Getting With The Times

Lately, I’ve been reading both the letters of Nichiren to women followers and also reading letters by Honen to followers in Promise of Amida Buddha.

It’s interesting to read their letters side-by-side (more or less) because the content is pretty similar. Both talk about the decline of the Dharma (末法), both were exiled, both talk about critics falling into Hell,1 both support women in Buddhism and both talk about how their practice is the answer to help save many people in this declining era.

When I step back and think about it, these Buddhist schools all arose from a specific time, place and environment which researchers call “Kamakura Era Buddhism”. People like to focus on the differences, but really they’re surprisingly similar to one another. The conditions of the time forced people like Honen, Nichiren and Shinran to innovate, but in the light of science and modern historiography, what seemed new and progressive back then looks kind of outdated and anachronistic.2

Interestingly, the only Japanese Buddhist teachers of the time who didn’t follow this model were those who studied and practiced in China like Dogen and Eisai. China was still somewhat stable and prosperous under the Song Dynasty so the sense of panic and decline wasn’t there. Thus, even when they returned to Japan they didn’t talk about it much.3

Stepping back further, I realized that these teachings by Kamakura-era Buddhists just don’t apply as much anymore. Times have changed, people have moved on. I don’t live in 13th century Japan, and I am not even Japanese!

I don’t agree with post-modern Western Buddhist converts, though, who feel that all of it is useless “cultural accretions”, but I realized that I do have to take things with a grain of salt too. One of my favorite ministers at the local Jodo Shinshu temple used to tell me that’s important to understand a tradition before you criticize it. I think this makes sense. Most people criticize without understanding first.

I think the right approach is to appreciate the tradition, but not be bound by it. Also, don’t throw out the tradition just because you don’t like it either.

Anyway, there are plenty of good teachers both here in the West and Asian and there’s enough practices and schools here to choose from. Fixating on medieval Buddhism just isn’t very constructive. I never lived there, and will never really know what it was like, what people really meant, etc.

I think most Buddhists (Asian and Western) eventually figure this out. But, because I am such a nerd, I am slow to catch on. I need to get with the times. :-)

1 Compare Nichiren’s “Letter on Menstration” (月水御書) written in 1264:

You should know that all these people [who slander the Lotus Sutra and befriend Pure Land Buddhists] will go to the hell of incessant suffering.

With Honen’s reply to the “Lady of Tarō Sanehide in Ōgo” (大胡の太郎実秀が妻室のもとへつかはす御返事) written in 1199:

In sum, those who vilify nembutsu [reciting Amida Buddha's name] will fall into the realm of hell and endure suffering for five eons;

Similar, no? :)

2 Reminds me of this old post, hee hee.

3 To be fair, Zen with its focus on “now” also makes Dharma Decline not very important either. The Buddha stressed the importance of focusing on now, too. Still, opinions will vary even among Zen monks today.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shu, Nichiren, Zen | Leave a comment

Typhoons and Going To The Movies in Japan

Hi folks,

It’s been away since I talked about my recent trip to Japan, and I wanted to go back and talk about an interesting experience I had near the end of the trip. Because my daughter is in school in the US from September to June, we can only visit Japan in July/August. This time of year, the airfare is very expensive, the weather is hot and muggy, and there are sometimes typhoons.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest do not have typhoons, hurricanes, or any serious storms. The weather is pretty grey and mild all year. The first time I saw a serious rainstorm was in Hanoi, Vietnam when I saw the summer monsoon rains, which were very intense. But, even still, I have never seen a typhoon before.

As mentioned earlier, my daughter and wife went to see the latest Doraemon movie at a big movie theater near Kawasaki Station in Kawasaki City. I had to stay home and watch Little Guy so I didn’t get to see the movie. To make up for it, my wife’s sister helped me reserve tickets at the same theater for the new Space Brothers movie 宇宙兄弟#0 (Space Brothers, episode #0). This movie is a prequel to the main story and delves more into the lives of Hibito and Mutta before episode #1.

Coincidentally, the day we reserved was right in the middle of a typhoon! Typhoon Halong came to Japan in early August, where it was called Typhoon #11 (taifū jūichi gō, 台風11号), and the eastern edge brushed over the city of Kawasaki. We didn’t get the typhoon full-force, but even the edge of it was surprisingly strong. Before we left for the movie, we stopped at a neighbor’s house to drop off some food, and after just walking one block, we were soaked! Our neighbor kindly gave us a ride to the station, and I was able to get to the movie OK.

Because this was the edge of the typhoon, it wasn’t very windy, just really rainy.

It was my first time going to a Japanese movie theater, especially by myself. My wife had to watch Little Guy that day, and my daughter went out with my sister-in-law. I was pretty nervous at first, and I did a terrible job ordering popcorn. For some reason, I totally misunderstood what the person at the counter said. Then again, I’ve never ordered popcorn in Japanese before.1 ;)

Anyhow, they gave me the popcorn and Coke in a large, triangular tray. I was kind of confused, but I took the tray into the theatre and sat down. Unlike American movies, Japanese theaters had fewer previews that you have to sit through, which was nice. Also, the tray was supposed to fit into a notch in my seat, so it would become a little table for me to keep my food. I thought this was very clever, because in American theaters I have to put my food on the floor or my lap.

The movie itself was great. Very touching (yes, I got choked up a bit) and definitely worth watching if you like the Space Brothers series. The theater had a gift shop too, featuring souvenirs of the movies currently showing, so I was able to get a few items like a souvenir glass, a toy for Princess, and a Pug doll for my wife (she loves pugs). Also, because I went there on opening day, I also got a free copy of the script too in nice book-form.

By the time the movie was done, the typhoon had died down. I met my wife at Lazona shopping mall near Kawasaki Station and we went home. The theater was a great experience. My Japanese is not very good, but I was surprised to see that I understood about two-thirds of the movie. Since I already knew the story pretty well, that probably helped. ;) But it was fun to be in a theater, watching in a foreign language. It felt like years of study had paid off.

Even with the crazy typhoon, it was a great day.

1 I do order other things in Japan regularly, but I guess my popcorn-ordering-skills need more practice. ;P

Posted in Japan, Manga, Travel | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Little Guy!


This is Little Guy. He is 1 year old today. :-)

He had a lot of fun playing with his American grandparents, cousins and aunties. But now he is fast asleep.

Happy Birthday, Little Guy!

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Japanese, Rhythm and Learning Hiragana

Table hiragana

I live in a small home in north Seattle, which is behind another house. We are friends with the neighbors in front of us, and the daughter is now in college (she was in high-school when we first moved in), and very interested in Japanese culture. Recently, we came home and the neighbor’s daughter asked if my wife could help her with her homework. She had just started learning Japanese language in college, and was struggling with hiragana script. I had learned Japanese in college too, so I could sympathize with her. That inspired me to write this post.

Nowadays, I am very comfortable reading and writing hiragana.1 It took me a long time, but now it feels pretty natural, and my daughter can read and write hiragana naturally too (plus some kanji). Looking back, I have a better appreciation for hiragana and why it’s so important for Japanese language, so I wanted to share some insights with other language students.

First, hiragana is a syllabary, not an alphabet. Each “letter” in hiragana actually represents a full syllable in Japanese. This is different than English. In English, the word “three” is a single syllable, but has 5 letters, while “through” has 7!. Similarly, “ought” is one syllable, and the pronunciation is different than similar-looking words like “tough” or “through”. The combination of letters determines how to pronounce it, and even then, it’s not always consistent. English is painful that way.

But hiragana is different. What you see is what you get, with a couple, minor exceptions. So for example か is always the syllable “ka”. It doesn’t matter if it is at the beginning, middle or end, it’s always “ka”. Other characters like せ (se), む (mu) and て (te) are the same way: very constant, never changing.

This is very important too because each syllable in Japanese has equal weight. A frequent mistake that Westerners make, especially us Americans, is to slur syllables together and stress them when they shouldn’t. For example, when saying “hello” or “konnichiwa”, Westerners often say ko-NI-chi-wa. The first “n” is missing, and there’s too much stress on the “ni”. But this is a hard habit to break for English speakers. Using the example of “three”, it’s five letters, but it blends together into a single sound, a single syllable.

But in Japanese every syllable, each hiragana character, is one beat. No more, no less. For example, the word for Taiwan in Japanese is also taiwan, but is written as たいわん, which is four letters, four beats: ta-i-wa-n Try saying each one as a single beat. That’s much closer to how Japanese pronounce it. In English, Taiwan is two beats, “tai” and “wan”, but in Japanese, it is four.

