Jerel Says, ‘Ato no matsuri’; Organize

Obon Night

Ato no matsuri

Translation: The day after the festival (to be late, to miss one’s chance)

-Japanese proverb

Every August, for three days, the Japanese celebrate the bon festival, otherwise known as Obon. It is one of the most important Japanese traditions: a time when many Japanese return to their hometowns to honor their dead relatives.

Festival Crowd

The origin of Obon comes from the story of Mokuren, one of Buddha’s disciples. Mokuren used his psychic powers to look for his deceased parents to see in what world they had been reborn. Dismayed at finding his mother in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, he went to Buddha to ask how he might save her. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who finished their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (eighth in the Gregorian calendar, hence August and not July). In doing so Mokuren was able to rescue his mother. Looking into his mother’s past, he also began to see and appreciate her kindness and the many sacrifices she had made for him. Overjoyed and grateful not only for his mother’s rescue but for her selflessness, Mokuren began to celebrate and dance. His dance became known as bon odori, or simply the ‘bon  dance, which is still one of the major aspects of the bon festival to this day.

Bon Dance

I’m pretty fortunate that there is a rather large Japanese demographic where I live, and Edgewater, NJ is home to the largest Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in the country. These two things combined mean that every year around the 15th of August our Mitsuwa holds a giant summer festival in honor of Obon and it never fails to draw an enormous crowd. I even ran into an old coworker from my glory days working at Blockbuster and an old classmate and former club member from college. It was nice to run into old friends and catch up for a bit while enjoying a whole assortment of Japanese summer treats. There were all kinds of treats to enjoy. I had an assortment of grilled seafood, grilled chicken skewers, takoyaki (fried dough filled with octopus), yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancakes), squid pancakes with fried eggs, gyudon (rice bowls with simmered beef and onions), gyoza (Japanese dumplings), and desserts like shaved ice and mochi (sticky rice dough filled with ice cream).

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There were games where you could win prizes by shooting targets with a plastic toy bow or if you could get plastic rings caught on wooden pegs. On others you had a tiny net with a thin strip of paper and you had to delicately try to catch toys floating in a kiddie pool. Still others had a whole assortment of prizes attached to pieces of string and on the other side you had to grab one and pull and find out just which prize you ended up pulling out. You could also buy a variety of plastic Japanese festival masks. Some were the traditional demons and gods while others were things like superhero masks from Japanese television shows or even Pokemon.

Throughout the day, local Japanese cultural clubs and societies put on different displays and demonstrations. One was the trademark bon odori with singing and dancing and bells and spinning hats and parasols. The other was a taiko drumming performance. There was something really therapeutic and de-stressing about watching the flurry of sticks and movements and the yelling and the deep thunderous roar of drumbeats.

Taiko Drums.jpg

It really was a huge community event and not just for the Japanese (obviously, since I’m Grilled Seafood 2Filipino). You see a lot of people enjoying the summer festival every year. It’s not uncommon to see a couple young kids from high school and college anime clubs doing cosplay and showing up dressed as their favorite characters. There are plenty of families and it’s adorable to see little kids dressed up in yukata and kimono (traditional Japanese festival wear). I can’t tell you how many times I probably fell in love with some of the young women dressed in kimono as well. Whole generations of families, grandparents, parents, and children, Okonomiyakiwere enjoying the festival together. Some were celebrating their culture, others were learning about an entirely new and different one from their own. Plenty of couples, groups of friends, all different kinds of people coming together not just to enjoy, but tons of volunteers of all different ethnicities running booths and helping to organize the event behind the scenes as well.

In the US the summer festival is a fun celebration of Japanese culture and food. Mainly food. It’s a nice community event, but it’s obviously more about the surface level things like food, toys, and fun cultural displays. But I like to remember the spiritual origins that Ohakamairi.pngare still major in Japan. See the story of Mokuren ended up taking on a very specific and influential meaning in Japan. It became a story of honoring one’s ancestors and celebrating and appreciating family. Over the three days of the bon festival the dead are allowed to return to the realm of the living. Families clean their houses in preparation and hang lanterns to guide the spirits back home. They also visit their ancestor’s gravestones to place offerings such as food and incense and also to clean them up every year by brushing away dirt and leaves and washing them with water. This is known as ohakamairi. On the last day of the festival families light paper lanterns and set them afloat into rivers to send their ancestors’ spirits back off into the afterlife. It’s a beautiful tradition that fills Japan’s rivers at night with floating lanterns that is just surreal and serene and at times equally somber but also celebratory, remembering our family members who’ve since moved on.

