All of this has happened before…

Buddhism the religion has some things in common with Battlestar Galactica, but without all the Cylons. 😋

First, space is really, really big:

It is also incredibly old.

In Indian religions in general, including Buddhism, frequently use a term kalpa meaning a great, vast eon. Such an eon is beyond measure, but similes are often used to explain the scale of a kalpa:

…a certain monk went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the monk said to the Blessed One, “How long, lord, is an eon?”

….“Suppose there were a great mountain of rock—a league long, a league wide, a league high, uncracked, uncavitied, a single mass—and a man would come along once every hundred years and rub it once with a Kāsi cloth. More quickly would that great mountain of rock waste away and be consumed by that effort, but not the eon. That’s how long, monk, an eon is.

Excerpt from “A Mountain Pabbata Sutta”  (SN 15:5), translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

But then to drive the point home, the Buddha then says:

And of eons of such length, not just one eon has been wandered-through, not just one hundred eons have been wandered-through, not just one thousand eons have been wandered-through, not just one hundred-thousand eons have been wandered-through.

But, Buddhism, along with Indian cosmology in general, tends to see these eons and time itself as cyclical: eons rise and fall (traditionally in a great fire), and rise again.

Just like Battlestar Galactica: all of this has happened before, and will happen again.

Everyday Buddhism: the Five Precepts

As Homo sapiens, our natural, default instinct is to eat, breed and fight.

Being homo sapiens isn’t easy. Just ask Dr Zaius.

However, the Buddha encouraged people to evaluate the situation calmly, dispassionately, almost scientifically. We can indulge these impulses all we want, but in the end it will do nothing to help our situation, and will likely cause some pain and frustration in the process. Try eating fast food every day for a month, if you don’t believe me.

Thus, the Buddha taught a series of training rules. The training rules for monks and nuns are called the Pratimoksha, but for lay followers the training rules are the Pancha Sila (Pali: pañcasīla) or Five Precepts.

Unlike other similar codes of conduct, the Five Precepts are not enforced. They are first and foremost training rules. You adopt them, you try to follow them, you reflect when things go wrong, and you try again. Like rehearsing for a play.

The Five Precepts are:

  • (I undertake the vow) to abstain for taking life.
  • (I undertake the vow) to take what’s not given to me.
  • (I undertake the vow) to abstain from sexual misconduct (i.e. anything that harms others or yourself).
  • (I undertake the vow) to abstain from telling lies.
  • (I undertake the vow) to abstain from intoxicants: alcohol, drugs, etc.

The nice thing about undertaking the five precepts is that it’s a daily Buddhist practice, that requires no additional time commitment, no special chants to memorize, etc. If you uphold the five precepts, you are actively practicing Buddhism without even realizing it. Plus, as the Buddha taught, you gain the benefits of freedom from guilt, greater self-confidence, and fewer “entanglements” in life.

Japan, Buddhism and Karmic Relations

One of the fascinating things about being a “textbook Buddhist” (someone who learned Buddhism later in life through books) and marrying someone who grew up Buddhist, is learning how Buddhism and culture intertwine.1

Something you occasionally hear in Japanese language is the phrase en ga aru (縁がある), or the opposite en ga nai (縁がない). In a loose sense, this could be translated as “it was meant to be (or not)”, but I think something gets lost in the translation. The key word is 縁 (en) which is a Buddhist term inherited from Chinese culture (also called 仏縁 butsu-en) meaning a karmic bond: something that happened, possibly in a previous life, that brings about an event, or a bond between two people. In the devotional sense, in can also mean a bond between a person and a Buddhist deity such as Amitabha Buddha, or the Bodhisattva Kannon. It has many nuances.

The Buddhist notion of karma is, needless to say, a hopelessly difficult subject, and a frequent point of confusion even among Buddhists themselves. A brief explanation can be found in an early scripture, the Nibbedhika Sutta ( AN 6.63 ) in the Pali Canon:

[The Buddha:] “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect….and what is the diversity in kamma? There is kamma to be experienced in hell, kamma to be experienced in the realm of common animals, kamma to be experienced in the realm of the hungry ghosts, kamma to be experienced in the human world, kamma to be experienced in the world of the devas. This is called the diversity in kamma.

Translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This concept is revisited and explored further in later Mahayana-Buddhist texts, such as chapter four of the Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra, when it discusses how karma passes on from lifetime to lifetime until it is exhausted:

“Then the Buddha told Earth Store Bodhisattva, “Beings who have not yet obtained liberation have unfixed natures and consciousnesses. Their bad habits reap bad karma; their good habits bring rewards….Throughout eons as numerous as dust motes they remain confused, deluded, obstructed, and afflicted by difficulties. They are like fish swimming through waters laced with nets. They may slip through and keep their freedom temporarily, but sooner or later they will be caught.”

Translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, courtesy of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas

The concepts of karma and rebirth play into the Buddhist view of time, which is very, very long (compare with the Abrahamic notion of time which tends to be shorter).

This is all pretty academic though. In the context of Japanese culture, this same idea can also be found in the Japanese phrase: sode furiau mo tashō no en (袖振り合うも多生の縁), which means “even when the sleeves of two people brush together, this is the result of a past life”. This is a romanticized way of saying that there is no random coincidences in life. Past karma plays into many things we see and experience. Thus, the term 縁 in popular Japanese denotes the idea of karma, and by extension “fate”.

Further, there’s an amusing relationship between the two Japanese words 縁 (en) and 円 (en). The first we already discussed, but the second just means something round, including coins. Hence, in Japanese culture, it’s customary to throw a 5-yen coin2 (5円玉, go-en-dama) in to donation boxes at Japanese Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines. These wooden boxes with the grilled top, such as the one shown above, are called saisen-bako (賽銭箱) in Japanese.

Making that one little donation, or praising a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva even once,3 or the words and deeds you speak to others all create karmic bonds if there weren’t any, or strengthen the ones that are already there. So, it’s important to consider what karmic bonds you are fostering, and also what you may have created in the past. Even if you have much negative karma from the past, don’t be discouraged, you have nowhere to go but up. 😄

Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

P.S. The logical, rational side of me tends to resist the idea that everything is tied to karma, but it does agree that there are no coincidences in life. Everything arises from some kind of causes or conditions, however improbable.

1 In so doing, I also have come to realize how Christianity and western culture intertwine. Things like vocabulary, cultural practices, how we look at things, etc.

2 Of course, you can throw in more or less than this. I tend to have a lot of leftover change toward the end of my visits in Japan, so I tend to donate it. Also, many smaller, less popular temples/shrines may struggle to make ends meet, so those little coins do help.

3 From the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

If persons with confused and distracted minds
should enter a memorial tower
and once exclaim, “Hail to the Buddha!”
Then all have attained the Buddha way.

Translation by Burton Watson

Footsteps in the Snow: A Poem By Lady Izumi

For my birthday, I picked up a great book on poetry by the 12th century lady-in-waiting, Lady Izumi, called izumi shikibu (和泉式部) in Japanese. Her life has been an interest of mine, and I was happy to find good quality translation of her works.1 The book has a collection of her poems spanning various topics, including this one for winter:

JapaneseRomanizationEnglish
待つ人のMatsu hito noIf the one I’ve waited for
今も来たらばima mo kitara bacame now, what should I do?
いかがせむikaga senThis morning’s garden filled with snow
踏ままく惜しきfumamaku oshikiis far too lovely
庭の雪かなniwa no yuki ka nafor footsteps to mar.
trans. by Hirshfield and Aratani

Because the old Heian Period aristocracy was such a closed society, and the public scrutinized everything you said and did, romantic meetings often took at night, and only after careful arrangement. Lady Izumi, according to the translators, was likely stood up for some reason after waiting all night, but she tries to take it in stride with this poem.

1 The best part about the book is that each poem comes with the original Japanese at the end of the book, so you can recite it as is, or look it up in Japanese.

Japanese Verbs: Transitive vs. Intransitive

Even after years of studying Japanese language, and conversing with my wife, family and friend, one thing I still struggle with is a fascinating feature of the language: transitive and intransitive verbs.

The concept of transitive and intransitive verbs is nothing unique to Japanese. Some verbs take a direct object (transitive) and some don’t (intransitive). English has both, and so does Japanese. What’s interesting in Japanese is that the verbs frequently come in pairs.

Compare these two verbs:

  • 上がる (agaru) – to go up, intransitive
  • 上げる (ageru) – lift something up, transitive

They look very similar, but their usage is different:

  • 上がる (hon ga agaru) – “The book goes up.”
  • 上げる (hon wo ageru) – “To lift the book up.”

