Nirvana Day 2015 and Misadventures in Arizona

“Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!” –The last words1 of Shakyamuni Buddha

“David: You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.” –Merritt Butrick in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Hello,

Normally I try to post something “Buddhist” before a Buddhist holiday, but this year I was late, and I have a good excuse (I hope).

February 15th, according to the Solar calendar, is Nirvana Day the death (入滅, nyūmetsu in Japanese) of the historical Buddha. According to Buddhist tradition, having achieved total enlightenment and having exhausted all residual karma, he was completely unbound (Nirvana, 涅槃).2

However, this past week, I spent a few days in Phoenix, Arizona again on a business trip. I always enjoy going because the timezone is similar, the weather is sunny and hot:

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…and the food is different than Seattle (more Mexican, less Asian):

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One evening my co-workers and I went to a nice chicken-wings and hamburger restaurant. The food was excellent, and I ordered a hamburger that was “medium”. It was a pretty pink in the middle, but it was delicious so I ate the whole thing.

The next evening, I started to get sick. Not just sick, but violently ill. I was working late that night, but I finished my work and came back to the hotel around 2am and I stayed up throughout the night. I lost a lot of fluid, and still wasn’t feeling better. I was getting worried, dizzy and exhausted, so I packed my bag to go to a nearby hospital. Fortunately, the medicine I took earlier started to work, my body started to recover and I finally got some sleep around 6am.

After returning home to Seattle though, I was still ill. After losing so much fluid, my stomach was weak, and my toe swelled up with gout (痛風, tsūfū). Days later, my toe still really hurts and it’s hard to walk.

There was a big lesson to all this: one day I was working hard and having a good time, the next day I was tremendously ill and almost had to go to the hospital.

I’m in my late 30’s, so I’m not old, but these past few years I started having medical problems from a lifetime of high-blood pressure, bad diet, stress and not enough exercise. My bad habits are catching up to me. I also believe that the problems I have in my late 30’s are a warning of much bigger problems I will have later in life.

The Buddha’s final words above are a reminder to his monks to be diligent and not slack off until it’s too late. But they apply to all of us: don’t squander your life on stupid stuff.

If we pretend to ignore mortality, then mortality will come back and bite us really hard someday.

In 15th century Japan, a famous Buddhist monk, Rennyo (蓮如), wrote in a letter (the Letter on White Ashes, 白骨の章 hakkotsu no shō):

されば、朝には紅顔ありて、夕には白骨となれる身なり。

Thus our bodies may be radiant with health in the morning, but by evening they may be white ashes.

So reflecting on the Buddha’s words, I realized that the lesson of life is that, ironically, a life of self-discipline will set you free, while a life of self-indulgence becomes a prison.

P.S. The Letter on White Ashes can be found here (日本語).

1 The Pali-Canon Maha-parinibbana Sutta is called the daihatsu nehan-gyō (大般涅槃経) in Japanese, and the last words quoted above are often translated as:

さあ、修行僧たちよ、お前たちに告げよう、『もろもろの事象は過ぎ去るものである。おこたることなく修行を完成しなさい』と。

2 More on the what the Buddha describes as being “unbound” through Nirvana can be read here.

Posted in Buddhism, Travel

A Life of Regret

In addition to the Xuanzang book I mentioned before, I’ve been re-reading a book about Ashikaga Yoshimasa, probably the worst Shogun in Japanese history, but a genius with art.

In the book, Professor Donald Keene talks about Yoshimasa’s years in peaceful retirement at the Silver Pavilion (ginkakuji 銀閣寺). which I visited years ago. Now that Yoshimasa is retired and no longer the Shogun, he ruminates about his former life in waka poetry:

くやしくぞ Kuyashiku zo
過ぎしうき世を sugoshi uki yo wo
今日ぞ思ふ kyou zo omou
心くまなき kokoro kumanaki
月をながめて tsuki wo nagamete

Which professor Donald Keene translates as:

Today I recall
The sad world I lived
With bitter regret —
My mind serene as I gaze
At a moon free of shadows

Ashikaga Yoshimasa was never a serious student of Buddhism (though he was nominally ordained as a Rinzai Zen monk) but it’s interesting to hear him regret his life of luxury and power. It reminds me of Miyazawa Kenji’s famous poem Unbeaten By Rain (雨にも負けず).

