2001 Student-Faculty Fellows: St. Lawrence University

Japan: Individual Projects

Mentor: Erin A. McCarthy, Philosophy
Students: Nicole Gagnon ’02; Marcus Perman ’03; Bethany Mason Taylor ’04; Courtney Ann Williams ’04

Abstracts of Reflections

Erin A. McCarthy

The opportunity to travel to Japan with 4 students in May and June exploring various facets of Zen life was invaluable — both in terms of impact on my teaching and my research. Throughout the three weeks, I learned alongside the students, both about Zen and about traveling with and facilitating an intense, overseas learning experience. Working and traveling so intensely with the students was both challenging and rewarding. For some of the students this was their first trip outside the U.S. and it was exciting to see them experience Japanese culture and watch them grow personally and intellectually as, through lived experience, they stretched their minds beyond the culture of the West. My classroom will undoubtedly be enriched as I incorporate this experience into my teaching. In terms of my research, the experience was most fruitful! It allowed me the opportunity to complete one project (a book proposal), and I also discovered a new area of research to pursue. In short, as the academic year commences, I am almost daily discovering new benefits that arise from the experience and continually realizing the contribution of this trip to my professional development.

Nicole Gagnon
Nature in Zen

Going to Japan broadened both my personal and academic interests. Before traveling I was only mildly interested in Japan, now I find it very interesting. I hope to continue my studies of Japan, particularly of Zen at a later date. Even if I don’t get a chance to make another academic visit to Japan I would certainly like to visit the country for personal reasons. Japan is an incredibly unusual country, with very beautiful places and pretty ugly places existing only ten feet apart. There are so many things that I would like to do again there, such as visiting the beautiful Zen temples in Kyoto, as well as eating more sushi at sushi bars, and so many other things. I would also like to do new things and visit new places. I would like to visit more of the temples I haven’t seen yet. I would like to see more of the islands as well, as we only stayed on one island. Going to Japan opened my eyes to the wonders of a country other than ones that I know from either experience or extensive study. I think I came out of the trip with my eyes opened to more places in the world. I also think that I learned that reading and studying about a culture and a religion aren’t the same as seeing and experiencing both of these things first hand.

Research: My personal portion of our Zen project will include a twenty page paper, about the idea of nature in Zen. My thesis will be that Zen gardens are conducive to enlightenment experiences because they are peaceful and natural places, that give people a chance to concentrate on thoughtlessness, and also that the maintaining of the Zen gardens offers people a chance to concentrate on the ritual of being natural in their practice. The ritual of being natural leads to enlightenment as well because people can learn how to concentrate on what they are doing and where they are without cluttering their minds with thoughts. I will also prepare a PowerPoint presentation that shows slides of the Zen gardens that we visited and that briefly explains the research that I did in Japan. Our group project includes presenting our research at conferences, attempting to get our research published, and a web site. The web site will include a brief synopsis of our research, as well as the highlights of the trip, our personal thoughts that will be taken from the group journal we wrote in while in Japan, links to other academic Zen websites and general Buddhism websites.

Marcus Perman
A Comparative Study of Zen as Lived in Japan and the U.S.

The Japanese culture seems to be an amazing conglomeration of opposites that somehow flow together into a unified whole. My experience there was interesting to say the least and I have been motivated to learn more about Japan, its history and language, as well as about the rest of Asia and the interesting philosophies it has to offer to the world. The trip has motivated me to pursue a study abroad program in Japan and I hope to return to learn more philosophy. I have also been motivated to learn more about the practice of Buddhism and other Eastern religions in order to foster self-cultivation.

The essence of Zen is not that of a religion, although it is Buddhist in character. What Zen is “in fact” is ineffable. Thus comparing American and Japanese Zen practice merely elucidates cultural differences. In making this comparison the obvious question is “which is more Ôauthentic’ Japanese or American”? In answering this question it is too easy to note the so-called “dilution” of Zen in America and conclude its in authenticity. However, it is my belief that the two countries manifest Zen in different ways, although American Zen practice may not mimic Japanese Zen practice, the understanding coming from an American Zen master and a Japanese Zen master seems to be equally authentic and equally deep.

