The Amazing Adventures of Xuanzang

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:

The purpose of my journey is not to obtain personal
offerings. It is because I regretted, in my country,
the Buddhist doctrine was imperfect and the scriptures were
incomplete. Having many doubts, I wish to go and find out
the truth, and so I decided to travel to the West at the
risk of my life in order to seek for the teachings of
which I have not yet heard, so that the Dew of
the Mahayana [Buddhist] sutras would have not only been sprinkled at
Kapilavastu, but the sublime truth may also be known in
the eastern country.

Translation by Li Yung-hsi in The Life of Hsuan Tsang by Huili (Translated). Chinese Buddhist Association, Beijing, 1959

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…

A 14th century Japanese painting of Xuanzang journeying to India. Courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Cross the Taklamakan Desert, then
  • Journey through the Kingdom of the Western Turks, hopefully unscathed, then
  • Follow the Tian-Shan mountains for weeks, then
  • Cross over the Oxus River (modern-day Afghanistan), then
  • Pass over a small mountain range that you might have heard of: the Himalaya mountains, meanwhile
  • Avoid getting robbed by bandits,
  • Avoid starvation, and
  • Avoid exposure to the elements (extreme heat and cold), and finally once India
  • Follow the Ganges River for thousands of miles downstream to the city of Benares.

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.

The revered remains of the Buddha’s hut in the Jeta Grove, modern-day Shravasti, myself, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Xuanzang’s residence in China, photo by Gisling, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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 still benefit 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.

Look out!

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.

Hey bro!

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!

Xuanzang-man, Xuanzang-man,

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.

Soto Zen Yearly Liturgical Calendar


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.

Sojiji Temple, one of two “main temples” of the Soto Zen sect. The other is Eiheiji. Taken in 2012.

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

This was taken near the famous Chujakumon (中雀門) Gate at Sojiji Temple, looking westward. Photo from 2012.

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.

January 3rd転読大般若
Tendoku Dai-hannya
Reading of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
February 15th涅槃会
The Death of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni
Late March彼岸会
Spring Equinox
April 8th花まつり
The Birth of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni
Late July / Late August盂蘭盆会
Obon Season
Late September彼岸会
Fall Equinox
September 29th両祖忌
Memorial for both founders of Soto Zen: Dogen and Keizan
October 5th達磨忌
Memorial for Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who brought the Zen tradition to China.
December 8th成道会
The Enlightenment of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni
December 31st除夜
End of the year temple bell ringing

Reading of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

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:

If you want to the ceremony itself, skip to 11:30 or later, until about 16:00

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.

Bodhidharma Memorial

Bodhidharma, unusually depicted standing. Taken at Sojiji Temple in 2012.

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.

Asakusa Temple Over The Years

There’s a good chance that if you ever visited Tokyo, you’ve been to this place:

The kaminari-mon gate (雷門), taken in 2022
Same place, taken in 2009

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 Bodhisattva Kannon 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:

Taken in 2009

The lantern on the back instead reads Fūraijinmon (風雷神門) or the Gate of the Wind and Thunder god.

Me carrying a very tired little boy in the summer of 2014.

Once you pass through the gate, you will see a huge, long walkway: the Nakamise-dōri (中店通り):

December 2022
Summer of 2016
2009, just after New Year

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:

Pagoda and temple gate, December 2022
Temple gate, December 2022
Pagoda, 2009 New Year’s

This tall structure is a pagoda:

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:

Me being a tourist in December 2022
Summer of 2016

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):

December 2022
January 2009

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:

December 2022
January 2009

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:

January 2009
January 2009

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.

There is also a statue of Amitabha Buddha (阿弥陀如来, amida nyorai) nearby:

December 2022
Summer 2016

Finally, to the left of the main hall is one of several secondaries halls that compromise the temple complex. This hall is called the Yogodo Hall:

It is here that I got my pilgrimage book in 2022:

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…

Life, Death, Life

Note: I started writing this post way back in December, but have been mulling over it for quite a while. The fact that I post this on the day before Nirvana Day (the death of the Buddha) is serendipity. 😏

The day of my mother-in-law’s 100th day memorial was a very somber day for us all in Japan. My wife had gone back to Japan shortly after her mother passed away, but the kids and I had not, so this was our first real chance to say goodbye. Per Japanese funerary customs, we dressed in somber blacks and dress suits (first time in many years for me), and we carried her ashes from her home to the nearby Buddhist temple where the memorial occurred.

