Gandharan Buddha

I found this image on the Metropolitan Museum website recently:


Gandhara was an ancient city in Pakistan and an important cultural center of the Kushan Empire, which inherited Greco-Iranian culture and spread it over a much wider area than before. As mentioned in a previous post, the Kushans were crucial to spreading Buddhism to lands outside of India and were known to China as 月氏 (yue-zhi).

Anyhow, this statue is interesting because it closely resembles Greco-Roman artwork. Compare with something like a statue of Apollo, the Greek sun god:

Apollo of the Belvedere.jpg

Or, another Gandharan Buddha statue that is well known:

Gandhara Buddha (tnm).jpeg

Pretty interesting how Western art and culture mixed with Indian/Iranian culture to produce such works, so long ago.

1 The Met Museum has a great collection from the Kushan Empire. You can see more here.

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The Power of Family and Environment

Hi all,

Recently I was reading an article by Al-Jazeera English1 about a young man, named Adolfo Davis, who has been in prison in Illinois since he was 14. Now he is 38, one year older than me, and will spend the rest of hos life on prison.

This man had a very difficult childhood:

Davis’ father was absent and his mother was a drug addict. His grandmother, who was also caring for a bedridden husband, a son with mental disabilities and other grandkids, became his primary caregiver.

Further, Davis says:

“She took care of me and everybody else, you know. But she couldn’t keep an eye on me a lot, or pay as much attention as I needed at the time. So it led me to the streets.”

His childhood was so traumatic that:

Davis had his first brush with the law at the age of 9, when he says he was so hungry he attempted to snatch a bag of food from a little girl. His file also shows that a young Davis would bang his head against the wall until it bled, burn himself with cigarettes and wet the bed, Chicago Public Radio reported. He also suffered nightmares, severe insomnia and hallucinations

What amazes is how similar and how different me and Mr Davis are. We are both male, about the same age and both American. But our family and upbringing were so different. Further, I am white and Davis is not. In light of his challenges, Davis had almost 0 chances for success. He was doomed from birth.

It’s truly amazing how family and environment can affect a child’s life.

1 I don’t trust American news sources because they are politically-polarized and not very good quality so I like reading external sources such as the BBC, Al-Jazeera and sometimes the Asahi Shinbun (in Japanese).

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Easy Come, Easy Go

This is what remains of our TV screen:

Broken TV screen

Our daughter, “Princess”, recently got a new Star Wars lightsaber,1 and decided to practice with it in the living-room, and this was the result. It happened on Mother’s Day too. The TV is now quite broken, and Princess is forbidden to watch TV or play video games for a long, long time. Apart from that though, I realized that it’s not worth getting too upset about.

It reminds me of something I read in the bilingual-book “What is Zen” (mentioned here). In the book, Rev. Fujiwara talks about an elderly woman who was ill from tuberculosis (kekkaku 結核). He writes about her:

She was confined to bed rest for an extended period, and was extremely frustrated. No matter how intensely she wished to recover as quickly as possible, it was beyond her control. She realized that all her fussing, fretting, and fuming were getting her nowhere. When she finally noticed this, she was able to calm down again. She succeeded in accepting her present condition. She became one with her illness.

Rev. Fujiwara then quotes a poem she composed:

躓けば tsumazukeba
躓くままに tsumaku mama ni
コスモスの kosumosu no
花美しみ臥せて hana utsukushimi fusete
今日を嘆かず kyō wo nagekazu

In English this was translated as:

Frustrated though I am,
I enjoy the beauty
of the cosmos flower
from my bed,
not regretting this day.

Similarly, when I see the broken TV, I can’t help but admire the beauty of the cracked display in this photo. It will cost money to replace this, but on the bright side the TV was 6 years old and probably was going to get replaced in a few years anyway. I’m not trying to be glib or write a bunch of unless “Zen” New Age platitudes though:2 I have to accept it’s gone. I can’t control when or how it will go, and I can’t go back to the way things were. I can only go forward but at least I can choose which direction forward.

Similarly, when our tree fell into our neighbor’s yard last month after heavy rain:


I was upset about it until I noticed the next morning that our house got more sunlight now. Further, the damage was surprisingly small. I wish I had cut it down sooner (I was going to do it the following month), but again I can’t change that now. It’s done. 終わり.

But I want to emphasize that this isn’t a kind of naive-denial. I’m not trying to delude myself (hopefully). In an old sutra, the Lokavipatti Sutta, the Buddha explains life like so:

“Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain….His mind [the run-of-the mill person] remains consumed with the gain. His mind remains consumed with the loss… with the status… the disgrace… the censure… the praise… the pleasure. His mind remains consumed with the pain.

