King Ashoka Comes to Korea and Japan

Shiga Ishitouji

Lately, I’ve been watching a series of DVDs about Buddhist temples in Japan called hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼, “100-temple pilgrimage”) which my in-laws gave me years ago. I watched about 1/3 of the videos years ago, but stopped for a long time. Lately, I’ve been continuing where I left off and watched a great video about a small, ancient temple in Shiga Prefecture called Ishidōji (石塔寺). The Japanese character (塔) means “stupa” as in the ancient Buddhist monuments from India. This temple is the “temple of the stone stupa”.

Typically in Japan, temples are wooden like most structures, but this temple’s main feature is a stone stupa called the ashoka ōtō (阿育王塔) or “Stupa of King Ashoka”. It was modeled after the Pillars of Emperor Ashoka of India:


According to legend, the stupa at this site was unearthed during the reign of Emperor Ichijō as a kind of Buddhist “miracle”, but according to modern research it was likely built centuries earlier in the 7th or 8th century by refugees from the fallen Korean kingdom of Kudara, better known as Baekje.

Japan historically had close ties with, and a vibrant immigrant community from, Baekje in particular, but even after it fell, the Baekje people living in Japan built this stupa based on a similar ones in Korea. You can still find three-tiered (sanjū no tō 三重塔) stupas in the countryside of Korea,1 and in such famous temples as Bulguksa (불국사, 佛國寺) in Gyeongju City (경주시, 慶州). Compare the stupa above with the Seokgatap (석가탑, 釋迦塔) stupa at Bulguksa built around the year 751:

Seokgatap bulguksa.jpg
Seokgatap bulguksa“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Korean stupas in turn are modeled off the original Pillars of Ashoka via China, Persia and the Silk Road.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the Pillars of Ashoka in Japan, but the one I saw was a modern import, a gift from India. The stupa at Ishidoji is something far more ancient, and shows how far Buddhism had progressed from its humble origins in northern India.

Pretty amazing. I would love to visit these stupas someday, not to mention the originals in India. ;)

P.S. You can find some more nice photos of Ishidoji here.

1 This photo blog by a Japanese traveler visiting Bulguksa, including the three-tiered stupa.

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Happy Children’s Day 2015

May 5th in Japan is the traditional holiday of Children’s Day or kodomo no hi (子供の日). Originally celebrated as a seasonal holiday for boys (a counterpart to Girls Day, March 3rd) it gradually expanded to include all children. However, even today, it still retains a lot of “boy traditions” such as the armor display mentioned before.

This is another tradition: koi-nobori (鯉のぼり) which are three windsocks that look like koi fish. The largest is the “daddy fish”, followed by the mommy fish and finally the child. We bought this one at the local Daiso Japanese store but oftentimes they are much larger. They’re meant to hang outside like any other windsocks.

Anyhow this is our son’s first Children’s Day celebration so we are excited for Little Guy.

Happy Childrens Day to all children everywhere!

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Little Guy Goes To School

Little Guy's First Backpack

Hi all,

This is Little Guy. He is almost 19 months old, and is wearing his first backpack. :)

We gots this backpack as a welcoming gift for subscribing him to Benesse’s distance-learning series. He likes to wear it all day, and gets upset when we have to take it off.

Anyhow, Benesse is a company in Japan that specializes in distance-learning, and we decided our kids would enjoy that more than the strict, stodgy Japanese classes offered at the consulate. Older Japanese who grew up in America have warned us that the schools are difficult and not very fun.

A subscription to Benesse for a toddler costs several hundred dollars a year, but each month they send us DVDs with cartoons featuring Shimajiro and his friends. Shimajiro is a young tiger and well-known Japanese cartoon character. Each month’s shipment also includes nice quality-toys, sometimes also stuffed animals, etc. It’s actually a great deal for what we pay.


