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My Japanese Brother

A visit to a Zen monastery in Japan, meeting with a monk, more similarities than meet the eye.

Mr Nagai San, Zen monkHotel Mets, Ofuna, Japan. On the outskirts of Tokyo, a city that begins and then never seems to end. I am here on a whirlwind, week long visit with Sri Chinmoy and students, sharing a room with a friend already awake before dawn, his the unusual habit of beginning the day with a coffee. And I do mean beginning—before hitting the shower and immediately after hitting the bedside floor. Thoughtfully, hotels in Japan cater for the most extreme caffeine addiction, machines vending blackest gold located conveniently on every floor. And pretty much everywhere else for that matter. In other places you might call this commercial opportunism. Like in my country, where ATMs are more prevalent on street corners than police officers; the cynic would reply that they are more profitable to run. I will happily admit that my glasses are green-tea tinted, but will argue from more than just a position of Nihon-bias that not everything in Japan runs to a profit motive; like the incense imbued atmosphere of a Shinto shrine, the air here is thick with a culture of sacrifice and service. And sincerity too. Try asking someone for directions at any train station. Often unable to speak English, a person may not be able to help you, but certainly will want to help you. I was personally guided through three stations and multiple connecting trains to the very door of the Shinkasen bullet train by a local who did know English and was going my way. We exchanged business cards afterwards, but I value much more the sincerity of heart he offered me that day. Examples of what could be termed the Japanese quality of thoughtfulness abound, like here at Ofuna Station, starting point for my journey this day, track-side platform pre-marked with lines approaching trains will sure as the rising of the sun come to a halt alongside, each and every sliding door precisely aligned. Perhaps more accurately one could call this trait “mindfulness;” it is as though the practise of Zen Buddhism has entered the national bloodstream. Do I have time for a coffee from a station vending machine only feet away? Where there is a lack of will it seems there is always a caffeinated way, Suntory Boss: World Executive Blend, served ice cold this humid, mid-summer morn, can bearing moustached emblem not unlike a youthful Fidel Castro. The boss in question perhaps, or was something ‘lost in translation?’ As in all countries civilised enough to believe in the value of society over the primacy of individuality, the Japanese Rail system is a pleasure to use. Clean, swift and punctual. But as I may have already intimated, it would be hard to imagine Japan any other way. The train journey to Kamakura from Ofuna is two stops and barely five minutes. A short distance in truth, but uncomfortable humidity and sense of urgency have already declared it too far to walk. Swift and punctual is my express aim; an appointment with friend and Swiss-German cameraman, fellow contributor to online podcast my must-not-miss imperative. Said cameraman has made one point more than clear to this occasionally absent-minded presenter: lateness is a cultural no-no here in Japan as well as Switzerland, where trains to even the most remote alpine villages are said to run on time. Being dilatory is not a usual quality for me, but sensitivity to being lectured just may be, so I took the diatribe in typically Japanese fashion—polite, silent stoicism. United outside Kamakura Station in full morning rush hour, we embark on foot to Kenchoji Temple, first Zen temple in Kamakura and founded in 1253, later pioneer of Zen Buddhism throughout the whole of Japan, with intent to film an episode of Inspiration News, permission gained by phone to interview a monk about his practise. The road from the station to temple is lined with vending machines, glass enclosed temptation so prevalent you could navigate at night by confectionery-lit glow. The road is passage for tourist pilgrimage rather than devoted darshan these days—one million tourists a year and obviously thirsty; but seven hundred years ago the entire nation orbited around this site, the Japanese Shogunate centred in Kamakura, Kenchoji its most important temple. The Rinzai Zen sect with some 500 branch temples was here overseen; seven main buildings, 49 sub-temples and at least one thousand people. Kenchoji Zen Temple, Kamakura, JapanThe first priest of Kenchoji was Chinese, not Japanese, Zen master Priest Doryu Rankei (1213-1278) of Zhejiang Province near Shanghai, invited as founding priest by Zen devotee and fifth Hojo Regent Tokiyo Hojo (1227-1263), patron and founder of a temple no local at the time was sufficiently qualified to officiate. Of the entire complex, only the Bonsho or temple bell stands from the year of founding, numerous fires and an earthquake in 1293 having damaged or destroyed every other structure. Designated a national treasure, it weighs 2,700 kilograms, and is too fragile to be tolled except on New Year’s Eve, when it is rung only 18 times instead of the traditional 108. Entrance to the Hojo or Chief Priest’s quarters begins with a large foyer lined with shelves for shoes. The interior proper begins past this point, floor raised about six inches, obvious differentiation between areas where shoes should and should not be worn. All aspects of the interior bespeak of perfection; of the stillness and clarity of the states of concentration and meditation. Lines are perfectly straight, lacquered black beams to finely sanded and then polished wooden floors. The meditation room is to the left, entry forbidden to visitors except between 5.00pm and 6.00pm on