Bamboo, Butterflies and Buddha : Japanese Journey

bamboo.jpgHome from my first visit to Japan, I feel as if my life is a sheet of paper upon which the country has made an imprint, much like a Japanese woodblock print. In my varied travels, no other country has touched me as deeply. How were the details of this woodblock etched? The imprint began with the harmony with nature. Natural beauty and gardens form an important element in Japanese temples and shrines and I deeply enjoyed water lilies, sculpted trees/bushes and ponds with lotus plants as tall as people. Natural beauty sparkled not just in temple gardens and grounds. Indeed every stoop -- whether private residence, small shop or restaurant -- seemed to include beautiful plants, flowers and landscaping. Butterflies, many quite large, popped up everywhere and I witnessed many examples of people maintaining pristine beauty and cleanliness in their midst.

Surely the predominant impression arose, however, as my inner Godward yearnings were fed by the dominant prayerful focus in Japan. A nation slightly smaller in size than the American state of California, its landscape is dotted with over 100,000 Shinto shrines and 77,000 Buddhist temples. Seemingly around every corner, one encounters a place of prayer.

 During my weeklong visit to Japan with spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy and a group of his students from various countries, I visited a mere seven of these countless temples and shrines. Not versed in either of the two major religions in Japan - Buddhism or Shintoism, I nonetheless embraced the depth of feeling each and every location evoked. While some of my Asian travels have exposed me to various temples, the Japanese ones felt the most alive with a dialogue of divinity.butterfly.jpg

 Universally peopled with Japanese worshippers rather than Western tourists, I witnessed the varied strains of Japanese hymn and supplication to God. Coins were thrown into the offering box. Individuals bowed and clapped their hands in front of deities. Wooden prayers cards (emu) were hung and fortune slips (omikuji) tied to poles. A short stop at the purification fountain near the entrance to bathe one's hands and drink was a common scene. Bundles of stick incense were placed into large incense burners. In certain areas of the temple grounds, shoes were removed before proceeding further into the sanctuary area.

While the forms of prayer and homage were largely unfamiliar to my Western background, the underlying essence permeated the air more densely than any incense ever could. Somewhat recently entranced with taking photographs, I had all I could do to stop myself from putting away the camera and just bathing my soul in the spirit of reverence, peace and stillness that pervaded the very air.

My first day of sightseeing with a friend began at a large complex of Shinto buildings and gardens in Kamakura called the Tsurugaokahachimangu Shrine complete with a large lotus pond in the center of the complex. Our next stop was a Buddhist temple only a short distance away. kannon.jpgThe information sheet we received along with our admission ticket explained that certain temples in Kamakura are for pilgrimage to the Goddess Kannon, known as the Goddess of Mercy. We spent the remainder of that day going to other Kannon temples.

Japan is rather steamy and hot in July so we sat for a bit that afternoon on a bench in the shade of a tree on the grounds of one of the Buddhist temples. We both agreed that even though we had been in Japan for less than twenty-four hours our hearts were already captivated by this beautiful and silent land and we were ready to proclaim that it surpassed any other destination in our varied travels.

It is exceedingly difficult to even put it into words because at that exact moment we were not even looking at an extraordinary statue or landscaped visual feast. Yet while perched on that bench taking refuge from the heat, we seemed to breathe in a subtle but deep feeling of inner quiet and peace that nourished us deeply.

In one of Sri Chinmoy's songs composed in dedication to Japan, his lyrics call it "silence-ecstasy."

 Japan, Japan, Japan!
A soulful flower-garden.
Clearly you see,
Quickly you do.
Your property true.
Japan, Japan, Japan!
High Heaven's hallowed Plan.

Another experience during my visit reinforced this sentiment of stillness. More sightseeing took us on a day trip to Tokyo, about an hour away from Kamakura by train. Japan is noted for being one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 12 million alone in Tokyo. By matter of contrast, New York City has a population of 8 million. As luck would have it, we came back to Kamakura right at rush hour and more people squeezed onto the train than seemed humanly possible. The train was like a subway car with railings to hold onto overhead for those standing - the lion's share of those in the train! At each stop, a few would get off and more people than got off would squeeze into the train.

 For roughly 50 minutes, we rode standing up along with Japanese working people commuting home after their workday. A seeming recipe for stress even if one wasn't claustrophobic, the ride actually felt peaceful. It was so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop. I felt that I could really learn something from the Japanese, as I perceived that each person preserved a sense of privacy and respectful boundaries towards others in spite of the close quarters. After this wondrous experience, I knew that I would both brag about how I rode the subway at rush hour in Japan at the same time that I humbly pondered its thought-provoking lessons in graciously sharing the
planet with fellow travellers.

While I resonated with ancient beliefs and cultural mores, I create a limited picture of Japan emphasizing only pastoral beauty and inner silence. Japan was also quite technologically savvy. Apparently there are at least 5 million vending machines in Japan and they sell just about anything imaginable and can be found on almost every corner.

When we rode the subway, if you inserted two tickets into the turnstile with one on top of the other, one already punched to show your ride just finished and one for the connecting train you were about to ride, it somehow knew to keep the receipt ticket inside the machine and just give you back the receipt for your upcoming ride. As we rode the hotel elevator, it "spoke" to us in a cheery sing-song voice every time we got off at the floor. We don't know what it precisely said since it was talking to us in Japanese. We saw very clever bicycle seats and even surfboard holders attached to bicycles. One day while walking from the subway to the hotel for our evening function with Sri Chinmoy I saw a man ride by on a bike with a fairly large dog in a basket on the front of the bike. What a laugh that provoked! Suffice it to say that the culture appeared to be a fascinating blend of old and new, simple and sophisticated. I very much liked the notion that the inner and outer can proceed without sacrificing one for the other.

My visit was exceedingly short and my impressions might appear incomplete or overly obvious to others more versed in Japanese culture than myself. I just know that it charmed me completely and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to partake in all it offered. If I had to recommend destinations for other like-minded nature lovers and spiritual seekers, I would blurt out "Japan!" without a moment's hesitation.

In conclusion, I wish to share the following words by Sri Chinmoy in which he shares his enlightened vision of Japan,

 "I have a very special love and affection for Japan. Right from the first time I came to Japan many years ago, when I didn't even have one disciple here, I still felt my oneness with Japan. Japan always gives me joy and a powerful thrill that touches the depths of my heart. When I think of Japan, I immediately see lamps. Japan is composed of small islands, and I see these islands as soulful aspiration-lamps that are climbing up high, higher, highest. The flames from these lamps are going up and reaching the highest, which is all beauty, love and power. There are a few other things about Japan that also give me enormous joy. Simplicity and humility are of supreme importance in life. Japan has them both. I have been all over the world, but I can tell you that no other country has simplicity and a heart of humility in the pure sense that Japan has."
-Sri Chinmoy. Japan: Soul-Beauty's Heart-Garden, Agni Press 1993.

I also must not forget to mention the kind generosity of all of Sri Chinmoy's students in Japan as well. They provided us with extensive and detailed information for discovering Kamakura and offered us mountains of prasad every night. They were the most gracious hosts imaginable! Gratitude a hundred times over!

And since I managed to take photos after all, here is a link to my photographic memories of the trip: