Monday, October 10, 2011

Bridges between worlds

We drove back to Osaka from Kamikatsu, with a stop in Tokushima for lunch and to run a couple of last minute errands. After the quiet of Kamikatsu, particularly of Nakamura's hermitage, many of us found even Tokushima to be wildly overwhelming. In the spring, I remember finding Tokyo to be tough going after Koya and Kamikatsu, and how grateful I was for lunch in a pocket park on top of a department store.

We saw the famous whirlpool in the Naruta straits, it sits almost directly under the bridge. The last part of the drive was on an elevated highway along the edge of the water, though the ports. We swooped up and over more than a dozen elegant bridges. Each different than the rest, some bright red, like the gates into the temples, others looking like they had been beamed in from Gene Roddenberry's future, spare, ultramodern spans of a grey so pale they were nearly white. It felt like we were flying in from one world, to land in another.

We tucked the last few things into our bags, then gathered in the lobby for the shuttle to Kansai airport. As I write this we are at 37000 feet, above Canada, three hours from landing and maybe 7 hours from home. Swooping back to our world...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Of dragons and stars

Last night was the peak of the Draconids, a meteor shower that appears to emanate from the constellation Draco, the dragon. We used an app on my iPad to locate it in the sky, but there were clouds and a nearly full moon just before we went to bed. The peaks was to be at about 3 to 4 in the morning, and I promised to set my alarm to check then and rouse the crew if it turned out to be good viewing. At about 3:15 I heard the pitter-patter of little feet (or more precisely the shuffle thump of slippers above me, and the sliding of shoji in the hall), and got up to find a half dozen of us, along with our host at Yama no gakko,Taue-san. The sky was crystal clear, but alas, there were very few meteors to be seen (unlike the fiery skies of 1998).

After yesterday's exploration of the cave with the dragon, it was an apt event to be in Japan for.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tea and temples - Posture and gesture

We worked at Nakamura's until dark, and still had a ways to go to finish binding our journals. Nakamura showed us the final steps, gave us a sample and then packed up our books for us to finish when we get home (assured that we have the correct tools, since I can do simple bookbinding). We walked down the hill back to the bus, our way lit by iPads and the occasional bug meeting a sad end on the electric fences that enclosed some of the farms.

Dinner, cooked for us by Gufu (Atsko's husband) was a warm and welcome sight. We had a wonderful rice curry, piquant shallot pickles and a warm banana dessert, scented with cardomom and cloves. After dinner we browed Gufu's field notes from his travels in India, beautifully detailed, with careful sketches in lieue of photographs (since he doesn't own a camera). We all agreed that we could aspire to this kind of note keeping in any of our fields.

This morning most of the group went up to the ana zenjo temple to hike up to the top of the dragon falls, and (contemplatively) wiggle and wend their way through the crevices to see the dragon. The hike is too steep for my knee, so I stayed back at Yama no gakko to write and walk along the river. It was a warm morning and many older people were out enjoying the sun, which gave me lots of practice in bowing and saying "ohayu gozaimasu" (good morning).

The rocks were a tight fit at the temple, so much so that the woman leading the group had them tie their white pilgrims jackets on the side, not in front, so as not to give them even an inch less freedom to slip between the rocks. Each person had a candle, making the journey that much more difficult.

A quick, but beautiful bento lunch back at Yama no gakko and we were off again, this time to particpate in a (semi)formal tea ceremony. We visited the local tea teacher (it takes about 25 years to earn your license as a teacher of the tea ceremony). She demonstrated the ceremony with the "sensei" (the teachers - Hank, I and Atsko) and then served each of the students tea and a sweet in the formal manner. Thankfully this was a teaching moment and not the far more challenging formal tea ceremony. Even following Hank's example, and earlier briefing, I had a difficult time with the rubric.

Since I can't sit seiza - the experience provided me with an interesting meditation on posture. It felt clumsy to bow from the position I could sit in, and to bend over to examine the tea cup when I was through drinking, though I am certainly flexible enough to do so. When we get back after break, in my class we'll be talking about the ways in which the contemplative communities that grew out of the desert eremite tradition shaped their rule of life to foster contemplation and prayer. What role do posture and gesture play in these rules? How do we shape our bodies in order to give shape to our meditation and prayer?

The tea teacher talked a bit about the background of the ceremony (with Hank providing translation), which is modeled on the Catholic mass. The careful purification of the vessels, and in some traditions, the sharing of a single cup, certainly evoke the movements of the Eucharistic celebration.

I am writing this down by the river behind Yama no gakko, finding it hard to imagine that at this time tomorrow night we will be pulling into a hotel parking lot near Kansai Airport, ready to fly home on Monday morning. The trip has given us many threads to pull into our courses when we return, and I am looking forward to some rich and engaging conversations back in Bryn Mawr's halls.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gleaning wisdom

I am writing this overlooking the gorge at Nakamura-san's, the drop just below my feet is about 40 feet down to a small terrace, once planted with rice, but now fallow. We spent the morning picking small limes (sudachi) at two farms above Kamikatsu. They grow three kinds of citrus at Bondo, which is a certified organic farm, along with the tea that we have been drinking at dinner, awabancha. The citrus has thorns, huge spiders live in the grove, and finding the green limes amid the green leaves requires some focus. The second grove we picked at belonged to a neighbor, who has just moved back here from the city to help his elderly parents.

We gleaned the trees in the first grove, checking for what had been missed in the first picking. I thought of the number of times I had asked students what they had gleaned from a reading, without any real concept of how painstaking that is, or how much you might have to search to find a bit of fruit.

So many of the rules of life for contemplatives, drawing on Benedict's early model, specify a time for physical work in addition to the work of contemplation, and many orders do agricultural work, or make bread or jam. The rhythm and pace of the work, and the discomfort of it -- the sun is hot, the lime oils are rough on the skin, the thorns prick and the small scissors are sharp enough to cut unwary fingers -- are an interesting comparison to the work of meditation. Which can have its own discomforts, as well as rhythm and pace.

Lunch was at a small organic shop, which has local produce, including rice. The rice harvest is in progress here, we can see the sheaves of rice tied up in the fields to dry. We left with some rice (though not the 5 kg bag I was really eyeing), and lots and lots of the awabancha.

After lunch the bus dropped us at the first bridge on the way to Nakamura's and everyone who did not have a broken foot walked the remaining distance up the mountain (a short half hours walk, but all uphill). Now we are doing the next bit of our work on binding the journals, cutting out the covers and getting ready to stitch up the spines.

What did we have for dessert?

Animal? Vegetable? Fruit? What do you think?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A different kind of luxury

The morning dawned clear and warm and after breakfast we headed up to visit Nakamura-san, an artist who lives a deliberately simple life up the mountain from Kamikatsu proper. The bus driver was a champion, the road is narrow and winding and there were a couple of spots where it was more than a tight fit to get us around a curve or across a bridge. (The fit was so tight that tomorrow we will walk the last bit -- at the driver's reqest!)

We had brought Nakamura a gift, a piece of stained glass we had commissioned from an artist (Wayne Stratz) in Pennsylvania. Wayne designed the piece at Wernersville, where we had done our first experiment in silence, riffing off of pictures I had taken when Hank, Marc and I visited in June. The result was a tea pot in glass, evoking the mud hearth and cast iron pot with which Nakamura had made us tea on that visit. The style of Wayne's piece is very similar to the style of some of Nakamura's work. Later in the afternoon Nakamura showed the students some of the ways in which he creates these stained glass like pencil drawings, and helped the students create some of their own.

The main activities of the day were to begin making bound journals, using traditional Japanese binding techniques. Nakamura showed us how to bind cloth (prints in patterns traditionally used by Nepalese women for their underblouses) to paper, so that it would be easier to handle, and then how to bind the equivalent of the folios to which we will attach the covers tomorrow. For some students this was the first time they had threaded a needle.

We also helped make lunch. Atsko Watanabe, a member of Kamikatsu's town council and a friend of Hank's and Nakamura's had brought the makings of lunch (vegetable soup, tofu, bread and fruit) up with her. When she asked for help with lunch, the first thing she needed was someone to get the fire started in the mud hearth. With a little help from Nakamura and Atsko, two students managed to get a good fire going and water heated to make a wonderful vegetable soup. We ate in shifts of 5, as that was the number of bowls and chopsticks we had -- no disposable plates and bowls. (Kamikatsu strives for zero waste, and comes pretty close.)

Despite the simplicity of Nakamura's life, it seems deeply luxurious as well. At what point do we have so much stuff that we can no longer manage it? Several of us had hermitage envy and I confessed to Nakamura-san that I was eyeing the hollow across the valley, which seemed to me a perfect spot in which to nestle a small house.

We finished the day with a short visit to the Zero Waste Academy, Kamikatsu's project to limit the amount of trash they produce. There are 36 different waste streams (plastic bottles and their plastic caps are two different streams), and a room where you can pick up goods for free (some students will be coming home with beautiful tea cups that someone else no longer needed).

