Mind & Zen Practice at Eiheiji

It’s 3:10 am and I wake by the bell loudly clanging in the hallway. The light switch is flipped on and the room full of men becomes alive. By the time I have rubbed my eyes, stretched on my futon and manage to get up, a full minute has passed. When I finally pull myself up to sitting position, I see my Japanese compatriots (I’m the only foreigner here), are not only up but somehow half of them have already pulled their sheets off and stowed their futon in the closet. By the time, I actually arise, most of them have finished this ritual after neatly folding the sheets and placing the quilts and buckwheat hull pillows in the closet. Although I believe I follow the zen admonition to get up right away at the bell, clearly these guys have better conditioning in this area.  Oh, and no one is grousing about the early hour even though these are ordinary people who signed up for this three-day intensive at Eiheiji, the most important zen monastery in Japan, if not the world.


Thirty minutes later, I am in the zendo, wearing a grey yakuta  with a black skirt, sitting on the zafu cushions facing the wall. After some initial rustling, the only sounds I hear are the slow intakes of air by my neighbor. Normally three bells ring to signal the beginning of zazen. However in the morning, we hear the heartbeat of the temple: the sounds of the huge taiko drum outside the hall slowly reverberate in and around the room, filling my body with its slow beat, telling me it is time now, time now to be still, time now to match my breath to the beat, time now to feel alive. The drumbeat is replaced by a series of bells and then back to the drum. When the silence returns it is somehow deeper as we have been transported to a deeper place in our own body. I forget it is early in the morning, I am awake in a timeless place.

Time passes, it is not my responsibility to see the clock. The taiko heartbeat returns with a new pattern, five beats and a roll down of beats. This is echoed by the bell with three beats and repeated by the han, a wooden block whose sound is deep but piercing. Another roll down signals those of us who have a rakusu or robe to put it upon our head as we chant the Robe Chant reminding us of our purpose and intent:

Dāi zāi ge dap-pu kū

Mu sō fu ku dēn-ne

Hi bu nyorāi kyō

Kō do sho shu jō

We repeat three times, take our rakusus or robes out of their cloth cases and put them on.

rakatsu swiss

I turn in my seat to face the room, get up carefully, put on my slippers and turn back to plump my cushion. I bow to the cushion to thank it for supporting my practice, turn and bow towards the room, thanking all of the group (sangha) for supporting my practice. I join the line of practitioners and we leave the zendo one by one.

Back in our room, I have a short period to stretch, put on my white tabi (socks with a big toe to wear with sandals), and grab my chant book. At 4:30 am, I line up with the others and begin the long walk up and down stairways watching the passage of the centuries as we leave the new building with its air conditioning and go through the hallways  in outdoor covered passageways hundreds of years old. Six of us lead the procession, carrying wooden covered buckets, some large and some small.


When we reach the Daikuin, the kitchen, the six of us enter this ancient building which has fed millions of monks and practitioners over it 650 year history. While the kitchen itself is modern, our entry is the same as one hundreds of years ago. We call out to the cooks that we are there and leave out vessels.   We walk out and stand in front of the kitchen altar and bow in thanks for the food that will nourish us.

After bowing in groups of six, I continue my way with the others down the walkways, noticing the rain falling outside, the sounds of birds in the early morning and very sounds our feet make on the wooden floors.


We stop and bow in groups of six various times before we ascend the eighty or so steps up to the Hatto, the dharma hall, at the highest point in Eiheiji.


We leave our sandals on the top steps, each on a separate step and walk in our tabis into the Hatto. It is an immense hall that easily fits several hundred monks and visitors. We line up near the long outer open air entrance and sit in seiza, the Japanese kneeling sit. It is still quiet as we have arrived before the service is to begin. A dozen or so monks are busy with the tasks of light altars and making the arrangements for the ceremonies.


Slowly some senior monks come in. Their ranks are denoted by the color of their okesas (robes)–brown/golden for senior teachers,and black for monks. Each of the robes is a different of brown to gold, creating a beautiful mosaic of color and men. In addition there are slightly different designs of the robes while the yakuta underneath can be grey, black, deep blue or dark green.

Bells start ringing and different groups arrive and sit or stand in different places some pre-assigned. We continue to sit until we are summoned to stand up and again wait in silence. There is some noise of shuffling footsteps and from the left a hundred monks all with shaven heads walk in and are guided to their places in lines ahead of us. I hear more bells, this time higher in pitch which signal the advance of the head priest. To my surprise, as the entourage passes, I realize it is the 85-year-old Abbott of the temple, dressed in an orange robe with an elaborate embroidered okesa. He only leads special ceremonies and today apparently is one.

