Reikai Monogatari in English: The Number of the Beast (665-666)

The 666th discourse in Reikai Monogatari is entitled “666”. However, this 666 is pronounced “Miroku”, the Japanese word for Maitreya, the future Buddha who will unite mankind. In Japanese, 3 is “mi” and 6 is “roku”, so “Miroku” = “three sixes” = 666. I have decided some parts of this bizarre chapter are worth translating.

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Posted: April 5th, 2013 | World Peace

Hideo Noda, victim of Communism

Reading Whittaker Chambers’ Witness for the first time, I was intrigued by his mention of an innocent Japanese college student swept up by the Communist underground in America. Hideo Noda (野田英夫, 1908-1939), nephew of the peace-loving socialist politician Prince Fumimaro Konoye and student of Diego Rivera, was a warm-hearted and talented man apparently drawn to Communism by a genuine sympathy with the poor. You can see in his 1933 work Scottsboro Boys (pictured) a portrayal of working-class urban life that should be familiar to any visitor to an American city. After a discussion with Chambers, Noda eagerly agreed “to go to Japan to work as a Soviet underground agent”, although Chambers does not make it clear if Noda realized that this work would involve espionage.

At this point I decided to Google Noda’s name, and found both an unrelated Japanese-American nisei painter with the same name (crazy coincidence!), and an English biography on the website of a museum which carries his work. This biography is curiously whitewashed of his Communist adventures, although according to Chambers, they occupied a great part of his life after 1934.

Here is how the museum describes his later life:

Noda didn’t adhere to authority or strive after a false reputation. He was a humantistic [sic] painter who turned his eyes to the world of the mind and continued painting the working class, immigrants, circus performers, the unemployed and children from the bottom strata of society. In 1938 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor but continued to paint, holding his eyelids open with adhesive tape. Noda died prematurely at the age of 30.

Seeing such an incomplete biography inspired me to write this quick post to correct the Internet on this matter.

The attempt to establish a Soviet network in Japan failed, and his Tokyo contact John Sherman was commanded to go on to Moscow and barely escaped death there. Noda was also stuck in the underground and it appears he was eventually destroyed by it. Here is Chambers, meeting Noda for the last time:

I saw [Noda] only for a moment [in 1938], to give him the address [of his next meeting place]. I did not ask, of course, where he had been since I had sent him on to a hotel in Southern France. Before Noda had been alert, somewhat as birds are, as if in him mental and physical brightness were one. Now he seemed a little faded and tired. Our brief meeting was stiff… I suspect that Noda was so silent because, had he begun to speak, the words that came out would have been: “Oh, horror, horror, horror!” … In 1939, the New York Times published his rather impressive obituary. In Tokyo, the promising Japanese-American painter Hideo Noda had died suddenly, of a “cerebral tumor.”

John Sherman refused to testify on the subject of Noda, pleading the fifth. This means that there is no information on Noda in English that does not either derive from Whittaker Chambers’ account or whitewash his Communist background. There is no Japanese-language equivalent to Google Books that would allow me to research this quickly, but none of the Japanese accounts of Noda online mention his underground work, except for one blog post which hints vaguely at “information collection”, but fails to mention any of his multiple trips overseas during the treatment of his “brain tumor”, if indeed he was diagnosed with a tumor at all. It is striking that the museums that hold his work do not realize what he was doing when he died, but it seems that Witness really is our only standing witness to the Communist underground at least on this detail.

Posted: January 3rd, 2012 | World Peace 3 Comments »

How Sangha and Paccekabuddha Refute Peace for Buddhists

When Siddhartha Gautama became Shakyamuni Buddha he decided against peace. What does this mean?

Perfect peace, inner and outer peace, means accepting whatever happens to you. Please consider this for a moment.

If someone attacks you with intent to kill, you have the choice of resisting or accepting. Resisting your attacker means fighting them; the political concept of “non-violent” resistance means very little in such a physical situation. Accepting your attacker is the only peaceful solution. It also means that you will die. If you can accept your own death you are a truly peaceful person.

If someone invades your community and asks you to surrender to their will, you have the same choice. If you “non-violently” resist the invaders, you may not be taking up arms but you are demonstrating that your beliefs conflict with theirs, which is a disruptive response, not a peaceful one. Complete surrender is the peaceful option. A perfectly peaceful community is therefore one that will be extinguished at the slightest touch.

