Why Religion Is Useful

XI) Opus est, inquam, aliquo ad quem mores nostri se ipsi exigant: nisi ad regulam prava non corriges.

“There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”

trans. by Robin Campbell, letter 11 of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium “Moral Letters to Lucilius”

I found this quote recently while reading Seneca’s letters to one Lucilius,1 which are compiled in a book called “Moral Letters to Lucilius”. It’s not the most exciting read, but I do enjoy Seneca‘s take on things, even when he had a reputation for not always practicing what he preached.2 😋

I like this quote but it reminds me why religion still has a place even in modern society. I spent much of my younger years pursuing various religious ideas until I eventually settled on Buddhist religion about 15 years ago. That’s a story for another day, but the point was that I keep trying to find my own beliefs, and while it felt nice to pursue spirituality at my own pace, but at the same time it was like eating a bag of chips: it feels great at the time, but leaves you kind of feeling empty later.

What Seneca is saying here is that people need an independent moral standard of some kind (a person, a book of teachings, whatever) as a means of measuring oneself. Otherwise, one’s ego which always looks out for number one, will twist any sense of morality to suit oneself.

In the case of Buddhism, this is why the Dharma is so important. While Buddhists venerate the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, because he discovered the Dharma (e.g. enlightenment), expounded the Dharma, and lived according to the Dharma, the Buddha is not the Dharma.3 One Buddha can be replaced with another, and in Mahayana Buddhism there are many, many Buddhas, but the Dharma they expound is timeless and always exists, even if it’s obscured, forgotten, or corrupted.

I guess what drew me to Buddhism was the idea of a set of teachings and guidelines that are on the one hand very practical and focused on the welfare of others, but on the other hand not dependent on faith toward a particular being (a potentially capricious deity, no less). It’s just an independent yard-stick to measure yourself against, and continually refine against, with the Buddhas conveying that yardstick.

Even so, the reality is that a lot of terrible things have been done at large (and in people’s personal lives) in the name of religion. This is not limited to one religion or another; it’s definitely a “power corrupts” scenario over and over again. Organized religion, I feel, is just the vehicle that such people use to achieve whatever messed up thing they want. If not for religion, they’d likely find another way (politics? money?).

Nevertheless, I keep organized religion a little bit at arms length these days. Buddhism makes this easier since frequent attendance at a temple is not required, but out of an abundance of caution I just don’t like to get too tangled with other people. I have been burned before, and don’t wish to go through that again. People who grow up in (and leave) conservative communities aren’t so lucky though because there’s no alternative perspective. It can be very stifling.

But regardless of who you are, or your background, I think Seneca has a point in that we need an independent yard-stick of some kind, even if we need to find it from another, less stifling source. Finding that yard-stick is half the battle.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo

P.S. Another perspective on the matter, featuring Ninja Turtles:

1 A note on Latin pronunciation: Lucilius isn’t pronounced like “loo-si-lius”, it’s more like “loo-ki-lius”. Simiarly, Caesar sounds more like “Kai-sar” than “See-zar”. Compared to English pronunciation, where the “O” can be pronounced in many ways with no clues as to which, Latin is very straightforward with a nice 1:1 relationship between a letter and its sound. Much like Japanese hiragana in that respect.

2 To be fair, I believe Seneca meant well, and sincerely pursued Stoic ideals, but he was also human and not afraid to admit that. I like that down-to-earth side of him.

3 Even as far back as the Pali Canon, the lines between the Buddha and the Dharma get blurred though, such as in the Vakkali Sutta (SN 22.87):

“Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”

translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe

Later in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it is explicitly stated that the Buddhas are all of one mind, and one purpose (i.e. venerating one Buddha is just as good as venerating another, no need to fight over who’s better). In any case, I tend to interpret this quote from the Vakkali Sutta that the Buddha as a person isn’t important so much as the teachings he represents. Your mileage may vary.

A Buddhist Monk in King Strahd’s Court

On the road to the Mists of Barovia

Having watched Netflix’s Castlevania series for probably the third time through, and as a way of “eating my own dog food” by applying my Dungeons and Dragons Hamato Islands setting to other environments, I started a recent thought-experiment: suppose I made a Japanese-style character, and suppose that character got transported to the classic gothic horror setting of Barovia in the Demiplanes of Dread. What would that look like?

Gothic horror, particularly the classic literature, arose from a specific time, culture and a place so it’s inevitably tied to certain religious trends, cultural assumptions, monsters, etc. Dropping a samurai from, say, the 16th century Warring States period, or a Buddhist monk from the late 12th century Heian period into a gothic setting just becomes a fish out of water story.

