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

Emotions Running High – Visiting Hiroshima, Japan

I recently returned from a visit to Japan on a wonderful guided tour with G Adventures. Upon returning home, everyone has asked me my favorite part of the trip. Normally I need a bit of time after I travel to truly asses what my favorite aspect has been.

However this time, almost without hesitation, I’ve answered “visiting the site of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.”

This has been met with some surprise.

Obviously there were many, many incredible experiences. I chanted with Buddhist monks at a Monestary in Koyasan, walked through a beautiful traditional Zen temple, and saw the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, who is believed to have been mediating since the year 806.

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But the most intense experience was definitely the privilege and opportunity to pay my respects at Hiroshima. To acknowledge the tremendous and horrific loss of innocent lives at the hand of my country. To not look away from the gruesome photographs and exhibits in the museum. To bow my head over the river where thousands flung themselves, in effort to stop the burns and pain, and drowned.

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At risk of turning this post overtly political, in one week the United States will elect our next president. One of our candidates is overly enthusiastic about the idea of nuclear weapons. And I can’t help but feel if he were to take one look at the images of tattered clothes, faces blown off, radiation burns, and read the stories of side effects permeating entire generations, and take a moment to quietly sit among the spirits of so many horrifically lost lives — he might rethink his trigger happy ideals.

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At Hiroshima, I witnessed an elderly white gentleman humbly purchase a small paper peace crane from an elderly Japanese man. It was a powerful moment and one I’ll never forget. I watched the acts of war be silently forgiven as they quietly made the exchange.

Visiting Japan was special for so many reasons. But for me, the emotional walk through Hiroshima Peace Park will remain front of mind for a long time.

 

 

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~ Keep Exploring, Historians

Finishing the Hat – My Encounter With George Seurat

This weekend while on a trip to Chicago, I ventured into the Art Institute. Wandering through, finding my museum pace, drinking in all the incredible works, listening to their stories and backgrounds through my handheld “I’m a tourist” device, and fully entering the zone when suddenly Sunday in the Park by George Seurat appeared before me.

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Seurat’s magnificent piece was a groundbreaking moment in pointillism, but I and many others know it from another groundbreaking work: Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The musical, starring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in the original cast, tells of the paintings creation – while simultaneously offering a discourse on the act of creation itself. Creativity and the pressure to “come up with something new” are major themes throughout.

Seeing the original work in the flesh, so to speak, was unexpectedly moving. The musical touched me deeply and I had the image of Sunday in the Park as my computer desktop for years. It serves as a reminder of the importance of finishing creative works. As a classic INFP, I have a lot of creative ideas but barely finish anything; or my perfectionism gets in the way and I produce but never publish.

Sondheim’s George Seurat feels his artistic vision is compromised by its presentation to the public  – if it simply stays in a state of incompletion is can remain his – away from critics prying eyes. By Finishing the Hat he thereby exposes himself to others opinions, but also to their praise.

Keeping your work to yourself is perfectly valid, but only if it’s for the right reasons. And it’s important to make a choice though the choice may be mistaken, the choosing was not,” as Bernadette’s “Dot” character (get it? Dot? Point? Pointillism? Genius) gently reminds him.

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The experience of finally meeting the real Seurat was profound – as the musical and reality collided to become one in my brain. What a moment!*

~ Keep Exploring Historians!

*(And for my really nerdy Sondheim friends, yes that is an Into the Woods reference).

Where Shall We Explore Today?

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We hold the key

Welcome to the Exploring Historian! I’m so glad you’ve found your way here. I’m Samantha and this is my journey to explore the world through travel, art, and history – three pillars that I hope will bring us on an enlightening and enjoyable journey.

On this blog you will find many different things, but ultimately it’s a place where exploration & discovery reign.

Join the journey!