Buddhist Yojijukugo: beyond words?

I wanted to post a little something I found interesting, today. As readers know, the subject of Buddhist vocab in everyday Japanese use interests me quite a bit. I never really appreciated Buddhism until I went to Japan in 2005 and just saw its profound impact on the culture, which hasn’t occurred yet in the West where it is still limited to intellectual debates and meditation seminars.1 This pair of four-character Japanese idioms, or yojijukugo are similar to one I posted in the past.

By the way, this post is dedicated to “Johnl” who’s expressed an interest in this previously and “Stephen” who pointed me to the second yojijukugo in this post.

The first yojijukugo phrase I wanted to cover was something from JapanesePod101.com’s Yojijukugo series which I finally finished recently:


According to JPod, this means something outrageous, or can’t be put in words. This is explained as having Buddhist origins, since Buddhism places a heavy emphasis on insight and empirical wisdom, as opposed to a more logo-centric approach to religion.2

When the Buddha was asked about such things as what Nirvana was like, or other such things, the Buddha either remained silent, or described it in terms of what it is not (not existing, not extinction either, etc, etc.). A good example for reference is in the Pali Canon text, the Ananda Sutta (SN 44) or the Khema Sutta (SN 44.1). The point wasn’t the Buddha wasn’t trying to avoid answering, but simply to avoid the risk of getting attached to one idea or another. Kind of like cinnamon. The taste of cinnamon is something that can’t be explained, only experienced, and everyone who’s tasted it intuitively knows what it tastes like without the need for debate.

The second yojijukugo I wanted to cover, again courtesy of “Stephen”, was this phrase:

Isshin furan

This phrase means to be focused on something, without being distracted by others. You could use it to describe how someone is doing something (one-pointed focus) as in 一心不乱に勉強している (isshin furan ni benkyō shiteiru) which means “he/she is very focused in their studies” or something similar.

But what Stephen pointed out to me is that this phrase is taken verbatim from one of my favorite Buddhist texts, the Amitabha Sutra, in particular the line that says:

舍利弗 若有善男子善女人 聞說阿彌陀佛 執持名號 若一日 若二日 若三日 若四日 若五日 若六日 若七日 一心不亂 其人臨命終時 阿彌陀佛 與諸聖衆

Shariputra, if a good man or woman who hears of Amida Buddha holds fast to his Name even for one day, two days, three, four, five, six or seven days with a concentrated and undistracted mind, then, at the hour of death, Amida Buddha will appear before them with a host of holy ones.

The fourth character is expressed in the more traditional form 亂 not 乱, but otherwise, it’s the same. Again, it’s fascinating how language evolves from something liturgical into every day use.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Both of which have their limitations: retreats are only for the wealthy and not those who have to work and raise families. Intellectual debates on religion rarely end well too. :-p

2 I didn’t make up the term, but a Buddhist scholar I met online used the term to describe an approach to religion based on textual authority. I think it’s a nice description, though in the past I’ve been inclined to believe that it was still necessary. Lately though, I’ve been re-thinking that approach after advice from the professor, and also this passage from the Essays on Idleness:

There are innumerable instances of things which attach themselves to something else, then waste and destroy it. The body has lice; a house has mice; a country has robbers; inferior men have riches; superior men have benevolence [as a virtue, and a reason to be arrogant]; priests have the Buddhist law.

The last point indeed shows how people can take something wholesome as the Buddha Dharma and make it into a point of dogma, control and so on.

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One Comment on “Buddhist Yojijukugo: beyond words?”

  1. Stephen says:

    Thank you!
    I was so honoured (and at the time bored) that I decided to go through a kids introduction to Yojijukugo and see what else I could recognise. Because it is a kids book they are all fairly basic.
    Five appear in the Amida Sutra. There were also a number of basic Buddhist terms.
    One 行住坐臥 gyojuzaga comes from Shan-tao and was quoted widely by Honen.
    Another 一念発起 ichinenhokki comes from Tan-luan and probably became known as Shinran quoted it in the Tannisho.
    All said Japanese Pureland was well represented.
    My favourite four Kanji remain 阿弥陀仏.

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