When Princess was about 18 months old, we subscribed her as well. She has been doing her monthly schoolwork for Benesse every month since then. She would now be in the 3rd grade in the Japanese-school system, and so her monthly books (which use a character named Korasho instead of Shimajiro) teach her 3rd grade math, Japanese language (kokugo 国語), science, etc. We still have many of her toys when she was a little girl, and now Little Guy enjoys them.1 :)

I’ve seen some half-Japanese kids grow up in the West lose their Japanese cultural and language skills once they get to grade-school. Princess still reads and speaks Japanese well and enjoy Japanese TV daily, but her writing skills are starting to suffer a bit. Kanji (Chinese characters) is hard to remember if you don’t use it daily. It’s a tough challenge for Japanese parents, or any immigrant parents: how to keep interest in foreign culture into adulthood especially when materials and exposure are limited.2

However, Benesse really helped her a lot, and we have many happy memories of the monthly shipments of toys and books. Further, she is pretty far ahead in American schools because she’s already learned some of the math and science already.

So, we’re pretty excited to see Little Guy start the same journey. :)

P.S. If you notice, Little Guy’s hair is really curly. We’re not sure who’s DNA that is. My hair is wavy like Ronald Reagan, and my wife has some wavy hair too, but nothing like Little Guy.

1 Sometimes I read through the old books because I learn more Japanese. ;p

2 Seattle is a pretty good place to raise biracial Japanese kids because we have Japanese bookstores, markets, and such. Also the community is large enough to be supportive. During our time in Ireland, the community was much smaller, and the materials were very limited. When we visited London, we often bought many books and such for Princess (and for myself ;) ) because Dublin just didn’t have enough.

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Rethinking the Phantom Menace

Spock: Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?
–Star Trek VI

Hi all,

My daughter, “Princess” is now 8 years old, and takes after her father a lot. ;) She is nerdy and likes science-fiction, so she wanted to see the Star Wars movies. Now that they are available online, I decided to purchase the original series of movies and let her watch. She loved them. She really liked the Jedi Knights, she was happy that Darth Vader redeemed himself in the end, and she wanted to be strong like Princess Leia. She really enjoyed it.

But then she wanted to watch the prequel movies. I was nervous about this because I remember not enjoying them very much, but on the other hand, I felt she should know the back-story too, get familiar with characters like Jar-Jar, Anakin, etc. So, we watched the Phantom Menace together. You know what? She loved it too. She thought Jar-Jar was funny, Queen Amidala very pretty and Qui-Gon Jinn was a cool Jedi.1

I have to admit I enjoyed the movie a lot more this time than I did 10 or so years ago because as I parent, I can appreciate children’s movies more than I did as a college student. After the Phantom Menace came out, there were a lot of negative reviews, but now that years have passed and I watch the movie again, I think the reviews were overblown. It wasn’t perfect, and there is valid criticism,2 but I genuinely enjoyed seeing the Phantom Menace. I like the movie. I said it.

This got me thinking: maybe the prequels really weren’t meant for old Star Wars fans, but rather for a new generation of fans. There may be continuity problems with the series as a whole, but who cares? My kids love it, and it stimulates their imaginations just like it did for us, so why should I complain?

People who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy were much younger than they are now. Back then, everything about the movies was captivating and magical, and those memories are something we treasure as adults. The reality, though, is that you can never go back in life. You can only go forward, and sometimes that’s hard to do.

Anyway, the quote above from Star Trek VI (not Star Wars), is very fitting: people who grew up aren’t as young and open-minded as they used to be. Maybe our generation is getting too old and inflexible. Sure, we’ve got the money and we spend a lot of time arguing about stupid things on the Internet (meanwhile the rest of the world has real issues).

But we, the old Star Wars fans, should step aside and let the younger generation enjoy the movies on their own terms. Sure it’s not the same as the original, but it doesn’t have to be. The world doesn’t resolve around aging nerds, and it shouldn’t.

Let the kids have their fun, and don’t take things so seriously.

…and just to fuck with the adult fans…


P.S. Speaking of Star Wars and kids, my daughter loves this book. It’s pretty different than the canonical story, but she doesn’t care. She likes it very much.

P.P.S. I thought this was a good write-up and defense of the Phantom Menace too. Also, we haven’t seen Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith yet. I might be more disappointed by those two, we’ll see.

1 I like Liam Neeson anyway, more so after the Lego Movie. :)

2 I liked RedLetterMedia’s brilliant critique of the Phantom Menace, but in spite of that, I still enjoyed the movie.

Posted in Astronomy, Family, Science | Tagged | 2 Comments

Ninja Food

Hi Folks,

As this week is Golden Week in Japan, this week’s post will be more light-hearted and fun. :)

Today’s post was inspired by a book my wife bought me long, long ago when we first dated. That was almost 15 years ago. :) This is a book, translated into English, which contains teachings by a modern master of Ninjutsu, The art of the ninja, named Hatsumi Masaaki (初見良昭, born 1931). The book is interspersed with teachings about ninjutsu and his own experiences as a student, etc.

