Here is another chapter written for my never-finished book The Zen of Godzilla. As I said in an earlier installment of the series, the problem with this book was that it was really hard to connect Godzilla with Buddhism. Case in point: This chapter doesn’t mention Godzilla at all!
But it does mention the company I worked for in Tokyo, Tsuburaya Productions. Tsuburaya Productions was founded by Eiji Tsuburaya. Eiji Tsuburaya was the special effects director for all of the Godzilla films from the first one in 1954 until Destroy All Monsters in 1969, which was the year he passed away. Eiji’s company mostly made TV shows that were basically miniature Godzilla movies. Our most popular character was Ultraman, who was a gigantic superhero, big enough to defend the world from Godzilla-sized monsters. The Ultraman TV shows were not cartoons. They were live-action programs made with the same special effects techniques invented by Eiji Tsuburaya for the Godzilla movies.
Anyway, the chapter you’re about to read has almost nothing to do with that! It just so happens that the incident that inspired me to write it occurred while I was working at Tsuburaya Productions. I think it’s a good chapter, actually. It just doesn’t have much to do with Godzilla. This is why I abandoned the project after this chapter. This is the last chapter I wrote for The Zen of Godzilla.
By the way, after I gave up writing The Zen of Godzilla, I thought about the title. It hit me that a book called The Zen of God might be better than The Zen of Godzilla. So I wrote that book instead, but I changed the title to There is No God and He is Always With You.
The Monster Warehouse at Tsuburaya Productions was on the second floor of one of the ramshackle two-story buildings that made up Tsuburaya Productions’ original offices in the Kinuta district of Tokyo’s far outlying Setagaya Ward. Originally the building was constructed as a costume shop for the nearby Toho film studios. I worked at Tsuburaya Productions for most of the time that I lived in Tokyo studying Zen Buddhism under Gudo Nishijima Roshi. Nishijima Roshi had no temple of his own, much like his Zen hero Kodo Sawaki. He encouraged his students to work in the secular world while practicing. I’m grateful for that because it allowed me to see sides of Buddhism and its place in Asian society that I might never have discovered living in a monastery.
The monster warehouse was where we stored all the latex and foam rubber costumes for the various scaly dinosaurian monstrosities and bug-eyed alien menaces Ultraman battled each week on his popular TV live action show. The warehouse was not particularly well constructed and small animals got in there all the time. At one point a starling built a nest in there and laid some eggs. The eggs hatched but two of the baby starlings fell out and were found wandering around helpless and scared on the floor. Someone caught them and put them in a cage. I was really worried about those birds. When I expressed my concern to the woman in charge of the warehouse she shrugged and said, “They’re in Buddha’s hands now.”
That surprised me. It would never have occurred to me before that moment that such a phrase as “They’re in Buddha’s hands now” would exist at all. But she said it just as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say.
When Buddhism was first introduced to the West, there were three basic things pretty much everyone interested in Buddhism learned right from the start. 1) Buddha was not a god, savior or supernatural being, 2) Buddhism is more of a philosophy and practice than a religion and 3) the main activity of Buddhists is meditation. Meditation was, after all, what the historical Buddha taught his followers.
But then many of those of us who studied Buddhism in Europe and America went to Asia and saw how Buddhism was practiced and understood by regular people in the countries from whom we’d imported our practices. By “regular people” I mean those who do not devote themselves to monastic life or read lots of Buddhist literature, but instead just visit their local temples a handful of times each year. Many of those of us Western Buddhists who experienced Buddhism in its native lands started to question what we thought we knew about Buddhism. I studied and practiced Zen for ten years in Ohio before I moved to Tokyo. Hearing someone use a phrase like, “They’re in Buddha’s hands now” was one of many times when I came face to face with the fact that most average Buddhists in Japan have a very different understanding of Buddhism from what I was taught.
And so, in these latter days, it’s become trendy for lots of Westerners involved in Buddhism, both casually and professionally, to take an almost mocking attitude toward what we once thought we knew about Buddhism. “We were wrong,” these newly enlightened Western Buddhists who’ve been to the Far East will tell you, “over in Asia the Buddha is seen as a supernatural being or even a god, Buddhism is definitely a religion and not a philosophy, and nobody meditates!”
