All posts by Doug

About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.

Radio Taiso

One of those time-honored traditions you see in Japanese television is a small TV show on NHK,1 the national TV station, called rajio taisō (ラジオ体操). The word taisō means exercise or calisthenics, and that’s basically what it is. Aired in the morning (mid-morning here in Seattle), the show usually features three or more ladies doing a simple workout with some light piano music in the background. One is always seated, so that elderly or disabled members of the audience can still follow along, too.

This is an edited, but pretty representational episode:

Since we have TV Japan here in the US (which plays a lot of shows from NHK), sometimes I see it at home. My wife likes to keep trim, so when the show comes on, she will follow along. Sometimes my daughter will too if she’s home.

According to this article, the concept started as far back as 1928 on radio (hence the name), but was adapted from an American radio broadcast that had started in 1920. It was briefly banned after World War II by the US Occupation because of possible military undertones, but resumed after some edits and changes were made. So, the show has continued in one form or another for the last 83+ years.

I always thought this was a great idea. Since Americans have a problem with obesity (myself included), it seems like any exercise is better than none. Radio Taiso is fairly intensive; you will sweat a little bit after 10 minutes. However, it’s pretty easy too, so really anyone can follow along. It reminds me many years ago, when I studied in Hanoi, Vietnam. When I went to Lake Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, I saw lots and lots of elderly people doing Tai Chi together in groups. You only see this if you go there early in the morning (around sunrise) because it gets too warm and busy later. As the article above shows, Americans used to have calisthenics programs too, but it seems we’ve lost that tradition (and gained weight too). It’s a shame.

At the very least, having a small routine like Radio Taiso gets people thinking a little bit more about their health. Speaking of health, I am going to the gym now.2

P.S. It was a coincidence that I wrote this just before Christmas….maybe. ;)

1 Growing up in the US, where all major TV stations are privately owned, I was surprised in my youth to find out that other countries had national channels (Japan, UK, Ireland, etc). :p

2 I am happy to work in an office building with a gym. Having a gym really close by helps ensure success I think, rather than having to commute to one after work.

Romance in Ancient Japan

I’ve always been something of a hopeless romantic-type, even as far back as the toddler-age (so says my mother). Like that one Michael Jackson song goes: I’m a lover, not a fighter. So I admit, I have enjoyed reading the Hyakunin Isshu poem anthology lately because of its frequent poems of secret love, betrayal, longing and heartache. This particular comic edition by Chibi Marukochan also contains side-stories and biographies about certain men and woman of the Hyakunin Isshu, their romances, etc.

With that said, romance, as has always been the case in Human History, was a big part of the literature of the Heian Court and its aristocracy. Indeed, almost half of the poems in the Hyakunin Isshu are love poems, but things are not always as they seem. Some of the best love poems in the anthology are in fact not expressions of genuine love, but rather entries to poetry competitions. Poetry competitions were all the rage in the Heian Court of Japan, and a really good poem could really make or break someone’s reputation, as eluded to in Lady Murasaki’s Diary. It was a sign of wit, culture and all the things that embodied the Court at the time. Even Buddhist monks of the era, those from well-to-do families, participated. In this poem, the priest Sosei pretends to be a jilted woman:

今来むと Ima kon to
いひしばかりに Iishi bakari ni
長月の Nagatsuki no
有明の月を Ariake no tsuki o
待ち出でつるかな Machi idetsuru kana

And translation by the good folks at the University of Virginia:

Just because she said,
“In a moment I will come,”
I’ve awaited her
Until the moon of daybreak,
In the long month, has appeared.

The Chibi Marukochan book explains that Sosei was actually trying to impersonate a woman in the poem, so the Univeristy of Virginia may have mistranslated the gender here, but I can’t complain either. :) The fact that a Buddhist priest is engaging such silly (albeit brilliant) poetry does make me question the state of affairs of the monastic institution at the time, but I already discussed the privatization and gentrification of the Buddhist establishment at the time in another post.

