No One In Charge

Anicca vata sankhara
Upada vaya dhammino
Upakituva nirujihanti
Tesang vupasamo sukho

All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.

– Theravada Buddhist funeral chant

A while back, I posted about a Buddhist analogy of waves and water, which describes everything around us. The idea is that everything around us (including our feelings, thoughts, trends and such) are like waves: they arise, then disappear again, and then more waves arise, disappear, etc. This is a very popular analogy in Mahayana Buddhism (daijōbukkyō in Japanese 大乗仏教), but I’ve never seen it used in Theravada Buddhism (jōzabukkyō in Japanese 上座仏教).

However, when I saw this chant above today, I noticed that it basically expressed the same thing. I have noticed before that Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism often mean the same thing, but use different styles and different words to express it. Still, the meaning is the same. If someone is not familiar, they can seem like very different branches of Buddhism, but if someone is familiar enough with one kind of Buddhism, they can see the same teachings in other schools of Buddhism.

Anyhow, the title of this blog post comes from an article by respected monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, when he says:

We learn to see the true nature of the sankharas, of our own five aggregates: as unstable, conditioned processes rolling on with no one in charge.

The Pali word sankhara means “formations”, as in something that arises from causes and conditions. In other words, the “waves” I mentioned before. ;) These waves keep rolling on, with no one in control. People keep making more waves because of things like ignorance and selfishness, and the cycle keeps going, whether you want it to or not.

The “five aggregates” (go-un 五蘊) mentioned above are the five pieces, five components, that make a living being:

  • Physical Form (色) – Your body (physical brain, etc)
  • Sensation (受) – Sight, sound, touch, etc.
  • Perception (想) – Awareness of sight, sound, touch, etc,
  • Mental Formations (行) – Thoughts like “it’s hot”, or “I see a tree”, “I smell bacon”, etc.
  • Conscious thought (識) – Further thoughts like “That’s a big tree”, or “That bacon tastes good”.

You can see the Five Aggregates mentioned in the famous Heart Sutra (hannya shingyō 般若心経) here for example:


Kannon Bodhisattva saw into the nature of the Five Aggregates and found them equally empty [unstable, conditioned processes, with "no one in charge"] and overcame all pain

I’m digressing, but it’s interesting how these Buddhist truths get expressed both in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.

Posted in Buddhism, Hosso, Religion, Theravada | 4 Comments

Other Worlds Than This?


(My bookshelf. I have a whole section devoted to Roger Zelazny novels I collect)

“Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
– Stephen King’s, The Gunslinger

Lately, I’ve been re-reading Roger Zelazny’s classic series, the Chronicles of Amber. It’s Roger Zelazny’s most well-known series, and I enjoyed it years ago, but lately I decided to read it again.

The basic story is this: there is only one true world: Amber. Amber “casts” infinite shadows of itself, and these worlds all resemble Amber. Some resemble Amber very closely, some only a little. Our earth is a shadow of Amber. Also, some things on our Earth are different than Amber, for example gunpowder doesn’t work in Amber, and the sky is a somewhat different color.

The world of Amber is ruled by a royal family that is almost god-like. They can live forever, heal severe damage to their body (eyes, missing arms, etc), have super-human strength, use magic, etc. Also, when a member of the royal family dies, their death-curse is extremely powerful and always works. But the most important ability they have is to be able to walk through shadow worlds whenever they want. The process is described as concentrating on where you want to go, and slowly adding or subtracting things around you until you reach the world you want.

Because the royal family is so powerful, and rules Amber plus all shadow worlds, there is a lot of competition between the members of the royal family, and they often distrust each other and try to sabotage one another, though they are all loyal to Amber itself. There are currently nine princes of Amber, and four princesses, and the King of Amber has mysteriously disappeared.

