This essay was written in 2002 for a class on "Food and Memory"
I had come to Japan with a single purpose: to recode an understanding of my past with my adult conscious mind, using the vehicle of a little known Japanese meditation practice called Naikan. Naikan, which is known by only a tiny number of Westerners, is an experience that invites the participant to reflect privately upon his entire life and recover lost or forgotten information. It is ultimately about becoming more realistic. It has an unusual bias, however. I knew I needed to do this process and had sought out the one place on earth where a foreigner could come to do Naikan. While there are a number of centers where it is conducted in Japanese, there was but a single place on earth at that time to undergo this experience as an English speaker. The setting for this was a rustic Zen temple plopped out in the middle of endless rice fields, Senkobo. Both a fully functioning Zen Temple and a Naikan retreat center, Senkobo was unique. It was July in 1987 and I was a single, 45 year old Drama teacher, arriving in rural Japan.
An aging taxi, driven by a pleasant fellow wearing white cotton gloves, brought me and my suitcase from the Kuwana train station to the courtyard of an old wooden structure. Mrs. Usami, the Temple Abbot’s sweet faced wife, greeted me and motioned me inside. I handed her a medium sized bunch of ordinary bananas and a box of inexpensive chocolates, which I had purchased at the train station as a last minute, not especially thoughtful “house gift.” She received it as if it was a treasure, with a huge smile and a sincere protestation about “how wonderful it was,” placing it on the altar next to the large Buddha statue. I was sorry already for not having put more thought into my gift.
After a formal cup of tea and an introduction to the “rules of the house,” (Don’t speak to any other meditators, and don’t move around . . . except to go to the toilet) I was led to my cubicle to begin this 15 hour a day reflection practice. Naikan is by many accounts a polarity from formal Zen meditation. In zazen (the typical Zen form) one is focused entirely on this very moment . . . this breath now . . . this immediate momentary experience. One attempts to avoid daydreaming or letting the mind drift into particular thoughts. (Although anyone who has ever meditated knows that this is exactly what the mind most likes to do . . . think of the past or future.) In contrast, with Naikan meditation the Naikansha (one who does Naikan) is asked to focus completely on some specific past time period (for example, “grade school years”) and on a particular person. One searches the data banks of memory for answers to three questions:
What did I receive from . . . X during this timeframe?
What did I give to . . . . X during this period?
(And, a surprising question to us in the West . . .)
What troubles and bothers did I cause to . . .X during this timeframe?
The “X” in this equation is normally a person; the first assignment is reflection on your mother, then your father, and later, other close associates (spouse, children, best friends, mentors, teachers, etc.) The purpose of this exercise is to take a new look at your relationships. These three questions suggest a vantage point which is not self serving and that can provide the seeker with a more realistic and encompassing view of the past. It’s common for traditional Western therapeutic approaches to look at what was wrong with the parent/child relationship, often examining in some detail those moments when our parents “let us down” or failed to live up to our hopes or needs. In contrast, the Naikan investigation invites us to examine in specific detail the many ways we were being cared for and served, even when we weren’t noticing it at the time. We bring our adult value system into play as we search for examples of the care we received and the trouble we caused.
So, on a sticky summer day, thousands of miles from home, I found myself sitting on the floor of a basically empty cubicle, with nothing more than a thin, flat cushion for comfort. My mind began to examine the question of what I had received from my mother from birth to three years of age. When it dawned on me that my mother had had a Caesarian section to give me birth (a fact I’d always known, but had not really considered previously) I was flooded with a profound gratitude and wonder. She carried a scar throughout her like just to give me life. More amazing discoveries were to come as the days passed.
My reflections were collected every several hours when a “guide” would come to hear my memories. Kneeling facing one another I recited some of the stories and shards of memory from the recent stroll into the details of my childhood. This “reporting out,” called the mensetsu, was the time when I was called on to share these reflections with another person. Guides who listen are simply others who have gone through this process themselves and, as such, are empathetic hearers. Reporting ones memories brought a “waking up” feeling to the process of deep reflection which was itself sometimes dreamlike.
Our daily schedule started at 4:30AM. I was allowed a thirty minute walk outside the monastery to exercise in the dawn light. The morning hours were cool, albeit muggy. It was good to stretch my legs and observe the Japanese countryside—rice fields in all directions, a few ordinary wooden, country homes, the occasional barking dog, and telephone or electric lines in parallel with the country roads.
After my walk I was expected to go to my cubicle to begin Naikan reflection on my last assignment. Breakfast commenced when a bell rang and we were instructed to form a line. This varied from as early as 7:15 to 9:00AM. When everyone was present in line the Head Zen Monk marched us off to the dining room through the wooden corridors. We sat seiza style (with knees folded under us) at a low table that was about twenty feet long. I think there were about 18 of us who were practicing: several elderly women, some sullen Japanese youth, a couple of middle aged men, a few women in their thirties, one other American, (a retired surgeon) and me. I had heard that several of us were juvenile delinquents sent from the local prefecture. People had begun their practice at different times, so each of us was on a unique schedule with respect to the reflection pattern itself. But we came together for meals three times a day, in silence, of course. The only sounds at the meals were those of the “meal chant,” which we recited in unison in Japanese followed by the rattle of chop sticks on bowls along with various slurping noises. Someone had kindly printed out the chant in phonetic English syllables. So, I intoned along with my cohorts, although I really didn’t know what I was saying. A translation of the chant was available, but it was OK with me to simply mumble along. The main thing was to get to the food. Sitting, doing Naikan meditation really made me hungry.
