Stop

I had a rough time in Japan, but there is one thing that I do miss. Awareness.

We live in a culture of rush. It’s glorified, especially here in New England. Trying to make plans with someone inevitably becomes an argument about whose schedule is busier because for some reason, being busy equates to being accomplished..

Kyoto was not a particularly happy place for me. We had curfews and restrictions, lots of restrictions, especially at the monastery. A lot of that had to do with trying to diminish our thinking, decreasing our choices, forcing us to do rather than spending every moment anticipating the future. It was hard, but it worked.

But my favorite part of Kyoto? Every night at 8:00, I set out on my nightly walk. I finished all my work in anticipation of my nightly walk. Then I would set out, headphones in. 20 minutes to the river. Just me and myself. Once I got there, a thirty minute walking meditation. And finally, I would pick my favorite rock, sit, and just watch the Kamo River in all its glory. The lights, the city, the water. Then I would stroll home just in time for 10:00 curfew.

I miss it. And its not like I couldn’t do it here. But, I keep telling myself that there isn’t any time to stop. That I have to keep going even though I know its not really true.

Taking time for yourself isn’t a waste of time. In fact, its probably the most productive use of your time. Those are the moments when you are literally living. You don’t even have to be straight up meditating. Just being aware of where you are, not just physically, but in life. Being aware of the people around you, people with just as many feelings and emotions and experiences as you. There’s this unspoken belief that we don’t want to waste our life and in order to accomplish that, we have to do as much as possible in as little time as possible. We have to avoid failure. I am just as guilty in going along with these sentiments, but lately, I’m trying just a little bit harder not to. I personally believe that we are just passing through. Its okay to take life little less seriously.

Look up.

The river from Gojo Dori

The river from Gojo Dori


The river at night

The river at night

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Blogaversary!

Whoops I missed my blogaversary but I wrote my first blog post January 6th,2013 and I have officially made it full circle! I honestly thought this effort would have been abandoned long ago, but in the past year I’ve written 55 blog posts and gotten more than 2,000 views! I know its actually not a lot compared to the serious blogs out there, but I’m proud of myself for following through. This blog is more for myself than anything and it has been a great release for me over the past year especially during times when I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. This also marks a full year of my taking cold showers (because eczema).

Taking Responsibility

In ninth grade, my English class spent two months of our first semester putting together a book of vignettes. Every week or so, we would craft a short story about a specific moment in our life and at the end, we bound everything together with a title and a dedication page. I titled my book “No Regrets”. I actually forgot about it until just now when I was thinking about all the little bits and pieces that led me to this moment in life.

To be sure, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. As an impulsive person, I’d say I’ve probably made more mistakes than not (I don’t even know what the opposite of a mistake would be. Is there such a thing?) And what is a mistake anyway? Maybe I’ll just call them “decisions that led to an undesirable outcome”.

Here’s the thing: that’s what life is. Ever read one of those “choose your own adventure books”? It’s not about achieving ultimate happiness, its about choosing your own path and then dealing with the adventure. Despite the fact that I wrote this book of “No Regrets” in ninth grade, I actually spent the majority of high school with a significant amount of regret, something that caused me a lot of mental and physical harm. It was mostly about miniscule things, things that have become tiny little blips in my present life. They still matter, sure, because they led me to where I am today, but I don’t agonize over wondering, “what if?” anymore. The thing is, it just doesn’t matter.

So today, I have no regrets. And my life is certainly far from perfect, whatever that may be. I can barely walk, I miss my family and my home to no end, and I am literally on the opposite side of the world where I will stay for another three months. This past year, it honestly seemed for a bit like something was out to get me, and I try not to think about happiness because lord knows where that’ll take me.

