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2005-12-15 8:57 p.m.

How to putte Questions to the Dark and understand its Answeres

I’ve been waking up with old Offspring tunes in my head the last few days. That can’t be a good sign.

Since this entry is long, I’ll break it up into headings. You can read those sections that interest you.

It’s Frickin’ Cold In Here. Cold Like My Soul!

It’s definitely winter now. The bugs are long gone, they pumped up the heaters in the staffroom (but not the hallways or the classrooms) at school, and I’ve moved my futon downstairs because it’s just too much of a hassle to move from a cold room to an absolutely frigid one when I want to go to bed. It’s even been snowing a little.

The spider in my bathroom disappeared a few weeks ago. I was sad to see her go. She’s been a comforting companion to all my urinations and defecations over the last eight months…

There are a few wasps holing up on the second floor this year as well, but not nearly as many as last year. All in all my bug troubles have been relatively calm this time around.

Waves of Mutilation

I saw the Pixies in Fukuoka. I nearly didn’t though, as before leaving I once again forgot to visit the island’s ATM until it was too late. I had enough money to get to Fukuoka but not enough to pay the five dollar cover charge. Some stranger spotted me, though, which was very cool of him.

As for the concert, it was okay. I enjoyed it, but I felt like Black Francis, or whatever he’s calling himself these days, was phoning it in. His voice didn’t sound much like days of yore, either. Kim Deal sounded great, though. She’s got a lovely voice. Somehow I imagined her as a blond.


I took Level One of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test the next day, which went surprisingly well. I’m not one hundred percent sure that I passed, but we’ll find out in February.

Monastery 1: The Bad Beginning

Then came my stay in the monastery. That was kind of a shock to me, as that lifestyle is completely different from the larger Japanese world. It was, in a word, ascetic. The experiences I’ve had which it most resembled are the MTC and a particularly hard core scout camp I attended at age 13.

I arrived Sunday night several hours later than I had planned. It was a dark and stormy night, and I had forgotten to bring my umbrella… I talked to the head monk for a while and went to bed as soon as I could. At 3:30 am someone ran through the hall outside my room ringing a bell. (If just before sunrise is the butt crack of dawn, 3:30 am is dawn’s colon.) And that was the first time I was awakened in the middle of the night to follow silent men in black robes through cold dark halls.

Monastery 2: The Zazen Lifestyle

I spent about eight hours a day doing zazen. (In between were meals, cleaning up after meals, cleaning the temple and temple grounds (I totally cleaned a Buddhist temple’s floors Spirited Away-style), and sitting around.) Meditation was in 30 or 40 minute chunks, with short breaks in between. The meditation hall was fairly cold and, when they weren’t chanting sutras, it was positively dim. By the end of the first day my legs were in open revolt and lotus positions of any kind were vetoed for the rest of the time I was there. In fact, by the end of the first day I fucking hated the place.

I liked it a little better after that. The zazen ended up being, once again, more of an exercise in enduring pain than in meditation, as I would hold each position until I couldn’t bear it any longer and then switch to a new one, constantly cycling until time was up. I started to understand a bit, though, just why a person might want to live their life like this. I have, I think, I identified a tangible benefit to zazen, and that is that it just seems to increase the signal-to-noise ratio in my brain. It turns down my mental static. After zazen, my head is clear and my brain does what I ask it to do, without getting sidetracked by the irrelevant. I feel it’s helped me a great deal in the tests and musical performances I’ve been undertaking lately. In the same way, staying in the monastery made me realize how much spiritual static I’m surrounded with in my daily life, how much of the consumerist crap that surrounds me is actually unnecessary.

(Though somehow, I also feel like I’ve been more irritable since starting zazen. Like I get really annoyed at anyone who disturbs my self-imposed tranquility. (The monks were pretty irritable, too, especially when a monk junior to them would perform an action less than exactly as it was supposed to be performed.) I also find that when I’m doing zazen, loud noises startle me more than usual...)

Monastery 3: On the Prevalence of Whacking in Zen Monasteries

One of the notable characteristics of monastic Zen meditation is the role of jikido and kyosaku. The jikido is the monk whose job is to ring the bells that signify the beginning and end of the zazen period. In addition, while everyone else is meditating, he walks softly and carries a big stick. If anyone gets bad posture or seems to be falling asleep, he whacks ‘em with the stick (this is called kyosaku). This is one of the primary things that Japanese people associate with Zen and zazen.

