Kyoto Zen

zen garden circle

I have loved my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones since the day I first read it at my friend Robbie’s house. I bought a new copy and he traded with me for his pocket-sized version.

Often tales with religious significance are myth; they can still carry deep meaning, but in all the telling and retelling, much of the original truth of the story was lost. So this weekend I visited Kyoto, a true place of legend for Zen Buddhism, where many of its classic stories take place. There I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes some of the landmarks of those Zen stories which I’ve grown to love, and make them a bit more real and less mythical in my own mind…

The First Principle

(Manpuku-ji)

the first principle

When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle” (義一第). The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master’s work.

“That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.

“How is that one?”

“Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.

Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction. “The First Principle.”

“A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.

Not only was I able to see Kosan's work from this story in person, the temple is off the beaten path and not so busy. I had the pleasure of sitting in this spot all by myself, watching the sun set over the courtyard.
Not only was I able to see Kosan’s work from this story in person, the temple is off the beaten path and not so busy. I had the pleasure of sitting in this spot all by myself, watching the sun set over the courtyard.

The Tea-Master and the Assassin

(Kennin-ji)

A teahouse said to have been designed by Sen no Rikyū, legendary tea master.
A teahouse said to have been designed by Sen no Rikyū, legendary tea master.

Taiko, a warrior who lived in Japan before the Tokugawa era, studied Cha-no-yu, tea etiquette, with Sen no Rikyu, a teacher of that aesthetical expression of calmness and contentment.

Taiko’s attendant warrior Kato interpreted his superior’s enthusiasm for tea etiquette as negligence of state affairs, so he decided to kill Sen no Rikyu. He pretended to make a social call upon the tea-master and was invited to drink tea.

The master, who was well skilled in his art, saw at a glance the warrior’s intention, so he invited Kato to leave his sword outside before entering the room for the ceremony, explaining that Cha-no-yu represents peacefulness itself.

Kato would not listen to this. “I am a warrior,” he said. “I always have my sword with me. Cha-no-yu or no Cha-no-yu, I have my sword.”

“Very well. Bring your sword in and have some tea,” consented Sen no Rikyu.

The kettle was boiling on the charcoal fire. Suddenly Sen no Rikyu tipped it over. Hissing steam arose, filling the room with smoke and ashes. The startled warrior ran outside.

The tea-master apologized. “It was my mistake. Come back in and have some tea. I have your sword here covered with ashes and will clean it and give it to you.”

In this predicament the warrior realized he could not very well kill the tea-master, so he gave up the idea.

More photos of this old, tiny teahouse, said to have been designed by the tea master:

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Happy Chinaman

One of the innumerable statues of the beloved Hotei. This one was at Ryōan-ji I think.
One of the innumerable statues of the beloved Hotei. This one was at Kennin-ji I think.

Anyone walking about Chinatowns in America will observe statues of a stout fellow carrying a linen sack. Chinese merchants call him Happy Chinaman or Laughing Buddha.

This Hotei lived in the T’ang dynasty. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to gather many disciples about him. Instead he walked the streets with a big sack into which he would put gifts of candy, fruit, or doughnuts. These he would give to children who gathered around him in play. He established a kindergarten of the streets.

Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: “Give me one penny.” And if anyone asked him to return to a temple to teach others, again he would reply: “Give me one penny.”

Once he was about his play-work when another Zen master happened along and inquired: “What is the significance of Zen?”

Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer.

“Then,” asked the other, “what is the actualization of Zen?”

At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way.

I’ve been inspired by Hotei to always remember the difference between religious observance (study, devotion, piety, meditation, asceticism, etc.) and an actualization of truth, realized in a life well-lived.

Publishing the Sutras

(Manpuku-ji, slightly North of the main temple.)

tetsugen blocks

Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.

For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.

I don’t know about Japanese telling their children this tale (it seems unlikely that Zen stories are told to Japanese kids at all based on my experience), but I like it. And I’ve read that this story of Tetsugen‘s door-to-door pursuit of funds may be a bit tall as well, but sure enough the blocks are still there today!

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A statue of Tetsugen.
A statue of Tetsugen.
This smiling, awesome guy still to this day is creating copies of the sutras using the blocks purchased with the money Tetsugen raised.
This smiling, awesome guy still to this day is creating copies of the sutras using the blocks purchased with the money Tetsugen raised.
Reading the story of Tetsugen from my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones! That's pretty amazing to me. (His English literacy was quite good, but we spoke only Japanese.)
Reading the story of Tetsugen, Publishing the Sutras, from my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones! That’s pretty amazing to me.
(His English literacy was quite good, but we spoke only Japanese.)

