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.

RIP Zhou Youguang: Father of Pinyin

I found this article in the BBC News recently.  Zhou Youguang (周有光 1906 – 2017) is the man who invented the Pinyin writing system for Chinese language.

Prior to using pinyin to express Chinese language, you basically had two options:

  • Chinese characters, which are the native writing system, but expensive and time-consuming to learn. Plus, someone not familiar with Chinese characters cannot intuit what the pronunciation is.  Or what if there’s a character you just don’t know?  Now you have to look it up.
  • Any number of Romanization attempts, including Wade-Giles.  Some of these systems were archaic, others didn’t have intonation, etc.  They were all imperfect attempts at expressing Chinese sounds with Roman letters.  Wade-Giles is still used in academic papers, but outside of that, it’s confusing

Pinyin by comparison is a much more successful system.  It doesn’t use awkward letter combinations and is fairly intuitive to the point where you can learn it in about 10 minutes or so.  Plus it can properly express intonation which is crucial to Chinese language.

In Zhou Youguang’s own words:

 “I’m not the father of pinyin,” Zhou said years later; “I’m the son of pinyin. It’s [the result of] a long tradition from the later years of the Qing dynasty down to today. But we restudied the problem and revisited it and made it more perfect.”

Speaking as someone who studied Mandarin in high-school, we used Pinyin and it was a great system, so I am grateful to Zhou Youguang for his efforts making Chinese more accessible.  Chinese is a fun language to learn, and I would love to learn it again, and Mr. Zhou helped make that possible.

Rest In Peace, Zhou Youguang.  🙂

Solving a Translation Mystery in the Amitabha Sutra

I like a good mystery, especially a nerdy Buddhist one.

One of my favorite sutras in the Buddhist canon is the Amitabha Sutra, sometimes called the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra or even just the Smaller Sutra.  It is a short sutra, frequently used in chanting, that describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, extols the virtues of being reborn there, and so on.

But there’s one little verse I often find puzzling.  For example, here’s a translation from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Finding Our True Home:

When it is time for the midday meal everyone returns to Sukhavati [the Pure Land] and after eating does walking meditation. (pg. 14)

While a translation done by the venerable Bukkyo Dendo Kyoukai translates this same sentence like so:

Then they return to the Pure Land for the morning meal.  After the meal they enjoy a stroll.

I found it really strange that one translation implies a more meditative/Zen activity, while the other implies a more mundane, non-meditative activity.  For some reason this has really bothered me because I feel it changes the image of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in important though subtle ways.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk of the Vietnamese “Thiên” tradition (Zen), while the BDK translation was done by Rev. Zuio Inagaki, a respected Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) minister and translator.

Worse, the actual text in the original Chinese is just four characters:


The first two characters, 飯食, obviously mean “to eat a meal”, which is pretty unambiguous.  But the second two characters, 経行, are less clear.  In modern Japanese these are pronounced as kinhin, a term that refers to the Zen practice of “walking meditation“.  But in the sutra it’s not pronounced as kinhin.  In Sino-Japanese it’s pronounced as kyōgyō instead.  Sutras are usually preserved in the original Chinese such that they diverge from modern Japanese, and the difference in pronunciation implies that the term may have changed over time.

When I looked at other translations, such as those on Chinese-Buddhist sites, they overwhelmingly translated 経行 as “walking meditation” (or something similar).  Given that modern-Chinese scholars have better access and understanding of ancient Chinese-Buddhist terminology, I am inclined to think that Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation is probably more correct.  However, that leaves one question: why would the BDK/Jodo-Shinshu translation be so divergently different?

In the end, I wonder if there’s sectarian bias in each of the translations.  Jodo Shinshu is a Pure Land-Buddhist school that eschews other practices, while mainland Chinese/Vietnamese Buddhism is fundamentally meditation-based Buddhism that subsumes other practices such as Pure Land Buddhism.

I still want to research this more to find out more what the original Chinese actually meant.  Plus, I may also try to consult Sanskrit sources as well.  There are a few examples of a Sanskrit version such as this one.

So hopefully I’ll have an update on this someday.  It’s bothered me long enough that I will probably post some kind of update in the future.  😉


What’s Up With Japanese Buddhist Texts?


