Category Archives: Confucius

The Price of Fame

I wanted to share a quote from the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, which I had talked about recently.  This is a postscript to the 1795 memoirs where she warns her younger relative about the rise and fall of the Pungsan Hong clan:

Our family has enjoyed power and fame for generations.  Father reached the highest official posts.  My two uncles and my three brothers, one after another, entered officialdom.  The power and prestige that our family enjoyed for a time was truly immense.  We did feel a certain trepidation, but, as affinal relatives, we did not think it possible to separate ourselves from the throne.  Yet because we did not reckon upon the jealousy of the world, our family fortunes reversed.1 The root of the calamity was that we were infected by power and wealth. What a fearful thing the holding of office is!

…Now none of my nephews holds even the low degree granted to successful candidates in the preliminary examinations. Living in obscurity, you are not usefully employed [in the government]. While this occasionally brings pangs of regret, I most emphatically do not wish members of our family ever to hold high office again.

In some ways, this reminds me of the infamous rise and fall of the Heike family in 12th century Japan. The Heike, under Taira no Kiyomori, let power to go their heads and brought about their own ruin when the rival Genji opposed them.

However, unlike the Heike if Lady Hyegyeong’s account is accurate and her family was indeed innocent, their fall was due more to bitter rivalries in the Joseon Court, but their fall was no less tragic.

It also kind of reminds me of a quote from the book Dune Messiah:

Here lies a toppled god.
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.

The greater one’s rise, the greater the fall. 

1 Lady Hyegyeong’s father, Hong Ponghan, was executed after false charges were repeatedly brought to the court by rival factions over the death of Prince Sado. Her third brother, Hong Nagim, was similarly executed on separate charges of becoming a Catholic (illegal at the time in Joseon Dynasty Korea). In both cases, they were exonerated after death, but the damage had been done.

Life As A Princess in Joseon Korea

There is no tree that does not fall after ten blows. 

–Korean proverb,
Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong 

Hi Guys,

Lately, in addition to the usual Buddhist stuff, I’ve also been delving into a book I bought a while back, but had no opportunity to read until now: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. This book is a fascinating collection of memories by Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816) who was the wife of the infamous Prince Sado, son King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. I wrote about King Yeongjo in a previous post, but I didn’t delve much into the tragedy and madness of his son, the designated heir of the throne.

The Memoirs is divided into four memoirs at different stages in Lady Hyegyeong’s twilight years: 1795, 1801, 1802 and 1805. The first three focus on the innocence of the Hong family amidst the conspiracies in Court that led to the wrongful execution of her father and brother. They are pretty circumspect about Prince Sado’s madness and death. The prince was compelled by his father the King to climb into a tiny rice chest to die from suffocation and heat Confucian norms at the time for id any bloodshed of the Prince. Lady Hyegyeong was very attached to her husband, even after the tragic events, and evidentially didn’t stop caring for him long after he died. The 1805 memoir though goes into much more detail about the curcumstances leading up to Prince Sado’s demise. Decades after his death, it was still a taboo subject at court, so few other records from the time are available.  

The Memoirs are also interesting becausethey show life in the Joseon court, which was highly regulated by Neo-Confucian norms to the point that Court life became very rigid. It’s amazing the number of social rules, and how strict the rules of filial piety were. Even the calendar years were carefully organized along the sexagenary cycle imported from China, while advancement in Court often hinged on the Confucian civil service exams and intimate knowledge of the ancient Chinese classics.  

Finally, it’s fascinating to see how difficult life at the court was. Lady Hyegyeong had many obligations as a noble woman in the Confucian Joseon court, but to make matters worse, the throne was being torn apart by obnoxious infighting and factionalism. It’s amazing the lengths the different factions would go to undermine one another by manipulating the Confucian bureaucracy for revenge or gain.1  The factions themselves were often based on hair-splitting differences in interpretation of Neo-Confucianism and details about who should inherit the throne. Further there were power plays against Lady Hyegyeong by Prince Sado’s power-hungry sister Princess Hwawan and also from the rival Gyeongju Kim clan under one Kim Kwiju who sought to undermine Lady Hyegyeong’s venerable Pungsan Hong clan. Other, more obscure clans occasionally had vendettas against the Hong clan as well due to grievances in generations past. 

