Bamboo and bento

Screens and gourd drum at Shunko-in

Screens and gourd drum at Shunko-in

Today was our last day at the temple complex of Myōshin-ji.  Last night there was a festival at the temple where the bell that hangs outside the Taylor Hall classroom I am teaching in this semester once hung.  We rang the bell before left on this trip, and many of the students went to the festival.

We did another round of meditation training this morning with the vice-abbot, Taka Kawakami, learning a bit more about how he sees the connections between psychology

Tea at Shunko-in

Tea at Shunko-in

(including MBSR, which the psychology class has been reading about) and traditional Buddhist meditation training.  We toured the temple’s gardens, and other spaces, encouraged to experience the spaces as they were designed to be enjoyed, by sitting on the floor in the rooms with only ambient light.  The gold screens are warmer in this light, and the garden becomes a carefully framed composition from this vantage point.

On the trolley in Kyoto

On the trolley in Kyoto

After the tour and meditation we enjoyed green tea and sweet rice cookies, and headed back one last time toward Tenryu-ji by trolley, this time to see the bamboo forest at Arayamashima. There is a small shrine there, which features in The Tale of Genji, and where students come to seek success in academic endeavors.

The forest itself has an amazing sound scape, particularly when it is windy as it was in Kyoto this morning.  There is the characteristic sound of the wind through the leaves, but also the sound of the trunks clacking against each other. The swaying motion of the trees is hypnotic, particularly from the top of the trail.

Bamboo forest at Arashiyama

Bamboo forest at Arashiyama

We took the trolley back to Myōshin-ji and picked up bentos to eat on the bus to Kumano.  It was a five hour trip through the mountains southeast of Kyoto, and we were glad of the bentos and the well packed snack bag carefully toted to the bus by the Snacks Mistress (chocolate and hard candies a hit, the salty rice crackers, not so much).  The view of the ocean on the far side was stunning, islands that seemed to float just above the water dotting the bay, then we wound our way back into the mountains.

Tomorrow the day starts with a visit to a Shugendo temple, a couple of hours of hiking and a conversation with Tateishi Kosho, then a three hour drive to Mount Koya.

Sitting zazen

Meditation instruction at Shunko-in

Meditation instruction at Shunko-in

The weather, which has been hot and humid seems to have turned, it’s cool and breezy this morning as I sit outside to write.  We are staying at Shunko-in, in the temple complex at Myōshin-ji.  Instruction is in English here, we had a short session yesterday, and will have a longer one this morning.

From Myōshin-ji, we went to Tenryu-ji – Temple of the Heavenly Dragon – a 14th century temple founded by Ashikaga Takauji, who also founded the Moss Temple (Saihō-ji) which we visited later in the day.  Tenryu-ji has a famous garden as well.

Thomas Kirchener

Thomas Kirchener

At Tenryu-ji we spoke with Thomas Yuho Kirchener, a Zen monk – an American who came to Japan many years ago.  He told us a bit about daily life as a monk, what in the Western Christian monastic tradition might be called the ordo.  The life at a Zen monastery moves between intense training periods and less intense periods, where the monks might travel from monastery to monastery.  The balance of this life reminded me of one of the Desert Fathers we read in my class, Abba Anthony the Great, criticized for allowing his monks to take time away from meditation, “If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.”


Kaisaku – the stick of compassion

We discussed postures for meditation, finding a way to be balanced and comfortable for long periods.  Kirchener demonstrated the use of the keisaku, the stick of compassion. Two swift slaps of the stick on each shoulder blade can ease the tension in your back. While we sat for 30 minutes, he patrolled the zendo.  If you wanted relief, you put your hands up in gasho, then bowed together over the stick.  Bow in gratitude when you are done.

