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