Anyone Can Change

Hello,

This is something I wanted to share for a while. It is a quote from a Buddhist text called the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings (無量義経, muryōgikyō), which is a sutra often found with the more famous Lotus Sutra. It is considered a kind of “prologue” to the Lotus Sutra.

Anyhow, this is from Chapter Three, translation by Bunno Kato:

The Buddha said: “Good sons! First, this sutra makes the unawakened bodhisattva aspire to buddhahood,
makes a merciless one raise the mind of mercy,
makes a homicidal one raise the mind of great compassion,
makes a jealous one raise the mind of joy,
makes an attached one raise the mind of detachment,
makes a miserly one raise the mind of donation,
makes an arrogant one raise the mind of keeping the commandments,
makes an irascible one raise the mind of perseverance,
makes an indolent one raise the mind of assuiduity,
makes a distracted one raise the mind of meditation,
makes an ignorant one raise the mind of wisdom,
makes one who lacks concern for saving others raise the mind of saving others,
makes the one who commits the ten evils raise the mind of the ten virtues,

What I like about this quote is that it shows that under the right conditions, anyone can change for the better. They just need the right inspiration, and the right conditions. :)

The famous Indian-Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna (龍樹, Ryūju), once famously said: “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.”

What this means is that because everything is “empty” (lacking a static, permanent self), everything is possible. Anger can turn to goodwill, craving can turn into forbearance, etc. An alcoholic can turn into a saint when the conditions are right. If not in this life, then perhaps in another life.

Namu myoho renge kyo

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A Change in the Wind

Hello Dear Readers,

I have a big announcement to make: I am leaving my current employer, what I like to call the Big Ol’ IT Company (BOITC) to work for another company that is famous for theme parks and talking mice. :-)

I’ve been with my old company for 9 years, and thanks to them, I had some great opportunities like living in Ireland, learning a lot of technology and good practices, etc. However, I’ve also become frustrated and have gradually feel less and less “connected” to my job and thus my performance has suffered. I tried to deal with this stress many different ways.

Captain Barbossa is kind of busy.

Over the years, I tried things like practicing Buddhist meditation and chanting, working more hours, learning new technologies and computer skills, or just disengaging from work by immersing in hobbies like Japanese/Korean language. All of these things helped temporarily, but only temporarily. For example, I used to meditate daily and it made me a nicer person, but I was a stressed-out, nicer person. ;-p

But now, I realize that I just wasn’t happy with my job. It was a good job: pays well, prestigious, great co-workers. I will miss my co-workers most of all. I enjoy technology, but I wasn’t excited about what I do at work. I didn’t take pride in it anymore. The pressure to continuously improve myself made me want to get away from technology, not embrace it. It made me feel guilty as an engineer.

I didn’t realize all this until I talked with friends who left the same company and told me they were much happier now. They had many of the same feelings of frustration and guilt that I did. But once they left, the feelings were gone.

So, I’ve finally taken a risk and moved to another company which I like better. The technology they use is more interesting to me, and I like their friendly, supportive work environment. I am excited about technology again!

Also, my wife and daughter like the new company I am working for, and are happy that I am moving. My wife seems relieved that I am changing jobs too. My salary will decrease a little bit as a result of this move, but I realized that more money wasn’t making me happier, so I am OK with this.

I don’t like talking about work on this blog, and after this post will probably not talk about it again, but there is an important lesson in all this: if you are unhappy, a change in environment may be the best solution.

I tried to deal with my problems in two ways: endure it more (i.e. work harder, improve my skills) and to disengage (Buddhist meditation, more non-work hobbies) but neither worked for me. They were both temporary solutions. They didn’t solve the root problem.1

This doesn’t mean that hobbies are bad, and Buddhist meditation is useless, or that improving skills is a waste of time. But by themselves, they’re not enough. Technology is great, but if you are pressured to learn it, you will learn just enough to avoid getting fired. You have to practice Buddhism in a healthy environment and for the right reasons, or it is not effective. The Buddha said much the same thing 2,500 years ago. Your environment matters!

The other lesson, I think, is: you don’t have to punish yourself.

The Buddha taught the Middle Way or chūdō (中道) for Japanese readers. Pleasure (楽) is unprofitable and undignified. Pain (苦) is pointless and stupid. Buddhism teaches how to go beyond both and find real peace and happiness. But first, you must stop punishing yourself.

As for me, I feel like Mr Gibbs from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: “I think I feel a change in the wind, says I.”

So, anyhow that’s my announcement. Thanks for reading. :)

P.S. Another reason to be happy about working for the new company: I am a big fan of Pirates of the Caribbean.

1 This is why I think Google’s promotion of Buddhist meditation is a joke: it just masks the real problem and makes people forget they work on a hyper-competitive environment. If people want real peace, they have to let go of ambition and live a simpler life. Honest poverty is superior to contention and greed. Honest poverty is something I aspire to someday.

