Writing An Essay In Japanese Language

Essay in Japanese

Writing essays in school isn’t, but writing them in a foreign language as a working parent of two? Even harder.

It’s a long story, but my kids go to an afterschool Japanese-language school, and we’re good friends with the family that runs the school. The teacher knew of my interest in Japanese history, and since I am not Japanese, but can speak some, she gave me a challenge to write an essay for the class. She felt it would be fun for the kids to hear from someone who isn’t Japanese describing why they like Japan and its history, as an inspiration for them.

So, that’s when I realized that I had never really written anything in Japanese since college and that was almost 20 years ago.

Fortunately, at some point in the past, I had picked up this delightful little book:

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This is another book in a series featuring Chibi Marukochan, one of my favorite cartoons from Japan. I own the book on the Hyakunin Isshu1 and on speaking Keigo, but at some point I purchased this book on how to write essays in Japanese. The series of books is geared toward grade-school kids in Japan, not foreigners like me, but the easier Japanese, helpful explanations and fun characters make them really fun to read.

Japanese essays, or sakubun (作文) are normally written on special grid-like paper called genkō yōshi (原稿用紙), which looks like this (source: Wikipedia):

624px-genkoyoshi1

You begin writing your essay from the upper-right, downward. There’s some important rules to bear in mind as far as formatting goes, but I already covered this in a different post from a few years ago.

But the Chibi Marukochan book wasn’t focused on the format, it was focused on how to actually write an essay.

For example, the book helped explain that there are basically 3 types of sentences in Japanese:

  1. What something is doing, for example: まる子が歌う (maruko ga utau, “Maruko is singing”)
  2. What something is like, for example: 水が冷たい (mizu ga tsumetai, “water is cold”)
  3. A is B, for example: これは教科書 (kore wa kyoukasho, “this is a textbook”)

It’s important to recognize this, even if you know some Japanese, because it’s easy to forget. For example here’s a sentence from the book, slightly modified:

私は、冬休みに見た映画はとても面白かった。

To a Japanese learner, this sentence might look right, but it’s actually not. This is a better version:

私は、冬休みに見た映画はとても面白いと思った。

Both of these, if translated into English, would mean “the movie I saw during Winter Break was interesting”, but the second one is correct because it uses correct patterns consistently. The first pattern 私は、…思った (I thought, e.g. what something is doing) while the second pattern is 映画はとても面白い (the movie is/was interesting, e.g. what something is like).

A separate example is to not repeat the same words in the sentence, by using です to substitute. For example, this sentence is awkward (again, adapted from the book):

私の家の庭にあるのは、高い木があります。

Where as this sounds more smooth:

私の家の庭にあるのは、高い木です。

Again, both of these in English mean “In the garden of my house is a tall tree.” The difference is that the first sentence uses the verb ある twice, where as the second sentence substitutes the second ある with です. More on using です can be found in the most excellent Japanese language guide by Tae Kim.

But also, I learned a lot of other useful tips that would work in English too:

  • Decide on your topic ahead of time. It will help focus your essay more.
  • Use your five senses to describe things, rather than just explaining them.
  • Write the first draft out first, then edit. Don’t get bogged down halfway through trying to fix things.
  • Don’t be afraid to proofread.
  • Brevity is good; it’s OK to break up long, droning sentences into shorter ones.

So, how’d my essay go? Pretty good actually. The Japanese moms probably enjoyed the essay more than the kids did, but overall it went pretty well, even though I started speaking too fast (a perennial issue).

If you’re in the same boat, and looking for tips on writing essays in Japanese, hopefully this page will help. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not actually that hard, and is even kind of fun. There’s nothing quite like expressing your thoughts and feelings in a foreign language. 🙂

1 Which was a huge help in writing my other blog. 🙂

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Which is the Highest Teaching in Buddhism?

One of the features of Buddhism is that it has no central authority. The Buddhist advised his disciples in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16 of the Pali Canon):

Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ananda, “Now, if it occurs to any of you — ‘The teaching has lost its authority; we are without a Teacher’ — do not view it in that way. Whatever Dhamma & Vinaya I have pointed out & formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone. (trans. Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

However, over countless generations, across many parts of the Buddhist world, this has led to a lot of question and discussion about what is the highest and most important of the Buddha’s teachings?

Countless priests and teachers have tried organizing the jumbled mess of disparate Buddhist teachings and sutras that comprise the corpus of Buddhism into a hierarchy. Inevitably there is some teaching at the top that is the highest teaching with other texts and teachings complementing or leading up to it.

Many Buddhist schools even today are basically built around one hierarchy or another. Then there is the anti-intellectual strain that tries to throw it all away claiming “fingers pointing at the moon”.

So how does one make sense of all this? Which one is the highest teaching?

I tend to take the practical approach and say that whichever teaching or sutra is the most meaningful for you is the one you should treat as the highest teaching. I don’t mean this as an “anything goes” approach, but rather the one the inspires and benefits you the most and keeps you motivated to follow and practice the Buddhist teachings.

This utilitarian approach runs against the more theoretical arguments of Buddhists past and present but I don’t really care. If a teaching is touted as the best and most important in Buddhism, but has no resonance or is incomprehensible, what use is it to you?

Further, your outlook will change and evolve as your understanding of Buddhism also deepens so what seems like the best and most useful sutra to you will change. In my younger years, I was really fixated on the Heart Sutra, then later the Amitabha Sutra (a.k.a. The smaller Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra), and these days it’s a mix of the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. And it may change again.

That’s normal and nothing to be ashamed of. The point is, don’t stop moving forward. Always be growing, learning and maturing as a person until the very end.

Dogen Says Think Before You Speak

Hey guys, I mentioned in a recent video a quote from Dogen, the 13th-century Zen master who founded Soto Zen.  I wanted to post the quote here:

Students, when you want to say something, think about it three times before you say it. Speak only if your words will benefit yourselves and others. Do not speak if it brings no benefit.

This quote actually comes from section 6 of a Soto Zen text called the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki which is a collection of informal Dharma talks by Dogen, as ascribed by his student Koun Ejō.

I got curious about what the original quote was in Japanese,1 and spent a lot of time poking around the Intertubes to find it. There really wasn’t anything in English, and it was surprisingly hard to find in Japanese, not without a lot of trial and error anyway. But eventually I found a couplelinks among others. As far as I can tell, the actual quote is:

示に云く、「三覆して後に云へ」と云ふ心は、おほよそものを云はんとする時も、事を行はんとする時も、必ず三覆して後に云ひ行ふべし

A very rough translation might be:2The teacher [Dogen] said that the mind that “thinks three minds before speaking”, as a rule will consider something three times, and if it’s not something that ought not be said, and not something that ought not be done, then one should say it.

Phew.

Anyhow, the real take-away (assuming this translation is even remotely close), is:3三覆して後に云へ
mitabikaesou shite ato ni ie

In other words: consider three times before speaking.

Have fun, and watch your tongue! 😉

P.S.  Older post using the same quotation.

P.P.S. The main English-language Soto Zen homepage in Japan has a nice translation of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki.

1 I don’t trust Buddhist translations in English, especially ones that don’t properly cite their source. Zen quotes are particularly notorious about this. In fact there’s a whole blog about bad translations and questionable citations. 🙂

2 Seriously, this is a pretty rough translation. If anyone can read medieval Japanese, please feel free to critique the above.

3 The word mitabikaesou (三覆) seems to be particularly tricky. The first chinese character is “three” (三) which is pretty obvious. But the second one, 覆, is less obvious. In other modern Japanese, it is used in words like kutsugaeru (覆る) meaning to be overruled or reversed, or more commonly as ōu (覆う) meaning to hide or conceal. You can probably guess how the usage in Dogen’s time (13th century) probably evolved into what it is now.

Buddhism Here and Now

This past weekend, the family and I enjoyed a nice camping trip at Deception Pass State Park in Washington State with a group of friends. The park is adjacent to a really nice beach that looks out toward the Puget Sound:

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It was Sunday morning, and 13 of us (5 adults, 8 kids) all marched down to the beach from our campsite when I noticed a young woman doing meditation on a yoga mat in an isolated corner of the beach. The kids were completely oblivious and overran the beach, obviously disturbing her moment of peace. It was already too late to stop the tide of children; her transcendent moment was over.

I feel like this is a kind of metaphor for life in general.

People (myself included) like to retreat from the hassles of life and rejuvenate spiritually and physically.  This can mean family vacations, camping, meditation retreats, and so on.  But the problem is that sooner or later, the hassles of life come back.  I’ve noticed that after I visit Japan in the summer with family, I felt a kind of afterglow after coming back, but that would only last until my first day or two back at work.

Also, as much as it is good to practice Buddhism in a dedicated time and place, there’s also virtue in practicing Buddhism amidst the hassles of life, rather than trying to retreat from it.

In the English translation of his book, Living Yogacara, Rev. Shun’ei discusses this in the opening chapter:

While it is indeed the case that anyone who is practicing meditation in a Buddha-hall is seeking enlightenment as some sort of distant goal, the fct is that the temples, practice centers, and the Buddhist path do not exist for any purpose other than for us to fully understand ourselves exactly as we are here and now. (pg. 2)

There’s a lot you can learn about yourself and life in general from practicing Buddhism within the daily hassles of life.  It won’t necessarily make those problems go away or get better, but then again, that’s just part of life.

P.S. More photos from Deception Pass State Park.

P.P.S. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!

Everyday Nembutsu

As part of my sudden burst of creativity, I’ve been re-reading a book in Japanese about Jodo Shu Buddhism (previously mentioned here) and I found an interesting passage worth sharing.

…浄土宗では、毎日のおつとめではもちろん、日常生活のなかでいつでも念仏をとなえることをすすめています。

ですから、きちんと正座・合掌してとなえられなくても、食事の仕度をしながら、テレビを見ながらなど “ながら念仏” でよいので、念仏を口ずさむようにするとよいでしょう。 (pg. 176)

As a rough translation (any mistakes here are mine), this passage says:

As for Jodo Shu, the daily home [Buddhist] service is a given, but also during one’s daily life we go forward, reciting the Buddha’s name (nembutsu) anytime.

Thus, even if you’re not properly seated in seiza,¹ with your hands together in gassho,² while preparing a meal, watching television, this kind of “Everyday Nembutsu” is good to practice, even humming the nembutsu to yourself is a good thing, wouldn’t’ you agree?

The key phrase here that really caught my attention was nagara nembutsu (ながら念仏).  The grammatical term “nagara” in Japanese language expresses doing one thing, while also doing another.  As a mundane example:

テレビを見ながら、宿題をする。

terebi wo miNAGARA, shukudai wo suru.

“I do homework while watching TV.”

So, here, the term “nagara nembutsu” means reciting the Nembutsu while doing other things (e.g. preparing meal, watching TV, etc).  But also the passage implies that the point isn’t just to recite the nembutsu while doing other specific actions, but to just make it a daily part of ones life.  Hence, I call it “everyday nembutsu”.

As opposed to a fix time of practice daily (otsutome in Japanese), the author is suggesting that while that’s a perfectly fine thing to do, it’s even better if it becomes a part of your everyday life.

I think there’s a lot of value in making Buddhism a part of your daily life, regardless of what that specifically means, and I think the nembutsu is one useful way to make that work.

¹ More on Japanese “seiza” sitting here.

² This is a nice explanation what “gassho” means in Japanese Buddhism

Blog Updates: May 2018

Dear Readers,

I just wanted to post some updates about the blog, video channel, etc.

First, I decided to delete my personal Facebook account. I did this in protest of the misuse of personal data by Facebook, among other reasons, but I apologize in advance for people who had subscribed to the Facebook page. For those who like to follow along though, I still maintain a Twitter feed at @klingonbuddhist. At some point, you get diminishing returns with extra social-media accounts to manage, and I’m pretty happy with what I have now.

Second, I am working on getting back to a regular cadence both on the blog and on the video channel. I haven’t figured out exactly what that cadence will be, but I will definitely keep people posted.  I feel like I have suffered “writer’s block” for the last few months, probably since the start of 2018, but as mysteriously as it came, it also seems to have disappeared.  I am looking forward to posting new content both here and on Youtube, and maybe making a new Beginner Buddhism series to replace the original season 1 and 2 I made (hopefully with better quality videos ☺ ).

Finally, I may be expanding the blog to not just talk about narrow Buddhist topics, but may expand to other cultural and language topics (or just nerdy subjects) as appropriate.  I used to do that for the old blog, but when I started this one, I felt it was necessary to focus on Buddhism only.  However now a couple years have passed and I might branch out again, or possible spin off a second non-Buddhist blog. Time will tell.

Anyhow, thanks as always for your support and your continued interest. ☺

–Doug

Happy Children’s Day 2018

May 5th in Japan is traditionally Children’s Day or kodomo no hi (子供の日). Although originally it was “Boy’s Day” in ancient times as a counterpart to Girl’s Day on March 3rd, it has broadened over the years to include all children.

Families still assemble displays of armor like so to wish for their sons’ success in life, but also people hang special windsocks that look like Japanese koi fish called koinobori (鯉のぼり 🎏) among other things. Children also enjoy kashiwochi which is a kind of sweet rice pastry wrapped in leaves of the White Oak tree.

The leaves are very tough and chewy, so make sure to unwrap those before eating. 😉

So to all children everywhere, Happy Children’s Day!!