Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar Part II

It took me a while, but I finally finished reading “Miracle of the Japanese Language” by Yamaguchi Yoji. It was a thin book, but made me think a lot. I didn’t want to finish it. I’m fascinated to find out how ancient Japanese learned and digested foreign words. My imagination goes back and forth, traveling in time. Yes, I see avatars in my head.

One of them is Kûkai (774-835). He was a priest who went to China to study Buddhism. What fascinated me was that, according to the book, he studied Sanskrit without any access to Sanskrit speaking persons or documents. He must have gone through waves of culture shocks. At the time, Japan had only Chinese documents, but the quantity seemed equal to that of early Tang Dynasty. Kûkai probably transported on his back a heavy load of scrolls like a day laborer. At the time, Japanese writing system was not yet invented. Japanese elites then only knew Chinese characters.

Back in Japan, Kûkai must have felt doubts sitting before many great Chinese scrolls. He searched Sanskrit words reading Chinese sutras. After all, Chinese Buddhist sutras were originally translated from Sanskrit. The more he studied, the more he wanted to get to the source language. So he read the Chinese characters on and on and on, and backward and forward using numerous possibilities in sound and meaning. There were no television sets or computers. He didn’t go shopping or go to the kitchen to cook. He read and read and read. In the afternoon, he strolled away from his temple thinking, “What is the most important thing?” He didn’t have an answer. So he returned to the temple and read aloud on and on and on again.

As an ordinary person, Kûkai believed in the soul of words as well as every living thing including rocks and stones. This strong native belief eventually became connected with a Sanskrit word, dhaaran (陀羅尼). He probably recited a long sutra over and over again in order to get near the truth. Those documents contained no syntax or spaces, but showed characters after characters. Each character and combination of characters shows multiple meanings, and each sentence could be interpreted also in multiple ways. This is still true today. And I hear in “dhaaran,” Japanese mimic words daradara or daaradara. Daradara or daaradara means “on and on seemingly without purpose.” Dhaaran is opposite of Shingon. SHINGON 真言 means true words. Posterity calls his teaching Shingon.

Reizei-in library housed many Chinese documents. It was burned down to ashes 40 years after Kûkai died. I don’t know if it was an accident or a politically motivated incident. 20 years after the incident, in 894, Japanese court cancelled the Tang exchange students program. Tang Dynasty and their Buddhism had been in decline.

I wonder if some Sanskrit documents were in that library. If Sanskrit documents were there, what Kûkai refused to show to another priest, Saicho, could be Sanskrit documents.
I wrote this before in Red Room before, but 1200 years ago, Kûkai refused to show his document to Saicho. Both sects weren’t officially recomciled, so on June 15, 2009, each leader of the two sects met and shook each other’s hands. Isn’t that something? Anyway, Kûkai must have ordered his students to make many copies.

Those two priests competed for good. They both wanted to save people from misery with their words. “No matter how many books we import and read, if we cannot digest, communicate, and apply on our daily life, what good does it do?” I think they thought like that.

The journey of creating the Japanese language is fascinating. I’m sure I’ll learn more about it. By the way, I connected Avatar to Sanskrit in other way beside the fact nobody seemed to know. Abataあばたmeans pockmarks. I looked it up and sure enough it is a Sanskrit word again. But this time, it says abata came from “arbuda.” The Sanskrit word,“Arbuda” means pockmarks also. “Ava” of avatar means “descent.” Pockmarks are depressed, so I think maybe those two words were connected long before the ancient time.

Anyway, the sound of some words hits my central nervous system and makes foreign music. And we don’t have v sound. Instead of v, we use b. Also, we call Abata’s ba impure sound. When I quiet my mind and listen to words, I feel a bit odd hearing ba sound. This seems discriminating, but we call it impure sound. Impure is relative though. And foreign words have been exceptions to the rule. I’m talking about real down-to-earth yamato words like Anglo-Saxon words to English.

So Japanese have named dirty things with impure sounds starting b, g, d, and z. For instance, gomi means trash, and gomi is a yamato word. I do not hear any girl names starting with those sounds. Some women have that sound in the middle of their first name like Nagako. Nagako was the name of Empress Michiko’s mother in law. So there are exceptions. But I cannot deny thinking that why anyone named her that name. “Ga” sounds abrasive. Gaagaagaa means a mimic word for a loud motor sound. I felt sorry for the former empress.

This similar phenomenon was confirmed when I read Suzuki Takao’s books. He talked about the impure sounds of Japanese language. Maybe later on, I can write more about it. It is probably hilarious and puzzling to non-Japanese. I’ve taken for granted, but it is very interesting because I can’t even explain why. I just feel it, and it comes from the root of our language.


Dorraine said...

The soul of words-I love the sound of that. It takes a true gift to decipher scrolls and find correct translations. This story was fantastic, Keiko!

keiko amano said...


Thank you, Dorraine. Mountain climbers say they climb mountains because it's there. Those priests probably felt the same in order to get to the truth.

Rebb said...


Before I forget to tell you, I love those palm trees!

I love books that make me think a lot too. Your blogs certainly make me do a lot of thinking!

Fascinating read, Keiko. There is something to the sounds of words. There is one combination of letters in the American language that I simply do not like and do not utter. The word for passing gas...I don't even want to spell it out but it begins with f and ends with t (four letters). It's interesting how you feel about the sound "ba." When I see and hear "ba," I immediately think of the Egyptian word for soul and see the image of a bird from when I did a report long ago. Here's a little excerpt from a small book, "Mummies: A Voyage through Eternity," that describes the soul through Egyptian eyes. It says, "Ancient Egyptians believed that the elements that combine in a human being come apart in death. In the illustrations here each mummy—dried and blackened—is accompanied by the "ba" of the living person—the bird soul—which, through funerary magic, will ultimately reunite with the body" (p. 41) [sorry, don't have the image to post] Here's a link to read more about it and see some pictures and hieroglyphs.

keiko amano said...


