Category Archives: Taoism

Zen Is Not What You Think It Is


I took this photo recently while walking to work. The word “Zen” (禅) gets used a lot in funny ways in English. For some reason, people often use Zen to mean relaxation, or peace of mind, without any Buddhist meaning. Or, it means a blissful state of mental focus, becoming a master of something, kind of like a Taoist sage (仙人, sennin in Japanese).

None of this is really wrong though. It’s just how language works: foreign words get adopted and used in different ways. I see it happen in Japanese all the time: English words are used in different ways than native English speakers.

Still, it’s good to understand what Zen is, originally.

First, the term “zen” is kind of bland actually. It derives from the Chinese word “chan” (禪), which itself is just a phonetic pronunciation of the Indian Sanskrit word Dhyāna. This means “meditative absorption” in a Buddhist sense.

In East Asian (i.e. “Mahayana” Buddhism), there are 3 broad schools or traditions:

  • Meditation Buddhism – the focus is on practicing meditation in order to attain greater insight. This is typically done in a dedicated or monastic setting because of the training and mentoring required.
  • Devotional Buddhism – the focus is on a particular Buddhist figure (or scripture), either to create positive future conditions, or awaken the same qualities in one’s self.
  • Tantric Buddhism – shares traits of the other two, but focus is on reciting mantras, visualizing a Buddhist deity, and performing the correct ritual gestures. Significant training and mentorship required.

All Buddhist groups in East Asia include one or more of these traditions. Zen is essentially meditation Buddhism, but may also include elements of devotional and tantric Buddhism depending on the particular temple or tradition. Zen has an almost “mystical” image in the West, but in practice this is somewhat exaggerated.

But now you know. ;)

The Cycle of Violence

When the people do not fear your might
Then your might has truly become great.

Dao De Jing, trans. Professor Muller

I found this interesting article in the Japan Times a few weeks ago. It talks about a Japanese family who lost their son from the 9/11 attack 12 years ago.

In particular I liked this statement:

“If the U.S. keeps repeating this kind of thing, it will have to be scared of terrorism forever,” he said.

It’s not just about forgiving your enemies, but stopping the cycle of violence.

Elitism in Buddhism, again

I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat…

–Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

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.

A Look At Neo-Confucianism

Zhu Xi: Father of Neo-Confucian thought, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Brief History

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 and Nguyễn dynasties in Vietnam. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism was the dominant state ideology until the modern era.

Why Neo-Confucianism?

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.

What Is Neo-Confucianism?

As Professor Yao explains in An Introduction to Confucianism:

“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:

  1. Cultivate the heart/mind (心)
  2. 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

Taboo in the Heian Period of Japan

Fengshui Compass

Recently, while reading reading the Gossamer Years, I found the book contained a thorough explanation of the notion of “taboo” and “purification” in the Heian Court in Japan. I wanted to share this with others.

Aristocrats and the Heian Court had a very complex system of purification ceremonies, periods of abstention, and other rules that derived from Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, and in particular Chinese geomancy. This system was called onmyōdō (陰陽道) in Japan. These rules and restrictions were taken very seriously by the Emperor and his court, and often helped dictate policies, or help deify angry spirits. These rules and rituals also appear regularly in works from the time such as the Pillow Book, the Gossamer Years, the Diary of Lady Murasaki, etc.

For example, one of the biggest taboos involved travel. The kami Taihakujin (太白神), also known as Hitohimeguri (一日回り), was the kami of directions. Every day, he would move to one of the 8 directions, and it was forbidden to travel in that same direction that day. Thus if Taihakujin was dwelling in the northwest, travel toward the northwest was forbidden. As stated before, the literature of the time frequently mentions travel bans and such. Also, Taihakujin would sometimes travel to the sky or the earth, and on those days, travel was free in all directions.

But, it got more complex, because there were other gods too. For example, the kami Tenichijin (天一神) also known as Nakagami (中神) stayed 5-6 days at each of the 8 directions, and travel was banned in that direction depending on the year you were born. Yet another kami, Daishōgun (大将軍), stayed in each direction for 3 years, and although small errand were fine, larger projects were considered inauspicious. And yet another kami Dokujin (土公神) would dwell in different parts of the home depending on the season (the oven in spring, the gate in summer, etc) and doing repairs where Dokujin dwelled was forbidden. So if you had a broken gate in the summer, you had to wait until fall to fix it.

But it wasn’t just the movement of the gods. Births and deaths were considered “traumatic” events, and there were bad days for cutting hair, for visiting sick people, etc. For this reason, there were many kinds of “abstinences” or monoimi (物忌み) that involved elements of Buddhism and Shinto. In the case of Shinto, these were intended to to purify oneself in a Shinto context to avoid misfortune caused by evil spirits. In a Buddhist context, these abstinences would also repay any past, bad karma, create merit, etc. Some abstinences were quite strict and one had to essentially shut themselves in a room for a day and see no one. Other abstinences were less-strict, but usually such people couldn’t receive guests or travel during such times. Pilgrimages to holy sites (Shinto and/or Buddhist) were common. Fasting and other activities were often required. Women who were having their period were automatically subject to abstinences and were not allowed to enter Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines due to the defilement of blood.

Lastly, every one night in 60 was a special night called kōshin no hi (庚申の日) where people had to stay up all night without sleep, or they risked death from certain poisons in the body. These “all-nighters” were mentioned in the Pillow Book a few times.

It’s amazing anyone got anything done back then.

When I first watched the famous Japanese film Onmyoji, a lot of it didn’t make sense to me. But once I started reading about Heian Period culture, and the beliefs back then, the film was a lot more interesting to me. Plus, I like Nomura Mansai and Sanada Hiroyuki anyway. :)

But in any case, the world of the Heian Court was a real world of demons and evil spirits, taboos and angry kami. Because I am a computer-engineer living in 21st century USA, it’s hard to imagine living in a world like that, but people from that era would find my world just as strange. It reminds of the Zelazny book Jack of Shadows and the dialogue about seeing reality (posted here):

“You were both correct,” said [the demon] Morningstar. “It is the same thing that you both describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is. Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it. For if it is uncontrollable, you fear it. Sometimes then, you color it incomprehensible. In your case, a machine; in theirs, a demon.”

21st century man, like the men of the Heian Period in Japan, each struggle to control reality around them, and to label the unknown.

A Brief Glance At Ancient Roman Religion

Lararium, Pompeji

Normally, when I talk about religion on this blog (a favorite topic of mine), I usually talk about Japanese/Korean religion, with Buddhism in particular. But since I also study Latin a little bit as a hobby, I also got curious about Roman religion as well, so this blog post was intended to be an exploration of pre-Christian Roman religion. Christianity is a well-known subject, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity is a fascinating, but well-known subject already. The earlier pre-Christian religion isn’t as well-known so this post will help people learn more.

I found a really good website on the subject recently. Normally, people assume that the Romans just borrowed Greek religion, and that’s it. But as the article shows, this is only partially true. The Romans had a different approach to religion than the Greeks, and they expressed it somewhat differently, even if the gods were similar.

While reading a few sources on ancient Roman religion, I got the impression that it vaguely resembled Japanese Shinto or Chinese Taoism/Folk religion, but we’ll explore that a little later. First, let’s look at who the Roman gods were.

The Early Pantheon

During the days of the Roman Republic, Roman religion had a trinity of three gods: Jupiter the king and god of thunder, Mars the god of war and agriculture, and Quirinus who was also a god of war and the god of the Roman state. Jupiter has some resemblance to the Greek god Zeus, and Mars vaguely resembles Greek Ares, but they are not entirely the same. Quirinus has no resemblance to any Greek gods, and also gradually became less and less important.

In the early religion, the priests were called pontifex, and the most important priest was the pontifex maximus. Some high-ranking pontifexes were assigned to specific gods or goddesses and were called flamen. There were 15 flamen, and if one died, a different pontifex took his place. The flamen assigned to Jupiter was the most important. But Roman religion also had priestesses too. The priestesses, called Vestalis (vestigial virgins) were devoted to Vesta in particular, but Vesta was very important because she was the goddess of the hearth. Every Roman household venerated Vesta because they could not eat without a hearth and a fire. So the vestalis had strong influence in society, but had the obligation to be celibate most of their lives. Vestigial virgins were also found in ancient Japan at the Kamo Shrine, but were always daughters of the Emperor.

The trinity mentioned above also changed over time. When the Romans defeated the older Etruscans, they adopted Etruscan religion and the new trinity became Jupiter, Juno his wife who was a goddess of woman and protector, and Minerva his daughter who was the goddess of wisdom, culture, technology, etc.

The Later Pantheon

As the Roman Empire spread, it adopted more and more cultures, these became a part of Roman religion. The Egyptian deities, especially Isis, became popular especially on a personal level for example. Another example is Cybele, who is a goddess from Phrygia and a protector. The traditional Roman gods, especially Jupiter, were still the official state religion, but in home shrines and such, people favored other, more practical gods.

