A profound stillness underpins the world capital of frenzied materialism
Japanese has a bounty of words that recasts the mundane into the luminous. Shinrinyoku, for example, refers to taking a walk in the forest, but translates as “forest bathing”, conjuring up the feel of cleansing light pouring through tall trees on parched skin. Another instance: mon koh refers to lighting incense, but translates as “listening to incense”, plunging you directly into the moment the fragrance greets the nose. You need to listen to hear the memories that lurk in the scent.
Mindfulness, a form of meditation rooted in Zen Buddhism, is the global flavour du jour. It has emerged as big business, with corporate trainers exhorting stressed-out bankers to focus on the rise and fall of their breath and celebrated universities like Cambridge offering courses that involve eating raisins attentively (to measure how far “mindfulness” can help combat anxiety). By some estimates the mindfulness industry is now worth over $1 billion.
In essence, mindfulness is simply paying attention to the moment without distraction. It is the antithesis of multitasking, the antidote to our gadget-fractured 21st-century attention deficits. Ironically, it is also part of the weft of everyday life in the very country most associated with gizmos and techno-futurism.
The reason for this lies in the Japanese archipelago’s pre-robot roots in Zen Buddhism, a way of being in the world that remains foundational. The habits and outlook of Zen are palpable in widely shared aesthetics, quotidian rituals as well as in the silences that inhabit much social behaviour—befuddling to cultures that prefer chatter and argument.
When you hand a business card to someone in Tokyo, they receive it in both hands and read it for what can, to a foreigner, feel like an agonisingly long time. Cards are never carelessly stuffed into wallets but fully experienced and acknowledged, before the conversation proceeds. At the end of a yoga class, idle chatter about weekend plans or Netflix series is rare. Instead, students spend several minutes painstakingly—and silently—wiping their yoga mats clean for subsequent use by others. In those moments the focus is on cleaning. Nothing else.
When you introduce yourself people actually listen to how to pronounce your name. Sometimes they write it down and stare at it until they are sure they remember. For someone used to having her moniker distorted by the western world into a smorgasbord of three-syllablic, P words, from Pullover to Pavlova, it is quite thrilling to have most Japanese people muster up a respectable approximation of Pallavi. Since Japanese lacks both an “l” and “v” it usually issues as “Parabi”. Not perfect, yet so much better than the “Palava” I have on occasion been hailed as elsewhere.
It doesn’t take a genius to remember an unfamiliar name. Only a little mindfulness, something the Japanese practise and perfect until it is a gleaming, buffed part of their mental furniture. It’s why it takes upwards of a decade to become a sushi chef, with apprentices spending years washing rice before they are allowed near a knife. It is why practitioners of tea ceremony, which to the uninitiated can seem like nothing more than pouring hot water into a bowl with a spoon of matcha tea in it, spend a quarter-century mastering their art. It is why the legendary Edo-period woodblock artist, Katsushika Hokusai, exclaimed on his deathbed at the age of 89, “If only Heaven would give me just another ten years…or another five, then I could become a real painter.”
Mindfulness is reflected in the time and the passion it takes for pursuing the kind of aesthetic pastimes that have lost their place in other patience-starved cultures. My Japanese teacher, an elegant lady in her late 60s, has been learning the art of wearing a kimono, with its layers of undergarments, sashes, belts and accessories, for the last three years.
Another friend is studying tea ceremony. It takes about a year to learn the basics, she explains. How to sit, the tiny gestures used in scooping out the tea and holding the bowl properly. But true mastery comes from learning the classics that allow a connoisseur to allude to season-appropriate poetry that enhances the experience of sipping the tea. There is the further need to learn the history of ceramics so as to be able to comment knowledgably, but modestly, on the texture of the tea bowl and the quality of other utensils. And participants must also be able to appreciate the decoration of the tearoom, which reflects the foliage of the month.
References to the season, both in casual conversation and more formal rituals like the tea ceremony, indicate the importance of being present and contextual in Japanese culture. These are also integral to the art of haiku, short poems that consist of 17 syllables and are a poetic embodiment of mindfulness. Through a snapshot of the moment, they say something of the eternal. The father of the modern school of haiku, Matsuo Basho’s (1644-1694) most celebrated poem is simply:
The old pond, ah!
A frog jumps in:
The water’s sound!
Haiku allude to the season by referencing natural phenomena like blossoms, snow, rain or the shape of the moon, as well as animals and insects like frogs, cranes, butterflies and cuckoos, which are each associated with particular times of the year.
The Japanese attentiveness to nature has survived the modern age with its crowded subway commutes and noisy pachinko parlours. When spring bursts into colour, the streets are full of elderly men and women taking mobile phone pictures of pansies and irises, as carefully as if they were rare treasures. Certain cherry blossom trees attract the kind of staring crowds that are reserved for actors and cricket players in other countries.
