Autumn in Korea

Hi Everyone,

We have friends who recently Korea right now to celebrate the 1st birthday of their son, who was born 8 days after our son. :) The first birthday in Korea, or doljanchi (돌잔치) is a huge event with family all gathering, elaborate feasts, etc. There are good write-ups here and here about birthday traditions in Korea.

Anyhow, the father, who is Indonesian not Korean, is a great photographer and has been taking good photos of Korea in the fall. I wanted to share some of his best photos from his Twitter feed.

This is a photo of persimmons in Seoul:

These photos were taken at a famous mountain called Seorak-san (설악산, 雪嶽山):

And these photos were taken at a famous Buddhist temple in Korean named Sinheungsa (신흥사, 新興寺) which is one of the head temples (大本山) in Korean Buddhism.

Great photos, Budi!

P.S. Congrats on your son’s first birthday! :)

Posted in Buddhism, Korea, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

Sick

Hi Everyone,

I haven’t written in a few days. I got sick with a cold this weekend (my birthday weekend) and have been resting and recovering since. I feel a lot like this old Strong Bad Email cartoon:

Anyhow, I’ll be back soon. I’m starting to feel better, but need to get some more sleep.

Talk to you soon!

P.S. Apparently I’ve been sick before. ;-p

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Tales of Failed Zen Student

Well, my brief experimentation with Soto Zen is officially over. I started attending an online Soto Zen community about 4-5 weeks ago and took part in the yearly Ango (安居) vows.1 As I said before, it is a good community. I followed the Ango vows under a senior student, and learned a lot about Zazen meditation.

However, I came to realize after a while that it was difficult to sustain as a working-parent. I kept missing the weekly online services because the time conflicted with work. On the weekends, I was busy with children all day and by evening, I was too tired to do anything. After a couple weeks, my Ango vows started to slip more and more until I stopped altogether.

Now, someone might say that if I was really devoted to it, I would find the time. I would make time somehow. I realized that this was true. I was genuinely busy, but also I was making excuses. I really could’ve found a way to keep up Zen practice. But I didn’t.

Later, I thought about why I wasn’t motivated. I was curious about Zen before I started, but after doing it for 4 weeks I realized I wasn’t interested in Zen “culture”: the so-called “teaching outside the tradition”, the mystical, cryptic teachings, and the narrow focus on meditation. A lot of people are attracted to Zen culture but I just didn’t like it.

I got annoyed toward the end and decided that rather than forcing myself to continue, and hope it gets better, it would be better to stop right there. So after a short goodbye message (in which I expressed my frustrations), I left the community and gave up on Soto Zen. I probably shouldn’t have said anything and quietly left but I felt it was important to say some things.

To be honest, I think if I stayed with a Rinzai community long enough, I probably would get annoyed too. The temple in Seattle annoyed me in some ways too. I guess Zen really is not for me.

But as I said, it is a good community and if you like Zen and want to learn more, I definitely recommend it. I learned a lot. I also realized that I would be happier following a different path, but at least I gave it a sincere try and I met some cool people.

As for me, I guess I like being a Pure Land Buddhist who dabbles in meditation more than a Zen Buddhist who dabbles in Pure Land stuff.

But as I look back, I’m starting to think I don’t want to be ordained in any tradition. Sure, I like teaching things a lot, but ordination requires me to follow a certain doctrinal line and I am not comfortable with that. I’m not comfortable doing it in the Zen tradition, and I’m not comfortable doing it in the Jodo Shinshu tradition either. I’m happy to help at the local temple because my family goes there but I am not sure I want to be ordained after all. I like being who I am, making the best effort I can as a layperson. Time will tell. I still have lots of time to decide.

Anyhow, just some thoughts for today.

1 Ango is the Japanese-Buddhist equivalent to the yearly “rains retreat” still observed in Theravada Buddhist countries.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Zen | 9 Comments

The Quiet Life

Hi all,

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the 13th century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness or tsuredzuregusa (徒然草). There is a lot of silly or idle talk in the book, but there are also things I like in there. I found this passage today:

124) The priest Zehō [poet and contemporary of the author] ranks second to none as a scholar of the Pure Land Sect, but instead of making a show of his learning, he recites the nembutsu day and night, a quiet way of life I find most admirable.

It reminds me of something Benchō (弁長, 1162–1238) said generations earlier:

People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.

