Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

An ongoing lesson in the extent of my own stupidy

No, this is not a post about how I came to realize my own stupidity, this is a post about the book of that title.

I recently read this book on the recommendation from i, cjw ~.::.~ hiking and climbing in japan, and I really enjoyed it.

The book is written by Zen Master Soko Morinaga and details his training as a novice monk. Morinaga humorously explains how naive he was when he was training to become a Zen Buddhist monk. Some of his stories had me laughing out loud on the bus home from work.

Here is a funny excerpt from his book which both shows his sense of humor and indicates how much he had to learn when he was young. Morinaga's Roshi (Zen teacher) has directed Morinaga to sweep up the leaves in the temple garden :

Here I was, inside my heart denouncing this "old fool" and balking at the very idea of trusting so easily; yet, at the same time, I wanted this old man to notice me, and so I took up that broom and swept with a vengeance. Quite soon I had amassed a mountain of dead leaves. Eager to show off my diligence, I asked, "Roshi, where should I throw this trash?"

The words were barely out of my mouth when he thundered back at me, "There is no trash!"

No trash, but...look here," I tried to indicate the pile of leaves.

"So you don't believe me! Is that it?"

"It's only that, well, where should I throw out these leaves?" That was all that was left for me to say.

"You don't throw them out!" he roared again.

"What should I do then?" I asked.

"Go out to the shed and bring back an empty charcoal sack," was his instruction.

When I returned, I found Roshi bent to the task of combing through the mountain of leaves, sifting so that the lighter leaves came out on top while the heavier sand and stones fell to the bottom. He then proceeded to stuff the leaves into the sack I had brought from the shed, tamping them down with his feet. After he had jammed the last leaves tightly into the sack, he said, "Take these to the shed. We'll use them to make a fire under the bath."

As I went off to the shed, I silently admitted that this sack of leaves was perhaps not trash; I also told myself that what was left of that pile out there in the garden was clearly trash, and nothing but trash. I got back, though, only to find Roshi squatting over the remains of the leaf pile, picking out the stones. After he had carefully picked out the last stone, he ordered, "Take these out and arrange them under the rain gutters."

When I had set out the stones, together with the gravel that was already there, and filled in the spaces pummeled out by the raindrops, I found that not only were the holes filled but that these stones, too, failed to fall into the category of trash. There was still more, though: the clods of earth and scraps of moss, the last dregs. Just what could anyone possibly do with that stuff I wondered.

I saw Roshi going about his business, gathering up these scraps and placing them, piece by piece, in the palm of his hand. He scanned the ground for dents and sinks: he filled them in with the clods of earth, which he then tamped down with his feet. Not a single particle remained of the mountain of leaves.

"Well?" he queried, "Do you understand a little better now? From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash."

This was the first sermon I ever heard from Roshi. Although it did make an impression on me, unfortunately, I was not keen enough to attain satori (enlightenment) as a result of simply hearing these words.

From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash. These words point to the fundamental truth of Buddhism, a truth I could not yet conceive in those days.

This statement certainly has meaning in todays world.

I definitely recommend this book, whether you are interested in Buddhism or not, it is an entertaining and "enlightening" book to read.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Japan's Maglev Train

Japan has been working on a Maglev train system for several years. I love the idea of Maglev for many reasons including the higher rate of speed versus non-maglev and it's a good alternative to polluting jetliners for short to medium distances. For trains to compete against air travel in the United States, one of the factors that should be considered is speed. I think maglev is the best system to offer that.

I only wish California would realize that. They are proposing to build a non-maglev high speed train between San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2030 but it is proposed to have only a top speed of 220 miles per hour or about 350 km/hour. The Japanese maglev is expected to have top speeds over 500 km/hour or about 310 mph, almost 100 miles per hour faster then the proposed California system.

Here are some facts from Japan's Railway Technical Research Institute website (RTRI) about Japan's maglev train being tested in Yamanashi Prefecture:

Maglev, a combination of superconducting magnets and linear motor technology, realizes super high-speed running, safety, reliability, low environmental impact and minimum maintenance.

Research and development of Maglev has been underway at RTRI of JNR since 1970. After fundamental tests in the laboratory to verify the feasibility of high-speed running at 500 km/h, the construction work of a 7-km test track began in Miyazaki Prefecture in 1975. The manned two-car vehicle MLU001 registered a speed of 400.8 km/h in 1987. And the latest vehicle MLU002N, which debuted in 1993, was running on the Miyazaki Maglev Test Track.

A landmark for Maglev occurred in 1990 when it gained the status of a nationally-funded project. The Minister of Transport authorized construction of the Yamanashi Maglev Test Line, targeting the final confirmation of Maglev for practical use.

