Who Knows?

Travelling has always been part of my life. My mother said that I already talked about leaving home from a very young age. And I count myself lucky that Buddhism is such a mobile religion: it seems to have enjoyed migrating from one country to another throughout the ages. In our modern times this is perhaps even more evident. At a VESAK conference in Vietnam that I attended two years ago, there were several thousand participants and they came from no fewer than one hundred different countries.

In the good old days, Kanzeon Sangha was a travelling circus without a fixed location, and Zen River’s international orientation is still greatly indebted to Genpo Roshi’s sesshin tours. When I received ordination in the US, he actually pointed out to me that even our dress code is multicultural. The O-kesa (outer robe) is of Indian origin, the long-sleeved black koromo is Chinese, and the white kimono and jubon are Japanese – and underneath we may wear a T-shirt from our local department store!

Some time ago I was invited to participate in a seminar at a newly-established Chinese temple in Utrecht. As I was introducing myself, I looked into the faces of the audience and couldn’t help but laugh. It must have been such a funny sight: a Dutch guy in Japanese garb speaking English to a Chinese audience! And when I mentioned this, they all laughed too! I openly wondered, “Who am I?” And I found a fitting variation on Bodhidharma’s famous answer “I don’t know”. I said, “Who knows?”

When we travel, we get to know other people and other customs; it is in the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey. But we also get other perspectives on ourselves. While living in the US, I started to see through some deeply ingrained Dutch conditioning that I hadn’t been conscious of before. And later, while living in Japan, I came to note certain American conditioning that had grown on me over the years in the US. And now, during adventures in China and other Asian countries, my Japanese conditioning becomes more and more obvious!

A few weeks ago, it struck me again. While talking with our new Chinese friends in Utrecht, I suddenly wondered: who is it they are looking at? Not the one I know, that’s for sure. And what a blessing that is! In the scriptures, it is often said that our life is the life of everyone and everything. So why not admit this and fully enjoy it! I told my friends that the Zen River property looks very Dutch from the outside but very Japanese on the inside; and that our intercommunication is American but that my heart is really Chinese. It brought tears to my eyes. Who knows?

 

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