Friday, December 3, 2010

Gudo Nishijima Roshi, 91

Nishijima Sensei Birthday party 2010

Gudo Nishijima turned 91 last Monday. To mark his birthday, we asked him to give a talk last Saturday at our zazen meeting at the Young Buddhists Association in Tokyo. We also invited him to a small birthday lunch afterwards at a nearby Indian restaurant. 

I arranged to pick him up at his apartment on Saturday, and then take a taxi together to the place (called “Hongo-sanchome”) where we hold our zazen meeting. I called for him at about 11.30 am. He was still getting himself ready, and he asked me to wait for a few minutes while he finished getting ready. He offered me some fruit while I was waiting. He recommended the persimmons. He told me they that were really ripe and tasty now. He gave me one and a knife to cut it up with. He was right. The persimmon did taste great. When he saw I’d eaten it quickly, he offered me another one. I didn’t want to eat all his persimmons, so I said I was okay. I was hoping we’d have the chance to eat some lunch together before we went to the zazen meeting, but it was getting a bit late and Nishijima was worried about keeping the people at the meeting waiting. So we decided to skip lunch. Instead Nishijima brought a few bananas with us to eat in the taxi.

It took us a while to get a taxi after we left his apartment. Nishijima doesn’t walk so quickly nowadays, and I didn’t want to hurry him either. There were a lot of autumn leaves on the road as we were walking along. Nishijima told me the particular leaves that were on the path we were walking along are used as the symbol for Tokyo. The tree they’re from is called “ichou” in Japanese. In English it’s called the “ginkgo” tree.

When we reached the main road, we stood at the kerb and eventually hailed a passing taxi. Nishijima told the driver where we were going and a good way to get there. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he decided to eat some of the bananas. I was wondering if the taxi driver would object to us eating, but he didn’t seem to mind. Nishijima told me that a former prime minister of Japan, named Nakasone, used to keep some bananas in his office desk and whenever he was too busy to eat lunch, he’d eat the bananas instead. So Nishijima and myself were following prime minister Nakasone’s example with the bananas. Anyway, it was fun eating the bananas together in the back of the taxi. I think Nishijima enjoyed doing it like that.

We were late arriving at the meeting, and Nishijima felt bad that everyone had been waiting. But I think the people understood that Nishijima had made a big effort to get there, and they were happy to see him. The room we hold the talks in is on the second floor, and there’s a steep flight of steps to get there. Nishijima did his best to walk up, and me and Saito-san helped him along. He managed to climb the steps without too much trouble. Then he went into the room and started his talk.

He hadn’t given a talk in English for about a year, and he was a bit rusty at the start. But after a while he got into his stride, and spoke about how he got interested in Buddhism and Master Dogen. He also told us how he began giving lectures in the same building we were in about 50 years ago. He told us he first came across Master Dogen’s book Shobogenzo when he was 16 years old. He had a read a lot of books before then, and felt he could understand all the books that he had read. But when he read the Shobogenzo he couldn’t understand it all. Even though it was written in Japanese and he could understand the words, he just couldn’t understand the meaning of what Master Dogen had written in the Shobogenzo. He was very surprised that there was a book written in Japanese that he couldn’t understand. So he decided to try to find out what the meaning of the Shobogenzo was. He said he used to have a pocket edition of the Shobogenzo, which he carried around with him all the time. He said he read it on the train on his way to school and work and whenever else he had the chance. He read it over and over many times, and he eventually realized that the Shobogenzo was a very valuable and special book. He said he found that the Shobogenzo contained a real treasure. He said that what Master Dogen had written in the Shobogenzo was the “truth” itself. He said that even though he had read lots of books, he had never found one that he believed contained the truth. But after he’d read Shobogenzo over and over, he realized that he’d found a very special  book. So he decided to devote his life to reading the Shobogenzo, and eventually he began translating it and giving lectures on it.

