Happy Summer 2021

One of my favorite poems of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology is also one of the first:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
春過ぎてHaru sugiteSpring has passed, and
夏来にけらしnatsu ki ni kerashisummer has arrived, it seems
白妙のshiro tae noHeavenly Mount Kagu
衣ほすてふkoromo hosu chōwhere, it is said, they dry robes
天の香具山Ama no Kaguyamaof the whitest mulberry!
English translation by the excellent Joshua Mostow.

According to Professor Mostow, this poem in general causes a lot of headaches for commentators and translators over generations because of the confusing relation between certain lines. I love it because it shows a prime example of using “pillow words” or makura-kotoba in Japanese waka poetry, which are special, stock phrases. They also don’t really translate into English. However for those familiar with waka poetry, they evoke powerful imagery and many waka poems in antiquity use them. In this poem, the pillow word is the phrase shirotae 白妙, which evokes the images of pristine, white mulberry cloth (or paper).

More on the poem’s backstory, Mount Kagu and the author can be found here.

I hope you all get a chance to enjoy the summer a bit, even in trying times.

Taking Stock

July has been a rough month for me. The problem started in early July, after attending a Dungeons and Dragons game in person at my local game shop for the first time in over a year. Not long after, I started feeling ill, my head was stuffy, and breathing was sometimes difficult. My heart was pounding a lot, and sometimes I wondered if I should go to the hospital.

I took a COVID test (which is thankfully very easy and convenient around here), and the tests came back negative. Phew. Given that I am fully vaccinated, and still wear masks every time I go out, the likelihood was low, but better safe than sorry. Nevertheless, I was still ill and have been ever since. I am feeling much better than I did two weeks ago, but still not 100%.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I had three unrelated, but overlapping issues going on:

  1. Work stress – a big deadline was coming up, and that was definitely giving me prolonged anxiety. I noticed my heart pounding + breathing issues tended to drop off on the weekends, but pick up on the weekdays. Definitely could have been palpitations. The project deadline was met, and since then things got easier. This week I haven’t had any palpitations at all and I can take walks around the neighborhood again without feeling constantly winded.
  2. The other issue is either a head-cold (as in the mundane common cold) or allergies. I haven’t decided which one, but seems more likely a head cold. I had an unusual experience where 10 days into the cold, my wife gave me some Chinese medicinal herbal tea to help with the cold, and that night, I woke up drenched in sweat. Like, as if someone threw a bucket of water on me. Gross, but since then, I started recovering. Chinese medicinal herbs can really kick your ass sometimes. 😝
  3. Finally, I cut back greatly on coffee after I started palpitations. I figured it would help, but then again the caffeine withdrawal really hit me hard by the 3rd and 4th day: headaches, irritability, sleepiness, etc. Today is my 14th day cutting back on coffee and while the physical withdrawal symptoms are gone, the mental craving is still strong. Habit energy, perhaps.

Anyhow, all this is to say that life for me kind of shut down for most of July. I still worked of course, and helped with parenting where I could, but everything else just dropped off: D&D, writing projects, games, reading, other hobbies, etc.

In a way, getting ill and being in recovery so long was a chance to take stock in what really matters, versus needless distractions. I’ve shelved some of my projects for the foreseeable future. This is to focus on things that are more meaningful, and conducive to well being and recovery.

The blog is going nowhere, but the focus may change a bit for the near term. As life picks up again, maybe I’ll pick those hobbies back up, but time will tell.

Thanks all for your understanding and well-wishes. 😄

All Well And Good

Dude, Plato was stronk

Lately, I have been following a fascinating history podcast called the Hellenistic Age Podcast, a detailed look at a very fascinating and often overlooked period of world history. In particular, I am listening to the set of episodes regarding Hellenistic-era philosophy:

It’s a great show, and lots of fun to delve into so many different, fascinating schools of thought. But, then inevitably, I have to come down. Enjoying ancient philosophy is great until you realize that sooner or later, you need to eat, shit, sleep, work, deal with getting sick, etc.

Much of this applies to many other aspects of life. Sooner or later, we have to come down and deal with mundane, hassles of life, no matter how much we try to escape from them. This applies to any kind of escape we do.

