Plum Blossoms Are Here!

The Thundercloud plum trees in our yard finally blossomed, starting with the pink one:

…. followed by the white one next:

These pictures aren’t great, as I took them on top of a ladder with my arm stretched as high as I could while holding a mobile phone. But, I am happy with the results.

As readers may recall, plum trees are among my favorite, and once again I am reminded of this old poem by the famous scholar Sugawara no Michizane (菅原 道真 845 – 903) when he was in exile:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
東風吹かばKochi fukabaWhen the east wind blows,
にほひをこせよNioi okose yolet it send your fragrance,
梅の花Ume no hanaoh plum blossoms.
主なしとてAruji nashi toteAlthough your master is gone,
春を忘るなHaru o wasuru nado not forget the spring.

Enjoy!

Mortality

This is a very Buddhist sentiment, in my opinion. If you haven’t learned to confront your own mortality, then the rest of the Buddhist path is kind of meaningless. But maybe that’s just me. 🖖🏼

Remembering Ryoanji Temple

Hello readers, this post is another in a mini series of posts I am making about past Buddhist temple visits I made in Japan. During my first visit to Japan in January 2005, where I saw Kiyomizu-dera Temple, my wife, in-laws and I also visited another famous temple named Ryoanji (official homepage) a famous temple of the Rinzai Zen sect. Fair warning, these photos are old, and I have forgotten most of the details from that visit. 😅

This is the famous “rock garden” of Ryoanji, which was buried under show that day.

…that didn’t stop a young, know-it-all me from pretending to be “zen” for a moment.

I, unfortunately, didn’t take any pictures of the interior of the temple (I may not have been allowed to, I don’t recall), but we were treated to a very nice meal featuring Buddhist monastic food or shōjin-ryōri (精進料理) which is very similar to vegan food, as well as a nice view:

Ryoanji Temple is a place that has a lot of history and culture dating back to the Muromachi Period, even though it’s less active Zen monastery than before. For example, this water basin below, called the tsukubai (蹲踞) is a famous attraction:

It’s not clear from the picture, but there are 4 Chinese characters around it: 吾唯知足 which in Japanese is read as ware tada taru (wo) shiru. The meaning is that we are sufficient as we are (even as we are often unaware of this).

Lastly, the snow-covered scenery of Ryoanji had many other great views such as this one near the end:

I wish I could talk about this one more, and I would love to go back someday, but this is all I can share. Still, as an experience, it was a pretty neat one. 🙂

On Mental Illness

Hi folks,

I was a huge fan of the old TV show Kung-fu as a teenager, and it was a big influence in my initial exploration of Buddhism. Anyhow, I found this clip recently and wanted to share:

The Buddhist approach to mental illness is a bit more nuanced than what a TV show implies, and no, meditation isn’t the solution necessarily. But underpinning all this is goodwill toward others and the willingness to listen to someone who’s suffering. If you are the one who may be suffering, don’t hesitate to reach out to others for help.

In Zen, there is a saying: 我逢人, pronounced gahōjin. The meaning of this, originally coined by Dōgen is “self encountering another person”. There’s nothing that can replace human to human contact, not just in the casual conversation sense (like coffee breaks at work), but a meeting of the minds. It won’t solve everything, but just being around others sure helps, especially after a year of isolation.

And if you do go out and meet people, for heaven’s sake, please wear a mask.

Akkadian, We Hardly Knew You!

Many years ago, when I was studying abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam for a summer as part of an ill-fated effort to get into graduate school (tl;dr I dropped out and went into IT), I was at a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, when I was approach by a Vietnamese man about my age. He really wanted to practice his English, and desperately wanted me to sit and practice with him. I felt weirded out at the time, and lied saying we could meet after I got out of the museum. We never met after that and chances are, the guards hussled him away after making a big scene, or he gave up.

Looking back many years later, I feel bad about it now. Knowing English in today’s world can really make or break someone’s career outside of the Anglophone world, and since English speakers were so rare in Hanoi at the time, unlike the more cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, it might have been a rare opportunity for him to actually learn it from a native speaker, and not from rote memorization.

Long, long before English became the international language to learn by countless hopeful students, though, there was another widely spoken language that could make or break people’s careers: Akkadian.

(Disclaimer: A lot of information in this blog post is based on information contained in the Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. If you like ancient languages, definitely get the book.)

The Manishtusu obelisk in the Louvre Museum, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Akkadian was one of several languages that existed in the ancient Middle East:

  • Sumerian – the language of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and such great cities as Ur, Babylon, Assur and Nineveh. Sumerian, is an isolate, meaning it was no known “genetic” relation to any other language we know of. Sumerian is also the oldest written language in the world. This is important as we’ll see.
  • Akkadian – the language of the Akkadian Empire (remember Sargon of Akkad?) that eventually supplanted Sumerian city-states. It is also the oldest of the Semitic languages which include modern Hebrew and Arabic.
  • Elamite – spoken by the Elamite people in south-western Iran. The Elamites were frequent rivals of the Sumerians among other peoples.
  • Hurrian – spoken by various peoples north of Mesopotamia, the most famous being the Mitanni.
  • Urartian – spoken by the kingdom of Urartu in eastern Turkey, and ultimately replaced Hurrian.
  • Luwian – spoken in south-west Turkey, this important language is pretty obscure now but once dominated a large region, and may have been spoken by the ancient Trojans.
  • Hittite – spoken by the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and the Levant. Interestingly, the Hittites called themselves the Hatti (after their capitol Hattusa), but the term “Hittite” has been mis-applied by modern-day scholars who conflated them with another group.

Because Sumerian developed a sophisticated writing system called Cuneiform, and because of their central place in middle-eastern culture, the other languages above all adopted cuneiform with varying degrees of success despite being totally unrelated languages. This is important as we’ll see shortly.

Anyhow, back in the 24th century BCE Sargon of Akkad conquered Mesopotamia and setup what was probably the first empire in history: the Akkadian Empire. But he didn’t wipe out the Sumerians, and in fact Sumerian urban culture was highly revered by the Akkadians, who did their best to import things like the writing system, literature, religion and so on.

However, because Akkadian language and Sumerian were so different, this import wasn’t an easy one. Cuneiform uses a mix of ideograms (similar to Chinese characters) mixed with phonetic letters that only made sense in Sumerian. For example, 𒅅 could mean a “door” (e.g. an ideogram), but phonetically it could be pronounced like ig in Sumerian. In Akkadian, this would become ig, ik, or iq. Elsewhere, sounds that could be distinguished in Sumerian could not be distinguished in Akkadian, and vice-versa.

Thus, the poor Akkadian scribes needed dictionaries to map Akkadian words to Sumerian Cuneiform text, like the one shown here.

Other languages in the list above had similar challenges, but cuneiform eventually became the writing system of choice for many centuries. Thus, in spite of the fact that these languages had no real relation to one another, they all used cuneiform based off of Sumerian.

Meanwhile, as the Akkadian Empire continued, Sumerian as a language gradually faded from conversation, and by 1600 BC it wasn’t spoke anymore, but was preserved as a sacred language and a language of literature. Meanwhile, Akkadian became more and more widely used, not just within the Empire, but among it’s neighbors. Even after the Empire fell, and newer empires such as the Babylonians and Assyrians briefly conquered,1 Akkadian was still widely used because it was already well-known by the populace and just easier than trying to supplant with yet another language.

The use of Akkadian as an internal language extended as far away as Egypt, where the Pharoah Akhenaten wrote a series of letters in Akkadian to subjects far away in Canaan (think modern Israel). Note that these “Amarna Letters” were written in the 14th century BCE, already 1000 years after Sargon of Akkad.

