Back from Japan

Hey Folks,

Just an update, but I came back a few days ago from my yearly trip to Japan. For those not aware, my wife, kids and I travel to Japan yearly to visit her relatives (particularly her aging parents), and get the kids exposed to Japanese culture and language.

I can’t stay for the entire trip due to work, so I usually go for a portion of the trip and then head back home.

This year, Japan was unusually hot, even by Japanese standards, so even just walking to the train station left me and the kids sweating. Thankfully, everywhere in Japan has air-conditioning, so once you get to the train or the store, things get a lot more tolerable.

Also, this year I got to visit more temples and other things in Japan1 so I will be making future posts soon of some of my visits. I posted a few teaser photos on the Twitter feed too.

Right now though, I am going to get a good nap. Jetlag from Japan to the US is pretty intense because you’re wide awake all night, but sleepy during the day. It’s like living like a vampire for a week. :p

1 The past couple years were kind of dry. Our son was too small, so it was hard to travel, plus we had other obligations.


A Japanese Poem for July

Recently Japan celebrated the yearly festival of Tanabata. I have been in Japan visiting my wife’s relatives these past weeks and so I got to enjoy Tanabata here in Japan.

Then I saw this famous (and timely) haiku poem on the children’s show Nihongo de Asobo (which I have mentioend many many times on the blog):


Utsukushiya, shōji no ana no ama no gawa

This translates into something like: How beautiful! The Milky Way seen through a hole in a shōji paper screen.

Happy Summer all!

P.S. This poem was originally composed by Kobayashi Issa.

Rethinking the Alignment Chart of Dungeons and Dragons

I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition with my daughter and with good friends at work, so I consider myself familiar with the famous Alignment Chart

Good Lawful Good Lawful Neutral Lawful Evil Evil
Neutral Good True Neutral Neutral Evil
Chaotic Good Chaotic Neutral Chaotic Evil

This chart is used to fit characters and their dispositions into certain alignments such as Lawful Good or Neutral Evil. It also affects some aspects of the adventure, such as going to special planes of a certain alignment, or fighting denizens from certain planes.

But if you ever played D&D, you’ll know that every player has a slightly different interpretation of these alignments. Lawful Good is usually pretty easy to understand, but what’s the different between say Neutral Evil and Chaotic Evil? Or Lawful Good vs. Lawful Neutral?

So, I had a small epiphany on how it works, and this relates a little bit to Buddhism.

There are two, general axes to the alignment chart: good vs. evil, law vs. chaos.  Law vs. chaos is fairly easy to understand, though I tend to think of it as order vs. liberty.

Good vs. evil is a bit harder since people may interpret each differently.  However, I realized in my small epiphany that it’s basically a struggle between ego vs. non-ego.  Evil is by nature selfish and concerned with one’s preservation at the cost of others.  Good of course the opposite.  It is selflessness.  Here we see how the self (ego) is the root of suffering in that it drives people to put themselves above others, causing misery to others and ultimately to oneself.  This in turn drives the person to do more evil as a quick fix to one’s own misery.

Good in this context would be letting go one’s evil and considering others. By doing so one creates harmony and well-being and ultimately benefits oneself too.

So if we give this a bit of a Buddhist re-interpretation:

Selfless (non-ego) Lawful Good Lawful Neutral Lawful Evil Selfish (ego)
Neutral Good True Neutral Neutral Evil
Chaotic Good Chaotic Neutral Chaotic Evil

But how does law and chaos fit into this? This axis is not related to self or ego, but more what sort of environment one prefers. A lawful neutral person would prefer order at all costs, regardless of whether it’s morally good or bad. Similarly, a person who is chaotic-neutral values their freedom more than taking any particular moral (or amoral) code.

So, what about Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, probably the two most dramatic examples. A person who is lawful good prefers order and harmony (everyone working together) while a person who is chaotic evil prefers every man for himself, and getting whatever he can get away with. Similarly, a chaotic good person would prefer to do good on their own terms (i.e. liberty), while a lawful evil person feels comfortable in an orderly environment, so long as he can get something out of it.

