Originally Published: August 6, 2013 by remingtoncooney | As I sit in the hotel lobby writing this, I’m overlooking the large town of Takayama, situated North-East of Kyoto. The town sprawls out from the bottom of this hillside hotel and ends at the foot of the steep, surrounding mountains opposite me, which are now fading into the distant mist.
Relaxing in the Japanese countryside has given me the opportunity to reflect on the past two months. And as I do so, I notice there are some major unanswered questions about Japan, still on my mind: first off, who fills all the street-side vending machines that churn out an endless supply of bottled iced tea and pocari sweat? And how does Japan remain so clean despite the fact that there is never a bin in sight? And how do the Japanese people always manage to wake up at the right station whenever they fall asleep on the train?!
Living in Kyoto has taught me numerous things that I can now carry back with me to Vancouver, and integrate into my own Western lifestyle. So much of the Japanese culture is based on close attention to detail and thoughtfulness of others. I was really inspired by this; just observing how the Japanese take care of things and really pay attention to the present moment. I didn’t just witness this in my brief Zen training – it was eminent in all aspects of traditional Japanese culture.
Sadly, Westernization is changing that, but the most beautiful thing about Kyoto was – for me at least – its perfect balance between old and new, East and West. It seemed to be in that point of transition that had found optimum middle ground. This appealed to me because I’m always looking for that same middle ground in my own life – it is this middle ground that the Buddha called the ‘Middle Way.’
I’ve mentioned previously that it’s a serious struggle at times to find this middle path. Living in Kyoto for a couple of months helped me trim away the overgrowth that was beginning to conceal such a path. Now it’s just about making sure that it’s constantly swept clean. But how does one do that? It seems a traveler’s epiphanies can so easily be forgotten – trampled underfoot when the monotony of routine living steals away the inspiration birthed from globetrotting.
But the mental snapshots and notes taken throughout this trip are now settled deep within me. They spur on my practice and my insatiable appetite for East Asian wisdom. Coming here, I was mainly interested in gaining further knowledge of Zen, but the most exciting thing was learning about the whole array of Buddhist sects that come together to form just a fraction of the intensely rich, religious culture that is embedded in Japan.
Having more of a perspective on the entire scope of Japanese Buddhism – from Shingon to Tendai, Pure Land to Zen – I’m able to now take bits and pieces from all these traditions and utilize them in a way that further inspires my own life of practice and ritual. Nevertheless, after being on this trip, I’ve realized that I don’t think I will ever become a member of a particular Buddhist sect, or even adhere to any particular religion for that matter. Instead, I want to experience different parts of all East Asian religions, not just one. What’s more, the real beauty of these various Japanese Buddhist sects is beyond their religious labels or rituals. It’s in the essence of the teachings that are handed down from master to master – all the way from Enryakuji to Eheiji.
The Japanese themselves will mix and match various religions to suit various existential needs and questioning. Shinto rituals one moment, Buddhist the next. The Shinto and Buddhist temples often co-exist side-by-side, and the Japanese people pick and mix as they please. I’ve realized that, in my life, I want to do the same: pick and mix from the rich array of Buddhist sects that are practiced here in Japan. There’s so much to be learnt from all of them, why stop at one? And they always offer such incredible insight, when, back home in The West, there seems to be a serious misunderstanding about what constitutes a ‘full’ life.
And so, the quest continues. Kyoto has been the compass that now points me in a fresh direction. And for that, I am grateful.
Originally Published: July 21, 2013 by remingtoncooney |
an orchestra in the canopies
tuning up for the final show
Toji Flea markets
a faint woman on a stretcher
monks in the distance
the pagoda – 5 stories
but how many are told
from the heart?
an old kimono; no where to go
back and forth like a train
through Kyoto station
Kyoto tower – tall like Mt. Hiei
in the climbing heat
I drink on level 2
watching crowds and clouds disperse
Home again? Where that may be….
a wandering mind
here on this cushion
Originally Published: July 15, 2013 by remingtoncooney | One part of traditional Japanese culture that I’ve become completely fascinated with is the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Summed up, wabi-sabi is roughly “an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world.” Although this rough translation puts it into comprehensible English, wabi-sabi is actually something that goes far beyond the English language. So, in some ways, me writing about it now (with my little background in Japanese) is sort of an obsolete task. Then again, I’ve gotten some insight into an event that – although slightly contrived – captures wabi-sabiperfectly: tea ceremonies.
Since arriving in Kyoto, I’ve attended two tea ceremonies, both at the same Soto Zen temple named Saiho-ji. This particular temple is 600 years old and supposedly the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu dug the wells there (sweet!).
Yesterday, after morning zazen at Ryosen-an, my host-family and I attended the tea ceremony for the second time since my coming to Japan. As we sat eating manju, drinking matcha, and observing ikebana (flower arrangements) and calligraphy scrolls, I began to get a sense of what wabi-sabi is all about.
Wabi, as defined online (www.hermitory.com), refers to a philosophical construct: one that creates a sense of space, direction, and/or path. Originally it meant poverty – the absence of all material possessions, but as Japan’s ‘cultural capital’ developed, and Japanese aesthetics gained more importance, wabi came to mean “non-dependence upon material possessions.” This subtle transition allowed wabi to rid itself of any negative connotations, and instead, to become a ‘way of life,’ or ‘spiritual path.’
Sabi is literally defined as solitude or loneliness. However, around the same time that wabi was re-defined, sabi also came to mean something more rich and less bleak: “an outward expression of aesthetic values, built upon the metaphysical and spiritual principles of Zen.” It is because of this, that we so often associate minimalistic style Japanese aesthetics (drawings, paintings, calligraphy, flower arrangements, tatami rooms) with Zen. This aesthetic culture is not Zen per-se, it is merely inspired by Zen philosophy and we have to be careful not to think of the two as one and the same; just as we have to be careful not to think of wabi and sabi as one and the same. In the process of translation into English, these subtle distinctions that are so essential in Japanese aesthetics, get lost, and everything just gets lumped together in these, “that’s-so-Zen” type remarks. The other exchange students over here have a witty saying for this: they call it the “gaijin(outsider) smash” – when Western foreigners come along and blunder through all the delicate nuances that traditional Japanese culture cultivates.
The tea ceremony aims to function somewhat like a moving meditation. I found it incredibly calming and it gave me a new take on my own meditation practice – perhaps we don’t have to be sitting so still, after all?
The tea rooms are open-aired so that the surrounding moss gardens and trickling of the ponds become intimate with the process of serving and drinking the tea. Such intimacy, between my own actions and the surrounding textures of nature, allowed for deep reflection and contemplation – even a sense of nostalgia – as I philosophized over the value of solitude and time alone with natural surroundings.
Wabi-sabi activities, like tea ceremonies, are intended to instigate this contemplative response within us. It creates a kind of double-mirror effect: a reflection on wabi and then on sabi then back to wabi (and so on), with the ultimate goal of leading the participant into “a holistic perspective that is peaceful and transcendent.”
I also find it a tough task to describe my experience of wabi-sabi without sounding like a bit of snob – its pretentious undercurrent results from its importance in Japan’s ‘cultural capital.’ Nonetheless, the process of engaging with activities that are based in wabi-sabi are far from snobbish; in fact, they are intended to bring us back down to Earth so that we can find humbleness in our selves, in order to better connect and harmonize with the world around us.
A lot of this week was spent writing a paper based on the teachings of the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu/Zhuang zi. Since his teachings are part of what this blog is all about, I decided to share some of my thoughts on what he has to say.
In the chapter ‘Autumn Floods’ of the Inner Chapters, Jo of the North Sea said:
“You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog – he’s limited to the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea – so you realize your own pettiness.”
The Inner Chapters are writings by the great Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu. Much like Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu was a follower of the Tao (Way). Within his writings, Chuang Tzu was constantly faced with the challenge of describing the indescribable. The Way, as it was viewed by the Taoist sages, was something that was all-encompassing and contained an unsolvable mystery. (For more info you might want to read this earlier post.)
