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Exploring Zen and Buddhism

Zen Buddhist meditation

Can you explain Zen and its core principles to those unfamiliar with the practice?

Zen or samurai meditation
Buddhist Monk performing Zen

Zen Buddhism remains true to the original teaching of Venerable Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Both that the root practice of zazen and that we wake up one day realising our situation in this world,  and look for an answer to it, then maturation of wisdom, and finally going back into the world to make it better. Because spiritual Awakening is only valid if it functions, as Venerable Nagarjuna taught, so we follow the personal example of Venerable Sakyamuni and sit zazen, and engage in face-to-face transmission of the Dharma, which has continued to this day.

How does Zen meditation contribute to personal well-being and inner peace in today’s fast-paced world?

Zazen creates a space in which we see our lives and the connection we have to all things. It is not that the practice of zazen is to retreat from the world, it is to directly experience what Venerable Sakyamuni did as Mara assailed him, and see as he did into the nature of illusion. Seeing into the nature of illusion, we emerge. 

I feel in this regard, the present era is irrelevant; on this spiritual level, people are people, as they always have been. However, yes, our cities have become larger, and people are moving from agrarian lifestyles to work in those cities. So I see the temple, or practice centre, as a vital repository through which people find the Heart in life. Whether the temple is located in a city or village, in the 21st century, the temple can contribute to preserving human and natural values, such as arts, and culture, even the simple fact a temple has a garden in a place where people cannot have gardens of their own.

This answer possibly reflects my own relationship with gardening and art, but it is a deep tradition in the Rinzai school to maintain arts and culture, which is it’s self-value handed down from India.

How have you seen Zen practice positively impact individuals or communities during your experience at the Perth Zen Centre Jizoan?

Monk doing zazen Meditation
Practice of Zen Meditation

Locally I think there is an appreciation of the tradition and the temple, Many local people know the temple, and I think Buddhism has a good reputation in Australia. People seem to connect with the fact that the tradition preserves arts and humanistic values associated with that. Australians don’t see Buddhism as a religion the same as Christianity, they don’t associate it with state violence especially, even though I teach a martial art as an adjunct to my life as a priest.

I have had people come and sit because they are struggling with addiction issues, family issues, or because they wonder about their place in the world. I also find myself being emailed or called by people in academia about various aspects of the tradition, whether it’s because they themselves are practising Buddhism or because they wish to clarify something that’s relative to their studies.

Recently I’ve made good relationships with leaders in Christian and other traditions locally and in other parts of Australia as well, which I think is a good opportunity to inform, and it’s interesting to hear the respect and admiration for the tradition they have.

Could you share your observations on the differences and similarities in the practice of Buddhism between Australia and Japan?

Japan has had Buddhism for more than 1200 years, and Buddhism was established as a state religion until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In Australia, Buddhism is relatively new, only being freely practised and taught since 1975. In Japan, although Buddhism is divided into many sects, each having been established in China at different periods, it’s essentially homogeneous. Temples and priests, and practices are similar, only divided by emphasis on what part of the Dharma teaching they have inherited.

In Australia, Buddhism is divided through largely ethnic lines. Certain temples identify as Chinese temples, some as Tibetan and so forth, and their ethnicity dominates. Japanese Buddhist sects seem to be on good terms with each other, while in Australia, Buddhists are often highly sectarian and ethnically divided. While it is possible to see differences in practice between different Buddhist sects in Japan, on the whole they share more in common than not. To many Westerners, they all seem the same.

While in Australia, the outer differences appear wider. A Zen Centre or temple in Australia I think, looks greatly different from Tibetan, Thai, or Chinese temples. This, to some degree, contributes to the diaspora in Australian Buddhism. I have often reflected on the fact that Korean Zen also arrived in Japan, and Korean temples exist today there, but they are notable in their division from wider Japanese Buddhism.

How does each country’s cultural context shape how Buddhism is perceived and practised?

Buddha preaching to his disciples

Both Japan and Australia are secular civil societies; both, therefore, are focused on what is potentially good for the larger society. Mahayana teaching fits both. Neither country is religious in the conventional sense, though the Japanese are inclined to be superstitious, which is not the same.

