With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My wife, Kathie, and I were in Fuji Kawaguchiko, a lakeside resort town at the foot of Japan’s Mount Fuji. We had come to see, and perhaps climb, Mount Fuji, but we couldn’t see it at all, only roiling silver-gray clouds. We’d expected as much — it was July, and the humid Japanese summers are often cloudy and rainy. Fuji is almost as famous for its absence as for its presence. Besides, I’m used to the idea that the more you count on the arrival of an important experience or accomplishment, the greater the likelihood that it won’t arrive and that instead you will get to enjoy something completely different.
Studying such normal human experiences is one of the pleasures of Zen Buddhist practice. When I was abbot of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center near San Francisco, we celebrated the Buddha’s enlightenment every year by going outside in the predawn hours to see the morning star, as the Buddha had seen it on the day of his awakening. Most years, however, we saw no star, only fog. So Kathie and I weren’t much fazed by not being able to sit in our hotel room’s soaking tub while looking at the crown of Mount Fuji, as the travel brochure had promised. Instead we went for a stroll around Lake Kawaguchi, and then we decided to explore the town.
Though a resort town, Fuji Kawaguchiko is not fancy. In fact, it’s a rather dull, ordinary spot. Its little shops reminded me of the small town in which I grew up. On our walk we noticed — as one can notice almost anywhere in Japan — the distinctive shape of a torii gate, signaling the entrance to a temple. The gate was open, as they usually are, so we went inside.
Walking into the temple compound, we walked into another world: quiet, serene, holy. Irregular stepping stones led us through a mossy garden to a steadily dripping little waterfall. Off to one side was a standing figure of Kwan Yin, bodhisattva of compassion, standing on a lotus pedestal. She gazed down at us with a modest, knowing smile that conveyed the ancient Buddhist feeling that all would be well in the midst of a world of inevitable suffering. The temple building, like the garden, was beautiful and well maintained. Its heavy wooden door was locked, but you could walk around on the veranda or sit on the steps and look out into the garden. We felt at home there, slowed down and refreshed.
When I began studying Zen in 1970, I was attracted to Japanese Zen’s dynamic relationship to the arts — all the Japanese traditional arts owe their existence to Zen — and to the Japanese sensibility in general. I was a young poet, part of a generation in revolt against American values, and all things Japanese struck me as superior in every way to the crude violence of the West.
But years of serious Zen practice in America changed my attitude drastically. After seeing the raw spiritual needs of the people I was practicing with, I came to realize that arranging flowers, sipping tea, and viewing raked-gravel gardens were not going to help them much. And the complicated bureaucracy and stifling traditionalism of Japanese Zen weren’t going to help either. People needed meditation practice, communities of support, teachings about suffering — the very things on offer from American Zen. In addition, I was disturbed by new scholarship that revealed how Japanese Zen teachers had supported Japanese aggression and had taught blind obedience to the emperor during World War II. Thus, I gradually developed a powerful antipathy toward Japanese Zen. This was an odd attitude for a senior Zen priest and abbot in a Japanese lineage.
Preparatory to our trip to Japan — which was Kathie’s idea, not mine — we went to the Japanese tourist office in San Francisco to buy Japan Rail passes. The place was quiet and stacked with clutter, like a typical Japanese office or home, and everyone who worked in it was Japanese; not Japanese American, but Japanese. As soon as I entered, I felt the pervasive aura of tranquil courtesy that one feels in Japan. (Arrogance and aggression may also be characteristic of the Japanese, but these qualities were not on display in the Japanese tourist office.) The terribly sweet people there reminded me of the tender feelings I’d had toward Japan and Japanese people — feelings I still had somewhere in the recesses of my heart. But this is what happens to us all: In the ordinary course of life, we chance upon an idea that is partly true and freeze it into a prejudice. And, prejudiced, we are blind to other possibilities.
Entering that temple compound in Fuji Kawaguchiko reminded me that there is more to Japanese Zen than formality, bureaucracy, and aesthetics. We in the West have reduced the sacred to what we call the “inner life,” which can be safely crammed into the space between our ears. Our scientific outlook has domesticated the uncharted world of mystery, allowing us to dispense with the need for anything we can’t see or touch. Japanese society is also saturated with the scientific outlook, but, unlike ours, it has preserved a Buddhist sensibility in its primordial layers. That sensibility may be obscure to most Japanese people, but it lives within and around them. When Japanese people enter a temple compound, they are experiencing much more than aesthetic enjoyment. They feel a sense of connection to their ancestors, to the mystery of death, and to the deep, saving truths that the Buddha taught, truths that lie at the heart of what it means to be Japanese. There is great comfort in such experiences. This isn’t the comfort that illusion brings, as Sigmund Freud — ever the scientist — might have said. It is the comfort of a palpable sense of shared meaning: a belief that one’s busy, frustrating, bewildering life has purpose and context, however undefined or inexpressible that purpose and context may be. We have a basic human need for a sacred world upon which we can ground a feeling of meaning in our lives. Without it, individuals and societies go awry.
