Scattering Blossoms

Chidorigafuchi sakura

Hello,

As we are now in the month of uzuki (卯月) in the old Japanese calendar, I was reading through the Kokinshu poetry anthology again, and I wanted to share a couple poems for Spring. This first poem was composed by the Kokinshu’s main compiler, Ki no Tsurayuki:

116. 春の野に haru no no ni
若菜つまんと wakana tsuman to
来しものを koshi mono wo
散りかふ花に chirikau hana ni
道はまどひぬ michi wa madoinu

Which Professor Laurel Rodd translates as:

To these spring meadows
I came to pluck the first herbs
of the year but then
in the tumbling cascade of
blossoms I lost the path home.

And this one was written by anonymous:

112. 散る花を chiru hana wo
何か恨みむ nani ka uramin
世の中に yo no naka ni
わが身もともに waga mi mo tomo ni
あらむものかは aran mono ka wa

which again, Professor Rodd translates as:

Why should we grieve to
see the petals falling to
earth for won’t we too
who share this ephemeral
existence someday follow?

The second poem is a classic example of the Japanese notion of mono no aware (物の哀れ). You can read more about it here.

Happy Spring everyone!

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How to do Incense Offerings at Japanese Buddhist Temples

Hi Guys,

At the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple we go to, there is a ritual called oshōkō (お焼香), where families go up to the temple before service and offer a little incense, as well as a small donation, usually a dollar or so. I’ve seen similar rituals at other temples too: Shingon Buddhist, etc. The word oshōkō simply means the burning of incense.

So, for those new to Japanese Buddhism, or if you are visiting a temple for the first time, I wanted to provide a quick overview. There is a helpful guide in Japanese on how to do this, but I haven’t found a helpful guide in English. So, here is a rough translation:

  1. Holding your rosary in your left hand, if any, take 2-3 steps toward main altar, then bow at the waist.
  2. If the incense brazier is closed, take the lid off and place it to the right.
  3. Take a pinch of powdered incense using the pointer finger and middle finger.1
  4. Drop the incense into the brazier. Some people will put the incense before their forehead in respect, but this is not really necessary.
  5. Put one’s hands together, with the rosary draped over both hands and recite the nembutsu.2
  6. Bow while reciting, hands still together.
  7. Take a few steps back, bow again, and then take your seat.

This is of course only a suggestion, but if you are new to a Japanese-Buddhist temple, this is a good start. Make sure to look at the photos linked above. If unsure though, just watch everyone else. ;)

Good luck!

1 Actually I usually see people pinch incense with the thumb and finger, so this is probably not a strict rule.

2 Or whatever prayer/chant is appropriate for that temple, of course.

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shinshu, Religion, Travel | Leave a comment

Preparing for Children’s Day

Hi all,

As readers know, we celebrate Girls’ Day every year. This is a Japanese holiday on March 3rd celebrating young ladies and wishing them happiness and prosperity. However, there is another holiday for boys called Children’s Day, or kodomo no hi (子供の日) on May 5th. This is another one of the 5 seasonal holidays in Japanese culture. Originally, it was known as the Day of the Iris, and since the word for Iris (shōbu 菖蒲) was a homophone martial prowess (尚武), it became a festival for boys.

In modern times, the holiday has grown to become a celebration for all children, hence the modern name. However, special traditions just for boys are still observed on this day.

Whereas Girls’ Day has a doll display, Children’s Day has a either a full suit of samurai-armor (yoroi 鎧) or just the helmet alone (kabuto 兜). My wife’s parents knew that we would have to carry this back to America by ourselves, so it was too risky to bring a whole set. So, instead they bought a nice kabuto display. It looks great, but is smaller and easier to carry.

My daughter and I set it up last week, and it turned out very nice:

Snail in the Rain

Also, the snacks are slightly different too. On Girls’ Day, it’s common to eat sakuramochi which is pounded-rice with sweet filling inside. However, on Children’s Day, people often eat kashiwa-mochi, that is mochi wrapped in the leaves of a Sweet Oak. Unlike sakuramochi though, do not eat the leaves. They are too thick and do not taste very good. They look nice though.

This is Little Guy’s first Children’s Day, so we’re excited to celebrate with him. Last year he was only a few months old, and we hadn’t been to Japan yet, so we had no suit of armor to set up. So this feels more like a true celebration this year. :)

I’ll post more on Children’s Day of course. Stay tuned!

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Children’s Magazines in Japan

Hi Guys,

One of the fun things about raising children in two cultures is that your kids can enjoy things from two different worlds. :)

Since our daughter was a little girl, we often went to the local Kinokuniya bookstore here in Seattle and bought children’s magazines like Mebae (めばえ) and BabyBook (ベビーブック). These magazines are very thick because they often include toys as well as fun activities. When we bought magazines for my daughter, they sometimes had things like foam donuts for making a donut shop, bento boxes, etc. Also, they have cardboard characters you can fold out into playsets.

Even when we lived in Ireland, we were still able to buy them in Japan or get them sent to us.1

Now that Little Guy is almost 18 months old, we can buy him such magazines too. In the latest issue, there was a cardboard playset featuring Anpanman as a postal-carrier:

The mailbox (yūbin posuto 郵便ポスト) actually works. You can put letters in there, and take them out in the back. Little Guy loves this mailbox:

The magazines, even though they are imports, aren’t very expensive, but my kids have lots of fun with them. Putting the cardboard toys together isn’t easy. Lots of folding and tabs, etc. But the result is worth it. :)

When I was a kid, I used to enjoy activity books from Sesame Street. My grandmother had a subscription, and everything month when we visited her (she lived in south Seattle, now SeaTac) there would be a new issue waiting for me. I was probably about 5 years old, but I really liked those books.

