Being Zen vs. Being Japanese

Zen_hallI lived in Japan for seven years where I graduated from a Japanese University in Oriental Medicine and practiced Shorinji Kempo (kungfu) in a Zen Temple.  During my first four years, I was fairly indiscriminant in my absorption of Japanese culture.  However, after reaching a certain fluency in both language and culture I began to decide what to embrace and hold at length.  This is a common phenomena among expatriates, but I want to show that I committed myself fairly strongly to mimicking and becoming Japanese.  Even to this day, if I desire (when speaking Japanese), I can act fairly Japanese which can be disconcerting to the Japanese themselves.  But after developing this Japanese self, I started to become very skilled at jumping between my American self and my Japanese self and finally at creating a hybrid.  (See my post on Many Selves)

Prior to coming to Japan, I had lived in India for a couple years.  During my time in both India and Japan I became and remain very sympathetic to the psychological insights and mental practices of Buddhism.  Even before my Asia travels, I had spent time in a Zen Temple in Madison, Wisconsin, and a Yoga Meditation Center in Minneapolis.  Twenty years after that, and now having kids, my family also spent time at a Zen temple here in the USA.   We visited it weekly for many months and tried to make it a spiritual home but the temple was not for me in many ways.

The Temple’s students, like the teacher, were all American.  And I found it humorous how most of these American practitioners were trying very hard to be Japanese. Yes, not trying to be Buddhist, but trying to be Japanese. They did not even know the difference.  The temple priest had gone through formal training in a Japanese Soto Zen temple for 3 ardous years (I can only imagine) and was running this temple in an orthodox Japanese way — she wore full robes and had a shaved head.  We chanted Japanese sutras (which are actually meaningless syllables even for the Japanese), and we even said prayers for sick people (and once for a tree knocked down in a storm) ! But worse, the students tried to act very Japanese in their lack of expression,  silence and hesitancy to talk (reticence).  They thought that such stoicism was the heart of Buddhism. But such coldness is the heart of much of Japan. It is loss of individuality, the fear of standing out and pathological shyness.

The Japanese are huge sticklers for “form” — they do it in their ceremonies, their architecture, their relationships and the Zen temple is no exception.  There is a right way to fluff one’s sitting pillow, a right way to hold the incense stick and right ways to chop celery (we all ate together).  And if you did any of these the wrong way, it was felt as a sign of your lack of mindfulness.   “Mindfulness” became a chore.  But this fastidiousness is rampant in Japanese culture — it is what makes the culture both beautiful and tedious.  But this obsession with presentation is not Buddhism, it is Japanese.

Yes, yes, many will object to my stereotypes and I admit the stereotypes are very limited, but hopefully you can see its function — I still love much about Japan, but not here stilted, rigid formalities.  In that way, I am very American.

Not all Buddhism is like Japanese Zen Buddhism. Just as Christianity thrives in many different cultures, so does Buddhism. And just as Christianity comes in many different flavors — Mormons to Pentacostals — so does Buddhism. For example, when I lived in the Tibetan part of China I saw a very different Buddhism.

But in this American Zen temple, these Americans could not distinguish the Japanese culture stuff from the Buddhist stuff — heck maybe culture and religion is hard to separate. And to the Americans, the more Eastern it was, the more strange, and the better it was.  Their attraction seemed so superficial to me.  The temple used tons of Japanese terms which were no problem for me since I am fluent in Japanese, in fact, I enjoyed that.   But the strange word for “bell”, “cleaning”, “sit” and the like gave the non-Japanese speaking students an apparent transcendent feeling.   Likewise, in my Karate Dojo,  Japanese words are used for counting and simple words like “kick”, “punch” and such.  Both in the temple and the dojo Japanese words were used where an easy, English word was available.  I thought this was bizarre.  But when I saw what a mystical feeling the practitioners in both places got from using them, I saw how superficial much of the mystical rush is that some people get from being at these dojos.  And I must snobbishly say hearing Japanese mispronounced by people who felt the language denoted sublime insight was humorous irony.

