Asako Suzuki 'FP 08

Reflection of My Summer Research: Zen Buddhism Influence and Environmentalism in Japan

As a self-designed Environmental Studies in East and South Asia major, the focus of my study has been to investigate the different social constructions of natural environments based on diverse religious cosmologies. I had studied religious and cultural perspectives towards nature of the U.S. and other parts of Asia, and my desire to reflect that of my native Japan became strong and inevitable. My summer research was to see Japanese conceptions of nature in a new light as a capstone of my study at MHC. I focused on Zen Buddhism as a framework of my research since it is said to have influenced the formation of Japanese philosophy, culture and spirituality. I intended to achieve the following objectives in my research:

1. to study Zen teachings with focuses on its values and cosmologies;
2. to examine the development of Japanese values and ethics and contribution of Zen Buddhism in formulating them;
3. to observe ecovillages in Japan as an example of current Japanese environmental movements.

I spent most of my time at national library reading about 25 books ranged from primary Zen texts such as Dogen and Rinzai, Japanese environmental history, Japanese views of religion and aesthetic, to Japanese cultural nationalism. I also visited a Zen museum in Komazawa University to see Zen arts and analyze how human and natural environments are presented. Joining zazen meditation sessions Soji-temple in Kanagawa, the head temple of the Soto sect, was the most joyful parts of my summer experience. Meditations were held in early Saturday mornings and followed by a discussion session, both of which were led by Zen monk Issho Fujita who used to live in Pioneer valley for eighteen years and offered meditation sessions for American people. He was one of my supervisors of the research and supported me by generating discussion, answering my questions and suggesting reading materials that broadened my understanding of Zen philosophy. At Soji-temple, I had an opportunity to interact with unsui, young monks who are practicing asceticism. Their life is regulated by detailed precepts that encourage mindfulness and awareness. Additionally, I joined a group reading session at a smaller Zen temple and studied Zen text with people from local communities.

All of these experiences-reading Zen texts in their original language and actually participating religious practices- were truly inspirational and valuable ones, which I cannot obtain in a regular class setting. I think I was able to grasp what Zen philosophy is like. Zen concept of mindfulness and awareness as well as its holistic, egalitarian perspective of the universe indeed offer an ecological worldview, which can be a basis of environmental ethics. Its emphasis on interconnected relationships of all beings parallels to biodiversity, which make a balanced environment. Moreover, I found Zen influence on Japanese aesthetic such as imperfection, simplicity and irregularity. These aesthetics are incorporated with other traditional thoughts such as Shintoistic animism, Confucianism and Daoism and contribute to Japanese conceptions of nature.

Another thing I intended to do was visiting ecovillages in Tokyo. I originally planned to visit CEV (City Eco Village), a new project that creates an environmentally friendly residential community to positively contribute society's sustainability. I thought this project was interesting for its urban location, which was quite different from other ecovillages that I have visited in the States. However, due to the delay of its construction, I was not able to visit there. CEV was supposed to be completed in the early summer and would include apartments, office buildings and café. All buildings would be constructed with locally produced, the least toxic materials, and would utilize renewable energy and rainwater. Then, I found that there were several other eco-friendly residential complexes. Interestingly, along with other numerous Japanese environmental movements, most of them are reflected on Japanese traditional way of living in their design and principles.

My summer research added depth to my understanding of ecological worldviews and sustainable living. It also made me realized the interconnectedness of mind, body, culture and environment: one’s state of mind regulates, and is regulated by, one’s bodily action; spiritual belief is deeply embedded in a culture and affected by landscapes; culture and landscapes shape people’s spiritual belief. Meanwhile, I saw numerous Japanese environmentalist groups, small and large, public and private, actively working toward a more sustainable world. I consider this phenomenon to be a significant progress in terms of Japanese environmentalism. It was much less visible when I left Japan six years ago. My experience somehow ended up being my roots-searching journey and reconnected me with my own culture and homeland in the way I feel greater pride and believe that we can make the world into a better place.

Biography

Environmental issues had been always my concern long before I joined Mount Holyoke community. When I joined in a march to advocate Kyoto Protocol, the amendment had been protracted. Although I was inspired by fellow participants’ positive energy, I was irritated by the dilemma between our passion and inability to make an immediate change. “Why humans cannot stop destructing behavior when everyone knows it would ultimately lead an unrecoverable devastation?” This question made me curious about people’s various motives and interests that formulate their behaviors. The spiritual and philosophical dimensions of environmentalism have been my focus since then.

As an international student, I am also amazed by cultural differences between my native Japan and the United States. With my curiosity to other culture combined with long time interest in environmentalism, I designed my own major “Environmental Studies in East and South Asia.” My special major gives me flexibility to explore how people from different cultural and religious backgrounds view their relationships between human and nature. I have had opportunities to learn Asian religions such as Zen, Hinduism and Daoism as well as multiple environmental movements including environmental justice, ecofeminism, ecopsychology and deep ecology. I also joined EAC (Environmental Action Coalition) and engaged in campaigns to raise awareness of our environments. What the most significant thing I learned through my experience in EAC is that we can make a better environment by making small changes in our daily life.

My experience at MHC reaffirms the importance of people’s spirit. It can be a foundation of a paradigm shift of our values and lifestyles; it is where our aspirations towards nature and our sense of justice are connected; it is what keeps us motivated to make our world into a better place.