Showing posts from May, 2015

Zen and Japanese Culture

Zen and Japanese Culture is a book I have not read, written by D.T Suzuki. D.T Suzuki isn't really my jam, but my Buddhist philosophy teacher at Nisodo (yes, we had a philosophy teacher! Who stood in front of a blackboard!) often brought up this book in class. In the book, D.T Suzuki puts forth the argument that Zen Buddhism helped "shape an aesthetic found throughout Japanese culture." I think he's probably right, though Suzuki's emphasis on the poetical and paradoxical aspects of Zen is a little too romantic for this form-loving Soto Zen gal. The intersection and overlap between Zen and Japanese culture is fascinating to me though, because I think that while they're obviously not the same thing, Zen and Japanese culture have influenced each other in undeniable ways. It's interesting to try to tease out what is "Zen," what is "Japanese culture," and what is a chicken and the egg type situation.

I've heard teachers in Japan say som…

Help Me!

I just finished a semester of Japanese language classes with a wonderful group of people. In addition to American college students, there were people in my class from Taiwan, the Philippines, Spain, Indonesia and Ghana. At least three were Southeast Asian students living in the local Catholic seminary, studying Japanese to do missionary work here.

During a farewell party, a bunch of us performed songs and dances from our home countries. Since I'm me though, I of course sang one of the many Japanese Buddhist song I've learned here. At both monasteries where I trained, we were required to learn goeka, which are Buddhist poems (usually Dogen's) put to music and accompanied by a small hand bell and mallet. Goeka is usually sung at funerals and other Buddhist ceremonies, by both lay people and monks (it's most popular with old, Japanese lay women). The song I chose to sing has my favorite melody, but the words-- a waka by Dogen with two additional Buddha names tacked on a…

Beggars Can't Be Choosers

Within groups of foreigners who have come to Japan to study the culture or history, I am often called upon as a representative of Zen Buddhism to vouch for the delicious vegetarian cuisine served in Buddhist temples. I've sat through not one but two University lecture classes on Japanese culture in which the very well-meaning professors wanted me to explain to the class about shojin ryori, the specialized vegetarian food served mostly in Kyoto. Shojin ryori is like haute cuisine of traditional Japan; it's roots stem from vegetarian temple cooking but it has since evolved into an incredibly expensive collection of delicacies, using only fresh and seasonal ingredients. It's usually served on a red laquer tray, like a work of art, and there will sometimes be dishes which taste like fish or meat but are made from beans and ground vegetables. Tourists and students of Zen both usually want to try shojin ryori at least once while they're in Japan, and so lots of people ask m…