case, he was exiled to the island of Shikoku, and while he crossed the channel from the port of Murotsu, he was approached by another boat whose passenger was a local prostitute.

The story is recorded in English in Traversing the Pure Land Path among other places, but basically the woman asks Honen how someone like her with such a miserable lifestyle can find salvation in the life to come. Honen replied:

“If you can find another means of livelihood, give this up at once. But if you can’t, or if you are not yet ready to sacrifice your very life for the true way, begin just as you are and call on the sacred name [of Amida Buddha]….”

page 50-51

Later, when Honen was allowed to return back to the capitol, he found out along the way that the woman had taken his advice and devoted herself to the Buddhist path until her death some time shortly after. “Yes, it is just as I expected,” he said.

There are few things I think are worth calling out here. First, Honen was already pretty well known at the time, and in a conservative medieval society, the thought of a famous monk talking to a woman of the night would have been scandalous. Second, Honen didn’t try to shame her. He pointed out that it was a dangerous lifestyle, but if she can’t leave, she can begin her Buddhist path “just as she is”. Finally, the results (if the biography is to be believed) is that in the end she took it seriously and attained great progress.

Even now, 800 years later, I think this idea of “begin just as you are” is one of the most appealing aspects of the Pure Land Buddhist path, especially Jodo Shu Buddhism, and why I still come back to it time and time again after all these years.

Pure Land Buddhism gets a lot of flak sometimes from Western audiences because it doesn’t mesh with our understanding of Buddhism (spoiler alert: 5th century BC India is not the same as 12th century Japan, which is not the same as 21st century America), and while I understand the concerns, I think it’s missing the point.

One of the frustrations I’ve had over and over again, especially with so-called “American Buddhism” or “Western Buddhism” besides its Protestant approach1 to a totally different religious tradition, is its tendency to rely strongly on master-disciple relationships. This means things like finding the right empowerment from such-and-such guru, or finding a good meditation teacher, etc. These put a lot of trust in one individual (some with sketchy backgrounds) and tend to be biased toward those who can afford the time, money and educational background for this sort of “lifestyle”. Newer “modern” traditions can be even more risky because they’re often thinly-disguised cults.

A multilingual sign posted at the front of Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Reads in English: "This is the road of respectful affability toward Chionin temple. It is the road to encounter Master Honen. It is also the route to obtain the way of Buddhism. For the old, the weak, women, and children are lead to brightness, peaceful, and the meaning of life by collecting wisdom from the Buddha. To free tiresome beings, to let them gain dignity, and to accept the true happiness ingenuously. This is, Buddhism."
A multilingual sign posted at the front of Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, Japan. A more accurate English translation, in my opinion, reads: “This is a path toward affinity with Chion-in Temple. This is a path to encountering Master Honen, and a path for receiving the Buddha’s teachings. This is a path, where receiving the compassion of the Buddha, young and old, men and woman can live a bright, upright, and affable life. This is a path for those who are weary to find healing, a reverence for life, and sincere joy. This is the path of Compassion.”

In keeping with Honen’s “begin just as you are”, I feel that the Pure Land path, while being a part of East Asian Buddhism for many centuries before Honen, still has an enduring power to it even here and now because any one can do it, and once one passes through that gate, it opens up many other possibilities for Buddhist practice, teachings and so on. I can attest to this from personal experience: after a chance encounter at the temple of Chion-in way back in 2005, what I first thought was”Buddhist superstition” grew on me and became a strong foundation from which I explored other aspects of Buddhism later. Some of those aspects were ultimately dead-ends for me, but I never entirely forgot the simple practice of reciting the nembutsu, even when I have disagreed with doctrinal minutiae here and there.

Like the prostitute at Murotsu though, everyone has their personal problems, some very serious. Many of us aren’t good Buddhists, or even particularly good people. Nevertheless, what the Pure Land Buddhist path shows is that the compassion of Buddha still shines down upon all of us, just as we are, and welcomes us to follow a better way with the light of the Buddha quietly guiding us.

