Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Notes from Japan, Part 2: The Slow Life

After living in a foreign country off and on for ten years, I suppose it’s natural to achieve a certain level of cultural experience burnout.  With Japan, after I’d worn the kimono, danced the bon-odori, pushed a wooden mikoshi down the street, made plenty of okonomiyaki, stayed in rural ryokan and minshuku, ridden a dozen shinkansen, and taken a shodo lesson, I kind of lost interest in seeking out new and culturally unique things to do.  It was easier to just repeat what I liked and not expend energy on the new stuff.

Tea ceremony and zazen meditation were two areas that I never had much interest in.  Tea ceremony I rejected because I’ve never liked matcha and sitting on my knees for such a long time sounded like torture.  The sitting-on-the-knees problem also kept me away from zazen, as did a general distrust of any philosophy that required so much silence, sitting, and breathing (probably a sign that I could really benefit from it).  It also seemed like too much of a cliché—privileged white girl goes to Japan and embraces Eastern philosophy, comes back and tells everyone how deeper her understanding of the world is now, etc.  Too many books and articles about that sort of thing already.

Luckily for me and my closed-minded notions, I was required to take part in both a tea ceremony and a zazen session as part of the undergrad course that I supervised this past month.  And I didn’t tolerate both experiences, I genuinely loved both of them.  If that makes me a walking stereotype, so be it.

The tea ceremony was probably more palatable because a) we sat on benches instead of having to sit seiza (kneeling) for the whole time, and b) it only lasted for 30 minutes instead of the usual three or four hours.  Still, having never been exposed to it in the flesh, the whole experience was fascinating.  The woman who demonstrated the very careful ritual of making and serving the tea clearly knew what she was doing, and I was utterly hypnotized watching her.  The students seemed fairly fascinated as well–you could have heard a pin drop in the room.  Everything, from the slow and careful way that she lifted her hands to the small, specific way that cloth was folded and hot water was ladled into a cup, had the look of incredibly long practice and reverence, sort of like a well-rehearsed dance.  Rather than boring, I found the whole process very soothing.  The simple act of presenting a very carefully made cup of tea to someone, bowing to them, admiring the artistry of the cup together, and then having them bow back to you, was heavy with a kind of respect and courtesy that’s all too rare these days.  By the end of the demonstration I was ready to sign up for classes.

My reaction to zazen was kind of similar–thought it would be boring and / or painful but was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was soothing and even a little invigorating.  This was mostly thanks to the peaceful setting and our wonderful instructor, vice abbott Takafumi Kawakami, who made everyone feel very comfortable and spoke eloquently about the need for zen-related practices in daily life (you can learn more about him and the beautiful temple of Shunko-in here). 

After a brief explanation of the purpose and practice of zazen, we had two fifteen-minute meditation sessions.  After the abbott lit an incense stick and clapped two wooden blocks together, we all sat on cushions in the lotus position, doing our best to sit up straight, and breathing in and out slowly as we tried to focus our minds on the here and now.  I was relieved to hear that it’s not necessary to do zazen in a full or even half-lotus position, which has never been very comfortable for me–there were stools available for those who wanted to take the pressure off their knees and ankles.  The abbott also explained that the infamous “stick of compassion”–the wooden rod used to whack the shoulders of those who aren’t concentrating hard enough–isn’t used for punishment, more to wake you up if you’re feeling drowsy and unable to focus.  A couple of the students tried it out and said that it wasn’t painful, more like the kind of gentle thumping you get during a massage. 

The two fifteen-minute sessions went by remarkably quickly, and at the end of them I felt very awake.  The best part, though, was probably what came afterward–the opportunity to sit in the indoor viewing area of a small garden while rain fell, appreciating a scene that seemed thousands of miles away from all the traffic and noise of modern Japan.  Everybody was very quiet and didn’t seem to want to leave.  It was easy to forget that the outside world existed.  After we did leave I was tempted to go back to the temple in the afternoon, just to have a taste of it all again. 

So lesson learned–don’t write off experiences that might seem tiresome or painful until you’ve tried them.  Productive zazen sessions might be a little harder to pull off in the hustle and bustle of my Kameari neighborhood, but I’ll do my best to work in a little deep breathing every now and then, even if it’s not quite the same without the stunning temple setting and the perfect accompaniment of falling rain.

PS–I promise I’ll start including pictures again soon, between apartments at the moment and keeping all those connecting cables straight is proving to be a challenge.

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This entry was posted on August 11, 2010 by in Japan and tagged , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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