Still catching up on blog posts from our latest trip to Japan, but today I wanted to share some photos from the Great Buddha of Kamakura, or in Japanese Kamakura no Daibutsu (鎌倉の大仏).1 The Great Buddha is one of two major attractions in the old city of Kamakura, the other being the grand shrine of Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu (more on that in a later post). We came to Kamakura in late December during a late afternoon.
The Great Buddha was originally part of a temple called Kōtoku-in (高徳院), but that temple was swept away by a terrible tsunami in 1498 (mentioned in this blog post too), leaving only the bronze statue of Amitabha Buddha behind, the Buddha of Infinite Light. The current structure was built after this of course. This is near the front entrance of the premises, the Niō-mon Gate:
There is also a sign near the front entrance as shown below. Because it’s pretty far removed from walkway, it’s hard to get a good view of the sign without zooming in, so apologies for the poor quality photo:
Looking online, the message reads:
The antiquated English, and the heavy use of katakana (instead of hiragana) suggests that this sign was probably written in the early-modern Meiji Period, but that’s just a supposition on my part. Once you go past the sign, you will be greeted by the following:
Up close, the Buddha is definitely bigger than pictures suggest:
It’s hard to see from here, but the back of the statue contains some stairs where, prior to the pandemic, you can climb up inside the head. However, that is off-limits now.
The Great Buddha is also were I got my old Buddhist rosary way back in 2007 or so, and I picked up a new omamoricharm here:
Around the premises, they have a lot of nice gift shops and goods you can get there, plus lots of nice shops outside the presmises.
In short, it’s a great place to visit for half a day or so, whatsoever be thy creed.
1 This is to help distinguish it from the Great Buddha (daibutsu) in Nara, of course.
In the past couple of months, starting with the Beginner Box, I have been learning how to play Pathfinder, second edition, which came out in 2019. It is a successor to the original Pathfinder edition, which in turn was based on Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 through the Open Gaming License (the same one under attack recently by Wizards of the Coast).
Speaking from personal experience, Pathfinder has suffered from a bit of an image problem…
But I picked up the Core Rulebook lately, which has been a fun read. The artwork is top-notch, and the guide does a pretty careful job walking you through the rules. However, the sheer size of the rulebook makes it hard to mentally absorb all at once, so I found this excellent series of videos by Jason Buhlman, lead game designer, that walk through all the essential aspects of playing Pathfinder.
I enjoyed this series, and it really helped the rules Pathfinder 2e “gel” in my mind. It also made it easier to go back and make sense of the text in Core Rulebook without having to reread multiple times.
So, I went ahead and made a first-time character to get used to the new ruleset: Tharivol a Wood Elf Druid. Pathfinder does not yet have an equivalent online character sheet storage system like D&D Beyond, but it has been fun to make on paper.
Transitioning from D&D
But, what’s it like going from Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, which I have played since 2017, to Pathfinder 2nd edition?
Mechanically speaking, many of the rules, especially combat rules, make a lot more sense in Pathfinder than they did in 5e. The feel is more or less the same, but when you get into the grey areas, the Pathfinder approach often makes more sense, and there’s usually a contingency for everything a player wants to do. Some rules look more familiar to old time players like me (for example the spell “slots”) who played older editions, others look like fresh design improvements over older games. It’s an interesting mix of complexity with novelty.
Weapons also make more sense. For example, I complained previously about the lack of Asian-style mundane items, weapons and magic items in 5th edition and I was surprised to find, for example katana weapon stats in Pathfinder right in the Core Rulebook. This means, my old elf-samurai character, if adapted for Pathfinder, would probably look a bit more realistic (as much as fantasy elves in a Japanese-style setting would 😅…) than before.
Speaking of character creation the Pathfinder system relies less on character “tracks” to follow as one levels up, and more on a kind of buffet where one picks feats over time. Sometimes, the feat choices and skill increases are limited in scope, but you still usually have room to choose. This makes it hard to create the same character twice, and means each one will have a bit more individuality.
In the Advanced Player’s Guide and Lost Omens: Ancestry Guide there are quiet a few more character races and classes to choose from beyond the Core Rulebook. I was surprised to see a more diverse set of options. My son who is half-Japanese, was excited to be able to play a Japanese-style kitsune (fey fox) character, for example.
Even the human characters, unlike 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, get a lot of attention and care and are a lot more compelling to play. The artwork alone depicting humans in Pathfinder is amazingly diverse and fascinating. Take a look at a couple pages from the Lost Omens: Character Guide…
Holy cow, the amazing detail and artwork really brings the various cultures of Pathfinder to life, and makes it much easier to find cultures you can identify with. Paizo really needs to pat itself on the back for this effort. Speaking of artwork, the Lost Omens Travel Guide is simply amazing. The Guide is written as a travel guide for players who might venture in the default setting of Absalom and surrounding areas, but provides amazing detail about everything from fashion, to card games, and even recipes that you can try out in real life.
