Blog Update

Hello,

Some readers may have noticed, but the comments section has been changing a little. In the last month, I’ve been getting tons and tons of spam comments on the blog. I spend every day cleaning out comments and removing them, because they are somehow getting past the spam-filters.

Anyhow, it’s getting to be a hassle, so I’ve tried a couple approaches over the past week. Finally, I decided to close blog comments for posts that are more than 60 days old. This won’t stop all spam comments, but it should greatly reduce them, and readers can still leave comments without a WordPress account.

Anyhow, just an FYI. Thanks!

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Timely Buddhist Quote

Ferguson, Night 3, Photo 2

Something I found today here in a certain collection of quotations by the Buddha, called the Dhammapada, translation by Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

137-140. Whoever, with a rod, harasses an innocent man, unarmed, quickly falls into any of ten things: harsh pains, devastation, a broken body, grave illness, mental derangement, trouble with the government, violent slander, relatives lost, property dissolved, houses burned down. At the break-up of the body this one with no discernment, reappears in hell.

The point is: violence and anger not only hurt other people, they also hurt the person who did it too.

Timely indeed.

P.S. Tried posting this quote on Twitter earlier, but it was too long.

Posted in Buddhism, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Revisiting Ordination

While I was visiting Japan, my wife, kids and I visited old friends and neighbors a lot. We do this every year, and we enjoy keeping in touch with people. One family we keep in touch with is a nearby Jodo-Shinshu temple family in the neighborhood. My wife has grown up with their kids, and now they watch our kids grow up. :) In Japan, you see a lot of urban “parochial” or parish temples which are owned by ordained priests, but otherwise living a semi-worldly lifestyle. This is in contrast to dedicated “monastic” temples that also exist in Japan.

Anyhow, the temple family lets us walk around the inner-sanctuary of their temple, and my daughter is now old enough to understand things more. So, she asked me a lot of questions like “what’s that picture” or “who’s that buddha?” and such. I explained things in my simple Japanese, rather than English, since everyone else is listening. But at the same time, I felt a really, nice familiar feeling that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Jodo Shinshu temples have a very consistent setup you can see anywhere in the world. The temple here in Seattle has a very similar altar to what you see in Kawasaki or any temple. So, that setup is very familiar to me. Walking around the temple’s inner-sanctuary, explaining the different pictures and decoration, it really felt like coming home in a spiritual sense. Also, it was fun to explain to my daughter. The temple family seemed a little impressed too.

It reminded me years ago when I was trying to get ordained as a Jodo-Shinshu priest here in Seattle. Most readers probably don’t know about that because it was almost 5 years ago. This is a photo I took in 2010 during my second-attempt:

Me as a minister's assisstant trainee

I tried to get ordained at the local temple in 2008 or so, but this did not succeed because I hadn’t been a member of the temple long enough, and I think culturally there was some resistance too because the temple was a bit insular at the time. I hear things have changed since. Anyhow, I was bitter, but I tried again in 2010, and made good progress, but I had personal doubts about Pure Land Buddhism,1 and also was very busy raising kids. Further, on-call work at my company was so intense, I couldn’t keep up with training. So, I quit shortly after that picture was taken. I kind of regret it now, because it’s not good to quit something halfway, but oh well.

But, five years later, I kind of really miss it. Being at that temple in Japan, explaining all those things to my daughter made me realize that I truly enjoy teaching Buddhism and Buddhist culture. I don’t want to just teach meditation; that’s too narrow. I like sharing the culture to people because there’s much beauty and truth behind it. I guess that’s a big reason why I started this blog, and I guess I still love it.

So, I’ve been researching how to get ordained again. With help from my wife, I am looking at how to get ordained directly from Japan though. There are a lot of temples here in Seattle, but I think there are challenges with them. Based on limited, personal experience some temples are resistant to Asian Buddhist culture, or at least very selective about what they are interested in. Other temples focus on a particular community, so they’re either resistant or just indifferent to people outside that community. There are a couple of Japanese Buddhist temples here (including Rissho Kosei Kai, which I visited recently), so if training from Japan doesn’t work, I still have that option.

