Sandhi Rules and Sanskrit

My studies of Sanskrit language have continued and I am now, as of writing, have reached chapter 9 of my textbook.  However, things are definitely getting more uphill now as we’ve reached the dreaded “sandhi” (संधि) rules of Sanskrit.

Sanskrit, like nearly every language in the world, has sound changes that naturally happen when certain sounds come together.  This is a natural human phenomena to reduce friction in spoken language, but also influences written language as well.  In the case of Sanskrit, this joining of sounds, and changing is called “sandhi”, but the term sandhi has been expanded in linguistics to apply to any sound changes in any language.

Anyhow, sandhi rules in Sanskrit are particularly complicated.  They make a lot of sense when you get the hang of them, but getting used to all the myriad rules takes a lot of time.

Some rules are kind of straightforward, such as vowel endings.

For example, when certain vowels come together, they either merge or just morph into a different vowel.  For example:

अत्र अश्वः atra aśvaḥ (here horse)

The “a” at the end of the first word, followed by the “a” in the second word, would merge to become ā:

अत्राशवः atrāśvaḥ

Notice how the word gets merged in the process. This commonly happens in Sanskrit, hence the words look super long, but in actuality it’s a multiple words combined together.

The vowel sandhi rule above is not too bad, though.  It gets more complicated with consonant endings and such.  For example:

रामः गच्छति rāmaḥ gacchati (Rama goes)

changes to:

रामो गच्छति rāmo gacchati


रामः तिष्ठति rāmaḥ tiṣṭhati (Rama stands)


रामस्तिष्ठति ramastiṣṭhati

Further, sandhi rules aren’t limited to word endings. For example “n” will sometimes become ṇ if preceded by an “r” or ṛ as in:

गजः (gajaḥ, the elephant) ->
गजेन सह (gajena saha, “with the elephant”)

पुत्रः (putraḥ, the son) ->
पत्रेण सह (putreṇa saha, “with the son”)

…but wait! There’s more!

Anyhow, the key to learning Sandhi rules is to see them in practice. Memorizing the rules is nearly impossible because they’re so complicated, but if you see enough examples of sandhi rules in action, then things tend to make intuitive sense.

It takes some patience to get used to it, but over time, you’ll see how sandhi rules smooth out awkward sound combinations in Sanskrit and make it such a lovely language to read and speak.

Say It Like You Mean It

Recently I’ve been reading a book titled Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan published by Kodansha Press. The book is a biography on Zen masters Ikkyu, Hakuin and Ryokan.

I found a really great quite in there, not by the three masters above, but by another Zen master named Daitō (大燈) better known as Shūhō Myōchō (宗峰妙超, 1282-1337). He was the second patriarch of the main Rinzai lineage that exists today.

While abbot of Daitoku-ji temple, a major Rinzai Zen temple, he gave a final admonition to his students that is still recited there to this day:

All of you who have come to this mountain monastery, do not forget that you are here for the sake of the Way, not for the sake of clothing and food….Address yourselves throughout the day to knowing the unknowable. From start to finish, investigate all things in detail. Time flies like an arrow, so do not waste energy on trivial matters. Be attentive! Be attentive!

After this old monk completes his pilgrimage, some of you may preside over grand temples with magnificent buildings and huge libraries adorned with gold and silver and have many followers. Others may devote themselves to sutra study, esoteric chants, continual meditation, and strict observance of the precepts.  Whatever the course of action, if the mind is not set on the marvelous, transcendent Way of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, causality is negated and the teaching collapses.  Such people are devils and can never be my true heirs.  The one who tends to his own affairs and clarifies his own nature, even though he may be residing in the remote countryside in a hut, subsisting on wild vegetables cooked in a battered old cauldron, encounters my tradition daily and receives my teaching with gratitude.  Who can take this lightly?  Work harder! Work harder! (pg. 16)

There’s something I find really inspiring about this quote.  I feel that what Daito is saying is that whatever Buddhist practice you do, you should really feel committed to the Buddhist path, and not just kind of go in halfway.  Maybe I’m interpreting this wrong, but I can see how someone who’s committed to doing esoteric chants (I don’t) and focused on the Buddhist path will really grow as a person, whereas someone doing it for curiosity and because it’s “cool” or might be looking for some tangible benefit, might not.

