Sunday, May 27, 2018

Zazen (座禅)

Early morning at Kenninji temple in Gion.  Much, much too early for the maiko who flit through the streets of this district in the evening.  A light rain falls coloring the wood and stone of the temple, the green of the gardens.

The zendo (meditation hall) is set with perfectly spaced dark green zabuton (cushions) in four neat rows on the tatami floor.  The room is mostly empty when my friend and I arrive, but quickly fills up.  I am surprised to see two children, not more than 7-years-old, with their parents.  Sitting still is an impossible task for most children.  This is clearly not their first time.  They approach the ritual with a quiet maturity well beyond their years.

A bell rings three times (shijosho).  The first of two 20-minute sessions begins.

My knowledge of zazen is rudimentary: sit, meditate.  And maybe that is all there is to it.  In most Zen Buddhist practices it is best not to overthink, not to analyze, really to not even try.  It sounds easy, but I find it rather difficult.  Instead of clearing my mind, reaching the desired mushin (no mind), I find myself thinking of zazen in a very self-conscious way: "here I am doing zazen."  I am thinking about writing about the experience.  It is annoying, this thought pattern.

There is a barefooted monk with a long, flat stick.  He walks very slowly up and down the rows, each step measured, thoughtful, like a crane negotiating a stream.  The stick he carries is called a keisaku (awakening stick).  It is used for whacking sleepy or distracted meditators.  I had read about this stick somewhere, but was a little startled by the sharp crack it makes shattering the stillness of the hall.  At first I wondered, what is this sound, where is it coming from?  Then the woman across from me bowed before the monk and pressed her hands together as in prayer, the signal to him, "My mind is preoccupied.  I've lost focus."  The stick is placed on the right shoulder and - thwack!  Then the left - thwack!  Bows are exchanged and silence returns to the room.  While this is probably just the jolt I need to break free of my self-awareness I let him pass me by each lap he makes.

In Japanese za means “sitting” and zen means “meditation”.  The impossibly difficult "full lotus" position replicates Buddha's posture.  Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, is generally credited with introducing zazen to Japan.  He layed out the principles in an instruction manual called Zazengi which emphasized the harmonizing of body, breath and mind.

The "effortless non-striving" required for proper zazen, as prescribed by Dogen, may seem unattainable to a beginner like myself, but then zazen really isn't about attaining or getting or reaching anything at all.  Trying to do zazen is really to fail.  So, another day I will attempt not to attempt zazen.

What is zazen good for?  Zazen isn't good for anything.

Sawaki Roshi (1880 - 1965) Soto Zen Buddhist priest

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mt. Kurama (鞍馬山)

There is a funny little one and two-car train in northern Kyoto called the Eizan Railway.  I take this train very infrequently, but it has always intrigued me.  So, I decided to find out where it goes.

I perhaps picked the wrong day to explore this 8.8 kilometer train line as there was a queue of a hundred Golden Week tourists waiting at Demachiyanagi Station.  It was a crush of people, and everyone seemed to have the same destination: Kurama - shūten (end of the line).

I really had no plan.  I'd never been to Kurama and I knew nothing about it.  I saw on the Eizan route map that there was a shrine and a temple somewhere in the vicinity of the train station, so I went in search of these.  This was not difficult.  The main gate to Kurama-dera (est. 770) was just 200 meters from the station exit.

Beyond this nio-mon (guardian gate) were lots of stairs and a series of switchback trails winding up the mountain.  Without hesitating I began the ascent through the lush green landscape, past trickling waterfalls, myriad sub-shrines and a dense canopy of giant trees.  It was very cool, not more than 17°C (62°F).  I was grateful for this.  Though Mt. Kurama stands at just 584 meters (1,916 ft), I was winded.

The view from the large terrace in front of the temple's honden (main hall) was impressive, of course.  But my trek was not finished.  Through a back gate was another trail leading further up the mountain.  Hmm.  Where does this go?

This trail was much more rugged, steps (where there were steps) crudely fashioned from logs, stones and tree roots.  Where large trees had fallen across the path, the middle section was simply cut out rather than moving the entire obstruction.  And there were a lot of fallen trees.  Great giants with a tangle of roots like the tentacles of a mythic octopus.  What force could fell such a colossal tree?  Centuries of havoc wrought by Mother Nature.  There were trees creaking like old doors, drunk, propped up by their neighbors.  And yet, something will grow from this.

Near the summit is a shrine called Osugi Gongen-sha dedicated to one of these great sugi (cedar) believed to be inhabited by Mao-son, the evil-conquering Earth spirit.  This sacred tree is a beautiful gnarled sculpture, ravaged by time and the elements.  An incredible sight.  I sit for a long time and listen to the wind through the trees like ocean waves, the shrine noren (curtain) flapping.  I can understand why a shrine would be built here.

When I finally make it to the end of the 3.9k sando (sacred path to a temple/shrine) I discover I am no longer in Kurama, but Kibune.  Kibune is a charming little village famous for Kifune Shrine and kawadoko, al fresco dining rooms which hover just above the rushing Kibune River.  I'd seen photos of these restaurants and had long wanted to eat at one so, when in Kibune (suddenly)...

I was halfway through my lunch, enjoying the food and the pleasant ambiance when it began to rain.  The terrace is covered with a thin thatched roof, which will protect you from the sun's glare, but it won't stop rain drops from falling in your rice.  The waitress gathered up my tray and put me at a table inside the main restaurant across the narrow road opposite the river.

I waited for the rain to let up and then wandered down the road to the train station, everything wet and gleaming - trees, plants, moss - a phosphorescent green so vivid it was almost painful to look at.

Since ancient times the awesome beauty, power and mystery of nature has been revered at Mt. Kurama.  It's easy to see why.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


I am pleased to share my first bit of Japanese press.

 Kyoto Shinbun

Keihoku was the last stop of the installation tour.  The other three paintings of the (four)est art project were already in situ.  En route to this densely forested little town my friend, Okamoto-san got a phone call from Kawaguchi-san.  She is the founder of the so-called Kuroda Village Station and sort of my contact person for this location.  She said there was a journalist coming from Kyoto Shinbun who wanted to interview me about the project.  What?!  Wow.

Mitani-san had the look of a real newspaper man with his sport coat, notepad and pencil, someone from a different age of reporting.  We sat down in the 200-year-old converted farmhouse and drank tea.  He asked me questions and I stumbled through Japanese replies.  Okamoto-san translated when the communication gap was too great.

The interview was brief - just the facts - which was okay, as it was beginning to rain and I was anxious to get the painting in place, wherever that might be.   Mitani-san followed me to the edge of the forest in the drizzle.  Then I disappeared up the mountain with my painting under my arm.

(four)est: preview and installation

Preview: be-kyoto gallery

一 (one)

二 (two)

三 (three)

四 (four)

paintings in situ...

美山  |  Miyama

一 (one)

京北  |  Keihoku

二 (two)

久多  |  Kuta

三 (three)

亀岡  |  Kameoka

四 (four)