The proverb above was frequently quoted by Lady Hyegyeong to describe the relentless assault on her family.  Rivals in the Court would often fabricate charges of sedition against Lady Hyegyeong’s father and third brother which would tie up the legal system and cast their loyalty in doubt, even if proven innocent. Over the years, as the charges mounted, it was harder for King Jeongjo (Lady Hyegyeong’s son) to protect them from a hostile Confucian bureaucracy until they were eventually executed.   

As a 9 year old girl, who had to marry into Joseon Court and adjust to life there, it was a great shock and adjustment for her, and the Memoirs have her looking back on the frustrations, plots against her family and trauma she and those around here frequently underwent. It’s a fascinating, though frequently tragic read.

1 For reference, the Hong family was part of the “Noron” faction by Lady Hyegyeong’s admission in the 1801 memoir.

Appreciating Who You Are


Recently, my wife taught me a fun little Japanese proverb that I wanted to share:

Ten wa nibutsu wo ataezu

This means “Heaven does not grant two things”. Here the notion of Heaven is not the Judaeo-Christian notion, but rather the Confucian principle of order, creation and goodness in the Universe.

The meaning of this proverb though is that a person usually doesn’t have two talents, two virtues, etc. Everyone has something they are good at, or some good quality about them. The point here, though, isn’t to judge others but rather to appreciate what talents and virtues one does have, and to also be patient with the faults of others.1 There are many skills that one can learn in their lifetime, but it’s pretty unusual to meet someone who has two genuine talents, virtues, etc.

Anyhow, something cool to share. :-)

1 Better to focus on one’s own faults anyway. As the Analects of Confucius says:

[19:21] Zi Gong said: “The faults of the noble man are like the eclipses of the sun and moon— everyone sees them. But when he corrects them, everyone looks up to him.”

The Poetry of Li He

Hi Guys,

Lately, I’ve been reading a book on Chinese poetry from the late Tang Dynasty, which is one of the high points of Chinese history and culture.1 I wanted to share some poetry by a man named Li He (李賀, 790–816) which is written as “Li Ho” in some old sources.2 Li He was a short-lived poet who did at the age of 27, and having failed the Imperial Examinations. Nevertheless, he was a an influential poet who was then forgotten for centuries until the 1800’s when his poetry received a kind of revival.

One of my favorite poems is “On the Frontier”, translated by A.C. Graham:

A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind,
Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
The sky swallows the road to Kokonor.
On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.

The dew comes down, the banners drizzle,
Cold bronze rings the watches of the night.
The nomads’ armour meshes serpents’ scales.
Horses neigh, Evergreen Mound’s champed white.

In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
North of their tents is surely the sky’s end
Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.

According to Chinese tradition, when the Pleiades flickered, this was an omen of a barbarian invasion. Also according to the book, the Evergreen Mound was the grave site of a Chinese imperial concubine named Wang Zhao-jun who was betrothed to a Xiongnu (Tartar) warlord. It is said that grass always grows there on account of her tremendous beauty.

I’ll post more poetry soon. Enjoy!

1 It is almost a fascinating period to me because of the strong Buddhist influence, and its effect on other Asian countries at the time. Subsequent dynasties were also culturally brilliant, but had more influence from Neo-Confucianism, as did neighboring countries.

2 His name is pronounced like “Lee Huh”.

The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. 😉

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. :)

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same

Japanese Buddhist Memorial Objects


As part of my training for ordination as a Buddhist lay-minister, I am learning more about Buddhist funeral services and how things work. One of the things the minister showed me is memorial objects: objects used to commemorate the deceased, and pay respects.

People everywhere pay respects to the dead, but in East Asian culture, due to influence of Confucius, this is often more elaborate than Western culture. Buddhist religion in Japan has taken on the role of providing funeral services, so besides Confucian respect for the ancestors, there are a lot of Buddhist elements too.

Posthumous Name

In Japanese-Buddhism, when a lay-person dies, they are given a Buddhist name. This is usually called kaimyō (戒名, “precept name”) or sometimes hōmyō (法名, “Dharma name”).

