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.

Enjoy!

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.

A Brave New World

So, recently one night, I had a quiet moment in my life and spent some time reflecting back on the last six months, starting with the last weeks at my old temple, my resignation, and subsequent efforts to find a new path, new projects, etc.  It’s been a more difficult transition than I thought, and I was definitely burned out and exhausted going into the holidays, but now that a few months have passed I feel a lot better about my decision.

Years ago, I switched my job from a certain online company (starts with an “A”) where I had been for 9 years.  That job was a huge part of my life, and I had been there so long, that even though it was a toxic, stressful environment¹ it was familiar and I was hesitant to leave.  I wanted to make it still work somehow, but after 9 years, it was enough.

Changing my job to a new company (think talking mouse) was challenging at first.  I was unfamiliar with the environment, I had to relearn a lot of things, and had to start over from the bottom.  I felt really stupid sometimes.  But after a couple years, I am so glad I changed.  My stress is much less than before, and it’s rubbed off on my family who’s a lot happier.

In the same way, I feel that way about my path with Jodo Shinshu.  I liked many things about the temple community I was a part of, and even now I miss a lot of people there, but I also had lingering personal misgivings about Jodo Shinshu teachings for a long time. However, since I had already invested so much though, and I really wanted to have an opportunity to teach Buddhism in person, I still tried to make it work for a long time.  But all it did was stress me out further.

Now that I’ve finally made a break with that tradition, it’s taken a while to adjust to the change in my life.  After my post about the primacy of practicing Buddhism, I decided that the best way to find my path was not to read about Buddhist schools, but to try them out.  I started a 28-day practice where I did some kind of Buddhist practice (chanting, meditation, etc) for 10 minutes a day.²  Each day I could choose whatever I wanted, but I had to do something.  Within the first week, I quickly lost interest in certain practices and settled on a personal routine that worked well for me.  I am now on day 23, and have stuck with it much longer than I thought I would.

So, in the end, a change in environment was probably the right thing for me.

Losing my community and friends was difficult, rebuilding my blog was painful too, but as the dust has settled I feel I have stepped into a brave new world, and am looking forward to many more years of blogging, exploring the many facets of Buddhism, and sharing with readers and viewers on Youtube.  🙂

P.S.  Double-post today.  Haven’t one of those in a while.

¹ The fact that I started having gastritis attacks almost monthly was a symptom of that.  These days my attacks are much less frequent partly due to improved eating habits, but also probably due to decreased stress.

² My idea was based on Dogen’s advice that all other aspects of Buddhism (sutras, chanting, etc) should be guide to and support for your practice, not an end of themselves.  How I wish I had read this years ago.

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.

Welcome to Hell!

Happy 2017 Dear Readers!

Posted this on the Youtube channel recently while answering a question about Buddhism and Hell:

One thing I regretfully forgot to mention in the video is the influence of Hell “artwork” in medieval Japanese Buddhism. 

A long time ago I visited a museum exhibit in Kamakura, Japan featuring a lot of medieval artwork and tapestries found in nearby monasteries. There lots of images of the Hell realms juxtaposed with the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. 

It had a very Dante’s Inferno feel to it but in a Buddhist context. 

While Buddhism teaches many realms of rebirth, I think people naturally fear Hell the most and since people are bound to be reborn there sooner or later depending on their karma. There’s no guarentee they won’t unless they are firmly on the Buddhist path (e.g. a stream-enterer).  

So not surprisingly people then and now turn to the compassionate vows of Amitabha Buddha. Even though I have left behind Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, I still believe in the Pure Land myself and the Buddha’s vow to rescue all beings. I just don’t let the Honganji tell me what to think and how to interpret/practice.

Anyhow, Buddhist hells seem silly and weird at first glance, but are an important aspect of understandinh and appreciating Buddhism and Buddhist culture. 

No More Jodo Shinshu for Me

Hello,

Lately I’ve been getting some inquiries about this and I feel it’s time to set the record straight. I am reposting a video from my youtube channel here:

Long story short: I am not affiliated with Jodo Shinshu anymore and will not be posting Jodo Shinshu topics on this blog.

Sorry guys, but I’m done with that Buddhist sect.

Thanks!

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:

飯食経行

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?

Hello,

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.