Thursday, August 30, 2012

Living things, small and great.

Are these mouse droppings?... Hmm... “And the toilet is in the hall.” Yes, they definitely look like mouse droppings... “Take a futon and a blanket from the closet in the other room.” Oh, dear. There are more droppings over there... “Take your time. Lunch is at 12. If you want you can come and sit with us.” “Yes, thank you. When are you sitting?” “We are sitting soon. The next session is in 10 minutes.” “I'll come at the following session.” “Take your time.”
As soon as the monk left me, my little room shattered the idyllic image of a nine-day stay at a Zen monastery.
The gorgeous Japanese house that had welcomed me with its garbled gate, its luscious moss garden, its stone basin, on the inside was an old mouse trap with floors caving in under my feet (Oh my gosh, between the tatami floor and the outside there is... nothing, just some rotting pieces of wood). The room to which the monk had taken me was a 4-tatami room, with a dusty calligraphy scroll hanging in the tokonoma, uncountable mouse droppings, a happy colony of imperturbable bugs relaxing along the windowpane, and two old pieces furniture: a western style sideboard and what was left of an old Japanese shelf. The sideboard belonged more in a dining room than in the guesthouse of a Japanese monastery and the beaten up Japanese shelf hid behind its unhinged doors the washi that once wrapped the light-bulb in the ceiling. The panels of the outer walls of my cell had cracks from which I could see the outside garden, a clever and environment friendly ventilation system. 
Besides the 4-tatami room there were two larger rooms, one of which had an amazing and dusty veranda facing the mossy garden. I went scouting. The entire house was constituted of two buildings connected by a wooden passageway open on a more secluded corner of the garden. This passageway hosted the washing area and the toilet. The washing area was only a sink installed in the center of the passageway and had no privacy of sort (at least not of the kind a Westerner is accustomed to, a clear proof that in Japan barriers and walls are a thing of the mind). The sink was lined with white tiles now chipped and tarnished and it had two faucets wrapped in black masking tape, one for cold and one for frozen water. Its best feature, however, was the two dozen insects - flies, mosquitoes and huge spiders - lying dead on it. The toilet was a surprise and a disappointment. I was expecting a Japanese style toilet, as befitting such an old and run down building, instead it had an electronic seat, one of those devices with multiple buttons and knobs that clean you, warm your cheeks in the cold of winter and, if you find the right button, sing you a lullaby. 
I ventured inside the other building. It looked abandoned and, if possible, even more ran down than the one I was to lodge in. With a sigh of relief I realized it was empty. No sign of a shower in neither one of the two building. Weird place, I thought. I’m not making any bed; I’m not unpacking. I’ll go for the next sitting session and then leave after lunch. Forget nine days of peace of mind…
I walked back to the monastery in haste.
The monk and the other guest were already sitting on their zabuton lined along the veranda outside the Butsuden, facing the dry garden. He quickly stood up and showed me mine and told me I was to sit there for all of my stay at the monastery, next to a lovely American college student at the end of her year abroad. He went back to his spot at the head of the row.

The first of the two bell rings signaling the start of the zazen session came faster than I wished. I still needed to adjust to my sitting position for meditation. Too bad. Another delicate tinkle fluttered in the air. Now it was really late, from now I couldn’t move without disturbing my fellow meditators. Since I was thinking to leave after these 20 minutes (which in reality were 40) I hadn’t bothered changing into the loose clothes I had brought with me and now my jeans were too tight. Almost immediately I felt the discomfort of my legs; quickly every limb started aching; a sudden need to scratch my ear; a fly on my neck. Why are the birds chirping so loudly? How can you sit here quietly while mice are already going through all your stuff in your backpack? How many frogs are in the pond? Does my belly button sweat always this way or is it just today? Then a thought surfaced in my mind, a memory from other meditation sessions: acknowledge these thoughts and let them go.
A voice in my head said my back was in real pain, it wasn’t just a thought. Cramps do not exist, are just a feeling. Straighten your spine! But it aches… Breathe gently! Do you mean a yogic breathing or there is a different way of breathing? Stop thinking about all these external things! OK, I’ll move my toes just once, the monk won’t see me. How about the girl? She’s sitting with her eyes half closed – Why did you turn your head, idiot? - and even if she sees me move she won’t say anything.
And then suddenly a chirp among the branches of the maple across our dry garden; a frog jumped in the pond next to the small shrine; a voice from one of the houses of the hamlet. No, I’m not going anywhere.
No matter how weird, uncomfortable or unpleasant things will be, I’m not going anywhere.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