On another hot and humid July day in Japan, Kathie and I went to Toji, Kyoto’s oldest Buddhist temple. It was full of the faithful, who crowded into the small shrine areas, where memorial rituals were in progress. Golden-robed priests rang bells, offered incense, and chanted sutras. Temple-goers stood with palms together, some of them crying. When the priests filed out of the shrine rooms, everyone bowed low with respect.
Outside the temple gate we saw a Buddhist nun of about sixty shaking a vajra, a ritual implement that symbolizes the destruction of ignorance. As she made her jangling music, she closed her eyes and began to chant sutras, her face ravaged but serene. There was a bent old woman walking by, and she stopped and bowed to the nun. The nun broke into a wide, warm grin; the women began to talk. It seemed clear that the old woman was telling her woes, and the nun was listening with great sympathy. After the recitation was over, the nun chanted blessings for the woman, turned her around, gave her a brief but serious back massage, and blessed her with the vajra. Then they embraced, and the old woman put some alms into the nun’s bag and went on her way.
When we got home from Japan, we watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic film Ugetsu, in which ghosts figure prominently. Ghosts appear often in Japanese stories; almost all traditional Japanese religion and storytelling includes a prominent theme of two worlds. One world is the tragic yet ordinary world of daily living, a world in which people are constantly victimized by their passions or forces beyond their control. The other world is the world of mystery; of death, ghosts, darkness, and night. This liminal world is also the world of the Buddha, a world that will be peaceful and free of trouble once the Buddha enters it and subdues the darkness. Though the liminal world is not part of the everyday world, it bleeds into the everyday from time to time, so it can’t be completely ignored. The liminal is larger and more mysterious than the everyday, and much more powerful.
The figure of the monastic in Japanese literature is always representative of the liminal world. Whenever the monastic appears, the liminal world is close at hand. The purpose of the monastic’s life of religious observance is to stay in touch with the liminal world and to try to secure its benevolence.
When Kathie and I were in Japan, we made a visit to Eiheiji, a monastery where priests are trained in the Soto tradition of Zen. Kuroyanagi-san, the monastery’s international director, knew my name and rolled out the red carpet for us. We were given a formal room laid with tatami mats, and a sumptuous vegetarian feast was served to us in our room by Domyo, a young priest who seemed quite nervous to be waiting on an American Zen abbot — and in English, no less! Domyo was our “assistant,” but he was also our keeper: he gave us strict instructions never to leave our room without him.
The following day, we attended Eiheiji’s elaborate morning service, held in the great dharma hall. There was a large gold Buddha enshrined at one end of the room, on a high altar accessible by steep stairs. The screens enclosing the Buddha figure were opened up for the service, and the altar was lit by two massive lanterns, one on either side; but the image still seemed distant and mysterious.
The most spectacular part of the service was when sutra books were passed out by acolytes, who moved as precisely and delicately as ballet dancers. Carrying the books on lacquered red trays, the acolytes walked down the aisles with sliding steps on white-clad feet. When they reached the end of a row, they swiveled to face the person seated there, swooped down to offer the tray of books, straightened up dramatically, and moved to the next row — all in unison. The service also included a traditional food offering, in which one of the attendants carried offering vessels up the narrow, steep stairs to the high altar, where another attendant received the vessels and put them on the platform where the Buddha sat. All of this was done with meticulous, elegant choreography.
This, then, is the training of an Eiheiji priest: ritual, deportment. These young men are learning how to occupy the archetypal role of mediator between the worlds; how to help parishioners feel the meaning, protection, peace, and comfort that they expect and need from Buddhism. In addition to the gardens, the art, and the architecture, there is living ritual and the living presence of people who have been well trained to convey the characteristic feelings of Buddhism. Kuroyanagi-san and I discussed this training and its effectiveness. Like many other lively young Japanese Soto Zen priests, he was somewhat embarrassed by Eiheiji’s formality and traditionalism, especially when compared to the rough-and-ready practice of American Zen. But I reassured him that we were ultimately doing the same thing: trying our best to understand Buddhism and to offer it to people for whatever good it might do.