This is the ideal life for me too. :)

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Literature | 2 Comments

Honoring the Buddha

From chapter 5 of the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (DN16 of the Pali Canon):

Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ananda, “Ananda, the twin sal-trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. They shower, strew, & sprinkle on the Tathagata’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky… Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky… Heavenly music is playing in the sky… Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the Tathagata. But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practicing masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage.

The Maha-Parinibbana Sutta is thought to be the last teaching of the Buddha before he died. Here, he’s telling followers that if they really want to worship and honor the Buddha, they should practice what he taught.

I don’t think it matters how much. It matters if one keeps trying. :)

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Religion, Theravada, Zen | Leave a comment

Lafcadio Hearn’s “Of A Mirror And A Bell”

This is the last story in our Halloween week here at the ol’ blog from Lafcadio Hearn’s famous book Kwaidan, which contains weird, old tales from 19th century Japanese culture. Some of these stories are well-known today, and I see them in my daughter’s books sometimes (e.g. “Yuki Onna”). Others are more obscure.

This is a great tale that I read for the first time this week and wanted to share. Thanks to Project Gutenberg for providing the book for free. The tale is called “Of A Mirror And A Bell” or kagami to kane (鏡と鐘) in Japanese. I added a couple links to Wikipedia in this, but all the [ ] notes are from Hearn himself. I left them intact.

Eight centuries ago, the priests of Mugenyama, in the province of Totomi, wanted a big bell for their temple; and they asked the women of their parish to help them by contributing old bronze mirrors for bell-metal.

[Even to-day, in the courts of certain Japanese temples, you may see heaps of old bronze mirrors contributed for such a purpose. The largest collection of this kind that I ever saw was in the court of a temple of the Jodo sect, at Hakata, in Kyushu: the mirrors had been given for the making of a bronze statue of Amida, thirty-three feet high.]

There was at that time a young woman, a farmer’s wife, living at Mugenyama, who presented her mirror to the temple, to be used for bell-metal. But afterwards she much regretted her mirror. She remembered things that her mother had told her about it; and she remembered that it had belonged, not only to her mother but to her mother’s mother and grandmother; and she remembered some happy smiles which it had reflected. Of course, if she could have offered the priests a certain sum of money in place of the mirror, she could have asked them to give back her heirloom. But she had not the money necessary. Whenever she went to the temple, she saw her mirror lying in the court-yard, behind a railing, among hundreds of other mirrors heaped there together. She knew it by the Sho-Chiku-Bai in relief on the back of it,—those three fortunate emblems of Pine, Bamboo, and Plumflower, which delighted her baby-eyes when her mother first showed her the mirror. She longed for some chance to steal the mirror, and hide it,—that she might thereafter treasure it always. But the chance did not come; and she became very unhappy,—felt as if she had foolishly given away a part of her life. She thought about the old saying that a mirror is the Soul of a Woman—(a saying mystically expressed, by the Chinese character for Soul, upon the backs of many bronze mirrors),—and she feared that it was true in weirder ways than she had before imagined. But she could not dare to speak of her pain to anybody.

Now, when all the mirrors contributed for the Mugenyama bell had been sent to the foundry, the bell-founders discovered that there was one mirror among them which would not melt. Again and again they tried to melt it; but it resisted all their efforts. Evidently the woman who had given that mirror to the temple must have regretted the giving. She had not presented her offering with all her heart; and therefore her selfish soul, remaining attached to the mirror, kept it hard and cold in the midst of the furnace.

Of course everybody heard of the matter, and everybody soon knew whose mirror it was that would not melt. And because of this public exposure of her secret fault, the poor woman became very much ashamed and very angry. And as she could not bear the shame, she drowned herself, after having written a farewell letter containing these words:—

“When I am dead, it will not be difficult to melt the mirror and to cast the bell. But, to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by the ghost of me.”

—You must know that the last wish or promise of anybody who dies in anger, or performs suicide in anger, is generally supposed to possess a supernatural force. After the dead woman’s mirror had been melted, and the bell had been successfully cast, people remembered the words of that letter. They felt sure that the spirit of the writer would give wealth to the breaker of the bell; and, as soon as the bell had been suspended in the court of the temple, they went in multitude to ring it. With all their might and main they swung the ringing-beam; but the bell proved to be a good bell, and it bravely withstood their assaults. Nevertheless, the people were not easily discouraged. Day after day, at all hours, they continued to ring the bell furiously,—caring nothing whatever for the protests of the priests. So the ringing became an affliction; and the priests could not endure it; and they got rid of the bell by rolling it down the hill into a swamp. The swamp was deep, and swallowed it up,—and that was the end of the bell. Only its legend remains; and in that legend it is called the Mugen-Kane, or Bell of Mugen.