I’ve had wonderful times in my life: great food, romance, accomplishment at work, etc. I’ve also had terrible moments of disgrace, rage, and depression. Over and over again. If I allow myself to get caught up in these moments, good or bad, I will get strung along, worn out, unable to find peace of mind. On the other hand, if I can step back, even just once in a while, and not allow myself to get caught up in the constant ups and downs of life, I can find clarity, strength and peace of mind.

The rest of the sutra explains this in much greater detail. The point is, I can’t control the loss of the TV, nor the accident with the tree. Sooner or later, shitty things will happen just as awesome things will happen. That’s life.

P.S. Another post on staying “even minded”.

P.P.S. That said, Princess is still grounded for a long while.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of Zen, I composed the following death-bed poem for the TV:

Like the bell of Gion Monastery,
the ringing of the TV screen
reminds us that we too must die one day.

It’s a lousy poem, but then again I am not a Zen master.

1 Bad time to mention this, but it is a pretty cool lightsaber. ;-p

2 If you’re looking for Zen platitudes, you’ll find plenty at your local bookstore under the “Buddhism” or “Spirituality” sections.

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Buddhism and Printing


As readers know, I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the life of a Japanese-Zen monk named Tetsugen. Tetsugen was a prominent teacher and lefturer of the Obaku Zen sect, but his greatest accomplishment was providing a complete, printed collection of the entire Buddhist canon in Japan called the Obaku Edition of the Triptaka: Ōbakuban daizōkyō  黄檗版大蔵経.

The Obaku Edition was the de facto edition of the Buddhist canon in Japan until the modern period when it was superceded by the Taishō Edition (大正新脩大藏經, taishō shinshū daizōkyō).

But why such a big deal? It helps to look at the history of Buddhism and printing to understand.

Printing in China

As early as the Tang Dynasty, China was printing texts using either movable type or woodblock printing. Movable type is easier for languages with Alphabets like English, but for Chinese, which has 40,000+ characters it was error-prone and time consuming.
Yangzhou Museum - woodblock for printing - fragment - CIMG2879

Instead, a block of wood could be carved to print a whole page and re-used over and over. This is called “wood block” printing. If the blocks were good quality and well-maintained (i.e. protected from insects and the environment), it could be used for centuries. 

Pen ts'ao, woodblock book 1249-ce

The entire Buddhist canon or Tripitaka was a popular choice for printing. However, unlike religious texts such as the Quran or Bible which encompass a single book, the Tripitaka is HUGE. Imagine a complete set of encyclopedias then double or triple that. That’s the size of the Buddhist canon roughly. So compiling and printing an official copy was a massive undertaking.

Further, especially in the Tang Dynasty and earlier, translation was a big challenge. As the story of Xuan-zang shows, going to China was to learn Sanskrit was a dangerous journey and very few succeeded. Instead the Chinese government brought in Buddhist monks from various cultures on the Silk Road: Parthians like An Shigao, Kushans like Lokaksema and Kucheans such as Kumarajiva. The language differences between Sanskrit and Chinese were formidable and sometimes multiple editions of the same sutra were translated but eventually a complete Buddhist canon was compiled in the readable, literary Chinese of the day.

Starting in the year 983, with the Sichuan Edition, to the late Ming Dynasty, 20 official editions of the Buddhist canon were printed out. Some were better than others. The Yuan Dynasty Edition for example was considered inferior quality.

Printing in Korea

Similar to China, Korea developed sophisticated wood-block printing methods for publishing. Both were based off the Chinese Song Dynasty edition and were produced in the 11th and 13th centuries, using the Chinese Song Dynasty edition as their source. Similar to the Chinese editions, they used Korean-style Chinese characters:

Tripitaka Koreana sutra page

Further, the Korean woodblooks used to preserve the printing of the Tripitaka for the 13th century edition are preserved at Haeinsa Temple:

Korea-Haeinsa-Tripitaka Koreana-01

You can see how many blocks it took to print the whole thing. :)

Printing in Japan

Block-printing or any mass-printing of Buddhist texts in Japan came surprisingly late. Further, unlike the Chinese canon, there was never any effort to translate it into Japanese. Instead, similar to the Korean canon, Buddhist texts were preserved in Chinese characters.1 Further, Japanese Buddhist monks often had fewer texts and resources available for research. Finding a copy of the Lotus Sutra or Pure Land Sutras was easy but more obscure texts like the Surangama Sutra2 would be all but impossible for most monks.