Even 1000 after that, Akkadian was still used, this time by the Hellenistic Greeks. Antiochus I Soter one of Alexander the Great’s generals who founded the Seleucid dynasty had this inscription made using Akkadian:

The Cylinder of Antiochus with translation, courtesy of Wikipedia

So…. what happened to Akkadian then? In short, it was replaced starting in the 8th century BCE by a rural language, first spoken by Aramean people around modern-day Damascus, called Aramaic. Aramaic, by the way, was the same language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. The brutal Assyrian Empire had a policy of subjugating people by forcibly uprooting them and moving them to other areas of the Empire, where they would serve the Empire as soldiers or some other capacity. This had the unintended effect of spreading Aramaic among the population, and because Aramaic had an easier writing system the path of least-resistance was for people to use Aramaic more.

Small side note: once Akkadian became replaced as a spoken language, even Sumerian which had been closely tied to it as a literary language, disappeared with it.

Just as Sumerian withdrew more and more as a language of literature and religious ceremony, Akkadian similarly became less and less common except for official roles. By the time of Antiochus I Soter, it had largely disappeared from day to day usage, but still had a lot of cultural weight, hence the Cylinder of Antiochus. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, also used it a few centuries earlier in his bronze steles and proclamations. Writings in Akkadian still appeared as late as the 1st century AD (not BC, AD) but by this point the language had been in active use for 2,500 years!

Anyhow, looking back Akkadian was an amazing language in its own right. Here is an inscription from the Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi, a poem composed in 14th century BCE by a priest about the misfortunes of a wealthy, powerful man at the time. This version is provided by the University of Yale in their Cuneiform Commentaries Project, though I have removed the priest’s commentary lines in between for easier readability:

LineAkkadianTranslation
24′za-pur-tu₄ ú-ta-aṣ-ṣa-pa ⸢i-šar-tu₄⸣ ul ⸢ut⸣-[tu]My bad luck was increasing, I could not find prosperity.
26′i-na maš-šak-ki ⸢ENSI⸣ ul ú!(I-)šá-pi ⸢di-ni⸣The dream interpreter did not clarify my case with his incense.
28′MAŠ.MAŠ ina KÌD.KÌDṭèe ki-mil-ti ul ip-ṭurThe exorcist with his ritual did not release the divine anger against me.
30′a-mur-ma ár-ka-⸢tu₄⸣ ri-⸢da⸣-a-⸢tu₄⸣ ip-pe-e-riI looked behind me, harassment and trouble.
Rough pronunciation guide: š is like English “sh”

Another example, from Wikipedia, is an excerpt from Hammurabi’s Code, which was written in Akkadian:

AkkadianTranslation
šumma awīl-um lū kasp-am lū ḫurāṣ-am lū ward-am lū amt-am
lū alp-am lū immer-am lū imēr-am ū lū mimma šumšu ina
qāt mār awīl-im ū lū warad awīl-im balum šīb-ī u
riks-ātim i-štām-Ø ū lū ana maṣṣārūt-im i-mḫur-Ø
awīl-um šū šarrāq i-ddāk
If a man has bought silver or gold, a male or a female slave,
an ox, a sheep, or a donkey—or anything for that matter—
from another man or from another man’s slave without witnesses or contract,
or if he accepted something for safekeeping without same,
then this man is a thief and hence to be killed.
Rough pronunciation guide: š is like English “sh”

But who knows, maybe Akkadian will be cool again someday. 😎

1 Much of ancient Mesopotamian history can be summed up by one empire conquering after another, holding territory for 100-200 years, and then being conquered by someone else. They may eventually come back as a newer, stronger, but the general pattern repeated itself. As an amateur history nerd, I think a lot of this had to do with a combination of terrain (flat, open, hard to defend) and unstable governments patterned off of personal charisma. Good leaders conquered, lousy leaders got conquered.

Meet the Real Life Vistani

With the recent conversation about the new adventure book for Dungeons and Dragons, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, I wanted to cover an interesting subject: the Vistani.

The Vistani, based on the “Gypsies” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel who were steadfast in their loyalty to Dracula, are a key human ethnic group in the Ravenloft setting of Dungeons and Dragons. Unlike the crushed spirits that comprise most Barovian residents, the wandering Vistani are lively and possess both a need and a means of traveling across the planes.