And if the household is too little for the lamb...

After the tatami incident we were shown to a dining hall that had the feel of a spacious open courtyard: along its perimeter, in smaller rooms facing the central area, groups of revelers sat cross-legged at low dining tables loaded with dishes; in the center of the hall there was a big pond where fish of all kinds swam freely; a busy sushi bar at which customers sat and dined, enclosed the pond; sous-chefs with nets in their hands were trying to catch the fish in the pond, while the sushi chefs were slicing and rolling. The customers, all men, wore white shirts and black or gray pants, the uniform of the salary men, and the only color in the room (and the only women) were the waitresses.
“The sushi is really fresh here!” the senior among my companions finally broke the ice. “They catch the fish you choose from the pond.” The tatami incident was now a thing of the past, clean slate. Earlier, on our way to the restaurant they had asked me “Do you like Japanese-style fish?” Imagining myself devouring my way through mounds of sushi and sashimi, I had answered “Yes” without hesitations. One of them then had remarked that the sashimi in the restaurant where we were heading is excellent and now, seeing the fish writhe in the nets, I was wondering what the flavor of fish just pulled out of the water would be.
My hosts had reserved a private dining room on the third floor. There another mama-san was waiting for us in front of the elevator and walking in front of us with tiny quick steps, constrained in her pink flowery kimono, she took us to the shoji of our private dining room. A young and pretty attendant, waiting for us on her knees slid the shoji open as we approached, moved quickly but gracefully and then, again on her knees in a vestibule, opened for us the fusuma of our dining room. In the vestibule there was a wooden step that doubled as shelf where the attendants would place the trays during the elaborated choreography these poor girls had to perform every time they had to come in and out of the room, a procedure I thought one could see only in movies depicting the luxurious life of the days of yore.
They had me enter the room first, then my three hosts followed in hierarchical order. Our six-tatami room had an extremely simple décor: a piece of calligraphy hung from one of the walls, a low sideboard that contained a small fridge, and four zaisu around a low dining table that hid a hollow space underneath it where we could let our legs hang rather than sit cross-legged. As we sat down the junior of my hosts, who was with us in his capacity of interpreter, asked me in English if I can do seiza. With the clear intention of showing off I answered in Japanese that I can hold seiza for up to 40 minutes, which is the truth. Now that it felt like I was back in their good books I was not going to volunteer the information that at the end of those 40 minutes my legs are of no use…
One of my hosts pulled out the sheet with the Japanese-English list of forbidden and permitted fish posted on the JCJ website and asked me if I liked hirame, halibut. When I answered “yes”, he said he was happy we were 4 because 4 is the perfect number for eating a whole halibut of the size they have here. He added that every time he is here he is very careful to order halibut only when there are 4 people, because 4 is the perfect number for ordering halibut of the size they have here without wasting any of it. 3 people cannot finish it, but 4 is just right. They ordered several vegetarian appetizers and several treyf delicacies, two boat-shaped trays loaded with sashimi: one with some untouchable foods and one with kosher fish (mainly salmon because our office manager makes sure people who take me out for meals know I’m addicted to salmon), and finally this mysterious dish for which we were the perfect number: ikizukuri. We had to have it since we were 4 because 4 is the perfect number for eating a whole halibut of the size they have here.
