Friday, November 9, 2012

Whatever you want to know about Zen (You already know)

Zen might be called the inner art and design of the Orient. It was rooted in China by Bodhidharma, who came from India in the sixth century, and  was carried eastward into Japan by the twelfth century. It has been described as: "A special teaching without scriptures, beyond words and letters, pointing to the mind-essence of man, seeing directly into one's nature, attaining enlightenment."
The Zen habit of self-searching through meditation to realize one's true nature, with disregard for formalism, with insistence on self-discipline and simplicity of living , ultimately won the support of the nobility and ruling classes in Japan and the profound respect of all levels of of philosophical thought in the Orient.
It has been said that if you have Zen in your life, you hace no fear, no doubt, no unnecessary craving, no extreme emotion. Neither illiberal attitudes nor egotistical actions trouble you. You serve humanity humbly, fulfilling your presence in this world with loving-kindness and observing your passing as a petal falling from a flower. Serene, you enjoy like in a blissful tranquility. Such is the spirit of Zen, whose vesture is thousand of temples in China and Japan, priests and monks, wealth and prestige, and often the very formalism it would itself transcend.
Maybe something to strive for. Maybe something to overcome. Maybe something that isn't at all. Be without being. Do without doing. Understand Zen without learning a thing.

For a simplified history of Zen, click here.  (Wikipedia Article on Zen)
For an opposing perspective, click here. ( article entitled "Why I HateZen", interestingly written by Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio, a certified yoga teacher and Zen Buddhist Dharma Teacher ordained by Korean Zen Master, Samu Sunim).

Here are Sonshu Yamada's responses to my intrigues concerning Zen. Mr. Yamada is not a Zen teacher, but he is a tea master, and as such understands the essential teaching of Zen.Please understand any language or grammar misuse is left as written by Mr. Yamada. Anything in brackets I added for basic understanding purposes.

1. What do you think is most important for foreigners to understand about Zen?

Participation to Zazen practicing class (Zazen-kai called in Japanese) leaded my Zen-master is important. Zen is not to be understood, should depend on practice of zazen. 
We are living very busy situation every day. If we can practice some spiritual works like Tea-ceremony, Shodo, Haiku composing, Kendo, Judo, and other Japanese traditional cultures including spiritual foundation, we can catch some influence from Zen to them. But in these practicing, leaders or teachers having foundamental experience are very few.
You know, or studied a ritual that you should appreciate the word of Kakejiku at Tokonoma at the first step to enter a tea-ceremony room.
The word is mainly quoted from Zen words and showing the main-theme of tea-ceremony meeting. The promoter of the tea party will accept guests by the theme, and guests spend calmly and pleasant time depending on the spiritual theme. Masters of these spiritual works should be required to hold Zen mind, but nowadays they haven't enough time in worldly life.

Zazen- literally "seated meditation"
Kakejiku- hanging scroll painting or calligraphy in tea room entrance
Tokonoma- Japanese term generally referring to a built-in recessed space (alcove) in a Japanese style reception room, in which items for artistic appreciation are displayed.

2. Do you consider Zen a religion?

Zen-shu sect of Buddhism consist of Zen and some traditional custom ritual is should be religion. But Zen is the foundamentally human being mind, I think. In present we understand it from people behaviors...The Sophia University in Tokyo  has a Zen meditation house, Apple computer company owned by Steven P. Jobs employs and leaded by a Japanese Zen monk, the world economics leader named Peter F. Drucker build his Management Philosophy depending on Japanese Zen mind, and when I as a NGO representative visited to cooperate to mountainous minority natives students and stayed at a nuns, very often sisters hope me for lecturer on Zen spirit.

3. Is ritual important?
I wonder [if] you are asking [about] ritual in tea-ceremony? In present oversee [meant, oversea] intellectuals say tea-ceremony should be called tea-ritual sometimes.
Zen is leading us to absolute spiritual world from relative [world] and [worldly] wants where we live. When we are present under ritual environment our mind will be able to be easier over worldly spirit.

Side note: Yogis, meditators, martial artists, artists, poets, writers, sewers, hard workers, parents who are present and involved with their children, animal lovers, selfless servers, farmers, tree huggers, chado practitioners, smilers, day-to-day-present-moment-livers're all practicing Zen.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

October: A Retrospect- School, Tea, Yoga, and Life in the past 31 Days


    It's been a month since I've thrown information at the blog-o-sphere. Hello, sweet text box, how I've missed your blinking cursor, and the ability to type whatever I wish into your blinding whiteness. Here are some updates on the previous month in Japan:


