Buddhism by Night

After 2 weeks in Japan, I’ve seen my share of temples and shrines. I’ve decided on a new approach- seeing the sights after 5, when the hoards of tourists and school children are gone. Granted, the sights are often closed after 5, so you will miss the “great lucky Buddha from year 853, carved out ofIMG_0354 gold, moments after another great bodhisattva found enlightenment during a turbulent time in Japan’s history”… that’s how most of them go give or take a couple of details. I find that the vast majority of what I want to see is usually in the surrounding  area. For example, at Nanenji today (head of Rinzai Zen Buddhism) in northwestern Kyoto, I quickly pedaled beyond the crowds (and admission fees) to a trail leading up steps to a magnificent forest glen. This is the Buddhism I like – waterfalls, Buddhas, candles and incense burning in caves surrounded by mossy rock and dripping water.  I spent a nice peaceful hour meditating as I’m sure many before me have. I followed that up with a walk through an area called the Philosopher’s walk, an artsy pedestrian only street along a canal. The rest of my day I rode my bike through random streets and alleys, heading through crowded Nishishi market and other area of the city I can’t identify! It reminded me of my trip to Thailand last summer where a group of us took a night-bike tour through the slums and temple areas of Bangkok- it was a spectacular way to see the city – despite missing out on a few golden Buddhas!

Buddhism by night really started two days ago when I over-nighted to Koya-san, taking only a few essentials and leaving my backpack in Kyoto. It felt good to travel with the bare minimum, free to go anywhere, anytime. Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, one of the most significant personalities in Japan’s religious history. Over one hundred temples stand in the small town on top of the wooded mountain.

IMG_0337 After a couple of trains and a cable-car ride to the top, I took a bus directly to the other end of the town, to walk through the forested cemetery. 600 year old cedar trees and mossy gravestones line several km of the cemetery. Japanese, accustomed to a large population in a small space are all cremated and share a single head stone with their family. The legend of this area is that Kobo Daisho is not dead, but waiting in his tomb for Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, and when Maitreya arrives, only Kobo Daisho will be able to interpret his heavenly message. Over the centuries, families have brought ashes or hair from deceased relatives to be close to the tomb to be prepared for this day. I walked around the basement of the tomb and their were millions of miniature Buddhas lined up in a very orderly fashion(all with ashes inside), almost as if in an auditorium. The idea is that they will be all ready to hear the Maitreya’s message through Kobo when it happens.

After walking the cemetery for several hours, I took a nap at my Japanese hostel,and then wandered out for my “Buddhism at Night”. It was fantastic. I stopped at the beer vending machine and wandered the sights. I was almost completely alone – as the hoards had already jumped back on their buses to get home for dinner.  I caught an amazing sunset on the west end of town, watching the sun IMG_0365drop between the hazy mountains. It was right there that I knew why so many monks decided this was a holy place. I stumbled upon a strange hut in the forest and it fortunately had an English sign describing it as a hut on part of the Nyoninmichi. This was an ancient trail system for female pilgrims, who for hundreds of years were not allowed inside the city and could only get within a few km of Kobo Daisho’s tomb. The next day I hiked half of the trail ( a loop around the city), and enjoyed some silent meditation in the woods.

I’d put Koyasan on the top of my list of destinations thus far. The center of town was lined with temples, most open and displaying their beautiful gardens. If you have a few $$ to spend, many temples allow you to stay, cook you shojin-ryori (traditional Japanese vegetarian) meals and invite you to participate in morning services.


Wow. Where do I start? I have a lot to catch everyone up on. First, THANK YOU to everyone who has commented on the blog or sent me an individual message. There are definitely days when getting those really helps remind me why I’m here! There are so many things I want to blog about, in fact I’ve been jotting down topics in my journal to ‘get to when I have time’. Of course I have plenty of time, but of course I have to strike a balance between sitting behind my laptop and actually out DOING the things that inspire me to write… Here are some teasers for you – “Iron John” book review and my opinion on masculinity, motion versus stillness, metro-sexual overload, ideas of putting my MBA to use, and of course life in Japan.

