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Where Zen is perfectly at home


ZEN AND KYOTO, by John Einarsen. Uniplan Co., Inc, 2004, 135 pp., 2,381 yen (paper).

Like heaven and hell, or the elements of earth and rock, Zen and the city of Kyoto are joined at the hip.

Having made it his real and spiritual home for many years, John Einarsen, the founding editor of the magazine Kyoto Journal, is just the person to explain the relationship between Zen and Kyoto.

The visitor alighting at Kyoto Station would be hard pressed to sense any connection with Zen. But then, single temples and vast, parade ground-like Zen complexes have long co-existed with the clutter of urban Japan. And should you enter the temples themselves — silent worlds of murmured sutras, incense, and stockinged feet gliding over ancient polished wood — you will appreciate that of all Japan’s cities, Kyoto is where you are most likely to catch the aroma of Zen.

Einarsen knows the Zen world well enough not to be deluded by it, however, warning that much of its received history has been subject to fanciful embellishment and an obfuscation of historical fact. The writer compares the influence of Zen to the Catholic Church in Europe during the medieval period, both of which were central institutions to the cultural, intellectual and even political life of their time. Both were also inevitably prey to greed, corruption, and an instinct to vandalism, paying a bitter price for the power struggles that foreshadowed their rise and decline.

The contents of this slim volume are rich and varied. Monochrome images full of lush, intermediate grays, prints, temple layouts and drawings, provide a comprehensive visual profile of the Zen context. Events on the Zen calendar, such as zazen times for laypersons, are mentioned, and a glossary of Zen words and expressions are included.

Subjects relating to Zen, such as archery, haiku, the preparation of powdered green tea, and shojin ryori (temple cuisine) are covered. We also learn of the arcane Fuke sect, whose monks veil themselves in sedge hats that look like eel baskets, carry wooden swords and, instead of koan or zazen practice, favor the bamboo flute as a way to enlightenment. Einarsen spares time to deftly disentangle the myriad sects in Buddhism, showing how they overlap or stand in contradistinction.

Short biographies of historical Zen figures are included. Einarsen also pays homage to contemporary Zen personages like Daisetz T. Suzuki and the highly influential Soto Zen master Shunryu Suzuki (the subject of David Chadwick’s moving biography “Crooked Cucumber”), and others who played a key role in the dissemination of Zen to the West. Einarsen contends that the establishment of hundreds of Zen monasteries worldwide is a phenomena “as significant as the transmission of Zen from China to Japan 800 years ago.”

The chapter called “Life in a Monastery” provides insights and caveats into the daily practice and chores undertaken by monks. Those thinking of engaging in Zen training for any length of time would do well to know about monotonous food, unheated rooms and going barefoot in winter, as well as the rigors of sitting and walking meditation, alms collecting, garden maintenance, breathing exercises, digging ditches, and cleaning the latrines. These seemingly menial tasks are seen as good opportunities for Zen practice.

Gardens, too, are an important adjunct of Zen practice in Kyoto. Zen priest and renowned landscape designer Shunmyo Masuno, corroborates this view, affirming elsewhere that “For me, landscape design is a pure form of ascetic Zen practice.”

In profiling well-known temple and sub-temple gardens like those at Daitoku-ji and Tofuku-ji, Einarsen sensibly avoids the effusive and potentially misleading sobriquet “Zen garden.” The world famous garden at Ryoan-ji provides a cautionary example. Here is a design that has somehow acquired almost talismanic properties. There are even those who believe that this “trance-inducing” installation is not simply a garden but an ancient instrument, a sorcerer’s lodestone, a navigation tool into the mystic.

As the material within the book accumulates, we realize that Zen awareness, contrary to countless historical retellings, rarely strikes in the manner of a lightening bolt. Zen is hard work, with enlightenment more likely to be the result of a slow, even plodding process. In providing us with verifiable facts rather than publishing one more homage to the sweet mystery of the East, Einarsen has done both Zen and the reader a service.

And in describing the physical and cultural environment of his subject, he has illustrated how Kyoto is a city where both Zen and the author are perfectly at home.