weekends, an hour long zazen or sit-in meditation open to laity, but the sliding doors are open, temptation to disappear into nothingness inside. Everything is still and perfect here, and familiar in a way I can’t place in memories living. I am quite disinclined to continue with the official reason for our visit—the reason for mine has already been met. We are led along a spotless, paper lined wooden framed hallway to a small room, offered seats on a contemporary style sofa in front of a traditional style Japanese low table. Although my companion did phone the day before to arrange our visit it transpires that no one here is familiar with our purpose—the filming of a monk and his practise, and there is ten minutes of polite consternation as a succession of people enter and leave the room with questions, whispered conversations apparent outside. In the end we are told that filming will be possible, but only for a ¥30,000 fee, a fee unable to be waived no matter how pure non-profit motive. Talking however is without charge, and seeing as paying for a filmed interview is beyond our non-existent budget as well as beliefs, we settle for this, questions to be asked by myself and translated by friend brought especially for the purpose, cameraman now largely redundant. The interviewee monk's minder, an officious young man of powerful build, obviously the senior, although not in apparent spirituality, leaves the room without payment, signal for the interview to begin. Mr Nagai-san, as the adept opposite us introduces himself, is a Zen monk of ten year’s practise and almost thirty years old, virtually the same as myself on both accounts. His father was a priest but gave his son the opportunity to choose a career life; like his father, he chose the spirituality and discipline of the monastic life instead. I ask as to whether he has aspirations, whether in time his duties will change, position or responsibilities raise, the unspoken question whether he might one day achieve a position of responsibility like his father, but he appears slightly offended at implications unintended. “Mr Nagai-san only does what he is told to do. Mr Nagai-san eats when he is told to eat, and what he is told to eat. Sleeps when he is told to sleep. He does not perform any action with intent or desire for self-reward.” I laugh and apologise, “I certainly did not mean any offence!” He tells us of the typical daily practise here in the monastery, an existence of simple chores and spiritual activities. Practise, in the widest sense of the word—for all activities undertaken in the monastery have a purported spiritual purpose, begins at 3am and finishes at midnight , and consists of cleaning, gardening and cooking, meditation in between. We are all amazed at the austerity and intensity of such an existence—I for one barely function on six hours a night. “Does Mr Nagai-san only sleep for three hours a night?” “When Mr Nagai-san is ready for this, then yes” is his reply. We are unable to get a more direct answer on this topic, returning again and again to variations of “One who follows the teachings of the Buddha will live in this manner.” It appears that three hours of sleep a night is his ultimate goal, but progress towards and readiness for such a level of discipline is judged by others; it is probably dishonourable for him to pass further comment on his own status in this respect. We continue talking for a while, telling him of our own meditation practise as members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, like tradesmen swapping notes, all the while sipping green tea provided and nibbling discreetly on sweetened rice crackers, trying our utmost not to lose a single crumb on the spotless floor. It is somewhat uncomfortable to be asking questions of him so directly, even though such a practise is standard and in fact required of the form of journalism we are engaged in; for me at least, keenly felt Japanese sensibilities dictate a discussion of polite pleasantries and shared affinities, a circling of the outer edges of but never crossing boundaries unspoken of acceptability. You could say, as we sit asking questions of this monk, that I am indulging a personal affinity with his lifestyle quite unnecessary of words. Many years ago at age six I was allowed to choose for myself a book on an occasional outing to town. I choose a picture book on Japan, a children’s travel book full of descriptions and photos, a kind of A-Z of the land and it's culture. I would read this book over and over, staring for hours at the photographs of a people and land strangely dear to my heart, pictures of bath houses, bullet trains and samurai warriors jostling with stories of seppuku and juken jigoku (examination-hell) for centre stage in a lively imagination. At age seven I began karate lessons, at my own insistence and pacifist Mother's reluctance, and was soon counting from one to ten over and over in Japanese while performing endless exercises and very occasional martial arts; "praying to the Lord Jesus" as instructed by fearful Mother during the several minutes of silent meditation at the beginning, ostensibly for my own spiritual protection but in truth welcome distraction from the impossibly hard task of wrestling to stillness writhing thoughts. Seeing the same robes I used to wear on these temple bound monks brought all this back to me, and something more, a deeper familiarity that was the originator of my Nihon interest, then and now. Only rice-paper thin proof of reincarnation perhaps, but were I to have more it would be very un-Japanese to share... Interview over, we depart with smiles and bows. We all have planes home to catch this day, but for me at least it is a farewell without sadness—I have found a second home, as much inside me as beneath red, rising sun.

Close the Window

Sun over Pacific Ocean by Jaitra GillespieOut of the corner of my eye someone is waving to me. Out of corner of hearing, headphones on and music playing, someone is speaking to me. “Excuse me...” Seat 23A, right next to the window, United Airlines flight 870 from Sydney to San Francisco, several hours in and several thousand kilometres into journey, I'm in a world of my own high above this world, listening to music while the Pacific Ocean shines, sparkles below. “Excuse me, can you close the window?” The man in same aisle, opposite row has caught my attention, silenced music’s refrain, redirected reverie’s wander with gesticulating hands and insistent tone. I am perfectly happy with the window open, pleasantly lost in clouds passing and distant ocean’s flow, but I am a veteran of these cross-Pacific, daytime into nighttime and back again flights, time and significant money spent practising meditation twice-yearly with Sri Chinmoy in New York for more than a decade, and closing the shutter at start of movies or onset of nighttime is as routine as jetlag upon landing. So, on the off-chance I have missed an official announcement, and the by-chance that I am by nature an accommodating person, I draw the blind as requested, close eyes to a peaceful world below to keep the peace up above. In Japan, “wa” or harmony, is considered important above all. What may be seen as lack of individuality or assertiveness from a Western perspective, in Japan is a long-studied, always conscious effort to keep the orchestra of society playing in tune. To a Japanese perspective, one’s individuality should not impact upon, should not detract from the freedoms and needs of others, and when it does, one breaks not only a social contract, but what is seen as the very law and fabric of the universe. In feudal Japan, sticking your head out so could on a bad day be enough to lose it. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to interrupt, but could you please close the window next to you as we are about to start the in-flight entertainment service.” Barbara the stewardess, with timing more perfect than drawling Californian delivery, enforces with public announcement what moments before I delivered unenforced. I don’t need to be instructed how to keep harmony; as though raised Japanese, despite being born over 5000 miles away, it is a private announcement I must always follow. Blinds closed, lights dimmed, attention dims, movies follow movies but are not followed as I drift in and out of the comfort of a sleep that is never comfortable. Check watch, read a book, stretch legs and shift weight, don’t check watch and read a book again, force my mind into passing time as cabin night—no stars above, few stars on B-grade screens—less than willingly passes into day. What should be a first resort is my last; at last I meditate the time away. Someone is tapping on my shoulder... Strangely, in the extreme lack of personal space that is modern coach travel—air, leg room and body heat all one and shared—it is still a shock to be deliberately touched by the person shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee with for over half a day, and my eyes jerk open as though woken straight from a dream. “Someone wants you to close the window”, owner of arms and legs says. “What, why?” ...first words to mind and then mouth as I scramble to remove headphones, leave stillness of meditation, gain my bearings. The lady sitting next to me shrugs, points to the aisle beyond. “Can you close the window please?” The same man as before, four seats across but not nearly far enough away, is gesticulating, motioning with up and down gesture to once more close the blind I had opened, movies now watched and half-forgotten, just a short while before. Something within me disagrees. Something about the man disagrees. I will not be complying or accommodating him this time. Two hours into flight, point of departure’s night yet to be flown through and movies yet to start, sure I’ll close the window. Two hours to go, breakfast about to be served and movies closed, no way, not a chance. “Why?” I retort, not merely a question but forceful, deliberate challenge. ‘I'm happy with it unclosed,’ my unspoken, implied justification, ’and who are you enforce your will on all of row 23?’ Trapped between open window and wide open pride, I will not be backing down. “I can't see the film!” His face is turning red, and his voice, climbing above dull drone of aircraft engines, has reached a pitch approaching a whine. You can tell a lot from a person the first time you see them—first impressions do not lie as the saying goes; first thought, best thought same adage by another name. This is what I trusted in challenging Mr 23E’s request—I followed my heart, acted upon what felt right at the time. Woken from quiet reverie two times, face to indignant face a second time, with near blank mind and meditative calm, the part of my being that reacted so strongly was the right part, the trustworthy part: the plain, dependable truth of my heart. ‘His request is selfish and unreasonable,’ my heart spoke, ‘more about him getting his own way,’ its clear explanation. ‘He does this sort of thing all the time, do not give in to him’ the inner instruction, and in a flash, less than a single second, action right and response appropriate were decided, chosen without a moment for pause or consideration. “I can see it just fine” I reply, calmly, strongly, a statement of truth, fact to take or leave rather than apology or excuse. Trapped in his seat by more than buckle and belt, he squirms, searches to and fro, looks as if for Barbara the stewardess the come to his aid, but like his manners, she is nowhere to be seen. Humpf!”, 23E mutters in disgust, muted, half-beneath his breath. He turns away, defeated, harmony not I the victor over his inconsiderate demand. I have put a bully in his rightful place, and I have put harmony back in her place, visible like the through window open, strolling freely up and down the aisle. Sri Chinmoy taught that in today’s world it is no longer appropriate to turn the other cheek when wronged, keep the peace at any cost at all. Rather we must illumine ignorance when we cross it, and put wrongs right where we can, not as in an eye for eye and tooth for tooth, but by defending ourselves, staying the hand of one who would give us a slap. In turning not our cheeks, we prevent another from doing wrong, and slowly, action by right action, make the world a better place.
So we have to be very careful when somebody does something wrong to us. It is not that we are threatening them. Far from it. Only we have to feel that by allowing him to do the same thing again, or indulge in the same wrong action, we are taking him away from his own divinity. At each moment, just as we should always try not to do anything wrong ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, we should also not allow another person to do anything wrong. We know that our encouragement of his mistake is in no way serving as kind of compassion. No. If we encourage him to do the wrong thing again and again, then this is not compassion. This is our self-imposed weakness in the name of compassion. —Sri Chinmoy, Earth’s Cry Meets Heaven’s Smile, Part 3

