Friday, June 13, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Juuroku

Field trip! We were going to spend the night at Engaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in the neighbouring city of Kamakura. For lunch and for the first time, I wandered around the neighbourhood around Sangen-jaya Station, before finding this one places which was open before 11am. I tried a pork fried rice on a cook-it-yourself hot plate, like Pepper Lunch does; I even ordered it all by myself. Simple, but elegant, and delicious.

From the next hit song by Simon Says and Garfunkel - The Sound of Sibilance.

On the Yamanote line towards Shibuya, I managed to score front row seats to the ongoing rail travel drama that is my life. There were so many buttons in the driver's box, but they were all labeled in Japanese, which I couldn't recognise. I did see a switch with "Front", "Middle" and "Back" written in kanji, though, which I guess signifies where the carriage is attached to the train.

Cue theme from Trainspotting.

I love perspective shots; something about the way straights lines converge in the distance fascinates me. Perhaps it has a lot to do with me not being able to sketch perspectives properly whenever I try to draw (my vanishing points keep disappearing).

Maybe it's because it gives me hope that even parallel lines will meet someday.

I met up with the rest of the class at Shinjuku Station. Nia comments that this side of Shinjuku looks like an airport, and I would tend to agree: no tall buildings, glass facades, and wide, blue open skies are the very definition of commercial aeronautical travel terminals. And as we're crossing over to the inter-city rail, I turn around and spot this building with the most confusingly sacrilegious heading on its side:

"...I prithee that thy shalt only smite mine lightning rod."

The programme coordinators provided us a ticket to get to Kamakura on a pretty luxurious inter-city train line (when I say "luxurious" I mean that there might be a chance to sit down for the two-hour journey). When we got to the station, though, it said that the train was delayed for about an hour. So we had no choice but to sit down and wait.

And have lunch, for the people who don't wake up early enough to have lunch.

Prof Jacobowitz went to look for a train conductor, but couldn't find any (do they all take leave on weekends?). However, he spoke to one of the drivers and was told that the line had been stopped indefinitely, and that we should try taking another route. So we clambered onto the Yamanote line and headed for Osaki, where we could take the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to Ofuna, where we needed to then take the local train to get to the temple. When we got to Osaki, however, our Prof went to seek help again, and we were told to go to another station and then take a bus to Kamakura. If you thought this played out like an overly-tedious RPG side quest, that's because it did.

Take 10 panoramic pictures of JR train stations in or around the Tokyo greater metropolitan area. (1/10)

When we finally get to the last station, we find out that there's a couple dozen people who are also taking the same complimentary coach because they would have taken the same train. So we queued up for about twenty minutes, and managed to get onto the second coach that pulled into the station.

I want to ride the cool top-hanging monorail!

Singaporeans and their queuing habits.

Another one rides the bus.

We finally arrived at Kamakura Station at 3.30pm, one-and-a-half hours late. Still, it was a pretty fun adventure, and I am grateful for all the zazen that we possibly missed because of our adventure. I got to see much more of Tokyo, and had fun squeezing on the Japanese public transport system. Isn't that what life is all about?

Enkaku-Ji is one of the most important Zen Buddhist temple complexes in Japan. We walked to it from the train station, where we were met by Matsubara-san, Prof Jacobowitz's friend and Zen Buddhist priest. Along the way was some pretty nice scenery, a mix of both nature and man-made structures:

DIARY ENTRY 24/7 Still pond. | 28/7 Still pond. | 29/7 Yup, still a pond. Also, my diary is all soggy.

If you don't think I'm professional enough to take this picture, don't worry: I was trained.

We arrive at the temple complex and are shown our quarters. There are a few visitors and tourists wandering around the temple grounds, but not very many, as it was almost closing time.

Translation: Emergency Exit through the Mountains
Apparently, they also put up a sign outside the gate to our quarters, which says "Yale University Zazen Conference" or something to that effect. I don't know; I translated the Chinese.

Alternate translation: "These people have no idea what they signed up for."

There were separate quarters for the girls and the guys (of course); we discovered that we (the guys) would be sleeping in the main hall, where we would also be doing our meditations and having meals.

Talk about an "organized" religion.

Note: pictures dry out here because we weren't supposed to take any during meals/meditations and I basically left my phone in my pigeonhole most of the night.

We were brought on a tour by the monk who was assigned to us, with Prof Jacobowitz and Matsubara-san translating. I'll talk more about the temple in the next post, because we had a chance to take pictures then.

