Nirvana Day 2016: Nirvana, Why Bother?

Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.” Those were the Tathagata’s last words.

Maha-Parinibbana Sutta

Hi everyone,

Nirvana Day is a Buddhist holiday in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that is observed on the 15th day of the 2nd month. It commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, breathed his last. In Buddhist terms, this is sometimes called parinirvana or “final unbinding”. Upon reaching enlightenment in his younger years, he then reached the state of nirvana. However, as he still had residual karma, he lived out his life until the age of 80 when the karma was exhausted, and he became completely unbound. His last words, recorded above, reminded his fellow monks not to be idle and to strive along the Buddhist path too.

The notion of Nirvana (sometimes called Nibbana) is somewhat confusing to people who are new to Buddhism. Most people think of it as a kind of happy bliss where one is smiling and joyous, almost like they’re on drugs. Or, people see Nirvana as a kind of nihilistic extinction.

Nirvana is neither of these things. It is the state of mind that all Buddhists aspire to in one way or another, but rather than trying to explain it myself, allow me to quote the Buddha:

“This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.”

Ok, peace sounds nice, but why would one want dispassion, cessation and so on? I mean, if you’re reading this, you might be thinking “my life is pretty good right now, why would I give that up?”

The key to Nirvana is insight. The Buddha experienced Nirvana only after he had reached enlightenment, saw into the nature of all things. Once that happened, he couldn’t look at life the same way, and learned to let go of all the things he craved after. It wasn’t a conscious effort, presumably, it was something he saw, and couldn’t unsee no matter how much he wanted. But having seen it, he let go of things he realized weren’t worth it. So, Nirvana is less about bliss and more about peace and contentment. One is perfectly OK with themselves, and everything else around them.

Let’s compare that to the regular state of things. Again, quoting from the Buddha:

There’s no fire like passion,
no loss like anger,
no pain like the aggregates,
no ease other than peace.

Hunger: the foremost illness.
Fabrications: the foremost pain.
For one knowing this truth
as it actually is,
Unbinding
is the foremost ease.

Freedom from illness: the foremost good fortune.
Contentment: the foremost wealth.
Trust: the foremost kinship.
Unbinding: the foremost ease.

Again, for one who can directly perceive how things work, one naturally inclines toward letting go, contentment, Nirvana.

Ok, but is really that bad? I mean, yeah, sometimes you have to deal with people you don’t like, have to do things you don’t like, but you also have friends, loved ones, cool stuff, etc. It’s just a part of life, isn’t it?

That’s exactly right.

People like to pursue things are fun, attractive, tasty, etc. If we encounter something we like, we want more of it. It becomes the new norm. We spend more and more effort to maintain that norm, and if we encounter something else that we like then that becomes our new norm and we have to strive to maintain that. However, the cost of all this is that we also have to endure a lot of things that are unpleasant: work, waiting, discomfort, etc. That’s the cost of enjoying the things you enjoy. You can’t separate the good from the bad.  It makes one weary.

Further, the Buddha perceived that all “fabrications” (that is, all things that come into existence) inevitably fade. This not only applies to physical things, but also states of mind, emotions, and other abstract things like fashion trends, etc. All things in this world have a tenuous existence, and won’t stay the same, no matter how much you want them to be. Your partner won’t stay young and attractive forever, and neither will you. Your favorite TV show has to end sometime, and even if it doesn’t, it just won’t be the same after a while.1 If you have a wonderful moment in your life, you can never go back to it, no matter how much you try to recreate the moment. It’s gone. Forever.

So, there’s no lasting refuge in this world. This is the crux of the First Noble Truth: it’s not that we’re living in constant agony, but that there’s no lasting peace, no lasting refuge in our lives. The rug keeps getting pulled out from under us sooner or later.

In one obscure sutra, the Buddha describes it like moths to a flame:

Rushing up but then too far, they miss the point;
Only causing ever newer bonds to grow.
So obsessed are some by what is seen and heard,
They fly just like these moths — straight into the flames.

