Christmas Takoyaki

While I am still on my last day of quarantine in the den, trying to keep myself busy, my wife and kids are celebrating the Christmas season why decorating a gingerbread, and making takoyaki:

Takoyaki (たこ焼き, “cooked octopus”) is a Japanese food that originates from the Kansai area (think Osaka and Kyoto) of Japan, and is hard to explain in English. If you tell someone that this is “cooked octopus balls”, it doesn’t sound very appetizing, the problem is the translation.

Takoyaki are small pastry-like things with a small sliver of octopus in there (like sushi), and cooked on special griddles that allow you to flip the little pastry balls when you need to:

Takoyaki at the Richmond Night Market, photo by SqueakyMarmot, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We have a small griddle at home, and my wife will sometimes take it out to make takoyaki for the family. We call those nights takopa nights, short for takoyaki (“takoyaki parties”),1 because the family can help prepare the ingredients, cook them together, and of course eat them together. My kid’s Japanese school also has summer festivals every year, with lots of takoyaki to go around. The preparation is a bit time-consuming, so not something you can do on a whim, only on special occasions.

You can top takoyaki with many things: mayonaise and Worcester sauce are the most common, but also shaved, dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi 鰹節), powered, dried seaweed (aonori 青のり), and more. You can also replace the octopus inside with cheese or ham depending on preference. The end result is delicious no matter what.

… and now I am going to enjoy my dinner. Itadakimasu!

P.S. Hard to see from the photo, but the plate features a pug and Christmas lights. My wife loves pugs. 🥰

P.P.S. Feeling a lot better than I did a couple days ago. I think the vaccines helped a lot to minimize symptoms, but it still felt like a pretty miserable head cold.

1 Japanese language tends to abbreviate by syllables a lot.

Ancient Japanese Rap Battling

With all the time I have to kill while in quarantine in the den, I have been cleaning up my old blog on the Hyakunin Isshu poetry anthology. It’s been great rediscovering things, including poem 60 of the anthology, a poem composed by Lady Izumi‘s daughter, Ko-Shikibu no Naishi (小式部内侍, d. 1025).

Lady Izumi by this time had quite a reputation as a master poet, and her daughter probably had to live in her shadow. While her mother was away in the province of Tango, Ko-Shikibu no Naishi was participating in a poetry contest, a major social event among the aristocrats of capitol. These contests were serious business. The host would choose a topic, and pit poets against one another, and the right poem could really make or break one’s reputation.

As part of the contest, Middle Counselor Sadayori started trash-talking Ko-Shikibu no Naishi saying:

What will you do about the poems? Have you sent someone off to Tango [to ask your mother for help]? Hasn’t the messenger come back? My, you must be worried.

So, Ko-Shikibu comes with some poetic freestyling:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
大江山OeyamaŌe Mountain and
いく野の道のIkuno no michi nothe road that goes to Ikumo
とほければTo kerebaare far away, and so
まだふみも見ずMada fumi mo mizunot yet have I trod there, nor letter seen,
天の橋立Ama no Hashidatefrom Ama-no-Hashidate
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The poem doesn’t translate easily into English, but according to Dr Mostow, the poem is a masterpiece because it recites three places in Tango Province in geographic order, has the following puns:

  • iku in Ikuno also means to go 行く, and
  • fumi means both a letter 文 and to step 踏み, and
  • the bridge mentioned, Ama-no-Hashidate, is associated with “stepping” too.

… and she did all this off the cuff.

The comeback was so good, that Sadayori reportedly fled.

Picture this, but it’s 1,100 years ago, in Japan, and Eminem is a lady.

Pretty amazing comeback by Ko-Shikibu no Naishi, and a sign that talent runs in the family. Sadly, her life was snuffed out at a young age due to illness, and Lady Izumi never quite recovered with loss…

Bad Aura

Recently, I learned of a clever proverb in Japanese culture:

息の臭きは主知らず
iki no kusaki wa nushi shirazu

Japanese Proverbs: Wit and Wisdom, by David Galef

This proverb, literally means that the owner doesn’t know the stench of their own breath. Obviously this is not meant to be literal, instead it is about people being unaware of their own bad habits.

