Looking back from the Outside

Some time ago I visited an interesting Japan-related photography exhibition. During the introductory talk an eminently educated scholar related the artwork on display to avant-garde and it’s relation to different periods in the history of art, to other contemporary work, and to aspects of the ethnological approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss. He pointed out, to properly understand your own culture the view from outside is essential. For the German photographer going to Japan was a necessary precondition to develop his specific view towards his own culture.

Recently I began seriously questioning if I should not give up the more traditional aspects within my practise and teaching. Does it really make sense for us 21st century Westerners to burn incense, perform polite bowing when entering a Dojo, recite a Sutra in ancient language, maybe even wear Japanese style clothing? Is my teaching of writing Chinese characters on the floor with a big brush (Hitsuzendo) or handling a Japanese wooden sword (Aikiken) really suitable for us? Or couldn’t we sit as well on comfortable chairs and discuss over a cup of tea? Why not? Just because I spent decades with and therefore love the Japanese aesthetics so much … should my personal taste count as a sufficient argument?

I got another inspiration through the scholar’s talk at the above mentioned exhibition. Putting everything into a setting coming from a completely different cultural background, our ways of perception get re-adjusted. It is usually the task of art and poetry to present the presumably familiar in a new, unexpected or maybe shocking way. Could this approach to open our eyes and senses, this looking back from the outside at what we thought to know be helpful for understanding ourselves in a better way?

During a Sesshin or seminar conducted in a Japanese-style environment everything is new, every movement, every activity seems to make somehow sense and is yet so strange. All sensations from hearing over seeing to smelling and the perception of the body sitting on a cushion on the floor is new. A perfect condition to learn something new, to leave something old behind! Looking back from such exotic experience to my ordinary day to day life, I have a chance to discover something new in there as well. I discover patterns and structures and habits I have not been aware before, a first necessary step towards changing them.

I will stick with the Japanese Rinzai-Zen inspired approach of teaching I call Raku-Zen. It provides the precious opportunity to look at our every-day life from the outside.