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Hunger is not an option

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It’s tea time on the second day at Hokyoji. In the right side of a tatami laden main hall, there are shin high tables lined up end to end in two parallel rows with one end closed by another table. The wood is stained to the color right before burgundy becomes brown. All along the sides of the tables are zafu (little cushions used for zazen). No one is sitting, the thirty of us, either American, buddhist priest or otherwise, stand behind our zafus. The Antioch crew shifting their weight off knees to ankles to feet to ankles to knees again, attempt to recover from the near hour of sitting meditation from the earlier morning. It’s now morning tea time. A slow wave of lowered heads runs through everyone, looking through the corners of our eyes we remember, “oh yeah, abbott, we gasho, right, got it” By the time the head abbott makes it to the closed end of the tables he takes his hands out of sezu and gestures everyone to sit.

A mantra that ran through my head throughout the whole secular seclusion experience living at the Soto Zen monastery Hokyoji, was this “hunger is not an option”. The short time we spent there was exhausting, but, at the same time so comfortable. We met to eat 5 times a day. Rice gruel and pickled vegetables in the morning, Brown rice and veggies for lunch, and then various delicious dinners in the evening. On top of that we had tea twice a day which was always a combination of either fruit, mochi, or crackers, with either black, wheat, or green tea. Housing was provided for, baths were allowed once a day, the sights surrounding the temple were pure pleasure for the eyes. However, waking up at four, at least 3 hours of sitting meditation, cleaning tasks, walking up mountain paths, takahatsu-ing on the streets, and walking meditation was an incomparable exhaustion.

Usually fatigue is broken into two categories: mental, physical. You can be both. You can be neither. At Hokyoji I felt neither. There was some type of exhaustion. I was working a part of mind I rarely ever use. Zazen is time spent with yourself. When you are in full, half-lotus, Indian, Burmese style sitting, eyes half closed, virtually no sound besides the water running through the mountain cobblestone troughs, you mind rests and, like a backroom intern, sighs as he slowly picks up the piles of paperwork and begins to alphabetize.

Again, maybe to clarify my mantra, the way I rationalized the regimented lifestyle was I was learning a reflex. Like breathing, the awkward practices of foot washing, bowl stacking, napkin folding, were so that needs could be eliminated. The mindset of I, Me, Mine, was sought to be destroyed, and when pots of eggplant shitake mushroom curry are placed in front of you, it’s hard to want beyond what is in sight. It’s all a dance, foreplay for the meditation throughout the day. More than a spa, you are forced to be mindful, whether you are consciously trying to or not, like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid, you are learning a craft, a reflex.

The realization that comes, or came for me, as I chewed these words, was that there is little need for regimentation, the monastery was kindergarten preparing you for the next step, the noise that comes with elementary school, the depression of middle school, the flairing emotions of high school, uncertainty, manicness, the distraction that comes with life.

Then it was time to sit, though.

One night the abbott surprised us with a third session of zazen. After sitting for a good hour and some change, frustration filled my head. Pride was a source of power throughout the days, the inner monologue mocking myself for thinking my knees hurt, for thinking things were difficult. So the frustration filled my head, while any compassion I was stockpiling for the world was emptying out.

Before that, an image of my father appeared as a caricature, he was on a ducks body. Then the body swirled into an old woman. A few moments later it was an unrecognisable decaying something or other, and then it was a teacher, then things sped up more, it shifted into anything and everything, while my eyes could scarcely comprehend the shapes and sizes. There was no frustration then, though. I realized he was and he wasn’t these things at the same time. He is defined by his presence in these things: people’s personalities, the way a rainstorm feels, the scruffy gray 5 o’clock shadow of your Sensei; yet he is also defined in his absence from them, what they lack, what they can’t offer. And yet, it almost simply doesn’t matter, “hunger is not an option”.

He’s there, simple enough.

Ingrained into my experience of things is always everything I have ever thought or felt, and nothing I will ever know.

I will stop there. This is by no means to seem condescending. Literally these are straight from my notes I took after having these thoughts and feelings. It’s sad to say, but the following day (continuing from the frustration of the 3rd zazen) bitterness took me over. I found myself in the same mindset my mind always wanders back to, mindless, irrational cynicism.

My thoughts the took me over for the next 2 days. Trying my best to force the compassion back in my head, I resisted making snide comments, or even thinking negatively of the people and places surrounding me. I finally decided what I would ask the abbott for dokusan.

How often do you get a chance to ask a Zen master, any question you could dream up?

