Kyōtō. Water molecules collect after the storm and hang to the side of a tree on a hot and humid monday afternoon. Some of the same water that has hung in the same area during a previous cycle of rain many years ago, perhaps. Time for us humans moves fast, and from our vantage point, it appears that the rain and the trees are quite content just being sill.
Every now and then in the summer, the sun creates shadows in a certain way or a breeze runs across you the same way that it would in autumn. It happens in the dead of winter as well, where a single day is sunnier and warmer than the rest, or a certain smell of life or a green seedling emerges earlier from the frosty earth than it should. We are reminded of the sweetness of the season that lies ahead, of memories had, and of the things we look forward to experiencing on this next backdrop. How sad it is when we have reached a point in life when, for whatever reason, we know that we will not be around to see and feel what is next. These days from the future become days from the past, making us nostalgic for the seasons of lands that we must part from, and will perhaps never return to again.
There is not one exit in life, but many, and they (or perhaps their negative space, i.e. experiences) create the sole robe that we wear as walk along across this earth.
The presence of a samurai, a completely balanced composite of strength and internal peace. Stable. Silent, yet a presence that roars louder than the largest waterfall or a thousand claps of thunder. Eyes fixed on your own, staring through, completely full, yet bearing nothing other than a reflection than your own reflection. It is difficult to see his breaths.
In the peace, he lets out a scream. It is so natural you question whether it happened. A breath. Falcon-like, so piercing that it seems carried by something entirely different than the vibrating atoms of sound. It slithers between your ribs and strait into your heart like a swift current of electricity. Disarming. So loud and fierce, yet somehow not in the least bit in conflict with the silence of the old wooden hall where you stand. One.
Sword drawn, directed towards you. The samurai, waiting. Peering inside of you like a hawk peers inside of a river at a fish it would like to make its next meal. Listening for the slightest opening of a chance, where he will convert his body into a movement as quick as the lightening of his voice, striking you and tearing through your membrane that separates you from the external world. He converts himself into something higher than his body. E = mc2.
The more tense you are, the easier this task for him will be. If you are like the empty mirror or the pure water of the stream, receptive and flowing, you cannot be cut. Perfect receptivity is perfect swordsmanship. Beginners run back and forth with all of their energy trying to break through one another. Masters spend 10s of minutes in silence standing and circling. Listening.
Its the same heart that is held by the master of any art. The heart that holds nothing other than what is at hand. Drinking tea, painting calligraphy, arranging flowers–it’s all the same. It would not be in the least bit shocking to see the two masters set down their swords mid-duel to accept a cup whipped green tea. The heart is the same. Sky-like and empty.
What is the drive? The reason? A tea ceremony sensei explained it to me well: to live beautifully. To do everything in beauty and to strive for a perfection of this beauty; this is the game of our species. Whether you’re placing a flower in the perfect position in an arrangement or embodying the perfected posture of a Buddha seated in meditation, it is all the same. To purify, to eliminate that which separates us from the rest of the world, and to be empty like the sky above the clouds.
My kendō sensei asked me today what it is that I like about kendō. I answered that kendō is most certainly “a way/a road”, as the “dō” in kendō signifies; and that within each individual there is his own mountain to climb, and that paths like this allow us to climb up into the higher peaks of our being. He looked at me deadpan in the eyes with a blank expression on his face, and without needing a moment to calculate, replied: “There is no limit.”
In the USA we have a saying these days that “30 is the new 20.” What is meant by this is that many people are putting off responsibilities that would traditionally begin in one’s early 20’s (e.g. marriage, stable career path, home-ownership) to later in life (if ever engaged in at all).
In Japan, the baby boomers definitely did not wait until later in life for these responsibilities. They dove in head-first, never experiencing the sort of individual freedom that is so sought after today. The value system was one of self-sacrifice, not self-realization. (That’s not to say that the latter precludes the former; the sacrifice was viewed as a must, however, and many probably could not imagine living a self-centered life without it. “Realization” of one’s personal interests and hobbies was just something that had to be attempted on the way if one could find the time.)