Also, some people, especially the military, took an interest in a new religion called Mithraism, which might have come from Persian culture, but developed in new, Roman ways. Unlike the other gods, Mithraism was a fairly structured religion on its own, and had priests, rites, ethics, etc.

Since newly conquered areas often became citizens of the Roman Empire, their traditions could spread more easily than before, and Roman religion became very mixed at this time.

Roman State Religion

Romans strongly believed in the importance of ritual in maintaining peace, strength and prosperity of the state. This meant that there were set holidays and rites each year to the gods and goddesses to help maintain order in society. Jupiter was always the head of the Roman state until the Christian era, and his temple in Rome on the Capitoline Hill was the most important in the entire empire.

Other rituals existed too. For example, when a victorious Roman general returned from battle, a special Roman religious ceremony called triumphus was held to give thanks to Jupiter. The ceremony was very solemn, and only given to a general who achieved a great victory, but that general would spend the day almost as a king or god. Also, when declaring war, the Roman priests prayed to Jupiter for protection and victory as well.

But Roman state religion was not just focused on war. Most state temples, or templum in Latin, were focused on maintaining good relations with the original Roman deities. If the priests carried out the rites correctly and on the correct dates, the god or goddess would be pleased and Rome would prosper, but if they didn’t, society would suffer punishment instead. This also meant that Roman religion had many holidays and festivals, and some lasted days. For example, a major festival in Roman culture was Lupercalia which was a kind of “spring-cleaning” in Roman culture mean to drive away evil spirits. The assigned flamen would initiate a sacrifice followed by a feast, then two young men who were anointed would run around the city and whip people to purify them.

This concept of devotion and consistent loyalty to the Roman gods was called pietas (compare with English “piety”) and the Romans were often proud of this, and believed it helped their Empire grow. They sometimes compared themselves to the Greeks who sometimes held a more cynical view of their own gods.

On the other hand, Roman religion tried to avoid superstitio (English “superstition”) or excessive emotion or devotion, so religious expression, especially in public rituals, was supposed to be both pious and stoic. This was a very Roman trait.

Roman Personal Religion

State religion and personal religion in Rome were not quite the same. Every home in Roman society had a personal shrine called a lararium usually devoted to the family’s lar or protector spirit. Usually the head of the household (pater familias) would make daily offerings to the lar, but the wife was in charge of making offerings to the goddess Vesta, and to the penates who were other household spirits. For example, during a meal, the mother might throw a bit of food into the fire as a way to offer thanks for the meal. Other personal gods such as Isis or Sybele would also be in the shrine. The shrine would be devoted to the lar first, but also have statues and figures for the penates and other gods/goddesses.

Romans also paid respects to their ancestors as well, usually making offerings, keeping their image in the lararium shrine mentioned above. The offerings might be food, incense or even coins.

Lastly, another popular figure of devotion was the genius. The genius is a more vague figure, but symbolized divine power found in many things. It is vaguely analogous to the idea of kami in Shinto religion.


Roman religion was based on two important principles: it was practical and dealt with daily or political issues, and it was based on maintaining order and prosperity through religious observance. It was highly eclectic because of the nature of the Empire, but was generally proscribed superstitious elements as much as possible.

I believe these principles of devotion, order and ritual bear some vague resemblance to Japanese Shinto and Chinese folk-religion/Taoism. Similar to Shinto and Chinese religion, there is a cosmic order to the gods and goddess, each with an assigned role, and a practical function for society and family. Ancestor veneration was also a key element.

Many of these elements are probably found in other ancient (or modern) religions in the world, and I think this speaks to Human consciousness and subtle forces that help define religion and culture.

P.S. Kind of a slow week this week due to Thanksgiving. Regular schedule resumes next week.

Need Some Focus

Hunchback of Chu: “…No matter how huge heaven and earth, or how numerous the ten thousand things, I’m aware of nothing but cicada wings. Not wavering, not tipping, not letting any of the other ten thousand things take place of those cicada wings—how can I help but succeed?”

–Zhuang-zi, section 19, trans. Burton Watson

Taoism is something I don’t talk much about in this blog but in my high-school and college years it was a great interest of mine. Zhuang-zi (莊子) was the other great early Taoist writer besides Lao-zi and his writings have a number of important themes. For example, Zhuang-zi wrote that a person should devote oneself to a single trade or skill and completely master it. There are many stories in Zhuang-zi’s writings expressing this point.