Mealtimes at Senkobo happened, presumably when the cook was ready, since there was no set time for our meals. The bell rang for each meal at a slightly different time every day. Often just when I had given up entirely, and predicted that there would be no meal at all, would the bell finally ring. Aside from assuaging my hunger mealtime was the single diversion in our daily lives.
Breakfast was typical of country Japanese fare: miso soup, a bowl of white rice, a bit of leftover vegetable or tofu, and the ubiquitous daikan pickle, which is used for two purposes: to wipe the last grain of rice from one’s bowl, and then to clear the palate. Lunch was a “fast food” event. We were served a small sized hot-dog shaped bun of white bread (wrapped in a cellophane wrapper, which made a lot of noise being opened). This bun, I swear, had pink whipped cream inside. This “sandwich” was served with cartons of thick, whole milk. I felt like a grade school student at “snack time;” however, all the Japanese woofed down this odd offering as if it was the most normal thing imaginable. An ordinary hot dog bun with pink whipped cream inside. Think about it.
The entire meal took about seven minutes. This time began with the ringing of the bell, followed by the line-up, the seating at the table, the distribution of the food, the meal chant, the eating of the food, the cleaning of our individual bowls with the pickle, the passing forward of our cleaned bowls and serving plates to the Monk at the head of the table, the closing meal chant, and the march back to our cubicles. Seven minutes. No kidding. Seven minutes. This fact may fly in the face of any notion you may have that Zen is about “savoring the moment” and taking your time to pay attention to the here and now. Not so at Senkobo, a Zen Temple in Japan’s Mie prefecture.
This brings me at last to the special food I’d like to describe, Konnyaku. Anyone who has sampled Japanese food, beyond the most well known dishes served in America, realizes that Japan has more weird food textures than any other nationality. It is staggering to take in the myriad ways that the Japanese have made “things gelatinous.” It is truly an art form. They love jellied things, including savory jellied things. Just imagine salty jello and you begin to get on this page.
On my second night there dinner at Senkobo included what I later learned was a common vegetarian main course: Konnyaku. This version of the food itself had a triangular log shape about 4 and a half inches long. On first sight these “special nutritious” globules looked exactly like brown rubber door-stoppers. They were colored a speckled brown and grayish hue and they had something of a sheen. Three of these were placed in the individual meal bowl at my place. As I looked around it didn’t seem to me that everyone else had been given three of these. Perhaps, as a foreign guest, and a bigger one at that, I was honored by being given more on my plate. Fair enough. So, “itadakimasu,” (chow down! . . . or more accurately, “I am about to receive this.”)
Grabbing my chop sticks I speared one of these little brown puppies and took a bite. Or rather, attempted to take a bite. Now, think rubber door-stopper. The texture of this food is indescribable. But I’ll try. It is thick, coarse and rubbery. As I chomped down on a piece of it and chewed and chewed and chewed, it simply didn’t dissolve. The taste itself wasn’t too bad. It had a vague “brown” taste, with something of the flavor of taro root. But it was the almighty texture of it that stopped me. I just couldn’t seem to swallow very much of it. It seemed that an hour must have passed as I sat there trying, trying to swallow the huge glob of hard gelatin. It couldn’t be that long, of course, but my sense perception was all out of joint. Looking around the long table everyone else was finished with their hands folded in their laps, waiting for me to complete the meal so that we could all pass forward our empty bowls. It became clear to me that my bowl would quite simply NEVER be empty. There was no way I could finish even one of these, much less three. Sweat poured from my temples, I concentrated on chewing. There must be a way to swallow these. I was in distress; I was in extremis. No one could leave the table until I was finished. And, it was unthinkable to throw away unused food such as this . . . untouched, two of the pieces were. More long moments passed as I tried in vain to swallow bites of the piece I had started. No one looked at me, but I felt their stares.
At last, the Head Zen Monk, who had appeared to be either half asleep or meditating at the head of the table, stood up, rushed into the kitchen, brought back an empty serving bowl, scooped up the two untouched Konnyaku logs, placing them in the neutral bowl, and whisked it away. Everyone now seeing that my dinner bowl was at last empty began the thunderous ritual of passing the bowls up to the head of the table. The empty bowls were now stacked, the clapper sounded, the meal chant dully recited and off we went back to our cubicle to reflect on the troubles we’d caused others and all that we’d been receiving.
I was grateful to the little Zen monk for saving face for me and salvaging the food. What was that thing that wouldn’t go down my throat? It seems this food is the remarkable Konnyaku. I quote here from the official web site. “An ingredient in Konnyaku is Glucomannan Konnyaku (Amorphophaiius Konjac, K. Koch.) produced from tubers of Konnyaku root, has been consumed as a part of important Japanese dishes for over 2,000 years.” According to the web site touting its virtues, another key thing about Konnyaku is that it is “totally mad cow disease FREE.” I learned also that “Konnyaku is ideal for weight reduction since Konnyaku forms jelly like material and expands about 30-50 times in the digestive system and gives the feeling that the stomach is full. The Konnyaku cleans the digestive tract of toxins.”. I think that what was happening as I tried to eat my healthy portion of rubber door stopper is that my piece was expanding 30-50 times in my mouth.
Finally I learned that “Konnyaku is one of the most effective items for defending yourself from fatness.” NOW they tell me. And I was indeed totally Mad Cow Disease Free after a whole week in the monastery. That’s truth in advertising.