Karma and Rebirth: a brief explanation

I was happy to get so much positive feedback from my last video on Ohigan, so I decided to make another one. This one explores the concepts of “karma” (or kamma) and rebirth in the context of Buddhism. It’s a pretty broad and complex subject, so I tried to stick to something very brief. Hope you enjoy. :)

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Happy Otsukimi Moon-Viewing 2015

Hi Everyone,

Otsukimi moon viewing children's art

This weekend there are a lot of Autumn-festivals going on across places like China, Korea and Japan. I’ve talked about Korean Chuseok before, so today I wanted to post about the Japanese festival of O-tsukimi (お月見). Compared to Chuseok or Chinese Autumn Festival, Otsukimi is a little more low-key, but fun for the family.

All three holidays occur traditionally on the full moon (the 15th day) of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. In Japanese this is known as chūshū no meigetsu (中秋の名月, “harvest moon”) and people traditionally have a night of moon-viewing, eating dango snacks and drinking saké.1 It’s a nice family event. The word otsukimi literally just means “moon-viewing”.

To celebrate Otsukimi this year, I wanted to share a poem from the ancient poetry anthology, the Kokin Wakashū:

秋の月 Aki no tsuki
山辺さやかに yamabe sayaka ni
照らせるは teraseru wa
落つるもみぢの otsuru momiji no
数を見よとか kazu wo miyo to ka

Which is translated as:

The autumn moon shines
brilliantly upon the
mountain range to show
us the very number of
the fallen colored leaves.

Happy Moon-Viewing/Autumn Festival Everyone!

P.S. My son, now almost 2 years old, helped decorate this picture above. According to Japanese legend, a rabbit lived on the moon, and pounded mochi until the moon was full. Then, the rabbit would eat it, until the new moon, and repeat the cycle. Little Guy helped decorate the white “dango”. :)

P.P.S. This page has helpful schedules for Otsukimi up through 2020.

1 Apparently there is also a lesser-known tradition, unique to Japan only that is celebrated on the 13th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar. During this day, roasted chestnuts and edamame are offered along with dango. This is variably called nochi no tsuki 後の月, jūsanya (十三夜) and/or kuri meigestu (栗名月).

Posted in Family, Japan, Poetry | 2 Comments

Ohigan and Crossing Over

Hi guys,

I had some free time recently and put together a small video about what Ohigan means and how it fits into Buddhist themes in general:

It is pretty short but talks about Shan-tao’s famous Parable of the Two Rivers among other things. Instead of just talking into a camera, I thought it would be more fun to use “slides”. It’s pretty low-tech, though.

Enjoy and Happy Ohigan!

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu | Tagged | 1 Comment

Fall Ohigan 2015: Authentic Living the Buddhist Way

Hi Guys,

It’s Ohigan season again. For this season’s post I got burst of inspiration came recently after I saw this article about a parody account that pokes fun of the recent “Authentic Lifestyle” movement. You can see pictures of authentic lifestyles online now, and there are plenty of selfhelp websites to help you live an authentic lifestyle.

It sounds very tempting doesn’t it? Live a life the way you want to, the way that feels right for you. Life will be great, without friction, authentic, and most important: happy.

But unfortunately very few people, if anyone, live like this. Not everyone can be an attractive twenty-something hipster with the time and money to spare. Somebody has to clean the toilets every day, and somebody else has to work in a factory making the designer hiking clothes you wear, the non-gmo, organic, free-trade food you eat and so on.

In fact, most of us can’t live this kind of lifestyle to begin with. You see, life is often messy, complicated and demanding. The Buddha knew this long ago when he formulated the Four Noble Truths. The very first one states that existence is marked with suffering. People aren’t suffering all the time, but there is plenty of frustrations and stress to go around. Or in his words (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, SN 56.11):

“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

On a typical day, we experience “micro-frustrations” when we have to associate with things we don’t like, be separated from things we like, not get what we want, and so on. We have obligations we have to attend to, things we worry about, etc.

In the Immeasurable Life Sutra, the Buddha describes life like so:

“Because they are spiritually defiled, deeply troubled and confused, people indulge their passions. Hence, many are ignorant of the Way, and few realize it. Everyone is restlessly busy, having nothing upon which to rely. Whether moral or corrupt, of high or low rank, rich or poor, noble or base, all are preoccupied with their own work.

The trouble with the “authentic lifestyle” is nothing new: it’s just a nice way of saying a self-indulgent lifestyle. Further, the more you try to indulge yourself, the more dissatisfied and agitated you become.

Instead, the Buddha offered different advice to his son Rahula. Rahula had followed his father’s footsteps and joined the monastic community and some of the early sutras are conversations between the Buddha and his son. In this sutra, the Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62), he tells Rahula the following:

“Rahula, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.'”