Everyone can name the flowers as they bloom in succession: first the plum blossoms and then the cherry trees, followed by the azaleas, rhododendron and wisteria. Roses are swooned over. Lavender fields are inhaled. Flower festivals attract pilgrims from the far corners of the archipelago. Everyday conversations are peppered with blossom talk, which builds complicity and shared discourse, even amongst strangers. “Did you see the cherry blossoms lit up along the Meguro River yet?” “The wisterias are late this year.”
In the summer, chatter focuses on insects, in particular the choral sussuration of cicadas that drowns out the traffic sounds of Central Tokyo. Mosquitoes, an annoyance, also figure. Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) comes to mind when an angry bite wells up on an exposed arm, on a hot summer afternoon:
Mosquito at my ear—
does he think
In the autumn, there is an actual day (tsukimi) dedicated to preparing to look at the full moon. And because the word for moon, tsuki, is a homophone of the word for wine cup, zuki, drinking sake (rice wine) on an autumn evening while gazing up at the moon is a common pastime. And during this seasonally sanctioned booze-up it is always good to return to Basho:
First day of Autumn
My heart is pounding wild
Ah! The full moon
As the cold sets in, the year’s work and weariness are washed clean by snow, preparing everyone for the promise of the New Year and prompting musings about whether the cherry blossoms will be early next spring. Modern haiku master Mizuhara Shuoshi’s (1892-1981) work evokes Basho when he writes:
A new year begins—
with the blooming
of a single frosty rose
There are also more literal ways to experience mindfulness in Japan. Every Tuesday I wake at 6am and walk from my home in the city’s embassy enclave, past the turtles floating in the neighbourhood park’s pond, through a busy traffic intersection and into a local temple complex. Entering through the slate-tiled archway of the Kourin-in temple is like passing between worlds. On one side there are packed trains to catch. On the other there is refuge.
Hour-long zazen meditation sessions, a practice that is at the heart of Zen Buddhism, take place here every morning. Zazen, which is akin to the concept of dhyana in India, is the source of all the fashionable mindfulness workshops and apps. Yet, it is as simple as sitting still and listening to the breath.
At the meditation hall in Kourin-in there are usually around 40 people. We sit in half-lotus position on two layers of cushions, the upper layer folded back to raise the pelvis. Our hands rest in our laps with the tips of the thumbs touching each other to form an oval. At 7am a gong is sounded and all body adjustments and throat clearings cease. The point is to concentrate our attention on that moment, moment to moment. At the outset it is the surrounding sounds that impinge most forcefully on the consciousness. The muted chanting of monks, the occasional twitter of birdsong and the distant hum of traffic. After a while, perhaps 10 minutes, maybe 15, the mind stills and is able to focus on the breath. Then there is nothing but the inhale and the exhale, repeated again and again.
At some point the sharp thwack of wood hitting bones sounds out. And so we know that the jikijitsu or monk in charge of the session is afoot. As is the norm in zazen practice, he uses a keisaku or wooden stick to strike the shoulders of mediators. The blow is meant to alleviate drowsiness and to sharpen the focus. It feels surprisingly light given the sound it generates. One must invite the blow by folding hands into a namaste and bowing slightly as the jikijitsu passes by.
The session lasts an hour. After, we join the jikijitsu for a cup of freshly made green tea. Most of those present are in their 30s or 40s. They are usually about to head to their offices for the long workday that is typical in Japan. Many commute for up to an hour to make it to the zazen session on time and must travel as long to get to work. There is rarely much chitchat during the tea drinking. The Japanese are not big on idle talk.
On the days I sit in zazen, silence feels friendlier. I’m often befuddled, for example, by how quiet diners in restaurants are in Japan. It’s rare to hear the shrieking laughter of friends sharing a piece of delicious gossip or the raised voices of colleagues arguing the politics of the day. But on zazen days I am attuned to other sounds. The moist slurping of noodles, the splash of soy sauce, the crunch of pickled ginger, seem to expand to fill the relative lack of chatter.
None of this is to insist, tempting though it sometimes is, that the Japanese are somehow more evolved than the rest of the human race. They are often passive-aggressive, judgmental and boring. In an interview with David Pilling, former Japan correspondent of the Financial Times, author Masahiko Fujiwara claimed that it was most Japanese people’s lack of English fluency that led foreigners to believe them to always be thinking deep thoughts. In fact, Fujiwara said, if the Japanese improved their English it would reveal that they just didn’t have that much to say.
Perhaps. Yet living in Japan has helped even me, the most argumentative of Indians, to see that that sometimes it’s not that important to have something to say. It can be enough to just breathe in the fragrance of a wildflower.
This article was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.