In Japan this generation worked hard, and now, at the age of retirement (65) they are finding themselves with all of the freedom that they never had to peruse the hobbies they were to busy to engage in in their youth (and chunky monthly pension returns to fund them). It is common for retirement and old age to be viewed in Japan not as a period of decline, but as a chapter of opportunity and new beginnings.
All over the world their faces are lit up like teenagers, exploring the world in ways they never could before. They’re becoming hikers, outfitting themselves with professional gear and guides and can be found on trails all over the world. They’re ditching their houses and taking endless roadrips through every prefecture and UNESCO site that they’re minds desire. They’re learning new languages, visiting new countries, taking up paint and calligraphy brushes, arranging flowers and becoming masterful zen gardeners. Quite frankly, they’re making my generation jealous.
Human culture does not exist independent of human experience. When cultures meet for the first time, they interact. Like chemical reactions; sometimes the result is rather neutral, sometimes it is volatile, and every so often the components interact so wonderfully together that it creates a symphony of beauty, so much so that it almost seems that they were made for one another.
Such was the case when Buddhism was first imported into Japan from the Chinese mainland (circa 552 CE) and began to blend with the local mountain religions that have been in existence longer than anyone is able to remember. The result was a form of ascetic Buddhism sometimes described as a blend between esoteric Buddhism (vajrayana) and “Shintō”. It is known as Shugendō.
The Shugendō traditions find their heart right in the backyard of where I am living (quite literally, I often jog on this trail), based heavily along the Ōmine pilgrimage route that runs through the Kii peninsula.
Pictured above is a Yamabushi (mountain ascetic). Traditionally, the practitioners undergo rigorous training to incorporate themselves with the local powers and to synchronize with the Earth’s energies/”gods”. Some practitioners used to spend 3 entire years wandering the woods until they attained what they were searching for.
Typical with most religion in Japan, I do not believe that Shugendo (or really any form of Buddhism in Japan), is supercharged with any sort of traditional rational system of logic that is propped up and battled against others. It could be, I suppose, but it isn’t. One will never find themselves in an argument over religion in Japan.
One of my favorite paintings I have ever seen was in a Shugendoō temple on Yoshino Yama. The picture showed thousands and thousands of yamabushi in white robes, leading up to a god whose visage was embedded in the form of a waterfall. Some of the yamabushi were much further on the path than others, while some were just beginning. Looking at the painting though, it becomes apparent that the stream of yamabushi are not only a part of the stream leading off from the bottom of the waterfall, they are the water itself, and that there is really nothing to lead up to, they are already apart of it. But this is why they live their lives the way that they do; simply because they are of that water. There is no struggle, only lives lived to be in tune with nature.
On this cliff, the yamabushi take turns hanging each other off the cliff with no support other tan a simple rope harness held in place by ones clenched back muscles. If one relaxes, the rope slips off and one could easily plummet to their death. Hanging over the edge, one’s mind may remain empty, or perhaps think about the future and the brevity of their lifespan. Assuredly, they are brought face to face with the fact that death is close to us all.
Mt. Omimine Temple (UNESCO)
Pictured below is a scene from the Eiheji Temple (永平寺) complex, constructed in the 13th century by Dōgen. The temple belongs to the Sōtō Zen tradition and just being in this area has a sort of transformative effect on one’s consciousness. It is said in Zen that works created by individuals in enlightened states can transmit similar states to the minds of beholders of the art, and I find this to be very much true in the case of Zen art and poetry. Zen temples are kept extraordinarily clean and utmost care is taken to keep everything in this state of purity, from the floors to the walls, to the smallest tiles in the bathrooms, and even to sticks and leaves lying around the perimeter. The boundary between one’s mind and the external world is seamless in this world, and thus care for the external world becomes a living metaphor for the maintenance of one’s own mind.
Although great care is taken to maintain cleanliness and purity of the environment, an equal amount of care is taken to simply allowing nature to exist and act out its own character. This is an important element of all Japanese arts, just letting things be. This is expressed partly through what is known as wabi sabi.