Again that question: “Do you like Japanese style fish?” Looking at him at loss for words I thought “Haven’t you just ordered a boat of sashimi all for me?” and then the sudden realization that maybe - or certainly - “Japanese-style fish” must have meant something different than sushi or sashimi.
Hesitatingly I gave a Jewish-style answer: “Do you mean sushi or sashimi?”
“Have you ever eaten ikizukuri?”
“How do you write it?”
Our junior wrote the Chinese characters of the mysterious word ikizukuri on the table with his finger for me to read.
“Preparing… alive…?!”
“Yes! The fish is still alive when they slice it. And sometimes it still moves on the plate.”
“I’m sorry... but… I cannot eat it,” I said gagging at the image evoked by that description.
“You do not like hirame?”
“I cannot eat it for religious reasons. I’m sorry. But you please go ahead and enjoy it.”
“But hirame is in the list of your website…”
“But I’m not allowed to eat it while it is alive.”
“But it is in the list of your website…”
“But it’s alive!”
My other two hosts understood the English exchange and out of politeness and respect for their guest called immediately the waitress and asked her to have the chef make the hirame as regular sashimi, because “the foreigner” wouldn’t eat it otherwise. I begged them to have the ikizukuri anyway, I didn’t want to spoil their long awaited treat. Instead they ordered for themselves octopus ikizukuri, and for all of us the hirame was made into old fashioned, boring sashimi.
The 4 of us finished indeed the halibut, the strangest dish I’ve ever had: chewy, tasteless, a little sour, and with this unshakable awareness that it was alive a few minutes before. I steered my eyes away from the moving tentacles of the octopuses ikizukuri in the other dish at the center of the table, and tried to ignore the almost imperceptible squishing sound made by the octopuses’ tentacles and the thought that my fish a few minutes before were happily swimming in the pond downstairs.
It took many cups of sake to force down those slices of halibut, but oddly enough the amount of sake I drank had no effect on my lucidity. Waiting for that instant when the alcohol would take away the shoes on the tatami mat and the squirming fish I was wondering if there are studies that show that the mind and its processes have the power to hinder the effect of intoxicating substances: what could otherwise explain the fact that I, usually a cheap date, was still lucid and alert, despite the almost three sake bottles I had gulped.
My hosts spent part of the evening discussing how ikizukuri is not something for foreigners, how it is something that only the Japanese can appreciate. They wondered at the fact that ikizukuri is outlawed in some countries of the world, and at the special nature of the Japanese who alone can appreciate the exquisite, decadent pleasure of this dish. The inebriated conversation touched also upon other modern myths the Japanese sometimes tell themselves about themselves: a brain that functions differently, a body that functions differently, a unique language (well, this is true…), a unique culture. Serious scholarship has proved that these stories, that have a tinge of racism, are nonsense. I, however, had no desire to disturb the harmony any further so, I kept chewing my quarter of halibut politely listening and emitting sounds of approval and surprise.
At some point the young attendant brought in the bones of the same halibut that had been covered in flour and deep-fried.
“Japanese style chips!” chirped one of my hosts, gaily dividing the carcass into smaller manageable pieces. “Rabbi, have the head. It’s the juiciest part!”
Luckily I had a fresh bottle of warm sake next to me.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Let me get closer and see this great sight…

