Friday, January 28, 2011

Not in Kansas Anymore


I have a feeling I’m not in Kansas anymore. My home for the next ten days is a traditional Japanese–style Ryokan. Each night, I’ll come back to a 10 by 10 tatami-matted room with the futon on the floor taking up most of the space. There are no chairs, no TV, a sink in a tiny adjoining space and a low table with a cup, teapot and container of green tea. Open the sliding Japanese screens and you can look out at the small street below. The bathroom with a heated toilet seat is in the hall and the traditional Japanese bath (looking forward to that!) downstairs. The room comes with a robe and slippers and a modem on the floor that will allow me to keep sending these electronic postcards home. Instead of the Bible in the dresser drawer, there’s The Teaching of Buddha book on a low counter. Definitely not Kansas anymore.

And yet a homecoming of sorts for me. I first knew Japan as two paintings of geishas that hung in my grandparent’s house on Long Island, perhaps brought back by my Uncle George after the war. Then the World War II movies of my childhood. I don’t believe there were any Japanese children in my New Jersey hometown nor can I remember eating at a Japanese restaurant. But things kicked in big time in college—from the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa to reading and writing haiku (thank you, R.H. Blyth) to the haunting shakuhachi music of my Nonesuch Explorer Series records to my first encounter with Zen Buddhism via Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Phillip Kapleau and a Japanese Zen master named Nippo who taught for one semester. My interest in Japan had kicked in big-time.

My brother-in-law Jim picked up that Kapleau book once and became so intrigued that he jumped at the chance to go to a Zen meditation retreat in Princeton, New Jersey back in 1971. In 1973, my sister, Jim and I newly moved to San Francisco, we all went to a 7-day retreat (called sesshin) with the same Zen master at an old boy scout camp up on Mt. Baldy near L.A.—and never looked back. We went regularly for the next 10 years or so, me much less when child-raising began, though I maintained a daily zazen meditation practice that still begins my day.

The last time I saw that teacher—Joshu Sasaki Roshi—was at a 3-day treat in 2007, soon after my Dad died. He was still teaching at 100 years old. And still today, on the way to 104. Sometimes I wonder how long I can continue this marvelous life of teaching children and adults. Usually I imagine ten years and that feels a bit sad. Now if I think about 45 more, it’s more encouraging. Though I might have trouble moving those bass xylophones!

In Korea, I stayed and taught at Catholic University. Though occupied by the Japanese for the first half of the 20th century and invaded by China many times, Korea somehow managed to escape the reach of European colonialism. Which had me wondering how Christians make up more than 1/3 of the population and are growing steadily. It turns out that a diplomat who encountered Christianity in China brought back some books that provoked interest. Without the usual Western imposition and missionaries, Christianity seemed to grow on its own from within. And that certainly has impacted the changing Korean culture.

Off to teach—no break for this traveler—so for now, "Kamsamhamnida!" to Korea and "Konichiwa" to Japan!

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