Monestary Life

Our plan was to ride our bicycles to the Zen Monestary – 20 km outside of Kyoto. However, it rained on our departure day, so we decided to leave the bikes at the Kyoto train station and to pick them up after the retreat.

The train ride out to Kameoka was breathtaking! The train went through the mountains and crossed beautiful rivers on high bridges. The monestary itself was in a tiny village, surrounded by rice fields.

The monestary at this point had four permanent residents. Roshi, the spiritual leader of the monestary, was traveling in Europe. In his absence, Gentoku Zurbriggen was running the place. The other residents were Congo, Bjorn and Dima. Last, the monestary had one guest, Jolanta, who was from Poland.

We knew, more or less, what we were getting into, as the daily schedule was listed on the Monestary’s web site: Getting up at five in the morning, meditation, lectures, chants, etc. But here came the first disappointment: While I was hoping for spiritual guidance during the reatreat, there wouldn’t be any lectures in August and September – summer break during Roshi’s absence. As frustrating was the fact that there was no real guidance for anything. If we did something wrong, it was pointed out harshly, and that was it. What could be done wrong? Not bowing when it was required, stepping forward with the wrong foot, sitting incorrectly, folding the napkin in the wrong way, putting the chopsticks down incorrectly, etc. By reprimenting rather than guiding, the atmosphere during ceremonies was harsh. It was supposed to be a humbling experience. But due to this behavior, I missed the spiritual atmosphere that a place like Suan Mokkh definitely had.

The atmosphere during non-ceremonial times was quite different. Gentoku, who during ceremonies never smiled a bit, was quite pleasant and approachable. Yet many answers were left open. In Zen, practice comes before the teachings. The student is supposed to give complete trust into the teacher, even if he doesn’t understand the reasons for practicing. In fact, I was pointed to the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, a book that was high on my reading list anyway. For years, Herrigel practices miniscule aspecs of archery, without really understanding the reasons, trusting in his teacher.

This kind of trust in the teacher makes sense and is certainly required, once the commitment of staying years in a monestary is made. But for me, as a guest, trying to understand Zen, this approach just didn’t work for me. Without proper guidance, all I saw were empty rituals.

To make things worse, this retreat was not silent. The reatreat at Suan Mokkh was silent, because in Buddhism, “right speach” is very important. To prevent wrong speach, silence was required. Not so at this monestary. The talks and discussions were heated and awkward at times. Dima had the unpleasant habbit of never letting anybody finish a sentence. He and Jolanta were confirming each other in their superiority, and frankly, that kind of talk is at odds with spiritualty – at least in my opinion.

Still, I don’t regret having spent the time there. Now I know how monestary life feels like – this is an insight I could never have gained from just reading a book or watching a movie. Being there, being humbled or even humiliated is nothing that could be learned otherwise. I@can see how it can provide refuge for somebody who is lost. I can see how one can benefit from life there – although it takes years, not days or weeks, to benefit. The vegetarian food was great, and it felt nice to be part of it, to help in the kitchen or to clean house and garden. Bjorn was playing the flute most beautifully in the evenings. I am grateful for these insights.

Over the days, I developed a really bad cough and was constantly wet with cold sweat. I would have loved to spend a full week there, but considered my physical wellness more important than the spiritial experience. Which was a good thing – the doctor in Kyoto told me that my infection could easily have evolved into a Bronchitis – the last thing I needed on a trip like this. And I had a great experience with the doctor, Sakabe Yoshio, who treated me at his own clinic, the Sakabe International Clinic in Kyoto. He not only spoke English very well but also German, and he insisted on giving me an autographed copy of the book he wrote, Night Autopsy Room: Seven Tales of Life, Death, and Hope. This will be great travel reading.

Bushido – the Soul of Japan (Book Review)

Before I begin, I want to point out that this book, as well as the Book of Tea are now in the public domain, and the links I provided above lead to the full text of these books!

Some background, that Nitobe provides himself in the book: He is a converted Christian. In the chapter entitled “The Training and Position of Woman” he excused the fact that the woman was serving the man by the fact that she is thereby ultimately serving god: “In the ascending scale of service stood woman, who annihilated herself for man, that he might annihilate himself for the master, that he in turn might obey heaven. I know the weakness of this teaching and that the superiority of Christianity is nowhere more manifest than here, in that it requires of each and every living soul direct responsibility to its Creator. Nevertheless, as far as the doctrine of service – the serving of a cause higher than one’s own self, even at the sacrifice of one’s individuality; I say the doctrine of service, which is the greatest that Christ preached and is the sacred keynote of his mission – as far as that is concerned, Bushido is based on eternal truth.”