A good example of the high stakes involved in such love poetry are these two from the Hyakunin Isshu. These were both submitted for a poetry contest held by Emperor Murakami in the late 10th century, with the theme of “hidden love”. The first by Mibu no Tadami (壬生忠見):

[41] 恋すてふ Koisu cho
我が名はまだき Waga na wa madaki
立ちにけり Tachi ni keri
人しれずこそ Hito shirezu koso
思ひそめしか Omoi someshi ka

For which a translation by the U of Virginia is:

It is true I love,
But the rumor of my love
Had gone far and wide,
When people should not have known
That I had begun to love.

And another by opponent Taira no Kanemori (平兼盛):

[40] 忍ぶれど Shinoburedo
色に出でにけり Iro ni ide ni keri
わが恋は Waga koi wa
物や思ふと Mono ya omou to
人の問ふまで Hito no tou made

And translation:

Though I would hide it,
In my face it still appears–
My fond, secret love.
And now he questions me:
“Is something bothering you?”

According to history, Taira no Kanemori was the victor of that contest by virtue of skill, though Mibu no Tadami’s was deemed more pure in expression. Sadly, Mibu no Tadami was so distraught over his defeat that he died soon after.

The “40’s” section the Hyakunin Isshu (poems 40 through 49) are almost entirely of love poems. My favorite of the whole anthology is shortly after by Fujiwara no Asatada:

[43] 逢ふことの Au koto no
絶えてしなくは Taete shi nakuwa
中々に Nakanaka ni
人をも身をも Hito o mo mi o mo
恨みざらまし Urami zaramashi

Again with a translation like so:

If it should happen
That we never met again,
I would not complain;
And I doubt that she or I
Would feel that we were left alone.

That’s a pretty slick poem actaully. I may reserve that one for a Valentine’s Day or an Anniversary one of these days. :)

The famous female poets of the era such as Lady Murasaki, Lady Izumi and Sei Shonagon) all appear in the “50’s” section of the Hyakunin Isshu, but none of the poems collected are love poems. However Lady Izumi was famous throughout her life for her love trysts, and her heartbreaks too as she lost some of the men in her life at an early age, as well as her children. The life of Lady Izumi was definitely one of the more colorful ones back then, and her poetry among the best. One poem mentioned in the Chibi Marukochan book I read was a response she wrote back to Prince Atsumichi, her second love, who sent her a gift of flowers:

薫る香に kaoru ka ni
よそふるよりは yosouru yori wa
ほととぎす hototogisu
聞かばやおなじ kikabayashi onaji
声やしたると koe yashitaruto

I can’t find an English translation for this, but the book explains that she wants to confirm if he wants to meet face to face with her. Such a private meeting was pretty risky in those days, when men and women rarely saw each other except behind screens. In the poem, she uses the analogy of the voice of the Hototogisu bird and (I think) if another bird will answer the call. The other being Prince Atsumichi of course.

Good stuff. :)

One Day at a Time: wise words from my wife the bodhisattva, part 3

Every once in a while my wife will give simple but sagely advice on Buddhism. She grew up Buddhist; I converted as an adult. Our approaches are very different as a result.

So one night recently I was feeling flustered about life and had a good talk with her, which turned toward religion at one point. I told her some of the frustrations expressed in this post, but she didn’t quite buy it. Her response was not unlike “what the hell are you talking about?” I mean that in a friendly way. :-) She questioned my motivation for being Buddhist and we debated half the night on what religion is about and why people need it. The details are not pertinent to this blog but suffice to say she is a persuasive speaker. Her argument was that I was being unrealistic toward myself and that I was being a “type-A personality”.

Instead of being a perfectionist, she said just take it one day at a time. She even wrote out a little sign for me as a reminder:

One Day at a Time

The phrase is another example of Yojijukugo phrases in Japanese, and reads ichi nichi ichi zen (一日一善), and basically means “one day at a time.”