Speaking of which, the fact that Pathfinder is not limited to hardcover books (which are fairly expensive) and openly available online through PDFs, or just through official reference sites makes a lot of this easy to fit your budget level. You can start as you are and learn pretty quickly and cheaply, but if you’re like me and like physical books, you can easily order those either through your local game store or directly through paizo.com.
For all these wonderful aspects of Pathfinder, there is one area I have personally been frustrated and that’s the world building and lore.
A lot of the familiar old settings that I knew from Dungeons and Dragons, such as Eberron and Barovia, both of which predate 5th edition, simply don’t exist in Pathfinder. There are probably good reasons for this due to licensing issues, intellectual property, and so on, but the loss is definitely felt. Fan created conversions for such settings do exist, but they ran the gamut in terms of support and quality. It would have been nice if Pathfinder had found a way to provide more official versions that were maybe similar to the D&D settings, but obviously not carbon copies. Such things may exist, but it’s a bit hard to sift through all the different adventure packs and settings that are printed already.
It isn’t all that hard for an enterprising DM to also just convert 5th edition settings into Pathfinder ones, but I do miss being able to just have the reference books handy, for lore if nothing else. Pathfinder focuses on the Lost Omens setting as its introductory setting, and if you played 5th edition, this will feel in some ways like the classic Forgotten Realms Sword Coast. Beyond that though, things get a bit muddier in terms of lore that’s familiar to old D&D players.
In short, compared to Dungeons and Dragons, I have found that Pathfinder has more to learn up front due to slightly more complicated rulesets, and the vast array of books that Paizo has printed for 2nd edition already in the last 3-4 years. But Paizo recognizes this and provides a number of choices and options to help ease the transition. It took me about 2-3 weeks reading Core Rulebook and watching the videos in my spare time, but once I got past that initial hurdle, the rest of Pathfinder 2nd edition just made sense.
I’ve played a bit with my kids, but I would like to find other groups to play in the near future, but as with any TTRPG, finding players is…. challenging.
In any case, Pathfinder is dynamic, exciting and has a lot of offer. They are hungry for customers and are making great efforts to help educate people, and stay responsive to their needs. Where 5th edition has lost its luster for me, Pathfinder is a lot more exciting and compelling.
Of course I still enjoy 5th edition, and it has a lot of memories for me and the kids, but it also feels increasingly like it’s run it’s course, the corporate greed has homogenized the game to the point of being moribund.
Soon after I wrote this post, I was reminded of a certain Zen aphorism in Japanese: 日日是好日 which is read as nichi nichi kore kō nichi.
This usually translates as “every day is a good day”, or “each day is a good day” or other such things. It is originally attributed to a Chinese Zen monk named Yunmen Wenyan from the 9th and 10th centuries.
At first glance, this seems like a positive affirmation of life. This is the sort of thing you might see from life-coaches, self-help gurus, posters, daily affirmations, songs, and so on. Live, laugh, love and all that.
But that kind of attitude and outlook is only useful for financially stable, healthy, affluent people living in stable countries. It’s pretty useless for people who live in difficult circumstances, working thankless, dead-end jobs, dying from pneumonia, or suffering from abuse. If you’re a child in Syria who has lost their parents during the recent earthquakes, the “live, laugh, love” phrase rings pretty hollow.
A while back, I wrote about similar issues with Seneca’s philosophical teachings. The Stoic teachings which Seneca espoused basically amounted to “suck it up” and “don’t be sad”, which is fine when you’re a Roman senator, but not too useful for the Roman slave working the fields.
In fact, for most people in the world, most days are varying degrees of shitty.
Life is a slog; First Noble Truth of Buddhism right there.
So, is there any value or meaning to Yunmen Wenyan’s famous phrase? I think so.
This is strictly my own interpretation, so please take with it a grain of salt. This morning, I had to step outside in the early morning and I beheld the sunrise. It is cold, it is early March, it is still dark outside, yet I saw the sun rising, and birds flying past it. I was glad to see it, to be breathing and savoring that moment.
Life is bittersweet. It is full of pain, loss, frustrations, and unfulfilled needs. It doesn’t necessarily get better, but it does carry on. Each moment of breath is still worth it. If you can share it with others, so much the better. But even if not, each moment is still worth something.
This is, I believe, what Yunmen Wenyan might have been saying to us, even when it gets lost in translation.