You can probably extend this to any Buddhist practice too.

Anyhow, just something cool I wanted to share.

Mindfulness Works

There are plenty of articles on the Internet explaining the benefits of meditation, including Buddhist mindful meditation, but I felt this article was particularly interesting, because it explains why the alternative (a wandering mind) can be harmful.  The idea is that the wandering mind builds up all sorts of anxiety and unease that may have no actual connection to real-life, but tends to take on a life of its own within our minds.  If left unchecked, this can make us suffer when there’s no need for us to.

Although I haven’t been very diligent about meditation in the past, I found this article made a lot of sense for me.  I found that when I get really worked up about something, it helps to stop and take a deep breath for a moment, and just take a moment to pay attention to whatever I’m doing.

Certainly better than the alternative… 😉

Why The Hell Won’t They Listen?

This is something I’ve been meaning to share for a while.  I found this article by the BBC a few months back about how our minds are naturally tend to be biased toward anything that confirms our already-held beliefs.  This is a well-known psychological phenomenon, but what’s interesting is that the article shows how simply telling someone to be objective and unbiased isn’t enough.  You have to actually get someone to see the other side of a viewpoint before they will break out of their mental shell.

This is of course nothing new to Buddhism.  The Buddha taught that all living beings suffer from an array of mental distortions.  These are called kleśa (क्लेश) in Sanskrit, or in Japanese bonnō (煩悩).¹

It’s like wearing a pair of sunglasses for a really long time.  After a while, you forget you’re wearing them, and you just see the world as filtered through the sunglasses.  If you were to take off the sunglasses, even for a moment, you would be surprised and maybe a bit disoriented at how the world looks.  In the same way, Buddhists strive to undo these mental distortions they project onto the world around them, so they can see things as they are.

But what is the source of these distortions?  Ignorance, particularly regarding one’s own self.  As the BBC article shows, people are inherently biased toward themselves.  They form their world-view from limited information and personal experience, and selfish needs regardless of whether that’s accurate or not.  An attack on one’s views, even if they’re wrong, is an attack on one’s self.  People crave validation, sometimes even at the expense of truth.

However, if one were to see the limitations of one’s own self, and their own viewpoint, they may be able to break out and consider possibilities they never considered before.  That is the first step toward wisdom.

¹ I mention the Japanese word here only because you do here it mentioned in Japanese conversation every now and again.  “People are bonnō” and other such comments.

Even in KPop, All Good Things Must Come To An End

After my second child, Little Guy, was born about 3 years ago, a lot of things changed in my life, and a lot of hobbies and personal projects got put on hold for years, not just months.  This included my love of K-Pop music.

I got so out of touch that when I finally started delving back into K-Pop recently, I was kind of taken back by how much had changed.  Some of the bands I knew and liked had broken up, or had become totally defunct.  Just a few months ago, one of my favorite, 2NE1, had a final goodbye song before breaking up.¹

I am sure there’s lots of new and exciting groups too, but I am not really interested in starting over.  As the last groups I used to follow slowly decline and drop off the scene, there’s a certain Buddhist lesson to this all.

The entertainment industry probably exemplifies this more than anything else, but if you look around, you can see it everywhere.

P.S.  So long, 2NE1.  You were a lot of fun.  😥

¹ Bom was always my favorite member of 2NE1.  I hope she finds the happiness and healing she deserves.  🙂

Awakening and the Original Mind

Another post based on the writings of Jinul (지눌, 知訥, 1158–1210), the Korean Buddhist monk.  As with the previous post, I found this quote in Jinul’s major work the Excerpts from the Dharma Collection and Special Practice Record with Personal Notes (법집별항록절요병입사기, 法集別行錄節要幷入私記, beopjip pyeolhaeng nok cheolyo byeongip sagi).

