Moonlight: A Buddhist Poem

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

The founder of the Jodo-Shu sect of Buddhism, a 12th-century Buddhist monk named Honen, once composed a poem titled tsugikagé (“Moonlight” 月かげ). What follows is a rough translation on my part:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
月かげのTsuki-kagé-noThere is no village
いたらぬ里はitaranu sato wathat the light of moon
なけれどもnakeredomodoes not shine,
眺むる人のnagamuru hito nobut it dwells in the hearts
心にぞすむkokoro ni zosumuof those who see it.

The “light of the moon” here is meant to symbolize the light of the Buddha, namely Amida Buddha. Light is a common motif in Buddhist art, depicting both wisdom to banish away the darkness of ignorance, and also goodwill to all living beings.

Amida Buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas welcoming Chūjōhime, Taima Temple Mandala,
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Artist Unknown, Japan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea is that Amida Buddha’s light shines upon all beings and all places, as explained in the Buddhist text, the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life:

“The radiant light of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is dazzling brilliant, illuminating all the buddha lands of the ten directions, and there is nowhere it is not heard of.”

From The Three Pure Land Sutras published by the Jodo Shu Research Institute, translation by Karen J. Mack

Further, the sutra explains in the previous section:

“Those sentient beings who encounter this light will have the three hindrances1 eliminate, become amenable in body and mind, leap with joy and their hears will give rise to good. Should they suffer hardship in the three realms of defilement,2 when they see this radiant light, they will all attain relief and not again suffer this pain.”

Thus, the light of Amida Buddha shines everywhere, but people may not necessarily know it. Those who do encounter the light experience a transformation within. It may not be obvious at first, but it as one of Honen’s disciples once taught, it melts ice to become warm water.

Thus, Honen’s poem is about how Amida’s goodwill and wisdom reaches out to all beings and all places, and even if people do not see it, it is still there. Further, those who do see it are changed by it, even if they are not aware of it at first.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 The three hinrances in Buddhism are greed, hatred and ignroance.

2 The three realms of defilement is another term for lower states of rebirth that one might fall into: animals, hungry ghosts, and the hell realms.

Summers in Tokyo

One of my favorite places to visit in Tokyo each year (my wife loves it too) is the Buddhist temple of Zojoji, which sits right next to Tokyo Tower:

Translates as (roughly): Zojoji in the summer, 2021 (lit. the 3rd year of the reign of the Reiwa Emperor). A babbling brook.

Enjoy!

P.S. Official homepage of Zojiji Temple (includes English).

Hobgoblins: the Klingons of Dungeons and Dragons

It’s been a while since I had a good D&D post, but after being sick in July and taking some time off, I honestly haven’t played in over a month. Even my play-by-post group had to take time off due to personal life interruptions affecting other players. So, this weekend, I finally got back into the kids’ Japan-themed “Hamato Islands” campaign, which I also publish adventures for on DMS Guild.

I was looking for a new bad guy to introduce, and prior to getting sick, I settled on Hobgoblins, pouring in from a rogue portal from the plane of Acheron. In terms of stats, I kept them more or less the same, but for this Japan-themed campaign, I decided that they had been on the Islands long enough to adapt samurai-style warfare, weapons, etc, and have carved out a small but growing fiefdom. Given the Hobgoblin tendency toward strict, hierarchical, martial societies, this wasn’t a difficult idea to implement.

That was a decent start, and then I forgot about for a while due to aforementioned issues. The idea sat on the mental shelf for a month.

Then, earlier this week, I started dusting off the campaign and updating notes, ideas, etc. The samurai-hobgoblin idea was pretty good, but I felt I still needed something more. Then, it hit me. The Klingons from Star Trek were also a brutal society with strict, martial codes, especially the early, more tyrannical Klingons from the original series. Further, it wouldn’t be hard to adapt the Klingon language as “Goblin”. So, why not make the hobgoblins more like klingons?