Another way of explaining it is that the eye cannot see itself. The eye needs a mirror. In the same way, we need to see the world around us, in order to see ourselves.

Namu Amida Butsu

Waves and Water

Ryōhen (良遍, 1194-1252), was a prominent Yogacara-Buddhist scholar and faithful disciple of Jōkei, often credited as a reformer of Japan’s Hossō sect during the medieval period in Japanese Buddhist history. In James L. Ford’s book on Jokei and Medieval Japanese Buddhism, Professor Ford quotes this famous “restorer” when he describes the famous Buddhist metaphor of waves and water succinctly (Japanese terms added by Prof. Ford):

Although there seem to be a multitude of waves, it is not a real multitude, for the waves are causally produced (enshō), phantom-like (nyogen) dharmas that defy the comprehension of the unenlightened mind. If the waves were unchanging, real (kenjitsu) objects they would be completely different from water. But since the waves are nonsubstantial (koke), they are in harmony (sōwa) with the water and are neither completely identical to, nor completely different from, it (fusoku furi). From this analogy, you can understand the relationship between phenomena and their underlying substance. (pg. 60)

Photo by The Whale on Pexels.com

The key to understanding this is that phenomena (things, thoughts, feelings, ideas, everything) exists like the waves. It’s existence is contingent on external factors (like the wind and water), and therefore temporary, not permanent. They are causally produced, in other words. Once those external factors are no longer in harmony, the phenomena in question will change or fade.

The ‘underlying’ substance here is not meant to imply ‘pantheism’ or ‘oneness’ (in the New Age sense), but rather the causes and conditions that cause something to arise. All waves, like all phenomena, have a commonality of having a contingent, temporary existence. Such phenomena are not entirely separate in existence, but aren’t “one” either. The truth lies somewhere in between.

This is what Buddhism defines as “emptiness” (e.g. of a permanent, separate nature) or in the classic Sanskrit term “sunyata” (pronounced ‘shoon-yata’). In the Heart Sutra text, one of the most fundamental to East Asian Buddhism, this is all summed up very succinctly:

色 不 異 空

shiki fu i ku

空 不 異 色

ku fu i shiki

色 即 是 空

shiki soku ze ku

空 即 是 色

ku soku ze shiki

Which means something like: Form is not different than emptiness; Emptiness is not different from Form. Indeed, form is emptiness; Emptiness is form.

So when you have angry thoughts, or see something you don’t like, just remember the water and wave analogy. You can’t be angry if you don’t have angry thoughts. 😉 For the good things in life, remember that they too are waves and will only stay around if conditions allow them to do so. Reflection on such things I hope will lead people to a more balanced view of the world and self.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

Japanese New Year: a shopping list

If you, or a loved one, are celebrating Japanese New Year, Oshōgatsu (お正月), you may need to do some shopping. During the December in 2021, we got snowed in really bad, and my wife couldn’t go to the local Japanese supermarket to buy goods and ingredients herself. So, I went on her behalf using public transportation to downtown, got the goods, and came back.

To save other husbands (or anyone else who likes to celebrate) some uncertainty, here’s a recommended list of things to get and why. I purposely took photos of my own at the local Asian grocery store, rather than stock photos, because I felt this would help readers on the ground more, especially if they can’t read Japanese.

New Year Altar

A common tradition in Japan is to get a kagami-mochi, kind of like so:

Kagami-mochi are a pair of mochi (rice cakes) stacked one on top of the other, usually with a ribbon around it, and a bitter orange or other decoration on top. I’ve talked more about it here. These are often available at any Japanese grocery store, and include instructions on how to set it up. Remember, on January 11th, there’s a separate ceremony to break open the mochi and cook it for good luck.

Soup Ingredients

There are several items, often available in your local Asian food store, that are essentials for Japanese cooking during New Years.

First, is naruto, shown on the left:

This is not to be confused with the manga series. Naruto is a food that usually comes in a long roll and is sliced thin and added as a topping to soups and ramen during New Years. A similar food, shown on the right, is kamaboko. Kamaboko often comes frozen, and has to be thawed out first, then sliced and added to soup, including toshi-koshi soba which is eaten the night before New Years.

