The Grief Mala: A Final Reflection on My Late Teacher

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The Grief Mala: A Final Reflection on My Late Teacher

 

a sip of sake'
a glance at the autumn moon
this Fall, no mourning 

Kuma Gracen was a truly remarkable person. To be in her presence was to be ushered into a state of radical wakefulness. You couldn't "hide" with Kuma Sensei, as I came to know her -- Kuma being the Japanese word for bear, sensei being the word for teacher.

You couldn't pull the wool over Kuma Sensei. Man or woman, Kuma Sensei would not allow you to run away from the truth of who you are. She was 'a lightning rod for change.' 

Though she was working on a book before her death, Tracks of the Bear: The Transformative Power of Innerwork in the Wilderness, it was a book that never saw the light of day. A rabid dog called "cancer" took her in 2007.

Like an annual heavy cloud that suddenly blows in, I have mourned my late teacher each and every November since her passing -- the loss of connection, the bond, the laughter, the learning, the sense of standing on a shared path, the sense of occupying a living mandala of cosmology and practice with someone who held a similar vision; something I have not felt since.

Yet, her death has also been an enormous source of instruction. To a large degree, her path and teaching-inspiration was that of a nature-hermit. What greater teaching for a student of such a path than for the student to be turned back onto themselves?

With the writing of this reflection, I celebrate crossing a decade-long "night-sea journey" of loss and grief, and land on the Other Shore. From this vantage point, I look back.

My Teacher

When I first met Kuma Sensei it was under formal circumstances involving academia. She was both my Master's thesis advisor and my internship supervisor when I was training in counseling. Though these were the designated roles she was expected to play with regard to my graduate school journey, she ended up becoming so much more to me; an older sister figure, a friend, a confidant, eventually Zen teacher.

When you train to be a counselor at a place like Naropa University, unlike many counseling programs in the U.S., your educational activity is not quarantined to textbooks and psychological theories. These topics are covered in rigorous fashion, of course, because the degree is designed for compliance with eventual licensure, but education at Naropa is full-spectrum. This means you don't get out the door without delving deeply into one's own psyche and staying with and working through the authentic experience of what you find there in all its beauty and neurosis.

You are required to engage in your own psychotherapeutic process every step of the way. That's at least a minimum of a year-long psychotherapeutic mentorship (and often three or more years of individual counseling). That's three or more years of group Gestalt processwork that looks very deeply at one's family of origin and the family dynamics that shaped you. That's potentially three or more years of being exposed to somatic psychology, dreamwork, and training in mindfulness practice (meditation).

In my own journey at Naropa, at every turn, Kuma Sensei seemed to be there. Later on in time, after I graduated, we crossed paths again under a very different set of circumstances. She became my sensei (sifu in Chinese), a word that can generically mean teacher, but which I use here in a traditional Buddhist and Daoist sense. She was not confined to Daoist or Zen Buddhist tradition, however. I still think of her as a bit of a mage, wizard, renegade.

Kuma had a particular perspective about people. 

"Every person has an inner landscape,
an inner ecology, a territory to explore,
though many people are largely unconscious of it,
and thus incapable of committing to the
vast inner resources that await within."

Her central role in life: Introduce people to this territory, then journey with them through it by teaching them how to journey through it themselves. 

From her perspective, each individual is a coagulation of shaping energies and influences. Ancestors. Dreams. Personal traumas. The impact of societal, global and environmental catastrophic events. Cultural prejudices. Leanings and preferences. Things we didn't get in childhood that we've been trying to "make up for" and extract from somewhere or someone else ever since. We're made up of inspirations but also, at times, radical resistances that we allow to prevent us from full-bodied living and expression.

We have hopes and we have fears...and then...there is the ever present reality of...reality. 

"The trouble is, you think you have time."
--Jack Kornfield, Dharma teacher,
author of A Lamp in the Darkness:
Illumination the Path Through Difficult Times

No less than the blending of forces in any other ecosystem in the natural world, each person is a blending of essences that play themselves out within the context of an individual life. Heavy. Light. Deep-feeling. Calloused. Mindful and compassionate, and utterly self-absorbed, self-conscious, unconscious. Profoundly giving, generous, altruistic, devotional, and, in contrast, impulse-driven, addicted, obsessed, awash with a sense of grasping self-importance.

Helping people learn about their inner landscape, its secret language, and assisting people in learning how to "tend a good rich garden within" was the focus of Kuma's life. Only now am I beginning to find my stride and rhythm with it. 

It has been nearly ten years since Kuma passed. I have some quotes of hers from some of the "warrior circles" she would hold in the mountains. One day, those quotes will find their way into print. Until then, I leave you with a poem I sometimes ponder written by Kuma Sensei. She kept a journal religiously, and frequently wrote poetry, but this is the only poem of hers I have in my possession:

"Poof!"