He leads the entire group in chanting and bowing. We sit, we stand, we sit and stand; we bow standing with our hands in gassho, together at nose height, we stand and bow with our hands clutched at our chest, we do full three prostrations from the standing position down to the floor with our hands reaching up.  Despite the Abbott’s age, he still manages to the prostrations quickly, quicker than I can do them as my feet get caught in my skirt. We sit in seiza and sometimes bow part way down and later all the way down. This is all choreographed during different chants.

The chants themselves are invoking the Buddha in ourselves, whether it be of compassion or understanding.  In my “English chant book”, the chants are written  syllable by syllable in romaji so I can participate. The others have Japanese chant books usually composed with the Chinese characters which are also used in written Japanese. To my surprise, some of the chants I assumed to be Japanese were actually Japanese transliteration of Pali, a Sanskrit language used by Buddha when he was alive. It is the sounds that get carried forth, not necessarily the literal meaning.

We are invited to the altar one by one to offer incense. I feel myself walking with intent and strength in front of the all of the assembly.   When I take a small amount of powdered incense and touch it to my forehead and add it to the burning charcoal, a small puff of smoke emerges and surrounds me. The smell and heat add additional sensory stimuli to my experience. I feel some great sadness well up and well as contentedness and fullness. Walking back, I feel joyful and determined.

The Abbott ends this part of the service of remembrance and compassion for the living. He walks out with bells announcing the ending of his participation.  After some silence and moving around of items, the regular service begins. It has its own choreography, including the ritual distribution of the chant books to the monks. While most regular chants have been memorized, one in particular is in the Japanese/Chinese version of Pali and has its own book of about 60 pages. The monks are chanting syllables of words in a language they do not know. At first, we  stand up while the hundred monks in front of us snake around the room in a fairly intricate pattern while they chant. The chant speeds up and then slows down, sometimes  quiet and sometimes loud.  Then it speeds up faster and faster, until I hear what sounds like a babble of sounds rather than a joint chant. They stop snaking around and stand in place while we were are motioned to sit down in seiza. I had the same chant book (in Chinese) and I attempt to follow by watching as others turn the pages. On the repetitious parts, I start to pick out the symbols and anticipate and even join in. It is an act of awareness to just follow along, my ears listening, my eyes trying to find the patterns in the book, my hands trying to hold the book correctly upright with my thumb and pinkie in the front and the other fingers in the back. My mind is fully occupied with this task. Nothing else matters in this moment.

We proceed through five other chants, a few familiar to me from my SF Zen Center practice. And then suddenly, it is completed. The bells indicate the recession and we turn to go back to the steps to put on our slippers.


We now walk back full of awareness of the new morning sounds, other bells and drums from distant parts of the complex mixed with the birds and footsteps. The six of us walk up into the kitchen to retrieve our food. We bow to the cooks in gratitude and line up, in my case holding a bucket of rice porridge straight ahead of me,  one hand on each handle. As my sandal catches an edge on the first steps down, there is a gasp as I stumble forward. My skating reflexes are pretty good at keeping myself upright and I catch myself and make it down the steps okay. The thought crosses my mind, that we all are worried about tripping and falling and by my actually stumble, I might take some worry out of others. This is my gift to my group in the morning .



We follow the long hallways and stairways back to our area and deposit our food on a waiting table. It is now 6 am and I have been up for 3 hours already.  In the short break that follows, I take off my tabi and then stepping with the left foot first into the zendo, I bow in recognition of all beings and walk silently to my cushion on the elevated platform. I bow to the pillow and to the group as before, flip my sandals off, scoot backward on my pillow, reach forward to store my sandals underneath, arrange my robes and twirl  around on my pillow to face the wall again. I arrange my legs in a half lotus and the three bells start the period of meditation.

This is when it becomes difficult.  My knees are already sore from the last hour and half of seiza and getting up and down. Finding the right level of support on the zafu is not easy. For my height and weight, I need about 6-8 inches of support to allow my knees and legs to be in the proper position. The soft pillows are much lower, so within 15 minutes my legs  go numb and soon after the pain starts. I breathe into the pain, I focus on other parts of my body, I wiggle my legs, and spend a lot of time sitting with pain. My mind tells me, “Give up, move your legs.” I do this and it is of little avail. My mind responds with thoughts that the end of the session is near and that only makes the pain worse. Each breath feels more difficult. I now try focusing on counting my breaths and promise myself that when I get to ten and the bell has not yet rung, I will get up anyway.  I reach ten and the bill does not ring. I force myself to begin counting over again. My mind keeps wondering. “Why isn’t the bell ringing? Did someone make a mistake?” And with each thought I become more aware of the pain. Finally I give up, am defeated and move my legs. Ten seconds pass and the bells rings and I become filled with my mind’s recriminations “You could have waited and held on for a short period longer. You are never going to finish this participate period. You are a failure.”