Although I have happily taken up with a local Soto Zen group in my area, one of the first challenges I’ve noticed is that the group is probably 99% white, and have little or no knowledge of Japanese culture or language, despite the tradition they’ve inherited. This came into stark view when one the teachers, a very nice elderly man, proudly showed some Zen calligraphy that his teacher had composed for him. I could read it, but when I explained how it’s read in Japanese, he simply gave me a confused look.
Further, another peculiarity is that we almost always recite Buddhist liturgy in English. Hearing the Four Bodhisattva Vows chanted in English frankly feels a bit odd to me, though I have gotten used to it. Teachers also frequently mispronounce basic Japanese-Buddhist terms, which is a bit grating for a language student myself.
But then I started thinking about it: am I right to criticize the lack of grounded tradition, or am I just being a Japan-snob? Am I just nit-picking a bunch of minor things while ignoring the positives?
First, I admit I am a giant Buddhist-Japan nerd. I’ve devoted a significant chunk of my life to these two subjects, written more than one blog about it over the span of 15 years, read countless books and updated more than a few articles on Wikipedia. So, my perception of things may be rather skewed. It’s like one of those snobs in a sushi restaurant who insists that “it tasted better in Tokyo”. That’s me sometimes. I have to occasionally stop and remind myself “dude, you’re a huge nerd”.
Further, the Buddha in his own time, taught his disciples in the vernacular languages of the time (Pāli being a kind of lingua franca back then) and encouraged his disciples to continue teaching in whatever local languages were suitable. There was no “holy language” or “liturgical language” in the early Buddhist community. In fact the Buddhist teachings weren’t preserved in Sanskrit, by this point a literary language in India, until centuries later.
So, reciting Buddhist liturgy such as the Heart Sutra or the Four Bodhisattvas in English, even when it sounds a bit clunky, is both practical for disciples in the US, and less intimidating for new students. Expecting students especially new students, to know what Sino-Japanese (Classical Chinese preserved with Japanese pronunciation) is is admittedly unrealistic.
I suppose this is like liturgical language in Christianity. A pious person might wish to read the words of Jesus in the Bible in the original Koine Greek. A lot of Christians wouldn’t necessarily devote the time to do this, but they still go on to be pious, god-fearing Christians. Different people express their faith in different ways.
In the same way, I consider myself a pious Buddhist, so for me, studying and reciting the sutras as they are best preserved, in Classical Chinese, makes sense. Maybe it’s not for other people though. So, when you think about it, who am I judge other Buddhists based on their grasp of other languages?
Still, in spite of all this, the one thing that continues to bother me is the lack of appreciation for, and shallow understanding of, the tradition that we white Buddhists have inherited. When I read Xuanzang’s lament about the state of Buddhism in China at the time in the 8th century, and the need to go all the way India to bring more teachings and knowledge, I empathize with this.
Buddhist immigrant communities here have maintained a continuous, unbroken tradition from the beginning, passing from generation to generation, in spite of discrimination and challenges adapting to a new culture. By contrast, a lot of start-up Buddhist communities in the US feel somehow half-baked: people trying to imitate “how things are done in Asia”, but there are just some things that can’t be transmitted through books sold at Barnes and Noble. Sometimes those “cultural accretions” that white Buddhists gripe about in their quest for “pristine Buddhism” exist for perfectly good reasons, and enrich the tradition, not detract from it. The problem is when white Buddhists don’t understand something and just write it off as unnecessary. I used to do this too when I first met my wife, now I see things pretty differently.
I was prompted to write about this after an acquaintance told me recently that they used to go to the same community “for the meditation”, and had since moved on to transcendental meditation. That was disappointing thing to hear, and makes me question her motives in the first place. It’s frustrating to hear things like this.
Then again, when I am in Japan and I visit a famous historical site, knowing the history of it, and the dramatic events that happened there, and yet others shrug it off, it frustrates me too. So, sometimes I really think this is just a bunch of snobbery and all in my head.
However, setting aside my self-centered and selfish feelings on the subject, I do think that’s important to keep sharing information, translating things as best as I can, and bridging the cultural gaps. If Buddhism continues to prosper in the West, and beyond, then things will look very different from now, and hopefully more mature (not to mention diverse) too. The little seeds we plant now can have big effects for others we will never see.
P.S. The second chapter of the Lotus Sutra has a verse related to this:
In Chinese-Buddhist literature, the influential treatise Cheng Wei Shi Lun (成唯識論) contains the following quote, translated in the book Living Yogacara:1
Polishing their minds, the courageous do not waver.
trans. Professor A. Charles Muller
This treatise was written by the famous Chinese monk, Xuanzang (玄奘), whom I talked about recently. From his journeys in India, Xuanzang brought back considerable information and texts to help the Yogacara Buddhism tradition flourish in China, along with many other important Buddhist texts and observations. Upon his return he wrote extensively and translated many works with Imperial support.
