karaoke, Nanzen-ji, and the Osaka way of business

Posted on: Sun, 07/08/2012 - 02:08 By: Tom Swiss

I've had notes on my last two days in Japan sitting here for weeks, waiting for me to wrap up the tale...once I catch up with that I'll explain what's been up since I got back.

So, before I left Osaka...Saturday night, out to The Cellar (small bar in Shinsaibashi with lots of live music -- sort of an Osakan version of Leadbetters) to see Eric play with the Tardy Boys, great to talk with him. After the show, got the idea to have one more drink over at Cinquecento before heading back to the hotel. Ended up striking up a conversation with a two lovely young ladies (ah, if only I'd had a few more days there!) and getting invited to go along with them and their friends for karaoke.

rainy days in Toyko and Kyoto, sunny day in Nara

Posted on: Sat, 05/05/2012 - 09:30 By: Tom Swiss

Rain the past few days in both the Tokyo and Kansai areas, but good weather here on Saturday as I head out to Nara.

Wednesday was Kamakura, home of the famous Daibutsu. The outdoor one, as opposed to the Nara one, which is inside. The Kamakura one was inside a few centuries ago, then there was a tsunami that destroyed the temple hall and left this big bronze Buddha open to the sky.

But before the Daibutsu, Hase-dera and the Great Kannon. No, the Great Kannon is not a weapon wielded by some anime mech, it's a huge (30 foot high) wooden statue of Kannon, a.k.a. Kanzeon, a.k.a. Kwan Yin, a.k.a. Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Worth visiting and taking a moment to contemplate. (I silently did a few repetitions of the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo, a chant to Kannon that is about the closest thing to a Buddhist prayer that I have memorized.)

The Great Kannon is Hase-dera's main attraction, and everybody loves Kannon; but two of my other favorite Japanese Buddhist deities also get their due at Hase-dera, Jizo and Benzaiten. Jizo is an earth spirit (the "Earth Store Bodhisattva"), and a guardian of children and travelers. I had a painting of him/her (like Kannon/Avalokitesvara, there was a gender change along the route from India to Japan) that I got at a Grateful Dead show for years, before I learned who he/she is. Benzaiten, or Benten, is the Japanese version of Sarasvati; when I lived in Osaka for a few months in 2007 my apartment was in Bentencho, "Benten Village", and as a patron deity of musicians and poets and scholars (according to the wik, "Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows: water, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension, knowledge"), how can I not love her? I left an ema at the Benzaiten shrine with a wish for "Health, Happiness, and Inspiration for Poets & Musicians Everywhere!".

I had planned to do part of the Daibutsu hiking course and make a visit to Zenneari Benten, the "money washing" shrine, but the rain made the path in a stream and was sapping my energy a bit. So I gave it a miss and found an Indian restaurant that my Lonely Planet guidebook recommended. (A smartphone with GPS makes finding place a hell of a lot easier than it used to be!)

Thursday the rain continued, so I didn't do much in Tokyo. Did hit a lovely garden, and a temple that holds the graves of the famous 47 Ronin. But that was about enough of Tokyo, at least on a soggy day, so I grabbed my stuff and caught the shinkansen (the correct sort this time) for Osaka. Almost felt like a homecoming -- I lived here for three months in 2007, longest I've been anywhere outside of Maryland.

Spent my first evening in Osaka eating, drinking, and being simultaneously merry and meloncholy until the early morning, got up late and took my hangover out to Arashiyama, a beautiful region on the outskirts of Kyoto. Crowded -- it's a very popular spot during Golden Week and other holidays. Visited Adashino Nembutsu-ji, a lovely small temple with a collection of thousands of old stone carvings. Apparently (if Lonely Planet has the story right), this was the place where the bones of paupers and those without families were laid to rest. A good place to visit on a drizzly day.

Also went to the garden at Tenryuji. This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, especially if you see it during the blossoming season as I was fortunate enough to do a few years ago. Though this was also sad for complicated personal reasons...there was someone I'd once thought might be with me when I retuned here. An idle dream, perhaps, but realizing that's probably never going to happen was something to process. But as they say here, shikata ga nai -- nothing can be done.

