Friday, March 20, 2009

Golden Week 3-Day Zazen Retreat

“Golden Week” is the name the Japanese give to a week around the beginning of May that’s got three or four national holidays in a row. It’s a nice week as almost everyone’s off work and school, and the weather's usually good. The only problem with golden week is that a lot of places you might want to visit, like Kyoto, are packed with tourists. The airports are real busy as well, as a lot of people use the week to head overseas. Airline prices rocket up around then too, so it’s not such a good time to go anywhere by air. One good place to visit in golden week, though, is Tokyo. The streets and trains aren’t half as busy as normal and you can get to a lot of places without any hassle. Just don’t even think of going to Tokyo Disneyland.

Another nice place to visit around then is Shizuoka, which, incidentally, is where I’ll be holding a 3-day zazen retreat in May. The last time I did a retreat in Shizuoka in May was in 1996. I’d just started going to Gudo Nishijima’s Saturday Zazen meetings a few months earlier, and someone there had told me about a retreat Nishijima was going to be holding sometime in May. I asked Nishijima about the retreat, and he said I could go along as his “guest”. It turned out the May retreat was for employees of the cosmetics company he used to work at. He held four retreats for the company each year, as well as an English retreat for his foreign students and one for his Japanese students.

Most of the people at the company retreat I went to were, you guessed it, folks that worked at the cosmetics company. But Nishijima had an arrangement with the company that meant he could invite up to 6 people as his guests too. Going as a guest was a great deal, as it meant I could attend for free. I’d never been to any kind of Buddhist retreat before that and didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be alright. There were 3 other foreigners there as Nishijima’s guests too, and they filled me on what to do during the retreat. The schedule wasn’t so full of zazen either, which made it good for someone like me who was just starting off.

One of the main things I remember about that retreat was hearing a bird singing outside the zendo while we were all in doing zazen. It was a bird that the Japanese call the “uguisu”. The dictionary I have translates “uguisu” as the (Japanese) nightingale. The uguisu sings a very long and distinctive song that goes on and on and on. And just around May is the season when it’s looking for a mate (or at least the one I heard was), so that guy sang and sang right through zazen. I’d heard the uguisu singing before but never really noticed it, but whatever it was about sitting on my zafu in the zendo there, I could hear it loud and clear. I’m pretty sure everyone else could too. So that’s my little memory of my first ever Buddhist retreat. (Now, wasn’t that nice?)

Another thing I remember about that retreat was sitting on the same platform as Nishijima when I was doing zazen. In the zendo there you sit on kind of wooden platforms (I don’t know if that’s the right word) that are about 50 centimeters off the ground. Each platform is big enough for two or three people to sit on for zazen. Anyway, for some reason or other I was put on the same platform as Nishijima. I’d just started doing zazen regularly about 4 months previously, so I was really nervous about having to sit on the same platform like that. Luckily there was another foreign guy there, called Herve, and he sat in the middle between me and Nishijima so I could kind of hide a bit. Not that Nishijima cared of course, but you know how it is when you’re just starting like that. You feel like you should be doing it exactly “right”. Anyway, after I while I relaxed a bit and realized it wasn’t so bad sitting on the same platform with Nishijima, and it didn’t matter much about my funny posture.

Anyway, one reason I’m telling you all this is that this year I’ll be holding a retreat for the first time at Tokei-in temple in Shizuoka for three days in golden week. Tokei-in is the same temple that Gudo Nishijima used to hold his retreats at. So if you’ll be in Japan around golden week and want to spend a few days at a Buddhist temple, then why not drag yourself along to Tokei-in for our little retreat. Anyone interested is welcome. The dates and times and other details are below. Email me at if you need more information.

3-Day Zazen Retreat in Shizuoka
- May 3 to 5, 2009 -

We will hold a three-day Zazen Retreat, Zazen practice and lectures on Buddhism, at a temple in Shizuoka City from May 3 to May 5, 2009. Instructions and lectures will be given in English. Anyone interested is invited to attend and participate in the full, but not exhausting, schedule of Zazen practice, lectures, and meals taken in the traditional style. Beginners are welcome. The quiet, tea-covered hills surrounding the temple provide a pleasant setting for a brief taste of Buddhist life.

Dates: From Sunday, May 3 at 1 p.m. to Tuesday, May 5, at 2 p.m.

Place: Tokei-in (a Soto school temple)
Address: 1840 Hatori, Shizuoka City, 421-12. Phone: 0542-78-9724

Lectures: There will be four lectures during the retreat. The lectures will focus on the teachings of Zen Master Dogen, who introduced Buddhism to Japan from China in the 13th century.

Cost: 10,000 yen excluding transportation fare.

Clothes: Comfortable clothing is recommended for practicing Zazen.

Deadline: Registration will be accepted by email ( up to Thursday April 23rd, 2009.

Transportation and directions to the temple:

Shizuoka is about 180 km west of Tokyo, 1 hour or so from Tokyo by Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train). A single one-way ticket costs 5,670 yen. The easiest way to reach the temple is by taxi from the north exit of Shizuoka station. Tell the driver "Hatori no Tokei-in." Participants should plan to arrive by 12 o'clock.

Most of the participants will be traveling to Shizuoka together from Tokyo. We will meet at 9.30 am on May 3 outside the outer ticket gate at the Yaesu Central Entrance (Yaesu-Chuo-Guchi) of JR Tokyo station, and then travel by the Tokaido-Shinkansen Hikari No. 467 train, leaving Tokyo station at 10:03 and stopping at Shizuoka at 11:06. You are welcome to join this group.

If you are going directly to Shizuoka, you can meet with the group coming from Tokyo outside the ticket barrier at the North Entrance at Shizuoka station at around 11:10.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy Paddy's Day!

My memory of Saint Patrick's Day in Galway was doing the guard of honor for the parade in the rain with the FCA. It wasn't much fun standing around all morning getting wet, but we got to see the majorettes up close and later on we were given a free lunch in Lydon's restaurant, which was a big deal for most of us.

A few years later I was living in New York and went to see the massive parade on fifth avenue over there. I ended up staying out most of the night speaking in my Irish accent (from the bits I remember). Paddy's Day in Galway was never the same again.

Hope you enjoyed it!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pedaling Buddha

I recorded part of a chat I had with Gudo Nishijima recently about the difference between doing zazen regularly and not doing it regularly (or not doing it at all even). Nishijima thinks doing zazen regularly is the most important part of Buddhism. Doing it everyday helps us stay "balanced". He compared doing zazen to riding a bike. If we keep pedaling we keep our balance and the bike keeping moving, but if we stop pedaling we end up losing our balance and falling off.

I asked him some other things too, like what he thinks "Buddha" is.

You can download the mp3 file here (lasts about 6 minutes).

Now I'd better go and get a new bike,