I fell in love with this Taoist conception of ‘the Way’ because it offered a refreshing perspective on my life, and on life in general. As someone who was constantly trying to solve every mystery, I was always so dissatisfied with never having all the answers. Always asking questions: why is this so? why am I like this? why are you like that? why is the world like this? Why, why, WHY? Imagine my initial meeting with Chuang Tzu! He would have slapped me over the head. “You ask so many questions young man! And yet, have you heard the crickets in the distance? Listen! They do not ask why. Instead, they sing, and sing, and sing.”
Right now, the question on my mind is, “how do I achieve my goals. I can see the destination, but I don’t know the path. How do I find the path (the Way)? If I took this question to Chuang Tzu, his response would be just the same:
*slap* “Young man, stop asking questions and just start singing.”
Because for sages like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, the destination is the path itself. As long as I’m on the path, then I’ve already reached my destination; I’ve already achieved my goals. Because the path is “the Way,” and if you act harmoniously with the Way, then your life will drop into place as it should. So I must concentrate on the path at this moment, and just listen to the crickets singing.
Returning to that initial quote, Chuang Tzu states, “you can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines.” In this case, the “scholar” is someone who is using language and labels to try and unveil the mystery that is their life. I’d imagine Chuang Tzu might respond like this: “Don’t bother doing that! The more you try and work out “life,” the more you will realize it is a mystery. Instead, embrace its mysteriousness because the very mystery of life is what holds its magical quality. The more you try and label this magic, the more the magic will evade you.” Because we’re “summer insects” attempting to talk about ice. We’re “well frog’s” trying to talk about the ocean. We’re looking at one tree and saying, “here’s the forest!”
Although I still believe strongly in philosophical inquiry and scientific investigation (and I’m still, very much a philosopher), if I’ve realized anything in my life so far, it’s that asking too many questions makes you miss the singing of the crickets.
Don’t miss it!
Originally Published: June 29, 2013 by remingtoncooney | Going into retreat is like going into rehab.I know that sounds extreme, but, for me, it couldn’t be more true. Typically, when people hear that you are going off on a spiritual retreat, they often say, “oh how sweet. That’s so nice that you’re doing that for yourself. You’re going to be so relaxed.” And there is some truth to this: going on retreat often does get you to a point of relaxation; but getting to that point…that’s the ‘cold turkey’ part. I told you in my last post, that I’d just had that intense weekend, which ended in my Sunday hangover (which really threw me off -center, as binge drinking does).
Before that weekend, during the week, I was all up in my head, writing papers and philosophizing. Come Monday, an hour train ride into the country side, and suddenly… nothing. As in, there was still stuff around – small local shops and houses, the train station – but when I say nothing, I mean, I was left with nothing to distract me. To distract me from what? To distract me from me (my mind). Because deep down, most of us don’t really like being left alone with our own minds for too long. Because then we really begin to see ourselves. And when this happens…woah watch out!
So this is how the retreat/rehab situation usually goes for me (it’s happened like this on several occasions):
Day 1. – departure/arrival at Hosen-ji Temple (AKA getting high for the last time).
“Oh I’m so excited to go off and be at one with myself in the mountains. Look at me, look at me, look at me. Off to become a guru. Oh and look at these lovely monks, aren’t they so sweet how they smile and bow to me. Yes, bow to me. I am a Zen student in training. Soon I will be a master and the mountains will bow to me as well.”
Night 1. – First signs of withdrawal (First meditation – 1.5 hours long: in the evening after afternoon introductions have been done.)
“Hmm…I can’t seem to find my velvet breath. And this cushion just doesn’t feel quite like the cushion I use at home. I wish I had my cushion from home. It always seems so much easier to meditate at home. And why is my back so stiff? Do I have back problems? Oh my god, what if all the meditation this week, ends up giving me back problems? And my legs – they’re beginning to hurt. Why are they hurting now? They can’t hurt now! it’s only being like 20 mins and I’ve gotta keep this up for a whole week. What if I get leg problems? Okay, okay, okay, just find your breath, where’s your breath? Oh there it is…wait where did it go? Oh my god, I can’t breathe properly. It’s because I don’t have my meditation cushion from home!”