I mention this because it’s something I reflect on from time to time. I have lots of hobbies and projects but I never seem to finish any of them. I like learning many different things but I am mediocre at all of them. So sometimes I think Zhuang-zi is right and that I should shut out everything else and devote myself to one thing and master it.

The truly great, successful people in life seem to find what naturally appeals to them and devote their lives to it. They might be terrible at other things, but they have a labor of love and when they do it, people agree “that guy/girl is really good.”

For me, it’s not that I want success. I like my life as it is now, but I would like to feel I have fully accomplished something. Have something I can be proud of, I guess.

Question is: is it worth devoting oneself to one thing, and if so what should I focus on? That’s something I haven’t solved yet.

Advice from readers is certainly appreciated.

Yokohama Chukagai: Adventures in Japan’s Chinatown

On the same day that I visited Sojiji Temple with “Johnl”, we had some time left over, but not enough to visit another temple, so John led me to Yokohama’s famous Chinatown called chūkagai (中華街). The name basically just means “China street” in Japanese, because 中華 is a commonly used word in Japanese to describe Chinese things such as Chinese food (chūryōri 中華料理) and so on, even though the name of China itself has changed many times over the years.

Anyway, Chukagai is fairly different in many ways to Shin Okubo and the Koreatown there. Where Shin-Okubo is kind of hip owing to the KPop craze, Chukagai has more of a traditional “Chinese” feel without the benefit of a pop-culture fad.1 However, it was also somewhat different than other “Chinatown” districts I’ve seen in Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver, and I think this has to do with the less contentious history of immigration to Japan. Because Chinese immigrants suffered a lot of discrimination when they came to Western countries, the neighborhoods were neglected and relegated to undesirable parts of the city, while the experience in Japan seems to have been relatively smoother even during the Imperial era. Thus, Chukagai felt a lot friendlier and less intimidating than the Chinatowns I had seen in Seattle and Vancouver in particular, and certainly a lot safer.2

Chukagai is near Yokohama Bay and is pretty easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. We walked past a lot of old Western-style buildings until we noticed this gate:

Yokohama Chukagai Gate

Once you go past this gate, things change quite a bit. It’s like a hidden world inside of Yokohama’s business district:

Yokohama Chukagai

As I said before, a lot of buildings have the more traditional (touristy) Chinese look, and it was interesting to hear people speaking Japanese but with a noticeable Chinese accent. We had already eating at Mos Burger, so we just picked up a nikuman instead:

Chukagai Nikuman

Nikuman is short for “niku manju” I believe and is variation on Chinese-style buns, which often have vegetarian options too such as taro root rather than meat. After we ate, we took a left from the main street and came to a back alley:

Chukagai Alleyway

…which led to this temple:

Kanteibyo Temple Gate

This temple, named Kanteibyō (関帝廟), is a famous temple in Chukagai devoted to none other than the famous general Guan Yu, referred to as Guan Di Miao there. Most Westerners might recognize Guan Yu from the famous 16th century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or at least the computer games based off it, but in fact Guan Yu is a deeply loved character in Chinese culture. I’ve read elsewhere that many people pray to him in certain fields, such as police officers in Hong Kong. Either way, the temple and Guan Yu have served to unite the people of Chukagai for generations, and it was probably the first Chinese-style I’ve ever seen anyway. Quite a treat, really.

If you step through the gates you see this small shrine here:

Kanteibyo Temple

I couldn’t take pictures of the main shrine just behind it, but it was pretty awesome. The temple is an interesting fusion of Japanese religious culture and Chinese religious culture. The grilled donation-boxes were very Japanese, but the incense sticks were larger and thicker and more Chinese style. Also, I overheard a tour-guide explaining to visitors that you were supposed to 3 incense sticks at a time, whereas at Japanese temples, it is usually only one.

The inner shrine, which you can see on the temple website by clicking on the blue cloud in the picture twice, also was quite interesting, and another fusion of Japanese-Chinese culture. It was bright red and adorned with a lot of gold color. You can see General Guan Yu there in the middle, with a deep red face and long beard, which is how he is often depicted in Chinese culture. The layout of the room though looked somewhat more similar to what I’ve seen in Japanese Buddhist temples, and to the right there is a statue of Kannon Bodhisattva, who is highly revered in both China/Japan among many other places.

You can also see me here ringing the gong near the entrance like a total tourist:

Kanteibyo Gong

Thankfully a lot of us were doing it, so I didn’t feel too silly.