I think she has a good point. I do have a way of setting lofty goals that ultimately don’t work out and I get frustrated when I fail. Just look at my New Year’s resolutions from 2009. I do this with language studies as well where I get frustrated at times because I can’t speak Japanese smoothly despite study. At such times she reminds me that I haven’t lived in Japan so what do you expect? Why get upset? This is an example of me taking something I enjoy and turning it i to a goal-oriented “project”. While goals are very helpful, they are a means to an end only, and one shouldn’t obsess over them. The problem is purely in my head. :)

And so it is with Buddhism. I suppose I turn it into a goal-oriented project too, then get frustrated when I can’t meet my own goals, regardless of how unrealistic it is. I told her at one point that if religion doesn’t help you improve yourself little by little, it’s not religion and she agreed but then quipped that I was setting unrealistic goals in the process. I was obsessed with a future ideal and not enjoying it more here and now.

A certain blog reader, whom I met in Tokyo last April once told me about memorizing mantras and sutras in Buddhism. I believe someone had told him that the key was not to bear down and brute-force memorize something, but rather to put it into practice so many times that it just internalizes (one could apply this to language studies too, I bet). So, with religion as a whole, instead of trying to brute-force my way to achieving a certain ideal, just keep immersing myself in it and things will internalize in time. One day at a time.

Somewhat related to all this, I noticed that ever since I made the conscious decision to leave the Pure Land Path of Buddhism months back, I have struggled to fill the void. I haven’t really found a mentor nor the same sense of structure I had before. This too is frustrating but harder to fix in a way. On the other hand, i remember reading something from the Chinese text, the I Ching, lately that stuck in my mind from the 39th Hexagram (Wilhelm translation):

Water on the mountain:
The image of OBSTRUCTION.
Thus the superior man turns his attention to himself
And molds his character.

Obstacles and difficulties are a good time for reflection, rather than complaining. I think that my wife’s advice applies here too: sooner or later, conditions will work out and I will find a more suitable community and teacher. Until then, I can only take it one day at a time. :)

Thanks Dear!

P.S. As stated in previous post, blog schedule this week is a little weird. Apologies for any confusion.

P.P.S. Past “wise words” from my wife, part 2 and part 1. :)

Instant Tsukemono

Having mentioned the subject of Tsukemono before, I wanted to show a quick and easy recipe you can do at home. This probably isn’t Tsukemono proper, but my wife and her friends make it often to accompany other dishes. The recipe calls for a few simple ingredients:

  • A cucumber cut lengthwise in half, then chopped into thin slices.
  • Some kind of ziploc bag, or plastic sandwich bag
  • Salt

Basically, all you have to do is mix the sliced cucumber and salt in the bag, then close the bag. It will look like so:

Instant Tsukemono

Now gently massage and mix the bag, so the I gradients blend. Just do this for about a minute and taste. If too salty, add a tiny bit of water. If not salty enough, add salt.

Once done you can serve it in a small dish, or save it in the refrigerator for a day or two. Do not use soy sauce or vinegar, no matter how good an idea it might seem. Believe me, I learned the hard way.

Anyway, try it out and let me know what you think!

P.S. Blog schedule is all messed up right now due to work demands and outside activities. Apologies for any confusion and for not replying to comments recently. :-p

Solving a Chinese restaurant mystery

This is something that’s frequently piqued my interest, but I had nowhere to turn to solve this little mystery. In Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants here in the US, and certainly elsewhere, you’re likely to see an altar like this one:

Chinese Figurines

For a long time, I could never figure out what this was. English websites on “Chinese altars in restaurants” reveal almost nothing. It’s assumed I guess that most Westerners either don’t care, or the cultural subtleties are too hard to explain. But a nerd like me doesn’t give up. I took a couple photos from my camera phone when no one was looking and spent an evening piecing things together.

Based on some Google searches, and translations from Chinese, the Chinese characters read vertically from right to left, or left to right here:


Which are read in modern Mandarin as:

wǔfāng wǔtǔ lóngshén
qián​hòu​ dì​zhǔ​ cái​shén​

Which in English (very roughly) means:

The five dragons of the earth,
The Landowner God of Wealth from beginning to end [wealth?]

According to one Chinese website, these are always placed so that they face the door, and provide protection for shop-owners and such. I have noticed this frequently on the many Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants in the area, so it seems similar to the Japanese maneki neko in bringing in luck, or the American tradition of hanging up the first dollar bill.

