What if they held a nuclear test and nobody came?

On September 15, the American National Nuclear Security Administration in Nevada executed Bacchus, a sub-critical nuclear test, which they refer to as a safety test of the American nuclear stockpile. It was dutifully reported in a press release and on their Facebook page (!). And… nobody noticed.

At the end of September, they again reported this in their monthly newsletter. And… nobody noticed. Fully two sources reported on this in September: a man named Andrew Kishner and a man named RKM Ming Lai. Neither is associated with any news source; they are private, little-read bloggers.

The NNSA could have been forgiven for thinking that their sub-critical test was really not a big deal at all. Then, quite suddenly, in the morning of October 13, Asahi TV noticed!

アメリカが臨界前核実験 オバマ政権下で初

10/13 05:50


After hearing of Asahi’s belated scoop, the Mayor of Hiroshima issued a letter of protest. Only then was the Peace Watch Tower reset to “zero” (or, rather, 28), English-language news reports issued, NGOs notified, etc. All of this happened roughly a month late.

It seems like nobody at the Hiroshima mayor’s office, or indeed anyone else in the world with an interest in nuclear issues, was actually watching the NNSA website. The NHK falsely reported that a statement was released October 12. One group opens their article with the roundabout statement, “It was learned on October 12“, and an explanation that the NNSA failed to make an announcement beforehand like they should have. But the fact of the matter is that no announcement was made on October 12. In fact, someone at Asahi must have remembered to check the NNSA website on this date, and found the month-old announcement.

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | World Peace 1 Comment »

Politically Incorrect Glossary of Japanese Buddhism

高野聖 Kōya hijiri

A brand of merchant from Mount Kōya, usually from the criminal class. Often improperly translated as “Buddhist missionaries”, sometimes with the claim that they spread some Buddhist beliefs, which is at best a vast exaggeration of the facts. In reality, although they were approved by Kōya authorities, the approval chiefly permitted them to make a living as traveling salesmen, perhaps playing some music or dancing on the side.

English Wikipedia amusingly links their Kōya hijiri article to another term, yadōkai, which they describe as follows: “Yadōkai (夜道怪) is a derogatory term for Kōya hijiri. They were considered to be a kind of supernatural creature, wandering at night, damaging property, injuring people or kidnapping children. As shown in Gegege no Kitaro. Kōya hijiri served as itinerant traders, were well informed about life, and deceived local people.”

解毒圓 Gedokuen

A brand of medicinal herb sold by a pharmacy named Dōshōan 道正庵 under exclusive contract from the Sōtō Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism; it was sold to Zen temples as well as the general public. Mixing Gedokuen with various other herbs or rubbing it on yourself was guaranteed to cure almost any ailment, and it was advertised as a panacea. The story went that the recipe for Gedokuen was received by Dōgen from the white fox kami Imari, and Dōgen went on to order Dōshōan to sell the drug throughout Japan. This story was fabricated in the 1700s and tacked on to the first printed biography of Dōgen, which created a fairly confusing narrative where Dōgen’s whole life built up to endorsing a magical drug. However, the Sōtō Zen sect apparently approved of this activity. It continued until 1945.

Another famous panacea of the Tokugawa period was called Kintaien 錦袋圓, and was also invented by a Buddhist sect, allegedly communicated to a young monk in a dream by the sect’s founder Gyōtei.

般若湯 Hannya tō

“Water of Perfect Wisdom”. A term for alcohol used by Japanese Buddhist monks, implying that drinking this very special water will open you up to the wisdom of Buddha. Drinking alcohol is a violation of one of the five precepts of all Buddhist monks and is grounds for expulsion from the sangha, except in Japan. In the Meiji period, many temples had signs posted at the door warning monks not to bring alcohol inside, but hannyatō would be carried in regardless. Contrary to the American scholarship on Japanese Buddhist jargon, this euphemism is not meant to cover up the fact that monks are drinking alcohol. Rather, it is a sardonic term, and many Americans seem to misunderstand the deadpan tone in which the joke is told (e.g. “if you call it hannyatō it’s okay”). It is still used today.

There are various other Japanese Buddhist terms which had secret slang meanings in the Edo period, most of which are not fit for publication on a family blog: 念仏講 nenbutsukō, 阿弥陀経 Amida Kyō, etc.

三種の浄肉 sanshu no jōniku

“The three kinds of pure meat”. It is often claimed that the precept prohibiting killing renders all Buddhist monks vegetarians. However, in Japan (as well as China and Korea, in this case) circumventing this rule has proven all too simple. There was a sutra somewhere, nobody knows quite where, that says that there are three ways to make meat pure:

  1. You didn’t see the animal being killed.
  2. You don’t know whether it was killed for your sake.
  3. You didn’t hear whether it was killed for your sake.