Long White Cloud by Alan Spence

My stories often have their origin in something that actually happened - an incident, a memory, something heard. (In this case it was the leap out of a plane at 12000 feet - one of the scariest things I've ever done). It's then a case of finding a voice, letting characters take shape, coalesce round the incident. Then I see how they deal with it, where it leads, and in the process I figure out what the story's really about. (Usually it's mortality, that great resounding bass note that's always present in our lives).
So writes Alan Spence, award winning poet, playwright and author about his short story Long White Cloud, and what a story it is, a sketch descending at terminal velocity from personal experience, a death-defying, fear-facing leap from a plane evoking cloud covered memories of other lives lived, lake surface below reflections on mortality and what may lie beyond. Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, Spence clearly knows from cover to cover the topic he teaches. He takes the stuff of personal experience—a trip to New Zealand, a leap from a moving plane—and gives it voice, clothing, personality; characters and narrative germinated from the seeds of emotion and memory, a flower beautiful to behold, story compelling to read the final, blossoming result.
“The kind of thing that had happened to him before. Memories that were not his own. Once in Japan, he’d looked at himself in the mirror, seen someone else entirely looking back at him,  a Japanese man with the intense gaze of a warrior.  Someone else, and yet.”
Reincarnation, memories of past lives, visions of samurai warriors encountered in a 12,000 foot plunge into nothingness and empty space? Not so far-fetched when your next life is getting closer at 200 kph, and not so far-fetched when the airbourne author runs a meditation centre—the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Edinburgh—where presumably he practises daily the cross-legged, back upright and breath relaxed equivalent of descending from the heavens at a rate of knots. “All paths lead to Rome”, as Sri Chinmoy himself once said, “but one may get us there a little quicker or easier.” In his mid 50s, Spence writes as if he is the same age as the students he teaches every day, as if 50 is the new 30 as his opening lines muse, energetically merging lyrics from a song by Blur and prostrate checks with meditations on mortality and the vapid thrill-seeking of youth, as if the author’s practise of meditation has infused his writing then spilled beyond, branched out from the meditation cushion and taken root in every life and situation met. His most recent long player, The Pure Land, “a modern epic, at once a rattling good adventure, a heart-wrenching love story and a journey of the spirit”, was translated into 19 languages and his most successful book, but if this recently written short story is any indication, Spence is warming up, building momentum for an even greater work. Read the short story: Long White Cloud by Alan Spence.

Airport Anxiety or a flight down memory lane

The following story has sentimental value for me far beyond whatever worth it may possess of its own right and writing. Not only was it written in Japan, penned during the final hours of first visit to a land that has always had a mysterious, wasabi-strong pull, but it was more or less my first ever attempt at writing—first attempt at composing words just for the sake of writing, just for the sake of telling a story. Yes, I had written before this point—tens of thousands of words and nearly sanity as well unburdened in the course of an Arts degree; public relations and journalism also attempted to varying degrees of success; even published and paid for doing so once by a glossy nationwide magazine; but here marks the point and starting line crossed of daring to call myself a “writer”, even if doing so was prefaced and footnoted with self-effacing, pride-protecting excuses. To completely frank, reading this piece now makes me cringe—it is self-indulgent, unfocused, of unclear voice, metre and metres wide of aim and intent—but then it should be—you don’t get to here without starting from there, and with hundreds of stories now behind me, if I can’t see progress made and ability progressed, it would be time to admit that I never will. So I will resist the urge to tinker and rewrite, edit and rework, and present story and bared soul just as I wrote it: Airport Anxiety—energetic, coffee fueled prose composed in a Tokyo airport coffee shop, with considerable debt and mention owed to Waiter Rant.

