Recently, my wife taught me a fun little Japanese proverb that I wanted to share:
Ten wa nibutsu wo ataezu
This means “Heaven does not grant two things”. Here the notion of Heaven is not the Judaeo-Christian notion, but rather the Confucian principle of order, creation and goodness in the Universe.
The meaning of this proverb though is that a person usually doesn’t have two talents, two virtues, etc. Everyone has something they are good at, or some good quality about them. The point here, though, isn’t to judge others but rather to appreciate what talents and virtues one does have, and to also be patient with the faults of others.1 There are many skills that one can learn in their lifetime, but it’s pretty unusual to meet someone who has two genuine talents, virtues, etc.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book on Chinese poetry from the late Tang Dynasty, which is one of the high points of Chinese history and culture.1 I wanted to share some poetry by a man named Li He (李賀, 790–816) which is written as “Li Ho” in some old sources.2 Li He was a short-lived poet who did at the age of 27, and having failed the Imperial Examinations. Nevertheless, he was a an influential poet who was then forgotten for centuries until the 1800’s when his poetry received a kind of revival.
One of my favorite poems is “On the Frontier”, translated by A.C. Graham:
A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind,
Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
The sky swallows the road to Kokonor.
On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.
The dew comes down, the banners drizzle,
Cold bronze rings the watches of the night.
The nomads’ armour meshes serpents’ scales.
Horses neigh, Evergreen Mound’s champed white.
In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
North of their tents is surely the sky’s end
Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.
According to Chinese tradition, when the Pleiades flickered, this was an omen of a barbarian invasion. Also according to the book, the Evergreen Mound was the grave site of a Chinese imperial concubine named Wang Zhao-jun who was betrothed to a Xiongnu (Tartar) warlord. It is said that grass always grows there on account of her tremendous beauty.
I’ll post more poetry soon. Enjoy!
1 It is almost a fascinating period to me because of the strong Buddhist influence, and its effect on other Asian countries at the time. Subsequent dynasties were also culturally brilliant, but had more influence from Neo-Confucianism, as did neighboringcountries.
Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.
During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:
Cheon ji hyeon hwang
The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.
Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.
It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.
Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. ;)
P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. :)
1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same
As part of my training for ordination as a Buddhist lay-minister, I am learning more about Buddhist funeral services and how things work. One of the things the minister showed me is memorial objects: objects used to commemorate the deceased, and pay respects.
People everywhere pay respects to the dead, but in East Asian culture, due to influence of Confucius, this is often more elaborate than Western culture. Buddhist religion in Japan has taken on the role of providing funeral services, so besides Confucian respect for the ancestors, there are a lot of Buddhist elements too.
In Japanese-Buddhism, when a lay-person dies, they are given a Buddhist name. This is usually called kaimyō (戒名, “precept name”) or sometimes hōmyō (法名, “Dharma name”).
From what I understand, in other Buddhist traditions such names are given when a person formally becomes a Buddhist disciple or becomes ordained. In Japan, lay people usually recieve a Buddhist name upon death. In any case, when someone receives a Buddhist name, it symbolizes a karmic connection with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The person is now formally part of the community, and has hope to someday cross the turbulent ocean of life and death, the ups and downs of life, to the shore of Enlightenment.
Different temples, different sects and different priests have their own methods for deciding a Buddhist name for someone who’s died, but it’s important that they get a name, because that is what gets inscribed on funeral tablets for the home altar.
Funeral tables, or ihai (位牌) seem to come in a large variety. These are often placed in a Buddhist home altar near the central image of the Buddha. Sometimes people offer incense, prayers, food and so on, especially around Obon Season but also Ohigan and other such times.
These examples below are unused tablets that the minister showed me, and have no real names written on them. He gave permission to photograph.
This is the tablet people typically see:
The Buddhist name is written on the front in Chinese-calligraphy. Interestingly, for Japanese-Americans, the name is also translated on the reverse side into English or Romanized-Japanese (romaji):
Sometimes people also have boxes like this:
These can be used to store more than one tablet by removing the lid. Unlike the ihai tablets above, the tablets inside are much smaller and only sheets of wood, but as you can see here, they can be stacked behind one another like so:
This lets you rotate the tablets so that if you want to pay homage to a particular ancestor, you just move their “tablet” to the front and open the door. Maybe for a death anniversary or something.
Finally, relatives might keep a book of names like so:
On each page, the Buddhist-name of a deceased ancestor can be written here:
Why So Elaborate?
Western Buddhists, who are unfamiliar with these traditions, may be confused or offended, because they prefer Buddhism to have less ritual and less “cultural” influence.1 But I learned a lot about this years ago after my wife’s uncle died from leukemia. Years later, we visited his home in Tochigi Prefecture. It was my first visit. Like most Japanese home, his family had a small Buddhist altar, with a framed photo of my wife’s uncle. On that visit, even though years had passed, we lit a stick of incense in the family Buddhist altar, put our hands together and bowed our heads. Even now, when we visit, we still do this out of respect because his death was a tragic loss for the whole family. He was a highly respected man and a good father/husband.
We don’t usually do something this elaborate in American culture, so I was a bit confused at first, but once I got used to the process, it made a lot of sense. The uncle had been a positive influence. Years later, you can still feel a sense of loss. So, for Japanese culture, this is how people remember someone who passed, and Buddhism the religion helps provide a framework for doing this. Even for Japanese who are not religious, it helps bring them together to remember those who passed away.
It’s not unlike leaving flowers on a grave in Western culture, but that ritual is usually in a Christian/Jewish framework because people are culturally Judaeo-Christian. People in Japan are culturally Buddhist.
So, the religious aspect gives people a way to express their loss in a constructive way. People in every culture have felt loss of loved ones, but it’s interesting how religion is used to express this loss, and help remember the dead.
I hope to write more about this in the future as I continue training.
P.S. There’s a humorous site that let’s you randomly generate your own Japanese Buddhist name for funerals. It’s not
Yeongjo was one of the most famous kings because he was very dedicated to Confucianism or yugyo (유교, 儒敎) and tried very hard to live like a “sage king”. He took Confucian teachings very seriously and tried to cultivate an image as a “virtuous” king. However, reality on the ground proved to be very different.
The Joseon Court had two main groups: the king and his close relatives, and the Confucian bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was made up of scholars called the sarim (사림, 士林). The bureaucracy was supposed to serve the king, manage all the day-to-day issues of government, and per Confucian tradition, was supposed to criticize the king if he made a bad decision.
However, Yeongjo became king under controversial conditions (his elder brother died suddenly, some people thought he was poisoned), and the court was divided into two political factions: the Soron (소론, 少論) who opposed Yeongjo and the Noron (노론, 老論) who favored Yeongjo. The problem was that both groups were constantly sabotaging one another, so it was hard to get anything done. Even though the Noron had protected Yeongjo and supported him as a king, they expected a lot of favors, and Yeongjo just wanted to rule fairly.
Yeongjo tried to rule using a policy called Tangpyeong (蕩平, 탕평) which mean “Great Harmony” so that both groups had equal treatment, and were expected to do their job well. Sometimes this worked, and fighting decreased, but extreme members of both factions still tried to stir up trouble, or rebellions.
Also, Yeongjo tried to fix the broken tax system, so that the elite yangban (양반, 兩班) class in Korea would pay taxes too. During that time, the government was severely in debt and many groups in society avoided taxes. However, the bureacracy members were all yangban families and of course opposed this. It took many, many years and very careful work, but eventually Yeongjo succeeded in fixing the tax system.
But the biggest problem for Yeongjo was his own son, Prince Sado. At the age of 27, King Yeongjo forced Prince Sado to get into a rice chest, and then locked the chest so that Prince Sado died 8 days later. The official records at that time are very vague about why this terrible thing happened.
The book looks at several different records and explains what happens like so: Prince Sado was born when the king was already pretty old. He had no other heirs, and so the king was very hopeful for his son to become a Confucian ruler like him. So, Yeongjo really pushed his son to work hard and study Confucian thought. At first this worked well, and Prince Sado was a bright and happy son.
However, this wasn’t good enough. Yeongjo pushed him so hard, that eventually Prince Sado became depressed and started neglecting his studies. This made Yeongjo criticize his son more. This became a cycle over the next 10 years or so, where Yeongjo kept pushing his son, and his son would fall short, become depressed and give up more. Based on the diary of Lady Hyegyeong, Prince Sado was so afraid of his father, that he would become very upset in the morning when he had to get dressed (and meet him), beat his servants and sometimes kill them.
Prince Sado’s mental health became worse and worse, and eventually he became a threat to everyone. However Confucian law prevented King Yeongjo from killing his son, so he forced him into a rice chest and locked it. After Prince Sado died, records were destroyed and people tried to forget it ever happened. Sado’s son (Yeongjo’s grandson) became the next king, Jeongjo, and was one of the best kings of the Joseon Dynasty.
Yeongjo’s reign was very, very difficult, but he was king for 50 years and did make some very positive changes to the Joseon Dynasty that helped it survive much longer. Plus, during his reign, the factional fighting was much less than past kings. Thus, despite the controversies, Yeongjo (and Jeongjo) are remembered fondly by Koreans today.
As for the book itself, it was a great read and indefinitely recommend it to anyone interested on Confucianism or Korean history.
After reading a post by the Angry Asian Buddhist, I found this article by Wired Magazine. It talks about the popularity of Buddhism in Silicon Valley, and some of the people who are involved in this movement.
While reading this article, I got really irritated. One the one hand, it’s great that people are using Buddhism to help manage stress, work with other people better, and be more mature. On the other hand, the movement feels very elitist to me. If you don’t have a nice job at Google or another tech company, you probably can’t access these kinds of teachings. What about the millions and millions of Americans who live in rural or poor-urban areas who cannot afford to meet teachers at Yoga centers, or afford to eat organic/vegan food, or pay membership at expensive Zen “centers”? There’s a big, big world outside of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
A while back while training in Phoenix, Arizona, I remember talking with one of the people who worked in a warehouse. She was a single mom, about the same age as me, and she worked two jobs to take care of her son. When I mentioned reading in my past-time, she joked that she had no time for past-times. But it’s not a joke. When I was a kid, my mother worked 2 jobs also so she could feed 3 kids. As a little kid, I remember being in the car with my mom and my younger sisters before sunrise, so she could deliver newspapers.
The idea of Buddhism as something “geeky” or something modern and scientific is kind of arrogant too. It implies that Buddhist geeks are somehow “smarter” than people around them, even smarter than other Buddhists. How can you say that, when there are so many good and genuine people out there who don’t have a college education? That’s why I referenced the quote above: people who believe they’re smarter and more progressive than others are usually just being aristocratic. Like the monk I mentioned in this post, there are a lot of good Buddhists out there in Asia and the West1 who don’t have flashy websites, conferences, podcasts or anything like that. What they do have is genuine heart.
But after reading this article, I remembered another point in history that looked like this: early Buddhism in China and later Japan.
When Buddhism first came to China, it was a foreign-imported religion. In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of China, Buddhist culture was very sophisticated. Many monks from India or Central Asia came, gave lectures, translated sutras, taught the latest practices and trained a lot of native Chinese monks. But this was mostly in the capitol of Chang-an (長安). People from elite families had many opportunities to learn from great Buddhist masters in India and such, but regular people at that time had little or not exposure. They followed more native Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism, etc).
Eventually, after the Tang Dynasty fell, many of these elite Buddhist societies disappeared too, but the Buddhist schools that had better support from regular people survived and became the Chinese Buddhism you see today.
The same story happens again later in Japan. In the Heian Period (平安時代), many wealthy families, especially the Fujiwara, could become Buddhist monks, or could afford to build and own Buddhist temples. When you read Lady Murasaki’s Diary, you get the impression that Heian Period Buddhism had many elaborate rituals and teachings, but only elite families in the capitol could afford to have these ceremonies, or participate. Many of these rituals were focused on material matters (safe birth, curing disease, power and wealth), in other words: happiness here and now.2
But when the Heian Period ended, many of these Buddhist groups declined too. The Hossō School (法相宗) used to be the most powerful school in Japan. They almost totally controlled the Buddhist institutions at the time, but now the school is very small. The Five Schools of Rinzai Zen (gozan, 五山) were very influential in the capitol in the Muromachi Period (室町時代), but now the temples are mostly tourism attractions now.
Instead, low-ranking monks, monks of common birth, eventually started newer schools in Japanese Buddhism and these schools are the ones that are most commonly seen in Japan today.