So what gives? What is Buddhism anyway? Who is right? Could our Western version of Buddhism be something we have invented, something that doesn’t even exist in Asia at all? Were we wrong about Buddhism?
I would say no. What we were taught was correct. And the new information we’re getting from our travels abroad is also true. Buddhism is a whole lot of things. And contradictory is one of them.
Often when I lecture about Buddhism I end up answering questions from people in the audience who are surprised to find that there is more than one sort of Buddhism. Of course there is, I tell them. Buddhism is 500 years older than Christianity. Think of how many different versions there are of what it means to be a “true Christian.” There are versions of Buddhism that are as far removed from what one would reasonably consider mainstream Buddhism as Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses are removed from what one would generally call mainstream Christianity.
Furthermore, ordinary folks in Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and other parts of Asia aren’t any more educated about what’s actually in the Buddhist sutras than ordinary folks in Norfolk, Kentucky or London, England or Munich, Germany are educated about what’s actually in the Bible. The same way Americans often mistake sayings from Shakespeare or Dante’s Inferno as parts of the Bible, Asian Buddhists constantly mix up all sorts of folk tales and local literature with wisdom from the Buddhist sutras.
Someone once asked Nishijima Roshi what he thought Gautama Buddha was. Did he believe Buddha was a god or just an ordinary man? Nishijima took the middle way. He said that Gautama Buddha was neither a god nor an ordinary man. Gautama Buddha was, he said, a genius.
I like that definition. We all understand what a genius is. Einstein wasn’t a god, nor was Picasso or John Lennon. But they weren’t exactly ordinary people either. You and I aren’t going to do anything equal to coming up with the theory of Special Relativity or painting Guernica or writing Strawberry Fields Forever. But if we apply ourselves to mathematics we can understand the Theory of Relativity. If we spend years mastering Picasso’s technique we could make a passable copy of Guernica. If we got ourselves a Mellotron, some guitars and a multi-track recorder we could make our own version of Strawberry Fields Forever. Or we could stand on the shoulders of those giants and create something unique of our own. It may not be equal to their work. But if we’re any good at all, it will be a valid expression of our grasp of what they did. More than that, it will be our own theory, our own painting, our own song. Or, if we follow the Buddha’s Way, it can be our own enlightenment.
It’s incorrect to label what we were initially taught about Buddhism as a set of misconceptions. It wasn’t the complete picture, to be sure. But most of those teachers who taught those things were not scholars trying to give us a complete overview of Buddhism in a historical and sociological context. They were representatives of specific schools of Buddhist thought and practice.
It is a misconception to say that all Buddhists meditate. But if a Buddhist teacher tells her audience that the most crucial aspect of Buddhism is meditation or even that there is no Buddhism without meditation, she is not spreading a misconception. She is teaching an established form of Buddhism with roots that (arguably) go all the way back to Buddhism’s beginning. When someone says Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion, you can ask them to define philosophy and religion. They would probably welcome it. Personally, I think Buddhism is neither religion nor philosophy. Ask me why sometime and I’d be happy to explain. Would my explanation be a misconception? When a teacher of Buddhism says Buddha was not supernatural they’re expressing a fundamental understanding within many schools of Buddhism. They’re not trying to present a distillation of what every single person out there who calls themselves a Buddhists thinks Gautama Buddha is.
So perhaps we were wrong about Buddhism in some sense. At least we were naive. We were wrong when we thought that what our teachers said represented the whole of this thing that the British colonials decided to call “Buddhism” back when they gave it that name in the 19th century. “Buddhism” is, by the way, a name its practitioners never used until the Brits invented it.
But in another sense we were not wrong. I’m committed enough to the way my teachers taught Buddhism to believe that we were more correct about Buddha’s real message than the “authentic” Buddhists out there who worship Buddha as the supernatural god of their religion and do not meditate. Then again, you have to be pretty committed to a certain outlook to get ordained to teach it.
As for those starlings, I took them home. One of them only made it for a few days. But the other one survived long enough that I set him free a few weeks later after I saw him spontaneously try to hunt for bugs around my apartment. I hope he did well in the wild. But that’s all in Buddha’s hands.
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