It’s a nice feeling to be able to give my kids toys which stimulate the imagination like that, but also give them more exposure to their Japanese heritage. Thanks Mebae and BabyBook!

1 I still have a home video where my daughter opens a box from Seattle with a Mebae magazine in there. She’s about 2 years old, screaming happy and then asks me to open it, but she couldn’t say “please” clearly so it sounded like “pease”. :)

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I Alone Am The World-Honored One

Hi all,

This was a last-minute post, but earlier today I found this great post on Twitter from the monastic community at the famous Koyasan temple in Japan (click here if you can’t see it):

This is a famous image of the infant Buddha often used in Japanese services to celebrate his birth. According to Buddhist tradition, upon birth, the infant Buddha took 7 steps, then pointed to the heavens and to the earth below and said:

天上天下唯我独尊
ten jō ten ge yui ga doku son

Which means: “In Heaven above, and the earth below, I alone am the world-honored one.”

While this is just a story, like all Buddhist stories, it carries a lot of meaning. Why would the Buddha declare that he alone is worthy of praise and honor? Without some background information, this statement and story seem very strange.

In Buddhism, the highest stage anyone can attain is that of a Buddha (hotoke 仏 in Japanese). This means a person who is:

  • Fully enlightened (悟り, satori)- a Buddha can perceive what others overlook, have insight and clarity that is clear and solid as a diamond, so to speak. What a Buddha sees cannot be unseen, it is not something to believe in, only to see and know.
  • Attain Nirvana or “unbinding” (涅槃, nehan) – a Buddha, by virtue of his or her ability to see all things, is able to completely let go of selfish cravings and attain perfect contentment. Because they are fully content, they generate no more karma, and are thus unbound, and totally free.

Attaining the state of Buddha-hood is something that can take many, many lifetimes to accomplish.1 It is not like a home project you start up, and finish in a few months or years. It takes vast amounts of discipline, cultivation and dedication to accomplish. Once accomplished though, a Buddha is a great asset to all beings because they can teach and explain the Dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) in such a way that inspires and motivates others to do the same. This is what is called “turning the wheel” in Buddhism.

The famous Jatakas Tales, an early collection of stories about the Buddha’s past lives, shows the many ways the Buddha-to-be made great sacrifices, or noble accomplishments toward this end. The Lotus Sutra, similar has many verses implying the Buddha’s long, long journey to become enlightened, and the many people he assisted, or was assisted by, along the way.

This is one reason for the phrase above: the Buddha has been born into his last life, and will fulfill a great, long journey for the benefit of all beings.

But in the photo above, there is a second bit of text on the left too. The text says:

これはお釈迦様も、人も、生きとし生きるものも、独りひとりが尊い仏性を持つ存在だと言われたでしょう。
kore wa oshaka-sama mo, hito mo, ikitoshi ikiru mono mo, hitori hitori ga tōtoi busshō wo motsu sonzai da to iwareta deshō.

My rough translation of this (apologies if I am wrong) is:

Is this not the same priceless Buddha-nature that is said to dwell within Shakyamuni Buddha, each person, and all creatures great and small?

The picture reminds us that all beings are capable of being enlightenment. Even if we are not really serious about Buddhism (or not interested at all), the potential to become a Buddha (i.e. Buddha-nature, 仏性) is still there within us. If not this lifetime, the aspiration will come someday, and some time after that, a person will fulfill this path and become a Buddha too.

But also, it is a reminder that Shakyamuni Buddha was once a person like us too. As the Japanese Buddhist proverb says:

仏になるも沙弥をへる
Hotoké ni naru mo shami wo heru

Even to become a Buddha one must first become a novice.

So the birthday of the Buddha isn’t just a celebration of one man’s accomplishments, it’s a reminder that every one of us, starting just where we are now (even with our faults and bad habits), can one day become a Buddha too.

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa

P.S. More on what makes a Buddha a Buddha from the perspective of Pure-Land Buddhism.

1 Some esoteric schools such as those found in Tibetan Buddhism and some elements of Japanese Buddhism offer a kind of “fast-track”, but whether such paths are suitable is up to the individual.

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Buddhas and Kitties!

185. Not despising, not harming, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline, moderation in food, dwelling in solitude, devotion to meditation — this is the teaching of the Buddhas. –The Dhammapada

Hi guys,

For the upcoming holiday of hanamatsuri, the Buddha’s Birthday, on April 8th, I wanted to share this post I found on Twitter recently (click here if you don’t see it):

This shows a series of photos with cats sleeping on statues of the Buddha from around the world. Some are clearly Japanese statues, others are South-east Asian. But they all have one thing in common: cute kitties relaxing on statues of the Buddha. You can also see the photos here, here, here and here.

I like seeing this because it shows the more gentle, compassionate side of the Buddha. This is the Buddha who is reflected in famous Metta Sutta:

May all be well and secure,
May all beings be happy!

Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,

Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

and the 3rd chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

I tell you, Shariputra,
you and the others
are all my children,
and I am a father to you.
For repeated kalpas [eons]
you have burned in the flames of manifold sufferings,
but I will save you all
and cause you to escape from the threefold world.

Enjoy! :)

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Let It Go….

Disney-Frozen-Elsa-Let-it-Go

I found this excellent quote from a Buddhist text called the Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile that I wanted to share:

“Even so, monks, whatever isn’t yours: Let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term welfare & happiness.”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the comparison with Disney’s “Frozen”. ;)

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