Suffice to say, I enjoyed the temple quite a bit. We lingered for a while in the area, buying up some good Chinese tea before we headed to the nearest train station, Motomachi-Chukagai, which looks really cool on the inside:

Motomachi-Chukagai Station

The high, rounded roof above is something I usually don’t see in train stations in Japan.

Yokohama is interesting in general because of its fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Western culture, but Chukagai in particular was a pretty cool place to visit, and certain worth a visit. As with Shin-Okubo, it’s really interesting to see how a major ethnic minority has adapted and thrived within Japanese society.

Thanks again, John!

P.S. Next post will be on my visit to Fukugawa, and meeting reader “Marcus” for the first time. :)

1 That didn’t stop any shops at Chukagai from selling KPop stuff though. I found that really amusing. If there’s profit to be made, someone will find a way. :p

2 The point here isn’t to criticize the Chinese communities there, but to point out that history hasn’t been kind to them.

Leaving your mark upon Life

Another bit of sagely advice from Confucius comes from the Analects of Confucius, book 16, verse 12, courtesy of Prof. Charles A.C. Muller’s online translation:

[16:12] Duke Ching of Qi had a thousand teams of horses, but when he died, there was nothing for which the people could praise him. Boyi and Shuqi died of starvation at the foot of Shouyang mountain, and the people praise them up till this day. What meaning can you glean from this?

Bóyí​ (伯夷, sounds like “boh yee”) and Shūqí (叔齐, sounds like “shoo chee”) were two legendary brothers from the ancient Shang Dynasty, who refused to take the crown out of principle. Instead, they sequestered themselves in mountain cave until they died of starvation.

The point that Confucius is making isn’t one about martyrdom. It’s about principle. There are plenty of people today who get rich through business, but after 30-40 years are utterly forgotten. In the dot-com boom in the 90’s plenty of people made money, but few are remembered anymore. Even when people are remembered, it’s usually not so much in a positive, but more matter-of-fact. The same of course applies to politicians and other people with power.

What distinguishes people in a positive way, and ensures their “immortality” in a sense is going against the grain of society for the sake of virtue and people’s welfare.

It reminds me of a certain quotation from the Dao De Jing (again courtesy of Prof. Muller):

The reason the river and sea can be regarded as
The rulers of all the valley streams
Is because of their being below them.
Therefore they can be their rulers.
So if you want to be over people
You must speak humbly to them.
If you want to lead them
You must place yourself behind them.

Thus the sage is positioned above
And the people do not feel oppressed.
He is in front and they feel nothing wrong.
Therefore they like to push him front and never resent him.

Food for thought, fellow readers. :)

Living the Simple Life

As faithful readers will no doubt have noticed, I read a lot. I read on the bus, read on my lunch break at work, I used to read in the car when Baby was one-year old and would take extended naps in her little carseat and I had nothing to do but to watch over her for a while. I read in bed, at my desk, on the “throne” and so on. I read a lot.

Yet in spite of that I don’t own an e-reader and have absolutely no intention of buying one. I prefer good old fashioned paper books because:

  • Paper books require no batteries.
  • Paper books are safe to drop.
  • Paper books are too plain to be worth stealing.
  • You don’t have to worry about digital rights; you can share with a friend.1

You get the idea. It’s the same with nice electronics, fancy cars and other valuable goods. They’re nice to have but introduce other burdens you didn’t have before. Oftentimes it’s not worth the extra burden.

It reminds me of a sagely quote from the Dao De Jing (Prof. Charles Muller translation):

[12] The five colors blind our eyes.
The five tones deafen our ears.
The five flavors confuse our taste.
Racing and hunting madden our minds.
Possessing rare treasures brings about harmful behavior.
Therefore the sage regards his center, and not his eyes.

He lets go of that and chooses this.

The point being that the more we try to enrich our lives, the more we can make ourselves miserable and agitated.

Confucius also felt similarly:

[7:16] Confucius said: “I can live with coarse rice to eat, water for drink and my arm as a pillow and still be happy. Wealth and honors that one possesses in the midst of injustice are like floating clouds.”
(trans. Prof. Muller, Analects of Confucius)

If I could apply the same logic I do with books to the rest of my life, perhaps I would be happier with having less, and more simple, ordinary goods, than what I have now…

P.S. A great Japanese Buddhist poem on the subject can be found here.

P.P.S. Title of this post got messed up and replaced with another one due to a certain bug in the iPhone app that creeps up at inconvenient times.

1 Thanks to “Cherryblossom” for thinking of this one via Twitter.