Walking into the hondo (the main building) is a sensory and serene experience. Taking off one’s shoes in the genkan (entryway) and walking up the few steps, stepping over the sill into the sanctuary, one travels from the realm of the mundane to the realm of the sacred in a single moment of transformation. Once inside the main room the fragrance of incense, wood, and tatami encircles the body. The muted lighting is soft and gently caresses the statues of Yakushi Nyorai (Medicine Buddha). Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Bishamonten (Heavenly Guardian of the North), easing the cares that exist outside the temple.
At night with lighting subdued and candles lit this is even more pronounced.
So, it has been with not a little misgiving that we have embarked upon bringing internet, Wi-Fi, cameras, microphones, computers, and the accompanying wires into this sacred space of the hondo for streaming, and other virtual activities. What does bringing common implements of postmodern life into the hondo make a difference you might say?
I’m not a Luddite. I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of writing by the Japanese writer Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886 – 1965). His book length essay, In Praise of Shadows, discusses traditional Japanese aesthetics in contrast with the Western aesthetic and the changes of the early 20th century.
Tanizaki first published this work in 1933. Japan, like the rest of the world, had moved from candles and gas light to electricity, from collection toilets, to flush toilets, etc. These changes necessarily changed the architecture and interior spaces of Japanese traditional dwellings. Residences, Buddhist temples, Shinto Shrines, ryokan (Japanese inns), Noh theaters and other traditional dwellings were designed for candlelight.
Shoji (A translucent screen consisting of a wooden frame covered in rice paper, used as a sliding door or partition), permitted candlelight to permeate spaces in a particularly enchanting way. From Tanizaki’ s perspective, the brighter, glaring, electric bulbs seemed unrefined. The wires running on the tatami and along walls upset the elegance of the open, clean, space.
Lacquerware often has embedded gold flakes in black or other dark colors. The light from candles made the bowls, cups, or utensils twinkle in the candlelight; the dark lacquer absorbs the light and the gold specks shimmering. A particular Japanese aesthetic. With electric lights these same lacquer items seem garish and gaudy.
In Buddhist temples the statues have gold gilding which over time ages, wears and flakes off, and the underlying wood shows through, the gold being replaced with a fine patina and wood grain. In many places the gold that remains floats ethereally in the candlelight, creating a sense of mystery and awe.
This perspective even affects how the Japanese regard material culture contrasted with the West. Aged materials are revered in Japan as opposed to seeming obsolete. Wabi-sabi, a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, is embraced. Tanizaki even compared this to the aesthetic teachings of Buddhism, seen embodied in Ikebana (flower arrangement), Chado (tea ceremony) and Shōdō, (calligraphy), etc.
I could go on, but I hope you have the idea.
This is to say that when we enter the hondo we have a particular setting, that of tranquil calm, a sense of refinement and sacred purpose. This is combined with our expectations of finding peace and purpose in a sanctified space. Finally, there is the activities of Gongyo (the rituals and chanting) and Shikan (meditation) based on a structure millennium old.
We are sitting with others while we chant the gongyo and meditate, smell the incense, surrounded by a building well over 250 years old, made of wood, perhaps 500-year-old, with tatami flooring, and bronze implements shimmering in the candlelight, Yakushi Nyorai floats in the space at the front of the sanctuary. Can this be conveyed through the marvel of electrons transmitted to a two-dimensional screen?
What will be the new format? The discussion with questions and answers part of the Weekly gathering will be what we have been doing recently. There will be a Zoom presentation in the gathering room of the kuri (abbot’s residence). The remainder of the gathering will be live streamed from the hondo. How will the Zoom and the live stream be integrated? That’s Koshin and Kairen’s department.
The live streaming will not have the same impact on a person sitting in their study, living room, or bedroom as the experience they would have sitting in a hondo with a distinct Buddhist aesthetic alongside other people. But we will do our best to make it meaningful.
There is also a concern as to how the technology in the space influences the in-person participants. The serenity and simplicity of the building is one of the reasons people chose to come to our particular type of Buddhism. I am reminded of Tanizaki’s concern of how electricity seemed to impose itself into the very fabric of the participants consciousness, without being aware of it. What will be the effect of the cameras, microphones, and computers?
We will be adjusting the presentations, both in the kuri and in the hondo, from week to week as we learn through experience what works and what doesn’t. There will be adjustments as we go along. We invite people to let us know how you are receiving the presentation, both through the internet, as well as in-person. We are committed to expanding the offerings for those in-person and those some distance away from Tendai Buddhist Institute on the internet.
It is my hope that people who use the live stream will better be able to experience the sacred space and activity, without diminishing the quality of the sacred activities for those in-person. Further we hope that people will take the opportunity to join us in person for special events so that they can taste and bring back home with them the process of being in the space with the maha-sangha.
With Love and Gassho. . . Monshin