Saturday, November 21, 2009

A healthy dose of cynicism

It has been far too long since my last post, as I'm sure you have noticed. A month to be exact. I am sorry for not updating as frequently as I may have led you to believe; I get caught up in the weekly routine of classes and seeing the same people, blogging slides to the back burner. However, all is not lost. I am back.

I can't remember all of the things I have done since I last shared my experiences with you. I travel as much as I can, but this usually just takes me to Kyoto. Not to knock all that Kyoto has to offer, it is one of the largest cities in Japan with lots of temples and districts and things, but it gets a little repetitive. I would love to go to Tokyo again or go north to Hokkaido or south to Okinawa, each of these areas has a distinct culture different from where I am now. Sadly, however, going that far is very expensive and time consuming. I am just a student! So I try to make the most of what is around me. I've been attacked by deer in Nara, saw a few geishas in Kyoto's Ginza district, seen more temples and shrines than you can shake "juzu" at, and I have been beaten by a Buddhist monk while meditating. I suppose I should clarify that last one for you.

Sometimes I go on field trips to temples with my religion class. They have all been pretty worthwhile so far, I cannot say the same thing for my An/So class but that is irrelevant. The last temple we visited was a Zen temple where we were able to practice Zazen meditation. This was pretty sweet and I was angry at myself for not having brought my camera with me. We gathered in the main room of the temple and the monk that was in charge of the temple came and taught a group of 14 foreigners sitting awkwardly on pillows how to meditate like a pro. He even got us to fold our hands properly like Buddha himself and showed us how we should walk as we went to the meditation room. Then he mentioned something that piqued my interest. He said that if any of us looked sleepy, which seemed all too probable since we would be staring at a blank wall for half an hour, he would tap us on the right shoulder with a ceremonial looking wooden stick. We would be expected to then raise our hands in a prayer-like pose and lean to our left exposing our right shoulder. The monk then would raise his stick high above our head and swiftly strike us to bring our spirit back to meditation. I wasn't worried until I saw him demonstrate the typical way to do this on a pillow. I saw him very carefully and precisely raise the thick stick and hold it for a moment up behind his head. Then in an instant he unleashed upon the poor defenseless pillow. The sound echoed throughout the entire temple. We sat slack jawed in silence staring at the monk who had just showed us how he was to beat us. Then we heard him say, "don't worry, I will hit you all." He is a man of his word.

The meditating itself was rather difficult. I sat on my knees on a pillow and tatami mat facing a blank wooden wall about a meter in front of me. My hands were folded in my lap with my thumbs touching as I was instructed and I sat for thirty minutes. I could see in my peripheral vision the other kids who were squirming and twitching trying to get comfortable. I had made up my mind that I was not going to move a muscle for half an hour. I knew that sitting on my knees all traditionally would be quite unpleasant and I thought that this could be a nice opportunity for me to learn some physical discipline. Also, I had other concerns.

While sitting in silence staring at a wall I could see the shadow of something moving behind me. The monk was walking slowly behind us and I could see the shadow of the long stick he was holding in his hands. Every time he passed behind me my heart beat faster and I tried as hard as I could to appear both focused on nothingness and completely not asleep. Then the crack of the stick on some poor chump's shoulder shot through the room and I practically wet myself. I did however give some mental props to whoever had been struck as they did not cry out. I thought that might be because that person had been in too much pain to say anything, but I hoped that wasn't the case.

I lost track of time along with any feeling in my legs. Once the meditation began, the only thing that occupied my thoughts were of how uncomfortable I was. The unpleasant feeling in my legs then changed to pain, but I remained adamant that I was not to move. The pain morphed into a prickling then it felt as though my legs were turning to sand as the pain numbed and I lost feeling. After I couldn't feel my legs, there was nothing to mark the progression of time and I spent the rest of my inward journey trying to find patterns in the wood.

After I finally found that the wood knot looked a bit like a wicker basket another crack echoed through the room. I thought I would be able to make it through the session without a holy beating as I appeared completely aware of my surroundings and not at all about to fall asleep. But the crack I had just heard was one of many to come. Soon after another person felt the sting of Buddhism and a few seconds later, another. I then realized that he was literally going around the room and one by one striking us all. When he was three people away from me, my hands began to sweat and my heart was beating stronger. I saw out of the corner of my eye, him tap the person right next to me. She leaned over, and he struck. Then I felt two small, gentle taps on my back. I felt my stomach flip over. I felt my wet hands press together and I was leaning over to my left; my poor right shoulder about to be punished by a holy man and for a brief moment I took a look at my situation. Here I was, the circulation in my legs long since stopped, sitting toward a blank wall with my shoulder about to be struck by a Buddhist monk with a stick in Japan, a country quite different from my own, speaking a language that sounds like some sort of strange code, and I couldn't help but smile. It was, however, a brief sense of happiness cut short by a loud smack and a far too distracting stinging sensation. The monk behind me bowed and I bowed to the wall, and he moved on.

I have had lots of revelations like that. I really do love being here even though I am often homesick and miss Jillian, my family, and my friends. Many of the people here at JCMU are getting on my nerves, but some of that is attributed to the fact that they are the same forty people I see every single day. Also, the vast majority of them are arrogant anime nerds who act like they were wrongly taken from Japan at birth. Still, with all the things I miss and with the people I share most nothing in common with, I love Japan.

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