But who are the two fellows in the shrine? That I haven’t figured out, but just by appearance alone, they do bear a strong resemblance to a couple of the Seven Luck Gods or shichifukujin (七福神) in Japanese religion, which in turn are mostly imported figures from the mainland. A good illustration of what they look like can be seen here. The elderly fellow on the left looks like Fukurokuji, which as Wikipedia states is an imported figure from Chinese Taoist myth of the Three Star Gods. The fellow on the right looks vaguely like Daikokuten or maybe another one of the Three Star Gods. Either way, wealth and long-life seem to be the theme of this happy little shrine.

There’s nothing too surprising to see here, but I felt this post might be a useful reference others. You can see how East Asian popular religious beliefs are pretty syncretic in nature, and like popular religion everywhere, deal with ways to assist with practical issues in people’s lives. What I find interesting is the cultural expression of each. :)

Halloween fun at the JLR

Halloween is fast approaching and we have been having fun here at the JLR preparing for it. Fall has always been my favorite season and Halloween has always been part of the reason why. This year, now that “Baby” is nearly 4 we can participate in more Halloween activities than before.

For example this year we finally decorated the house, which I’ve never had time or room to do before. Here is a haunted house we put together this past weekend:

Haunted House 2

This kit, made by (purchased at local stationary store) was pretty easy to assemble though the parts were a bit hard to punch out. I really liked the finished product though and our little girl keeps playing with it.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading too. Out little enjoys a story called the Haunted House which we’ve been reading to her for the last couple years, along with a new story in Japanese about a ghost who accidentally becomes tempura. :-)

As for me I cracked open a new Roger Zelazny book I had read before: A Night in the Lonesome October. The book was so fun I managed to finish all 278 pages of it in less than 48 hours.1 It was a fun, creative mix of classic horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, set in Victorian England amid a Sherlock Holmes-ish mystery. Of course it had plenty of Zelazny’s wit too. :-) I bought this a long time ago, and specifically saved it for October and the book did not disappoint.

Speaking of good Halloween themed books I highly recommend some I’ve read in the past:

  • Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. This book is a very frightening look at a vampire outbreak in a remote village in Maine, and quite different then the more modern, effeminate vampires.
  • Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein. It’s somewhat different than the big green monster with bolts in his neck from Hollywood, but it’s actually a really dark and scary novel. The ending is pretty dark and cool.
  • H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, of which I like Shadow over Innsmouth especially. Any number of “collections” books will probably have it.

Meanwhile I have kept up my yearly tradition of playing the classic NES game, Final Fantasy, including a fun adventure in the creepy Marsh Cave. I also have been lots of classic Castlevania III as well which is about as Gothic horror as you can get with 8-bit graphics and sound. :-)

Meanwhile, in preparation for the upcoming JLPT I have been watching some of my wife’s dramas including a series called Kaibutsu-kun (怪物くん) or “Mr. Monster” (my bad translation). As mentioned in a previous post, my wife and daughter both love a certain Japanese boy-band group named Arashi, and over time it’s rubbed off on me, so I listen to them now too from time to time. In that same post, I mentioned that Japanese celebrities tend to cross over more into other fields too, so the main “leader” of Arashi, Ōno Satoshi,2 stars in the main role of this little drama. It’s interesting to me to see classic Halloween characters in a Japanese TV drama; surreal even, but it’s good fun. The drama is somewhat geared for younger audiences, which makes it easier for me to follow along, and with the JLPT exam only two months away (DOH!), I need all the practice I can get. I am certainly less confident than I was this time last year for the old JLPT3/N4.

So, that’s Halloween in a nutshell. One question I haven’t answered yet is what my costume will be. In the past, I almost never dress up; it’s just too much of hassle and I get too self-conscious. This year, I may try Mario or Luigi from Super Mario Brothers. It’s nerdy, inexpensive, and being an old-school Nintendo fan, something personal. The little one will be Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid. My wife, I have no idea. We’ll see. :-)

1 Reading while walking to and from work is usually a bad idea, but I frequently do it.

2 He is even called リーダー (leader) by the rest of the band. Supposedly the settled who would be leader by rock-paper-scissors, my wife says. My wife likes him a lot because his singing talent is particularly strong, why my little girl likes Matsumoto Jun (a.k.a. “Matsu-jun”) better. Me? I admit I like “Leader”, but also Nino-kun and Aiba-kun. The term “kun” (君) here in Japanese being a title used with boys , and NEVER towards one’s superiors.

