Burning the Candle At Both Ends

Hi Everyone,

In the past month or so, I’ve been participating in two Buddhist groups: one Jodo Shinshu (the temple in Seattle) and an online Zen sangha that’s pretty well-known.

I talked about going to the local Jodo Shinshu temple a while back when I talked about ordination. Both my kids attend the Dharma School there (like Sunday School but with a Buddhist context) and my wife likes Jodo Shinshu, so it works well for all of us. Plus, I’ve made some progress toward ordination (though it will take 3-4 years at this rate), and I am happy about that. I feel more confident about it than my struggles in the past.

Meanwhile, I’ve started exploring Soto Zen (曹洞宗, sōtō-shū) as well. It started around the time I wrote this post. I wanted to attend the nearby Rinzai temple I visited before, but as a father of two kids, the times and the membership fees just wouldn’t work. So, I almost gave up, but then I found a certain online Zen sangha that is well-known. I was cautious at first, but after registering, I found that the community there is well-organized and supportive.

Soto Zen uses an meditation approach called shikantaza (只管打坐) which in English just means something like “do nothing but sitting”. The idea is that instead of focusing your meditation on breathing, or a visual image, just sit.

I’ve been trying this for about 4 weeks, meditating for about 15 minutes a day. I miss a few days, but so far I’ve done pretty well in staying diligent. In addition, I still recite the nembutsu and some sutra (often the Lotus Sutra or Amitabha Sutra) too.

So, as they say in English, I am burning the candle at both ends.1 ;)

So, I might post more Zen-related posts going forward in addition to other things. I don’t know if I will be able to stick with it, or even if I intend to get ordained in Soto Zen, but time will tell.


P.S. Accidentally posted this too early, so I guess it’s another double-post day. ;p

1 Actually the phrase “burning the candle at both ends” means working all night and day (not getting much sleep). It just sounds nice here. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Zen | 1 Comment

The Science of Kanji Part 7: Reading Compound Words

Most people who learn Japanese kanji, or Chinese characters, tend to learn them in isolation: one character at a time. But in reality. They are often used as compound words. So learning individual characters isn’t enough: you have to learn to read compound words effectively. Someday you might even see something like this:


How are you expected to read so many kanji?

Thankfully it’s easier than it looks once you understand some basics:

  • Most compound words usually come in two, maybe three kanji at most. Even the famous 4-character phrases in Japanese (yojijukugo), are just 2 pairs of 2-kanji compound words.
  • Longer words can usually be broken down into pairs of kanji.

Let’s start with a simple example:


The words in orange are 警告 keikoku, which means “warning” or “caution”. The kanji means to warn or admonish and means to inform or proclaim. One kanji might be enough, but it feels like something’s missing. It looks much better when you have two kanji together in a compound word. This allows for all kinds of nuances that are hard to do in English:

  • 社長 – shachō a CEO or head of a business.
  • 園長 – enchō head of a zoo or park.
  • 店長 – tenchō owner or head of a small business.
  • 婦長 – fuchō head nurse

You get the idea, right? By combining two kanji together, you can express a lot more ideas. So, it’s very common to see compound words using two kanji.

You calso see words with three kanji though:


This a single word, 消火栓 shōkasen, which as you can see means ‘fire hydrant’. The word 消火 means to extinguish a fire, but 栓 means a plug, cork or stopper, so it modifies the word a little. It implies that material (water, fire-retardent, etc) is stored there (literally, “stopped up”) for extinguishing fires. Another example would be 消費税 shōhizei, where 消費 is consumption (i.e. shopping) and 税 means tax. So, this is a tax for sales and consumption: a sales tax.

This is about as complicated as words get.

Now, here is a four-character word:


This is 非常電話, hijōdenwa, which just means emergency phone (or intercom). It is one word, but actually is made up of two smaller words: 非常 (emergency) and 電話 (phone). Pretty easy.

So what about this example?


You can break it down into pairs:

  • 京都 – kyōto, the city of Kyoto
  • 大学 – daigaku, university
  • 野性 – yasei, wild
  • 動物 – dōbutsu, animal
  • 研究 – kenkyū, research
  • センター – sentā, center (this is katakana, not Chinese characters)

If you put it together, you get the Kyoto University Wild Animal Research Center.

