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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Eight

Finding My Religion



We were made for God and our hearts are forever restless until they find their rest in him.

Confessions

St Augustine

 

Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

Hungry Heart

Bruce Springsteen

 

I once worshipped at a Japanese Buddhist temple before the mummified body of a priest who had starved himself to death in a hole in the ground hundreds of years earlier.

 

He had been placed on a platform inside a glass case. His wizened body was wrapped in black priestly robes and his skeletal face leered. Teeth jutted out in several directions. One eye was missing. His long, bony fingers had turned a blotchy purple colour and were varnished, so they resembled sticks of salami.

 

I clapped my hands once in the Japanese manner of worship, bowed my head quickly, then threw some coins into the offering bowl and fled the gruesome scene.

 

I was at Dewa Sanzan - the three Dewa mountains - in Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan. In cowardly fashion I had fled my crumbling marriage to a Japanese girl and had arrived hoping to write a book about this eerie region.

 

Dewa Sanzan was known as a place of the spirits. Shamans still practised there. For 1,200 years the region had been home to the yamabushi, an order of mountain priests whose worship practices mixed Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, mysticism, traditional folk religions, shamanism and primitive mountain worship.

 

The weather was so harsh that the ski season on the mountains started only in spring, and continued until mid-summer. During winter much of the region was virtually inaccessible, though that did not stop the yamabushi, who scheduled some of their holiest rituals for this period.

 

Basho, Japan’s great haiku poet, visited the area during his epic 17th-century journey to the deep north of Japan. Seldom at a loss for a haiku, he simply recorded that the rules he had to obey as a pilgrim precluded him from detailing the wonders he witnessed on the mountains.

 

At some point in their history, certain yamabushi followers devised the practice of self-mummification, believing that this would hasten their spiritual journey to Buddha-hood.

 

It involved a grisly 10-year ritual designed to get rid of virtually all body fat, to wither the body and to rot the internal organs. The first 40 months saw the person cut out all consumption of cereal crops. For the second 40 months he ate nothing but fruit, berries and plant roots. At the end of this period he was little more than a skin-covered skeleton.

 

He then entered a small underground room which was covered with earth. Breathing through a bamboo tube, he chanted sutras and awaited death. At the end of the final 40 months, the earth was supposed to be removed and the mummified body enshrined in a temple. But some bodies were found only recently, and it is presumed that others remain buried, awaiting discovery.

 

I felt there had to be a book in all this.

 

In Tokyo I had established myself as one of a handful of successful freelance journalists, able and willing to take on any assignment. I had reported from around Asia for the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times and other big-note newspapers.

 

I enjoyed searching out the oddities of Japanese popular culture. I loved the little Japanese akachochin (red lantern) bars where patrons drank sake and ate grilled mackerel and deep-fried tofu and dried squid. No one spoke English at these bars, so I could practise my Japanese.

 

For several years I ate and drank at these places almost every night. I had my own column, called “Tokyo Off-Beat”, in a local, English-language newspaper, and I wrote stories about the lives of some of the customers, as well as about phenomena like restaurants that served grilled snake and raw horse meat, or the wholesale market that dealt in fighting insects, a popular present for young boys. I did pub and restaurant reviews for another paper.

 

I discovered karaoke, and learned that in the 1970s a Westerner who got up and sang in Japanese at a Japanese bar could expect to be inundated with free drinks from amazed patrons. So, I memorised a few enka love ballads—Yume Oizake (sake dreaming), Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyu Geshiki (Tsugaru Straits winter scenery), Kita no Sakaba (northern pub) and several others—and belted them out in my off-key voice at every chance.

 

In 1978, I wrote a long article telling foreign residents in Japan about karaoke and how even the worst singers could emulate my success. Recently I happened to look in a new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and found that the editors had included the word “karaoke”—which is now an English word, adopted from the Japanese—with the earliest English citation they had found dating back to September 1979.

 

I sent the dictionary editors a copy of my 1978 article, and have received from them a reply stating that they will cite it next time they revise the karaoke entry to the dictionary. So, unless a challenger steps forward with an earlier reference, I can lay claim to being the person who introduced karaoke to the English-speaking world. (What a burden: my singing voice, never good, has not mellowed with age.)