Bon Lanterns.png

Obon is definitely a beautiful and wonderful time to reflect on family and to honor the people who’ve moved on. But I also think it’s an especially important time to remember to appreciate life and the moments we have, because we never know when it’s ‘ato no matsuri’. There is a Buddhist teaching that says that the most universal message the dead have to give us is that death will come for all equally. Kings, peasants, rich, poor. Obon is a surreal, magical time where the infinite divide between the living and the dead is shrunk just a little. We feel closer to the people who’ve moved on, who we miss and who were huge parts of our lives. Maybe it’s nice to think that there is this time where we might be visited by them, that they haven’t entirely left us and we can bring them home. Or maybe it’s just nice to have this festival to set aside time for us to reflect and remember them and honor their memories. But it’s also an important lesson that the best thing we can do is to live our lives fully and well, and to leave a mark on the world that our families and friends might remember in the future, so that years from now, they might light a lantern for us.

Jerel says, don’t wait until the day after the festival.

Jerel Says, ‘When hungry, eat-when tired, sleep’; Hidden

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A student once asked his teacher, ‘Master, what is Enlightenment?’

The master replied, ‘When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.’

-Zen saying

When I first started my martial arts training eighteen or so years ago, my then-teacher Zen in the Art of Archeryrecommended I should read a few books on the spiritual, mental, and philosophical aspects of martial arts. Surprisingly, a youth spent watching old, badly-synced kung fu films and practicing my ‘fist of death’ technique on clothing store mannequins tended to glaze over that part. I’ll be honest, a lot of it went right over my head at the time. I was very young and while I had an idea for why I wanted to get into martial arts in the first place, I had zero idea of what other benefits I might be able to gain, and so couldn’t really recognize them when they were right in front of me. Among the many books were two about the Japanese interpretation of Buddhist philosophy known as ZenZen in the Martial Arts and Zen in the Art of Archery. This week, in preparation for my upcoming weekend away to the Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezous, I decided to revisit Zen in the Art of Archery and see if hopefully now, I was better prepared to capture more of its valuable insights.

Zen in the Art of Archery was written by Eugen Herrigel, a German professor of philosophy, in 1948. In it he writes about his experience in Japan during the 1920s as a Eugen Herrigelvisiting professor at University of Tokyo. During his time living in Japan, Herrigel took up the ancient art of Japanese archery, known as kyudo, under the tutelage of Awa Kenzo, a renown kyudo master and teacher/philosopher of Zen. Since one of the major aspects of Zen is that for it to be fully understood one must ‘walk its path’ versus ‘learn its way’, the book doesn’t spend too much time trying to define Zen or dwell on its Awa Kenzoteachings. Rather, it reads like a journal going through the years of lessons and private conversations Herrigel had with Kenzo. It lays out the obstacles, trials, and difficulties when it came to both physical and mental blocks and the demonstrations and words Kenzo had to share to slowly, but masterfully, guide Herrigel through it all. There is a whole wealth of wisdom and insight hidden in plain sight between the sparse eighty pages of this short book. Not to betray the spirit of Zen and become too long-winded, I’ll only share my thoughts on three.

If one really wishes to be a master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

This I like because it goes beyond just archery, and can be applied to any practice. A unique aspect of Japanese culture is that everything, from its food to its art, music, and even its most lethal martial disciplines, all of it stems from philosophical and spiritual roots. In this case of course we mean Buddhism, and then further Zen Buddhism. What I love then is the mindfulness characteristic of Japanese life. There is a certain beautiful minimalistic yet ritualistic rhythm to everyday Japanese life. How one enters and exits a room, prepares and enjoys a meal, and yes even how one draws a bow. In it all there is an unconscious awareness that brings with it peace and purpose. There’s a saying in Zen archery that an archer should be able to shoot without a bow or even an arrow. Kyudo ShotEventually, an archer transcends both bow and arrow to the point that his mind and body know what to do without knowing or thinking. We are often times caught up in our own thoughts, so fully aware of ourselves and our actions we can never fully inhabit the moment. Once we are aware of ourselves, we lose sight of the goal. This is a higher level than just an archer being able to hit his target. It is an archer realizing that there is no target, only himself. The best artists, chefs, performers, martial artists, they never dwell on what they are doing as they are doing it. They simply do. And it is safe then to also believe that they continue that mindfulness throughout their day, so that this Zen never actually leaves them. It’s supreme confidence, awareness, and unconscious consciousness. It’s eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, and never questioning or wondering. So in whatever we are passionate about, whatever we pursue, there are two great goals. The first is to achieve this level of Unconscious awareness, where we can do without getting lost in our own thoughts. The second is to pursue ‘artless art’, where we can apply the mindfulness and awareness to our everyday life in all aspects.