Having understood this, the Buddha stopped grasping at phantoms he knew would fade. He just learned to let go and be ok with who he was right now, how he lived right now, etc. He didn’t fake this, didn’t consciously make himself happy, he just learned to let go because of direct perception because it was ultimately fruitless.

Buddhism is not an evangelical religion; it does not exist to conquer souls or save them from damnation. Instead the Buddha was like a doctor who understood why people were ill in their hearts, and offered a supreme medicine that people could take if they want. No compulsion; it’s just there.  Take it or leave it.  The Buddha himself stood as living proof that there was something better than the regular mode of life we all undergo, thought it’s hard to take on faith. One has to see it for themselves.

At any rate, Nirvana Day isn’t just commenting the Buddha’s accomplishment, it’s also a reminder that there’s more out there, if we’d only step through the door.

1 Firefly fans, take note. ;)

The 72 Seasons Of Japan

Hello,

A friend and co-worker “R” recently showed me a cool new iPhone app that I wanted to share called 72 Seasons. You can read an excellent review of this app on this blog, too. This is a free app provided by an advertising agency in Japan that shows the 72 seasons of the traditional Japanese calendar.

img_2534Most Japanese people today would not consciously know this calendar, but might intuitively know that nightingales come out in early spring, or things like that, in the same way that Americans know that pumpkins are associated with October and Halloween. Anyhow, each of the 72 seasons is about 5 days in the calendar,1 and obviously will vary a bit depending on what latitude you lived at. But each one has a poem, an in-season food and maybe a festival associated with it, among other things.

The above photo is a screenshot I took today. As you can see right now, it is the season of risshun (立春) or first spring. Setsubun is usually associated with risshun too. Also, each season includes a haiku (with explanation on the next page) either from antiquity or a contemporary haiku poet:

img_2535The poems are very lovely, and include a nice explanation of the meaning, and how it relates to that particular season. It’s pretty impressive that there’s haiku poetry for each of these 5-day seasons, when you think about it. The attention to nature is something I’ve always loved about Japanese culture.

Finally, for the in-season food right now is the komatsuna vegetable. Komatsuna is somewhat harder to find in the US, but my wife and I have bought it before, and I personally like it. I will have to try and find it soon since it is supposedly in season. ;)

img_2536Anyhow, for a free app, the quality is superb, and surprisingly detailed about each of the 72 seasons. Although this was a Japanese app originally, you would hardly notice it because the translations are so seamless. I am hoping that future versions will come with some kind of notification of the change in seasons though; it doesn’t seem to currently notify you when the seasons change, so I have to remember to check periodically.

But for anyone who’s curious about Japanese culture, I highly recommend it.

1 The traditional calendar in Asia, starting with China, originally had 24 “mini-seasons”, but in Japan each was further subdivided into three smaller events. For the example above, risshun, see the Wikipedia entry for further information.

Yoda: Zen Master

Yoda's Words

My 9-year old daughter is a big fan of the Star Wars series. On weekend nights we sometimes watch one of the Star Wars movies together when everyone else is asleep. She also enjoys reading the new “Jedi Academy” series of books

Because of the movies and books, she has become a big fan of Yoda the Jedi master, and she was inspired to compile a little booklet of quotes and phrases by Yoda for herself. :)

Truth is, there are a lot of things about Yoda that can be considered Buddhist. Many years ago, when I was in college, I was studying Kendo (Japanese fencing) for a year at the University of Washington,1 and one of the senior kendo teachers was a librarian at the UW as well. He had a poster of Yoda in his office, and often told me how Star Wars and Zen had much in common. I must have been 21 at the time.  After I quit Kendo,2 I never really thought about it anymore until recently when my daughter became so interested in Star Wars and Yoda.