Another food often used, especially in ozoni soup (eaten on New Year’s morning) are mochi rice cakes:

There are many kinds, and cuts, so just find something that’s suitable for your needs. Out of the package, they are hard little bricks but when added to warm soup or baked in a toaster oven, they have a taffy-like consistency. Keep in mind that it’s possible to choke on mochi if you don’t chew thoroughly. They’re delicious but consider yourself warned.

Osechi

During New Year’s day, it is considered auspicious to eat certain foods on the first day. These are collectively known as osechi-ryōri, or just osechi. There are many possible foods to use in osechi, but one common one is kuro-mamé:

These are just sweetened black beans, and something I enjoy eating in particular. In the same picture, shown below are yellow kuri-kinton which is a kind of walnut paste.

Another great choice are lotus root, or renkon. They look like huge tubers at the store…

But when peeled, sliced thin and cooked in broth they look more like this:

They have a nice consistency like potato and are delicious to eat. Highly recommend.

Finally there are special chopsticks you should pick up for osechi:

The chopsticks themselves are nothing special, but using bright, clean chopsticks with auspicious decorations on them, I believe that this helps symbolizes a fresh (and positive) start for the new year.

Conclusion

This not an exhaustive list of goods for Japanese New Year, but I hope this helps cover basic foods and goods you might need to enjoy New Year. Your mileage may vary. I will also try to update and polish this up as time goes on.

Good luck!

Why Buddhism? A Brief Response

Gandhara Buddha statue. 1st-2nd century AD. Tokyo National Museum. 2004. Released in the Public Domain.

Buddhism is a religion that, while widespread in terms of numbers and influence on world cultures,1 is not well-understood in the West. Chances are you, you’ve probably heard of it, or seen something like the Happy Buddha in gardens or Chinese restaurants. You’ve probably have an idea of what “Zen” is, and so on.

Buddhism as a religion that focuses on wisdom, self-discipline, and goodwill toward all beings.

Buddhism is a religion that does not elevate a god of any sort, and is not concerned with gods one way or another.1 So, in this sense, people get confused about whether it’s even a religion at all. But it isn’t some dry philosophy either for people to debate in coffee shops or college campuses. The Buddha intended for his teachings to be applied in daily life, regardless of who you were, or what your background was.

In the Buddha’s own time, he described it as the “holy life”. It is a path that, if carried to fruition, is said to be praiseworthy and free from guilt, and hassles. But the holy life is also a people-centered religion in that the focus of its teachings is on daily life, and on people, not external deities. A person who adopts the Five Precepts of Buddhism, even if they make mistakes and struggle with some precepts, has made great progress.

Finally, the Buddhist path is something that is easy to take up, and you can begin just you are. It’s a long, slow path, with many discoveries, but you learn many things about yourself and others.

1 the Buddha is venerated as a peerless teacher, and the other Buddhas you find in Buddhism are expressions of the teachings. Buddhism has layers and layers of meaning, so it’s one of those things that takes time to sink in.

Designing Big Boss Encounters in D&D

Recently, my kids and I finished our long-term campaign in Eberron. The big climax to the campaign was a battle with the mad scientist who had transferred his consciousness to a great glass orb, and whose stat block was similar to a Beholder. But then, I started having misgivings, and was worried about the kids getting killed because the challenge rating was just on the edge of what the kids’ party could hope to defeat.

As one does…

I downgraded the stats and removed some bodyguards, but when the big battle came, it was clear that I had watered down the battle too much. The kids happened to roll well on saving throws, but also they quickly overwhelmed the boss and killed it.

Later my son (9) told me, “Daddy that was kind of easy.”

I remember years ago when my firstborn also played D&D with me, and we had the final boss battle then with a powerful, custom fiend, but the same problem occurred. The boss couldn’t do as much damage as the rest of the party.

So, it’s not enough to use encounter charts such as those in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, to make a battle compelling you have to either go big or go wide.

Go Big, as the name implies to push the envelope of what the party can safely tolerate in combat. This means using the encounter charts above, but then increasing the difficult just a bit more. The goal as a DM is to foster a compelling challenge, not to kill the party. That does require the need to instill a genuine sense of threat, but also if the party is large, don’t let the boss sit around and just take a bunch of hits.

