Reading silence in the city

[Posted for Nazifa Tabassum]IMG_0118

The Ueno Park in Tokyo is a fascinating place. On one end is the Ueno zoo: a place filled with bright colors and joyful schoolchildren, who are amazed by the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom . On the other end there are also seekers of beauty, but of a different kind. Littering the various shrines and temples are adults – office-goers, homemakers, senior citizens and tourists alike – who are looking for a quiet space to reconnect spiritually with nature, God or both.

This morning I found myself in one such place. Benten hall is situated in the middle of a pond filled with large, green water plants. The greenery formed a comfortable buffer, protecting the space from the hectic city life and providing people with a serene perspective of one of the busiest cities in the world. From what I gathered Benten Hall or Benten-do is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of fortune, music and wisdom (Wikipedia), which explained the temple’s popularity. However, I was more interested in the little sitting area on the side of the temple overlooking the surrounding pond. There were several people sitting there but it appeared to be a silent space. Some read, some listened to music and some just took in the view. One man had brought breadcrumbs with himself and spent hours feeding the pigeons in the park. A bunch of strangers sitting together in silence might appear strange to some (the trope of mysterious-silent-stranger-who’s-up-to-no-good coming into play here ) but the silence that was shared at the sitting spot was comfortable, even welcoming.IMG_0117

Thus I sat on a bench near the water, listening to the silence around me, the gentle lapping of water playing as a soft background music. My breaths became deeper and my mind emptied of all the anxiety-inducing plans I had of exploring all of Tokyo in one day. For a brief period of time, I just paid attention to the moment: the feeling of the breeze on my skin, the changing colors of the sky, the soft cooing of the pigeon roaming around me.
When I left the temple, I certainly felt very fortunate to have experienced that brief, unexpected moment of mindfulness in the little oasis of Benten-do.

Sister schools

Moriya Tadashi's painting

Moriya Tadashi’s painting

Last week, in Irene McHenry’s MBSR training class we practiced a walking meditation, deliberately aware of placing each foot on the ground, stopping at a bell to take in what was around. A practice of open, embodied awareness.

Yesterday we did more than a bit of walking, 10 miles more or less. We wound our way through the tunnels that lace the area we are staying in to Shinjuku Station, to take the train out to Tsuda College, an all-women’s college in the suburbs of Tokyo founded by Umeko Tsuda, who graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1892. Tsuda’s founder had first come to the US in 1871 with the Iwakura Mission, sent from Japan to the US and the UK to negotiate treaties and to research educational systems. The weather is hot and humid, the tunnels crowded with commuters. Another kind of walking meditation.

Two trains later we were in Kodaira, walking alongside a waterway, headed to Tsuda. Our students met with Tsuda students, some of whom had been to Bryn Mawr as part of the student exchange program, while the three faculty met with the current president, and the past president.

It was a delightful visit, one highlight the chance to see Moriya Tadashi’s painting of the young women on the bow of the boat from Japan as it entered San Francisco Bay in 1871. Though you can see the Golden Gate bridge in the misty distance, the bridge wasn’t built at the time (nor was the artist born!), Tadashi added it so that you could identify the city.

Both Tsuda’s students and ours were struck by what it took to get from Japan to the US in those days, and how little those young women would have known of what they would find when they arrived, so different from today when they live in a well-connected sea of information.

Last night, after dinner, I walked back with a few students from dinner, threaded our way through the crowded Shinjuku station shopping area. Times Square would seem dull in comparison. We stood on a corner, watching the crowds, the lights, and I’m already thinking ahead to our last stop, tiny, dark, quiet Kamikatsu.

Bryn Mawr 360 students and Tsuda's students

Bryn Mawr 360 students and Tsuda’s students

Dreaming Ramen

IMG_0338[Guest post from Tenney Sprague]

Sept. 25 (1st day in Japan on bus)
We have just arrived in Japan and are now on the bus to Tokyo. Granted, I feel like I need to sleep for a day and perhaps shower even longer, but everywhere looks so different I won’t forgive myself if I do sleep. Already I have seen rice patty fields, dense bamboo forests, and even a hotel with black sparkled walls on the outside. But I have also seen smaller things like little houses in the distance from the highway. Familiar in that I know what Japanese style homes look like but completely different seeing them in person.

Perhaps it is only my strange perception knowing that I am in a new place, but the sky feels higher too, like there’s a larger distance between me and the big fluffy clouds than back home. And I keep expecting to see mountains in the distance. I was so excited to go to Japan, but no matter how close the departure date got, I didn’t feel like I was going anytime soon. (It was like a dream or a nice idea, but I was never actually going to be able to go.) So now here, I’m regretting not doing more research on such things like maps, knowing where mountains are, and speaking Japanese – I did practice some, but speaking bumbling Japanese to an actual native speaker is a whole other level of embarrassment and mistakes.