If you’re new to Japanese language, it looks intimidating, but once you know how to break down longer words into smaller ones, it’s actually pretty easy to read.

Posted in Chinese, Japanese, Language | 1 Comment

Ohatsumairi: Visiting the Buddha for the First Time

This Sunday, my baby-boy “Little Guy” took part in a Japanese-Buddhist ceremony called ohatsumairi (お初参り) or more formally, shosanshiki (初参式). The word ohatsumairi literally means “first visit” where “mairi” is from the humble verb mairu (参る). This is somewhat similar to the Christian rite of infant baptism, because you are welcoming a young baby into a religious community. In the case of ohatsumairi, you’re sort of presenting the child before the Buddha, and making a pledge to raise him or her with good Buddhist values. Our minister here at the local Jodo Shinshu temple explained that this is not a binding agreement (your child doesn’t have to grow up Buddhist), but instead a commitment to raise them well and teach them good values like kindness, wisdom, tolerance, etc.

Anyhow, the ceremony was pretty simple. As a family, we came up to the Buddhist altar, offered a pinch of powdered incense to the brazier, and then the minister touch Little Guy’s head three times gently with a sutra. I think it was the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀経). Little Guy didn’t like this and pushed the sutra way, so I had to hold his arm for a moment. During this time, the minister said in Japanese:

南無帰依仏 Namu Kie Butsu
南無帰依法 Namu Kie Hō
南無帰依僧 Namu kie Sō

In English, this means “I got to the Buddha for refuge, I go to the Dharma for refuge, I go to the Sangha for refuge”. In other words, the Three Treasures of Buddhism. Little Guy received a tiny rosary (お念珠, o-nenju) as well and a certificate. The minister gave a speech to all the families, we took a photo and that was it. My daugther, Princess, did the same ceremony when she was about 3 years old (almost 5 years ago), so I don’t remember it too well, but I think it had been similar.

My daughter seems actively interested in Buddhism,1 but I don’t know about Little Guy yet. He’s much too young. But, I do believe it’s important to let kids explore their own religious beliefs, so if Little Guy doesn’t want to be Buddhist, that’s fine with us. We just want him to be a good, kind person.

Still, I am happy that this temple offers such ceremonies. I have been frustrated by other Buddhist temples in Seattle that focus so much on meditation or study, they seem to offer no family or children’s services. It’s hard to develop a real community if you don’t grow up in it. So, I think some of these temples will eventually fade after a couple generations if they don’t expand and adapt. Many people have work and families to take care of. They can’t spend all their time doing lengthy Zen practice, or doing advanced Tantra under a guru.

Anyhow, Little Guy is now “Buddhist”. He had a good time playing in the children’s room and slept for a long time on the way home. I guess he had fun. :)

1 She admires Daddy a lot, so she tries to act like me. Plus, I think she gets teased about being a different religion sometimes, so she wants to learn more about Buddhism. That’s my guess. Also, she’s starting to sing really pretty now (that comes from my sister, I think). So, I heard her singing a Buddhist hymn recently which surprised because a) her voice sounded really nice and b) the song she sang was in Pali, the original language of Buddhism. She’s such a nerd like her father. ;p

Posted in Buddhism, Family, Jodo Shinshu | Leave a comment

Foreigners on Japanese TV

As many folks know, Japan and other Asian countries are pretty ethnically homogenous. In Japan, 99% of the people there are ethnically Japanese, they speak Japanese language, they eat Japanese food, do things the Japanese way, etc. So, there aren’t a lot of foreigners in Japan, and thus you rarely see them on TV. In the past, you might see foreigners on TV in Japan, but usually they’re minor characters like World War II soldiers. It’s funny, but many of those actors aren’t American either.1 They’re accents sound European or other things. ;p

Also, a few foreigners speak Japanese well and sometimes appear on talk shows, variety shows, etc. Some of these actors and celebrities are kind of arrogant or annoying, so I think they are famous because they’re foreign and speak Japanese well, not because they are good people. In other words, I feel like some of these people wouldn’t succeed in their home country, but are able to find success in a foreign one.