I think this is why the Zen tradition in Buddhism adopted such a strongly anti-intellectual streak, a reaction to the high-minded Buddhist-philosophical traditions from India: the Madhyamika, the Yogacara, and the native Chinese traditions of Hua-yan and Tian-Tai.

For example, a famous story attributed to a Chinese Zen master named Baizhang (百丈, 720–814, pronounced bye-jong):

When asked what the secret of Zen was, he told one disciple, “When hungry, eat – when tired, sleep.”

The anti-intellectual streak in Zen, especially modern Zen (and in some strains of Pure Land Buddhism), tends to rub me the wrong way. Maybe it’s just the nerd in me. But at the same time, I can’t deny that as much fun as philosophy is, including Buddhist religion, it is all just mental games compared with the reality of life itself. Life intrudes on us, and keeps us grounded, for better or for worse. 🤷🏽‍♂️

It also illustrates that the mind isn’t entirely reliable either. High-minded ideals will go right out the window when we are tired, hungry, etc.

All the more reason to stay grounded, and keep a watchful eye on one’s own mind.

The Gold and Silver Pavilions of Kyoto

One of the achievements of the short-lived Ashikaga Shogunate of Japan (14th to 16th century) were a pair of villas, later converted to Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple, called Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺) and Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺). These are known as the Gold and Silver Pavilions in English respectively.

Despite the similar names and origins, both pavilions are interesting because they are surprisingly different from one another. Both were created by shoguns for their personal use, but they definitely reflect different tastes. The Gold Pavilion was built by the first shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, in 1397, while the Silver Pavilion was completed in 1490 by the eighth shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa.

I visited the Gold Pavilion way back in 2005, the same trip where I saw the temples of Kiyomizu-dera and Ryoan-ji (this was a kind of honeymoon for us since we got married the previous year). The day we came to Kyoto there was a rare snow flurry, making the Gold Pavilion was extra beautiful that day:

The path around the Golden Pavilion allows you to peruse the grounds and see the pavilion from all sides:

Something I failed to notice at the time, but noticed while digging up these photos, is this altar site with calligraphy that says namu amida butsu (南無阿弥陀仏) which is better known in Japanese Buddhism as the nembutsu. According to the homepage, this hut was known as the sekkatei (夕佳亭) and was built centuries later for the benefit of Emperor Go-Mizu-No-O as a scenic tea room. Due to it’s scenic view at sunset, perhaps it was associated with Amida Buddha, who is said to preside over the Pure Land to the West, hence the calligraphy. But that is just my conjecture.

Now, turning to the Silver Pavilion, we visited there in April 2010, five years after seeing the Golden Pavilion:

The style of the Silver Pavilion is noticeably different than the Golden Pavilion, more closely associated with what we would think of as “Zen” style art and architecture.

In particular, the Silver Pavilion epitomizes the famous Higashiyama culture that flourished under Shogun Yoshimasa, and became the inspiration of Japanese culture even up to the modern era. Compare this with the more “Chinese style” adopted for the Golden Pavilion, reflecting Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who was a confirmed Sinophile.

Anyhow, someday I would like to visit both temples on the same trip, and preferably with a more experienced eye. 😆

Buddhism and Cloud Technology

Lately, I’ve been dabbling in certain AWS technologies to get more familiar with them. In order to motivate me, I decide turn this into a tiny little side project: a Buddhist website hosted on AWS. The website is: http://d2v9nihdwts0ru.cloudfront.net/ I have been too lazy and cheap to buy a proper, easy to read domain name yet. 😏

Website as of writing. (P.S. I am also not very experienced at web-design either… 😅)

Anyhow, my goal was to make a simple, static website (wanted to refresh my HTML skills a bit), and build like so:

  • Upload contents to S3. They’re just images, PDFs and static HTML docs anyway.
  • Host using Cloudfront so I could play around with CDNs. My website would get such low, low traffic, that hosting on a CDN wouldn’t cost me very much. Obviously it gets more experience as sites get popular.
  • With this setup, every time I upload my content to the S3 bucket, the site just updates accordingly.
  • Plus, using such a bland, simple setup, security is much easier to manage.

