A Day in the Life

-Story of a day I spent with Gudo Nishijima-

Gudo Nishijima

I got a phone call from my Buddhist teacher, Gudo Nishijima, a while back. It was on a Wednesday afternoon. I work at home as a freelance translator, so I’m usually around during the day to answer the phone. Nishijima calls me once a while and we have a chat, and sometimes I arrange to visit him at his place in Tokyo. When I answered the phone that day we chatted for a few minutes, and then he asked if I was busy the next day. I was a bit busy at the time with a translation I had to do. But over the years I’ve known him I’ve realized that when Nishijima asks me if I’m busy like that, it’s good to say “no”. He doesn’t ask me very often, and he usually has a good reason for asking. So I said “No, I’m not busy. Is there something happening tomorrow?"

Nishijima explained the situation. He’d been asked to give a talk on Buddhism the following day to a class of students studying comparative religion at a University in Tokyo. His plan was to give a talk, and also to give the students a chance to practice zazen. That was where I came in. Nishijima’s in good shape for his age (around 90), and he didn’t need my help to give a talk. But he wanted me to give him a hand with the zazen demonstration and practice. I said sure. We arranged to meet at his place before 11:00 the next day.

When I told my wife I’d be going to Tokyo the next day to help Nishijima with his talk, she suggested I’d better buy some proper clothes to wear when I went there. Being a freelance translator, I don’t go to an office or have much need for a suit. Almost all my clothes are casual. Mostly jeans and sweat shirts and things. So seeing as how I’d be going to that university class with Nishijima, she figured it’d be good if I could look at least a bit respectable. So I went over to a nearby clothes shop and bought a decent pair of trousers and a pair of shoes (okay, I even bought a new shirt and jacket too).

I got up early the next morning and caught the train down to Nishijima’s place. The train was crowded with people going to Tokyo for work. I had to stand up for most of the way. I hadn’t been on a rush hour commuter train for a few years, and had kind of forgotten what it's like standing up for an hour on a crowded train. I used to work at a translation company in Tokyo for a few years and had to take the train back and forth every day. I liked my job, but standing up most of the way on the train everyday was hard. It was one reason I eventually became a freelancer so I could work from home.

I arrived at Nishijima’s apartment at around 10:50 in my shiny new clothes. Nishijima was almost ready to go. He had prepared a one-page sheet with an outline of the talk he was going to give later in the day. He called it “Understanding Buddhism”. He printed off a few copies to bring with him. He put the copies in a small attaché case he has, and put his kasaya (Buddhist robe) in there as well. Then we headed off to the university.

Nishijima injured his back a few years ago when he fell one night at a Zen Center he used to run. He’s recovered to some extent from the injury, but he moves about more slowly than before. So we took our time leaving his place and making our way down to the street to catch a taxi. The plan was to catch a taxi to the train station and take a train up to a station near the university. And that’s what we did.

Nishijima had been to the university once or twice before to meet the professor there, so he knew the route. It was just as well, because the taxi driver we stopped hadn’t much of a clue about the area. He had a navigation system in the taxi and kept typing in information to get directions to the train station, but it wasn’t working out. The navigation system was sending him off a strange route and the taxi driver was getting more and more flustered. I think he felt a bit of pressure having a kind of an odd combination of passengers in his back. Nishijima is a 90-year old man with a shaved head, and I was some foreign guy in new clothes. Eventually we all realized that the navigation system he had just wasn’t going to help us find the train station. So Nishijima helped out with the directions. The train station was only a few kilometers away, and the driver managed to find it okay once Nishijima had put him on the right track.

The driver dropped us off at a taxi rank across from the station. There were a lot of steps up to the station entrance, and I was thinking that is was going to be hard on Nishijima climbing the steps. But we found an elevator there, and took that. We went into the station and took the train. It was about a 30 minute train ride to the station we anted to go to.