Wood-block printing on a large scale finally came during the Edo Period, starting in the 17th Century. As Professor Baroni points out, there are reasons for this: Japan was finally stable after a century of warfare, and Buddhist monks turned more and more to scholarship so the demand for texts increased. At that time, most Buddhist monks relied on hand-copies versions, or Buddhist texts imported from China, which were carefully guarded. A typical monk or temple in Japan would have had access to far fewer sutras than their counterparts in Korea and Japan, but with this Edo Period, the demand for more texts finally changed the situation.

The first edition to be published was a government-sponsored edition called the Tenkai Edition or Tenkaiban (天海版) and was completed in 1648. Professor Baroni explains that only a few copies were printed and it was based on the problematic Yuan-Dynasty Chinese edition. Further, it used moveable-type, so there was a risk of human error in each copy due to the complexity of Japanese language and its use of Chinese characters.

The next edition was the Obaku Edition mentioned above. What was impressive about this edition was that it was superior quality using woodblock prints, and entirely a voluntary effort. Government funds were not used. Tetsugen, the famous Obaku Zen monk, started the effort around 1667. Per tradition, Tetsugen first got permission to take a break from Zen practice from his Chinese-teachers Yinyuan (隠元隆琦 1592—1673) and Muan (木庵性瑫 1611-1684). From there, Tetsugen, a skilled orator, toured Japan providing lectures mainly on the The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the Surangama Sutra and the importance of keeping the precepts.

Through these lectures, Tetsugen was able to secure enough funding to setup a print shop in Kyoto, while the compilation and editing of the edition took place at Obakusan, the main Obaku Zen temple an in another temple in Osaka, Zuiryuji where Tetsugen resided. A number of monks under Tetsugen also volunteered in the project, and by 1680, there were 6,956 volumes and over 20,000 blocks used. This was the de facto Buddhist canon used in the Edo Period due to availability and quality of work.

Sadly, Tetsugen did not live to see his edition completed. While waiting in the capitol of Edo (Tokyo) to present an edition to the Shogun, he heard of a famine in the countryside and left to assist in the relief efforts. Tetsugen from illness while raising funds and distributing relief from the famine and his students completed the projected and presented the edition to the government.

Junjiro Takakusu

The Obaku Edition was the preferred copy of the Buddhist canon edition used until the 1920’s when it was superseded by the afore-mentioned Taisho Edition. The Taisho Edition project was started by a Buddhist scholar named Takakusu Junjirō (高楠順次郎 1866 1945 pictured above) who wanted to promulgate Buddhist-based education around the world. The quality and breadth of the Taisho Edition, or “Taisho Tripitaka”, has made it one of the most popular sources used for East-Asian Buddhist research. You can find it online easily, though not all of it is translated into English.


Long before printing was available in Europe, Buddhism and Printing went hand-in-hand in Asia, and due to the complexities of the languages, various methods were used to ensure quality and ease of printing. Much of what we know about Buddhism today and Asian literature is due to the efforts of these early masters of printing.

1 This is a big reason why Buddhist chanting in Korea and Japan uses the original Classical Chinese as the liturgical language. Presumably this was intended to preserve the teachings from changes over time, but comes at the cost of requiring translations for modern readers and students.

2 The Surangama Sutra is very popular in Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan (Zen) Buddhism, but wasn’t well-known in Japan, and did not have much influence until the pre-modern period.

Posted in Buddhism, China, Japan, Korea, Religion | Leave a comment

King Ashoka Comes to Korea and Japan

Shiga Ishitouji

Lately, I’ve been watching a series of DVDs about Buddhist temples in Japan called hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼, “100-temple pilgrimage”) which my in-laws gave me years ago. I watched about 1/3 of the videos years ago, but stopped for a long time. Lately, I’ve been continuing where I left off and watched a great video about a small, ancient temple in Shiga Prefecture called Ishidōji (石塔寺). The Japanese character (塔) means “stupa” as in the ancient Buddhist monuments from India. This temple is the “temple of the stone stupa”.

Typically in Japan, temples are wooden like most structures, but this temple’s main feature is a stone stupa called the ashoka ōtō (阿育王塔) or “Stupa of King Ashoka”. It was modeled after the Pillars of Emperor Ashoka of India:


According to legend, the stupa at this site was unearthed during the reign of Emperor Ichijō as a kind of Buddhist “miracle”, but according to modern research it was likely built centuries earlier in the 7th or 8th century by refugees from the fallen Korean kingdom of Kudara, better known as Baekje.