 

I became deeply involved with Buddhism and travelled around Japan for a series of 20 articles for the Asahi Evening News on Buddhist temples where foreigners could practise Zen meditation. I then expanded the articles into my first book, Zen Guide, co-authored with an American Buddhist priest. This involved visits to scores of Zen temples around Japan over a period of years, and included much participation in worship and meditation sessions. Published in 1985, the book still turns up at bookstores.

 

My publisher asked if I could write a volume on sake, and introduced me to one of Japan’s top sake writers and judges, who was to act as adviser to the book. He often invited me to his tiny apartment in Tokyo’s lively Shibuya district. It was lined with bottles that he regularly received free of charge from many of the thousands of Japanese sake breweries, and we happily tasted our way through this collection.

 

He made his own liquor (this was quite illegal in Japan), and I became a fan of his piquant pumpkin brandy. He took me on tours on some of the leading jizake (country sake) breweries, and we invariably came away with gifts of premium sake that retailed for $100 or more per bottle—if you could find it in any shop.

 

He wrote a regular column for Akahata, the Communist Party’s daily newspaper. It seemed that a love of sake transcended class divisions in Japan. For some years I bought my sake from a tiny store in Ikebukuro, a short train ride from my flat in Sugamo, that boasted countless shelves crammed with the best sakes from around Japan. It was run by a frustrated 1960s revolutionary, who railed against the government as he sat at the counter, liberally sampling his own wares.

 

Unfortunately, as I was blissfully researching my way around Japan a rival publishing house, Kodansha International, came out with a book in English on sake. My own publisher decided the market could not support two titles, and the project was dropped.

 

Later, after I had quit journalism for stockbroking, my second book was published. It was a concise guide to the Japanese stock market, then the only work of its kind in English. It was conservatively written, but my publisher unwisely titled it Making Money in Japanese Stocks. With astute timing, it appeared in bookstores in late 1989, right before the Tokyo share bubble burst and the market entered a tumultuous dive that saw it more than halve in value.

 

At least one international financial journal ridiculed the book for its back-cover blurb (written by my editor, not by me), which read, in part: “The Tokyo Stock Exchange is hot ….Not only is [it] surging, its quick recovery from the October 1987 crash showed it to be one of the world’s safest markets….Experts predict that the boom will continue until well into the 1990s.”

 

But my real desire was to write novels, and it was to this dream that I devoted most of my energies. After great effort I had completed two manuscripts—hard-boiled spy thrillers full of gorgeous, karate-kicking Oriental women and villainous Oriental gangsters—and had even found a San Francisco literary agent for one of them. But publishers in Britain, America and Japan were unanimous in their rejections.

 

And so it transpired that in the early 1980s, with my brief, childless marriage and my writing aspirations both on the rocks, I felt in crisis. In a display of cowardice and unwillingness to confront problems, I decided that escape was the best option. I headed north, to the snowy peaks of Dewa Sanzan, Japan’s holiest mountains—ostensibly to gather as many experiences as possible and then to write a travel book (it remains unwritten) and perhaps another novel—and embarked on a series of weird spiritual adventures.

 

I joined a pilgrimage group on the mountains. For three days our motley group—a stressed-out policeman, a young woman who could not find a husband, an irrigation supplies salesman on the verge of a breakdown, a couple of students, and a dozen others—hiked through the mountains with our yamabushi leader, all dressed in baggy white garb and with straw sandals on our feet.

 

He took us on twisting trails that no casual tourist could ever have discovered, and every 50 metres or so we stopped as he pointed to something—a Buddha statue, a cave where some holy man had lived hundreds of years earlier, a haiku poem carved into the rock. We chanted and prayed to the spirits of trees and rocks and mountains. Our leader carried a giant conch shell, and sometimes he stopped and blew a haunting reverie through it, the sound echoing through the mountains.

 

We climbed to the summit of one of the mountains, past a giant 600-year-old pagoda, to worship at an ancient wooden shrine, and though it was mid-summer the building was shrouded in a chill fog. Several times a day we stood under a frigid waterfall for a purification ritual—the men dressed only in loincloths—and chanted and prayed to the mountain deities as torrents of water thundered down on us.

