Zen and The Art of Bicycle Maintenance


This blog entry about the events of Friday, October 01, 2004 was originally posted on October 08, 2004.

DAY 349:  Kyoto is the other must-see city (aside from Tokyo) for anyone with a short amount of time in Japan, according to the 1997 Lonely Planet guide.  “More than any other city in Japan, if you care to seek it out, Kyoto offers what all westerners long for of Japan — raked pebble gardens, the sensuous contours of a temple roof, the tripping step of a latter-day geisha in pursuit of a taxi.”  The center of the Japanese empire was based in Kyoto from the 7th to the 19th centuries, and in that time many classic buildings were constructed to serve the rulers, the people and the religions they believed in.

One of these religions was Zen Buddhism, probably the most famous one out of Japan for westerners since it has been often referenced in American pop culture, from The Simpsons to The Karate Kid.  It is an Asian religion that focuses on the mind and the appreciation of nature.

Zen’s roots, like all Buddhism, lies not in Japan but in India.  It wasn’t until about the 13th century that Zen Buddhism reached Japan, evolving into two schools of thought:  zazen, based on quiet, sit-down meditation; and koan, the Rinzai School of Zen, based on the contemplation of riddles.  You may have heard these riddles before:  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  If a tree in the forest falls down and no one is around, does it make a sound?  They are questions one must sit and ponder, and it is this meditation that is pivotal in the Rinzai school.

Many of the Zen temples in Kyoto’s northwestern suburbs were all a bike ride away from my hostel, so I rented a bicycle all day for about six dollars and used it to cruise around town despite the rain coming down.  I started things off at the Kinkaku-Ji Temple, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, originally built in 1397 as the residence for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, known for its famed Golden Temple.  It was while wandering the temple grounds that I bumped into an American guy rushing around with a camera like he was only in town for a day and wanted to quickly snap shots of things to say he was there. 

“Where are you going next? I asked him. 

“The Nanzen-Ji Temple,” he said.  It was another must-take-a-photo place on the other side of town.  I told him about my next destination, the nearby Ryoan-Ji Temple known for its Zen rock gardens.  He seemed intrigued and hopped in a cab while I went to go wipe the rain off my bicycle seat. 

THE RYOAN-JI TEMPLE, founded in 1450 by a former military leader, is a well-known sit in the Rinzai School of Zen.  It is the site of a scenic pond and karesansui, a “dry landscape” or rock garden.  You may have seen smaller versions of these rock gardens sold in new age stores in the mall, usually in a store that also sells glow-in-the-dark star stickers to put on your ceiling.  In the Ryoan-ji’s rock garden were fifteen rocks, placed not randomly, but in a thought-out way by an unknown designer.  Many people flocked to this garden, young and old to try and figure out its meaning, but as the author of a book I flipped through in the gift shop said, the point is not to find the meaning, but the meditation in trying to find the meaning; too many Zen scholars try to spin interpretations, forgetting that the “answer” is not the answer, just like those Rinzai riddles.  Interpretation or not, I was too busy contemplating how old the MILF nearby with her kids was.

“I paid five bucks to see a bunch of rocks?” the American guy I met at Kinkaku-Ji said when I bumped into him there.  He took my suggestion after all. 

“It’s a Zen rock garden,” I told him.

“Ehh, I should have just gone to the other one.”  He rushed off and left the “mere collection of rocks,” to find something else worth taking a photo of.  I suppose not everyone gets the principles of Zen — or doesn’t have the time to think about it.

WITH SO MANY TEMPLES AND SHRINES to see in Kyoto, it gets a bit overwhelming and after a while, they all start looking the same.  It is key to choose and plan wisely ahead so that you can get the most out of your time — and your wallet.  At almost five bucks per temple with over twenty to see, it just makes good financial sense to pick and choose the ones you really want to see.

Lonely Planet turned me onto another temple (Shinto, not Zen), the Jingo-Ji Temple, nestled even farther out from Kyoto’s center in Takao, a northwestern town high in the mountains.  It didn’t seem too far at the time I decided to go by bicycle, but on my way up, struggling to pedal up the mountain road for hours under the rain with no rain gear, I really started to meditate on some questions:  Why are you doing this?  Why are you so stubborn not to ever bring rain gear or an umbrella?  How come these bicycle gears are working funny?  Why is gravity so cruel?  And really, how old was that MILF back at the rock garden?

After getting lost and asking directions from the local sheriffีs office (the living room of his house I believe), I eventually made it to the top of the hill without making that wrong turn onto the freeway.  I parked my bike and proceeded on foot up a big cruel flight of stairs that probably wouldn’t have been so bad if I just took a bus up the mountain like everyone else.  Unlike the temples in town, there was only a handful of people visiting, leaving me more at peace to appreciate the mountain forest nature around me and contemplate some the Rinzai riddles while walking mountain paths.  If a tree fell here and I wasn’t, would it make a sound?  If I farted right now and no one else was around, would it smell like I had broccoli for breakfast?

I visited the Gold Hall and the pagoda and then the look out point of the beautiful valley below.  It was customary to throw these little clay disks out into the valley to rid of bad karma, and I flung mine away to provide me a clearer future.