On the other hand, the Demiplanes of Dread setting of Dungeons and Dragons, including everyone’s favorite demiplane Barovia, are not just another place in world history. It’s literally a different plane of existence, and by its nature, it keeps pulling people through The Mists into the domain to be trapped and tormented by the vampire Dark Lord, Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd depends on a steady supply of incoming people because as a dark lord who’s been in power for many centuries, the native Barovians are broken spirits anyway. As long as he brings more people through the mists, he could care less where they’re from; he just needs fresh blood, both literally and figuratively.

Strahd is dark and brooding kind of guy

So, going back to my idea, imagine some itinerant monk (cleric, Way of the Sage, in my setting) or a sohei warrior (probably a paladin, Oath of Vengeance) is traveling at night deep in the woods of some remote mountain path, the mists close around him, and before he or she knows it, the forests look different. The fauna is dark and unfamiliar to him or her. They stumble to the next village only to find that it looks totally unfamiliar. The homes are sagging and timbers are rotten, the colors are faded and bleached, and both the architecture and the people he or she sees look different. Worse, they probably wouldn’t speak the same language.1

Quite the culture shock, no?

But it goes further. The deities would be unfamiliar for example. Such a character would not know the Morninglord (Lathander in Barovia), but would bring their own deities instead. Because the Demiplanes of Dread are far removed from the good, heavenly realms, the adventure modules usually state that characters can’t communicate with their deities, but can still draw power from them. Since the Morninglord is the only non-evil deity in Barovia, would my cleric/sohei character try to find common ground, or would they hide their religion to avoid antagonizing the locals?

Folk customs, like garlic for vampires and holy water, would also differ. A character from another realm, such as medieval Japan, would use salt or chanting holy sutras to repel evil spirits. Would those work in Barovia?

Eventually, though, said cleric or sohei would encounter other people who stand out, people from disparate lands, continents, and cultures: maybe from the tropical lands of Chult, the Al-Qadim setting (based on fantasy Arabic culture), or from the wider Asian-inspired lands of Kara-tur.. But they’re all united by their common problem: they’ve been brought to the Demiplanes of Dread against their will, and Strahd2 is ultimately their problem. Thus, I imagine the final battle against Strahd would be a party composing of classic gothic figures like a priest of Lathander, a Simon Belmont like character, maybe a wizard or two, but also other diverse characters too from other lands. A kind of global super team.

Anyhow, all of this probably isn’t interesting to other players, but it was just a fun thought-experiment about the challenges of bringing D&D characters from one culture into another culture, especially in a hostile environment.

P.S. Title inspired by Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I hope Mr Twain is not rolling over in his grave. 😅

1 The idea of one “Common” language in D&D that all humanoids know might work for a single contintent, but once we start spanning different continents in the Forgotten Realms, the idea seems less and less plausible. For that reason, I made up “Kara-Tur Common” and “Faerun Common” to account for linguistic differences between continental settings, while still having a reasonably common lingua franca among locals.

2 Or, a different Dark Lord, of course. With the new D&D book Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, the other demiplanes are getting much needed attention and detail.

The Eight Winds of Buddhism

“Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions.

The Lokavipatti Sutta (AN 8:6), translated by Thānissaro Bhikkhu

Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline. The heavenly gods will surely protect one who is unbending before the eight winds. But if you nurse an unreasonable grudge against your lord, they will not protect you, not for all your prayers.

–Nichiren, letter 95 composed in 1277
Photo by Melanie Wupperman on Pexels.com

Life has its ups and downs. Sometimes you’re the “(wo)man of the hour” and other times, you’re getting chewed out for something. At times like this, it helps to remember a Buddhist notion called the Eight Winds1 or happÅ« (八風) in Japanese Buddhism. As the quotations above show, the ups and downs of life tend to come in pairs. Praise is followed by criticism, which is then followed by praise sooner or later. If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you’ll know that you fight, make up, fight, make up, etc. It’s human nature.

Similarly in one’s career, sometimes you’re on top of the world, and other times you fall on your face in front of everybody.

What’s the Buddha’s saying in the Lokavipatti Sutta (click on the link above to read the rest) is that everyone has ups and downs, but what separates the run-of-the-mill person from a “well-instructed disciple” of the Buddha is how one reacts to these ups and downs. Normally, when we’re praised, we want more, and it becomes a weird feedback loop. Just look at any Youtube influencer, or social-media star. They have to constantly keep it up because there’s always someone else ready to take their place. In the same way, when we’re criticized, it hurts, and we want to get away from it, even if we have to use food, drugs, or lord-knows-what to escape.

