At the end of 2015, looking forward to the New Year and advent of 2016, the ASZC's 39th year of continuous operation, we have reason to celebrate. But we also have reason to question the reasons we are in the business of "selling water by the river," as Jiyu Kennet Roshi defined propagating Zen, in the title of one or her publications. It sometimes seems that we are not appreciated for our efforts, and that our mission may be a fool's errand, especially when we have difficulty with meeting our financial obligations, a characteristic of all Zen groups.
During the rampant consumerism of the holiday season, exemplified by the hysteria engendered by continuous promotion of sales and the giveaways of thousands of dollars in the Twelve Days of the Ellen DeGeneres show (which may have started as a play on her name), we come to question the values of the society in which we find ourselves. We must wonder at the stupefying, wide-eyed rapture all the bright lights and sparkling promise of prosperity inspires.
We can take some comfort in the admonition of one of our Chinese forefathers to, "with practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot"; and his assurance that "just to continue in this way is called the 'Host within the host'," a peak experience in Zen terms, the height of awareness. A high accomplishment that has nothing to do with how we may appear, or relate, to others, our "guests."
RETURNING FROM JAPAN
In my recounting of my first trip to Japan in 1989, I remarked that when we arrived in Tokyo and settled in at our "businessman's hotel" (J. seifuso), breaking out our sitting cushions (J. zafu), and sitting in zazen, it became clear to me that I had not gone anywhere. Ten thousand miles and four thousand dollars later, we were — or at least I was — in the same place. And, indeed, that there is only one place. Some historical references may be appropriate here, to get a grip on the historical scope of Matsuoka Roshi's mission to the US, in the context of the times as well as those leading up to his lifetime, and our following in his gentle footsteps.
This month we celebrate Founder's Month, recognizing that our founding teacher from Japan, who asked to be called, simply, Sensei, was born, and died, in the month of November, the former in 1912, the latter in 1997, some 20 years after the founding of ASZC.
TRAVELING IN JAPAN
For those who have never done so, and wonder about traveling to Japan, I would encourage you to consider it. You will do better if you develop some conversational Japanese, but you can get along without it, especially if you have a friend or a guide who has the language. We were fortunate to have a guide on most of this trip, which made our ambitious itinerary possible, owing to his grasp of not only the language, but the transportation system.
Many Japanese people who see that you are having a difficult time will step up to help out, if they are more fluent in English than most. In general, the people are extraordinarily warm and friendly, and sympathetic to westerners, especially if you are friendly with them. A smile goes a long way, as does any attempt to use polite language. Especially when they find out that you are there for something to do with Buddhism, or their culture, they seem to blossom. There were more than one instance where we spontaneously launched into chanting the Hannya Shingyo with some local women, notably at a Shingon monastery, and once on the train platform.
The infrastructure for traveling by train in Japan, from light rail to the bullet train, makes the US look like a third-world country. In LA airport, the litter and generally dirty environment contributed to the impression, and the sheer lack of alternatives to the automobile, there as well as in Atlanta, reinforces the idea that we have left true civilization far behind, by returning home. It is a weird feeling. In Chicago or New York City, the transportation system begins to level out, but the filthy character of the environment makes you shudder for the visitor from Japan whose first impression must be pretty disturbing.