Another, more advanced example is the phrase かわさきにいくとおもう kawasaki ni iku to omou (I think he/she will go to Kawasaki City).2 When you see this, you should think in terms of hiragana like so:

か わ さ き に い く と お も う
ka wa sa ki ni i ku to o mo u

Better yet, try clapping each beat by yourself. Make sure you give each hiragana character a single beat. It feels a bit strange, but once you get used to this, it helps you pronounce Japanese better because you aren’t blending sounds anymore. Each one is distinct and has equal weight.

But how do you memorize hiragana in the first place? When I first learned Japanese in college, the teacher gave us two weeks to learn all hiragana, and there was nothing to do but just memorize it. It sucks, but on the other hand, once you learn it once, you do’nt have to learn it again. Fortunately, nowadays, there are a lot of good materials for learning hiragana.

Also, it helps to know how they’re organized. If you look at the chart above, they are organize in rows (or sometimes columns) based on how they rhyme. All the “a” (ah) kana are in one row. All the “e” (eh) kana are in the same row, etc. There’s even a childrens songs that helps you memorize this:

Notice how each verse rhymes, just like in the chart above. So, if you struggle to memorize hiragana, try learning a song.

Also, based on personal experience, the best way to memorize is to read very basic Japanese material, like books for newborns, or something like White Rabbit’s Graded Reader series. When I was living in Ireland, and first studyign Japanese, I started with series 1 and read all the way through series 5, and this helped my reading a lot. Hiragana felt much more natural after that.

Anyhow, this is just personal advice, so take it with a grain of salt. But there’s a few pointers I would liek to share:

  • Remember: hiragana are syllables, not letters.
  • Each one is exactlly one “beat”.
  • They frequently rhyme with each other.

Good luck!

P.S. The two kana ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we) are archaic. They are never used anymore, but do appear in ancient poetry like the Hyakunin Isshu sometimes.

1 I still have bad handwriting though, both in English and Japanese. ;)

2 This is why Kanji are useful by the way: it lets you separate words. The same sentence above would normally read: 川崎に行くと思う。Once you learn how to read Kanji, this is much more readable, even without spaces.

Posted in Japanese, Language | Leave a comment

Pumpkin Patch 2014

Hi Everyone,

Halloween is fast approaching, so my family and I went to a pumpkin patch recently. The purpose, of course, is to buy pumpkins!


We went to the same farm as last year: Bob’s Corn. We like this pumpkin because it is close to Seattle, doesn’t charge for entrance, and isn’t too big or too small. They have a great corn maze for children:

Corn Maze at Bob's Corn

Cornstalks are actually very tall, if you’ve never seen them. Here’s a photo of me next to corn:


Last year, my wife was pregnant with our son, and was very tired. This year, I was carrying the baby. ;p He’s much bigger now, so my arms got very tired. Also, this year, autumn has been unusually warm and sunny so we got pretty tired and hot, and the baby was getting cranky, so we had to stop and take a break.

Also, this year, to save money, we brought our own food (we had to bring food for the baby anyway) but we did buy some delicious apple cider, kettle corn and corn of course. The corn was delicious and very cheap (13 corn for $6), so we gave some to friends and neighbors too. Kettle corn is very addicting. Once you start eating, you can’t stop. I think I ate one-third of the bag the next day. ;)

Anyhow, it’s fun to go to a farm like this because you can pick your own pumpkins out. This is a photo from last-year of the pumpkin field:


My daughter, “Princess”, loves to pick out pumpkins. We picked out several pumpkins and put them in the wheelbarrow where Little Guy was sitting:


Little Guy really liked the pumpkins. He takes one small pumpking and stacks it on another. My daughter bought several small pumpkins and made a “pumpkin family” (daddy, mommy, older sister and younger brother ;) ), so she is taking care of them now.

It’s really nice to take kids to farms like this. It helps them learn how food is grown (and makes them appreciate things more), it’s good excercise and fresh air too. Little Guy gets a bit dirty, but it’s good for kids to get a little dirty sometimes too.1 :)

1 I read an article on the BBC recently that said that many childhood allergies are caused by kids not getting enough exposure to germs, so their immune-system panics. Kids don’t get out as much as earlier generations, so this is probably making their health weaker. So, we let our kids play and explore more now.

