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Contemplating perfection

Dave Broom goes in search of his inner whisky self
By Dave Broom
The first bells woke me at 5am, a smell of incense in the air and the crunch of wooden sandals on the gravel. A bird starts singing, sounding like wet rope being twisted round wood. I get up. Little sense in lying on the mat when there’s a world out there – and it’s not every day that I spend time in a Zen temple. Find a bench outside the temple and catch up on the previous night’s happenings. Black-shirted runners batter over the cobbles, doing their laps, going ever faster in circles. The vice-abbot appears and begins to hose the garden. As the water hits the summer ground a sudden smell of pine. The zazen session isn’t until 9am, so I grab a bike and go exploring.

The Myoshin-ji temple complex is, amazingly, truely one of Kyoto’s hidden treasures. While tourists head to Ryoan-ji’s ju famous garden, fewer make the trek to the north west of the city to this ‘area’ of 46 tatchu surrounding the main temple – home to the Myoshin-ji school of Rinzai Zen and the largest such complex in Japan.

The complex was founded in 1337 by Emperor Hanazono who converted his Imperial villa into a temple and its size has fluctuated over the centuries in parallel with the changing fortunes of Buddhism. The temple where I’m staying, Shunko-in, was established in 1590, but the current buildings dates from a reconstruction in the 18th century.

My cycling route is totally random taking me over cobbles past a maze of white-walled temples, the main buildings offset, glimpses of gardens, azaleas in bloom, some open to the public, others cloistered from public gaze. Schoolkids meander across the flagstones on their way to classes. You can easily get blasé about seeing another temple in Kyoto, it has more temples and shrines that it has convenience stores after all, but Myoshin-ji has a hypnotic effect.

On returning, the vice-abbot, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the fourth generation of his family to minister here, fills in more of the details.

“After the 16th century, different feudal lords start to donate money to the temples here, at one point there were 150 on this complex.

“When the Shogun period went, so did the finance so the system had to change. The same happened post-War when temples could no longer support themselves.” The result is that many of those which survived opened their doors to the public, though he is quick to emphasise that Shunko-in is not a ‘tourist temple’.

“My purpose here is to show an actual priest’s lifestyle. When people think about Buddhist temples, they think about monasteries, like ones in Thailand. But, most Japanese temples are managed by priests’ families. Also, in Japan, we do not have a church tax, like in Germany. So, the temples have to engage into the some economic activities. Also, Buddhism is not about having special life style. What I want to teach here is that Buddhist practice is in our life’s activities. This is a temple for people who want to come and learn to sit zazen.”

It is a pragmatic solution to the issue of funding which he defines as “getting back to basics... and Zen’s idea is getting back to basics.” These days he runs twice daily zazen sessions while there are also links with university programmes and occasional extended sesshin retreats on offer. The accommodation opened in 2007.

It is time to sit. We go to the meditation hall, which opens onto the rock garden and he gently talks through the principles. “By the 5th century in China, Chan Buddhism was concerned more with study rather than practise. In Zen we study texts, but we can only learn through experience. Sitting is empirical study.

“Meditation is like immersing yourself in a bath which is both being constantly filled and constantly empyting. It trains you to live in the now, because by the time you have read this that ‘now’ has gone and is in the past, so by living in the now you create a perfect past.” We sit, counting the breath, letting thoughts rise and float away.

There is no issue with opening to the public just as there is no concern with the temple having 18th century Kano School Confucian screens, or being the repository for a bell from a 16th century Jesuit mission which was hidden by the monks in Shunko-in during the long periods when Christianity was banned. It was here where DT Suzuki and Dr Hoseki Hisamatsu discussed ways of bring Buddhism to the West. Little surprise then that this openness also manifests itself by the bedrooms having wi-fi connection. Zen is all embracing and lives in the modern world, yet it should be respected.

“For the modernisation of Kyoto, we need to have stricter zoning laws,” says Rev Kawakami. “We should create historical reservation areas and new developing areas. Of course, we need to protect historical buildings, like temples or shrines, but we also need to protect the neighborhood of those buildings as well. We can have new buildings around the historical buildings, but those new buildings need to have traditional exteriors.”

Before staying at the temple I’d been idly thinking of using whisky as a metaphor for Zen, maybe distillation as concentration, or the purification of the spirit as being like that of the mind; or perhaps how the cloudiness of wash is transformed by a process of purification and concentration into something clean and infinitely more powerful – like the mind. It all sounded pretty good, until I really thought about it at Sunko-in and realised that it’s all crap. Whisky is whisky. As the American Zen poet Jim Harrrison wrote: “the bird that passes across the window is a reminder of the shortness of life, but it’s mostly a bird flying past the window.”

As if to drum it home, after the session while reading a book of teachings by Nyogen Sakaki this passage leapt out at me: “If I serve you a cup of tea and say this is a symbol of Zen none of you will enjoy such a lukewarm beverage. Why? Because the sipping is the appreciation and the appreciation is the sipping. Zen never says “try this this and you will be enlightened. It only demands the action which is enlightenment itself.”

Meditating on ‘whisky’ does however bring a greater understanding of the interdependent nature of the whisky-making process, not just the physical creation of the drink, but the wider world which brings in the present (the liquid in the glass) and the past (where it has been from its birth until its pouring); it brings in the place where it was born, the environment of that place, the people involved in its creation. With one sip you are entering into this web of linked happenings. The aroma and taste is in itself a complex weaving together of molecules acting in accord with each other. Nothing in that glass, and by extension anywhere, exists in isolation.

I ask Rev Kawakami about zazen and creativity. “Zen is not about the creative process,” he answers. “Zen is considered as a lessness meditation You eliminate extra thought. During the meditation, you focus on your breath and learn how to ‘be in the moment’.” In retrospect I see that my question was clumsily phrased. I didn’t mean is Zen like a magic pill, but whether an understanding of being in the moment might result in a new way of living which in turn may effect the creative process.

“Meditation is not just a rest or a retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream,” wrote American poet, Gary Snyder.

As Rev. Kawakami said to me, whisky isn’t really compatible with Zen, this is about keeping the mind clear after all. Neither is it an aid to creativity. How many times have we all had that moment of realisation after the fifth dram when the cure to the problems of the world appears with astonishing clarity. We write the answer down, but when we discover the paper the next morning we can’t read our own writing.

And yet, if tasting is simultaneously analytical and creative then to do it successfully you need an open mind. Understanding aroma is a matter of being actively engaged with the world. The aroma of a complex whisky can help with that engagement. That engagement, being aware of the complexities of smells which always swirl around you, helps with the whisky.

Whisky isn’t Zen. You won’t become enlightened by drinking. It’s not a metaphor for anything, but maybe meditation and the zenkan state can help you see and taste better, to see the interdependent nature of the liquid in the glass and therefore of life itself.

I leave relaxed, open yet full of more questions. “I look forward to seeing you soon,” says Rev. Kawakami. I feel he knows he will.