Anyhow, I was quite surprised to see NHK’s latest 朝ドラ (asa dora or “morning miniseries”) called Massan (マッサン). I’ve written about these morning dramas before. The main character is always female, and usually it features a different prefecture in Japan each time. However, what’s interesting is that in this miniseries, the main female character is white, not Japanese. She is an American actor named Charlotte Kate Fox, playing a Scottish character who married a Japanese man. The story takes places in 1920’s Japan2 and they want to start the first Japanese whiskey-distillery.

Interracial dating isn’t something you see much on Japanese TV, especially on popular, high-quality dramas like this. It’s really quite a refreshing change. Also, it’s interesting because most of the time, people assume that white men (or black men) date Asian women, but here things are reversed. Her husband, Masaharu, is very open to her Scottish culture and cooking, and helps defend her from more close-minded Japanese people. Also, the actress speaks almost entirely in Japanese in this drama, and pretty often. My wife was impressed that she had so much Japanese dialogue. I think they make a cute couple on screen. :)

Anyhow, it’s cool that interracial dating is now a hot topic, even in a place like Japan. As someone who’s happily married to my wife, and has two bi-racial kids, it makes me hopeful for the future. :)

P.S. Thanks to reader “Han” for pointing out that this story is based on a real woman named Rita Taketsuru.

1 The US has the same problem: a lot of movies and TV shows with Asian characters usually have people who aren’t the right ethnicity. You often see Korean actors playing Japanese characters, Japanese actors playing Chinese characters, etc. Most Americans wouldn’t know the difference. :P

2 Japan still had good relations with the West in the 1920’s, but things got worse in the 1930’s due to the Great Depression (昭和恐慌, shōwa kyōkō, “Showa-Era Great Depression”), and the London Naval Treaty (ロンドン海軍軍縮会議, rondon kaigun gunshuku kaigi).

Posted in Family, Japan, Japanese | 3 Comments

Getting With The Times

Lately, I’ve been reading both the letters of Nichiren to women followers and also reading letters by Honen to followers in Promise of Amida Buddha.

It’s interesting to read their letters side-by-side (more or less) because the content is pretty similar. Both talk about the decline of the Dharma (末法), both were exiled, both talk about critics falling into Hell,1 both support women in Buddhism and both talk about how their practice is the answer to help save many people in this declining era.

When I step back and think about it, these Buddhist schools all arose from a specific time, place and environment which researchers call “Kamakura Era Buddhism”. People like to focus on the differences, but really they’re surprisingly similar to one another. The conditions of the time forced people like Honen, Nichiren and Shinran to innovate, but in the light of science and modern historiography, what seemed new and progressive back then looks kind of outdated and anachronistic.2

Interestingly, the only Japanese Buddhist teachers of the time who didn’t follow this model were those who studied and practiced in China like Dogen and Eisai. China was still somewhat stable and prosperous under the Song Dynasty so the sense of panic and decline wasn’t there. Thus, even when they returned to Japan they didn’t talk about it much.3

Stepping back further, I realized that these teachings by Kamakura-era Buddhists just don’t apply as much anymore. Times have changed, people have moved on. I don’t live in 13th century Japan, and I am not even Japanese!

I don’t agree with post-modern Western Buddhist converts, though, who feel that all of it is useless “cultural accretions”, but I realized that I do have to take things with a grain of salt too. One of my favorite ministers at the local Jodo Shinshu temple used to tell me that’s important to understand a tradition before you criticize it. I think this makes sense. Most people criticize without understanding first.

I think the right approach is to appreciate the tradition, but not be bound by it. Also, don’t throw out the tradition just because you don’t like it either.

Anyway, there are plenty of good teachers both here in the West and Asian and there’s enough practices and schools here to choose from. Fixating on medieval Buddhism just isn’t very constructive. I never lived there, and will never really know what it was like, what people really meant, etc.

I think most Buddhists (Asian and Western) eventually figure this out. But, because I am such a nerd, I am slow to catch on. I need to get with the times. :-)

1 Compare Nichiren’s “Letter on Menstration” (月水御書) written in 1264:

You should know that all these people [who slander the Lotus Sutra and befriend Pure Land Buddhists] will go to the hell of incessant suffering.