  • Consider using features like Legendary Actions, and Legendary Resistances.
  • Consider increasing hit points, or the armor class beyond regular statistics.
  • Consider adding some flare to some of attacks or spells used. These may simply be for dramatic flavor, but they do make a powerful impression on players.
  • Add some environmental difficulty, such as a force field to block the path, or environmental hazards such as lava.

Go Wide, on the other hand leaves the main boss largely unchanged, but adds more monsters to combat: soldiers, body guards, lair attacks and so on. This solves the problem of the heroic party having plenty of attacks to concentrate against one target, but on the other hand, it makes combat more difficult to manage. However, with so many potential threats, this can foster a sense of peril like above, through different means.

One other tip that might come in handy, which I regret not doing, is to rehearse the combat on your own time. Assuming you have the player character sheets (or a reasonable facsimile), you can simulate the battle in your own time and get a good sense of whether the battle is too easy, too long, or too deadly.

These are just some tips learned the hard way, but hopefully it will help. Good luck!

Updates For December 2022

A few updates for readers, some good, some bad. I’ll start with the bad news.

The bad news is that I have COVID. It is the first time I have ever had it (as far as I know), and despite being careful with masking such for the past 2½ years, I managed to somehow contract it. I am not entirely sure how, but I have my suspicions. In any case, all I can do now is isolate and try to recover as quickly as possible.

Given my age, and my weight, I am genuinely worried about the risk of severe symptoms, but so far it’s just a bad head cold. I can’t wait for it this to go away. Thankfully my family has tested negative so far, so perhaps we will get lucky.

The good news is that I’ve vaccinated 4 times so far (the two original + two boosters), so I remain positive that that will help blunt the worst effects of the illness.

For now, we are still on track with our plans to Japan in the second half of December. We are pretty excited to go, and the kids will finally get to see their grandpa and auntie after three years. The COVID infection may potentially change this, but we remain positive…. that the family will stay negative. 🤣

Life here is chilly and icy as the period of “small cold” begins (again, no pun intended), and Bodhi Day is only 6 days away. In our home, we started a tradition ages ago where we would surprise the kids with books as a present for Bodhi Day. It started out as a Santa Claus-type tradition but has gradually changed over time.

Since I am now isolated in the den for the next few days, I also have time to catch up on many things. Maybe more blog posts, we’ll see.

Ravenloft Novels

I like to visit my local Half Price Books store from time to time, and lately, I picked up some old fantasy novels, including a few from the Ravenloft series:

The Ravenloft setting is a very famous gothic setting in Dungeons and Dragons that has been around all the way back to 2nd edition AD&D which I played as a kid. Back then, I only tangentially knew about Ravenloft (I played Dark Sun a lot), but it’s popularity has not diminished over time. In fact, Ravenloft as a setting has a fandom all its own.

TSR, which originally owned Dungeons and Dragons, commissioned a series of novels featuring different domains within Ravenloft, and whatever Darklord ruled over them. Some novels focus on that domain’s Darklord themselves, others make cameos only, shifting focus to whatever main character has to traverse that domain. In either case, the collection as a whole is a fascinating tour of the Ravenloft setting and provides canonical and non-canonical lore for fans.

I have enjoyed the Curse of Strahd campaign for years, but never branched out into the rest of the Ravenloft setting until recently through friends online (whom I’ll call “The Twitterloft” despite Twitter’s demise).1

Enter the Ravenloft series of novels. The core series has about fourteen or fifteen novels, as well as some spinoffs. I heard them discussed a number of times, and decided to pick up a couple of them at my local HPB, as well as a couple old Forgotten Realms novels I needed to fill out my collections. D&D novels don’t always rise to the level of fantasy I expect from someone like Roger Zelazny, but some of them can be very enjoyable.

They’re also hard to get a hold of since they’re out of print. You can buy them online for $20-$30 or more depending on the book, but I was lucky to find these in my local used bookstore for a lot less. If you want a guaranteed thing, you have to pay more online, but if you’re patient, you can build your collection the old-fashioned way. It’ll cost more time, but save money and support your local businesses too. I also have Vampire of the Mists coming in the mail as well.