Kruge probably has the stats of a Hobgoblin Warlord. 😜

I updated the hobgoblins to use the Klingon style, red-and-black samurai armor, the Klingon symbol on their flag and even threw in a good “it is a good day to die” or two. I had used hobgoblins before, for example briefly in a separate planescape setting, but having that extra story-telling element and setting really took a functional D&D story into something more impactful. The hobgoblins as depicted in Volo’s Guide to Monsters is a good start, but borrowing from Klingon aesthetics made a big difference.

So, how did it go? My kids knew that Daddy was a big Star Trek fan, but they hardly know anything about Star Trek. In their first encounter with these “Hamato Island Hobgoblins”, I played Klingon background music from the first Star Trek movie:

My kids went nuts with anticipation as the hobgoblins in samurai battle armor and horseback approached, claimed the land the players were defending, and then got into a battle with the players, using their goblin ashigaru pikemen as backup. It was a tough battle for them, the lead up was worth it.

In the end, we had a great time. I learned, that as a DM, it doesn’t hurt to take time in your story to give your opponents more “character”. Visuals, sounds, etc, and really give a story extra “oomph” and help make an impact on players. Also, it’s perfectly fine to take the basic D&D settings, cultures and creatures, and either embellish or modify to fit the needs of your campaign. It’s easier to think of the official guides as starting points, than inflexible canon.

This whole experience gave me an excuse to finally brush up on the Klingon language. 😝 Qap’la!

P.S. When you think about this, it’s not so different than basing Elves of, say, Romulans.

A Matter of Perspective

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, courtesy of Wikipedia
An image of the Pure Land of the Medicine Buddha, Yuan Dynasty China, courtesy of Wikipedia

On the heels of my last post, I was thinking about a passage from the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra regarding the Buddha’s Pure Land with italics and explanations added:

When living beings witness the end of a kalpa [an aeon]
and all is consumed in a great fire,
this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,
constantly filled with heavenly and human beings….

My pure land is not destroyed,
yet the multitude see it as consumed in fire,
with anxiety, fear and other sufferings
filling it everywhere.
These living beings with their various offenses,
through causes arising from their evil actions,
spend asamkhya kalpas [great aeons]
without hearing the name of the Three Treasures [i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha].
But those who practice meritorious ways,
who are gentle, peaceful, honest and upright,
all of them will see me
here in person, preaching the Law [i.e. the Law of Existence, the Dharma].

Translation by Burton Watson, cited from here.

To provide some background on this long, difficult chapter, the Buddha explains that he never left Vulture Peak (sometimes called Holy Eagle Peak), a real, physical location in India where it is said the Buddha frequently gave sermons. Instead, as a kind of plot twist, the Buddha explains that he has always been there, but beings who’s eyes are obscured and do not see the Dharma cannot see the Buddha.

The point of this chapter, and this surprise reveal, I believe is that the Dharma (and the Buddhas who preach it) is unchanging. In good times and bad, the Dharma is always there.

If one hears the Dharma, not just physically, but with their hearts and through their actions, then they may see the world differently, and thus even when others around them see the world burning down, they will see that nothing has really changed. This isn’t a kind of blissful ignorance, or putting your head in the sand, but more like piercing through the noise and commotion to see the bigger picture. Even in terrible times, life goes on. Bad times inevitably give way to better ones, change is often painful, but not all of it is negative, and it’s not like you can expect good times to last anyway.

But it’s hard to see all this when one lives a life of greed, anger and ignorance. Hence the Buddha warns that beings who live this way don’t see the Buddha’s Pure Land. Not because they don’t “deserve” it, but because their perspective is so skewed by their self-centered views that they completely overlook it. Further, self-centered, selfish actions go on to cloud things even more, like a feedback loop.

Hence, sometimes it’s good to step back, even shut off news and social media for a while, slow down, and cultivate a healthier perspective.