I did not know it but this mind game would be a constant for much of the day.  This is why it is called practice.

All meals are served in the zendo in oriyoki. Simply put we have a set of three bowls, chopsticks, a setsu (think of a spatula but instead it is a black lacquered stick with a square cheesecloth attached to the end) and three cloths, a small white one, a larger grey one and a medium blue one.


These items are all use in a relatively complex ritual of eating. There is a proscribed order of untying the cloths, arranging them on the wood edge of the tan before us and on our laps, arranging the bowls and putting out the utensils. Each action must be done with precise movements.  Done correctly it is a beautiful mindful process of preparation to eat.

oriyoki 1
Source: http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/food/oryoki/index.html

ori 2

However, we are a room filled with 20 newcomers. Just opening our bowls and setting the utensils and cloths out, takes over 40 minutes, all the while sitting on a cushion in a half lotus position.

Source: https://terebess.hu/zen/szoto/oryoki.html

Serving is also done with precision. The meal is simple–rice porridge, pickled vegetables, and gomasio (ground up salted sesame seeds.) However, there are exacting movements to be learned to pick up the bowls (always with two hands), offering them to the server, receiving them back and placing them down. After a chant of gratitude for the food, we eat three quick bites of the porridge, and stop for another bow. Finally I get to eat, picking up the bowls with two hands (when I remember and/or reminded by one of the monks watching me), using a shoveling motion towards the mouth with the spoon, arranging the chopsticks in the same 10:20 clock position when I am not using them. Eating quickly without stopping.

When everyone is finished, we each clean out bowls with the setsu (of course, in the correct manner) and the servers come out with water (in the evening, they come out with tea then water both to clean the bowls.) We clean our bowls, inside and out, the chopsticks, spoon and finally the setsu and dry them in the exacting way with the white cloth. The monks come back to collect the rinse water. I carefully pour the bowl into the bucket with my right hand while guarding it from view and splashing with my left. I lift the bowl to my mouth to savor the few last drops. I then begin the process of arranging the bowls, eating utensils and cloth back together. First I grab the middle of the napkin cloth on my lap, with left hand on the top middle and right hand, underneath, pulling backward. I fold it in two and then in thirds and place it own the bowl. I place my eating utensils on top. I stretch my cleaning cloth  along each edge, fold it half way across, flip it upside down to cover half of the bowls and then unfold it to reveal the portion with my name in the lower right hand corner. But it’s not in the right place indicating that I did it wrong. I repeat this again and again under the watchful eye of a monk. I finally unfold the cloth and my name is where it is supposed to be. I cheer quietly to myself.  Another 30 minutes has passed.  As beginners it takes almost two hours, with our teachers watching every move, gently correcting the movements and getting more particular about those movements the more proficient we get in the overall process.

My legs are aching and it is a relief to do the final chant, jump off the tan into my slippers (another thing I never quite accomplished, although to the Japanese participants, this was second nature), bow and walk out the zendo.

A thirty minute break is followed by soji, cleaning the zendo, and the bathrooms. Each of these has specific tools to use and a manner in which to do them. I brush off the tatami mats we sit on in the zendo with a broom. I sweep the floors and wash the floors with a wet rage bending over from the waist with two hands on the rage moving it from side to side down the long walkways in the zendo. My heart beat raises with the effort and the workout feels good.

I brush my teeth and wash my face before I go back to the zendo for 40 minutes of sitting, followed by walking meditation, and 30 more minutes of sitting. It is now 11:00 am and I have been up for 7 hours .  We begin to prepare for lunch,  This time oriyoki only takes one and half hours.  The pain in my legs remind me of each minute and that this is not something I do regularly especially in the half-lotus position. My mind wants me to scream and tells me, “This is not what you signed up for.”

The afternoon schedule contains an hour dharma talk by one of the teachers, for which we are soon sitting in seiza at small desks. For the Japanese, this is a relaxing position. For me, sitting on my ankles for an hour is another way of torturing a different part of my legs.


When it is over, we have a ten minute tea break before we return to the zendo for  another two sessions of zazen.

Oriyoki again at 5:30 pm  We are getting better and we manage it in 45 minutes. My legs are still sore and aching.  However relief is ahead. We have 30 minutes to go to the o-sento in basement to clean up. We walk down the steps in two rows and when we get to the o-sento, we bow. We take off our clothed in the out-room and then enter the spa room itself.  I sit on a small white plastic stool in one of the cleaning stations and with a hand spray fully wash and clean myself.  After, I am thoroughly clean, I join my compatriots in the soaking tub which is about 110 degrees F.  It feels good to stretch my legs and I massage them in the hot steaming water. I stay as long as I can before I get out, rinse myself off with cool water and dress again.

