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Tag: zen

Football Zen

Football meditation by Pavitrata Football and the art of meditation, a photo sublime on more levels than playing fields, by sublime photographer Pavitrata Taylor.
If you see art, try to see the Artist inside it. You will do this only by taking them as one. When you see art, you will feel that inside the art there is something which you need badly, and that is the Supreme. The Supreme is both art and artist, both creator and creation. When you realise this, you can easily meditate on the Supreme in art. —Sri Chinmoy, Art's Life And The Soul's Light

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.

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.

Dog on Zen

Naha, Japan: Conan, a male chihuahua, mimics Buddhist priest Joei Yoshikuni at Jigenin temple Meet Conan, a male chihuahua from Naha, Japan, who’s renounced more traditional doggy pursuits for Dogen—a formative style of Zen from the 13th century that equates meditation and enlightenment as one and the same—chasing after the ever-spinning shiny wheel of rebirth before he’s even taken human birth. Buddhist priest Joei Yoshikuni (pictured) of the Jigenin temple didn’t comment as to whether his own meditation practice had gone to the dogs...
Photograph: Toru Yamanaka/AFP

Beautiful Moments in Film #2: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson's War: Story of the Zen master and the little boy

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) by Mike Nichols

CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Listen, not for nothing, but do you know the story about the Zen master and the little boy? Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Oh is this something from Nitsa the Greek witch of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania?1 Gust: Yeah as a matter of fact it is. There's a little boy. Now on his 14th birthday he gets a horse, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful the boy got a horse,” and the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says “How terrible,” and the Zen master says “We'll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful”... Charlie: Now the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Gust: So you get it? Charlie: No. No, cause I’m stupid... Gust: You're not stupid, you’re just in Congress.
Shimura’s “Cherry Blossom Storm” (1953)Impermanence is at the heart of Japanese culture, and the Zen tradition with which it is intrinsically bound. In Japan, appreciation of art and life itself is informed with an implicit understanding of the true impermanence of reality, that we each are here today, gone tomorrow—we and everything else in this world. Such an appreciation of impermanence sees a half clouded moon as more beautiful than one full, fallen cherry blossoms upon the ground more so than spring’s first bloom. As symbols, the clouded moon and decaying cherry blossoms both capture the truth at reality’s heart, and truth is infinitely more beautiful in Zen—and spirituality in general for that matter—than illusion or untruth.
When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. —John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819
John KeatsIt is a pre-modern take on the Law of Entropy informed by millennia of inward reflection, no less valid because empirically verified by the experience of heart and soul. We don’t need a particle reactor to know that everything in this universe comes to an end.
“All men think all men mortal, but themselves.” —Edward Young
In the context of Charlie Wilson’s War, this parable of the fleeting nature of reality is used to illustrate that today’s victory may be tomorrow’s loss, today’s loss tomorrow's victory. It is 1989, and real life congressman Charlie Wilson has just seen has seen himself vindicated, his policy of arming the Afghani Mudjahadeen paying off spectacularly in the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet army, a pivotal turning point in the Cold War. Yes it is a victory says CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, but where will today’s success take us tomorrow? Spirituality sees success and failure as obverse and reverse sides of the same coin, the coin of human experience which leads gradually, steadily and unerringly to the experience of true reality—the experience of truth with a capital ‘T’—the infinity, immortality and eternity of the human soul.
If I stoop Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud, It is but for a time; I press God's lamp Close to my breast; its splendor soon or late Will pierce the gloom; I shall emerge one day. —Robert Browning
Poet Robert BrowningFrom a spiritual point of view to live only for success is as mistaken as to avoid failure at all costs; both represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. Understanding life from a deeper perspective, a perspective grounded upon truth requires a longer, broader point of view than the present moment alone, with its ups and downs, victories and losses, happiness and sadness, for success and failure all are equally valid, greater and lesser steps towards the self-same goal—realisation of the ultimate truth.
No Failure No failure, no failure. Failure is the shadow Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the changing body Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the fast approaching train Of the greatest success. —Sri Chinmoy, The Dance of Life, Part 13, Agni Press, 1973.
With parables by meditation teachers in film rarer than actual masters of meditation in real life, the quoting of a Zen koan in Charlie Wilson’s War alone makes it eligible as a “Beautiful Moment in Film”—whatever the quality (and it is by no means inconsequential) of the cinematography, acting or directing. How often are the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow? How often do we even make the distinction? All too frequently the sayings of celebrity, beauty and power are writ larger in this world than their words alone justify; not frequently enough the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow. One day the words of wise people may actually be worth more than the wisdom of ‘fools.’ I can’t wait to see the films made when that day arrives.
“Human life is limited, but I want to live for ever.” —Yukio Mishima, final written words.

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Footnote

  1. “After Gust Avrakotos’s outburst against the head of the Clandestine Services, he was unemployable in the CIA. Stung, Gust went home to Aliquippa and asked a family friend (the town witch) to create a curse against his boss Graver. Had any of the teams in the CIA found out about the curse, they would have sent Gust away for psychiatric evaluation, but the curse was a private affair.” Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile.