Joseph Anderson

Japan: Belonging and Not Belonging


I want to relate to you a little story that took place shortly before we came home from Japan. We saw many stupendous sights and I had many transformative experiences, but as things settle down and I begin to integrate all that took place, this episode is beginning to emerge as one of the key moments of the trip for me.

It took place at a temple called Nishi Hongan-ji, the downtown Kyoto headquarters for the largest Japanese Buddhist sect, Jodo Shinshu. It’s not irrelevant to the story that this sect is part of what is known as “pure land” Buddhism, a salvation-oriented approach focused on the saving power of Amida Buddha – and in that sense it is very resonant with the Protestant Christianity in which I was raised.

I left the church in my late teens, a rupture with a problematic but very nurturing community. That was a necessary choice for me, and essential to the unfolding of my life and my purpose; but it also had a very painful aspect and I have been working through the consequences ever since. My term for the often unconscious search for a replacement for that community is my “longing for belonging,” and that driven much of my spiritual search for many decades. The past few years have brought a greater consciousness of this dynamic, and a greater acceptance that my path is mostly a solitary one. And in fact shamanism is such a powerful path for me because it aligns so well with that solitariness. That solitude is a source of great power; it strengthens me as a healer; I embrace and honor this path, and it gives me insights that are useful to many people who are struggling with similar issues.

Being in Japan was a good opportunity to reflect on the meaning of community, as the entire culture is so strongly group-oriented. It’s almost a cliché, but we saw it borne out time after time in all sorts of situations: groups of school kids, groups of elders, groups on trains, in parks, at social gatherings – and over it all a general sense that being Japanese in Japan amounted to belonging to a huge club in which everyone Japanese participates. As a relatively tall, sort-of-blonde, bearded pink male, there was not a trace of hope, not an ounce of temptation for me to think that I could somehow join in. That was in fact a huge relief from that persistent longing-for-belonging that accompanies when I’m at home.

Which brings me to Nishi Hongan-ji. I paid two visits; the first was with Victoria, fairly early in our trip. We entered the temple precincts, crossed the large open gravel courtyard – mostly empty except for a smattering of tour groups – and went into the main sanctuary, Called the Daishi-do, it’s a huge open space – most unusual among the temples we visited, which tended to be broken up into more bite-sized pieces. On the floor of the building 477 tatami mats – roughly 25,000 square feet of pristine rectangles laid out in neat rows. Suspended from the ceiling are enormous gilt chandeliers; the walls are beautiful polished dark wood and shoji screens; the altar area in the front contains a beautiful array of statues and liturgical objects. But the overwhelming impression is of an enormous gathering place.

I immediately felt that familiar conflicted feeling of joy and excitement mingled with a certainty that I was not meant to be part of all this – a wistfulness, resignation, recalling of my solitary purpose – as usual a complex blend. Seeing the priests moving through that beautiful pregnant emptiness in their flowing black robes, very much like Protestant ministerial robes, added an extra tinge. 

We did the tourist thing, took photos (including the one to the right), walked around the compound, went to the gift shop. That giddy conflicted feeling persisted, though, and as we were getting ready to leave the area I thought, “I’d like to go back into that sanctuary one more time.” But other wonders beckoned and I let go of the thought.

A week or so later, I found myself on my own at the Kyoto train station with a couple of hours to kill. I could have gone north, south, east or west, but my footsteps found their way back to Nishi Hongan-ji. On this day, though, the mood was different. As I entered the main gate, across the courtyard I saw, on the front steps of the main sanctuary, a large group of worshippers wearing short white robes, posing for a group photo. I hesitated, but then decided to approach. I was met by a security officers in the courtyard, who gestured to me that I was not to go that way – I needed to enter by another entrance, to my right, via a smaller hall: the main sanctuary was open but I was not to interfere with this group’s activities.

I made the wide berth across the gravel, stumbling a bit and feeling that swirl of not-belonging sensation that has been with me so many times, that has brought tears and sadness since my young years. But I was determined to breathe the air of that huge gathering space, so I carried on.

I took off my shoes, climbed the steps and made my way along the beautiful smooth polished wood corridor (Japan really knows how to do polished wood floors!) to one of the shoji screens that led into the main sanctuary, slid it open, and peeked inside.

The huge, pristine space was full of people. Kneeling on the rows of tatami mats was an array of white-robed devotees – the same ones I had seen on the front steps a few moments earlier. I stepped back in surprise, but then saw one of those black-robed priests, a young man, gesturing to me vigorously to come in. I paused, gesturing “no”, but he continued to wave me in. I moved closer and tried to explain that I could not stay long, that I had my day pack with me. I could have given him a long description of the ambivalent pain I feel in large groups of people, how much this felt like a flashback to childhood memories of church, how I had worked with this neurosis and had found stability in my own space – but even if I had had the words, and if he could have understood them, it wouldn’t have made any difference: he was insistent. Something gave way in me and I entered, made my way to an empty tatami mat. It was near the front, although I would have preferred the back. I sat there awkwardly (in a decidedly non-Japanese way) and looked around.

I was part of it. I was at the end of a row of white-robed, petite, calm Japanese laypeople, men and women of all ages, who seemed to have no problem whatsoever with my presence there. The service had not started and more people were streaming in. They filled in the tatami mats around me and beside me. There I was, a Western conflicted neurotic cork bobbing in a sea of Japanese devotedness, and they held me in their ease.

The service began – gongs, chanting, a few soothing words from a priest. I did my best to follow along, but something more important was going on. I was breathing, feeling the connection with everyone, and yet feeling at the same time very much like myself. I was able to whisper a prayer, “I honor myself, just as I am, here in the midst of this group.” Somehow it was possible for both of those things to be true, at exactly the same moment.

When the chanting was over, a priest stepped forward and began to speak in what seemed to be more sermon-like tones. I felt this was my moment to make my exit, before my legs cramped up (which was going to happen sometime soon), before the magic of the moment could shift to something else. I floated through the sea of white to the doorway, feeling again that those gathered held my departure with complete love, trust, and acceptance.

This all happened in only a few brief minutes, but I am deeply changed. I have made my way home, and resumed the rhythms of my normal life. Here in my home environment I am once again a solitary, and the factors that keep me away from formal spiritual community, obstacles inside myself and beyond myself, seem just as real and valid as ever. I have my healing work and teaching work, which grows out of the solitary path I am on. Monitoring my longing-for-belonging neurosis is just as necessary as ever. Still…something has shifted. That Nishi Hongan-ji experience, of being together with others and still being fully myself, part of the group even as I retain full awareness that I can never truly be part of it – that insight continues to reverberate. I bring to mind those white robes, smell the incense and tatami, and remember: you belong here; you don’t belong here; all is well.