Mommy’s Bento Art

Our little one is nearly 4 years old now and growing up so fast. This year we enrolled her in a nice Japanese preschool for a couple days a week, and my wife makes bento lunches for her each of those mornings. My wife tells me that when she was a little girl, her mother used to do the same thing, as did many Japanese moms. For example, little sausages can be sculpted to look like an octopus and other little novel tricks that children enjoy. My wife decided to take it to the next level. Unlike me, she’s very right-brained and artistic, and has a lot of experience with Japanese calligraphy (shodō, 書道) in the past, but she’s turned her talents to a new art: bento lunches.

These are just a couple of the ones she’s made lately. As a proud husband, I thought it only fitting to share:

Mommy's Bento Art

This first one features Hello Kitty made of rice, a bit of ham, and nori seaweed. This is garnished with boiled quail eggs (popular in Japan, and very small).

This next one features another popular heroine, Minnie Mouse;

Mommy's Bento Art 2

Again, similar style as the previous. I thought the wink was especially cute. She told me that the other moms were impressed and she has unwittingly set the bar among all the Japanese moms at school.

Good job, Mommy! :)

As for me, I just make my own lunches and throw leftovers in the Zojirushi “Ms. Bento” I bought a while back. I wasn’t paying attention and bought the smaller “Ms. Bento”, not “Mr. Bento”, but I liked it enough to keep it, but the portions are smaller so sometimes I bring extra fruit and such. Being more left-brained, and a male, my artistic “knack” consists of just getting a well-rounded meal. :p


After writing post this overnight, my wife made another one for our little girl’s school lunches:

Mommy's Bento Art 3

This one is a pink bear, since my daughter likes pink so much. The bow is made of kamaboko (蒲鉾), which is a kind of fish cake. It tastes better than it looks (and goes well in soups). The egg at the upper-right is cut into a heart shape too. :) The upper-left is mostly nimono (煮物) which is stewed vegetables and really good on a cold-day, and edamame which is boiled soy-beans. Delicious. I was lucky to get a share of the good food for lunch today too, so I am happy too.

P.S. Wife and I call each other “Daddy” and “Mommy”, which sounds weird in English, but makes more sense in Japanese due to the more frequent use of third-person conversation than English.

AnkiMobile: an iPhone app review

Having been an avid student of Japanese and the JLPT now for two years I have developed a highly structured daily routine that took a lot of trial and error to develop. Of course, each person’s situation is different so the details aren’t important but I will say that I’ve made heavy, heavy use of the Anki flashcard application on my desktop for a long time.1 Eventually I used it so much I bookmarked the Anki online website so I could use it from my iPhone but bandwidth limitations have made this slow and prone to issues. Recently though the developer of Anki released an iPhone app called AnkiMobile that I was eager to try. For the record, this review reflects my own opinion and is not prompted by the developer of Anki, Mr. Elmes, in any way. I was partly inspired by the iPhone app review I did for Ashura 360, while writing this one. I doubt I’ll ever be a tech-writer/columnist though, and probably for the better. :)

With that said, the AnkiMobile website, provides a nice explanation of the target audience the motivation behind the app:

This iPhone app is an attempt to give the regular Anki users something they were asking for, while simultaneously raising money for continued development. It has taken me months of 12hr/day development to port everything to Apple’s platform, and it continues to take up most of my time. The price is initially set at $24.99, of which Apple gives me $17.50. For people who’ve benefited from the desktop application, and want to use Anki on the go, I hope that is not too much to ask.