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Stop Learning Kanji!

Lately, as I wrote before, I’ve been getting frustrated with the Heisig method for learning Kanji, and then switched to learning kanji using the classic grade-school method (1st grade, then 2nd grade, etc).

What I found was neither system worked perfectly. The Heisig method, that is to say the method for breaking down Kanji into simple units that you can re-use for other kanji, is quite useful. However, the book and the underlying assumption that you have to “learn all kanji” has a lot of problems and I finally gave up. I just have no motivation to finish the book.

On the other hand, the grade-school method works for children growing up in Japan, but without the Heisig method (or living in Japan), it is almost impossible to remember beyond the first 300-500 kanji unless you actively use them in Japan all the time. Even then, the learning-curve gets pretty steep one you get into 5th grade kanji and beyond.

For foreign-students of Japanese language, both methods are tremendously time-consuming, and sometimes even detract from actually learning Japanese.

I was inspired recently by an article by Tae Kim which explains that some aspects of kanji really aren’t that important to learn. You eventually learn them through exposure to Japanese language, so spending countless hours memorizing them is not worth the time.

Instead, he suggests investing that time in learning Japanese vocabulary (i.e. whole words) first.

This is pretty similar to my old post about the Convergence Method (which I made up).

Reading his article made me feel a lot better about quitting Heisig. It was nice to reaffirm from an experience Japanese-language student that studying kanji in isolation isn’t very useful. I’ve since stopped learning altogether, and spend my time focusing on vocabulary so I can take the JLPT N1 later this year. :)

The reaction to Tae Kim’s article shows that a lot of people are still hesitant to study Japanese without learning Kanji first, but I know from first-hand that it does work. When I was living in Ireland for a year, I was just learning to read Japanese, and so I was learning a lot of basic vocabulary. I had used flashcards before, but I quickly forgot them after a few weeks. Instead, reading very basic texts (with pronunciation guides) helped me more because I could see them in context.

As time went on, I started learning enough words that I could see them overlap. That’s when I really felt things paid off.

Even now when I read something much more difficult, like the novel Dune in Japanese, I see difficult adult words but can often intuit the meaning because I’ve seen those kanji before. I still have to use a dictionary to look up the words, but often I am correct. This is a good feeling.

So, really, the key is vocabulary, not kanji.

Good luck!

Posted in Japanese, JLPT, Language | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Buddhist Sutra Chanting in Japanese

Hello,

Recently, I had an opportunity to go to a workshop on chanting Buddhist-liturgy in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. Although not required, it will help me a lot in my efforts to get ordained as a minister. The workshop was great, and I learned a lot. For example, I realized I am pretty tone-deaf, and I thought I was following the right intonation, but I was pretty far off. For example, the Shoshinge hymn should be chanted in “D” (re) by default, but after using a tuner, I was chanting in “A”.

In general Buddhist chanting of hymns or sutras is called shōmyō (声明) formally. In colloquial Japanese, though, I think it’s called okyō (お経) but I might be wrong.

Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot lately and wanted to share how to read Buddhist chanting books, and how to chant. Here is the Jodo Shinshu service book my wife lent me:

Shoshinge Buddhist hymn in Japanese

Here, you can see:

  • The chinese characters (kanji) for the hymn. Many Buddhist hymns/sutras are not actually Japanese. They’re Classical Chinese with pronunciation guides in Japanese hiragana syllabary.
  • To the right of the kanji are the hiragana syllables I mentioned earlier.
  • On the left are lines that show whether your intonation should go up or down.

These lines are called hakase (博士), which also happens to mean “Ph.D” or “doctorate”. I’m not sure why.

Sometimes the notation can get very complicated…

Anyhow, modern chanting uses the standard 8-note scale or hacchōchō (ハ長調) or just hacchō (ハ調) for short. It’s called this because “fa”, or “ha” in Japanese, is the starting note used in the scale. I read this on Japanese Wikipedia. :)

On this page, from my Jodo Shinshu chanting book, you can see on the right hand side it says 八調レ where レ (re) means “re” in the 8-note scale. This is the fourth “hymn” in the jōdo wasan (浄土和讃).

Buddhist chanting page with tonal marks.

This is telling the chanter that the base note here is “re”. Some Chinese characters have a line that goes up. This means the pitch is one note higher: mi (ミ) in this case. A line that points down means to go lower (do ド).

But as you can see, some have complex lines. For example, the character 如 starts as a flat line, then goes up. As you can see, it’s tell you to start at “re” then move up to “mi”. The next word, 虚, starts even higher and then dips down. Finally, the last character on that line is 空 which goes up and down. It’s hard to explain. You can hear the same page chanted on this Youtube video at 6:38.

If you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Also, one small thing to call out. Some of the words and lines have the Chinese character 引 in there. This means to make it extra long (literally “to pull”). Instead of one-beat, it’s two. So, for 無 you chant for two beats, not one.

Anyhow, sometimes these hakase lines can seem really arbitrary, so often times you have to actively listen to a chant first, and follow along until you understand what they’re telling you to do. But overall, they’re not so difficult.

For Westerners, or anyone, interested in Japanese Buddhist chanting, then the best advice I can offer is learn the liturgy for whatever Buddhist sect you’re interested, find a good audio sample, and keep chanting with it. Do your best to imitate what you hear. Imitation leads to mastery. Don’t memorize it first, just keep imitating until it becomes second nature. :)

Good luck!

Posted in Buddhism, Chinese, Japanese, Language, Religion | 1 Comment

Girls Day 2015 Wrap-up

Hello Everyone,

Just to wrap up Girls Day, I wanted to post some photos of our dinner. I left work a bit early today so I could be home on time for dinner. Because it is Girls Day, a Japanese traditional holiday celebrating young ladies, my wife made a nice, traditional dinner. Here is the chirashi:

Hinamatsuri Chirashi

This is sushi rice, topped with Bluefin Tuna (maguro), boiled shrimp, cooked egg, and ikura or fish eggs. She used a round cake pan to make the shape, which was clever. :)

She also made a nice boiled Manila clams:

Untitled

We also had some clam soup made with shiradashi (白だし), which is like regular dashi-fish broth, but has a lighter flavor and comes in liquid form, not powder. Thus the soup is often clear with a lighter, less salty flavor. Really nice, traditional soups often seem to use shiradashi.

Little Guy is too young to eat any of this, so he got his own special meal of rice balls, spinach and a little bit of Chirashi:

Untitled

This is Little Guy’s favorite plate because he loves the cartoon Anpanman. His favorite character is Baikinman (the purple character at the top). When he sees Baikinman, he grunts really loud because he’s trying to imitate Baikinman’s voice. I will make a video of it someday, hopefully. It’s really funny.

Princess was a little spoiled today. She got to have extra treats, drinks she likes, etc.

Finally we ended the evening by dancing in the living room to CNBlue’s song “L.O.V.E. Girl“. Certain ladies in the house are all fans of Jung Young-hwa.1 ;)

Both Princess and Little Guy like to sing in microphones or dance silly. Little Guy is still too young to stand up and walk, so he just sits and wiggles his arms when he wants to dance. I do silly dancing for the kids and wife, which everyone enjoys.

Anyhow, it was fun family evening.

Hope you ladies all had a good day too.

1 Actually I like CN Blue also because they’re a good Korean rock group, but also not too corporate either. More recent songs like Hey You are quite fun to listen to.

Posted in Cooking, Family, Japan | Leave a comment

Shogi and Castling II

Lately, I’ve been regularly playing Shogi with a Japanese co-worker. My skills are rusty because I haven’t played in years, but lately I’ve been researching strategy on Japanese websites. Previously I had to use English-resources but they are very limited. They explain some basic strategy, but often lack detail.

So I wanted to share more information about castles in Shogi. I wrote a much older post, but the details were limited. This post supersedes that one. :)

Castles (gakoi 囲い) in Shogi serve two purposes:

  1. They protect your king by moving him away from the center.
  2. They line up other pieces for a concerted attack.

So, when you decide what castle to make (if any), you should consider both. Which will protect your king the best? Which one will move the pieces in the best position in relation to where the opponents king is? Many attacks in Shogi involve a coordinated attack using your rook (飛車, hisha), so it’s helpful to line up your rook someplace it can threaten the enemy king somehow. That way, it can protect other, weaker pieces that advance first.

The are two “regions” to put your rook:

  • Ibisha (居飛車), which means it stays in its original position, on the right-side of the board.
  • Furibisha (振り飛車), which means it crosses over to the left side of the board.

You can see more diagrams on this Japanese website (scroll toward the bottom).

There are 4 castles typically:

  • Mino Gakoi (美濃囲い) – A relatively quick castle to assemble, plus it lines up your rook on the left side of the board (furibisha). This one is popular and often mentioned in English-language texts.
  • Yagura Gakoi (矢倉囲い) – A large complex castle that is popular in Shogi. It also has many variations, and is complex to setup. This one takes practice. It is an ibisha castle.
  • Funa Gakoi (舟囲い) – A smaller, quick castle. Easy to setup, but not as difficult to break through. Like the Mino Gakoi, this might be a good beginner’s castle though. This is an ibisha castle.
  • Anaguma Gakoi (穴熊囲い) – This castle can be setup on either side, and is thus flexible. The catch is that this castle takes a lot of work to setup, but buries your king way in the corner and is thus difficult to break through.