This, my friends, is called anxiety, and it stems from clinging, attachment, and fear of the unknown.
Day 2. – Withdrawal continues (starting to go into ‘cold turkey’ phase)
“Okay feeling a little better today, I can do this. I’m ready for this. I love meditating. Piece of cake. Oh shit I forgot, we have to do other stuff…like work practice. Awww, work practice. Can’t we just meditate? Ok, half an hour morning cleaning: mopping the floors and sweeping the zendo. Yeah I can do that. Piece of cake. Half an hour cleaning dishes and mopping the kitchen floor (on my hands and knees with a rolled up rag). Yeah no problems. Wait… 1.5 hours of working in the garden…umm, yeah I guess that’s fine, I like gardening…wait, wait, wait…just weeding the garden, for 1.5 hours?! But that’s just the same thing for like, 1.5 hours. And I can’t weed properly right now, because I’m really distracted right now. Like I’ve got all these problems on my mind…like I really miss people from home right now, and, and, and I miss my host-family…and their cooking, and, and, I’m not sure who might be emailing me right now, or who might be calling me right now, like dude…how am I supposed to weed the garden with these serious issues going on?!”
(and after work practice)
“Oh my god, they do have a computer here…with internet…I can check my emails….”
Angel: NO! Don’t do it. You’re here to meditate; no emails or Facebook!
Devil: Just one….just check one email…
Angel: It’s never just one!!
Me: Okay, okay, okay…I’ll just check one…
an hour later….
This is what I call ‘the temper-tantrum of the mind.’ When the mind is set still, it throws a huge temper-tantrum (like a young child might) especially after being distracted by so much stimuli (society). It literally makes up whatever story it can, just so we don’t sit still – or weed the garden, for that matter – in peace. The mind doesn’t like it when we sit still and concentrate on one thing because it means the mind gets left behind (rhyme).
Day 3. – Halfway mark
“Mmm I’m feeling much better today. I can breathe more clearly. I experienced velvet breath on the cushion today. I can see the mountains with new eyes. I don’t even mind work practice. Hey, I’m getting real good at this whole weed the garden, weed your mind thing. And now I’m painting the cabins – look at how great I am at painting cabins; simultaneously I’m painting my mind …dude, that’s so deep. Maybe painting like this will make me enlightened. Maybe by the end of this week I’ll have a Kundalini awakening.”
This is where you get to, when you think you’ve kicked your old, rigid habits and gotten to a progressive place. But don’t be fooled folks! the ego is there – it’s just disguised as something a little more tricky. This is the ego in sheeps clothing (or as I like to call it ‘the guru complex’ – Osho, Bikram, Genpo Roshi, Michael Beckwith, etc) . Watch out for it!
Day 4. – Relapse
AHHHHHHH, get me out, get me out, get me out of my HEAAAAAADDDDDD!!!
Hondo – (main hall) where chanting and morning service took place
Day 5. – Kicked the Habit
Soft breath; soft thoughts. Enjoying the feeling of the Earth beneath me, and the wind on my face as it blows in through the zendo windows. Enjoying the noise of the train outside clicking on the tracks; the bullfrogs burping in the rice paddies, in the cool evening air. Enjoying the taste of the seaweed and sesame rice on my tongue, as we eat in slience on the tatami floor. Enjoying the smell of wood and incense as we sit proud in stillness. Enjoying the mist shrouded mountains above the zendo, as we do kinhin. Enjoying the sound of the water in the ditch, flowing through the irrigation canal; entering my life through the water in the ditch of the irrigation canal.
Taking my breath to the pain in my legs. Softening the pain with each breath, as I allow my legs to feel the way they feel. I allow my back to feel the way it feels. I allow my breath to be deep; I allow my breath to be shallow. I allow my thoughts to come and go like the mist comes and goes through the mountain tops. I don’t want to go anywhere, because right here is enough. I still miss everyone back home, but they are also sitting very close in my heart. I still feel angry at myself for x,y,z…but that’s okay, anger is allowed. I still feel deep pain in my heart…that’s okay, pain is allowed. Soft thoughts…softer thoughts…no thoughts: velvet breath.
no comment: why would there be any need for comments? What matters is what’s beneath language.
Some slight exaggeration to get my point across. But it’s not far from the truth, I can assure you. So, I’ll repeat my Norman Fischer quote from my last post: spiritual practice “is no picnic.” If you’re not being challenged, you’re not really practicing. As Michael Stone says: “spiritual practice should be like an itchy woolen sweater in the winter time: it’s uncomfortable, but it keeps you warm.”
That being said, it’s not bootcamp either, and don’t ever let it become that way.
Unfortunately, Zen is a little bootcamp-esque and sadistic/masochistic, and therefore, it’s not for everyone. Some parts of it are not for me either, and I really learnt that this week. I don’t believe in sitting through physical pain. That, for me, is disrespectful to the body. Nevertheless, Zen is constructed this way to prove a point – and that point is proven in my retreat/rehab experience above. I went from hell to heaven in 6 days and the only difference was the way I was using my mind. Hence the term, ‘mind-training.’
There’s a great Japanese proverb: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
Similarly, ‘hell’ as we know it, exists in your mind and your mind only. Don’t believe me? Have a retreat/rehab experience. I highly recommend it.
Soft thoughts…softer thoughts…no thoughts: velvet breath.
(Important, offhand note: I’ve talked about Hosen-ji temple as a ‘monsatery’ However, I discovered today that – although it’s a Rinzai temple housing Zen monastics – it’s technically not a monastery. It’s classified as a ‘Zen training centre’ founded with the intention of allowing lay practitioners to experience a semi-monastic lifestyle. An actual monastery is far more strict and observes all monastic rules. This centre observed most, but not all, monastic rules.)
It’s a little difficult typing this out today. My host-family threw a welcome BBQ for me last night and, in the style of true, Japanese hospitality, kept the Asahi free flowing; then the red wine; then the obscure Chinese wine; then the sake; then the whiskey…to answer your question, no I did not make it to Ryosen-an for the 7 am sitting this morning, despite having every intention. But zazen and drinking, they’re not so far apart, right…? Especially if you look at it from the Buddhist perspective of interdepence…? Anyone? No?
I’ve been recovering with my host-family in the living room, watching French movies with Japanese subtitles (?), and saying “itai, itai” whilst pointing to my head. Toshi and I will be heading down to the closest public bath house in one hour, to wash our hangover woes away. In the meantime, I thought I would give my weekly update: this last week has been more about the academic Zen, and less about the practical. I’ve been working on a paper: one on the history of Zen Buddhism and how it became altered from its pre-modern monastic form into this sort of “anything goes, Zen is just a way of life, man” form. Tracing this development is one of my favourite aspects of Zen history. I love looking at the contrast of this strict monasticism that Zen originated from, and how, in the modern era, it got re-constructed into this sort of “pure experience” philosophy – this idea that to “get your Zen on” all you have to do is “go with the flow”. This is not true.
As American monk Norman Fischer once told me, the path of Zen practice “is no picnic.” It’s a challenge and it takes hard work and true commitment. But the challenge is why it’s so rewarding. And this doesn’t just go for Zen; this goes for all religious faiths and spiritual practices. The ones that work are the ones that challenge us. Through experiencing such challenges, we not only become fully engaged with our lives, we also start to empty ourselves up to something greater. And like I’ve mentioned previously, when you start emptying yourself – that is, when you start bowing down to the universe – your life all of suddens fills up to the brim. Because in the act of bowing down to the universe, you are simultaneously bowing down to the greater part of you. Why? Because the universe and you are one and the same (microcosm and macrocosm). The part of you that understands why you’re here; the part of you that understands what it is to be compassionate; the part of you that doesn’t need to ask questions because it doesn’t need the answers – this is the part of us that we are bowing down to. Yes, exactly! It’s no picnic trying to get in touch with this part of you! But that’s why it’s so fulfilling when you do.