As we watched the movies together, I started to notice it more. George Lucas was inspired by Asian spirituality so not everything about Star Wars relates to Buddhism, but the influences are certainly there. One great example is in the movie Episode III: Revenge of the Sith when Anakin Skywalker is talking about his premonitions of losing his wife:

Here Yoda is telling Anakin that the more he attaches to his wife, the more he will turn to the dark side. It’s not that he shouldn’t love his wife Padme, but he has to accept that someday she will be gone and make the most of their time together. This is very similar to what the Buddha would have taught, I think.

Another scene from the original trilogy, definitely shows influences from Zen Buddhism in particular:

Here Yoda says to Luke Skywalker that:

  • Things are only different in the mind.
  • He must unlearn what he has learned (i.e. preconceived notions), and
  • “Do or do not”… don’t get hung up on the outcome.

When my old kendo teacher talked about Yoda and Zen, I thought maybe it was just a bit of wishful thinking. But now, I’m older and have a better grasp of Buddhism and can appreciate these things more.

Anyhow, I might explore this more in future posts. Stay tuned!

1 Which is how I met my wife. ;) She had been doing kendo since middle school in Japan.

2 I only did it for a year, which was interrupted by a broken foot, then later by school obligations. I had an argument with my teacher, who felt I should tough it out more. He had a point but looking back I felt the way he said it was mean, and made me disillusioned about kendo since.  Truth is, I still miss the old kendo days sometimes but it’s much too late to go back. 

Faith

This was an interesting quote I found in the Buddhist Immeasurable Life Sutra, which is the cornerstone of Pure Land Buddhism:

“At that time the Buddha Lokeshvararaja recognized the Bhiksu Dharmakara’s noble and high aspirations, and taught him as follows: ‘If, for example, one keeps on bailing water out of a great ocean with a pint-measure, one will be able to reach the bottom after many kalpas and then obtain rare treasures. Likewise, if one sincerely, diligently and unceasingly seeks the Way, one will be able to reach one’s destination. What vow is there which cannot be fulfilled?’ (trans. Rev Hisao Inagaki)

“Faith” in this context is different than faith in the Judaeo-Christian sense, but it is an important feature of Buddhism.  If one lacks faith in the Dharma, and the benefits that derive from putting it into practice,1 then one will simply languish in life and get nowhere.

Of course, you can apply this advice to any pursuit in life, but it is doubly true where the Buddhist path is concerned.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Whatever Buddhist practice that be: meditation, reciting the Buddha’s name, etc.

JLPT N1: Failure

 

Well, I got my test results back from the JLPT N1 exam today:

  • Vocabulary 18 / 60
  • Reading: 0 / 60
  • Listening: 22 / 60

I passed only listening (barely), which is ironic because I thought that was my worst section. 

But how did I get 0 points in reading essays? I thought that was the easiest, and statistically I should’ve made a few correct choices. It was a multiple choice exam. My wife suspects my answers were off-by-one on the bubble-sheet which is plausible, not to mention very careless. Or, I am really that terrible. 

Certainly disapponting, though not surprising. I took a big risk in doing the exam without preparation, and relying only on reading and watching TV. 

So, part of me wants to try again, but this time I need to invest in preparation, practice and time, which is hard when you are raising two kids. Plus, I am less motivated these days since I have no aspirations to live in Japan anymore. 

Or, do I just cut my losses and be content with an N2?  That makes my life easier, but then I have to live life knowing I quit something without at least trying again. The pride in me would not sit well with that. 

Decisions, decisions…

A Brief Look At Yoshida Shintoism

Shinto is an interesting religion, somewhat similar to Hinduism, in that there is no formal doctrine and structure to it. Instead, as the native religion of Japan, it arose as a grass-roots collection of traditions and deities that eventually became the Shinto tradition.

However, when Buddhism came to Japan, things changed. Buddhism was a well-organized religion with doctrine, meta-physics, training, practices, etc. The first six schools of Buddhism in Japan were all devoted to study and interpretation of complex Buddhist schools of thought.

Shinto was never able to compete against this, so it became a kind of “secondary” religion in Japan. Shinto kami were often interpreted as manifestations of well-known Buddhist deities and so on.