 

At the end of the pilgrimage the local radio station interviewed me, incredulous (as am I, now) that I, a Westerner, should choose to join such a pilgrimage. I told them I felt spiritually refreshed, though I was unsure whether I really did.

 

But I had certainly felt a soothing sense of inner peace from repeated chanting of the melodic Shinto prayers. And standing for long minutes under the icy waterfall, my hands gripped in prayer, shaking back and forth vigorously in the water, had induced a modest feeling of transcendence; it was like floating in space, with the wintry current transformed into a warm glow. Anyway, the exertion of three days of mountain walking had certainly done me good. A national magazine included photos of me under the waterfall, in a feature on the pilgrimage.

 

I did another pilgrimage, this time to worship at 33 Buddhist temples scattered around the Mogami River. This gracious waterway flows through the heart of Yamagata prefecture and makes it one of Japan’s lushest and most fertile rice- and fruit-growing regions.

 

They were tiny country temples, often several hours’ walking distance from the nearest railway station or bus stop. All were many hundreds of years old, and each housed a Kannon statue. The Kannon is a Japanese Buddhist goddess of mercy, and a traditional object of veneration for people in distress. There are many similar pilgrimages around Japan, each to 33 Kannon temples. (The founder of Canon, the camera and office-equipment giant, worshipped the Kannon, and named the company for this deity.)

 

I carried a small, cloth-bound notebook, and at each temple for a small fee the priest or his wife inscribed a proverb in graceful ink-brush calligraphy and also impressed with red ink the temple’s traditional seal. This notebook is now a favourite souvenir of my 17 years in Japan.

 

Komatsuzawa temple, Number 20 on the course, was a rickety wooden structure, high up a mountain, leaning and creaking like some ancient ark tossed there centuries earlier. After the steep hour-long climb I was eager to rest. I pulled the rope that clanged the temple bell, in order to summon the priest to inscribe my notebook (unaware at that point that he lived off the premises). As I tugged, the temple began to shake and groan.

 

My first reaction was to laugh, amazed that one yank of the bell-pull could set the entire antique building vibrating. But the shuddering continued, and became more pronounced. I realised that I was experiencing an earthquake.

 

All around me enormous pine trees began to shiver and twist, the tops of the thinner ones flicking back and forth like catapults. I fled to a clearing where I waited, the ground moving beneath me. Fearfully I watched the vibrating trees and the swaying temple. It was more than a full minute before the quivering abated, and much longer before my own trembling eased.

 

That evening I listened to the radio news and learned that the quake that day - 26 May 1983 - had been the strongest to hit Japan in 15 years, and that about 100 people, mainly schoolchildren, were dead or missing. Most had been swept out to sea in a giant tsunami that ripped across the northern Japanese coastline in the hours after the tremor. Up high in the mountains, worshipping the Kannon, I could hardly have been safer.

 

Many of the priests I met told me I was the first Westerner they had known to do the entire pilgrimage, and I was frequently invited inside for green tea and sembei rice crackers. The chief priest at Niwatsuki, the 33rd and final temple, was so happy to see me he gave me half-a-dozen large packets of the exquisite regional delicacy, smoked takuan (takuan is a pickled radish dish), which all went mouldy two days later in my humid, refrigerator-less flat.

 

 

Now that I am a Christian, friends often ask me if I was a Buddhist when I lived in Japan. Certainly, at the time I did not think so. I told anyone who asked that all my visits to Buddhist temples up and down the country were for research purposes, particularly for the book, Zen Guide, that I was writing.

 

But now I am less sure. Soon after my arrival in Tokyo I became a regular at several of the temples that offered training to the foreign community in Zen Buddhism. This consisted mainly of a chance to join temple priests in Zen meditation, followed usually by a sermon in English on Buddhist doctrines.

 

For my book I visited scores of temples and monasteries around Japan, and interviewed many of the priests. Often I stayed overnight at the temples, and joined in the evening and early-morning religious devotions and meditation periods.

 

I loved these Buddhist services: monks wearing colourful robes chanted sutras; there were bells, gongs, drums and chimes, and the fragrances of incense; and there were all kinds of dazzling Oriental rituals. It was all very exotic, and for me, coming from a non-religious background, the whole atmosphere always seemed to be one of great holiness and the presence of the supernatural.

