Dogen and No-Self

Many Zen Buddhists, or just Buddhists in general, know Dogen’s famous quote about “studying the self”. It’s a popular reminder of what Buddhism is all about. I’ve seen various translations in various books, but I have yet to see an example of a bilingual translation until now:

I always like to see translations like this, because I’ve learned to distrust English translations of Buddhist texts that don’t include any references to the original language.  There are a lot of bad Buddhist quotes and translations floating around, and even something simple as the Buddhist “nembutsu” or reciting the Buddha’s name, gets mistranslated a lot. More on that in an old post.

Anyhow, I digress.  Looking at Dogen’s original writing, a few things I noticed as a language nerd:

  • Since this was written in 13th century, not the 21st century, it uses more archaic Japanese.
  • Similarly, the spellings are different: instead of saying toiu, it is spelled toifu, though it was probably pronounced the same.
  • Not surprisingly, Dogen uses some obscure Zen-Buddhist terms that even the Japanese language site above has to provide footnotes for, such as Goseki (悟迹) which means the period after Enlightenment.

Anyhow, regardless of the language, this quotation is still one of the best in Buddhism in my opinion.  Even Buddhists have to pause and remember to take stock about why they’re practicing Buddhism.  Contemporary history is rife with examples of Buddhist teachers who went off the rails, and of course this can happen to anyone, so it’s good to remember why we practice Buddhism.  Dogen’s words are a good reminder for us all.


Devanagari and Siddham: a brief comparison


My studies of Sanskrit continue and I am starting to get more familiar with the Devanagari writing system used in the textbook, and for modern Sanskrit studies.  However, I also branched out a little bit into learning Siddham as well.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Sanskrit language has no “native” script so various writing systems have been used for time.  Devanagari is widely-used script across many northern-Indian languages (Marathi, Hindi, etc) and is great for reading/writing Sanskrit, however, many ancient Buddhist texts were written before Devanagari’s invention, so many texts used older writing systems.

Siddham on the other hand was frequently used for ancient Buddhist writings and is still used in esoteric Buddhist sects, particularly Shingon Buddhism in Japan.  So, I’ve dabbled in Siddham a little along with learning Devanagari.

In one of my Japanese language books1 on Sanskrit and Siddham, はじめての「梵字の読み書き」入門 (hajimete no “bonji no yomikata” nyūmon) contains a great chart comparing the Siddham alphabet with Chinese characters, Japanese pronunciation, etc. The chart is very useful, but obviously I can’t post it here since it belongs to the author.  So, instead, I am constructing my own chart using information gleaned from the book and my own studies, plus additional information. This chart is not complete, but I will continue updating as time goes on.

Devanagari Siddham Romanization Japanese Katakana
Siddham a a as in “uh”
Siddham aa ā as in “ah-ha!” アー
Siddham i i as in “ee”
Siddham ii Ī as in “ee” but longer イー
Siddham u u as in “oo”
Siddham uu ū as in “oo”, but longer ウー
Siddham e e as in “ay” エイ
Siddham ai ai as in “aye” アイ
Siddham o o as in “oh”
Siddham au au as in “ow” アウ
Siddham ri
Siddham rii リー

Since Siddham and Devanagari are “genetically” related scripts (though, one did not descend from the other), you can see how some letters look similar, while others look quite different.

Note: Siddham is available in Unicode, but it is difficult to view without the right fonts, so I am (shamelessly) posting image files from Wikimedia Commons.


1 Another book I highly recommend if you’re serious about the subject is 梵字必携―書写と解読 (bonji hittei: shakyo to kaidoku)

Translating Japanese politeness

Japanese and English are pretty different languages, and although I’ve been studying it more or less for 10 years (essentially since my daughter was born), I am still fascinated by the differences.  Human feelings and sentiment are the same everywhere, but it’s intriguing how each language approaches how to express those sentiments.  In the case of Japanese, I find its polite expressions or keigo (more on keigo here thanks to Tae Kim) one of the more challenging aspects to translate.

Here are a couple examples I found on my last trip and often see.  These are kind of stock-phrases in Japanese, and while I have come to intuitively understand them, if you try to take apart and find English equivalents, it can be tough.

First example:

go-kyōryōku onegai-itashimasu

To me, the best way to translate this is “thank you for your cooperation”, and usually is found on plaques that warn pedestrians to be careful, or refrain from smoking at such and such place, etc. Basically, a polite and formal warning.

The phrase kyōryōku (協力) means cooperation. Easy enough. The “go” in front of it is an honorific that makes the noun more polite and respectful because they’re asking for your cooperation.

The verb onegaishimasu (お願いします) can mean something like “if you please” and is used in all kinds of polite circumstances like introducing yourself (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) or just when you’re formally asking a favor of something. You’ll often see in dramas where one character bows deeply to someone he’s asking for help and says “onegaishimasu!” in the process.

Except here, the verb is onegai-itashimasu. The itashimasu is not just polite, but also conveys deep humility. This is the sort of thing you might only use when talking to someone much higher ranking than you, or a very formal situation.

So, if you try to translate this literally, it’s more likely “we humbly ask for your cooperation.” That’s all well and good except Westerners just never talk like this because the sense of “humble” and “honorific” just isn’t as strongly expressed in English. Hence “thank you for your cooperation” is more than sufficient and probably more natural-sounding in English.

Another example that might be even harder is:

go-meiwaku ni narimasu no de go-enryo-kudasai

This lengthy phrase probably might be best translated in English as “please refrain from (annoying others by doing) X”.

Whoa, all that for 3 words in English?

Let’s break it down. First, the word meiwaku which means something annoying or a nuisance. Again, as we saw above, the leading particle “go” is added because they are speaking to you the customer, passenger, etc and therefore it should be more polite and honorific.

The next part of the sentence, ni narimasu no de, is just normal Japanese grammar meaning “because it becomes …” but the narimasu here also expresses state, so “because it’s a …”. In this case, “because it’s a nuisance…”.

The next part of the sentence, go-enryo-kudasai, is another phrase you see a lot in Japanese and just means “Please refrain from”. The word enryo means to refrain or restrain oneself and often times you’ll housewives and nice old ladies tell you something like “enryo shinakute ii” or something like that when offering treats. They’re telling you don’t be shy and help yourself. As with meiwaku and kyōryōku, this is a noun, you so can make it polite by prefixing it with “go” because of your target audience.

Kudasai is probably one fo the first things you’ll learn in Japanese and is one of many ways to say “please”, and one fo the most useful. In polite Japanese, when you’re suggesting something to someone, like “come into the house”2 or “take a look”2 rather than saying “please do X” like in English, instead you often say “go-(noun) kudasai” or sometimes “o-(noun) kudasai”. It has the same nuance as “please do X”, but is grammatically quite different because there’s no actual verb in the sentence.1As with the previous phrase we looked at, even if you translate literally though it doesn’t sound that natural in English where it is sufficient to say “please don’t do X” or more politely “please refrain from X”.

Anyhow, Japanese, like all languages, has its own internal logic, but that logic may be very different than one’s own native language, and so it can be hard mechanically translate things from one language to another.  The key is getting enough exposure to intuitively understand what is being said, because then you can find a suitable feeling or expression in your own language.

Good luck and happy language studying!

1 The word “kudasai” comes from the verb “kudasaru” (to oblige) but is not exactly in verb-form here. It basically is just another set-phrase.

2 These are o-agari-kudasai (お上がりください) and go-ran-kudasai (ご覧ください) respectively by the way. 😉

Where Does Namu Come From?

The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:

  • Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
  • Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
  • Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
  • Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.

You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc.  What the heck is this?

This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately.  The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc.  This term is not limited to Buddhism either.  It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹

Now, here’s the funny part.  Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places.  This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”.  Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.

The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:

  • namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
  • namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
  • namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
  • namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
  • namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.

So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.²  This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.

From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same.  In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.

But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.

Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.

¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).

² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped.  This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ .  Why?  It just does.

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:


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