Your life.

Your life.

It isn't what you think.

It isn't anything to do

with what you think.

Your life.

Your life.

Samsara-Nirvana.

Two sides of the same coin.

You say you want freedom.

Look down at your own feet.

They're already standing in the Pure Land.

Follow them.

You say you want love.

Be love.

That fortress you've been building

crumbled a long time ago.

Wealth.

Wealth?

The one who dies

with the fewest toys wins.

Enlightenment.

Enlightenment?

A great cosmic joke on the ego.

The you of this moment

[pause]

is not the same you

in this moment.

[pause]

The river never stops.

Stop defending the illusion

of a fixed "self" in space and time.

Enjoy the journey.

Poof!

--Kuma Sensei

 

To learn more about the deep-earth ambient music of soundscape maestro Roy Mattson, and the recording called MESMER, visit his Bandcamp page. 

 

 

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Mountain As Mandala

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Mountain As Mandala

An interview with the filmmakers of Shugendo Now

FRANK SAIZAN OWEN

 

THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW

I conducted this interview for the Winter 2011 issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics. It is about the still-living traditions of the shugenja (Japanese practitioners of Shugendo), their ecological message, and a very special film that documents modern-day shugenja called Shugendo Now. The film was featured by the Buddhist Film Foundation in the 2010 International Buddhist Film Festival.

THE FILMMAKERS

The filmmakers, both from Montréal, are Mark Patrick McGuire, a humanities professor at John Abbott College, and Jean-Marc Abela, a talented self-taught filmmaker. Driven by my own “haunted familiarity” with elements of Japanese Shinto, and a natural interest in the subject from my decade of training in Japanese Buddhism and martial arts, I watched the film in early 2011 and reached out to Mark and Jean-Marc to connect with them about their beautiful film.

SHUGENDO - ANCIENT & MODERN

Believed to have first been organized by a 7th-century mystic named En no Ozunu (a.k.a. En no Gyoja), Shugendo is not one isolated tradition but various expressions of spiritual practice that share similar aims. Ozunu—who is venerated as a bodhisattva (saint)—authored the Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body, a central text used by the shugenja even today. Modern-day practitioners of Shugendo, most of whom are city-dwellers, intentionally leave the world of man behind to head into nature on retreat, to commune and connect with mountains, forests, rivers, and waterfalls, in a truly unique spiritual training path that weaves elements of Shinto, Buddhism, Daoism, Shamanism, martial arts, and - now in the 21st-century - environmental activism.

THE FILM: SHUGENDO NOW

INTRODUCTION

From the very first sounds we encounter in the film Shugendo Now, we realize we are in for a highly textural, sensual film-viewing experience. Water droplets, wind, and subtle vibrations radiating out from metal chimes all coalesce with various kinds of imagery, ranging from pristine natural places to bustling cityscapes in modern Japan.

We then see words on the screen that indicate we are entering a spiritual geography:

“The yamabushi are those who enter the mountain to seek experiential truth. They perform austerities and ritual actions adopted from shamanism, the kami tradition (Shinto), Esoteric Buddhism and Daoism. This syncretic tradition is called Shugendo.”

A map appears, stylistically produced as a landscape painting of the Kumano mountain range in Japan, including Mt. Omine (one of the pilgrimage sites and holy mountains of this ancient tradition). As we hear reverberations from a temple bell, the “geographic map” fades backward and an image rushes forth to meet us, namely ancient Japanese iconography depicting the buddhas and bodhisattvas that occupy the Womb-Realm and Vajra-Realm mandaras (Skt: mandala, Japanese: mandara, a circular design depicting images of religious significance).

Without overtly interpreting or over-intellectualizing, the intuitive filmmaking and editing style of Shugendo Now softly guides viewers into understanding: the mandalas are the mountains, the mountains are the mandalas, and practitioners of Shugendo journey through the mountains-as-mandalas to the dwelling place of the kami and buddhas.

WR: Frank Saizan Owen for Written River
MARK: Mark McGuire, JEAN-MARC: Jean-Marc Abela

WR: First of all, Mark and Jean-Marc, thank you for taking the time for this dialogue. You’re both men-on-the-move, with lots of creative endeavors and projects, so I’m grateful for your willingness to discuss your film – Shugendo Now.

MARK / JEAN-MARC: We thank you for the opportunity to share our reflections on the film!

WR: You have created a compelling documentary that will appeal to readers of Written River for different reasons. What was your initial inspiration for the film and how long were you in Japan shooting?

