Love at first sight
For me, the hook was visual. When I was first discovering Japan I found myself falling in love with the ubiquitous “Zen aesthetic” that pops up in Google image results, tumblr searches, JAL adverts. It was the emptiness that got me: whether it was that of a stone garden, like the one at Ryoan-ji in northwest Kyoto, or the kind implied within objects like a tea bowl or ink painting, from the very beginning I was in love with what wasn’t there.
The stone garden at Ryoan-ji (Source)
The white Raku ware teabowl Fuji-san by 17th century potter Hon’ami Kōetsu (Source)
Zen Skull by Matsuzaka Kian (Source)
What wasn’t there?
I couldn’t see the cultural history within which I had been raised, and which I felt had done nothing but remind me of my otherness at every opportunity since birth. I could not see the Church and its slave’s morality, or science’s valiant, but nonethless cold and nihilistic counterargument.
I could not see an aesthetic which so gawdily tried to show what transcendence looked like, and which placed a tradie and his invisible dad at the centre of its universe.
Rococo – a touch much. (Source)
And I especially could not see the particularly ugly, jingoistic society I had found myself thrown into and which I was so desperate to escape
fukn hell (Source)
The love was strong, because my ego rushed in to fill the void.
Like most other white male Japanophiles who fall in love with “Zen”, I saw myself in its imagery of emptiness, which had so much cultural capital that it could, and indeed did, buy me outright and immediately.
The space between the ink, the space where the trees and flowers should have been, looked like a nice, cozy spot where I could rest by battered ego and have a break from the constant challenge of living in the world. #zen had me by the heartstrings because the extreme difference I saw resonated with the extreme difference I felt, and the space I saw looked inviting because of this.
I fawned over how cool Zen monks looked, especially in those cool hats they wear when they go out begging.
A Soto Zen monk begging (Source)
I visited Eihei-ji, one of the two head temples of the Soto school. Amongst the plethora of temples in Kyoto I breezed through Kenin-ji, twice, once in spring and once in autumn.
My love kicked into overdrive when I found Haiku and Jisei:
Clouds come from time to time –
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.
– Matsuo Basho
Oh young folk —
if you fear death,
Having died once
you won’t die again.
– Hakuin Ekaku
Gleefully jumping into the YouTube and Wikipedia vortex, I watched days of docos, read pages upon pages of content about what all those cool looking things were called and what they did, and what I could do to be cool like all the cool Japanese people I saw and do cool Japanese things like I saw them doing.
fukn bell (Source)
What is the sound of one man fapping?
The reason why “Zen” seemed like such a nice, comfy, safe space was that, more than identity and belonging, the aesthetic appeared to offer spiritual respite. Having firmly ruled out the Abrahamic religions in my youth I still had a very human need to understand the universe and my place within it, and science and western philosophy could only do so much to address that.
But throughout all of this blind worship, I never bothered to actually learn anything about Dogen or what he taught, or who the hell Bodhidharma was. I never bothered to learn any of the teachings of Shakyamuni, though I did watch Keanu play him in Little Buddha (1993). I knew that Sen no Rikyu was ‘the tea ceremony guy’, but I couldn’t tell you anything else about it, other than matcha is an acquired taste, sitting on tatami is uncomfortable, and you should eat the sweet thing first before drinking the tea or you’ll spew.
I didn’t bother to learn why samu was important, or where satori fit within practice, or whether there was a difference between zazen and shikantanza. Didn’t matter though, it just looked so damned cool, like these jeeeewsheeew I got last time I was over there. Pretty cool aye…
sweet jiuewzshu bro
More disturbing still, while I wanted to learn more, I saw this guy and couldn’t have been more disinterested:
Muhō Noelke (Source)
He’s the real deal. Current Abbot of Antai-ji, trained in Japan and earned it the hard way. But, y’know, he juuuuust doesn’t look quiiiite right…
Then I came across this guy:
John Daido Loori Roshi (Source)
John Daido Loori, founder and first abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, honorary doctor of humane letters, awesome photographer…
“Nah” I thought. “Doesn’t look like true “Zen” to me.” Not “the real Zen” anyway. This guy looked way more “true” and “real” to me, whoever he was:
Nakamura Kankurō VI as Dogen Zenji in Zen (2009)
Then I saw this joint and thought it looked pretty “authentic”:
Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji (Source)
What was it called again? Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji? That’s a pretty “authentic” name. But wait, it’s in New York. Oh…
Wtf is this place?:
The San Francisco Zen Centre (Source)
the fuck is that? It’s not from
Japan, like Zen is
– workingsilence, 2017
Nothing. I got bored, gave up, and moved on to something else. But before that happened, against seemingly insurmountable odds – a moment of clarity.
On a profound level, I realised one day that none of the above looked right to my mind, yet getting what I wanted was impossible, because what I wanted was to escape a reality that most of the time I found alienating and awkward.
As I’ve done for most of my life, I found relief from the sometimes cruel nature of existence by looking at art, and as I’ve done for most of my life, I decided to ignore the artifice of it all and pretend that what I was looking at was not just real, but representative of a Reality that I could access, and enjoy, and own, and escape to.
I realised that from this delusion came all the absurdity that followed. My whole “Zen” thing was basically a bullshit racist infatuation, started by misunderstanding some Google image results and tumblr posts, and by paying no attention whatsoever when I did happen to go to Japan.
I’d conflated a love of the beauty of the image with a love of what lies behind the image. Rather than seeking, and just maybe finding some measure of transformative awakening, I’d fallen in love with the idea of finding transformative awakening through images that suggested as much.
Not wanting to sound like a tit, I’d skimmed over the important parts and proceeded to wank my way through the week, boring my few friends with ‘insights’, mostly experienced while stoned out of my mind.
Muhō and Loori Roshi held no appeal, despite the very real and accessible opportunities they each represented to learn more about Zen on a deeper level than just pretty pictures. The no doubt wonderful Zen communities around my home town of Melbourne appealed even less, because all I could think about was that I’d be sitting zazen with a bunch of fukn hipsters and nobody wants to spend their spare time doing that.
“it’s a very obscure Sutra, you probably haven’t heard of it” (Source)
Bus Stop Awakening
The hilarious thing about all of this was that my moment of clarity didn’t come while sitting zazen (I’d never even bothered to learn how), but while I was arguing with a bus driver over whether I could touch my Myki on at the back of the bus or not. Confrontations like this tend to ruin my day, and at the time images of zen tranquility sans shitcunt bus drivers were my first port of call. Out came the iPhone as I sat down and the bus pulled up at the next stop. An anglo Buddhist monk jumped on, I looked up from tumblr, and suddenly it all became clear.
I didn’t really care about Zen, and I couldn’t be fucked putting in the work to see any real results. After arriving at this insight I was struck by that existential malaise which affects all people who would rather not face reality. Without an unobtainable goal to pursue (as for most pasty male Japanophiles, mine was secretly to actually be ethnically Japanese there I said it), I felt that I had lost the right to access, participate in, or be inspired by “Zen” culture and aesthetics.
“Well that’s fucked” I thought, as I got off the bus at the train station. Being an all or nothing kind of guy I wondered whether my beloved “Japan” was off the cards too, as I really hadn’t bothered to learn all that much Japanese and I kept crapping on about something called the “real Japan” that I kept looking for on my phone but never finding in real life.
On my way to the beige Hades of my office I passed a menswear store and wondered whether wanking about in a nice navy two piece was out, because I’d decided my corporate warrior persona was just a reflection of my wish to live in a world where everyone just gets around pointing at things in French cuffs and suspenders and saying “yeah!” alot.
By the time lunch rolled around I took a walk along Flinders street, feeling like I couldn’t trust anything and had nowhere to hide. In showing itself as a fantasy within a web of fantasies, the nice, sakura-y, old temple-y, only in Japan-y kind of “Zen” had caused not only the refuge I took within it to collapse, it had taken out most of the other refuges I liked to hide in as well.
Now, I was just a douchebag in a suit faffing about, trying to convince people I was a salaryman and dreaming of one day transforming into Takeshi Kitano.
“No chance, dickhead.”
Where am I now?
I still know fuck all about Zen, and I’m not willing to commit to the discipline of studying Zen seriously. I’m not willing to join a community of people practicing Zen, because I don’t like ‘dealing with’ people as a rule and most sanzenkai are on a Sunday night and that’s usually time I set aside to feel depressed about the coming week.
Honestly, I don’t care about Zen that much because I don’t think I can really ever “get” Zen without building another fantasy cave to go hide in when someone pisses me off on the train. I haven’t gone and thrown all my suits away because I have to wear something to work and the human filing cabinet I work in frowns on casual dress.
I still wear my sweet ass juzu because I like the way they look, but as I mentioned above I ultimately got bored with looking any deeper into Zen than the images people present about it to the world. Not such a bad thing as it turns out, because:
- I still get to smoke weed (yay)
- I’ve stopped insulting non-ethnically Japanese practitioners of Zen by dismissing them out of hand on the basis of their race (sorry!)
- I’ve stopped insulting ethnically Japanese practitioners of Zen by misrepresenting the religion and being more interested in temple gift shops than the temples or monks themselves (sorry!)
- I’ve stopped boring the shit out of my friends (sorry!)
- I’ve reminded myself that it’s ok to like images, so long as you don’t conflate what lies behind the image with the image itself, or the image itself with reality (yay)
- I still can’t stand hipsters, or people generally, but that’s ok because I don’t have to feel bad about it for Buddha’s sake. (yay)
By being aware of my desire to escape into some sort of fantasy “Zen” situation, I am more comfortable existing within my own reality, and occasionally glimpsing something beyond it.