This app is currently targeted at people who are regular users of the desktop application, who now want to use Anki away from their computer. If you don’t have much experience with Anki, or study infrequently, you may find the learning curve to be steep initially. For serious studiers the initial setup is definitely worth it – when you’re looking at studying material for months or years, Anki’s proven algorithms, cross platform support, and open file format are essential for ensuring the integrity of your studies regardless of which device or program you choose to use in the future. But if you’re just looking to review a few questions before a test, and don’t care much about the long term, you may be better off with a cheaper alternative.

As a frequent Anki user I was initially hesitant to spend the money for the app, but I found that using the desktop application was getting harder to do. Not because of the application itself, but because my work schedule and parenting have become so busy. With my big JLPT N3 word-list (self-created while encountering words I read/heard), I just didn’t have enough time to sit down and process 200+ facts at a time.

Then I realized that if I bought the app and practiced it in smaller, more frequent chunks during those small breaks in my life (on the bus, lunch break, etc), I could keep on top of my list and progress in my studies. And not longer after that, I became the latest owner.

The app is much faster/smoother than trying to use Anki over cellular connections to the website, and integrates well with iPhone OS. Also, the coloration gives the interface a lighter feel and more fun to use. Separately, I like the overall interface, and its careful process of syncing decks between system. I say this because I still use the desktop app sometimes (to save on battery power) and forget to sync the phone or the desktop, so I have to figure out how to resolve the deck inconsistencies. Anki does a nice job of managing this, so I’ve not lost much work over the months, except when I was just being stupid.

With the current 1.4 version, there are some small problems such as the inability to delete cards. Since my deck is somewhat larger, this has caused issues where I have old cruft I need to delete, but can’t do so until I get home (I mark the cards for the time being). Also, the ability to edit is somewhat limited. According to the AnkiOnline site though, version 1.5 seems to address both, so I will be downloading that when I get a chance. Separately, the application has crashed on me only once after doing a really long session where I drained out all the new cards. I haven’t been able to re-create it though, and compared to some of my other apps, it’s still considerably more stable.

I’ve downloaded a few JLPT or Japanese language apps in the last year, but the only one I’ve consistently used for more than 2 days is AnkiMobile, and if you’re serious about the JLPT beyond the basics, you need something to organize your facts and acquired vocabulary. The key is not dumping word-lists, but adding words as you encounter them (just like the website says and verified by me the hard way), and this is where Anki as a whole becomes pretty useful because it reinforces what you’ve encountered. If you own an iPhone and plan on long-term language studies (not just Japanese), then this will definitely become useful as your studies advance.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

P.S. Downloaded the 1.5 version recently, and indeed it works better.

1 I also used it for passing the RHCE Linux certification test too. Great for memorizing commands and flags.

Am I Buddhist Anymore? A Brief Socratic Dialogue

(Because Socratic Dialogues are more fun, and otherwise this post would sound too whiny. Plus this was inspired by a funny sign someone at work made a few months back which I took a photo of. Enjoy! :) )

Hiero: Hey Doug, is it me or is the Buddhist content on your blog getting a little thin lately?

Doug: Yeah, it has hasn’t it? To tell you the truth, I’ve been having some big changes in my life lately so I guess I haven’t been thinking about it much.

Hiero: What happened?

Doug: Well, you see I changed jobs. I work for the same big company I did before, and I am happy to stay, but I decided to transfer to an entirely new department and a somewhat different role after 4 years in the old one.

Hiero: Sounds stressful.

Doug: Sure has been. The new job is super busy and I am still transitioning, so I guess I am even more busy now than I was before. Funny thing is though, my stress level has gone down a lot in recent months and I feel happier than before.

Hiero: How is that possible?

Doug: Well, I liked my old job in many ways, but I was unsatisfied with the kind of work I did there, and I never felt I measured up. I guess it just wasn’t for me. In my new job, I feel it suits me better and I have more control over my situation, thus I feel more satisfied at the end of the day.

Hiero: Well that’s good to hear, but what’s that got to do with Buddhism, Batman?

Doug: Well, about the time I took the new job, I realized right away that the change had been good for me. I also started to having less and less interest in Buddhism. When I went to Japan in April, saw Nara, Kyoto and the sites of Tokyo, I was deeply inspired, but as I came back, the struggle to maintain the Buddhist path got harder and harder. I felt no connection anymore with the local Buddhist community which felt entirely different than what I experienced in Japan, and just kept slipping up in my personal practice: meditation, nembutsu, studying, whatever. I used to really get distraught over this.