Japan historically had close ties with, and a vibrant immigrant community from, Baekje in particular, but even after it fell, the Baekje people living in Japan built this stupa based on a similar ones in Korea. You can still find three-tiered (sanjū no tō 三重塔) stupas in the countryside of Korea,1 and in such famous temples as Bulguksa (불국사, 佛國寺) in Gyeongju City (경주시, 慶州). Compare the stupa above with the Seokgatap (석가탑, 釋迦塔) stupa at Bulguksa built around the year 751:

Seokgatap bulguksa.jpg
Seokgatap bulguksa“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Korean stupas in turn are modeled off the original Pillars of Ashoka via China, Persia and the Silk Road.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the Pillars of Ashoka in Japan, but the one I saw was a modern import, a gift from India. The stupa at Ishidoji is something far more ancient, and shows how far Buddhism had progressed from its humble origins in northern India.

Pretty amazing. I would love to visit these stupas someday, not to mention the originals in India. ;)

P.S. You can find some more nice photos of Ishidoji here.

1 This photo blog by a Japanese traveler visiting Bulguksa, including the three-tiered stupa.

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Happy Children’s Day 2015

May 5th in Japan is the traditional holiday of Children’s Day or kodomo no hi (子供の日). Originally celebrated as a seasonal holiday for boys (a counterpart to Girls Day, March 3rd) it gradually expanded to include all children. However, even today, it still retains a lot of “boy traditions” such as the armor display mentioned before.

This is another tradition: koi-nobori (鯉のぼり) which are three windsocks that look like koi fish. The largest is the “daddy fish”, followed by the mommy fish and finally the child. We bought this one at the local Daiso Japanese store but oftentimes they are much larger. They’re meant to hang outside like any other windsocks.

Anyhow this is our son’s first Children’s Day celebration so we are excited for Little Guy.

Happy Childrens Day to all children everywhere!

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Little Guy Goes To School

Little Guy's First Backpack

Hi all,

This is Little Guy. He is almost 19 months old, and is wearing his first backpack. :)

We gots this backpack as a welcoming gift for subscribing him to Benesse’s distance-learning series. He likes to wear it all day, and gets upset when we have to take it off.

Anyhow, Benesse is a company in Japan that specializes in distance-learning, and we decided our kids would enjoy that more than the strict, stodgy Japanese classes offered at the consulate. Older Japanese who grew up in America have warned us that the schools are difficult and not very fun.

A subscription to Benesse for a toddler costs several hundred dollars a year, but each month they send us DVDs with cartoons featuring Shimajiro and his friends. Shimajiro is a young tiger and well-known Japanese cartoon character. Each month’s shipment also includes nice quality-toys, sometimes also stuffed animals, etc. It’s actually a great deal for what we pay.


When Princess was about 18 months old, we subscribed her as well. She has been doing her monthly schoolwork for Benesse every month since then. She would now be in the 3rd grade in the Japanese-school system, and so her monthly books (which use a character named Korasho instead of Shimajiro) teach her 3rd grade math, Japanese language (kokugo 国語), science, etc. We still have many of her toys when she was a little girl, and now Little Guy enjoys them.1 :)

I’ve seen some half-Japanese kids grow up in the West lose their Japanese cultural and language skills once they get to grade-school. Princess still reads and speaks Japanese well and enjoy Japanese TV daily, but her writing skills are starting to suffer a bit. Kanji (Chinese characters) is hard to remember if you don’t use it daily. It’s a tough challenge for Japanese parents, or any immigrant parents: how to keep interest in foreign culture into adulthood especially when materials and exposure are limited.2

However, Benesse really helped her a lot, and we have many happy memories of the monthly shipments of toys and books. Further, she is pretty far ahead in American schools because she’s already learned some of the math and science already.

So, we’re pretty excited to see Little Guy start the same journey. :)

P.S. If you notice, Little Guy’s hair is really curly. We’re not sure who’s DNA that is. My hair is wavy like Ronald Reagan, and my wife has some wavy hair too, but nothing like Little Guy.

1 Sometimes I read through the old books because I learn more Japanese. ;p

2 Seattle is a pretty good place to raise biracial Japanese kids because we have Japanese bookstores, markets, and such. Also the community is large enough to be supportive. During our time in Ireland, the community was much smaller, and the materials were very limited. When we visited London, we often bought many books and such for Princess (and for myself ;) ) because Dublin just didn’t have enough.

Posted in Family, Japan | Tagged | 2 Comments