Where Zen Lives – Japan and Religion

I’ve never been a religious person.

I’ve always considered myself a spiritual person, but to me that’s a very important distinction.

Visiting Japan last year, I came more closely in touch with religion than I have ever before – from a positive point of view rather than a critical one. Internally I felt a shift as I absorbed the peace and calm of zen buddhism, which permeates the Japanese religious culture.

Before I go further, I must explain what our guide continued to reiterate over our seven days exploring Japan:

“Japanese people love religion” he’d say. “But we don’t ‘practice’ in a traditional sense. We are welcome and open to many expressions of religion. In Buddhist temples you see Shinto shrines, and in Shinto shrines you see Buddhist influences.”

“When we visit other countries,” he’d continue, “We visit religious institutions of that culture. It doesn’t matter where religion happens or how.”

I understood and appreciated all this from a philosophical and cultural perspective but still didn’t feel connected on a personal level.

Until we took a walk through one of Japan’s oldest Zen temples, Daisen-in, in Kyoto.

This traditional rock garden is set up to bring one through all the different stages of life. The gardens are designed to represent birth, life, and death, and as you walk through it becomes clear how cyclical life is and how many common experiences we all share.

What works for me about Zen practice is that it’s based on simple, pure, non idol or restriction-based ideals. The entire religion is based on finding inner peace without strict rules on the “right” kind of peace or the “right” way to find it. It appreciates the individuals path.

It’s about living in the moment. Appreciating the exact time, place, and feel of right now.

“We cannot change passing time. So all we can do is accept.”

– Kozo Yamamoto, G Adventures Guide – Japan

As a chronic over thinker, this is not something I excel at. I try to be spontaneous and carefree, but often anxiety or fear gets in the way. It’s inconvenient, annoying, and frustrating.

Upon returning home to San Francisco, I took myself to City Lights Bookstore in hopes of stoking my interest with some focused and explanatory reading material about Zen practice. Currently I’m reading “Turning the Mind into an Ally” by Sakyong Mipham. Stay tuned for my thoughts in a future post!

~ Keep Exploring, Historians


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