Saturday, 16 February 2013

Drifting into Zen Meditation in Kyoto

After the first hectic weeks of the new year it was great to just spend a day wandering around the nearby city of Kyoto. Here Jules had discovered what she considered to be a sure fire way in which we could both (particularly me) spend some time in a more relaxed state. No … it wasn’t visiting one of the many local bars, although that would be nice too, but rather one of the local temples where we would be introduced to the traditional practice of Zen Meditation!

To be honest, I had always considered myself to be somewhat of a lost cause when it comes to any form of meditation. There were always far too many arbitrary thoughts rushing through my head, while it has to be said that it takes all of my patience to sit still quietly and do nothing for any length of time. However, I was more than prepared to give it a try once again, if only for the experience of visiting one of the many beautiful Buddhist temples in Kyoto.

Myoshinji is a large temple complex in northwest Kyoto and consists of around 50 traditional buildings that date back to the early 1300’s. At its peak the area included around 200 structures and while it might have slightly diminished in scale over the years, it still remains a major centre for Zen Buddhism in Japan. So if we were at all serious about learning the art of meditation, this would be literally the font of all knowledge on such matters. Shunkō-in temple is in fact the largest of the Rinzai Zen Buddhism schools and this magnificent sixteenth century temple would be the ideal setting to experience what Zen meditation had to offer.

Upon entering the temple, we were warmly welcomed by Rev.Taka, one of the senior priests who sat us down on pillows in a long and thankfully warm tatami room. It was after all the middle of winter, a factor that might have limited our class to a small group of seven. While we all sat in the cross-legged position (or lotus position for the more flexible), he began to enlighten us about the basic philosophies and elements of Zen meditation. He spoke about the essential need to live for the moment and to perceive that moment exactly as it is, rather than through the filter of our ideas and opinions … easier said than done I thought, but I guess that this after all is the ideal situation. He continued to calmly reassure us that if we were able to experience everything from moment to moment, then our outlook would become clear and enlightened. By adopting meditation and allowing us the time to simply sit in total silence, devoid of sensory distractions, it would act as ‘a daily vitamin pill toward spiritual peace’. Of course he provided much more detail than that and as we sat in the tranquil setting of the temple with bright sunlight streaming in through the foliage of a beautifully manicured Japanese garden, it all sounded very clear and logical.

We would begin our session by meditating for approximately fifteen minutes. I say ‘approximately’, as the time is traditionally determined by the burning time of a stick of Japanese incense. Jules and I had often wondered why the incense we had bought here seemed to burn down so quickly and apparently each stick is the ideal amount of time for meditation. Although in referring to this, Rev.Taka joked that these days you can actually download an ‘App’ for your iphone that performs the same task … say it isn’t so! On a more philosophical note, he went on to dispell the popular myth that meditation involved totally clearing your mind of all thought … this was quite a relief for me! I’m sure that this difficult and often impossible concept had turned many people away from the practice of meditation over the years. He went on to suggest that thoughts would indeed drift in and out of our minds and that this was quite natural and to be expected.

Following the ‘dong’ of a bell and with the ‘clack’ of two sticks of wood being slapped together, we closed our eyes and began our meditation. The room was now silent apart from the flickering of the gas heater and the occasional call of a bird outside. The sheer size of the temple complex prevented even the slightest traffic noise from drifting in. There we were, sitting silently in a room, just as others had done over the centuries, simply experiencing the moment. As anticipated, thoughts began to drift in and out and we began to notice our feet slowly turning numb and an increasing strain on our backs. However, the time passed quite quickly and with the sound of the ‘dong’ and ‘clack’ again, we were summoned to open our eyes and have a stretch. We all seemed a little dozy, as if we had returned from a far away journey and in a way we probably had. After a little more discussion, it was time to meditate once again … it was all very relaxing.

After it was all over, Rev. Taka proudly showed us around his temple, which is surrounded by what was called the ‘Garden of Boulders’, complete with a neatly raked sea of pebbles. This was accessed through a series of sliding doors that were also close to the more decorative gold panels inside which were painted by master artist Eigaku Kanō. As we sat down to drink warm green tea in a sunlit room that faced a lovely internal courtyard, we reflected upon the serenity of Zen Buddhism. The seemingly humble life of a Buddhist priest appeared to have some merit, as did the power of meditation. While I still don’t know whether we are total converts yet, there is certainly something to be said for taking a little time out to just sit, drift and live in the moment.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Timeless Appeal of the Kimono

As the end of the Japanese school year draws to a close, naturally the discussion of my senior students has been about what they might wear to their graduation. It seems that most of the girls will opt for contemporary formal fashions, while a certain percentage will wear the traditional Kimono. You might consider this quite surprising, as this centuries-old Japanese garment might, by western standards, be regarded as somewhat 'old fashioned' and could be disregarded by the younger generation…not so!