What happens when you put three Japanese managers and a clumsy Sicilian guy in one very elegant restaurant in Kyushu? 
This is their story.
My hosts were determined to impress me. With traditional Japanese hospitality they had printed out the page of our website that lists the food a Jew can and cannot eat, and had made a reservation at a traditional Japanese restaurant. A path made of large stones, like the ones found in Japanese gardens, led from the sidewalk to the building, a clear sign of opulence. The name of the restaurant was engraved on a black, rugged mountain rock, standing at the beginning of the path. At the other end of the path, behind a bamboo fence, was the restaurant. The concrete building had all the decorative elements that are supposed to elicit the nostalgic image of a traditional Japanese house: a roof made of black tiles with decorated ends; white plaster walls and wooden posts, lintels, and rafters; reticulated shutters; bamboo mats hanging loosely in front of the ground floor windows, and on the second floor shields at the windows to give privacy and let the people inside the house spy on the samurai outside from a higher level without risking their heads (if this story is true); rain-chains pointing to a stone barrel partially covered in moss. It couldn’t get more Japanese than that.  And I loved it.
In the stone vestibule a woman wearing the clothes of the peasants of the days of yore greeted us and stood in attention, while another woman, in white tabi socks and wearing an elegant light blue kimono and flowery obi, came to welcome us from the inside walking on the tatami floor. Tatami are the traditional flooring of Japanese homes, made of weaved grass panels and one is supposed to walk on them with socks or barefoot, a habit probably born out of hygienic and economic factors (tatami, for being so delicate to maintain and expensive to make, were reserved only to the wealthy). In time a mixture of customs and superstitions as accrued and regulate the way they are laid out in a room and the way one cares for them, but no matter how westernized one is, the rule everyone observes is that no slippers nor – God forbid - outside shoes touch the tatami. Ever. Walking inside a house with shoes is already a major faux-pas, but trampling with shoes on the tatami mat is tantamount to an act of extreme violence that only the police are permitted to do under special circumstances. It is almost a desecration of the holiness of the other person’s home. Accidentally, the idea that a tatami room is special is so deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche that last June, the group of volunteer I joined to work in one of the towns hit by the tsunami was instructed to remove our boots every time we entered the tatami room in the house we working one day, even though the tatami was really ruined.
Since I am in Japan, I have become more careful about my socks: I always make sure they match and at the slightest sign of wear and tear I throw them away, as you never know when you’ll have to take your shoes off. However, despite this added care, every time I’ve found myself in this situation the first thought has always been an anxious scan of my lower extremities; and the second has gone through the steps that make a smooth, seamless "shoes on-shoes off-up on the raised level of the living quarters" sequence. Anyway, I always try to go last because my anxious gaijin self wants me to observe once again what people do in order to imitate the locals. 
Fate had it different that evening.
The senior among my hosts bowed showing me the way with his right hand that I enter first. In return, perspiring and with twirling bowels, I bowed back showing him the way that he enter first. He did not recede, so I had to go first. “You’ve done this literally hundreds of times in the past three years. You know how to do it without crashing the sliding paper door or leaning against anyone else (which they do, by the way). Just relax and do it.” Deep breath. First shoe: off. Deep breath. Second shoe: off. Then I hear one of them telling the other: “He has really learned our customs, hasn’t he?” At which point I stooped, picked up my shoes and before the woman wearing the clothes of the peasants of the days of yore could reach them, as politely as possible, I lifted them and put them on the tatami mat. It was then that my blood froze, waiting for all the Kami of Japan to smite me through the hands of my hosts.
After one second or one hour of the heaviest and stillest silence in my life all I could say or think was “Sumimasen, I’m sorry” while trying to evaluate what kind of bowing the present circumstances would require: 90 degrees, 130 degrees, or down on my knees sticking out my neck to a sword. They were really gracious. Well, I mean the hostess was. Using a very polite word that means “It is ok” she lifted my shoes and handed them to the woman wearing the clothes of the peasants of the days of yore, while my three companions kept apologizing to her for the foreigner who clearly had not yet learned the proper Japanese customs. The hostess smiling silently just motioned for us to enter.
And when I thought the evening couldn’t get any worse…

Monday, March 5, 2012

In the year of King Uzziah’s death

Preface I was asked by a few readers (yes, there is someone other than you out there looking at this blog) what was this post about and why the title. Why the title: Open a Tanakh and figure it out on your own, it is a very famous passage. What is the content: two weeks ago a Buddhist priest walked in during Shabbat morning services. After my initial delight at the thought of interesting interfaith interactions, I realized he was a nut case (or close to one). This post is mostly a verbatim of his words only (except for the two parts in italics) you can imagine my responses from his reactions. My only comfort while this surreal conversation was taking place was the fact that I could understand all he was telling me, which could mean one of two things: 1) finally all those hours poured over Japanese textbooks are paying off, or 2) yes, me too...

I am a Buddhist priest from Niigata Prefecture. I specialize in Tibetan puja, Hindu puja, esoteric Buddhist invocations, Jewish puja and Islamic puja. Who is the rabbi of this church?
“I know that Jews have these objects and I would like to see them. Would you please show them to me?
“But I know that you Jews have these objects! You have made them for the Temple in Jerusalem. I want to see this one, and this one, and this one for burning the incense. I want to talk with the person in charge! I know Jewish priests wear these clothes. I have studied it!
“I read that Jews burn incense on this small altar covered in gold: do you have it too?
“Why can’t you show them to me? I just want to see how they are made. I will not touch them. I know that anyone who touches them dies.
“I know these objects are secret, but can you show them to me?
“I have come from Niigata Prefecture. Can I talk with the older rabbi of this church? Where is the older rabbi of this church? I have come to speak with him.
“It is not true that there is no older rabbi. I want to talk with someone older. And with a long beard like this! When is he coming?
“Look, look at this picture. I took this picture in the backyard of my temple. You see this? This is a ray of light coming down from the sky. From the God of the Jews. This is like the story of the prophet Elijah, when a ray of light came down from the sky and burned his sacrifice. A ray of light from the God of the Jews has come down to the courtyard of my temple! Look! Look how strong it is! It was very bright when we saw it! I want to build an altar in my courtyard like the one the prophet Elijah built, when the ray of light came down from the sky and burned his sacrifice. This ray of light means that the God of the Jews has accepted my temple, doesn’t it?
“What are the words you say when you make sacrifices? Can you write them for me in katakana?
“How do you invoke the God of the Jews to make him come down? Write it for me in katakana!
“Can you count in ancient Hebrew?
“No!! No!! No!! I know that the numbers in ancient Hebrew are hi, hu, mi, yo. This is what the gods sung to Amaterasu! The ones you say are not ancient Hebrew! You don’t know ancient Hebrew! Who knows ancient Hebrew here? I want to talk with someone older!”
“People are waiting for me downstairs. I have to go.”
“I went to the Israeli Embassy on Thursday. I wanted to talk with the Ambassador, but they did not let me in. They said that without appointment I cannot meet the Ambassador. But I have a very important thing I can disclose only to the Israeli Ambassador. Is he coming here? Do you know the Israeli Ambassador? He needs to know!
“Six times an UFO flew above my home and my temple. Six times! Then the seventh time a female-UFO came out of the ship and took me for a walk in the woods. She was taller than me and she was wearing white clothes and had this on her chest, made of gold with twelve precious stones. She gave me this map of where they are from. This galaxy is where they live.
“She said she was one of the angels of Bible of the Jews and the God of the Jews has sent her to inform me about what shall happen beginning in June. She told me that only the Bible of the Jews has the truth and asked me to come and tell you. She showed to me passages from other religions’ holy books telling me they are all lies.
“I am not allowed to tell what shall happen in June, I can only tell the Israeli Ambassador. The Jews have to be ready to be saved.
“I cannot tell you what shall happen. Many people shall die. The Jews have to be ready because the God of the Jews wants to save them. In June the destruction of humankind shall begin. Many people shall die, and then the God of the Jews will send space-ships to save the Jews. The Jews have to be ready to leave. All the Jews have to gather in Israel and after all the Jews leave the God of the Jews will destroy the earth. I know other things but I can tell them only to the Israeli Ambassador. Please, I need to talk with him.
“The God of the Jews has promised that he will destroy the earth as soon as all the Jews are on the ships. No one will be left on earth this time.”
“People are waiting for me downstairs to say another prayer and then we have lunch. I cannot believe in what you said. Maybe it’s better if you leave now.”