It was a surreal morning: the weather was sunny and pleasant. Overhead, the sky was blue, and winter birds were singing in the trees, while we were quiet and carrying the ashes of our beloved relative, lost in thought. The contrast between life and death was impossible to ignore.

It made me realize that both life and death are all around us. They exist like two sides of the same coin.

Even in the original series, Star Trek, Mr Spock acknowledges this:

Season 2, episode 14, “Wolf in the Fold

Roger Zelazny in his novella, Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), also explores the idea that the absolute, most fundamental powers in the Universe are life and death. The usurpers, Anubis (of the House of the Dead) and Osiris (of the House of Life) vie with one another, but also keep the Universe in balance:

Osiris and I are bookkeepers: We credit and we debit. We raise waves, or cause waves to sink back again into the ocean. Can life be counted upon to limit itself? No. It is the mindless striving of two to become infinity. Can death be counted upon to limit itself? Never. It is the equally mindless effort of zero to encompass infinity…

Anubis from Creatures of Light and Darkness, by Roger Zelazny

Buddhism looks at this truth, and extends it one step further by pointing that life does not end with death, and the two blend together so much, and are so closely tied to one another that there really isn’t “death” as separate from “life”. Just one big fluid mess. Consider this verse from the Heart Sutra:

“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

Translation by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

If we see that life and death are two sides of the same coin, and that one cannot exist without the other, where do we draw the line? That’s the point of this verse, I think. That’s emptiness (shunyatā in Sanskrit) in Buddhism: all things exist in a provisional, contingent way that depends on other things. No separate thing called “life”, nor a separate thing called “death”. It just goes on and on…

In the Analects of Confucius, there is a famous quote that expresses this same sentiment:

子在川上曰。逝者如斯夫 不舍晝夜。
[9:17] The Master, standing by a river, said, “It goes on like this, never ceasing day or night!”

Analects of Confucius, 9:17, translation by A. Charles Muller

In the same way, life and death dance around one another ad nauseum. In the Buddhist viewpoint, people are reborn again and again without end. Not one life or two, but countless, countless lives stretching back to some distant, unknowable eon, just as we are doomed to repeat this dance of birth, struggles of growing up, struggles of old age, illness and death over and over again into the future. A cosmic “rat race” without end.

In the immediate term, it’s a reminder that we cannot avoid death. We cannot live without it either. All existence is marked by death, and all existence must face it sooner or later.

During my mother-in-law’s memorial service, per tradition of the Jodo Shinshu sect, the famous Letter on White Ashes (白骨の章 hakkotsu no shō), composed by Rennyo to a follower, was read aloud:

Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes.

Translated by Rev. Hisao Inagaki

Thus, only now matters. Enjoy the air you breathe, the life you live (even when work is miserable) and the health you have. Do not squander it.

Namu Amida Butsu

Remembering Loved Ones

Recently, my family and I observed the 100th day memorial for “baba”, my wife’s mother in Japan, and grandmother to our kids. This had me thinking about another poem by Lady Izumi1 from The Ink Dark Moon by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani:

Original JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
跡をみてAto wo miteEven in my dreams
偲ぶもあやしShinobu mo ayashiI never think of you—
ゆめにてもYume nite mohow strange now,
何事のまたNanigoto no mataseeing your handwriting,
有りしともなくArishi to mo nakuto recall…
Translation by by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

I can understand this sentiment. When doing the memorials, it can feel kind of formulaic, but then sometimes I will see something that reminds me of my mother in law, and I can still her presence somehow. While I was in Japan, my father in law, noticing my interest in the Hyakunin Isshu, gave me a book to take home that belonged to his wife (my late mother-in-law).

「新百人一首をおぼえよう」(Let’s Memorize the Hyakunin Isshu, new edition) by 佐佐木幸綱 (Sasaki Yukitsuna)

This is a nice book, published back in 2002 that covers the Hyakunin Isshu anthology with lots of neat photography of famous locations, and tips and mnemonics for memorizing poems for karuta card game. I’ve enjoyed reading through it.

But more importantly, it provides a tangible link to my mother-in-law. Due to language barrier, I wasn’t able to converse with her much in my early years of marriage, and in the later years her health had declined to the point we couldn’t converse anyway. So, I wasn’t able to connect with her as much as I wanted to.

But with this book, I feel connected to her in a way I couldn’t before. My only regret is that we didn’t share this hobby before.