Here’s what I’ve been up to: last weekend I checked into a great backpacker’s hostel in Kyoto and stayed for 4 nights. I was getting travel-tired and needed to get some R&R. I spent the entire first day in the hostel, e-mailing, reading, cooking food, and meeting other travelers. I then picked out just a few sights that I wanted to see – you can get overwhelmed in Kyoto looking at temples and shrines- there are literally thousands of them. I picked a few related to Zen Buddhism (Rinzai sect), a couple of walks and onsen to relax in. At first Kyoto feels like any other city, busy and loud. However, it’s surrounded on 3 sides by mountains and that is where most of the scenery is. After my vegging day, I took a 5-hour walking tour with a Japanese guy who calls himself “Johnny Walker”. It was excellent – Johnny took us on a bit of an insiders tour – we saw some off the beaten path IMG_0292temples and shrines, a tofu making shop, a Japanese fan making shop, had tea and Japanese biscuits and some sushi. Johnny explained many of the Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as much of the history of Kyoto and Japan. He has been guiding for 15 years and a very relaxed and simple manner that made the whole thing very enjoyable.

The best part was actually meeting a Japanese guy Haru. He was totally being a tourist in his home town, checking out the town he lived in his entire 35 years! He spoke great English and he filled in many of the gaps in Johnny’s explanations for me – it was like have a tour in a tour. I grabbed Haru’s mobile # before parting and the next day he invited me to his home to have dinner with him and his newlywed wife Kyo. They were gracious hosts, providing a marvelous Japanese dinner, plenty of beer and sake, and great company. I literally ran to the train station at 11:30 to catch the final train as the doors closed. It was a serendipitous ending to a day that began with much frustration (I’ll spare you the details, but involved the many non-talked about rough details of life on the road). An evening like this is what this trip is all about – breaking through cultural barriers, meeting people and experiencing life as it is in a place.

Yesterday I took a trip to Koya-san, a religious site for Shingon Buddhists – I’ll talk about it in my next post.

Japan Week 2

Last time I checked in I was staying at the Buddhist temple in Nima, getting out of populated Japan and into the countryside. I left on a beautiful morning to go to a town Matsue, where I checked into a Japanese Royokan, a traditional Japanese Inn – the owners were very friendly, giving me the scoop on the town. It was this day that I decided I was done with sightseeing for a bit, and rather than go ‘see the castle’, I was going to go drink beer in the park outside of the castle. To the dismay of the Swedish guy I met at the inn, “How can you not go to the castle if you’re here? Only one day here? But there is so much to see!”  I stuck to my guns and threw back a few Sapporos on a beautiful afternoon in Matsue. I once again saw what I thought was quite interesting. A crew of about 20 guys came in with brooms and shovels and a a truck and sweep and rake in rapid style, in a beautiful rhythm cleaned the entire park. Every guy has a job – sweeper, bagger, etc… Its not quite what I’m looking for career-wise, but I was considering it for a few minutes 🙂

I moved onto Japanese whiskey and enjoyed a beautiful sunset from another park along the lake, taking a short walk and then racing home to beat my 10pm curfew. The next day I found myself looking at what I never thought I’d see in Japan – BEAUTIFUL sandy beaches and surf breaks. The train in northern IMG_0234 Honshu runs along the coast, through tunnels and little towns nestled between cliffs. It felt a lot like the Oregon or Northern Californian coast. I stopped off at Higashihama, where the train stops 100m from the ocean. I spent the day reading, wishing I had a surf board and relaxing.  Eventually ( I debated camping out there), I jumped back on the train for a few stations to find a hostel my guide book recommended. After hiking up a huge hill for 20 minutes to find a complete deserted hostel I walked back into town and began aimlessly searching for the hostel I didn’t realize I had walked right past 100 yards from the train station an hour prior… As I strolled around a guy on a bike walked up to me (I stick out like a sore thumb) and said “are you looking for the hostel? Follow me, its in my house.”  Easy enough.

