Meditations on Buddhism

I made it to the morning meditation, mainly because I was worried about not making it to the morning meditation, and so I couldn’t sleep.  Well, I only slept about two and a half hours because my legs were going berserk, but if that helped get me to the meditation, so be it.

Those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I am a Jewish Atheist Pagan, or JAP.  That’s better than the other thing that JAP stands for.  No, not Japanese—Jewish American Princess.

I don’t know much about Buddhism except that it began in India with the enlightenment of a monk named Siddhārtha Gautamaand and it spread across Asia.

As I write this in my room in the mountaintop monastery, the weird music they play at 6am, 5pm, and 9pm just started.  It sounds like the beginning of the Dr. Who theme song, then turns into a chime-y tune that I cringe in fear is shaping up to be “We Shall Overcome,” but then it fades into nothingness after a minute.

Each of the 52 monasteries in Koyasan, a tiny mountain town, has its own idiosyncratic brand of bells, gongs, chimes, chants, and other noises issuing through the air at all times of night and day.

Back to Buddha.  There many different representations of the Buddha, and bodhisattvas, who from my understanding are kind of understudies to the Buddha.  Is there only one Buddha? Good question.  I think there is only one and there are also thousands.  No one painted a picture of the original Buddha back in 4th Century Nepal.  This makes it okay to depict him in many different races and forms.  There must be hundreds of different strains of Buddhism.  I knew that Zen was a Japanese form, but as I’ve moved around Japan I’ve encountered dozens of others, mostly based on the teachings of some Buddhist master or other.

Buddha’s teachings are known as dharma and sutras are religious teachings.  He highlighted the virtues of wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion.  The five main precepts of Buddhism, which are suggestions and not laws, are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.  Well, I’ve never killed anyone!

As in many faiths, adherents practice meditation, and that can take many forms—silent, chanting, walking, using a mantra or symbol, etc.

In Japan, about 30% of the population is Buddhist and only three percent are Shinto, which is a Japanese indigenous religion. These faiths overlap and intersect.  Hinduism is also mixed in there.  Unlike with Christianity, none of the three seeks to stamp out the others.

Japan has a temple (Shinto) or shrine (Buddhist) around every corner.  Some are enormous, like Todaji Temple in Nara, which is the largest wooden building in the world and houses a 15-meter-high Buddha.

Others are obscure, like this tiny one I stumbled upon in Tokyo, dedicated to dogs.

At most temples or shrines, I have encountered people bowing, clapping, lighting incense or candles, ringing bells, or listening to monks chanting sutras.

Inside each shrine is … wait for it … an inner shrine.  In most cases these are surrounded by signs asking people not to take photos.  Here’s one that didn’t have any prohibitions.

The inner shrine at the monastery is much like this.  I made the faux pas of wearing my yukata, or dressing gown, to the meditation, and being told, “Yukata, no!”  I had read an etiquette book I bought, twice, and still got it wrong.

I ran up to my room to change and rejoined the group.  About eight guests were observing as two monks intoned (presumably) sutras, punctuated by drums, gongs, and bells.  One had a beautiful timbre to his voice, and the two chanted in harmony.  I have no idea what they were singing, but it was magical, surrounded by dragons, lanterns, candles, incense, lotus flowers and orchids, tapestries, and thousands of intricately decorated boxes.

The jury is still out on my phone but I am taking its darkness as the digital detox I have long discussed but never had the will power to carry out.  Maybe Buddha had a hand in it.

Konichiwa from Koyasan

It’s 11:30pm and I will not be going to sleep any time soon.

I’m writing from Shojoshin-in monastery in Koyasan, Japan.  There are a couple things keeping me awake.

  • Whoever invented them should be forced to sleep on one for the rest of his life.  I piled six on top of each other and all they do is sag into the center so that my head and feet are elevated and my spine is bowed downward onto the hard floor.
  • Restless Legs. After going through hell to wean myself off my RLS prescription, I used my emergency stash of pills while Lynn was with me so I wouldn’t drive her crazy with my pacing, kicking, and thrashing around all night. Now I have one pill left which I will try to save for my flight home, and I am going through mini withdrawal again.
  • My phone—I dropped it into a toilet! It’s dead!  There’s a chance it may be okay if I refrain from touching it for 24-48 hours and no one sends me a text or any kind of message.

