Ohigan and Crossing Over

Hi guys,

I had some free time recently and put together a small video about what Ohigan means and how it fits into Buddhist themes in general:

It is pretty short but talks about Shan-tao’s famous Parable of the Two Rivers among other things. Instead of just talking into a camera, I thought it would be more fun to use “slides”. It’s pretty low-tech, though.

Enjoy and Happy Ohigan!

Fall Ohigan 2015: Authentic Living the Buddhist Way

Hi Guys,

It’s Ohigan season again. For this season’s post I got burst of inspiration came recently after I saw this article about a parody account that pokes fun of the recent “Authentic Lifestyle” movement. You can see pictures of authentic lifestyles online now, and there are plenty of selfhelp websites to help you live an authentic lifestyle.

It sounds very tempting doesn’t it? Live a life the way you want to, the way that feels right for you. Life will be great, without friction, authentic, and most important: happy.

But unfortunately very few people, if anyone, live like this. Not everyone can be an attractive twenty-something hipster with the time and money to spare. Somebody has to clean the toilets every day, and somebody else has to work in a factory making the designer hiking clothes you wear, the non-gmo, organic, free-trade food you eat and so on.

In fact, most of us can’t live this kind of lifestyle to begin with. You see, life is often messy, complicated and demanding. The Buddha knew this long ago when he formulated the Four Noble Truths. The very first one states that existence is marked with suffering. People aren’t suffering all the time, but there is plenty of frustrations and stress to go around. Or in his words (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, SN 56.11):

“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

On a typical day, we experience “micro-frustrations” when we have to associate with things we don’t like, be separated from things we like, not get what we want, and so on. We have obligations we have to attend to, things we worry about, etc.

In the Immeasurable Life Sutra, the Buddha describes life like so:

“Because they are spiritually defiled, deeply troubled and confused, people indulge their passions. Hence, many are ignorant of the Way, and few realize it. Everyone is restlessly busy, having nothing upon which to rely. Whether moral or corrupt, of high or low rank, rich or poor, noble or base, all are preoccupied with their own work.

The trouble with the “authentic lifestyle” is nothing new: it’s just a nice way of saying a self-indulgent lifestyle. Further, the more you try to indulge yourself, the more dissatisfied and agitated you become.

Instead, the Buddha offered different advice to his son Rahula. Rahula had followed his father’s footsteps and joined the monastic community and some of the early sutras are conversations between the Buddha and his son. In this sutra, the Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62), he tells Rahula the following:

“Rahula, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.'”

“Just form, O Blessed One? Just form, O One Well-gone?”

“Form, Rahula, & feeling & perception & fabrications & consciousness.”

The Buddha’s advice seems pretty counter-intuitive at first. Of course it’s my feelings, my thoughts and my life.

But are they? The Buddha taught that everything arises through temporary causes and conditions, and when those causes and conditions fade, things fade too. Your thoughts and feelings often arise from outside conditions (hunger, cold, annoying co-workers, etc), and much of who you are is shaped by the environment you grew up in, for better or worse. This is why it’s so hard to fulfill one’s desires: when you satisfied one, another arises because conditions keep arising. The harder you grasp, the more exhausted you become. There’s no end to it.

So, at some point, you just have to drop the baggage you’ve been carrying around and just leave it where it is. You won’t be able to solve all the problems in your life in the span of time you have (even if you lived 1,000 years), so just let them be. Cherish your friends and family because they are here for you and accept you for what you are. You don’t own them, but they are some of the positive causes and conditions that help you to be who you are.

Don’t worry about what you could have or could be, focus on your life now. It probably sucks in some major ways, but it’s not who you are. It’s not a reflection of you. It just is what it is.

Happy Ohigan!

The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

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

Happy Day of the Chrysanthemum 2015

Hi Guys,

September 9th is the Day of the Chrysanthemum in traditional Japanese culture, one of the 5 sekku (節句) in calendar year.

To celebrate I wanted to share a couple poems about autumn chrysanthemums from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology. In the second a “Autumn” section, there are a surprising number of poems about chrysanthemums. Apparently it was a popular topic for courtiers in those days.

This poem, number 270 by Ki no Tomonori, captures the spirit of the Chrysanthemum Festival:

露ながら tsuyu nagara
折りてかざさん orite kazasan
菊の花 kiku no hana
老いせぬ秋の oisenu aki no
久しかるべく hisashikarubeku

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

To wear in my hair
I plucked a chrysanthemum
which dew still clinging
to it — oh may this present
autumn’s youth last forever.

And also poem 272, by Sugawara no Michizane (who later became the God of Learning):

秋風の akikaze no
吹上に立てる fukiage ni tateru
白菊は shiragiku wa
花かあらぬか hana ka aranu ka
浪の寄するか nami no yosuru ka

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

White chrysanthemums
standing in the rushing winds
on autumn beaches
at Fukiage — are they
blossoms, or are they breaking waves?

Have a fun, youthful Day of the Chrysanthemum and consider giving some of the ones you live. :)

You Can Change!

Hi guys,

I haven’t posted in a long while, but I was recently inspired to write a post on this famous quote by the Buddhist master, Nagarjuna. Nāgārjuna (c.150 – c.250 CE) was an influential Indian Buddhist monk who also founded the Madhyamaka school or “Middle Way” school of Buddhist philosophy. Many works are attributed to him, but only one is certain: the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way or Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā.

The FVMW is a series of verses where Nagarjuna expresses the Middle Way school, and negates absolutes by other schools. The most famous quote is this one quoted in the book Nagarjuna’s Middle Way:

sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate

All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.

In other words, because nothing is static, because everything is “empty”, everything is possible.

This statement has profound implications, both negative and possible. Something very positive can decline, fade or change into something unwholesome, but likewise something awful and seemingly impossible can become something wholesome.

This applies to people too. A person who’s addicted to drinking can sober up and become a respectable person. A person can transform lust into brotherly goodwill. And so on.

That’s the other implication of Nagarjuna’s emptiness (śūnyatā): things arise because of other causes and conditions. The Buddha taught the same thing in such early sutras as the Assutavā Sutta (SN 12.61):

“The instructed disciple of the noble ones, [however,] attends carefully and appropriately right there at the dependent co-arising:

“‘When this is, that is.
“‘From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
“‘When this isn’t, that isn’t.
“‘From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Thus, one can’t simply change their mind, or change their ways at the drop of a hat. Genuine change comes under the right conditions. When wholesome conditions exist, the right states of mind arise, leading to further change, conditions and so on. Just like a pistol: when the hammer hits the powder, there’s a flash and a chain reaction goes off.

Nagarjuna’s teachings in the FVMW provide us with the necessary confidence to effect change in our lives, but the Buddha’s teachings provide us with a simple formula about how to go about it.

Goodbye Summer

I found this delightful, anonymous poem from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology, number 172, that I wanted to share:

昨日こそ kinou koso
早苗取りしか sanae torishika
いつのまに itsu no ma ni
稲葉そよぎて inaba soyogite
秋風の吹く akikaze no fuku

Which is translated as:

“Only yesterday we filled the fields with young plants unaware of time and yet it has passed; rice leaves rustle in the autumn wind.”

For people in the US, have a restful Labor Day weekend!

My First Sermon

Or: “Misadventures Teaching the Dharma”

Hi all,

I haven’t been able to write for a while. I am happy to report that my wife and kids are back in the US, and the jet lag is wearing off, so we no longer live like vampires.1 ;)

Another big development is that I delivered my first sermon at the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple. Things did not go as planned but I also learned a lot in the process.

First, I was originally scheduled to give a sermon on the 30th of August and I was going to talk about Shan-Tao’s Parable of the Two Rivers. However, the schedule changed and I did my sermon on the 9th instead. I decided to change topic at the last minute because I would not be able to get a projector in time to show Shan-Tao’s parable in art.

So, instead, I decided to talk about the idea of taking refuge in Buddhism. I talked about the Vandana Ti-Sarana, the “Three Refuges”, which is recited almost universally in Buddhism in some way or another, but I also linked it to sutras like the Cunda Sutra (SN 47.13) in the Pali Canon, the 21st verse of the Dhammapada and the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra (chapter 3).

It was thrown together, but I thought it was pretty good. I was nervous that day, but when I stood upon the pulpit, my nervousness faded and I threw myself into the sermon.

But as I finished, I felt something wasn’t quite right. I had secretly used my phone to time myself and I had finished a few minutes earlier than I expected. I was so worried about taking too long, that I had gone too fast!

Worse, I found out later that I had talked so fast, so animated, that many of the elderly members couldn’t follow what I said. :-o

Looking back, I had made a classic blunder: I was talking as fast as I was thinking, and I hadn’t considered my audience. I was over-eager.

I did get lots of compliments about the content of the sermon, but the delivery needed improvement. And that’s when I really came to realize that teaching the Dharma in person is a lot different than writing a blog or even making Youtube videos.