A Refutation of Exclusive-Nembutsu Buddhist Practice

Author’s Note: this was another post I found recently from my old blog, possibly something I wrote in 2013 or 2014. It was shortly after this that I decided to leave the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community, give up the prospect of ordination, and strike out on my own. My feelings on the subject have changed somewhat, but I still agree with the general sentiment. I do miss many of my old friends at the local temple, but these days I am kind of done with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Apart from minor edits, and fixing broken links, this is posted as-is. Oh, and I added a cover image from that time and updated the title slightly for clarity. 😋

An old altar we setup years ago while living in Ireland. The central image was purchased from Tsukiji Honganji in Japan and venerates Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Lately, as I have been able to enjoy a small break in life, work and so on, I delved into some books I haven’t finished reading in a long while, including an excellent study on the life of Hossō Buddhist scholar, Jōkei. The book, titled Jokei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan by James L. Ford, is both a biography, but also a critical look at the late Heian, early Kamakura periods from a Buddhist perspective, and an effort to shed new light on this oft-studied and oft-misunderstood period.

In a way, I feel like I am betraying friends I have had the privilege of encountering over the years who are devout Jodo Shu and Shinshu Buddhists, but at the same time, I think Buddhism should be able to stand on its own two feet and take the acid test of criticism sometimes.1 To my friends on the Pure Land path, please forgive this post. It is not a personal attack, and I know many people in Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu who are admirable Buddhists in their own right. It’s just that while reading Ford’s book, I really felt he hit the nail on the head with certain things about Honen and Shinran’s teachings that made me uneasy, particularly the “exclusive” Pure Land approach that orthodox Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu followers adopt. Until recently though, I couldn’t quite articulate it myself.

This uneasiness came about back when I first started reading Rev. Tagawa’s book on Yogacara Buddhism, and on my recent trip to Kyoto and Nara, this old uneasiness arose in me moreso as I stood at the feet of great temples such in Kyoto and Nara. When I stood in the Treasure House of Kofukuji, beheld all the amazing artwork there, and the vast corpus of teachings they represented, I knew something was still amiss in my Buddhist path and it’s been gnawing on my mind for a while now.

Jōkei is best known as a sharp critic of Hōnen and the exclusive Pure Land movement, or senju nembutsu (専修念仏). As such, he was the primary author in 1205 of the Kōfukuji Sōjō (興福寺奏状), or the “Kofukuji Petition” to the Emperor which sought to suppress the “exclusive nembutsu” Pure Land school started by Honen. History has not been kind to Jokei, and Professor Ford argues that the study of Kamakura Buddhism is flawed because of some underlying biases and assumptions about “old” vs. “new” Buddhism. Meiji-era and later studies tend to apply a kind of “Buddhist revolution” to Honen and Shinran, and paint traditional Buddhist sects as elitist or oppressive. Sometimes, parallels between Shinran and Martin Luther have been drawn in scholarly circles, though more modern research has refuted this analogy as superficial at best.

A while back, after reading Dr. Richard Payne’s collection of essays on the subject of Kamakura-era Buddhism, I started to question these assumptions, but more so after reading Ford’s book. He explores the Petition toward the last-half of the book and Jokei’s relationship with Honen to show how history has normally written about the incident, and carefully dissects it to show another viewpoint. In essence, he argues that Jokei’s criticism of Honen isn’t an “old-guard” or “elitist” perspective, but more accurately reflects a “normative” Buddhist doctrinal stance.

Ford explores at length about the content of Jokei’s Kofukuji Petition and its nine articles faulting the new senju nembutsu (専修念仏) or “exclusive nembutsu” movement, which are Ford summarizes in four points (I am quoting verbatim here):

  1. [According to Jokei,] Honen abandoned all traditional Buddhist practices other than verbal recitation of the nembutsu.
  2. Honen rejected the importance of karmic causality and moral behavior in pursuit of birth in the Pure Land.
  3. Honen false appropriated and misinterpreted Shan-tao with respect to nembutsu practice.
  4. Honen’s teachings had negative social and political implications.

To bolster his stance in the Petition, Jokei uses the same textual sources as Honen to demonstrate that Honen only selectively drew certain teachings from Chinese Pure Land patriarchs, Shan-Tao, Tao-ch’o and T’an-luan to prove his beliefs concerning the verbal nembutsu, while ignoring the whole of their teachings and writings, which included a more comprehensive Pure Land Buddhist path. Ford then turns to modern scholars to show that in China, the nembutsu (nian-fo) was never seen as a verbal-only practice even in Shan-tao’s time, but was interpreted as a well-developed meditation system. This is reflected even in modern day Chinese Buddhist writings, such as those of the late Ven. Yin-Shun.