It was an extended meditation on what goes into making the heat to make lunch, rather than just turning on a burner; what goes into making a blank book in which to keep your notes; what happens to what we put into the trash here (every yogurt container will have to be washed, the orange juice cartons broken down, washed and folded just so).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The women's way

For almost a thousand years, Mount Koya was an entirely male enclave. Until the end of the 19th century, women were stopped at the gates. Still, many of them made the journey, to be close to sons who had become monks, and to the sacred sites. A number of women's shelters were built at the edges of the precincts. Only one remains standing today. The shelters were linked by a path that is still extant and that entirely encircles Koya-san. Yesterday morning, after we broke silence, I walked up to the remaining women's shelter and then headed down the path. I was immediately struck by how narrow it was, roughly a foot wide, and how it clung to the side of the mountain. It was not a place for a leisurely stroll. This is how it feels to be marginalized, to be reminded at every step that your presence here is precarious at best.

Hideo, the young abbot who has instructed in meditation while we are here told us that when he tired of his studies, he would head out on the women's trail until he could put Koya behind him. I would agree that you very quckly find that the town vanishes and you are walking a wilderness trail.

In the afternoon we toured the Reiokan museum as a group. There were a set of 12th century silk paintings of Kobo Daishi on display, but was struck most of us were the wooden images of the four kings in the "old gallery." They are incredibly lifelike, and quite daunting in appearance. It is easy to imagine how terrifying they might have appeared in a dark temple lit only by candles and oil lamps. Several of the students headed out to see the women's shelter, while the rest of the group headed to the head temple for the Shingon sect.

This morning began with a final conversation with Hideo, thinking a little bit about how to embed the practice of meditation in everyday life, a bit about what else we might read when we return home, particularly about walking meditations (as opposed to the sitting meditations that we have done here). We had an interesting conversation about the concept of "nin" (prompted in part by the large character "nin" painted on the scroll in the niche of the room we were meeting in.) It means self-control, particularly of the emotions. And a bit like the idea of Ignation "indifference" it has the sense not of banishing emotion, but of controling the external expression of the emotions.

The rest of the day was a long travel day in the rain - 10 hours - taking us down the funicular from Koya to three trains, a ferry ride and finally onto a bus for the hour and half ride up from Tokushima port to Kamikatsu up in the mountains. Dinner was delight and we are enjoying listening to the mountain river that runs past the retreat center we are staying in.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lantern night

I am writing this on the front steps of Shojoshin-in, the temple where we are staying. The sun is warm, if fading fast, and I'm waiting for the young monk to come out and ring the large bell to signal that the monastery gates are closed for the night.

We've been thinking not only about the way physical structures enclose, encourage and facilitate silence, but also about the ways in which other practices foster stillness, focus, attention and... silence. One practice is having a structure for the day, in Christian monastic circles this might be called the ordo -- the daily schedule. Here the day begins with the morning service, dedicated to the sun deity Daishi, at 6:30. We have an ordo for the group as well, going to breakfast together after the morning service, keeping silence until 9 am, doing two periods of meditation in the morning and meeting to walk and study in the afternoon. The ordo lets us know when to talk, and when not. Bells are one way to signal times in an ordo, and you can hear them doing their work in Koyasan.

Yesterday we walked twice up to Okonuin, the temple complex at the top of the hill here where Kobo Daishi is entombed, in eternal meditation. The first time we took a lingering walk up, exploring the enormous graveyard that lines the path up the mountain. We noticed many images of Jizo tucked into trees, including the one in the photo that has grown into the tree. The temple is silent on one side, not on the other and while in the summer we found that visitors seemed to utterly ignore the request, this time as you walked around to the back (which faces Kobo Daishi's tomb), silence fell. We finished with tea at the pilgrims' shelter just below the main temple, made over a fire that has been burning 1000 years.

After dinner we walked up the path again, our way lit by stone lanterns (and overhead lights!) to see the Mando-e, a ceremony of lights, which occurs only once a year. Brilliantly robed priests processed across the bridge to the temple of the lanterns, led by two men pounding the ground with iron staffs. The main celebrant (so elderly that he had to be helped up the steps of the temple) is shielded by a red umbrella. The ceremony began with two monks sitting at altars to the right and left of the main sanctuary, alternately ringing bells, then furiously fanning the flames of two fires, stirring up the fire to ever higher heights. They were burning prayers sticks, a central rite in the Shingon sect which has its headquarters here. The embers rising up through the flue matched the color of the priests' robes.

