Sun and Moon: A classic Japanese haiku

Recently while watching the Japanese children’s show with my kids, nihongo de asobo, they showed this haiku poem:

菜の花や Na no hana ya
月は東に Tsuki wa higashi ni
日は西に Hi wa nishi ni

Which means something like “Ah, Rape Blossoms!¹ The moon is in the east, the sun is in the west”.

According to this website in Japanese, the poem was composed in the year 1774 by the famous poet Yosa Buson (与謝蕪村 1716-1784), when he was standing in a field of rape blossoms in what is now the city of Kobe during a sunset when the moon was also rising in the east.  The sunset cast a golden glow over the field of flowers, while the rising moon in the east cast a silvery glow too.

Pretty cool imagery, and one of those moments that stays with you your whole life.

¹ Also known its botanical name Brassica Rapa.

How to do Buddhist Prostrations or “Kowtow”

Recently, I visited a certain Vietnamese Buddhist temple north of Seattle for the Buddha’s Birthday.  Vietnamese Buddhism, along with Chinese Buddhism and such, celebrates the buddhist holidays according to the lunar calendar, so this year it was in May, rather than April 8th.

Anyhow, my family and I all went because we had toured the temple long ago and liked the atmosphere a lot.

Unfortunately, as we toured the temple, and paid respects to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, we realized that we were a little bit like a fish out of water. Vietnamese Buddhism has its own customs which we were not familiar with, including subtle differences in how incense was offered, how bowing was done, etiquette, etc. We just weren’t sure what to do.

So, lately I’ve been doing some fact-finding and found this helpful video about doing Buddhist prostrations or “kowtow”.1

Prostrations are something that are frequently done in some Buddhist groups, but not necessarily others. For example, in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we just never did it, but in Rinzai Zen services I attended, people did. It runs the gamut.

But it’s a good skill to get familiar with in case you go to a temple where people practice that.

Some folks, especially if you’re converting to Buddhism, may find the practicing a bit over the top, but like so many other things in Buddhism, there’s a reason for everything. The first real step in Buddhism for any one, regardless of Buddhist school, is to take refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Buddha (i.e. the teacher) is a deeply humbling acknowledgement that you need help, and that you don’t have all the answers. Let’s face it, you don’t. If you did, why go do all the self-destructive and stupid things you do in life, even when you know better?

So, prostrations are one way to express that humility, to reaffirm one’s taking refuge in the Buddha, like a rock upon a stormy sea.

Further, in a practical sense, paying respects to the Buddha is a good karma, and good karma helps pave the way along the Buddhist path by avoiding and diminishing obstructions. Will power alone isn’t sufficient, you need to foster an environment conducive to the Buddhist path, and that isn’t just your immediate environment.

In any case, the video above is a good thing to watch and learn if you decide to learn prostrations. Typically they’re done in groups of three, and after talking with one of the monks that the local Vietnamese temple, he confirmed that this is done in Vietnamese Buddhism as well, though people often just bow at the waist too, especially when you’re outside and it’s not feasible to kowtow there.

P.S. More on my efforts to learn Vietnamese Buddhist customs in a future post. I got in touch with a local monk there at the temple, and he offered a lot of good advice, but also suggested coming to the temple so he could explain in person. If you visit a similar temple in your area, don’t hesitate to contact them first and just ask about local temple etiquette. I’m sure they’ll appreciate you asking.

1 The term “kowtow” (or Kou-tou/Ke-tou in Mandarin) tends to have negative connotations in English, and Western culture, but in Chinese culture it simply refers to this act of prostration, whether that be to the Emperor as dictated by Confucian norms, or to the Buddha, or something else.

Sandhi Rules Are Kicking Me In The Pants

I am currently on Lesson 10 of my Sanskrit language textbook, and getting pretty immersed in the Sandhi rules that govern how one word blends into another. The rules are actually very sensible changes that allow the last sound of a word to “get ready” for the first sound of the next word. Not all words undergo sandhi changes, but there are a lot of rules that govern the ones that do. The textbook I use explores these rules over several lessons to give students time to master one rule at a time. Here’s a simple, but painful example.

Anyhow, imagine I want to say “you are beautiful”. The word for “beautiful” is sandaraḥ (सन्दरः) and the singular nominative of “you” is tvam (त्वम्). Thus, grammatically, you can either say “you beautiful are”:

त्वम् सन्दरः असि
tvam sandaraḥ asi

Or, in Sanskrit, you can shorten this to “beautiful you”:

सन्दरः त्वम्
sandaraḥ tvam

The second form is often used because the “to be” verb is often understood. But now I have to apply sandhi rules to make it more natural sounding.

First, the “aḥ” at the end of the first word runs up against the “t” of the second word. According to sandhi rules, the “aḥ” followed by a “t” becomes an “s” in this case:

सन्दरस् त्वम्
sandaras tvam

But as part of Sandhi, words often combine too, unless the first word ends in a vowel (including ṃ and ḥ) and the second is a consonant.1 So, now we have to combine the words into:

सुन्दरस्त्वम्
sandarastvam

Thus if you want to flatter a lady in Sanskrit, this is what you would say, and how you would write it.