But …

  • I don’t know what time it is unless I turn on my laptop, and I don’t have an alarm! Meditation starts at 6:30, followed by breakfast at 7:30.  There is a note on the info sheet about the monastery that says “Bell rings before 10 minutes.”  Ten minutes before what?  If it’s for morning meditation, will I hear it if I’m in the deep slumber I usually get for an hour or two after being an RLS puppet all night?

So many thoughts.  I don’t usually write at night but maybe if I get this out of my system, I will be able to settle my mind, if not my legs.

Koyasan is the most amazing place I have ever been.  That’s what I was thinking as I wandered through the ancient mausoleum that is where the 9th Century monk Kobo Daishi is meant to be in a state of permanent, deep meditation, praying for the wellbeing of all people. His mausoleum and the thousands of graves and shrines that surround it are in a forest of ancient cedar trees.  This was right before I dropped my phone in the toilet.  I will show you photos if my phone revives.

It took some doing to get here.  This morning I bade farewell to Lynn after another great travel time together of 10 days in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. Much more on that later.

We took a shuttle from our hotel to the train station, where we had breakfast and then Lynn headed back to Tokyo and off to Scotland.  I took the Wakayama train to Hashimoto, where I transferred to the Nankai Koya line to Gokurakubashi.  Wonderful names.

The second train ride was very scenic, winding up, up, up through the mountains and stopping in tiny towns which didn’t appear to have road access.  Next it was on to a cable car which rose what seemed like a thousand feet up the mountain, followed by a 20-minute bus ride.

I was checked in by a monk who swiped my credit card, then hoiked my luggage into a dumb waiter to take it to the second floor.  He pointed out the shared toilets and baths and the meditation hall as he led me to my room.  It’s a traditional Japanese room, which means super uncomfortable for westerners like me who aren’t accustomed to sitting or sleeping on the floor.  But I have a view of a beautiful garden with mountain peaks in the background.  The sound of a brook, and frogs and birds, is in the background.  The monastery serves guests breakfast and dinner and the dinner was out of this world.

I could hear an Australian guy in the next room asking for a chair at dinner.  He was given one.  I will try to hold out and sit on a cushion to eat my meals but I don’t know if my hips can stand sitting on the floor for three days.

That’s about it for now.  Wish me luck with my phone.

I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.

The Perils of Presents

I received several more emails from my sister-in-law about footwear, and an in-person demonstration at their house.

One additional thing related to footwear – no slippers on tatami mats.  Even if you put on indoor slippers when you go inside, when you go to a room where tatami mats are, you take off the slippers before you get into that room.

Continuing the topic of shoes – you usually take off shoes at ryokan, minshuku (either at entrance or when you get into the room).  You will be barefoot (or in socks) in tatami rooms – you’ll wear slippers provided (or your own footwear if allowed inside) when walking around outside your room in the building, going to shared bath, dining halls, etc.

Oh, there’s also the topic of bathroom slippers….don’t go into bathrooms in your regular indoor slippers …use the slippers provided in the bathroom…I know there’s way too much on footwear and slippers….

I’m doomed to make a faux pas with my filthy feet, and I accept that.

As I write this I am waiting to check in for my flight, unload the dishwasher, and leave a note and small gift for my subletters before driving away for a month.

Which brings up the whole Japanese gift-giving thing.  I always bring gifts for people when I travel.  Often they are items native to Minnesota, like wild rice; or made in Minnesota, like Aveda, Target, 3M, or General Mills products, or even Spam, as a joke.

I will call my sister-in-law Keiko, her mother Hiromi, and her dad Fred (he does go by a western name) to protect their privacy.

I asked Keiko what gift I could bring for her parents, and she suggested some good chocolate that’s made in the USA.  I’ve got that, but then I got to thinking….

When Fred and Hiromi first came to the US to meet my family when Keiko and my brother became engaged, there was a memorable gift exchange at the home of my mother and her husband.

