Goodbye Summer

I found this delightful, anonymous poem from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology, number 172, that I wanted to share:

昨日こそ kinou koso
早苗取りしか sanae torishika
いつのまに itsu no ma ni
稲葉そよぎて inaba soyogite
秋風の吹く akikaze no fuku

Which is translated as:

“Only yesterday we filled the fields with young plants unaware of time and yet it has passed; rice leaves rustle in the autumn wind.”

For people in the US, have a restful Labor Day weekend!

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My First Sermon

Or: “Misadventures Teaching the Dharma”

Hi all,

I haven’t been able to write for a while. I am happy to report that my wife and kids are back in the US, and the jet lag is wearing off, so we no longer live like vampires.1 ;)

Another big development is that I delivered my first sermon at the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple. Things did not go as planned but I also learned a lot in the process.

First, I was originally scheduled to give a sermon on the 30th of August and I was going to talk about Shan-Tao’s Parable of the Two Rivers. However, the schedule changed and I did my sermon on the 9th instead. I decided to change topic at the last minute because I would not be able to get a projector in time to show Shan-Tao’s parable in art.

So, instead, I decided to talk about the idea of taking refuge in Buddhism. I talked about the Vandana Ti-Sarana, the “Three Refuges”, which is recited almost universally in Buddhism in some way or another, but I also linked it to sutras like the Cunda Sutra (SN 47.13) in the Pali Canon, the 21st verse of the Dhammapada and the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra (chapter 3).

It was thrown together, but I thought it was pretty good. I was nervous that day, but when I stood upon the pulpit, my nervousness faded and I threw myself into the sermon.

But as I finished, I felt something wasn’t quite right. I had secretly used my phone to time myself and I had finished a few minutes earlier than I expected. I was so worried about taking too long, that I had gone too fast!

Worse, I found out later that I had talked so fast, so animated, that many of the elderly members couldn’t follow what I said. :-o

Looking back, I had made a classic blunder: I was talking as fast as I was thinking, and I hadn’t considered my audience. I was over-eager.

I did get lots of compliments about the content of the sermon, but the delivery needed improvement. And that’s when I really came to realize that teaching the Dharma in person is a lot different than writing a blog or even making Youtube videos.

In the blog, people can read at their own natural pace. My speech habits do not appear in writing, so the language reads more neutral. Plus, if something I write is confusing, they can go back and re-read it. Even on Youtube, you can rewind the video and increase the volume.

But when you’re talking in person, you only get one shot. Even if you compose the greatest sermon ever, if no one understands it, then it’s all in vain.

Speaking of YouTube, I have received comments before about talking too fast, and even at work sometimes people have told me that I talk fast, so I know I do it and I do it often. I have other weird habits too like saying “right” at the end of sentences, and a weird inflection that makes people think I am from Canada.2

So I did some research on how to avoid talking too fast, and I found a couple good links:

The gist of both websites is that “talking too fast” really just means you are not giving enough audio cues, so your audience gets confused. Simple things like learning to breathe more, ending sentences with a downward inflection (for English speakers), and just pacing yourself are the key.

Although the first sermon did not go as planned, and I learned some painful lessons, I actually feel pretty positive about my next opportunity to give a sermon, hopefully in another month or two. I will definitely practice more, and hope to give a more impactful sermon next time around, probably on the Maha-Mangala Sutta (and how it relates to Jodo Shinshu), or perhaps on the Shan-Tao’s Parable. :)

1 Toddlers with jet lag are no joke. Little Guy was awake and active until 4:30am the first few nights! :-o

2 I’m born and raised in the Seattle area, by the way.  Strangely none of family has that inflection, just me. I’m not sure if it’s a “Northwest Accent” or just personal habit. 

Posted in Buddhism | 11 Comments

Why the Atomic Bombing Still Matters 70 Years Later

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.

–Diary entry from President Truman, July 25, 1945

August 6th and August 8th mark the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. It’s not something I’ve posted about for a long while (last post in 2012), but I was motivated to write about it for two reasons.1

The first reason was the childish reaction by American fans during the Women’s World Cup. The callous way people joked about the atomic bombing and compared it to a soccer match told me that such people did not appreciate the sheer destruction that resulted, and the tragedy of the incident. I was furious.

The second reason happened a few weeks ago. At our local Buddhist temple, we had a guest lecture by a reverend from one of our sister temples in Oregon. He told us a moving story, which he had heard from a minister in Nagasaki, Japan. But I’ll get back to that story in a minute.

As many of us know from history, the Empire of Japan still controlled large parts of Asia as late as July 1945:

A map of East Asia and the Western Pacific during World War II

…and that Japan and refused to even acknowledge the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945 which ordered them to surrender. After fighting in Europe for so long, we were ready to finally defeat the Empire of Japan:

But the enemy was not to be taken lightly:


The military reasoned that the only way to get Japan to finally surrender was to shock them. From the minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos which took place on May 10-11, 19452 the committee reasoned:

It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released.


It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.

