Scaling the Mountain
By Ross Cribb
Scaling the Mountain is a story I wrote about my experience at a Zen retreat. At that time I had recently moved from the suburbs of Vancouver City to Vancouver Island (a large island off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada). With the initial excitement of the move wearing off, and not having found new friends, I was struggling under a gray cloud. I knew a spiritual infusion would improve my condition and I ended up choosing a Zen retreat, primarily because it was the cheapest workshop I could find (though I did have some familiarity and interest in Zen itself).
Ross rock climbing near Campbell River, B.C., Canada
The workshop was on Saturna Island, one of many smaller islands between mainland Canada and the much larger Vancouver Island. The experience turned out to be a life transforming event, but one that took many years to come to fruition. It was about seven years after the retreat when I began to write about my Zen experience. This time I had just returned from a year of teaching English in Korea, and while working in Korea I took a holiday in Thailand and found the people there sparked some ideas about “Living in the Moment.” Upon my return I had relocated again, and during my idle hours I began to write. Scaling the Mountain was the result. That Zen retreat has been crucial in the evolution of my Zen thinking. Please click on the icon below to read the story.
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Right: Itsukushima Temple near Hiroshima
I have lived in Japan for more than 10 years, and still find it a fascinating and intriguing place. I don’t speak the language so I am definitely an outsider, though I don’t know if a foreigner can ever truly become “Japanese.” For the record, I studied French at grade school in Canada, twice I took a beginner’s Spanish course at night-school, and I lived in Korea for a year. People tend to question this when I say it, but I am convinced the language part of my brain does not work.
Recently I was checking some statistics about crime in advanced, democratic countries, and of course Japan scores well, but I will confess not as high as I thought. I feel extremely safe here, and have never had any concerns about being the victim of a crime: I leave my backpack unguarded in all kinds of places, I walk the streets late at night, and I have never even seen a crime. Alcohol is readily available (they even have street vending machines selling it) but I have not encountered alcohol-induced aggressive behavior. Furthermore, honesty is still a basic component of daily life where consumers are valued and trusted.
There are many factors for this, but one I will mention is that school kids are kept extremely busy. Late into the night I am teaching kids as young as 10 years old; amazingly many of them get up around 6am and finish classes after 9pm. I am not suggesting youth are the cause of problems in our western societies (more specifically Canada), but I do suggest they are an obvious symptom of the dysfunction of it. Many of Canada’s youth feel lost and unvalued, and far too many act this out (in Canada I have worked in a youth jail, group home and alternative school). In contrast, I live in a medium size city in Japan and I am not aware of drug use being an issue here.
Besides keeping teens very busy, I will offer a few more reasons for Japan's lower youth crime rate, in general children are valued and schools have the responsibility to teach students to be good citizens. Moral education is part of the curriculum, and developing leadership skills is a key component of the afterschool requirements (all junior high school students must participate in a club activity after the regular school day ends). Schools also immerse children in, and instill an appreciation for, the rituals of Japanese society. In kindergarten my son still does the same activities his mother did many years ago. Obviously having youth participating well in society means as adults they are more likely to be contributing members to it.
A tradeoff for the Japanese style of society is that personal freedoms are fewer. This is why it does not score well on livability evaluations. The obvious restrictions like not having easy access to firearms or a strict attitude towards drugs have clear benefits for Japan. But there are also lack of freedoms that many westerners would balk at, such as rights as an employee and equal opportunity for women (gay rights aren't even on the horizon yet) to name two. However, I will suggest that many of what we Westerners would call personal rights are over-rated. The benefits of a well-structured society are enjoyed daily here.
For this alternative approach to daily life to function, the mindset of a Japanese person needs to be different; I am often left scratching my head at the way things are done here. There is an obvious penchant for order and a systematic attitude (more so than anywhere else I have seen, though I found German society has many similarities), yet many other things are done counter to practical reasoning and solely because it is the "Japanese way." This allows Japan to be a modern democracy, yet still have a slow evolution to free-thinking, while contradictorily embracing modern technology. In reality, their society is shaped (or not shaped) by having very restrictive immigration policies. Never-the-less, by rejecting the melting pot approach to society, Japan shows us some valuable assets that get lost in our attempts to create a mixed cultured, open-minded western society.
For Japan’s economy to thrive in the modern world, it needs to make some changes, but the challenge will be to keep it a relatively safe and pleasant place to live. I think it has much to offer other democracies, unfortunately our Western political system seems to be pushing us towards a more dysfunctional society, rather than adopting tough changes that would improve it.
I love how Japan honors the changing of the seasons.
Left: A rice field in the spring, summer and fall.