The nine princes of Amber, as drawn by Ayej, courtesy of Deviant Art:

In the first story, one of the princes, Corwin, awakes from a car accident on Earth (our Earth) can can’t remember what happened. Eventually he meets some of his other family members, and discovers that one of his brothers has taken the throne while his father is missing. As Corwin restores his memory, he decides to launch a war against Amber to take the throne for himself, and what happens afterwards is quite interesting to read.

Anyhow, it’s a fun concept to think about: is this world we live in a shadow of another one? If so, what is the true reality?

If you do enjoy Fantasy books, I highly recommend the Amber series, especially the first five books. If you do read the Amber Chronicles, I highly recommend the Visual Guide to Castle Amber as it does a nice job showing maps of Amber, drawings of the different characters, and other interesting bits. It’s not in print anymore, so you may have to find a used copy instead, or even a collectible one.

Posted in Literature, Religion, Zelazny | Leave a comment

Calling and Directing

Since we mentioned hell in the last post, it seemed fitting to talk about the Pure Land next for this Ohigan season.

One of the most famous expositions on the Pure Land is the explanation by Shan-tao (613-681, 善導, zendō in Japanese, seondo 선도 in Korean) an early Pure Land Buddhist master in China. He wrote a famous parable called the Two Rivers and the White Path (二河白道, nigabyakudō):

The White Path and the Two Rivers, a parable by Shan-Tao.

The White Path and the Two Rivers, a parable by Shan-Tao.

In it, he describes a scene where a man faces two rivers: a river of fire and a river of water. Between them is a narrow, white path that he is afraid to cross, but behind him are tigers and robbers who are coming after him. Then he hears two voices:

…he hears someone from the east bank call out and encourage him: “Friend, just follow this path resolutely and there will be no danger of death. To stay here is to die.” And on the west bank. there is someone calling out, “Come straight ahead, single-mindedly and with fixed purpose. I can protect you. Never fear falling into the fire or water!”

I often think about this parable. To me, the two rivers represent sensual-desire (the river of water, which you can drown in) and hatred/aversion (which can consume you). The narrow, white path of course is the middle way, while the robbers and tigers are things like old-age, disease, time, etc.

But what about the two voices? The voice directing the man to cross the white-path is of course the historical Buddha. He came to this world, became enlightened, and showed us the way forward: the Dharma. And the other voice? This is Amitabha Buddha calling from the other side (the Pure Land), outside of Samsara, to follow the path.

So, in a sense, there are two Buddhas in the Pure Land tradition: the historical Buddha in this world who directs us, and Amitabha Buddha who calls us.

There’s a lot of ways you can interpret this, and they’re all valid. You can see this is a parable in mindfulness, which helps us follow the Middle Path, and escape death, rebirth, etc. You can see this as a parable in aspiring to our higher selves, you can see this as a parable to seek the Pure Land as a refuge from this world, you can see this as a parable of Enlightenment itself (Amitabha representing Enlightenment and Liberation).

Anyhow, I often use this parable to remind myself not to be swayed by sensual desire, or by hatred/aversion as much as possible, and to keep moving forward. Regardless of how you interpret, this is a good lesson to learn.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shu, Religion | 2 Comments

Spring Ohigan 2014: Where is Hell in Buddhism?

A famous Japanese painting depicting Taira no Kiyomori having visions of Hell while suffering from a fever.

A famous Japanese painting depicting Taira no Kiyomori having visions of Hell while suffering from a fever.

Hi Everyone,

This is the twice-yearly Japanese-Buddhist holiday of ohigan (お彼岸), which falls around Spring and Autumnal equinox. Because the weather is more mild,1 people take time to visit their ancestors’ graves, pay respects, and reflect on Buddhist teachings and renew their determination.

So, for this Ohigan, I wanted to share a couple interesting views on the Buddhist notion of Hell: (jigoku 地獄 in Japanese or ji-ok 지옥 in Korean).