We reached the station near the university around 12 noon. There was an Italian restaurant right next to it. Nishijima’s talk wasn’t until the afternoon so we decided to go in and get some lunch. There wasn’t a great selection of food, so we both got the special lunch “set” for about 1,000 yen (around $10). It was pasta with salad and a tea or coffee. The restaurant wasn’t very busy. It was just as well, because when Nishijima checked his schedule it turned out the talk wasn’t due to start until 2.45. So we had a couple of hours to wait. It was a hot day, and the restaurant was a good place to avoid the heat. So after finishing lunch, we stayed at the table and chatted for an hour or more. Nishijima told me different stories about Buddhism and other things. He also told me some reasons why he’d done things a particular way in his Buddhist group, and why he’d dealt with some problems he'd had with some of his students the way he had. It was nothing extraordinary, but it cleared up some misunderstandings I’d had. By the time we finished chatting I felt like I’d asked him everything I needed to ask, and that he’d told me everything he felt he needed to tell. I’d been studying Buddhism with him for 13 years, and in some ways our little chat felt like a kind of closure for me, although maybe “closure” isn’t the right word.

After we’d been chatting in the restaurant for an hour or so, we decided to start moving towards the university. Nishijima knew the way. He said it’d take about fifteen minutes. I carried his attaché case for him on the way up. We walked along some narrow streets out onto a kind of main thoroughfare. Then crossed over to the other side of the road and turned a few corners until we were on the approach up to the university. Nishijima was leading the way. He’s unable to walk too fast because of his age and that back injury, but he kept moving along with a deliberate walk he has. I stayed close by in case he fell over or something, but he was fine. It was really hot. It must have been close to 30 degrees. It was a fair old walk in that heat but Nishijima managed okay. When we reached the university entrance I noticed an Indian restaurant named “Buddha” across the street. When I pointed it out to Nishijima, he said “Oh, are you still hungry?”

The university was called the Tokyo International University. The campus we were at didn’t look so big, which might have been why it looked so clean. Nishijima checked out where we were meant to go for the lecture. We found the room, but still had time to wait. We decided to go and sit outside in a big open area they have in the center of the campus. We found a nice seat under some trees, and sat down and relaxed for a while. It was hot, but there was a nice breeze blowing. We sat there in the shade for about 15 or 20 minutes enjoying the breeze. It felt like the nicest part of the day.

After we’d been sitting there a while, the professor arrived. He took us to the lecture room. I’d been wondering about the students Nishijima was meant to give the lecture to. Nishijima thought he’d be giving the lecture to some overseas students who could speak English fluently. So he’d planned to give a fairly detailed talk about Buddhism to them. It turned out, though, that the students were Japanese students studying comparative religion through English. And because some of the students weren’t so fluent in English, the professor asked Nishijima to use relatively simple English in his talk if he could. Nishijima agreed, but it meant he’d have to change his planned talk a bit.

Now, I could understand where the professor was coming from when he asked Nishijima to try to use relatively simple English. But I also knew that it was going to be hard for Nishijima to do that. Nishijima has being studying Buddhism for about 70 years, and when he gives a talk he usually discusses something about Buddhist philosophy. But even ordinary English speakers like me can have problems understanding some of the words they use in Buddhist philosophy. And because English isn’t Nishijima’s native language, it was going to be harder for him to explain Buddhism in simple English. But from what the professor said, it sounded like the students wouldn't mind too much even if they couldn’t understand sme parts of the English.

At the start of the class the professor introduced Nishijima. He gave Nishijima a chair to sit in while he gave the talk, but Nishijima decided not to sit down and gave the talk standing up. His talk lasted about twenty minutes. He spoke about how he felt that nowadays Buddhism has become a philosophy and is not really a religion, and how he thinks that now Buddhism is "realism". His idea is that when Buddhism began in India 2,500 years ago it was a kind of religion because many parts of Buddhism were unclear and people couldn’t understand them. So people interested in Buddhism just had to believe certain things that they weren’t expected to understand. But in the last few centuries that has changed. Modern science and philosophical ideas helps us understand an awful lot more about Buddhism and reality than we could before. He also said that in his opinion most of Buddhism can be explained scientifically, and because what Buddhism says about reality agrees with what science says about reality, he thinks that Buddhism is the most realistic philosophy humans have. Then he spoke about the reason Buddhists practice zazen (sitting meditation). His idea is that doing zazen helps us to keep our autonomic nervous system balanced, and that a balanced nervous system is the most natural state for human beings. He also spoke about how Buddhism is based on action, the things we actually do and not just on what we think in our heads. That was kind of how his talk went anyway. At the end, Nishijima introduced me and said that we were all going to try doing zazen for a short time.