The master knows you and each of his pupils much better than we know ourselves. He reads in the souls of his pupils more than they care to admit.

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

In the beginning of the book, Herrigel mentions the struggle he had trying to find a teacher willing to teach a Western student. In fact his eventual master, Kenzo, was extremely averse to the idea, having tried to teach a Western student before and had ‘such a dismal experience he regretted it ever since’. The teacher-student relationship is a significant one in both Western and Eastern cultures, although it takes a very different Karate Kid 1shape and structure. A common aspect of teacher-student relationships in the West that we often take for granted is that students are often invited, even encouraged, to ask questions of lessons and teachers. In a more traditional Eastern setting students are expected to follow a teacher’s instructions with very little question. This can be seen in say, more traditional martial arts schools where often the format is the teacher will demonstrate a certain posture, stance, or form once, twice, maybe three times if you’re really lucky, and then the students are expected to watch diligently and then do their best to recreate the motions. There are no questions, no explanations, the teacher shows as much as he sees fit and the students are expected to do a lot of their ‘learning’ on their own. While there are pros and cons to either approach, I just want to focus on the unique benefits of this particular style of instruction. First of all, for this to work we have to assume the highest in the instructor.Karate Kid 2 If we trust in the teacher, then we do not doubt ourselves. There’s no need to pressure or worry, we must simply, in the spirit of Zendo what is asked of us. Sort of like ‘wax on, wax off’. Which takes a lot of pressure off of the student and more impetus on the importance of finding a highly qualified, skilled teacher. I also appreciate it for how much it more readily lends itself to actual results-driven growth. You can’t smooth talk your way through something when you aren’t allowed to talk. Just show. Much like true Zen, mastery is not displayed in rhetoric but in practice. The right teacher will show you what you need to see when you need to see it, and the right student will understand how to grasp the lesson and apply it to practice.

The Zen adept shuns all talk of himself and his progress. Not because he thinks it immodest to talk, but because he regards it as a betrayal of Zen. Even to make up his mind to say anything about Zen itself costs him grave heart-searchings.

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

While I take this to heart and understand that to try and speak of Zen and explain it betrays not only the spirit of it but my own understanding of it, I am still so green to the concept that this really only probably set me back a couple months’ progress. Hopefully. The truth is, I love this because there’s something very purpose-driven in trying to Zen Circleunderstand and pursue Zen. And not just in archery, but in my martial arts, my daily mindfulness, relationships, in everything I pursue with any level of passion. And I would love to see more outside of the traditional Eastern arts try to pursue and understand Zen as well. There are two great fundamental observable truths of all the masters of Zen. The first is that there can be no denying that a Zen master carries himself with a certain level of distinct poise. In their mastery of their chosen art, but also in how that mindfulness carries through in every aspect of their life, there is an undeniable appeal to want to pursue what the master has. The second though is that inevitably, when one finds a master to help them along the way, one will find that the master has very little to say on what Zen is or, frustratingly, how to achieve it. It is a path we have to walk on our own, and the further along we go Kyudo Classthe more we realize the futility in trying to capture it for others. That’s sometimes very difficult to grasp in modern times. We like to have things readily available, and when we falter we want support, guidance, we want explanations. But Zen and its masters offer us neither, because the struggle, and the eventual resolution, are all valuable parts that are necessary to the path. They know that to expound would rob the student of valuable experience. There’s a saying that once we know, we longer do. So it is promising to think that to pursue Zen we must do in order to know. It’s a longer and more arduous path, not much suited for modern times, but it is rooted in ancient wisdom and understanding.

I don’t know how much Zen I might get this weekend, but one weekend aside, in my martial arts training, my further archery practice, my cooking, my relationships, in all aspects of life I want to master, I can continue to develop this mindfulness until, with some hope and patience, it becomes like the masters say, ‘an artless art’.