On the other hand, a “well-instructed disciple” of the Buddha knows that none of these things have any lasting substance. They arise, then fade. Ever shifting from one thing to another. So today’s schmuck becomes tomorrow’s star and vice-versa.

So, there’s no relying on praise for happiness, fame for happiness, pleasure, etc. It’s nice when they happen, but don’t expect them to stay around long enough. They’ll soon give way to the more negative states. Similarly, when you feel down in the dumps, just remind yourself that this too will also pass, and don’t expect them to stay forever. Things will turn up again before long.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo

1 Buddhism loves its numbered lists. There’s lists for everything. In all seriousness, this was a mnemonic device to help disciples organize and remember the teachings (back then writing down religious teachings was considered profane anyway), so memorization became a highly refined method for digesting the teachings. But, it also means that if you are trying to look up something Buddhist related you’ll find the Two of this, the Three of that, the Four of These, and so on.

DnDviaPBPlolz

For those of us older than 14,1 this post is about a concept I only learned about recently, and that is playing Dungeons and Dragons via “play by post” (pbp).

Dungeons and Dragons, as a fantasy role-playing game has always been about playing as a group, preferably a group you already know and have a good rapport with (friends, co-workers, family, etc).2 When I first played in high-school in the mid-1990’s, 2nd-edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was all the rage, and I fondly remember playing the Darksun setting for many weekend hours at my friend’s house. Sometimes we’d play for almost an entire day at a time. We’d even stay late, cook some of that awful pan-popped popcorn (more like pan-seared), and play some more.

This is D&D at its best, in my opinion.

The perennial issue with D&D, however, is getting people to coordinate on a schedule.

For some groups who already hang out anyway, this is super easy, but for everyone else, it isn’t. Playing a single “one-shot” adventure is often doable, as is Adventurer’s League (which I wholeheartedly support), but for everything else, you run into the perennial risk of D&D campaign running out of steam because someone’s schedule changes, or it just gets too hard to sustain.

This is where Play by Post comes in.

I had to stop playing Adventurer’s League late last year after the family schedule changed and conflicted with my Monday nights, and to be honest I was pretty bummed about it. I loved my local AL community. I spent most of that time focusing on personal module writing projects, which I do enjoy, but it is no substitute for just playing with friends.

Recently, one of the other AL guys had to drop out of as well due to a new baby, so he organized a private Discord channel for doing Adventurer’s League via Play By Post. The module we currently play, the venerable Bounty in the Bog, is a normally 4-hour module, but we’ve been playing for a week because we post replies and comments throughout the day, like any Internet forum you might find:

Me (ElfNut) posting an update on Discord about what my character is doing while the caravan travels from A to B.

In this channel I play a new character, Fenmaer Wasanthi, a high elf cleric (forge domain) who I had originally planned to use for Season 10 AL and never got to use. Problems with Season 10 are for another day. Anyhow, I liked this character and was happy to finally dust him off and use him in Adventurer’s League, and with the PBP format, I don’t have to block out 4 hours a week away from wife and kids (always an awkward experience). It’s as easy as anything else you do on social-media so it fits into existing schedules.

Further, it allows more time to go in-depth on the role-playing side of things, which is normally hard to do in Adventurer’s League because you drop into adventures, and play under a time constraint (no time for 18-page backstories). I can think about what I want Fenmaer to do, why, and flesh out his personality a bit more.

The one challenge is getting used to the pace. Normally when you’re playing D&D, it’s an interactive, conversational experience, and now I have to get used to no updates for hours, or even as long as a day. Our DM has commitments outside of this, and may be gone a day or more, so it’s weird not keeping a consistent pace, but on the other side, knowing that I can work in my D&D game in the rest of my life seamlessly (5-10 minutes a day so far) has been really nice.

Plus, for us old timers, it kind of harks back to good old text-based games anyway. 😉

1 I have definitely reached the point in my life where my teenage daughter (known in older blogs as “princess”) has surprised my “web saavy”.

2 A friendly reminder that sometimes no D&D is sometimes better than bad D&D. Having a group of people you get along with well before you start, and regardless of whether you play D&D or not, makes a huge difference. Coming together with strangers just for the sake of D&D is a risky endeavor, unless it’s in a structured environment such as Adventurer’s League.

Siddham: The Forgotten Buddhist Script

Taken at Kawasaki Daishi temple (Shingon sect) in 2017. This is the Sutra Hall. Notice the Siddham script on the left plaque (with pronunciation guides) and Chinese characters on the right.

In the past, I have dabbled in learning Sanskrit, which is an ancient Indian language, and the foundation of many other modern languages. Sanskrit is to South Asia, what Latin is to western Europe.