Recently, I saw a discussion online regarding the shindoku which is a Nichiren-Buddhist term of reciting sutras1 in the original liturgical language. However, this practice is pretty universal to all Buddhist sects in Japan.

For example, here’s a photo of a copy of the Kannon Sutra I own:

Buddhist Altar and Sutra

Here you can see a line after line of Chinese characters. If you were to show this to a typical Japanese person, they could not ready very much. Why is that? Why are all Japanese Buddhist sutras and texts written like this?

Because it is not Japanese-language. They are preserved in the original language of Classical Chinese.

When Buddhism was first brought to China via the Silk Road, monks from India, Central Asia (Kushan, Sogdian, Parthian, etc) were employed by the Chinese imperial court to translate Buddhist texts from disparate languages into something readable at the time.

Buddhist texts weren’t preserved in one language either, like Sanskrit. In India and Central Asia, they were preserved in a wide variety of Indic languages called prakrits. Some prakrits relied heavily on Sanskrit, the holy language in India, but others didn’t. By the time these texts and sutras arrived in China, it was a mess, and there was no way Chinese Buddhist monks could read and understand so many languages, so it made sense to simply translate them all into Chinese. Thus the Chinese characters you see are not modern Chinese, and they’re not Japanese either. They’re translated from Indic languages into the Chinese language of the time.

But what about Japan? Why not simply do the same?

At the time that Japan imported Buddhism from China and Korea, it was importing Chinese culture wholesale: art, poetry, Confucian ethics, city planning, style of governance, etc.

The educated elite of Japan at the time could actually read the Chinese characters just fine as part of their upbringing and professional training. They pronounced the characters somewhat different, but it was possible in those days to read Chinese. But they didn’t just read stuff: letters, books and official documents in Japan were similarly composed using Chinese (again with a Japanese pronunciation). If you think about it, this is similar to how Latin was used in medieval Europe for communication and literature. Europe had so many different countries and cultures, it was actually more practical to use a common (even if mostly dead) language like Latin to express ideas. Japan did the same when corresponding with China or with the various Korean kingdoms.

However, as you might expect, times have changed. Chinese-style literature in Japan, or kanbun (漢文), still exists, but only well-educated people can read and write it. Vernacular Japanese has gradually taken over and supplanted the more Chinese-style literature.

In spite of this, Buddhist texts are still preserved in the original, Classical Chinese. There are plenty of Buddhist books in Japan that help explain and provide commentaries to popular sutras such as the Heart Sutra or Lotus Sutra, but for liturgical purposes, people still recite in the original, preserved language. If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see little letters besides each Chinese character; those are the furigana pronunciation guides that tell Japanese people how to pronounce the characters.

Why bother?

Because there are advantages to chanting a liturgical language versus vernacular:

  • The text is preserved with alteration across the centuries.
  • The recitation is the same wherever you go.

The second one is particularly important as Buddhism spreads across the world. Even though few people can understand the words, everyone can chant them the same way, and then study them in their own native language. A person might complain “I never know what I am chanting”, but studying of sutras is a different act than reciting them. In other words, liturgy and reciting is one thing, studying a text is another thing entirely.

Also, when reciting in a Buddhist service, everyone recites together, which is a nice sense of community. On the other hand, studying the meaning in one’s own language is a valuable investment of your time too. There’s nothing wrong with doing both.

1 More specifically, specific chapters, or specific sections of chapters in the Lotus Sutra.

Chinese Characters in Korean Cuisine

Hi guys,

Since my second child was born, my Korean language studies have all but completely stalled.  However, my wife really loves Korean food and likes to cook it often, while I enjoy reading the packaging.  This is a package of ramen noodles, or ramyeon (라면),1 that we bought recently.

If you look carefully there’s a mix of Korean letters (hangeul) and Chinese characters. Although Korean culture doesn’t really use Chinese characters much anymore, they still often appear in advertising and other such things. The Chinese characters, which I happen to be able to read thanks to study of Japanese language (which does use them), are 中華麺 which just means “Chinese-style noodles”. To the right of that, in smaller letters is the Korean chung-hwa myron (충화면) which just says the same thing.

Also on the upper-right in green is the Chinese character 生 which in this context probably means “fresh”.

Anyhow, just something interesting I wanted to share.  🙂

1 These are not the cheap dried noddles either. These are genuine ramen/ramyeon egg noodles. You can make a pretty close approximation by boiling regular spaghetti noodles in water and a little baking soda. I wouldn’t recommend doing that too often, but it does actually come out pretty tasty.

Buddhist Sutra Chanting in Japanese


Recently, I had an opportunity to go to a workshop on chanting Buddhist-liturgy in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. Although not required, it will help me a lot in my efforts to get ordained as a minister. The workshop was great, and I learned a lot. For example, I realized I am pretty tone-deaf, and I thought I was following the right intonation, but I was pretty far off. For example, the Shoshinge hymn should be chanted in “D” (re) by default, but after using a tuner, I was chanting in “A”.

In general Buddhist chanting of hymns or sutras is called shōmyō (声明) formally. In colloquial Japanese, though, I think it’s called okyō (お経) but I might be wrong.

Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot lately and wanted to share how to read Buddhist chanting books, and how to chant. Here is the Jodo Shinshu service book my wife lent me:

Shoshinge Buddhist hymn in Japanese

Here, you can see:

  • The chinese characters (kanji) for the hymn. Many Buddhist hymns/sutras are not actually Japanese. They’re Classical Chinese with pronunciation guides in Japanese hiragana syllabary.
  • To the right of the kanji are the hiragana syllables I mentioned earlier.
  • On the left are lines that show whether your intonation should go up or down.

These lines are called hakase (博士), which also happens to mean “Ph.D” or “doctorate”. I’m not sure why.

Sometimes the notation can get very complicated…

Anyhow, modern chanting uses the standard 8-note scale or hacchōchō (ハ長調) or just hacchō (ハ調) for short. It’s called this because “fa”, or “ha” in Japanese, is the starting note used in the scale. I read this on Japanese Wikipedia. 🙂

On this page, from my Jodo Shinshu chanting book, you can see on the right hand side it says 八調レ where レ (re) means “re” in the 8-note scale. This is the fourth “hymn” in the jōdo wasan (浄土和讃).

Buddhist chanting page with tonal marks.

This is telling the chanter that the base note here is “re”. Some Chinese characters have a line that goes up. This means the pitch is one note higher: mi (ミ) in this case. A line that points down means to go lower (do ド).

But as you can see, some have complex lines. For example, the character 如 starts as a flat line, then goes up. As you can see, it’s tell you to start at “re” then move up to “mi”. The next word, 虚, starts even higher and then dips down. Finally, the last character on that line is 空 which goes up and down. It’s hard to explain. You can hear the same page chanted on this Youtube video at 6:38.

If you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Also, one small thing to call out. Some of the words and lines have the Chinese character 引 in there. This means to make it extra long (literally “to pull”). Instead of one-beat, it’s two. So, for 無 you chant for two beats, not one.

Anyhow, sometimes these hakase lines can seem really arbitrary, so often times you have to actively listen to a chant first, and follow along until you understand what they’re telling you to do. But overall, they’re not so difficult.

For Westerners, or anyone, interested in Japanese Buddhist chanting, then the best advice I can offer is learn the liturgy for whatever Buddhist sect you’re interested, find a good audio sample, and keep chanting with it. Do your best to imitate what you hear. Imitation leads to mastery. Don’t memorize it first, just keep imitating until it becomes second nature. 🙂

Good luck!

Manchu-Korean Language Textbook

Hi Folks,

Today I thought I would share something cool I found on Twitter recently (click here to see photo more closely):

This Twitter account is owned by a researcher of Manchu language. The Manchu People (manshūjin 満州人 in Japanese) conquered China in 1644 and started a new dynasty: the Qing Dynasty (清朝). During this time, both Chinese and Manchu were the official languages of China.

But what is this book? This is a Korean-language textbook called the Nogeoldae (老乞大, 노걸대). The government of Korea would publish a foreign-language textbook from time to time, so Korean officials could study and learn foreign languages (usually Chinese, of course). This edition of the Nogeoldae is not for Chinese though, it’s for Manchu language.

You can see the Manchu writing (vertical) and the Korean letters next to it. This probably helped Korean students learn how to pronounce Manchu words. The Manchu language in this textbook is called 清語 (Language of the Qing Dynasty).

The Chinese characters used here are actually Korean hanja. I’ve posted about them before.

Anyhow, interesting stuff. 🙂