Theravada Buddhism is present in Australia as well, but it’s social relationship is limited by the nature of its retreat emphasis and the relationship between Theravada monks and lay society.

In Japan, for the most part, it is seen as part of the history and culture of Japan; a Japanese saying goes, for example, ‘Zen Culture is Japanese culture, and Japanese Culture is Zen culture’, as just a small example. Buddhism is welded into the language and customs of Japan, and it dominates Japanese people’s way of thinking. To Japanese people, this world is always on a level, illusion and temporary.

Australia has a history of British colonialism;
although mono-culture is giving way, it is largely replaced by multi-culture, which still divides people into identities. So, Buddhism has a long way to go to see it practised properly without consideration for identity. Typically large temples or organizations with multiple groups are ones with financial and ethnic support from outside Australia. Money and branding do not necessarily equate to a deep understanding of the Dharma or Enlightenment.

Anglo Australians, unaccustomed to any other paradigm, are often confused about Buddhism; on the one hand, they are often seeking an alternative spiritual path to Christianity, which they no longer affiliate with; on the other, Buddhism seems to struggle to engage wider society.

Christians organise help for each other and the people with low income, while Buddhists seem to fight among each other and mistake sitting on their cushions to mean disengagement.

I would say that there is a tendency to emphasise practice towards happiness and stress relief in Buddhism in Australia, and Compassion is less emphasized than it should be.

While in Japan, Buddhism is struggling to deal with its loss of support and community involvement. People have migrated to major cities in the post-war and continue to do so, moving away from their families and temple connections. This represents a major struggle for Buddhism in Japan; there is less and less financial support for Buddhism and fewer and fewer wishing to ordain for the most part, though there has been in recent times a slight up-tic in women ordaining (women have always ordained equally in Japan), a large training centre for women was opened about 20 years ago which is the first operating Rinzai Zen nunnery since the Meiji restoration caused them to be closed. The collapse of the feudal system and its support for temples also caused a collapse in the tension between training centres for men and training centres for women. The latter had been traditionally administratively subordinate, even if nuns themselves were not.

Japanese Buddhism is attempting to modernise itself and move away from feudal attitudes, but it is still dominated by funeral Buddhism’. Funeral Buddhism, which has its roots in civil village society, has become a huge financial burden on families as temples charge huge sums. Japanese Buddhism has embraced tourism as an income, which leads to monks acting like shopkeepers rather than proper people seeking to practice the Bodhisattva way post-war. There has always been a tradition of pilgrimage in Japan, people visiting far-off temples, but post-war, this practice has developed into all-out tourism,  not itself a bad thing, but coupled with declining circumstances making for preserving the temple building at the cost of Buddhism as a way.

In all these problems are found globally, traditionally Buddhist societies and societies which are not both struggling with modernity.

How do you envision organizations like IBHForum contributing to the global understanding of Buddhist heritage?

Buddhism and India
IBH Forum and Indian Buddhism Heritage

It’s important to preserve clarity about how the tradition of Buddhism has evolved, it’s origins and pathways to the present. As someone brought up within a culture deeply influenced by Christianity,  we see in Christianity a tradition that has evolved from its beginnings in the Galilean basin of the Levant, but those beginnings are no longer known to modern Christians.  In Japan and China, the historical Buddha and his teachings became distant and sometimes almost unknown. The opportunity through critical scholarship and archaeology in India today is to inform the basis of traditions that have become historically removed. This functions in helping those traditions when reflecting on their future progress. I can think of cases in the recent past, for example, of scriptures that have been revised for example due to scholarship. Buddhism is flexible by nature, so it is possible to do these things. Moreover, original Indian culture and thought still exist.

I wonder about the possibilities of an organization like IBH Forum having representation at the United Nations, as many Christian organizations do. I think that should happen; Buddhism should have a voice globally. And that is in keeping with IBH Forum mission to protect and conserve the invaluable Buddhist heritage sites also. Those sites are vitally important to critical Buddhist scholarship, not just to historical preservation for their own purpose.

Mujyo Zen

Mujyo Williams

Trained as a Zen monk at Tofukuji Rinzai Daihozan Senmondojo, Kyoto, Japan, and is the disciple of Kiedo Fukushima in the lineage of Zenkei Shibayama.
He is the head of the Australian Zen Studies Institute.

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