I finished Heart of Midnight already over Thanksgiving Weekend,2 and it was a good exploration of the domain of Kartakass with its werewolves (and wolfweres, yes they are different), and it’s darklord Harkon Lukas. I definitely enjoyed the novel, even with a few foibles.

Currently I am reading Mordenheim now, and while some parts make me squeamish (the novel is definitely inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), it is interesting to see how the domain of Lamordia works too, and has inspired some one-shot campaign ideas that I might try.

Old fantasy novels such as the Driz’zt series, Dragonlance (another series I started re-reading lately) and Ravenloft are all good, fun light reading that you can find easily enough in a used bookstore. It’s fun to build or rebuild a collection, and is a great way to stimulate ideas for your Dungeons and Dragons campaign too.

P.S. If you are looking for excellent, write-ups about Ravenloft lore and reviews of Darklords, I highly recommend this page by another member of the Twitterloft.

P.P.S. my book arrived in the mail right after I posted this. 😌

1 Now, we are tentatively the Tumblrloft, Hiverloft, or whatever social media we will eventually settle down on . Speaking of Tumblr, feel free to follow my Barovian content here.

2 It’s been a long, long time since I was able to enjoy a novel over a weekend. It was a very relaxing, nice weekend.

Bad Teachers in Buddhism

One of the earliest recorded teachings in the Buddhist canon is something called the Sutta-nipata a collection of discourses by the Buddha to various disciples. These are not sutras in the strictest sense, but are part of the earliest collections, and represent some of the closest things we have to the Buddha’s original teachings.

In the Simile of the Boat, verses 316-323, the Buddha talks about the importance of good, reliable teachers:

“He from whom a person learns the Dhamma should be venerated, as the devas [the gods] venerate Indra, their Lord. He, (a teacher) of great learning, thus venerated, will explain the Dhamma, being well-disposed towards one. Having paid attention and considered it, a wise man, practicing according to Dhamma, becomes learned, intelligent and accomplished by associating himself diligently with such a teacher.

Translation by John D. Ireland

The importance of a good teacher in Buddhism is to help clarify and explain the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, in a way that you can learn and apply in your own life (and thereby benefit from it). The teacher holds no power over you (nor should they), but they are responsible for teaching the Dharma properly. The Buddha described this as catching a poisonous snake properly.

A juvenile cottonmouth snake, Jim Evans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If a teacher can’t do it properly, not only can they be “bitten”, but their students who received the bad advice, get bitten too:

“But by following an inferior and foolish teacher who has not gained (fine) understanding of the Dhamma and is envious of others, one will approach death without comprehending the Dhamma and unrelieved of doubt.

Translation by John D. Ireland

As a student, one has to ask: how do I find a good teacher, especially in the West where teachers are few and far between? As Brad Warner writes, there are plenty of people who enjoy the allure of being a teacher. Such teachers may start with good intentions, but go astray, and lead plenty of people with them.1

“Besides, I have never encountered anyone who started out wanting real bad to be a dharma teacher and then ended up being a good dharma teacher. Their desire to be seen as A Dharma Teacher always overshadowed whatever they were supposedly teaching. It was more about performance than substance.”

brad warner

And so the most important thing is substance: a genuine commitment to the path, experience, and sincere desire to help others rather than their own image:

“But if (the man at the river) knows the method and is skilled and wise, by boarding a strong boat equipped with oars and a rudder, he can, with its help, set others across. Even so, he who is experienced and has a well-trained mind, who is learned and dependable, clearly knowing, he can help others to understand who are willing to listen and ready to receive.

Translation by John D. Ireland

Such a teacher is worth placing your trust in.

1 This is a big reason why I quit training in 2017 to be a minister with the Buddhist Churches of America, and with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in general. In spite of my personal misgivings about that particular sect’s teachings, the allure of being an ordained minister had clouded my judgment and made me compromise my beliefs in order to keep going. In the end, I realized my error, and decided it was better to be a sincere lay person than an insincere priest faking it for an audience. I lost a lot of blog readers, and friends at the temple, but in the end I am a lot happier with myself now, even if greatly diminished.

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