Irregular Weekly Four 14: 盲亀浮木

More animals. More Buddhism. A compound so rare that Windows' Japanese entry algorithms don't even know it. Yeah, I have a problem.

mou ki fu boku
one-eyed turtle floating wood

"盲" can refer to blindness of varying degrees, from the literal eyes-don't-function-at-all variety to the entirely metaphorical "he is blind to the wonders of our teachings". In this case, the 盲 turtle in question is traditionally considered literally one-eyed, although he himself is only part of an analogy.

And that analogy is as follows: given all the various hells and hungry ghost worlds and so forth, the chances of being reborn sentient in a world where Buddha's teachings are known -- theoretically giving you a chance to escape the cycle of rebirth -- are as small as the chances of a one-eyed turtle rising to the ocean and entirely randomly slotting neatly into a floating log. Oh, yeah, and he only comes up for logs once every century (or millennium, in some versions).

Those are some long odds, I'm sure you'll agree. But I'm sure that every time the turtle rises, he's all "OK! OK! I am definitely due for a win this century. Come ooooon, loggy! Papa needs a new pair of scutes!" This is known as the one-eyed reptilian gambler's fallacy.

Nowadays, this compound has been secularised and simply refers to a very, very unlikely event, but the "blind turtle" analogy is a very old one in Buddhism that you can allegedly trace back to Buddha himself. The most florid elaboration on the theme that I know of was written by Nichiren, in a letter to a nun in 1279 AD. You can read the original here, thanks to my research assistant M., or this English translation courtesy of the SGI-USA.

The ocean represents the sea of the sufferings of birth and death, and the turtle symbolizes us living beings. His limbless state indicates that we are poorly endowed with roots of goodness.
Stop snickering at the back there. It's a perfectly serious discussion of poorly-endowed one-eyed turtles.

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Hi Matt - i never heard of this 四字熟語 before. buddhism origin, this one is hard for me. i couldn't read the japanese text, but found a chinese site that covers the explanation. turtle is different form in chinese kanji.
where do you find all these phrases and original passages?! you have my two thumbs up =)


Thanks Evelyn! I find the phrases by flipping idly through one of my dictionaries (the 100-yen one from Daisou and my electric dictionary, the "Sony Digital Data Viewer DD-IC300"), and I find the original passages and stuff by googling.. or getting other people to google for me. (thanks M.!)


I have a Sony DD-IC50, which is probably similar. It would nearly replace my much-larger Wordtank (which uses some of the same dictionaries) except for the odd omission of a "jump" feature for Japanese words. Ugh.


Yeah, it looks like part of the same family:


I only bought the IC300 because it was the cheapest in the store -- 5000 yen on special! -- but it's proved amazingly useful. The only things I want that it doesn't have are a J-J dictionary like the Koujien, a 古語 dictionary... and a "jump" function.

On the other hand being forced to look up each individual kanji, remember the reading, and then punch the possible combinations into the J-E section individually does help me stumble across new things.


This is a log with a turtle-shaped hole in it? [Reads Nichiren] ... so this turtle is some kind of biological peltier device, and red sandalwood has magical turtle-cooling properties? That's got to be the most elaborately arbitrary setup for a parable ever. Yet it's strangely moving.

I'm not sure how a limbless turtle is supposed to climb onto anything, though.

-- Tim May

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