Well, we’ve ended our trip after a long journey back and I’m now writing from Williamstown. I feel like I’ve learned a ton and grown a lot over the past weeks and I’m thankful for all of it. As we started the trip, I knew I was going to be thinking a lot about how the old world interacts with the new world and rapidly changing society in Kyoto. However, I hadn’t realized how clear the juxtaposition was.
The Teramachi-dori encapsulated so much of both the old world and today in one physical area, and we were very lucky to be living so close to it and passing through it almost everyday. Teramachi is always crowded during the day as it has plenty of shops for people to browse through and indulge in. However, it also has shrine between these shops, allowing people to enter and feel a sense of removal from the busy consumer crowds and stores just feet away. It’s also common to find similar shrines or temples living right by modern developments of giant buildings, giving people an opportunity for people to escape the busyness of our everyday lives by entering the shrines. The escape of this busyness was not something I expected to think so much about.
The Tea Ceremony with Amae Dairiku was not something I had expected to move me so much, but it was something that made me think about deliberately controlling one’s headspace so we don’t have to get bogged down with life’s busyness. Going into the trip, I had read about many of the movements and purpose of the tea ceremony. I had read about Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Sen No Rikyu. I had read about modern day initiatives to make the tea ceremony more accessible, as Sen No Rikyu had imagined it. However, I still had not thought of the tea ceremony as being a form of active meditation that can be carried into every part of one’s life. When we met Amae Dairiku, he took us through his Monday morning routine of gathering water, getting tea, and buying sweets. He later ran us through an exercise where we were forced to very closely experience six objects he had picked and I was struck by how much of those objects I would’ve overlooked had I not been forced to go through that exercise. He later told us that tea ceremony, like the exercise where we examined the six objects, was a form of active meditation. We weren’t just drinking tea for our taste buds. Drinking the tea was a way to be more present. This concept was completely foreign to me.
I enjoy drinking tea. However, I usually like tea because of its taste and the chance I usually get with it of sharing someone else’s company. However, when we were later asking Amae Dairiku questions, he told us that the tea ceremony in Japan can be called “Te-Mae” which translates to “Point in Front” in Chinese characters. When someone focuses on one of the six objects he had selected, or drinks from a tea bowl, they are fully focusing on a point in front of them. Sometimes, that focus is for just a second, but giving your full focus to something, even if it is just for a second, is incredibly valuable. This focus was not unique to the Tea Ceremony. This focus was similarly described by nearly all the other artisans we had met.
When we met with the Takabayashi family, we were able to get a better understanding into what it takes to be a Noh performer. When we were later asking questions, two things that were said struck me. We were told that while Noh does not stem from Zen, there are similarities. For example, in both Noh and Zen, one must give all of the self to a purpose. In Noh, the full self must be given all the time, whether it be in training, in performance, or in everyday activities. We were also later told that in Noh performances, there is no relation between the Noh performer and the audience. The performer act the exact same way regardless of the audience. In fact, because many of the performances are done for the gods, there often isn’t an audience during the performances. I’ve been thinking about how/if these two statements can be generalized to a person outside of Noh. I’ve been thinking about the idea of a ‘true self’ and whether living a life with internal conflicts and contradictions is justified or if I should make it a priority to avoid it. I’ve also been thinking about how one can live a fulfilling life and if dedicating all of oneself to a purpose is a way to get that fulfillment. It was nice to here the Takabayashi family talk about these things and how Japanese culture has a different perspective on many of these questions than what we’re used to in the West. This is evident in Zen philosophy and when we met Kei-san.
I have seen that in Zen, the process is valued just highly (if not more) than the result. In the West, it is common to be more result-oriented. This can be seen in the way artisans create their crafts. We also saw this in the processes carried out in the tea ceremony. On the second day in Japan, Kei-san gave us a koan that we were expected to answer ten days later. We were asked what we would bring the bodhidharma if we were in the position of Jinka and were asked to bring him our kokoro. Ten days later, when we returned to Kei-san, he explained that we learn more about the kokoro through our process of trying to find it. The process is more important than the final answer that we give. This kokoro is not something that changes, much like so many of the traditions and practices we explored during the past month. While Zen has changed in some of its practices and variations have been created, its essence has stayed the same. While the tea ceremony is practiced in a different circumstance and often in a different way that it was hundreds of years ago, its essence has stayed the same. Although the reception and practice of Noh is different now that it was right after Toyotomi Hideyoshi revitalized it, its essence has stayed the same.
Throughout this trip, we’ve been looking into how the old world and modern world interact harmoniously with each other. We’ve walked through temples and shrines sandwiched between restaurants and shops. We met the Takabayashi family and saw a Noh play in 2018 in the same way it was performed in the 14th century. We’ve walked through Japanese gardens while observing skyscrapers in the backdrop. Even though many of these traditions and practices have been altered, their essence have stayed the same and because they have been a part of our world, their essence can’t be erased. These are thoughts that I’ve had over the past few weeks and I am incredibly grateful for having the opportunity to have them by going to Kyoto and gaining these experiences.