The principal legacy of Buddha is the sangha, or community of monks. The sangha follows a very strict set of rules. They do not surrender to people who ask them to secularize their community. The establishment of a rule-abiding community in human society is not a peaceful action. It implies a small but recognizable level of resistance to the emotions and entanglements of lay society. Its membership is strictly voluntary, but it actively fights inner disorder, through its dispute system, and self-extinction, through its mission to propagate the dhamma. We must acknowledge that the sangha probably has the effect of promoting peace and absolving suffering in the society it depends on. The sangha is a skillful means to dhamma. But it is not a perfectly peaceful community and was not meant to be.

(Aside: Under the leadership of a Buddha I can accept that the sangha would be perfectly peaceful because any opposition to the sangha could be eliminated without conflict through a peaceful and compassionate reaction instructed by perfect understanding. But ordinary people are not Buddha.)

For people to follow rules they must believe in them. Belief is not a rational concept. No amount of rationality can force someone to drop everything and take up the monk’s robes. To make that decision you must have, as Buddha did, a belief (1) that the dhamma can be taught through sangha (2) that it will change the state of the world and (3) that this is a good thing. Unless if you are already Buddha these things are not obvious. They require a deep mystery to activate themselves in your mind, a recognition of Buddhism as a power and a force beyond a voluntary practice of meditation.

These three beliefs are cultural institutions. In Buddhist countries their power is strong; you believe, your family believes, and your friends believe. It is relatively easy to be a monk. In the West, none of those things are likely to be true. Many people may have a strong grasp of the dhamma in the West. But the dhamma is not acting on the world through a strong sangha. At best it is taking baby steps, during face-to-face personal encounters, in carefully considered acts that everyone must agree to be promoting peace in order to be considered Buddhist. Teaching mindfulness can be done over the Internet, but this is not the same as acting mindful. Only when people believe in the ability of dhamma to change the world for the better can the sangha be grown. They must not only believe tentatively that it sounds like it makes sense; they must devote themselves, they must give money, they must build, they must tell their friends and make their beliefs more acceptable. The sangha thereby is forced to institute itself on the world.

Dhamma is not peaceful, because Buddhism teaches that it requires propagation, and the propagation of dhamma is not peaceful. It is a force that acts on the world, eliminating wrong view and establishing deeper understanding. It does not drift through the air, seeping into the ears of meditators and giving them ethereal power. Sangha does not exist without its human believers, its pious monks and pious laity. It is very much a worldly force that builds order and disturbs the natural chaos. Trees must be chopped down to create its gathering spaces. It represents itself in monks, temples, pagodas and books, in local histories, in familiar illustrations and jataka tales. These things are not excess junk surrounding the dhamma but a reflection of the cultural power of the sangha, the same power that is necessary to maintain the community of monks and the vinaya they keep.

Who is a perfectly peaceful being? The Tripitaka gives us the answer. Some Buddhas are what we call paccekabuddha (縁覚 engaku). “Buddhas are enlightened by themselves and enlighten others: Paccekabuddhas are enlightened by themselves (but) do not enlighten others: they comprehend only the essence of meaning (attha-rasa), not the essence of the idea (dhamma-rasa). Because they are not able to put the supramundane dhamma into concepts and teach it; their realisation of the Dhamma is like a dream seen by a dumb man and like the taste of a curry from the city to one who lives in the forest”. (Suttanipata Commentary)

“Thus having entered upon religious life, he retires to the forest and goes on alone.” (Niddesa) He does not chop down any trees, for he needs no meeting spaces. He forces no bhikkus to wear robes or abstain from alcohol. In fact, he forces no one to hear the dhamma, but lives alone, “like the horn of a rhinoceros”.

If you were to summon superhuman self-control and achieve inner peace today, you would not become a Buddha. You would become paccekabuddha, understanding transience and dependent arising, but not how to control the force of compassion. Perfectly aware compassion makes you more than peaceful; it makes you a net positive force. If compassion were peaceful then an enlightened world, a world where all men become Buddhas, would be a peaceful one. But compassion is not peaceful, so a world where all men become Buddhas is simply an opening into further enlightened work.

In establishing the sangha the Buddha went beyond the concept of peace, because he not only saw the dhamma but knew the dhamma inside and out, and could not live anything other than dhamma, and was led by the dhamma to compassion, and was led by perfectly aware compassion to create an institution. Buddhists must therefore believe that this institution, when it follows the rules laid out by Buddha, is a positive force in the world.

Posted: July 19th, 2011 | Dharma, World Peace 1 Comment »

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 »

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