     Work life fluctuates. Some days I feel helpful, and others useless. I'm assured I'm doing a fine job, but as John says, being a good ALT is like  being the fastest kid at fat camp. I miss the autonomy, structure, and technology of American schools. I miss making a difference, and using teaching techniques that are affective according to contemporary research.
     That said, my school experience here is certainly not all bad. I like the comradery of the teachers and the level of communication that happens between them. In America it's hard to get every teacher to attend faculty and/or department meetings; here, we have faculty meetings every morning (Never mind I don't comprehend them).
     I took a chance last weekend and accepted an invite to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with many other teachers. I was so nervous about the language barrier, but it turned out okay. Many teachers in the school (around 3/4; I'd say about 35 teachers) dine and drink sometimes after work. We took a room upstairs in the restaurant. Of course, we removed our shoes to enter into the tatami-mat room. (Next time I move to Japan, I'll remember to bring more slip on foot attire). There were three round Japanese-style tables, where one must sit on the floor to eat. I took a place at the table with the first grade teachers (see previous post about Japanese schools for information on grade levels, as this isn't considered like our first grade in elementary school). On each table was another, smaller, rotating table on which food is served and passed around. Of course, I couldn't eat anything, but that was expected, so I planned accordingly (meaning I went out to eat with John at an Indian restaurant where they actually serve vegetarian food before meeting my coworkers at a Chinese restaurant, who, when called ahead of time, said they could not serve any dishes to our party without meat or seafood. Really? 'Cause I could come back there, steam some rice, and stir fry some veggies in shouyu (soy sauce) in a matter of minutes. Anyway, I digress). I was very grateful for the warmth of some particular company that night. Many people tried to speak English, and others spoke more than I could've guessed.
     I had a good time finally using the miniscule amount of Japanese I've picked up, as well as learning Japanese customs. The man beside me showed me some particulars of chopstick usage that I hadn't quite acquired. The waitresses at the Chinese restaurant brought in food on giant plates as well as tall boys of Asahi beer and pitchers of oolong tea. Everything was placed on the small, elevated, rotating part of the table, so our group had to serve itself. However, no one serves him/herself; everyone is served by someone else. Someone will grab one of the million tiny dishes on the table, and divvy out food which they then pass around the table, calling on people by name to make sure they eat enough. Whenever one teacher saw another one's empty beer or tea glass they refilled it, meaning that at some point all night, different people (typically young teachers and women) were walking/crawling around to each table and refilling drinks and talking to the person they served. It was odd, but also endearing. Regardless of how often I was clueless or how ignorant I appeared, it's an experience I'm glad I had.


     I got to visit the Kotoku=Zenji Temple in Tokyo last Sunday to experience three types of traditional tea ceremony. Kotoku-Zen temple is a large historical temple.  There are tombs of daimyo (Japanese feudal lord)  and some historical tearooms on the premises.  Usually general people aren’t permitted to enter the temple, but the temple was open for us on 28th. 

I wish I had more pictures of this beautiful sanctuary. As you can see, we're not wearing kimonos as one normally would in formal tea ceremony. As long as you dress formally, you are allowed to participate. Since I was not the host, it was not very nerve-racking there. As a guest, there are enough rituals to have to remember, but it's not the same as serving. December 2 I will act as host in my first formal tea ceremony at the cultural building that's part of Ichihara City Hall. I will wear a kimono then. Don't worry. John will videotape it so you all can laugh at me later. 
     I met some beautiful people at Kotoku-Zenji. I attendede with Kubo-san (center), a member of the Ichihara International Association (IIA, my hiring partner), who's been taking me to tea ceremony lessons on Saturday mornings (yeah, sleeping in is rare). I met her friend, Mrs. Yarita (left), a lady with refined sweetness typical to the Japanese. She lives close to my school, I found out. I also met Mr. Koga, a long-time friend of Kubo-san (behind the camera). He was serving tea in the Urasenke tradition, which is the school I am now a part of. Lastly, I met Mr. Yamada, a tea master who studies Zen. I was told I could speak with Mr. Yamada on the topic of Zen. However, there were over 200 guests at Kotoku-Zen Temple that day, so our introduction was brief. (He reminded me of an older Dr. Hannum, for all you USA History Alum). Before knowing we couldn't speak in detail, I was instructed to prepare questions regarding Zen for him, so he would know what to talk to me about. He prepared and typed answers for me and had them delivered to me outside one of the tea rooms (I'm sure I was easy to pick out from the crowd). I will post these questions and answers in another blog, along with some other interesting things I'm reading about Zen. 
     A big part of tea ceremony is the utensils with which tea is made. There are very famous tea masters throughout the ages who create these items. Apparently, during our last ceremony, we and two other guests were privileged enough to drink of a tea bowel that is only used for display. I know it's very old, and I'm sure the name of the maker is in my textbook, but I don't remember his name. I only wish I better understood the meaning this opportunity held. I was with some people who have been practicing tea for over 35 years and they've never seen, much less used, utensils made by this tea master. I was very grateful for the honor, even if I can't necessarily understand the full meaning. 