In the same way, when I see articles like this, I think that this kind of “aristocratic Buddhism” or elitist Buddhism in the West is a temporary thing. I believe such people are well-intentioned, but it’s flashy, it gets a lot of attention in the media and such, yet it’s not sustainable in the long-run. When tech companies fail, and the money dries up, where will these guys go? Who will buy their books or pay for their counseling services?
When my grand-kids or great-great-grand-kids are adults, I suspect that Buddhism will look different, more accessible, more diverse I hope.
1 Reverened “J.W.”, if you ever read this, I think you were a great minister.
2 Not unlike popular “self-help” books and teachers in the West, now.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book about the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, which was the longest-lasting Confucian dynasty in Asian history. The book is called The Confucian Kingship in Korea. The opening paragraph does a really nice summary of Confucian thought, or jukyō (儒教) in Japanese or yugyo (유교) in Korean:
One of the keys to understanding the Confucian world view is the perception that Heaven is rational, that the universe is moral, that human reason is a sufficient instrument to fathom the divine, and that man can reproduce on earth the moral order immanent in the universe. The Confucian kingship was conceived in this framework. It sought divine ordination, but the ordination was conditional, not absolute, and subject to human appraisal. (pg. 1)
That’s the best summary I’ve ever read, I think. Personally, I am not sure I believe in a “rational” Heaven (or any heaven) or that human reason can fathom the divine, but it’s an interesting idea to ponder.
Something cool that I read recently from the Analects of Confucius that I wanted to share:
[1:14] The Master said: “When the noble man eats he does not try to stuff himself; at rest he does not seek perfect comfort; he is diligent in his work and careful in speech. He avails himself to people of the Way and thereby corrects himself. This is the kind of person of whom you can say, ‘he loves learning.’”
I should pay attention to first part more. I think I would be more healthy and have less heartburn. ;-)
Lastly, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about Korean history, especially during the Joseon Dynasty (대조선국, 大朝鮮國) while watching the drama “Jewel in the Palace”. One of the things I realized is that Neo-Confucianism is an underrated and poorly understood concept, and this post is intended to help explore the topic.
Most of the major East Asian states were originally “Buddhist” states in that the state religion was Buddhism. This included the Tang Dynasty, the three kingdoms of Korea, Japan, the dynasties of Vietnam and so on. But as religion became mixed with politics, this became a problem as powerful Buddhist monasteries tried to manipulate politics.
Coincidentally, Confucianism experienced a kind of revival in Song Dynasty China under men like Zhang Zai (张载, 張載, 1020–1077) and Zhu Xi (朱熹, 1130-1200). Neo-Confucian thinkers adopted some features of Buddhism and Daoism as we shall see, but their focus was on reviving the teachings of Confucius, to reform the government, and to broaden Confucianism to better explain the world around them.
This proved so successful, that Neo-Confucianism became the official state ideology in China from the Song-Dynasty onward, in the Korean Joseon Dynasty (the longest-lasting Confucian dynasty), Edo-Period Japan, and both the Lê and Nguyễn dynasties in Vietnam. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism was the dominant state ideology until the modern era.
The original Confucianism from the Han Dynasty and before was somewhat limited in scope. If you read the Analects of Confucius (論語) or any of the other Four Books (四書), they are very focused on social, political and personal affairs. Confucius does not talk about death, the afterlife, the origin of things, and so on. In fact, he explicitly avoids talking about anything supernatural:
[7:21] The master never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder or ghost stories. –trans. Professor Charles Muller
This teaching was sufficient for a time until Confucianism had to compete with Daoism and foreign-imported Buddhism as a state ideology. Buddhism itself had a very sophisticated approach to metaphysics, phenomena, the mind, etc. that answered questions that Confucianism could not. By the time that it reached China, Buddhism had already flourished in India for 1,000 years and eclipsed Confucianism for a time as the state ideology for the Sui Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty.
Confucian scholars reacted in different ways. Some called for the removal of Buddhism from China (by force if necessary), but others sought to learn from Buddhism, and apply it back to Confucian teachings. This helped “fill in the gaps” and helped Confucian scholars explain concepts that were left out of the original Confucian teachings, while re-asserting critical teachings.