The Cheng Wei Shi Lun, is one of the foundational texts for East Asian Yogacara thought including the descendant Hossō school in Japan, and the treatise is quoted multiple times in Living Yogacara.
When I read this passage, I feel it is an encouragement for people who walk the Buddhist path. Life really can bring you down, and when you’re tired and exhausted, it is so easy to want to backslide and wallow in self-pity or take the low-road which is so much easier up front.
However, every action and thought committed “perfumes the mind” in Yogacara-speak, and its important to bear this in mind. There’s no such thing as a free lunch,2 so every deed or intention has its price, and the only way to break free from the constant up and down cycle, the constant upkeep, is to purify the mind once and for all, bit by bit. As the Yogacara school of thought teaches that Enlightenment takes 3 massive eons to complete (literally “three asaṃkhya kalpa”), it’s a gradual process. However, in Buddhism there is a lovely passage from the Immeasurable Life Sutra that I was also contemplating lately:
“At that time the Buddha Lokeshvararaja recognized the Bhiksu Dharmakara’s noble and high aspirations, and taught him as follows: ‘If, for example, one keeps on bailing water out of a great ocean with a pint-measure, one will be able to reach the bottom after many kalpas and then obtain rare treasures. Likewise, if one sincerely, diligently and unceasingly seeks the Way, one will be able to reach one’s destination. What vow is there which cannot be fulfilled?’
Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily, and hence Xuan-Zang’s statement that the courageous do not waver. They have everything to gain in the process.
Recently, I was reading a couple old-school fantasy novels set in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons: Horselords and Dragonwall. These novels, part of the Empires trilogy, revolve around a fantasy re-telling of the Mongol invasion of Song-Dynasty China.
Dragonwall, in particular, centered on the fictional land of Shou Lung, an analog to Imperial China, and introduced a lot of aspects of Chinese culture, such as Chinese military weapons and armor. The challenge was that these were not always explained and so, I found myself wondering what this sword was, or that piece of armor.
For example, a type of Chinese sword called a chien was frequently mentioned but I had trouble visualizing what it was, so I tried to use Wikipedia. There, the sword is listed as jian, not chien.
Which spelling is correct? In a way, both. In a way, neither.
Welcome to the challenges of expressing Chinese language using the Roman alphabet!
In native Chinese, the jian/chien is written as 劍 or 剑 in Simplified Chinese. . A native speaker probably can read this and know exactly what it means, how it is pronounced, etc. If you are a native English speaker, though, and don’t know Chinese, how do you write 劍/剑 in a way that other native English speakers can understand?
This is a surprisingly tricky issue, and not just limited to Chinese-English. Transliterating words in one language to another is always tricky.
Anyhow, there have been a few attempts to solve this issue of transliterating Chinese to English over the years, and Wikipedia has a very extensive article on the subject, but today we’ll focus on the two most common: Wade-Giles and Pinyin.
Wade-Giles is the older of the two systems, and was the most popular system until the late 20th century, and as a system it is vaguely based on the system used for writing Ancient Greek using the Latin alphabet. Since Ancient Greek had the notion of “rough breathing” as opposed to “smooth breathing” (there was no distinct letter “H” in Greek), apostrophes were used to help distinguish them.
In the same way, letters in Chinese such as “ch” and “j” were distinguished using an apostrophe. Thus “ch’ien” and “chien” would be different. The first uses the English “ch” sound (as in “chop”), while the second uses a “j” sound (as in “jot”). Another example is “t’” versus “t”, as in t’ong versus tong. The first is a hard “t” sound, the second is more like “d”.
If this seems confusing, believe me, it is. Another confusion happens with vowels. The letter “u” is pronounced more like “oh”, whereas “ü” is more like “oo”. Thus, using an example from Wikipedia, the word “k’ung” is pronounced as “kohng”, and “yü” as “yoo”.
Wade-Giles had been the de-facto system for so long, that a lot of English literature that uses Chinese names and words (including my D&D novels above) continues to use it even though it’s frankly pretty antiquated. Wade-Giles is easier to learn upfront because it looks more like natural English, but it uses a confusing system to represent Chinese sounds, and therefore it’s easier misread. Just remember sounds with apostrophes versus sounds without is confusing enough.
The other system that’s increasingly in use, and frankly better in my opinion, is the Hanyu Pinyin (or “pinyin”) system. This system requires more work upfront, but provides a more consistent experience because what you see is what you get.