From what I understand, in other Buddhist traditions such names are given when a person formally becomes a Buddhist disciple or becomes ordained. In Japan, lay people usually recieve a Buddhist name upon death. In any case, when someone receives a Buddhist name, it symbolizes a karmic connection with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The person is now formally part of the community, and has hope to someday cross the turbulent ocean of life and death, the ups and downs of life, to the shore of Enlightenment.

Different temples, different sects and different priests have their own methods for deciding a Buddhist name for someone who’s died, but it’s important that they get a name, because that is what gets inscribed on funeral tablets for the home altar.

Funeral Tablets

Funeral tables, or ihai (位牌) seem to come in a large variety. These are often placed in a Buddhist home altar near the central image of the Buddha. Sometimes people offer incense, prayers, food and so on, especially around Obon Season but also Ohigan and other such times.

These examples below are unused tablets that the minister showed me, and have no real names written on them. He gave permission to photograph.

This is the tablet people typically see:


The Buddhist name is written on the front in Chinese-calligraphy. Interestingly, for Japanese-Americans, the name is also translated on the reverse side into English or Romanized-Japanese (romaji):


Sometimes people also have boxes like this:


These can be used to store more than one tablet by removing the lid. Unlike the ihai tablets above, the tablets inside are much smaller and only sheets of wood, but as you can see here, they can be stacked behind one another like so:


This lets you rotate the tablets so that if you want to pay homage to a particular ancestor, you just move their “tablet” to the front and open the door. Maybe for a death anniversary or something.

Finally, relatives might keep a book of names like so:


On each page, the Buddhist-name of a deceased ancestor can be written here:


Why So Elaborate?

Western Buddhists, who are unfamiliar with these traditions, may be confused or offended, because they prefer Buddhism to have less ritual and less “cultural” influence.1 But I learned a lot about this years ago after my wife’s uncle died from leukemia. Years later, we visited his home in Tochigi Prefecture. It was my first visit. Like most Japanese home, his family had a small Buddhist altar, with a framed photo of my wife’s uncle. On that visit, even though years had passed, we lit a stick of incense in the family Buddhist altar, put our hands together and bowed our heads. Even now, when we visit, we still do this out of respect because his death was a tragic loss for the whole family. He was a highly respected man and a good father/husband.

We don’t usually do something this elaborate in American culture, so I was a bit confused at first, but once I got used to the process, it made a lot of sense. The uncle had been a positive influence. Years later, you can still feel a sense of loss. So, for Japanese culture, this is how people remember someone who passed, and Buddhism the religion helps provide a framework for doing this. Even for Japanese who are not religious, it helps bring them together to remember those who passed away.

It’s not unlike leaving flowers on a grave in Western culture, but that ritual is usually in a Christian/Jewish framework because people are culturally Judaeo-Christian. People in Japan are culturally Buddhist.

So, the religious aspect gives people a way to express their loss in a constructive way. People in every culture have felt loss of loved ones, but it’s interesting how religion is used to express this loss, and help remember the dead.

I hope to write more about this in the future as I continue training.

P.S. There’s a humorous site that let’s you randomly generate your own Japanese Buddhist name for funerals. It’s not

1 Ironically, American Buddhist-culture is really just Western-Protestant influenced Buddhism.

The Sage King Yeongjo of Korea

Korea-Yeongjo-King of Joseon-c1

Recently I finished and interesting book (started in Spring) titled The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yôngjo and the Politics of Sagacity. This book looks at the life of a certain Korean king named Yeongjo (1694-1776, 영조/英祖) of the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조,朝鮮王朝). The Joseon Dynasty was the longest-lasting Confucian kingdom in world history (605 years) and had many ups and downs.

Yeongjo was one of the most famous kings because he was very dedicated to Confucianism or yugyo (유교, 儒敎) and tried very hard to live like a “sage king”. He took Confucian teachings very seriously and tried to cultivate an image as a “virtuous” king. However, reality on the ground proved to be very different.

The Joseon Court had two main groups: the king and his close relatives, and the Confucian bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was made up of scholars called the sarim (사림, 士林). The bureaucracy was supposed to serve the king, manage all the day-to-day issues of government, and per Confucian tradition, was supposed to criticize the king if he made a bad decision.