Jerel says, ‘when hungry, eat-when tired, sleep’.

Day 292: The Man and the Drawing Comparisons; ‘Roots’

Kimi No Na WaSo a while back I mentioned seeing Your Name, which was (or rather still is) a phenomenally popular anime and the most profitable one in Japan ever. Its director, Makoto Shinkai, is being projected to become the next ‘Hayao Miyazaki’. The man currently and indubitably sitting atop the throne of anime stardom. Now, as a lifelong fan of Studio Ghibli and almost all of Miyazaki’s films (he’s not perfect folks, even Miyazaki is gonna have a few duds), I think this kind of super-hype is a bit misleading and not very productive. For one, I feel an artist desires to stand on his or her own work, and not on top of the work of others. No one praises Michelangelo for being ‘the next Da Vinci’ or vice versa and certainly the works of Miyazaki and the works of Shinkai should be venerated and admired separately and not always in contrast to one another. Second, I haven’t seen much of Studio GhibliShinkai’s works, and to place so much emphasis on just one piece seems a bit imprudent. He could legitimately be a master of animation and storytelling or he could just be a one-hit wonder waiting for his 5 minute feature on VH1’s Anime One-Hit Wonders of the 2010s. Hahah.

Me Watching

So last weekend I decided to sit down with a bowl of vanilla ice cream with some cookies and peanut butter and watch Garden of Words. This was an anime drama from 2013, three years before Shinkai would go on to make Your Name. Armed now with two of his works to analyze, I think I can better speak to his own characteristics and qualities and skills as an animator, and while I don’t want it to become the crux of the conversation, draw some parallels between him and Miyazaki as well. Ready?! Let’s go!

Garden of Words

On feature length: So first off, I was surprised to find out that the entire anime was no more than 46 minutes long, including the credits. I was a bit thrown off when I first saw that after looking up the movie. My main concern was going to be ‘how can they possibly fit a satisfying story line with enough growth and complexity within such a short time’. I thought maybe I had missed something and it was a serial anime versus a movie, but sure enough it was a stand alone feature. While I won’t go into too much detail about the story or the plot, I will give you a brief synopsis. Takao is a 15 year old high schooler who secretly dreams of becoming a shoemaker. He has a bad habit of skipping his first period classes on rainy days so he can spend his morning in peace in a nearby park, listening to the rain and sketching his shoe designs. One morning he meets a mysterious, beautiful older woman who also seems to find some comfort and solace in the rain. Over the rainy season they consistently spend their mornings together on rainy days and over time find themselves equally looking forward to gray skies and meeting. It is a romantic drama that speaks so close to my heart as it centers around the themes of love and loneliness.

Shinkai said in an interview that the inspiration for Garden of Words was the original, native roots of the Japanese kanji for ‘love’, before it was influenced by Western ideals of romantic love. The native kanji for ‘love’ was written as two characters brought together to mean ‘lonely sadness’. ‘Love’ in the true ancient Japanese sense was more like the chivalric love of Medieval poetry and lore, like the loving longing of Lancelot for Guinevere. It lets Shinkai and the movie focus on love and loneliness not as disparate parts but two sides of the same coin. In this way, ‘love’ doesn’t require the return of affection of the other party. It can be the pure and bittersweet, beautiful longing and yearning for someone or something. I think this is especially inspiring and hopeful for people who have had those feelings of loneliness and/or despair when pining after someone. It lets them view their emotions and feelings as equally valid and legitimate even if their love is not returned, and it portrays loneliness as a natural by-product of love, something to accept and not something to be fixed.

This is a lot to unpack and present in a cohesive and digestible way. And through masterful subtlety (as opposed to overt explicitness) and strong use of motifs, metaphors, and imagery, Shinkai is able to deliver, if maybe a tad bit underwhelmingly, a very deep message about his interpretation of love and loneliness that does present Garden of Words as a complete work. I don’t know if a lesser talent could have done the same with two or even three hours without the soft, gentle hand that Shinkai has when dealing with the subject.