For example, each consonant sound is expressed only one, distinct way. In the “ch’” versus “ch”, pinyin expresses these as “ch” and “j” which is definitely more intuitive. Similarly, “t” versus “d” is pretty straightforward.
Vowels are where pinyin becomes tricky because Latin has only 5 letters to express vowel sounds, and Chinese (just like English) has a lot more than 5 vowel sounds. Unlike ancient Latin which differentiated “I” (as in “fish”) versus “Ī” (as in “ring”), English lost the diacritics and so the sounds just double-up on the same letters.
To work around this, Pinyin uses consonant-vowel combinations to make this work. “Chi” expresses the sound “chih” which rhymes with “fish”. By contrast, “Qi” expresses the sound “chee” as in “cheese”. In the same way “zhi” sounds like “jury” without the y, and “ji” sounds like “jee” as in “jeans”.
The vowel “e” is tricky too since it sounds like “uh” as in “done”. So the surname Cheng does not rhyme with “send”, it rhymes with “sung”.
So, whereas Wade-Giles relies on consonants and apostrophes to express sounds, Pinyin relies on consonant-vowel combinations.
Both systems, like every other attempt at romanization, are imperfect efforts. This is not a fault of the creators of these systems though: transliterating languages is always tricky.
However, of the two systems, I find Pinyin more intuitive overall once you get past the initial hurdles. You don’t have to worry about apostrophes, and most consonants are just more intuitive to read.
Unfortunately, due to cultural inertia, you’ll still find Chinese words expressed through the Wade-Giles system in all sorts of unexpected places.
P.S. if you think Chinese romanization is confusing, wait until you see Korean romanization.
P.P.S. If you’re wondering how good the books are, that’s a subject for an upcoming post. 😏
As of writing it is the month of March, or in the traditional calendar of Japan, the month of Yayoi (弥生, “new life”). We frequently get certain Buddhist-themed calendars from Japan every year due to my wife’s family’s connections, in particular the Honobono calendar series.
In addition to the terrific artwork, each month has some bit of Buddhist wisdom on the right hand side. This month’s is the following text:
What this is basically saying is that through their children, parents learn to be parents. In a positive sense, this means that both parent and child grow together.
Parents can learn a lot about themselves from their kids, even when this is not always pleasant. It forces us to confront some petty and selfish aspects of ourselves, but if we reflect on it, we can grow too, just like our kids. I know from personal experience, when my firstborn daughter was 3 months old, I made a resolution to uphold the Buddhist teachings a lot more, especially the Five Precepts, and stop being such an immature, man-child. This process for growth took many twists and turns, but I like to think that I did grow as a person through my own kids.
Compare this to a well-known proverb in Japanese: kodomo wa oya no kagami (子供は親の鏡) meaning that children are a mirror of their parents. The latter though, tends to have a more practical, negative explanation why some kids are just poorly raised: it reflects their parents’ lack of maturity and poor personalities.
One of the most important figures in Buddhism and East Asian history, arguably, is also one of the least known outside of some cultural circles. I am talking about a famous Chinese monk named Xuan-zang (玄奘, 602 – 664).1 Recently, I found an old, but fascinating book on my shelf I had forgotten about, titled The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang. This book tells the story of Xuanzang as a young monk who decided to journey to India to see historical land of the Buddha.
Why would he do this? In his own words:
But journeying from China to India can’t be all that hard, right?
In fact, it was extremely difficult and dangerous, and a big reason why getting Buddhism to China was such a big deal in the first place. First, one has to…
The so-called “silk road” between China and India was not a simple road that people could just traverse, but a series of inter-connected trade routes, and due to the harsh climate and difficult environments, also a very dangerous one. Powerful steppe warrior tribes, not unlike the Scythians, dominated much of these no-mans-lands, and were fickle with whom they protected and supported.
While in India, Xuanzang journeyed to many areas. Among other things, he beheld the giant Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (now destroyed), visited the Jeta Grove where the Buddha frequently resided with his followers, and many of the great cities along the Ganges River before residing at Nalanda University for some time.
Technically Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to accomplish this. Another monk named Faxian (法顯, 337 – 422)2 was the first of several. Faxian stayed only in the northern part of India, then took a ship back to China. Xuanzang journeyed all over India, studied at the famous Nalanda University (coincidentally mentioned in the BBC recently) and then walked all the way back too. The trip took a total of 11 years. When Xuanzang returned to China, he was feted by the Emperor and was given a team of translators and scholars to help translate and compile all the texts he brought back. This led to an explosion of information for the Chinese Buddhist community and helped the Yogacara school gain deeper roots in East Asian Buddhism which we stillbenefit from today. Much of these records were gradually lost in India, but preserved in China thanks to people like Xuanzang.
