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Zen practice and life and death

It turns out that my stay coincided with a sort of "day off" here; got to sleep in to almost 7am, no morning service or zazen. Breakfast, like dinner last night, was formal; a whole thing about how you unwrap your bowls, pass and serve the food, and clean and re-wrap. It's curious to me that the food is eaten very quickly. I have heard this is a Rinzai thing, don't know if it's the same in Soto zendos. But if I were designing a eating ritual I'd slow it down to encourage mindfulness.

The chanting is done very quickly also; though I was given a book to follow, I was quickly lost. Okay, though, they seem to be practicing good forbearance on me here.

But it does make me wonder what the hurry is. "Hey, hurry up so we can get back to zazen!", or something? Except that we rush through a meal then have free time until the next scheduled thing. Maybe monks value that free time.

Anyway, it's cool. Zazen last night two sessions of about 30 minutes, with a short rest and stretch in between. Longer than I've sat before (at least, discounting a few extraordinary circumstance of altered states of consciousness).

Today, after lunch (informal, nice discussion - turns out the head monk here, a Russian fellow, used to do Judo and has studied acupuncture, so we had some budo and some healing talk), took a little hike up into the woods. Sat zazen by the stream for a while, watching the water eddy around the rocks.

I've written about the precepts, about the Noble truths, about magick and mysticism, since I've been here, but I haven't much touched on the big one, the thing so many people turn to religion for comfort regarding: death.

Zen center, genealogical research

Monday. So here I am at the Zen Center, little break between evening service (chanting, I was lost except for the 10-line Kannon Sutra).

So I'm about 75% packed, will finish when I get back Wednesday. Spent yesterday scrubbing the apartment, cleaning cleaning cleaning. Also wasting time on the net; I found a free trial offer on, a genealogical site. Everyone here asking about my family ha stirred up the idea that I ought to do some research. The site has census records searches, which let me track back a ways; did find that Mom's side, the Sproles and the Hobbs both, seem to go back earlier that I'd thought - pre-Civil War. I'd always

flat tire, the problem with religion, changing our minds

At the Cellar now, probably the last chance I'll get to see Eric play with the Tardy Boys. Good fun bar music.

Rode my bike down. Got a flat. Hell. Walking my bike, looked for a gas station with an air pump, found a closed station, no air though. Stopped down here, Edwin suggested to try the koban at Triangle Park, since the local cops do bike patrol a bit. Went down, pointed at the flat, got a pump. Trying to get some air into the tire (the valves are different and I haven't fully figured them out), I smelled smoke. A few minutes later, there were many fire engines on the scene right across the street, quite a bit of smoke pouring out. Some people seemed to be trapped on the fifth floor, I was a little worried, until a cherry-picker truck showed up (most of the fire engines are about the size of minivans). So that was a thing to see.

So I've been thinking a bit the past few days about just what exactly is the problem I'm trying to solve with this whole "Zen Pagan" thing? What is the requirements spec?

The problem:

Religion has always been a mess.

There are a couple of things that get mixed up. There's the desire for a certain experience, that experience of connection, of the Godhead. There's ethical teachings - both in the 'Thou shall not' and in the 'For your contentment, we suggest' variations. There's the myths and legends that give us role models. There's the superstitions born of fear, and the supernaturalism born out of ignorance. There's the preservation of the knowledge needed for the community to thrive. There's the deliberate hiding of knowledge that would threaten the priesthood's power.

Kurama; Buddhist precepts; "You got your mind right?"

Today, Kurama. This mountain is the birthplace of Reiki; Gogen Yamaguchi trained here. There's also a legend about the swordsman Yoshitsune learning from a tengu (goblin) here.

So I was quite interested in seeing the place. The temple (which pretty much owns the mountain, apparently) used to be Tendai, but now is independent, which I found interesting.

But the I get there and get the brochure. "More than six million years ago, Mao-son (the great king of the conquerors of evil and the spirit of the earth) descended upon Mt. Kurama from Venus, with the great mission of the salvation of mankind." Uh, yeah, sure. And it seems from the tone of the brochure that they take this, not as a legend about the temple's founding, but an article of faith. So that was a turn-off.

liberation, "do what thou wilt"

So I'm thinking about this upcoming stay at the Zen center. Zen is a way of liberation, which raises the question - liberation from what? The thing is, we're already free, Buddha-nature permeates everything.

This is easy for even a child to say, but hard for even a wise elder to practice.

