Features / Japan / Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni

Service members, station residents find peace through Zen Meditation, Buddhist scripture

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan  — Japan is abundant in cultural experiences and historical sites, which may be new to many service members and station residents. It might be difficult to experience them all in just one two-year tour, but not far from Iwakuni is a spiritual journey waiting to be discovered by those who have yet to experience it.

Approximately 20 service members and station residents spent their Sunday morning exploring the rich culture of Japanese Buddhism during an Information, Tours and Travel trip to the Kofukuji Temple in the Onomichi area of Hiroshima.

The Kofukuji Temple, which belongs to the Rinzai school of Zen, is located at the foot of an island in the Seto-inland Sea, muralled in the background by mountains, green forests and ancient pagodas. The Kojoji Temple, a famous three-tiered pagoda also towers over the village.

Many museums are also scattered among the area, filled with folklore and historical artifacts, which paint a picture of a time when Setoda seaport was once a vital shipping port for the commerce of salt.

The Kofukuji temple is just a short quartermile walk from the seaport. Its surroundings are decorated with citrus grapefruit and orange trees. They could be smelled along the path. Upon arrival, stone lanterns,  cultures and shrines stood carefully placed in the yard, aged with time.

As the group walked up the pathway, beneath an archway to the entrance of the temple, Tadahisa Teshima, a Buddhist monk dressed in a black robe, welcomed and invited everyone to remove their shoes. His Buddhist name was Joshun, he said.

Before meditation, it is common to burn incense and, in Buddhism, it is an avid part of the ritual, Teshima explained. Participants lined up and lit a stick of incense before taking a seat on two pieces of cushion décor to experience the art of Zazen, the practice of sitting meditation.

“Practicing Buddhism requires a lot of discipline,” said Teshima. “It requires a lot of concentration.”

Once settled, Teshima instructed everyone to fold the top cushion in half and sit comfortably, spine extended with hands and legs folded with careful posture. The meditation was divided into two sessions, each 10 minutes with a break in between the two.

“It was very relaxing,” said Lance Cpl. Crystal Weaver, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron administrative specialist. “I was able to relieve a lot of stress by just being able to focus on one thing instead of so many.”

For those who experience trouble clearing their mind and finding inner peace, the Buddhist culture provides a few methods to help remedy this inner conflict. During meditation, Teshima rang a sharp, sustaining bell, or Dorje, which is meant to symbolize the “thunderbolt of enlightenment.” It serves as an abrupt change in human consciousness and is designed to help the meditator focus, Teshima said.

The bell rang four times at 2-and-a-halfminute intervals during each 10-minute session. The seemingly gentle monk also walked around with a flat wooden stick called keisaku. Upon silent request, meditators received three whacks, intended to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration.

“The meditation was hard,” said Seaman Annabel Rendon, H&HS logistics specialist. “One-on-one time with yourself takes a lot of discipline to be in Zen, but I could hear birds in the background, which helped me relax.”

After the meditation session, the group practiced the art of Buddhist scripture writing. Given a piece of paper and a calligraphy marker, the group had 20 minutes to practice their best Kanji while tracing the most popular of Buddhist scriptures, The Heart Sutra. The scripture is made of 14 Shlokas, or verses, composed of 32 syllables.

Making a handwritten copy of a sutra is called “Shayko.” The Heart Sutra is simple and important to the Buddhist religion, said Teshima. The purpose is to copy each character with deep and careful concentration during each stroke. Buddhist scripture is significant to the Buddhist religion, but in order to train with proper discipline, it becomes a way of life.

“You’re training all the time,” said Teshima. “You must always pay attention to yourself and what you are doing. You need to throw away your ego so you can follow the teachings, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose our personality.”

As a monk, Teshima said his schedule is very busy. He wakes up every day at 4 a.m. to complete chores and clean around the temple. His day is filled with frequent meditation sessions and a dedication to the discipline of the Buddhist religion. Everything he does, from the way he approaches life to the way he eats his meals, is done purposefully and with care.

The group got a taste of Teshima’s way of life when they were treated to a small-portioned vegetarian lunch. Meal setting is strategically prepared by horizontally aligning three bowls, sequential in size. Hot white rice was scooped and served in the largest bowl. Everyone treated themselves to miso soup, which was poured into the medium-sized bowl and in the smallest bowl, everyone was served two slices of pickles, one of which was to be saved for later.

Everyone was instructed to join their hands in a sort of prayer as the monk calmly begged for alms on behalf of the group.

“First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food,” Teshima began to chant.

In Buddhist religion, meals such as this are eaten in complete silence. Meals are a time to consciously reflect on the food nourishing the body. At the end of the meal, it was time to clean the bowls. To do this, everyone was instructed to pour warm water into the biggest bowls. A small portion of this water was then poured into the smallest and middle-sized bowl. The slice of pickle, which had been set aside prior, was used the clean the bowls one by one. It is also Buddhist tradition to eat the remaining slice of pickle, drink the water and dry the bowls with cloth. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is spared.

“I was very surprised by the attention to detail,” said Rendon. “I loved it. This is the best thing I have done in Japan so far.”

“We thought it would be a good idea for people to experience something different,” said Taka Takeda, ITT tour guide. “We thought this would be a really good one because a lot of people want to know what being a Buddhist monk is like.”

ITT has many trips slated for service members and station residents to take advantage of and explore more cultural experiences throughout Japan including an overnight trip to the Beppu Onsen hot springs May 29.

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