However, each castle often has slightly “alternate” forms, which you should use depending on your situation. For this post though, we’ll focus on just the standard forms.

Mino Gakoi

Shogi Castling

This is my personal favorite. It doesn’t take long to setup, but provides enough defense to keep most players safe. If you see your opponent moving his king to the left (your left, his right), consider using this castle to shift your rook (飛車) somewhere you can threaten him, while moving your own king further away.

The setup I use is:

  • Move the rook (飛車) all the way over to the 4th column from the left.
  • Move the king (王・玉) up-and-right, then two more moves to the right. It will sit where the rook used to be.
  • Move the right silver-general (銀将) up a square.
  • Move the left gold-general (金将) up-and-right.

Yagura Gakoi

Shogi Castling

The Yagura Gakoi, as stated above, is a stronger, more robust castle. If I’m playing an aggressive enemy, I’ve found this castle can take too long to setup, unless you do it in careful pieces (move a few pieces, attack, move some more). If your opponent is being defensive though, then you may want to use that chance to set this castle up. Here’s one suggested method I’ve used in the past:

  1. Move the 3rd column (from the left) pawn up first. This is the traditional bishop opening anyways.
  2. Move the left gold-general up-and-left, defending the bishop.
  3. Move the left silver-general up-and-right.
  4. Now move the 4th column pawn up.
  5. Move the left silver-general up-and-left, so it sits above the gold.
  6. Now move the bishop down-and-right, so it sits under the gold.
  7. Now move the 5th column pawn up. Your bishop now covers a nice diagonal across the middle of the board.
  8. Move the bishop up-and-right on square so it sits right of the gold-general.
  9. Now spend two moves moving the right gold general up-and-left so it sits above the bishop.
  10. Now spend three moves moving the king to the left where the bishop had started out.

Fune Gakoi

Shogi Castling: Fune Gakoi 舟囲い

The fune gakoi is another castle I like to use, especially if the opponent moves their king to the right (your right, their left). In such a case, the Mino Gakoi might not be sensible, so instead, I set this castle up.

The moves are fairly straightforward. Here’s one suggested approach:

  1. Move the king up-left and then left once more (2 moves).
  2. Move the right gold-general (金将) up and left (1 move).
  3. From the left, move the pawns in columns 1, 3 and 5 up one space. The jagged line will help discourage certain drops that could break your castle easily particular with knights.

Another alternative form I’ve seen is to also move the silver-general (銀将) up and right, then up one more. The pawn there has to move up as well to avoid blocking it. But once done this creates a strong deterrent for attacks to the right because the gold-general is double-protected.

Anaguma Gakoi

Shogi Castling

Shogi Castling

The “badger hole” castle is kind of an odd one. You can make it on either side, and it costs a lot of moves to make, but if you succeed, it is pretty hard to break through. I played one player and had to keep throwing pieces at until eventually I could break through. It was pretty time-consuming. Your mileage may vary of course. :)

Since there are multiple ways to make this castle, I will focus just on general steps:

  1. If making the castle to the right, first move your rook (飛車) over to the left side of the board. In other words, you’re playing furbish as mentioned above. If you make the castle on the left-side, move the 3rd column pawn up one space, and then put the bishop (kakugyō 角行) in its old spot. If you fail to remember this, you’re king will get tangled up and vulnerable.
  2. On the side you’re making the castle, move the lancer (kyōha 香車) up one space. This is really important as it lets the king hide in the deep corner of the board.
  3. Now move your king to that corner as soon as possible. This will cost several moves, so don’t do this unless your enemy is really defensive. Or, do it in pieces while still trying to push an attack on the other side.
  4. Next, move the closest silver-general (銀将) up and left (or up and right) to cover the king.
  5. To the left of the silver-general (or right), move both gold-generals to form a secondary wall, one directly above the other. Your other silver-general should be free for an attack on your opponent.

Conclusion

These guidelines are only suggestions. There are many variations to each castle, and as you use them, you learn to apply variations as your situation dictates. My own personal advice is to not always rely on one castle. Get to know their strengths and weakness and see what your opponent is doing, then decide what’s best for you.

Shogi is a game that favors aggressive (though smart) players, so always remember to keep pushing an attack even while building up defenses. Otherwise, even the best castle will be besieged and destroyed.

Good luck!

P.S. For non-shoji readers, I’ll post other stuff this week. :)

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RIP Spock

Spock and the Vulcan Salute in Star Trek IV

Today, I was surprised and saddened to hear the news that actor Leonard Nimoy has died. His character, Spock, was a role model for an impressionable teenage boy who didn’t have many role models. He taught the value of helping others, using logic and reason, not superstition, and the virtues of self-discipline.

But, as Spock would say:1

Change is the essential process of all existence.

Live Long And Prosper, Spock, wherever you are now.

1 Similar quotes here and here.

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