All posts by Doug

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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!

Jinen Honi: Made to Become So

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, out of the larger branch of Pure Land Buddhism, has some interesting innovations that I sometimes find compelling and yet challenging at the same time. To me, one of the most interesting is the concept of jinen hōni (自然法爾). I’ve touched on it before in an old post, but I wanted to explore it more here.1

The concept of jinen-honi is translated to things like “made to become so, by virtue of the Dharma” or something along those lines. It is explained in several of Shinran’s letters and writings, but in particular, I liked the explanation in the “Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone” or yuishinshōmon’i (唯信鈔文意).

This is a commentary by Shinran on another text, the “Essentials of Faith Alone” (yuishinshō 唯信鈔) composed in 1221 by a contemporary named Seikaku (聖覚, 1167-1235).2 Both Seikaku and Shinran were originally monks of the Tendai sect, but later left, and became a disciples of Honen. Seikaku’s text speaks from standpoint more familiar with Jodo Shu Buddhism (practice of reciting the nembutsu, the Three Minds, etc), so Shinran made commentaries on Seikaku’s text providing his own viewpoint.

Of particular interest is the following paragraph, which is translated here (kanji added for clarity):

Ji [自] also means of itself. “Of itself” is a synonym for jinen, which means to be made to become so. “To be made to become so” means that without the practicer’s calculating in any way whatsoever, all that practicer’s past, present, and future evil karma is transformed into the highest good, just as all waters, upon entering the great ocean, immediately become ocean water. We are made to acquire the Tathagata’s virtues through entrusting ourselves to the Vow-power; hence the expression, “made to become so.” Since there is no contriving in any way to gain such virtues, it is called jinen [自然]. Those persons who have attained true and real shinjin are taken into and protected by this Vow that grasps never to abandon; therefore, they realize the diamondlike mind without any calculation on their own part, and thus dwell in the stage of the truly settled. Because of this, constant mindfulness of the Primal Vow arises in them naturally (by jinen). Even with the arising of this shinjin, it is written that supreme shinjin is made to awaken in us through the compassionate guidance of Sakyamuni, the kind father, and Amida, the mother of loving care. Know that this is the benefit of the working of jinen.

The idea here is that through completely entrusting oneself to the vow of Amitabha Buddha to rescue all beings, the virtues of Amitabha help to transform a person without any calculation by the person. It seems like a totally foreign concept in Buddhism, though when I think of the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2) in the Pali Canon, the idea is not so far-fetched, because the idea is that self-power alone is not enough: even monks depend on others to advance on the path. It’s a question of whom and how.3

Anyhow, something interesting I wanted to share. :)

1 I’m surprised that old post is 7 years old! Time flies. :p

2 Interesting bit of historical trivia, Seikaku was also the grandson of Fujiwara no Michinori.

3 It’s also why the sangha (community) is one of the three treasures of Buddhism.

Osechi-Ryori: Japanese New Year Food

Japanese Osechi-ryori

One tradition that’s pretty universal in Japan during the New Year is eating osechi-ryōri (おせち料理). The individual foods might be eaten throughout the year, but for New Year they are arranged in a more special way to symbolize hopes for an auspicious year to come.

I’ve posted before about osechi-ryori, but strangely, I don’t think I ever actually explained it (if I did, I can’t find the post). So, this article is an example of what osechi-ryori might look like. Different families will do different things, depending on how much effort they want to put into it, and available resources.1

The presentation my wife did this year is pretty typical of our home, but again may be somewhat different than other families.

The first dish here is a baked snapper or tai (鯛):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Baked fish is a common dish in Japanese culture, but I grew up eating deep-fried fish and chips, so I never really tried regular baked fish until recently. Snapper isn’t my personal favorite (baked mackerel is good), but my wife did a nice job here. There hardest part of baking fish is how to deal with the smell. In Japan, they have special ovens for baking fish that can siphon the smell away, but we have an older, American oven and so the main trick is to bake in a little bit of water. If the fish gets to dry, the smell worsens.

The next dish, using a Mickey Mouse-shaped bento box we bought in Japan, is nimono or stewed vegetables (煮物):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Nimono is a common winter dish, but it’s really yummy because you can make it with all kinds of vegetables. Here we used chicken, lotus root (which looks like little wagon wheels), carrots, burdock root, and konyaku which looks like black jello, but is actually made of sweet potato. I love my wife’s nimono. It’s great.

Also, my wife made ozōni soup:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Ozoni soup is something you might enjoy any time during the winter, but it’s often served during New Year’s Day as well. Here you can see my wife used chopped spinach, mochi rice cake which melts nicely in the soup, chicken and a slice of the pink and white kamaboko (see below).

