Tag Archives: Zen

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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Tokonoma – Japan’s “secular altars”


“Kannonin Tottori16s4470” by 663highland – 663highland. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg#/media/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg

There are generally considered to be two main types of household altar in Japan. One is the kamidana, a Shinto altar that enables communion with kami. The other is the butsudan, a Buddhist altar that is used to honour the Buddha as well as deceased relatives. Out of the two, the butsudan would seem to be the most common in Japanese homes.

There is a third type of feature that can be found in Japanese homes, tea houses, traditional inns and restaurants that could also be considered a kind of altar. [Read more]

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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

Reflections on “A Tale for the Time Being,” Ruth Ozeki

TalefortheTimeI bought this for 30p in a charity shop simply to read for enjoyment – it features Japan after all and written by a half-Japanese author, so I thought I’d probably find it interesting! I had no idea what it was actually about except that the premise is a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a diary that may have been washed away from the Fukushima tsunami all the way to Canada. I never thought it would inform my spiritual path in any way.

But in fact, Japanese spirituality, in particular Zen Buddhism, is a central theme to this book – perhaps not so surprising when you consider that Ozeki is herself an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Since I haven’t reviewed any fiction on Japanese spirituality yet, I thought now would be a good opportunity.

This is a deep and complex novel with lots of sub-plots and diversions, but there are two main stories.  Firstly there is that of Nao, a teenager writing an account of her life while sitting in a maid cafe in Tokyo. She’s been raised in America and since having to return to Japan due to her father losing his Silicon Valley job, her life is going from bad to worse. She is bullied relentless at school, is homesick for her former life in America, struggles with Japanese language and culture, and on top of all this, both her parents are struggling with mental problems. Her only real comfort is Jiko, her great-grandmother who lives in a Zen temple in Sendai and is Nao’s source of wisdom and hope.

The other story is that of the author herself, Ruth, who discovers Nao’s account and is slowly reading and sharing it with her partner and others around her. Piece by piece, she discovers that the mysteries in Nao’s writing grow deeper and deeper the more she reads. The narrative jumps between Nao’s story and Ruth’s in real-time as she reads at the same pace that we the readers do.

In all honesty, Nao’s story would have been worth reading even without the added dimension of Ruth’s narrative. Nao’s tale is emotional, harrowing, and brutal – yet it remains gripping. This is largely due to Nao herself, who is such an honest and determined character that you can’t help but like her, even when she does things that are rather despicable in order to feel better about herself. She is funny and vulnerable and very real, while her story (which involves lots of subplots and delving into her family’s past) is compelling in itself. In contrast, Ruth’s story is somewhat bland. Unusually considering that the author is using herself as a character and elements of her real life in the story, Ozeki writes Ruth’s account in the third person (while Nao’s account is written in the first person). This may seem gimmicky at first, but the possible reasons for this, and indeed the reason why Ruth is even a part of this story, gradually grow apparent.

For this is a book with layers and layers of connecting themes, one of the most important ones, as you can guess from the title, being time. Both Nao and Ruth find themselves contemplating the nature of time continuously, and emphasise the importance of “now,” the time being (hence Nao’s name, a common one in Japan which is pronounced “now”). This in turn leads the narrators to explore the repetitive nature of history, quantum physics, and religion.

Those interested in Japanese spirituality will also get plenty of insight into the more practical aspects of Zen Buddhism. Ozeki includes detailed descriptions of zazen meditation, the way of life at a Zen temple, and an account of a Japanese funeral. But the most valuable aspects of this book as a source of information on Japanese religions are its commentaries on their philosophies. Many of the teachings in Zen Buddhism and Daoism are referenced in A Tale for the Time Being‘s ongoing discussion on the nature of time, and in particular the range of possibilities that each moment in time gives the individual. While I don’t think anyone could accuse this book of proselytising, I have no doubts that Ozeki, as a Buddhist priest, has written this book as a celebration of Buddhist teachings and perhaps to gently encourage the reader to take an interest in this path (it worked for me!).