However, there were attempts to organize Shinto along Buddhist lines in order to protect and preserve its traditions. One of the most well-known, before the modern era, is a Shinto sect called “Yoshida Shinto” (吉田神道) or “Yuiitsu Shinto” (唯一神道) meaning “the one and only Shinto”. It was started by a priest named Yoshida Kanetomo (吉田兼倶 1435-1511), who’s family suffered great misfortune during the dreaded Onin War. In the aftermath of the war, Kanetomo was determined to revive Shinto teachings, and and according to the Japanese Wikipedia entry, he synthesized Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian teachings of the time.

Kanetomo explained the relationship between the three religions using the example of a tree:

  • Buddhism was the blossoms.
  • Confucianism was the leaves and branches.
  • Shinto was the root and foundation.

In particular, Yoshida Shinto used elements of esoteric Buddhist practice but applied toward Shinto teachings and such.

Like most Shinto schools, it bases its teachings of core, ancient Japanese texts such as the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, etc., but its interpretation of these texts had influences from Buddhism and Confucianism along with folks beliefs.

Today, the influence of Yoshida Shintoism is not very extensive, but Yoshida Jinja, the home shrine is still a venerable shrine within Japan, and otherwise pretty mainstream. The website mostly seems to talk about general Shinto services and practices.

Still, it seems like it was an interesting experiment, one of many that arose during late-medieval Japan, to reconcile Buddhism and Shinto in a way that asserted “native” Shinto religious sensibilities more.

http://www.imakumanojinja.or.jp/media/myweb1014007.pdf

The Controversy Behind Shinran and His Son Zenran

The founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (the Buddhist sect I am affiliated with), named Shinran, had a number of challenges in his life, but probably the most difficult challenge was between himself and his own son, Zenran (善鸞 1217 ? – 1286 ?). Zenran was also frequently referred by this Buddhist name Jishin-bō (慈信房).

The trouble between Shinran and Zenran began late in life after Shinran had been pardoned from exile, and returned to Kyoto in the last years of his life. According to Professor Dobbins in Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan, the trouble began when some members in the Kanto Region (near modern-day Tokyo) promoted the idea that since they were saved by Amitabha Buddha, they no longer needed to be good.  They would indulge in all the evils they wanted since they were covered by the compassion of Amitabha’s vow to save all beings.  This is often called antinomianism or “license evil”, which Shinran discouraged. Zenran was sent to help lead the community there and speak for Shinran, however that’s when things took a turn for the worse.

I was reading through the letters of Shinran, translated here, and there are some interesting letters that Shinran exchanges with followers, and with his own son.  For example, in this letter, year unknown, Shinran described his frustration and concern with Zenran/Jishin-bō:

I have been informed that, following the various things that Jishin-bo has said, the minds of the people have been shaken in different ways. This is deeply distressing. You should entrust all things to the working of the revered Buddha. If conditions [for teaching the nembutsu] in that area have been exhausted, you should think about moving to another place. If you accept what Jishin-bo is saying – that I have instructed people to spread the nembutsu by relying on outside people as powerful supporters, which I have never said – it will be an unmitigated error. The Buddha has taught beforehand that, as the custom of the secular world, there would be attempts to obstruct the nembutsu; hence, you should not be taken aback by it. You should never, under any circumstances, take the various things Jishin-bo is saying as coming from me. Concerning the teachings, he is making groundless remarks. You should not give him your ear. I hear of incredibly erroneous views; it is deplorable….It appears to have been of no value whatever that they have for a long time copied and possessed various writings. I think that Essentials for Faith Alone and the various other writings have now become useless to them. The teachings that they carefully copied out and kept are now all worthless to them. I have heard that all the people, following Jishin-bo, have discarded those splendid writings. I lament this deeply.