With Honen’s reply to the “Lady of Tarō Sanehide in Ōgo” (大胡の太郎実秀が妻室のもとへつかはす御返事) written in 1199:

In sum, those who vilify nembutsu [reciting Amida Buddha's name] will fall into the realm of hell and endure suffering for five eons;

Similar, no? :)

2 Reminds me of this old post, hee hee.

3 To be fair, Zen with its focus on “now” also makes Dharma Decline not very important either. The Buddha stressed the importance of focusing on now, too. Still, opinions will vary even among Zen monks today.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shu, Nichiren, Zen | Leave a comment

Typhoons and Going To The Movies in Japan

Hi folks,

It’s been away since I talked about my recent trip to Japan, and I wanted to go back and talk about an interesting experience I had near the end of the trip. Because my daughter is in school in the US from September to June, we can only visit Japan in July/August. This time of year, the airfare is very expensive, the weather is hot and muggy, and there are sometimes typhoons.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest do not have typhoons, hurricanes, or any serious storms. The weather is pretty grey and mild all year. The first time I saw a serious rainstorm was in Hanoi, Vietnam when I saw the summer monsoon rains, which were very intense. But, even still, I have never seen a typhoon before.

As mentioned earlier, my daughter and wife went to see the latest Doraemon movie at a big movie theater near Kawasaki Station in Kawasaki City. I had to stay home and watch Little Guy so I didn’t get to see the movie. To make up for it, my wife’s sister helped me reserve tickets at the same theater for the new Space Brothers movie 宇宙兄弟#0 (Space Brothers, episode #0). This movie is a prequel to the main story and delves more into the lives of Hibito and Mutta before episode #1.

Coincidentally, the day we reserved was right in the middle of a typhoon! Typhoon Halong came to Japan in early August, where it was called Typhoon #11 (taifū jūichi gō, 台風11号), and the eastern edge brushed over the city of Kawasaki. We didn’t get the typhoon full-force, but even the edge of it was surprisingly strong. Before we left for the movie, we stopped at a neighbor’s house to drop off some food, and after just walking one block, we were soaked! Our neighbor kindly gave us a ride to the station, and I was able to get to the movie OK.

Because this was the edge of the typhoon, it wasn’t very windy, just really rainy.

It was my first time going to a Japanese movie theater, especially by myself. My wife had to watch Little Guy that day, and my daughter went out with my sister-in-law. I was pretty nervous at first, and I did a terrible job ordering popcorn. For some reason, I totally misunderstood what the person at the counter said. Then again, I’ve never ordered popcorn in Japanese before.1 ;)

Anyhow, they gave me the popcorn and Coke in a large, triangular tray. I was kind of confused, but I took the tray into the theatre and sat down. Unlike American movies, Japanese theaters had fewer previews that you have to sit through, which was nice. Also, the tray was supposed to fit into a notch in my seat, so it would become a little table for me to keep my food. I thought this was very clever, because in American theaters I have to put my food on the floor or my lap.

The movie itself was great. Very touching (yes, I got choked up a bit) and definitely worth watching if you like the Space Brothers series. The theater had a gift shop too, featuring souvenirs of the movies currently showing, so I was able to get a few items like a souvenir glass, a toy for Princess, and a Pug doll for my wife (she loves pugs). Also, because I went there on opening day, I also got a free copy of the script too in nice book-form.

By the time the movie was done, the typhoon had died down. I met my wife at Lazona shopping mall near Kawasaki Station and we went home. The theater was a great experience. My Japanese is not very good, but I was surprised to see that I understood about two-thirds of the movie. Since I already knew the story pretty well, that probably helped. ;) But it was fun to be in a theater, watching in a foreign language. It felt like years of study had paid off.

Even with the crazy typhoon, it was a great day.

1 I do order other things in Japan regularly, but I guess my popcorn-ordering-skills need more practice. ;P

Posted in Japan, Manga, Travel | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Little Guy!


This is Little Guy. He is 1 year old today. :-)

He had a lot of fun playing with his American grandparents, cousins and aunties. But now he is fast asleep.

Happy Birthday, Little Guy!

Posted in Family | Leave a comment