But this is my life. This is where all the little things have led me to be, and this is where I am supposed to be. Maybe its because I’m one of those people that believe that everything has a reason or maybe its because I’ve been studying Buddhism for the past two months. But life isn’t over yet. This moment right now will lead to another and another, until suddenly I’m looking back in ten years trying to figure out how I got there. And when that time comes, I want to know that I’ve had a hand in getting there. So instead of looking back and regretting, I am taking responsibility and living now.

A few days ago, someone asked me if I made the right decision in coming to Japan. My answer then and my answer will always be, yes. Its far too early to see where this will lead me and how it has changed me, but this has certainly been an experience.

Want

I’ve been thinking about desire a lot lately. Mostly because I have a whole freaking lot of it. I want my skin to get better. I want my own room. I want a real bed. I want to go home. I want to be happy. And these are only the big ones. Other moments are filled with other miniscule desires and cravings that for some reason my mind believes will make me satisfied, happy. I want chocolate. I want the bell to ring (during zazen). I want to not have to write this paper.

The problem is that I can want as many things as I want but (1) that doesn’t mean I’ll get them, and (2) if I do get them, I still won’t be happy. It’s similar to meditating for the purpose of achieving enlightenment. Here is an anecdote that I read last night in preparation for one of the papers that I didn’t want to write. It comes from the traditional biography of Chan Master Nanyue Huirang:

During the Kaiyuanera [713-742] there was a monk named Daoyi (that is, the great teacher Mazu) who resided at the Chuanfa Cloister and spent every day sitting in dhyāna (C.zuochan, J.zazen 坐禪). The master [Huairang] knew that he was a vessel of the dharma, so he went to him and asked,“What do you intend to accomplish by sitting in dhyāna?” Daoyi replied,“I intend to make myself into a buddha.” The master picked up a tile and rubbed it on a stone in front of the hermitage. Daoyi inquired,“Master, what are you doing?” The master said,“I am polishing it to make a mirror.” Daoyi said, “How could you sitting in dhyāna ever result in becoming a buddha?” Daoyi asked, “How is it done, then?” The master said, “It is like a man driving a cart that does not move: should he strike the cart to get it to go, or should he strike the ox?” Daoyi had no response. (Foulk 25)*

In this case, “striking the ox” is to sit with the understanding that there is no such thing as awakening rather than to sit with the desire of gaining awakening. Now this isn’t a perfect analogy and I don’t claim to be an enlightened philosopher, but I have recently been coming to the realization that achieving my desires will not produce happiness… so why not let go of desire? To be quite honest, its something that has kept me from living in the present because of all the potential I invest in the future. I don’t mean letting go of dreams and ambitions, because goals are something that keep us going and give our lives purpose. I mean letting go of those silly little superficial wants that we have no control over.

By no means is this an easy task. I was actually thinking about my experience at Toshoji and one of the things that made it so difficult was the fact that the entire time we had no control. It was very much about doing things that you didn’t want to do at times that you didn’t want to do them. But in a way, it made things easier because it became so clear to me that I had no control and I had to just let things be.

Anyways, this morning at zazen, I sat and meditated. I didn’t sit with the hope that the bell would ring soon and I didn’t sit thinking about what I wanted for breakfast. Sure there were moments when my mind would begin to wander here and there, but this morning I sat with the focus of being in the moment. It was probably one of the best zazens I’ve had on this trip besides my time at Toshoji. I think from now on, I’m going to focus on letting go of the things I can’t control, accepting that I can’t control them, and instead choosing to focus on the moment.

*Foulk, T. Griffith. Standard Observances of the Soto Zen School. Tokyo: Sotoshu Shumucho, 2010.

Searching for Happy

On Monday, we arrived back in Kyoto after a six day monastic retreat at the Toshoji Soto Zen Monastery in Okayama. It was an incredible experience but also one of the most challenging weeks I have ever had. Here are some tidbits from my experience.

