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.
What is this?
Writings from the Summer of 2013 during study abroad in Kyoto, Japan.