Zen, Daitoku-ji, and Gakyu-san

Hello all!

Today started earlier than usual. Frankie, Kagaya-sensei and I left the hostel at around 7:30 to go to a really famous bakery before Professor Ludvik’s Zen lecture. Unfortunately, we arrived at the bakery to discover that it was already closed! We walked around for a little bit and found a nice cafe where we had some really good french toast for breakfast instead.

After breakfast it was time to head to Terminal Kyoto to hear Professor Catherine Ludvik’s lecture on Rinzai Zen, temples, and art. The lecture itself was very interesting. At this point, I have read and heard a fair amount about Zen itself. I feel like I have a firm understanding of the basics of how Zen came to be and what it consists of. That being said, I had not thought of Zen temples as the cultural centers that Professor Ludvik described them as. It was really interesting to learn the significance behind the art in Zen temples as well as the types of buildings in a Zen temple complex. My favorite part of the lecture was when Professor Ludvik discussed the sliding doors in the temples. Many of these doors have exquisite paintings that were laid down by masters centuries ago. However, due to the way temples are set up, these masterpieces are exposed to the elements and are weathered. Many temples today are facing decisions regarding how these doors will be replaced as the original artworks are placed into safer storage in museums. Some temples chose to hire famous modern artists to replace the doors and others chose to discover new talent. This is the story that really spoke to me in some way. The temple (Taizo-in) hired a young artist, Yuki Murabayashi, to replace their old paintings. To prepare for this endeavor, Ms. Murabayashi lived the life of a Zen monk for 6 months before she even thought about putting brush to canvas. The whole story was really beautiful to me — I loved to see new life being breathed into such a time-honored tradition.

After Professor Ludvik’s lecture, we were able to go visit the Daitoku-ji temple complex — a place that she had discussed in detail. I can’t describe how amazing an experience it was to learn about a place and then to immediately go and see it. The temple complex was beautiful and many of the smaller temples within the complex had breathtaking dry landscape gardens. I could have stood in those quiet places for hours, but we had things to do and places to be! For lunch we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of vegetarian food safe for Buddhist consumption. Every single thing that we tried was incredibly delicious, but the highlights were perhaps the sesame tofu and this miraculous yuzu honey vinegar. I may or may not end up spending a somewhat embarrassing amount of time trying to figure out where one might be able to buy a bottle of that stuff!

After lunch we were able to wander around the Sanjo area for a short while as we waited for 4:00 and the much anticipated lecture by the Buddhist sculptor Gakyu-san. Beyond hearing Gakyu-san’s story, we were privileged enough to be able to see several of his amazing sculptures. I truly don’t have words for how incredible I found them. The detailing on the robes worn by the figures was exquisite — how he managed to make wood look like a diaphanous waterfall, the world may never know, but it was incredible. It was really interesting to hear Gakyu-san talk about being a Buddhist sculpture and about all the rules involved in carving Buddhist statues. (I still can’t believe that his sculptures were hollow!)

All in all, today was absolutely amazing and tomorrow promises to be even more so. Tomorrow we will be experiencing a tea ceremony. This is one of the things that I have been most excited about this trip and I can hardly wait! I only hope that I can manage to remain seated in the proper position for the entire duration of the ceremony! Perhaps next year’s group should do several months of committed practice to be able to sit in the proper position. I must confess that whenever I try to sit in such a way I feel a bit like a very inflexible old woman. I guess that I’ll just have to keep trying to improve!

See you all tomorrow!


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