Research:  Thus far, I have come to some important realizations. Zen is not “knowable” in any logical way; it is not a term to be “understood”. Zen is the indefinable; it cannot be broken up into simple bits of information to be understood by some unconnected knower. Zen philosophy is based upon the idea that experience itself is ineffable and that conceptualization can never truly capture the essence of reality. Therefore, attempting to define Zen and the practice of it is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If one were to compare Zen practice in America and Zen practice in Japan in a logical, analytic way, one could come to one of two conclusions rather quickly. One could conclude that “pure” Zen lives in Japan, with its long lasting tradition and attention to preserving every detail of the old ways. Japanese Zen must be the most refined and authentic Zen since practice in the monasteries is highly focused and regimented. However, one could also conclude that the heart of true Zen lives in America, where Zen has been incorporated in a way that transcends the dogma of the old ways and reinstates Zen as an authentic search for the true self. Both conclusions would be interesting and arguable but both would be incorrect. Zen is not Japanese and Zen is not American, nor is it Chinese or Korean. Whether it is named Tao, Son, Chan, or Zen it always has been and always will be the indefinable, ineffable, unconceptualizable “it” which we struggle to understand.

Bethany Taylor
Zen Methods of Teaching

I have had a small, but intense, taste of all that there is to learn and see in the world. I want to learn more about Zen and other sects of Buddhism, and see how everything that I saw fits into place. The more I see and learn about, the more I want to know. During the trip, I had briefs moments when everything around me made perfect sense, and I was freed from worries and felt so calm. These moments mostly came at the end of the trip, when everything that we had been learning just flowed together and I got it. There is no way that I can define what “it” is, other than to say that I felt complete, and that the world was perfectly connected to me, and that I was most me, having lost myself in the world for a moment. I hope, that as I study more, those moments become more and more frequent, until I can live my life in perfect detached attachment. Until then, I’ll be reading everything, studying everything, and practicing everything that leads me to that self.

Research: So far, my most substantive finding have shown me that there is no way to learn Zen except to do Zen. Everything that I read, and everyone that I talked to said almost that exact thing. In light of this, I will be making the historical teachings and practice of Zen a central part of the paper, and contrasting to a slight degree the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen, namely in their use of koans and their respective methods of Zazen. I will be using the Ox-herding pictures as a tool for showing the various stages of a Zen journey, and showing Soto and Rinzai against that backdrop. Writing a formal research paper will help me to formulate my own methods of how I will be able to share what I have learned with others, so I am personally interested in making this paper the best that I can.

Courtney Williams
The Role of Women in Zen

Spending three weeks in Japan had a significant impact on my life personally and academically. I was able to put two semesters of Japanese language to use, asking for directions, ordering in restaurants, and finding my way around the subway systems. I was particularly amazed at how many Japanese customs I learned about, such as tea ceremony, table etiquette and the daily act of removing shoes at someone’s door. The trip was very helpful academically. During the course of our stay in Japan, we met with a number of scholars and academics, conducting interviews with individuals who practice Zen daily, and attending lectures. Because of these meetings I was forced to think critically about my project and to discuss these thoughts with Zen scholars. Under the direction and help of my teacher and these meetings I was able to acquire a firm grasp on my project.

Research: At this point in research I have noticed a large discrepancy in Zen Buddhism regarding women. In theory, Zen appears to be open and accepting of women practicing Zen. In reality there are far fewer nunneries in Japan, receiving significantly less funding than monasteries. Women practicing Zen appear to be treated differently and less importantly than men practicing Zen. The aim of my research paper is to look at Zen theory and point out important factors that explain why Zen is a religion that would appeal to women. I will then point out differences between the practices at nunneries and monasteries that reveal a gap between the theory and actual practice of modern Zen. Finally, I will suggest reasons, both historical and cultural, for why this difference now occurs.

Venues for Sharing

  • Formal papers, group journal and website.
  • Publish in the Wittenberg University East Asian Studies Journal.
  • Participate in the Honors Forum, in the fall, at St. Lawrence’s Family Weekend (Sept. 28-30), in which student summer research is presented. The students will make a scholarly presentation as well as share some readings from the journal. We will also officially launch the project’s website at this forum.
  • Presentation at St. Lawrence University’s diversity festival in the spring semester.