I am back seated in the zendo at 7:10 pm. Two more sessions of zazen, separated by walking meditation.  Now I feel warm, light and no longer have pain in my legs. My mind which has been in hyper-drive, relaxes as I stare at the wall.  For this time period, I am not counting the minutes and when the bell rings am surprised how quickly time passed.

The last chant of the evening is called Fuganzazengi and is in Japanese It is a chant I do not know but by this second evening,  I feel myself being carried forward, my voice more confident with the phrasing, fully engaged in the power and beauty of our chorus of voices.

Tazunuru ni sore, dō moto enzū,ikade ka shushō o
karan, shūjō jizai nanzo kufū o tsuiyasan. Iwan ya, zentai
haruka ni jinnai o izu, tare ka hosshiki no shudan o shin
zen. Ōyoso, tōjo o hanarezu, ani shugyō no kyakutō o
mochiuru mono naran ya. Shikare domo, gōri mo sa
areba, tenchi haruka ni hedatari, ijun wazuka ni okoreba,
funnen toshite shin o shissu. Tatoi,e ni hokori,go ni
yutaka ni shite, betchi no chitsū o e, dō o e,shin o
akiramete, shōten no shiiki o koshi,nittō no henryō ni
shōyō su to iedomo, hotondo shusshin no katsuro o

Iwanya, kano gion no shōchi taru, tanza roku nen no
shōseki mitsu beshi,shōrin no snin in o tsutauru,
menpeki kusai no shōmyō nao kikoyu. Koshō sude ni
shikari,konjin nanzo ben zezaru…

It continues on to the last verses.

Sude ni ninshin no kiyō o e tari, munashiku kōin o wataru
koto nakare. Butsudō no yōki o honin su, tare ka midari
ni sekka o tanoshiman. Shika nomi narazu, gyōshitsu wa
sōro no gotoku, unmei wa denkō ni ni tari. Shukkotsu
toshite sunawachi kūji, shuyu ni sunawachi shissu.

Koi negawaku wa, sore sangaku no kōru, hisashiku mozo
ni naratte, shinryū o ayashimu koto nakare. Jikishi
tanteki no dō ni shōjin shi, zetsu gaku mu i no hito o
sonki shi, butsu butsu no bodai ni gattō shi, soso no
zanmai o tekishi seyo. Hisashiku inmo nam koto o
nasaba, subekaraku kore inmo naru beshi, hōzō
onozukara hirakete juyō nyoi naran.

Later I discover the the name–Song of Zazen, Fukan zazengi 普勧坐禅儀
(Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen)

The last two stanzas stand out for me.

You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form.
Do not pass your days and nights in vain. You are taking
care of the essential activity of the buddha-way. Who
would take wasteful delight in the spark from a flintstone?
Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the
grass, the fortunes of life like a dart of lightning – emptied
in an instant, vanished in a flash.

Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to
groping for the elephant, do not doubt the true dragon.
Devote your energies to the way of direct pointing at the
real. Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and
is free from effort. Accord with the enlightenment of all
the buddhas; succeed to the samadhi of all the ancestors.
Continue to live in such a way, and you will be such a
person. The treasure store will open of itself, and you
may enjoy it freely

It’s  9 pm and I have been up for 18 hours. I brush my teeth, roll out the futon  and bedding and  dive into bed. I will be awake again in 6 hours.



Interpreting Japan Through Signs

There are many pathways to understanding or misunderstanding a country. Japan offers opportunities to do both. 

Years ago, I was in Singapore visiting a friend in a fairly nice apartment building. There were two signs in the elevator. One saiid “No durians.” If you have ever smelled one, you would know why. The second said, “Do not urinate here.” Not such an obvious prohibition in an orderly country like Singapore. When I mentioned it to my friend, he just said, ” There are reasons that that sign is there, trust me.” Ever since then I have paid attention to signs for what they may tell me about local mores. 

As I would walk to my guest house in Shinjuku each day, I would study this sign carefully. It took my a day or two to realize it was a catfish, not a whale. I thought a whale would be a better message carrier in a tsunami, but was told by friends that catfish can supposedly react to earthquakes before they happen. So this fellow is a much better guide in that particular emergency. 

You know there’s trouble when penguins are smoking cigarettes and have a yellow Mohawk–yup we are talking about delinquency big time. Fortunately, our friendly whale (maybe they sense trouble from afar) gives our penguin some advice and more importantly his first yelllow bow tie. With a bow tie, you can already sense that redemption is in our penguin’s future. Sure enough the job training sea lion gives him his first award signifying his rehabilitation. Our penguin looks forward to a bright future. 

Yes, our friend and it looks like he has a girlfriend now is a spokespenguin for the Council on Justice Rehabiliation program. He’s come a long way, but wait there is more. 

He gets the job of a lifetime for the transit system selling transit cards. You can’t do better than that!

Speaking of trains, there are a lot of strange things to be worried about. This poster talks about head butting and, egads, tie-pulling of train station personnel. It must happen but definitely creepy. 

There’s a lot to be worried about in train stations. Death by cell phone. 

Death by electrocution

Death by luggage.

Death by aliens and their luggage that talks. 

It’s the live humans you have to worry most about. Although the excesses of the salarymen era in the 80s when you had to carefully step around “salarymen pancakes” after 10pm are finished, it is still easy to witness this in the cities. What I learned from this poster is that the bad salaryman pukes on the tracks, while the good salaryman pukes in a plastic bag. The cultural nuances are always important. 

I now know there are lots of issues with photography in modern Japan. 

It is easy to come to the conclusion that rude kids are everywhere.,  However, if they exist, I never saw them. 

Not all is bad in train stations though. The very nice train conductor is fetching Madeline’s hat that fell to the tracks with a nifty hat plucking device which perhaps he took from a pachinko machine. 

This sign found on Teshima Island has been a mystery to me and many Japanese speakers. It talks of danger and what will happen if one is not aware. It was near a canal but Japan does not have piranhas. 

This only makes sense if you have been on Naoshima Island. See my previous post. 

A nice sweet one encouraging people to smile. 

 Yes, Charlie Chaplin is still alive and is nice to the ladies

My favorite and the only one that could end this post so filled with dangers. At a road construction site, bowing in apology for the inconvenience. Our world would be a kinder place of this was used more often. 

Temple Hopping In Kyoto, Uji and Kurama

















Temple Hopping 

Selfies red seal books

Attest to our attainment
Why have we come here?

Temple Shots: We All Should be Inoculated 

Kannon looms over

Compassion eternally

Our need is endless

Humid Kyoto Afternoon

Sweat on my brow pours 

Not unlike the stream flowing

To the peaceful lake

Seeing Shades

Green is the last color

Green upon green upon green

What do I see now

Unseen Yet Everywhere

Worlds in rocks and roots
Time ever more encroaching on
Whatever we have left.

The Path to Enlightenment

Intent makes us go

Until we are lost again

And in the next place.

Boddhisatvas and Buddhas

One in the same name

Saving all beings at home

And where they may roam.

The Museum as Art: Tadeo Ando and Ryue Nishizawa

” When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the wayer. When a bird flies, no matter how high it fileis, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When a bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is small, the range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole of space and vigorously acts in every place.”–Genjokaon, Eiheiji Dogen

Imagine a favorite modern art building designed by a star architect in your city. Now take out all the art except for one piece or 15 or 30 pieces. Welcome to the new world of art on Naoshima and Teshima Islands in Japan, The  Benesse Corporation has created 4 museums, three designed by Tadeo Ando and the fourth by Ryue Nishizawa. Despite the “lack” of art in these museums, I only had time to visit three in the two days I was there. In each time move on its own pace unrelated to world time or even museum time. With so little to see, the amount of time to experience felt endless. 

There will be few pictures in this blog because photography was extremely limited.  Museums as Art also meant the the ban on photographing exhibits extended to the buildings themselves. The freestanding art outside was not part of this prohibition.

The Chichu Art Museum is a Tadao Ando concrete masterpiece built into the top of a hill overlooking the Seto (Inland) Sea. From the ticket center, you walk upwards through a garden filled with flowers, trees, a stream, a pond, refreshing in the coolness of the trail on a warm humid day. The museum is entered through a long concrete tunnel and walkway that  twists and turns and takes you down some flights of steps. It was long enough to make you wonder if you missed something. Is it possible that a person can we be walking this long in an art museums without any art. Ando creates experiences for humans, not places to hang pieces on a wall. 

When we do break through the maze, we are confronted with our only decision: which of the three artists, with eight works total on three floors to see first.

The Walter de Maria room is a modern ancient temple. The front wall is about 50 feet high and the room extends about 150 feet long. A massive staircase the width of the room occupies most of waht you see with flat spaces on top and bottom and a third of the way up. All white/ grey concrete. There is a lowered ceiling that has a slot allowing a direct view if the sky, while around the edges of the lowered ceiling diffused light comes through from openings we cannot see. There are no other light sources. Around the walls are 27 pairs of guided wooden columns about 4 feet high. The are arranged on the entry wall, the rear wall with just a few on the long walls. 