Posted in Family, Seattle, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Letters of Nichiren to Women Followers


Recently while on a trip to Portland, OR, I stopped at the famous Powell’s City of Books, which is a huge, local bookstore that is very popular too. It was a great bookstore and I found lots of useful books that are hard to find elsewhere. In the Buddhism section I found a rare book on the letters of Nichiren published by Nichiren-Shu press, not the fringe Nichiren Shoshu and SGI publishers. Most Nichiren books in English are published by the latter.

Anyhow, the book is titled the nyonin gosho (女人御書) which is a collection of Nichiren’s letters to women followers. The book is bi-lingual, so the pages on the left are English, while the pages on the right are the Japanese version. The book was high quality and surprisingly readable.

It’s also a rare chance to read Nichiren’s letters in English from more mainstream Buddhist sources, and I’ve read several letters already. The letters give a lot of insight to Nichiren’s personality, some positive, some negative, so I wanted to post a few interesting quotations.

One of the interesting letters was to a female disciple he named Nichimyō Shonin (日妙上人) who was living alone in Kamakura, raising her infant daughter by herself. Her husband had been absent for a long time, and was not trustworthy. She was deeply devoted to Nichiren and even visited him (carrying her daughter) on Sado Island when he was in exile. Nichiren was deeply moved and wrote in 1272:


It is about 250 miles from Kamakura to Sato. You have to cross steep mountains and a swift ocean. Winds and storms attack you enroute, and the way is full of bandits and pirates….Besides, you have a small child, and you cannot depend on your husband. You have been long separated from him. I feel so sorry for you that I cannot continue to write. I do not know what to say, so I will close here.

Nichiren was unusual in his treatment of women. Most of his letters were addressed to women, not men, and frequently contained praise of women using examples from the Lotus Sutra. In this letter to Wife of Lord Shijō Kingo he writes:


Reading all Buddhist scripts other than the Lotus Sutra, I don’t want to be a woman. Some sutras say women are messengers of hell, other sutras say women are like a serpent or a bent tree, while still other sutras say that their seeds of Buddhahood are toasted….But it is only the Lotus Sutra that declares: “A woman who upholds this sutra is superior to not only other women but also men.

On the other hand, you can see Nichiren at times being kind of smug and abrasive, such as this letter to Lady Oto:


You remember how arrogant people today were before the Mongol invasion of Japan, but ever since last October, no one has been haughty. As you heard, I, Nichren, was the only one who predicted the foreign invasion….This [invasion] is solely because this nation let the priests of Shingon, Pure Land, and Ritsu Sects criticize me, who is the messenger of Shakyamuni Buddha and the practicer of the Lotus Sutra.

Anyhow, the letters of Nichiren to his female followers has been a fascinating read. It shows many sides to Nichiren, some progressive and noble, others kind of petty and abrasive. One thing is for sure, Nichiren was really committed to what he believed, and wouldn’t let popular trends and politics of the time affect his thinking:


Some people, who do not understand me, may call me self-conceited for what I say. I am not self-conceited. As a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra, I must speak out.

I hope to post more letters in the future. Although I don’t consider myself a Nichiren Buddhist, I do feel that awareness and studies of Nichiren Buddhism have been somewhat behind in the West, so I hope to get more information out. :)

Posted in Buddhism, Nichiren | 2 Comments

Autumn is here! Poem Number 69


Happy Friday, everyone! This autumn, the weather in Seattle has been pleasant and warm, and I’m excited for the coming of Halloween and Thanksgiving. So, to share in the joy, I wanted to share this poem from my other blog. Enjoy!

Originally posted on The Hyakunin Isshu:

Ceramic daylight (1910314548)

My favorite season, Autumn, is fast approaching so I thought this would be a good poem:

あらし吹く Arashi fuku
三室の山の Mimuro no yama no
もみぢ葉は Momijiba wa
龍田の川の Tatsuta no kawa no
にしきなりけり Nishiki nari keri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

It’s the autumn leaves
of the hills of Mimuro,
where the tempests blow,
that are the woven brocade floating
on the waters of Tatsuta River!

The author, N?in H?shi (“Dharma Master” N?in, b. 988) was originally Tachibana no Nagayasu until the age of 26 when he took tonsure. From there, he traveled the provinces, composing poetry and contributed to various anthologies at the time. Because he was not tied to a politically prominent temple, he had more freedom than other monks in the Capitol to roam the countryside and write in his travels.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem is unusual because it’s very straightforward with no hidden wordplay…

View original 226 more words

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