The first one expresses the state of the book itself (it is going up), while the second expresses someone lifting the book up (as a direct object). Hence intransitive vs. transitive.

But many other verbs come in pairs like this:

  • 雪が積もってる (yuki ga tsumotteiru) – “The snow is piling up.” The verb is tsumoru (積もる)
  • 雪を積んでいる (yuki wo tsundeiru) – “Piling up snow.” The verb is tsumu (積む).

Yet another example is ochiru (落ちる) and otosu (落とす) meaning to “to fall” and “to drop” respectively:

  • 落ちている (hon ga ochiteiru) – The book has fallen (i.e. in the state of “fallen”).
  • 落としている (hon wo otoshiteiru) – Dropping the book.

The last two examples illustrate an important point: the intransitive verb is often used to express state of something, almost like an adjective: 落ちている本を拾う (ochiteiru hon wo hirou) – “I pick up the book that’s fallen”.

The other thing to remember with transitive and intransitive verbs in Japanese is the particles. Transitive verbs take a direct object, so they take an を of course. Pretty easy. But the intransitive verbs don’t take an object, so you have to use が (or は as appropriate) because you’re trying to answer the question “who” or “what” is in that state.

If you can at least remember that Japanese verbs frequently come in pairs, you’ll have fewer headaches studying Japanese language. Enjoy!

Winter Is Here

Winter is here in the Pacific Northwest! In the old Japanese calendar, this period is known as rittō (立冬, “first winter”). My gardening book mentioned that historically frost comes around here typically on November 17th, and I was quite surprised to see that it really happened:

The trees around my son’s elementary school were beautiful in the winter frost too. I started keeping a gardening journal to keep track of local weather patterns, how the plants in the garden are doing, what works and what doesn’t.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, both good and bad. I celebrated my birthday recently, and got some great history books, but I also managed to back my car into the garage door (it was opening, but hadn’t fully come up when my car clipped it). We’ve seen some pretty rough rain storms lately, but also the winter weather has been beautiful too. I pulled a muscle pretty badly last week, but on the other hand, I’ve been getting plenty of exercise.

I’ve seen plenty of ups and downs lately, but such is the eight winds of life.

On a spiritual note, I enjoy focusing on devotional services to Kannon Bodhisattva (my other favorite Buddhist figure) lately. Because Kannon is popular among nearly all Buddhist schools and traditions, it doesn’t have some of the dogmatic “baggage” associated with other deities, so it’s easy to take up devotion practices to Kannon while allowing you to pursue other Dharma Gates within Buddhism.

Taken in 2011 at Daienji Temple (大円寺) in Tokyo, Japan. It is still one of my favorite works of Buddhist art that I have seen in Japan.

So, namu kanzeon bosatsu and best wishes to readers!

Visiting Kofukuji Temple

Lately, I have been posting old nostalgia posts from visits made to Japan and its famous Buddhist temples, such as Kiyomizudera, Ryoanji and the two Pavilions. Today, I wanted to share one more famous temple that, in particular, is often overlooked by visitors, yet really worth a visit for its historical value and amazing cultural treasures. That is the temple of Kofukuji (homepage here), the head of the once-powerful Hosso or Yogacara sect.1

Anyone who’s dabbled in Japanese Buddhism has probably never heard of the Hosso/Yogacara, but in early-medieval Japan it was once the most powerful, if not the de facto state religion. The fortunes of the Hosso school were so great that they were closely allied with the powerful Fujiwara family, and fielded vast armies of sohei soldier-monks to combat their rivals, the upstart Tendai sect. Now, it is a very diminished school in Japan, mostly centered around Nara, Japan, and closely affiliated with Shingon Buddhism. For more on Hosso/Yogacara teachings, I highly recommend this book.

Anyhow, I have been to Nara, Japan twice: once in 2005 during my very first trip to Japan, and again in 2010 when my duaghter was still a little girl.

Because of warfare, accidents and other reasons, Kofukuji has been greatly reduced, and not all buildings have been restored. Currently there are three main “halls”. I believe this is the Eastern Golden Hall (tōkondō 東金堂):

Inside the Eastern Golden Hall, I recall that there was a beautiful altar with man deities lined up, with the Medicine Buddha as the central figure.

From there, we saw the five-storied pagoda (gojū no tō 五重塔):

Side note: what is called a pagoda in English, is really just an East Asian form of a Buddhist stupa. Stupas are special reliquaries from India, that gradually evolved into the pagodas you see in Japan today.