In the middle of the central stair platform is is a 2.2 meter diameter round black marble which looks like to could roll down the steps. However it was held in place, was not apparent although once could touch it and several people tried to push it. Such is human nature. It reflects the light particularly from the slit in the ceiling. 

People sit on the stairs above it and below it in quiet worship. It might be a long-lost recovered temple to the room itself. In re-looking at the brochure, I just noticed the name of the room, Time/Timelessness/NoTime.

The Monet Waterlilies room requires you to take off your shoes and don white soft slippers. The floor is composed of white miniature thick ceramics with no visible grout. The corners where the white walls meet are rounded. Again only diffused light enters the room from a lowered white ceiling; there are no electric lights. On each of three walls are hung one waterlily painting. The fourth had two smaller paintings. For about 15 minutes, no one else was there but me, the guard and the waterlilies. Being alone with such art is dangerous. I began to let the paintings speak to me, instead of the catalogue describing THE ART. I was bothered first that the largest of the works had this large reddish area blocking the views of the water lilies. In the endless time I had, I began to see and create my own stories of fire and light around this no longer serene pond. Like i said, it’s dangerous to let people alone with art, they may react.

The final room was James Turrell, the artist of light, vision and created environments. Open Skies is a large room with the ceiling open to the sky. Completely open to air, the clouds, the rain and sun. It was a dull day out, soon to rain, and  the sky white and grey just slowly moving. In the evenings, Turrell plays with our vision by bathing the walls in different hues which shockingly paints the open skies in new and vibrant colors.

In the next room was his Open Field. Up a staircase of black steps you enter a glowing magenta room which feels soft and misty, walking through a fog bank that’s perfectly clear while casting a spell on the air itself. The more you walk, the more the space seems contained yet endless. 

As you walk through again the corridors, Ando leads your eye to look at the building and your reactions. The one exception to the photography ban is from where I am sitting outside the cafe where you take pictures of the scenery. 

At 4:56 Japanese time on June 24, this is what I see.

Lower down the hill is the Benesse Art Museum. Here is the view from the from entrance.

 It was realively more crowded with art, 30 pieces or so over three floors. I remember three pieces by Richard Long, one ring filled with cut stone, another with driftwood from the Seto Sea and a third of two circles painted on a wall with what looked like mud.  For some reason their lack of importability struck me. That’s when I realized that they were created for the building and space so they don’t have to move.

In contrast, one of the temporary pieces was called Weeds by Yoshihiro Suda. Weeds were indeed the one thing missing from Ando’s building. All concrete has cracks and weeds are the first to grow. Now they complete the space. Here’s a picture from the Benesse website. 

Outside on the grounds are additional pieces of work. 

Drink a Cup of Tea, Kazuo Katase

Pumpkin, Yayoi Kasuma

Seen/Unseen, Known/Unknown, Walter de Maria (The hat was actually a found object.)

On my last day in the islands, I took a ferry to Teshima Island, the home of the Teshima Art Musuem. The museum was designed by Ryue Nishizawa and the interior piece, there’s one and only one, was designed by Rei Naito who did the Art House Project  called Kinza  which I had experienced by myself a few days before. The Museum is a white concrete shell like some sort of oblongish saucer foot ball field size with two oblong holes in the ceiling. 

Each hole has a white ribbon hanging from side to side like an ethereal swing which blows and shimmers in the wind.  The smooth white concrete floor had tiny pinpoint holes where water exudes in drops. The drops coagulate and move following unseen pathways only known to them, sometimes swiftly like shape-shifting snakes, other times simply blobs of water joining with other blobs until that mass starts moving. There also occasional strings from the ceiling and small round white objects on the floor. We enter, as one does to temples, barefoot and can feel the coolness of the concrete through our feet. All throughout people are silently sitting some on their knees in seiza, as it is Japan and they know that position from birth, others walking sitting breathing lying in awe.

My Words are My Memory: Transcendent Art on Naoshima

The Art House Project in Homura on Naoshima took 6 houses many 100-200 years old and a Shinto Shrine and created art in each. I spent 5 hours walking around this small village in a state of awe. Most of the spaces don’t allow photography, so my words are my memory. 