On fate: In East Asian folklore, particularly China and Japan, there is the belief that the gods tie an invisible red cord (oxymoron I know) around those who are destined to meet, fall in love, and end up together. It is a powerful Mitsuha.jpgand beautiful metaphor for fate and destiny that is very often used in Asian manga, anime, and films. One of the best
examples for me is the Japanese film Dolls in which two characters go through the entire movie with a red cord wrapped around their waists. Shinkai very clearly heard this story as well, as in both Garden of Words and Your Name, it is a strong presence. In Garden of Words one cannot escape the feeling of inevitability and fate. The rain acts like the red cord that continues to bind and reunite the two characters. In Your Name it is much more apparent, as Taki wears a red braided cord that is later on revealed to have been given to him by Mitsuha early on. I happen to love themes and motifs like this, so I am glad that Shinkai is able to ‘weave’ (HA) it into his stories so masterfully.

On food: One of the first and most important comparisons I think that should be brought HowlBaconup between Miyazaki and Shinkai is on how they treat food in their movies. If you’ve ever seen a Miyazaki film, you will know that food often times plays a pivotal role in immersion and world-creating. Who can forget how delicious something as simple as instant ramen looked in Ponyo, his anime take on The Little Mermaid. Or the almost obscene but absolutely mouth-watering and tempting PonyoRamensmorgasbords of food in Spirited Away. Bento boxes eaten in My Neighbor Totoro. Even something as simple as bacon and eggs is elevated to animated perfection in Howl’s Moving Castle.

 

In comparison, the food in Shinkai’s films are almost always stale and still. They lack the Makoto Lunchvibrancy, life, and urgency to consume that Miyazaki imparts into his meals. Both Your Name and Garden of Words feature food and/or drink to a certain extent. There is a deep spiritual tie to the sacred sake that Mitsuha’s family makes and brings to offer in the shrine. Though the scenes of them drinking it (and making it) elicit no desire in me. Takao is seemingly a pretty confident if not at least comfortable home chef, and we can see him making lunches for himself and the mysterious woman in Garden of Words. But I don’t feel any hunger or longing to join them at the table.

I think the reason why Shinkai’s food falls so flat is, ironically, it is the one place where he lacks subtlety. If you take a look at how Miyazaki animates his food, it is simplistic. They are not the food itself but the avatars. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details or the nuances. The bacon doesn’t look like bacon, it looks like what we think bacon looks like. It is universally understood. If you look at Takao’s lunch in the picture above, as a non-Japanese person, could you tell that the yellow was an egg omelet? To be perfectly frank, I can’t even differentiate what the brown meat is. Meatballs perhaps? You’ll also notice how all the senses are seemingly engaged in Miyazaki’s meals. The bacon sizzles. The hot ramen steams. You see, hear, and can imagine to smell and taste and feel the food in the room.

On weather and the seasons: Change in Shinkai’s work often comes from nature, rather than from the people themselves. Garden of Words lives mainly through the rainy season and it is the immutable march of time and the changing of the seasons that moves the story and gives it its urgency as well as its context. Part of establishing environment Your Name Islandand atmosphere in Shinkai’s work relies heavily on establish what season or what weather we are experiencing. In Garden of Words the rain needs to be present but subdued. In Your Name the weather is a sign of the passing times as Mitsuha and Taki grow together, closer yet ever more distant. Shinkai’s works often spread themselves across a vast time span and without having to stress or draw direct attention to it, we realize it as we watch the characters change their clothing, activities, and outlook. The seasons affect their personalities and mirror their emotions. Or do their emotions mirror the seasons?

On magic realism: Often times you hear fans of Miyazaki’s film express the sentiment ‘oh I wish I could live in [insert anime title here]’. This is of course a testament to the awe-Princess Mononoke.jpginspiring and fantastical world building skills of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The best way to describe a viewing experience with a Miyazaki film is first he establishes a very real and present world, the world in which we inhabit, and then through some incredibly circumstance or event we are transported into the world in which the majority of the story takes place. What this means then is for as much as Miyazaki develops and fleshes out these worlds (Howl’s castle, the inn in Spirited Away, the forest in Princess Mononoke, the ocean in Ponyo), there is always this clear line, this demarcation, of their world and ours. And we are invited to view and to experience, but never to inhabit. His worlds have clear cut rules and structures as well as forms. I believe part of this is in agenda and beliefs. Miyazaki has not been shy in voicing particular agendas in his films. The Wind RisesPrincess Mononoke, often times he depicts man in conflict with nature, and therefore, uninvited guests into those worlds.