Another place we visited was the Southern Round Hall (nan’endō 南円堂):

Finally, we visited the museum in the central hall. The museum is huge and contains many relics from Kofukuji’s history, including the famous Asura statue:

日本語: 小川晴暘English: OGAWA SEIYOU, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing the Asura statue in a picture is one thing, but seeing it in real life was simply amazing (though it was smaller than I expected 😋). Kofukuji has a long, rich history and the museum really shows it.

Nara is the early capital of Japan, and reflects a time when it was closely modeled after Chinese (specifically Tang-dynasty) culture and religion, with a blend of Indian influences as well. It’s a fascinating blend that is not found in later Japanese history. I highly recommend visiting Nara and Kofukuji in particular if you can.

1 The Japanese word hossō (法相) is a transliteration of the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term yogācāra. Buddhist terminology has a long, fascinating history.

Buddhist Art and the Roman Empire

I saw this interesting post recently on Twitter and wanted to share:

This means that some of the earliest Buddhist statuary was forged by early Roman citizens, more specifically Syrian artists.

Fascinating how connected the ancient world was with one another.

The Five Hindrances of Buddhism

Buddhism is a hard path to follow sometimes. It requires a measure of mental discipline, forcing you to see outside yourself, and also fostering goodwill toward others even when you want to punch them in the nose. Or, you just don’t feel like it.

This is all very human behavior, and since long ago, Buddhists have considered how to stay on the path. Even the Buddha spoke of it in some of the early sutras:

“Suppose there were a river, flowing down from the mountains—going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it—and a man would open channels leading away from it on both sides, so that the current in the middle of the river would be dispersed, diffused, & dissipated; it wouldn’t go far, its current wouldn’t be swift, and it wouldn’t carry everything with it. In the same way, when a monk has not abandoned these five obstacles, hindrances that overwhelm awareness and weaken discernment, when he is without strength and weak in discernment: For him to understand what is for his own benefit, to understand what is for the benefit of others, to understand what is for the benefit of both, to realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction in knowledge & vision—that is impossible.

Āvaraṇa Sutta  (AN 5:51), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Over time, Buddhists formulated “antidotes” to the Five Hindrances, one for each hindrance:

HindrancePali / Sanskrit1Remedy
DesirekamacchandaContemplate impermanence
Ill willbyapadaReflect on good will toward others
Lazinessthina-middhaHave a break, move around, etc.
Anxietyuddhacca-kukkuccaUse calming meditation techniques
DoubtvicikicchaResearch Buddhist doctrines
Sources: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html and https://bswa.org/teaching/the-five-hindrances-nivarana-by-ajahn-brahm/

It’s not necessary to memorize the Five Hindrances and their remedies, but rather when negative thoughts and such arise, they aren’t necessarily permanent, and can be counter-balanced with their opposite.

Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

1 A couple pronunciation tips: “cch” and “cc” are pronounced like English “ch” as in chance. While “th” is not the same as English “th” as in thorn. It is like “t”, but sounds stronger, breathier. Similarly “dh” is a stronger, breathier version of “d”. Such distinctions aren’t really made in English, but

Starting up the JLPT N1 At Last

It’s been ten years since I passed JLPT exam, level N2, and after doing some careful thinking, I think it’s time to prepare to take the N1 exam. Last month, the family and I went to the local Kinokuniya bookstore to pick up some new manga for my son (who has become an avid reader in both English and Japanese), and I picked up some much needed test study material.

I spent a number of recent years debating whether to invest the time for the JLPT, level N1, given how much time and practice it would take. If you test for the lower levels of the JLPT, it can typically take somewhere from 3-6 months, and based on personal experience the N2 took about a year. The N1, being the most difficult, probably takes 1-2 years.

However, since my regional test site only hosts the test once a year, I will probably shoot for December 2022, which would be about 14 months away.

We’ll see how it goes.

As to why I finally decided to take the N1, it’s a long story. Suffice to say that I really miss going to Japan yearly since the pandemic started, and I realized that I needed to focus my creative energies on something longer-term and not just goofing around with amateur writing projects and such. I like having a concrete goal, so this is a nice kick in the pants, among other benefits.

Further, the N1 represents the one hurdle I never finished, and after taking some mock tests, I feel that I have a realistic chance to pass if I spend adequate time to prepare.

So, here goes nothing!