Similar is Crowley's "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." That leaves only two minor questions - "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" - to be investigated. (I wonder if JMS thought of it this way?)

Shinkansen tickets, artistic lap dance, drinking in moderation

On the Shinkansen to Nagoya.

The brain - and this is not at all an original observation - is a strange thing.

So here I am on this blazing fast train, Osaka to Kyoto in fifteen minutes (really - left Shin-Osaka 14;23, now stopped in Kyoto 14:38). Am I worried about a fiery crash? No, I was worried that, even with English available on the ticket machines, I wouldn't be able to figure out how to buy a ticket. (Shinkansen tickets are this weird two-part deal, one for the distance, one for the means by which you travel it.) But I puzzled it out. Hurray for me.

Stayed out late last night for Liz's sayonara party. She had to change her performance plan: renting a projector would have been prohibitively expensive, sort of defeating the whole chairtable purpose of the gig. So she decided to auction off a "lap dance". Well, seeing as it's all for a good cause, when the first few bids were low, I decided to it bump up a bit. Somehow David and I ended up tying with winning bids, and a round of rock-paper-scissors came out in a tie (two scissors), so we both chipped in 5000 Yen (about $40) and got to be participants in the show. (It was a PG-13, experimental improv "lap dance", not really the sort of thing you see at the "gentleman's club", more of a hoot than a turn-on. Fun.)

kumite, upcoming Zen center stay

Wednesday, by the way, was promotion night at the Kansai dojo. Four people testing for ikkyu and nikyu. I was the only yudansha for the kumite; interesting to think how I'll be a memory here. "Hey, remember my advanced brown belt promotion, when that wacky American sensei was here?" As senior guy present I got to tie belts on people - back home that honor always goes to Kyoshi Kate, of course.

So, I'm going to be ending my stay here with two days at a Zen Center! Last Saturday I met (re-met, actually) David's housemate Amelia, who had spend a few days at the Tekishin center a bit outside Kyoto, and really recommended it. I contacted them, and I'm going to stay for two nights, the 28th and 29th. From what I understand it's pretty much working and living monk-style, with lots of zazen, working around the temple, and formal ritual meals. I don't think it'll be cushy but it should be educational.

Iga Ueno: Basho's birthplace (oh, and ninjas)

in the garden of
Basho's ancestral home -
a buttefly

Today, out to Iga Ueno. Kind of out in the sticks, you have to ride the Kansai/Yamatoji line way out past Nara to the Yamatoji line's end at Kamo, the pick up a tiny backcountry train to Iga Ueno. Then I switched to a Kintetsu train to go downtown.

To paraphrase Lou Gosset Jr.'s drill sergeant from An Officer and a Gentleman: "Only two things come out of Iga Ueno, boy: ninjas and haiku masters. And I don't see no sword on your back."

This is the home town, the birthplace, of Basho. And it's also known for it's ninjas, apparently they were allies of Ieyasu Tokagawa. Guess which one the lady at the tourist office assumed I was here to see? But she seemed pleasantly surprised when I inquired after the Basho museum instead of the Ninja one.

The museum is not much to see if you can't read Japanese, but I could enjoy some paintings on the scrolls, and it's closest to the station.

But Basho's birthplace and childhood home, preserved or restored, is something to see. The lady who worked there was so nice; only a bit of English but tried to explain as much to me as possbile. Took my photo outside the place for me. Looking into the courtyard garden - bam! butterfly, so the above haiku.

She gave me an English map of the local Basho sites. At her suggestion I visited the nearby Shinto shrine to which he dedicated his first collection of poems. The shrine is not a spectacular sight, but interesting that a fellow so associated with Zen would make such a gesture.

Jerry Falwell - dead

Famed televangelist and founder of the "Moral Majority" Jerry Falwell is dead.

I must admit, there is part of me that wants to cheer that he's gone, will no longer be able to spread hate and intolerance and his twisted notion of Christianity. But really, it's so sad: a life wasted on fear and small-minded bigotry.

Some say hell is reserved for those who believe in it; if so, I hope Jizo Bodhisattva will soon help the poor guy out of it.

Basho, Biwa, and marching band

Basho walked
this road, I realize
and slow at the thought

tokaido road
monk on a motorbike
i love the universe

The gravesite of Basho, a small temple in Otsu. Next door a kindergarten, Japanese kids singing "happy birthday".

Turtles and some sort of ferret/cat keep him company.

At the grave of Basho
bees buzz in the flowers -


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