One other historical note here, when Faxian came to India, Buddhism was still a prosperous religion, but when Xuanzang visited centuries later, it was clearly declining in some areas, and slowly being replaced with the Hindu religion we know today.3 Some Buddhist monasteries he encountered still maintained certain practices but no longer understood why. Other monasteries still survived as great centers of learning, with others were completely deserted. It’s not surprising then, centuries later, when Turko-Afghan warriors invaded India and established a Sultanate, Buddhist institutions were easily swept aside.
One thing that’s often overlooked is the language barrier. Chinese language and Sanskrit (as well as spoken Prakrits) are miles apart. They have no common linguistic ancestry. The effort to translate old Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese during the Tang Dynasty had been a major undertaking and required multiple efforts to properly refine the translation. But Chinese Buddhist monks who could actually speak Sanskrit or any Indian language would have been very rare indeed. Xuanzang must have relied on translators, or somehow learned to speak it well enough to survive so long in India. That invaluable ability to speak it fluently would have been very helpful on his return trip when he translated the volumes of texts he brought back to China.
Also, keep in mind that translating concepts such as the phenomena of the mind is much, much harder than translating, say, a shopping list. This was an extremely challenging undertaking.
Xuanzang’s adventure became the inspiration for a 16th-century Chinese novel called “Journey to the West” (西遊記). This Chinese novel was hugely popular, and you can often see movies and dramas about it both in China and Japan. In Japan, it’s called saiyūki. When my wife and I were first married, we enjoyed watching the 2006 drama with SMAP’s Kattori Shingo as the lead actor. We also have an kid’s manga version Japanese for our son. Even the image of Goku from Dragon Ball takes some influences from Journey to the West (a simian-like being riding a cloud, for example).
The book is a fantastic overview of many places along the Silk Road, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and India that Xuanzang saw and wrote about, and are only dimly understood by Westerners. In many places where the US has been involved in overseas conflicts, it’s simply amazing how much history has been there, and how many different feet have tread upon that ground, including monks like Xuanzang and earlier by the Bactrian Greeks of Alexandar the Great.
In any case, I’ve always been a big fan of Xuanzang, and I feel he deserves a lot more recognition in history. So, to help readers remember who he was, I made a song about him based on the original Spiderman theme song ( original lyrics):
♫ Xuanzang-man, Xuanzang-man.
Does whatever a Buddhist can
Goes around, anywhere,
Catches sutras just like flies.
Here comes the Xuanzang-man.
Is he tough?
Listen bud— He walked the whole way there.
Can he cross a de-sert?
Take a look over there.
There goes the Xuanzang-man.
In the chill of the night,
At the Roof of the World,
He crossed a ravine,
Using only a chain bridge!
Friendly neighborhood Xuanzang-man.
Wealth and fame, he’s ignored— Wisdom is his reward.
To him, Life is a great illusion—
Wherever there’s a stupa,
You’ll find the Xuanzang-man!♫
Try it out a few times. A few parts of the wording are a bit awkward, so I probably need to work on it some more.
1 Pronounced like “Shwan Tsahng”. In Japanese, the same name is pronounced as Genjō.
2 Pronounced like “Fa Shien”.
3 A common misconception is that Buddhism arose from Hinduism, but this is inaccurate. Buddhism and Hinduism both have a common cultural ancestor in the ancient religion of the Vedas. Buddhism ultimately rejected the deistic religion of the Vedas and its veneration of the early gods, relegating them to secondary status, but Hinduism embraced it and gave it much more philosophical weight. Hinduism as we know it simply didn’t exist, and the religion of the Vedas was more similar to, say, ancient Greek religion around the Olympian gods.
Recently, I alluded to joining a local Soto Zen group and deepening my practice there. I am happy to report that after several weeks, I finally decided to formally join the community as a member. Thus, I guess I am now a student of Soto Zen.1 It is kind of exciting to be part of a Buddhist community again after years of isolation, but also a bit of an adjustment since I’ve been doing things a different way for a very, very long time.
As part of this I wanted to get familiar with the yearly liturgy of the Soto Zen tradition. To my surprise, the local community seemed to not follow this yearly calendar, but I guess it’s up to each follower, and each community to apply this calendar as much possible.2
Anyhow, I think it’s helpful to get familiar with the calendar of events not just to have a foundation in one’s life and practice, but also to stay connected with the much larger community. So, for that reason I’m posting the yearly event calendar here for readers. Many of these holidays line up with other Buddhist traditions in Japan, and I’ve already talked about them in other blog posts, while a few are exclusive to Soto Zen only. For those events, I’ll try to provide a summary below for additional clarity.
The Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra requires some explanation. The Sutra is not one Buddhist text, but a collection of sutras that appeared in India starting in the 1st century CE. Each of these “great perfection of wisdom” sutras (e.g. prajña-paramita in Sanskrit) basically teaches the same message, but each version was composed in varying sizes: 8,000 verses, 15,000 verses, 25,000 verses, etc. The trend happens in reverse too: some versions get shorter and shorter.
The more well-known sutras, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, are both thought to be further summations of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and due to their slimmer size, and easier recitation have retained more popularity over time.
Nevertheless, regardless of which version we’re talking about, the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra is a powerful foundation for Mahayana Buddhist traditions everywhere, including the Zen tradition. Thus, many traditions have some kind of “sutra reading” ceremony.
Because the sutra is so large, it’s impractical to read/recite the entire sutra in a single session, so the ceremony usually involves Buddhist monks opening each fascicle and fanning through the pages to symbolize reading it. It’s a very formal ceremony. You can see an example of this below, though I am unclear which Buddhist sect this is:
English-language copies of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra are very hard to find.
I consider myself very lucky to find a copy of the 8,000-verse sutra at Powell’s City of Books some years back (that bookstore is amazing by the way), but most Zen communities in the West can’t be expected to have such a copy. And, in my opinion, since the Heart Sutra is a summation of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra anyway, it makes sense for most Zen practitioners to simply recite the Heart Sutra as appropriate. In the Youtube video above, the monks also recite the Heart Sutra at one point too.
Dual Founders Memorial
Soto Zen is somewhat unusual in Japan for having two founders, not one. The whole sect-founder-practice dynamic is something unique to Japanese Buddhism anyway,3 but in any case, usually each recognized sect in Japan has a single founder.
Normally, Westerners when they think of Soto Zen in Japan, they think of Dogen as the founder since he was the one who traveled to Song-Dynasty China, studied Caodong-sect Zen teachings, and brought those back.4 The challenge is that during this time, Soto Zen was a strictly monastic institution that had minimal appeal to the wider Japanese society.
Keizan, who came a few generations later, reinvented Soto Zen as an institution that had more broad appeal. It was still centered around the monastic institution, but also included more community connections to the warrior samurai class and the peasantry as well. For this reason, Keizan is considered the second founder.
In any case, during formal ceremonies, a Soto Zen text, the ryōsokisho (両祖忌疏) is read aloud, which describes the virtuous life of both founders through the use of Chinese-style poetry.
Within the world of Zen, Bodhidharma is a guy who needs no introduction. This semi-legendary monk from India supposedly came to China in the 4th century, and helped establish the lineage there, and subsequently all such lineages through East Asia.
The historicity of Bodhidharma though is pretty suspect, and some historians contend that he was made up in order to refute criticism that Zen had no prior connection to Buddhism in India.
But whether he was real or not, he is the embodiment of Buddhism (particularly Zen) passing the torch from the community in India to the community in China and beyond.
End Of Year Temple Bell Ringing
The “joya” tradition is found across all Buddhist sects in Japan, and is a way of ringing in the new year. I took part in it once myself at a local Jodo Shu temple thanks to my father-in-laws connections.
The temple bell, or bonshō (梵鐘), is run 108 times, to signify the 108 forms of mental delusions (kleshas in Sanskrit) that all sentient beings carry with them. Things like anger, jealousy, covetousness, envy, ill-will, etc.
When I did it ages ago, this particular temple lined 108 volunteers up, and one by one we filed to the temple bell and rang it. As the temple bell is very large, and the striker is a large wooden log suspended by rope, this wasn’t easy, but it was cool.
Obviously, many communities in the West don’t have huge temple bells, and only tiny ones at home at their home altar. Still, one can relive the experience using a small bell, such as one found on your Buddhist altar, and ringing it 108 times (Buddhist rosaries can help keep count, by the way; that’s literally what they’re for), or some division of 108 if that’s not easy: 54, 27, etc.
The liturgical calendar of Soto Zen, as promulgated by the home temples in Japan, includes a lot of holidays that are practiced by the wider Mahayana Buddhist tradition anyway, plus a few novelties found only in Japan, or even just in Soto Zen itself.
Outside of Japan, how one incorporates this into one’s own community, or just in one’s personal life is entirely up to them. Personally, I like having a set calendar like this to keep me from getting too idle, but also as a way to tie in to the larger Buddhist community as a whole. However, others preferences may differ.
Good luck and happy practicing!
Namu Amida Butsu
1 I should clarify that I haven’t stopped reciting the nembutsu and such, I just feel I moved onto the next phase of my Buddhist practice.
2 I have noticed over the years that communities here in the West are more or less connected to the home temple overseas. Some strive to stay in lock-step, some go the opposite route. I have mixed feelings on the subject.