Soon, the sun started to come out.  I took advantage and rode around the mountainous region by the river, off the beaten path (picture above) despite not having a mountain bike and eventually found a “secret” hiking trail up a hill near a lesser-known shrine in seemingly the middle of nowhere.  I only made it up halfway up the heavily eroded hill until I turned back for fear of spider bites and the fact that no one would know where to look for me if I turned up lost.

BACK IN TOWN, I had a couple hours of daylight left and went to visit one more Zen temple, the Daitoku-Ji Temple of the Rinzai school.  They “temple” was more like a little self-contained village with many monks, temples, subtemples, rock gardens and bamboo ones.  The Daisen-In Subtemple seemed to be the big draw of the few places open to the public so I went to check it out.  An old man in monk attire that looked like he had some seniority over the others approached me with a smile and words in Japanese — until i told him I was from New York.

“Oh, New York?” he said in English.  “Start spreading the news…” he sang in his Japanese accent.  “I’m leaving today…  I want to be a part of it, New York, New York…”

The Sinatra of Zen wasn’t some random monk with a penchant for American standards; I had met Soen Ozeki, the Zen master of the Daitoku-Ji Temple, who broke all stereotypes of the reserved contemplating monk with a boyish charm and demeanor.  “Look here!  It is a sinking ship, and a little turtle swimming against the current,” he said, explaining his interpretation of the nearby rock garden he designed near his more well-known Great Ocean garden.  But he really blew me away with one of his quotes he conjured up in a meditative session:

“Each day in life is training
Training for myself
Though failure is possible
Living each moment
Equal to anything
Ready for everything
I am alive — I am this moment
My future is here and now
For if I cannot endure today
When and where will I?”

I bought his wisdom on a scroll that he autographed for me — before posing for a photo:  Erik and the Sinatra-singin’ Zen Master.

AT THE END OF THE DAY, standing with my bike before the Arashiyama Bridge over the Katsura River, I felt fulfilled with a new understanding of Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance.  If only that American guy took the time out to think about it, perhaps those rocks would have been photo-worthy after all.

Next entry: The Japanese Connection

Previous entry: Bullet Time

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Comments for “Zen and The Art of Bicycle Maintenance”

  • Here’s two more for ya… I’m still grounded…

    IT IS TRUE THAT NEW JERSEY IS A SWING STATE NOW?  If so, I’m off to the (real) American embassy…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:12 AM

  • BEAUTIFUL PICTURES!!! I am so jealous - it looks SO wonderful and green there… here in LA we have not enough green. Boo…

    Okay, question for you: how BIG are those rock gardens? I mean, some of the pictures make them look small, but then I’m not sure… are you zooming in?

    Also, the “shrine” photo link doesn’t work. :(

    Thank you for the pictures - they’re spectacular - REALLY!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:24 AM

  • NOELLE:  The rock gardens are about the size of a backyard swimming pool, except for the Ozeki’s turtle/ship one which was the size of a jacuzzi. 

    Shrine photo fixed.  Thanks!  BTW, don’t you EVER sleep?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:33 AM

  • But, are the rocks in the middle big??

    Yes, I do sleep. From about midnight to 6am-ish… It’s not that late now…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  09:24 AM

  • MILF!! I cracked up yet again!

    I hope those hills and steps weren’t.. “undulating”

    Looks like you had quite an adventure, like Indy, searching for the meaning of the grail, or in your situation, the rocks. Loved the quote too! And Sinatra Zen Master! Brilliant! Those steps gave me painful flashbacks to some of the Inca Trail’s neverending, undulating steps!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  09:38 AM

  • I just saw this blog. Damn, I just moved to Tokyo last month, and have been doing some of the stuff you have been too! I’m a student from Scotland who came over to study here, so I’ve been fitting stuff in between work. Sounds like you had fun! I think I get to go to Kyoto eventually, but I’m only here for 3 months so I have to go see more…if only it would stop pouring! Well, enjoy the rest of your stay, I guess I should go and read the rest of this now, and see whats worth doing around the world wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  01:59 PM

  • TOKYO GAZ:  Shame you discovered me just right after I left Japan… Oh well… 

    Anyway, you’ve got about a year’s worth of reading to do…  Get to it!  smile

    Glad to hear from you, pass the world along!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  03:44 PM

  • Erik - thanks for the rock garden pics.  That is my purpose in Kyoto when I eventually get there - wander around Gion (the old area with the geisha) and sitting in a temple contemplating a rock garden for several hours.

    Posted by Liz  on  10/08  at  06:05 PM

  • When I started reading this one, I was going to be VERY disappointed if there was no reference to a fart koan.  Luckily, there was no need to worry! grin

    And you’d better get your vote in.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  07:02 PM

  • Next time be sure to include pictures of the MILF please.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  09:42 PM

  • LOL Bill!

    Your Kyoto experience was way more Zen then mine!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/09  at  02:44 AM

  • broccoli farts!  MILFs!

    where was the rock garden when forrest gump needed more rocks?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/09  at  04:28 PM

  • Erik:  I received my Global canvass bag as a gift from Rose (nice sis, eh?)  Can’t wait to use it every day in China and see if someone recognizes it and approaches me about your Blog.  I’ll keep you posted!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/10  at  10:00 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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The Japanese Connection

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