The Letters of Nichiren to Women Followers

Hello,

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:

相州鎌倉から佐渡の国まで、その距離は約百里に及ぶ。険しい山を越え、濤々とした海を渡らなければならない。風や雨は時を構わず襲い、山賊や海賊は充ちている。。。。このような時に一人の幼児を連れて、頼みとする夫はあてにならず、また別れて久しい。その苦しさを何と言っていいのか、筆にも表せず心にも述べがたいので、これでとどめる。

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:

「法華経」以外の経典を見る限り、私は女人にはなりたくありません。ある経典には女人を地獄の使いとしていますし、他の経典では大蛇であると説き、又ある経典には曲がった木のようだと言われ、ある経には仏を焼き焦がしてしまうと説かれています。。。。この「法華経」のみに、この経を持つ女人は全ての女人よりもすぐれているだけでなく、一切の男子にも超えていると説かれているのです。

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:

蒙古の日本侵入を見ない前の今日の人々の威張り方は、貴女も存じの通りでした。しかし去年の十月からは一人もいばる者はありません。すでにお聞きのように私、日蓮がただ一人外寇を予言していたのですが。。。これは全く我が国が、釈尊のお使いであり「法華経」の諸行である日蓮を真言、念仏、律等の僧侶ににくまれて。。。

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:

このように言えば、理解のない人は、日蓮の自讃だと言いますが、そうではありません。この事を言わなければ「法華経」の行者といえず。。。

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

Doug:

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What is Eagle Talon?

While in Japan, I was watchign TV with my daughter when I saw this strange, but hilarious show called taka no tsume (鷹の爪) which means “Eagle Talon” or “Hawk Talon”, whatever.1 Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the show started as an online Flash-animation show by one man. He took stock characters from video games and other sources, and reversed roles: the superhero was the rude, arrogant bad buy, while the “bad guys” were actually heroes.

Unfortunately, there is no English translation, but you can see it here:

One of the main good guys looks like M. Bison from Street Fighter in my opinion. Anyhow, in this episode, the “hero” Deluxe Fighter is visiting elderly people for Keiro no Hi (敬老の日, “Respect for the Aged Day”). One of elderly ladies mistakes him for someone she fondly remembers, but when he acts differently, she gets annoyed. He almost blasts her a couple times, but then decides to play along. In the end, she is dying and admits that she know he was only pretending, but appreciates the effort so she gives him all the money she saved up, which was millions of yen. Just as she dies, the good guys revive her with a special raygun and she lives, thus Deluxe Man loses the inheritence money and blasts everyone.

It’s a very silly show, but fun to watch even if you only undersatnd a little Japanese. I watch it on Youtube regularly.2

Enjoy!

P.S. Sorry guys, I accidentally hit ‘publish’ button on this post. I’ve re-written this. :)

1 The Japanese word for “eagle” is washi as far as I know, so I think the English title is slightly mistranslated. Then again, Hawk Talon is awkward to say. :p

2 Unlike Korean media, Japanese media is usually very strict about licensing and it’s hard for people outside Japan to see it. But thankfully Eagle Talon is different.

Posted in Japan | Leave a comment

Buddhism and Vegetarianism According to Venerable Sheng-Yen

Hi guys,

I just wanted to share this video from the famous Chinese monk, Sheng-Yen (聖嚴, died in 2009) about Buddhism and vegetarianism:

I liked this video because it was pretty balanced. He lays out some good, valid reasons why some Buddhists are vegetarian, but he also lays out reasons why some are not. A lot of it depends on which Buddhist tradition, and also the circumstances in your life. It’s a voluntary, pious practice, but not required in Buddhism (unless you belong to some monastic orders).

Anyhow, enjoy!

Posted in Buddhism, Cooking | Leave a comment

Looking Back at the 1999 Seattle Protest of the WTO

In the past weeks, I’ve been closely watching the situation in Ferguson, Missouri and now in Hong Kong on Twitter and the news. Coincidentally, I found some old photos I took from the 1999 WTO protest here in Seattle, and wanted to share them for comparison. It’s interesting how some things have changed (communication, technology) and how some things remain the same (protests and efforts to contain them).

I was in my college years then, and was an idealistic, politically-active young man. Years have passed, and Buddhism, parenting and my experiences in Hanoi, Vietnam1 have tempered this over time, but it’s interesting to look back and remember my life 15 years ago. At the time, I was living not far from the local university, and when the protests started, I decided to take the bus downtown and see for myself. I only had a cheap, portable camera, so these photos are low-quality, but since no one had camera-phones back then, I hope they prove useful for history.