Finally the pièce de résistance:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

This is the main osechi dish and includes the following (clockwise from upper-right):

  • Black beans or kuromamé (黒豆), sweet.  According to wikipedia the name “mamé” is a synonym for health.
  • Chestnut paste or kurikinton (栗きんとん).  This too is kind of sweet and tasty.  The golden color also implies wealth and happiness.
  • Stir-fried burdock root and carrots, julienne, or kinpira (キンピラ).  These are slightly spicy, and one of my favorite winter dishes.
  • Pink and white fish cakes or kamaboko (蒲鉾).  The name doesn’t sound appetizing, but they’re actually quite good, especially in soup.  The colors are festive, and the round shape looks like a rising sun implying the new year.2
  • Wrapped konbu (昆布) rolls.  Again, this is similar to the word yorokobu, the verb to enjoy something.  Konbu seaweed is thicker and chewier than nori seaweed, but still good.
  • Salmon roe eggs, or ikura (イクラ).  Popular in sushi, but also good over rice with soy-sauce.  But since they’re very salty, don’t eat too many or you’ll get indigestion.
  • Shredded daikon and carrots with vinegar (?).  More of a salad-type dish, but very tasty.
  • In the middle is herring roe or kazunoko (数の子), which is also a word-play for kazu (number) and ko (children).  This implies a household with many children.3

This page in Japanese has a more comprehensive explanation of different osechi dishes and their meaning, and the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful too.

If you buy the fancy, catered ones, the dishes will be much more elaborate, and in nice bento boxes (like the ones we enjoyed in Japan in past years), but this year my wife wanted to make it herself, and keep it fairly simple so we don’t have a lot of wasted food sitting around for days.  This year the amount was just right, and was almost gone by the 2nd.

In the past, I’ve seen big elaborate osechi dishes, and the “good” foods get picked clean very quick, but the less appetizing choices tend to linger for days.  So, sometimes less is more.  ;)

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at osechi-ryori.  :)

1 We know some Japanese wives who live overseas in places where these ingredients are pretty hard to obtain.

2 We bought some fancier kamaboko that had pictures inside. This photo, taken a few days later when my wife made leftovers, shows a slice of kamaboko with a picture of an umé (plum) branch.

3 People have been asking if we are going to have a third child, and although we would like to have a third child, I don’t think we can realistically afford one. Plus we’re getting old enough that it’s not such a good idea anynore.

Happy New Year 2016

Hello Dear Readers,

This is my first post written in 2016 (my last post was actually written in late 2015 ;p ).  I’ve been missing the blog lately and wanted to write a little bit about the New Year’s celebration.  First we did mochi-making (お餅つき) at the same house as last year.  We were hosted by the same local artisan and mochi-making expert featured here in this newspaper article.

Mochi Making 2015

You can see me here helping my son to pound mochi rice.  Daddy did most of the work. Here my daughter decided to try too:

Mochi Making 2015

A few days later we enjoyed New Year’s Eve or Ōmisoka (大晦日) in Japanese with some friends.  Lots of good food:

IMG_2250

New Year's Eve 2015

And as usual we watched the yearly Japanese special Kohaku Uta Gassen. Little Guy seems to enjoy watching the Japanese girl idol groups.

Idol Groups and Son

This might be AKB48, but I can’t recall. Plus, there are so many similar groups: HKT48, NMB48, etc. I can’t keep track anymore. Also, I was pretty sick that night:

Sick

However, I did enjoy some delicious toshi-koshi soba (“End of Year Soba”) before going to bed:

Toshi-koshi soba

Finally, the next day, my wife had osechi-ryōri ready, which I will talk about in a later post.  We did not do hatsumode this year at the usual temple because I am a minister’s assistant now with a specific temple, so it seemed a bit strange to go visit other temples instead, plus I had to help lead the service that day.1

Anyhow, it was a nice end to a very nice year.  During 2015, I got to become a minister’s assistant with the Buddhist Churches of America, and got a new job, which I like much better than my old job with a certain company that sells things online.  Finally I took the JLPT N1 exam for the first time.  I’ve definitely gotten over the long “funk” I had for a few years, and am looking forward to another year of blogging fun with you all.

Happy New Year Everyone!

明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いいたします。

1 Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is somewhat against the practice of omamori in Japanese culture, so naturally I didn’t get one. I might pick up one or two when I visit Japan this summer though. Even though it’s kind of a superstition, I just like collecting them anyway.