A Morning at Shunkoin Temple
Rev. Takafumi Kawakami
Be More Zen
Last weekend while my girlfriend and I were downtown (NYC) having breakfast, I over heard the table next to me. Two guys, in various forms of hungover, we recounting a story where one of them a little heated from the night before. I was not sure what happened, but it involved a bunch of cocktails and a few ladies. His friend thought he was over reacting a bit and said, “Dude, you’ve gotta be more zen,” as if to remind his buddy that being a fired up was not helping matters.
Zen is a strange word because it has migrated into our language under guise of a noun, adjective, and adverb. I am not sure I’ve ever heard someone say, “Dude you’ve got to be more Roman Catholic,” or “I am having such a Jewish day.” Most other religious practices don’t carry the same flexibility. Zen is used to describe how we feel, the way we act, and Yoda-like approach to life, minus the funny voice.
The current form of Zen Buddhism that is found in Japan can trace its roots through China and India going back about five hundred years before Christ. As Buddhism travelled across Asia making its last stop in Japan. It changed shape along the way. The colorful gods of its India origins were traded for blank walls, black cushions, and utter simplicity.
For anyone who has travelled in Asia, they can attest to the local adaptations that Buddhism takes from Nepal to Thailand to Japan. Two things that always remain, regardless of the sect are that buddhist practice focuses on self discipline and the students hope to attain a level of enlightenment. Of course, no serious practitioner will actually admit this, but the ideas of nirvana, satori, kensho, or awakening are too seductive to resist.
On my last shoot in Japan I was invited to Shunkoin Temple to meet with zen monk Rev. Takafumi Kawakami. This was my first interaction with Zen in Japan. Prior to this, spent seven years in and out of two Zen monasteries in the US and I had met a handful of Japanese Zen practitioners in the US. I had a lot of things to verify about Zen practice and wanted to see what it was like at its origin. I wondered, was Zen practice like Italian food? By the time anything gets on a plane and flies across the ocean it always seems to loose something.
Lets start with tea
The Myoshinji temple complex was about a fifteen minute drive from the Anteroom Hotel where I was staying. As the white gloved taxi driver approached the temples, I expected to be let out at the gate, given a bunch of hand gestures indicating lefts and rights, and a thorough explanation in Japanese, which I would not understand. To my surprise, we drove into the Myoshinji Temple complex. The car rolled off of the street on to the stone pavers. We crept along what felt more like a foot path until we reached the gate. Door to door delivery service, not bad at all.
When I got out, there was no one to be found. I followed the walk way until I hit the row of shoes left outside the entrance. I slipped off my shoes and was greeted by Rev. Taka who immediately said, “Just call me Taka.” We settled into a waiting room where we sat, not on the floor, but on wester sofas. Immediately I was relieved by the informalities of the meeting.
Once we sat down and sipped our teas, he asked me, “So what can I do for you?”
I told him,” I am here to be enlightened and I thought you could help me.”
He was a little taken aback and then I said, “I’m just kidding,” and he smiled with an anxious relief.
It turns out people contact him all the time because they want to escape their worldly life to bury themselves in the monastery. He said when those emails come in he sends the would be monks to a psychologist first. If they survive the interview they are welcome. Later on in the day, he elaborated on this point further. His sense, and I completely agreed, was that if you have problems in your daily life and you expect to find peace and quiet in a monastery, you are in for a big surprise. Because inside the temple you are essentially left to yourself, your own thoughts, and your own demons. If things are hard on the “outside” they are going to be even harder on the “inside.”
My plan was to shadow him throughout the morning and join his mediation class for a sit (a sit refers to a period of meditation, usually 50 minutes of silent, seated meditation…though it is often shortened to 30 minutes for beginners.) Rev. Taka said I was free to shoot and we could talk along the way.
On the cushion
The day begins with chanting. Rev. Taka sets up in the main room in front of an enormous hollow-walled bell. He chants in a low rhythmic fashion. When I first heard the chanting in NYC it was over enunciated for westerners because most of us don’t speak Japanese. After seven years of listening and learning to chant, I was pleased to recognize the chants, although they were much faster than I could hope to perform. The bell was rung, the bowing complete, and the ceremony was packed away. So far everything flowed like it did in New York. But this was just the beginning.
Rev. Taka was off to take care of the down and dirty chores of running a temple. The walk way needed to be swept, the rock garden was in need of a raking, and the rooms needed to be prepped for the students. He was a one many army…part gardener, janitor, and mom.
Much of the view that we have of monastic life is informed by photography. Any time zen temples show up on TV shows, photo series, or travel guides they put their best feet forward. In reality, temple life is a lot like living on a farm. There is work to be done, its got to be done quickly and all of the “zen” you expect to see looks more like chores than anything close to enlightenment. There is a famous adage in American Zen that says:
“Before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water,
after enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water.”
It turns out that a few academics tried to trace this back to any India, Chinese, or Japanese Buddhists texts and they could not find it. Whether it is historically acurate or not is kind of beside the point. After World War Two the US exported Levi’s to Japan and imported Zen to California. Somewhere in the mix Zen teachings needed to be adapted to a western sensibility. This is something that Rev. Taka talked about all morning. Any practice needs to be updated each generation, otherwise it becomes irrelevant. More on that idea later.
