Category Archives: Buddhism

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.

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.

Little Guy Home Sick

Hello Readers,

Recently my two year old son (a.k.a. “Little Guy”) came down with a case of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. It started after the Memorial Day weekend at a party we went to with some friends, and other kids got sick at the same time as my son.

We knew nothing about the disease until after Little Guy started acting irritable and showing small red spots on his legs and hands. The doctor confirmed that Little Guy had the disease and that he would be highly contagious until all the sores healed. That usually takes up to a week.

Right then and there, our plans for the week were over. Little Guy missed his soccer class, I had to work from home for the week in case I got sick too, and we couldn’t take him anyplace in public for fear of getting other kids sick.

The good news is that Little Guy was never seriously ill. Many children get painful sores in their mouths and can’t even drink fluids because it hurts so much. Somehow Little Guy somhow avoided that. He ate and drank fine, and was pretty healthy overall. My wife fed him a lot of soba noodles because they contain zinc, which supposedly is good for when you are ill. Although he is a picky eater, he does like noodles quite a bit. Here is a photo of him playing with his toys. 

But the experience made me pause and think about how easily something expected like an illness or some other problem can completely interrupt your life. This was a mild illness and was gone in a week (just like the doctor predicted), but imagine if it had been something even worse like a car accident, serious illness or job loss. 

People always expect such things to happen to someone else, but in truth, they can happen to anyone. 

Another Great Quote from the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

While reading the 8,000-line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (mentioned here and here), I found another quote I wanted to share from Chapter X, highlighting added:

Shakyamuni Buddha: And when I had surveyed their thought with my thought, I rejoiced in those sons and daughters of good family who belong to the vehicle of the Bodhisattvas and who had made this vow [to uphold the Perfection of Wisdom, and teach others].  In consequence they will become so much confirmed in their faith [in the Perfection of Wisdom] that they will seek rebirth in other Buddha-fields, and also there will come face to face with the Tathagatas there, who demonstrate dharma, and from home they will hear in detail just this deep perfection of wisdom.  In those Buddha-fields also they will set countless living beings going on their way to supreme enlightenment, and will help them in their quest for full enlightenment.

(pg. 160, Professor Edward Conze trans.)

What’s interesting about this quote is the emphasis on the relationship between seeking the Perfection of Wisdom in Buddhism, and with rebirth in a “Buddha field” or buddhakṣetra in Sanskrit.  Elsewhere, this is better known as a Pure Land.

Interestingly, the 8,000-line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra only mentions Akshobhya Buddha by name, and his buddha field, rather than more well-known Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.  However, the point of this quote I believe is the awakening the aspiration to seek rebirth in any buddha field because one can further one’s Buddhist practice and attain the perfection of wisdom there.  In the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, the Pure Land of Amitabha is seen as the most accessible of the buddha fields, and therefore the most suitable in this era of Buddhism far removed from a living, historical Buddha.

Anyhow, cool stuff.

Great Quote from the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras

Since my recent purchase of a Buddhist text called the 8,000-line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, I’ve been reading bits here and there, and found a great quote I wanted to share from chapter XI:

Because the Lord [Buddha] has said: “I do not praise any kind of rebirth in becoming, because it lasts no longer than a finger-snap.  For everything that is conditioned¹ is impermanent.  Anything that may cause fear is ill.  All that is in the triple world² is empty.  All dharmas are without self.  When the wise have understood that all this is thus devoid of eternity, impermanent, ill, doomed to reversal, then just here they should attain the fruits of the holy life, from the fruit of a Streamliner to Arhatship.

(pg. 168, Professor Edward Conze)

I think this is a very articulate expression of Buddhist impermanence.  :)

P.S.  Been really busy with on call from work plus sick child, so been falling behind on blog posting.  More posts to come soon.

¹ Here “conditioned” means it was created through external causes and conditions.  Basically, all phenomena both physical and abstract (thoughts, feelings, etc).

² The Triple World is a common Buddhist phrase meaning the “world of sense desire”, the “world of form” and “the formless world”.  Basically reality in all its permutations.

Dogen on Continuous Practice

Something cool I wanted to share with readers from Dogen (道元, 1200-1253) the founder of Soto Zen in Japan. This translation comes from the book The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master:

Blossoms opening and leaves falling now are the actualization of continuous practice. (Pg. 152)

But I liked the next quote even more so:

Great Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha was engaged in continuous practice in the deep mountains from the time he was nineteen years old. At age thirty, after practicing continuously, he attained the way simultaneously with all sentient beings on the great earth. Until he was in his eighties, his practice was sustained in mountains, forests, and monasteries. He did not return to the palace,¹ nor did he claim property.  He wore the same robes and held the same bowls throughout his lifetime.  From the time he began teaching, he was not alone even for a day or for an hour.  He did not reject offerings from humans and devas.  He was patient with the criticism of people outside the way.  The lifetime teaching of the Buddha, wearing the pure robes and begging for food, was nothing but continuous practice. (pg. 152-153)

For some reason, I find this quotation very inspirational.

¹ Technically he did return to the palace, but did not reclaim his birthright. Instead, he let his son, Rahula, have the inheritence. However Rahula became a monk as well and a number of sutras in the Pali Canon show conversations between father and son.