However, as Lady Izumi’s poetry shows, there is another side to grief and losing loved ones:

Original JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
としをへてToshi wo heteThrough the years
物思ふことはMono omou koto waI’ve become used to sorrow:
ならひにきNarai ni kithere was not one spring
花に別れぬHana ni wakarenuI didn’t leave behind
春しなければHaru shinarakerebathe flowers
Translation by by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani


Original JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
頼むとてTanomu toteDo you now know
頼みけるこそTanomi keru kosothis world
はかなけれHakana kereis a waking dream?
昼間の夢のHiruma no yume noHowever much I needed you,
よとは知らずやYo towa shirazu yathat is also a fleeting thing…
Translation by by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

As one gets older, one becomes somewhat numb to all the people that we’ve lost. The second poem here has overtly Buddhist undertones, reminding the reader that, as the Diamond Sutra famous says:

All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them.
That is how to observe them.

Translation by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion

For my part, I have lost friends as far back as high school, known relatives who have taken their own lives, lost loved ones due to cancer, dementia, pneumonia, etc.

Chances are, you have too.

As time goes on, this number will continue to grow. If you imagine scattered blossoms in spring, one can easily find parallels to life and the people all around us.

1 Other recent mentions here, here and here.

This Is The Way

I have been a big fan of the Disney series, The Mandalorian, and have been re-watching the series in anticipation of season 3.

One of the aspects of the show I love is the Mandalorian code. As an orphan, adopted by an offshoot religious cult called the Children of the Watch, the main character Din Djarin is raised under a strict warrior’s code.

Mandalorians cannot remove their helmet in front of other beings, and as Din Djarin comments “weapons are part of my religion”. It is a strict, inflexible religion in many ways, but the Mandalorians believe it is also their source of survival. Even after as the season progresses, and Din Djarin’s character evolves, he still strives to keep this code as much as possible.

This idea of sticking to a moral code is very interesting to me.

Personally, I am not interested in being a warrior, and as a middle-aged dad working an office job, it probably isn’t realistic anyway. In any case, I have been a committed Buddhist for almost 20 years, and I suppose in a way that’s become my code. Things such as the Five Precepts, the Bodhisattva Precepts, and a commitment to help all beings, these are important to me.

I think it’s important to have some kind of moral code in one’s life. It’s important to be able to commit to something beyond oneself, and live a life beyond simple indulgence. The flip side of course is that one has to uphold that code too, even when one doesn’t feel like doing it.

But that tension between the realities of one’s life, one’s code and one’s nature is how a person grows. 😄

P.S. If you look at the progression of Mr Spock as a character too, you can see how he gradually changes from a staunchly Vulcan, driven by logic, to something more well-rounded in the movie series, and later in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Of Burning Houses and Rain

Photo by Sitthan Kutty on

Here is another wonderful poem (previous posts here and here) by the 11th century Japanese poetess, Lady Izumi (izumi shikibu 和泉式部 in Japanese), that I found in The Ink Dark Moon by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani:

Original JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
ものをのみMono o nomiShould I leave this burning house
思ひの家をOmoi no ie oof ceaseless thoughts
出でてふるIdete furuand taste the pure rain’s
一味の雨にIchimi no ame nisingle truth
ぬれやしなましNure ya shina mashifailing upon my skin?
Translation by by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

The headline for this poem reads:

On the night of the sixth, the sound of the night monk’s voice reciting the Sutras mingled with the sound of incessant rain, and truly this seemed to be a world of dreams…

Lady Izumi cleverly makes not one, not two, but 3 separate allusions to the famous Lotus Sutra, in this poem. I’ve talked about the Lotus Sutra before. It’s a very influential Buddhist text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, and contains many parables and dramatic allusions, compared to some of the drier, more textbook style Buddhist sutras. Thus, allusions to the Lotus Sutra are found throughout literature in East Asia. In my opinion, understanding the Lotus Sutra is key to understanding Buddhism in East Asia: Zen, Pure Land, Tiantai, Nichiren and Vajrayana, etc.

The “burning house” here alludes to the Parable of the Burning House of third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. I’ve talked about it here, among other places. This is pretty straightforward to understand in the poem: the Burning House here is symbolic of the world we live in, burning with passions, craving, anger, delusion, old age, disease, and so on. We can step out of the burning house if we choose to, but we are often distracted by things in the house, and thus unaware that the timbers all around us are on fire, putting us in mortal danger.