However, Yeongjo became king under controversial conditions (his elder brother died suddenly, some people thought he was poisoned), and the court was divided into two political factions: the Soron (소론, 少論) who opposed Yeongjo and the Noron (노론, 老論) who favored Yeongjo. The problem was that both groups were constantly sabotaging one another, so it was hard to get anything done. Even though the Noron had protected Yeongjo and supported him as a king, they expected a lot of favors, and Yeongjo just wanted to rule fairly.

Yeongjo tried to rule using a policy called Tangpyeong (蕩平, 탕평) which mean “Great Harmony” so that both groups had equal treatment, and were expected to do their job well. Sometimes this worked, and fighting decreased, but extreme members of both factions still tried to stir up trouble, or rebellions.

Also, Yeongjo tried to fix the broken tax system, so that the elite yangban (양반, 兩班) class in Korea would pay taxes too. During that time, the government was severely in debt and many groups in society avoided taxes. However, the bureacracy members were all yangban families and of course opposed this. It took many, many years and very careful work, but eventually Yeongjo succeeded in fixing the tax system.

But the biggest problem for Yeongjo was his own son, Prince Sado. At the age of 27, King Yeongjo forced Prince Sado to get into a rice chest, and then locked the chest so that Prince Sado died 8 days later. The official records at that time are very vague about why this terrible thing happened.

The book looks at several different records and explains what happens like so: Prince Sado was born when the king was already pretty old. He had no other heirs, and so the king was very hopeful for his son to become a Confucian ruler like him. So, Yeongjo really pushed his son to work hard and study Confucian thought. At first this worked well, and Prince Sado was a bright and happy son.

However, this wasn’t good enough. Yeongjo pushed him so hard, that eventually Prince Sado became depressed and started neglecting his studies. This made Yeongjo criticize his son more. This became a cycle over the next 10 years or so, where Yeongjo kept pushing his son, and his son would fall short, become depressed and give up more. Based on the diary of Lady Hyegyeong, Prince Sado was so afraid of his father, that he would become very upset in the morning when he had to get dressed (and meet him), beat his servants and sometimes kill them.

Prince Sado’s mental health became worse and worse, and eventually he became a threat to everyone. However Confucian law prevented King Yeongjo from killing his son, so he forced him into a rice chest and locked it. After Prince Sado died, records were destroyed and people tried to forget it ever happened. Sado’s son (Yeongjo’s grandson) became the next king, Jeongjo, and was one of the best kings of the Joseon Dynasty.

Yeongjo’s reign was very, very difficult, but he was king for 50 years and did make some very positive changes to the Joseon Dynasty that helped it survive much longer. Plus, during his reign, the factional fighting was much less than past kings. Thus, despite the controversies, Yeongjo (and Jeongjo) are remembered fondly by Koreans today.

As for the book itself, it was a great read and indefinitely recommend it to anyone interested on Confucianism or Korean history.

Elitism in Buddhism, again

I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat…

–Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

After reading a post by the Angry Asian Buddhist, I found this article by Wired Magazine. It talks about the popularity of Buddhism in Silicon Valley, and some of the people who are involved in this movement.

While reading this article, I got really irritated. One the one hand, it’s great that people are using Buddhism to help manage stress, work with other people better, and be more mature. On the other hand, the movement feels very elitist to me. If you don’t have a nice job at Google or another tech company, you probably can’t access these kinds of teachings. What about the millions and millions of Americans who live in rural or poor-urban areas who cannot afford to meet teachers at Yoga centers, or afford to eat organic/vegan food, or pay membership at expensive Zen “centers”? There’s a big, big world outside of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

A while back while training in Phoenix, Arizona, I remember talking with one of the people who worked in a warehouse. She was a single mom, about the same age as me, and she worked two jobs to take care of her son. When I mentioned reading in my past-time, she joked that she had no time for past-times. But it’s not a joke. When I was a kid, my mother worked 2 jobs also so she could feed 3 kids. As a little kid, I remember being in the car with my mom and my younger sisters before sunrise, so she could deliver newspapers.

The idea of Buddhism as something “geeky” or something modern and scientific is kind of arrogant too. It implies that Buddhist geeks are somehow “smarter” than people around them, even smarter than other Buddhists. How can you say that, when there are so many good and genuine people out there who don’t have a college education? That’s why I referenced the quote above: people who believe they’re smarter and more progressive than others are usually just being aristocratic. Like the monk I mentioned in this post, there are a lot of good Buddhists out there in Asia and the West1 who don’t have flashy websites, conferences, podcasts or anything like that. What they do have is genuine heart.

But after reading this article, I remembered another point in history that looked like this: early Buddhism in China and later Japan.

When Buddhism first came to China, it was a foreign-imported religion. In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of China, Buddhist culture was very sophisticated. Many monks from India or Central Asia came, gave lectures, translated sutras, taught the latest practices and trained a lot of native Chinese monks. But this was mostly in the capitol of Chang-an (長安). People from elite families had many opportunities to learn from great Buddhist masters in India and such, but regular people at that time had little or not exposure. They followed more native Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism, etc).

Eventually, after the Tang Dynasty fell, many of these elite Buddhist societies disappeared too, but the Buddhist schools that had better support from regular people survived and became the Chinese Buddhism you see today.

The same story happens again later in Japan. In the Heian Period (平安時代), many wealthy families, especially the Fujiwara, could become Buddhist monks, or could afford to build and own Buddhist temples. When you read Lady Murasaki’s Diary, you get the impression that Heian Period Buddhism had many elaborate rituals and teachings, but only elite families in the capitol could afford to have these ceremonies, or participate. Many of these rituals were focused on material matters (safe birth, curing disease, power and wealth), in other words: happiness here and now.2

But when the Heian Period ended, many of these Buddhist groups declined too. The Hossō School (法相宗) used to be the most powerful school in Japan. They almost totally controlled the Buddhist institutions at the time, but now the school is very small. The Five Schools of Rinzai Zen (gozan, 五山) were very influential in the capitol in the Muromachi Period (室町時代), but now the temples are mostly tourism attractions now.

Instead, low-ranking monks, monks of common birth, eventually started newer schools in Japanese Buddhism and these schools are the ones that are most commonly seen in Japan today.

In the same way, when I see articles like this, I think that this kind of “aristocratic Buddhism” or elitist Buddhism in the West is a temporary thing. I believe such people are well-intentioned, but it’s flashy, it gets a lot of attention in the media and such, yet it’s not sustainable in the long-run. When tech companies fail, and the money dries up, where will these guys go? Who will buy their books or pay for their counseling services?

When my grand-kids or great-great-grand-kids are adults, I suspect that Buddhism will look different, more accessible, more diverse I hope.

1 Reverened “J.W.”, if you ever read this, I think you were a great minister.

2 Not unlike popular “self-help” books and teachers in the West, now.

Confucianism in a Nutshell

Lately, I’ve been reading a book about the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, which was the longest-lasting Confucian dynasty in Asian history. The book is called The Confucian Kingship in Korea. The opening paragraph does a really nice summary of Confucian thought, or jukyō (儒教) in Japanese or yugyo (유교) in Korean:

One of the keys to understanding the Confucian world view is the perception that Heaven is rational, that the universe is moral, that human reason is a sufficient instrument to fathom the divine, and that man can reproduce on earth the moral order immanent in the universe. The Confucian kingship was conceived in this framework. It sought divine ordination, but the ordination was conditional, not absolute, and subject to human appraisal. (pg. 1)

That’s the best summary I’ve ever read, I think. Personally, I am not sure I believe in a “rational” Heaven (or any heaven) or that human reason can fathom the divine, but it’s an interesting idea to ponder.

Confucius: Moderation is Key

Something cool that I read recently from the Analects of Confucius that I wanted to share:

[1:14] The Master said: “When the noble man eats he does not try to stuff himself; at rest he does not seek perfect comfort; he is diligent in his work and careful in speech. He avails himself to people of the Way and thereby corrects himself. This is the kind of person of whom you can say, ‘he loves learning.’”

I should pay attention to first part more. I think I would be more healthy and have less heartburn.😉