I haven’t read the book in years but recently I was moving books around and was flipping through pages when I found this section on “The Ninja Diet”:

…When undercover, Ninja might spend long periods unable to soak up the sun, and they would therefore also train in being “night owls.” Ordinary people tend to regard such unorthodox lifestyles as indicating failure, but the Ninja were in control of their own lives, and their spiritual powers of endurance helped them perfect the skills needed to transform the unconventional into commonplace activities. Whenever I travel around the world giving guidance in Ninpō Taijutsu (the art of the ninja, 忍法体術), I never have any problems with jet lag or unusual food. Unlike many, I actually relish such experiences.

On a more practical note, he also explains the recommended diet for students of ninjutsu:

Having a healthy everyday diet is still the foundation of which one should build the kind of body which will help one’s Taijutsu grow. Above all, I recommend eating plenty of vegetables. The Ninja Kihon Happō (the basic 8 directions of the ninja??) diet consists of brown rice, tōfu, sesame, miso soup, no salt, no sugar, uncooked food, and colored vegetables….The other important thing is to eat everything, without preference or fussiness. Moreover, you should enjoy your food—and chew it well. This is useful for recovering from mental and physical fatigue.

What Mr. Hatsumi describes here is essentially the Macrobiotic Diet, which was popularized in Japan in the 1800’s. However, it is also not limited to the ninjas-in-training. I found a similar entry in my bi-lingual book on Zen about monastic food:

Speaking from experience, monks usually eat a mixture of barley and rice and rarely partake of white rice, meat or fish. Such foods would be hard to digest during long periods of zazen. Moreover, meat is too energy rich, making it hard to control your body and mind.

I have to admit after reading all this, I am kind of intrigued about the diet advice, though I am not sure I can follow through on it. Then again, at the age of 37, I am getting older and probably should anyway. Time will tell. :)

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This is a photo I took a couple weeks ago on my driveway. We don’t have a lot of snails around my yard, so I was surprised to find this tiny one. It reminds me of a famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶 1763-1827):

蝸牛 Katatsumuri
そろそろ登れ Soro soro nobore
富士の山 Fuji no yama

Which can be translated as:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

Happy Spring!

Posted in Japan, Photography, Poetry | Leave a comment

The Lost “Iranian” Buddhism: A Brief History of the Silk Road

Hello Everyone,

I recently finished two related books this week: the Xuan-zang book I wrote about before and a new book by Richard Foltz about the religions of the Silk Road. The latter book was fairly short, but it was well-written and I finished it in about 4 days. I highly recommend it.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed these books so much is that they helped explain an important question about Buddhist history: how the hell did Buddhism go from India to China?

Anyone who’s studied a little history about Buddhism knows it travelled the Silk Road from India to China, where it flourished and influenced other East Asian countries (Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc). But this glosses over a lot. So these two books helped explain what exactly happened, and historical research was actually kind of surprising.

Bas relief nagsh-e-rostam couronnement.jpg

Different kingdoms and people “ruled” the Silk Road at different points of time, but many of them had a common “Iranian” origin. This is not the same as the modern country of Iran, but rather a common ancestry, which included such people as the Persians, the Sogdians, the Parthians and the Indo-Aryans such as Siddhartha Gautama. They had a common ancestry, spoke related Iranian-languages, and had common religious traditions that helped influence the new religions they encountered.1

What Is the Silk Road?

Silk route

The Silk Road was actually a network of trade routes that connected China with India, Persia and beyond Persia to the Near East. There were multiple routes, not a single road, and it was not common for a single merchant to travel the entire length. Instead, merchants would often use a “relay system” to bring goods to a major city along the road and trade there. The same goods might be carried by another merchant elsewhere, and so on.