In the blog, people can read at their own natural pace. My speech habits do not appear in writing, so the language reads more neutral. Plus, if something I write is confusing, they can go back and re-read it. Even on Youtube, you can rewind the video and increase the volume.

But when you’re talking in person, you only get one shot. Even if you compose the greatest sermon ever, if no one understands it, then it’s all in vain.

Speaking of YouTube, I have received comments before about talking too fast, and even at work sometimes people have told me that I talk fast, so I know I do it and I do it often. I have other weird habits too like saying “right” at the end of sentences, and a weird inflection that makes people think I am from Canada.2

So I did some research on how to avoid talking too fast, and I found a couple good links:

The gist of both websites is that “talking too fast” really just means you are not giving enough audio cues, so your audience gets confused. Simple things like learning to breathe more, ending sentences with a downward inflection (for English speakers), and just pacing yourself are the key.

Although the first sermon did not go as planned, and I learned some painful lessons, I actually feel pretty positive about my next opportunity to give a sermon, hopefully in another month or two. I will definitely practice more, and hope to give a more impactful sermon next time around, probably on the Maha-Mangala Sutta (and how it relates to Jodo Shinshu), or perhaps on the Shan-Tao’s Parable. :)

1 Toddlers with jet lag are no joke. Little Guy was awake and active until 4:30am the first few nights! :-o

2 I’m born and raised in the Seattle area, by the way.  Strangely none of family has that inflection, just me. I’m not sure if it’s a “Northwest Accent” or just personal habit. 

Why the Atomic Bombing Still Matters 70 Years Later

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.

–Diary entry from President Truman, July 25, 1945

August 6th and August 8th mark the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. It’s not something I’ve posted about for a long while (last post in 2012), but I was motivated to write about it for two reasons.1

The first reason was the childish reaction by American fans during the Women’s World Cup. The callous way people joked about the atomic bombing and compared it to a soccer match told me that such people did not appreciate the sheer destruction that resulted, and the tragedy of the incident. I was furious.

The second reason happened a few weeks ago. At our local Buddhist temple, we had a guest lecture by a reverend from one of our sister temples in Oregon. He told us a moving story, which he had heard from a minister in Nagasaki, Japan. But I’ll get back to that story in a minute.

As many of us know from history, the Empire of Japan still controlled large parts of Asia as late as July 1945:

A map of East Asia and the Western Pacific during World War II

…and that Japan and refused to even acknowledge the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945 which ordered them to surrender. After fighting in Europe for so long, we were ready to finally defeat the Empire of Japan:

But the enemy was not to be taken lightly:


The military reasoned that the only way to get Japan to finally surrender was to shock them. From the minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos which took place on May 10-11, 19452 the committee reasoned:

It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released.


It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.

A small, narrow target wasn’t enough because it would lack shock-value, but also because the atomic bomb cost billions of dollars in 1945 and if it failed due to bad placement, it would be a military disaster. Ultimately Hiroshima was selected:

This is an important army depot and port of embarkation in the middle of an urban industrial area. It is a good radar target and it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focussing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage. Due to rivers it is not a good incendiary target. (Classified as an AA Target)

The rest, as we know, is history. Nagasaki was later added to the list, and became the second target.

Anyhow, back to the guest lecture from a few weeks ago. The visiting minister told us about another minister in Nagasaki. At that time, the minister was young and fresh from seminary, and was visiting a woman’s home to take part in a memorial service some time after the War.

The minister observed that the grieving woman had placed the rice in her Buddhist home altar incorrectly. Normally it’s placed in a small, raised bowl generically called a buppanki (仏飯器)3 which is intended to be an offering to the Buddha, and gesture of respect. You can see illustrations here. However, this woman had placed four rice balls (onigiri) placed in a dish in front. The priest was somewhat perplexed by this, and decided to gently correct her on etiquette for Buddhist altars.

He indirectly brought up the subject after the memorial service, and asked about the rice balls.

The woman explained that during World War II, she had been a mother of four little children. On August 8th, she had to go to the neighboring town to get some groceries, and she told the children they could go out and play, but they had to come back for lunch. She had made them onigiri rice-balls which they could enjoy when they came back home.

While she away in the next town, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. By the time she returned home, the house had been destroyed and all four of her children were dead. They were sitting around the table together eating the onigiri she had prepared for them when they died.

…. and that’s why I think the atomic bombing still matters.

