Having recently returned from six months in a monastery in Tibet, Ruriko Hino is eager to talk about how she first became interested in devoting her life to the study of Tibetan Buddhism and eventually to becoming a Buddhist nun. “I was 19 years old, and working in a hostess bar,” she says, making a face. “You know, serving whiskey to businessmen, wearing makeup, putting on a smiley face all the time so that I could pay my tuition at the interior design college I was going to.”But when I wasn’t working and attending classes, I went to a lot of reggae concerts, and I began to meet Jamaican people there, Rastafarians. I could immediately feel their powerful, powerful hearts, and their strong connection to the spiritual world.”Hino speaks with a thick Osaka dialect peppered with rapid-fire staccato sound effects. There’s almost a musical zaniness in her excited and intense contact with whatever it is she’s speaking about.
We are sitting in the dining hall of Tokurinji, a Zen temple near Nagoya, where we met at a festival celebrating Japanese-Nepali friendship, and drinking Himalayan tea. Tapestries and printed cloths hang from the walls. Hino herself is a colorful tapestry, dressed in loose-fitting Tibetan garments embroidered with geometric patterns in red, orange and black with a long purple scarf wrapped around her head. At the other end of the long table, a solitary Vietnamese monk in yellow robes is finishing his meal.
Hino, 26, says she decided to give up her interior design career and go to Tibet after a series of what she calls “earthquakes” that shook her life.
“The first earthquake was the one in Kobe; the second upheaval was the poisoning in the Tokyo subway, although I wasn’t there myself; and the third was watching my grandmother die. I went to see her in the hospital, and there she was lying with her mouth gaping open, in excruciating pain, with tubes up her nose and down her throat; she looked like she was trying to scream but couldn’t make any sound.
“That’s when I really had to ask, ‘What is this life about?’ I knew I had to make a change.”
Hino’s first visit to Tibet was only as a tourist, but over time she became more and more deeply involved. In her last voyage she took up residence in a monastery for half a year, studying with a priest, or rinpoche, in the Nyngma order.
“I don’t know how it happened, but I was switched on just like a light when I went to Tibet,” she says. “I would wake up every morning at dawn to the chanting of the other nuns in my room,” Hino writes in an article published in a newsletter of the Tibetan meditation community in Japan. “At first it was very difficult, because one of them chanted in a very grating way. But I eventually began to join the chanting myself.”
After chanting, Hino would begin her daily routine of sweeping and cleaning, making butter tea for everyone, eating tsampa (a toasted barley porridge) and studying.
She went on a pilgrimage, traveling from one holy place to the next, without running into any other Japanese people. “I didn’t see any Westerners either. I would just walk all day by myself through the desert and over the sand dunes and arrive at night at the next temple where I could take my rest and eat.”
One of the most challenging aspects of Tibetan Buddhism for Hino and for others is the practice of full body prostrations, involving kneeling down, sliding the forearms along the ground and touching the forehead to the ground.
“As soon as I began [the prostrations], though, everyone started staring at me,” writes Hino. “The Tibetans do prostrations all the time, but they weren’t used to seeing foreigners doing them. With the people’s encouragement, however, I ended up doing 200 full prostrations! I was very proud, but when I asked the others how many they do, they said one or two thousand a day. . . . After I finished doing prostrations I was filled with a wonderful freshness — I felt very good.
“When I came back to the monastery and I did the evening chanting with the rinpoche and the other nuns, I sensed something different inside me which I’d never felt before. I felt that, spiritually, I had moved forward a step.”
Hino is now back in Japan to tie up any loose ends before she goes back to begin her training in earnest for the three-year preparation for ordination.
When asked if it is difficult to be back Hino says, “Well, of course, Tibet is a very high place, and in a sense, Osaka is a very low place, but I also know that there’s probably a reason I chose to incarnate here. Just for one example, my mother has an alcohol addiction, and I can’t just ignore the problems here in Japan forever and just do what I want to do.”
Although bringing her Tibetan teachings to Japan in the distant future is an option for Hino, she says that she wants to spend the next three to five years concentrating on becoming ordained. However, Hino says, if she eventually chooses to teach in Japan, she will try not to concern herself too much with how to alter the teachings to fit Japanese sensibilities.
“I don’t think about changing anything. I am just letting everything be absorbed by my pores. I’m not thinking, ‘Is this [Buddhism] correct or mistaken?’ ‘Do I agree or not?’
“I don’t want to look at the teachings with the eye of doubt. The seed is my belief, and it has sprouted, and I feel moved. If necessary in the end, I may change it, but I am not approaching it from the beginning with the mind-set of ‘I have to change this.’ ”
One cannot help but wonder whether this kind of thinking might be beneficial for Western culture, which places so much emphasis on individual choices. Perhaps there is something very important about simply accepting what is given, whether it’s doing thousands of prostrations a day, waking up at dawn to chantings in a foreign tongue, or just quieting the voice of critical analysis every once in a while.
As Hino gets ready for her nightly meditation practice, I ask her why she thinks that Japanese people don’t practice meditation very much anymore.
“Perhaps it’s the pace modern people set for themselves. There’s no mu, no empty time in their lives. People aren’t accustomed to nothingness. But no matter how you think about it, mu is necessary. Otherwise you get tortured by time and swallowed up whole by everyday life. But with some meditation, it’s easy to keep on a straight track toward whatever is your goal.”
Meditation practices are not a part of everyday culture in Japan, but Hino hopes that that will eventually change.
“There’s still a lot of ignorance and prejudice. . . . But on the other hand, I think that regular people who work in offices in Japan are having more and more exchange with people who have lived in India or have studied a spiritual discipline, and so perhaps people are opening up.”