This cultural mimicking, instead of pure religious practice happens everywhere. When I use to live in India, I saw villagers sitting on pews in a Christian Missionary Churches while these same Indians would sit on floors at home.  Heck, a few even saved up an absurd amount of money to buy Sunday suits to wear in the crippling heat. It was sadly humorous to watch them sing 19th century Western hymns with Hindi lyrics and pass a collection plate.

dharma_talkAnd my Buddha!  At the Zen temple I had to sit through sermons — “dharma talks” , doesn’t sound better than “sermon”.  I thought only Christianity had sermons. But my temple in Japan sermons were common too.  And there I had to sit and listen to these dharma talks – sure I could ask questions, but they would be very disruptive, so I did not. The whole point is that I just wanted to meditate and then socialize and make friends.

The frosting on the cake at the American temple was when I got rather devastatingly ill (viral pericarditis) and did not go to the temple for months. I never heard a word from anyone — no one came to visit. All the folks I had done silent meditation with, silent temple cleaning with and meaningless chanting with — well, none stopped by my house or called to see how I was doing. Surprise, we had not developed supportive relationships in all that silence and stoicism. Here I was again with the same isolation I felt in Japan. No thanks!  My non-Zen friends were the only ones who were still there for me offering support. Ahhhh, another club fails !

Oh yeah, remember that church in India with hymns and pews? Well, it fell apart when the missionaries left to retire in the USA and took their money supply with them.  T congregation was at each others’ throats over how to divide up the property. I personally knew those missionaries for more than a decade. They were wonderful folks who spent 40 years of their lives in that small village setting up a church and clinic. They had raised 5 children in India only to watch all but one leave the Christian faith when they came back to the USA — the faithful child married a minister. Then to top it off, they watched their dreams of working for God fall apart — their church planting had failed. The husband then died of brain cancer 2 years after the couple returned from India. The wife is trying to write memoirs now.

Wow, this has been a downer. Sorry. OK, let’s end on an up-beat. I still dream of finding a meditation group with lots of socializing and no superstitious stuff. I have found lots of folks who may be interested. We’ll see. For me, community, support, sacrificial love, insight and forgiveness are key to the relationships I wish to maintain. Doctrine and right thinking — be it one’s opinions about Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity , Science or Politics,  is just clothing and superficial. I look for community where such attire can be put aside.  But ironically some thoughts support behaviors.   To me it is how we weave our beliefs together. I call this webbing “En”. (click here to read more about En).


Filed under Events, Personal, Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “Being Zen vs. Being Japanese

  1. Awesome post. Thanks for this. You are now on my blogroll:)

  2. Hey, most excellent post. I’m new to your neighborhood (…appreciate the map up there in the title space), and glad to have stumbled upon it. I am a Soto priest– American Soto, that is– and the cultural trappings of Zen have long been of interest to me. My initial training did not focus on the Japanese aspect *directly*, so when I moved into a temple, I stumbled quite a lot for not knowing all the right terms and movements. But as you say, these are not the heart of Buddhsim. But what is? And how can we move into that heart, without all the cultural trappings– be they social, or even personal? Even today I find myself a black sheep, pushing away all of the correctness in favor of seeing that elusivity more directly. I am glad for your perspective.

    (…and the fascinating comparison to the missionary family in India. wow.)

  3. @ Mama P & Heretic: Wow, it is so nice to find folks that understand our own way of feeling the world, isn’t it! Thank you for your kind comments.

    @ Mama P: Yes, the practice of awareness and compassion is hard not to cloud with the temptation to pile on more meaning through culture and hopes born from fear. It is the practice that is the key — and boy, I am bad at it ! Smile.

  4. mac

    Interesting 🙂

    While not as versed in the arts as you, I have studied TaeKwonDo. I earned a Black Belt in Florida.

    Our school was more of a modern, americanized version. But still lip service was given to the korean language and customs of the art.

