What’s Up With Japanese Buddhist Texts?


Recently, I saw a discussion online regarding the shindoku which is a Nichiren-Buddhist term of reciting sutras1 in the original liturgical language. However, this practice is pretty universal to all Buddhist sects in Japan.

For example, here’s a photo of a copy of the Heart Sutra I own:


Here you can see a line after line of Chinese characters. If you were to show this to a typical Japanese person, they could not ready very much. Why is that? Why are all Japanese Buddhist sutras and texts written like this?

Because it is not Japanese-language. They are preserved in the original language of Classical Chinese.

When Buddhism was first brought to China via the Silk Road, monks from India, Central Asia (Kushan, Sogdian, Parthian, etc) were employed by the Chinese imperial court to translate Buddhist texts from disparate languages into something readable at the time.

Buddhist texts weren’t preserved in one language either, like Sanskrit. In India and Central Asia, they were preserved in a wide variety of Indic languages called prakrits. Some prakrits relied heavily on Sanskrit, the holy language in India, but others didn’t. By the time these texts and sutras arrived in China, it was a mess, and there was no way Chinese Buddhist monks could read and understand so many languages, so it made sense to simply translate them all into Chinese. Thus the Chinese characters you see are not modern Chinese, and they’re not Japanese either. They’re translated from Indic languages into the Chinese language of the time.

But what about Japan? Why not simply do the same?

At the time that Japan imported Buddhism from China and Korea, it was importing Chinese culture wholesale: art, poetry, Confucian ethics, city planning, style of governance, etc.

The educated elite of Japan at the time could actually read the Chinese characters just fine as part of their upbringing and professional training. They pronounced the characters somewhat different, but it was possible in those days to read Chinese. But they didn’t just read stuff: letters, books and official documents in Japan were similarly composed using Chinese (again with a Japanese pronunciation). If you think about it, this is similar to how Latin was used in medieval Europe for communication and literature. Europe had so many different countries and cultures, it was actually more practical to use a common (even if mostly dead) language like Latin to express ideas. Japan did the same when corresponding with China or with the various Korean kingdoms.

However, as you might expect, times have changed. Chinese-style literature in Japan, or kanbun (漢文), still exists, but only well-educated people can read and write it. Vernacular Japanese has gradually taken over and supplanted the more Chinese-style literature.

In spite of this, Buddhist texts are still preserved in the original, Classical Chinese. There are plenty of Buddhist books in Japan that help explain and provide commentaries to popular sutras such as the Heart Sutra or Lotus Sutra, but for liturgical purposes, people still recite in the original, preserved language. If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see little letters besides each Chinese character; those are the furigana pronunciation guides that tell Japanese people how to pronounce the characters.

Why bother?

Because there are advantages to chanting a liturgical language versus vernacular:

  • The text is preserved with alteration across the centuries.
  • The recitation is the same wherever you go.

The second one is particularly important as Buddhism spreads across the world. Even though few people can understand the words, everyone can chant them the same way, and then study them in their own native language. A person might complain “I never know what I am chanting”, but studying of sutras is a different act than reciting them. In other words, liturgy and reciting is one thing, studying a text is another thing entirely.

Also, when reciting in a Buddhist service, everyone recites together, which is a nice sense of community. On the other hand, studying the meaning in one’s own language is a valuable investment of your time too. There’s nothing wrong with doing both.

1 More specifically, specific chapters, or specific sections of chapters in the Lotus Sutra.

Salvation and Discrimination

While my wife and kids are in Japan (I’ll be going soon, too), I have been catching up on my dusty old Playstation. I’ve mostly playing the third and final game in the Final Fantasy XIII series: Lightning Returns.

The series as a whole deals a lot with religion but especially the third game. There’s a surprising amount of depth to the story. 

Here’s an interesting cutscene I photographed from my TV where the main heroine, Lightning, reminisces about the utopia, Cocoon, she once grew up in and how it didn’t turn out like she expected:


The quote that really struck me was:

A new religion based on salvation only gives birth to new discrimination.

This is something I think some people may intuitively realize, but for most people, it feels good to be on the “winning” side of salvation. That in turn can foster an “us vs. them” attitude that can gradually poison and distort the original good intentions of that religion.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, since Christianity is not the only religion with an element of salvation to it…

Being A Foreign Kid in Japan


My wife and kids are currently in Japan right now, and I will be joining them shortly. We try to go every year so we can stay in touch with my wife’s family especially her aging parents. My kids love going because they get spoiled by family and friends, and there’s lots of fun things to do in Japan.

About five years ago, we seriously considered moving there because the quality of life was so good, and Japan was significantly safer than the US. However, my wife started to have doubts after hearing from Japanese moms who had brought their bi-racial kids to live with them in Japan, and some of the tough experiences that came with it. So, she asked me to rethink the plan, and after backing out of a job opportunity thete with my previous company, we’ve stayed here in Seattle ever since. We let our daughter attend the local elementary school in Japan for a week or so, and she enjoys it, but otherwise, she has been raised here in the US.