As Ford then concludes:

Thus Jōkei’s claim that the Pure Land schools had no precedence in China is probably true. All in all, Jōkei’s critique of Honen’s construction of an independent Pure Land sect based on exclusive practice of the oral nembutsu is generally well grounded both doctrinally and historically. (pg. 178)

Jokei’s accusation that Honen abandoned the karmic law of causality and undermined the Buddhist teachings for upholding moral conduct, also weighs heavily. Jokei asserts the traditional Buddhist view2 of time as infinite, and that people are responsible for their own karma and the pursuit of wisdom. From Jokei’s perspective, one’s poor conduct can forestall one’s rebirth in the Pure Land, or reduce the conditions of rebirth itself. He notes the Nine Grades of Rebirth in the Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra, but I am personally also reminded of the proviso in Amida Buddha’s 18th Vow in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.

Or Shakyamuni’s admonition in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

Anyone who sincerely desires birth in the Land of Peace and Bliss is able to attain purity of wisdom and supremacy in virtue. You should not follow the urges of passions, break the precepts, or fall behind others in the practice of the Way. If you have doubts and are not clear about my teaching, ask me, the Buddha, about anything and I shall explain it to you.”

One’s poor conduct doesn’t prevent the Vow of Amitabha Buddha from being fulfilled, but delayed and hindered for a time, Jokei argues. Either way, Jokei reinforces a traditional Buddhist view of the importance of karmic causality as central to Buddhism, inline with the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha himself in countless, countless, countless sutras. As evinced elsewhere in the book, Jokei like many Buddhists believes in the power of Amitabha and his Vows to bring people to the Pure Land, but also asserts that one is still responsible for their karma, so one has to meet Amitabha Buddha half-way in a sense. Jokei’s many sermons and devotions to Kannon, Maitreya and others show that he often advocated this “middle” approach between devotion and personal practice/responsibility and Ford argues that this was the normative approach to Buddhism taken through out Asian Buddhist history.

Indeed, in Jokei’s words describing himself:

[My opinion] is not like the doubt of scholars concerning nature and marks, nor is it like the single-minded faith of people in the world. (pg. 179)

Meanwhile, later Ford shows how Jokei by contrast:

…represents a ‘middle-way’ between the extremes of ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power.’ He was not unique in this respect, since this perspective, though perhaps unarticulated, predominated within traditional Buddhism — despite the rhetorical efforts of figures like Honen and Shinran to paint the established schools as jiriki (self-power) extremists. (pg. 202)”.

But nevertheless, Ford shows how modern scholars in Japan and in the West have skewed this view of history with the belief that the politics of medieval Japan were reactionary, and stifling Buddhism in Japan at the time, leading to the Pure Land movement. Here, I quote Ford directly (emphasis added):

Hōnen’s response to the apparent social inequity and underlying monastic/lay tension — always a feature of Buddhism — was, in effect, to abolish the traditional lay-monastic framework. I am not convinced that he meant to destroy the system, particularly given his devotion to the monastic life, but the effect of his message, as revealed in the Senchakushū, was to undermine the practices and doctrines that sustained the monastic ideal. Pronouncing them obsolete because of the limitations of the age, he concluded that salvation was no longer contingent upon precept adherence, meditative practice, or diligent effort toward realization. Realization was now deemed a secondary goal, since it could not be attained in this world; it could only be attained in Amida’s Pure Land. Although others before Hōnen had devised “simple” practices to address the needs of lay practitioners and lessen the tension noted above, an implicit contradiction remained. If these practices could deliver as promised, why go through the arduous training of a monk? The monastic ideal could be interpreted as an ever-present source of doubt with respect to the efficacy of the “simple” practices. Hōnen can be seen, at least in terms of effect, as one who address this doubt directly, but Shinran appears much more explicitly conscious of this issue. (pg. 183)

Ford then adds:

We certainly cannot fault Hōnen and Shinran for creatively adapting these well-established labels [self-power/other-power, “easy” and “difficult” practices] for their own proselytizing ends. However, we must dismiss these sectarian rhetorical categories as legitimate analytical categories in the study of Kamakura Buddhism. (pg. 202)

Summing up here, I think Ford gets at two critical points here. First, in mainland Asia, historically Pure Land teachings have never been divided along exclusive or sectarian lines, and such was even the case for early medieval Japanese Buddhism:

Scholars generally agree that the tradition of the Pure Land in China represented more of a “scriptural tradition” than a “doctrinal school” and that people of many different schools practiced the nien-fo [nembutsu]. Thus, Jōkei’s claim that the Pure Land schools had no precedence in China is probably true.

A sectarian, exclusive Pure Land Buddhism quite literally did not arise until Honen and later Shinran’s time. Ford is right in crediting them with adapting teaching to suit a need, and I write this with a heavy heart because I actually like both Honen and Shinran, but I agree that the effect, perhaps unintended, was to foster a kind of narrow sectarianism that didn’t exist in Pure Land Buddhist teachings and practices before. I guess it was the sign of the times.

And yet in the modern world, there are many Buddhists in Asia, Japan and the mainland, who are devoted to Amitabha Buddha and still follow traditional Buddhist practices in some form or another. Such people have not forgotten the important balance of sila (moral conduct), samadhi (practice) and paññā (wisdom) even as they strive for rebirth in the Pure Land. Indeed the late Ven. Yin-Shun in his book The Way to Buddhahood, taught a comprehensive approach not unlike that which Shan-tao and Tao-ch’o offered many centuries ago:

The chanting of “Amitabha Buddha” should also be accompanied by prostrations, praise, repententance, the making of sincere requests, rejoicing, and the transference of merit. According to the five sequences in the “Jing tu lun” (Pure Land Treatise),3 one should start with prostrations and praise and then move into practicing cessation [meditation], contemplation [more meditation], and skillful means. One can thereby quickly reach the stage of not retreating from the supreme bodhi. As Nāgārjuna’s Śāstra puts it “those aiming for the stage of avivartin [non-retrogression] should not just be mindful, chant names and prostrate.

It’s a well-established trend, and works for many people in the world, but only in Japan is there a separate trend toward exclusivity and the idea of traditional Buddhism being invalidated. The sense of Dharma Decline so critical to Japanese Pure Land in today’s climate seems like a subjective anachronism now, and difficult to base a doctrine on with so great a diversity of sanghas and teachings in the world.

Second, what I believe to be the stronger refutation of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism as traditionally practiced in Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu is summed up in the following passage which deals with the issue of hōben (方便) or “expedient means” (again, emphasis added):

Both in his religious practice and, specifically, the Sōjō, Jōkei’s articulation of the normative voice of inclusivism and diversity within Buddhism is again instructive. The content of this vision of Buddhism, grounded in the tradition’s emphasis on karmic causality, appears almost boundless at times. Hōnen’s exclusive claims of efficacy, resonating with much of the contemporary Tendai hongaku discourse and effectively undermining the moral implications of karma and its ramifications for Buddhist soteriolology, was a wholesale rejection of Buddhist tradition. It invalidated not only the devotion to the variety of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that manifest different qualities of wisdom and compassion but also the importance of various kinds of ascetic practices, long the centerpiece of monastic life. In short, Hōnen’s teaching “delocated” Buddhist sacrality from its traditional broad manifestations — temporal and spatial — to one single exclusive manifestation. (pg. 203)

Again, I think back to my experiences in Nara, Japan in particular. At Todaiji alone, I saw six or seven temples on the temple grounds devoted to various figures of Buddhism. The plurality was amazing, and welcoming in a way. It felt inclusive, not exclusive, and there was no sense of guilt in praying to Jizo Bodhisattva, or the Lotus Sutra, one might feel in a Jodo Shinshu temple for example4 While there, if all I wanted to do was see Kannon, I could do so, but if I wanted to see other figures too, no problem. In other words, the broad, inclusive nature of Nara-style Buddhism allows Buddhists to offer as much or as little devotion to their heart’s content. No need to worry about doctrinal clashes or implicit guilt.

