Quiet tea, talky tea

Butsuma--a space for the Buddha. Chanoma--a space where people drink tea, eat, chat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Don't discuss Buddhism!

I am facing the possibility of a return to the US. I have enjoyed the overall Buddhist-friendly environment in Japan, and I wonder what it will be like in the US. My current impressions of Buddhism in the US (or the 'west' in general) are pretty much from the interwebs. But here it is: English speakers on the internet like lengthy harangues about what they understand Buddhism to be. I'm not saying no one gets it right...I can't make that kind of judgement. But among the Buddhist practitioners I know here, no one gets into too much theory. Of course, if you want to know about emptiness, non-self, the Five Aggregates--well, just ask Google-san. There may in fact be some Japanese who talk about such things. But I have met very few. In the two meditation groups I hang out with, the approach is to recite a few traditional prayers and the Heart Sutra, either before, after or bracketing the meditation. Of course, there are some physical exercises, too. In the meditation class at the Shingon temple, everyone learns three of the mudras or hand positions. These (AFAIK) have very explicit meanings and functions in Shingon--part of the esotericism, generally not taught to lay people. These three mudras are not hidden from casual practitioners, but at the same time, there is not much discussion of them. The Shingon session also includes two mantras--the teacher gives a very quick and maybe vague summary of the meaning or intention of these. After the sessions (both the Shingon one and the zazen at a Tendai temple) everyone is invited for tea and cookies (actually sembei) afterward, with opportunities for questions. But, NO ONE EVER ASKS ANYTHING! Why do we have to hold our hands that way? What is the meaning of the mantras? No one ever asks. Why not? A lot of it is probably Japanese upbringing and etiquette. Questions have a tinge of challenge to authority. They suggest that the teacher maybe didn't do his job well enough. The Heart Sutra is so well-known, it is like the elephant in the room. No one discusses it. I would guess most people don't feel any necessity for understanding the sutra on an intellectual level, so just reciting in the context of a meditation session is enough. Maybe it will just soak in. Actually, I find this admirable.

My impression is that some westerners, especially of the Zen persuasion, are reluctant to do sutra recitations or anything ceremonial. Just sitting should be enough. Maybe they are right. But the Japanese don't even think twice about ceremonies--they happen all the time, everywhere, not just in religious contexts. I would guess that 95% of Japanese who visit a temple will drop a coin in the box and put their hands together in front of the temple or image. If everyone around them is reciting a sutra, they will do it too. Personally, I like this idea that the sutra will soak in (to some extent) just by reciting it. So, questions are not really necessary. Certainly it keeps the vibes very mellow. No contradicting, no 'yes, but...'. Very often, even a sermon (howa 法話)will be very mundane. The priest at the Tendai temple often uses anecdotes about the children in the temple kindergarten in his mini-howa before the meditation session.

I suspect that many westerners are uncertain about meditation, whether they are doin' it rite. So they like to ask a lot of questions. Why am I so fidgety? How can I control the monkey mind? And so on. On the other hand, most Japanese have had at least some exposure to meditation from an early age. Kids who go for karate or other martial arts usually start and end their practice sessions with a minute or two of silence. As people grow up, they realize that no matter how much you want to fidget, you shouldn't. Partly a matter of respect for those around you. Also, 90% (I don't really know, but it is a lot) of Tokyo people ride public transport. I can't really sleep deeply on an urban train making a lot of stops, but I stay in a meditative state for long stretches. Probably lots of other people do, a kind of non-religious meditation. As I age, I feel the necessity to geeze a bit, so I have to wonder about the next generation, even in Japan. I heard one aspiring meditator complain that after settling down for meditation, pop songs kept running through his head. Get those buds out of your ears, people!!

So, maybe I will find a group in the US that uses recitation and silence more than theoretical discussions. If you know any, let me know! (The pic at the top is my basic meditation set--incense and a candle help set the mood.)


  1. Discussions of emptiness and so on are left to university academics in Buddhist Studies. I've noticed even on relatively anonymous internet forums in Japanese as well almost nobody has a basic idea of what emptiness means, even obou-san who have decades of experience.

    More often than not such discussions go nowhere. Even around Komazawa I was surprised at how little even my peers know about the bread and butter, or at least what I consider it to be, of Mahayana Buddhism. Maybe they were afraid of making an error, but discussion and debate are not really to be had around Komazawa. I think the general sentiment is that as a young scholar you're expected to just defer to your superiors and not make any judgements as that is considered appropriately humble. You're only supposed to make critical discussion when you're a middle-aged and beyond.

    This is perhaps why Japanese Buddhist Studies are declining in quality. One Japanese professor of mine said just that: the quality of students is in decline and their research ain't up to snuff. Funding will inevitably decline as well. With the number of Buddhist priests in decline as well Buddhist Studies in Japan will probably never produce figures like Hirakawa, Nagao or Nakamura again.

  2. Hi, Jeff! Thanks for your comment.
    I wonder why the quality of students is declining and their research is not up to snuff. Aren't the professors at least partly responsible for that? Or high schools? I dunno...

  3. In the case of Buddhist Studies the quality of kanbun reading skills has declined. It used to be the case that a high school graduate bound for university to study the humanities would already be well-read and grounded in kanbun, but nowadays this isn't so. There is also a reliance on translations of kanbun texts. Instead of reading things as 白文 they might look at the 国訳 instead.

    I think youth born in the 80s also developed an attitude towards learning where it is just a means to get a job, much like in the west. In the older generations learning was appreciated more. If the whole point of your graduate studies is to secure a job in the end, then you probably won't become an erudite scholar. Again, there are similar parallels in the west.

    Actually I know some exceptions in Komazawa. The one that comes to mind isn't from a temple family and as a result is studying Buddhism entirely out of personal interest and it is shows when he is at the office until 10pm most nights translating Tibetan.