This passage shows two things about this book: First, it is specifically written for the Westener, to understand the Japanese. And second, it’s written from the late 19th century perspective. Feudalism was just abandoned in 1870!

I want to talk about a few things that I experienced today in Japan, in 2005, that made so much more sense to me after reading this book.


Samurai didn’t engage in commerce. “Of all the great occupations of life, none was farther removed from the profession of arms than commerce. The merchant was placed lowest in the category of vocations, – the knight, the tiller of the soil, the mechanic, the merchant.” – I was surprised to hear this – but separating commercial power (money) from military power (arms) was probably doing a lot of good to the country. “Montesquieu has made it clear that the debarring of the nobility from mercantile pursuits was an admirable social policy, in that it prevented wealth from accumulating in the hands of the powerful.” Isn’t it tempting to contemplate for a minute about the fact that, while we do have separation of power, the commercial and political forces these days tend to grow closer together? Would we be better off to disallow alliances (e.g. by prohibiting lobbying altogether)?

From this book I learned, that Japanese commerce had a bad reputation for a while, shortly after Japan was forced to open up its market. Nitobe acknowledged this, but explained it by the fact that, as mentioned above, merchants were of the lowest social standing, and as such attracting some shady characters. But he also points out that over time, Bushido ideas were gaining momentum: “Now-a-days we hear comparatively little of (…) dishonesty in trade. In twenty years [Japan’s] merchants learned that in the end honesty pays. Already our merchants are finding that out. “


Harakiri, ceremonial suicide, is one of those things that is fascinating in a creepy way, and somehow we want to know more about it, even though we don’t want to admit it. Nitobe starts off with pointing out that suicide is not unknown in the West, and even though the Church condemns it, there are many cases where it was respected, or even accepted.

Nitobe provides two graphic eye-witness accounts of harakiri. It’s the very deliberate act of stabbing oneself below the waist, drawing the dagger all the way across and up, and pulling it out again. This procedure doesn’t kill immediately but is extremely painful, and often the deliquent is beheaded after the operation to shorten his suffering.

Giving one’s live for honour or a greater cause was not seen as such a big deal – in the end, we all have to die, so may as well die for something worthy, especially as there was no stigma attached to suicide. In fact, due to the glorification, harakiri was committed for reasons entirely undeserving of death: “Life was cheap—cheap as reckoned by the popular standard of honor.”

Personally this reminds me of the suicide wave that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther created. I also have been intruiged for a long time by Socrates’ death, which I would categorize as suicide. Nitobe picked that one up as well: “If suicide meant no more than dying by one’s own hand, Socrates was a clear case of suicide. But nobody would charge him with the crime; Plato, who was averse to it, would not call his master a suicide.” Fact is, nobody wanted to put Socrates to death, and he was given many options to escape that fate, which he stubbonly rejected. I believe that he knew that only by dying as a matyr, he would become immortal. Had he not drunken the poision, he probably wouldn’t be remembered the way he is being remembered today.

And more…

This book has been a great aid for me to understand Japan – I encourage you to browse through the book online, or pick up a copy. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Bathing Monkeys and Chanting Monks

A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel. The rooms have minimal furniture and the floor is covered with Tatami mats. The bedding (futon) is usually put away for the day, and there is always a thermos of hot water for tea on the table. Even nicer, almost all Ryokans have a communal bath, which is the focal point of the stay. I already discovered the pleasure of a nice Japanes bath on my last trip, five years ago.

But this Ryokan was offering the most hospitable experience we’ve seen so far. Armed with the map from the tourist information, we were trying to find this place. We were standing at an intersection, looking like rather helpless tourists with our backpacks, when a young man a few houses up was waving his arms. This man turned out to be Mokoto (sp?), and welcomed us with the biggest heart, took our backpacks, and poured us some tea while we did the paperwork for checkin. He apologized profoundly that he had to make a copy of our passports, as it was required by law. Everybody in the place went through great lenghts to make us feel as much as home as possible. After settling in, Maha and I spent an hour in the communal bath (which was private, so we could use it together), where we made the decision to extend our stay from two to three days. Sodo needed some quite reflecting time, and Nagano was offering that.