Sanskrit is a tricky language though. Speaking from limited experience, it has many grammatical similarities to Latin and Greek (hence they’re all included in the Indo-European language family), but Sanskrit feels like an older language compared to the other two, which is saying a lot. The nouns have 8 declensions compared to 5 in Latin and 4 in Greek, plus it still uses dual-case which was obscure even in ancient Greek times. By the time Latin rolled around, much of this was “smoothed out” and simplified, and Latin in turn has been smoothed out and simplified across the centuries into what we know now as French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and so on. But that’s all a story for another day.

The other issue with Sanskrit is the writing system. Actually, systems. Greek and Latin both derive their writing system from the Phoenicians, and these largely did not change. Sanskrit has gone through multiple, separate writing systems, some also descended from the Phoenicians via Aramaic, and each one has its own complex history. Many of them are also gone now, lost to the ages.

Nowadays, Sanskrit is typically written in the beautiful Devanagari script, which is also used in Hindi and many other modern north-Indian languages to various degrees. Devanagari gradually replaced alternative Sanskrit writing systems centuries ago. This also happened roughly around this time that Buddhism died out in India,1 thus you practically never see ancient Buddhist texts composed in Devanagari. Instead, they appear in other, older scripts like Karoshthi based on Aramaic (as in what Jesus spoke natively!), Brahmi script (used by Emperor Asoka), and so on. But one such script still survives, not in India, but in Japan: Siddham script locally called bonji (梵字).

Siddham is preserved in Buddhist texts, but especially in esoteric Buddhist mantras and other practices, particularly in older Japanese Buddhist sects such as Tendai and Shingon. This was the time when esoteric Buddhism was all the rage in Tang Dynasty China, and contacts with India via the Silk Road were still alive and well thus allowing teachers from Central Asia to come and teaching local students. Most other, later Buddhist sects in Japan use it sparingly or not at all because their approach is not really esoteric in nature (Pure Land Buddhism, Zen and Nichiren).

But Siddham shows up in other places too. If you look carefully you can also see it in the Marvel movie Dr Strange:

The Book of Cagliostro

Here’s an example “stamp” from my pilgrimage book (more on that in a future post) which shows a mix of Japanese calligraphy and Siddham characters:

The stamp above is from the temple of Zojoji Temple in Tokyo, Japan, one of two head temples of the Jodo Shu (Pure Land) sect. Note the red stamp in the middle with the Siddham character hriḥ 𑖮𑖿𑖨𑖱𑖾 2 which I believe is symbolic of Amida Buddha (the primary devotion in Pure Land Buddhism).

Another example is a stamp I got at a Soto Zen temple named Toyokawa Inari:

This temple, which has an unusually esoteric flavor for a Soto Zen temple, uses Siddham letters in the stamp (red letters in the middle) in the form of a mandala or something similar.

Here’s a couple Youtube videos on how to write Siddham script. I like these videos because they show a simpler, more straightforward way of writing Siddham compared to the flowery, flowing calligraphy used in esoteric Buddhism. This makes it more suitable for writing on paper with a pen, not using an ink brush.

Siddham is something you’ll likely see in Japan, but it’s fascinating once you realize that this writing system from India for composing Sanskrit is now only preserved in far-flung places like Japan even after it has died out in its homeland. It’s a fascinating, often forgotten piece of religous-linguistic history.

1 For this reason, modern textbooks on Sanskrit are good for teachings the grammar of Sanskrit, but not how to read ancient Buddhist texts: the writing system doesn’t match, and culturally the books tend to focus on translating the vast corpus of Hindu literature, not Buddhist literature despite the common origin.

2 in HTML Unicode: & #x115ae;& #x115bf;& #x115a8;& #x115b1;& #x115be; with no spaces between the & and # … yes 5 characters required because it comprises of “ha”, followed by the virama mark which cuts off the subsequent “ra” to form an “r”, and finally the long “i” followed by the two dots (visarga marks). I didn’t say it was easy, but it’s totally doable if you take the time to learn HTML and Unicode and then just apply Siddham Unicode numbers to it.

A Bit of Paradise

The lotus-flowers in the lakes, large as chariot wheels, are blue-colored with blue splendor, yellow-colored with yellow splendor, red-colored with red splendor, white-colored with white splendor, and (they are all) the most exquisite and purely fragrant. Shariputra, the land of Sukhavati [the Buddha’s Pure Land] is arrayed with such good qualities and adornments.