But my idea is to go directly to Japanese Buddhist institutions if possible and get ordained there, then, maybe start my own temple that will share the beauties of Asian-Buddhist culture, but to a wider audience. I have seen other temples in the US do this, though it’s rare.

Of course, this is actually a huge challenge because I am not Japanese, and I don’t live there. Based on research so far, it looks like some Buddhist seminaries in Japan require routine retreats, or some kind of lengthy time-commitment, which is sensible. But I have family and work here and can only get a tourist-visa to Japan (90 days maximum), so this probably won’t work. Still, other seminaries in Japan do seem to have distance-learning options with shorter commitments in Japan. I can definitely travel to Japan and train for a little while, but not for too long. :)

Five years ago, when I was training at the Jodo Shinshu temple, one of the Japanese ministers encouraged me to consider training through a place like Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin, which is a big Jodo Shinshu seminary. At the time though, I couldn’t really read or communicate in Japanese, so I thought it was impossible. However, now I can read fairly comfortably, and my conversation skills are a little better than before, so now it’s feasible at least. Not easy, but feasible.

Anyhow, nothing specific yet, but I definitely am researching more. I still might consider training and getting ordained through a temple in Seattle. There are still good temples here, so even if the distance-learning option doesn’t work, I’ve got options. :-)

Time will tell.

1 My attitude has gradually changed over time but it’s too long to explain here.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Shingon | 2 Comments

Buddhist Suggestions for Helping in Gaza, Iraq and Ferguson

Hello,

This was kind of an impromptu post (apologies for typos), but I was inspired by these twitter posts here and here. With all the humanitarian problems happening in places like the Gaza Strip, northern Iraq and Ferguson, MO, I wanted to share some ideas about how Buddhists, or anyone can help. These are not “officially Buddhist” suggestions, there are just personal ideas. Every person should be free to decide how they want to assist, so feel free to take or reject these ideas.

Having the Right Attitude

First and foremost, it’s important to have a proper attitude when approaching situations like this. The Buddha encouraged things like mutual respect, respect for the sanctity of life, peace and tolerance, such as this quote from the Dhammapada:

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

Or from the 10th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

The abode of the Tathagata [another word for the Buddha] is a great compassionate heart for all living beings; The robe of the Tathagata is a flexible and forbearing mind; The seat of the Tathagata is the emptiness of all things.

Here “emptiness” means that all things are not separate from one another; they all depend on one another. Further, they are impermanent too.

Point being, even if you don’t like the other side, it’s important to remember that they are still human. Everyone has fears and shortcomings. This is easier said than done (believe me), but it’s a gold standard to work towards in your own life.

Helping Directly

The best way to help of course is to help directly. Helping on the ground, where possible and feasible, is a brave and noble thing to do. However, also make sure you coordinate with people on the ground to see if you are needed or not. If you do not plan this right, you could end up getting in the way, or putting people at risk. So make sure you do your homework first!

If you cannot help directly, you can still directly contribute by offering donations of food, clothing, water or whatever is needed. The amount isn’t important. What’s important is that you take the first step in giving. Showing up is half the battle! However, make sure you donate through reputable organizations as scam-artists can appear at times like this. Again, do your homework and make an informed decision.

When donating, spend time to think about what’s needed most. Better yet, ask your charity of choice. This is not a good time to “clean out your closet“. Instead, learn what’s most helpful and focus on that. Things may change too, as the situation changes.

Buddhist Prayer and Sutra recitation

In addition to the above, or if you are unable to help, you also utilize Buddhist prayer and sutra recitation as well.

For example, the Golden Light Sutra is a famous sutra for peace and prosperity in a nation. In many parts of the ancient Buddhist world, monks would routinely recite this sutra chapter by chapter, end to end as a way of encouraging peace and prosperity.

For readers at home, you don’t have to recite the entire sutra. Traditionally many people have recited only the first chapter, or maybe their favorite chapter in general (I personally like the 4th chapter a lot).

