War, Buddhism and Language

We are now almost two weeks into the invasion of Ukraine and now the long, ugly grind of war has reared its ugly head. The invasion has consumed many of us. The initial fervor has given away to the reality that even if Ukraine totally routs the Russian military, Ukraine will still have been destroyed, and many lives with it, including many Russian families whose sons and husbands will not be coming home. All becomes of the ambitions and arrogance of one man.

For my part, I’ve been dealing with the war (as a passive observer watching this horror unfold) in a few ways.

First, I decided to take up learning the Ukrainian language. While the Mrs and I did contribute to humanitarian organizations to help the people of Ukraine, I really wanted to use the chance to learn more about Ukraine and not just as “part of the Russian cultural sphere”.

Slow and steady …

Having grown up in the Cold War, I still know almost nothing about that part of the world, so for me it is a way to better appreciate the culture. Ukraine is a country and culture in its own right, going all the way back to the Hellenistic period and the Kingdom of the Bosporus, through Mongol invasions, the period of Kievan Rus, and through modern times.

I dabbled in both Ukranian and Russian on Duolingo, but soon committed to Ukranian. Having started both at the same time, it’s pretty interesting how they’re similar and yet different. Clearly they are two linguistic “cousins” rather one being a dialect of the other.

Second, the Mrs and I also wanted to show our support at our local Ukrainian-owned European-goods store. Among other things we tried a delicious beets and herring salad plus some nice pastries.

The war has also, needless to say, brought out less-than-Buddhist sentiments in me toward the Russian military and its leadership. It’s easy to get caught up in the war rhetoric, and even harder to mentally drag oneself out of it.

This has forced me to conclude an uncomfortable truth: being pious is easy when times are good, but a heck of a lot harder when times are harsh. The latter really brings out the worst in people, including myself. I suppose this is part of being human.

But it also reminds me that in really hard times, this is the best time to practice the Buddhist path, starting with self-reflection. It’s one thing to have ill-will towards others, it is another to pause and realize it. And so, as the Japanese proverb goes: nana korobi, ya oki (七転び八起き, “seven times falling down, eight times getting up”).

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

P.S. As I wrote this, I remembered an old poem from the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, poem 95:

おほけなくŌkenakuInadequate, but
うき世の民にUkiyo no tami nithey must shelter the folk
おほふかなŌu kanaof this wretched world—
わがたつそまにWaga tatsu soma nimy ink-black sleeves [of a monk],
having begun to live
墨染の袖Sumizome no sode“in this timber forest that I enter”.
Translation by Joshua Mostow

Many people in this world are suffering, and even small efforts can light one corner of the world.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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