An interest in Zen recently took three Hendrix students on a life-changing Odyssey experience to Japan where they spent time meditating alongside Buddhist monks, exploring historic temples and experiencing the city of Kyoto.
Sam Henry, Ryan Norman and Nick Pippins spent two weeks of their Christmas break immersed in Japanese culture and the Zen religion. While there, they were able to participate in traditional cultural activities and more closely experience the Zen lifestyle.
“Having the privilege to see and do what this trip allowed the three of us to do is more than I could have ever dreamed of,” said Henry, a freshman from Conway. “It was really a dream of mine to get to go to Japan, and for it to happen this early in my life has been truly amazing.”
Kyoto, with a population of 1.5 million, is located on the mid-western section of Honshu, the largest island of Japan. Formerly the imperial city of Japan, Kyoto is considered the cultural center of the country, with more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and an abundance of pre-war architecture.
The three students stayed in Zen temples and started every morning with an hour of meditation, which involved a sitting meditation, a walking meditation, a chanting of the Heart Sutra and an occasional blow from the “stick of compassion.”
“The rest of the time we spent attending lectures from Zen scholars and Zen priests, visiting temples and gardens, and just digging the city,” said Norman, a sophomore from Fayetteville.
The students also participated in educational demonstrations and lectures at Hanazono University that included participating in a traditional tea service and practicing Zen archery.
The students felt a warm welcome from the priests at the temples and the citizens of Kyoto. “The people I met in Kyoto are some of the most genuinely nice and hospitable people I have ever met,” said Henry.
Norman agreed: “There was lots of sporadic kindness from strangers.”
The students were asked to keep a daily journal in order to reflect on their experience and meditate on the insights they had gained. Norman shared a passage from his journal: “I breakfasted on tangerines and biked down to the Zendo to start off the morning with an hour of zazen. The priest beat the wooden block with his mallet, and if you wanted to break the rules and peek, you'd see that a massive hole was bored into the block from centuries of mallet beating from stubble-headed priests. It was so loud that it felt like he was knocking on the inside of my skull. Sit, walk, bow to receive the stick of compassion across my shoulders, wince, bow and sit again. And then comes the chanting of the Heart Sutra, a long and clean monotone melody of hard syllables sung in deep growling voices. But I don't know Japanese so I just listen.”
The Japan trip was funded by a grant from the Odyssey Program, a new curricular initiative at Hendrix that coordinates all experiential learning for Hendrix students. Henry, Norman and Pippins wrote a proposal for the Japanese project.
Norman credits his interest in Zen with having three “geniuses” for teachers, including Jay McDaniel, Hendrix professor of religion.
“I was really impressed with the way that they (the professors) lived their lives and the quality of their character, and so when I learned that they each had practiced meditation, I made sure to find out all that I could from them and then went on to explore it on my own,” Norman said.
Pippins, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, described the Kyoto experience as “the culmination of years of interest and education in my life.” He credits his family with giving him a rich background in different religious practices.
Henry’s attraction to Japan began in elementary school when she was interested in anime, a Japanese style of animation, and later she became fascinated with the country’s history.
“It really wasn’t until the past couple of years that I began to look at Zen from a more anthropological perspective,” she said.
The trip has had lasting effects on Norman’s outlook and future plans. “I feel much more focused and directed,” he said. “I’ve decided that it’s important to make good use of all the resources that I have right now — the people that I know, the classes that I’m taking, the work that I can do here.”
Henry, who had previously never traveled alone, now plans to spend her junior year studying abroad in Japan.
“This trip has let me kind of step out on my own and prove to myself and everyone else that I can hold my own in the world,” she said.
On returning, the students shared their experiences with Dr. McDaniel, who is a United Methodist. When asked about the relationship of learning from Zen to education at Hendrix, McDaniel explained: “Students like Ryan, Nick, and Samantha embody the best of liberal arts education: a willingness to learn from others and be transformed in the process.”
He added, “It might seem odd, given the relation Hendrix has with the United Methodist Church, that Hendrix would help students go to Japan and learn about another religion and about a culture with Shinto, Confucian, and Buddhist backgrounds. But the Methodist tradition is ecumenical in outlook. We Methodists trust that the divine spirit has been present throughout the world in wisdom-revealing ways, and that the calling of the Christian is to be open to truth wherever it is found, trustful that it is of God and from God, however named. To learn from other traditions is to extend the healing hand of friendship and help bring about the very peace that the world sorely needs.
“Ryan, Nick, and Sam say that they learned a lot about themselves. I think that, in their small way, they were vessels of peace through friendship. Their odyssey was an example of global awareness and also, still more deeply, service to the world. That’s what Odyssey is all about.”
Read more about the new Odyssey grants.