Nishijima told us that when he was 40 years old he asked the then head of the Young Buddhists Association at Tokyo University (the same place we were having the talk last Saturday) to allow him to hold a Buddhist meeting there. Nishijima’s idea was to hold a zazen class and afterwards give talks on the Shobogenzo. The head of the Young Buddhists Association agreed to Nishijima’s proposal, but told Nishijima that the Association wouldn’t be able to pay him any money for holding his lectures. Nishijima said he didn’t mind that, and he was happy to hold his classes for free. So he began to hold meetings there. Two Tokyo University students helped him organize the first few meetings and came to the zazen practice and his talk too. But then the students became busy with their other studies and couldn’t come to his class. The next time Nishijima held a class after that, no-one came to the zazen practice. But he decided to do zazen in the room by himself anyway. Just as he was finishing zazen, two people came in and asked him where the library was. He chatted to them for a few minutes and said that they could come and listen to his talk that day if they wanted, so he ended up giving a talk to the two people who came looking for the library. After that the number of people attending his talks started to increase. The following week he said five people came, and after that seven people attended. After a while 30 or 40 people were coming to his talks. Later on he started giving talks in English at the same place (which is how I met him). He told us he felt very happy that he was able to give a talk on the Shobogenzo to so many people there. He said he was really happy to see that the meetings (in Japanese and English) he started all those years ago were still continuing even now.

After he finished talking, we presented him with some flowers and a birthday card that everyone at the meeting had signed. His students in Finland had also sent him birthday greetings which they had all written. Some of his other students outside Japan had sent him a card or a gift as well. 

After the meeting we took some photos with Nishijima Roshi, and then we went to a nearby Indian restaurant. The restaurant wasn’t that far away, and some people went by foot. But it was too far for Nishijima to walk to, so we went by taxi. While we were in the taxi Nishijima told me that he was very, very happy to be able to give a talk there that day. He said it was the happiest day of his life. He said he felt really happy that he had been able to give talks on Buddhism to people at the Young Buddhists Association.

It was around 3 pm when we reached the restaurant. There was 13 of us, and the restaurant put a few tables together to accommodate us. Nishijima sat in the middle and told us about the time he visited India and some other stories. He also answered some questions we had about Buddhism. At the end of the meal, we all stood up and sang “Happy Birthday”. Just about everyone who was in the restaurant joined in. I even heard the cooks joining in in the kitchen. After we finished singing, Nishijima said it was the happiest day of his life.

It was a real pleasure for me to spend time with Gudo Nishijima that day. It’s a day I’ll always remember.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Stopping and Silence Bell

temple bell3

If you practice mediation with a group, more than likely someone there strikes a bell to signal the start and end of each mediation period. I don’t know if there’s any other way people do it, although one time we used an empty wine glass and a fork to signal the start and end because we didn’t have a bell. 

In the Soto Zen style, we hit a bell three times to start zazen and once to end it. If we’re doing a couple of periods of zazen in a row, we do a period of slow walking meditation called “kinhin” in between the two zazen periods. Kinhin is done to give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and shake off any sleepiness between zazen periods. If we’re doing a session like that with zazen, kinhin, and then more zazen, we ring the bell like this:
three rings to start zazen
two rings to end zazen and start kinhin
one ring to end kinhin
three rings to start zazen again
one ring to end zazen
Believe it or not, the Soto temples in Japan have a term for each set of rings. The three rings to start zazen is called “shijosho” (止静鐘), the two rings to end zazen and begin kinhin is called “kinhinsho” (経行鐘), the ring to end kinhin is called “chukaisho” (抽解鐘), and the ring to end zazen is called “houzensho” (放禅鐘).  I don’t know if there’s an “official” English translation for those terms, but here’s the way I translate them:

In the first one, shijosho (止静鐘), the three rings at the start, the first character “shi” (止), means “stop” or “cease”, the second character “jo” (静) means “silence” or “calm”, and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime”. So it means something like the “stopping silence bell”, or the “stop silence bell”, or maybe even the “cease, silence bell”. When I first saw this one I thought it must be the name for the one ring to end zazen, but actually it’s the one to start. (Maybe it’s a koan?)

The translation for the second one, kinhinsho (経行鐘), the two rings to start kinhin, is easy. The first two characters “kin-hin” (経行) mean, you guessed it, kinhin, and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime”, same as in shijosho. So it means the “kinhin bell” or the “slow walking bell”.

In the third one, chukaisho (抽解鐘),  the single ring to end kinhin, the first character “chu” (抽) means “withdraw” or “pull out”, the second character “kai” (解) means “separate” or “solve”, and the third character is “sho” (鐘) which again means “bell” or “chime”. So you can translate “chukaisho” as the “(let’s all) withdraw and separate bell” or even the “withdraw and solve bell”. 

Houzensho (放禅鐘),  the single ring to end zazen, translates like this: the first character “hou” (放) means “release”, “liberate” or “set free”, the second character “zen” (禅) means “meditation” (bet you knew that), and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime” like before. So you can translate “houzensho” as the “release from meditation bell” or maybe something a bit more poetic like the “liberating mediation bell” (which might make a good name for the bell to start zazen, but let’s not get into that).