Thus, my faith in Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land is no less than it once was, but Ford’s and Jokei’s writings and my experiences in Nara and Kyoto remind me that Buddhism is strongest in diversity, and later Kamakura schools of Buddhism have a tendency toward exclusivity. Japanese Pure Land Buddhists, along with some Zen and Nichiren Buddhists, argue that exclusive approach is simpler and more accessible, but given what other Buddhists faiths I’ve seen, I believe the exclusive approach is ironically less simple and less accessible by virtue of their exclusivity. Too much rationalization, cutting off, and justification while the rest of the Buddhist world quietly hums along to a relatively consistent tune, even with all its own faults.

The inclusive approach exemplified by Jokei, and Ford’s argument that it’s the normative Buddhist approach for most of the Buddhist world, allows considerable flexibility to follow an approach that works for you, without having to deny other paths as too difficult, elitist or only valid during a “better era” of Buddhism. Just follow which aspect you tend to have a karmic connection toward, whether it be Amitabha Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, Kannon, zazen, tantra, or some combination.

First and foremost, I guess I consider myself a Mahayana Buddhist and second a Pure Land follower, not the other way around. So, what does this mean for me? I think I already know the answer, but I’m holding off for now to think further. Jokei’s “middle of the road” approach to Buddhist devotion and practice, and inclusiveness, provides a lot of inspiration right now, along with my experiences in Japan, and I hope to explore this more as time goes on.

Namo Shaka Nyorai
Namo Amida Butsu

P.S. More regarding the critical role karmic causality plays in Buddhism from Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

P.P.S. More on the subject of inclusiveness/exclusiveness in Pure Land Buddhism.

1 This would normally be the time to bring up the classic Kalama Sutta text, an awesome, though often quoted out of context in Buddhist writings. Instead, I’ll encourage you to read it yourself in full. It really is one of the best sutras in Buddhism. 🙂

2 Exemplified in the Yogacara/Hossō school in particular amongst the Nara Buddhist schools, and in opposition to Tendai “hongaku” or “innate enlightenment” teachings, and Shingon teachings regarding the “womb of Buddhahood”. It was one of the most tense and long-standing doctrinal feuds in Japanese Buddhism all the way until after Jokei’s time when some reconciliation was made. Ford does not elaborate on how this was done.

3 To be precise the Pure Land Treatise is: 淨土論, Ching-t’u-lun (Wade-Giles) or Jìngtǔ lùn (Pinyin), composed by Jiacai (迦才, ca.620-680).

4 Some Shinshu Buddhists I’ve met have explained it’s OK, as long as it’s an expression of gratitude but again there’s that subtle “if” in there.

Morning Odaimoku, Evening Nenbutsu

Japanese Tendai Buddhism, that is the Buddhist sect descended from the venerable Chinese Tiantai (天台) tradition started by Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597), has a number of interesting, not to mention pithy, teachings and phrases. Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular phrase called asa daimoku ni yū nenbutsu (朝題目に夕念仏). In its most literal sense, it means “Odaimoku in the morning; Nenbutsu in the evening”.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Pexels.com

This phrase is fascinating to me, because it summarizes two important facets of Tendai Buddhism.

First, the “odaimoku”. Tiantai Buddhism in China was the first serious effort at taking the vast corpus of teachings imported from India and the Silk Road and synthesizing them into a native school of thought, not just something lifted-and-shipped from abroad. In order to do this, Zhiyi analyzed the vast number of Buddhist sutras, shastras (essays) and commentaries and arranged them into a kind of hierarchy. At the very top, he felt the Lotus Sutra was the most important teaching, the summation of everything else. For this reason, the Tiantai/Tendai schools treat the Lotus Sutra as the core teaching. In devotional practices, this was expressed in something called the o-daimoku (お題目) attributed to famous Tendai monks such as Genshin, but popularized to a greater degree by Nichiren in the 13th century. The most common form of the o-daimoku chant is namu myoho renge kyo (南無妙法蓮華経)1 which means something like “Praise to the Wondrous (alternatively “Mystic”) Law of the Lotus [Sutra]”. This is also the central practice of the Nichiren Buddhist sets you see today: Nichiren-shu, etc.