The second allusion is that of rain. In the fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, there is a famous parable of rain on plants, the so-called The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs:

What falls from the cloud
is water of a single flavor,
but the plants and trees, thickets and groves,
each accept the moisture that is appropriate to its portion.
All the various trees,
whether superior, middling or inferior,
take that is fitting for large or small
and each is enabled to sprout and grow.
Root, stem, limb, leaf,
the glow and hue of flower and fruit-
one rain extends to them
and all are able to become fresh and glossy,
whether their allotment
of substance, form and nature is large or small,
the moistening they receive is one,
but each grows and flourishes in its own way.

The Buddha is like this
when he appears in the world,
comparable to a great cloud
that covers all things everywhere,
Having appeared in the world,
for the sake of living beings
he makes distinctions in expounding
the truth regarding phenomena.

Translation by Burton Watson

This is, for me, one of my most favorite parts of the Lotus Sutra. As a sutra, it’s very inclusive anyway (cf. the Parable of the Dragon Princess), but it also acknowledges that there is a huge variety of people in the world. Some people are just different than others, but they can all benefit from the Dharma in their own way, just like the various plants in world drinking from the rain.

Finally, the third allusion in this poem is that of a single “taste”. Both the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Medicinal Herbs make a single point: the Dharma of the Buddha appears in a variety of ways, or “gates” for one to enter, but in the end the Dharma tastes the same equally, and is but one truth. So, whichever gate one enters, the rain will ultimately taste the same. For the Burning House, when the children come outside, their father has, in the end, a single magnificent cart (not many) to offer them as an incentive.

Turning back to Lady Izumi, it’s obvious that she was very thoughtful of these things, even if she struggled to practice them amidst her life. Even when she was surrounded by scandal, and lost both her lovers and her daughter to illness, she could see past it and look at the greater picture.

Namu Amida Butsu

A Nerd Dad’s Review of Pathfinder 2e Beginner Box

The recent fiasco by Wizards of the Coast (who owns Dungeons and Dragons) has left me pretty bitter toward 5th edition1 and the company that owns it. If Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes wasn’t frustrating enough (“buy your $50 book again!”), this was the final straw.

I decided it was time to try Pathfinder again.

Again, you say? Allow me to explain.

Aeons ago, circa 2016, my coworkers and I played an after-work campaign of Pathfinder, 1st edition. The campaign lasted about 2-3 months but it was a miserable, stressful experience for me. The DM pushed us to optimize (e.g. “min-max”) our characters for awesome battles, using lots of custom 3rd party content, feats and builds that made really confused even as I was still to wrap my head around the basic rules. The DM knew the rules and feats like the back of his hand, but frankly wasn’t very empathetic to new players, and just wanted to host cool battles. Looking back, I believe the issue was more with the DM than with the game.2

I gave up, but I always felt someday that I should give it another try … someday.

Enter Pathfinder, 2nd edition (Pf2e): a major update to Pathfinder that came out in 2019. It streamlined and updated a lot of challenges with 1st edition, and includes a lot of good introductory material to help new players ease into this. A prime example is the Beginner Box which I ordered direct from after my local game store already sold out (believe me, I am not the only one locally who is mad at WotC).

My goal was to learn Pathfinder 2e properly, and at my own pace, so I could avoid the unnecessary stress of learning a new system, and actually keep things fun.

A week later, my box came in the mail:3 🎉

Yay, new package in the mail! Sadly, the little Starfinder figurine that was included was already smashed upon delivery.

The Beginner Box contains everything you could possibly need for both a DM and a group of players to start from scratch:

  • a self-contained adventure (more on that later): Troubles in Otari.
  • a full set of dice, color-coded to match the symbols on the character sheets
  • pre-made character sheets with very easy to read stats, plus blank sheets if you still want to make your own. These look really nice by the way.
  • step by step guide adventure guide for Troubles in Otari.
  • fold-out adventure map for Troubles in Otari.
  • a separate, slimmed down guide to Pathfinder 2e rules in general and how TTRPG’s work.
  • monster stand-up cardboard “tokens” for map, both a variety of player characters and all the monsters necessary for the adventure.
  • laminated “action cards” to help players decide what they can do during their turn
(please pardon the messy table…)

My kids, experienced 5e players, were a bit hesitant to try Pathfinder since the only game system they knew and grew up with was D&D 5th edition, and as a busy parent I didn’t have much time to prepare Troubles in Otari either. So, both the kids and I essentially went into this first adventure blind.