Additionally, you can also recite parts of the Lotus Sutra, or chant the namu myoho renge kyo which is a particular chant in praise of the Lotus Sutra. Either option (or any Buddhist chant) is appropriate.

When reciting any Buddhist sutra or chant, it’s helpful to first relax your mind a bit (meditation, prayer, whatever works), sit in front of a Buddhist altar if you have one.

Then, when complete, you then dedicate the merit toward peace in general, or a specific place and people. It’s up to you.

People may be skeptical about whether this works or not, but remember, we are all connected. Karma and merit are powerful things, as explained in the 5th chapter of the Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra:

“Karma is tremendously powerful. It is capable of covering Mount Sumeru, is capable of plumbing the vast ocean depths and is even capable of obstructing the holy doctrines.

Spread the Word

In addition to the above, you can also help but getting information out. However, remember to maintain a spirit of goodwill and be cautious about spreading misinformation or rumors. It’s tempting to want to be the first, but slow down and keep a cool head. Sometimes good intentions can only stir up trouble if you don’t balance it with the light of wisdom.

Finally

If you cannot assist with any of the above, or still want to do more, focus your efforts more locally. Since all living beings are connected (or “empty” as stated above), you can still do a lot for humanity by helping in your neighborhood, even if you’re just carrying groceries for your elderly neighbor. No effort is wasted. Trust me, you’ll see the difference in the long-run.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo

Posted in Buddhism, Politics, Religion | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Traveling with Korean Air

As mentioned in the past, I decided to try something different when flying to Japan this time. Flights to Japan are much more expensive now than when my wife and I were first married. This is because:

  • We have more family members. :)
  • We now fly during the summer months which is expensive, but that’s when there is no school in the US. It’s much cheaper to fly to Japan during the Winter or Spring from what I can see.

So, to save money, I took an indirect flight from Seattle, via Korea to Japan using Korean Air. My wife flew with the kids directly via ANA, but since I was coming later, I decided to try and save some money, and try something different. I saved about $500 which is a lot, but it also took 5 hours longer to get there. Years ago, we flew using United Airlines, which was OK, but then ANA opened a new route from Seattle to Tokyo, and we love to fly ANA. ANA is truly a great airline. If we fly directly, it takes 10 hours to Japan, but 8 hours back because the plane is flying with the currents.

Flying with Korean Air was great too though. I flew economy-class, but as I boarded the plane, I was surprised to see a bottle of water waiting for me on my seat:

Untitled

This is apparently water from the famous Jeju Island. That was a nice surprise. I also got a small bag containing slippers, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Since my feet are 31cm, the slippers were too small, but the toothbrush and toothpaste were appreciated.

The dinner I had was a Korean dish known as Bibimbap (비빔밥), which is a kind of mixed bowl of rice, vegetables and beef:

It even came with a small tube of gochujang, which is the famous Korean red paste used in many dishes. The bibimbap was actually quite good and even came with a Korean soup called miyeokguk (미역국) which I mentioned here previously. Definitely one of the better meals I’ve had on an airplane.1 Also, I’m not the only Westerner who feels this way. After the meal, I had some hyeonmi nokcha (현미녹차, 玄米綠茶):

Korean nok cha (녹차, 綠茶) is just green tea Korean green tea2. Specifically though, this was hyeonmi nokcha (현미녹차, 玄米綠茶) which is the same as Japanese genmaicha, which is green-tea mixed with roasted brown-rice. I’ve actually never had any kind of nokcha before though, because the Korean restaurants I go to usually have different teas. Anyhow nokcha was very light and tasty. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Since we have an H-Mart near Seattle, I found a similar brand and am drinking it as I write this.

The flight to Japan, via Korea, was very comfortable because I had an empty seat next to me, so I could stretch more and even sleep a little bit. The flight back was very crowded and I sat next to another big fellow (this happens to me a lot…bad karma?) so I wasn’t able to sleep, and I slept near the emergency exit, which let me stretch my legs, but the seat was more narrow than usual. That was my fault though because I checked-in late. Korean Air has a nice “web checkin” feature on their website which lets you pick your seat, but I didn’t have a reliable computer in Japan, so I couldn’t use it. I used it from Seattle to Japan though and it worked well for me.

