Category Archives: Buddhism

Wordcatcher Tales: Old Japanese Cemetery Kanji

I’ve been helping to decipher some old gravestones in the newly renovated Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery (est. 1908), a candidate for the State and National Register of Historic Places. Here’s a short list of deciphering aids that I’ve just updated in time for this year’s Obon season.

Dates

紀元 Kigen ‘record-origin’ (counting from Emperor Jimmu, 660BC)
明治 Meiji 1–45 (1868–1912)
大正 Taisho 1–15 (1912–1926)
昭和 Showa 1–64 (1926–1989)
平成 Heisei 1–? (1989–?)
行年~才 gyounen/kounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’
享年~才 kyounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’
~生 ‘born (on) —’
~亡 ‘died (on) —’
~寂 ‘died (on) —’
~往生 oujou ‘departed life (on) —’
~帰幽 kiyuu ‘returned to the netherworld (on) —’
~昇天 shouten ‘rose to heaven (on) —’
永眠 eimin ‘eternal sleep’
早世 sousei ‘early death’
死産 shisan ‘stillborn’
生児 seiji ‘just born’
嬰児 eiji ‘infant’
孩児 gaiji ‘infant, suckling’
若郎子 wakairatsuko ‘young boy’
若郎女 wakairatsume ‘young girl’
吉日 kichijitsu ‘propitious day’ (e.g., for erecting a monument)

Names

~家之墓 — ke no haka ‘(X) family’s grave’
~之奥(津)城 — no oku(tsu)ki ‘(X)’s tomb/grave’
~之霊神 — no reijin ‘(X)’s soul’
~霊位 — no reii ‘(X)’s mortuary tablet’ (‘soul/spirit’ + ‘place/stand’)
~先祖 — senzo ‘(X family) ancestors’
~代々 — daidai ‘(X family) generations’
士族 shizoku ‘samurai clan’
俗名 zokumyou ‘secular name’
妻~ tsuma ‘wife’ (name often written in katakana, not kanji)
原籍~ genseki ‘original domicile registry, permanent address’
法号 hougou ‘Buddhist name’
戒名 kaimyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
法名 houmyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
釈~ Shaku ‘Shak[yamuni] (the historical Buddha)’ (in many posthumous Buddhist names)
~妙~ myou ‘mystery, miracle, wonder’ (in posthumous Buddhist names)
~居士 koji ‘Buddhist lay leader (male)’
~大姉 daishi ‘Buddhist lay leader (female)’
~禅定門 zenjoumon ‘Zen Buddhist honorific (male)’ (formerly ‘Zen monk’)
~禅定尼 zenjouni ‘Zen Buddhist honorific (female)’ (formerly ‘Zen nun’)
~信士 shinji/shinshi ‘honorific title for men’
~信女 shinnyo ‘honorific title for women’
~童子 douji ‘honorific title for boys’
~童女 dounyo ‘honorific title for girls’
~尼 ama ‘nun’ (sometimes marks posthumous names for women)
~県~郡~村/町 — ken ‘prefecture’ — gun ‘district’ — mura/machi ‘village/town’
施主 seshu ‘mourners, benefactors, donors’
嗣子 shishi ‘heir, successor’
dou ‘ditto’ (same as the name in the next column to the right)
dou ‘ditto’ (same as the name in the next column to the right)
々 (doubles/repeats the previous kanji)

Mantras

南無阿弥陀仏 Namu Amida Butsu ‘Hail Amida Buddha’ (= Kannon, Pure Land [浄土 joudo] Buddhism)
南無妙法蓮華経 Namu Myouhou Renge Kyou ‘Hail the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’ (Nichiren Buddhism)
倶会一処 Kue Issho (a phrase from the Amida Sutra suggesting) ‘we will meet again in the Pure Land’
三界萬霊 Sangai Banrei ‘3 worlds, 10,000 souls’ (for all souls, past, present, and future)

Helpful Resources

NengoCalc is invaluable for converting Japanese imperial reign name dates into Western calendar dates.

Rikai Unicode Kanji Tables are invaluable for locating rare (or miswritten) kanji that don’t show up in the usual kanji dictionaries, name glossaries, or input methods. Kanji dictionaries will often give you the code range of similar kanji (grouped by semantic ‘radicals’), so you can scan for a form that is no longer used in Japanese, but that shows up in old names, then cut and paste it into a search box to see if you can get a name reading.

The Weblio English-Japanese/Japanese English website is perhaps the best place to match name kanji with multiple pronunciations (which is almost every name kanji in Japanese!) against actual attestations in a wide range of Japanese sources. If you google Japanese name kanji and get nothing but Chinese search results, you probably misread or misanalyzed the original engraving, but stonecarvers also make mistakes.

Nanzan University’s 2001 Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (28/3-4) translation of Tamamura Fumio’s “Local Society and the Temple-Parishioner Relationship within the Bakufu’s Governance Structure” helps clarify Buddhist posthumous naming conventions and honorifics.

Finally, English Wikipedia articles about Japanese prefectures almost always have very helpful subarticles listing old district, city, and town names that have disappeared after mergers and reorganizations. And Japanese Wikipedia is even more complete, besides listing major cities, towns, and districts by their kanji names (and pronunciations).