      I am recommitting to daily practice. I understand that life happens and I can't get in an asana practice occasionally. Sometimes the yoga is accepting that you have to walk away from the mat to a situation at hand. On those days, I can still set aside five minutes for s short pranayama (breath) practice. I'm not sure how much I can say my poses are evolving (or devolving- really, has viribhadrasana I always been SO hard...Have my hip flexors always been THIS tight)?!?!?! However, the purpose is not some grand physical expression (although that's totally cool), but the path we take both physically and mentally to get to a posture (or place in life). It's about reconfiguring the mind-body connection to live presently and with awareness. I was thinking during practice today, as I was focusing on my feet as my foundation, how unconnected with their bodies many people really are. Our feet have gone through millions of years of evolution to support us on this earth, and modern society tells they're gross and need restricted in toe shoes, heels, or boots. I don't think we'd have problems with falling arches, bone spurs, or plantar fasciitis if we used our feet as they've evolved to be used. Can you imagine having as much control and dexterity in your feet as you do your hands? Are you so connected that you feel the relationship between your big toe mound and inner thigh, or pinky toe mound and outer hip? Think of how useful that'd be! Why do we ignore or think any part of the human body is gross? I just don't get it. 
     Although I've found a hybrid yoga/pilates class to go to twice a week, the closest fully dedicated yoga studio I've found that doesn't mind me attending classes is almost two hours away. I've been a few times, but I'm mostly relying on my home practice and yogaglo (a site with thousands of yoga classes recorded in an L.A. studio with world class teachers). It makes me so grateful for my teacher(s) in Alabama. The lessons I learned there have helped me to evolve my practice in ways I never thought possible, all in a way that's safe and positive. Sure, I still practice inversions at the wall/ with props, and I still fall on my face in certain arm balances, but I'm practicing propper alignment and momentarily finding balances of steadiness and ease. And THAT'S the practice. No work on the path is wasted. 
   I've been reading two books reccomended by some yoga website I frequent (I don't remember which). Ganesha Goes to Lunch, by Kamla k. Kapur and Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya and Ajuna van der Kooij. The first is a decidedly grown-up book of traditional Indian stories retold by a well-known Indian poet. Like myths around the world, these are teaching stories that offer both a window into a fascinating culture that has endured for thousands of years, and a code for living that can be applied to the modern world. One could read this book for engaging tales of monkey gods, talking toads, and beautiful maidens in distress, or for a South Asian viewpont on the eternal questions surrounding love, friendship, happiness, and war.  The second book shines a great light on over 30 yoga postures. Behind each asana and its corresponding movements is an ancient story. For example, learning how the disfigured sage Astavakra came to be the teacher of a king can liberate us for anxieties about our external appearances and our self-imposed limitations.


      While the glimmer of traveling tends to wear off when you're settling into and relearning day-to-day life, John and I have just enough time to absorb the beauty and awe of our present situation. Newlyweds across the world, thrown into a culture radically opposite ours, with a language we don't understand, we've done really well to build our lives and keep stress at bay. John's needed time adjusting to Japanese bacteria, and I think is finally getting over the cold he's had more or less since we got here two months ago. We're also both recovering from pink eye, thanks to my work letting me leave an hour early to go to the eye doctor for prescription eye drops. That's the first time in my life I've ever had conjunctivits, and I gotta say, it's not recommended for the funsies. Matter o' fact, it hurts like hell. 
     Last month we attended a beautiful fireworks show with some acquaintances I think we'll soon call friends. On November 17, we'll hike Mt. Nokogiri (tallest mountain in Chiba prefecture) with the same people. Mt. Nokogiri has one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan-- 31 meters! We visited the historic ruins of a nunnery in Ichihara called Kazusa Kokobuniji.

Also, our town now boasts a fabulous new Sendo (name of supermarket), so now we're only a five minute bike ride from groceries! That, and we're so very close to getting cell phones, something we've wanted to do since arrival. I get really tired of not being able to call John. Especially on nights when I'm supposed to meet him somewhere in Tokyo and I get lost and wind up walking around for 2 1/2 hours (totally happened....I know, embarrassing)! 
     Anyway, John's busy with grad school and work, while I'm working, studying yoga and Zen, and keeping up house (this phrase is still applicable for apartment, right)? Life's difficult a lot of the time, but instead of anger or frustration, I get by peacefully. I must've gotten rid of all the anger at an earlier age, or learned to deal with it in more constructive ways. Now I'm drinking tea with Buddhists talking about the beauty of the trees and learning the sweetness that comes from a life well shared.