On our first full day at the monastery, I was sitting in our first zazen of the day (at 4:30 in the morning). It had been a bit of a rough night and my anxiety levels were fairly high. Suddenly, I felt this cramp in my side and here are the thoughts that took place probably within the span of three minutes: My side really hurts. I must have appendicitis. We’re going to be in zazen for the next hour and a half. I’m in a monastery on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I’m probably going to die before this is over. (In case you haven’t picked up on it, I’m a very paranoid person)

Anyway, I realized that what I really wanted at that very moment was to be back at home in my room snuggled up by myself. I wanted to be at home with my parents cooking downstairs, so I could hear the sizzle of the stove and smell the food and hear the chatter of my mom trying to talk over the commotion in kitchen.

So there you have it. My apparent dying wish.

After a while I actually managed to calm down and although I didn’t exactly meditate for that zazen period, I did a lot of thinking and it came to me that this was a really surprising desire. I’ve spent a long time trying to get as far away from my family as possible. There was a point in my life when I had started to associate being at home with stress, tears, and anxiety. But it’s also the place that has always been there for me to come back to no matter what and that’s something that I hadn’t fully realized.

A lot of my blog posts have revolved around my search for happiness, something that I’ve always found to be quite elusive. And over the past year, I’ve searched high and low for this, but I haven’t quite found it. And I’m starting to think that maybe I didn’t have to look so hard.

And that’s a thought that kept coming back to me over and over this past week.

Let me tell you something about eating in a zen monastery. It is probably most stressful meal you will ever have in your entire life. Oryoki is no joke. Here is a website with some instructions, but because it will probably take an hour to read all of them, here’s a summary. You are given a set of four bowls and a bunch of cloths and utensils. The meal begins with chanting, laying out your set in a very specific order, more chanting, a very complicated serving process, and more chanting. Then you are given what I’m guessing is about eight minutes to eat before everyone else is done and you have thirty people very intimidating faces and an abbott staring you down (I’m fairly certain monks inhale their food). Seconds are served and then eating resumes for about another five minutes. Depending on the meal your bowls are cleaned a slightly different way, but typically, tea is served in your bowls and you drink it to wash down the food. Then the boiling water is poured and you use a utensil called a setsu to wash down the rest of the bowls. You drink everything that is in your bowls and then put your set away in yet another complicated ritual.

I bring this up mostly because the eating process caused me a lot of grief at the monaster,y and I need to complain about it (If you are a slow eater you basically end up starving). But the first night we returned to Kyoto, we ended up going to a restaurant that we had previously frequented quite regularly. This time though, we ended up sitting there for an hour and a half, taking our time and savoring every bite. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a wonderful meal.

If I wanted to wrap this post up with a bow, I could conclude that while at the monastery, I also reached enlightenment. But to be quite honest, I spent half of our zazens not meditating. The experience did mean something though. Being out of your comfort zone isn’t just to help you grow. It’s also to help you gain perspective. Even helping you see what is literally in front of you. Maybe my happy is sitting right in front me, but I just can’t see it.

Being so far from home, especially right now, is really hard for a whole host of reasons. Over the past few weeks I’ve had some really ugly thoughts bubble up that I haven’t even seen since high school. But now I think I’m on the path to getting grounded again. I’ve caught a glimpse of the happy and even just knowing its out there is good enough for me.

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My throne of enlightenment

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So ready for oryoki dinner

My reason

I’m a Buddhist. It’s something that has always been a part of me, but I never really realized how much of an impact it has had on my decisions and my beliefs growing up. The traditions I followed were taught to me as I grew up but I never thought about the reasons behind them nor questioned any of the beliefs. Honestly, until I decided to join this study abroad program, I didn’t even realize what kind of Buddhist I was (Pure Land if we’re going to put labels on things).

And its super interesting to study your own religion. I won’t say its good or bad because I honestly don’t think its either. It’s interesting because you’re viewing it as an outsider, understanding why others may question your beliefs the same way you question theirs. You see why it may be appealing to someone or maybe not so much.