The Amitabha Sutra, translation by by Nishu Utsuki and the Educational Department of the West Hongwanji Kyoto, Japan: 1924

Taken at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, first time in two years. 😌

Happy Birthday Buddha 2021

Photo by Couleur on Pexels.com

April 8th marks the birthday of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, in Japanese culture. This is often known as Hanamatsuri (花まつり) or the “flower festival”. Even in these tough times, it is a time to rejoice for us Buddhists, even if you observe the day on a different calendar.

Spock would approve.

I admit that I almost forgot this year, if not for my calendar reminder. Growing up in the west, there aren’t a lot of reminders of the Buddha, so it can feel kind of lonely at times, and frankly a little guilty too.

But, I am reminded of this lovely quote from the 3rd chapter of the Lotus Sutra (法華経):

The Tathāgata [the Buddha], freed from

The burning house of the triple world,

Tranquilly lives in seclusion,

Abiding in peace in the woodland.

The Threefold Lotus Sutra, translated by Bunnō Kato, Yoshirō Tamura and Kōjirō Miyasaka (12th ed., 1992)

For me, this quote reminds me that holidays or no holidays, gifts or no gifts, the Buddha dwells in peace beyond the turmoil of life, and looks back toward us with goodwill who have not yet completed the path. And that’s Buddhism at its finest. This is the true legacy that Shakyamuni left us: a vision for peace of mind, goodwill and a path to attain it.

So, happy birthday, Lord Buddha!

P.S. These are just among some of the great Twitter posts I saw in Japanese for Hanamatsuri. I wish I was this creative. 😀

Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For?

Vision would totally get it.

I recently finished the series WandaVision (I am always super slow to catch up on popular shows), and in the big climactic battle between Vision and his other self,1 Vision brings up a famous paradox called the Ship of Theseus which Plutarch, one of my personal favorite people from that era, describes as:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Translated by John Dryden from Plutarch’s “Theseus” written in 75 CE

This issue of the ship and whether it’s the same ship any more or not has been puzzling Western philosophers for many centuries. As an armchair philosopher and nerd, I just learned about this and the paradox (as well as WandaVision) really blew my mind.

However, what really blew my mind is kind of conundrum wasn’t limited to ancient Greek philosophy. Long ago in India, a famous Buddhist treatise, the Dà Zhìdù Lùn (大智度論), was composed in Sanskrit (that version is now lost) and translated into Chinese by the venerable Kumarajiva.2 The Buddhist of this paradox from the Dà Zhìdù Lùn is found here in an essay by Jing Huang and Jonardon Ganeri.

Paraphrasing the story here, a traveler encounters two demons on the road, one of which is carrying a corpse. The other demon grabs the traveler and begins by pulling his arm off. The second demon removes the matching arm from the corpse and somehow attaches it to the man. From there, the demons replace each part of the traveler’s body with the matching part from the corpse until none of the original body is left. The man is distraught because he doesn’t know who he is anymore. As the story continues, he encounters a group of Buddhist monks who then explore the implications (for the benefit of the reader).

Modern versions of this story can be found in science fiction, too. In the novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny, the character Wakim is taking apart and replaced with mechanical parts, and later put back into human form, by Anubis who opines:

“Men may begin and end in many ways,” says Anubis. “Some may start as machines and gain their humanity slowly. Others may end as machines, losing humanity by pieces as they live. That which is lost may always be regained. That which is gained may always be lost.”

“I have made you a machine, Wakim. Now I shall make you a man. Who is to say how you started, where you started? Were I to wipe your memories up to this moment and then re-embody you, you would recollect that you had begun as metal.”

All this is to say, where does one’s true identity begin and end? How much of it is dictated by outside, and how much of it are you born with? Is there anything you can truly call your own?

Further, as Huang and Ganeri cite the famous Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (150 CE – 250 CE) who explored this kind of issue at great length:

Nāgārjuna is known in particular for his fondness of dilemmas. He was so fond of them, indeed, that he excelled in converting them into tetralemmas (catuṣkoṭi). To any question, he said, there are four possible answers: yes, no, both, and neither. The unique twist, and what defines [the Buddhist philosophy of] Madhyamaka as a philosophical system, is to then affirm that none of the possible answers is viable; each one can be shown to end up entailing some absurd or impalatable consequence, which is called a prasaṅga

Is This Me? A Story about Personal Identity from the MahāPrajñāpāramitopadeśa / Dà zhìdù lùn
Jing Huang and Jonardon Ganeri, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 2021

The paradox of the Ship of Theseus isn’t limited to ships; the Buddhists felt this issue comprises all phenomena including you and me.