The goal was to deploy all this using CDK, Amazon’s automation kit for building resources without having to build and manage everything manually. I followed some of the Amazon CDK tutorials on AWS Training,1 and played around a bit until I got a working example as shown above.

For now, the site doesn’t do much, and I haven’t figured out what a good direction for it is, but there it is. The amazing results of my learning CDK, and some basic AWS tech. 🤷🏽‍♂️

1 Despite having tried it twice, I haven’t found the CDK Workshop very helpful. Using the seminars in AWS Training has been more useful to me.

Playing an Elven Forge Cleric

Recently, I have been taking part in a play-by-post D&D campaign with some Discord friends, and decided to try something different for a character concept. I got the idea in a roundabout way from Lord of the Rings, namely a somewhat obscure character named Cirdan the Shipwright. It dawned on me that elves could forge things well, just like dwarves, even if their sense of style would be different. That led to Fenmaer Wasanthi, the high elf forge domain cleric, my PBP character.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For class-racial stats, high elves don’t make optimal clerics, but flavor-wise (and again borrowing from LoTR lore) it just made more sense than a wood elf forge cleric. High elves give off a vibe of cleverness, and crafting that wood elves don’t, so that seemed to mesh with the flavor of the forge cleric, even if I lose some stat benefits.

Still, how does one play a forge cleric? For the PBP campaign, we have an unusual composition in that we have wizard, druid and myself, the cleric. That means no melee fighters by default. It took me a session or two to realize that Fenmaer would be taking on the melee role while his partners would stay back and use magic. Because Forge Clerics get heavy armor proficiency by default, plus Blessing of the Forge to give my armor an extra +1, I could maintain a pretty high AC (19) easily enough. One would argue that Blessing of the Forge is one of the funnest reasons (besides good armor proficiency) to play a Forge Cleric. I have used it to give +1 to my weapon as well, and if we had a proper melee fighter, I could have easily just blessed their weapon instead.

However, the first couple Adventurer’s League modules that we played didn’t go particularly well. This was because I kept trying to play Fenmaer as an offensive cleric. I would cast Searing Smite (something that forge clerics get for free), whiff the attack and waste my spell slot (or it would hit and do middling damage). For Guiding Bolt, it was hard to cast because I would have disadvantage if the target was within 5ft, so I would have to risk backing up, and then it would still miss.

Later, it finally dawned on me that my Cleric abilities still worked better than my melee combat, but that I still need to stay on the front line. In other words a “tank cleric”: someone who can leverage cleric abilities while still absorbing potential attacks. So my strategy lately has been to:

  • Using Bless to improve the team’s attack capabilities and saving throws. Since this persists for multiple rounds, I get more bang for my buck, my other cast partners get better hit %’s and I can still hit with my sword better. Win-win.
  • For beefy attacks, using Inflict Wounds will work better than something like Guiding Bolt since I don’t have any disadvantage when I am up in an opponent’s face. With Bless in play, that also has a better chance to hit.

The gist here is that by focusing on buff spells, high AC, and clerical spells that require melee spell attacks, I get more bang for my buck on my limited spell slots, and provide more impact on the battlefield.

But the Forge Cleric gets noticeably better starting at 6th level onward: resistance (and then later full immunity) to fire, heavy armor gets additional AC benefits, etc. It kind of puts a Forge Cleric on a single development track (e.g. fire + heavy armor), but it makes sense flavor-wise, and like any good role-player, you play to your strengths rather than worrying about your weaknesses.

Speaking of fire, the emphasis on fire and metal makes for interesting flavor challenges for an elf. Normally, we associate elves with nature, greenery, etc, not fire and metal. However, there is a Forge domain deity for Elves named Darahl Firecloak (or Darahl Tilvenar in Elvish). He only gets a tiny mention in 5e’s Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but older lore explains that Darahl is something of a black sheep in the Elvish pantheon due to a past tragedy he unwittingly committed, and his tendency to be more open to non-Elf converts. It makes for fun cleric role-playing: trying to revive Darahl’s religious community. Fenmaer’s backstory in particular is that he is from the community of Elventree near Mulmaster (where many D&D Adventurer’s League modules are based), and a small, diminishing community of high elves. Fenmaer’s motivation has been to revive the fortunes of his community and recover lost lore, forging methods, etc.