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Burma’s Student Nationalists, 1940s

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1280-1290:

When the British left Burma in 1948, they left the country in the hands of the men who had been on the extreme fringes of the student nationalist movement just a decade before. They were almost all Buddhists (by background if not practice) and ethnic Burmans. Before the Japanese invasion, they were not particularly important, but the war had radicalized society and they had seized the opportunity, first to collaborate with the Japanese and then to turn against them, in March 1945, just in time to avoid being arrested and hanged as Quislings. They included men like Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. They were immensely popular and even though they were still in their late twenties and early thirties stood head and shoulders above the older politicians, who were tarred as not having been daring enough. Aung San and many of his colleagues were then gunned down in 1947 in a still puzzling assassination plot, but others from the pool of ex-student radicals formed the first independent government. They would take Burma out of the British Commonwealth and launch the country down what was to be a not very happy path through the rest of the twentieth century.

Some on the British side had been worried about the fate of the Shan and other ethnic minorities in an independent Burma and suggested detaching the upland areas and keeping them as a British crown colony. British frontier officials were particularly fond of the hill peoples, such as the Karen along the Thai border, who had fought consistently and often very courageously against the Japanese.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Banrei-setsu, Bangu-setsu

sangaibanreiWhile exploring Makiki Cemetery in Honolulu, I came across a 三界萬靈碑 sangai banrei hi, that is, a stone monument (碑 hi, or tateishi ‘standing stone’) inscribed with 三界萬霊 sangai banrei (3-worlds 10,000-souls), which retired University of Hawai‘i religion professor George Tanabe nicely explained to a former student of his for an article in Hana Hou! magazine (vol. 8, no. 1, February/March 2005, p. 5):

“One of the worst things that can happen to the dead in Japanese Buddhism is to be uncared for,” George says, looking at the weeds, “so these people are in real trouble.” But towering over the other tombstones stands a large stone George calls a sangai banrei. “It’s put up in commemoration of the 10,000 spirits of the three worlds: past, present and future,” he explains, my Buddhism teacher come to life again. “It’s nobody’s grave but it’s everybody’s grave, so even if individual graves are abandoned, there’s always the big one to take care of everybody.”

The kanji meaning ‘10,000, myriad‘ occurs in “10,000” expressions, like the following two, new to me:

萬霊節 banrei-setsu (10,000-spirit-season) ‘All Souls Day’
萬愚節 bangu-setsu (10,000-folly-season) ‘April Fools Day’

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Japanese Buddhism Fading in Hawai‘i

Just in time for the onset of the Obon season, the July issue of Honolulu Magazine publishes an article by Tiffany Hill (pp. 38-42) on the “Fading Tradition” of Japanese Buddhism in Hawai‘i. Here are a few excerpts:

It’s strange to hear a Christian hymn in a Japanese Buddhist temple, being led by the minister, no less. But [Rev. Earl] Ikeda [of Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission temple near the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa] had a reason. “I was invited to do a funeral service recently,” he explains. “I talked with the family and mentioned that it didn’t have to be a strict service done in the Buddhist tradition.” He explained to the family that they could choose a gatha, or song they felt would best honor their loved one. They chose “Amazing Grace.” In fact, adds Ikeda, when it came time to sing, the Buddhist minister himself led the mourners in the Christian hymn.

Speaking to us earlier in his modest office upstairs, Ikeda, sporting his usual attire of T-shirts and shorts, says, “I like that song, and the meaning really fits what Buddhism is about. In Buddhism, the idea is to live the moment. We can’t be attached to certain ways of thinking, that’s exactly what Buddhism isn’t.” It was a story he wanted to share with his membership….

The person most credited with establishing Buddhism in the Islands is Bishop Emyō Imamura. He came from Japan in 1899 to examine life at the plantations, and he was instrumental in building temples in plantation towns. Plantation workers converted plantation homes to create the first temples. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 170 temples in Hawai‘i. They were the lifeblood of the plantation towns, where they served not only as the place of worship, but as a commmunity center and as the nucleus for political and labor discussions as the Japanese fought for a place in the Islands.

There are 33 temples still open on O‘ahu. Visit one of them today and you’ll find a small number of devoted members, all of whom pay annual dues to keep the temples open. It is not uncommon for ministers to speak in front of memberships compromising a dozen members, sometimes fewer. It’s also likely that a temple’s most active members are in their 70s, 80s, sometimes even 90s….

In addition to a shrinking membership, Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist temples are also facing a shortage of ministers. Take [Rev. Jay] Okamoto. For the past six years, he’s not only been the minister of the Waipahu Hongwanji, but also the temples in ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae, neither of which have had their own resident ministers in 30 years. The ‘Ewa temple has 30 members and the Wai‘anae temple has around 50, he says.

All Japanese Buddhist ministers must be ordained in Japan before they can work in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. This often makes it difficult to attract local men and women in the first place, because they have to speak Japanese for their studies. Often, Japanese ministers end up serving in Hawai‘i’s temples, but, says Okamoto, they, too, face linguistic and cultural challenges. It’s a catch-22.

There’s also a seasonally related article by David Thompson in the same issue headlined “Bondancersizing the Night Away” (pp. 43-45).

UPDATE: The article is about “Bondancercise” classes, a word formed from the merger of Bon + dancer + exercise, but the spelling “Bondancersizing (the Night Away)” implies right-sizing Bon dancers (weight loss).

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On the Foreignness of Vietnam to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 188-189:

The Thai soldiers saw South Vietnam as a separate country in a conception that differed from their understanding of their immediate neighbors Laos and Cambodia. Many of these soldiers had passed through those two countries in their youth. Private First Class Aran’s childhood home in Nong Khai, for instance, was within sight of the Mekong River and the banks of Laos opposite. As he recalled, “It was like going into my sibling country. Back then Thailand and Laos weren’t that different from each other. There was no ideology [separating them] at all. We crossed over to play like normal. We could eat and sleep, and then cross back. [The Lao people] were like our relatives; we could go back and forth [between Thailand and Laos] all the time.” Those soldiers from the southern Isan subregion, many of them from districts where Khmer was spoken as a first language, enjoyed similar ease in crossing the Thai-Cambodian border in the period before the World Court awarded full ownership of Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear in Khmer) to Phnom Penh in 1962. For the ethnic Khmer living in southern Isan’s Sisaket, Surin, and Buriram provinces, a jaunt into Cambodia was as unremarkable as the boat ride on the Mekong River made by their ethnic Lao counterparts in the north.

Vietnam was different. Its cultural dissimilarities more so than its geographic distance put it into a separate category. It seemed Chinese. The strong cultural similarities between the Vietnamese and the Chinese made such comparisons inevitable. The historical Vietnamese embrace of Confucian principles, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese script (as well as Nom, the Vietnamese indigenous script that resembles Chinese to many outsiders), and the classics of Chinese literature encouraged the Thais to see Vietnam as belonging to China’s sphere. It seemed distant beyond the kilometers that separated it from Thailand.

Upon their arrival in Vietnam, the first action undertaken by many Thai volunteers was to acknowledge the presence and sovereignty of the local spiritual regime. As soon as Sergeant Khamron set foot in South Vietnam, he dropped to his knees, scooped up a handful of dirt, and sprinkled it over his head. He carried out this impromptu gesture to ensure that Mae Thorani would protect him while he was in South Vietnam…. “If you are Buddhist, they train you to do things like this,” he explained. “There is a khata [verse] that says, ‘When you go to a foreign land/Entrust your care to Mother Earth.’ It is the same thing when you return. When I got back [to Thailand], I immediately knelt down, took up some dirt, and sprinkled it on my head. I said, ‘I’m back.'” Khamron’s decision to carry out the same action on returning to his homeland underscores the degree to which many soldiers saw South Vietnam’s spiritual forces as belonging to a separate (and specifically Vietnamese) realm. Despite sharing the same physical landmass and duplicating the same flora, fauna, and weather, the two countries were seen to harbor individual and esoteric spiritual actors. The sovereignty of each area belonged to local spirits. For this reason, some Thai soldiers brought their own soil with them. They collected samples of dirt, which they addressed as “Mae Thorani,” and carried the samples with them to South Vietnam.

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Filed under Buddhism, Cambodia, China, Laos, nationalism, Thailand, Vietnam

Baptist Becomes Buddhist U.S. Army Chaplain

In The Tennessean of 8 September 2009, Bob Smietana profiles a new type of chaplain for the U.S. Army:

When Thomas Dyer heads to Afghanistan in December, the former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor won’t take a rifle with him. He won’t take a Bible, either.

Instead, Dyer, a Tennessean National Guardsman from Memphis and the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army, hopes to bring serenity and calm, honed by months of intensive meditation.

That preparation, he says, will help him bring spiritual care in the midst of a war zone. “We’re going to put it to the test,” Dyer said.

Dyer’s deployment is another step in the U.S. military’s attempt to meet the diverse spiritual needs of America’s fighting forces. It’s no easy task. For one thing, the military chaplaincy is facing all the complications that have affected American religion over the past 40 years. The decline of mainline Protestants and their aging clergy. The ongoing Catholic priest shortage. The explosion of religious diversity. The emergence of people with no faith. The ease with which people move from one faith to another.

The military is trying to adapt to these changes, while trying to find ministers willing to serve in a war zone, and who can minister to American troops without offending Muslim allies.

My elder stepbrother is a chaplain in the U.S. Army—and the son of a chaplain. And one of my Southern Baptist missionary “uncles” in Japan became very interested in Japanese Buddhism, later publishing a book entitled Zen Way, Jesus Way. One of his daughters is a believer in Tibetan Buddhism. Whenever Christians ask me why I am not a believer, I usually respond, “In which religion?”

UPDATE: There were Christian chaplains in the Imperial Japanese Army, along with Buddhist and Shinto chaplains. (The pastor of the Hiroshima Baptist Church, where my parents served as missionaries, was a Christian chaplain with the Japanese Army in China.) However, there were no Buddhist or Shinto chaplains in the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, only Protestants, even for all the “Buddhaheads” from Hawai‘i.

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