In fact the main reason many of the other students would not be wearing a Kimono to such an occasion was that they had chosen to wait until they had turned the significant age of twenty. Quizzing them a little more, I discovered that this much anticipated birthday would mark their ‘coming of age’ and arrival into adulthood. Such an important family occasion would be marked by the presentation of a new Kimono to be worn for the first time on ‘Coming of Age Day’ (January 14), a National holiday and a day of ceremony and festivities in honor of young people who turn 20 between April 2 the previous year and April 1 of the current year. They went on to tell me that while most had previously experienced wearing a Kimono at some stage, stepping out on this important occasion would require an especially elaborate (and expensive) hand-made Kimono befitting their newly acquired status in Japanese society (they were now able to vote and drink alcohol) and therefore the wearing of this garment would certainly be worth the wait.

The ‘Coming of Age’ Kimono’s for young women (known as a Furisode) are particularly beautiful, being brightly coloured and made of the finest quality silk. The sleeves are very long (almost reaching the floor) and the ankle length dress is elaborately decorated with floral patterns that represent the blossoming of youth. Each year there are new patterns or accessories introduced, adding a certain fashion element to the multitude of Kimono styles available. This year however, there was an element of controversy in Tokyo regarding a new emerging trend of wearing the garment open necked and even off the shoulder. This is known as the ‘Oiran’ style and is based upon the form of Kimono worn by high-class courtesans of the Edo Period (even the more radical Kimono fashions apparently have a history). The style, although particularly popular with this years crop of young women, was frowned upon by many of the older generation who regarded the look as far too daring a departure from tradition and simply inappropriate.

Controversy aside, the Kimono appears to remain as popular as ever and apparently many young women will accumulate several forms over the years, which will be worn for a range of occasions. For less formal wear, a more conservative lightweight style (yukata) might be adopted, often mirroring the colours and patterns of the seasons in which they are worn. While for the more significant of life’s events, elaborate styles are adopted. For example, upon a proposal of marriage many parents will buy their daughters a Kimono called the ‘Houmongi’. This dress effectively replaces the more youthful ‘Furisode’ and while still being very elegant, is generally more subdued in its colours and with shorter sleeves. This is a Kimono of the mature woman and one that will continue to be worn on special occasions over the years ahead.

Like many aspects of Japanese society, the Kimono remains steeped in traditions and ceremony and as Jules and I were reliably informed from the experiences of our Mt. Fuji tour guide, it is not uncommon for many young women to attend Kimono classes (sometimes lasting up to two years) to learn how to dress themselves and wear the Kimono appropriately. My students tell me that this vital knowledge is normally passed on from mother (or grandmother) to daughter, but it has been known for women who are less knowledgeable about such matters, to hire an expert to assist them in putting on their Kimono and helping to tie the ‘Obi’ (the distinctive waist band that can be up to 30cm in width on formal styles). With the various layers and ties, the whole exercise can take more than an hour! The girls in my class reliably inform me that the garment itself is quite tight and heavy, hence the need for tiny delicate steps.

It is somewhat reassuring that in the fast paced world of modern Japan, many of the features of traditional dressing are still appreciated by the younger generation. There still remains a genuine interest and pride in the wearing of the Kimono, with its various nuances and as a distinctly cultural fashion statement. While it is clearly no longer a garment for daily use (the practicalities of twenty-first century living prevents that), it still continues to be a popular form of clothing for many occasions. Judging by the attitudes of the young and the respect they appear to have for its traditions, not to mention the importance they place on fashion generally, it is safe to say that the future of the Kimono appears to be secure. It certainly remains a timeless garment that still has an important place in Japanese society. Indeed for us, the sight of a stylish Kimono being worn around town still immediately captures our attention and after all, isn’t that exactly what fashion is all about!

Note: The artistic photo above was supplied by my friend and teaching colleague Derek. To view more of his wonderful photographs of Japan look here