We didn’t rush anything, and mainly enjoyed the city, strolled through the streets and just kicked back. But there were two highlights that deserve special mention:

On the second day we got up early in the morning – really early, at 5:30 am – to see the morning ceremony at the local Buddhist center. It was very beautiful, with chanting and praying. After the service was over, everybody lined up along the path where the monks would proceed, where we bowed down when they passed, so that we could get blessed. Very beautiful experience.

Mokoto told us about the springs with the monkeys, and described us how to get there. “Just say ‘monkey’, and people will know” he adviced. So we got on the train, where we left the guidance of our guidebook behind, which mentioned the monkeys with two sentences. But, as Mokoto said, the workd “monkey” worked wonder, and after a busride and a thirty minute hike we reached a beautiful valey. Well, they did charge admission, but it was worth it! The monkeys weren’t shy at all and seeing the little ones play was the cutest thing in the world! They have amazing character faces – be sure to check back, once our pictures are uploaded (after the trip). And the highlight was the onzen afterwards – bathing in the natural spring water. This Onzen had separate indoor baths for men and women and, very anusual, a coed outdoor bath (so that both, men and women could enjoy the natural setting). This was an amazing experience.

And to round up a wonderful experience, we tried our first Okonomiyaki, which is similar to a pancake, but much thicker and stuffed. Nobody in the restaurant spoke English, the menu was unreadable, but it doesn’t matter. The randomly picked dishes were simply amazing.

Sado Island

We arrived Friday evening by ferry from Naoetsu – but the festival was in Ogi. Even though all the English speaking Japanese seemed to have disappeared, we found ourselves without too much trouble on a bus to Ogi, together with a number of other Westeners. Most of them actually worked in Japan as English teachers. It seems that it is incredibly easy to get a job in Japan as a teacher – a good thing to know for everybody who ever toyed with the idea of spending a year abroad.

We arrived a little to late for the Kodo concert that evening, and decided instead to take it easy and to explore the flea market area in Ogi. It was a magical night – there were stalls with food and beautiful crafts, the air was mellow, and we could hear the concert drums in the background. This time we were staying in a hostel, and upon arrival the waiting queue for the showers developed into an impromptu lounge party.

Saturday was our first “real” day, and we were diving head on into the fringe events: Miyake Taiko, Hula from Hawaii (yes, really!), and… Kodo, who gave a short performance together with Koji Kakinuma. It was hot. And humid. And did I mention that it was hot? Still, in order to reach the site of the Kodo workshop, we had to walk up that hill, in the sun. And it was worth every drop of sweat. The workshop was run by Yoshikazu Fujimoto, one of Kodo’s stars. But he is the sweetest, most gentle person. The workshop consisted of only 24 students (and was sold out a long time ago. Only thanks to Maha’s wit to plan early we got those tickets).

After doing some clapping excercises on our legs we were let loose on the drums. He made us play a simple beat for 15 minutes straight (dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum…). I was breaking a sweat, and wasn’t alone – as opposed to the instructors, for whom the whole excercise must have been a bore (but they didn’t show it). Anyway, for us, the students, the air was filled with electricity.

Finally, we were learning the actual song. Oh, and by the way, the instructions were all in Japanese, of course. Only when one of us Westerners was struggling a little too much, Fujimoto came over and explained with hands, feet, and a little bit of English, always with the biggest smile on his face.

In the meantime, a photographer entered the gym, taking particular interest in Maha and me. Later that day we met him again and interviewed us. His name was Johann, and he was a freelance photographer for Sony’s World Event Village Project. Keep your eyes open on that website to catch coverage of Maha and me – however, when I checked just now (8/22), the Earth Celebration wasn’t covered yet.

We ended the day by hanging out in the bath house (Onzen) near our dorm – a perfect way to end a perfect day.

Karaoke in Tokyo

In a new environment, everything takes a little bit longer, and it was already early evening when we arrived at our hotel (booked just an hour earlier at the Tourist Information), a really nice Ryokan called Andon, near the Minowa Train Station. The area was residential, so what to do for dinner? We tried our luck by wandering the streets, and found a place that could pass for a restaurant, but that wasn’t too clear, as the writing on the door was unreadable. We didn’t have much time to hang around, as the door was suddenly opened, and a friendly woman asked us to come in (in Japanese, of course). It turned out that we stumbled into the tiniest Karaoke-Bar in Tokyo – one wall was just a long bench, and after Maha and I were seated, it was full with the two of us and three Japanese, and we were sitting there like birds on a wire.

