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Open Day at Three Wheels Temple & Zen Garden

Three Wheels

Today my husband and I attended an Open Day at Three Wheels Temple – a Buddhist temple in Acton, London. It’s a very interesting and unique place – while the temple itself is Shin Buddhist and run by (mainly Japanese) devotees of Shin Buddhism, it houses a Zen Buddhist garden that was commissioned by a non-Buddhist Englishman, Professor John White.

After taking part in a tea ceremony and hearing some of the temple’s history, we sat before the garden and held Professor White tell its story. Professor White takes pride in the fact that his garden does not conform exactly to Zen standards. Although he commissioned top professionals from Japan to build the garden, he made sure that he made some adjustments to fit his preferences. For one thing, the majority of the materials, from the wattle-and-daub viewing hut to the stones themselves, are all from the UK. In fact, the stones are all from a different UK country – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This, too, is not in line with traditional Zen garden principles, as the stones should all be the same type and colour. However, the stones in this garden are all different types, colours and textures. This reflects the principle of Three Wheels, which is “Diversity in Harmony.” I also think it is a wonderful reflection of the diversity of the UK, especially London.

Three Wheels is indeed a very meditative and welcoming place, and I do recommend those in the UK with an interest in Buddhism paying it a visit.


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Filed under Places, Shinto / Japanese Religion

A talk on Japanese Tree-Burials


Family paying respects at a Tree Burial “grave.” From Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death, by Sébastien Penmellen Boret (You can purchase this here: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415517065/)

This evening I attended a talk at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on Japanese Tree-Burials. This is new form of burial in Japan, and one that differs quite considerably from the traditional death rituals there. In a typical Buddhist death rites in Japan, the ashes of the dead are stored in a large family grave made from stone and stand among thousands of other such graves in a designated cemetery . But in the new rite of Tree-Burial, which was created by a Zen Buddhist monk, forests serve as cemeteries with each burial spot marked by a tree for each person’s ashes. The talk was given by Dr Sébastien Penmellen Boret, an anthropologist who has worked with communities involved in Tree-Burial, to launch his new book on the subject, Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death which can be purchased from Routledge here.

Dr Boret explained that part of the appeal of Tree-Burial is that it is eco-friendly. In purchasing a tree and space in the forest, families are supporting the maintenance of Japan’s woodlands and re-introducing species that have may have died out in the area. Another reason that Japanese may choose Tree-Burial over the traditional family grave is that, in having their ashes buried at the roots of a tree, it provides a sense of reincarnation and re-birth as the tree grows and continues to live. What’s very interesting is that at the Tree-Burial ground where Dr Boret was based, a communal memorial service would be held for all the departed resting there at O-bon (the Japanese festival of the dead) at which priests of Buddhism, Christianity and Shinto would all be present.

Picture 129

The forest-cemetery of Oku-no-in, Mt Koya

Although Tree-Burial is of Buddhist origins (like most of Japan’s funeral culture), one cannot deny that there is a very Shinto aspect to having one’s remains buried by a tree so one’s essence is somehow preserved in the tree, let alone the respect for nature that is embodied in the practice. But I actually think that this link between Buddhism and the nature-worshipping aspects of Shinto is not a new thing at all when it comes to funeral rites. One of my favourite places in Japan is Oku-no-in at Mt Koya, a mountain complex of temples of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Oku-no-in is a very sacred temple as it is the resting place of Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and it’s set in an immense forest filled with over 200,000 graves. It should be noted that Shingon is perhaps the Buddhist sect with the most links to Shinto – this excellent article on Green Shinto explains more.

The idea of using graves to conserve forests reminded me of another form preservation in Japan – that of kofun tombs. Kofun are megalithic, keyhole-shaped burial mounds that are scattered all over the country. They are of great historical and cultural significance, but they are threatened by the same thing that threatens the forests – development of the land and urbanisation.

To help protect the kofun tombs, one proposal has been to use them as modern cemeteries for the Japanese of today – in effect, putting them to the same use that they served hundreds of years ago. Not even the most ruthless development company really wants to incur the wrath of locals by desecrating their family graves, so putting graves on kofun helps to protect them from being demolished.

I find it very affirming indeed that the culture of death can be used to preserve our most precious treasures in life. As so many Pagans believe, it reinforces the idea of the cyclical nature of life and death, and shows us that even in grief, we can construct something positive for ourselves, society and nature.


Filed under Nature & Environment, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Japanese Treats from JP Books


This weekend I’ve been working at Language Show Live, a big language expo in London. My organisation is there to represent Japanese language, and we’re sharing our stand with JP Books – a London-based retailer of Japanese books and other items.

At the Language Show, myself and a colleague had to do a presentation about kami-shibai – a traditional method of Japanese story-telling with pictures. The morning before the presentation, I made some offerings and prayers to Inari-sama to ask her for her support. The presentation went well, so I think Inari-sama may have been listening!

I also took the opportunity to treat myself to some things from JP Books’ stand – namely, some Japanese incense and two miniature daruma dolls.

Japanese incense is a little different to the Indian variety that’s more familiar in the UK. For one thing, the sticks are pure incense – there’s no “core” in the middle that sticks out that you can insert easily into standard incense holders. This not only makes Japanese incense rather brittle, but also makes it a little harder to find a good place to burn it because it won’t fit most standard burners available in the UK. Fortunately, these ones I bought (from the brand Morning Star which is actually based in Hong Kong) come with their own tiny holder, so that’s not an issue. Japanese incense also tends to be shorter and have a shorter burning time than Indian incense.