Seattle, for all its faults,1 is a nice multiracial society, and my daughter goes to a school here where there’s a pretty healthy mix of kids from various backgrounds. She can blend in easily.

In Japan, it’s the opposite of course. Since 99% of the people are ethnically Japanese (the majority of the remaining 1% are Japanese-Koreans or “zainichi” who face challenges of their own), my daughter stands out a lot. She’s very pretty, speaks Japanese natively, and is very nice. So people love her, but at the same time, she stands out pretty easily. Not as much as I do, but enough.

I mention this because my wife told me about a recent incident on the bus in Japan, where an older boy with Down-Syndrome looked at her and suddenly gave her the middle-finger. My daughter, who is American and knows what the means, was very shocked and upset. I don’t think the boy even understood what he did, considering that gesture is never used in Japan. He probably was just blindly imitating “cool” American culture.

Nevertheless, we all felt that the only reason why he did that to my daughter was that she was “foreign” and obviously made a connection. Obviously, this could happen again.

I wasn’t there to see it of course, so I only heard about it later, but it reinforced my wife’s view that Japan just wasn’t the most accepting place for kids like my daughter. If she comes to Japan as an adult, her Japanese background, good looks and language-skills would make her very popular there and she would probably do fine. However, as a kid, she stands out and other kids would pick on her. While she does make friends at school, she’s still an easy target for people who have some kind of grudge.

I think my wife is right though: although Japan has many good things about it, it is still better to raise our kids in a West Coast place like Seattle. There are many people like her, and there are still enough Japanese resources and friends for my wife to be happy and content. Plus, she has gotten so used to life in Seattle; she sometimes tells me that she finds Japan crowded and stifling now.

Personally, the decision to not live in Japan affected me too in a lot of ways. I noticed my enthusiasm for the JLPT, Japan, Japanese language learning and such diminished with it. I never quite looked at Japan the same way. The blog kind of suffered and declined too because the original impetus was gone.

Still, I feel kind of sad about this most recent incident. I always hoped that somehow we might be wrong, and that things might’ve worked better if we took a chance and moved there, but I have to admit I was wrong. Although our plans to move to Japan have been on hold for years, I feel this latest incident was the final nail in the coffin. 

P.S. While entirely coincidental, this post sort of feels like a continuation of yhe previous one

1 Grey weather, traffic, and lack of family-friendly things to do. Seattle is a hipster kind of place, which is great if you’re a hipster. I just dont fit that lifestyle. 

The Trouble with Anime


People, both Japanese and Westerners, are often surprised when I tell them I am not interested in anime. Usually when I bring up Japan to other Westerners, the first thing they want to talk about is anime (“Oh man, I love watching anime!”). Also, Japanese people assume that all foreigners are anime-fans.

But for some reason, I just never really liked it. There were specific series that I watched and enjoyed in my youth. Akira comes to mind. for example. Yet, by the time I was a college student, I remember meeting other Japanophiles, and all they could talk about was their favorite anime. I even watched a few, but I was bored to death. The stories were flat and predictable, and the characters were mostly just the same tropes over and over. Even now, with my kids, when they talk about their favorite comics and anime, things haven’t changed at all.

So, it puts me in an awkward category sometimes.

I even tried a couple years ago, before Little Guy was born, to watch more anime to improve my Japanese listening. I found some that were pretty good such as Natsume no Yujincho,1 but others such as Attack on Titan were just bizarre and weird. I could only watch 4-5 episodes of that before I finally deleted it from my video queue. Even the ones I liked weren’t that great. They were fun, but I couldn’t really say I was a fan.

And yes, I’ve watched Studio Ghibli too. The films are lovely, and I like Totoro in particular, but I just never really understood what the hype was about. I have only seen two movies total (Totoro and Spirited Away), and I liked them, but I also enjoy movies from the Marvel Comic Universe, 5 out of 6 of the original Star Trek movies, as well as various other random films. Studio Ghibli films are fun, but I guess I’m just not interested in Japanese fantasy things like yōkai (ghosts and monsters) very much.2

On the other hand, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy any Japanese media.3 I have always liked the Final Fantasy series of games a lot, especially Final Fantasy VII and XIII, but I like the stories because they’re deep and meaningful, but also told with excellent Japanese aesthetics. A character like Cloud Strife or Lightning Farron just wouldn’t look the same in an American medium, and the topics regarding religion, mythology and such would be harder to express in politically/religiously charged environment like the US.

I’m sure there’s anime series that are of similar topic and quality, but frankly I don’t care. I don’t have the time or interest to take up another series.

In short, I just never really liked anime as a whole, and I refuse to stereotyped as a fan either.

I guess I am kind of ranting, but I wanted to get this off my chest.:)

Since I am going to Japan shortly, people might assume I will go hang out in Akihabara, but truth is, I’ve never been there. I like contemporary Japanese culture in a lot of ways, both the good and the ugly,4 and of course I like visiting Buddhist temples. Hopefully I’ll have some time to do both. We’ll see.

P.S. Double-post today.

1 I liked this one because it wasn’t overly violent, and usually had a happy, though sometimes bittersweet ending.

2 It’s not just Westerners that are interested in yokai; they’re hugely popular among Japanese kids too.

3 Don’t get me started on Japanese pop music though. sigh Kyary pyamu-pyamu is definitely, definitely not my thing.

4 Truth is, I’ve been to Japan so many times over the years, it doesn’t really excite me the way it used to. It’s just sort of become part of my life, and so the exoticness is just gone. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it, but rather it’s become familiar like a well-worn shoe. You’re glad it’s there, but you don’t really think about it much. When my wife and I were younger, we seriously thought about moving to Japan, but we’ve become happy and settled with our life here that we’ve decided to stay instead, especially now that we have two kids.

Even Fire Feels Cool

Hello Dear Readers,

Recently I watched the Japanese children’s show Nihongo de Asobo which explores Japanese culture and literature in a fun, artistic way.  I have often found many great quotes and posted them here in the past, but I haven’t watched the show in recent years due to lack of time, so it was great to watch the show again.

Today I wanted to share another quote:

Shintou wo mekkyaku sureba hi mo mata suzushi

In English this can be translated as: Clear your mind of all mundane thoughts, and you will find even fire cool.

This famous quote is attributed to a Rinzai Zen master of the 16th century named Kaisen Shōki (快川紹喜, 1502-1582) but seems to be quoted in other Japanese sources as well.

Anyhow, something fun to share. :)

The Pure Land and the Perfection of Wisdom

Hi all,

From my experiences in Pure Land Buddhism, including Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu, I usually don’t see a lot of discussion regarding such Mahayana Buddhist concepts as the Perfection of Wisdom. I think this is because they’re usually associated with other Buddhist sects such as Zen or Shingon Buddhism.

However, while reading through the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (e.g. “The Larger Sutra”), which is central to Pure Land Buddhism, I found a surprising number of references to emptiness, the non-arising of all dharmas1 and other key terms usually found in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. Here are some example verses, translated by Rev. Zuio H. Inagaki:

Although they [bodhisattvas] observe with the eye of equality that the three worlds are empty and non-existent, they strive to learn the Buddha Dharma and acquire varied eloquence in order to rid living beings of affliction caused by evil passions. Since all dharmas have arisen from Suchness, the bodhisattvas see them as they really are and know skillful means of speech that will develop good habits and destroy bad ones in living beings.

And when talking about the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who became Amitabha Buddha:

“He [Dharmakara] dwelt in the realization that all dharmas are empty, devoid of distinctive features, and not to be sought after, and that they neither act nor arise…”

Also, the 34th vow of Amitabha Buddha states:

(34) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the immeasurable and inconceivable Buddha-lands of the ten quarters, who have heard my Name, should not gain the bodhisattva’s insight into the non-arising of all dharmas and should not acquire various profound dharanis, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

And also when describing the bodhisattvas in the Pure Land, you can find the following verses:

Knowing that dharmas are like a flash of lightning or a shadow,
They will pursue the Bodhisattva Path to its end
And amass a stock of merit. After receiving
My predictions, they will become Buddhas.

While thoroughly knowing that the nature of all dharmas
Is empty and without substance,
They will single-mindedly seek to produce their pure lands
And will surely establish lands such as this.’

Compare the first line to a certain famous verse in the Diamond Sutra, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh:

All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow
Like the dew, or like lightning
You should discern them like this

The verse on “receiving predictions” mirrors much of the content from the Lotus Sutra as well, where Shakyamuni Buddha explicitly predicts the eventual Buddhahood of several of his chief disciples, both monks and nuns.

Anyhow, while the focus of Pure Land Buddhism is simply getting to the Pure Land, what I find fascinating is that there is a lot of underlying Mahayana concepts and teachings woven into Pure Land Buddhism, and yet most people may simply miss them.

Heart to Heart

This was something a friend brought back from Japan after their mother had passed away.  Their mother was a member of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, though I don’t know if they were actively Buddhist or just part of the parish.  In any case, as part of the funeral, my friend received some goods from the temple and she brought some back for me knowing I was interested in Buddhism.:)

In any case, I decided to hang this up in my little meditation space.¹

These Chinese characters 我逢人 are read as gahōjin (がほうじん) in Sino-Japanese pronunciation.  These are words attributed to the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, Dogen. The meaning is something like “self meets [another] person”. Zen is not my forté, but I believe it speaks to the kind of heart to heart understanding of the Dharma that happens between student and disciple that goes beyond words. However, I could be wrong.