No, I never got whacked that way, though had I been a monk I think I would have been beaten like a red-headed stepchild, as they say, since after the first day I employed all manner of unorthodox sitting positions in an effort to avoid trembling in pain for more than a few minutes at a time. But one of the monks suggested to me that if I wanted the full experience, I should get whacked at least once. Actually, I was prone to agree. So, on the morning of the last day (probably about 4:30 am), I got whacked.

How it works is that the Whacker, having decided that a Whacking shall take place, taps the Whackee on the right shoulder. The Whackee then puts his or her hands together in a prayer-like gesture called gassho and tilts the head to the left. Then comes the Whacking, a forceful strike to the right shoulder that makes a loud noise, but since the point of contact is very brief it doesn’t hurt all that much. If you are in the midst of zazen and you feel your concentration slipping, you can put your hands into gassho as a sign to the Whacker that you wish to be Whackèd. This is what I did in order to receive a Whacking, but the Whacker at first thought I was just doing it wrong and couldn’t seriously be seeking Whackage. So, I tapped my shoulder, which, of course, is the international sign for “No, really. Whack me, Mr. Whacker, sir!” He obliged, and thus I passed through the gates of the House of Whack. It was breathtaking.

Monastery 4: Other Forms of Masochism Monasticism

When not doing zazen, I found myself spending a great deal of time sitting in seiza. Monks sit in seiza pretty much whenever they sit, and they stay there. One told me how when he first entered the monastery he had never sat in seiza before (this is not unusual with the younger generation). This is a place where sitting in seiza for two or three hours straight is not unusual. He said the first time he sat that long he couldn’t walk afterwards. My limit right now is probably about 30 minutes on tatami (the reed mats that make up the floor in a traditional room) and 60 minutes on a cushion.

Monastery 5: Zen and Japanese Culture

The longer I spent there, the more I realized just how Japanese the social structure of the monastery really is. (Or is it how monastic the structure of Japanese society really is?) There is a very strict hierarchy based almost totally on seniority. Everyone knows their place in the pecking order, and if you know what signs to look for you can immediately tell who is above who. They have specific formulas for almost everything that must be followed precisely. (Breakfast is a ceremony in and of itself, and quite a fascinating one at that. It seems to hearken back to times when monks often lived on the brink of starvation. Everything must be placed and held just so. There are special chants for starting, ending, administering seconds, and cleaning. They use special scraping tools to get every last bit of food off the bowls, and then they rinse the bowls in tea and drink it. They do similar things at the other meals, but breakfast is the one with the most formal procedure.) They also have a strong tendency to do everything the hard way in order to refine their souls (or show the other monks what a badass they are, at the least). All of this is quintessentially Japanese.

Zen and Buddhism, generally, are seen as old-fashioned and largely irrelevant by most Japanese people under the age of 60, however. Many of the monks were young men, but every one I asked became a monk because his father was one. Their plan is to stay and train in the monastery for two years or so before going home to take over the family temple. They do it primarily out of a sense of tradition and familial obligation.

I personally think Zen could have great value for the modern human, but I don’t think that the leaders of the Zen world do much to demonstrate that. To me, they seem stuck in a feudal mindset, where either you invest your whole life in ascetic devotion to it or it’s just not relevant to you until it’s time for a funeral or a visit to a grave. In the West, Zen has a playful, iconoclastic, and even “cool” image, but to most Japanese people, Zen is merely the most masochistically ascetic sect of a generally masochistically ascetic religion, and they can hardly be blamed for thinking in those terms. I just don’t think that this all-or-nothing no-pain-no-gain approach is really that relevant to modern society.

Due to the fact that most Japanese people only encounter Buddhism at funerals and grave visits, most Japanese people think Buddhism is… spooky. Most Buddhist temples are surrounded by cemeteries. The monks all wear black and tend to be on the solemn side. While the sutras chanted during zazen are slow and a capella, in other ceremonies the sutras are chanted quite fast to the beat of a drum, which lends a menacing aggression to the deep, droning voices of the monks. They employ a lot of bells, as well, whose tone also tends to verge on spine-tingling.