I grew up in the Seattle area, but I was surprised when I arrived downtown; it looked so different. All the major downtown streets were shutdown, and you saw lots of protestors like this:

WTO protest sign

Also, the police had come out in force to block access to the meeting:

WTO police line 3

By the time I arrived, the violence had already ended. However, things were very tense. At one point, I was with a crowd at 5th avenue, between Pike and Union and I remember we were standing face to face with the police here:

Sitting at the police line

We sat down (I took this photo while sitting), starting humming some song (I forget what), and trying to convince the police to join us. They were unfazed, and eventually I left and started looking around elsewhere.

Eventually I ran into these guys, the Anarchists:

Anarchists at WTO protest

The one woman on the left spotted me, so I didn’t stay long.2 But they were getting ready to do more protests. You can see their handiwork here:

WTO Anarchist vandalism

Again, I wandered around for a while. I think this is Pine Avenue facing south, again blocked by the police:

Police Line

Midday, there was a large parade that went through and I remember seeing many, many different political groups marching together: trade unions, environmentalists, feminists, socialists, etc. I even saw a parade girls who were protesting topless and wearing body-paint. This wasn’t nearly as exciting as you might think. :P

By afternoon, things started to die down for a while. There was a lot of heckling of the police, who didn’t push people out of downtown until evening,3 but neither side really moved. You could hear Bob Marley music playing at one street corner, Anarchists wandering around, curious people like myself, and some very strange “fringe people” in general. One strange guy kept making crow-cawing noises at the police. I couldn’t figure out why he was doing that, and I didn’t like his vibe. Anyhow, after hours of this, people were getting tired or bored. Somehow I managed to miss the violence both in the morning and evening, so I have no interesting pictures.

However, I hope that readers will find comparisons between now and then interesting. You can see the rest of the album here.

So, was it worth it?

For me, it was my first and only experience with a mass-protest like that. I was definitely opposed to the WTO, and free trade, and I still am because I feel it’s hurting smaller businesses and small farmers. The NY Times has a good, balanced article from 2013 on the subject. Lenin’s work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism was written 98 years ago, but still remains eerily true of the world economy now:

As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be utilised not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The export of capital is made possible by a number of backward countries having already been drawn into world capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been or are being built in those countries, elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc.

On the other hand, I also feel that change is inevitable, and sometimes change is pretty painful. For example, when the automobile was invented, the horse and carriage industry probably suffered greatly. However, the concentration of power and risk of exploitation is definitely a cause for concern 15 years ago, and it still is today, and will probably remain that way 200, 500 or 1,000 years from now when we are all dead and are bones are dust.

Thus, it is an ever-present struggle: to assert the needs of the people and restore balance where needed. The key is to remember why we do it. If we do it out of rage or anger, we pay the price in the long-run. If we do it for the betterment of younger-generations and the community, then people will be benefit.

At least, that’s my opinion. Opinions are like noses: everyone has one. :)

1 I am often reminded of a quote from the TV Show, Babylon 5, where the character G’kar warns his people not to overthrow a dictator and setup another one. I am unable to find the quote though, alas.

2 I’ve never been a confrontational person. Some might say I am a bit of a coward. :)

3 I had left by this time. Walking around downtown all day made me tired and hungry, and I think my wife was getting worried about me. No great revolutionary, am I.

Posted in Politics, Seattle | 6 Comments

What is the Buddha’s Pure Land? Another Perspective

Yesterday, I kind of had a small epiphany with regard to the Pure Land in Buddhism (浄土 jōdo in Japanese). The Pure Land is an interesting subject of discussion in Buddhism. It’s a big part of East Asian Buddhism, and a popular focus for lay Buddhists because the Pure Land is intended to be a refuge from the ups and downs of this world, but it also is a place where one can progress in Buddhism much more easily. However, Western Buddhists frequently criticize it as a “cultural” phenomenon and not true “pristine” Buddhism, so it’s regularly ignored. I’ve seen some Western priests dismiss it or joke about it.

Anyhow, a couple weeks ago, I was reading about the famous restorer of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Rennyo (蓮如, 1415-1499) who wrote this in a letter to followers:

このうへには、なにとこころえて念仏申すべきぞなれば、往生はいまの信力によりて御たすけありつるかたじけなき御恩報謝ごおんほうしゃのために、わがいのちあらんかぎりは、報謝のためとおもひて念仏申すべきなり。

….Over and above this, what should we take to be the meaning of reciting the Nembutsu? It is a response coming from one’s indebtedness [to the Buddha] (御恩放射) thanking him that one is saved through birth in the Pure Land by the power of faith in the present. As long as we have life in us, we should say the nembutsu thinking of it as a response of thankfulness.

(Gobunsho, letter 3, 御文書、一帖の三 猟漁)

I’ve read this phrase before and thought it pretty strange.

But then, my little epiphany came after staying at my friend’s Catholic priory in Oregon a couple weekends ago. The community of priests there asked for no money, no donation, anything. My daughter and I were welcome to stay there for free. It was a nice room too with all the basics we needed. Because they freely provided this room and board for us, I wanted to give something back. I went and bought some pastries from a nearby bakery and left them in the priests’ kitchen, and we also attended Mass, and tried to be good guests.

The Pure Land of the Buddha is much like this too. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, tells people in the sutras “Hey, if you need a place to rest and recover, go stay at the Amitabha retreat center”.

Shan Tao's White Path and Two Rivers

So you call up Amitabha Buddha and you tell him you want to stay at his place for a while. Amitabha Buddha says “sure, come stay with me as long as you like. It’s free”.

You go there, and it is a really nice place: beautiful garden, free food, meditation classes, even free wifi!

You think to yourself “I don’t deserve this! I should do something to pay back all their kindness”. You want to do the right thing. So, you start attending the meditation classes, and you offer to help in the kitchen. No one expects anything, but the kindness of Amitabha Buddha really warms your heart and you want to help in some way. Or, you want to show appreciation by participating in the meditation classes.

When I was first exploring Buddhism, my interest was really in Zen only. Pretty typical for many people who first explore Buddhism because Zen just looks so cool. But I found I was never that motivated, and frequently lost interest, or pursued other religions. Then, when I visited Japan in 2005, I encountered a Pure Land temple named Chion-in which is a famous temple in the city of Kyoto. I saw a monk there chanting before a statue of the Buddha and was fascinated, so when I learned about the Pure Land, I was really moved by the story of the Buddha, the Pure Land and how anyone could go there. So, I started reciting the Buddha’s name (namu amida butsu) that night and kept doing it for years.

But people will say “How do you know the Pure Land exists?” or “Isn’t it just a Buddhist heaven?” or “Is this even real Buddhism? You’re not doing any Buddhist practices!” and so on.

I don’t think it matters though. If the Pure Land really exists or not isn’t actually that important. The story and imagery are important. If you moved by the imagery, and want to go there, then that is the same as being there. Why? Because either way, it’s in the heart. Whereever you go, the Pure Land is there. The kindness and beauty of the Pure Land provide a kind of spiritual refuge from the ups and downs of life, and the kindness of Amitabha Buddha who freely offers the Pure Land motivate people to do more good. I found it’s often inspired me when I felt discouraged in life.

The fact that the Pure Land is offered so freely to anyone who just recites the Buddha’s name is something inspirational, which is why it is so popular in East Asian Buddhism. Western Buddhists may not appreciate this point until they experience hardships in their lives, and feel very discouraged. It is hard to explain but kind of profound in a way.

南無阿弥陀仏

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Religion | 2 Comments

Astronomy and Why I Am A Buddhist

Recently on Twitter I found this post:

If you can’t see it, click here. This is a picture of the Milky Way Galaxy (銀河系, gingakei in Japanese) from the perspective of the International Space Station. Out there are millions and millions of stars, and millions of planets too.

I’ve always been fascinated with space, but when I was younger, I often felt a sense of contradiction between what I saw out there (space) and what I was taught in religion as a kid. I felt that I was somehow forced to choose between what an ancient book said and what the world around me said. Of course, I wanted to choose science, but I didn’t want to live without a spiritual structure either.

Even in my college years, when I experimented with a lot of other religions (Catholicism, Islam, etc), I still felt this tension and would get a little frustrated.

Then, I remember one time my wife1 and I were sitting in a cafe and somehow we ended up talking about evolution and Buddhism. Something she said (I can’t remember anymore) gave me one of those powerful “ah ha!” moments. And from then on, I became really interested in Buddhism. A year or two later, we visited Japan after we got married, and that convinced me even more.

Since then, I’ve never felt that same tension between religion and science like I did before. Sure, the stories and characters in Buddhism might not be real, in the material/historical sense, but they are real because they teach us something, because they inspire us, and because they represent truths that we know exist.

So, whenever I see the night sky, I often wonder if there are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on other planets. Maybe they have 8 arms and green skin. Maybe they’re Klingons.2 Who knows?

But it’s a fun possibility to consider. :)

1 We were still dating at the time, but even then I often respected her view of things. She is my bodhisattva. :)

2 Buddhist sutras in Klingon language would be pretty funny.

Posted in Astronomy, Buddhism, Religion, Science | 1 Comment