Happy 2018

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Dear Readers,

Happy New Year! 2017 had been a good year overall, and I am looking forward to 2018. We had a good time for New Year’s, too. Folks might remember a recent post where I talked about Japanese New Year or oshōgatsu.

I wanted to briefly share a few things that happened for New Year’s.

First, my daughter “Princess” celebrated her birthday just after Christmas and just before New Year. She is no longer a little girl, but has grown up into a fine, intelligent young lady. We are very proud. She enjoyed her birthday with friends, got to have a makeover at a health spa, and got her ears pierced.

New Year’s Eve itself, Ōmisoka, was tons of preparation followed by tons of food brought by friends:

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We watched the yearly special on Japanese TV, Kōhaku Uta Gassen, but I was so busy playing with all the kids, I missed most of it. Plus, my favorite act, Golden Bomber, was not on, so there wasn’t much motivation to watch it. Amazingly though, we did manage to stay up until midnight (unlike past years).

Just in the nick of time we also enjoyed toshi-koshi soba:

Toshi-koshi soba

Finally came New Year’s Day itself. We all woke up late that morning, but we still managed to have a traditional Japanese New Year’s breakfast:

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The white and orange thing in the middle is a kagami-mochi, which is a kind of display for New Year, the same way a Cornucopia is used for Thanksgiving in the US. Inside the kagami-mochi is a real mochi rice-cake though, so on the 11th, you can open it and use it for soup and such.

Other foods shown here are associated in some way with good luck or something auspicious. For example, the baked snapper fish (or “tai” in Japanese) is associated with gratitude/joy which is medetai. And other such things like that.

Finally, we did hatsumōde, or first temple visit of the year, at the usual Shingon-Buddhist temple. More on that in a later post, since this year is a “yakudoshi” year for me! 😮

On the 2nd, I took that day off too, and spent some time visiting my grandmother, who lives in a nursing home. My kids were happy to see their great-grandmother too. We had a great time together, and then the family and I did a bit of shopping for the kids and went home and relaxed for the first time in probably 2 months.

Anyhow, hope you all had a great New Year’s Day too!

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Getting Ready for Japanese New Year

Hi all,

The month of Shiwasu is coming to an end and now it’s time for Japanese New Year!  Japanese New Year, or oshōgatsu (お正月), originally coincided with the Chinese lunar calendar and thus coincided with “new year” events in China, Korea and Vietnam.  However, with the reforms in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the solar calendar was adopted, and everything shifted accordingly.1

If I were to describe Japanese New Year, I would say it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined.  It has lots of winter traditions like Christmas, and has lots of good food and gifts for the kids, and lasts 3 days.  It’s something the whole family can enjoy together without all the fuss of holiday shopping.  In another sense, it’s very different than Thanksgiving and Christmas because the traditions have evolved from a different culture.

Still, it is one of my favorite times of the year, so with all the Christmas hullabaloo out of the way, we can ease into Oshogatsu and celebrate the end of the year.

Typically at our home, we celebrate New Year’s Eve (Ōmisoka 大晦日) by watching the yearly Japanese music special Kōhaku Uta Gassen, and my wife making toshi-koshi soba. The term toshi-koshi (年越し) means something like “crossing the year” and is a special kind soba-noodle soup people eat only on New Year’s Eve night. Since I am not exactly young anymore, I don’t really stay up for the whole Kohaku special, plus my favorite groups usually show up in the first half anyway, but I usually stay up long enough to enjoy the soba.

On New Year’s day, we enjoy some kind of osechi-ryōri (お節料理), which is a special kind of New Year’s platter that includes a lot of traditionally “auspicious” foods. When the kids were younger2 and we used to spend New Year’s in Japan, the osechi would be pretty elaborate and we’d be eating for 3 days. Inevitably, some of the food gets picked over, and kind of goes to waste, and since there’s only 4 of us to celebrate here in the US, we usually make our osechi much smaller and finish it by the second day.

Finally, there is the tradition of Hatsumōde. This is the first visit of the year to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Both religions have co-existed in Japan for many centuries (not always easily), and so they’ve influenced one another to the point that it’s not always easy to tell the difference at first glance. For many people in Japan, the tradition of Hatsumode might be one of the few times of the year they visit a temple/shrine3 and is a time to solicit a blessing for the rest of the year.

We typically go to a certain Shingon-Buddhist temple that is fairly removed from our house for hatsumode even though we rarely ever go during the rest of the year. None of us are particularly inclined toward esoteric Buddhism (we are even less inclined toward Shinto religion), and it is pretty far from our house, but it’s one of the few temples in the area that does a proper hatsumode service and isn’t clingy.4

Anyhow, that’s Oshogatsu in a nutshell. I will be posted more soon. Stay tuned!

1 Buddhist holidays in Japan also shifted similarly, hence they don’t coincide anymore with same holidays in mainland Asia.

2 With our kids being older and enrolled in school here in the US, it’s easier to visit in the summer. Either way, airfare to Japan is super expensive for both times of year. I would love to travel during Spring or Autumn, but haven’t done so in many years.