The first comes from an interesting quote by Professor Shigaraki from his book Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path:

The most detailed descriptions of hell in Pure Land Buddhism are found in the Essentials for Attaining Birth [往生要集] by Genshin (942-1017). There he states that the most frightening of all hells into which we must fall is the Avici Hell, which lies in the ultimate depths of the earth. He describes it as the black, dark world, which we finally reach after falling headfirst toward the bottom of the earth for two thousand years. This realm of hell represents the dark, black nature of our own hearts and minds. We can come to know it for the first time only when we bore deeply into our selves and look directly into the very depths of our own hearts and minds.

When I read this passage in my younger days, I was moved by Genshin’s profound understanding of hell. Because of what I have been taught by Genshin, I do not ask myself whether the ream of hell exists or not. To me, the question that needs to be asked is whether we are able to see it or not. (pg. 87)

Professor Shigaraki explains that our selfish nature is the source of hell for us. For me, I learned this the hard way years ago: although society and learning can make us more civilized, when these filters or restraints are removed, we can revert to a much crueler, more selfish nature.

Separately, in Ven. Yin-Shun’s book, The Way to Buddhahood, he explains the different kinds of Hell, including some that exist all around us:

Recently a newspaper reported that somewhere in Taiwan a father had abused his own daughter, locking her up in a dark room without any ventilation or sunshine. She had lived for fifteen years with neither enough food nor warm clothing and had the appearance of an undeveloped child. Not only was she pale and swollen, she did not even look human! The karmic forces of sentient beings are inconceivable! In a prosperous and busy place in the middle of the city, a person can exist in isolation suffering from such heavy retribution. (pg. 66-67)

Normally, when we hear about Buddhist Hells, we think of magical, far-away places like those described in the Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra, or such characters as Enma, but both authors show that Hell isn’t some far-off place. It can be much closer than you think.

P.S. I’ve been a little behind lately. Plus, I have a cold, so I am getting some rest and spending time with family. Apologies for late replies.

P.P.S. More on Ohigan in this old post.

1 Seattle weather is always mild (and grey), but Japan’s winters are pretty cold, and the summers hot. It always surprises me when I visit. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Religion | 2 Comments

How To Really Learn a Language

An old article from AJATT (I forget which one), reminded me of this scene from the movie The 13th Warrior:

In this scene, from the movie The 13th Warrior, the Arab character Ahmad ibn Fadlan (based on the real historical person) is riding with Viking warriors far to the north. At first, he can’t understand their language at all, but each night he watches and listens, and after a while some words make sense. Later, he understands most of the conversation and can even talk to them. His words are slow, but they understand him, and that’s important.

I know this from experience too. When my daughter was a little girl, we used to listen to Disney stories on CD, or watch Disney movies on DVD. Both were in Japanese. At first, I couldn’t understand very much. Even though I had studied for the JLPT, it was amazing how little I understood. But like Ahmad ibn Fadlan, as time went on, I couldn’t understand some words. After a few months, I could understand more words and so on. Earlier, when I was in Vietnam, I really struggled to understand Vietnamese at first, but after 2 months, I started getting used to it and could understand it better. I could even distinguish people’s accents (people from the countryside, people from Hanoi itself), more easily.

So the method definitely works. I personally know this is true. The only challenge is staying with it long enough. Because my daughter learned Japanese first (and is fully bi-lingual now), I listened to Japanese a lot even if it I wasn’t “in the mood”. If you can figure out how to do the same thing for your situation (listen to a foreign language whether you want to or not) and keep doing it for a long time you will probably get very good at that language.

Like Ahmad ibn Fadlan says: just listen!

P.S. Although the movie wasn’t very successful, I always thought it was a cool movie. I read the book, Eaters of the Dead, at a young age and believed it was real. Even when I found out later it was not real, I still thought it was a great book. Antonio Banderas was great in the movie, and one of the few examples of a positive Arab character instead of the usual stereotypes in American media.

Posted in Japanese, Language | 2 Comments

Were Samurai Really Zen Buddhists?