Etcetera

Well, those are some of the stories I made a bit more real with my trip to Kyoto. If you liked the stories and want more, they’re all from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which is a collection of four books actually. I count it among the few texts I would call holy; its contents continue to impact my life and spirituality.

Footnotes to my trip:

Another view of the Zen garden pictured at the top of this post. Kennin-ji.
Another view of the Zen garden pictured at the top of this post. Kennin-ji.

The characters on this wash basin at Ryōanji all use the square in the middle. They are 吾 (I), 唯 (solely), 知 (knowledge), 足 (sufficiency). The meaning can be translated as “I learn only to be contented,” or “I know only contentment.”

ryoanji learn to content

The rock garden at Ryōanji.
The rock garden at Ryōanji.

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Finally, nothing spoke more to me of the essence of life and Zen than watching this family enjoy one another’s company:

ryoanji family

Happy New Year!

So much happens in a month, and when I go without posting I don’t even know where to start.

Today I went to Rikugien. It’s a garden with a beautiful pond in the center and paths all around it. There are 88 scenes from classical Japanese/Chinese poetry reproduced in miniature throughout the park. For example “The rock splitting the river,” where a small pond to the side of one path was fed by a small waterfall that flowed down and parted into two streams.

The view as you approach the small lake at the garden’s center.

 

Matcha tea and a little sweet bean paste treat.

 

The view as I drank my tea
Originally used to protect tree branches from snow and frost, this support is now a common tree decoration. To be honest I wish it wasn’t there, obstructing the view of the tree itself.

My phone battery died shortly after that last picture. I spent the rest of the time contemplatively, considering my perpetual desperate need to capture moments instead of just living them. Even the desire to live mindfully, fully in the present, is just another manifestation of that need. One day I hope to be comfortable in the knowledge that all existence, even each moment, is impermanent, and then live in the true freedom of that awareness. Or, to put it another way, in the words of my hero:

WZ9DWp2

 

 

Recently I went to a drinking and eating establishment where you got to catch your own fish and eat it.
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My coworkers. These are such fun, good people.

 

 

 

Blah blah blog title

Hey look at this stuff:

This is what breafast at Denny's looks like in Japan. That's ice cream and caramel and the envy of friends and family drizzled on top.
This is what breafast at Denny’s looks like in Japan. That’s ice cream and caramel and the envy of friends and family drizzled on top.
This titan costume is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious
This titan costume is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious

Recently went to an izakaya (after-work drinking place) that was themed like a school. Lots of fun.

The walls had children's art
The walls had children’s art
Backpacks were hanging up
Backpacks were hanging up
Okkun got a drink with a fizzing popsicle in it.
Okkun got a drink with a fizzing popsicle in it.
Matsukiyo had a drink in a beaker that glowed (thanks to an led-lit ice cube).
Matsukiyo had a drink in a beaker that glowed (thanks to an led-lit ice cube).
Yoshimura-chan had a flask of orange juice that came with a test kit of ingredients you could add to it.
Yoshimura-chan had a flask of orange juice that came with a test kit of ingredients you could add to it.
My local bakery
My local bakery
Had a bartender make me a sword balloon recently.
Had a bartender make me a sword balloon recently.
The Bonenkai (company year-end drinking party)
The Bonenkai (company year-end drinking party)
My coworkers!
My coworkers!
My coworkers!
My coworkers!
Yoshimura-chan, Hashidume-chan, Sasamon, and Okkun. Love these people!
Yoshimura-chan, Hashizume-chan, Sasamon, and Okkun. Love these people!
Ate at a pancake cafe and of course had to order the limited time Christmas pancake.
Ate at a pancake cafe and of course had to order the limited time Christmas pancake.
Tonight, stood on the roof of a department store in Harajuku and watched the sun set. Fuji is visible in the distance.
Tonight, stood on the roof of a department store in Harajuku and watched the sun set. Fuji is visible in the distance.
Closer view of Fuji.
Closer view of Fuji.

Adventure Time!

 

Today I set out to be a tourist again. It’s amazing how quickly anywhere in the world can get comfortable and boring if you don’t take it upon yourself to go out and see what’s around you. So I found the One Day in Tokyo itinerary on Wikitravel and decided to sort of follow it.

