It would be very wrong to think we are objective beings able to be absolutely impartial. No amount of trying will we ever reach complete objectivity. We view everything from the very bodies we inhabit never being able to leave it as much as we believe we can. Imagining that we do is of course possible but in reality that imagined objectivity is coloured by the entire experience of being who I am. To exactly know who or what I am is an impossible project. We must not exactly give up on this but to let the mystery be just that, an eternal mystery. Only then we will be content and be able to move on. To accept that we contain and never cease to perform value-judgements is the first step to move on to understanding ourselves, others and other things. We must always ask what are our values and how did we arrive at them. Only then can some of the problems of the world can be, like a band-aid to temporarily cover a wound, imperfectly solved. We can only hope for band-aids. We should celebrate the band-aids.
In 1990, I entered Bukkokuji, a Zen temple in Obama City, Japan. This temple was in the heartland of Soto Zen Buddhism which had been introduced from China 1,200 years ago.
Like many temples it was at the foot of a mountain hidden among residential houses. It is then run by Harada Tangen Roshi (roshi: teacher), a Zen priest, and 20 training monks, half of which are Japanese and half foreigners.
Like most Zen temples it has a main gate, main hall, meditation hall and some support buildings.
Temples are quiet places, and in general supported by the local community. Traditionally, to enter a temple as a training monk one is to make enquiry at the gate and ask for acceptance. The routine is to reject the trainee. This usually lasts for three to four days. During the night he is given isolated lodging in an unused part of the temple, after which he continues to ask for acceptance the next day. Because Bukkokuji accepts foreigners and pay trainees no such hard routine is necessary. An introduction and phone call is all that was necessary.
People lodge together in large traditional tatami (grass mat) rooms. Each person has a space no larger perhaps than a single bed. All belongings are kept next to the bed.
From spring to autumn the daily routine starts at 5:20am. A monk runs around the temple ringing a loud bell. We wash and prepare for a short run and stretching. After stretching we meditate (zazen). Each meditation session is about 40 minutes long. After meditation we do morning recitations. And then breakfast is served. By breakfast it is after 7am.
During the serving of breakfast recitations continue. The typical breakfast (and other meals) consists of rice, soup, beans vegetables and pickled vegetables. Each person is given a personal set of three bowls, chopsticks and a cloth to wrap and store them, to use in the course of their stay at the temple. All meals are eaten in silence. Seconds are allowed.
After all members finish eating we wash our bowls. One-quarter of a cup of hot water is all we use. With a pickle we save from the meal as a sponge we wash all bowls and chopsticks. The hot water, now a kind of broth, can either be drunk or put into a bucket to be later given to vegetation outside.
Before we start work (samu) in the morning we have a short rest or do personal chores like brushing terry or washing clothes. Work in general is to maintain the temple. It could be anything from cleaning, working in the field, to clear out the septic tanks for use as fertiliser. We have a rest then before lunch. After lunch we do more work. And then we have tea where the Roshi-sama (as the master is called by his students) will join us give a talk to encourage us in our goal of enlightenment.
Once in a while Roshi-sama will hold give private guidance (dokusan) to the trainees.
And then before dinner we have evening recitations. After dinner we rest before three sessions of meditation. By the end of mediation it is 9pm. All light go out and all sleep.
This routine is for four days. On the fifth day bath is prepared and generally no work is done but meditation continues. On the 21st of each month a public lecture (teisho) is given by Roshi-sama. Intermittently, monks go out to beg for alms (takuhatsu). This is done as spiritual training as well.
In December, for eight days until the 8th (Buddha’s Enlightenment Day) a special session of meditation (sesshin) is done. Apart from some general cleaning most of the time is spent meditating. Sleep is limited to 3 to 4 hours. And private guidance is given regularly.
The founder of Buddhism was a historical figure from two-and-a-half millennia ago. Siddhartha Gautama, which is his birth name, was born a prince of the Sakya Clan. He was born in Lumbini, a forest, while his mother, Maya, was returning to her family. With no more reason to continue the journey she returned to Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya Kingdom.
All the soothsayers predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great leader of the world, except one. This lone soothsayer predicted that he would definitely become a great leader of the world. Worried, Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, wanted to make sure his son would succeed him as king by sheltering him from ugliness of the world. The king was able to shelter his son until he was 29. Siddhartha was about to marry and to have a son. Finally given some freedom he saw the outside world – reality – for the first time. What is saw was sickness, old age and death, the truth of existence his father had wanted to conceal from him. Siddhartha also saw an ascetic who was radiant with happiness and contentment. Siddhartha wondered how this could be.
Around the time of his son’s birth he had decided to find the truth and happiness which does not rely on the things of the world. He left his palace and comfortable lifestyle to seek and follow the best teacher of the day. Siddhartha, now called Sakyamuni (The Sage of the Sakya Clan), mastered two of the leading ascetics’ teachings in a short time. And was offered successorship, both of which he declined. He left them behind and continued to seek enlightenment on his own. Following a routine of extreme asceticism he slowly wore his body down to the point of dying. Concluding that he may well find enlightenment at the point of death he also realised this would mean nothing if no one can know and find the truth. Siddhartha decided that both decadence and asceticism were unrealistic ways to the goal, and that the only way is one which is neither self-indulgent nor self-deprivating. This is The Middle Way of Buddhism.
At age 35, with his health restored and with full concentration of mind and body he became enlightened, and he, now called The Buddha (The Enlightened One), taught the way to enlightenment to others for the next forty-five years until his death at age 80.
Not too long ago we human species had still believed that by being able to think that we are greater than The Animal. By actually having the capacity to imagine a Human/Animal binary in itself had somehow made us mistakenly believe We greater than Them. Along the way, we have gradually come to realise we are but another animal and have also began to suspect that God may not exist at all.
All this is very well, of course. The Faithful find it incredulous that The Atheist believe they are crazy. But at the same time The Faithful will hold the exact same incredulous view of The Atheist. ‘Why would anyone want to believe they are godless animals’, The Faithful would ask.
I would go as far to say that not only are we Animal but that we are also Natural with full positive connotations. And I would also say that being able to imagine God, denounce Him, and to be able to hold on to a Us&Them viewpoint is completely natural. The Human Animal (or ‘Humanimal’) for being self-perceptivably so different to the other animals is really quite the improbability. Or perhaps eventually every life-system has its equivalent human species which goes through a patch of arrogance then humility to realise it is just another Natural Animal in exactly the same way we have.
So many things happened in 2017.
Probably the hardest year of my life. Health-wise was poor, for me and other family members. Work had been extremely busy and will continue to be so at least until the new academic year. My research, failing almost grinding to a halt.
On the upside the children are growing physically, mentally and spiritually. The next generation may well take over sooner than later.
But the world seems a place at crossroads. The Smart Age may not be as smart as its name suggests. I don’t believe the world will ever bring to an end the embodied qualities that all else need. Digital things maybe, but things they are. We must not forget that, for they will not let us forget. If the world is to be a better place than at present we must remind ourselves of values which have always informed us of who we are – physical beings in a physical world. Ideas and thoughts may seem infinite (for that is an illusion) but their consequences are always finite.
This year I will make sure I become the academic and father I had vowed to be. There is nothing to do but to show this by physical, tangible proof.