After cleaning up I found the only restaurant in two towns (a mile walk) that was open – I Chinese place in the next town, and to my excitement had pictures of the food outside in the window! A few minutes I was literally writing in my guide book how I love getting off the beaten path into the middle of nowhere but an experience in a place like this is limited w/o communication. As I finished up that sentence, the owners son (Hiyato) told me he spoke English and that’s where the fun began. They were extremely curious about me and America – as is typical of us lofty Americans, I knew very little about their politics or much of anything about modern Japan. It really didn’t matter as the stereotypical old guy at the end of the bar kept buying drinks for me. We had some great laughs and Mom even brought me some fresh strawberries – a DELICACY after what I’d been eating the past week. In the end Hiyato drove me back to my hostel so I could once again make my curfew.

Sorry for being so verbose but I’m on a 5 hour train-ride to Kyoto and am killing time! After moving every night this week I’ve decided I just want to stay put – Kyoto is supposed to be the best place in Japan and I’ve heard great reviews about a hostel I’ve reserved for the next 4 nights. I’m looking forward to slowing down, buying groceries and cooking, meeting other travelers and not riding a train for a while!

Zen Sesshin

The very next day after returning from Mexico I headed to Crestone, Colorado to spend a week at the Zen Mountain Center participating in a Buddhist Sesshin, a silent meditation retreat. Sesshin literally translates to “gathering the mind”, which is exactly why I went.  I’m undergoing a major transition in life and before I move forward into the next phase I want to ensure I am centered and acting from a place of truth and self awareness.

This retreat was the most difficult thing I have every done psychologically, probably the second most difficult physically (hiking the 500 mile Colorado trail IMG_0790in 2005 was #1).  The schedule each day consisted of waking at 3:30am, sitting zazen (meditation) for 10-12 hours, walking meditation, work and lectures interspersed throughout the day. I didn’t get to sleep until 10 each night and the breaks were designed to not give you enough time for a nap!  We ate all meals in the Zendo Oryoki style, meaning “just enough”, which synchronizes the mind in body by bringing mindfulness to how we eat.  On the first evening the head Monk told us all: “give yourself over to the schedule”, meaning do not let your ego drive your thinking about what you do or don’t want to do.  I likened it to the practice of choiceless awareness which is characterized by being aware of whatever is present without choice or preference. There was no bathing or distractions such as books, television, food or exercise. You simply had to be where you were. “No other location” is how Roshi Richard Baker spun the original expression, “be here now”.

This was an extremely personal experience for me, many things I do not feel comfortable sharing on a blog, but too simplify (if I may take the liberty!), the week was an exercise in remaining present.  It took about 2-3 days for me to get past the physical pain and mental chatter to a place where I could be deeply contemplative and aware. You would gasho (bow) to everyone you passed, walk slowly, when working focus directly on the task at hand. When eating, just eat. When sleeping, sleep. When walking, walk.  You get the picture.IMG_0812

In addition to the Roshi’s afternoon teisho (lecture) and evening koans, we had the opportunity to meet privately with him in a formal interview called dokusan, where one could ask questions and seek guidance. I found this very helpful as sometimes the mind would get stuck in a ‘loop’ and having the insight of a teacher to change my perspective or focus allowed me to deepen my practice. I could go on and on about the details of the week, but will spare those that aren’t interested… I’d be more than happy to talk in much greater detail for anyone truly interested!

I am now back in Boulder, attempting to find my posture, something the Roshi told me to focus on when I asked him for practical advice about returning home to a world that will be exactly the same yet vastly different after such an experience. Finding one’s posture is a powerful metaphor as it translates to both my daily living and my sitting practice. We are always squirming, feeling uncomfortable and before one can truly deepen in practice, whether in mediation or daily living, one has to sit like a mountain, finding that posture.  If you see some guy trying to be a mountain, say hi. 🙂