In the garden
It was still September so the leaves in the rock garden were still green. The wind blew a few of the leaves loose and flattened the ridges of the rock garden. Rev. Taka and I were talking about many of the misconceptions that people have about Zen practice.
He pulled out a leaf blower and said, “I don’t use a bamboo broom to sweep every leaf from the garden. I have list of chores to complete before we open at 9:00am. When its convenient I use the best tool for the job. Sweeping a garden with an old fashioned broom is not Zen, its stupid. Carrying on outdated practices is a mistake that a lot of religions struggle with.”
Before Rev. Taka took over the temple, he studied religious studies and conflict resolution at university in Arizona. He’s seen, not only Zen practice, but many larger religions loose steam because the hold on to out dated practices.
He went on to explain that, “The way we do things has not changed. Its deliberate, thorough, and thoughtful…but I’m not going to pull out an old fashioned broom and give the picture of Zen that people see on post cards. The rake I still need because there is no other way to get the ridges in the rocks. It serves a functional purpose.”
The garden was raked in about twenty minutes. Normally he does it in about ten, but we were talking the whole time, so I slowed him up. In our conversation, he touched on an uncle of his, who was a buddhist scholar. The man could speak fourteen esoteric languages…we are not talking french and german. He spent his life translating dialect used to write sutras across India and China. As if each of those countries don’t currently have enough dialects, I still cannot fully appreciate what it means to handle that type of translation.
The garden was in order, the mediation room was prepped and the daily practitioners had arrived. For those of you who have never tried Zen meditation and are curious…don’t be shy. Give it a go. More and more temples are opening their doors to curious onlookers. You will be surprised at how sitting on a cushion in silence can be so simple and complex all at the same time.
While we were getting ready for the sit, I took a picture that says more to me about Zen than any of the other shots. Described in words, the picture is uneventful. Rev. Taka is sitting at the head of the room, looking out of the frame with the garden behind him. No big deal right? But the odd thing is how he is leaning and gazing out of the frame.
Most photography revolves around the idea that pictures describes something, almost like forensic evidence. Its like a picture says, “Here! Look at me, I’m proof that blank exists. The more challenging pictures show us something that you can’t see, like an emotion, be it happiness, sadness, fear, anger… But there is another realm of images that do not come often. I feel like I wait for them constantly and they happen a few times a year. These are images that reveal the nature behind a scene in a way that is not immediately visible on the surface. Its as if the past, present, and future gel for a fraction of a second and leave a residue on the sensor.
On the surface this is a picture of a guy sitting on a cushion…no big deal. But what I saw was a moment where you could actually see knowledge. Knowledge is invisible…we can see it applied to actions, but just like an emotion you can’t touch it, in spite of the fact that we know it exists. In the way he was sitting, his slight lean, and his gaze it became evident that all of his training was at work. I found it even more engaging because the power of the moment was amplified by the stability of his body and echoed by the strength of the scene. Its was like being a momentary witness to a flash of insight. There was a weight and a gravity to the whole scene that just worked. And I was happy to be present for it.
Mastery…a dirty word
My trip to Japan started off in search of people who had attained a level of mastery in their lives and try to understand why their approaches were becoming more rare. And here was the culmination of all of the philosophies, years of training and effort…distilled to one gesture, one gaze, one second.
It made me aware of how much time I have devoted to my work and how far I still have to go. The image, might not win a Pulitzer, but in the fast paced image crazed world we live in, I don’t expect many of my favorite images to catch everyone’s eyes. They are intentionally looking for a lower frequency, a quieter vibration, that sits below the surface and outside of the controversial images that garner lots of attention.
Photographing the short comings of the world has always seemed like a cheap shot to me. Sure people starving, dying, suffering, or torturing themselves will get a lot of attention…but thats not the entire story. For everything going wrong in the world, there are moments where people have elevated themselves, through their practices to a realm that most of us aspire too and even fewer will reach. These people often sit in the shadows, content to get on with their lives and never asking for recognition. But its precisely because of their humility that I wanted to seek them out in the hopes building a fuller understanding of human potential at its finest.
What I discovered was a veil of humility, through which you could see a core of patience, practice, and sheer brilliance. No matter how hard they tried to downplay their work, it just kept peeking out. There were probably a bunch of moments I missed too, but thats why I am headed back to Japan in a week.
The time with Rev. Taka was a poetic conclusion to my first trip to Japan. In all honesty I had no idea what to expect or what I was really getting in to. Japan and the folks that I met surprised and fulfilled me in ways I could have never expected. The plane ride home was filled with more questions that answers, but I do feel as if my ability to tune into a different frequency was becoming a little easier.
I’d like to thank Rev. Taka for the opportunity to explore his world, my relation to it, and the chance to understand my own curiosities. He was incredibly patient, but I had a sense he knew what I was there to do, even before I arrived. The riddle of Zen is not something that I expect to solve anytime soon. Its paradoxes still leave me scratching my head. Though I’m not at all worried. The challenges it presents are simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating. And who knows, in the end there maybe nothing to solve. It could just be the way we get there. If I find a box of enlightenment I will be sure to share it on the site : )