    I moved a few years back and still haven’t quite found a place that fits me quite right. Some are too closely tied into traditional Korean methodology or lifestyle, some don’t seem to respect it enough for my taste.

    It’s a fine line for me, I suppose.

    thanks 🙂

  5. Well done. I think this stripped down approach to Zen is what first got me interested, actually. A friend gave me Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen and he strips all the BS away and gets down to the reality of reality.

    And I’m not just pumping someone’s book here. I appreciate your perspective and the experiences you’ve had. I think we are looking for the same path.

  6. What a great post. I’ve been wondering about this stoicism or shyness I see in temples and wondered what it was exactly.

    Your story also reminds me of when my Japanese nephew came to live in the United States for a year when he was a toddler. When his Japanese mother came to visit, he made-pretend to sneak up on her and scare her, with the appropriate exaggerated Scary Face.

    His mother stared at him impassively and then looked at me and said, “What is this strange face my son is making?”

    I explained that he was sneaking up on her to scare her, and that was his “scary face.”

    “He looks so American,” she said.

  7. Drew

    What a great insight: trying to be Japanese rather than (or in addition to) being Buddhist. As a Westerner who has dabbled in Eastern martial arts and medicine, I can see myself being susceptible to external cultural traits, probably because they are foreign and mysterious, and thus appear to be authentic. But maybe the students you encountered wouldn’t have a problem with trying to be Japanese in their pursuit of Buddhism–I’m sure it’s part of the appeal for them.

  8. Good to see ya Drew — thanks for visiting.
    The temple I wrote of here is a mere 15 minutes from your house — call if you’d like to visit!
    I agree, trying to be something else, and thus strengthening some sense of special or unique, is hope that lifts many — well, for a while (or for the lucky ones — a lifetime).

  9. Thanks for your post, which raises difficult questions in engaging ways. Perhaps you’re familiar with Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry, which dispenses with most of the trappings of formal Japanese Zen, save the mats, cushions, and timing bells. What remains is the listening and questioning. In her book Bare-Bones Meditation Joan Tillofson, who spent a fair amount of time at Springwater, describes her vacillation between the “bare-bones” practice there and the formal Zen practice to which she periodically returns. I suspect that many American Zen practitioners share her ambivalence about Asian form.

    Would you see a practical middle ground between the formal practice, whose forms can and do support such states of mind as respect, gratitude, and equanimity, and a practice void of Asian form? Clark Strand’s book Meditation without Gurus offers a model, but it consists largely of wholesale rejection of the Rinzai Zen practice in which he was extensively trained. To what extent is it possible (or desirable) to retain the support of form without the Japanese costumes, protocols, and names? To what extent is it respectful?


  10. @ Ben
    Thank you for dropping in. I have taken the liberty to add links where appropriate for those interested in following up on those you mentioned.
    I don’t find the notion of “respect” as pertinent at all.
    I see Buddhism as a technology, not a cultural field trip.
    This same debate goes on in India when they took up Christianity. You see all variety of mixes there. I am not saying what “should happen”, but instead pointing out how we deceive ourselves.

  11. ~Well that’s precisely why Roshi Philip Kapleau dropped chanting in Japanese. It was quite the adventure when he moved across the street from my house especially since I enjoy wearing surf baggies and shorts are not allowed in the zendo. It worries me sometimes when more than two people are wearing the same outfits. I mean isn’t it enough we are all wearing these bodies, then to dress them up in robes of the same color and shape and fabric, well it just reminds me of military school. The same brass and brasso. I just rather go nude and we just happen to have a beach for just that thing here where you can really investigate rise and fall. Who craves and clings….?, but Roshi didn’t investigate rise and fall. My vipassana discourse was met with, “Techniques are for technologists” Wish he would have met Shinzen.He did meet my yoga teacher Naranda from Dr Mishna’s linage from Ananda Ashram in NY as I was playing the matchmaker at the time and Naranda had taken in a Thai Theravada Lithuania/American teacher and Roshi Philip was part Lithuanian as well.


  12. @ Ananda, Interesting history info. Thanx

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