These exemptions are so ludicrously huge that meat is pretty much fine. Thus everyone in Japan has an in-joke to laugh about, and gaijin vegetarians who come to a temple seeking Japanese vegetarian food are oftentimes naively disappointed (or charged exorbitant prices for shōjin ryōri).

僧兵 sōhei

“Warrior monks”, or more accurately the military forces of temple-states. There are entire books written about this subject, but suffice to say, the majority of “monks” from A.D. 950-1600 were not above setting fire to rival temples or pillaging local villages. Usually they lived in temple towns, 門前町 monzenmachi, and not within the temple itself. Most notably found in Hieizan Enryakuji (controlled western Biwako), Kyōto Hongwanji (distributed throughout the provinces), Kōyasan Kongōbuji (controlled Kii), and and Kōyasan Negoroji (controled Kii; notable for manufacturing muskets).

Posted: October 1st, 2010 | Dharma 1 Comment »

Why Esperanto is Fun

In the Land of Invented Languages
by Akira Okrent. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. Buy it on Amazon

This book is relentlessly fun to read and written from the perfect point of view. Okrent is a practical linguist, who harbors no fantasies of a universal language, but is yet open-minded and deeply interested in the people who do invent languages, and why they make them. I think the most important lesson I learned from it is why Esperanto is fun, and people should make an attempt to learn it.

Back around 1998 I stumbled across the website Learn Not to Speak Esperanto and had myself a good laugh at the people who would try to promote this clumsy language. Why, it’s like Italian written in Eastern Polish! Any other constructed language is better than this one! What a joke! Already I was thinking about it the wrong way, but even though I examined constructed languages many times over the intervening years, I never was able to approach it in the way Okrent presents it for our edification.

Everything about Esperanto makes it more interesting to learn than its competitors. First, despite its weirdness as a language, it’s easy to learn; and once you learn it, you can make new and funny uses of the weirdness to delight your fellow learners. Second, it’s fun to speak in, as opposed to its predecessor Volapük. Third, and finally, the Esperantist culture is one of promoting universal brotherhood and is so lively that it makes you want to speak the language more and more.

Consider the fundamental differences between the way language is thought about in Esperanto as opposed to its competitors, as pointed out by Okrent. One of the example texts that Zamenhof used the original Esperanto books is a letter to a friend, which starts, Kara amiko! Mi presentas al mi kian vizaĝon vi faros post la ricevo de mi a letero, or “Dear friend! I can only imagine what kind of face you will make after receiving from me this letter.” Clearly the intent of this passage is not to make a perfect language, but to puzzle and delight the reader. Reading this example, perhaps more than a few Esperantists sent off some puzzles to their friends as well. In the context of thinking about language as puzzle, we do not need to strive for perfection. But if we do strive for perfection, then we start to forget about how much fun learning a language can be.

The way Esperantists congregate and talk to each other also makes the language more enjoyable. The chief argument against Esperanto, of course, is that English is already a world language. But contained in English, for non-native speakers, is an undeniably bad implication. They are forced to learn English, whether they like it or not, to conduct business with native speakers; and they will be mocked if they speak it poorly, since it has a large native speaking population who more often than not simply assume other people have learned it for their sake. Now consider how people learn Esperanto. It is learned by choice, outside of school, as a “useless” but fun hobby. (Isn’t it interesting how the most enjoyable endeavors in modern society are “useless”?) It has no business application, but is only used for sharing humanity. When the learner comes together with other Esperantists, there are very few or no native speakers, and everyone treats each other as equal. At a conference, the Esperantists genuinely encourage each other to keep it up, and enjoy themselves by singing songs, dancing, and so forth. Conferences receive letters from other parts of the world, for no purpose other than to let them know that they can communicate in Esperanto in any country.

Finally, as an English speaker I can stay at any classy hotel in the world when I travel, but it will be a lonely stay, and English will be part of the room service rather than an enjoyable endeavor for the staff. As an Esperantist, not only could I have lodgings in the homes of fellow Esperantists, but we would have a hobby to talk about and a good reason to become long lasting friends.

In short, this sounds like something I would very much like to do; but business interests are forcing me to learn Japanese first.

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Book Reviews, World Peace 6 Comments »

My Global Consciousness Before JET

No human being is really a free agent. We taken in the universe through the filter of our five senses, and we are limited by the ability of our minds to process these experiences and make something coherent out of them. Our actions are thus determined by what we have been permitted to see. It is truly awe-inspiring that we live in a world where information comes constantly steaming in to us, second by second, from millions of fellow humans. It was once thought that the Internet would usher in a sort of utopia, since everyone would have access to the sum of all contributed information. This has not proven to be the case, because so many things disrupt total perception, not least of which is our own limited understanding. But this global consciousness, however problematic, is the main benefit that this age has over previous ones.

Before the 20th century, even the most powerful people in the richest lands could only have a dim sense of what was going on on the other side of the planet and why it was happening. Today, that information is available not only to the ruling class but to roughly half the world. This allows us to root out wrong views and instill peace like never before. It’s not clear how long this age will last, but surely it is not permanent, so the vast information flow of the present day has given us a great responsibility to find ways to put our new consciousness to good use. Most people today are using this information flow for their own entertainment, but I believe that’s because they are unsure of what to do with their power; it’s as if everyone has been made a king in their own house, and they can’t think of much use for their tiny kingdom except to hire an army of jesters. I personally struggle to get beyond that point. Going on JET instead of taking a job at home will be the first of hopefully many excursions to help me increase my understanding.

Consciousness is shared only to the extent that we are willing to put ourselves into other people’s shoes. This is why the work of the translator is precious and delicate, and why, even in the saturated market of American-Japanese dialogue, I want to throw myself in, to disrupt and reconstruct. Presenting people’s own narratives in a positive way helps the rest of the world learn. Twisting words in unintended ways, on the other hand, leads to misunderstanding and sometimes hatred. Japan is a country that has spent almost 150 years trying wholeheartedly to engage itself with Western modernization, yet it is a country still subject to an unspoken distrust that Western Europe and the Anglosphere have long since eliminated from their own cross-national dialogues. If we can’t communicate openly with this culture that has aimed from the start to please us, how can we positively approach the billions of Asians and Africans who treat the West with an open enmity? According to Importing Diversity, part of the impetus for the JET program was the Western world’s distrustful reactions following the death of Emperor Showa in 1989. Japanese officials were gravely moved by the unequal treatment the Emperor was given in outsider eulogies. There must be some lack of understanding going on here; how can it be resolved?

This, of course, links into the greater problem of the endless possibility for misunderstanding. It seems that no matter how much truth lies behind a person’s words, the act of rendering it into speech links you into a specific time, place, and community. Even the simple message of the Buddha, which I regard as sublime philosophy, is today crammed into the box of one “world religion” among many. I recently read a comment that referred to Buddhism as a literal “hoax”. What is the hoax? Cause-and-effect? Impermanence? This is what happens when Buddhism goes through the lens of Protestantism and their insistence on history rather than story, on the question of whether or not something happened hundreds of years ago rather than the truth that underlies it. It would be impossible to correct this wrong view without completely uprooting the culture on which it lies. And if Buddhism is subject to this, then there is no statement which can survive such a brutal, inevitable misunderstanding.

As a spiritual person, I have a sort of conviction that the ideal of world peace can only be built on the foundation of inner peace, after the philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh. In Japan, religion in the Western sense is disliked as anti-social dogma. But Japan, of course, is possibly the most peaceful country in the world; most crime is committed by foreigners. If my theory is correct, where does their inner peace come from? And if I am wrong, what is the origin of their national character? I will try to answer these questions for myself, and bring the answers to the rest of the world.

Going on JET will change my global consciousness radically. I don’t expect to give up my commitment to peace, but I may develop a new outlook on the world. So, I’m archiving these questions now to look back on them in a year, or two, or three; perhaps I will have answers, or perhaps these questions will seem less important in the face of new and larger ones.

Posted: June 2nd, 2010 | JET, World Peace

Northern Buddhist Dark Humor

Once, when the Venerable Ananda was staying in the Venuvana, he overheard a monk reciting a verse from the Dhammapada: “It would be better for a man to live a single day and see a marsh fowl than for him to live a hundred years and not see a marsh fowl.”

The Venerable Ananda went up to him and said, “My son, the Buddha did not say that! This is what he said: ‘It would be better for a man to live a single day and see the harsh, foul nature of samsara than for him to live a hundred years and not see the harsh, foul nature of samsara.'”

The monk then went to see his preceptor and said: “The Venerable Ananda tells me that the Buddha did not speak this verse.”

The monk’s preceptor replied: “The Venerable Ananda is a mistaken, senile old man who can no longer remember the Dhamma. Keep on reciting the way you were taught.”

Later, Ananda came by and heard the verse being recited just as before, without change. He said: “My son, did I not tell you the Buddha did not say that?”

The monk replied: “Yes, but my preceptor said, ‘Ananda is getting on in years and cannot remember so well: go on reciting as before.'”

Ananda reflected: “I myself told him the correct verse, but he did not accept it.” Ananda then contemplated the question of whether anyone would be able to convince this monk to correct his recitation, and he realized: “There is no one who can get him to change. The Buddha’s disciples Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, and Mahakashyapa have all entered nibbana; to whom could I now turn as an authority? I shall also enter nibbana.”

Aśokarajavadana (“The Face of King Aśoka”), unknown Chinese translator in Taisho Tripitaka 2042.50:115b-c, trans. John S. Strong in The Experience of Buddhism p. 90

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Excerpts