Now there are queer old Japanese beliefs in the magical efficacy of a certain mental operation implied, though not described, by the verb nazoraeru. The word itself cannot be adequately rendered by any English word; for it is used in relation to many kinds of mimetic magic, as well as in relation to the performance of many religious acts of faith. Common meanings of nazoraeru, according to dictionaries, are “to imitate,” “to compare,” “to liken;” but the esoteric meaning is to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another, so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result.

For example:—you cannot afford to build a Buddhist temple; but you can easily lay a pebble before the image of the Buddha, with the same pious feeling that would prompt you to build a temple if you were rich enough to build one. The merit of so offering the pebble becomes equal, or almost equal, to the merit of erecting a temple… You cannot read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes of the Buddhist texts; but you can make a revolving library, containing them, turn round, by pushing it like a windlass. And if you push with an earnest wish that you could read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes, you will acquire the same merit as the reading of them would enable you to gain… So much will perhaps suffice to explain the religious meanings of nazoraeru.

The magical meanings could not all be explained without a great variety of examples; but, for present purposes, the following will serve. If you should make a little man of straw, for the same reason that Sister Helen made a little man of wax,—and nail it, with nails not less than five inches long, to some tree in a temple-grove at the Hour of the Ox,—and if the person, imaginatively represented by that little straw man, should die thereafter in atrocious agony,—that would illustrate one signification of nazoraeru… Or, let us suppose that a robber has entered your house during the night, and carried away your valuables. If you can discover the footprints of that robber in your garden, and then promptly burn a very large moxa on each of them, the soles of the feet of the robber will become inflamed, and will allow him no rest until he returns, of his own accord, to put himself at your mercy. That is another kind of mimetic magic expressed by the term nazoraeru. And a third kind is illustrated by various legends of the Mugen-Kane.

After the bell had been rolled into the swamp, there was, of course, no more chance of ringing it in such wise as to break it. But persons who regretted this loss of opportunity would strike and break objects imaginatively substituted for the bell,—thus hoping to please the spirit of the owner of the mirror that had made so much trouble. One of these persons was a woman called Umegae,—famed in Japanese legend because of her relation to Kajiwara Kagesue, a warrior of the Heike clan. While the pair were traveling together, Kajiwara one day found himself in great straits for want of money; and Umegae, remembering the tradition of the Bell of Mugen, took a basin of bronze, and, mentally representing it to be the bell, beat upon it until she broke it,—crying out, at the same time, for three hundred pieces of gold. A guest of the inn where the pair were stopping made inquiry as to the cause of the banging and the crying, and, on learning the story of the trouble, actually presented Umegae with three hundred ryo in gold. Afterwards a song was made about Umegae’s basin of bronze; and that song is sung by dancing girls even to this day:—

Umegae no chozubachi tataite
O-kane ga deru naraba
Mina San mi-uke wo
Sore tanomimasu

[“If, by striking upon the wash-basin of Umegae, I could make honorable money come to me, then would I negotiate for the freedom of all my girl-comrades.”]

After this happening, the fame of the Mugen-Kane became great; and many people followed the example of Umegae,—thereby hoping to emulate her luck. Among these folk was a dissolute farmer who lived near Mugenyama, on the bank of the Oigawa. Having wasted his substance in riotous living, this farmer made for himself, out of the mud in his garden, a clay-model of the Mugen-Kane; and he beat the clay-bell, and broke it,—crying out the while for great wealth.

Then, out of the ground before him, rose up the figure of a white-robed woman, with long loose-flowing hair, holding a covered jar. And the woman said: “I have come to answer your fervent prayer as it deserves to be answered. Take, therefore, this jar.” So saying, she put the jar into his hands, and disappeared.

Into his house the happy man rushed, to tell his wife the good news. He set down in front of her the covered jar,—which was heavy,—and they opened it together. And they found that it was filled, up to the very brim, with…

But no!—I really cannot tell you with what it was filled.

Happy Halloween!

Posted in Japan, Literature | Tagged | Leave a comment

Lafcadio Hearn’s “A Dead Secret”

Hello,

As mentioned in my last post, this week’s posts are themed for Halloween with a Japanese twist. I am posting old stories from Kwaidan, a famous book of Japanese weird tales by Greco-Irish author, Lafcadio Hearn. In Japan he is known as Koizumi Yakumo (小泉八雲). Today’s story was something I posted before, but not in entirety. It is one of my favorite stories by Hearn, and today I am posting in entirety thanks to Project Gutenberg. I’ve added additional links and clarifications in [ ] too. Also, for reference, the title is called Hōmurareta-himitsu (葬られた秘密) in Japanese.

