TRAVELING IN JAPAN
For those who have never done so, and wonder about traveling to Japan, I would encourage you to consider it. You will do better if you develop some conversational Japanese, but you can get along without it, especially if you have a friend or a guide who has the language. We were fortunate to have a guide on most of this trip, which made our ambitious itinerary possible, owing to his grasp of not only the language, but the transportation system.
Many Japanese people who see that you are having a difficult time will step up to help out, if they are more fluent in English than most. In general, the people are extraordinarily warm and friendly, and sympathetic to westerners, especially if you are friendly with them. A smile goes a long way, as does any attempt to use polite language. Especially when they find out that you are there for something to do with Buddhism, or their culture, they seem to blossom. There were more than one instance where we spontaneously launched into chanting the Hannya Shingyo with some local women, notably at a Shingon monastery, and once on the train platform.
The infrastructure for traveling by train in Japan, from light rail to the bullet train, makes the US look like a third-world country. In LA airport, the litter and generally dirty environment contributed to the impression, and the sheer lack of alternatives to the automobile, there as well as in Atlanta, reinforces the idea that we have left true civilization far behind, by returning home. It is a weird feeling. In Chicago or New York City, the transportation system begins to level out, but the filthy character of the environment makes you shudder for the visitor from Japan whose first impression must be pretty disturbing.
GOING TO JAPAN
In the early days of my practice, whenever someone would discover my involvement or interest in Zen, which I was not eager to make known to any and all, they would commonly ask, "Have you been to Japan?" or a similar question. At first, I felt it a natural reaction, and a reasonable question to pose. But after giving it some thought, as we say (as if thought were some precious commodity not to be wasted on trivial matters), and in the light of the intervening emergence of the organization of Zen in the USA, with its complement of training centers, priests, and even a professional organization, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, it seems curiouser and curiouser, with apologies to Lewis Carroll.
The question begs the question, that if you have not gone to Japan, then your practice of Zen may itself be questionable. Or if you have gone to Japan, the follow-on question would be regarding where and when, and whether you were exposed to Zen there. Or if you were merely a tourist, your claiming to be "into Zen" would be subject to dismissal, as not being the real thing. It is as if Japan and Zen are joined at the hip.
In Buddhism, giving, or generosity, is called dana, a Sanskrit term that probably has many more connotations than we have space to deal with. Here, I would like to discuss that category of giving that has sometimes been called "repaying our debt to Buddha."
Now, Buddha was an ordinary human being. Okay, perhaps not so ordinary as you or I. My point is, in Zen, we do not worship the historical figure as a deity, or imagine that he is somehow watching to see if we appreciate the teachings he codified and handed down to us through successive generations of followers. Much less do we fantasize that if we do not do something tangible to reflect our gratitude for buddha-dharma, that we should feel guilty, or fear retribution.
No, Zen is not a religion of paranoia, or prosperity, for that matter. We neither expect to profit from our practice, nor are we attempting to avoid suffering in Zen.
But Zen practice exists, when and where it exists at all, in the real world. It is as subject to economic realities as is any other entity that exists, whether as a natural object, sentient or insentient; or a corporate entity, such as a 501c3.
To understand this is to embrace Matsuoka Roshi's strange aphorism that "The Zen person has no problem following the sidewalks." This means, I think, that if you are following the way of Zen, you do not stop short at the apparent barriers thrown up by the machinations of humankind, such as corporate organization, or the sidewalks in your neighborhood. Sidewalks provide dependable, durable footing, and relative safety alongside streets and thoroughfares of a city. But of course, they are also usually impermeable, and contribute to runoff and resultant flooding during rainy weather. So each such invention represents a compromise.