A hundred years ago, when World War I and the Spanish Flu raged across the world, it probably felt like the end of the world, but now hardly anyone remembers it now. The Bronze Age Collapse of 12th Century BC, including its related environmental disasters, must have felt like the end of the world to the Hittites, Greeks, and Egyptians who lived it, but there’s hardly any trace of this catastrophic time now. People speak of the Mayan civilization “collapsing“, but in reality population trends just shifted away from major cities to more rural lifestyles.1

This is not to downplay the genuine suffering and anxiety of past events, or current ones, but if nothing else, life does go on.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Also a reminder that Mayan people are still around and thriving in parts of Mexico and Guatemala. A particular phase of their history is done and gone, but the people still carry on.

One Of These Buddhas Is Not Like The Other…

At a local gardening store, I saw a collection of Buddhist states like so:

Of these four statues, only two of them are actually statues of the Buddha, but people (including many Buddhists) frequently confuse which ones are the Buddha and which ones aren’t.

The Buddha,1 as in the historical figure and founder of Buddhism religion, was, if nothing else, an ascetic, meaning that he lived a strict, spartan lifestyle devoted to meditation, training his mind, and personal conduct to avoid harming others in speech, thought and deed. This is why he is often depicted like so:

The Buddha is depicted as:

  • lean
  • seated in meditation
  • possessing a “third eye” on his forehead signifying wisdom
  • having curly hair (explained in detail here)
  • having a lump on his head (signifying enlightenment)
  • wearing simple hand-me-down robes.

By contrast there is the “fat Buddha”:

Despite the name, the “fat Buddha” or “chubby Buddha” isn’t actually a Buddha. It’s a local folk legend from Chinese culture named Budai (Hotai in Japanese), where he like a Santa Claus type figure. From a purely artistic standpoint, notice that he does not have the same features as the other Buddha statue: no curly hair, no lump on his head, no third eye, etc. Buddhist art tends to be heavy in symbolism, similar to Orthodox Christian artwork, so the differences can mean a lot.

Further, the fact that he is called the “laughing buddha” in Chinese as well has probably lent further confusion in translation. Further this use of “buddha” as a loaded-term for any saintly figure isn’t limited to just Chinese language. In Japan, anyone who has passed away is also referred to as a buddha (hotoké 仏), presumably due to the assumption that they will be reborn in the Buddha’s Pure Land (and therefore will inevitably become a fully-enlightened buddha at some point). So even in Buddhist cultures, the term “buddha” gets applied to many popular culture usages that aren’t strictly “Buddhist”.2

All of this is hard to explain in translation, especially to a culture that isn’t historically Buddhist. Also, any Buddhist art that inspires people or brings peace of mind is still something positive, but for clarity the fat buddha is not actually a buddha.

1 Another thing lost in translation. “Buddha” is a title, not a name, like the Pope, the President, etc.

2 The term “Zen” is another overloaded term that gets misused all the time in English-speaking cultures.

Buddhism, Conceit and The Nature of All Things

Lately, I’ve been playing the classic RPG game Chrono Trigger on my mobile phone, and it’s been a lot of fun to relive this game on a modern platform. I am amazed that this game even fits on a mobile phone, but that shows how much times has changed.

Anyhow, these screenshots are from my favorite part of the game where the players travel in time to an enlightened Ice Age / Atlantis-like civilization. One of the residents of this realm says to the players (as shown in the screenshots above):

The world you see with your eyes may well differ completely from the one I see with me. There are as many different worlds as there are observers. Never assume that only those things which you can see or touch are real.

This is a surprisingly Buddhist message (even if not intended that way). Allow me to explain.

Of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings (i.e. the Dharma) is the concept of no-self called anātman in Sanskrit. Sentient beings from the moment they’re born or conceived, they begin to experience senses, feelings and thoughts in a interdependent phenomena that Buddha calls the Five Skandhas (aggregates). The details aren’t super important, but what matters is that from all these sense experiences, feelings and thoughts, sentient beings reify this into a sense of self, even though it has no permanent substance (i.e. it “has no leg to stand on”).

Because we create this sense of self out of our past experiences, thoughts, etc, it also colors our future thoughts and impressions as well. The experiences and sense of self of a person born in a rural family will differ from a family born in the city, a person born in one country vs. another, a person raised in a large family vs. a small one, a religious family vs. a non-religious one, etc. In short, there are almost as many possible ways to look at the world as there are people because each person is coming with their own personal baggage, and each one assumes their perspective is reality because that’s all they’ve ever known. It’s like a fish who only knows the lake waters they have grown up in, unaware of a much larger ocean, let alone the air above, and space beyond that.

Further, in the end, these perspectives, views, etc are all just a bunch of hot air. They have no substance apart from what is in people’s minds. Hence no-self / anātman.

The Buddha really brings this home when he talked with a wandering ascetic named Vaccha:

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata [i.e. a Buddha] has “A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathāgata has done away with. What a Tathāgata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathāgata—with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all suppositions, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit—is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72) translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So, while we need to rely on our senses and thoughts for practical, day-to-day living, it’s important to take our own thoughts with a grain of salt, and not assume we have a pristine understanding of things. The results may surprise you.

P.S. The venerable Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy really explored this in excruciating detail by mapping the mind, how it takes in new experiences, the many possible feelings one might experience, etc, and how these drive new thoughts based on past experience in a kind of feedback loop which they called “perfuming the seeds [of the mind]”. Reverend Tagawa’s excellent book, translated into English by Professor Charles Muller, Living Yogacara is an excellent overview of the Yogacara school of philosophy as it exists in Japan as the Hossō school. One of my favorite Buddhist books to read.

Afro Buddha

Recently, I saw this post on Twitter from the Kyoto Tea Ceremony company about a fascinating example of Buddhist art:

This statue, found at the temple of Konkai-Komyoji in Kyoto, Japan, is of the bodhisattva named Dharmakara (Japanese: Hōzō 法蔵). According to Buddhist tradition, Dharmakara Bodhisattva later would become Amitabha (Japanese: Amida 阿弥陀) Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, and the central figure of Pure Land Buddhism, of which I am a follower.

The source for all this is from a Buddhist text called the “Larger Sutra“, more properly known as The Sutra on [the Buddha of] Immeasurable Life, which covers the origin story of Amitabha Buddha among other things. For example, regarding Dharmakara Bodhisattva, the text explains how Dharmakara was once a king many eons ago who encountered another Buddha and was very inspired to follow the Buddhist path himself:

“Then appeared a Buddha named Lokeshvararaja [“World-Sovereign], the Tathagata, Arhat, Perfectly Enlightened One, Possessed of Wisdom and Practice, Perfected One, Knower of the World, Unsurpassed One, Tamer of Men, Master of Gods and Men, Buddha and World-Honored One.

“At that time there was a king, who, having heard the Buddha’s exposition of the Dharma, rejoiced in his heart and awakened aspiration for the highest, perfect Enlightenment. He renounced his kingdom and the throne, and became a monk named Dharmakara. Having superior intelligence, courage and wisdom, he distinguished himself in the world….

[later]

….”Having spoken these verses, the Bhiksu Dharmakara said to the Buddha Lokeshvararaja, ‘Respectfully, World-Honored One, I announce that I have awakened aspiration for the highest, perfect Enlightenment. I beseech you to explain the Dharma to me fully, so that I can perform practices for the establishment of a pure Buddha-land adorned with infinite excellent qualities. So please teach me how to attain Enlightenment quickly and to remove the roots of afflictions of birth-and-death for all.'”

translation by Rev. Hisao Inagaki

The sutra then explains at length how the former-king-turned-bodhisattva Dharmakara then undertook vast lifetimes of ascetic practices to fulfill his goal (specifically 48 vows) to provide a refuge for all beings (e.g. the Pure Land). Having fulfilled these vows in the distant past, and having established the Pure Land, he becomes Amitabha Buddha, and this is the foundation of Pure Land Buddhism.