1. Imagine a square pool of water in an old Japanese house filling a room. The only lights are In the water: 125 LED lights counting from 1-9. Each counter represented a person on the island who determined the speed of the change. Kadoya, Tatsuo Miyajima

2. A 30 foot tunnel about 2 feet wide and 6 feet high is lined with smooth marble. You have a flashlight but don’t need it until the end. You turn into the blackness and turn on your light. The walls are rock, cave-like or tomb-like. Then your flashlight reflects light, in front of you is a staircase which looks like it’s made of ice with water dripping down. Go’o Shrine, Hiroshi Sugimoto 

3. You are led into a dark room by a guide who says keep your right hand to the wall. After the first turn it is pitch dark. You make several more turns and she invites you to sit and says, “Please wait 5-8 minutes.” You sit seeing nothing, listening to your breath. Nothing but darkness. Not even hallucinations. Nothing. You pay attention to your breathing so as not to let the fear of no seeing take over your mind. Then without announcement you begin to notice some light shapes on two of the walls and eventually light emanating from a large screen or maybe these are the hallucinations.  The guide invites you, “You can move around in the space now.”  You walk and see nothing in particular but the light is comforting in the dark. It’s not real light but a light that is not darkness. When you reach the place that you think there is a screen, your hand tries to touch and hits nothing. You begin to make your own movies of the lights. Nothing again. The guide beckons you to leave. This time you don’t need your hand on the wall to guide you. In the beginning of language there were no names for color, just light and dark. I experienced that today. Minamidera, James Turrell and Tadeo Ando

4. You take a break to eat and begin to notice big and little things, the sounds around you, the lushness of the land, the colors of everything. Your perceptions. 

5. You enter a large house formerly a dentists office. In one tall room the walls are painted shiny black in areas and a less shiny black in others. The room appears to be rectangular with a flat ceiling. The only light comes from a slot in the wall above you, natural light from a window somewhere. You walk up a staircase and look down into the room and discover the the black shiny ceiling has a huge triangular piece coming out about three feet. Then you notice the walls you thought were straight have alcoves. Later when you go down and step in each of the three alcoves you discover that they are all different and evoke different feelings. Back upstairs you find a 20 foot white plastic Statue of Liberty that’s a Buddha. Haidha, Shinro Ohtake

6. Hanging in there with me? You enter another old house with hard wooden floors varnished black with the exposed beams of ancient trees that were cut down to build the house. In one room on three sides are images that seem to be etched in metal but are really paintings set in the panels that used to make up the walls. The images evoke the Seto seascape around the island and on the final wall it trails into wisps of fog barely visible. In the other room, all three walls are of a painted waterfall, which is reflected in the black lacquer floor. Ishibashi, Hiroshi Senju

7. The Ando Museum has models of his work in an old house in which he added a square concrete room that goes down two stories. It creates a hard new space. Ando Museum, Tadeo Ando

8. Finally you reserve the 3:45 slot for a 15 minute experience alone in a building. The guide brings you to asks a thick yet low door and invites you to open it, step inside and close it.  It’s a 15 by 25 foot space. The only light comes from the bottom of the walls where there is a 4 inch slit that lets natural light enter. In front of you are there sets of columns which look like the tori gates in Shinto temples (the ones shaped like pi.) Surrounding the second set in the middle is a 12 foot diameter circular white ring made of marble. The marble ring has a smooth top about a foot wide with nothing but the ground and the tori gate in it. Scattered around are small flat circular objects and some small pointed objects. You remember from you beginning Japanese language class that flat things have a different counting system than pointed things. (There are numerous other counting systems.)  You doubt that is relevant to this situation. You are not allowed to roam around. You can just sit, look and breath. 

9. That was my day. Thanks for joining me.

A potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism-Review by Lambda Literary

Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker is an audacious debut novel.  No less a figure than Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Buccellanus Augustus (better known to us as the Roman Emperor Hadrian) narrates this tale. Deified after death, and therefore a demigod, he is able to interact with the immortal gods of ancient Greece and the orishas of Cuban Santería.  Unlike them, however, Hadrian can suffer the all-too-human feelings of love, an experience that extends into his post-mortal existence, and inspires acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of Antinio, the book’s mortal protagonist.  Hadrian cannot make himself known to humans, but he can, in a limited fashion (and at great cost to himself) extend his protection to Antinio, and does so several times over the course of the novel.

Antinio, despite his name, does not resemble Hadrian’s beloved Antinous (who drowned at the age of nineteen), except insofar that he too is literate, educated, and a great physical beauty.  Instead, he embodies the wily Odysseus (the eponymous “troubleseeker” of the book’s title), and his uncanny charm with women and men both continually lands him into and then out of trouble. The novel chronicles Antinio’s life-journey, which lasts far longer than ten years, and covers far more ground than the mythic islands of the Mediterranean. His facility with languages allows him to travel to Europe, and eventually he leaves his native Cuba for America, arriving in Florida before heading to Minneapolis and then eventually settling in California.  Similar to Odysseus’ journey, Antinio’s continual travels represent his search for home.  When Antinio immigrates to America, he is sundered from his wife and twin sons, but reuniting with them does not return him to himself as it did Odysseus; it is only by leaving Cuba that Antinio manages to establish an authentic identity as a Gay man.