Airport Anxiety

Almost home. Not that I without regret to be leaving Japan—in fact quite the opposite, for this country has just made the top of my “All time favourite places that I have visited and would like to be born in next lifetime” list. Not a long list to be honest, but a list probably in need of a shorter title. There is always an end to everything in life, and responsibilities’ voice tells me that I have a job and numerous commitments to return to. And a pocket fast running out of money. I get off the free hotel bus at Terminal 2, Narita Airport, Tokyo. Or should I say "de-bus", for I am at an international airport, and here only Japanese and American English are understood. Call me a crank, but one of these days I will refuse to leave my seat when I am asked to "de-plane"... But returning to the topic of poverty's pinch. I have just spent three nights at the Narita Hilton, and am now seriously out of pocket. At this point you may question the wisdom of staying in a four star hotel when one is on a budget. While I do occasionally suffer from delusions of aristocratic grandeur, delusions that I have yet to precisely place, in my defence I got a very good price via the internet, after failing to secure a reservation at six cheaper locations. Also in my defence, neither the website, nor the barely comprehensible American call-centre operator named Chuck, who processed my credit card, said a thing about the fact that breakfast, gym use and internet would be additional. Thank goodness for hotel room push-ups. I have timed poverty's approach to approximately the door of airplane. Once on board I will no longer need coin or currency, and I am almost there. A quick check of the entrance-way terminal map, and I head straight for the Air New Zealand check-in desk. And then back again to the map. "Yes, Air New Zealand, Aisle D" I confirm mentally—it says so right here in English. Again I traverse the Great Wall-like queue at the Air China desk in vain. "Um, excuse me, this is Aisle D, but there is no Air New Zealand counter in sight" my internal monologue continues unbidden, and completely rhetorically. And then out loud to a semi-articulate but genuinely helpful lady at the information counter near-by. "Air New Zealand-da, Flight-ta 90-a, check-in-na at-ta 4.45pm", is her answer, but not the solution to my problem. And no I can't enter my frequent flyer airline lounge without checking in, and besides that particular lounge is in Terminal 1—this is Terminal 2. "American-Express-a lounge-a 2nd-da floor. Pay at door to enter-a?" she offers helpfully. It is only 11.30am and I am near broke in the airport of the most expensive city in the world. Too broke to even eat the wax food effigies that double as menus in the restaurant windows. With a full five hours to kill my first thought is getting rid of my bag, seeing as it doubles as a portable film studio and is ridiculously heavy. After all I've already had my hotel-room work-out this morning. Conveniently placed behind the check-in counter where I can't yet check-in is a bag storage service, slightly more expensive than the lockers, but the only option when one is travelling jumbo size. I hand, or rather bodily lift my bag to the attendant, and fill in the proffered baggage check form, noting the charge of ¥500 per day (about US$5) with the practised nonchalance that only having a well-paying job can bring. "Do you take credit cards?" I ask blithely, for only in hindsight will I remember that this is Japan, possibly the most technologically advanced nation in the world in all regards except it's banking system—the use of foreign issued credit cards is everywhere a lottery. "Yen only" he replies. "Pay-a on pick-up-u." I mumble near incoherently something resembling "thank-you" and "I'll find some cash"—not that clarity is a top priority when people don't speak more than 10 words of your language—for it has just occurred to me that I spent my last ¥-flavoured coinage of note on an iced-coffee from the hotel lobby store. The attendant smiles politely, as everyone in Japan does. It's not that Japan doesn't have ATMs, for it has almost as many as the ubiquitous roadside coffee and soft drink vending machines, but ATMs that work with foreign cards are another matter. As are foreign issued cards that are over their limit and then some. I am wander around the terminal in a financially motivated panic-induced daze, clarity of thought deserted, wondering how on earth I am going to retrieve my bags with neither coin nor linguistics. Call me hopelessly attached, but I am quite keen to leave the country with everything with which I came. The world changes when you are poor—mentally if not substantially. Suddenly, to my eyes, everyone I see possesses a security which having money brings, a security which I now lack. It may be only a perception, and the wiser part of me knows that perceptions are just that—changeable, relative and often mistaken, and on these terms easy to dismiss—but this perception is gripping me tight, like the sense of fear gripping my throat. Childhood memories of losing a parent in a public place are revisited, and a similar almost uncontrollable fear and sense of helplessness is pressing strongly against the poise and detachment that I normally practise if not embody. Then an event happens which is hardly conducive to my slightly shaken and stirred state of mind—I am stopped by two policemen and asked for my passport. Polite and friendly in a very sincere way you will almost never find in other countries, none the less I still have to swallow a new feeling: slowly rising, angry indignation. The officer who asked for my passport begins examining the finer details of my nationality, copying them to a piece of paper which already contains several names, while the other asks my occupation. "Designer" I say quickly, making a mental calculation as to which of my various job descriptions will most easily be understood. He looks slightly confused, so I move to what is the universally understood occupation of our time: "website developer" ("film star" wouldn't have been true). "Ohhhh, website-u designer-ah" he nods approvingly, repeating phonetically the same in Japanese to his colleague, whom to my relief has so far politely avoided making any comment upon my more than unflattering passport photo. "This is YOU?" or "Sir, are you on medication?" the unspoken commentary that springs to mind. So it seems that I do not pose a high enough risk to airport security to warrant further action, action which, although it may have helped pass the remaining time in hand is, I suspect, best avoided. Perhaps they were after another "handsome, European male of average height and powerful physique." Or completely short-sighted. I walk past people in café windows laughing and drinking coffees. Something which, financially thirsty, I cannot do. Laughter may still be affordable, but I am not in the mood. In the process of simultaneously looking for a working ATM and considering ever more fantastic outcomes to what common sense tells me is really a minor predicament, a brief moment of clarity intrudes, and I remember to check the change pocket of my wallet, currently heavy enough to be a bodily appendage in it's own right. In one of those fortuitous moments of cosmic synchronicity which can never be planned, yet occur daily in even the smallest details of a seeker's life, I have precisely ¥500 in change—not a "go-en" less or more. My deposited bag is secured; so is my poise. Jolted from the self-sustaining feedback loop of fear and worry, worry and fear, confidence re-emerges like the sun from behind a cloud, and in its' secure warmth I find my way to a more than tiny Post Office in the shadows of the Terminal basement—the one dependable place in Japan for securing currency with international cards. With ¥500 already in my pocket, and like a gambler drunk on sudden success, I am going for broke—I may yet strike a coffee and cake jackpot with which to pass the time. In the end I was a winner—¥2000 yen remaining on an assortment of magnetically stripped plastic cards whose balances I dared not read. Enough to buy, against my waistline's better judgment, a white chocolate latte and cinnamon danish from "Starbucku", and to my further delight, access to a wireless internet connection in same. Glazed with minor fortune and fueled with caffeine, the first draft of this post was the result, a giddy stream of infectiously confident prose written in a single take in a Narita coffee shop. It was all a minor predicament of course, made larger than lifelike through my thoroughly fanciful imagination, but in final judgment, another valuable lesson in the meditative prerequisites of calm and poise—core subjects in a life-long course I intend to master.

