Heisig’s “Buddhist” Kanji

As readers may recall, I am studying Japanese kanji using the Heisig method as a way to improve my handwriting and such. The Heisig Method involves learning the kanji in your native language, but also creating stories for each kanji (using the components or “primitives”).

Some of Heisig’s stories are very clear and fitting, while some don’t seem to fit the kanji in my opinion.2 But also, Heisig occasionally has religious stories for the kanji. Some Christian,1 some Buddhist. This post highlights “Buddhist stories” for certain kanji. Some are obviously Buddhist (e.g. “temple”, etc), but others had a very creative interpretation:

  • (Buddhist temple) – includes earth (土) and “glue” (寸). The story here (my version, not Heisig’s) is that an itinerant monk finds a suitable place to setup a temple and becomes “glued” to that spot on the earth. In other words, he doesn’t wander anymore and establishes a temple. Lately, I’ve been reading Bodiford’s history of Soto Zen, and a big reason for Soto’s popularity in the countryside was that they would intentionally send out monks to remote areas to setup new temples, and establish a network from the “home temple” (Sojiji for example).
  • (Time) – This is the same kanji as above, but has 日 in front of it (sun, day, etc). The idea here is that Buddhist temples keep track of time in the old days, and would ring their bells at certain times of the day.
  • (Anxiety) – Here, the elements of “fire” and “head” are put together. As Heisig explains that this anxiety “arises from the inevitable frustration of our worldly passions”. This is very Buddhist sounding. Consider the ancient Fire Sermon (SN 35.28) of the Buddha. 😉
  • (Tolerant) – Here the key to being tolerant, as Heisig explains, is to “see” (the bottom-half) the “hothouse” (top two elements) in one’s own mind. In other words, self-reflection, a hallmark of Buddhism!

Those are the only ones I’ve found so far, but I am only about 10% of the way through the book. I’ll post more as I find them.

1 For Christian examples, he often uses the Book of Genesis and its stories. 元 means “the beginning” and has the primitive of two 二, so it’s story is “In the Beginning were two people, Adam and Eve”. Pretty clever. He uses the story of Cain and Abel for 頑 as well.

2 In such cases, I just find a more suitable English translation (i.e. see what words contain that kanji) and make up my own story. I try to keep this to a minimum though so I don’t diverge from Heisig too much.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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