About the word that you simply do not like and do not utter, one of comparable Japanese words is “he.” Like “Hey” without y. My American cousin found the word in my English-Japanese dictionary the first time I came to the U.S. and laughed out loud. I wanted to give you only the first alphabet and the last, but there is no middle.

And thank you for the site related Egyptian. It’s very interesting. I enjoyed reading it. As I said before and I want to emphasize that we have different sense for foreign words like different stomach for desserts. And probably young people today are becoming less sensitive to the word starting b, g, and so on because we use many foreign words.

This is totally unrelated to Egyptian. But “baka” means “stupid” in Japanese. According to my dictionary, “baka” came from “moha” in Sanskrit. So monks used this word as a bad slang. And Japanese Wikipedia shows that Bengali also uses “baka” with the same meaning as Japanese.

I’m sure Egyptians wouldn’t like this since “ba” and “ka” are sacred words. So I reread the site. And I thought “ba” sounded like ego, and “ka” sounded like spirit. And among Japanese monks, they used this bad word to scold someone, so I imagined a situation came up that some new monk mixed up “ba” and “ka.” Since ego should not be mixed up with spirit, maybe monks started to call the new monk, “baka.” So this is my totally baseless, stupid theory. But it peculiarly makes sense, doesn’t it? I thought of it because I was reading so many baseless but peculiarly sensible explanations on Wikipedia.

The Nakamuras on Saipan said...

Fascinating post-really interesting! I never thought about it before, but your comments regarding sounds struck a cord. My husband is Japanese and occasionally he uses English words that he hears but is not totally familiar with. Words that, because of their "sound" I do not use. I tried to explain this to him and asked him not to use these words as they had the same effect as fingernails on a chalk board to me. At that time I thought I was just being fickle, but now I see I'm not. Very interesting. I practice meditation and we use the OM sound to calm and center...I also love hearing the "sounds" of the Hanya Shingo-extremely comforting to me....yes, very interesting post indeed. Thank you for posting it. I am following your blog now...

keiko amano said...

Hello Nakamura san,

What a pleasant surprise, a message from Saipan! Thank you for your comment. I enjoyed looking at all of your photos. They are beautiful and very relaxing. Yes, I believe in no stress life also. We need to slow down without slowing down in thinking.

About fingernails on a chalk, yes, I think the feeling must be similar, but in your case, those sounds are based on negative meaning or image coming from the similar sounding words, right? In Japanese, fa and fu sound okay. I can’t think of relating to any bad words.

What I was talking about was not based on negative meaning, but solely based on so-called murky or impure sounds. Because Japanese language do not have a big range of syllables with many consonants like English, the effect of ba, bi, bu, be, bo, ga, gi…and so on sound stand out in our ears. This matter must be very subtle to non-Japanese speakers, but I hope to explain more.

Om and Hanyashingyo sound great. I learned Om for improving my voice by an American instructor. It calms me down. I hope to learn Hanyashingyo someday. Many people write it over and over again for meditation. That must improve writing and coordination, too.

Rebb said...


Word sounds are interesting, especially how similar sounds take on different meanings that go back to forever. Wouldn't it be fascinating to go back in time to when the first words were formed and see it occur in several different parts of the world at once...

Ah yes, I remember talking a little about "baka" in one of Mare's blogs. The Spanish "Vaca" is cow and. Also "V" and "B" sounds make me think of an old rolled up picture I have on a shelf. It a picture of me as a little girl and my grandfather has written my name on the outside. He has written my name with "v" instead of a "b" and that's how my name would sound when he said it. I had forgotten about that, but pulling for a book, it rolled off the shelf--as things often do :)

I still see the Egyptian Ba as soul not ego.

I guess anything can make sense if we want it to. "I thought of it because I was reading so many baseless but peculiarly sensible explanations on Wikipedia." Funny!

Luciana said...

Keiko, what a journey I took! I find very interesting a sound or a letter to be avoided because they remind you of something bad. I don´t think we have that in Portuguese.
I wonder what the Japanese immigrants thought of Brazilian Portuguese when they came, 100 years ago...

keiko amano said...


That’s right. We sure had a good time blogging about that cow. That was so funny.
About "v" instead of a "b," my problem is opposite of your grandfather.

About the Egyptian Ba as soul, I read the definition included personality. In Japanese, soul is translated to tamashii 魂. And tamashii is not related to personality. To me, personality is a part of ego.

keiko amano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
keiko amano said...


Portuguese to Japanese is like a gorgeous decoration cake. It’s music to our ears. It was probably very tough for the first generation Japanese to learn Portuguese, but I’m sure they cherished the language.

In the confine of our language, we are sensitive to our own syllables. Foreign syllables are not the same. So even if some are similar, I don’t ask anyone to avoid it. For instance, I talked about xoxo in Red Room before. It sounds like kusokuso. Kuso is shit. But I feel no needs of asking foreigners to avoid it. So don’t worry at all about such things. As I said, we have different stomach for desserts.

Just today, workshop members were talking about nicknames. A woman said one mother named her child, Dwight to avoid any nicknames.

“Why,” I said.

“It’s one syllable, so no one can change it.”

I was surprised to hear that. In Japanese syllables, we would write Dwight as Do-wa-i-to. It’s 4 syllables. That’s why I cannot write a haiku in English. I can’t count English syllables.