It appears that Zenran became heavy-handed and attempted to co-opt local authorities in spreading the nembutsu, while at the same time asserting his own religious authority.  In this letter addressed directly to Zenran/Jishin-bō, year unknown, Shinran is furious at Zenran for trying to claim that Zenran has an exclusive teaching from Shinran (in order to assert his claim to authority), and that past religious work is therefore invalid:

I find it indeed deplorable that people in the various areas are saying in different ways that it is meaningless for people of the countryside to have all been saying the nembutsu for years. Although they have copied and possessed various writings, how have they been reading them? It makes me feel extremely apprehensive.

I have heard that about ninety of the people who had gathered around Chutaro of Obu have all followed you and abandoned the lay-monk Chutaro, because you, having traveled there from Kyoto, declared that only the teaching you have heard here is true and that all their saying of the nembutsu for years is meaningless. How has such a thing come about? It appears to me that, in short, their shinjin had not been settled. How is it that so many people could have been shaken? I find it lamentable. Since there are rumors of this kind, there must also be many false statements. Further, since I have heard that I am being accused of favoritism, I made great efforts to write down the meaning of Essentials of Faith Alone, On the Afterlife, and Self-power and Other Power, and also the Parable of the Two Rivers, and to distribute them to people. But I hear that they have all become useless. How have you been teaching the people? I hear you are saying incomprehensible things and am troubled by it. Please explain matters to me in detail.

and:

I have duly received your reports concerning Shinbutsu-bo, Shoshin-bo, and Nyushin-bo. Although I find it deeply lamentable, there is nothing I can do about it. It is also beyond my powers to correct others who do not have the same mind. Since people are not of the same mind, it is useless to say one thing or another. At this point, you should not speak about others. Please take this fully to heart.

Shinran clearly denies that he gave Zenran any special teachings in this letter to another follower:

…thus I have spoken for long years. In spite of this, at the words of a person like Jishin, the nembutsu practicers of Hitachi and Shimotsuke all were shaken at heart and went so far as to cast away all those wholly dependable, authoritative writings which I exhausted my strength in copying out in great numbers to send to them. Hearing of this, I know it is useless to speak about details.

To begin, I have never heard such statements as Jishin’s or even the terminology he uses, much less learned them; hence, what he says cannot be something I taught him privately. Further, I have not instructed Jishin alone, whether day or night, in a special teaching, concealing it from other people.

However, in spite of Shinran’s denials, and stern warning to Zenran, clearly the situation did not improve.  Finally, Shinran resorts to disowning his own son, as captured in this letter composed in 1256:

Further, I have never heard and do not know such statements concerning the teaching as you are making or even the terminology you use. Nevertheless, you have been telling others that I taught them to you privately one night, and so, concerning me also, the people of Hitachi and Shimotsuke are all saying that I have lied to them. Therefore, there shall no longer exist parental relations with you.

Further, it is inexpressibly shocking that you are making groundless accusations about your mother, the lay-nun. The woman of Mibu came bringing a letter that she said she received from you; she left the letter here. I have this letter of yours. In this letter as it stands, it is written that you have been deceived by your “stepmother”; it is indeed deplorable. It is a shocking falsehood to say, while she is still alive, that your mother – whom you call “stepmother” – has been deceiving you.

Further, in the letter to the woman of Mibu you make statements about your birth without knowing anything about it; these are utterly incomprehensible falsehoods. I lament this deplorable matter.

It is distressing that you have spoken such lies and that you have petitioned the Rokuhara and Kamakura magistrates concerning them. Falsehoods of this kind are worldly matters and thus may be dismissed as such. Even so, telling lies is wretched, and how much more grievous is it to mislead others regarding the great concern of birth in the land of bliss, casting the people of the nembutsu in Hitachi and Shimotsuke into confusion, and to make groundless accusations about your father.

I have heard that you likened the Eighteenth Primal Vow to a withered flower, so that all the people have abandoned it. This is truly the offense of slandering the dharma. Further, to favor the five grave offenses and to harm people by misleading them is lamentable.