Shinkai has no such ambition or goal as to take on industrialization or deforestation. His worlds are simple and understated, and therefore, even in the most unlikely of Your Name Boobcircumstances (body switching being one of them), we feel as though this could be part of our world. His characters react very casually, after some initial confusion, to the events of their world. ‘Oh, I go to sleep as a boy and sometimes I’ll wake up as a girl. Imma squeeze boobies.’ This is Shinkai’s simpler version of magical realism. A reality tinged with a hint of magic, versus two worlds living parallel to each other. I am not stating that one is better than the other. Both are able to fully encompass their respective genres and create rich, interwoven tapestries of story. But it is worth bringing up because again, two very different approaches for people to be trying to predict one succeeding the other.

[SPOILER ALERT IN THE FOLLOWING SECTION]

On poetry and tanka: When Takao first meets the mysterious woman (Yukino), she leaves only one clue as to her identity when they part. As she leaves Takao, she says to him

A faint clap of thunder,

Clouded skies,

Perhaps rain will come.

If so, will you stay here with me?

This is a tanka, a form of Japanese poem similar to a haiku meant to display an entire mood or emotion. In particular, this is a tanka taken from a very famous anthology of classical Japanese poetry from the Man’yoshu collection. The origin and meaning of this strange departure confused Takao, until the film’s climax where it is revealed that Yukino is actually a classical literature teacher at Takao’s school who has been avoiding coming in due to students’ harassment and bullying. It is also another callback to the ‘lonely sadness’ that pervades the entirety of this movie. When Takao realizes who she is, and why she was hiding in the park, he takes it upon himself to act on her behalf, and afterwards they meet once more in the park, where he finally responds with

A faint clap of thunder,

Even if rain comes or not,

I will stay here,

Together with you.

It is the response tanka to the first one Yukino says in the very beginning of the movie. It’s a poignant and important moment in the film where you can see that these two characters are searching for very different answers to their ‘lonely sadness’ and yet somehow have found much of what they seek in each other. I won’t spoil the entire ending, but I think it’s important to stress that these themes of ‘lonely sadness’ and ‘love’ are not things to be won or conquered. They are not broken things waiting to be fixed nor are these broken people. It is about finding something, learning to live with certain things, and the strength to persevere and continue on. It’s about communication and miscommunication, and the importance of one and the folly of the other. After these two glimpses into Shinkai’s talents I have high hopes for his next project. I would never place him on a pedestal once occupied by Miyazaki, but I have no problem creating a new one just for him.

Day 292

Man: 259 Loneliness: 33

 

 

Day 277: The Man and the Dining on Verses; ‘Unravel’

I’ve been on a Japan kick recently, and over the weekend I went to Edgewater, which in my area is a town with a very large Japanese population, to enjoy a nice Japanese lunch, Kimi No Na Wa.jpgdo some grocery shopping, and then watch Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name). If you haven’t yet heard of this anime, and I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t, you should know it is the highest grossing anime film ever, and Japan’s fourth largest grossing film overall. This movie is big, people. If you find the opportunity to watch this movie I would highly recommend it. It started a limited theatre showing in the US on April 7th but was actually released last year. It is a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally. I love that Japan has continued to keep alive the great tradition of hand drawn animation. Most US animated movies have become completely CG, and while it is technically brilliant, it lacks, for me, the same emotion and care. Traditionally drawn animation still reigns supreme in my heart for animated movies. Yes there’s a very special place for films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke and The Secret World of Arrietty but I don’t leave out Western films too like Lion KingAladdin, and my personal favorite Western animation, Mulan. These are then followed by clay-mation like Studio Laika’s Kubo, Coraline, and Boxtrolls. CGI is fun and the technology is incredible with great potential but I have no real heart for them. Kimi No Na Wa is full of spirit and heart, and its delicate story is enhanced by the subtlety and lightness of traditional animation. I have seen more of Japan in anime than I have in real life, and yet I feel I can speak so much already on the spirit of Japanese landscapes and cityscapes based on how they treat it in their drawings. I won’t lie, there were times during the movie when tears would not stop falling, and the ultimate resolution of the film had me emotionally invested. As the stories and relationships between Taki and Mitsuha tangle, unravel, and come back together, I’ve no doubt you’ll find yourself drawn in as well.