If you think about it, your body has been constantly changing and growing since your conception as an embryo. Cells divide, die, get replaced, etc. On a physical level, the rotting timbers of your body have been replaced countless times over and over and will continue to do so until your dead, in which case your body continues to change as it decomposes into other things, and so on. Is it this still the same body you had from birth? Nagarjuna would say that answers like “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, “both”, “neither”, “42” and so on are all absurd and don’t quite hit the mark

But what about your mind? You retain memories from the past (assuming you can still remember them), but even here Buddhism would argue that none of it is the original mind state, but a constant state of fluidity shifting from one thought to another, with nothing static. Even your memory may not be as reliable as you think it is, colored over time by your thoughts and recollection until it no longer resembles the original in any objective sense.

For me, this really made me realize that I am not defined by my past, the good and the bad. I am not the same person I was 30 years ago, or 30 days ago. For better or worse, that person is gone. There is only me, here and now.

Looking at my life up until now, maybe all we are is just a constant state of flux, becoming and persevering? But, as Nagarjuna might say, that’s not quite it either.

I guess only the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas truly understand:

The true entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas. This reality consists of the appearance, nature, entity, power, influence, inherent cause, relation, latent effect, manifest effect, and their consistency from beginning to end.”

The Lotus Sutra, chapter 2, Burton Watson translation

As for me, I’m-a-going back to playing Breath of the Wild.

P.S. This post is dedicated to Lionel Ritchie.

1 I think this Twitter post explains the finale nicely:

2 The whole mass-translation effort that took place in China during the Tang-Dynasty (7th – 11th centuries) was nothing to sneeze at either. Sanskrit and Chinese have almost nothing in common, and the religious-technical vocabulary that monks brought from India and the Silk Road had to be translated not just verbatim, but in way that could properly convey the meaning to Chinese audiences. Some really talented and dedicated monks, Indian, Chinese and Central Asian really worked hard on this over successive generations to bring us the literature we benefit from today.

Learning Japanese The Classics Way

Recently while stuck at the dealership waiting for my car to get fixed (flat tire), I got into a weird thought exercise about how to learn Japanese language. I started learning Japanese on my own way back in the late 1980’s (back when Japan Inc was super cool to impressionable teenagers) and then in college in a formal setting, and later again when I studied for the JLPT exam on my own (reached JLPT N2 in 2012).

Photo by Audrey Mari on Pexels.com

Needless to say, I’ve learned Japanese a number of ways over the years, and I’ve never quite liked any of them. Japanese as a language is pretty fun and interesting, but I have come to dislike most approaches to explain Japanese grammar because either they weren’t very clear (explaining the differences between particles は and が supposedly can fill a book, I was once told), or they they just didn’t produce good results. I still get the conjugations of 切る and 着る, both read as “kiru” but conjugate different, mixed up on a regular basis, and I don’t want to even mention the Heisig Method of learning kanji.

Thankfully, there are some really nice, modern approaches to Japanese. I really like Tae Kim’s excellent Guide to Japanese and I can say that it helped me to fix some old, bad habits, while also explaining grammar concepts in new, fresh ways. I just wish it had existed when I was learning Japanese.

Meanwhile, as a fun personal exercise under lockdown, I’ve been (re)studying Latin through the Great Courses class taught by Hans-Friedrich Mueller. Learning Latin, probably the most studied language in Western culture since antiquity, made me realize that Latin’s approach to learning is pretty effective in some ways. The way things are categorized, dissected and studied means that if you learn Latin properly, you can learn Latin surprisingly quick. It’s a fair amount of work upfront, but once you get past that first hill, it’s actually not that bad.

As with Japanese, I had learned a bit of Latin before ages ago, but while the books were well-respected (and fun), they were not always effective. I would quickly get bogged down by the time I got to the third-declension nouns, and I never quite recovered. Trying again with a fresh, different approach through the Great Courses really helped me get past the old hurdles, and now Latin makes a lot more sense. The issue was never the language (just as with Japanese), but how it’s conveyed, and how people build foundations.

So, while at the dealership, I got to thinking, can the same approach be applied to a totally different language like Japanese? Is there better ways to build solid foundations in Japanese to avoid future headaches and frustrations? I think “yes”. We can’t always rely on tradition to teach a fascinating language like Japanese, we as language students (and educators) should be tilling the soil over and over to find better and better ways. Latin has had the benefit of this for 2,000 years in the West and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same for other languages.

This post is a first-attempt at applying a Classics-style language course to Japanese. It’s far from perfect, but if you’re studying Japanese and have even a basic Classics education, hopefully this will make sense. And if you have never learned Latin or Greek, I highly recommend Professor Muller’s courses. They’re terrific.