Inscribing a shuoin book at Kiyumizudera

Inscribing a shuoin book at Kiyumizudera

Entrance to the Moss Temple is restricted, we wrote months before we left to secure a spot this afternoon.  And you can’t be late. We made it from Tenryu-ji to the temple with a few minutes to spare.  Several students left their shuoin books to be stamped and inscribed as a record of their visit to this temple. The Moss Temple has a particularly beautiful stamp and inscription.  We began our visit by listening to the heart sutra chanted and then inking our own copies.  Then we walked the gardens, where the moss deadens the sound of voices and footfalls.  The garden itself is a treasure, you have the sense of walking through a miniature world.

We ended the day by returning to Tenryu-ji to walk the garden there.  It was nearly closing, the light was gorgeous and the gardens almost empty.  A wonderfully restful way to end the day.


Borrowed landscapes


Students at Ryoan-ji

Our day began early again, at 5:30 am for those who walked up to Chion-in for the morning services.  We packed up, put our luggage on the bus and headed to Ryoan-ji, perhaps the most iconic of the karesansui, the dry Japanese Zen gardens.

These dry gardens were often constructed for night meditations in front of the abbot’s quarters, the purpose of the white stones is to reflect moonlight.  The garden at Ryoan-ji in the bright sunshine and heat of a Kyoto autumn day is a bit of a different space than at night, I suspect.  And the rich mix of tourists, from Japanese school children here on field trips to couples with tour guides, and us, makes it far less still and silent than it would be “in use.”


Practicing English and Japanese

The school children on field trips to these places have assignments from their English teachers to practice their English, generally with some prompts for questions to ask:  Where are you from?  Why are you here?  What is most important to you?  Our students enjoyed practicing their Japanese in return.  They got more practice in reading Japanese as they tried to negotiate the vending machines to find something cool to drink.

Will we get something cold to drink that we will enjoy?

Will we get something cold to drink that we will enjoy?

Daitoko-ji is a complex of Rinzai Zen monasteries on the edge of Kyoto.  We visited two of the cloisters within the monastery:  Daisen-in and Zuiho-in.  Both have beautiful dry gardens, though on some level these are less abstract than the one at Ryoan-ji.  You aren’t allowed to photograph the gardens at Daisen-in, so I had to stick to postcards. The garden wraps around the dojo, a stream that eventually opens into a garden that is just groomed white rocks, with two cones, the better to reflect the moonlight in the garden.

The main garden at Zuiho-in

The main garden at Zuiho-in

From there we went to Zuiho-in, which has to my mind the most beautiful of all the dry gardens I have seen.  The large garden is meant to represent a heavy sea with the sand all piled up to represent high waves.  It’s focussing on one level, despite the clear chaos you can sense underlying the stillness.  It reminds me of Marty Laird’s comment in Into the Silent Land that contemplation isn’t “snorting lines of euphoric peace” but a particular way of sitting with chaos.

Images of Japan

A gallery of images from the trip so far.

Poetics of space

Poetic space 2 Poetic spaceThis week in the course on contemplation in the Western tradition we are reading excerpts from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space.  What is the connection between the spaces we inhabit and our minds? our souls?  How can we read what a space has to tell us? Do spaces have memories? Subtexts? Bachelard is developing a frame for thinking about  such questions.

Class moved outside, testing the ways in which the space shaped our conversation.  This outdoor space was bounded subtly by rugs and chairs, no hard edges.

Later this week, we are off to read a quite different space, a silent monastic experience.

Always we begin again

It seems like just yesterday I was shelving the books I’d used for this course and moving the pointers to the folders off my favorites list on my computer.  The monastic rule of St. Benedict suggests that we are always beginning again. Another day, another round of psalms, another academic year.

As part of Bryn Mawr’s 360 program I’m once again teaching a course on the history of contemplation and mindfulness in the Western tradition in collaboration with two colleagues, Marc Schulz in psychology and Hank Glassman (from Haverford).  The three courses each have their own structure, but intertwine through shared readings and shared experiences, including field trips to a silent retreat house, Buddhist monasteries in Japan and MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) training.



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…

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.

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.