So, why doesn’t Zen adapt to the modern world a little bit, reach out, and show people that there’s more to it than death and whacking? I don’t know, but it is interesting how established religions tend to resist any and all social changes, isn’t it?

Monastery 6: So?

I left the monastery just after noon on Thursday (the 8th). I managed to miss the last ferry to the Rock by about ten minutes, and thus my ascetic training continued as I waited outside in the cold for two hours before a friend was able to come pick me up.

Would I do it again? Would I do it for a whole week? I’ll give that a conditional yes. If I could get my legs to the point where they could handle it better, I would definitely try it again.

As for the monk life… Probably not for me. Though if I reached a point in my life where I had a year or two to kill and no significant professional, social, or family obligations, and I found a place that would allow me to nap during the day to ensure I got enough sleep… It might be fun to try it for a while. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Wasting Time

Anyway, I’ve started into Shadow of the Colossus. I’m about halfway through it right now, and I really enjoy it. It’s got wabi-sabi up to here [imagine me putting my hand really high]. It’s so simple, yet so complex. It’s deliciously desolate and breathtakingly beautiful.

I’ve also started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, last year’s darling of the “speculative fiction” scene. I enjoy it, but how much remains to be seen.


WTF and I are doing some traveling around New Years. We’ll meet up in Osaka, hitchhike to Tokyo, and take a boat to Hokkaido before flying back to Osaka.

As her parents live very close to the port we’ll be departing for Hokkaido from, I had thought this would be a good opportunity to meet her family. New Year’s is the primary family holiday in Japan when almost everyone goes back to their parents’ house. But she’s pretty much vetoed that. Apparently her parents are not exactly pleased that she’s dating a foreigner. She doesn’t think bringing me around the homestead would be a clever move at this point.

She says that their way of thinking is old. I ask her what she means when she says “old,” and she says “like from the Edo Period.” (The Edo Period ended in 1867 and was a 250 year period of feudalism and almost complete national isolation.)

It’s hard to get her to talk about her family. She insists there’s nothing to say. She did say that her parents have opposed virtually everything she’s ever wanted to do, and that she doesn’t have such a good relationship with them. (Though she seems to return home at surprisingly regular intervals. I think it’s a Japanese thing.)

Duchess’s parents absolutely despised me, as well, and since then I’ve always worried about the opinion of my girlfriend’s parents. I really don’t want to have to put up with that again… But the bright side is that I’ve almost come to expect that parents will hate their daughters’ boyfriends as a matter of course, and thus… Eh. I don’t know what’s so bright about that, actually.

(Duchess recently celebrated the birth of her first child, incidentally. It seems like everyone I knew in high school and college has either impregnated or been impregnated by someone.)

News Nook (I'll Keep It Short)

Speaking of Buddhist meditation, there’s a kid in Nepal who’s been doing continuous meditation for six months straight, supposedly with little or no sleep, food, or water. Some people say he’s the reincarnation of Buddha. Maybe I’ll try that next year.

I’m not going to venture a guess as to whether it’s true that Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera offices (they’ve certainly received a surprising number of “accidental hits”), but the fact that both the U.S. government and Muslim terrorists both absolutely hate them tells me that they must be doing something right.

You know, I have to agree that, in the big scheme of things, rising gas prices are a good thing. We need to ditch these fossil fuels, but in a capitalist economy money is the only voice that will be heard. Of course I hope that we’ll be able to come up with viable alternatives before the whole thing goes bust, but if America has to compromise its standard of living along the way… I don’t really have a problem with that, theoretically. This idea that “the American way of life is not negotiable” has got to change. We need a system that’s both sustainable and allows some space at the table for everyone, and the current setup does not cut it. Of course, nothing’s going to get done as long as the current dude’s running things.

I find the prospect of making the Patriot Act permanent quite chilling. The only thing I can think of to say is to quote Jefferson: “Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain Security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

Alright. End. Stop. Over. Termination. This was long. I wasn’t planning on writing so much about the monastery here, but you know how it goes…

la douleur est la noblesse unique,