I let my kids each pick from the pre-made character sheets for now, and I ran any character not chosen (Valeros the Fighter in my case) to ensure the party was rounded out. I read over the adventure guide for a couple minutes to get my bearings and off we went.

As a stand-alone adventure Troubles in Otari is a good, classic dungeon crawl. What makes it genius though is how each encounter teaches you another aspect of gameplay, each one slightly more advanced than the previous.

The adventure guide for Troubles in Otari walks you through each step of the way: what happens if players do X, what happens if they hit a skeleton with Y, etc. Experienced DMs can gloss over if they want, but it helped me a ton in making the mental transition from 5th edition to Pf2e and keep things running along. I hand-waved a few spots for pacing, but what DM hasn’t?

My kids loved the “3-action” combat system, the change to perception rules, and the pre-made character sheets. Pathfinder 2e, as a whole, was familiar enough for kids who’ve played 5e to quickly adapt, but also fresh enough to keep their attention. The cardboard tokens were also popular as they made the combat fun, without investing a ton in figurines that I may or may not have.

We completed most of the 1st floor of Otari in about 2.5 hours before we got tired and took a break (my teenager also had homework to do). We will try to finish next weekend, and the kids are already looking forward to generating their own characters using the Core Rulebook (which I purchased at the same time, and will review separately).

As an introduction to Pathfinder, this was a pleasant experience and a useful teaching mechanism to myself and my kids. It was a far cry from the stress-inducing experience I had ages ago and a fresh start to Pathfinder, as well as a great alternative to 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

Even if you are a pretty experienced TTRPG player, it really helps to have a nice hand-holding tool like the Beginner’s Box, to help with the mental transition in rules. Also, the materials included are re-usable in other contexts as well, so it’s not a one-and-done investment either.

P.S. Basic Liches did a really nice review of the Beginner Box here too, and it pretty much lines up with my experiences as well:

1 My kids had to talk me down from selling most of my D&D 5e books to the local used bookstore. It was a sunk cost, and doesn’t do much good to sell now, as we might still play in the future. Instead, we agreed that we’d buy no more D&D products for the foreseeable future. In any case, One D&D doesn’t interest me anyway, so I see little point in that either. My D&D Beyond subscription has already been cancelled too.

2 The same DM also took us through a D&D 5th edition play-through of the Mines of Phandelver, which started out well enough but eventually spiralled out of control too. So, there might have been a pattern.

3 Given that I live about 45 minutes by car from the Paizo headquarters, it’s quite amusing to watch my package go through an elaborate, Byzantine series of handoffs with one carrier to another before it finally arrived. In theory, I could have driven down to pick it up myself, and saved a week of waiting. I don’t blame Paizo for this, but I do blame the amazingly inefficient shipping process. Also, to be fair, I did pick the cheapest shipping option, and well, you get what you pay for…


Photo by Gleb Dolskiy on

A while back, I talked about a famous poetess from 11th century Japan named Lady Izumi, one of several famous ladies of the court at that time, but for some reason the one I find most fascinating.1 Lady Izumi was a prolific poet, and I have been reading samples of her poetry compiled in The Ink Dark Moon by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. I found this poem the other day and wanted to share. The headline of the poem was that Lady Izumi was on retreat while on retreat at a mountain temple in autumn…

Original JapaneseRomanizationEnglish translation
心にはKokoro niwaAlthough I try
ひとつみのりをHitotsu minori woto hold the single thought
思へどもOmoe domoof Buddha’s teaching in my heart,
蟲のこゑこゑMushi wa koegoeI cannot help but hear
聞ゆなるかなKikoyu naru kanathe many crickets’ voices calling as well.
Translations by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

I think this speaks to the classic frustration many Buddhists (among others) have: the willingness to undertake a practice, and the reality of not being able to stay focused. If it were easy, we’d probably all be doing it.

Lately, in an effort to reconnect to the local Buddhist community, and due to recent experiences in Victoria, BC, I decided to join a local Soto Zen group for remote meditation sessions. It’s been great actually: I have something in the week to look forward to besides more work meetings, and it provides a nice spiritual anchor in my life again. However, I noticed that while meditating for 25 minutes at a time, my mind rarely stays focused for long. Sometimes I can discipline myself for a few minutes, counting my breaths, etc. However, most of the time my mind is just wandering around for most of the session.

When I was younger and first encountered the nembutsu, I used to dedicate myself to reciting the nembutsu 1080 times (using my rosary to help count). Usually this takes about 15-20 depending on the speed of recitation. I (surprisingly) continued this practice for months. However, I also noticed a pattern: my mind would quickly grow bored from reciting, then anxious to hurry up and finish, and then relief when I got near the end. My mind would wander, just as it does with meditation.

