One thing that people find surprising when they visit Japan is how hard it is to get real vegetarian fare at restaurants.
Vegetarian foreigners studying abroad soon learn to rely on Indian restaurants for the most options.
But they also learn to just buckle down and eat various foods that have some sort of meat to them, if only a sauce lightly flavored with fish broth.
When I first came to Tokyo this fact surprised me. After all, wasn’t Buddhism an important influence on Japanese culture?
Well, yes it is.
But what does said Buddhism look like in Japan? That’s a more important question, and I didn’t have the answer.
I had read the Dhammapada and the Lotus Sutra by that point, but I didn’t know anything about Zen Buddhism, which is the predominant sect in Japan. Most importantly, I didn’t know what Buddhism meant for everyday Japanese people. So…
Lesson 1: Vegetarianism is for monks, and monks alone.
Everywhere else fish and meat are the expectation. Remember, this is the culture that highlighted the “umami” taste for the rest of us.
Enhancing savory flavors is a top priority in Japanese cuisine, and using meat is the number one way to do so.
Another thing to know:
Lesson 2: Almost no one thinks of themselves as religious.
For Japanese people, “religion” pertains to doctrines and zealous belief. Christians are religious. Maybe Buddhist monks are too. But pick a random passerby on the street and ask if they are religious, and they will look at you suspiciously.
And yet, there are plenty of practices and beliefs that seem religious to outsiders. Priestly incantations at weddings and funerals. Visiting temples to pray. Gifts of food presented to household shrines.
Lighting a cucumber “horse” on fire to serve as a chariot for loved ones to ride back to the land of the dead after a daylong spiritual visit.
To the people who engage in these practices, what they do is not religion, it’s simply part of the Japanese way of life.
Do such practices come from Buddhism? A few of them do. But many more come from Shintoism, the older folk religion of the Island.
In truth, Japanese natives sometimes have a hard time sorting out whether certain traditions are Shinto or Buddhist in origin because they’ve been so thoroughly blended over the centuries.
Most of the stuff concerning nature and ancestral spirits come from Shintoism, as it is an animist religion.
Lesson 3: Japanese penis festivals are Shinto in origin.
Anyway, moving on.
What about Buddhism? Well, Buddhist traditions came to Japan from China by way of Korea. And Chinese Buddhism is quite different from the original Mahayana Buddhism that came from India.
From my point of view, and my wife agrees:
This type of Buddhism seems a good deal like Catholicism!
There is a hierarchical heavenly host of spiritual guides, and a hell full of demons to punish the wicked.
There’s a lot of focus on guilt and sin, a whole ton of priestly rituals to observe.
Not to mention the temples, which are often ornate, bordering on ostentatious.
Japanese Buddhism has a lot of those elements, but they are tempered by the influence of Zen.
So what is Zen Buddhism? Isn’t it all about peace and love and smoking dope and relaxing to some transcendental meditational vibes, man?
Well, yes, probably, but only in California, where some bowdlerized version of it was exported in the 1940s.
There, Zen was mixed with other Eastern philosophies, and is now largely associated with New Age lifestyles. Japanese people would regard it with even less familiarity than they do California rolls.
Here is what real Japanese Zen Buddhism is about:
Lesson over. Thanks, and come again!
I kid, I kid.
Here’s the deal. According to Zen practice, Nothing is sacred.
No, it’s not hedonism, quite the opposite.
Nothingness. Emptiness. Void. “無” (pronounced “mu”).
This is a sacred state to achieve in a world full of material distractions.
Zen is in many ways an attempt to return to the humility and simplicity of the original Buddhist school, Theravada.
It is thus an ascetic practice, requiring rigorous self-discipline. No pain, no gain.
And boy, can I attest to that.
You see, I attended a local temple’s lesson in Zazen when I was studying in Tokyo.
Zazen is the Zen practice of seated meditation. It’s not like conventional meditation where you recite a mantra, or contemplate a riddle that has no answer. With Zazen, you simply sit in lotus or half-lotus style, with your back straight. And that’s it.
The monks didn’t give us any instructions on what to do other than sit straight, breathe slowly through our nose, and remain silent.
They also mentioned in passing that if we wished them to strike our backs with a paddle, we must put our hands together in humble request, then provide a similar gesture of thanks afterward.
I didn’t know what that meant, so I began sitting.
And at some point I began to feel the pins and needles in my leg. I couldn’t think of anything but the strange feeling getting stronger and stronger, and of how much worse it would be once I tried to get up.
So, not really thinking about it too carefully, I put my hands together and raised them up in request. A few seconds later, a monk slowly approached me from behind. A pregnant silence followed.
Motherf-er hit hard!
I was so shocked that I almost forgot to humbly thank him for his efforts.
Interestingly, though, the throbbing pain in my back did counterbalance the numbing of my legs, and so it felt like less of a distraction.
After the session, feeling like I was hovering by magnetic force rather than standing on my legs, I asked a monk what the purpose of Zazen was.
“The goal is for our minds to grow as numb as our legs.”
I didn’t quite get there, but I could appreciate the effort.
…But then I went out with friends for some beer, chicken skewers, and then karaoke.
Because that’s the most important lesson of all:
When in Rome do as the Romans do;
When in Tokyo, just go to temples for luck on holidays, then get some great food.
…to be continued…
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