I started off strong by waking up around 9 therefore abandoning the whole “go to the fish market and have sushi for breakfast at 5am” part of the plan. No thank you. If clocks were people their butthole would be 5am, and fish for breakfast sounds like something that is illegal to do to prisoners.

So I went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum and learned about Tokyo’s history.

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Childbirth during the Edo period was generally seated delivery, and the woman in labor used a rope hung down from the ceiling or an assistant as a support. The newborn baby was given its first bath by the midwife, who seated herself in front of the bath tub and bathed the baby by placing it on its face on her lap. One reason for this was to protect the opening made from cutting the umbilical core from getting wet. Another reason was that it was commonly believed one should not take an eye off the child’s back which, according to Chinese belief, was an important place where all five entrails were concentrated. The mother of the newborn child, in accordance with a popular tradition to prevent blood from streaming up to her head, had to spend seven days and nights seated, either on the delivery seat or leaning against the futon piled up. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon that this practice ruined the woman’s health.

Check out the incredible process of woodblock printing. Step 1 is on the right, and each step adds more detail. I was impressed.

Next I went to the Meiji Jingu temple garden. That was a nice walk in a park which was frequented by the Emperor and Empress themselves when they were alive.

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Then I walked through Shinjuku’s Harajuku and found a place called Calbee Plus, dedicated to nothing but treats made of fried potatoes.

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Masaaki Yuasa spoke along with some other folks I didn’t know (but that probably just makes me the Philistine here, not them the unknowns). Here they are discussing the episode he was given free reign to create in Season 6:

 

OK then I came home and burned some gyoza for dinner and wrote this.

 

Image & Video Update, Plus Rakuten Tech Conference

Today I put a pin down randomly in the middle of Tokyo on Google Maps:

tokyo-pin

Then I hopped on a train and went there.

It was this building.
It was this building.

I guess they can’t all be winners.

Then I found a cafe nearby called the Bookshelf Cafe. The sign seemed to say they were open on weekends from 10:00 – 18:00, but the closed sign was up. The door had an automatic “wave your hand here” panel, so I tried my luck and it opened. I stepped in and woke up a dude lying on his stomach sleeping in a booth inside.

「Excuse me, what time do you open?」I asked in Japanese.

「Oyasumi desu」he replied. In Japanese, “Oyasumi” can mean a rest, nap, vacation, time off of work, etc. So thanked him awkwardly and left wondering what kind of answer “I’m taking a break,” was to a customer who wanted to come in during normal business hours.

It turns out according to the website they’re not open on Sunday at all. And while I still wonder what led that guy to come into work for a sleep in a booth, I realized what his sentence meant: it’s our day off. We’re closed. Like the sign says, jerk.

My coworkers haven’t been able to give me a good Japanese word to use in place of “oops” yet.

Anyway, the title says “Rakuten Tech Conference,” which I attended yesterday. Had a great time, and most of the talks are on Youtube. I gave a “lightning talk” about successfully implementing process changes on your team. In lightning talks speakers have a strict 4 minutes to talk on their topic, so I had to rush, but it was a good experience.

Afterward I got to hang out and talk with Nathan LeClaire of Docker (super smart guy working on and showing off some really neat things for a cool company) and the accomplished Jim Coplien who’s been in the software biz for decades, is well-read, and has strong and intriguing opinions on many things from scrum, kanban, & agile in general to organizational patterns and international politics, all of which were extremely fun to discuss with him over beer and Japanese food.

Now for some images and videos I’ve made recently.

Walking off the train, I have to take these baby steps and get knocked around by other commuters. Watch and feel my pain.

A kitten at a cat cafe wants to chew my phone cord (of course).

A man fights sleep outside of a McDonalds and loses. I have been this dude so many times.

Thanks to this walk to Doofles, the neighborhood arcade, I’m sort of OK at Tekken Tag Tournament 2 now.

A photo update regarding music and friends.

It’s a beautiful, rainy day here in Tokyo. Let’s look at some pictures.

I’ve spent a few nights at Shibuya’s Ruby Room. They have a Tuesday night open mic, and I love open mic nights. There’s always such a variety of skill levels and musical styles, and I have a special place in my heart for amateur artists performing for the love of the music. For me the soul of lo-fi and live beats a polished and produced recording any day.

 

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Apart from open mic nights, I also checked out show by The Casablancas there.

 

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Good stuff. They actually opened for another band that night but in my opinion stole the show.

Also, had dinner with coworkers the other night. I love these folks! They really know how to have a good time together and have been super welcoming to me.

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I love this country.