Takeda Shingen

It’s a common belief that Zen and Samurai culture are closely related. A popular image about Japan by both foreigners (and Japanese) is a cultured warrior, who is skilled both with a brush and a sword, and isn’t afraid to die for his honor.

As a teenager, I thought this kind of image was so cool that it motivated me to study Zen when I was 16. That was my image of Japan and Zen until many years later when I met my wife, who’s Japanese, and visited Japan for the first time after we got married. Even now, when I go shopping with my wife downtown in Japan yearly, I inevitably see souvenir samurai swords and shirts with 武士道 (bushido) on them, and sometimes I even see foreigners wearing them in popular tourist places. I am not an expert, but believe me, nothing says TOURIST more than a Bushido shirt in downtown Tokyo. Just saying. ;)

Knowing what I know now, I’ve always felt this image was exaggerated and romanticized, but I couldn’t find any evidence until I read Martin Collcutt’s “Five Mountains“, a history of Rinzai Zen in Japan (which I’ll write more about in a later post). This book explores the history of Zen in Japan and helps to clarify some vague points.

Page 80, pretty much sums it up though:

Zen in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods can be called “the religion of the samurai” only in the sense that most patrons of Zen were samurai, not in the sense that it was practiced assiduously or exclusively by all, or even perhaps the majority, of those who would be described as samurai.

In the book, Professor Collcutt explains that during the Kamakura Period, when the samurai first gained power away from the Imperial Court, they were greatly interested in Song-Dynasty (宋朝) Chinese culture and because Zen was recently imported from China, it also brought these new cultural elements with it. Thus, early samurai leaders in Kamakura and later the Muromachi Period patronized Zen monasteries as a way of fostering new Chinese culture (calligraphy, Confucianism, poetry, etc), while making their regimes look more legitimate. This also helps to explain the particular way that Zen is associated with these arts even now, mainly thanks to Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was probably the worst Shogun in history but a great patron of Zen and the arts.

That’s not to say there were some sincere Zen followers though. For example, Hōjō Tokiyori, who was the 5th regent of the Kamakura government, was a genuine follower of Zen under a Chinese monk named Wu-an Pu-ning who had come to Japan from China and was abbot of Kenchōji temple. Tokiyori’s awakening was even recognized by his teacher. Or, centuries later, the famous warlord Takeda Shingen, ordered his samurai followers to study Zen.

But even many sincere samurai followers did blend Zen teachings with their devotion to such Shinto deities as Hachiman (god of war) who is the main deity of Tsurugaoka shrine (which I’ve enjoyed visiting over the years) in Kamakura. Or, as in case of the Kamakura government, or the Tokugawa government, they were patrons of other Buddhist sects as well. Also, Collcutt mentions that lower-ranking samurai, who had less education, sometimes found Zen somewhat obtuse, and gravitated toward more popular, simpler Buddhist sects such as Pure Land Buddhism or Nichiren Buddhism.

So, the picture is a bit more complicated than popular imagery suggests. Zen became a major sect in Japan through the patronage of early samurai families, and the culture it brought helped became an essential part of Japanese culture. At the same time though, the image of a Zen/Samurai follower may be more romantic ideal than historical fact.

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Zen | Tagged | 4 Comments

Don’t Forget White Day

Valentines Day Chocolates from 2005

Today is White Day in Japan and Korea as well as China/Taiwan. Well, it was yesterday (time zone difference), but anyway March 14th is White Day. Men receive chocolates from girls on Valentine’s day, and today is the day where we give chocolate back. ;)

This tradition is something unique to Japan and Korea though, since in the US anyone can give gifts on Valentine’s Day.

If you have a Japanese, Korean or Chinese wife or girlfriend, you may want to hurry up and get some chocolates right now! Do eet! Do eet now! I’ll be getting some later today after work. ;)

Posted in Family, Japan | Leave a comment