Monday, November 12, 2012

Travel Tales: Looking for Buddha in All the Wrong Places

I have been interested in the Buddhist religion/philosophy for many years. My interest probably started in the 1970s as an extension of my following the Beatles and a boyfriend into Transcendental Meditation, but I don't honestly remember. I never had a desire to join an ashram or anything like that, but, from what I could learn, what they said made sense to me.

Because I have also had a long-time interest in Japan and Japanese aesthetics, my reading had leaned toward Zen Buddhism for quite a few years before my trip to Japan.  It seemed to me that the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh were somehow different from the Zen of Japan. There was a lot I didn't understand, and I was looking forward to the opportunity of exploring it more while I was there.

Kyoto Temples and Their Gardens

Beginning my first week in Kyoto, I set off almost daily to explore one Zen temple after another - Ginkaku-ji, Kinkaku-ji, Nanzen-ji - really, I visited just about all of the famous ones. Almost all of them had beautiful gardens that I would have happily volunteered to work in - working meditation - for the rest of my life. All of these gardens would have been perfect sites for meditation. But I never saw a single person meditating in any of them.

Honestly, I was becoming very confused because I never saw any sign of any Buddhism at all being practised at any of the temples in Kyoto. One day I met a Canadian guy who had been living and working in Japan for a few years, and so I asked him if he knew anything about it. He began telling me that he thought the whole Zen idea had turned into a big business. Monks were driving fancy cars and having children. He thought it was a big fraud.

I soon escaped from my new friend, wondering what had happened to make him so bitter. I just could not accept what he was saying. How could it be possible? I crossed the famous bridge in Arashiyama to start on my walking tour of the area.

The very first stop on the tour was the Tenryu-ji temple. As I approached, I could not help but notice the Mercedes Benz and Jaguar in the parking lot along with other very nice cars. I have no idea who those cars belonged to, but they sure made me think again about what the guy had said. As I continued to visit various temples, I looked at them differently - I guess you could say I took off my rose-colored glasses.

I realized that the reason I never saw anyone sitting in a temple garden and meditating was that there were no places to sit in most of the gardens. Many of the gardens were actually set up as a one-way path that visitors had to follow. There was usually no place to step off the path to linger or contemplate the scenery. The next visitor was right behind me; I couldn't hold up everyone else.

There was someone at the beginning to collect the 500 to 1000 yen fee ($5 to $10 at the time),  and then there was a path for everyone to follow that led through the garden and out the exit. The few people selling tickets and working in the garden did not even appear to be monks. I suppose they collected enough money from both Japanese and international tourists that they didn't need to work anymore.

When I had this 'Zen moment' of realization, I quit going to temples that charged an admission fee, disappointed by my glimpse behind the wizard's curtain. Fortunately, I didn't stay completely away from temples because I found one that put the others to shame.

Finding Buddha After All

Honen-in was not the kind of temple to attract tourists. I saw people here and there  and no one was collecting money. In one of its buildings, I saw a long piece of hand-dyed cloth suspended from the ceiling. All around the room where various objects made of hand-dyed cloth. As I was admiring the fabric, a man approached and introduced himself as the person in charge of the project. He explained.

Originally, the piece of cloth was thirty meters long. All of the temple members had gathered around and stretched out  the fabric, suspending it in the air. Each person quickly splashed his or her section with fabric dye, then everyone ran and danced around, still holding the fabric suspended above them. The colors ran together and mixed. Once the dye had set, each member or family took home one meter and made something out of it. The man explained that the project was meant to show the temple members that the people can do great things when they work together, and that both the temple and the people can benefit from cooperation. My faith was restored.

Chance Encounters with Loving Kindness

After a few months, I began exploring beyond Kyoto. My first trip was to Ise, and since the transportation was new to me, I was kind of lost. A woman insisted on helping me carry my suitcase up some stairs, led me to the correct ticket booth, acted as translator as I bought my ticket and then led me to the platform. She wasn't going the same way, but she wanted to help. And the next day was amazing! First, my hostel roommate gave me a ride to the shrine I wanted to visit so I didn't have to take the train. Then, as I stood at the shrine watching a ceremony I didn't understand, a man approached and began explaining everything to me in English. Later, I was sitting on the seawall enjoying the view out over the water when a young woman approached and began talking to me. Before long, she offered give me a tour of the area. She drove me to an observation area on the mountain above Ise from which we could see almost forever.  Then she took me to have tea in a jazz club in a very old converted warehouse, all the time telling me about everything, before finally taking me to catch the train back to my hostel.

In Kitakyushu I was met at the train station by Sayuri and her husband Masasaki and their two boys. We had exchanged emails for a few months and they had invited me to stay with them when I traveled south. Over the next week, I got to experience life with a young Japanese family. Sayuri's mother-in-law insisted on giving me eight kimonos - some 50 to 75 years old - to use in quilts.

Sayuri introduced me to other women who invited me to their homes and fed me wonderful meals while we talked about quilting in Japan and the US. At the Kitakyushu International House I met Chidori. We managed to communicate - her in Japanese and me in English - for an hour and she invited me to stay with her the next time I was in town.

One day I was at a crowded event at a shrine. I had purchased some items and had my hands full trying to carry it all and get some hot lunch to warm my very cold body. When I finally found a place to sit down, a young woman walked up and handed me a can of hot tea. She barely gave me time to thank her before she smiled and then turned to rejoin her friends.

One day I had a long conversation with two little old ladies that couldn't have stood much more than four feet tall. They didn't speak any English and I still only knew a few words of Japanese. The conversation was mostly sign language and smiles, but it was really sweet.

I had some very special friends, too, that were so wonderfully kind. Junko, also a quilting teacher like me, and I had exchanged emails for six months before I went. She invited me into her home, introduced me to all of her quilting students, helped me to find an apartment to rent, and was always available to explain things I didn't understand and to help me get things done.

Itsuko was my landlady. She loaned me furniture to make my apartment more comfortable. She introduced me to her Ikebana teacher, who put on a tea ceremony in my honor and then insisted on giving me some silk scraps for my quilts. And Itsuko also introduced me Miyama, a friend who quilted. Then Miyama introduced me to her teacher who also gave me gifts and introduced me to her teacher.

Remembering the Buddha's Teachings

He taught that we don't need to go looking for the Buddha, that he is inside of each of us. I learned in Japan that Buddhism isn't really in the Zen temples; it is in the love and compassion of the Japanese people.

So many of them touched my life so profoundly. It was kind of crazy of me to set off alone to a foreign country where I knew no one and didn't speak the language or understand the culture. Ten years later, I still remember well the places I visited and the experiences I had over those six months, but it was the people I met that made my trip so special. Thank you so much to all of you!

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