Friday, May 15, 2009

Knowledge Bubbles up from Within

Drawn from the spring behind the monk's quarters at Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, this tsukubai, or hand basin, inspires this post. It is inscribed with the words “I know, I alone am sufficient” which are attributed to Dōgen, founder of Sōtō Zen.

Knowledge bubbles up
A couple of weeks ago a student asked me to write a story that showed life in Japan was survivable. I'd like to dedicate this post to that student, and say that not only is life in Japan (anywhere for that matter) survivable, but it is thrive-able with the right attitude.

I'm not sure if I can be inspirational, so I'll just try and be myself and write about a place that I go to that gives me inner strength. Not so much physical space, but a state of mind.

[Edit: 21st May 2009 - This should have been entered in the Japan Blog Matsuri a week ago when I first posted.
Oh well, better late than never.]

Scattered Spirit

When I left for Japan in 2003, I was not in a very good financial position. I had several part time jobs, but none of them had any security or enough pay. Only a year earlier I had returned from a world trip that started in New Zealand, where I worked as a software developer, then on to Hong Kong, and Shanghai before winding up in London.

I worked hard but I also partied hard, there was a lot that I wanted to put behind me, and with the dot com boom bust cycle in bust, not a lot to look forward to. It came as no surprise that a few people frowned on my leaving my home town Brisbane for Japan so soon after returning. Some said I was just running away from things. It felt different to me, I felt as though for once I was running towards something.

I had always wanted to live in Japan, ever since reading Mas Oyama's book, Boy's Karate, and practicing traditional martial arts with my father. Now I finally had that chance to practice martial arts, learn the language, and become more than just a stranger passing through.

I tried very hard to rid myself of all my preconceptions of what life would be like once I got there. I made a pact with myself to see out at the very least the first year, and hopefully the second year. I also put a maximum limit on my time there, to avoid become listless again. I wanted to feel as though I had some goals and direction, so I made a 5 year plan.

Seeking Peace in Practice

I knew no-one, apart from the other English teachers that lived in our apartment block. I had the perfect opportunity to pour my attention into study. I signed up for free classes at the local international centre and got my books out every morning for a couple of hours. Everywhere I went I carried a phrasebook, and almost every chance I had I bothered the locals with my broken Japanese. Within a month or two, I had mastered the kana and had begun to speak in stock phrases to the Japanese staff.

My days off were mid week, so while the others were at work, I would jump on the trains and go adventuring, day trips to the onsen, over-nighters to Osaka and Kyoto, sometimes hiking through the many mountains between Mie and Nara. Mostly alone, always with my books and my camera. About 6 months later a girlfriend from Australia came to live with me and we found a cheap apartment in a small town for the two of us. So for me the adventure started all over again, this time as the guide.

One of the first places we visited together was a Ryōan-ji, the temple where I had snapped the photo above, which is probably more famous for it's dry rock garden or karesansui. The tsukubai, is behind the monks quarters at a small distance from the temple. At first I was more interested in the composition, not so much the inscription in the stone. This time I was becoming more comfortable with Kanji through the use of a good Kanji dictionary, so I paid more attention to it. The inscription is attributed to Dōgen, founder of Sōtō Zen and can be translated as "I know, I alone am sufficient".


Kanji Breakdown

waretadataruwoshiruLooking closely at the inscription on the mouth of the basin, it is not immediately apparent what the kanji are. They appear to be fragments until you realise the mouth (kuchi) forms forms a part of each kanji. When read in combination the reading becomes



ware tada taru (wo) shiru

Kanji details for 吾 - Denshi Jisho
吾 われ ゴ
I; my; one's own; our

Each of us is caught up with our limitless desires. With our inherently self-centered nature, Even at the table after dinner, with our stomachs full, it is easy to imagine the mountains of food that we would like to eat. Can seperate ourselves from the consumption (口)of the material world through our five (五)senses?

Kanji details for 唯 - Denshi Jisho
唯 ただ ユイ
merely; only; simply; solely

It is said that the person who knows satisfaction, has a calm spirit, and the person who doesn't know satisfaction, has a disturbed spirit. Is the robin satisfied with eating just one one chestnut?

Kanji details for 足 - Denshi Jisho
足 あし ソク
be sufficient

If you are seeking a peaceful spirit is by all means essential to comprehend the spirit of thankfulness, sufficiency and tolerance. Is it possible to find peace with just two feet and a hungry mouth?

Kanji details for 知 - Denshi Jisho
知 しる チ

Words of wisdom are like arrows shot from the mouths of sages. It is difficult to comprehend their message if you aren't listening.


I did a quick search and found an explanation of the concept behind the expression.









We can not help but be caught up in our limitless desires. We must have room left in our hearts to be satisfied, in other words, to say thank you.

[GoYuiChiSoku] is a teaching of the sage of the Sakyas, Shakuson.

It is said that the person who knows satisfaction, has a calm spirit, the person who doesn't know satisfaction, has a disturbed spirit.

If you are seeking a peaceful spirit is by all means essential to comprehend [GoYuiChiSoku]. Specifically, the spirit of thankfulness, sufficiency and tolerance.

Although it is possible for us at dinner time with a full stomach, to imagine mountains of the things that we may have wanted.

[GoYuiChiSoku] is an expression which is difficult for the modern Japanese to comprehend.

To make it easier for us to understand [GoYuiChiSoku], these words must be heard.

Clear water

For the austere person, practice can be a path to enlightenment. For the rest of us, daily practice and reflection can yield results just as the smoothest flowing stream cuts through the hardest rock over time.

Lately this phrase has come to give me strength to continue, even though conditions may be tough. It has taught me self reliance.

Where do you draw strength?
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