Hiero: So why the change?

Doug: Because at my new job, I became too busy to think about such things. I have work that is challenging and engaging, so it forces me to focus on the here and now rather than wasting internal brain cycles on overblown issues in that are all in my mind.

Hiero: That’s it? Kind of anticlimactic, don’t you think?

Doug: No, even more importantly, I started to really look at Buddhism in a more critical way. Not negative, but really evaluating the fundamentals of Buddhism with a more detached objective view. It started when I began researching Neo-Confucian thought in Edo Period Japan, and its comparatively rational approach to issues as it competed with Buddhism at the time. The rational yet spiritual approach really got me thinking about my Path all these years, the constant reading, straining and contrived practices to attain spiritual happiness. All that work and energy was just a way to help me forget the feelings of dissatisfaction in life, but made it worse in a way.

Hiero: So you’re an atheist then?

Doug: Far from it. I just really started to appreciate the rational, down to earth side of religion a lot more than I did in the past. I guess I never realized that religion can be spiritually fulfilling and down-to-earth and rational. I think this is why I began to entertain doubts with respect to the Pure Land Path in Buddhism over the past months, and focused more on some of the more fundamental Buddhist teachings I had neglected over time.

Hiero: So you’re a Buddhist then?

Doug: Not so fast, Hoss. After a suggestion from a friend online about re-reading a wonderful book by Ven. Walpola Rahula titled What the Buddha Taught, I realized there were certain fundamentals of Buddhism I was still uncomfortable with, particular the cycle of rebirth and the layperson/monastic dichotomy. I took inspiration in the Buddhist text, the Kalama Sutta and its open approach to religious discourse, but on the other hand, to me it sounds a little like Pascal’s Wager which doesn’t really prove anything. On the other hand, if you carefully read the Kalama Sutta is does provide a good well-grounded approach to religion that I do find inspiring. On the other hand, I feel lately that Buddhism can be pretty aloof, dour and difficult to practice in the kind of environment I am in. Nor do I want to get tangled up in the petty and pompous culture that pervades Buddhist institutions in the West. If I hear the word progressive Buddhism one more time, I think I will cry. I’ve just had enough.

Hiero: So you’re not a Buddhist then?

Doug: Well, I realized that while some things make me uncomfortable, there were some things about Buddhism I still found deeply inspiring. I do believe in the Buddha’s notion of impermanence along with the Buddha’s explanation of the conditioned-arising of phenomena, and so on. Fact is, when I think about Kannon Bodhisattva for example, I can’t help but smile. I found myself randomly doing that while walking home from work recently. That goes double for Shakyamuni Buddha. Lately, I feel like I understand him better than I did before, and it makes me appreciate him more than I did before. Meanwhile, a small statue of Shakyamuni Buddha still sits happily on my bookshelf and every so often, I look at it, feel inspired and recite the old Pali-language prayer namo tassa bhagawato arahato samma-sangbuddhasa (phonetically speaking here) as homage. Maybe in a way, I am more Buddhist now than I was in the recent past. I really don’t know.

Hiero: So…. what are you then?

Doug: Good question. I haven’t figured that out. I have no desire to go to any Buddhist temple in my area, nor really engage with the online community. I guess I am tired of the petty politics and all the baggage that comes with organized religion and the silent pressure of conformity. Frankly, I don’t feel inspired to write about it either, and may not do so for a while, who knows? Every time I do lately, it feels forced and not really fun anymore. At the same time, I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Chinese Confucian and Taoist teachings as of late. I am reading about Confucianism a lot now, as well as the writings of Zhuangzi the Taoist and the occasional book on Shintoism too. I find these more down-to-earth and easier to apply in my life as it is now. So maybe I am more of a Confucianist, or a Taoist, or maybe just a Buddhist who needed a good break for a while to clear his head. Right now, I just don’t feel like I need Buddhism for spiritual comfort or guidance like I did before. It’s been a part of my life for years now, and had a big influence on me, but I am not so sure now it will continue to be in my future.

