KYOTO INTERVIEW SERIES: THOMAS YUHO KIRCHNER
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Thomas Kirchner. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in the United States. I first came to Japan in 1969 at the age of 19 to study at Waseda University on a junior-year-abroad program.
Have you lived in Japan ever since?
The Waseda program was only for a year, but right from the start I had a feeling I would be staying longer. At that time in my life I had no idea what I wanted to do in the future. No career seemed interesting, and I wondered just what the meaning of life was. So, to find out, I began practicing Zen meditation. At first, while teaching at an English conversation school, I meditated at a temple in Tokyo. I later trained at the temples Shoanji in Nagano Prefecture and Shofukuji in Kobe. After three years I had decided to become a monk, and received ordination.
Was it unusual for a foreigner to study Zen in Japan at that time?
Nowadays there are many Zen centers (dojo) overseas, but in the past if a westerner wanted to practice Zen there was little choice other than to do so in Japan. So staying here after the Waseda program seemed quite natural. At the time there were several monasteries that allowed Americans and Europeans to practice alongside Japanese monks. Most of these places have closed their doors to foreigners now, although other monasteries, like Sogenji in Okayama Prefecture and Hoshinji in Fukui Prefecture, have become popular Zen monasteries for westerners.
When did you first learn about Japan and Zen?
My father, a doctor, had a number of Japanese associates who often visited our home. So from the time I was a child I was used to Japanese people, and Japan didn't seem like such a far-off foreign land. Later, during high school, I became very interested in Zen from books I read. During my first year at college in the USA, Shibayama Zenkei, the former abbot of Nanzenji, gave a lecture at my school. I was deeply moved by his warm smile, his bright, peaceful eyes, and his cheerful, unpretentious personality. He must have been in his seventies at that time.
You must have faced many challenges in your life.
I was very idealistic in my twenties, but when I entered my thirties I calmed down a bit and found myself standing at a crossroads, wondering whether Zen practice was all there was to life. I left the monastery and became interested in Eastern medicine, which has connections with Buddhism. I entered acupuncture school and became a licensed therapist after three years of study. I'm not too confident with the acupuncture needles, but when it comes to shiatsu I can hold my own against anyone (laughter)! After finishing the medical course I studied for a master's degree in Buddhist Studies at Otani University, then worked as a copy editor at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya. In the late 1990s a health breakdown caused me to reevaluate my life, and I realized that Zen had been the most meaningful thing I had ever done. I decided to return to the temple world, and came to Kyoto.
Please tell us about your recent book, Entangling Vines.
This is a book of 282 koans first published in Japan during the early Edo Period (1600-1868). Koans are special meditation problems that cut through ordinary, dualistic thought and help bring the practicer tospiritual awakening. The Zen master poses koan to his students to work on during meditation and daily life, and checks their progress during special one-to-one meetings called sanzen. A koan is not something you can understand through logic, you must break through to the state of mind that the koan expresses. This leads to a deepening in the meditator's understanding. My own teacher uses the koan with his foreign disciples, many of whom cannot understand Japanese. For that reason I began to work on English translations, and finally I just decided to do them all. I guess that was what got me started on this project.
Could you give us an example of a koan?
One of the most famous koan is Case #9 in Entangling Vines. A monk went to Zhaozhou, a famous Chinese Zen master, and asked, "Why did Bodhidharma [the founder of Zen] come all the way to China from India?" The teacher replied, "The juniper tree in the garden!" The monk asked again, but the teacher gave the same answer. The significance of Zhaozhou's response is that we, the juniper tree, and the universe are all one. But, of course, this is an understanding that we can only come to through the deep practice of meditation.
Who is the target audience for this book?
The book is intended mainly for Zen practicers, but I think it might also be interesting for people with an interest in poetry and literature. Their way of understanding the koan would be be different from that of Zen, of course, but there is nothing wrong with this. The koans have many layers of meaning, and there is no single "correct" understanding. Entangling Vines might also be useful for people suffering from insomnia as well, read ten pages, and you're sure to fall asleep!
Could you tell us a bit about Zen monastic life?
The daily schedule varies a bit at different Zen temples, but typically we wake up before four in the morning, and as early as 3:30 in summer. After arising, we chant sutras for an hour while beating a wooden temple drum. After that, we sit zazen for an hour, then see the master, one by one, for sanzen. This is followed by a breakfast of rice gruel. In the morning there is work or mendicancy (takuhatsu). After lunch there is a break, followed by work in the afternoon. Supper is at about 4:30, and after that there is meditation until about 10:00 or 11:00 at night.
Please tell us what you think of Kyoto.
I live in Kyoto not for the city itself, but because Kyoto is the heart of Zen culture in Japan and one of the best places to practice Zen. But I enjoy life here. Kyoto is just the right size. It's not a huge metropolis like Tokyo, yet it offers almost everything that Tokyo does. And many interesting and talented people live here. For that reason I think it's a wonderful city.
-Interview by Yuko Sugiyama, translation by Bianca Jarvis
Readers interested in purchasing Entangling Vines can contact Thomas Yuho Kirchner at firstname.lastname@example.org
Helpful Hints for Biking in Kyoto
Bicycles are a great way to get around Kyoto, as long as you follow the laws and ride safely. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your cycling experience:
If you or a friend are only visiting Kyoto for a short time, you may prefer to rent a bicycle instead of buying one. You can rent a bicycle at Rental Cycle Yasumoto(North-East side of Kawabata Sanjo, 075-751-0595), or Cycle Terminal (075-354-3636 or book via internet at http://www.kctp.net/en/rental/) who will deliver and pick up the bicycle for an additional \500 fee. Many hostels and hotels offer cheap or free rental cycles for guests- ask at the counter.
How to Register your bike
Registration of bicycles (bohan toroku) is required by law. If your bicycle is stolen or illegally parked and you have not registered it, there is very little chance you will get it back. However, if it is registered, the police will be able to identify it if found. If you buy a new bicycle, it can be registered at the place of purchase for \500 (valid for 5 years). If you buy a second hand bicycle that has a pre-existing registration, you must change the registration to your name at the Parking Section of the Kyoto Prefectural Police Headquarters (Kyoto-fu Keisatsu Honbu Chusha Taisaku-ka 075-451-9111, Japanese only).
Parking Your Bicycle
Bicycle no-parking zones are designated with a sign like the one shown in the diagram. If you park illegally in one of these areas, the City of Kyoto has the right to remove your bike and take it to the bicycle pound. Your bicycle will be kept at the bike pound for 4 weeks. If your bike is not claimed within this period, it will be disposed of. If your bicycle is missing, check for a nearby sign listing the place where your bike can be reclaimed. There are six bicycle pounds in Kyoto, depending on where your bike was parked (this should be listed on the no-parking sign, all phone numbers Japanese only): Teramachi: 075-212-3884 Sanjo Senbon: 075-821-9366 Jujo: 075-541-7913 Kishoin : 075-682-2418 Kuzebashi Gozen : 075-682-3384 Momoyama: 075-621-9866 In order to reclaim your bike, you will need the key to your bicycle lock, identification, personal seal/signature, and a \2,300 handling fee.
For more information about removed bicycles, please called the Kyoto City Construction Bureau, Road Administration (Doro Kanri-ka, 075-222-3564, Japanese only) This website contains information about reclaiming bicycles in Japanese: http://www.city.kyoto.jp/kensetu/housyatai/henkan/henkan.html
-Compiled by Bianca Jarvis
(Note: Much of the information in this article was taken from "Easy Living in Kyoto" published by the Kyoto City International Foundation.)
Note:This list is by no means exhaustive. Information is subject to change without warning.