For example, between Indian and China for example, there were three major roads, two passing through Central Asia: the “north” road which was longer but somewhat safer and passed north of the Taklamakan Desert, and the shorter “southern” road which was quicker but was riskier due to mountains, flooding rivers and the Desert. Xuan-zang, in his famous journey, took the northern route from China to India, and was relatively safe, but on his return, he took the southern route and nearly drowned twice, lost his elephant and many important items he brought back from India. Meanwhile, in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, mummies have been found wrapped in Chinese sill.

Anyhow, the constant trade back and forth also brought other people who were not in business. Monks, priests and people seeking their fortune would sometimes travel with merchant caravans. Cities and kingdoms on the Road often welcomed such people because they helped connect them with important cultures like Persia, India and China, and would help improve their prestige. With greater prestige and culture, the kingdom might prosper over rivals.

Why Did Buddhism Spread Along the Silk Road?

The original reason was probably trade. Rulers along the Silk Road would patronize traveling monks by building monasteries and establishing new Buddhist communities. This would help generate donations for the local economy, and enhance the culture and prestige of the city helping the economy further. For example, at the city of Balkh (now Afghanistan), Xuan-zang found 100 monasteries and a 3000 monks there in the 7th Century.

In reality, the local population probably didn’t convert to Buddhism en masse, but instead if may have blended with existing religious traditions. Also, as Buddhism declined, later religions such as Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam spread the same way. It was a recurring pattern: whoever controlled the trade influence the religious tendencies of the religion.

What Kind of Buddhism Did They Spread

The three main schools of Buddhism, out of the original 18, that spread along the Silk Road were:

  • Mahasangikas – Who tended to downplay the importance of the enlightened arhats, and emphasize intuition. They helped build the famous giant statues at Bamiyan, now destroyed.
  • Dharmaguptakas – Who elevated the importance of the Buddha, such that only he was worthy of offerings, and not the monks. They were the most important school early on, but gradually declined. The Agama Sutta in the Chinese Canon (equivalent to the Pali Canon in Theravada) is partly from Dharmaguptaka sources, as well as the Chinese monastic code of discipline.
  • Sarvastivadins – Who believed that past, present and future all existed simultaneously and were thus considered heretical according to the 3rd Council of Buddhism. Otherwise they were similar to other schools. Much of the Agama Sutta above derives from Sarvastivadin sources as well.

Finally of course was Mahayana Buddhism, which is what we see now in East Asian Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism was not a distinct school at this time, but had members from each of the various Indian schools, interacted closely with them, and was thus influenced by them. Mahayana Buddhism and its “bodhisattva practices” was a kind of extra-curricular activity monks and nuns could participate in, on top of their usual monastic discipline.

Research shows that much of imagery and sutras used in Mahayana Buddhism may have been composed outside of India in Central Asia. Iranian culture already had a diverse pool of beliefs and imagery, including but not limited to Zoroastrianism, and this may have helped shape what we now know as East Asian Buddhism. More on that in another post.

Who Spread Buddhism?

There were four major peoples that help spread Buddhism along the Silk Road, three of whom were ethnically Iranian:

  • The Bactrians, who blended Indian Buddhism with Greek culture.
  • The Kushans, who learned form Bactrians and spread it further.
  • The Sogdians, master traders and translators
  • The Parthians, the last and most powerful group who brought many texts and translators to China.

Buddhism began to spread from India to the Greco-Iranian kingdom of Bactria first. It was close to Kashmir, which was a major center of Buddhist learning, and the Bactrian kings were tolerant of all religious traditions. The people and language were a mix of Greek setters, Indian and Bactrian (Iranian), while the Bactrian language used Greek letters. As an example of diversity and tolerance, King Menandros patronized Buddhism, though he was not a follower. He is preserved in a Buddhist text called the Questions of King Menander.

But the Bactrian kingdom didn’t last long, and was soon conquered by an Iranian people called the Sakas, then the Kushans. The Kushans are possibly a mixed-ethnic group (Iranian and Tocharian) who revived the Greco-Bactrian culture and helped spread Buddhism further than before. It was under the Kushan Empire that Buddhist statues, which resembled Greek statues in some ways, began to appear. This is the “Gandhara-style” of Buddhist art, named after a famous region of the Kushan Empire.