If you want an accurate description of monastic life, take what you know about NS and swap all instances of "physical training" with "meditation", and that's basically it. Seriously. You report to the monastery in spring, and you're given a uniform - robes - to wear. You get annoying footwear. Your hair is shaved off. You wake up at 4am to do area cleaning. You draw water from a suspicious well/water-cooler. You have a meagre amount of mass-produced food three times a day. You do laundry. You all bathe together. You have a bunk where you store all your personal effects and sleep together in ordered rows. That's essentially what NS is about.

The first thing we had after the tour was a round of zazen. That's the sitting meditation that's usually the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the words "Zen Buddhism"; the person sitting on a mat in yoga pants in the lotus position while they levitate slowly in the air. Since we were all beginners, the monk told us that we didn't really have to sit in the lotus position; a half lotus was okay. But we were to sit up straight, hands left over right and resting just under your bellybutton. And the monk told us to breathe slowly, focus on our breathing, and count our breaths.

I can tell you right now, this is easily the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. I've never been able to totally blank out and focus on one thing; my mind is a constant maelstrom of thoughts and ideas and connections between those thoughts and ideas. My imagination runs on high, all the time. Tell my mind to go sit in a corner and half an hour later the walls will be scribbled over with random memories and reflections, fifteen alternate scenarios depicting what I could be doing right then, and a prototype particle physics system for a fantasy world. I sat down in the position and half-closed my eyes, but I kept dozing off when my thoughts weren't bouncing around my head. I tried to focus on the corner of the tatami mat in front of me, but even the slightest observation triggered a meta-contemplation that led to a whole bunch of other things. I guess it's one of my greatest strengths, but also one of my greatest weakness.

After the first few rounds of meditation, we were supposed to have dinner. Buddhist monks traditionally only had two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. But many monks couldn't survive on two meals (especially if they had to cut the firewood), and kept getting sick. In those days, this meant you had to place a huge heated stone on your stomach. In more recent centuries, they instated the dusk-time meal, but to circumvent the rule of two meals a day, dinner was called "Stone Medicine" time.

Anyway, dinner was rice and miso soup with vegetables, boiled cabbage and pickled radish. It was small and simple, but took two hours. There's a whole ritual that comes with mealtimes, which includes three separate bowls, and two servers who have to get up and sit on their knees every three people as they move down the row. You get the rice, then the soup, then the cabbage, and then the radish, each individually served to you by the servers, one course at a time. And during the whole process you're not allowed to make noise, so even putting your chopsticks down on the table has to be done in silence. You also have to take a chopstickful of rice and put it aside for the birds - all part of the cycle of nature. It was very solemn and quiet, but I was too fascinated by the rigidity of the ritual to become restless.

The girls got to bathe first, so we hung around for a while waiting for them to finish. Prof Jacobowitz wasn't very enthusiastic about zazen, and he made a lot of jokes about getting out of it next time. I guess he isn't the sit-down-and-not-think kind of person either. The bath was a traditional-style bath, communal style (yeeeah), where you shower yourself clean first before sitting in the bath to soak. There were two chambers, and Xi Min and I got the one shared with our professor. (Talk about awkward.) Thankfully, Prof Jacobowitz was pretty open minded about it, and we chatted with him pretty casually. I found out that he's not religious, but as I suspected, had Jewish ancestry (the surname was a pretty big giveaway).

Before we were released to our futons, we had to perform zazen for a couple more times until 9pm. Another few rounds of zazen was followed by a walking meditation - the same thing, but meditating while walking around the temple complex in geta, the old wooden sandals on two raised bars that make walking extremely difficult and noisy. (We theorized they were made that way to make it more difficult for acolytes to escape the temple at night.)

The day officially ended then, but the monk brought us out to the main temple and the zen garden to show us what it was like for real monks, who would come to that spot and continue meditating until midnight. The garden was really nice, even at night; I heard the mating calls of a number of bullfrogs, which sounded like those wooden toy alligators when you run a stick down their spiky backs. I think this was my "best" meditation, because I found a small dot of light reflecting off a speck of mineral in one of the rocks, and I just focused on it. Everything else around it, all the grey rocks, pretty much became a blur. At one point I felt like I was staring into the depths of space, at a star burning in the centre of a cloud of dust and gas. It was a truly cosmic experience.

Sleep was early at around 10pm. Apparently the girls were chatting until midnight; I didn't hear them because I was asleep.

What happens next? What strange and exciting adventures await in the Temple of Zen Mastery? Part 2 coming soon to theatres near you!

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