MARK: I was initially attracted to these places and practices as a first-year graduate student looking for a field site to do my Ph.D. research. It was about to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and become a global hot spot for tourists and curiosity seekers, so I wanted to learn as much as I could about its past and present and chart the changes that would occur in the future.

After having the chance to participate in some of the mountain ascetic practices, and spend time with some of the priests and lay practitioners, my attention shifted to the motivations each had for participating in these traditional practices. They come from a fast-paced, modern age, so my interest was in the ways diverse urban pilgrims apply what they learn in their daily lives, in urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka. The stories they told me about what took them to the mountain—and what they came home with—inspired me to collaborate with Jean-Marc in trying to represent the practices and places through an accessible documentary film.

WR: Briefly describe the tradition of Shugendo for readers of Written River.

MARK: Shugendo is a Tantric vehicle, which means that its practices are only for the initiated and features some hidden or secret practices only transmitted from teacher to student. It brings together ritual practices from the kami tradition (Shinto), Shamanism, Tantric Buddhism and Daoism with a premium placed upon a physical experience of the teachings' truth. So, practitioners enter mountains, forests, waterfalls, caves and streams in order to have a visceral contact with the sacred. As Tanaka Riten of the temple Kimpusen- ji explains at the beginning of the film, “For us, these mountains are the dwellings of the kami and buddhas. If you want to simply enjoy trekking, you can go hiking on your own time.”

WR: I have known about the traditions of the shugenja, or yamabushi, since the late-1980s when I began practicing Zen and Aikido, and learning about the life and many influences of O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, its founder. Like Shugendo, Ueshiba was influenced by many forces including the kami tradition, Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism, Zen, Daoism, even contemplative-esoteric Christianity, but also Shugendo. While it is not immediately obvious, the worldview of Aikido is shaped by Shugendo. Later, I encountered Shugendo as a topic in my undergraduate studies in Japanese religions.

It is fascinating to see these ancient traditions depicted on film, and a truly soul-stirring component is seeing modern people (many of them from highly congested urban settings) taking part in pilgrimages, honoring nature, participating in a nature-based spirituality. What were your own personal impressions about these juxtapositions – ancient-modern, nature-technological, etc.?

JEAN-MARC: I think we all have a deep connection with nature.  That may sound like an obvious statement but in our modern and urban lifestyle it needs to be stated. Of course, cities offer great cultural experiences and places of refuge, but nothing seems to compare to standing in a forest.  The sounds, the vibrations, the smells, and sight of it all, I think, bring great peace within all of us.  Therefore, the people who live in highly congested urban settings have an even greater need to get out there and breathe the forest into their lives. Many viewers tell us after watching the  film that they want to go for a walk outside the city and this is how we hoped people would react.

WR: Like Shugendo’s own characteristic weaving of different facets together, your film does a magnificent job of weaving different elements: stunning footage of the natural world, documentation of a unique spiritual tradition, and investigating certain key questions. Was the theme of the film already in place at the outset, or did it organically evolve as you were documenting these traditions?

JEAN-MARC: From the start of the project we wanted to weave together urban and natural spaces. The question that remained was how we would achieve this without hitting any of the clichés normally associated with Japan. The opening sequence was the scene used to explore this. I started editing it while shooting in Kumano.

Before I left Japan, I had several different versions of the opening. Returning home, I continued this exploration, from very drastic juxtapositions of images and sounds, but it never felt quite right until I decided to keep the sounds of nature throughout the opening sequence, which included scenes of cityscapes. When we watched it together, Mark instantly approved and observed that this was more in-line with our views on the subject: that nature is everywhere around us.

MARK:  There were two important juxtapositions that we wished to highlight: that of the productive tension between the mountains and the city, and the different personalities, efforts and intended audiences of our two main characters (Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten) as they sought to creatively re-invent the traditional practices for busy, urban people.

On the surface, these men are very different personalities, with different approaches, who, in turn, attract different individuals. However, at their core, what they are doing is very similar. As for how we illustrated these juxtapositions with our footage; that came together organically both during initial shooting and post-production. Jean-Marc is a highly intuitive, self-taught  filmmaker with an excellent eye for detail and pattern, so I was comfortable giving him full creative decision-making power over the direction the film would take.

WR: In the film, you offer viewers an inside-view of the preparations that some of the practitioners of Shugendo undertake. How did you make these connections, meet these practitioners, and secure permission to be part of their sacred ceremonies?

JEAN-MARC: Each connection is a little bit different. Mark had a previous relationship with Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten.  These were important people to know as they each gave us access to their respective temple and the participants who visit them. I think this says a lot about the relationship that Mark cultivated with the head priests over the years. He has a very respectful and sensitive approach as an academic and a filmmaker.