In previous versions of the Ravenloft setting, Vistani were mostly loyal to the vampire lord Strahd, but the community was somewhat split. Some were actively loyal as spies and assassins while others simply acknowledged his overwhelming authority.

In any case, the real life analogy of the Vistani to the real-life Roma has always posed a bit of a thorny issue. The term “gypsy” is (for good reason) outdated as well as the old tropes of crystal balls, wandering caravans, and so on.

The BBC posted a good article and documentary recently about the Roma in Eastern Europe who still face overwhelming discrimination. Stop and watch if you can. It’s well worth the look.

It’s important to remember that Roma people are a medieval offshoot of an ethnic community from India, and that centuries of ostracism have pushed them to the fringes of society generation after generation and set them up for failure generation after generation as a result.1 The notion “traveling” in caravans, for example, is often due to Roma being unwanted in most places they visited.

For this reason, I have tried to be mindful of presenting the Roma / Vistani in a more positive light when I run Ravenloft based games with my daughter and her friends. I looked up real Roma names for the characters, how Roma clan dynamics work, and changed their image from shifty vampire-loyalists to a conflicted ethnic group trying to find their way in a hostile world. Certain mechanics, such as Madam Eva’s fortune telling are integral to the setting and hard to change, but I try to make a nuanced picture of a people who are (unfairly) distrusted and have more to offer than just some tropes.

In any case, investing time as a D&D player to learning more about the real life Roma people is a good way to raise awareness of their situation and to pass these on to players through an interactive story (not lecturing) and have a positive experience at the same time. Roma are people too, not just plot devices.

1 … sound familiar? Or, here, here and here?

The Many Many Kami of Shinto Religion

In the past, I’ve touched on the subject of Shinto religion, and its great many kami (神) who range from great deities to little more than nature spirits or revered historical figures. In Japanese Shinto there is a saying: ya-o-yorozu no kami (八百万の神) which means “the Eight Million kami (of Japan)” which captures this sense, not meant to be literal, that there are many, many kami within Shinto. But outside the short-list of well-known kami gods and goddesses, most of this pantheon is fascinating, yet pretty obscure.

Case in point, I’ve been writing more adventure modules for Dungeons and Dragons, and delving more and more into Shinto mythology.1 My particular interest lately has been a goddess, one I had never even heard of before, named Konohana-no-sakuyahime-no-mikoto (木花之佐久夜毘売命). She is often called Konohana-no-sakuyahime for short and is both a goddess of volcanoes, and of cherry blossoms:

Painting by the famous artist, Hokusai, in 1834, courtesy of Wikipedia and the Harvard Art Museum

Konohana-no-sakuyahime is probably best known as the goddess of Mount Fuji itself. You can read more about it on the English-language page of the official shrine of Mount Fuji. The mountain is treated as her form, and thus the mountain is considered sacred ground. Konohana-no-sakuyahime is also the kami of volcanoes in general, not just Mount Fuji.

Like many obscure kami in the Shinto religion, Konohana-no-sakuyahime appears mostly in an ancient text, the Kojiki, a large collection of myths from antiquity.2 In one such myth, posted originally here, she is described as the goddess of cherry blossoms and is married to Hononinigi and soon becomes pregnant. Hononinigi is suspicious of her being pregnant so fast, and she vows that if the child is born safely, it belongs to Hononinigi. To prove her point, she shuts herself in a home and sets it on fire, then delivers the baby in the middle of the blaze. Actually, she delivers three sons. All are safe and unharmed by the blaze, and thus proving that they are Hononinigi’s children after all.

In another story, posted in Wikipedia, Konohana-no-sakuyahime is disguised as a little girl who helps guide a villager to a stream whose waters have healing powers, and can save his village from a plague. The villager carries out the instructions of the little girl, and the village is saved. When he returns to thank the little girl, he comes to realize that the little girl is in fact the goddess herself.

To be clear, such kami are also obscure to most Japanese people as well. A deep understanding of a certain kami or even the pantheon as a whole isn’t really required anyway. It’s more about deepening one’s “spiritual tie” or goshin’en (御神縁 or ご神縁) with a particular kami3 that is really the whole point of Shinto, I would argue.

Still, the fact that a goddess of both volcanoes and cherry blossoms exists is kind of fascinating to me, and one of those examples of how very little of Shinto has been properly conveyed (not to mention translated) to English audiences.

1 Although, my background with Japanese religion is definitely more Buddhist than Shinto, I still have my personal favorite kami, and always happy to visit shrines when I can.

2 Sadly, translations of the Kojiki in English are by and large terrible. Like, really bad. I have heard that the “Phillipi translation” (ISBN: 0691648905) is the best, but it’s also out of print and hard to find. The only sources that sell it are quite expensive too. I hate Amazon’s third-party pricing model, btw. 😦

3 Interestingly, in Japanese, the verb that goes with this is musubu (結ぶ) which literally means to tie (as with a string). So, “spiritual tie” actually makes sense as a translation. 😀

Happy Girls Day

It is a bit early to celebrate for folks here in the US, but in Japan it is already March 3rd, which means it is already Girl’s Day (hinamatsuri ひな祭り)!

A doll display in Kyoto, Japan. Photo courtesy of MK Taxi.

So for all the ladies out there, Happy Girl’s Day!!

Done But the Work Has Just Begun

After a lengthy, lengthy journey, my second adventure in the Japanese-inspired setting of the Hamato Islands has been published on DMS Guild: A Letter Buried.

This adventure took some big twists and turns, not just due to the end of year craziness that happened in 2020, but also some logistical challenges that came with writing a series of adventures in the same setting, and the need to develop a consistent reference guide first. The amount of feedback I got from testing, both positive and negative, set me back at first, but I felt the changes were very positive in the long-run and worth the delay.

That said, I am really happy to finally have this available for people to play and enjoy.

Also, this time around, I decided to try something different: I decided to make this adventure a “pay what you want” module rather than a fixed price. After the Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands was published a couple weeks ago, I was surprised how much many downloads I got, including people who still paid money despite being “pay what you want”. For my first adventure, A Good Night’s Sleep, it took me months to only get a few paying downloads, whereas A Traveler’s Guide achieved 10x that amount in a week.

As a new author, it feels a bit awkward giving away months of work for essentially free, but I realized I derived satisfaction just knowing that players across the country and beyond will be reliving over and over the raid against Lord Uekiri to find the letter and free Lord Takena’s ghost. Just having people play the setting, which began as a personal project for one of my D&D characters, is a reward in of itself.

So, if you are a Dungeons and Dragons player, please enjoy A Letter Buried. I am already working on two (hint: one involves volcanoes), possibly three more of these one-shot modules set in the Hamato Islands, and I am still making lore updates to the Traveler’s Guide as well. There’s plenty more to come! 😄

P.S. Special thanks to my wife who also contributed some nice clip art in this module. Just as I am learning to write adventure modules better (and enjoying it), she seems to enjoy contributing art here and there, and gives her a reason to stretch herself too.

P.P.S. The cover image and all the images I’ve been using for the Hamato Islands series of adventures were all taken by me over the years. Nice to finally put some of these pictures to good use. 😄

The Accidental Module

Recently, I published a new document on DMS Guild, the Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands:

This was not the adventure module that I originally intended to publish, however. This one somewhat happened by accident.

After play-testing an earlier module I published, A Good Night’s Rest, I started getting questions about how such-and-such would work in this setting from interested players. At first, I just added such details to the appendix but as the appendix grew to 15+ pages I realized that I needed to spin off its own document. That delayed my original adventure module by weeks (in the final editing stage now) but it also means that now anyone can play this adventure setting if they want to.

I was surprised in recent discussions online how interested people were in playing a high-fantasy Asian setting for Dungeons and Dragons but were also frustrated how dated the existing material is. So, maybe I have found my niche?

Time will tell. 😌