3 Just as many families in the West might only visit Church for certain holidays.

4 Japanese temples in the US can be either clingy due to lack of community, or so Westernized that they don’t follow any Japanese traditions. Or they just don’t cater to family (i.e. Zen temples). Hard to find a proper “family” Japanese temple for this reason.

Getting Ready for Bodhi Day 2017

It’s my second favorite time of year!  Christmas is coming up, as is Japanese New Year, or oshōgatsu. But there’s another holiday I am looking forward to: Bodhi Day.

Depending on which Buddhist tradition you follow, you might celebrate Vesak instead, but many traditions observe the Buddha’s enlightenment (bodhi) on the 8th day of the 12th month. For the solar calendar, that’s December 8th.

Bodhi Day 2010

This is a photo we took from when my daughter, Princess, was maybe 4 years old. We setup a fake Christmas tree as a “Bodhi Tree” and added a few offerings like satsuma-oranges and such. You can read more about it here.

A couple years ago we got a better, more sturdy mini-tree:

Bodhi Day 2017

We haven’t finished decorating the tree, but it’s a start.

Since the kids aren’t really actively Buddhist (nor do I really want to force it upon them), we keep things kind of simple. I usually read a story about the life of the Buddha on Bodhi Day “eve”, and also on the morning of, we give the kids some kind of wholesome gift, particularly books. Then we just have lots of fun family time.

The point is to just keep it fun and simple, not hit the kids over the head with too much religious stuff.

As for adults out there, a happy and peaceful Bodhi Day to all!

P.S. My favorite time of year is early November when Halloween is over and we can look forward to Thanksgiving.  That, and my birthday.  😉

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving here in the US is one of my favorite holidays of the year.  It doesn’t have the rampant commercialism of Christmas, with all the stress it brings, and it doesn’t have the blatant consumption of Halloween.  I like both holidays, but they are kind of exhausting.  Thanksgiving always feel a little more low-key, even though people just want to stuff their face with turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce.

But the idea of giving thanks and showing appreciation is of course very Buddhist.

The First Thanksgiving cph.3g04961

Buddhism teaches the (possibly poorly-named) concept of “no-self” or anātman (also called anattā).  This just means that we have no permanent, static self like a soul, essence or anything like that.  We arise through our parents, our environment, circumstances and so on, and none of that we can truly call our own.  Further, all that we are is fluid, subject to change like the seasons and so on.

But it also means that everything we are is due to the kindness and goodwill of others, even if it’s not always due to noble intentions.  The food we eat, the clothes we wear and so on comes from other living beings, their sweat and labor, or even their lives.  We tend to forget this for the sake of self-interest, but it’s still true.

When a person takes a moment to reflect on all the things that makes this life possible, then that person steps outside their own self-centered viewpoint and sees things as they are.  It fosters goodwill and compassion toward others, clarity of mind, and equanimity.

So, on this Thanksgiving day, take a moment to reflect on those things you are thankful for, and have a great holiday!

Death

Flowers on a cross remain, marking an ending scene
Damn it all if blood you spill, turn the grass more green…

–Alice In Chains, “Private Hell”

Recently I took some time away from everything, somewhat abruptly.  It all started with a phone call a few weeks back.  My mother informed me that my grandfather, whom I had not seen in person in about 10 years, was dying of stage 4 lung cancer.  Ever since my grandmother had passed away back in the 1990’s,1 he had become a very private person and didn’t correspond much with the rest of us.  The last time I had seen him was when my first child, Princess, was about 1 year old, and since then we had only talked on the phone briefly for birthdays and such.  He had never even met my second child in person.

After talking with both my mother and uncle, it was clear that grandpa was going to be gone soon, and that he was in no condition to see anyone anymore.  The news wasn’t terribly surprising because I knew he was a lifelong heavy smoker, but I had no idea how ill he had become.  When I spoke to him on the phone, he never gave any indication of his condition, and had sounded like the grandpa I had known all these years.

Finally, while hiking with the family at Mount Rainer National Park (and therefore out of phone signal coverage), I got a phone call from both mom and my uncle that grandpa had finally died.  Yet another missed opportunity.

A few days later, I met my uncle and we went through his house together to try and clean up some of the mess and maybe put some things in order.  Since he had been ill for so long, the house had become somewhat neglected despite his best efforts, and it was kind of surreal seeing all the old Christmas cards and such I had sent him over the years neatly stacked up by the fireplace, old pictures of my daughter (his great-granddaughter) and such.  I saw parts of his life I never really knew, like old photos from his Navy service and met his neighbor who had spent a lot of time with him in his final years.

It’s been quite a while since I had lost someone in the family,2 and the particular way in which he died, coupled with the fact we had very little contact over the years really left my kind of hurt and numb. When I was younger, I looked up to him a lot as the gruff, but lovable old sailor. When I graduated college, he gave me a couple items: a ring he got in South Dakota, and a money clip. No one else in the family had cheered me on like he did (apart from my future wife) and it really meant a lot to me. I still have old pictures of him when I was a kid. My wife and I met him once shortly after we got married, and he talked a little bit about his days in the Navy stationed in Japan just after WWII, but before the Korean War. You could tell he liked Japan even if he never had much chance to get to know the culture or language.