Nobody spoke English, not even a word – but that didn’t stop them to try to make us as comfortable as possible. And after some beer and some Sake, communication indeed got better. Places like this one are referred to as Izakayas, and all the guests (all male except Maha) called the owner who ran the place just “Mama”.

Even though the place was tiny, it was big enough for two TV screens and… the Karaoke machine. And every once in a while, Mama would throw a coin in the machine, and one of the guests would sing – and at some point, one of the guests was singing a duett with Mama, and they were both pretty good! It goes without saying that Mama had plenty of flirtatious energy for her boys. And of course, Maha and I had no chance of excusing us from singing either. First we tried to point out that we couldn’t read the Japanese texts – only to be hit by a telephone book-sized catalog of songs that included an extensive English section. Oh, well. We made asses of ourselves, but we were with friends and had a blast.

Much later, when we stumbled out of the place, drunk and jet-lagged, we whole heartedly agreed that this was the best welcome to Japan we could have wished for.

One Night in Istanbul

The first impression of Istanbul was almost disappointlingly unexoctic – the city could easily pass for any modern cosmotolitan city – except the stunning architecture in downtown Istanbul, called Sultanamed. Finding a place to stay was easy too, as the city had its own “tourist-ghetto”, with one cheap hostel/hotel next to another. With the flight being delayed and the last tram gone, it was 1 am by the time we checked into the hotel. To excited by everything, we took a nice walk looking at the magically iluminated Blue Mosk and drank tea in a melow summer night.

We rose early to enjoy the city – our shuttle to the airport was scheduled for 3 pm, so there wasn’t much time. The list of things to do was long, but due to time constraint mercyless reduced. At daytime we could see the Blue Mosk from the inside – a stunning structure, supported by four pillars they call “elephant feet”. Next, we were fighting our way past countless carpet-salespeople to the Great Bazaar. As it turned out, the carpet salespeople were a great preparation for the bazaar, where the intensity of touts increased tenfold. It was a tough battle, but we survived it without loosing a Lira to any compleately unnecessary goods (let’s see how strong we’ll be when we return in October).

Almost time for the shuttle. We were back and even had 20 minutes to kill, and decided to spend the time on two glasses of tea and a game of backgammon. After a while, the owner of the Teahouse joined us and explained to us the differences of Turkish Style vs. American Style backgammon. Soon a friend of his joined, and we talked about everything from religion to tourism. And best of all, they did not try to sell us a carpet. What a refreshing and memorable experience.

It’s travel time again – eight weeks Japan

You receive this email either because you signed up for travel news at, or because you followed my Asia Trip in 2000. Either way, you’re on my Travel Mailinglist which has been quiet for a long time but will get busy shortly. From mid August until mid October I will explore Japan with my wife Maha. She will send out alternating messages which will give you two perspectives on one country.

Feel free to forward this message to friends who may be interested, and if you’re fed up with what I have to say, you can unsubscribe by replying to the email or by editing your profile.

Sun & SOA

SOA is an ambiguous term – Suns sees it as follows: “we are talking about SOA as it relates to integration and composite applications” – very high level statement, but certainly makes sense and is powerful – if executed correctly.

As far as execution goes, acquiring the company SeeBeyond was a step in that direction, which provided them with a sales force that understands SOA. This is complemented with a suit of tools – Java based, of course. Interesting is that Sun doesn’t want to focus too much on vertical integration – a route that IBM took – quite successfully.

How others see the USA

Canada, Britain and Germany are also high on the list before America.

What I find interesting and worrysome is the fact that these opinion are only to a degree related to George W. Bush. The article states that “the Pew polls provide strong evidence that anti-Americanism is more than a blip associated with Mr Bush or Iraq.” And “more than half [of the people] think of them [Americans] as greedy and violent and, in the Middle East, as immoral.”

I have been living in the USA for ten years now, and sadly, I have to agree with the article. I met many wonderful Americans here, and many have actually quite a harsh opinion about their own country. But the big middleclass certainly things of America as the greatest country in the world, and many sincerely believe that the whole world is knocking on America’s door, trying to get in. Well, not any more.