A long time ago, in the province of Tamba, there lived a rich merchant named Inamuraya Gensuke. He had a daughter called O-Sono. As she was very clever and pretty, he thought it would be a pity to let her grow up with only such teaching as the country-teachers could give her: so he sent her, in care of some trusty attendants, to Kyoto, that she might be trained in the polite accomplishments taught to the ladies of the capital. After she had thus been educated, she was married to a friend of her father’s family—a merchant named Nagaraya;—and she lived happily with him for nearly four years. They had one child,—a boy. But O-Sono fell ill and died, in the fourth year after her marriage.

On the night after the funeral of O-Sono, her little son said that his mamma had come back, and was in the room upstairs. She had smiled at him, but would not talk to him: so he became afraid, and ran away. Then some of the family went upstairs to the room which had been O-Sono’s; and they were startled to see, by the light of a small lamp which had been kindled before a shrine in that room, the figure of the dead mother. She appeared as if standing in front of a tansu, or chest of drawers, that still contained her ornaments and her wearing-apparel. Her head and shoulders could be very distinctly seen; but from the waist downwards the figure thinned into invisibility;—it was like an imperfect reflection of her, and transparent as a shadow on water.

Then the folk were afraid, and left the room. Below they consulted together; and the mother of O-Sono’s husband said: “A woman is fond of her small things; and O-Sono was much attached to her belongings. Perhaps she has come back to look at them. Many dead persons will do that,—unless the things be given to the parish-temple. If we present O-Sono’s robes and girdles to the temple, her spirit will probably find rest.”

It was agreed that this should be done as soon as possible. So on the following morning the drawers were emptied; and all of O-Sono’s ornaments and dresses were taken to the temple. But she came back the next night, and looked at the tansu as before. And she came back also on the night following, and the night after that, and every night;—and the house became a house of fear.

The mother of O-Sono’s husband then went to the parish-temple, and told the chief priest all that had happened, and asked for ghostly counsel. The temple was a Zen temple; and the head-priest was a learned old man, known as Daigen Osho. He said: “There must be something about which she is anxious, in or near that tansu.”—”But we emptied all the drawers,” replied the woman;—”there is nothing in the tansu.”—”Well,” said Daigen Osho, “to-night I shall go to your house, and keep watch in that room, and see what can be done. You must give orders that no person shall enter the room while I am watching, unless I call.”

After sundown, Daigen Osho went to the house, and found the room made ready for him. He remained there alone, reading the sutras; and nothing appeared until after the Hour of the Rat. Then the figure of O-Sono suddenly outlined itself in front of the tansu. Her face had a wistful look; and she kept her eyes fixed upon the tansu.

The priest uttered the holy formula prescribed in such cases, and then, addressing the figure by the kaimyo [posthumous Buddhist name in Japan 戒名] of O-Sono, said:—”I have come here in order to help you. Perhaps in that tansu there is something about which you have reason to feel anxious. Shall I try to find it for you?” The shadow appeared to give assent by a slight motion of the head; and the priest, rising, opened the top drawer. It was empty. Successively he opened the second, the third, and the fourth drawer;—he searched carefully behind them and beneath them;—he carefully examined the interior of the chest. He found nothing. But the figure remained gazing as wistfully as before. “What can she want?” thought the priest. Suddenly it occurred to him that there might be something hidden under the paper with which the drawers were lined. He removed the lining of the first drawer:—nothing! He removed the lining of the second and third drawers:—still nothing. But under the lining of the lowermost drawer he found—a letter. “Is this the thing about which you have been troubled?” he asked. The shadow of the woman turned toward him,—her faint gaze fixed upon the letter. “Shall I burn it for you?” he asked. She bowed before him. “It shall be burned in the temple this very morning,” he promised;—”and no one shall read it, except myself.” The figure smiled and vanished.

Dawn was breaking as the priest descended the stairs, to find the family waiting anxiously below. “Do not be anxious,” he said to them: “She will not appear again.” And she never did.

The letter was burned. It was a love-letter written to O-Sono in the time of her studies at Kyoto. But the priest alone knew what was in it; and the secret died with him.

Happy Halloween!

Posted in Japan, Literature | Tagged | 1 Comment