I’m not sure how useful this information will ever be, but at least if someone asks you sometime when the stopping silence bell or the liberation meditation bell is, you’ll know what they’re talking about. Just remember which is first.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gudo Nishijima Roshi on Buddhism and Reality

Nishijima Roshi Nov 13 2010 2

I met my Buddhist teacher, Gudo Nishijima, at his apartment in Tokyo yesterday. He’s 90 years old, but is still active for his age. He gives a Buddhist talk in Japanese every month in Tokyo, and travels to Osaka a few times a year to give a talk there. He’s also working on a new book in Japanese and he gets a lot of email from people interested in Buddhism. He told me he’s happy to be busy like that.

Physically, of course, he’s not as mobile as he used to be. This year the Tokyo summer was the hottest for over 100 years. The temperature got up around 35 Celsius everyday for about 6 weeks. Nishijima told me he tried to get out for a walk or to do his shopping each day during the summer. Unfortunately, he fell over one day on his way home with the shopping. When that happened he realized he’d have to be more careful. He said he realized he “was being too brave.” Nowadays he takes more care when he’s out and about. When I met him recently he told me he’s “training to be an old man”. He still feels young inside, but his body won’t always let him do the things he’d like to. 

He was in good spirits yesterday, and always is as far as I can see. It’s a real pleasure to meet him. He’s always willing to discuss Buddhism, and I learn something every time we meet. It's great to meet someone who's cheerful and upbeat all the time. That's another thing I learn when I meet him. I get to see how someone is after studying Buddhism for more than 70 years!

I recorded some of our chat yesterday. It was a discussion about what Buddhism sees as the difference between matter and reality, or what Buddhism calls the "dharma". We also talked a bit about the reason to do zazen and about what Buddhists refer to as the "balanced state". Nishijima’s idea is that when we do zazen our body and mind become more balanced, and that balanced state is the natural state of humans. So when we do zazen we notice what it means to be human. Our talk went something like that anyway. Here's the mp3 file. It lasts about 12 minutes (11 mb). 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Early Morning Meditation

Peter's pony

An Indian friend of mine is interested in Zen Buddhism. He knows about meditation and other practices in India and tells me some ideas the Indians have about meditation. The other day we were talking about good times during the day to do zazen (zen meditation). He told me the Indians consider early morning to be the most auspicious time to do meditation. I don’t know if “most auspicious” means “best” in this case, but I think it probably does, or at least it means “very good”. Of course it’s nice to do meditation any time during the day, but the yogis in India seem to have noticed that there’s something particularly good about meditation in the early morning. My friend said they’ve even narrowed the most auspicious time down to between 4 am and 6 am.

That actually made sense to me. I’ve worked some jobs in the past where I used to have to get up around those times to go to work. Even though it was hard to get up that early (and it still is), I noticed there was something about going to work at that time that felt alright in some way. So recently I’ve been getting up earlier than usual to give early morning meditation a try and see if it feels any different. My impression so far is that it's a bit different alright. The zazen itself doesn’t feel too different when I'm doing it, although there’s a lot less noise about. I do notice, though, that I feel more active afterwards than I usually do, and the rest of the morning has a slightly different feel to it too. That’s so far anyway.

One thing I’m not sure about though is whether the “auspicious” time is between 4 am and 6 am for everyone all over the world, or whether it depends on where you live. My guess is that in most countries around daybreak might be an “auspicious” time  for meditation. But I might be wrong about that so I’m going to stick with the “between 4 am and 6 am” meditation for a while and see how it goes.

By the way, when I was back in Ireland during the summer we did a 3-day meditation retreat at a small center that’s right on the coast. We did some early morning meditation there. After the meditation we had time to walk down to the shoreline and look across the bay to the Clare hills. It was all calm and quiet. I grew up in that area, but never really noticed how nice it can be in the early morning there, in summer anyways.

So if you’re one of those people who doesn’t mind getting up a little early in the morning, then try a bit of early morning meditation some time. See if you notice a difference. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

This is Heaven

We held a 3-day zazen retreat recently at Tokei-in temple in Japan. We were a fairly big group, with people there from all parts of the world like North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. There was even a woman there from the same place as me in Ireland. We'd never met before, but it turned out she’d attended the same school as one of my (very few) old girlfriends. I don't know which of us was more surprised about that.