But still, I’m in JAPAN, probably a place that I’d never be able to go to and experience (and try my bumbling Japanese) without this 360 program. So maybe I’m still in a dream, and my mind is letting me think that I am this lucky. But I just saw an ad for ramen from the highway, so I’m really hoping I’m not dreaming, or at least, that this dream would last a bit longer.

Thank you so So much Dr. Glassman, Dr. Francl, Dr. Schulz, and Bryn Mawr College for all your hard work that went into planning this trip and for helping my dream come true of eating ramen in Japan!

Go and come back

Photo credit: Prof. Victor Donnay

Photo credit: Prof. Victor Donnay

At 6:45 this morning, my colleague Marc Schulz and I arrived at Pembroke Arch to find all fifteen of our 360 students gathered, packed lightly for two weeks on the road. It’s not our first trip this semester, early this month we spent two night at the Jesuit Center outside Reading, Pennsylvania, trying out silence, so we’re already a practiced traveling band. Now we’re headed out for a longer experience, 15 days on the road, traveling to contemplative sites in Japan.

“Carry-on!” and “Hand wash!” were our motto, after four weeks of reading about simplicity in my course, we’re trying it out in the field. What comforts are you willing to leave behind if you’re going to live on top of a pillar as the desert ascetics did, or, in our case, fly at 34,000 feet and be pilgrims when we arrive?

Marc Schulz is teaching the course on the Psychology of Mindfulness in this cluster.  He noted that as we rushed through the terminal this morning the irony of not being able to stop long enough to look in the meditation room.

In my course, we’ve been talking about built space and how it might not only provide the conditions for meditation, but perhaps induce meditative states, as artist James Turrell hopes his installations might. So now we’re off to the field to experience spaces purpose-built for meditation, and places that foster meditation alongside daily life.

We begin in Tokyo, and will visit temples in Kyoto, Koya and on Tokushima, an island in the Sea of Japan. We’ll walk parts of the 88-temple Shikuko pilgrimage trail (a UNESCO heritage trail, like the Camino del Santiago in Spain.) We’ll talk about meditation and practice zazen with Buddhist abbots and monks, and visit communities that privilege simplicity of life.

One of the Augustinian friars from the community that lives down the road from the college, who lived for many years in Japan, wished me a good trip yesterday after Lauds. “Itte irasshai!” Go and come back. And so we’re off, to go and come back, to see and to experience.

I’ll be writing about the trip as we go, and if you want to follow our adventures in real time watch for #Japan360bmc and #BMC360 on Twitter and Instagram.

Bound in

Nakamura's house above Kamikatsu

Nakamura’s house above Kamikatsu

[Wednesday in Kamikatsu]

The weather is off and on rain today, as a typhoon blows itself out south of us.  There isn’t much wind and the rain is more of a nuisance, increasing the humidity, rather than a difficulty.  We drove back up to Nakamura’s this morning, the bundles of rice left to dry in the paddies looking forlorn in the damp, the persimmons virtually aglow on the trees.  Our covers need to be cut and sewn onto our carefully folded signatures (the folded sheafs of paper that make up the pages of the book).  The templates are cut for either a Japanese style book (opening left to right) or Western styles – we need to decide before we select the front cover.

Students bind books

Students bind books

The rhythm of measuring, marking, cutting and folding requires a focussed attention to detail, the making of art for many artists is a mindful, if not fully meditative, activity.  I find that the mix of physicality and math (geometry) gathers up the strands of my attention and holds them loosely enough to not feel constrained, but tightly enough to keep my attention from wandering.

Kayla stitches the binding of her book

Kayla stitches the binding of her book

The act of making an everyday object, something that I have so many of in particular, makes me aware of how much I depend on the work of others to sustain my life.  Would I still stack books on the floor with abandon if I had bound each by hand?  if I knew they’d been bound by hand?

Nakamura-san talks with students about his art work

Nakamura-san talks with students about his art work

The students had time this damp afternoon to talk to Nakamura about his life, how does he sustain himself, why did he choose this quiet and simple life.  Nakamura told them he finds joy in the creating, it is the process he cherishes, more so than the product.  Hence, while he freely shares his art, he doesn’t sell it.  Before he retired, he worked a few months a year to pay for his necessities, now, at 67, he is receives the Japanese equivalent of social security.  He points out that while he lives alone, he is bound into his community in many ways (health care and social security, the radio broadcasts that alert him to bad weather, the bus he takes to Tokushima, the care of his neighbors).