The head of curly hair that adorns this statue, and many Buddhist statues across East Asia is a form of Buddhist art and symbolism, called rahotsu (螺髪), as Kyoto Tea Company explains above.

So, the artist who made this statue meant to demonstrate through the symbolism of his huge head of hair that Dharmakara Bodhisattva, having made these grandiose vows to rescue all beings, and undertook countless practices to accomplish them, is not just a mundane buddha, but an extraordinary one.

In a more mundane level, the so called “Afro Buddha” or afuro-butsu (アフロ仏) has become a tourist attraction in Japan, and one can even find Afro Buddha goods such as candy.

So, here’s to Afro Buddha! Namu Amida Butsu! 🙏🏼

Samsara: the Great Cosmic Rat Race

Samsara, the “aimless wandering” of Buddhism is a difficult concept to grasp, but also pretty fundamental to understanding the Dharma.

Buddhism as a religion sees the Universe in terms of huge time and huge space. This is a contrast to Western religions which tend to see the Universe in a smaller, fixed time (i.e. several thousand years, maybe some more). The gist of saṃsāra is that the Universe has existed for a near-infinite amount of time, and that beings have been migrating here and there, from one lifetime to another, in it. Not a dozen past lives, or even a hundred, more like a near-infinite number of past lives.

Further, the breadth of the past lives also varies quite a bit. In the traditional Buddhist cosmology, there were 6 broad categories of states of rebirth:

  • Devas or gods (or divine beings in general). They live in varying states of bliss, and can live very long lifespans, endowed with great powers, among other benefits. But even they must die and be reborn someday.
  • Humans.
  • Asuras or titans (another category of divine beings). The Asuras are at war with the devas, not unlike the wars between the Olympian gods and the Titans, and are prone to war, anger and violence.
  • Animals. They live in a constant state of eat or be eaten. Their existence is limited to the basic needs of survival.
  • Preta or hungry ghosts. These beings live a miserable existence marked by constant hunger and agony, slinking in the shadows, eating scraps of refuse, etc.
  • Hell. Vaguely similar to Dante’s Inferno, Hell is a many-realmed place with many different forms of torment, suited to different transgressions. As with the Devas and other realms, this is a finite torment that lasts until one’s karma is exhausted. However, depending on the severity, one can be there a very, very long time.

The nature of the six realms of rebirth is subject to many forms of interpretation, too many to go into here, but the point is that sentient beings migrating across one lifetime to another across such a long, long period of time eventually have lived all these states at least once.

This leads to a sense of malaise. One has probably been rich and famous in the past, one has probably been ugly and poor in the past, one has lost loved ones, one has fallen in love countless times, etc, etc. It’s all been done before, and there’s no sense of long-term “direction”, hence it is described as aimless wandering. Another way of describing samsara might be the “Great Cosmic Rat-Race”.

In a old, old sutra from the Pali Canon, the Buddha describes it like so:

“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.

Translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from the Assu Sutta (SN 15:3)
Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

In light of all this, this is why the Buddha teaches liberation as a means of breaking this ad nauseum cycle of rebirth. Initially, this is liberation of oneself, but as one progresses on the path, this turns outward toward liberation of others as well. Mahayana literature in particular greatly idealizes this notion of liberation of all beings, as epitomized in the Lotus Sutra and its Parable of the Burning House (chapter 3), and the vows of Dharmakara bodhisattva in the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, among other places.

The concept of the “bodhisattva” evolved along with it: a being who vows to rescue all beings before completing their own vows to achieve enlightenment (buddhahood).

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Another way to describe samsara, and also the process of liberation was to cross a river from one shore, symbolizing ignorance and strife, to the other, symbolizing wisdom, insight and peace of mind.

Anyhow, all this is to say that the Buddha perceived the rat race of life long ago, but the Dharma sees this rat race as not limited to a single lifetime, and central to the challenges of life, and the need for a long-term direction to one’s life beyond meeting basic needs.

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. 😄