I figured that the retreat might get a little disorganized because we were a fairly big group. But everyone pitched in and it felt like things went really smoothly. We were helped a lot by the cook (Tenzo) at Tokei-in. He's a Japanese monk who I guess is in his seventies. He's been at the temple for many years, and was the cook there when Nishijima Roshi used to hold his retreats there too. He did all the cooking and preparation by himself, and he made a lot of great meals. I was sleeping in the room next to him at the temple, and I heard him get up around 3.30 am on the first morning to start the preparation work and at around 4 am the next morning. There was a total of 28 of us for three meals a day, so it meant a lot of hard work for him. But he was always smiling and was the most helpful person you could hope to meet. I sometimes read things where people criticize some aspects of Buddhism in Japan. Maybe they’ve got a point about some things they criticize, but there are also a lot of good things about Buddhism in Japan that people maybe overlook. The cook at Tokei-in is certainly an example of some of the good things. Not just because of his hard work and great meals. His attitude was great too. We gave him a big round of applause and thanks before leaving.

We held the retreat over the first three days of what’s called “Golden Week” in Japan. Golden Week is a period with four or five public holidays in a row. It tends to be very busy on the roads and trains for the first day or two of the week. So I was worried it might be hard to get tickets, or at least a seat, for the train from Tokyo to Shizuoka, which is where we were holding the retreat. But it turned out okay. We all managed to catch the train and I think everyone got a seat on the way down. I was about the last to get on the train. I figured all the seats would be gone, which they were, but one of the guys had been keeping a seat for someone, and I managed to hook up with him. We had a couple of nice seats by the window. It was a very clear day, and we got a great view of Mount Fuji on the way (that's a photo I took from the train).

We were a little behind the scheduled time when we reached the temple, but we soon got into the zendo (zazen hall) and started zazen. Some people there were trying it for the first time. I gave some instructions on how to sit and how to do the walking meditation known as “kinhin”, and then we all had a go at it. Everyone seemed to settle into the zazen well. One person who was trying it for the first time was a bit worried whether she’d be able to do it or not, but she settled right into it and by the end of the retreat she was one of the first into the zendo when it was time for zazen.

I gave four talks during the retreat. It was more like three talks really, because the fourth talk was a kind of feedback session where people gave there impressions about the retreat or asked questions or talked about some particular point. In the first talk, I spoke about what we’d be doing during the retreat and talked a bit about doing zazen. In the second talk I spoke about the life of Gautama Buddha. In the third talk I discussed about Buddhist ideas about right and wrong and some other topics. There were a lot of questions during the talks, so we ended up touching on a good few different points.

One question that came up during one of the talks was about the Buddhist idea about heaven and hell. It was an interesting question, and wasn’t really something I’d thought about before. In some Buddhist texts and sutras you’ll sometimes read about people “falling into hell” or the Buddha coming down from “Tusita heaven” and things like that. My own opinion is that these stories aren’t meant to be taken too literally. When I was growing up, we were taught that heaven and hell were places that actually existed. If you were good in this life your soul would go to heaven after you die, and if you were bad your soul would go to hell. God was in heaven and the devil was in hell. There was also a place called “purgatory” where your soul would go if it didn’t go straight to heaven. After it had been in purgatory for a while to make up for any sins you had, it could go to heaven. That’s the way I learned it anyway.

Buddhism has a different view of heaven and hell. For me at least, the Buddhist idea about heaven and hell is that this life that we all live now can be either heaven or hell. If you’re happy in this life, it can be heaven. If you’re unhappy, it can be hell. Buddhism doesn’t say that after you die you’ll go to heaven or you’ll go to hell. So if you live a happy life, then it’s like heaven. And if you live an unhappy life, then it’s like hell. That’s a bit simplistic, but I think that’s about as close as Buddhism gets to heaven and hell. Of course, we all have circumstances that we’re born into or grow up in that can determine to some extent whether we can live a happy life or not. But whatever circumstances we are in, it’s possible for us to make our lives happier or better. And Buddhism says that the way to live a happy life is to do good things, and don’t do bad things. The reason for this is that Buddhism believes in what’s called “the rule of cause and effect”. Basically what that says is that if you do “good” or “right” things, then that’ll produce good effects, and those good effects make your life happier. And if you avoid doing “bad” or “wrong” things, then you’ll stop producing bad or wrong effects that make your life unhappy. So no matter who you are or where you are, if you do your best to do “good” things and not do “bad” things, your life will become happier. For me, that’s what heaven and hell mean in Buddhism.