We walked back through the graveyard for the fourth time and found baths and futons a welcome sight.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pilgrims on Koya-san

It's Monday morning in Koya-san, the thermometer reads a chilly 10 C (50 F). There is no heat in the monastery where we are staying, Shojoshin-in, not suprisingly as it is one of the oldest of the monasteries in this thousand year-old complex. There are space heaters in the rooms, and many of the students have them fired up. So far, I've decided that it's not all that cold, and am writing this wrapped in a shawl sitting on my futon.

We are staying in a long, mostly linked set of rooms here, overlooking the small river that runs down off the hillside. The shoji slide shut between pairs of futons, but when they are open you can see the length of the large room where the students are sleeping.

Koya-san is where the renowned Buddhist saint Kobo-Daishi is entombed, and later today we will walk up the hill to see the temple and the entrance to the cave where Kobo-Daishi is said to sit in meditation still (the monks leave him a meal each day). The sacred 88-site pilgrimage that rings the island of Shikoku was first laid out by Kobo-Daishi.

Our pilgrimage to Koya from Osaka started not so differently than Kobo-Daishi's pilgrimage to China. He sailed to China in 804 on an official delegation from Japan, in a convoy of four ships, which lost sight of each other on the first night. Likewise we piled into four taxis to get from the hotel to the train station yesterday morning. When we arrived at the station, we had only three taxis' worth of students. The only taxi without a faculty member in it seemed to have gone astray. Unlike Kobo-Daishi's ships, we located each other in the cavernous station!

The trip here was not as difficult as it was a thousand years ago, but we got a taste of the pilgrim's way as typhoon damage on the tracks meant we had to get off the "express" train, onto a bus, then back onto a small local train that lurched its way up the mountain side, then make a dash for the funicular that takes you up to the town.

Yesterday we continued to learn about Buddhist meditation, spending two sessions in the afternoon with Hideo, the young abbot of a nearby temple (there are 117 in town). We annointed our hands with incense, to remind us to do our best (gambarazo), then settled into a beautiful hall. We had a wide-ranging conversation with him, including a good discussion of posture and gesture in meditation (does it matter where your hands are, should you move if you are uncomfortable? Is there a Buddhist equivalent of the misericord - a small ledge that choir monks use to prop themselves against)? We have been discussing this in the MBSR class we are taking and in my course.

When I was here in May, Hideo and I had talked about the concept of self-emptying, kenosis is the Western term. The Buddhist perspective and the Christian one are similar but there are differences. In the discussion with the students the topic came up again, and the second time 'round I had a better grasp of what the distinctions are.

We have been eating shojin ryori, traditional temple food, for breakfast since we arrived. Here we are having it for dinner as well. It's all vegetarian, no meat or eggs, and follows the system of five. Each meal should have five colors: red, black, yellow, white, blue/green and five ways of preparing food: raw, boiled, baked, fried, steamed. I'm still trying to figure out what in my breakfast was baked! This morning students are doing some meditation practice -- as well as laundry and getting a chance to walk in the small town and find their own lunch.

Photos of our sleeping space and of the temple gate. Notice the small night door at the side of the gate - even I have to duck!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Kyoto to Osaka: 1001 Kannons and onsen

We got up early this morning to go to the main temple at Miyoshin-ji to see a service by all the abbots of the temples in the enclosure. I wished I had my camera as the abbots in their violet or saffron and black robes hurried to the main hall. Each had his formal red or black shoes on a two pronged stick, to change into before entering the temple. No outsiders were allowed in for this service, we peeked in through the outside. It was a very male enclave, no women at all, just the young Buddhist priests in training along the back, and the abbots. Taka, who had given us a lesson in Zen meditation on Thursday, played a leading role in the service (if I were mapping this onto Western practice I would call him the deacon). Midway through the service we noticed a priest peering through the back windows, checking off names on a clipboard. Taking attendance!

After breakfast we packed up and headed to Sanjusangendo which has a long hall filled with 1000 statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon, each slightly different (and a main image, so really 1001). It's a stunning sight, and included a collection of the 28 guardians. No photos inside (and a reminder about every 10 feet not to take photos, and I can see why, it's hard to resist). The building is about 800 years old, and built to withstand earthquakes with foundations that will let the building slide. The site is famous for formal archery contests, testing not only the archers' accuracy, but also their endurance. One young man was said to have short 13,000 arrows over a 24 hour period.

We go from here to Koya-san on Sunday, many of the temples will be of the same era, it will be interesting to compare the architectures of these urban spaces in what was then Japan's imperial captial with the then very remote mountain enclave. For my class we have read "The Ten Square Foot Hut" which is written by a 13th century Buddhist priest (Kamo no Chomei) where he contrasts life in the capital with life in the mountains. When we get back, we will be looking at the way life is structured for the Carthusian monks, a eremetic order from the same period in Europe. What are the ways in which silence and solitude are provided for? What role do the mountains play, and how is it different or similar to the role the desert played for the early Christian hermits and monks?