I sat half lotus in the ante-room, with a patina copper bell in front of me. I heard ringing from the master’s chambers and I tried to ring the bell. Sadly, I was terrified, I hit the bell too softly, then again the same, I finally hit it an audible level when one of the monks took the mallet of my hands, made a half bow, and gestured me to the abbott’s room.

I took off my slippers and knelt by the door. Trying my best not to screw this up, I slowly opened the sliding doors, stood, walked in, bowed, knelt again and closed the door quietly (using my fingers to prevent and noise). I side stepped in front of him, made a full prostration, lifting the head of the Buddha with my palms facing the sky. He corrected my form, and insisted I not bow three times. And then, after a moment, his opened palm came into the corner of lowered eyes. I began to tell him my life story. Well, he and the translator.

I wasn’t attempting melodrama, just trying to give context to my question. Catching him up to the moment where some half-Vietnamese suburbia boy was kneeling before him, I asked him “why is it, that on my path to compassion, I only meet more hate within myself”

The first words he said were “おめでとう” – congratulations. This is a gift from the Buddha. That goosebump rush destroyed me as I was beyond holding tears. I don’t believe in a spiritual Buddha mind you, just a metaphoric one. He reminded me that Dogen (the father of the Soto Zen school) lost his father at age 3, and his mother at age 8. He asked me “if you had a stroke today, and forgot all the pain of your past, would you be as happy as you are today?” Which, was rather open ended to me. I mean, sure I have thought of this before, sadness builds character, you can’t have joy without it, etc. etc. I have heard this before. But he was honestly asking me. Just like he honestly wanted to hear my question, he wanted to hear my answer.


Written by Daniel

September 22, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Posted in temples

The World’s Smallest Buddha

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Today I saw the world’s largest Buddha and then the world’s smallest Buddha. Whereas the former would seem muyo impressivo, actually the knowledge of the thousands of iron working slaves it took to make it takes from whatever sublime majesty it first strikes you with. However, the latter Buddha was simple enough. You take your shoes off at the base of these wooden steps. Friends from the program answered “what’s up there?” with “the world’s smallest Buddha.” Julian and I laughed, assuming sarcasm. Sure enough, upon the raised tatami mat, past the meditation bowl, between the standard incense holders, sat the tiny man in full lotus. There is a catch, however. Some people say they can’t see him.

The places we visited were Nara (about an hour out by train to see big Buddha, and, actually, the world’s largest wooden structure) and another temple 20 minutes down the line, Horyuji.

Nara has about a few hundred tame polka-dotted deer harassing the local tourist population, as they diligently search your body for food, smelling your hands. It was prime baby picture taking I am happy to say. Actually, you should take a break from reading this and check out the updated pictures.

Here is some incentive:

Sorry Mom.

The rest of the day was spent walking into every souvenir shop available. The thing here are cell phone key chains. I didn’t really understand them before, seeing them draped once and awhile on American phones, but after seeing everything from Pokemon, Mayonaise Mascots, the assorted cartoon noise, Horses, various bells, bobble headed baseball players, to even a golden Buddha holding Hello Kitty (four dollars) I started to weigh my food stipend against decking my backpack in the jingling cuteness. Reluctantly though I’ve been fine enough with BunBun-san (Mr. BuzzBuzz). He’s the Japanese equivalent of Baxter, the library cat. He comes in many different outfits. Mine, however, is probably the best.

There is story too, if you can believe it. I was picking up some Murakami books at Kyoto Tower’s bookstore, checking out, all that stuff, when the cashier who’d been helping me out put a open blue box in front of me. Now I am familiar with BunBun-san. One of my KEIO students this summer had a similar one. I also know that you only get these if you buy a book that’s on his list, which I wasn’t. So, she was sticking her neck out for me so I could get my first key chain (of this trip). I made a spectacle of it. Harassed her for stealing, etc. After getting three other employees to tell me that it was okay, I pointed at the BunBun-san I wanted. They all shook their heads, explaining that it’s random which one I get. I laughed, held my eyes with them and released my BunBun-san from his baby blue plastic womb. Sure enough, it was 1950s BunBun-san, all set for a day at the beach in his one piece striped one piece, and, more importantly, the one I called out.

Preternatural senses aside, he hangs out with my camera, since I am cellphone-less here.

One last thing. Bath houses.

