In November 2019 I participated in a marvelous journey to Japan, with 20 people from all over the world. My teacher Frans Stiene had suggested to come with an open mind, so the whole trip would end up being an opportunity for practice. Practice, as a way of having the direct experience of something, is one of the crucial aspects of his teachings.
I too have my own personal practice: Ngöndro. It comprises several different things, one of which is a 20 minutes contemplation of the so-called Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind from Samsara (also known as the Four Preliminary Practices). They are (1) the precious human rebirth; (2) death and impermanence; (3) karma as cause and effect; and (4) the defects of samsara. Samsara is a Sanskrit term that represents the concept of rebirth and “cyclicality of all life, matter, existence”.
I have practiced these teachings for many years, and always loved how powerful they are. However, I have always felt that the explanation given in the books was a little too abstract.
So, I am sitting in a train, in Japan, after a long day running around. We’ve been so fortunate on this trip. We’ve seen plenty of beautiful places, and have been extremely lucky to meet incredible people, teachers, monks, practitioners. It did require long walks, not much rest, or sleep though. And I am in the worst shape I have ever been in my life, still kind of recovering from a triple hernia surgery on my belly.
I realise my body is aching, I’m tired and slightly dehydrated. But then I also think: no body, no Japan. How would I experience Japan without my body?
There would be no leaves with a thousand shades of red to remember, without my eyes. No sounds of the city, the people, or the wind in the forest, without my ears. No walking around seeing places, without my legs. I wouldn’t know how light the Japanese cuisine is, without my mouth. No hugs, without arms.
And I wouldn’t know how it feels to touch Mikao Usui’s memorial stone, if I didn’t have my hands. That feeling cannot be described by words.
After a few more considerations of this kind, I start thinking about impermanence and death. This trip will end in a few days. In 80 years, none of us 20 will be alive to remember it. All those leaves will have fallen and rot. Over and over again. Impermanence is everywhere.
Take the Koryu-kai meetings held by Hiroshi Doi. We happened to catch the last one (or the one before the last one). After more than 20 years, Doi Sensei told us he thinks he fulfilled his purpose, and so he’ll stop running those meetings. He said so with the lightheartedness of someone who has completely accepted that things change all the time, and everything that has a beginning has an end.
I think how lucky we have been, to be able to meet him, and participate in something that is going to end soon. We were so lucky. Or were we?
I prefer to think it was meant to be like that. It was our karma to be there, in those moments, in those places. I certainly believe it was my good karma that took me to Japan. I have dreamt to go my whole life, and when finally all the conditions manifested themselves, I simply took the opportunity and went. And I am so glad I did, as I now know why this trip was so important for me.
I have loved Japan so much. I have seen so much in such a short time, and yet so little, if I think about what is there to see. The Japanese culture is incredibly fascinating: a complex web of politeness, cleanliness, bowing, beauty and creativity everywhere, colours, as well as rules, rigidity, discipline, severity. People feel much more sane, and calmer, compared to what I’m used to seeing in the West. And yet, they feel guilty about leaving the office before they’ve done 12 hours a day.
I realise, under all the sparkles, and the magic that I have witnessed in those 16 days I’ve been there, there is also suffering, stress, pain. Suicide rates in Japan rank 30th over more than 180 countries.
So yes, there is no perfect world, no perfect society, not even in Japan. This world cannot be fixed, because it is inherently flawed in its design. Our life is a mixture of happiness and suffering. They both serve a purpose, and they both can be seen as opportunities for growth. But is only when we realise our real nature, or in other words, when we reach Enlightenment, that we can finally leave Samsara. Isn’t it perfect?
Many people think Buddhism has a pessimistic outlook on life, but it’s actually the opposite.
When you truly realise how rare and precious your human body is, you might respect it a little more.
When you understand that things can end today, you don’t waste your time, and make the most of it.
When you get that what you think, do and say, always comes back to you, you adopt a better behaviour.
And when you see that there is no fixing this place, you just try to be the best version of you that you can be, and get rid of all attachments one by one, so that one day you will truly be free.
Of course, you don’t have to agree with me, or share this line of thinking. It’s fine. And looking at all those leaves in Japan, I suddenly realised that, had they all been of the same colour, the scenery would have been quite boring, instead of awe-inspiring.
For me though, this trip has been a waterfall of blessings, one of which is understanding the Four Preliminary Practices in a more intimate way. I feel I can relate to them much better now.
So, just for today, but also tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, until my last day: I am grateful. I am so very grateful!