On the trip by bus from Kyoto to Osaka, where we will spend the night before taking the train to Koya-san early tomorrow morning, we took a detour to Arima, an old natural hot spring or onsen. We spent a good part of the afternoon soaking in the silver waters, and the gold waters, trying out the traditional Japanese bathtubs (which look like tulips) and lounging on cedar benches in the sun. It was a challenge for the women, since all the signage was in Japanese and we have no fluent Japanese speakers in the crowd. With a little help from our two Chinese speakers, and our students studying Japanese we figured it out. One of the young Japanese women in the tub told me she thought we were quite courageous to give this a fly. I thought the students who ventured to put their feet in a tub fileld with little fish that nibbled off the dead skin were truly courageous. Hot springs are traditionally associated with Buddhist temple sites, and the waters were certainly a delightful blessing for us!

Now we are threading our way through Osaka on the bus, headed for a hotel with Western beds and dinner.

Photos of dinner in Osaka, and the fish bath!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Kyoto: The Moss Temple

We are back at Daishin-in, where we stayed the first night. The lodgings here are much simpler, more traditional temple lodgings than those at Chi'on-in. No electronic chimes, no big screen television in the lobby (no lobby, for that matter) broadcasting the temple services. There is a beautiful garden, and simple but beautifully presented vegetarian meals for breakfast. I'm going to admit I prefer this to the more modern space any day.

This morning we went to the bamboo forest, an area of Kyoto with several Shinto shrines. We explored one of the shrines here looking at the differences between Buddhist architectures and Shinto spaces. This particular shrine was used by people seeking to be granted love and academic advancement, everything a Bryn Mawr woman might want! It's hot and steamy here, so the walk up to the ridge top left us soggy, making a stop for ice cream at a small shop a welcome treat. Green tea, kiwi, brown tea and vanilla were the flavors on tap.

The Moss Temple was next on our agenda, to see its famous gardens and to try our hand at contemplative calligraphy. Hank had written to them in the summer, asking if we might visit. (You can't visit without a written invitation in return, they check your letter at the gate!) Before touring the garden, we sat in the main hall for a short service, then copied by hand the heart sutra using a traditional ink brush and block ink. It took us about 45 minutes to copy the entire 278 characters in the sutra. (Yuxin's work in progess is in the photo.)

The garden is an amazing place, laid out by a famous 16th century landscape artist. We walked the garden, attentive to some of the ways to "read" the garden that we had learned from our conversation with Taka at Shuko-in yesterday. What are the embedded clues as to the height should you be looking at this from, how are particular views framed both with objects and in terms of contrast between light areas and darker one, how does the composition change as you walk through the space? I walked the garden path in the reverse direction with Tiffany (who is making the trip with a broken foot and on crutches - the hike up to the small hermit's hut at the top which the rest of the group was making seemed unwise for her foot and my knee). The garden seemed like a very different space when viewed in the other direction. It's a quite silent space, people naturally lower their voices and the moss seems to muffle the noises.

From there we walked to Jizo-in, the very still, very silent place we washed up last year, where we sat and meditated. Even after we were done, people were reluctant to break the silence, and continued to enjoy the stillness of the spot. I had left my pilgrim's book with the monk down at the entrance, and as we finally gathered ourselves to walk back to the bus, he appeared to be sure I would not forget it.

Each temple has its own stamp, and you can get them to stamp your book, then brush in the name of the temple, the main hall and the date of your visit - essentially a proof that you were really there. The stamp for the Moss temple is particularly beautiful.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Kyoto: Up the mountain

We began our second full day in Kyoto early, rising at 5:10 to a three tone chime in our rooms. We stayed last night at Chois-in temple, which is celebrating its 800th year since its founding. Despite the age of the temple, the lodgings were ultra modern, and looked like a high end boutique hotel, with a few twists. Like the PA system in the room, and an escort up to the top of the hill for morning services.

We followed our silent escort up the hill, the sky barely touched by dawn and the crows screeching to announce the new day. The ceremony was elaborate and our group comprised most of the observers. It ended with a sermon on a text given by a monk, perched on a seat above the group. Alas most of us could not understand a word of what turned out to me a moving forty minute sermon. Ceremonies and all lasted almost 2 hours -- utterly worth it for the walk back through the uncrowded grounds in the morning light.