 

I sometimes experienced a real spiritual buzz from these flowing, dream-like Buddhist services, seated with dozens of priests on the tatami floor, listening to the soft-percussion melodies, and chanting long, layered sutras that seemed to soar upwards and then float to earth in deep, guttural growls. Often an entire face of the temple building was opened to reveal a mountain or lake setting. Some of these services were real theatre, with chanting priests walking in single file slowly through the morning mist into the temple.

 

I also spent many hours in Zen meditation. This was a time to empty one’s mind and to detach oneself from this world. Repeated meditation was intended to lead to a sense of satori, or enlightenment, a feeling of freedom, and of oneness with the universe. Certainly, there were times during meditation when I felt a warm, sleepy sense of inner peace, but these were not often. More often I was thinking of my aching legs, stretched into an unnatural (for me) lotus position.

 

But I found the teachings attractive. Zen struck me as a practical philosophy of action that largely rejected the words of experts and teachers. As a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was involved in left-wing politics, in Vietnam protests and in anti-apartheid demonstrations. But like many others I became disillusioned from being bombarded by so many competing political ideologies, all of which seemed to promise the earth, but then failed to deliver. I was sick of words.

 

According to my teachers, the world was a crummy place and people could not expect much real happiness; the best we could hope for was to find a way to adjust to all this misery and suffering. Hence the intense hours of meditation, designed to help us cast off all feelings of attachment to worldly constraints.

 

Yet, despite all the attractions, I slowly became disillusioned with Buddhism, and drifted away. I can recall several minor experiences that helped spark this feeling. Once I was talking to an American Buddhist friend in the city of Kyoto, one of the centres of Japanese Buddhism. He had just spent a considerable time living in a distant mountain temple that was so remote that in winter the priests had to ski for several hours to the nearest shops for supplies. My friend told me how, on one of these shopping expeditions, an avalanche had swept away two of the priests and killed them.

 

There was something that startled me about the matter-of-fact way in which he told me of this accident, and I questioned him more. He explained the deaths as if he were recounting the fact that the sun rises every morning, as if they were on the level of importance of, say, dead leaves falling from a tree. I had been taught that Buddhism regarded human existence in general as meaningless. But I still regarded individual human beings as precious, and was startled at what seemed to me a lack of love in the religion.

 

Another incident came one morning in Kyoto when I was researching my book. I visited the 600-year-old Golden Temple, one of Japan’s most beautiful religious buildings and a famous tourist sight. I was privileged to be able to enter parts of the gold-leafed temple that are normally off-limits to visitors. I sat with one of the priests beside a delicately manicured garden and a small lake, and we drank green tea together, ate traditional Kyoto cake delicacies and discussed Buddhism. It seemed to me at that time to be a small taste of paradise.

 

But that evening, in nearby Osaka, walking to catch a train, I passed through a park littered with rubbish. The park was apparently home to at least a dozen alcoholic, derelict tramps. They were lying around in tattered clothing, some sleeping, others singing and drinking from “one-cup” containers of cheap liquor. (This was a very rare sight in Japan, which is, of course, a prosperous country. In fact, in my 17 years there it was the only time I ever witnessed such a scene.)

 

But I could not help making a connection with my visit, just a few hours earlier, to the utopia of the Golden Temple, and I wondered what the priests there could offer the men in the park. It seemed to me they could only tell them that the world was a miserable place and that their lives were meaningless. But the men knew this already; perhaps that helped explain why they were alcoholics.

 

Other little things happened. The more I learned about the practice of Buddhism in Japan, as opposed to the theory, the less keen on it I became. At the beginning Buddhism had seemed to me a gentle religion of peace, love and harmony. But some of the priests I interviewed were arrogant in the extreme, and had no hesitation in telling me their low opinions of all other priests. I learned, too, of religious wars that had occurred in Japan.

 

I came to learn that Buddhism in Japan was in some respects a family business, with many priests owning their temples and bequeathing them to their sons. They made big profits by charging exorbitant fees for arranging funerals.