In case you were wondering, Shinto is absent from this book. Which does make sense in context. Shinto is less about philosophising and more about ritual and action. It also has much less to say about death than Buddhism – and death is a key theme in this novel.

At the centre of the book’s spiritual aspect is great-grandmother Jiko, who is such an important and interesting character that she deserves a proper mention. Jiko is very much the key behind many of the story’s mysteries, the link between Nao’s past and her present predicament and ultimately driving force behind the characters’ destinies. She is such a key figure that she even appears to Ruth in a kind of vision or dream. She may even be a metaphor for time itself, a sort of “Grandmother Time” – I’m pretty certain that Ozeki took her name, one that I’ve never heard of in Japan, from the Japanese word “jikoku,” meaning “time” (the word jiko itself also means “accident” – I don’t know whether or not this is a coincidence). There’s a beautiful moment in Nao’s story in which she describes watching Jiko take a bath, and says that her naked body simultaneously reflects all stages of womanhood – the child, the seductive woman and the old crone. Not only did my Pagan heart leap at the interesting parallel here with the Triple Goddess, but also because this description seems to support the idea that Jiko is a symbol for time – a real “time-being,” if you will.

As deep, rewarding and gripping as this book is, it isn’t without a few issues. Firstly, there are points in both Nao’s and Ruth’s narratives that stray very much into the fantastic, which is slightly at odds with the otherwise very realistic portrayals of both characters’ lives. Considering that the very nature of reality, as opposed to fiction, is one of the key issues questioned in this novel, I suppose it makes sense that at times some rather unbelievable things happen (after all, what is real and what is not in the story is never made fully clear). But sometimes it would get confusing. At one point, Nao’s class decide to hold a mock funeral for her, which Nao herself watches on the internet. Even considering that Nao is a continuous victim of bullying by her class (including her teacher), this part doesn’t quite ring true – she describes that her classmates genuinely appear to be grieving for her. I thought it would turn out to be a twist, and that Nao would be dead all along – but if we read the narrative at face-value, it would appear that it really was just a staged funeral after all, held simply to bully Nao. This may be a clue to suggest that Nao’s ultimate destiny is up to reader interpretation, but it still seemed rather strange considering that the other things that happen to Nao seem firmly grounded in reality. It did leave me rather puzzled.

Another very minor point is that at times, Ozeki’s Japanese is a little dubious (Japanese is not Ozeki’s first language). Some of the Japanese and kanji used occasionally differed from the Japanese I know – but again, this was fairly rare and for the most part I thought the Japanese was sound. What’s more, Ozeki covers herself by having Nao write in English with smatterings of Japanese as Japanese is also not her first language – so any inaccuracies could be attributed to Nao’s less than perfect Japanese!

Such a complex and multi-layered text would require essays and essays to analyse it fully, so I think I’ll leave it there. It made me smile at some times, and literally shed a tear at others, and I found it hard to put down. Highly recommended, especially to those who want to explore the philosophical concepts behind Japanese spirituality.

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Pagans and Satanists

pan (witch)

“Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – Witches’ Sabbath – WGA10007” by Francisco Goya – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I just read The Lefthander’s Path’s recent article on the relationship between Pagans and Satanists, which is actually something I’ve been thinking about recently. I think all Pagans end up confronting this at some point, often because non-Pagans may ask them, “So do you worship the Devil?” So here’s my thoughts on this relationship.  Continue reading


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Paganism – Religion or Lifestyle?


Small pewter pentagram pendant, which you can buy from my Dad’s shop! http://www.spiral.org.uk

I recently saw an interesting discussion on the Pagan Federation Facebook page, which was – is Paganism a religion or lifestyle?

Some people seem to feel that Paganism is somehow more of a lifestyle than a religion, due to the nature of its deities (somewhat less well defined than in the more “major” religions), the ambiguity of its core tenants and beliefs, and the way in which it is practised (eclectic and very much embedded in daily life). So is Paganism a religion? [Read more…]

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