Prime Ministers’ wives are from Venus

miyuki-hatoyamaJapanese Prime Minister-elect Yukio Hatoyama did the impossible last week, a landslide victory won for his Democratic Party of Japan, an unprecedented reversal of election fortune over the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party, who have ruled Japan for all but 11 months since 1955. Retired actress, author, lifestyle guru and wife of the Prime Minister, Miyuki Hatoyama, has also done the impossible, breaking through boundaries of reason and possibly sanity as well to go where no First Lady has gone before—completely out of this world. “I have been abducted by aliens” says Japan’s first lady of involuntary space travel. But maybe not from the same planet as the rest of us. In a book published a year ago, Very Strange Things I've Encountered, the interstellar Prime Minister’s wife confided that she was abducted by aliens while sleeping one night 20 years ago.
“While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus. It was a very beautiful place, and it was very green.”
Not content with watching reruns of The Last Samurai or Top Gun, the 62-year-old explorer of greener pastures also claims to have known Tom Cruise in a previous life, when she says he was also Japanese, and looks forward to sharing billing with him on a Hollywood blockbuster. “I believe he’d get it if I said to him, ‘Long time no see’, when we meet,” she confided about the diminutive leading man in a recent interview. An author of a book on cooking, Hatoyama recently revealed on daytime TV an unusual breakfast snack—“I also eat the sun” every morning. “Yum, yum, yum” she said as she closed her eyes and demonstrated the act of consuming tasty solar treats from the sky, adding, “I get energy from it. My husband also does this.” Perhaps she acquired a taste for yellow main sequence stars during a nighttime fly past to Venus? Men may be from Mars, but Prime Minister’s wives are now from Venus. Source: The Independent