They wondered if he had regrets about his choices and he said that there are always regrets in life, but he would rather regret the things he had done, then the things he hadn’t done.  (Which Prof. Schulz pointed out is in line with psychological research on regret!)  Students wondered how much contact he had with other people and he told them about his occasional (once or twice a year) trips to the small port city down the river, his letters to and from family, a weekly walk to the onsen (the hot spring baths about a 40 minute walk down the hill).

360 students with Nakamura-san

360 students with Nakamura-san

We finished off the day with a wonderful hot pot dinner, vegetables, noodles, and thin slices of meat to cook in soy milk.  A challenge to some of our skills with chopsticks (I will admit to having lost control of a pile of noodles between the pot and my dish), but fun and delicious to eat.

Fish sticks

Katia, Mercedes and Marissa grill fish sticks.

Katia, Mercedes and Marissa grill fish sticks.

[The events of Tuesday in Kamikatsu]

After a pretty traditional Japanese breakfast of pan grilled salmon, rice, tea and pickled vegetables, we boarded the bus for the ride up to Nakamura-san’s.  To say the road is narrow is an understatement, and the bus threaded its way up the mountain with care.  At one point, the driver and our escort hopped out to cut off a small tree branch so we could pass.

nakamura katia

Making the fabric bound to mulberry paper covers

Nakamura’s house is a restored barn, with a mud hearth in the kitchen- cast iron tea kettle at the ready, beautifully organized spices on the shelves, a downstairs workshop and an upstairs tatami room where you open the shoji onto a view over mountain and valley that captures heart and soul.  His garden and small citrus grove provide much of his food.  There is no phone, no internet, no car.  Communication is through the postal mail and a small radio, which he said he got after a bad storm caught him unaware many years ago.


Nakamura’s tea pot (photo Marc Schulz)


Nakamura-san’s shelves (photo Marc Schulz)

nakamura books

Binding books with Nepalese fabric

He is an artisan, who over the next two days would teach us how to bind a traditional Japanese book, as well as talk to our students about the ins and outs of living an intentionally simple life in a first-world country.

For lunch, we took a side trip to a traditional charcoal maker, who turns bamboo (and other organic plant matter, such as lotus roots and chestnuts) into artful charcoal for use in tea ceremonies. The charcoal makes a characteristic hissing noise when burned, reminiscent of the sound of wind whistling through pines.

We ate pizza (!) cooked in a wood burning oven and small river fish skewered on sticks, sprinkled liberally with salt and grilled upright over a charcoal fire.  You eat them right off the stick, like corn on the cob.

We returned to Nakamura’s to continue our work on the books, heading back to Yamo no Gakko where we were staying in time for dinner and a short discussion of the trip to date.

We slept to the sound of the river and the rain falling, delightful to listen to , even if it meant our clothes would be slow in drying!


Bounty from Nakamura’s garden (photo Marc Schulz)

Spaces in translation

Japanese dance troupe performs at Kamikatsu.

Japanese dance troupe performs at Kamikatsu.

[Ed: This post was written on Monday evening, translated forward in time!]

Mathematically, a translation takes a set of points and moves them without rotation or distorting their spatial relationships.  Today we translated from Koyasan to Kamikatsu, taking five different means of transportation (taxis, funicular, five trains, ferry and a bus )and almost ten hours.  We seem to have arrived at the other end with a minimum of distortion.

We took our leave from the temple just before 10 am, waving a formal good-bye to the head priest’s mother who came to see us off. We piled into taxis to the mountaintop station where we rode a funicular to the bottom and dove into Japan’s rail system.  We counted off 1 to 15 to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone between changes of trains from Hashimoto to Wakayama to Wakayamashi to  Wakayamako.  The weather was hot and humid, cold drinks at Hashimoto were welcome, as was the chance to explore the department store food court at Wakayama station for snacks.  (The dumplings were great.)

Riding the funicular down from Koyasan

Riding the funicular down from Koyasan

The two hour ferry ride from Honshu (Japan’s largest island) to Shikoku (an island bordering the Japan’s Inland Sea) offered a chance to get a sense of the geography of Japan, and see some gorgeous views of the sunset over the water.

The bus wound its way up the Asahi-gawa River to Kamikatsu, where both dinner and a performance by a local traditional Japanese dance group awaited us.  The river is rushing by out the window, the baths are hot, there is a washing machine and we are looking forward to visiting with Nakamura-san tomorrow.

Cave meditations

It was another early day, this time driving up to Jigenji to do ana zenjô, a cave passage meditation. Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist monk who founded Koya-san, is reputed to have engaged a dragon and frozen it inside a cave above the temple precincts. It is a steep climb up to the cave entrance, worth it for the views of the rural Japanese countryside in the valley far below, even for those who were not planning on going into the cave.