The new test line called the Yamanashi Maglev Test Line opened on April 3, 1997 and is now being used to perform running tests in Yamanashi Prefecture. In the same year, the Maglev vehicle MLX01 in a three-car train set achieved world speed records, attaining a maximum speed of 531 km/h in a manned vehicle run on December 12, and a maximum speed of 550 km/h in an unmanned vehicle run on December 24. On March 18, 1999, MLX01 in a five-car train set attained a maximum speed of 548 km/h. On April 14, 1999, this five-car train set surpassed the speed record of the three-car train set, attaining a maximum speed of 552 km/h in a manned vehicle run.

In March 2000, the Maglev Practical Technology Evaluation Committee of the Ministry of Transport of Japan concluded, "the JR-Maglev has the practicability for ultra high speed mass transportation system". The Committee also pointed out the necessity of further running tests for the following purposes: (1) Confirmation of long-term durability and reliability, (2) Cost reduction of its construction and operation, (3) Improvement of the aerodynamics of vehicles for environmental impacts. The technical development of the Maglev has been in the second phase since fiscal 2000. On December 2, 2003, this three-car train set attained a maximum speed of 581 km/h in a manned vehicle run.


A new Shinkansen Maglev line has already been proposed for several years to be completed in 2025. It is called the Chuo Shinkansen, bypassing the Tokaido Shinkansen, and will travel from Tokyo to the Chukyo region and Osaka.

As the cost of gas continues to rise and the the threats to the environment become more real, I home people in the United States (and elsewhere) come to realize the benefits of high speed rail versus airline travel.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Urn Thief Strikes Japan

I guess there are wackos everywhere, not just Los Angeles.

In rural Japan, a clearly mentally distrubed person has been stealing graveyard urns, most holding the ashes of women. A report from Reuters News Service states that police are looking for a thief that has taken dozens of urns from graveyards.

In some cases, notes have been found in place of the missing urn. One note stated "I have it".

My guess is it's a man with a very bizarre obsession. I've heard of the problem of Japanese men stealing women's underwear, but this is a new one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Buddha of Infinite Light

I just recently completed reading the book, "Buddha of Infinite Light" by D.T Suzuki. D.T. Suzuki, who is from Japan, is a well-known expert and author of Buddhism. He comes from a Zen Buddhist background. This book however, is about Shin Buddhism or Jodo Shinshu and is based on several lectures Mr. Suzuki gave in the 1950s. Did you know that Shin Buddhism is the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan?

Shin Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that originated in Japan from the historic figue Shinran Shonin in the 1100s. Shin Buddhism is based on the Pure Land philosophy. Shin basically believes that those who have faith in Amida Buddha will be born in the Pure Land.

This is the second time I have read the book. I read it the first time before I knew that much about Shin Buddhism. It was a very difficult book to understand. I thought it would make more sense the second time around now that I know more about Jodo Shinshu. Well, it is was still a difficult read.

I have tried reading one or two other books by D.T. Suzuki and I have found that his explanation of Buddhism and his style are hard to follow, at least for me. Buddhism in general can be a difficult subject to really understand through only reading, and especially Zen Buddhism. Since this author comes from a Zen background, that may be part of the reason. I can see how having a Buddhist teacher is necessary for someone to more fully understand the Buddhist philosophy.

My understanding from the book is that the author has a slightly different interpretation of Shin Buddhism. While the general Shin belief is that once you have faith in Amida, you will be born in the Pure Land following your death. While Mr. Suzuki feels that the Pure Land is here with us. And once you have achieved faith, you are already in the Pure Land. At least that is the impression I got from the book.

If you are interested in Shin Buddhism, I would recommend this book as Mr. Suzuki is one of the top Buddhist authors from Japan. Just be prepared that you might have to read it a couple of times to understand it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Taking the Train in Los Angeles

Yesterday I rode on another light rail train line in Los Angeles called the Blue Line. This was the first time I took that line. It travels from Long Beach to Downtown Los Angeles. It passes through some of the roughest and grittiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

While on the train I noticed that the train cars were made in Japan. The company is called Nippon Sharyo. I went to their website and found that they have a short description of the trains that they sold to Los Angeles. The cars were apparantly made in 1989 so they are almost 20 years old.

Naturally these cars a just like the train cars you see in Japan. There are some minor differences however. The Los Angeles Blue Line cars are scratched up with graffiti, have old gum stuck to the seats and trash on the floors. Other then that, they look just like trains in Japan.

The train cars actually are not too bad. They are relatively clean. They definately are not like the days back in the 70's in New York when train cars used to look like this:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Interesting? Japanese Foods

I often hear of interesting foods from Japan. Some I would try while others I am not so sure.

Here is one I am not sure I would like, Unagi Nobori or Surging Eel. It is a summertime drink. As the USA Today article states, it is mainly for men who want to cool off from the summer heat with a refreshing drink.