A small, narrow target wasn’t enough because it would lack shock-value, but also because the atomic bomb cost billions of dollars in 1945 and if it failed due to bad placement, it would be a military disaster. Ultimately Hiroshima was selected:

This is an important army depot and port of embarkation in the middle of an urban industrial area. It is a good radar target and it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focussing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage. Due to rivers it is not a good incendiary target. (Classified as an AA Target)

The rest, as we know, is history. Nagasaki was later added to the list, and became the second target.

Anyhow, back to the guest lecture from a few weeks ago. The visiting minister told us about another minister in Nagasaki. At that time, the minister was young and fresh from seminary, and was visiting a woman’s home to take part in a memorial service some time after the War.

The minister observed that the grieving woman had placed the rice in her Buddhist home altar incorrectly. Normally it’s placed in a small, raised bowl generically called a buppanki (仏飯器)3 which is intended to be an offering to the Buddha, and gesture of respect. You can see illustrations here. However, this woman had placed four rice balls (onigiri) placed in a dish in front. The priest was somewhat perplexed by this, and decided to gently correct her on etiquette for Buddhist altars.

He indirectly brought up the subject after the memorial service, and asked about the rice balls.

The woman explained that during World War II, she had been a mother of four little children. On August 8th, she had to go to the neighboring town to get some groceries, and she told the children they could go out and play, but they had to come back for lunch. She had made them onigiri rice-balls which they could enjoy when they came back home.

While she away in the next town, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. By the time she returned home, the house had been destroyed and all four of her children were dead. They were sitting around the table together eating the onigiri she had prepared for them when they died.

…. and that’s why I think the atomic bombing still matters.

The military strategy and decision making that went into the atomic bombing wasn’t trivial. The war between Japan and the West was long, bitter and many people wanted to end it soon, but at the same time, a lot of careful analysis went into determining the targets, weighing the necessity of the atomic bomb, etc. In other words, it wasn’t an irrational decision.

However, military strategic planning cannot forsee everything. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were valuable military targets, but a lot of civilians lived there too, and many of them were not involved. The four children who died in Nagasaki had no military value. They were not the cartoonish “Japs” in propaganda posters; they were obedient children, enjoying a homemade lunch their mom had made, who died in nuclear fire.

The consequences of the decision to drop the atomic bomb were not limited to military-strategic ones; the consequences were much more broad and still felt many years later. The limits of such planning were true then, as much as it is now.

P.S. These World War II propaganda posters and many others are available at the National Archives, which is a great resource for historians. Some of the propaganda posters are pretty crass though. :-/

1 Didn’t want to detract from the other nuclear disaster, though: Castle Bravo and Bikini Atoll.

2 U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File ’42-’46, folder 5D Selection of Targets, 2 Notes on Target Committee Meetings.

3 In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, specifically the Nishi-Honganji branch (which covers much of the US temples), it may also be called a kuhandai (供飯台), but I need to verify that.

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Final Fantasy XIII-2: the novel

Hi guys,

Final Fantasy novel cover

As fans might recall, I am a big fan of the game Final Fantasy XIII1, and lately I’ve been playing the sequels XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. I’ve enjoyed these games, and the story, so much that decided to purchase the novel. Actually there are a few novels available, but all of them are in Japanese-language only:

I bought all three, but only the last two are in stock,2 so I’ve begun reading Fragments Before.

Final Fantasy novel

The reading-level is a stretch, for me, but not nearly as difficult as trying to read Dune in Japanese. That was much harder. Already, I’ve enjoyed the book quite a bit and have finished one of the ministories. I don’t read fast, but I can read at a decent pace. Also, I sometimes have to go back a few pages and re-read because I understand the words, but have trouble grasping the overall meaning the first time. This happens with manga too sometimes, but novels are harder than manga. It doesn’t really bother me though, because I really want to know what goes on, and want to know the details of the characters and the world they live in, so I don’t re-read because I have to, but because want to.

It turns out that if you want to read in a foreign-language, you have to find something you’re genuinely interested in. I have English-language novels that I don’t finish because they’re not very interesting, and this is even more true in Japanese. I just can’t finish books that don’t interest me. Or if I finish them, I don’t remember much. So, now that I found something I really like and want to finish, suddenly I find it takes less effort to read. ;)

A good tip for language students out there: find something in your target language you really like and just focus on that. The rest will fall into place.

1 Actually I love the Final Fantasy series in general, but the XIII trilogy is one of my favorites.

2 Once Episode 0 is in stock, they’ll ship it out, of course. I can wait. I can’t read that fast. ;)

Posted in Japanese, Language | Tagged


Lately, I’ve been reading an old Buddhist book that I found in a used bookstore from the 1970’s by Professor Edward Conze, titled Buddhist Thought in India. The book is dense and not for the light-hearted, but also has some pretty interesting insights. This is one quote I wanted to share:

People often hate themselves, and much of their hatred for others is a mere deflection of projection or self-hate. They may love, and even hug, their hates, and not at all wish to be rid of them. They may wish to die, because life is so disappointing, or because their destructive impulses are excessively strong, or because some kind of ‘death instinct’ is at work in them. They may not dare to want happiness, because they suffer from a sense of guilt, and feel that they have not deserved to be happy, but that, on the contrary, punishment is due for what they did or thought in the past. If a neurotic is a person who is both discontented with himself and unable to have satisfactory relations with others, then he can be made to live at peace with others only by first learning to endure himself. We must therefore agree with Aristotle when he said that only the wise man can love himself, and he alone, just because he is wise. ‘Such friendship for oneself can only exist only in the good man; for in him alone all parts of the soul, being in no way at variance, are well disposed towards one another. The bad man, on the other hand, being ever at strife with himself, can never be his own friend.’ And here we come to our first paradox: Self-love can be maintained only by becoming less intense and exclusive, more detached and impartial, a mere acceptance of contents of one’s own self. For, the more possessive, the more ambivalent it will also be, the more charged with latent hate. (pg 83)

Definitely makes sense to me. If one is preoccupied with oneself, the more turmoil and unease they have, and the more discontent they become, then they learn to hate themselves and then others. Or so I understand.

Anyhow, something to think about. :)

Posted in Buddhism | Tagged | 2 Comments

Going To School In Japan

Daughter in School in JapanHello,

My wife and kids have been in Japan for the past few weeks visiting relatives, and we decided to enroll our daughter (a.k.a. “Princess”) into the local elementary school for a week. We were unsure whether she would fit in because she’s never been to school in Japan, and although she’s fluent in Japanese, her reading/writing skills are a little bit behind. Thanks to distance-learning courses though, she has kept up with the Japanese education system well enough and she has had a great time in school so far.

Some half-Japanese kids living overseas might not have many opportunities to learn Japanese, so the school interviewed her a couple weeks early to determine her language skills, and we were relieved to see that she was fine. She wouldn’t need a translator or anything. Plus, she already had her own Randoseru (ランドセル) backpack her grandparents gave her a couple years ago.1

Elementary schools in Japan don’t have a cafeteria. Instead, children have meals provided in the class called kyūshoku (給食), which are usually nice quality meals. No tater-tots or pizza-bread. ;) Parents have to pay for these meals, of course. Since she’s only in school a week, we paid a week’s worth. Also, unlike older kids, elementary school kids do not have strict uniforms, but do wear things like yellow-hats or something to help identify them as a student at that school. In this photo my daughter isn’t wearing her hat though.

Also, we were worried that because she is different she might have problems interacting with other kids at school, but we are relieved that she made friends right away. The original photo here shows my daughter with two other little girls. They like to play afterschool and such. It makes us so happy to see this.

At one point, we had plans to live and work in Japan someday, but we were worried about keeping our kids in public Japanese schools.2 Although we abandoned these plans for a few reasons (space, cost of living, etc), it’s nice to know that it’s still an option. Now, kids like my daughter may have issues over the long-term though, such as this young lady, but at least we know it’s possible. Next year, we might let her attend school longer.

More importantly, we’re just happy to see our daughter having this special opportunity and making new friends in the process. :)

P.S. In case you’re wondering, Japanese schools start in April and ends in March or so. While there are seasonal breaks, there is no two month-long summer break like in the US. So, her school in the US is on summer break, but her school in Japan is not. Thanks to reader Tokyo5 for the clarification here. :)

1 She’s used it in American schools, but one problem is that American papers use the US Letter size (8½ x 11″) standard, while Japan uses A4 standard (8.27 × 11.7″). In practical terms, this means that her American papers and binders are a bit too wide for her backpack and get bent. So, we finally switched to an American backpack instead. We liked the Randoseru a lot, but we had no choice. :-/

Also, the color, as you can see, is light purple. Originally randoseru backpacks were red and black only, but lately there is more variety for kids to choose from. :)

2 International school students in Japan seem to be isolated and don’t always learn enough Japanese language and manners to successfully thrive as an adult. Plus they’re super-expensive.

Posted in Family, Japan | 7 Comments

The Home Stretch

Hi guys,

I haven’t given much of an update about myself lately, but I wanted to share some news: I will get certified as a “minister’s assistant” in October. This is essentially like a deacon in the Christian churches. It does not mean I am ordained, but it allows me to participate in some clerical tasks. Minister’s assistants are increasingly common in the Buddhist Churches of America, though I don’t know if there is an equivalent in Japanese Buddhist temples. Tokudo (得度) ordination, the true first level of ordination, is a couple years away, but it will be nice to finally participate and help lead services.

Further, I’ve been asked to give my first sermon (hōwa 法話) or “Dharma Talk” August 30th!

I’ve always wanted to give public sermons, but now that I am finally assigned to do one, it’s kind of scary and exciting at the same time. I have a pretty good idea what I want to talk about, but haven’t worked out the details. What will I talk about? That’s my secret. ;)

Hopefully I might be able to get someone to take a video so I can put on Youtube, but no promises. Also, if my Dharma Talk goes poorly then it might not be worth it. We’ll see.

Anyhow, wish me luck. :)

P.S. It turns out that the art of giving sermons is harder than one thinks. Making YouTube videos is easy because you don’t have to worry about your audience. They can view whenever they want. But when doing a public sermon, you have to be sensitive to the mood of the crowd, the message and of course time limits. For example, giving a sermon during a funeral is pretty different than one during a regular “service”.

Posted in Buddhism, Religion | 12 Comments