Now, the sudden awakening to the constant awareness of the original mind is like recognizing the immutable moist nature of water.  Since the mind is no longer deluded, there is no ignorance.  It is as if the wind had suddenly stopped.  After awakening, mental disturbances naturally come to a gradual halt like waves which gradually subside.  By developing both body and mind in sīla, samādhi, and prajñā, you gradually become self-reliant until you are unhindered in displaying magic and miracles and can universally benefit all sentient beings.  This is called Buddhahood… (pg. 170, Tracing Back the Radiance, trans. Professor Robert Buswell)

There’s a couple things worth pointing out in this quote:

  • Jinul takes an approach of sudden awakening, followed by gradual cultivation.  This is the foundation of Korean Seon Buddhism, but differs slightly from other schools of Zen.
  • Jinul upholds the importance of the three “pillars” of Buddhism:
    • sīla – Personal conduct (e.g. the Five Precepts, Right Action, Right Livelihood, etc).  Personal conduct isn’t just for one’s own benefits, but also benefits those around you, which in turns does benefit oneself.
    • samādhi – A state of heightened awareness and focus, brought about through meditation training.  In other words, the fruits of long-term Buddhist practice.
    • prajñā – Wisdom and insight.  This is more passive, but part of the natural growth and maturation of a Buddhist.

Interesting stuff.

Hakuin’s Hymn of Zen

Hi All,

I was doing a bit of research lately on various kinds of Japanese-Buddhist home services by sect, known informally in Japanese as otsutomé (お勤め) or more formally as gongyō (勤行).  While looking at the Rinzai Zen services in particular, I encountered something I had never seen before called Song of Zen by the 17th-century Zen master Hakuin.  The actual name in Japanese for this “song” seems to be the zazen wasan (坐禅和讃) or hakuin zenshi zazen wasan (白隠禅師坐禅和讃).  The term “wasan” probably would be better translated as “hymn”,¹ so for the sake of this post, I call it the Hymn of Zen.

But enough about linguistics, what the heck is it?

This is a kind of Buddhist hymn composed by Hakuin that explains Zen teachings in a simple, accessible series of verses.  Unlike more traditional Japanese-Buddhist writing which uses Sino-Japanese writing (that is Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciation), this hymn was composed in more vernacular Japanese for easy readability by followers.

The translation below is by Trevor Legget (Japanese version can be found on Wikipedia for reference):

All beings are from the very beginning Buddhas.

It is like water and ice:

Apart from water, no ice,

Outside living beings, no Buddhas.

Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar.

What a pity!

It is like one in the water who cries out for thirst;

It is like the child from a rich house

Who has strayed away among the poor.

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

Is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance.

Dark path upon dark path treading.

When shall we escape from birth-and-death?

The Zen meditation of the Mahayana

Is beyond all praise.

Giving and morality and the other perfections,

Taking of the name, repentance, discipline,

And the many other right actions,

All come back to the practice of meditation.

By the merit of a single sitting

He destroyed innumerable accumulated sins.

How should there be wrong paths for him?

The Pure Land paradise is not far.

When in reverence this truth is heard even once,

He who praises it and gladly embraces it

Has merit without end.

How much more he who turns within

And confirms directly his own nature,

That his own nature is no-nature –

Such has transcended vain words.

The gate opens, and cause and effect are one;

Straight runs the way – not two, not three.

Taking as form the form of no-form,

Going or returning, he is ever at home.

Taking as thought the thought of no-thought,

Singing and dancing, all is the voice of truth.

Wide is the heaven of boundless Samadhi,

Radiant the full moon of the fourfold wisdom.

What remains to be sought?

Nirvana is clear before him,

This very place the Lotus Paradise,

This very body the Buddha.

The references to the Lotus Paradise and Pure Land allude to the Pure Land of Shakyamuni Buddha as described in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which Hakuin was deeply devoted to since his youth.


¹ See for example Shinran’s Hymns of the Pure Land (jōdo wasan, 浄土和讃) composed in the 13th century.  These short, melodious hymns are usually chanted during the end of reciting the Shoshinge in Jodo Shinshu services.  Speaking from experience.