Like I say, some of the language in Nishijima’s talk may have been hard to understand for at least some of the students. But Nishijima repeated his main ideas several times during the talk, which probably helped. I recorded the talk on my audio recorder. Click here for the mp3 file (19 mb).

After Nishijima finished talking, I went up to the front and gave instructions on how to practice zazen. Nishijima mentioned at the end of his talk that we usually use a zafu (sitting cushion) when we do zazen. I had brought along a zafu in my backpack and took it out and used it for the demonstration. That was the only zafu we had, though, and I wasn’t too sure if everyone was interested in doing zazen without a zafu. But it turned out that the professor had lined up some yoga mats to use instead of zafus. So we laid out the yoga mats and sat on them. We did zazen for ten minutes that way. It’s a bit uncomfortable to do zazen without a zafu, and the yoga mats didn’t really serve the same purpose. But the students didn’t mind too much. They just crossed there legs and sat on the mats for the ten minutes without any problems. I was impressed. The first time I did zazen I could hardly cross my legs, and spent the whole time twitching and moving. So I was surprised to see everyone doing it so easily. Afterwards one or two people said they found the time went really slowly in zazen. I knew what they meant. Some students said they wouldn’t mind doing it again. I told them they could just fold up a blanket at home and use that as a zafu. That’s how I started anyway.

After zazen, the professor asked Nishijima if he’d like to answer questions about Buddhism. Nishijima agreed. One question was about the difference between the types of Buddhism that started in Japan and the types of Buddhism that started in India or China. Here’s a video clip of the questions and answers part (runs for about 10 minutes).

After the talk Nishijima chatted with a few of the students for a while. Then we headed back to the train station. Nishijima suggested that should take a different train to his, so that I’d get home sooner. But I told him I’d prefer to stay with him until he got back to his place. I wanted to make sure he made it home without any problem. So we took the train together back to the station we’d left from earlier in the day. When we got to the station, I was expecting that we’d take a taxi back to Nishijima’s place, but Nishijima decided we’d take the bus instead. We lined up behind a lot of people waiting for a bus that we figured would drop us off near Nishijima’s apartment. The bus was almost full by the time we got on. We managed to get a couple of seats in the back row. I usually don’t get a chance to ride the bus in Tokyo, so it was nice sitting in the bus and looking out the window.

After we’d been on the bus a while and hadn’t arrived anywhere near Nishijima’s apartment, Nishijima began to wonder if we were on the right bus. He decided to ask the driver. Now, one rule they have on Japanese buses is that you’re not meant to leave your seat while the bus is moving. So I was expecting Nishijima to wait until the bus stopped. Instead, though, Nishijima stood up right away and started walking along the aisle. The bus was still moving and I was worried he was going to fall over. But he held the seats as he went, and reached the driver without a problem. The driver must have been surprised to see Nishijima, as the bus was still moving and Nishijima was this elderly guy coming up to ask if he was on the right bus. Nishijima spoke to the driver for a minute, and then came back down. It turned out we were on the right bus after all.

A few minutes later we arrived at Nishijima’s stop. We both got off. I told Nishijima that I’d head back home now. But he asked me to come with him to the shops. He brought me into a Japanese cake shop, and said he wanted to buy something for my family. I said there was no need, but he insisted. So we chose a few cakes and Nishijima paid for them. He said he wanted to thank me for coming with him that day. I thanked him and said it was my pleasure. Then we said goodbye and I headed home.