The cave has some very narrow passages, before you go in you wriggle between two poles to be sure you won’t get stuck. It is a meditation done in darkness, and very physical, as you duck and crawl and stretch to get to the central part of the cave where you can see the dragon frozen in the rock. It is reminiscent of the womb meditation we did underneath Kiyumizudera, and of some of the James Turrell pieces we’ve discussed in my course. In its physicality and its Buddhist origins it also links back to our expedition with themountain ascetic Kosho up the mountain to satnd under the waterfall and be purified. Not everyone felt up to this meditation (for the record, I didn’t go into the cave, either!), it is not for those who find tight spaces too much of a stretch.

In the afternoon we visited Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Academy, a model program for recycling. Kamikatsu residents sort their waste into over 50 different streams. Atsko Watanabe, who sits on the town council spoke to us about the program, including the ways in which this programming makes people more aware of the waste they generate.

After lunch at a cafe near the Zero Waste Academy, we stopped at the local onsen, or hot spring, to enjoy a Japanese bath. Tonight, Atsko-san and her husbanb Gufu-san have joined us to talk about their lives and work. The Rhetoric of Buddhist Meditation course has read A Different Kind of Luxury, which has an account of the Watanabe’s life. Gufu-san’s journals of his travels are works of art, incredibly detailed in both prose and illustrations. Many of the illustrations are simple line drawings but vividly capture the sense of a scene, others contain the sort of detail that comes from what the late Walter Burghardt SJ would call a contemplative perspective: “a long loving look at the real.”


In the news

Connectivity is somewhat limited in Kamikatsu, so I am trying to post just this quick update from my iPad. Yesterday and today we visited with Nakamura-san, an artist and farmer who lives a simple, hermetic life in the mountains near Kamikatsu. He showed us how to bind traditional Japanese books, covered with Nepalese fabrics from his travels. Each student now has a handmade journal to take home.

A reporter from the Tokushima paper came yesterday to do a story on our visit. She interviewed Amanda (in Japanese), and took some photos of the students working on their books. The article is in the photo!


On the women’s trail

Leaving Rengejô’in to walk the women's trail

Leaving Rengejô’in to walk the women’s trail

Six students and I left the gates of Rengejô’in this morning just before 9 am, headed up to  Nyonindo – a shrine at the women’s hall.  Until the late 19th century, women were not permitted on Mt. Koya (much like Mt. Athos today), and so would climb up to these women’s halls to wait to see sons (and husbands) who had gone to Koyasan.  There were seven gates to Koya, and a hall at each gate, only this one survives.  From there we walked the Nyonimichi, the women’s trail that rings Koyasan, connected the sites of the seven halls.

walking on the trail

walking on the women’s trail

The trail can be a bit tough to follow (trail signs are in kanji for the most part), but after one false start we hiked 3 km of the 7 km trail.  The light through the cedars was beautiful, it’s the first sunny day we’ve had since Kyoto.  In places the trail clings tenuously to the edge of the mountain, and you are left with a physical sense of what “marginalized” might mean.  It was steep, with lots of spider webs, including one that functioned as a diffraction grating, splitting the light into all the colors of the spectrum.

On the way back down from the women's trail

On the way back down from the women’s trail

We turned off the trail at a small shrine and walked down a side street, stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines for something cold to drink (the challenge is figuring out what might be to your taste).

From there, we walked to Kongobuji, the head temple of the Shingon Buddhist sect.  The old monastery kitchen is amazing, with pots for cooking rice that are large enough to take a bath in, and rice paddles to match.  The temple has the largest dry stone garden in Japan, and a selection of beautiful painted screens. We toured the temple and garden, where Katia reminded us that Taka-san, the vice abbot at Shunko-in, had told us that these gardens are best viewed from a seated position within the hall, rather than standing on the veranda.  To my eye at least, the gardens gain a depth from that perspective, reminiscent of a 19th century landscape painting.

Tea and sweet rice cookies at Kongobu-ji

Tea and sweet rice cookies at Kongobu-ji

We enjoyed tea in the temple, with a sweet rice cookie and the puffed rice that Michelle had bought.

A tour of the Reihokan museum, with its frightening figures of the four heavenly kings (see photos here) and quite incredible 17th century map of the enclave finished off the morning.  We talked a bit about the ways in which contemplative spaces are marked out, how do you signify who is allowed in and who is not?

We went in search of lunch at an izakaya.  We enjoyed rice bowls, curries and tempura udon at this Japanese equivalent of a pub, and I think everyone got what she wanted even though we had no recourse to an English menu.