I also got to enjoy a great Japanese meal at Mitsuwa, which is a supermarket chain in the US specializing in Japanese imports and usually has a few stores and a kick ass food court to boot. I always end up over-ordering because there are just too many great choices but I’m proud to say I was able to control myself and stuck just to my kaki-fry (deliciously crispy and light fried oysters), some rice, and miso soup. And a bowl of ramen. Okay, and two onigiri. And some green tea ice cream. Afterwards I did some grocery shopping to make a special bento lunch for myself for Monday. I’m starting a new project at work learning a new system and getting ready to train in the near future so I decided a new haircut and a big lunch would help put me in the right mindset and get focused.

Bento Lunch

One day I will definitely write at length on the culinary traditions of Japan, particularly the ‘5 pillars’ of Japanese cooking. It is a wonderful philosophy that harmonizes taste, nutrition, aesthetic, and Buddhist teachings all in one beautifully delicious package. But as it is National Poetry Month and in the spirit of such, I will instead dedicate this time to trying to capture the essence of food in verse. Poetry and food have always had a deep, visceral connection. There is nothing quite like the appearance, texture, and taste of truly divine food to awaken the poetic muse, and nothing like good poetry to elicit the same hunger in the soul as the thought of food does to the stomach. Some truly wonderful poems have been composed to food: the memories, the experiences, the tastes, the emotional and spiritual connections.

This is Just to Say

-poem by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

 

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast.

 

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.

Now I’m not saying the next time you’re hungry try to satiate yourself on some Shakespeare. But what I am saying is the next time you have a particularly wonderful meal, or perhaps happen to come upon a particularly beautiful fruit, or find a special memory being formed around food, try to imagine how a poet would capture that moment. Would it be in the satisfying sounds of a meal as you crunch down on crispy crackling or the feeling of sweet wine on parched lips that smile with each sip or in how the secrets of the universe open up in the sweetness of a peach around its dense dark star-like pit. In the spirit of my wonderful bento lunch from yesterday and in honor of Japan’s own poetic claim to fame the haiku, I end first with a poem by Matsuo Basho, the master of haiku from Japan’s Edo period, and then a haiku of my own composition about the joys of office bento.

-poem by Matsuo Basho

Coolness of the melons

flecked with mud

in the morning dew.

Bento Second

-poem by ManVsLoneliness

Office icebox hides

hidden treasure of five tastes,

colors, but one mind

Day 277

Man: 244 Loneliness: 33

 

Day 68 Supplemental: The Man and the Grasshopper; ‘Stump’

Zen Koan.jpg

Regular readers will know that a few weeks ago I wrote a series of posts on some tips on and benefits of meditation in the form of yin yoga. Two days ago I wrote a post about the philosophical conundrum of ‘what makes a sandwich a sandwich’. While these two topics might seem completely unrelated, you’ll find that they are both actually very important in Zen Buddhism. ‘What makes a sandwich a sandwich’, being a question that really has no true definitive answer, is a critical tool in meditation through Zen. This could actually be considered a modern, 21st century version of what the Japanese call koan, the Chinese call gong’an, and what the Western world calls Zen riddles. You may have come across a few of these already without realizing their connection to Zen Buddhism. For example, you may have posed the question or been asked yourself, ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Another of course, is ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ Now to be fair not all koan are sound related. But this is perhaps the best gateway into the more intricate and involved koan and certainly in Western culture, the most popular.

The word koan is actually derived from the Chinese gong’an, which means ‘public record’. The gong’an were stylized, abbreviated, purposefully written renditions of ‘conversations’ between Buddhist teachers and their disciples. Someone somewhere along the line began Monk.pngto realize that perhaps recording the wise sayings of their masters would benefit generations to come, so these gong’an were in fact available to the general masses to use and reflect and further develop their own understanding. Think Socrates’s Dialogues mixed with Aesop’s Fables. Aside from posterity, the act of writing down these hyper-stylized and edited encounter-dialogues of masters and disciples also helped Chinese Buddhism spread to Japan. Through the study of these texts the Chinese and Japanese were able to learn much of each other’s language and translate their works for each other. The Japanese monks wanted to be able to capture these ‘flashes of enlightenment’ in much the same way as their Chinese counterparts so they used the structure of the gong’an to create their own koan which have remained relevant to this day.

