I 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.
And 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).