We sat in a circle around the living room, the three of them and 10 of us.  Within minutes—without anything overt being said—it became clear that this was about Fred and my mom’s husband, Jim.  The two of them talked to each other across the room.  If anyone else spoke, they were ignored.  It was fascinating.  It was all about the alpha males.

Jim said, “We have some gifts for you,” and waved in the direction of my mother.  I know they were aware that gift giving is a big deal in Japan and that they had put some thought into what they should give.

My mom jumped up and delivered gift bags to Fred and Hiromi, from which they withdrew Minnesota Twins baseball caps.  They smiled and laughed and seemed very pleased.  Japanese are obsessed with baseball, so whew—gift-giving success, right?

Then Fred went out to the rental car and brought in a box about three feet long and one foot deep.  He placed it on the floor in the center of the room and lifted the lid.  This was no flimsy cardboard box. It was cardboard, but of a sturdy and obviously high-quality nature.

Fred withdrew a pair of white cotton gloves and donned them, then lifted layer upon layer of tissue to reveal a porcelain figure of a geisha wearing a silk kimono.  As he lifted her he explained, “This is a limited edition; one was given to Bill Clinton by the emperor during a state visit.”

Gulp.  There were oohs and ahs but also sideways glances among my family members as Fred accessorized the geisha with a parasol and shoes.

So, chocolate?  Sure, but today I’ll run over to a store that sells all things Made in Minnesota to see what else I can bring.

And tomorrow I leave.  Do you ever feel, just before heading out for a big trip, that you don’t really want to go?  I do.  There’s something to be said for the comfort, familiarity, and ease of one’s own home. Japan is intimidating and I’m not even there yet.

But I’ll go, of course.  See you on the other side!

Footwear and Funny Walks

One week until D Day, otherwise known less dramatically as the day I depart for Japan.  The sub-letters are all set to move in.  I’m finalizing a written itinerary I will print and bring along, because I’ve gotten caught out abroad when my phone wouldn’t connect to wireless.  I’ve done my test pack.

This was my Japanese sister-in-law’s response when I asked her what the deal was with footwear.

Footwear!  This is a big topic….

What to wear – I would say as a foreigner you can get away with pretty much whatever you want to wear.  When I wore slip on black leather sandals (with heels, but without a strap on the heel side) one summer, my mom thought they looked too casual and should only be worn to hang laundry or water flower pots on the deck.  When I lived there 20+ years ago women tended not to expose bare legs and feet – wear pantyhose or socks – but that may have changed especially because of the ridiculous summer heat in the recent years.  

Where you would need to take your footwear off would be: people’s houses, traditional Japanese restaurants where you’ll be sitting on tatami mats (mostly in private rooms), fitting rooms where you try on clothing, clinics, and inside temples/shrines. 

In most of these places (not fitting rooms or temples/shrines), you’ll be offered or will be asked to wear slippers.  And you would not want to wear these shared slippers (vinyl) on your bare feet.  Also, in homes, you don’t want to make nice cloth slippers dirty by putting your dirty feet in them directly.  So if they don’t wear socks or feet covering of some sort, people tend to bring a pair in their purse etc. to protect their feet (at public places) or cloth slippers (at people’s homes). 

There’s this whole thing about “not touching your feet to the ground after you take your shoes off before getting inside or putting your slippers on” that may be good for you to know. One additional thing – no slippers on tatami mats.  Even if you put on indoor slippers when you go inside, when you go to a room where tatami mats are, you take off the slippers before you get into that room.

Now I am even more confused.  Good thing I’m a crass westerner and no one will expect me to behave correctly!  I’ll have shoes, slippers, and socks with me in a backpack at all times to be on the safe side.

The only thing more boring than hearing about someone’s health problems is hearing about their battles with cable providers and insurance companies, right?  So lucky you—this isn’t about Comcast or UnitedHealth!

The bane of my existence, Restless Legs Syndrome, is my main worry about Japan.

Maybe because it isn’t life threatening and has a silly-sounding name, people—including doctors—kind of laugh it off and don’t take it seriously.