Also, the flight staff on Korean Air were great. The attendants all spoke Korean, English and Japanese. They’re English was pretty good (minimal accent, good communication) and from what I could tell they spoke good Japanese too. I was kind of impressed.

Anyhow, it was finally nice to get to Incheon Airport in Korea after 11 hours, but that’s a story for another day. :)

Suffice to say, Korean Air was great. It was comparable to ANA (another great airline), but I also saved some money, yet still had a great flight experience. I don’t know if I want to do an indirect flight again in the future, but if I do fly to Korea3 (or indirectly to Japan), I will definitely fly Korean Air again.

1 Air France also had very good meals, though the service was either really good, or really rude and awful. ANA has great food too, but more Japanese-style of course. I liked their soba. :)

2 I’m pretty sure that nokcha is a cognate to Japanese ryokucha (緑茶). They’re basically both green tea.

3 My wife and I talked about visiting Korea in the future, but after my experiences, she wants to visit even more. :)

Posted in Japan, Korea, Travel | Leave a comment

Which Japanese Kanji Are Worth Learning First?

Hello,

I was writing this post prior to my trip to Japan, but I finally have time to finish it. As readers might recall, I’ve been using the Heisig Method to learn Japanese kanji (chinese characters), and have learned about 1,250 in 2 years. Since I have 2 kids and work full-time, I guess that’s pretty good progress. However, I noticed that the Heisig Method teaches kanji in a very non-standard order, so you often learn low-frequency kanji before you learn more useful ones. It kind of forces you to learn all 2,000+ “joyo” kanji required for basic literacy, before you can really read/write.

Sooner or later, you have to do this, but if you’re a busy person or just impatient, it’s nice to learn high-frequency, more useful kanji first. Especially if you just came to Japan, or about to arrive.

But which kanji are worth learning first? This is a surprisingly tricky question.

First, there’s the traditional grade-school method, which is pretty good and what my daughter uses. The “grade-school” method means learning kanji the same way that Japanese grade-school students use. This helpful site breaks down the kanji by 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. My daughter goes to school in the US, but she does distance-learning and is technically in the 2nd grade in Japan so she’s learning 2nd-grade kanji now.1

This is a good strategy overall, but some kanji might be more useful for children like 森 than adults.

So, I did some research and I found that there are lists of frequently-used kanji for newspapers too. This website provides a list of the frequently used kanji in Japanese newspapers, starting with the most common 日 and so on. You can click on them too to learn the readings. If you compare this with the grade-school lists, they’re somewhat different, but do overlap a lot.

But also, there are lists for names too. Certain kanji are used very often for names, and some of these overlap with grade-school and newspaper lists (田 for example is a very good one to learn first), but not always. For example 藤 (fuji) appears in an lot of names, but is otherwise fairly uncommon in Japan.

In other words, there’s no perfect solution about which kanji to learn first. Learning the Heisig Method is definitely worth your time in general because it will help you get beyond the first few hundred kanji to full literacy. However, if you want to dive in and learn to read at least some kanji first, you may want to review the lists above for grade-school students, newspapers and even names. You might start with at least 1st and 2nd grade kanji, then branch out and see what other kanji are useful for newspapers and names. Or do what is most useful for you. :)

1 – It’s one of her favorite subjects besides math. She’s just like her dad. :)

Posted in Japanese, Language | 4 Comments

I’m Back

Hi Everyone,

I’m back in the US as of a couple days ago. I had to rest and recover from jet-lag, plus take care of other things, but life is returning to normal now.  I was hoping to do a couple blog posts while in Japan, but as I said before, I didn’t have any way to write them (I tried though), and just didn’t have much time.

However, I have a few posts planned already from my adventures in Japan, and in Korea too,1 so please stay tuned.  :)

1 Just the airport, actually, but still very interesting.

Posted in General, Travel | Leave a comment