“Just form, O Blessed One? Just form, O One Well-gone?”

“Form, Rahula, & feeling & perception & fabrications & consciousness.”

The Buddha’s advice seems pretty counter-intuitive at first. Of course it’s my feelings, my thoughts and my life.

But are they? The Buddha taught that everything arises through temporary causes and conditions, and when those causes and conditions fade, things fade too. Your thoughts and feelings often arise from outside conditions (hunger, cold, annoying co-workers, etc), and much of who you are is shaped by the environment you grew up in, for better or worse. This is why it’s so hard to fulfill one’s desires: when you satisfied one, another arises because conditions keep arising. The harder you grasp, the more exhausted you become. There’s no end to it.

So, at some point, you just have to drop the baggage you’ve been carrying around and just leave it where it is. You won’t be able to solve all the problems in your life in the span of time you have (even if you lived 1,000 years), so just let them be. Cherish your friends and family because they are here for you and accept you for what you are. You don’t own them, but they are some of the positive causes and conditions that help you to be who you are.

Don’t worry about what you could have or could be, focus on your life now. It probably sucks in some major ways, but it’s not who you are. It’s not a reflection of you. It just is what it is.

Happy Ohigan!

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The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. ;)

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. :)

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same

Posted in China, Confucius, Japan, Korea, Poetry | 4 Comments

Happy Day of the Chrysanthemum 2015

Hi Guys,

September 9th is the Day of the Chrysanthemum in traditional Japanese culture, one of the 5 sekku (節句) in calendar year.

To celebrate I wanted to share a couple poems about autumn chrysanthemums from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology. In the second a “Autumn” section, there are a surprising number of poems about chrysanthemums. Apparently it was a popular topic for courtiers in those days.

This poem, number 270 by Ki no Tomonori, captures the spirit of the Chrysanthemum Festival:

露ながら tsuyu nagara
折りてかざさん orite kazasan
菊の花 kiku no hana
老いせぬ秋の oisenu aki no
久しかるべく hisashikarubeku

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

To wear in my hair
I plucked a chrysanthemum
which dew still clinging
to it — oh may this present
autumn’s youth last forever.

And also poem 272, by Sugawara no Michizane (who later became the God of Learning):

秋風の akikaze no
吹上に立てる fukiage ni tateru
白菊は shiragiku wa
花かあらぬか hana ka aranu ka
浪の寄するか nami no yosuru ka

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

White chrysanthemums
standing in the rushing winds
on autumn beaches
at Fukiage — are they
blossoms, or are they breaking waves?

Have a fun, youthful Day of the Chrysanthemum and consider giving some of the ones you live. :)

Posted in Japan, Poetry | Tagged | 4 Comments

You Can Change!

Hi guys,

I haven’t posted in a long while, but I was recently inspired to write a post on this famous quote by the Buddhist master, Nagarjuna. Nāgārjuna (c.150 – c.250 CE) was an influential Indian Buddhist monk who also founded the Madhyamaka school or “Middle Way” school of Buddhist philosophy. Many works are attributed to him, but only one is certain: the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way or Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā.

The FVMW is a series of verses where Nagarjuna expresses the Middle Way school, and negates absolutes by other schools. The most famous quote is this one quoted in the book Nagarjuna’s Middle Way:

sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate

All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.

In other words, because nothing is static, because everything is “empty”, everything is possible.

This statement has profound implications, both negative and possible. Something very positive can decline, fade or change into something unwholesome, but likewise something awful and seemingly impossible can become something wholesome.

This applies to people too. A person who’s addicted to drinking can sober up and become a respectable person. A person can transform lust into brotherly goodwill. And so on.

That’s the other implication of Nagarjuna’s emptiness (śūnyatā): things arise because of other causes and conditions. The Buddha taught the same thing in such early sutras as the Assutavā Sutta (SN 12.61):

“The instructed disciple of the noble ones, [however,] attends carefully and appropriately right there at the dependent co-arising:

“‘When this is, that is.
“‘From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
“‘When this isn’t, that isn’t.
“‘From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Thus, one can’t simply change their mind, or change their ways at the drop of a hat. Genuine change comes under the right conditions. When wholesome conditions exist, the right states of mind arise, leading to further change, conditions and so on. Just like a pistol: when the hammer hits the powder, there’s a flash and a chain reaction goes off.

Nagarjuna’s teachings in the FVMW provide us with the necessary confidence to effect change in our lives, but the Buddha’s teachings provide us with a simple formula about how to go about it.

Posted in Buddhism | Tagged | 3 Comments