But also, going back to Tolkien, the high elves of D&D strongly correlate to the Noldor of the Silmarillion, due to their craftiness and emphasis on magic and forging artifacts (e.g. the Silmaril jewels), less so on nature. So, the idea of elves crafting is not as far-fetched as modern pop-culture would imply. This is one of the reasons I tend to play elves a lot in D&D: there’s a surprising variety of elf subtypes if you know your Tolkien. 😉

As for Forge Clerics, they have a clear track for development, and if you’re willing to play to its strengths, it’s a pretty fun interesting domain for clerics to explore, especially when you mix with interesting cultural interactions.

P.S. Briefly posted on another, experimental side-blog, decided to move here for consistency.

Reading Kids Manga In Japanese

My kids and I love playing the game Splatoon 2, a quirky game with a lot of satire on Japanese society, but also some very creative backstory too. We love playing Ranked Battles, but I am consistently trying to keep up with my kids who are both B ranked, while I am still mostly C or C- rank.1 😅

Our love of Splatoon has extended into reading the manga too. My son is learning to read, and with remote learning and lockdown, it was hard to get the reading education he needed (we have great teachers, the issue was remote learning). Finding something that he wanted to read was the biggest challenge. We found the Splatoon manga, English translation, at a local bookstore, and my son instantly loved it. He kept asking me how to read this or that, and before long he was reading the issues by himself. The change in attitude and reading skill was frankly startling.

Japanese edition of issue 1

However, my kids also learn Japanese too since they are biracial. We’ve tried really hard to keep parity between both languages, and thanks to distance-learning services in Japan, we’ve been able to get the older sister to be pretty proficient in Japanese. Our son has struggled a bit more, so we decided to get the Japanese version of the Splatoon manga for him too by ordering online.

He enjoys reading them in both Japanese and English, while I have also grown to like reading them in Japanese too.

In the past, I have read other Japanese manga, my other favorite is Saint Young Men, but many of the manga that I have read are for adult audiences, and feature adult jokes and vocabulary. It’s easy to get lost, and give up. Reading kids manga is certainly easier, but the stories aren’t interesting, or it’s just a bit embarrassing to read something so elementary.

However, with the Splatoon manga, I found something that is relatively easy for me to read, while keeping my interest. I have tried not to invest too much time looking up every single word (most are kind of obvious in context anyway), so I can finish a Japanese-language version of the manga in reasonable time. It’s a nice thing to read, plus some of the gags just sound better in the original language.

Anyhow, admittedly, I’ve usually frowned upon anime and manga because they are so closely associated with diehard Japan nerds, while I am arguably a Japan nerd, it’s not something I like to advertise outside of the blogosphere. I had too many bad experiences with Japan nerds in college and beyond.

But seeing at how much my son enjoys manga in both English and Japanese, I can see that if you find a good series, it is a great medium to introduce kids (and language-learning adults) to a world of fun reading.

1 I feel a sense of irony in this. When I was a kid, and owned an NES system, I used to play Ice Hockey with my dad, who got floored every time we played. I didn’t really think about this until as a parent myself. I personally don’t mind if my kids exceed me, in fact I am kind of glad, but as a long-time gamer I also don’t plan on giving up so easily either. 😏

Urabon-e

This time of year in Japan, Obon Season, represents a special time in the Buddhist tradition, and in Japanese culture in general. I found this video recently on Twitter where the home temple of the Jodo Shu sect, Chion-in, posted a video on Twitter of their annual service.

Obon season is based on a Buddhist sutra called the Ullambana Sutra (Urabon in Japanese), which focuses on one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, named Mogallana. Mogallana, while in meditation, had a vision of his mother reborn as a hungry ghost. While she was devoted to her son, she did not live a good life,1 and thus she was reborn as a starving, emaciated ghost.

