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My Moment of Zen (with a Zen Master)

Written by Jeff Drake
11 · 29 · 18

During our tour of Japan we got to meet with two different Buddhist monks, each representing different branches of Buddhism within Japan. These meetings were interesting on several different levels. I studied Eastern philosophies and religions a lot when I was in college and afterwards, as well.

The two major religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto is very much alive in Japan today and you will find Shinto shrines all over the place. Some are very old, while others are more recent and used frequently by the Japanese. Shintoism is the traditional religion of Japan, more or less home-grown, and the first written references to Shinto were written in the 8th century. Shintoism emphasizes the use of rituals which are used to establish a connection between present day Japan and its historical past. Most Shinto shrines we saw during our trip had burning incense sticks, food and Saki offerings.

According to Wiki, while nearly 80% of Japanese participate in Shinto rituals, only a small percentage actually identify themselves as Shintoists in any survey. In this sense, I was reminded of other religions, for example Judaism, where one can be born in Israel, be a declared atheist, but still participate in Jewish rituals during holidays, not eating pork, etc. This is because certain rituals and practices have been cemented in Jewish culture and are more of a social norm than a declaration of belief.

Today in Japan, Shinto rituals and practices are very much alive and practiced by many. For example, when we visited the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, we saw a number of Japanese families dressed in traditional kimonos with their children in tow (see photos below). They were celebrating a Shinto festival called, 7-5-3 Day. This is a traditional rite of passage for 3 and 7-year old girls and 5-year old boys. The kids were incredibly cute!


Buddhism, on the other hand, is an imported religion for Japan. Originating in India, the Buddhist faith spread first to China, then Korea, before finally showing up officially in Japan (from Korea) in the 6th century. There is an ancient story that visiting Korean Buddhist monks (evangelists of sorts) carried with them a tooth belonging to the Buddha. Some bastard then tried to destroy the relic by smashing it with a hammer. Instead of crushing the tooth, the hammer and anvil were both destroyed and the tooth remained untouched. It’s a miracle! This sacred relic is supposedly interned under a pillar in Asuka-dera, a temple in Nara.

There are many different factions of Buddhism today in Japan: Six Nara schools, two esoteric schools, 4 “Pure Land” schools, and 4 Zen schools. It was kind of humorous to hear our guide, Hiroshi, refer to these different factions innocently as “cults”, a term that is rather loaded in the USA, although I think he’s absolutely right to use that descriptor.

One result of all these different sects of Buddhism is that they all vary from original Indian Buddhism, which isn’t unexpected given the long journey it had before reaching the shores of Japan. Buddhism, of course, didn’t start as a religion. It was at first a philosophy and only later, after about 100 years after the death of its founder, did it get turned into what we would recognize today as a religion (interestingly, Chinese Taoism did the same in the same amount of time and arguably, so did Christianity).

Seeing what it has become today, I can’t help but think that Buddha must be spinning in his grave. Based on our question and answer session with the first Buddhist monk we visited (not the Zen monk), I found it somewhat difficult to recognize the Buddhism that he told us his sect was practicing (sorry, forgot the name).

Our guide instructed us that we were supposed to ask him questions about his daily life and some of us did just that, but others asked about what his version of Buddhism believed. I found this interesting, because his responses verified what I was expecting to hear. For example, virtually all forms of Buddhism are aimed at achieving something called, “enlightenment”. But they differ from Zen Buddhism in that, shall we say, the general practitioner of Buddhism is focused on his or her own enlightenment. This has been a complaint about Buddhism (and Taoism), that it is all about “me,” e.g., my enlightenment, my navel, etc. And this is exactly what he told us his sect is all about. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, is also focused on personal enlightenment, but it includes an emphasis on helping others achieve their own enlightenment!