Imagine you are the most tired you’ve ever been.  You drop into bed and immediately fall asleep.  Then, someone standing at the end of your bed grabs your feet and starts rubbing their hands up and down and around your calves until you wake up and have to kick them away.  That’s RLS, basically. Weird, creeping sensations deep in the legs that wake you up out of a sound sleep and force you to move.

The medications available to treat it work great until they don’t.  Then, they turn on you and make the symptoms worse.  I recently weaned off my medication, which was five weeks of Hell.  I slept for no more than 5-10 minutes at a stretch, then had to get up and walk around the house, do deep knee bends, kick, walk on my tip toes, and huddle on the floor face down in the fetal position to get the sensations to stop.  Sometimes I was up for an hour before it calmed down.

It’s better now.  I’ve been sleeping for up to an hour at a time.  But I worry about poor Lynn, sharing a hotel room with me.  I’ve already warned her to not be alarmed when she sees a shadowy Minister of Silly Walks at 3am.


Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.

Happy Days

I have some good news.  Last week my son proposed to his girlfriend, and she said yes.  Not that there was any doubt.  It’s just the latest positive development in his life.

The reason I ever launched this blog was because, five years ago, he was in prison. In addition to the predictable emotions like despair, I felt relief that I now would know where his was, and deep shame.  Counterintuitively, it made sense for me to write about it for all the world to read.

He entered prison a drug addled, bloated, overweight, broke, middle-aged chronic alcoholic.  This was just the latest in a 20-year string of bouts with unemployment, homelessness, crime, and broken relationships.

It would have been easy for him to use drugs and alcohol inside, but Vince chose to be sober in prison.  He also started writing alternate posts for this blog.  They were heart breaking, hilarious, and articulate.

He made it through an intensive “boot camp” program, where he worked on self-discipline, attitudes, and thinking processes.  He also started running, something he hated but continues to this day.

He came home a little over four years ago and moved in with me.  That was rough.  He dated a woman but it didn’t work out.  He got a job in a laminating factory and moved in with a couple guys who were also trying—some successfully and some not—to stay sober.  He started his own blog.  He bought my beloved old Mini Cooper from me.  He dated another woman but it didn’t work out.

Two years ago, he was offered a cook job at a country club on Lake Minnetonka.  That’s where he laid eyes on Amanda for the first time, and it was love at first sight.  He moved in with Amanda and her two young daughters.  From the start, he has been all-in on parenting.  He can now put “expert in potty training” on his resume.

One year ago he bought a house in the tiny town of Silver Lake. He traded the Mini for a minivan.  He worked with me to publish the first year of this blog as a book.  He applied for better jobs, and in the end was offered a great promotion at the country club.

The girls’ father is under a two-year no-contact order.  Vince has supported Amanda as she has courageously fought to finalize her divorce, custody, and child support arrangements.  Last month Vince and Amanda were awarded full custody.  The three-year-old calls him daddy.

In court, Vince made a statement to the girls’ father—that if and when he gets his act together, Vince and Amanda will work with him to welcome him back into the girls’ lives.  The guy thanked him.  I was very proud of Vince.  A lot of men wouldn’t have done that.

Here they are, at the country club where Amanda works, after the big proposal.

In June he’ll mark his five-year sobriety anniversary.  They’ll be hitched in August.

All of this is to say that very few situations are ever hopeless.  Similar to my own story, it didn’t happen overnight and it took a combination of working hard as hell and letting go.  Vince has plugged away, working his program, trying new things, taking risks, sometimes failing, but mostly moving forward.

In three weeks I’ll be in Japan.  I still feel way behind on the planning.  I created a Google docs spreadsheet to try to keep track of it all and it looks a mess.  I’ve got six out of eight accommodations booked.  I’ve got my JR Rail Pass in hand.  I’m finally able to retain some place names from one day to the next.

Progress, not perfection.  One of the AA slogans that is good to keep in mind whether one is an addict or not.

Last night as I was reading about Japanese baths again (I worry about the baths and the shared bathrooms), I was struck by how many iconic cultural traditions Japan has given to the world: origami, sumo, haiku, sushi, manga, anime, samurai, geisha, bonsai, and Zen.  There are probably more.  Is there another country that has created or adapted so many traditions that are recognized worldwide?