On the way back to the train station after the retreat, Kim told me a story about someone who had a dream in which they asked God to show them heaven and hell. God agreed and first of all brought the person to a dining room that had two tables, one on either side of the room. (Kim told me it was just like the dining room we ate our meals in during the retreat.) There was all sorts of delicious food stacked up on the two tables, and there was a lot of hungry people sitting next to the tables trying to eat the food. They could only eat the food by using chopsticks. But the problem was that the chopsticks were about two meters long. And because the chopsticks were so long it was impossible for anyone to pick up the food with the chopsticks and then put the food into their mouth. So everyone was very unhappy and frustrated and dissatisfied because they had all this great food in front of them, but were unable to eat it. God said “this is hell”. Next, God brought the person to another dining room that looked exactly like the first room. Just like in the first room, there were two tables on either side that were covered with all sorts of delicious food. People were sitting next to the tables, and had the same kind of long chopsticks as in the first room. But the people in this room were all happy and smiling and cheerful. When the person looked closely, she saw that the people in this room weren’t trying to use the chopsticks to pick up the food and put it into their own mouth. Instead they were using the chopsticks to pick up the food and put the food into the mouth of someone else on the other side of the room. It was easy to use the long chopsticks for that, and everyone could eat plenty that way. God told the person “this is heaven”.

Kim’s story about heaven and hell in some ways summed up what this retreat was about for me. I’ve attended a fair few retreats in the past, but of all the retreats I’ve been to, this was the nicest in many ways. So thanks to everyone who came and helped make the retreat work.



Thursday, April 15, 2010

3-Day Zen Retreat In Golden Week

I’ll be holding a Zen meditation retreat at Tokei-in temple on the outskirts of Shizuoka City from May 1 to 3. The retreat is in English and is suitable for beginners. The cost including meals and accommodation is 10,000 yen. So if you'll be in Japan around then and are interested in spending a few days at a temple and trying some Zen meditation, feel free to come along.

There’s some more information at:



Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where Science and Buddhism Meet

A friend sent me links to a couple of videos that look at similarities between what Buddhism and science say about reality. The videos are two parts of a video called "Where Science and Buddhism Meet".

When I first became interested in Buddhism, I used to think that science and Buddhism were far apart in what they say about the world. To me Buddhism was a kind of religion, and I assumed it said things about reality that were different to what science says. After checking it out for a few years I began to see that Buddhism and science weren't that far apart after all. I gradually figured out Buddhism is mainly about understanding reality, and anything about the world that is scientifically proven is okay by Buddhism. In that way, Buddhism doesn't set itself up to conflict with science. The big difference between them though is that Buddhism says there are some things about reality that science hasn't discovered yet, and maybe never will. So in some ways, Buddhism considers itself ahead of science as far as understanding the universe goes.

A big difference between Buddhism and science is the approach they take to studying reality. Buddhism places a big emphasis on understanding the world based on our own experience. So the things Buddhism say about reality are based on what people have experienced for themselves. For example, Buddhism says that the universe is "one" and that everything is "interconnected". This is because after practicing Buddhism for a while, you can start to feel that things are interconnected in a real way. Science takes a different approach. It tries to understand reality by gathering knowledge about the world, and making observations and proving theories based on the knowledge. In that sense, science and Buddhism are looking at reality from different dimensions. Buddhism looks at reality from the dimension of our own experience, while science looks at the world based on the scientific knowledge that's been accumulated so far. It's hard to know if either way is going to give a perfect answer, but I think that the more science finds out about the world, the better Buddhism starts to sound. Because what seems to be happening now is that as scientific knowledge increases, in some areas the scientific viewpoint is approaching the same viewpoint as Buddhism. And that makes the Buddhists think, "See, we were saying that all along, but no-one would listen!"

I was surprised by some of the parallels that came up in the video. One thing it looks at is Einstein's theory about "Spooky Action at a Distance", which is a lot like something that Buddhists notice. The video doesn't get into too much detail about the various similarities, but it's definitely worth a look if you've an interest in this kind of thing.

One idea that comes up that I found a bit hard to agree with, though, is where he seems to be saying that we can somehow control reality by using our mind. This isn't the way I understand Buddhism, but maybe I've misunderstood that part. I was thinking about this the other day, and it reminded me of a part on one of Neil Young's live albums where the rain starts to pour down during an outdoor concert he's doing. Neil tells the audience, "Maybe if we yell real loud, we can stop this rain!" And everybody starts shouting "No rain! No rain! No rain!" Unfortunately, it didn't work so well, and Neil had to play on in the rain. Mind you, if that kind of thing did work, I know we'd have been shouting it almost everyday when I was growing up.

Anyway, here are the videos. They're both about 10 minutes long.