Yesterday on the last day of the WFB meeting we processed from the hotel to Sensoji Temple where a service for world peace was held. Along the way we had a photoshoot and a mass tea ceremony. The procession took us on a winding route through the middle of the shopping alleyways that surround the temple that are packed with passers-by. The whole morning was a noisy, jostling, good humoured affair. Some people chanted, others chatted. When we finally got to the main hall of Sensoji we were shepherded into the shrine area for a solemn ceremony conducted by the abbot, a man in his mid-seventies decked in brocade robes. Although the ceremony itself was dignified, we were only separated from the hubbub of the temple foyer by a mesh screen and the clatter of falling coins mixed with the voices of the crowds of visitors and tourists and the smell of incense smoke blowing in from outside. Sometimes it was a bit difficult to hear the chanting of the monks or the addresses given by the abbot and other dignitaries.::link to Friends of Amida: do join and comment
Sensoji was burnt down (I presume in WWII) and was rebuilt fifty years ago, though you would not know from the look of it that it was not five hundred years old. This ceremony was part of the fifty year anniversary celebrations as well as being a good opportunity for Buddhists from all over the world attending WBF to perform an act of worship together.
For me, this was the high spot of the conference, but for a number of my Western friends it was bewildering and off-putting. "We didn't do any meditation," "We're so lucky to have a proper contemplative tradition in America," and so on. Somebody asked me what my practice was like and I said that it was much like what they had just experienced in the temple and the response was, "Oh, you don't look like that kind of person, you seem quite a nice guy."
So what is Buddhism all about? Is it contemplation on a mountain to perfect one's personal mind, or is it gathering in the midst of the people to invoke the Buddhas' help and vow to be part of the emergence of world peace? Is it silence and reflection or is it invocation, adoration and resolution? "So if you practise like that, how does it work?" I get asked. What we have just experienced is marked by discipline, faith and devotion in the midst of ordinariness - what more do you need to create a Dharma community, a good work team, a better society? I am touched that my new friend suddenly shows a new recognition.
It is clear to me that there are a number of pre-judgements operating in the Western Buddhist mind that tend to exclude all that is best in the spirit of Japanese Buddhism as actually practised. For the Westerner who thinks that Buddhism equals meditation it comes as a shock to discover that even Zen temples in Japan rarely have a zazen schedule and other schools would put meditation practice, if they do it at all which most don't, either in the same sort of category as flower arranging and other cultural arts, or in a niche reserved for a very small elite of hermits. Japanese Buddhism is a social affair, with much 'bells and smells' liturgy, in which simplicity of faith, everyday kindness and acknowlegement of one's own ordinariness are the central values.
There is room for both and what has been accomplished in the establishment of Buddhism in the West with its secularised style, intensive meditation retreats, sophisticated intellectual study and creation of havens from the worldly world is already remarkable and admirable. It would be a pity, however, if this blinds us to the equally important values enshrined in the Japanese way where religion is more fun, more noisey, more social. When Westerners reject elaborate ceremony, I suspect it has far more to do with anachronistic worries rooted in fears of 'papism' and other old boggies than any balanced appraisal of intrinsic merit. Japan has had its own historical troubles and they have come out in a completely different mix. Clearly I am a minority, but it has taken me quite a journey to get to this point and I hope not to remain alone in my now much enhanced appreciation of this joyous, cacophanous, emotional dimension of the faith.
I hope that, in Amida-shu, we can get the best of both worlds - or at least a reasonable middle ground, one that does have a place for both the contemplative and the public dimension, is not puritanical and does have the capacity to be a faith for everybody. We're working on it. For this week, however, it has been a delight to sit at the back of the congregation crushed into Sensoji, chatting to my neighbour on the bench, listening to priests chanting delicate invocations of Quan Yin, joining them in thumping out the Heart Sutra, straining to hear the short sermons (and not succeeding), and enjoying the colour and the smell of it all.
Namo Amida Bu.