Thursday, August 23, 2012

Or, How I Survived My Midlife Ego Crisis


This is a blog chronicling a four year period from 2006-2009 during which I underwent what is commonly referred to as a midlife crisis.  At that time I had been in Japan for 10 years continuously, and for 15 years of the past 19.  Since 1988 I had been – and continue to be – a teacher of English as a Second Language, initially at the secondary level and later in colleges and universities.

In 2006 I was 45 years old.  I decided to leave my jobs to study thangka painting in Kathmandu.  I did this for a total of one year over three visits spanning three years.  The details are in the blog.  Along the way I did a lot of other interesting stuff – I attended my first Vipassana course (I just finished my fifth a couple of weeks ago), visited the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites of India and Nepal (plus a few more), met a tulku, took refuge from the Karmapa, walked a 1200km pilgrimage in Japan, took lay ordination in Soto Zen, and jumped off a 165 meter bridge with rubber band tied to my ankle.  The adventure took a different turn in 2009 when I moved to the Arabian Peninsula to teach English at a women’s college (which is where I remain as of this writing).

As this is a blog, the contents are displayed in reverse chronological order.  If you wish to read chronologically, perhaps the easiest way is to scroll down to Blog Archive (located just after Fukuoka Sky in the side bar at right), click on 2007, and then on January.  All the posts from that month will be displayed on one page, with the first post of that month appearing at the bottom.

There is also a companion blog about my Shikoku pilgrimage.  You can find it here, or through a link in the side bar, just after About the Author

Looking back I’m surprised at how much I did during those four years and how those activities gave my life a new trajectory.  Should you be contemplating a similarly radical departure, I hope my story provides inspiration and convinces you that your wild idea may be possible.  I also hope you have an equally loving and supportive spouse. 

September 2012

Sunday, September 20, 2009



Reality is not a thought. Reality is not what you think. Reality is not what you can think. Reality is what is immediately experienced.

Reality is what it is. Truth is what it is. The real question is, what are you?

Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs
Steve Hagen

Monday, August 31, 2009

White Gompa 1978

I ran across this photo while searching for something else and was impressed by the quality of the photo itself, as well as the complete absence of buildings surrounding the gompa. Those who have been there recently know the area is now entirely developed.

The photo and accompanying story of the gompa's founding is here.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

L'ecole d'art tsering

Early this year when I was painting in Kathmandu a French film maker came to art school for a few days to shoot for a documentary. This evening I received a note from Yoji in Belgium that he saw me on TV and that the film is available for viewing online for one week only here.

I feel somewhat melancholy seeing my old classmates, the temple, the school, and the neighborhood. Those were beautiful days.


Friday, August 14, 2009

A last look at Japan

Somewhere between Fukuoka and Osaka.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

And this bird you cannot change

Soon after publishing my wistful rainy morning post, a breeze from long ago blew through my in-box. It was the organizer of this year's 30th high school graduation reunion with an update on this month's event.

Anyone who went to an urban US high school in the late 70's remembers three groups of students: geeks, jocks, and stoners. I was never in the second group and might have ended up in the first if I hadn't first fallen in with the latter. Needless to say, I don't have fond memories of high school because, well, I have few memories at all.

Included in the email update was a request from the DJ who will be working the reunion party for a class song. I would imagine that the people organizing this event belong to either or both of the first two groups of students. I can't imagine many in the third group really caring very much one way or the other. And I would expect this organizing person to choose something upbeat and positive, a kind of Teach-the-World-to-Sing type song.

What was suggested instead was the stoner anthem.

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now,
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn't be the same.
'Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change.

Oh, the sweet, delicious irony. The music of the group of kids who were always on the out is now the anthem for the entire class, geek and jocks alike. Now I wish I were going so I could hold up my lighter one more time. "Oh won't you fly high, oh Freebird!"

The timing also seemed perfect, with lyrics suited for the occasion of leaving, of traveling on. I'm as free as a bird now.

Strangely enough, I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Miami Sportatorium on the opening night of the Street Survivor's tour in October 1977 (about which I also don't remember much). Five days later the plane carrying the band crashed, killing three members.


And then a rainbow


This morning I took my coffee on the veranda and watched the dark clouds roll over. The cicadas were chirping. A crane flew past, angling toward the river. A man came out to the park with his Shiba for the morning fag and constitutional.

I was feeling a bit melancholy. Twelve years of my life in this city, in this apartment, and looking out at this view. One quarter of my life. And after Friday, I won't be looking at it ever again.

And then I noticed, just over to the north, a small hint of a rainbow.

Ten minutes later and it was pouring down rain.

My bags are packed. I shipped the biggest one to the airport Monday. I also posted my last 30kg box of stuff to RAK, the last one to go.

All that remains is to get on the airplane Friday.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Review: Kyoto (Japan) Vipassana Center

The Kyoto Vipassana Center was a veritable hotel.

There was soap in the bathroom, detergent for washing clothes (by hand in a bucket), a spinner to save you the effort of hand wringing wet clothes, screens on all the windows, hot water on demand, clean futons, immaculate wood floors, a wide assortment of condiments (such as pickles, teas and sweeteners), insect repellent, salve for bug bites, a large container of medicines in the kitchen, complimentary earplugs in case you were bunking with a snorer, and fans in all the rooms. The only thing not included were sheets, which oddly enough were one of the few provisions at Bodhgaya and Sarnath, the two India centers I visited in 2007 and 2008. There we had nothing more than a bed, cold water, buckets, and mosquitoes (even in December).

Kitchen in the background,
attached to dining hall left (not visible in this photo)

Fortunately, few of the latter were buzzing about Kyoto, even in the midst of summer. We did, though, seem to have more than a fair share of spiders and cockroaches, neither of which were a particular bother, except for the cobwebs that occasionally came in contact with my face. Pleh, pleh . . .

The Kyoto center was christened Dhamma Bhanu (Dhamma Light) by Goenkaji himself back around 1989 when the master paid a visit and taught a course or two himself. Today you'd hardly guess that the facilities are 20 years old. It seems a good amount of love and attention has been lavished on their maintenance.

Stairs at left from the Dhamma Hall / Residential Building.
Building at right toilet/shower block, building left dining hall and kitchen.

Toilet/shower block, space for hanging laundry

Like most Japanese buildings or compounds, those of Dhamma Bhanu are rather compact. The residential quarters and Dhamma hall are in the same building. My room was only 5-6 meters from where I sat each day for meditation. Even those housed furthest from the hall are no more than 20-30 meters away. Once you leave the residential building, its only a dozen paces to the bath/toilet block or to the dining hall.

The Dhamma Hall is in the center on the second floor;
left wing is female residence, right wing male.
The garden was available for walking to female students.

To the right of the above photo was this patch of grass and clover,
used for overflow and as walking space for male students.

The center sits in a valley in northern Kyoto prefecture, a quiet pocket of Japan through which passes one narrow road used each day by perhaps a dozen or so drivers. When you're sitting you might also notice a small plane passing overhead a couple of times a day. Otherwise there are few audible intrusions of the surrounding society – no school bells, no trucks blaring advertisements, no construction, no kids playing ball. Just the relaxing chirping of crickets, cicadas, and birds, as well as the gurgling of a small stream running around the perimeter of the center's property, bounded by low mountains (or high hills), a lush green in the midst of the summer season.

At this time of year typical daytime temperatures are uncomfortably warm. A center volunteer noted that the heat often makes meditation uncomfortable. We were quite fortunate, though, to have rain every day of the ten our group was in residence. The sun came out for a couple of hours on two or three days, but for the remainder it was overcast, windy, and wet. I didn't hear anyone using electric fans in the evening. It was a bit too chilly for that.

The Dhamma Hall on last day clean-up.

I understand installation of air conditioning in the Dhamma Hall is under discussion. Perhaps it will be added soon to make life more bearable for those city seekers brave enough to sit quietly for ten days with few of the comforts to which they are accustomed. If you happen to have difficulty with mobility, though, you will not be able to meditate at the Kyoto center. The Dhamma Hall is located on the second floor, up a flight of 16 steep steps, and if you also happen to be male you'll have to climb another set of steps to get to your meals. New students can expect to share a room with anywhere from three to six others, with little more than a futon-size private space. Old students may also have to share living quarters if they attend during one of the center's peak periods (which coincide with the Japanese vacation calendar – New Year's, Golden Week, and Obon).

The male dining hall

As one might expect for a center in Japan staffed by Japanese volunteers, the food was typical Japanese fare. Mid-day meals included oden, pasta with tomato-based vegetable sauce, udon, a one-pot dish of mixed veggies boiled in a light soy sauce, chilled tofu with green veggies, and on the last day, Japanese curry. Whatever was left over from lunch was recycled the next morning, along with fresh bread, butter, jam, and copious amounts of fruit, which in summer included bananas, oranges, grapefruits, apples, and plums. The evening meal for new students was fruit, for old students tea. Altogether the food was healthy and the amount adequate, but taste and presentation hardly remarkable.

Information displays Day 10

One thing I greatly appreciated at the Kyoto center (that I did not find at either of the Indian centers I visited) was the management's willingness to share financial information. On the last day of the course when silence is lifted and donations accepted, a number of placards were erected in front of the dining hall with information on center activities and volunteer opportunities. Included in this presentation was a chart of the center's income and expenses. If you were perhaps wondering about the size of an appropriate donation, you could find that the average daily expense per student is just over 2000yen.

Center income and expenses

This may seem high in comparison to India, but where in Japan can you get two meals a day, a clean bed, and all the other amenities – plus absolute silence and the chance to meditate? Just make sure you bring cash. Credit card donations are not accepted.

Dhamma Bhanu is a fine facility for sitting Vipassana. I'll be leaving soon to take a job in the Middle East, but should I ever be back this way, and have the opportunity, I would be very pleased to sit another 10-day course in Kyoto.



Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saying Goodbye

This week I've been saying farewell to the people I meet on my daily rounds through the neighborhood, as well as a few friends and colleagues.

The Fukuoka Giant Revive Club:
cycling around Ohori Koen with cousin Randy

The postman
(sorry to say, all these years later I don't know his name)

Mr Shimizu, the neighborhood green grocer

The ladies of Fukuoka Foreign Relations:
Noriko, Motoko, Rumi

Members of the Nishijin Community Center English class:
Kazuko, Yumi, Meiko, Hiroko, Eri, & Hide


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

10 hours to Dubai

My flight details came in yesterday. I was initially scheduled to fly Asiana to Seoul and then Emirates to Dubai, but I put in a friendly request and will now be flying ANA to Kansai (Osaka) and then on to Dubai by Emirates. This works out better as I can take advantage of Emirates' higher baggage allowance (which would have been impossible flying Asiana).

If all goes according to plan, I'll be leaving next Friday evening, August 14, arriving Dubai around 05:00 of the 15th.

The countdown has begun.