Anyhow, just something I wanted to share.:)

¹ By “meditation space”, I mean just a small space in the walk-in closet in the den.  That’s the only space left in the house since Little Guy was born.  Ah, parenting. :)

Understanding Buddhist Metta

Recently, I was reading a good essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu about the meaning of mett&257; in Buddhism.  Usually, metta is translted as “loving kindness”, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains how a more suitable translation is “goodwill”, which makes sense after reading the article. In particular, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s story about his teacher and the snake really makes an important point: while you don’t wish harm or ill-will toward another being, sometimes you just have to accept the fact that the differences in thinking are simply too great to have any kind of relationship or friendly terms.

The term “loving-kindness” implies a sentimental, emotional, perhaps even “mushy” frame of mind, but as Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, there are times when that is simply not appropriate. For example, I once had a heated argument1 with my neighbor regarding property and a certain tree that leans ominously in the direction of my home. About a year later, I tried to patch things up, but she simply blew me off very rudely. I debated maybe doing more to make amends, then I realized that probably the best remedy is to simply leave her in peace. The immediate issue with the tree was addressed, and further reconciliation would have been difficult given our personality differences. So, it was simply better to drop it, and wish the neighbors free from harm, and that’s been my policy since.

But on the other hand, the Buddha was very clear that even if you can’t really get along with someone, harboring any kind of ill-will is out of the question. In the Kakacupama Sutta (MN 21) the Buddha states:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding….”

This is kind of forbearance is a lot harder than it sounds, though.  When I think about the argument a few years ago, I still catch myself sometimes feeling bitter toward that old lady.  Sometimes I also think mean thoughts when someone, usually a young guy (a.k.a. “Cool Guy”) with an expensive car, rides too close behind mine on the freeway, then races past.  I am not proud of it though.  Angry words and thoughts just sort of arises without warning, but then I have to calm myself down and keep the Buddha’s words in mind.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu shows, the Buddha’s teaching even included a simple formula that is still recited among Theravadin communities from the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta (AN 10.176):

May these beings — free from animosity, free from oppression, and free from trouble — look after themselves with ease.

But this sense of goodwill does not just extend to other beings. In a lengthy essay, Acharya Buddharakkhita suggests first starting with oneself. One can wish themselves to be happy and feel free from harm, and gradually this turns outward toward other beings in a sincere, not forced, sort of way.  So, even when I feel I’ve been wronged by someone, and ill-will arises, I try to remember this simple formula.  I don’t think I can be friends with everyone in my life, especially those who I’ve conflicted with, but the least I can do is wish them well and free from harm.  Maybe in a future life we can be friends.  Who knows?

Until then, I can at least wish them well and free from harm.

1 Probably one of the very few times in life when I really blew my top and yelled at someone. I do get angry and frustrated sometimes, but I can’t remember the last time I was yelling at someone to go away. Even then though, I am glad I didn’t use any profanity or anything.

Listening and Immersion Really Work

Hello Dear Readers,

I started this personal project almost two months ago to improve my Japanese language listening skills before I go to Japan in July.  Listening has always been my biggest challenge in Japanese language learning, and it’s something I really wanted to tackle this year.

So, following advice from Khatzumoto, I decided to really go all-in this time.  I subscribed to a great podcast channel called ネッポン放送 (Japan Broadcasting), downloaded a ton of podcasts and just let them run in the background while I do other things.

At work, bus, doing dishes, etc., I try to keep podcasts running in the background whenever I have free time. When my iPhone earbuds broke I had to start using my big, bulkier old headphones.

Anyhow, to my surprise, I have stuck with it so far. I figured I would get tired and stop listening after 3 days: the proverbial “3-day monk” (三日坊主). But the podcasts are interesting enough, and relevant enough, that I’ve stuck with it for 7+ weeks. Now I know some of the main hosts, and feel more “plugged in” to the shows than when I first got started.

Also, I made a point to forgive myself when I have busy days and can’t listen much. The goal wasn’t to listen to Japanese for X hours a day, the goal is to listen whenever I have free time.

My listening skills aren’t great; some podcasts, especially politics and business, are pretty hard to follow along. Sometimes I can naturally follow along a conversation, and sometimes I have almost no idea what’s going on. But slowly, gradually the “gaps” where I can’t understand the conversation are getting smaller while the parts I can follow along are getting bigger. It’s very gradual, but it’s very rewarding to see it’s working.

There’s no secret here: just create an environment for learning and being patient, forgiving to yourself, flexible and having a clear goal (Japan trip in this case).