The offense here of disrupting the sangha is one of the five grave offenses. To make groundless accusations about me is to murder your father; it is among the five grave offenses. I cannot fully express my grief at hearing these things. Hence, from now on there shall no longer exist parental relations with you; I cease to consider you my son. I declare this resolutely to the three treasures and the gods. It is a sorrowful thing. It rends my heart to hear that you have devoted yourself to misleading all the people of the nembutsu in Hitachi, saying that [what they have been taught] is not my true teaching. Rumors have reached as far as Kamakura that I have instructed you to denounce the people in Hitachi who say the nembutsu. It is deeply deplorable.

Here, Shinran summarizes some of what Zenran is accused of doing:

  • Telling followers in Shimotsuke and Hitachi provinces to abandon the existing nembutsu practice taught by Shinran.
  • Instead, Zenran promoted his own teachings and practices, though the letters do not explain what these are.
  • Third, Zenran conspired with local officials to promote his teaching over other teachings.
  • Fourth, Zenran effectively disavowed his own mother calling her his step-mother, in order to further his teachings.

It’s not clear why Zenran went to such bizarre lengths to assert his religious authority over the followers in the Kanto Region, but it’s clear that it caused a great deal of doubt, confusion and turmoil there, and Zenran simply refused to comply with this father.  Thus, he was ultimately disowned.

It’s not clear what happened after that, though it is implied that the issue was ultimately resolved.  Strangely, there is a Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist sect that still reveres Zenran as the second patriarch, after Shinran called the Izumo-ji sect (出雲路派).  The head temple, Gōshōji, in Fukui Prefecture has a website here in Japanese, but in speaking of the history of the temple, it only explains that the property once belonged to Zenran and was given to future generations.  So, even then, perhaps Goshoji doesn’t want to speak of Zenran too much.

So, anyhow, that’s a closer look at the controversy and disaster that befell the Jodo-Shinshu community under Zenran’s authority, and the efforts Shinran went to put an end to it.  It’s a sad tale in Shinshu history, but an important reminder of the need to avoid too much authority in the hands of one person.

The Mathematics of Buddhism

Flower Garland Sutra

Recently I discovered the 30th chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra, which is titled “The Incalculable”. This chapter is somewhat shorter but takes a very unique approach to expressing the massive scale of the Universe.  The Buddha begins by saying:

At that time the enlightening being [bodhisattva] Mind King said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, the buddhas speak of incalculable, measureless, boundless, incomparable, innumerable, unaccountable, unthinkable, immeasurable, unspeakable, untold numbers- what are these?”

…The Buddha said, “Ten to the tenth power [1010] times ten to the tenth power equals ten to the twentieth power [1020]; ten to the twentieth power times ten to the twentieth power is ten to the fortieth power [1040]….”

(trans. Thomas Cleary)

From there, the Buddha then just keeps squaring each number.  As you see above, the numbers get extremely large.  I can’t even imagine how big 10101493292610318652755325638410240 is.  That’s a lot of zeros!  For example, a billion is 109 while a trillion is 1012 and so on.  So it’s almost impossible to imagine how big a number that is.1

The point of this mathematical exercise is to demonstrate that the Universe in its totality is almost incomprehensible in scale, even to a bodhisattva who has deep insight.  Only a buddha can truly fathom it.

Also, the same chapter then has a long verse section afterwards which expresses in poetic form how all things are contained within all other things.  Even a single hairtip contains this unfathomably huge cosmos, and in turn the contains contains the hairtip:

The lands [realms?] on a point the size of a hairtip

Are measureless, unspeakable

So are the lands on every single point

Throughout the whole of space.

One of the central themes of the Flower Garland Sutra is the total interconnectedness of all things.  A single kernel of rice contains the sun’s energy, rain, minerals from the soil, the labor of the people who farmed it, and so on.  If you stretch this out far enough, that kernel of rice then contains the universe, but you can apply this same logic to anything else in the Universe big or small.  When you add all this up, this creates a truly profound but almost incomprehensible web of relationships.

Chapter 30 of the Sutra expresses this probably better than any Buddhist literature I’ve read thus far.

1 By the way, if exponential math is intimidating, I found this website provides a nice simple explanation of how it works.