From Chois-in we took the bus to a temple in the hills above Kyoto. No buses can make it up the hill, so we walked up a small street crowded with shops and school children on field trips. Many of the children had an assignment to find a foreigner and practice their English. Several stopped us and tried out their English on us, then presented us with a small gift (a note and a piece of origami wrapped nicely in a bag). The protocol for these conversations includes taking photos by both parties.

Underneath one of the images in the shrine at the top was a tunnel which wound down into total darkness. The experience was meant to evoke the womb. Woe unto anyone who lets go of the railing (Hank) as you can get quite disoriented in that kind of darkness. At the very bottom is a lovely stone with a single character on it. The idea is to stop and lay your hand on the stone and pray -- then get back out again. It reminded me a great deal of the Taddeo Ando work we saw in Naoshime (Dark Side of the Moon) in June.

The views from the top were spectacular, the whole of modern Kyoto laid out below, the ancient monastic enclave in the foreground.

After a stop for lunch, where people bravely pushed their envelope on what they might eat and dug delightedly into desert, we returned to the temple complex where we are staying (Myoshin-ji) to hear some more about Zen meditation from Takafumi Kawakami, the abbot of the Shuko-in temple there. We learned a bit more about the "stick of compassion" and the role it might play in releasing tension during meditation, as well as had an interesting discussion about the external formalities of Zen meditation versus the interal and/or spiritual effects.

Takafumi-san gave us a wonderful tour of the cloister itself. There are some magnificent screens, and we were allowed to sit in front of them, as well as a dry garden. It was fascinating to experiment with different levels at which to view the garden, and with different angles of view.

Shuko-in houses a bell taken from the oldest church in the Kyoto area, founded by the Jesuits in 1576. The bells dates to 1577 and was taken to Shuko-in after Christianity was supressed in Japan. The bell was rescued again during WW II by the current abbot's grandfather, hidden away to keep it from being melted down for ammunition. He rang the bell for us, and we took a photo to send to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, where we had visited earlier this semester.

We had dinner and did a bit of shopping in the Gion district. Baths felt amazing after such a long day. Now I am writing this in front of the abbot's garden, listening to a gentle rain fall.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kyoto: Sitting Zen

The bus dropped us off the first night in a dark parking lot adjacent to a temple complex. A young lady from the temptle where we were staying came out to fetch us, and led us through a series of narrow lantern lit walks running between cloister walls. It was a relief to walk through the gate of the temple where we were staying, crossing a small bridge through a garden. We piled into the entry way, trading our shoes for slippers.

Our rooms were above the abbot's garden (the abbot's quarters are now on the other side of the temple, but the room below us is the tradtiional 10 square foot room that the abbot woudl have occupied). It's a beautiful dry garden, and I sat there to meditate last night.

We returned to the Zen temple we visited in the spring, Zuiho’in  where the abbot talked to us about meditation and then led us in a short zazen sitting. We then explored the gardens and saw the tea room (one of the very first tea rooms created). The rock garden at Zuiho’in is as magnificent in many ways as the iconic one at Ryoan-ji, the rocks piled up to represent tall waves.

From Zuiho-in we went to Ryona-ji, to sit in front of what is probably the most famous of the Zen dry gardens (if you have a Mac, the garden wall is one of the choices for a background screen). It's not a quiet spot, the parking lot is generally packed with buses of school children and tourists, but the garden itself is a very stilling sight.

We had lunch in a tiny restaraunt, 14 seats for the 14 of us. We managed to order, the cook careful be sure that we had a plate each. Udon and donburi (rice bowls topped with meat and egg, the one I had was called "mother and child" — chicken and egg, while Yuxin enjoyed "strangers" — beef and egg. The food was good and quick, and the cook made us a bowl of curry to share.

From there it was back to the Daitoko-ji complex, to Daisen-in for another round of conversation about Zen meditation and a chance to sit. We sat zazen for 30 minutes, the abbot complimented us on our ability to sit silent and still for that length of time, most visitors can't manage that. Those who chose had the opportunity to try the methods of correction employed in training Zen monks, a stick that can be used to strike the back to remind you of the correct position, or held behind you to help find the correct position. It makes a loud noise when used in the former way! Our time there finished with a tour of the rock gardens that surrounds the shrine to the founder, which features a garden with no large rocks at all and two cones of stones amid the raked waves, and another garden with waterfalls of stones and 100 placed rocks. We stopped for a cup of matcha (whished green tea) and sweet cinnamon cookies.

Now we are for dinner and a bath.

On the ground

We have arrived in Kyoto, going from modern Kansai to a temple lodging in Kyoto. Arrving after the temple is usually closed, we wound our way through the precints, in the dark, past one immaculate rock garden. We're taking turns negotating the baths - after the long flight the thought of soaking in all that hot water was more appealing to everyone than tea and a sweet snack!

The group ready to depart from JFK.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Koyosan: Walking the graveyard

We were up at 5:45 for morning prayers here. Two priests chanted sutras while we sat. The floor was warmed from below, the rain fell softly outside. Each time one of the priests struck the bell, the black silk sleeve of his robes folded onto the floor, flowing like ink off a brush, looking like a kanji character.

It's been raining all day, softly earlier, now pouring. We walked up to the place where Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist saint who founded this monastic complex in the 13th century, is interred. The legend is that he is still alive, in eternal meditation. Two hundred thousand graves are in the complex, people want to be buried here so that they can ascend with Kobo Daishi. To see so many graves, so many ancient graves in particular, is astounding.

The temple is still very active, funerals are still being held, we saw at least three today. I was moved to see a young man climbing up to the shrine, solemnly carrying a silver wrapped urn full of ashes in a white sling.

We went into the temple where saffron robed priests are praying for the dead and living. The entire complex is shrouded in incense. There are hundreds of lanterns lighting the inside. A crypt underneath houses thousands upon thousands of little Jizu statues, each with the name of the deceased underneath.

We walked back to town for lunch, then met a young Buddhist priest named Hideo for some conversation about meditation. We returned with Hideo to the shrine. A monk friend of Hideo's gave us a pinch of a spicy powder to anoint our hands with before we entered the temple, then offered us incense to burn while we meditated, and a home safety protection charm. We sat and meditated, in what felt like the middle of the market place, coins ringing as people threw them into the huge offering bin, chanting families, people pacing back and forth (walking 100 lengths of the veranda, praying). Pilgrims in peaked hats and white jackets, carrying staffs or bags of white with a small bell on them, stream past.

We had tea, make over a fire kindled from coals kept alight for a thousand years. The same fire that is used to light the candles in the shrine at the top of the hill.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Kyoto: Stone spaces

We were out early again this morning, to see Daitoku-in, a complex of independent Zen monasteries. Arriving well before official opening time, we were nevertheless able to walk into the complex. It's a virtual sea of peaked roofs, some of the monasteries here date to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Our first stop was a famous stone garden, this one representing waves battering islands, which remain unmoved. It made me think of the spiritual, "No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to the Lord I'm clinging..." The wave look high, battering the land but the rock islands are unmoved.

The abbot appeared as we came in and sat with us on the steps of the garden, having an animated conversation with Hank, which he translated for Marc and I. Advice for us: The breath matters, sit up straight so that the oxygen can really get in. That and good breathing makes you beautiful.

I found the garden both more striking than the iconic garden at Ryoanji we saw yesterday, that least quiet of Zen gardens, and more still. Perhaps it's the contrast between the flash frozen stones and the soft moss in which the stones are set that enhances the sense of stillness.

We looked at another old tea house. Outside this one were three stones perched on another, tied with ropes. The stones are placed on the stepping stones leading up to the tea house entrance when it is occupied, to discretely signal that the tea house is in use and other visitors should stay away.

We saw several other stone gardens of various sorts, perhaps the most Zen of them all is this one, set into the floor of the cloister, rather than outside the abbot's quarters as most of the rest were placed. It was hard to photograph, and hard to imagine where you might sit to meditate in front of it. but I liked it very much. All these cloister spaces were still and silent, no hordes of teenagers trooping through. Despite their stony nature, these small enclosed landscapes seemed aglow with life.

For the next two nights we are staying at a temple on Mount Koya, arrived at by train, then cable car. It reminds me very much of Wernersville in many ways, though less silent. We had to sign in by 5 pm, gates close by around 8. Our room has a lovely view out onto one of the temple gardens. I'm on the third floor (where I often stay at Wernersville). There are reminder of meal times in your rooms and not to leave your valuables in your rooms, since these do not lock. These rooms do have a TV (!) and wi-fi (!!). And there are Japanese style baths.

I sat on the veranda outside our room for my evening meditation. The air was cool, it felt like water on my face, the rain fell on the pond below, and the sound of the cistern overflowing was like a litany.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kyoto: Descending into silence

Breakfast was a quick "thick toast" with marmalade in the hallway of the inn, where I could admire the old fashioned salmon pink pay phone. We got an early start this morning to see Ryoanji temple, which is famous for its Zen rock garden. The grounds are gorgeous, but because it is a stop on the standard school tour (think Independence Hall in Philadelphia), it is generally overun with kids in school uniforms and their tour guides. We got there when there were only two busses in the parking lot, by the time we left, the lot was full.