When I read something like this, it reminds me that a life of honesty poverty is probably better than wealthy lifestyle full of discord.

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Zen | Leave a comment

Malcolm X on the history of Black-American Surnames

Hello,

This is not something I usually post about, but I was recently watching videos about Malcolm X (Japanese-language article) on Youtube after Martin Luther King Jr Day, and I really liked this particular video:

Apologies to English-language students who read this blog. This video probably is difficult to follow. However, it is very interesting.

Malcolm X talks about how his given surname, Little, is not his true name, and thus he rejected it. He used the name “X” because “X” means unknown (as in mathematics). The name “Little” was the name of his ancestors’ slave owner, and that his own ancestors’ names were stolen due to slavery.1 The moderator in this discussion seems somewhat confused and hostile toward Malcolm X, but it’s interesting how Malcolm X carefully answers all the questions, never loses his temper, and always a has a good response.

I don’t have much information about this video, but to me, it was pretty fascinating. Hope you enjoy too.

1 Once, years ago, while on the bus, I met an older black woman who had the same last name as me. When I said we had the same last name, we both realized why at the same time. Then I told her that I am really sorry for what my ancestors did, and she graciously accepted it. It was awkward, but I am glad I said it. After that, we had a nice conversation about my kids, etc, etc.

Sometimes, just being humble and saying sorry is the best thing to do. It may not change much, but it’s the right thing to do.

As the Fremen say in Dune: I must cleanse the way between us.

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Mascots in Japan

Hi Folks,

I’ve noticed that mascots are very popular in Japanese culture. You can see mascots for all kinds of things: TV shows, companies, even apartment-complexes.

It’s a huge industry too. Some people will make a career out of it by being “private” mascots for events and such. I once watched a fascinating tv documentary about one man who was trying to get famous as a mascot. He made his own costume, organized his own website, Youtube videos, and worked hard to get jobs and visibility. It seems like a pretty competitive field too.

One of the most famous mascots though is an adorable character named Funasshii (ふなっしー), shown above with the American mascot for the Miami Marlins, Billy. Funasshii is an unofficial mascot for the city of Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture, and is famous for his/her high-energy, positive attitude, and for saying “nasshii” (なっしー) at the end of sentences.

Funasshi is supposed to be a pear (nashi 梨). Funasshi’s Twitter account, which I follow, can be found here.

Also, Funasshi makes a lot of appearances in Japanese TV shows. Here, Funasshi appears in an episode of Kimura Ken’s “Bakatono” sketch (バカ殿), which is a famous character that is supposed to be a childish, stupid, effeminate nobleman. Normally I don’t like Kimura’s show because it’s crude and sexist, but this sketch is really fun to watch:

Anyhow, mascots are something you will see a lot in Japan. As I learned from the documentary, mascots work very hard. It is a physically demanding job, and success is not guaranteed, but they deserve a lot of credit for their enthusiasm and making kids (and adults) smile. :)

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Welcome Spring!

Another waka poem I found in the Kokinshu that I wanted to share:

梅の花 Ume no hana
それとも見えず Sore to mo miezu
久方の Hisakata no
天霧る雪の Amagiru yuki no
なべて降れれば Nabete furereba

Which translates as:

The plum blossoms now
are indistinguishable —
for snow mists the broad
heavens and masks all below
In a whirling world of white.

The plum blossom (umé 梅) blooms in late January to February and is associated with the end of Winter and the coming of Spring.

Have a great weekend!