Here is another interesting food. A new variety of premium grapes called Ruby Roman. A bunch recently set a record for price when they were purchased by a Japanese hotel manager for $910 or about $26 per grape (2,860 Yen) (MSNBC). The grapes look like small tomatoes and have the same color. I would definately try one if it was offered. I wouldn't pay $26 for one though. The highest I would go is probably $1.

How much would you pay for a grape? And would you wash it down with some Unagi Nobori?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jizo Bodhisattva - Guardian of Children, Travelers & Other Voyagers

This book, written by American Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays, provides an informative overview of the history of Jizo Bodhisattva. For those who are familiar with or live in Japan, you probably have heard of Jizo Bodhisattva and you probably have seen many Jizo statues. It is a common sight in Japan.

I also had heard of Jizo but I did not know too much about what Jizo was or signifies. This book provided a good overview from a Zen Buddhist's perspective. The book also provided good information about some of the basic beliefs of Buddhism such as rebirth and the various realms such as the Hell realms.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned from this book.

A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who vows not to enter nirvana, but instead works to free all others who suffer. Jizo's two most important vows are: "Only after the Hells are empty will I become a Buddha" and "Only after all beings are taken across to Enlightenment will I myself realize Bodhi."

Jizo is known to be the protector of children and travelers. You sometimes will see Jizo statues along roads or highways. At temples or cemetaries, a Jizo statue may be seen holding a child.

Statues of six Jizo's are often found at the entrance to cemetaries. The six Jizo's represent the division of Jizo into six bodies, one to help suffering beings in each of the six realms. The six realms are the Hells, Hungry Ghosts, the Animal Realm, Human Realm, the Realm of the Asuras, and the Realm of the Gods.

There are actually many forms of Jizo. Below are some of them:

Emmei or Enmei Jizo - Jizo who prolongs life and provides benefits including watching over children and curing illness
Hara Obi Jizo - Stomach-wrapper Jizo who protects women during pregnancy
Hikeshi Jizo - Protects houses and harvests from fire
Indo Jizo - Saves humans after death and leads them to enlightenment
Meyame Jizo - Restores eyesight
Taue Jizo - Helps farmers plant rice
Mizuko Jizo - Water-Baby Jizo

There are many other Jizo's besides these above.

The popular Mizuko Jizo or Water-Baby Jizo is often portrayed as a monk with an infant in his arms and another child or two at his feet. In Japan, a ceremony called a Mizuko Kuyo is performed for grieving parents who have lost an infant either before birth or within the first few years of life. The Mizuko Jizo is a more recent creation. This Jizo and the Mizuko Kuyo ceremony arose in Japan in the 1960's.

The Jizo that is the special protector of Children arose during the medieval times in Japan. According to Japanese Buddhist beliefs, young children who have died are innocent souls who are unable to understand the teachings of the Buddha or to separate right from wrong. This also means that, through no fault of their own, they cannot become enlightened. They are stuck in a kind of limbo. Jizo protects the children in this limbo realm from demons.

Jizo statues often carry a pilgrim's staff. At the top are rings, usually four or six. Four for the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or six for the six realms of existence such as the Hell or Human realms.

In the other hand of most Jizo statues is a cintamani jewel. The cintamani is the jewel that fullfills all wishes. The jewel is supposed to emit a warm brilliant light which illuminates the deepest reaches of hell.

There were many other interesting facts I learned about the Jizo from this book. If you are curious about the many Jizo's located around Japan, I would recommend this book.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Traveler's Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages

I recently finished reading The Travelers Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages by Ed Readicker-Henderson. It describes three popular temple pilgrimages in Japan, the Mt. Hiei pilgrimage near Kyoto, the 33 temple Saigoku Kannon temple pilgrimage, and the 88 temple Kobo Daishi temple pilgrimage.

It was interesting to read about pilgrimages in Japan which I was not that familiar with. And the brief descriptions of all the temples was also interesting to read about.

What caught my attention was the great disparity in the prosperity, or lack of, between many of the temples. Some temples on the pilgrimages are extremely well off while others apparently are in such a dilapidated state that they appear to be ready to collapse any day.

It also would seem that most of the temples survive or exist or prosper based primarily on the thousands of pilgrims that pass through each year. The more prosperous temples are usually so well off because of some tradition or religious practice that draws people to the temple. One such practice that is very popular at some of the temples is for potential mother's who are planning to or attempting to have children. Many mother's-to-be come to these temples to pray for a child or a safe birth.

Often, according to the book, the poorest temples are located very near or next to the richest temples. It's a little sad to hear about a temple that was founded over a thousand years ago that is in such a poor and lonely condition. If it was not for the pilgrimage, they most likely would cease to exist.

If anyone is planning to embark on one of these pilgrimages, this is a good book as you can easily take it with you. You can probably also find a lot of other useful guides and information about taking on one of these pilgrimages from the internet.