My trip to Japan included three nights at Myoshin-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. I arrived via train one gray afternoon, trudging out of the station with my suitcase and backback, navigating my way through the press of people that filled the sidewalks, the air filled with a cacophony of traffic sounds.
Once inside the temple gates, however, something began to seem familiar. It certainly wasn’t the visual landscape, for the compound was filled with stately pagodas, huge wooden halls, and dozens of smaller subtemples enclosed by well-tended gardens. Robe-clad monks walked purposefully along the paths, passing uniformed schoolchildren hurrying through the temple grounds on their way home from school.
All very exotic, but there was still something familiar about it all. I realized that what was giving me déjà-vu was that the complex had the same atmosphere I’d experienced in virtually all monasteries, Christian or Buddhist—a sense of peace and tranquility. Moments later, as the deep, melodic sound of a bell rang out and I smelled a hint of incense, the sense of familiarity became even stronger. Clearly temple builders in many traditions use the same recipe: lots of empty space plus bells and smells. It’s a simple formula, but it works.
That said, there was much that puzzled me about Myoshin-ji. I never did figure out when the main meditation hall was open to visitors. The complex clearly had its own rhythms, times when the sound of chanting would emanate from behind walls and a chorus of bells would fill the air, but I never could enter fully into them. It was peaceful and perplexing, both at once.
My last morning I had the chance, finally, to learn a bit more while participating in an introduction to Zen Buddhism given by one of the resident priests, a man who had been educated in the U.S. After our meditation training (during which I regretted, once again, that I seem incapable of sitting completely still for more than five minutes), we listened to our guide speak about the history of Myoshin-ji. The temple had been established in 1337 and was a former imperial villa. It is the headquarters for a network of 3400 temples and serves as a training center for priests and monks. It also played a key role in the spread of Japanese Zen Buddhism around the world. In the early decades of the twentieth century, author and scholar D.T. Suzuki was a frequent guest at the temple and had many discussions here with its abbot about ways to bring Zen to the West.
The days I spent at Myoshin-ji, as foreign as they were on the surface, had a deep undercurrent of similarity to what I have experienced in other sacred places. Tranquility is tranquility is tranquility, after all, no matter where you find it.
At night, I would sit in my little Japanese-style room overlooking an enclosed garden, listening to the rain pattering on the roof. Here’s one of the lovely pieces of Zen wisdom I came across while doing so, from Okakura Tenshin, author of the Book of Tea:
Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea.
The afternoon is brightening the bamboo,
The fountains are bubbling with delight,
the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle.
Let us dream of evanescence,
and linger in the beautiful
foolishness of things.