The military strategy and decision making that went into the atomic bombing wasn’t trivial. The war between Japan and the West was long, bitter and many people wanted to end it soon, but at the same time, a lot of careful analysis went into determining the targets, weighing the necessity of the atomic bomb, etc. In other words, it wasn’t an irrational decision.

However, military strategic planning cannot forsee everything. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were valuable military targets, but a lot of civilians lived there too, and many of them were not involved. The four children who died in Nagasaki had no military value. They were not the cartoonish “Japs” in propaganda posters; they were obedient children, enjoying a homemade lunch their mom had made, who died in nuclear fire.

The consequences of the decision to drop the atomic bomb were not limited to military-strategic ones; the consequences were much more broad and still felt many years later. The limits of such planning were true then, as much as it is now.

P.S. These World War II propaganda posters and many others are available at the National Archives, which is a great resource for historians. Some of the propaganda posters are pretty crass though. :-/

1 Didn’t want to detract from the other nuclear disaster, though: Castle Bravo and Bikini Atoll.

2 U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File ’42-’46, folder 5D Selection of Targets, 2 Notes on Target Committee Meetings.

3 In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, specifically the Nishi-Honganji branch (which covers much of the US temples), it may also be called a kuhandai (供飯台), but I need to verify that.

Final Fantasy XIII-2: the novel

Hi guys,

Final Fantasy novel cover

As fans might recall, I am a big fan of the game Final Fantasy XIII1, and lately I’ve been playing the sequels XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. I’ve enjoyed these games, and the story, so much that decided to purchase the novel. Actually there are a few novels available, but all of them are in Japanese-language only:

I bought all three, but only the last two are in stock,2 so I’ve begun reading Fragments Before.

Final Fantasy novel

The reading-level is a stretch, for me, but not nearly as difficult as trying to read Dune in Japanese. That was much harder. Already, I’ve enjoyed the book quite a bit and have finished one of the ministories. I don’t read fast, but I can read at a decent pace. Also, I sometimes have to go back a few pages and re-read because I understand the words, but have trouble grasping the overall meaning the first time. This happens with manga too sometimes, but novels are harder than manga. It doesn’t really bother me though, because I really want to know what goes on, and want to know the details of the characters and the world they live in, so I don’t re-read because I have to, but because want to.

It turns out that if you want to read in a foreign-language, you have to find something you’re genuinely interested in. I have English-language novels that I don’t finish because they’re not very interesting, and this is even more true in Japanese. I just can’t finish books that don’t interest me. Or if I finish them, I don’t remember much. So, now that I found something I really like and want to finish, suddenly I find it takes less effort to read. ;)

A good tip for language students out there: find something in your target language you really like and just focus on that. The rest will fall into place.

1 Actually I love the Final Fantasy series in general, but the XIII trilogy is one of my favorites.

2 Once Episode 0 is in stock, they’ll ship it out, of course. I can wait. I can’t read that fast. ;)


Lately, I’ve been reading an old Buddhist book that I found in a used bookstore from the 1970’s by Professor Edward Conze, titled Buddhist Thought in India. The book is dense and not for the light-hearted, but also has some pretty interesting insights. This is one quote I wanted to share:

People often hate themselves, and much of their hatred for others is a mere deflection of projection or self-hate. They may love, and even hug, their hates, and not at all wish to be rid of them. They may wish to die, because life is so disappointing, or because their destructive impulses are excessively strong, or because some kind of ‘death instinct’ is at work in them. They may not dare to want happiness, because they suffer from a sense of guilt, and feel that they have not deserved to be happy, but that, on the contrary, punishment is due for what they did or thought in the past. If a neurotic is a person who is both discontented with himself and unable to have satisfactory relations with others, then he can be made to live at peace with others only by first learning to endure himself. We must therefore agree with Aristotle when he said that only the wise man can love himself, and he alone, just because he is wise. ‘Such friendship for oneself can only exist only in the good man; for in him alone all parts of the soul, being in no way at variance, are well disposed towards one another. The bad man, on the other hand, being ever at strife with himself, can never be his own friend.’ And here we come to our first paradox: Self-love can be maintained only by becoming less intense and exclusive, more detached and impartial, a mere acceptance of contents of one’s own self. For, the more possessive, the more ambivalent it will also be, the more charged with latent hate. (pg 83)

Definitely makes sense to me. If one is preoccupied with oneself, the more turmoil and unease they have, and the more discontent they become, then they learn to hate themselves and then others. Or so I understand.

Anyhow, something to think about. :)