It is said that wabi sabi cannot be described by pointing at it with other words, but is instead described through stories. One such parable was told to me by a professor at my University. A young practitioner of Zen was once told by his teacher to create a beautiful garden. He worked and worked for many days, planting and trimming all sorts of beautiful trees and arranging stones in all sorts of perfect patterns, until he finally declared the garden finished. But yet, it wasn’t. Something wasn’t right.
He rearranged all the rocks, planted new trees, and tried everything within his rational mind to set the garden right, but he couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Exasperated, he went to his master.
“I worked and worked, and yet something still isn’t right!” he exclaimed. His master gave a small smile, and walked softly to one of the maple trees in the center of the garden and gave its trunk a good shake, causing a few loose leaves to scatter about the ground. Then, the garden was perfect.
Possessing a mind, man has the ability to enact his own order into the world, and yet there is a harmony to be maintained between control and trust in the potential for natural beauty that exists in everything. Although the two can be seen as inseparable, the external world can also be viewed as a macroscopic metaphor for the microcosm of our own individual minds, and there are thus great lessons that can be learned from nature.
One of my favorite things about Japan is how close one is able to come in contact with the magnificent. Ancient thousand year old shrines,temples, and trees, perfect masters of arts who are famous around the world, places bearing enormous historical significance–in their mere presence you can feel their power like an actual force permeating the space around you. Yet this intense significance is coupled with an ability to be in direct contact with it. No smoke and mirrors, no television screen separating you from the world. You can be in direct contact with our legendary masters and powerspots if you seek them out.
A certain element of this experience can be felt through attending sumo matches. The sport has an almost spiritual air in its purity that transcends the normal world, and yet it doesn’t transcend, because you are there, witnessing it firsthand. Japan shows one that there are places and people with almost unbelievable levels of purity and power, and yet they possess such a level of ordinariness that they can all be seen, felt, and taken apart if you approach them. Japan teaches one that magic does exist, but that there is nothing “magical” about it. Extraordinary in the ordinary and ordinary in the extraordinary.
Sumo tournaments occur only a few times a year. This arena in Osaka is one of the venues that is used.
Full house. The raw earth ring in the middle stands in contrast to the rest of the ring in the city of manmade pavement, steel, and electric cables. Above the ring is a shinto roof, designating the that ground below is holy turf. Above this, the rising sun.
Sumo events take place throughout an entire day, and the professional rounds do not begin until after lunchtime. In the morning are the amateur rounds and the stadium is quite empty. You can sit right up in the front row seats if you want, and its cool to be right up and close to the ring if you didn’t blow the cash on a reserved seat for the professional rounds.
The goal is to either knock the opponent out of the ring or to have him lose balance and fall to the ground. There is only one round per match and thus wrestlers have one chance and only one chance to defeat their opponent. It is to me a symbol of human life to which all of us mortals can relate.
When one typically thinks of a sumo wrestler, one often assumes that the more obese one is, the better. Indeed, many of the wrestlers actually have a higher number of kg weight than the do number of cm tall! However, this is not the ideal build, and being fat and immobile can actually be quite a disadvantage. What matters most is power and balance.
Pictured above, the professionals taking the stage. The pros are treated as demigods and are given the highest treatment human beings can receive. One can only imagine how they live outside of the ring. They are not arrogant, but their presence seems to naturally draw out respect and reverence from others. It is like standing in the presence of a mountain.
Emerging from his car to enter the stadium, my favorite wrestler, Kotoōshū Katsunori. He is of Bulgarian descent and is one of the best. All wrestlers are given sumo names to replace their birthnames, a practice similar to the donning of a new name when one becomes a Buddhist monk. Transcending the earthly realm.
Two times a year an event is held on the east side of Tokyo that brings together over 10,000 artists to share their creativity with the world. Most of the artists come from various regions around Japan, thought here are many participants who come from all over the globe. International food stands are set up, huge canvases are set up for artists to paint on, and live music performances are held at the center of the venue (Tokyo Big Site) throughout the duration of the 2-day festival, . Many artists make post-card prints of their works and I found it incredibly difficult not to buy less than a stack of several hundred of their works.
The art scene of Tokyo is one of my favorite faces that Japan has to offer.