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The Amazing Adventures of Xuanzang

Hi Folks,

Lately, my life has been slowing down a little bit, and I have time to read books again. So, this week I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang, which tells the story of a famous Chinese monk named Xuan-zang (玄奘, 602 – 664), pronounced like “Shuan Tsang”. Xuanzang was a young monk who decided to journey to India to see land of the Buddha. To do this, he had to:

Technically Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to accomplish this. Another monk named Faxian (法顯, 337 – 422) was the first of several. His name is pronounced like “Fa Shien”. Anyhow, Faxian stayed only in the northern part of India, then took a ship back to China. Xuanzang journeyed all over India, studied at the famous Nalanda University and then walked all the way back too. The trip took a total of 11 years.

When Faxian came to India, Buddhism was a prosperous religion, but when Xuanzang visited centuries later, it was clearly declining in some areas, and slowly being replaced with Hinduism which we know today. Some Buddhist monasteries he encountered still maintained certain practices but no longer understood why. Other monasteries were still great centers of learning. Some monasteries were completely deserted.

Xuanzang’s adventure became the inspiration for a 16th-century Chinese novel called “Journey to the West” (西遊記). This Chinese novel was hugely popular, and you can often see movies and dramas about it both in China and Japan. In Japan, it’s called saiyūki. I enjoyed watching the 2006 drama with SMAP’s Kattori Shingo as the lead actor.

I’ve only finished about half the book so far, but it’s been a great read. Many of the places in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and India that Xuanzang saw and wrote about are very different now. Some of these places are familiar now because of conflicts, wars, etc, but in Xuanzang’s time they were completely different. It’s amazing how much the world has changed.

Also, it’s amazing how difficult the journey was. Xuanzang doesn’t write about himself much, but the Silk Road between China and India had some very dangerous and difficult terrain, and yet he somehow survived all these challenges and reached India, and back!

Xuanzang is such a cool guy I made up a song about it1 based on the original Spiderman theme song ( original lyrics):

♫ Xuanzang-man, Xuanzang-man.
Does whatever a Buddhist can
Goes around, anywhere,
Catches sutras just like flies.
Look out! Here comes the Xuanzang-man.

Is he tough? Listen bud—
He walked the entire Silk Road.
Can he cross a desert?
Take a look over there.
Hey bro! There goes the Xuanzang-man.

In the chill of the night,
At the Roof of the World,
Like a streak of light,
He crosses a chain bridge!

Xuanzang-man, Xuanzang-man,
Friendly neighborhood Xuanzang-man.
Wealth and fame, he’s ignored—
Wisdom is his reward.
To him, Life is a great illusion—
Wherever there’s a stupa,
You’ll find the Xuanzang-man!♫

I’ll write more once I finish book. Stay tuned!

1 It just popped into my head after I wrote title. Strange how that works. :-)

Posted in Buddhism, China, Hosso, India, Travel | 2 Comments

Setsubun Death Mask 2015!

Hi guys,

Today (US time zone) is Setsubun (節分). In the traditional Japanese calendar (旧暦, kyūreki) which is based off the Chinese calendar, the 3rd day of the 2nd month would mark the end of Winter and the start of Spring. In the solar calendar, this is February 3rd.

Every year, we do a tradition where I put on an oni mask (oni are like ogres) and Princess throws roasted soybeans or roasted peanuts at me. People will then recite: oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi which means “out demon, in luck!”

I was so busy in 2014 because of Little Guy, I didn’t blog about it. In fact, we were too tired to celebrate.

In 2013, I made an Oni mask:

Setsubun mask

However, in 2014, Princess wanted to make a mask for me. This is the result:

My daughter made this Setsubun Mask for me...

It is supposed to be cute, but actually looks scary like Jason from Friday the 13th. I call it the “Setsubun Death Mask”.

Little Guy will celebrate his first Setsubun this evening, but we tested the mask last night to see if he would be scared or not. He just smiled and laughed. :) So, we should be ok.

So, anyhow happy Setsubun everyone and please don’t get any nightmares from the Setsubun Death Mask! ;)

P.S. I am proud of my daughter for making the mask. She put a lot of good detail in it. I am just joking about the “death mask” part. :)

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