And this is why bowing in Zen is such an essential act – it’s the microcosmic symbol of your life. When you bow, you have to find balance: don’t let your bow become too stiff, and don’t let your bow become too loose. In the same vein, don’t let your life become too stiff, and don’t let your life become too loose. It’s finding that middle point – the middle way. (For me, right now, it’s about finding the middle point between this hangover and the make-up session of zazen I plan to do tonight).
Like I said, this week has been all about the academic. Tomorrow the practical starts. In the early afternoon I will be making the hour long pilgrimage (not much of a pilgrimage, I know) to Hosen-ji temple on the outskirts of West Kyoto. For the next 6 days I will be living in the monastery with the monks and other foreign practitioners. Saying “I’m excited” would be an immense understatement. Meanwhile, I’ve gotta get some water and an aspirin.
Originally Published: June 16, 2013 by remingtoncooney | Becoming accustomed to the reality of living here in Kyoto, the “buzz” I experienced during my initial week, is slowly wearing off. The adrenalin kick that comes from being in the unknown has begun to smooth out, as if I’ve taken an imaginary iron to my nervous system and eased out all the creases.
This is one of the key images I use during my own zazen practice: ironing out all the creases of the breath. Notice now, as you sit here at the computer, how your breath is slightly staggered. Each inhale subtly stumbles over itself; each exhale gets caught up as if it were a toddler stepping on its own toes.
When I sit each morning, I set only one goal: to iron out all the creases in my breath. At some point, my breath eventually gets to the place I call “velvet breath” – where the inhale and the exhale become so smooth that I eventually can’t tell the difference between the two. Once I obtain “velvet breath” everything falls into place on its own accord. Thoughts drop away, concepts drop away; however, actually getting to “velvet breath” is not such an easy task for me.
This morning, as I sat at Ryosen-an temple in Daitoku-ji, I struggled to find my “velvet breath.” I was overcome by the excitement of finally discovering a temple to meditate in – one that has seen the likes of many famous practitioners, I might add. Through half closed eyes, I couldn’t help but look up during my zazen practice and think “is this for real?” as Roshi Matsunami, dressed in his long black robes, sat tall on his cushion in front of me.
Back-tracking, you may recall that in my first week I ventured out to Ryosen-antemple within the Myoshinjicomplex. There I was directed to a temple named Shunko-in; one that offered zazen for tourists. Wanting something a little more authentic, I continued my search by getting in contact with an American monk by the name of Yuho Thomas Kirchner. Yuho – a buddhist scholar – kindly invited me down to Hanazono University where he teaches at the Zen studies institute. There we sat for an hour and half in deep discussion: we spoke of his interest in Zen and why he moved to Japan in 1969, never to return to America; my interest in Zen and what it would take to pursue a career in Buddhist scholarship; the expatriate community of Kyoto and how it parallels to that of Singapore; finally, I mentioned my failed attempt at getting into Ryosen-an the previous week, only to be told that there are a multitude of Ryosen-an’s and I had simply gone to the wrong one (who’s the tourist now?!).
Taking out my map, Yuho scanned it, circling the practice centers most appropriate for me. Come this morning, my host-brother, Toshi, and I strolled down to the Daitoku-ji temple complex, ready for the 7 am sitting, only to be informed that we would not be doing a full hour meditation because the abbot wanted us to first weed the garden! (remember, enlightenment is taking out the garbage?). So, for the first 30 minutes Toshi and I were on our hands and knees with the monks, digging out tiny weeds from the elegant moss gardens, and placing them in our little wooden bowls.
At 7.25 am we removed our shoes at the foot of the aged, wooden zendo. Bowing and climbing 3 creaky stairs, we soon found ourselves atop cushions on grey zabutons that were lined up neatly in front of a large gold and black statue of Myoan Eisai – the founder of the Zen Rinzai school. I sat there for 30 minutes trying to find my “velvet breath.” Alas, a few too many thoughts today (correction: a few too many thoughts everyday). No matter, all part and parcel of why I’m here.
The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, or perhaps just overcome with excitement, try ironing out all the creases of your inhalation-exhalation in order to find your own “velvet breath.” Satisfaction guaranteed.
Originally Published: June 9, 2013 by remingtoncooney | There’s nothing quite like waking up thinking you’re at home, in your own bed, and that it’s just another day, only to suddenly realize that home is now a not so familiar place and something altogether new has begun. I’m writing this, from my Japanese abode: a fairly modern room in a fairly modern house, in Murasakino, Kyoto. I still have a few familiar comforts: my iPhone, my lap top; a guitar with strings that haven’t been changed in 8 years, which my host-family kindly lent me, when I informed them that I play.
And then there’s the less familiar things: the fact that my host-family can hardly speak English, and I can hardly speak Japanese; that my chopstick skills are still amateur despite having grown up in Singapore; that I can’t read kanji, hiragana, or katakana, so signpost identification consists of matching squiggly lines with other squiggly lines, as if it were some glorified puzzle, etc, etc (however, I’m getting very good at saying arigato and hai).
Most of this first week has been spent getting acquainted with the university (Doshisha university), with the classes that I’m taking (Eastern Religions and Japanese History), and getting to know the other exchange students on this course. And while this is an extremely important part of my trip, there’s also another very different reason that I’m here: to re-acquaint myself with something that I left behind many life times ago; for Kyoto feels eerily more like home than an introductory week would suggest. And I’ve come here with a personal intention of finding what really lies at the heart of my spiritual practice; underneath all these layers of my analytical mind and my old, rigid habits, sits something so very still – an inner kind of magic. It’s label-less and I have every intention of keeping it that way. Perhaps that’s why I came here? To drop my labels that I so enthusiastically plaster onto all my daily ongoings.
Today I woke early: 5.45 am to catch the bus down to Myoshinji – a complex of 27 temples standing proud, side by side. I got lost along the way, walking the backstreets in my sweats and Birkenstocks; knocking on old wooden doors and pointing to my map with flailing hands as sleepy Japanese men directed me down the road.
I arrive at Myoshinji. The time? 7.10 am. I’ve missed morning zazen (seated meditation). But that’s the least of my troubles. There are 27 temples and I have no idea which one I’m signed up for. I walk into Ryosen-an.
“Konichiwa,” I say. A monk eating his breakfast emerges from around the corner. He bows, and says something in Japanese.
“English”, I say, “can you speak English? I want to sit zazen.”
He points to a temple down the path: “Zazen, zazen.” and he nods.
Hastily, I walk down to Shoku-in temple. I see the sign on the gate – the first sign in English that I’ve seen so far – Zazen for english speaking students.
This is it, I think. At long last, I’ve arrived. I knock on the door. Even though I’ve missed the morning meditation, I still plan to introduce myself to the abbot. The door opens and a Japanese man dressed in a red ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ t-shirt answers.
“Hello,” he says. He has an slightly American-ized accent.
“Hi, I’m here to do zazen with your students.”
“We don’t sit everyday,” he says.
“Oh ok, when will you be sitting next?” I ask.
“You’ll have to check the schedule on our website.”
He points to a poster on the door of the temple – http://www.shunkoin.com – and next to it is a photograph of a bunch of white people sitting in a line, in crossed legged positions.
And it hits me. This is the tourist temple. Great.
Nevertheless, I needed a starting point and this was it. Hopefully, as my Japanese progresses, and my connections increase, I’ll actually meet an abbot in robes, instead of meditating next to a guy in bermuda shorts.
What is this?
Writings from the Summer of 2013 during study abroad in Kyoto, Japan.