However, what I do like about Japanese incense is that the fragrance is always very “clean” – there’s no underlying pesticides or anything else as far as I can tell, which always seems to be a problem with Indian incense. You can pretty much guarantee that Japanese incense is going to smell good and not be too overwhelmingly heady. I’ve bought Amber, Cedarwood, Lavendar and Fig scents, and so far I’ve really liked them.

Daruma dolls are a sort of cross between a toy and a good luck item in Japan. Based (bizarrely enough) on Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the daruma dolls are weighted so they always stand up again when knocked over, like a weeble toy. They’ve therefore come to represent resilience and determination. They are also used to make wishes. A newly purchased daruma will have two blank eyes; to make a wish, the owner draws a pupil in one eye. When the wish is granted (or a goal achieved), the owner draws a pupil in the other eye to thank the daruma. Traditionally, one buys a daruma on New Year’s Day, and then brings it back to the temple where it was bought the following New Year so it can be ritually cremated.

I actually several daruma dolls now (I don’t want to cremate them as they’re not easy to get outside Japan!), and I actually use my oldest one as a prop during presentations about Japanese. My husband and I plan to use the two new daruma dolls to make our own wishes at New Year, and no doubt I will be displaying my full daruma collection on my altar around Yule.

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Reflections on “Japanese Death Poems,” Yoel Hoffman

DeathPoemsAs Samhain approaches, now seemed like a good time to read and reflect upon this collection of Japanese “death poems,” compiled by Yoel Hoffman.

There’s a tradition among Zen Buddhist monks and poets in Japan to compose one final poem during their final hours of life –  a jisei, often translated into English as “death poem.” This poem functions as a kind of self-epitaph, a farewell to the world. In this book, Hoffman has collected jisei from Zen Buddhists and haiku poets from all over Japan and presented them, many for the first time, translated into English.

The book begins with an introduction not just to the concept of death poems, but also to the culture and customs surrounding death in Japan, in addition to Zen teachings and Japanese poetry in general. It’s a nicely-written introduction that serves as a good preface to the collection of poems, which is divided into two parts – jisei by Zen monks and jisei by haiku poets.

So what are jisei like? Actually, there is quite a difference between those written by the monks and those written by the poets. Let’s start with the monks first, with this example from Hosshin, who died in the 13th century:

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?

This abstract, enigmatic poem is typically Zen – questioning the nature of reality and existence itself. Many of the other poems by Zen monks are similarly cryptic and philosophical. Each one is like a miniature Zen teaching in itself.

To be honest, I preferred those written by the haiku poets, both for their beauty and their messages. As those familiar with haiku might expect, they are very short (three lines) yet rich in imagery and symbolism. Take this example by Baiko, who died in 1903 at the age of sixty:

Plum petals falling
I look up – the sky,
a clear crisp moon.

Although brief, this poem is full of meaning. Firstly, the “plum petals” allude to the season of early spring, and their “falling” represents both death and the transient nature of existence, a concept which is fundamental to Zen. Seeing the moon can represent enlightenment, and this is re-enforced by it being clear and crisp. From this beautiful, short message, we not only get a glimpse of the time and place where Baiko spent his last hours, but also his most innermost feelings. It sounds like he had made his peace with the world before leaving it. Don’t worry if you need some help with the symbolism with some of poems – many of them poems are given a short interpretation by Hoffman.

The above poem also demonstrates the combination of simplicity and philosophical contemplation with deep appreciation of the natural world – two very common features of the haiku form of jisei. I like to think of this almost as a fusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy with Shinto nature-worship.

Baiko’s poem also contains the quiet sense of calm, dignity and gratitude for life that permeates many of the other poems in this collection. I felt quite inspired to read such beautiful and profound poems written by elderly people at the end of their lives – not only do they give a unique account from elderly people experiencing something so personal and private yet common to us all, but I also find them comforting and positive in the face of a natural phenomenon that many of us find frightening. Some of the poems even have a bit of humour in them too:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak
(Moriya Senan, died 1838)

While I think this is a wonderful collection, with good accompanying text and translations that capture the beauty and nuance of the original poems very well, there was one thing I found to be a major disappointment. That was the complete absence of the poems written in their original Japanese characters. The haiku poets’ jisei are only accompanied by romanised Japanese, while the Zen poems don’t even have this, giving us only the English translation to read. Considering that in Japanese, the characters used brings an added dimension to the meaning of text and contributes immensely to both the aesthetics and semantics of poetry, it is a massive shame that there were no Japanese characters included at all. I even think this is true of the poems originally only written in hiragana syllabary – while one might argue that the romanised version suffices as it conveys no more additional meaning than hiragana sounds, I believe that romanised Japanese looks rather awkward, ugly and stark. In putting the poems into romanised Japanese without any Japanese characters at all, the original looses much of its beauty and fluidity. Even though the work is written in English, its rather niche subject means that many students of the Japanese language would be among the target audience, so leaving out the Japanese characters entirely seems a very odd decision. Most peculiar of all, Hoffman did decide to put the poets’ names in their original characters! I am very surprised and bewildered that he prioritised the characters for the poets’ names over the actual poems themselves.

Japanese Death Poems is beautiful, poignant and very unique – a very welcome addition to my collection of books on Japanese spirituality. I would recommend it not only to those with an interest in Japanese philosophy and poetry, but also those who want to deepen their understanding of the nature of life and death – especially those who find it difficult or distressing to come to terms with this sensitive subject.


Filed under Art & Expression, Reviews, Shinto / Japanese Religion