1 I am still not 100% clear when words combine and when they don’t, but the use-cases seem to be:

  • Consonant + consonant = combine
  • Vowel + vowel = combine
  • Consonant + vowel = combine
  • Vowel + consonant = not combine

Amitabha Buddha in Early Indian Buddhism

While continuing my read of the book Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India, I was struck by a certain passage regarding an inscription where the Buddha Amitabha is mentioned.  The book explains that the inscription was made in the 26th year of King Huveṣka (Huvishka), which is roughly 166 C.E. by a layperson of some wealth. The inscription is said to be the “earliest, indeed the only, reference to the Buddha Amitābha in Indian inscriptions and is, therefore, one of the few hard facts we have concerning this Buddha and his cult in India proper”. (pg. 39)

The inscription reads (translations by author above):

bhagavato buddha amitābhasya pratimā pratiṣṭhapita buddha pūjāye

“[an] image of the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha, was set up for the worship of the Buddha”.

Then ends with:

imena kuśalamulena sarva(satana)anuttarajñānaṃ prātp(i)m (bha) (va) (tu)

“through this root of merit may there be the attainment of supreme knowledge by all beings.”

I find this really fascinating for a few reasons:

  • It definitely reaffirms that the existence of Amitabha Buddha in India was very sparse until the 2nd century C.E.
  • The fact that northern India at this time was ruled by the Kushan Empire out of Pakistan (and not a native Indian empire) suggests that this could have been imported from outside of India.  The layperson above is described as belonging to a family of merchants, caravan traders and bankers.  So, it’s likely had travelled to and from other parts of the Kushan Empire.
  • Also, the fact that inscription was made in reference to the reigning king at that time further suggests influence from the Kushan culture.

Further, the Kushan Empire was originally Zoroastrian, though it later became Buddhist under King Kanishka (Huvishka’s predecessor).  This definitely lends credence to the old theory that Amitabha had origins outside of India, or at least borrowed from Zoroastrian culture.  Perhaps local traditions mixed with imported iconography from Persia, but the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism¹ suggests that iconography of Amitabha Buddha in the Gandhara region, the heart of the Kushan Empire, predates anything in India proper.

Interesting stuff.

¹ I am the lucky owner of a copy.

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

but:

रामः तिष्ठति rāmaḥ tiṣṭhati (Rama stands)

becomes:

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.

Cool Korean Bookmark

Since I am writing about Asian writing systems this week 😉 I wanted to show readers this gift from a Korean friend of mine:

Korean bookmark

This bookmark features the Hun-min-jeong-eum (훈민정음), which is the Korean document that announces the new writing system of Hangeul promulgated by King Sejong the Great.  Here is a closeup of the bookmark and the document:

Korean bookmark

The text of the document, which was a mix of classical Chinese characters and the new Korean hangul, reads as follows:

Hunmin Jeongeum

Translated as follows:

Because the speech of this country is different from that of China, it [the spoken language] does not match the [Chinese] letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them in the end cannot state their concerns. Saddened by this, I have [had] 28 letters newly made. It is my wish that all the people may easily learn these letters and that [they] be convenient for daily use.

The rest of course is history. 😉

On interesting note is that the Hangul at the time looks somewhat different than Hangul now.  Certain letter combinations used now apparently didn’t exist at the time, and thus Hangul looked a bit more disjoined.  For example the document’s name is currently written as  훈민정음 but at the time was written as 훈〮민져ᇰ〮ᅙᅳᆷ.

Anyhow, here’s a salute to King Sejong the Great for his accomplishments in improving the lives of his people.  🙂

Sanskrit Misuse in Buddhist Teachings

This is why I do it. This is why I study Sanskrit:

Buddhist books and their authors sometimes like to give themselves an air of legitimacy by sprinkling in ancient Sanskrit phrases but the usage of sanskrit in this paragraph is unfortunately incorrect

Case in point, the original Sanskrit phrase of the nembutsu (namo amida butsu) is actually namo’mitābhāya (नमाेऽमिताभाय) not Namo-Amita-Buddha. Second Namo does not mean “I put my trust in”, etc. The word is variation on namaṣ (नमष्) meaning “praise” or “hail”.2 That’s why people say “namaste” in Yoga classes in such: you’re greeting/praising the divinity in the other person.

Also, for clarity, the phrase for “to trust or take refuge in” is śaraṇaṃ gam (शरणम् गम्).1 There are probably other words too but I am not aware of them.

So the actual translation of namo’mitābhāya is “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” not “I entrust everything to …”. The translation provided has an overtly sectarian bias that ordinary readers would miss. In any case this translation is simply incorrect.

I would encourage anyone who is spiritual or religious to learn the ancient language of your tradition whether that be Koine Greek for Christianity, Hebrew for Judaism, or Arabic whatever. Don’t blindly believe what religious leaders tell you. Be skeptical, and validate for yourself.

1 Hence when taking refuge in the Three Treasures people say buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi, etc.

2 Sandhi rules, or sound-shifts in Sanskrit, is a topic for another post.