Gandhara Buddha (tnm).jpeg

King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire, was considered a great patron of Buddhism, though he wasn’t a follower (he patronized Greek gods and Hindu deities as well). He organized a new Buddhist council in Kashmir to rewrite old Buddhist texts from obscure local “Prakrit” dialects into more standard Sanskrit, for example. Kanishka also helped build monasteries and communities throughout his empire. He is often called the “Second King Ashoka” for this reason.

But the group that helped spread Buddhism the most wasn’t the Kushans, it was the Sogdians. The Sogdians were a small Iranian people who lived around modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and were master translators and traders.

Sogdian artwork of Rostam

Their location along the Silk Road meant that they interacted with many different cultures, and thus they were able to carry ideas and goods to other major cultures easily. After Buddhism, the Sogdians helped spread other religions such as Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism as well as Islam. The Sogdians frequently translated texts from one language to another: for example Prakrit to Bactrian, Aramaic to Turkish, Parthian to Chinese, etc. Ironically the Sogdians did not translate much Buddhist texts into their own language until much later (mainly from Chinese) and this may help explain why Buddhism didn’t take root in Sogdian culture. There were definitely examples of devout Sogdian monks and communities but not wide-scale devotion.

Finally, the last major group to bring Buddhism to China were the Parthians. The Parthians were another major Iranian group that eventually conquered the Kushans and establaished the Parthian Empire. it was during this time that Buddhism probably spread the furthest into Central Asia. For example in the famous city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan), researchers have found extensive Buddhist texts from the 1st-5th centuries and Buddhist communities in Shash (modern Tashkent) show that Buddhism had spread northwest of India before it turned east toward Chin.

The Parthians also contributed many famous translators into Chinese.2 The most famous was An Shigao (安世高) who translated a lot of basic Buddhists texts along with his student An Xuan (安玄). The surname ān (安) was frequently used for Parthians at the time. Some of these texts are still used in the East-Asian (and Western) Buddhist canon.

Why Did Buddhism Decline on the Silk Road?

As mentioned earlier, whoever controlled the trade of the Silk Road influenced religion there. After Buddhism was established, newer religions such as Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism gradually dominated. The Persian merchants patronized both religions, as well as the state religion of Zoroastrianism and soon the Silk Road became very religiously diverse.

The final religion to appear was Islam. By the time that Islam reached Central Asia, Arab traders dominated the trade, and local kings and merchants found it advantageous to convert in order to build closer ties. In the countryside and the remote steppes, people tended to follow Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism for much longer, but in the cities, Islam and Arab culture were the new rising star and people tended to convert. Buddhism was already declining in India, so there wasn’t much incentive to maintain cultural ties with the Buddhist world. People simply lost interest.

Foltz’s book shows how the history of “Islamic conquest” at this time was often greatly exaggerated too. Writings at the time depicting local kings and warlords conquering other lands in the name of Islam were often a cover to simply expand control of trade, not religion. Research shows that the “convert or die” policies of these kings were often unsuccessful and limited in scope. What actually persuaded Central Asian people to convert to Islam were oftentimes charismatic Sufi preachers who helped fulfill the role of “shaman” that previous religions had done generations earlier. To this day, Islam in Central Asia is often syncretic and blends elements of earlier religions with canonical Islam. Meanwhile, the Nestorian Church ironically survived in the heart of the Islamic world in the form of the Syriac Church in northern Iraq and other places.


Between the change in economy, decline of Buddhism in India and role Sufi preachers played in spreading the new dynamic faith, Buddhism naturally declined and faded entirely as did Nestorianism and Manichaeism.


The Iranian peoples of Central Asia were critical to bringing Buddhism out of India to Central Asia, China and now the modern world. We wouldn’t have things like Zen and Pure Land Buddhism if it weren’t for the Sogdians, Kushans and Parthians among others. Ironically many of these cultures no longer exist, yet their legacy lives on in many others.

The books mentioned at the beginning of this post were a lot of fun to read and I can’t recommend them enough for those interested in Buddhist history.

1 Even the modern Islamic Republic of Iran is just the latest in a very long series of dynasties and rulers that stretches back to the earliest civilizations of Man. See for example the Safavid Dynasty and Achaemenid Dynasty.

2 Other famous translators were not Parthian though: Lokaksema was Kushan while Kumarajiva had ancestry from both Kashmir and Kucha, another major Buddhist center at the time.

Posted in Buddhism, China, India | 2 Comments