Anyhow, that’s just one man’s interpretation of D&D, a beloved game he’s enjoyed since AD&D 2nd Edition. 🙂

P.S. Apologies for some of the table-formatting issues. The blog service doesn’t allow some HTML features to render. :-/

The Bodhisattva Precepts in Tendai Buddhism

One of the more unusual features of the Japanese Tendai sect of Buddhism compared to its parent Tiantai sect in China, is how it approaches monastic discipline.

The Tiantai sect uses the traditional 250 precepts for monks (348 for nuns) called the Prathimoksa or in Chinese si fen lü (四分律). For devoted lay followers the Five Precepts are upheld.

The Tendai sect during the time of Saicho the founder, made an explicit choice to not use the si fen lu precepts and instead chose to use the Bodhisattva Precepts. In Japanese these are called the endonkai (円頓戒, “perfect precepts”) or daijōkai (大乗戒)

The Bodhisattva Precepts are defined in a Buddhist text called the Brahma Net Sutra.1 The sutra lists Ten Major and 48 minor precepts that bodhisattva disciples were expected to follow. However, typically the Bodhisattva Precepts are only the ten major precepts:

  1. Not to take life, or induce others to take life
  2. Not to steal
  3. Not to have sex
  4. Not to tell lies
  5. Not to sell intoxicants
  6. Discussing the faults of the Sangha (Buddhist community)
  7. Praising oneself and criticizing others
  8. Not to be stingy
  9. Not to harbor anger
  10. Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha)

Priests in the Tendai Order ordain in the Bodhisattva Precepts and not the Prathimoksa precepts.

In the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, the author explores the question of why the Tendai school explicitly broke away from Buddhist convention. Other more established schools in Japan ordained their monks in the traditional way and Saicho was ordained that way too.

So why the break in tradition? Professor Groner hypothesized that Saicho was trying to distinguish the Tendai Order from their rivals, particularly the powerful Hossō (Yogacara) school which it had a difficult relationship with. By using a more “pure” Mahayana set of principles for its monastic order, Saicho meant to make his Order a more purely “Mahayana” school.

Further, Saicho argued that the original Prathimoksa rules were given by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, at a particular time and place. In contrast, the Bodhisattva Precepts are universal and suitable for all times and places.

It’s an interesting argument. Indeed, if you look in the Vinaya Pitaka where the Prathimoksa are defined, many rules were situational to address misconduct by various disciples. On the other hand, the some of the Bodhisattva Precepts are kind of vague and open to interpretation. Traditionally in China both precepts were administered: first the Prathimoksa and then the Bodhisattva Precepts on top of it. This covers both bases I suppose.

In any case, the choice by the Tendai to use the Bodhisattva precepts for ordination had a huge effect on Japanese Buddhism because many existing schools are offshoots of the Tendai: Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, Jodo Shu, Nichiren Shu and so on.

P.S. This article in Wikipedia that both Korean and Japanese Buddhism use the Bodhisattva Precepts but does not cite sources. More research required.

1 There are actually two entirely separate sutras of the same name, one in the Pali Canon (Theravada) and the Mahayana version. This is the latter.

One Vehicle Buddhism

Still reading the Japanese-language introduction to Tendai Buddhism called うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”). One thing the book talks about a lot is the Tendai-Buddhist concept of ichijō bukkyō (一乗仏教) or “one-vehicle Buddhism”.

The idea is not necessarily unique to Tendai though. In the Lotus Sutra, chapter two, the Buddha surprises all his followers by stating that all the different “vehicles” of Buddhism are in fact one vehicle because they all converge to the same endpoint anyway.

To clarify, Mahayana Buddhism has always listed three basic types of disciples:

  • Śravaka or “voice-hearers” (Japanese: shōmon, 声聞) – These are the students who “hear” the Buddha’s teachings and try to practice them in their life in order to attain liberation. Such people, if they attain awakening, would become arhats (or arahants) which means “noble ones”.
  • Pratyekabuddha or “private buddha” (Japanese: engaku, 縁覚) – these are beings who come upon the Dharma by the themselves and attain liberation. For whatever reason, they lack the capacity for teaching to others, hence they differ from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who had an active ministry.
  • Bodhisattva or “seeker of Enlightenment” (Japanese: bosatsu, 菩薩) – these are beings who seek Enlightement as part of a series of vows to liberate and help others. More on Bodhisattvas here.

In some Buddhist schools, these are seen as separate, distinct paths or “vehicles”, but the Lotus Sutra turns things on its head by saying that these ultimately converge anyway, so it’s really just one single path.

According to the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, this led to a very intense debate in China between the Tiantai and Faxiang schools, and this debate carried over in Japan too. Saicho from the Tendai school debated heavily with the Hosso (Faxiang / Yogacara) school particularly with a brilliant scholar-monk named Tokuitsu who defended the Hosso school’s Five Natures Doctrine.

Even today it’s still an interesting argument to consider: are there really three possible outcomes for Enlightenment or one? Is everybody destined to become a Buddha or only some?

The Pali Canon subtly implies that there are three vehicles, not one. But the Lotus Sutra asserts a more idealistic vision.

Which one do you think is right?

Tendai Buddhism and the Four Integrated Schools

Lately, as I continue my read of Tendai Buddhism in the Japanese-language introduction うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”), I was introduced to a concept called sōgōbukkyō (総合仏教) which means “integrated Buddhism”. Elsewhere the book uses the term shishūyūgō (四宗融合) which means something like “Blending the Four Schools Together”.

The idea in Tendai Buddhism is to bring together the four major practices into a single school. These are:

  • Meditation (禅)
  • The Pure Land (浄土)
  • Precepts (律)
  • Esotericism (密教)

The Tendai approach is that all of these schools are not mutually exclusive, but rather part of a larger path. A senior teacher or ajari (阿闍梨) will need to have training in all four2, but for a regular follower any one of them can be a starting point and a life-long practice.

All of these are united under the theoretical teachings in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra including “expedient means” and “one-vehicle buddhism” so there’s no conflict.

Further, in terms of sutras important to the Tendai tradition, it varies depending on which of the four traditions your talking about:

But also, as part of general Mahayana tradition, the Tendai school’s important sutras include the Flower Garland Sutra, the Sutra of Benevolent Kings, the Golden Light Sutra and of course the Lotus Sutra. Also, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way among others.

Anyhow, what’s interesting about the Tendai approach is that it is both broad and comprehensive. In my past experiences with certain Buddhist schools (not just one), I always felt pressure to “toe the line” and do things according to that particular school without mixing other things. Always the bugbear among some of the more orthodox people I met was blending other teachings and “causing confusion”. Because of my eclectic background, this always puts me in an awkward position and makes me only want to commit half-heartedly.

Whereas in Tendai, these approaches are given equal weight, and with a theoretical foundation (i.e. the Lotus Sutra) which I agree with anyway.

The more I’ve studied Buddhism over the years (why it’s become such an obsession I’ll never know), the more I’ve come to appreciate the whole thing.

Consider the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

However immeasurable the Buddha’s Teachings are, I earnestly aspire to comprehend them all.

However incomparable the Enlightened Mind is, I earnestly aspire to attain it by all means.

Mahayana Buddhism is big and messy sometimes, and suffers from constantly trying to one-up itself. However, Mahayana Buddhism also likes to think on a grand, cosmic scale, and thus meditation, the Pure Land, the Lotus Sutra, conduct and even esoteric Buddhism are all useful and important. None of these are the ineffable Dharma in and of itself, but each one is an expression of it.

Further, I also think people should have the freedom to choose and practice one or all of them without guilt or fear of orthodoxy. Granted, they need a well-trained teacher and some discipline at the outset, but each one of us comes into the world with a different background and different inclination so we naturally gravitate toward certain things. As long as the we’re all heading on the same long-term direction, that’s fine.

So, suffice to say I really appreciate the Tendai approach to integrated Buddhism.

1 This is one of things that makes Tendai differ from its parent Tiantai school, which focused exclusively on meditation and pure land practices. Monastic codes differed too, with the Chinese Tiantai following the traditional monastic model, and the Tendai school using the Bodhisattva Precepts instead.

2 Which makes sense if you think about it: a senior teacher needs adequate training and experience in order to teach others.

Helping Others

The founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, Saicho (767 – 822), famously said:


ichigu wo terasu,
kore sunawachi kokuho nari

This means:

“Light one corner of the world,
in this way you will be a national treasure.”