Nouns and Particles

Nouns are particularly easy in Japanese because there’s no conjugation at all. What you see is what you get. The tricky issue comes with how they interact with particles. Particles have no direct analogy in Latin or English, but nevertheless, they can still be translated the same way.

For example in Latin there are five conjugations to express which part of the sentence a noun belongs to (major credit to Professor Muller for this explanation):

  • nominative (the subject) – mÄ«les, a soldier
  • genitive (of the noun) – mÄ«litis, of the soldier
  • dative (to or for the noun, indirect object) – mÄ«litÄ«, to or for the soldier
  • accusative (noun as the direct object) – mÄ«litem, something done to the soldier
  • ablative (by, with or from the noun) – mÄ«lite, by with or for the soldier.

Ancient Greek has the first four, for what it’s worth. Plus both Greek and Latin have plural versions of these conjugations too.

Japanese particles fulfill the same roles, though, even if expressed differently. Instead of changing the ending of the noun as shown above, you take on an extra syllable:

  • nominative: use は (wa) or が (ga, more on this below) – 犬は・が, the dog …
  • genitive: use の (no) – 犬の, the dog’s, of the dog
  • dative: use に (ni) – 犬に, to or for the dog
  • accusative: use を (wo) – 犬を, something done to the dog.
  • ablative: で (de) or と (to) depending on context: 犬で, by the dog or with the dog (instrumental case), 犬と with the dog (accompanying).

As you can see, Japanese particles do not map 1:1 in usage and context as Latin/Greek cases, but you can see that between them all the essential grammatical bases are covered.

The whole は (wa) or が (ga) issue was hopelessly complicated to me when I was in Japanese language classes in college, but Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese does a really good job of clarifying this. The particular が in particular is really just there to address three possible questions: who, which and where. By contrast, は just marks the topic, or is used for contrasting with other topics/subjects.

Verbs

Verbs are important in Japanese, especially since you can have a whole conversation in Japanese with verbs only (everything else is implied by context):

A: tabeta? (from context, “did you eat”?)

B: nn, tabeta. (“yup, I did.”)

Verbs in Japanese have their own inflections that don’t exist in Western languages, and remembering the conjugations can be tricky, especially because there are two types:

  1. ichidan (一段) verbs, sometimes called “ru-verbs”.
  2. godan (五段) verbs, which also include some “ru-verbs” (such as “kiru” above).

Example inflections for 切る (godan) and 着る (ichidan), both read as “kiru”, are as follows:

切る (kiru)着る (kiru)
dictionary formkirukiru
te-formkittekite
potential formkirerukirareru
causative formkiraserukisaseru
polite (masu) formkirimasukimasu

You can see how the subtle differences can throw of a student in Japanese.

So, in Latin (and Greek), verbs are usually expressed as a series of principal parts. The verb “to read” is expressed fully as legō, legere, lēgÄ«, lēctum whereby legō is present active (“I read”), legere is the active infinitive (“to read”), lēgÄ« is the past tense (“I read”) and lēctum is the perfect passive participle (“the X who’s reading”). By memorizing the entire set of principal parts up front, the rest of that Latin verb can be conjugated quick and easy.

To me, the same approach can be applied to Japanese verbs, just with different principal parts. By knowing both the dictionary form, and the te-form of a verb you can quickly identify if it is a ichidan verb or a godan verb and conjugate accordingly. I would probably also throw in the “masu” polite form and maybe something like passive form too for completeness.

So, for 着る, the principal parts in my mind are 着る、着て、着ます (kiru, kite, kimasu). The “ru” stem in dictionary form + the te-form with no small “tsu” tells me that this is an ichidan verb.

Similarly, for 切る: 切る、切って、切ります (kiru, kitte, kirimasu). The “ru” ending in the dictionary form, plus a small “tsu” in the te-form tells me that this is a godan verb, so I can conjugate accordingly.

For other verbs, for example 飲む (nomu): 飲む、飲んで、飲みます (nomu, nonde, nomimasu).

…and so on. The key here is that by memorizing a verb by its principal parts, you can easily intuit what type of verb it is, and know how to form the rest. The te-form is used in many ways, so memorizing it upfront, even you don’t know how to use it yet, saves a lot of headache.

In the case of Japanese this is less crucial in some ways than Latin/Greek because you can easily figure out the rest by converting the verb ending to the right ending for the right conjugation, but knowing the “root forms” that the other conjugations are based off of is a time-saver, especially when dealing with ichidan verbs and godan verbs with “ru” endings. There are quite a few.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Since Japanese doesn’t use grammatical gender like Latin and Greek verbs (no masculine, feminine, etc) they are fairly straightforward to conjugate. Unlike Latin, Greek or English, Japanese adjectives can express negative (not) and past-tense, but again the grammar is very consistent and easy to use.