Buddhism historically suffered as Neo-Confucianism grew in popularity, and in some cases (Korea, Japan), the government tightly regulated Buddhism in order to further control it. However, at the same time, Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism generally lived side by side and regularly influenced one another at a social level, hence in modern Asian culture, one cannot really say they are Buddhist or Confucian. You’re not really forced to choose; people will adopt both to some degree or another, one different levels from one another.
“Zhu Xi completed the transformation of the Classical Learning of the Han Dynasty to the Learning of Principle.” (pg. 105)
Neo-Confucianism has all the same teachings of classic Confucianism: filial piety, personal cultivation through the arts, importance of learning, Heaven (天) as the natural law of existence, and importance of virtue. However, it also extended this to include:
Cultivate the heart/mind (心)
Observe Heaven and Earth to understand Principle (理)
In Neo-Confucianism, there is a great emphasis on cultivating the mind. Many Neo-Confucian scholars included Buddhist-style meditation, and other methods to help achieve this, even though the aim was different than Buddhism.
In particular, the teachings of Zhu Xi dominated Confucian scholarship for the next 800 years. In fact, he’s the only other person besides Confucius and Mencius to be considered a “master”. So, learning Zhu Xi’s thought helps explain Neo-Confucianism.
According to Professor Yao, Zhu Xi’s idea of Principle was:
“In other words Principle is that by which the world comes into being and that by which the world runs its course. Principle exists before the myriad things, and without Principle nothing come into being and neither movement nor tranquility would be possible….The world is composed not only of principle, for material force (氣) is also necessary…..Principle, with which all things are endowed, is fundamentally complete; but due to imperfection and impediments of material force, principle is unable to manifest its completeness, appearing incomplete.” (Pg. 106)
Zhu Xi used the analogy of the moon. One moon shines on all things, and each thing reflects the moonlight. In the same way, there is only one Principle but all things in the world reflect Principle at work.
The relationship between Principle and Material Force can be compared to a clay pot. The clay itself is the raw material, the material force, while the Principle is what shapes it into a clay pot. One can even compare Principle to the Laws of Physics and Material Force to raw matter, but Principle in the Neo-Confucian sense is a reflection of Heaven. Everything in the world is patterned after Heaven, so as Zhu Xi taught, if one learns to observe the world around them, they can understand the patterns of Heaven better.
But that’s not all. Professor Yao talks about Zhang Zai and says:
“Like all other great Confucian masters, Zhang believes that life is the process of manifesting the supreme principles of Heaven and Earth. Unlike the Daoists who value and seek physical immortality, Zhang proposes that a good Confucian will seek neither to destroy not prolong existence; he will cede himself to the will of Heaven, model himself on Heaven and Earth, and do nothing to violate virtue and humaneness.” (Pg. 103)
So, understanding Principle and how Heaven works is only the half the story. Neo-Confucianism encourages people to follows these patterns in their owns lives, and that society will benefit as a result:
“For Zhang, a Confucian scholar should make untiring efforts to nourish his heart/mind and nature, and regard wealth, honor, blessing and benefits as the enrichment of life, while poverty, humble station and sorrow as a means to help him fulfill his destiny….A good Confucian follows and serves Heaven and Earth during his life, and is thus fulfilled so that when death comes he is at peace.”
So, the essence of Neo-Confucianism remains the same, but the focus is less on the Classics, and more on observing the world around them, and understanding Heaven and Earth that way. By doing so, one attains harmony with Heaven and Earth.
This is a brief look at Neo-Confucian thought both in terms of history and teachings. As I read other books, I hope to write more on the subject, because I think its influence on Asian culture and history has been understated by Western sources.
P.S. For you computer nerds out there, you can think of Neo-Confucianism as Confucianism++, but without all the memory leaks. ;p
[15:31] The Master said: “I have spent a whole day without eating and a whole night without sleeping in order to think— but I got nothing out of it. Thinking cannot compare with studying.” —Analects of Confucius
This is one of my favorite quotes from the Analects. I’m the kind of person who likes to think and worry about things. If I wake up at night, I lie in bed and worry for hours.
But after reading this quote years ago, I stopped doing that. Now, I go downstairs, study Japanese/Korean, recite the nembutsu, write something or just play classic Starcraft. In other words, I try to do something useful at least.