tokyo status report

Hi all.

So I only just today discovered where I can connect to the internet and it’s at (shudder) Starbucks. Despite the locale, here are a couple of things I’ve written this week when I’ve had the time. Needless to say, I think it’s a wonderful thing that I haven’t had time to write because I’ve been so busy having a wonderful time!


and pictures are coming!

It’s about 12:30 in the morning right now. Saturday, I believe. As of yet, I haven’t found a place to conect to the internet, though there is a Starbucks around the corner which holds promise (apart from the fact that it’s a Starbucks). In the mean time, I feel the need to get some thoughts out about Tokyo now that I’ve been here for more than a day, some thoughts that I’ll post as soon as I’m able.

But please keep in mind that as I write this, it’s past midnight and I’ve been out drinking with some ministers and Jodo Shinshu teachers who can hold their liquour and still manage to sing Beatles songs at karaoke. So it might not be that coherent.

First off, the experience of flying into Tokyo.

I’ll skip the annectdotes of babies on airplanes and skip to the experience of seeing Japan for the first time. After ten hours of flying over the Pacific, an unchanging seascape of blue, Japan appears suddenly, vast, and green. A lot more green than I’d expected. Even though I knew that Narita Airport, the main international hub in Japan, is some seventy kilometers outside of Tokyo, I expected it to be part of an urban sprawl. But, in contrast, Japan appeared expansive and green. It seemed to be, from some 2000 feet up, little more than rice paddies and golf courses. And I have to say that rice paddies are something esqusitte from that altitude and that golf courses look like inviting parks.

I had run into a fellow grad student from Berkeley, Daniel, back in SFO who was on the same flight as I, and since he’d been to Japan before, he helped me navigate my way through the airport and on to a train into Tokyo proper. I must say, though, that I am in love with mass transit here. I feel infitiely sad for all foriegn visitors to the US. In Tokyo, train station signs are written in Japanese kanji, kana, and romanji which makes navigation a breeze for even us foolish gaijin who are lost without a basic understanding of the Japanese language. I think about BART back in San Francisco and wonder how anyone who isn’t a native English speaker is able to find his or her away around the system.

Sunday, 9/11, 7 p.m.
The Conference Proper.

So, the 12th Biennial Meeting of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies was, by all accounts, a rousing success. Despite the fact that it was held at a rather inconvenient time for a lot of folks (several of whom are right now headed back to their home institutions because they have to teach in the morning), and despite the fact that it was held in a very expensive city during it’s hottest month, more folks showed up this year than they have in a very long time.

What’s more, there’s been something of a changing of the guard. The old President and Vice President both stepped down. And while I am in no position to speak ill of these two esteemed gentlemen, the new president is a man whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times in the past, who is several decades younger, has connection on both sides of the Pacific, and whose politics I agree with wholeheartedly. I have no doubt that he’ll lead the organization into new and fruitful directions. This, coupled with the new head bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America back home, make this a particularly exciting time to be a young and up-and-coming Shin Buddhist.

My presentation was… well I don’t feel it went off as well as I’d hoped. But presenting papers at academic conferences is such an artificial enterprise. I am much more comfortable in front of a classroom letting my thoughts come out organically. And being hung over did not help in the slightest. But the monshu was in attendance and judging from his several nods during my talk (and his subtle head shaking when one person questioned me afterwards), I’m going to assume that he appreciated what he was hearing.

Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot! I met the monshu, Ohtani Koshin. For those of you who don’t know what the hell that means, the Buddhist Churches of America, the Jodo Shinshu school to which I belong in the States, was founded (and to a large extent is still under the auspices of) the Nishi Hongwanji-ha sect of Shinshu back in Japan, headquartered in Kyoto. The main abbot of the Hongwanji is called the monshu and he is, by all accounts, the head guy. The top of the pecking order. If we had anything in our school akin to the Dalai Lama, the monshu would be it. (Not that, politically or organizationally, that means anything. He has about as much authority as the Emperor of Japan. While, technically, he could step in and make radical changes to belief or practices or institutional structure, there is such a complex of authority around and under him that his actual authority is pretty truncated.) His appearance at the conference was totally unexpected and, the Japanese being who they are, were incredibly reverential and grateful for his attendance. At the little welcoming social at the end of the first day, he gave a brief speech and kampai. Afterwards, while everyone was mingling, my friend and former teacher Kanjo said, “You want to meet the monshu?”

So we did.

I don’t think Kanjo’s ever met the man. Apart from when he was ordained himself. Kanjo’s a temple minister in Toyama, and we met when I first started graduate school. My affiliation with Jodo Shinshu is really all his doing. And one of the things I love deeply about Kanjo is his ability to be thoroughly Japanese while seeing how absurd some Japanese customs are. Like worrying about whether or not it’s acceptable to introduce yourself to the head of your religious order.

So Kanjo took me and our friend Harry (who was also in grad school with us) as well as Daniel and Wendy (a professor from Wales) over to the monshu who seemed happy at being the center of attention but a little tired, too, from having to make small talk with so many total strangers. (He also looked rather red in the face, tell-tale sign that he’d probably had one too many glasses of beer.) Kanjo explained who we all were and what our projects where on and we took a couple of pictures and we on our way.

Now that it’s over, and now that my friends have all left and I’ve two two and half more days in Tokyo on my own, I feel the need to reflect some on what I’ve learned and experienced. But I think I’ll leave off on that for now. After all, I think I want to let the whole experience sink in and do the serious reflection when all is said and done. It feels like an ending today, but I’ve still got a couple more days to go.

I will say this though: it’s always refreshing being surrounded by Buddhist. I often feel very isolated in my day-to-day life back home because I have a rich circle of friends and a job — none of which have anything to do with the study (academically or personally) of Shin Buddhism. And I really don’t go to to temple or hang around the Buddhists in my department as often as I should. So being here, overwhelmed by them, feels like home.

It’s also making certain things clear in my mind about the process of becoming a minister, not to mention my intentions for wanting to go down that path. I spoke with Harry today (at a Denny’s in Akihabara of all places!) about that and while, on the one hand, the irrational and often absurd institutional rules surrounding it all seem daunting and disheartening. On the other, it makes me realize why older members are so excited when younger people express interest in being ministers — there’s just not that many of us. And I’m sure that if I were in the position of minister I could effect some positive change not only in the lives of other, ordinary people, but institutionally. Which may be overly idealistic and naive, but am I really too old and jaded to being idealistic now and then?

So I’ll leave off for now. For now, I’ll plan the rest of my stay. And get ready to find the Daibutsu in Kamakura.