Sumo: A Primer

Hello all,

My family and I have access to some Japanese TV through a local cable-channel here in the US (TV Japan), and they often play Sumo wrestling tournaments.  As an American, I thought Sumo was very strange at first because all I saw were really fat dudes wrestling.  Then, years ago, I saw Sumo champion Konishiki on Japanese TV explaining some of the techniques Sumo wrestlers have to use.  He demonstrated the difference between a regular slap to the face, and a Sumo-style slap.  The target (one of the show’s hosts) was on the floor on the second slap.  It was pretty funny, but it really made me think about how there’s more technique to Sumo then I first thought.

Now that I watch Sumo wrestling tournaments monthly, I’ve started to learn more and more about the sport and wanted to share with readers.

History

Sumo wrestling has deep roots in the native Shinto religion (as opposed to the foreign-imported Buddhism), and so although it is a sport, it does include a lot of Shinto rituals as well.

The origins of Sumo are pretty obscure, but there are examples of Sumo-like rituals in Shinto shrines since antiquity.  Sometimes wrestling has been used in military training as well.  However, true Sumo wrestling as we know it, also known as ōzumō (大相撲), appeared in the Edo Period (1600 – 1868) when wandering samurai were looking for additional income, but then started in certain Shinto shrines before it became an organized sport we know today.

In recent years, foreigners have been allowed to compete as well, so you often see wrestlers from Mongolia, including the current grand champion Hakuhō (白鵬), as well as from eastern European countries like Bulgaria, and the country of Georgia.

Rules

The rules of Sumo are super simple:

  • The first one to step out of the ring in any way loses.
  • The first one to touch the ground with any part of their body besides their feet loses.

From here, the challenge for the professional Sumo wrestler is to figure out how to either push out, throw out, or topple their opponent, who is trying to do the same thing.  Sumo wrestlers are deceptively fast and flexible (they have to practice doing the splits, for example), and employ many techniques when toppling their opponent.

At the end of the match, after an opponent loses, you’ll see on TV which technique the winner used to defeat them.  Common techniques include:

  • Yorikiri (寄り切り) – pushing the opponent straight out of the ring with your body.
  • Tsukidashi (突き出し) – pushing the opponent out of the ring forcefully with both hands.
  • Oshidashi (押し出し) – this technique involves lifting the opponent out of the ring by hooking under their armpit for leverage.
  • Nagete (投げ手) – a group of techniques involving grappling your opponent, often by the belt, and throwing them out.  One example is uwatenage (上手投げ) which is a throw with the outer-arm.
  • Tsukiotoshi (突き落し) – while grappling an opponent you flip them over to one side causing them to lose balance.

There’s a great website in Japanese that shows different techniques and other basics of Sumo here.  I used it as a reference for some of the techniques above.

Before the match starts, it is customary for Sumo wrestlers to throw salt into the ring.  This is related to Shinto rituals for purifying a space, but some wrestlers also like to put extra gusto in their throws to show of.  It’s fun to see certain wrestler’s style.

Sumo Matches

Sumo matches often take place in periodic tournaments through the country. These are called honbasho (本場所) and take place according the following schedule (source: Wikipedia):

Honbasho Nickname City Venue Opening Day
January Hatsu (Opening) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 1st or 2nd Sunday
March Haru (Spring) Basho Osaka Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium 2nd Sunday
May Natsu (Summer) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 2nd Sunday
July Nagoya Basho Nagoya Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium 1st or 2nd Sunday
September Aki (Autumn/Fall) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 2nd Sunday
November Kyūshū Basho Fukuoka Fukuoka Kokusai Center 2nd Sunday

Apart from this, there are also various other exhibition tournaments and such, but only the six official tournaments count toward one’s official ranking (more on that later).

I took some photos from one of the matches we watched recently.  Here you can see the next two wrestlers are being introduced:

Both of these wrestlers are maegashira rank (前頭), but the guy on the left is 9th rank, while the guy on the right is 11th rank.  Lower number means higher rank. Both are from Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本), though from different cities.  Their professional Sumo names, or shikona (四股名) are often contain dramatic images from Japanese culture, or just sound somewhat poetic.  They are often read in native-Japanese “kun-yomi” if you study Japanese, though not always.  For example, wrestlers from certain stables will have 琴 (koto) in their name, as in the musical instrument.  Others will have 富士 (Mt. Fuji) in their name.    Foreigners will often have names that reflect where their from in some clever way, or maybe something about their culture.

The two wresters above are 佐田の海 (sada no umi) on the left, and 正代 (shōdai) on the right. The name on the left is read kun-yomi style, while the name on the right is an on-yomi (Chinese-style) reading.

Here you can see the wrestlers facing off. The guy in the red is the referee. He has the dual-responsibilities of determining who wins, but also firing up the wrestlers to keep the match from getting stale. Sumo matches are typically very short, and shouldn’t last more than a minute or two.  You can hear the referee yelling or chanting things over and over. At the beginning of the match, he’ll also say ‘hakkiyoi!’

Finally, when the match is over, the loser will bow and exit.  When the tournament is sponsored, sometimes the winner will crouch, while the referee hands him a stack of money which is the prize money.  The wrestler makes a couple ritual gestures, takes the money and exits the ring.  For higher-ranking wrestlers, the stack of money is quite large, while lower-ranking wrestlers might not receive any at all.

Special prize money is sometimes awarded for exceptional performances, or at the discretion of the judges or the tournament officials for other reasons.  In any case, a good wrestler can expect various bonuses and rewards for his efforts.

Rankings

The rankings in Sumo are pretty complex and hierarchal.  Here is the rankings in descending order:

  • Yokozuna (横綱), grand-champion
  • Ozeki (大関), champion
  • Sekiwake (関脇)
  • Komusumi (小結)
  • Maegashira (前頭)
  • Jūryō
  • Makushita
  • Sandanme
  • Jonidan
  • Jonokuchi

Any from maegashira or higher is considered makuuchi ranking (幕内), which is like the ‘major leagues’.  Literally, makuuchi means “within the curtain”, because in the old days these were the rankings that could sit within the tent/curtain, while lower-ranking sumo were stuck outside waiting.

Rankings in general are based on winnings and loses over time in the official tournaments.  If you win a lot, you tend to go up; if you tend to lose, your ranking goes down.  Becoming a Yokozuna or grand-champion requires winning two consecutive tournaments and approval from the Sumo association, so it requires not just a winning record, but also a good reputation.  Yokozuna are champions for life, and it’s possible to have more than one living, but overall, it’s a very long road to becoming a grand-champion.  Once you reach that level though, you can’t lose it.  Also, you get to wear a special belt during the tournament, and take part in special ceremonies at the start of the tournament.  The current Yokozuna is Hakuhō (白鵬), whom I mentioned earlier.  You can see an example match (skip to 04:00 if you are in a hurry) of Hakuho:

Also, ranking has privileges too.  If you’re stuck in a lower-rank, you often get stuck doing more menial tasks at the stable, and wear simpler clothes, while higher-ranking sumo have fewer chores and can wear warmer, nicer clothes.

Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive look at the sport of Sumo, but for a foreigner like me, it’s what I’ve figured out so far.  Sumo is definitely not what I expected it to be, and personally I find it pretty fascinating.  I hope readers get a chance to watch a sumo match too.

New Buddhism Course

Hello everyone,

Just a quick update, but I’ve recently posted on the blog a new Introduction to Buddhism Series.  I mentioned in the past that I was planning on teaching a series at the local temple, and having finished the first two courses, I felt it was worth posting on the blog as well for a larger audience.  I know some people expressed interest in the past.  :)

As the page states, this is mainly written for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, but I think other folks may find at least the first two courses useful (or maybe not).  Also, I am still in the process of copying some materials to the course, so as of writing, only Buddhism 101 is complete.  I hope to have 102 available in the coming weeks.

Anyhow, enjoy!