However, over time, Japanese Tendai Buddhism began to strongly adopt Pure Land Buddhist teachings from mainland China as well.2 Zhiyi, when he synthesized the various Buddhist teachings and practices paid special attention to meditations on Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, in his magnum opus, the Great treatise on Concentration and Insight (摩訶止観, Móhē Zhǐguān), but these meditations were intended for serious monastic disciples only, and could be very physically demanding. While Tendai monks sometimes did undertake these practices, the popular practices related to Pure Land Buddhism gradually evolved into chanting practices (again, due to Genshin) similar to the odaimoku. This chanting, is called the nenbutsu (念仏) or “mindfulness of the Buddha [Amitabha]”. The most common form of the nenbutsu is namu amida butsu, and this is overwhelmingly what you find in Pure Land Buddhist schools in Japan today such as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. Since the 12th century, many Buddhists in Japan have focused on reciting the nenbutsu and aspiring to be born in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha as a refuge, but also as a means of progressing on the Buddhist path much faster: like taking the highway to get to your destination vs. taking the back roads.

A verse from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Murano translation.

These two things may sound contradictory, but they’re not. The second chapter of the Lotus Sutra introduces a couple important concepts to Mahayana Buddhism (that is Buddhism across all of East Asia): the One Vehicle and Expedient Means. The One Vehicle was a way of reconciling all the rival Buddhist schools in India by teaching that all of them were really just the same thing, and that sincere practioners were all heading in the same direction, towards Buddhahood, in the end. No need to argue over minutia. The Expedient Means teaching just recognizes that the various meditations, devotional chants, sutras, Buddhist schools, etc, were all just tools to get us there. The Buddha in the Lotus Sutra hammers his point over and over again in subsequent chapters: the various teachings and practices are all just temporary tools to suit a time, place, or need. All of them point to the truth, but must be put down when they are no longer needed.

In this sense, the Pure Land teachings, the chanting of the nenbutsu and so on is just another expedient means, albeit an especially popular and efficacious one. One could also lump Zen meditation, esoteric Vajrayana teachings and such under the same umbrella, and Tendai Buddhism pretty much does this. Unlike later Buddhist schools in Japan that center around “one practice, one teaching”, Tendai maintains the basic structure imported from China where all teachings and practices are kept under the same basic umbrella.

However, there’s more.

The whole asa daimoku ni yū nenbutsu phrase isn’t just limited to reciting the odaimoku in the morning, and the nembutsu at night. It also expresses a mindset, summarized by two other key concepts in Japanese Tendai Buddhism: hokke sange and reiji sahõ.

Hokke sange (法華懺法) means to reflect on one’s actions in light of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. This is a very time-honored practice across the entire Buddhist religion, and is why (in my opinion) Buddhism is so effective as a form of mental discipline and training. Unlike the Christian notion of “guilt”, the idea behind self-reflection is a kind of objective, scientific review of one’s actions and whether they have been wholesome or unwholesome. Here, the Dharma is used as a kind of yardstick to measure one’s actions, and in the case of Tendai Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra in particular. Upon reflection, many Buddhists will recite some kind of verse to acknowledge (not punish oneself) and resolve not to do it again. That’s the “san-gé” part of hokke sange. You’re giving yourself a fresh start and resolving to try again. Like rehearsing for a play: you’ll have good days and bad, but you just keep at it until it becomes second nature.

While hokke sange reflects on the past, reiji sahõ (例時作法) is forward thinking, and expresses the desire to make the Pure Land of the Buddha not just a reality in the future, but here and now starting with oneself. The sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is meant to be a kind of bombshell teaching as the Buddha explains that, among other things, not only is the Dharma eternal (and thus the Buddha has always existed), but that his Pure Land has always existed on Vulture Peak (an important site in India), even if people can’t see it. This may sound strange, but what the Buddha is saying in chapter sixteen in my view is that the mind is the most important thing, and even when “living beings witness the end of a kalpa [an eon] and all is consumed in a great fire”, those whose minds are honest and sincere will see that the Pure Land of Buddha is still right there and available to anyone who seeks refuge. One need not pine for a glorious past, or a particular holy site, it’s all there when you need it. Further, the Pure Land isn’t just a place, it’s the embodiment of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, at its finest, and through our actions, words and thoughts, we gradually make this world the Pure Land for others as well.