The 108 Steps of Perfection

Karate, kata, perfect form and perfectionism in Japan

Newlands Karate Club, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983At the age of seven, the result of an I don’t know from where interest in Japan, I began learning karate, lessons undertaken at my own insistence, my mother’s weary acquiescence. Perhaps she sensed that it would be either breaking blocks of wood or chopping bones on a rugby field, and thus surrendered to my desire to learn this more refined, disciplined form of violence. The early eighties were a slightly unusual time to learn martial arts. The Bruce Lee, one-inch-punch inspired craze of the seventies had faded, perhaps on a pair of roller skates, while the ninja craze of straight to video fame had yet to take strangle-hold. I was therefore the youngest student at my local Japanese karate dojo, the only without sideburns or handle-bar moustache, trading punches, blocks and kicks with teenagers and adults who had started learning while the star of Enter the Dragon had still been alive. I had not even been born when Lee mysteriously died. bruce-leeFrom time to time younger students like myself would join our small neighbourhood group, but few would last more than a fistful of lessons; the iron discipline of stretching, exercise and practicing technique, over and over again, was less attractive than computer games or television, and actual sparring sessions—the tofu and potatoes of martial arts, where long-honed technique is finally put into wrist snapping, high kicking practice—were few and far between. Unlike Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, few ever graduated from “wax on, wax off...”
Pure Zen Quote from The Karate Kid: The Karate Kid: Hey, where do these cars come from? Mr Miyagi: Detroit.
Perhaps all those cranky, letter to the newspaper editor writers are right. Discipline and patience are, high-scores on a Playstation aside, mostly foreign to my generation. Hanashiro ChomoRather than fighting an actual opponent, karate lessons would culminate in hours learning kata—stylised, dance-like movements performed in a series and, initially at least, in slow motion. Kata is said to represent the technique required to simultaneously fight and defeat an overwhelming number of opponents—a theory of combat put into action most famously by master Japanese swordsman and strategist Miyamoto Musashi. It was a little like learning to swing a golf club or a tennis racket—learning the correct form, through repetition, to master perfection in physical action. There are around 100 kata in total across the various disciplines of karate, with the ultimate said to be Suparinpei, a word of Chinese origin which literally translates as “108”—the number of actions in this supreme kata. For those who, like the subtle flavours of a sushi roll, prefer to find meanings wrapped inside meanings, the number 108 is not only an “abundant,” “semi-perfect,” “tetranacci” and “refactorable” number in mathematics, but a total of great spiritual significance.

The Spiritual Significance of the Number 108

  • the essence of the Vedic scriptures, considered to be the greatest heritage of India and foundation of Hinduism, are the 108 Upanishads, or writings which expound the philosophic principles of the Vedas;
  • Japa mala used for repetition of mantra contain 108 beads;
  • Hindu deities are said to have 108 names;
  • Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps;
  • The number of sins in Tibetan Buddhism total 108;
  • At the end of the each year in Japan a bell is chimed 108 times to finish the old year and welcome the new. Each ring is said to represent one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana.
  • There are said to be 108 energy lines converging to form the spiritual heart chakra;
  • 108 is the sum of “the numbers” in the at times mystical TV show Lost (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42). I admit that the spiritual significance of this last fact may be questionable...
There is more to kata than grown men practising martial arts in pyjamas—over and over again. How much more? Wax on, wax off, my friend...

Kata and Perfection Through Perfect Form

The word kata, like karate, was born in Japan, and translates literally as “form.” Kata is more than simple outer appearance, structure or method; it is derived, both in word and concept, from shikata—“way of doing things”. Like “the Way” of Taoism, shikata is synonymous with a striving for perfection: a perfect way of doing will eventually reveal a perfect way of being, just as the course of a river wears smooth the jagged surface of a stone. Japanese garden pathOver the course of centuries kata evolved to the point where there became a perfect way of doing everything. Every facet of existence in traditional Japan was perfected, down to the arrangement of food upon a tray or flowers within a vase. Kata however is more than a purely physical concept, more than action or object of the human hand. Zen Buddhism, which entered Japan from China in the 12th century, introduced into the national consciousness the insight that perfection has an inner component as well; that mental training was just as important, if not even more so, than physical mastery in achieving the perfection of any skill. Illumined by the the influence of Zen, mastery of kata came to mean the attainment of a meditative oneness with the action or discipline practised. A painter would seek not just to paint, but become the brush upon the page; a swordsman become one with the sword in hand.
“Early in their history the Japanese developed the belief that form had a reality of its own, and that it often took precedence over substance. They also believed that anything could be accomplished if the right kata was mentally and physically practised long enough.” —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese
Kata, the correct, harmonious way of doing things, links the inner and the outer in Japan—it links body and soul, man and the gods. The inner order, which the Japanese call “heart,” is linked directly to the outer, cosmic order by correct form—the spiritual realm manifested in the physical through perfect action.
“To the Japanese there was an inner order (the individual heart) and a natural order (the cosmos), and these two were linked together by form—by kata. It was kata that linked the individual and society. If one did not follow the correct form, he was out of harmony with both his fellow man and nature. The challenge facing the Japanese was to know their own honshin, “true” or “right heart,” then learn and follow the kata that would keep them in sync with society and the cosmos. —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese
Japanese Zen stone gardenJapanese will not accept a minimum standard as a goal; rather they expect absolute perfection—nothing is considered finished or complete until perfect. Which of course, lofty Zen masters aside, is near impossible for the average mortal to achieve. Hence the Japanese expression Kiga Susumanai—“my spirit is not satisfied.” Trapped between the inflexible postures of kata and insurmountable heights of perfection, Japanese are said to suffer constantly from this chronic spiritual dissatisfaction, a deeply felt discomfort at their inability to be perfect in everything they do:
“This spiritual discomfort burns in “pure” Japanese like an undying flame, constantly spurring them on to do more and do better...” —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, The Japanese Have a Word for It