Koan are of course now much more than ancient translation guides or low-tech Twitter feeds. I want you to completely trash and disregard the Western misnomer of ‘Zen riddle‘ because it sets up a very false expectation and understanding. The koan are questions, yes, and they are often very vague, inscrutable, and seemingly paradoxical and unanswerable. But you must understand that while a ‘riddle’ implies a deceptive question with a clever answer, the koan are not meant to be answered. At least, not completely. The objective tacherwhen a Zen teacher gives a student a koan is not to have the student ‘find the answer’. We do not ‘answer’ koan. We sit with them. We quiet our minds, we let go of judgement and preconception, we breathe, we let go of judgement, and we allow ourselves to move with the koan in our mind to where it takes us. See if we become too attached to the act of ‘answering’, we lose the benefit and practice of meditation. We are not tasked with answering the question. We are tasked with using it to guide our reflection and understanding. After enough time has passed, the teacher will ask us where we ended up. Our ‘answer’, so to speak. What we actually say is not as important as how well we understand it. How deeply we went into our own understanding of our reality in order to come up with whatever it is we came up with. There could be further questions asked and posed to test our conviction and understanding but ultimately, any answer goes so far as we can prove we have truly reflected on it. If the teacher is satisfied that we have stripped off the burden of answering and judgement, we are given another koan. If not, we return, unflustered, unmoved, unconcerned, and start again. A good example of this separation of the relationship between question and answer is the example of the koan ‘what is the nature of Buddha?’ asked to the Zen master Shouchou. His response was ‘three pounds of flax’. (This is a reflection of the nature of Buddha, and that if we can find it in anything, we can find it in everything.)

There are many collections of koan available today. The Gateless GateThe Book of Equanimity, The Blue Cliff Record, and Mana Shogobenzo were all compiled in the early 1000s but are still available in modern translation. These compilations hold hundreds of koan to ponder but if you do not want to spring for some ancient wisdom, let me share a few pearls for free.

As stated before, we have ‘what is the sound of two hands clapping’ and ‘if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound’. You may also consider ‘does a dog have Buddha nature (and to translate further, you can extend it to ‘does a dog have a soul’). Not all koan are questions. For example, your head could totally wrestle with the violent and prophetic ‘when you meet the Buddha, kill him’. As mentioned before, most originated as conversations. For example:

Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”
Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”
Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”

Even the modern world can provide us with enlightenment.

“What are you doing,” asked the professor.
“Programming a computer to play randomly,” said the student.
The professor said, “what does it mean to program the computer randomly?”
The student said, “I do not want it to have preconceived notions of how to play.”
The teacher then closed his eyes.
“Why do you close your eyes?’ asked the student.
The teacher replied, “So that the room will be empty.”

The koan itself is not as important as the lesson we learn from sitting with it for long enough. I would like to give these writings at least a day or two for people to have a chance to read them and sit with them for a while before I write my own reflections and thoughts. I would like for you all to give it an honest attempt to sit with these and try to reflect and ‘answer’ what it is the koan appears to ask of you. I do not want to write my own too soon because I do not want it to influence your own process. It is okay that these lack context or detail. It is for you to decide what understanding to establish and where to take it.

I will write my own reflections from much time spent sitting with these koan in two days.

I want to give you these koan because I think, at least I know for myself personally, I have been too attached to ‘answering questions’ these past few days. I think we all have. wheelSometimes the burden of the writer is to believe we are tasked with questions we must answer. We speak for our minds, our hearts, and sometimes some of us speak for generations. We have the words and the phrases and the ability so we put it on ourselves to answer so much. Some questions don’t need to be answered, just understood for why we ask. I don’t need to know why Beautiful left me. But if I can sit with that question without distress or sadness or frustration, what wonderful revelations about love and relationships and my worth and my desires await! If I am not afraid to ask myself ‘why am I so lonely’ I could perhaps get to the nature of loneliness and instead understand what companionship truly is. And if I don’t find the answer, I shouldn’t be so upset or frustrated. I should not judge that at this point in my life I do not yet have the understanding of full enlightenment.

In our every day lives we are so caught up with thinking of questions as obstacles to our understanding. Things that must be reconciled. We confuse ourselves to think that a life of no questions is one of success. Every day we have a set of questions that we must answer in order to sleep well at night. But some questions don’t need answers. Just the honesty to acknowledge they remain. Just the awareness to know what they are. And the bravery not to answer them. The courage to remain stumped.