All this is to say that the pithy phrase asa daimoku ni yū nenbutsu expresses a lot of stuff, at a lot of levels. In my opinion, if one just adopts this phrase as a simple, daily practice guide (recite namu-myoho-renge-kyo in the morning, even a few times, then recite namu-amida-butsu in the evening, even a few times), then that’s more than enough. As I’ve said before, better to do a small, sustainable Buddhist practice often than a big, elaborate one only occasionally. If you even chant one of these things as part of a small, sustainable practice, you’re doing great.

However, what’s interesting to me is that there is a whole lot more under the surface. As one explores this practice more, they realize that there’s a lot of meaning behind a few simple chants, enough for a lifetime of practice. ☺️

P.S. This article on the Tendai Buddhism homepage (Japanese language only) was a good source for this post. The article also points out that the two sides of Tendai Buddhism: exoteric teachings and esoteric (taimitsu or vajrayana) teachings are two separate things within Tendai. This entire blog post has been focused on the exoteric teachings, as I have no experience with the esoteric side and being esoteric, you would need to find a proper teacher anyway. 😉

1 Sometimes you see it pronounced as nam-myoho renge kyo (dropping the “u” in “mu”), but that gets into doctrinal differences among Nichiren Buddhist sects that I personally don’t want to get involved in.

2 This was, needless to say, a strong point of contention by Nichiren, who sought to restore the Tendai teachings to a more pristine form (with the Lotus Sutra as the essential teaching), but also to make it more accessible to people as well.

The Hyakunin Isshu: 100 poems by 100 poets

Typically, when people think of poetry in Japan, they think of haiku (俳句), but there is another, more venerable style of poetry that I enjoy even more: waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry has been a part of Japanese culture, especially the aristocracy of the Heian Period, but can be dated as far back as the earliest Japanese literature.

What makes waka differ from haiku? Haiku are expressed in 5-7-5 syllables, but Waka are expressed as 5-7-5-7-7, so there are two additional lines, with the middle 5-syllable verse often used as a “pivot”. In modern times, Waka poetry is also sometimes called tanka poetry, but in Japanese language waka is more commonly used.

A karuta card featuring poet Onakatomi no Yoshinobu Ason (大中臣能宣朝臣), courtesy of Wikipedia.

The most famous poetry anthology in Japanese culture is a collection of 100 poems by 100 poets from the Nara and Heian Periods (roughly 7th through 12th centuries) called the Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首), compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241, 藤原定家), whose name can be alternatively read as Fujiawara no Sadaie. Because of the prevalence of such anthologies at the time, this particular collection is more specifically called the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (小倉百人一首) named after the district in Kyoto where Teika lived and compiled the poetry.

Early-medieval Japan saw many waka poetry anthologies come and go, many of them officially promulgated by the reigning emperor, but also private compilations, but the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu remains by far the most popular today due to the quality of the arrangement, and breadth of poetry. Teika was a talented poet and calligrapher in his day, and it shows. For example this is one of my favorite poems in the anthology, composed by Sugawara no Michizane (845 – 903), whom I’ve written about elsewhere:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
このたびはKono tabi waThis time around
幣もとりあへずNusa motori aezuI couldn’t even bring the sacred streamers
手向山Tamuke yama—Offering Hill—
紅葉のにしきMomiji no nishikibut if this brocade of leaves
神のまにまにKami no mani maniis to the gods’ liking….
Poem number 24 of the Hyakunin Isshu, translated by Joshua Mostow

The Hyakunin Isshu covers a wide variety of subjects, love, grief, old age, young love, etc. Even now in 21st century Western culture, there is much resonance with people in the 10th century who experienced various hardships, or feelings of joy. Some of the poems were composed due to real events, such as the one above, others are fictionalized examples of a mood, often composed as part of a poetry contest among the literati of the time. Years ago, I wrote a blog compiling the poems using translations by Professor Joshua Mostow (with his permissions, thank you!) and even now I still refer back to it from time to time.