But the effect it’s had on me? I think its mainly led me to consider how Buddhism has affected my life. And I think it’s saved me in so many ways. Looking at the big picture, it has the appeal of so many other religions, the existing belief that there is something bigger out there looking over us, giving a rhyme and reason to the world. There was a justification for everything that happened to me, good and bad.

Growing up I had a whole host of health problems that still plague me today, particularly my eczema. Just imagine having mosquito bites all over your body, trying your hardest not to scratch, and hating yourself for not being able to control any of it. The worst for me has always been my fear of going to sleep, knowing that I might scratch in the middle of night and wake up with bloody open sores. Then there was the depression and the anxiety that doesn’t really fall far behind this kind of physical and mental anguish.

But I don’t doubt. I have good days and bad days still, but I believe there is a reason for everything that happens in my life. I don’t doubt that growing up with these problems have made me a stronger person today. I don’t doubt that I’m extremely lucky for growing up in a family and environment that could give me the best care I needed.

I do know that Amituofo has been there for me every time. When I was hospitalized for my skin infections as a child, when I’ve had my worst migraines or panic attacks and I was fairly certain I was going to die, when I spent those days in bed crying and ready to give up, and whenever my anxiety creeps up on me at night and I lie there for hours on end wondering if I’ll ever fall asleep.

Life is hard sometimes, but I think it’s always a little bit easier if there’s a reason.

What is this really about?

It’s 5:21 in the morning on Sunday, September 14th, the beginning of our third full day in Kyoto. It feels like it has been a week since we got here. And not in a bad way. Being forced to live altogether in a tiny space, while difficult for an introvert like me, has brought our small group of nine quite close in a small amount of time.

So what is this trip exactly? To be honest, when I first applied and then hurriedly left for the trip, I didn’t have a very good idea of what I was heading into. I knew that I had to get away, but I didn’t know where to. To lay it down in a nutshell, this is still an academic program focusing on Buddhist traditions in Japan. We will be taking classes on Japanese religion and practice, culture and society (which is taught by a Williams alum!), and a language class. We will also be taking short term trips to monasteries and temples to learn meditation and observe the workings of these places. Finally, at the end of the semester, we will have two weeks on our own to explore Japan on our own and to complete our own research project (something that still intimidates me to no end).

But what is this trip really about? I don’t think its exactly necessary or possible to have a complete answer to that right now. But throughout the past few days, I’ve noticed some things that I didn’t really expect. The students that have come to this program come from all walks of life, and have some very unique perspectives and ideas. It takes a special group to choose a study abroad program such as this and meeting and talking with these people is as much a part of the experience as the classes and trips that we are taking. At the same time, as a group, we share commonalities that are difficult to explain, but are the same values that brought us together as a group in a first place.

I took a very long walk by the river yesterday. (It may be because I forgot where to turn to go home, but that’s beside the point). It was the first time since we arrived that I had spent some time by myself just to think and I did a lot of thinking. While this trip is for me a lot about self-growth, learning to be more comfortable with myself, and pushing my limits, it is also very much about this group of people. During the trip, we are taking five of the Buddhist precepts, and the focus on this is a phrase used by Thich Nhat Hanh, “knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to […]”. I’m starting to see how important focusing on the group is important on this trip. We are here to help each other, something that I think everyone has been embracing in the past few days. In a way, I think working as a group and for a group, we are also benefitting ourselves. It is helping me see myself in a clearer light and I hope that it only becomes clearer through the next three months.

 

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*This blog will essentially be my journal for my time on this trip. I have found that in the past when I have attempted to keep a journal, it eventually trails off somewhere, I feel guilty about missing a few days, and then just stop altogether. Therefore I will be writing the same way I have been blogging. I will not force myself to write, but when I have thoughts, I will put them down. This is also a place that I often do look back on in order to read my journey over the past year and this trip is a continuation on that. The reason I choose not to start a travel blog is because I will focus not on the physical things that we do, but mostly the thoughts I have that stem from that.

Metta 🙂