3 TL;DR – The Edo Period government decided to divide-and-conquer previously militarized Buddhist establishments into distinct sects, where each one required to define their founder, their particular practice, and key sutras they base their teachings around. This led to the parochial style Buddhist institutions that still exist today, but also bucked the trend in continental East Asia where Buddhist sects tended to synthesize into a single “super-Buddhist” tradition.
4 Fun fact: the “Soto” is just the Japanese-style reading of Cao-dong: 曹洞. For a look at how Japan imported Chinese characters, and why they sound so different, you can watch this Youtube video. I have personal quibbles about some details, but it’s otherwise a great historical overview.
There’s a good chance that if you ever visited Tokyo, you’ve been to this place:
This place is Asakusa Temple, or in Japanese Asakusa-dera, though more formally known as Sensōji. The Chinese characters 浅草寺 can be read either way. This is a temple formerly of the Tendai sect that has been a part of Tokyo since at least the 9th century and is centered around a statue of the BodhisattvaKannon said to have washed up on the shore one day. The homepage (English available) is here.
Asakusa Temple is simultaneously a giant tourist-trap and a great experience. I have visited the temple 3-4 times since 2009 and it is always worth it. I have included photos from various trips below.
The first thing people will see is the famous Kaminari-mon Gate (雷門, “the lightning gate”) with its massive red lantern, flanked by two guardian Buddhist deities, the Niō. If you pass through the gate, or on your way out, you may notice the reverse:
The lantern on the back instead reads Fūraijinmon (風雷神門) or the Gate of the Wind and Thunder god.
Once you pass through the gate, you will see a huge, long walkway: the Nakamise-dōri (中店通り):
This is not the temple proper. This is a large number of very crowded street stalls selling all kinds of wares: some focused on foreign tourists, and some focused more on native Japanese visitors. You can find all kinds of things here. In our most recent trip, we found some excellent shichimi spice with yuzu flavor added. Goes really well in soups. You can probably spend half a day here. Just beyond these shops, to the left and right, are various restaurants, against catered toward either native Japanese or foreign tourists. We ate at this place during our last trip:
In any case, once you go all the way past the shops, you can get to the temple proper:
A pagoda, or gojū no tō (五重塔) in Japanese, is something adapted from Chinese culture and is meant to represent the ancient Buddhist stupas in India: storehouses for relics of the Buddha.
The temple gate itself, called the Hōzōmon (宝蔵門, “treasure [of the Dharma] storehouse gate”) sports a similarly large red lantern:
Past this second gate you are now at the temple proper. There is a large, outdoor charcoal brazier with incense sticks burning here. Per Buddhist tradition, you can purify yourself (ablution) before seeing the Bodhisattva by waving some of the incense smoke over you. Once ready, you then proceed to the main hall (honden 本殿):
If you look up as you pass this lamp, you’ll also see the underside has a neat dragon pattern on it:
Since the temple itself is devoted to the Bodhisattva Kannon, you will see it enshrined at the central altar:
The statue itself is hidden behind the red screen, but is flanked by two other statues denoting the Indian gods Brahma and Indra as guardians. Also, if you pay attention, you’ll notice this mark both on the red screen and above:
This is the Sanskrit letter “sa” written in old Siddham script as 𑖭, and is used to represent Kannon. It also represents the Sanskrit word satya (“truth, virtue, etc”). There is also a really large grilled wooden box in front, and that is where you can put in a donation. Per tradition, people often put in a ¥5 yen coin (go-en-dama) due to word-play that implies fostering a karmic-bond with the bodhisattva.
Note that if you go left of the main hall, there’s several other things to note. First is the koi pond and bridge:
There’s also a place here where you can draw your fortune (omikuji). This year, I drew a bad fortune (凶 on the upper left):
Per tradition, if you get a bad fortune, you’re supposed to tie it up on a small wire fence nearby, so the bad luck “stays there”, and does not follow you.
The Yogodo Hall is a commemorative hall to mark the 1,200th anniversary of the Tendai monk Ennin, who was a pivotal figure in the early Japanese Tendai tradition, and still crucial to the growth and development of the tradition. Side note, the term yōgō (影向) is a Buddhist term of the temporary manifestation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva or other divinity in the world for the benefit of beings. This is probably meant to be a form of praise to Ennin, implying that he had been a temporary manifestation of a Buddhist figure.
There are several other halls I’ve managed to overlook each time I visit, but a full map of the site in English can be found here.
In any case, it’s interesting to look back on my old photos and reflect on how much has changed (phone camera technology, for example 😉 ), and how much has remained the same at Sensoji…
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