In place of learning grammatical gender for adjectives (as in Latin/Greek), I think it would be sufficient to teach adjectives simply as their dictionary form + dictionary-negative form. For example:

  • 安い: “cheap” which has forms 安い、安くない
  • 静かな: “quiet” which has 静かな、静かじゃない

For the “na” adjectives, such as “quiet”, I don’t know if it’s proper to include the な at the end of the adjective or not, but since it’s not used in some forms, it seemed proper to leave it out but then again, as with the verbs and principal parts, knowing up front that it has a な will tell you how to apply it to modifying nouns and such based on established grammar rules. The key here is treating these as teaching aids, I think.

Adverbs of course are super easy, barely an inconvenience. You just attach them right before the verb. Voila.

Conclusion

This whole mental exercise in expressing Japanese with Classics-style teaching aids needs a lot of work, and folks who are much better at Japanese than me will understandably disagree. What I wanted to do is to stimulate thinking about how to teach Japanese more effectively, more concisely so people can establish good foundations. Japanese is different than English, a lot different, but when you come to grips with its own internal logic and structure, it’s really not that hard. The trouble is how its conveyed in language education, and I hope people will continue finding newer, better ways to overcome that hurdle.

頑張りましょう!

P.S. yes, kanji is a pain, but you shouldn’t be brute-force memorizing them anyway.

“Ondoku” Your Way to Smoother Language Skills

I have been studying Japanese language more or less since I was in college, twenty years ago, and much of that has been self-study. I have never lived in Japan, but my wife is from there, and we visit there every non-pandemic-year to see family, etc. Plus, I passed the JLPT N2 exam in 2012. As such, my language skills in Japanese are in a weird state of not being fluent, but not beginner either.

My wife and kids, who are both fully bilingual, tend to poke fun of my Japanese at times, since my grammar usage and pronunciation are kind of funny. I get mentally “gummed up” and use the wrong Japanese particle, or other funny usage, but conversely, I can read Japanese computer books without too much difficulty. So, in a way, my skills are kind of lop-sided, and the result of too much self-learning, not enough practical application.

Anyhow, my wife recently passed along some advice from my kids’ after-school Japanese-language teacher (who’s a good family friend of ours): practice reading aloud more. This is called ondoku (音読, “Ohn-doh-ku”) in Japanese.

It seemed kind of silly at first, but I realized that my kids had grown up here in the US doing that weekly as their Japanese-language homework: read an essay out loud 10 times. The essays were short, maybe 2-3 minutes of reading at a time, but reading 10 times reinforced the intuitive “flow” of Japanese, while also helping to smooth out their speaking and pronunciation skills, two things I sorely lack.

In fact, this isn’t limited to Japanese. My old Latin textbook, the famous Wheelock’s Latin one, also recommends reading Latin out loud to get used to the flow and pronunciation. Similarly, when I was dabbling in ancient Homeric Greek, the professor in my online course recommended the same thing: read aloud.

The point here is: whatever language you are learning, make a habit of reading aloud small sections of text 10 or so times to get the hang of it, then move on to other texts and repeat.

The idea is to create an easy, low-stress, sustainable routine:

  1. Find some authentic text in that language that is easy to read (if you get hung up on adult Japanese text, with its advanced Chinese Characters, move to an elementary school text and work your way up).
  2. Pick a small excerpt that you can read in 2-3 minutes, not too long, not too short.
  3. Practice reading it 10 times over a week.
  4. Find a new excerpt for next week and repeat the cycle.

For my part, my wife found this 1st grade level science book:

「10分でわかる!かがくのぎもん」(juppun de wakaru! kagaku no gimon) by Egawa Takio. Title roughly translates into “Understand Science in 10 minutes!”

The Japanese is very easy, with no Chinese Characters (even though I can read a fair amount). That way, I can focus on reading out loud. I read one essay last week 10 times, three times in front of my wife, and have started reading a second essay this week.

It’s hard to gauge results since I only started, but I know my kids had been doing it for years, and their conversational skills are quite smooth, so I know it works. And because the activity is fairly easy and low-stress, it’s frankly kind of fun, plus I learn interesting little tidbits, such as why crickets have long antennae. 🦗

To be honest, reading in front of a native speaker can be really embarrassing, but it’s really important not to personalize it, especially when they give you advice. Just roll with it, and remember it’s not meant to humiliate you. It’s meant to help you. Also, I am sure native speakers will appreciate you asking for help, so there’s that too.

So, if you’re learning a language, try reading aloud and have fun!