But the popularity of the Hyakunin Isshu isn’t limited to poetry, during the late-medieval period, it was also converted into a card game. Indeed, the Japanese term for karuta (カルタ, derived from Portuguese carta) is often synonymous with the Hyakunin Isshu game. The basic gist of the game is that two people face off, with cards containing the second half of each poetic verse laid out in front of them, half facing one player, the other half facing the opponent. A third person reads a select poem in its entirely, and the two players race to find which card matches, and then swat it off the board and thus take the card. Sometimes, to re-balance things, the winning player also moves a card from their side to their opponent’s. At the end, the person with no cards left on their side wins.

Cards used in the game, each depicting the last 3 verses of a poem. Ceridwen, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

A famous anima / manga named Chiyahaburu tells the story of a group of high-schools who learn to compete in the world of karuta. As a game and after-school activity, it is popular, but also has a bit of a refined air to it. I have tried to play this game with my family, but none of us have memorized the poems enough to be really good at it. There is a much simpler game you game that you can play with the karuta cards and easy enough for a 7 year old to play too.

The karuta game can be quite competitive too. Here’s a video from a competition in 2020 (note the face masks). After the reader (the man in the middle) recites a “warm-up” verse, around 2:18, you can see the lady on the left successfully swatting away the correct card before her opponent. Also, some of the poems recited are not actually among the laid out cards, just to throw people off. Not all 100 cards are laid out as you can see, only a subset. So, you not only have to know all the poems, but quickly recognize them among the pile, if they are even there.

Waka poetry in general still appears from time to time in modern Japanese culture, arguably more than haiku in my opinion, though both are popular. For Western audiences, I found waka somewhat underappreciated, but I hope readers will find something they enjoy as the world of waka poetry is long, vast and beautiful.

P.S. Some of the official, imperial anthologies such as the Kokin Wakashu and Shin Kokin Wakashu are also quite good, but they’re somewhat longer and have less resources in English, though I am happy to own a translation of these too.

P.P.S. Karuta cards are available for purchase online from various retailers. The box set we have was my wife’s when she was a little girl (still includes the old cassette tape for reading out the poems 😉)

A Nerd Dad’s Review of the Hero’s Feast Cookbook

Last week, at the local book store, my teenage daughter used some of her allowance to purchase a book called Heroes’ Feast: a cookbook of Dungeons and Dragons-inspired recipes. During lockdown, she has taken an interest in baking and cooking, and after years of playing Dungeons and Dragons with me (and now her little brother), it seemed like a fun project. Turns out, she loves the book.

My daughter has already added many bookmarks into her copy.

Heroes’ Feast is a collection of recipes, divided mostly by character races: elves, humans, dwarves and halflings (hobbits) plus some more exotic options. Each of the different sections has a different style: elvish recipes tend to be light and vegetarian, dwarvish recipes hearty and meaty, while halfling recipes have a wholesome taste with lots of cheese or baked goods. The elvish salad has edible flowers (who knew that you could eat pansies?), while the drow (dark elf) recipe uses portabello mushrooms.

Obviously, the alcohol-based recipes are inappropriate for kids (we don’t even keep alcohol in the house anyway), but there’s plenty of other options. All in all, I’d guess there are roughly 40-50 recipes to choose from.

My daughter has little practical experience cooking, and many of these recipes were definitely for adults, particularly adults with cooking experience. The recipes do vary between easier recipes (soups and salads) and ones more suitable for serious cooks, but some recipes are definitely good starters.

For example, my daughter was able to get the tomato soup going after a couple tries (spoiler: it’s quite good), but struggled to cook the cream puffs several times. My wife, who’s an experienced cook, stepped in to try the same recipe and struggled with it too. We gave up and tried a similar recipe from her Japanese cookbook and had much better results. On the other hand, the Dwarvish potato and leek soup turned out great the first time.

One thing I haven’t covered yet is the artwork. Amazing. Every section has artwork devoted to the character race that it focuses on and there’s plenty there to admire. Recent publications by WotC, for example the Theros adventure and Candlekeep Mysteries have amazing artwork and Heroes Feast continues that tradition.

Seeing my wife and daughter baking together so much lately has been great, and this book has been inspiring my daughter to cook outside her comfort zone more and more. My wife, who has no interest in D&D, is just happy to be able to share a hobby with her.

For a fun, quirky purchase, I highly recommend Heroes’ Feast for any D&D fan, regardless of cooking level.