The Path of My Own Perfection

I was not born Japanese, and have spent no more than ten days there in this life, but the quest for kata and perfection rings true in me without cause or reason, speaks if from an instruction manual to self lost before birth. My path to mastering kata in this life however, quelling the dissatisfaction of imperfection was neither straight nor direct, for I never did get that far with karate. I studied for three years, attained a purple belt and attended, without notable success, a solitary tournament—the experience literally of getting kicked in the face. An extended period overseas then saw my burning desire to acquire a black belt, and I presumed, the eventual attainment of mysterious insight and powers, thwarted. But desire for martial perfection was not lost so easily, and I am to this day, somewhat impracticably and yet to defeat a group of opponents with my bare knuckles and toes, dissatisfied at my imperfection in this particular kata or form. I guess there will be another lifetime... Life, the greatest teacher and master of them all, doesn't give up easily when there is a lesson to learn, and some decade after ceasing lessons in karate I discovered the practise of meditation, first introduced briefly in those childhood sparring halls. In meditation, I found the kata of perfection I had always been seeking, a perfection requiring a form and method within.
“If we say that someone's body is perfect, then we are just giving an overall view. But when we say "perfect perfection," it means that each cell is perfect; everything that is inside that body is perfect. Perfect perfection is the perfection of the entire being. Whatever the being has and whatever the being is, is perfect.” —Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from Philosophy, Religion And Yoga.

The Language of Humility

Honorifics and keigo in Japan—the language of politeness

Different from the major Western languages, and a further refinement of the systems used in other Asian languages, Japanese has an extensive, complicated system of honorifics—keigo—to explicitly express politeness, humility and formality. Relationships are seldom equal in Japan, and the grammar employed in any given context is dependent upon a complex combination of factors such as age, gender, job and experience of both the person speaking and person spoken to. Simply put, speaking to one of higher position requires a polite form of speech, while speaking to one lower dictates a plainer form. Intent also plays a role—when asking for a favour humble language is expected, and previous favours done or owed dictate a requisite humility in language spoken. Maiko bowingStrangers, even when not familiar with rank or position, also will usually speak to one another politely in Japanese, using a neutral language middle-ground if a difference in status is not immediately apparent. Women generally speak a more polite style of language than men, and use it in a broader range of circumstances. Interestingly, in Heian Japan, a period approximately one thousand years ago, not just language but handwriting was gender-specific—women were confined to the hiragana script, with its rounder, so-called “feminine” edges. Other Asian languages do employ honorifics, for example Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese and Javanese—all with exalted terms for others and terms humble for self, but the Japanese system is by far the most complex, a simple sentence capable of being expressed in more than twenty different ways, dependent on the context of speaker and spoken to. Unlike other languages, Japanese honorifics alter the level of respect or humility based upon context as well as the person spoken to or about. For example, when talking about a company president inside the company, exalted terms are used, but referring to the same person outside the company requires humble language. The relativity of keigo is in sharp contrast to the Korean system of absolute honorifics, where the same register used regardless of the context or relationship of those speaking. Translated verbatim in Japanese, the Korean language comes across as extremely presumptuous; the perfectly acceptable “Our Mr. Company-President” in Korean totally inappropriate if used “out-of-group,” or outside the company, in Japanese. harajukuKeigo is not learned in Japan until the teens, a time when one is expected to begin to learn to speak “politely.” This is partly due the complexity of the language and its honorific forms, although no doubt some would suggest that the rudeness of young is a universal trait. New employees are frequently sent on courses by employers to refine their use of honorifics, and it is not uncommon for even university graduates to have not completely mastered all the polite forms of the Japanese language. In recent years some Japanese companies, in the face of a long economic slump, have attempted to abandon keigo in favour of a more open, hopefully competitive culture; parents often no longer emphasise honorific language to their children, and most schools no longer expect its use in the classroom. The result is that many young people in Japan today have a poor understanding of honorifics, and feel little compulsion to use them. No doubt ardent writer-patriot and master of the Japanese language Yukio Mishima, along with every other long-dead champion of old Japan, will be spinning in his grave.

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