I didn’t have any questions for this monk as I was more interested in questioning the Zen monk, but others asked him the typical stuff, for example, “Do you believe in life after death?” While it’s a common misconception by Westerners to believe that all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, not all do. Yet this monk’s answer was so non-committal it was surprising. He essentially told us that the jury is still out on life after death. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. There were other things he said, which I can’t recall specifically now, but I was left with the feeling that this form of Buddhism was somewhat Westernized and watered down. One thing I now recall is that he celebrates Christmas. LOL! Granted, he doesn’t celebrate the religious beliefs around Christmas, so it’s more about the holiday. I left there with the feeling that his Buddhist sect has gone out of its way to make its beliefs palatable to a wide audience in hopes of growing the fold, so to speak. Needless to say, there’s a lot of Buddhist competition.

Later in our tour we got to visit a Zen monk. Getting to this guy was actually fun. We had to take a boat ride on a river (see photo – no oars, they used poles instead).

We then climbed 200+ steps up the mountain (see photo below) to the house where we would meet our Zen master.

Viewed from afar (see photos below), the Zen temple looked like a scene out of “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”


I had been mulling over the upcoming Q&A session we were going to have with the Zen monk for a while. After all, how often do I get to meet a Zen master? For me, this was a unique opportunity as I have been doing a lot of reading recently about physics, especially books having to do with the physics of time, as this is a hot issue within theoretical physics these days e.g., “Is time real? Why does time only flow in one direction? Does time really pass? Etc. In fact, there is a project underway as I write this involving some top theoretical physicists and Zen monks, specifically investigating the concept of time and the rather amazing similarities between traditional Zen Buddhism and some of the most advanced scientific theories about time. Knowing this, I did not want to waste this opportunity, so I finally settled on the question I was going to ask.

As we sat at our tables before the Zen master, several comments were made about the fact that he was wearing what looked to be a Fitbit on his wrist. LOL! I think it was a watch, but the comments were funny. The group then paused for a moment when our guide, Hiroshi, told us to ask our questions, so I decided to lob the first question at him. I’m not sure what he was expecting to be asked. I’m guessing that most tourists ask him about what his daily life is like as a Zen monk, what he likes to eat, what does he do for fun, etc. Judging from the look he gave me when I asked him my question, I think I took him by surprise when I asked him the following (Hiroshi interpreted for me): “Most people in the world today believe that time flows like a river; from past, to present, to future. Do you believe that time passes, that time flows like a river?” LOL!

Of course, I asked him this question already knowing something about Zen Buddhism and also knowing about the current collaborative project between Western scientists and Zen monks, so I was really expecting to hear a specific answer and sure enough, he answered closely to what I was expecting to hear, or words to that effect, although I suspect something was lost in the translation. Essentially, he emphasized that humans should not worry so much about the past and future, and instead focus on the here and now. So, I was satisfied with this answer. Zen is all about the “now”, living “in the moment”. For example, here is a quote from an ancient Zen master (Ch’an Master Hui-neng): “In this moment there is nothing that comes to be. In this moment there is nothing that ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Thus the absolute peace in this present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein lies eternal delight.” It was a treat to be able to ask a Zen master this question! His answer made me feel that at least the Japanese Zen sects maybe haven’t veered too far from the original teachings.

However, when someone else in our group asked him the typical question: “Do you believe in life after death?” (an implied reincarnation question), I thought his answer was somewhat vague and evasive., because I know what the traditional Zen answer would be something along the lines of: “No, I don’t. Why would I?” yet this monk seemed to be saying, “Maybe there is, or maybe there isn’t.” Hearing him thus, I thought of a story I remember about the founder of Zen Buddhism, a man named Dogi. In this story (I’m paraphrasing here, it’s been a lot of years), Dogi is asked whether there is life after death, about reincarnation. In response he picked up a stick and said, “When the stick burns and turns to ash, it never becomes a stick again.” So, it would appear that even Zen Buddhism has morphed into something other than the traditional version.

All in all, it was a lot of fun to go there and ask my question. This day ended with us going back to our hotel and me finding a Scientific American article in my email inbox, from “Flipboard,” a news app I use. The article was titled, “Do We Actually Experience the Flow of Time”. LOL! I kid you not!

I guess it was just meant to be. ?

[BTW, the article was fascinating! I’ll write a blurb about it soon.]

Let us know what you think…



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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.