But now it’s all gone. I will not get to meet him again and tell him thanks for all he did for me as a kid. I never got to introduce my son to him either. It’s all done. Over.

Between this and a stressful month at work, I just shutdown in a way. I didn’t notice it at first, and was still being productive at work, but more and more I feel haunted by his memory, and no amount of Buddhist prayer and dedication of merit helps that. When I visited his home just after he died, I remember saying a prayer to him, and also many times that following week in front of the Buddhist altar at home, but it always felt a little hollow. Did any of it make a difference?

Since then, the altar at home has been closed, and I have been feeling kind of numb all the time. I just haven’t been able to pick up the keyboard, make another Buddhist video, or even read another Buddhist book or sutra. I just couldn’t give a shit.

Maybe this is all just the Five Stages of Grief, but I guess I still don’t give a shit. I’ve been playing Magic with friends, playing with my kids or reading old Zelazny books mostly. Some days I don’t even really think about him, but then the memory comes back again. But in general I feel kind lethargic and a bit sullen even at work.

And yet, in spite of all this, I wanted to start writing again, and so I have dusted off some of my half-finished blog posts and started writing again.

Not sure what will happen over the coming weeks and months, but for now please enjoy more (possibly a bit dated) posts and thank you for your understanding.

1 Also due to cancer, and she too had been a heavy smoker like grandpa. I remember she died just days after Thanksgiving (I always get a bit moody after Thanksgiving as a result) and seeing her lying dead in the hospital, her face still wracked with pain. 27 years that memory hasn’t left me.

2 The last death in the family had been my other grandpa. My daughter was just a few months old when he died, and we only had one picture of him holding his great-granddaughter.

Lifestyle Gurus and Devas

Recently, I was amused to read this article by the New York Times about the business of lifestyle gurus. Definitely read this before continuing. 🙂

I have often noticed a trend where lifestyle gurus frequently and selectively borrow Buddhist teachings and incorporate it into their own, which is confusing for someone who’s not actually familiar with Buddhist religion, and thus conflating the two.

Reading the article above reminded me of the traditional Buddhist wheel of rebirth. Recently, I talked about people who in this live life as if they’re in one of the Buddhist hell realms, undergoing constant torment, or are the tormentors themselves, both doomed to find no peace unless the cycle is broken. Such hells do exist in a sense, for both humans and animals alike.

On the other side of the Buddhist spectrum of rebirth are the devas.1 These are the original gods in India that were worshipped through ancient texts called the Vedas, which researchers now call the “Vedic Religion”, since it predates all known religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

Of these devas, early Buddhist texts mention gods like Indra and Brahma as protectors of the Buddha, and the Buddha explained how the devas dwelt in 33 heavenly realms, with the lower realms focused more on sensual pleasure, and the higher realms on more ethereal, cerebral delights.
Further, the devas live very long lifespans, as time flows differently in the heaven realms:

That which among men is four hundred years, Visakha, is one night and day of the Tusita devas, their month has thirty of those days, their year twelve of those months; the lifespan of the Tusita devas is four thousand of those heavenly years…

— Visakhuposatha Sutta
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.043.khan.html

…but there’s a catch: even the devas die.

In Buddhist religion, the devas have extremely long lifespans, and live a life of ease and power that is well beyond humans, and yet even they are subject to decline. In one apochryphal story, the king of the gods, Indra (a.k.a. Shakra) forsees his next rebirth as a pig. As the king of the devas, he has nowhere to go but down, and greatly frets about this.

Thus, the heaven realms are not seen as a long-term solution on the Buddhist path. A person who lives an especially good life (regardless of being Buddhist or not) may end up being reborn in the heaven realms, but that is a double-edged sword because on the one hand you have a life of ease and great mental and physical powers, but on the other hand, it’s a distraction and a hindrance until it’s possibly too late.

Getting back to the original point of this post, I sometimes like to compare lifestyle gurus and people who aspire to follow them as devas. They live somewhat removed and oftentimes elevated lifestyles compared to the mundane lives of other people: a life of relative comfort and ease, sumptuous foods, health spas, nice homes, clothing and lively parties with their friends. But there’s something that will inevitably nag in the back of their minds, and that’s their own mortality.

You can eat the nicest organic foods in the world, drink the finest wines, have the best most satisfying sex in your life, or enjoy the taste of victory, but these are temporary things and in the end you will still face old age, decline and ultimately death.

How you face that death is really important, and may be the most important problem to solve in your life.

You can’t buy your way out of that problem, either. It’s something you must work out yourself, and the answer can be a bitter pill to swallow, but a bitter pill is good medicine.

So, it’s important not to conflate lifestyle gurus and their advice with actual Buddhist teachings. The two have little in common, and ultimately arrive at different ends if followed to fruition. One is focused on here and now, while the other is more forward-thinking.

1 Deva is cognate with English words such as “divine” and such.