Got back to Osaka and saw my friend Eric Wiegmann's band Helium Five (one of his bands) play in Umeda last night. Since no one had a heart attck this time, it was much better than the last show I went to! :-/

Today, Nara, where my number one task was to visit Shinyakushi-ji, a temple of the Medicine Budh, to give thanks for the survivial and healing of the heart attack victim, our friend Ian Hesford. I visited this temple on my first trip to Japan nine and a half years ago, which was shortly before I started my shiatsu training. (Whoa. How'd that happen, timewise?) It was the sort of coincidental discovery that's left me with a gut feeling of connection to the place. I also visited a lovely small temple up the side of the mountain, Byakugo -- a stunning view looking out over Nara, and an active temple where people were coming to pray in a more ordinary way, I think. Refreshing after a week of big-name temples and shrines; I like to try to understand the regular practice of regular folks, not just the big fancy stuff. I also made a stop on the grounds of Kasuga Shrine, to find the small side shrine where five years ago I met a Shinto priest who was kind and patient enough to explain some basic concepts of the practice to me.

A lot of walking today! Tonight Eric is playing with one of his old bands at The Cellar, just a few blocks from my hotel, so I plan on catching that. Tomorrow, maybe, a quick trip back to Kyoto? Not sure. And Monday early, time to depart. But for right now, I feel a bit recharged in spirit. (Even if my feet are sore.)

Akihabara and Roppangi

Posted on: Tue, 05/01/2012 - 10:30 By: Tom Swiss

Happy Beltane! No Maypoles here in Tokyo, at least not that I've seen -- but, today I found an electronics store in Akihabara with a corner devoted to Tarot decks, occult books, and the like. So the universe still has surprises in store. That's good to know.

This morning I checked out of my tiny (even by Japanese standards, I think) room at the Chisun Inn in Nagoya, got my JR rail pass (after bouncing around the station for a while trying to find the right office), and got on the shinkansen train to Tokyo...only to find that I'd gotten on to a type of train ("Nozomi") that wasn't covered by my rail pass. Oops. I gave the conductor my best "sorry, I'm just a dumb gaijin" routine (which had the power of truth behind it) and he didn't demand I pay. I just got off at the next stop and caught a "Hikari" the rest of the way. Checked into my less tiny but still small room at the Horidome Villa, hit the ATM at the 7-11 (protip: Discover cards work as JCB cards here, making them pretty widely accepted and you can use them at many ATMs to get a cash advance on your account), rested and caught up on e-mail for a bit, then threw myself at the city to see what sticks.

First, the aforementioned Akihabara. A tech geek mecca. I did some window shopping in a few of the big stores and picked up a few small things, and also found a drum shop, a guitar shop, and an astounding telescope shop, with the largest scope having an aperture I could stick my head into; but my favorite discovery has to be CompuAce, the place with the Tarot decks and a noren (door curtain) with Ganesha on it, crowded with all kinds of computer and electronic accessories in addition to Pagan-y goods. Some sort of technopagan power spot.

Now, the infamous Roppangi. Full of hustlers, lots of Carribean or African guys trying to get me into clubs. Finally found a veggie burger, and then the "Cross Over" bar which seems a decent place to have a few beers, the sort of place that attracts both gaijin and Nihonjin. I found an Indian restaurant nearby, might hit that for dinner tomorrow. Indian is a good bet for vegetarian food plus an English menu. (Yes, there's probably ghee so it's not completely vegan, but we do the best we can in circumstances -- I'm a lot less likely to get fish stock in Indian food than I am in most practical alternatives...)

updates on various topics

Posted on: Wed, 04/25/2012 - 11:40 By: Tom Swiss

Hi friends. Wanted to share updates on a few fronts. If you're watching me on Facebook or Twitter you might already know most of this, so, apologies for redundancies.

First things first: by now most of you have probably heard about Friday's near tragedy. If you haven't, the quick version is that we almost lost Baltimore musical icon Ian Hesford due to a medical emergency. I was at the Telesma show where this occurred and was one of several people able to help. Ian is still in serious condition but is stable. His survival is being called miraculous but I think it's a testimony to his strength and determination. The band is posting updates on his condition on their Facebook page. Please keep him in your thoughts, even at the very best he will have a long recovery. And take a CPR class, kids!

Second: I'm on my way to Japan! Posting this from Logan Airport. (Camping on an outlet near a Starbuck's and a Chinese/Japanese place with vegetable sushi rolls -- one of the lower levels of traveler's heaven, perhaps.) I will be in Nagoya for the twentieth anniversary celebrations for the Seido Karate Japan Aichi branch, then visiting Tokyo and Osaka. I wasn't sure if I would stop at Nara but now I feel the need to return to Shin-Yakushi-ji, a temple of the "Healing Buddha" that I visited my first time in Japan, shortly before I started my shiatsu training. If anyone would like to send prayers, meditations, or thoughts for Ian (or anyone else for that matter), post them in a comment here or send them to me privately, and I'll try to figure out an appropriate small ritual. (I think I could stand off to the side of the temple and read them silently off my phone or something like that, without causing a ruckus.)

I was in Japan in April and May five years ago, my three month stay in Osaka where I wrote very early drafts of what became chapters in Why Buddha Touched the Earth, my book on "Zen Paganism". And I'm happy to say that I now have a small press interested in publishing it. We're in negotiations and nothing is final yet, but this is a real possibility. Stay tuned.

Speaking of Zen Paganism, I'll be speaking about that topic, as well as acupressure and shiatsu, at the Starwood Festival in July.

Also on the festival front, several people have contacted me about FSG. I am not involved with it this year, and due to the political situation might not be attending. So, I don't have any info. Please contact the coordinators for information about FSG.

Okay, that's about all the interesting stuff. I could tell you about my car getting broken in to, or my heating oil tank springing a leak, or recent technology headaches at the day job, but, meh. They're (mostly) fixed and in a few hours I'll be on the other side of the world.

What Ever Happened to Free Spirit Beltane? Or, The Duty of a Trustee to Pick Up the Ball

Posted on: Mon, 04/02/2012 - 10:30 By: Tom Swiss

I find that I need to address some accusations being made about my time as President of the Free Spirit Alliance; and, more seriously, to discuss a violation of fiduciary duty by one of FSA's Trustees. This will probably lose me a few friends, and now that FSA has a way to expel members it may even get me kicked out. But I find I've reached my limit on holding my tongue on these matters. On the general theory that "sunlight is the best disinfectant", I'm going to talk about some ugly politics, and about what happened to the Free Spirit Beltane event.

The tl;dr version: if, as is claimed, FSA Trustee Cat Castells became aware that FSA had not renewed its contract with the site where Free Spirit Beltane was held, she had an obligation to act in FSA's interest and work to ensure that the contract was renewed. She not only neglected to do so, she personally profited from the situation.

If you just want to go to festivals and have a good time -- and who could blame you? -- skip this. It's a long and unpleasant story, probably only of potential interest to people in the Free Spirit community, or to people dealing with the politics of similar organizations who might learn by negative example how to avoid these problems. In the annals of Pagan Politics, it's not one of the more interesting tales, no sex or bigotry or cultish abuse of power, just old-fashioned conflict of interest.

fear and pain in the dojo, and out of it

Posted on: Fri, 02/10/2012 - 17:36 By: Tom Swiss

One of the most memorable scenes in The Karate Kid (the original, not the Jackie Chan remake) was when Daniel and Mr. Miyagi visit the Cobra-Kai dojo. John Kreese, the nasty Cobra-Kai sensei, yells to his students, "Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!" they reply.

"Pain does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!"

transparency and openness in FSA politics

Posted on: Thu, 12/15/2011 - 22:02 By: Tom Swiss

Two posts I made to the Free Spirit Forum today, that may be of interest to FSA members who don't follow that list.

[name and address elided] writes:

> If one of the (reasonable) concerns about FSA and FSG leadership is
> transparency, it'd be valuable to have information like this posted/
> specified, rather than referred to.

I think that the concern with transparency and openness gets to the core of the idea of changing the rules for membership -- because it hits on why people choose to become or not to become members. If people feel that members are not being informed of what's going on and not being given a proper chance to participate in decision-making, why would they choose to become or stay members?

grave concern regarding the proposed changes to the FSA Articles of Incorporation

Posted on: Wed, 12/07/2011 - 22:42 By: Tom Swiss

As you may know, the Free Spirit Alliance is considering a change to its Articles of Incorporation to make it easier for people to become members. I've had a chance to review the proposed changes. While I appreciate Cat's work on this, and support the general idea, I have a very serious concern with the following provision of the proposed amendments:

"Any voting member has the right to request that another individual be placed on a ban list and removed from the membership roll. This would be followed by a vote at a meeting after notice has been sent to the individual. A ⅔ majority of all members in attendance, either in person or
by proxy, at that meeting would be required to place an individual on the ban list. In addition, being ejected from one of the Corporation's events automatically places a person on the ban list."

As I read this, since ejection from an event is at the sole discretion of the event coordinator, the FSG and Beltane coordinators can -- without recourse or due process -- strip an FSA member of their membership. However much we may trust the folks who currently coordinate our events, I don't think this is a wise policy.

Unless someone can point out something I'm missing, I must vote "no" on the proposed change, and ask that other members do likewise.

Hakuin's "Is That So?"

Posted on: Sun, 11/13/2011 - 19:16 By: Tom Swiss

A favorite Zen story about Hakuin:

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Hakuin. One day, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

"Buddha is grass shoes"

Posted on: Wed, 08/31/2011 - 13:06 By: Tom Swiss

A Facebook post by a friend reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. This comes from the Korean "Kwan Um" school of Master Seung Sahn, and is told in his books The Compass of Zen and Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. Like many Zen stories, I think that it also has relevance for students of the martial arts and many other disciplines. It goes something like this (this is my gloss on it, not a direct quote from Seung Sahn):

Three centuries ago there was a monk called Sok Du, which means “Rock-head.” As that name indicates, he was not
the most intellectually brilliant fellow. But he had a great determination, and so even though the sutras were beyond him and even sitting meditation was too intellectually challenging, he stayed at the temple doing “working Zen” – laboring in the fields and in the kitchen.

When the master of the temple tried to help him out and asked if he had any questions, Sok Du said, “Well, Master, you are always talking about Buddha. What is Buddha?”

The Zen master answered, “Buddha is mind,” which is a fairly stock Zen answer. But in Korean, “Buddha is mind” sounds a little bit like “Buddha is grass shoes.” And that’s what Sok
Du heard.

Of course this puzzled him, but he was confused by this Zen stuff most of the time anyway. So he stuck with it. “Buddha is grass shoes. Buddha is grass shoes. What’s that mean? I don’t
know, but that’s what the master said. So Buddha is grass shoes.” This was his thought, his meditation, all the time for three years. Buddha is grass shoes.

Then one day, he was out in the hills gathering firewood. As he walked down the path, he slipped and his straw sandals – his “grass shoes” – tore loose and flew up in the air! In that
instant, he had an enlightenment experience.

He went rushing back to the master. “Master! Master! I understand!”

“Oh? Well then, what is Buddha?”

And Sok Du smacked the master on the head with his broken sandal!

“Is that all?” said the master (who was probably used to uppity monks trying to show enlightenment with outrageous behavior).

“My grass shoes are all broken!”

“Ah! Wonderful!” said the master, and burst out laughing.

Knowing that intention and determination are more important than fine points of method, we don’t have to wait for a perfect teacher or perfect circumstances or perfect understanding of technique; we can begin, right now.

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