A good example of this is the story around the release forms that we got each person in the  film to sign. I had brought examples from previous projects, but, of course, they were in English and they needed to be translated into Japanese, which Mark did. When he presented to me his translation, the new version of the release form was no longer written in cold, direct legal language, but was much softer. It also shared the goals of our  film and what we intended to do with it, offering our responsibility with the material we were filming instead of just asking people to sign away their rights. From there, I knew I wanted to proceed carefully as a camera operator and I found that I was much more welcomed by the people as they now understood our intentions and wanted to help create this film.

WR: In one part of the film, we see a large gathering of people (men, women, children, families). Sacred arrows are shot into the air and offerings are made to a ceremonial fire (goma). Describe for us your experience of this gathering as both filmmaker but also as an individual awake-and-aware spiritually.

JEAN-MARC: All of the Goma ceremonies we filmed were special in their own way. It’s a very powerful shamanic experience and I personally feel a deep connection to the transformative powers of fire. I didn’t feel the need to know exactly what they were saying and Mark informed me that even most Japanese people didn’t know as they were talking in an older dialect. The significance of fire ritual is universal.

As a cameraman, I try to fuse with the subjects I am shooting, and so I got taken into a trance with the drumming, chanting and fire. Of course, while I try to fuse as much as possible, I also need to step out of the moment, look around, and see how I can best capture it.  It is is the job of a documentary cameraman: sometimes it’s a sacrifice not to be able to totally participate in an event so that you can capture it and share it. But, sometimes that journey brings its own benefits and discoveries.

WR: One of my favorite parts of the film is your documenting the life of Tateishi Kôshô. What a compelling figure! Just to make readers aware, Kôshô lives on a Shugendo compound (complete with temple) beneath the Kumano Mountains and performs the role of priest but also of guardian of the land.

In the film, we see that some expressions of the Shugendo traditions restrict women from access to certain sites and holy mountains; yet Kôshô-san has broken off on his own, practices more of a householder (family, village-centric) expression of the traditions. He seems to have a remarkable ability to balance things in life. He practices a minimum-impact lifestyle, raises his own rice, and sees cooking as an extension of Shugendo practice. On the one hand, he has an apprentice, and performs the duties of a yamabushi, yet he also has a family and plays the role of environmental activist for a specific patch of ground. Tell us more about this man.

JEAN-MARC: I first learned of Tateishi Kôshô in Montréal when Mark told me about his idea for this film. My  first response was, “This man would make a perfect subject for a film!” Mark replied,“I know. It’s why I’m telling you so much about him!”

Tateishi Kôshô has many facets to his personality. His activities range from cooking, playing music at sacred ceremonies, tending to the forest and his experiences as a priest and traveler. Discussions with him always make for fascinating stories.

When I first met him in Kumano, we were in the middle of a typhoon, and we spent the night cooking, drinking sake, playing music, sharing stories and ideas. I was instantly enamored with this man. Later on, I realized that spending 21 days with him would only give us a glimpse into this amazing person. I learned that he had lived in New York working in business, travelled in India for a few years as a musician, and had been part of a butoh dance group as well.

I think this is what cinema does so well. Without ever sharing some of his stories or telling the audience more details about him, people tell me that they get a good sense of his personality just from watching the  film. You can sense his rich lifestyle in everything he does.  This is how I see this man: a rich person because he fully enjoys each little thing that life offers him as a precious gift; and this gratefulness he experiences is in full expression each time one of his devotees sends him a gift, which he quickly takes to his altar.

WR: The account he gives of combating unchecked dumping and pollution is inspiring. It is, in effect, an expression of “engaged Shugendo” (spirituality meets environmental and social activism). You were afforded a very intimate view of this particular expression of contemporary Japanese environmental activism. What were your impressions?

JEAN-MARC: Kôshô-san expresses himself quite clearly on this issue throughout the film. For him there is no separation between his devotions to the Buddhas and kami, and his work as an environmental activist.  They are one and the same. I fully agree with him. I think this is true for everything we do, and one of the great challenges of our modern lives is to  find a way to live in our actions the values that we hold dear in our hearts and minds. We are constantly swayed towards a lifestyle of consumption that contradicts what we know to be more important issues, such as social welfare for workers around the world and environmental protection. Finding that balance is difficult.

As Kôsô-san shares with us: “We must not become ‘eco-fanatics’ because we might not enjoy the process or we might become too rigid and lose sight of our purpose.” 


To learn more about the film Shugendo Now, and to purchase it, visit: SHUGENDO NOW

To learn more about the ancient tradition of Shugendo and a modern-day training program of shugenja, visit YAMABUSHIDO

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