text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The relationship between Zen and Japanese culture is a matter to which I have given considerable thought. Not only because of the widespread pertinent literature, greatly supported by the Japanese themselves (its most prevailing example being D.T. Suzuki and his work of the same title, by all accounts still a very good book) but also because of my personal connection to the particular Buddhism sect: having been studying Buddhist texts and having been practicing zazen for several years, I am always trying to see how the things I have realized are related to the Japanese reality I see around me. And with time, I tend to reach the conclusion that if one looks closely they can indeed see elements of Zen in Japan; just not in the real Japan but in Japan as imagined by the Japanese (and occasionally foreigners).
Realistically speaking, Zen Buddhism consists of two major schools, Rinzai and Soto; today they are both big organizations (“big” for Japanese/Buddhist standards –nothing compared to, say, the Vatican or the Ecumenical Patriarchate) commanding a network of thousands of small and big temples all over the country. In their vast majority these temples have as their main object ceremonies related to death (i.e. funerals and memorial services) and scarcely deal with Zen’s essence, that is zazen practice and the practitioner’s effort to become a better person for themselves and for others through said practice. And with no intention to belittle the importance of a temple for its local community (sooner or later everyone will need their services), I firmly believe that in reality this has nothing to do with Zen.
Zen as understood by D.T. Suzuki and all the others speaking and writing about its relation to Japanese culture, can be found in some classical martial arts, in the tea ceremony, in the aesthetics of the Japanese and particularly as they apply to old-style houses and generally speaking in the culture that comes from (and relates to) the imperial court of Kyoto; that is in the elements of classical Japanese culture that survive until today, albeit in a largely mutated form. Of course the Japanese make considerable efforts to convince both themselves and foreigners that these elements prevail in their country but in the reality of the puzzle that is 21st century Japan, these elements’ presence is limited and their essence is seldom realized; as a rule it is expressed as a sense of what is and what isn’t “Japanese”. And this is what keeps me from finding a satisfying answer to my question: if Zen has transformed into such a sense, doesn’t that mean its connection with Japanese culture is indeed very deep?
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.