The garden was created behind the abbot's quarters by Tokuho Zenketsu in about 1500. The garden is empty, except for 15 rocks (of which you can see only 14 at any one time), and was created (perhaps) for night time meditation. I can imagine it would be gorgeous in the moonlight. It's surrounded by low walls, with a lone cherry tree dropping its branches over the side. One side of the abbot's quarters is an open veranda, which is where you sit. For all that is a icon of Zen, of stillness and contemplation, the place is anything but still and quiet.

As you can see, there are lots of people looking at the garden, tour guides chattering, and recorded announcement playing (in Japanese) which, I'm told, tells how quiet this space is. Still, sitting there, tuning out the chatter, I could get some sense of what it might be like in the middle of the night to sit in this space. I suspect it would be a very still spot.

From there, we went to Rokuon-ji temple, which was, if possible, even more frenetic than Ryoanji, if you can imagine. Packed with school tours, signs everywhere forbidding group pictures (a prescription which seemed to be ignored, but you could see the logic of, as it clogged up the viewing area). Rokuon-ji's grounds are open and lovely, but the pavilion at the edge of the lake is the draw, the top two floors are covered in gold leaf. It is spectacular. But not quiet.

Hank had written to the Saihoji temple in west Kyoto, which is more often called the Moss Temple because of its extraordinary moss gardens. The only way to get in is to request entrance ahead of time, in writing. Hank had also asked that we be allowed to see a very old tea ceremony house on the grounds (built about 400 years ago by the first disciple of the man who created the tea ceremony) for scholarly purposes. You show your letter to the man at the gate to get in, and then are offered a thin piece of paper with a sutra likely inked in (in kanji!) and shown to a room full of writing desks on the floor. For about an hour, you listen while the sutra is chanted, and copy it out with a brush and ink, then you add what you want to pray for and leave it to be burned. Then you can walk through the gardens.

The garden are amazing, softly rolling, carpeted in moss, with occasional touches of color, as in the iris on one of the small islands in the center of the pond. Because of the limits on visitors, this is a very quiet spot (except for the cell phone ringing behind me during the sutra chanting - a truly universal experience, if there is liturgy going on, there is a cell phone going off!)

The tea house was beautiful and rustic. We could only go out onto the veranda one at a time, since the boards are original and they won't support too much weight. I was kindly allowed to take photos, so we can show the students the interior in the fall, since we will not be able to bring them inside.

From there we went to our fourth temple of the day. (Yes, I know this is not sounding all that contemplative, but we're getting there.) This is another 14th century space, Jizo-In, a Zen temple sacred to the deity of children. It is surrounded by stands of enormous bamboo. There was only one other visitor there and we walked up to the abbot's quarters and sat there quietly, contemplating his garden. It was so quiet I could hear the bamboo canes (which were thirty or forty feet tall at least) clattering in the wind. It was a space soaked in stillness, more than six centuries worth, and like many other still places, draws you into that quiet. I could have sat there all night, but alas, up the hill came the elderly, nigh on ancient, caretaker to kindly turn us back out into the world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tokyo: Togenuki-Jizu

We went to Togenuki-Jizu last night, a temple in Tokyo that draws people seeking healing. The story goes that a maid, working on repairing children's clothes, accidentally swallowed the needle. They took her to the temple, where the priest wadded up a piece of paper with an image of Jizu on it for the maid to swallow. She swallowed, then vomited back up the paper, with the needle through the image. You still get slips of paper at the temple to swallow, as you might bathe in water from Lourdes. You can see our packet of them in the photo.

The temple is in a neighborhood, with lots of little shops that appeal to women of certain age (it's sometimes called the grandmother zone). You cross into the percents, to find a Chouzuya, a place to wash. The stone basin here was sheltered under a small pagoda, with elegantly simple brass ladles. You scoop up some water with the ladle and wash your right hand, then your left, then pour a bit of water in your right hand, rinse your mouth and spit (discretely) onto the ground. The sheer abundance of the water is beautiful. It is reminiscent of the holy water fonts in Catholic churches (though most of those seem parsimonious compared to this flowing water, so rich visually and aurally), and of the places to wash your feet before entering a mosque.

There are several large urns in which to burn incense, you can buy a bundle and drop it in. People would walk up and waft the smoke over themselves, breathing it in, swirling it around their heads.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Hank, Marc and I are off to Japan tomorrow morning. We've packed light and I'm carrying the bulk of my reading on my iPad, road testing what we'll ask the students to do in the fall.