So, the experience that Lady Izumi has is not unique to her, and even now, a thousand years later, I can empathize with her.

Further, I don’t think there’s an easy solution here: it’s something that every one has to work out for themselves.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Speaking of fascinating, you might like to read my review of the Diary of Lady Murasaki, her contemporary on my other blog. Lady Murasaki evidentially didn’t think too highly of Lady Izumi.

The Amitabha Root Dharani

The Amida Nyorai Konpon Dharani (阿弥陀如来根本陀羅尼) or “Amitabha Root Dharani” is a dharani used in some Japanese Buddhist sects, typically only on the Segaki ritual used to feed the hungry ghosts in Buddhism, or possibly funerals and other similar services. It is typically only found in esoteric rituals in Shingon and Tendai Buddhism, but can be found in Jodo Shu and Zen as well. The dharani is typically of very, very limited use, and not part of normal liturgy.

This page is intended to post the dharani for reference purposes only. Esoteric practices such as mantras and dharani should only be used as recommended by one’s teacher, under a guided training program. I found reference material on this dharani to be almost non-existent in English, hence my decision to post it here.

This page will provide both the Sino-Japanese reading follow by the Sanskrit reading. There are multiple versions of the dharani in Japanese, so pronunciation may vary slightly between them, so for this reason the Sanskrit is provided as well. No translation will be provided as this is part of the esoteric training one should undergo when learning the dharani. Any translation you see online of this, or any mantra/dharani, should be treated as suspect.

Can’t read the characters?

If you’re having trouble reading the Kanji characters, you might have one or two problems with your computer:

  • Your computer may not have Asian fonts installed. In Windows you have to enable UTF8 and East Asian fonts under the Control Panel. Modern Mac computers are fully compatible already.
  • Your browser may be assuming the wrong character set. If you use a relatively modern browser and use UTF8 as character set, you should be able to read fine. IE, Firefox and Safari all read this fine as far as I can tell.

Even if not, then you can still use the romanized characters, and the (terrible) English translation.

Disclaimer and Legal Info

I hereby release this into the public domain. Please use it as you see fit, but if you attribute it to this site, greatly appreciated. Also, please bear in mind this is an amateur work, and should not be taken too seriously.


I dedicate this effort to all sentient beings everywhere. May all beings be well, and may they all attain perfect peace.

Namu Amida Butsu

The Amitabha Root Dharani

Japanese Kana

ノウボウ アラタンノウ タラヤ-ヤ-ノウマク アリヤ-ミタバ-ヤ- タタギャ タヤ-アラカテイ サンミャクサンボダヤ-タニャタ オン アミリテイ アミリトドバンベイ アミリタサンバンベイアミリタギャラベイ アミリタシッデイ アミリタテイゼイ アミリタビキランテイアミリタビキランタ ギャミネイ アミリタギャギャノウ キチキャレイアミリタドンドビソバレイ サラバアラタ サダネイサラバキャラマキレイシャ キャシャヨウキャレイソワカ

Japanese Romanization

nōbō aratannō tarayāyānōmaku ariyāmitabāyā tatagyatayāarakatei sanmyakusanbodayātanyata on amiritei amiritodobanbei amiritasanbanbeiamiritagyarabei amiritashiddei amiritateizei amiritabikiranteiamirita bikiranta gyaminei amirita gyagyasō kichikyareiamirita dondobi sobarei sarabārata sadaneisaraba kyarama kireisha kyashayō kyarei sowaka

Original Sanskrit

Namo ratna-trayāyanamaḥ āryāmitābhāya tathāgatāyārhatesamyak-saṃbuddhāya.Tadyathā oṃ amṛte amṛtodbhave amṛta-saṃbhaveamṛta-garbhe amṛta-siddhe amṛta-teje amṛta-vikrānteamṛta-vikrānta-gāmine amṛta-gagana kīrtikareamṛta-dundubhi-svare sarvārtha sādhanesarva-karma-kleśa-kṣayaṃ-kare svāhā!

Additional Links

All in Japanese, and used for reference.

Example Chant in a Japanese Buddhist Service

An example of this can be seen on Youtube:

P.S. This is an old post from my former blog that I thought I had lost, but recently recovered. Reposting here with better blog formatting. Otherwise, I haven’t changed the contents.

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