Mogallana attempted to feed her rice, but as part of her curse, the rice turned to flames in her throat. Mogallana turns to the Buddha for advice, and he encourages Mogallana to perform good works such as caring for the rest of the monastic community, and dedicate the good merit from this to his mother. In so doing, Mogallana’s mother’s existence as a hungry ghost ends, and she is reborn in a more positive life.

In popular culture, Obon has many parallels with the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition, even though they have no relation to one another. Japanese families make special offerings to past ancestors, both as gratitude and to make their life easier. It is thought that the spirits of ancestors may return for a night to be with the family too. Meanwhile, Buddhist temples will hold special services to help hungry ghosts through food offerings, dedicating good merit to them, etc.

Flickr.com user “Blue Lotus”, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The importance of the Ullambana Sutra, the story of Mogallana and his mother, and so on are not limited to Japan. Similar traditions can be found through much of the traditional Buddhist world.

While it might sound like superstition at first glance, it’s about acknowledging those who came before you and helped make you who you are. It’s a time to observe filial piety, but also to practice compassion to those condemned as hungry ghosts, while also acknowledging one’s own ancestors and their contributions to your life now.

1 One can find examples of this with modern day parents too.

Toward a New Look at Honen

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels.com

Recently, I re-posted an old polemic article I wrote 8 years ago (!) in a former blog at a time when I was on my out the door from the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community, citing references to one of Honen’s biggest critics, Jokei, an influential monk of the influential Hosso (Yogacara) school. Many of the points that Jokei criticized are common complaints that even today people level against the Pure Land path, specifically Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. I have even made these criticisms myself from time to time.

However, in the book Traversing the Pure Land Path, the author makes an interesting point that I did not fully grasp back then:

…Honen’s single-minded focus on the nenbutsu (senju nenbutsu) is not a narrow-minded or exclusivist practice. Rather, it is prioritization or “selection” (senchaku) of a practice that Honen felt was the most beneficial. In other words, the nenbutsu is an essential competence which needs to be thoroughly understood and experience.

Page 77

Jodo Shu Buddhism takes the nenbutsu practice as its bedrock. This is not unusual in Japanese Buddhism, where many of the Kamakura-era Buddhist schools (Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren) tended to build around a single practice first, and build the teachings around it for support.

However, the book doesn’t stop there:

Honen’s senchaku process also includes reintegration. After realizing the mind is firmly established towards Birth [in the Pure Land] (ketsujo ojo-shin), the four other right practices (sho-gyo) of Amida’s Pure Land can be readopted as similar kinds of auxiliary practices (dorui-no-jogo)….With the transformation of one’s heart through single-minded nenbutsu practice, these auxiliary practices go beyond being merely helpful to nenbutsu practice. Subsumed within nenbutsu practice, they become practices corresponding to Amida’s Original Vow.

Page 77

This idea of reintegration of other practices within the dedicated nenbutsu practice is something I didn’t fully appreciate in my younger years, but makes more sense now with the benefit of experience. Basically, Honen’s concept of senchaku (選択) is to establish a solid foundation first, then reintegrate other Buddhist practices as your confidence grows. Over time, it becomes a comprehensive practice.

I am reminded of a passage from the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Light:

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.

trans. Hisao Inagaki

Even in the fundamental sutras of Pure Land Buddhism, disciples are encouraged to do good works, maintain wholesome conduct, etc, so it doesn’t differ from the rest of mainstream Buddhism, but Honen’s senchaku approach represents a shift in mindset. Instead of doing the practices just for practices sake, they are rely on Amida’s vow to help all beings, and to prepare for one’s rebirth in the Pure Land.

In my experience, some people I have met who are Pure Land Buddhists tend to take a strictly nenbutsu-only, exclusivist approach, which Honen clearly didn’t agree with, and even in Honen’s time, some of his disciples, such as Kosai, really went of the deep-end.

I feel like Honen’s approach was “never stop, and never get complacent”, but at the same time, he wanted to prioritize a straightforward simple practice first as the bedrock that other things could be built upon. Thus, laypeople and monks, could both start the same way and take it as far as they want.

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.