Now bathrooms here, in a similar way home, are always an adventure. You’re not sure what you’re getting into. While in America, however, this uncertainty is based on the bath’s level of hygienic facilities, Japanese bathrooms are a plunge into the mysterious immaculate technological world. They are truly a microcosm of Japanese culture. You have the traditional aspects set aside hyper-techno-saavy culture. Standing back seeing the options of a straight up squat toilet versus the various -lets (Warmlets, Washlets) bidet fashioned sit downs with infrared sensors programmed to search for your poo-shute, completely changes your concept of what is possible in this life. Meanwhile, environmental consciousness remains as there are hardly ever paper dispensers. It is either hot air (rarely) or nothing (common). Similarly, some toilets run their tank water through a sink that runs after flushing. All I can say though is after receiving a warm shot of plum flavored water up my bum, I only wish Isaac Asimov were still alive to advise me on the ethics of Robo-rape. I mean, it was consensual, I was asking for it when I pushed the button. But these days when I pass that library bathroom goosebumps raise, and my eyelid’s own bidet leaks a little.

*Anyone who reads this, prepare yourself. I am incommunicado starting wednesday until sunday this week (hits me a day earlier than you people). I will be living in the mountains at Hokoji. Living is so ritualistic that monday we have a 3 hour lesson on how to eat rice gruel properly. Send your e-mails now, or… you know a postcard.*

Written by Daniel

September 14, 2008 at 11:35 am

Posted in temples

Let me tell you about my boat,

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*photo page has been added and the link can be found on your right, as well as links to two blogs*

Five blocks north from the Kyoto-eki, there is a gated off temple by the name of Nishi Honganji (“Western Temple of the Original Vow”). It’s there that the 17 students, 2 professors, and 1 TA, wake up at 4:30 in the morning in a separate temple named Koshoji. By comparison, our living quarters are modest next to the level of ornate beauty the larger temple exudes, but then again, we don’t need that much space for what we do.

After a half hour of yoga-esque stretching with Issho-sensei, we begin meditation at 5:30. We are currently practicing zazen for the trip to the very famous and austere Houkouji (temple). My meditation consists of the most dillusional stream of consciousness that with each moment creates an pervading and enervating frustration. Usually around the second to last minute of the forty to an hour session, however, maybe I will catch a glimpse of an avocado pit transforming into a McDonald’s coffee cup (and back again) or perhaps white scarab beetles falling off rod iron only to appear once more. I’m still digesting that.

All in all I’d say zazen practice is hard labor. Afterwards, we move to our living area (a tatami room of about 12×12 ft around), grab our sutra books, lay them against the floor with their protective silk bedding and await Issho-sensei’s gesture to gashou (bow) in veneration of Buddha nature available to us. After three prostrations we arise once more only to kneel or begin a half lotus position as we recite (in particular order): the Heart Sutra, another sutra, a recitation of all the Buddhas, all topped off with some good old words to end the ceremony. Apart from the Heart Sutra and the names, I’m pretty unsure what I’m saying all this time. Yet, apparently, that’s all part of it, it’s more of a breathing excercise, the words themselves are actually Japanese phonetic pronunciation of Chinese characters… so even the Japanese don’t know what they’re saying. Pretty much reminds me of the four hour death ritual recitations at Oahu or Silver Springs.

After we let blood rush into our legs once more, my favorite part of the morning begins: cleaning (Souji). We’re all asigned tasks, mine in particular is Bathroom duty. There’s no sarcasm here, the next fifteen minutes of this is amazing. Fellow partner in toilet scrubbing, Alex, and I work the porseline and tile dilegently while singing parodies, switching around the words to be about cleaning toilets. My favorites include: Lil’ Mama’s “My toilet be clean, my toilet be sparklin'”, and the Beatles’ “We all live in a yellow toilet bowl”.

Around 7:15 we gather up on the stoop of Koshoji, and walk single file to breakfast. There we do another recitation, about no wasting food etc. etc. And then eat in silence. There’s definitely a dance to eating in silence. Everyone, depending on their spot, has a role and maneuver. There are gestures for more or less food, there are cute smirks when we make eye contact unconsciously, grins at spilled miso. But more importantly, by the time I get to my boiled egg (which I make a habit of eating after alternating between rice with pickled plum and miso, but always before drinking my tea), I, without fail, sing Gaston’s song (“Gaston”) to myself, particularly the line:

“When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs
Ev’ry morning to help me get large
And now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs
So I’m roughly the size of a barge!”

I haven’t digested what this means either, for me and my zazen practice.

And then, finally, with the conclusion of our meal, I pack my things and head over to class.

That can be saved for another day. But I’ll tell you this much, on the second day of Issho-sensei’s class (today’s), he broke down and explained the universe and the concept of non-self.

I love this program.

*the next entry will resume the sensory for a moment, I have to talk about baths*

Written by Daniel

September 11, 2008 at 2:11 am

Posted in temples