Antino is not obsessed with the classical Greek preoccupation of avoiding one’s pre-ordained fate—nor does he share the ancient Greek distrust of that force called eros, the powerful, all-consuming love that even the gods feared because of its extreme potential for disruption.  Indeed, erotic love remains constant throughout his life, even during the repressive regimes of post-revolution Cuba and Reagan-era America, and even after he is stricken with HIV. (Lessik combines and subverts these two themes by naming the three great loves of Antinio’s life after each of the Greek Fates:  Antinio’s fate is to love, and he in turn loves Fate.)  For all that nearly every character takes his/her name from Greek myth, the Greek gods themselves play but a minor role in the narrative; the actions of the Cuban orishas result in greater consequences, as when Babalú Ayé (the orisha of disease and healing) creates the virus that eventually leads to AIDS.

Still, this book is not a recycling of Greek myth in Caribbean drag, any more than it is merely a retelling of love during the recent devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic with added fantastical elements to make the suffering mythic in scope. Lessik deftly weaves several narrative strands to create this story, which becomes greater than any of its single parts. Far more than the life story of one immigrant’s journey, or a Gay man’s search for love and/or identity, this odyssey is a potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism, and in its own way is just as epic.

Lambda Literary Review  by Keith Glaeske

The Troubleseeker: a Stunningly Creative Novel-Gay & Lesbian Review

“This stunningly creative novel, The Troubleseeker…with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, …is a powerful first novel.”

Gay & Lesbian Review of The Troubleseeker

This stunningly creative novel combines history and mythology from several cultures to tell the story of Antinio, a gay Cuban man, as he searches for freedom and love in the face of oppression and disease. It is narrated by Hadrian, the brilliant emperor of ancient Roman whose male lover Antinous died by drowning at age nineteen, whereupon Hadrian made him a god and had statues of Antinous erected all over the Empire. Hadrian,now a disembodied demi-god with limited supernatural powers, takes an interest in Antinio, actively saving h is life on several occasions. He also meets with several of the Greek gods and with the orishas of the Santería faith who migrated to Cuba from Africa during the slave trade-learning about their role in human affairs. It is an unusual blend, but holds together throughout to tell a compelling story. There is a helpful character guide at the beginning.

Antinio’s story begins in childhood, under the Castro regime. Skilled in languages, after an eventful stint in the military, he works as a translator in the Ministry of Culture, assist ing visiting artists and performers. This job also helps him to meet many like-minded men, and he has a few passionate affairs. Unfortunately, due to Cuba’s macho culture and the leadership’s repressive stance on homosexuality, he must keep his feelings and relationships a secret, even from his family. This leads to powerful feelings of guilt and shame, enough to create a chorus of Lamenters, Shriekers, and a Siren, which torment him throughout his life. He also has a brief relationship with a woman, which leads to children; his relationship with them will come to haunt him.

After a botched attempt to escape to East Germany, Anti­nio finds another opportunity when the Cuban government allows homosexuals and other undesirables to leave via the Mariel Boatlift. This makes for an unusual scene, when Anti­nio, w ho has always presented himself as a ‘”macho” type, must now adopt the stereotype of the effeminate gay man to the authorities to convince them that he’s gay. He arrives in the U.S., ending up in Minnesota, where he struggles to adjust to an unfamiliar climate and culture. He begins to find community, work, and lovers, but he’s hit hard by the AIDS crisis. Despite Hadrian’s power, he cannot save Antinio. But he can tell his story.

A love of language infuses the novel. The characters’ names are mostly derived from Greek mythology and language. Anti­nio’s wife is Circe and his sons are named Icario and Polideuces. His best friend is Erato, the muse of love and erotic poetry. A bully is named Apolion, from the word for destroyer. Even the novel’s title, according to Hadrian, comes from a translation of the hero Odysseus’ name, which literally means “to be grieved at.” (The actual etymology of Odysseus is uncertain.) As a young man Antinio falls in love with the constructed international language Esperanto, and his job in the U.S. involves creating a computer program that can translate any language. Spanish is also scattered throughout the novel.

The gods and orishas play an unusual , sometimes troubling role in the story, helping to influence human affairs while generally staying away from individual people. Babalu Ayé, responsible for disease and healing, is the creator of HIV, although he takes no responsibility for its effects. This reader could not help but remember certain religious figures who declared AIDS to be God’s punishment for homosexuality. Not that the novel is suggesting that, but it’s an uncomfortable association nonetheless. That said, with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, The Troubleseeker is a powerful first novel.

Charles Green is a writer based in Annapolis, Maryland.