 

I saw the dreadful despoliation of the environment that had occurred in Japan and in other Asian Buddhist countries, far worse than anything in Australia or in most other Western nations. And I also could not help but notice that Japan, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, devoted relatively little attention to helping the poor of the world. I became disillusioned with a religion that at heart seemed to me then to be mainly concerned with the self.

 

But still I possessed a “hungry heart”, as Bruce Springsteen described it, and after we arrived in Australia in 1993 my spiritual pangs remained.

 

And though we settled quickly in Australia, taking citizenship and making it into our permanent home, I started to become worried about some of the negative aspects of life here, like the drug problem, the high youth suicide rate and a sense of nihilism—and even despair—that seemed to afflict so many young people. There seemed to be a spiritual malaise in the country. I did not want my children infected, and so my wife, Younju, and I resolved to send them each week to Sunday School.

 

Younju had already joined a Korean congregation in Melbourne, and she suggested we find a church near our home and start worshipping as a family. We had no particular problems in our life at that time, and I had never been much concerned with issues of life and death. Rather, it was a spiritual hunger and a concern with ethical issues that brought us to church.

 

While sitting cross-legged in mountain temples, or standing under waterfalls, I had never considered Christianity as the answer to my spiritual hunger. Probably in Japan I would never have started going to church, just as in Australia it is unlikely I would have embraced Buddhism or other Eastern religions. Nevertheless, I entered church with some trepidation, certainly more so than visiting any Buddhist temple in Japan. At least there I was a foreigner, and could be excused mistakes and misunderstandings.

 

It seemed that, despite having no church background, I had somehow absorbed the prejudices some Australians carry about church-goers: that they are all wowserish hypocrites, or that they are happy-clappy do-gooders like Homer Simpson’s neighbour in The Simpsons, Ned Flanders. I expected to be judged for my past sinful, pagan life.

 

Instead, to my surprise, I found the church full of relaxed and pleasant people—ordinary folk, with jobs and mortgages and kids—who went to great efforts to make our family feel comfortable. I learned that many, like me, were there because they felt our culture had gone slightly awry. They had a degree of spiritual longing in their lives, along with a feeling that traditional religious teachings—of moral absolutes and of right and wrong—could help explain and solve our nation’s problems.

 

Yet I see many other outsiders come to our church once or twice and never return, and I still cannot quite explain why I became a Christian so readily. That God’s holy spirit was actively working in me I have little doubt. Perhaps my situation was in some way similar to that of American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who became a Christian several years after the publication of his stupendous best-seller The Road Less Traveled.

 

He later said that it was probably his background in Zen Buddhism that prepared the way for him. “Zen is the ideal training ground for paradox,” he wrote. “Without my 20 years of meandering around with Zen Buddhism, I don’t think there is any way I could have been prepared to swallow the literally God-awful paradoxes that lie at the core of Christian doctrine.” Or perhaps my quick embrace of Christianity was simply a case of a deep yearning for a father-figure in my life.

 

 

At our church we run a lively Sunday School, where we try to add a spiritual dimension to the lives of our kids, who would probably rather be playing Nintendo with their friends. We try to make it as much fun as possible, while passing down lessons about our world and working to improve character.

 

We have no illusions that sending our kids to Sunday School is all it takes to keep them from harmful influences. We have all seen too often that this is not the case. Yet we feel we are doing something right, and we encourage our neighbours and friends to send their children too (and preferably to attend church themselves, as children are more likely to stay at Sunday School and church when their parents go).

 

I was encouraged when I read Professor William Damon’s book Greater Expectations. He noted that “for decades it has been difficult to locate a mention of spirituality in any child development text or child rearing manual”. But this is now changing, as researchers in many different fields amass a growing body of evidence for the importance of a child’s spiritual development. He wrote:

 

In just the last few years, some of our most noted authorities on child rearing have woken up to the glaring omission of spiritual messages from our children’s lives. Some of these authorities have tried to awaken a society that is forgetting how to give its children something to believe in.

 

He noted that religious worship is the primary means of imparting a sense of spirituality, and said it had been shown to “have clear benefits for children”. He believed that, were it not for the antagonism of social scientists, many more studies would be appearing lauding the benefits of religious worship.

 

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