When I got home from Japan, I reflected that Buddhism’s cultural import there is almost the exact opposite of what it is in America. In Japan, Buddhism is essential to the national character; historically speaking, Japanese culture begins with the self-conscious adoption of Buddhism as an ideology. It’s no wonder, then, that the Japanese Buddhist establishment has always been a staunch supporter of the state, even in times of militarism and war. In America, however, Buddhism is for the outsider, the renegade. To be Buddhist in America is to adopt a set of views and behaviors that contradict the American spirit of rugged individualism and can-do materialism.
Most serious American Zen practitioners are laypeople who live ordinary lives. A minority become priests, but there is no social role in America for Zen priests, nor is it easy to earn one’s living in that profession. In Japan, by contrast, almost all serious Zen practitioners are priests. Being a Zen priest in Japan is a career. It’s also a hereditary one — the typical Japanese Zen priest is ordained by his father and inherits his father’s temple.
Japan, like all old cultures, has religion at its root. But America is a young culture that was founded on the opposite premise: “no established religion.” This principle seems so obvious a prerequisite for freedom, democracy, and modernity that we do not question it. We know and understand the advantages of there being no established religion — inclusion, fairness, social and economic openness — but the disadvantages are less clear to us. Without an established religion, our culture has no taproot, no unifying feeling or underlying sense of a shared reality outside the material world. Our culture lacks a coherent connection to the liminal world. In place of this connection we have our deified abstractions: freedom and democracy, about which we seem to understand even less than the Japanese do about their Buddhism. In America we have no established religious root we can assume and rely on, deep in our bones, as the Japanese assume and rely on Buddhism and the Italians assume and rely on the Roman Catholic Church. Because of this cultural lack, American religion tends to exist at either of two extremes: it becomes an enthusiastic and overarching ideology, or it becomes so tamed and defanged that it loses all its healing power. No other culture has such a paradoxical relationship to religion: no country as secular as we are is also as hysterically religious. And I believe that these two seeming opposites depend on each other. We are hysterically religious in reaction to our ingrained secularism, and we are fiercely secular as an antidote to our religious zeal.
If this dialectic between the secular and the religious has rent our society in two, with red states and blue states coexisting in a state of latent hostility, how much more so is it dividing our world? By the end of the Middle Ages, Islam had evolved into the most broad-minded, tolerant major religion in the world. But during the twentieth century, Islam began to respond to Western colonial secularism with exaggerated forms of expression that have by now succeeded in commanding the world’s attention.
Since September 11, 2001, I’ve been brooding on this thought: Globalization means the Americanization of the planet. This is so true that most Americans can’t even see it. To most of us, globalization is simply the sharing of modern ideas and tools, things anyone would want. Who could doubt that the freedom, democracy, and secularism that seem inevitably to accompany modernity are beneficial? The globalized world will be a world of exciting free markets in which goods and the desire for goods will proliferate, bringing people together as universal consumers. Yes, we all know that materialism can go too far, but in a free society people will still have spirituality to guide them, even if spirituality is now a private matter. Spirituality has no place in the marketplace, which is the only public forum that matters.
Many Americans may feel comfortable with this scenario, and it may suit our culture, given our historical background. But for some of us, a private religion that occupies no social space is fundamentally unsatisfying. A worldview that rejects the bewildering roller-coaster ride of modern society — a society that used to acknowledge the liminal world but now ignores it — may not be entirely negative. There may be deeper and more historically potent reasons than we have imagined for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and for the rise of religious fanaticism in our own culture. Perhaps these phenomena cannot be so easily dismissed as evil or stupid. It could be that there is something here to pay attention to rather than flee. Is it possible that religious fundamentalism is humanity’s desperate attempt to break through again to the liminal world that modernity has tried to leave behind? If so, we may need more than a “war on terror” or domestic political strategies to defeat the religious Right. We may need to take stock at a deeper level — yes, even at a religious level — of who and what we have become. We may need to consider the possibility that the fundamentalists are right in their belief that religion needs to be not only at the center of individual lives, but at the center of our social life as well.
But what would that mean in a world so multicultural that it’s not unusual for several religions — or no religion at all — to be represented in a single nuclear family? It would mean an approach to religion that references the human heart at least as much as it references God, doctrine, or belief. It would mean we’d need much more interreligious dialogue, and new forms of religious practice, including practices that could be shared by people of different religions. It would require a completely different understanding of what religion is and why it is important. And it would mean we would have to learn to do something that is both difficult and crucial: talk to one another peacefully and honestly about what matters to us most.
© Cole Thompson