Hiero: Sounds confusing and kind of miserable, doesn’t it?

Doug: On the contrary, in the last month or so I feel happier and more “ok” than I did in a long, long time. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I feel like I stopped trying to measure up to something unattainable and lofty, and just making myself feel miserable and inferior in the process. I learned to appreciate a more rational, pragmatic approach to religion and Confucianism in particular inspired me to make the mundane things in my life more sacred rather than trying to abandon them and tune out in a kind of mental retreat. Just as I changed jobs to something more suited to me, maybe all I needed to do was change my religious perspective a little.

Hiero: So what does the future hold?

Doug: Good question. The blog stays, and I doubt will change much other than a quiet shift in topics. I want to restore a balanced approach I did when the blog first started and continue exploring various subjects. Naturally of course, I want to give readers something to think about it but be fun too. :)

Hiero: Er, I was talking about your personal life.

Doug: Oh, that. That’s still a work in progress. The “mental debate” I had a few months back didn’t really peter out as I thought it would. Instead, it’s evolved into a nice laid-back exploration of the wonderful teachings found across Asia, and finding something that suits my life and my temperament. Since I can’t change my life right now to suit religious pursuits, I need to figure out how to adapt religious teachings to my life as it is. Truth is, I love Buddhism but I also love the other teachings as well.

Hiero: Don’t people in Asian cultures find a way to balance them in their lives?

Doug: True. Western religion tends to be an all-or-nothing approach, which can be limiting, while Asian culture does seem to blend and synthesize various schools of thought more readily. But then again I also am a big believer in doing one thing and doing it well (which is mentioned in the writings of Zhuangzi oddly enough), so there’s something to be said in exploring one tradition fully enough to appreciate it. Tasting many tiny samples of ice cream is not the same as having a nice bowl of your favorite flavor, that is once you decide which flavor you actually want of course. I definitely do not want to label myself as a “spiritual shopper” though as that just usually means someone’s being wishy-washy or non-comittal, but I do feel like a change of pace is badly needed in my life and has been a breath of fresh air.

Hiero: Speaking of ice cream, let’s stop with the abstract and whiny talk about religion and go eat.

Doug: That sounds like a great plan. Let’s go.

The End

Zelda, the Triforce and the Hojo Clan

This post is inspired by this recent post and also a recent visitor who delved into the same subject. Credit goes to “Sam” for this one. :)

Back in spring 2010, I was treated to a nice tour of Ueno Park and the nearby Shinobazu Pond by reader “Johnl”, including a visit to the Benzaiten Shrine there. While at the shrine, I noticed this stone lantern, and the all-too-familiar crest on it:

Benten Hojo Crest

It might look a little familiar to anyone who played Nintendo at all. It looks almost identical to the “Triforce” in the Legend of Zelda series:

Legend of Zelda screenshot 2

The screenshot above, taken years ago before I even moved to Ireland, shows the character’s inventory and a partial reconstruction of the Triforce. But the historical origins lie in the ancient Hōjō Clan in Japan who used it as their family crest. The Kamakura Period of Japan began when the Genji Clan (Minamoto) won the Genpei War at last and became the de facto power of the land who kept the peace, even though the Heian Court and the Emperor were still technically the highest law in the land . In a bit of irony, the Genji Clan was dominated within generations by an off-shoot of their arch-enemy, the Heike Clan (Taira), called the Hojo Clan through a clever set of intermarriages and bad luck. Thus, the Hojo Clan became the ultimate rulers during the Kamakura Period through their secret police, military forces, and power wrested from the Emperor.

Quite a far-cry from the Legend of Zelda games, really.

Legend of Zelda screenshot

Having played the original game as a kid, followed by the sequel and later “A Link to the Past”, the symbol of the Triforce/Hojo Clan is simply too ingrained to ignore after so many years. As with the Super Mario connection, I found, it’s amazing how I grew up recognizing the “Triforce” all these years, but being an American kid, totally unaware of the deeper meaning in Japanese culture and history. It’s fun to rediscover these things as an adult. :D