A Buddhist Heart

I recently wrote an essay about an experience I had in Asia as an entry for an amateur travel writing contest. Unfortunately, my piece was not selected as a winner. I put a good deal of effort into writing it and received great revisions from some skillful minds and in the end came out with a piece I’m quite pleased with. So, I thought I’d share it here.

A Buddhist Heart

“Don’t let your hands touch your body,” he said. “Just move them around the outside, slowly. Move the energy all over.” He held my wrist and helped glide my right hand through the air, just inches above the right half of my body. I was sitting cross-legged on the soft tatami. My back stretched up against the wooden pillar he had placed me in front of because my posture was “not good enough” without something truly straight to guide my spine. I continued to sit, eyes closed, sweeping away the air in front of my face with both hands and sending it down across both sides of my body: shoulders, chest, stomach, thighs, knees, calves, feet and back up again.

I was instructed to inhale deeply through my nose, taking in all the beauty in the world.
“Flowers, trees, birds, happiness. Breathe them in. You will be stronger. Now exhale slowly, all the bad things. Sadness. Watch me.” I lifted my eyelids and looked at him. Head shaved and dressed in a surgeon-scrubs-blue cottonjinbei, he inhaled deeply as he moved his hands
rhythmically through the air around his body. His eyes shut behind big 70s-style aviator glasses. He then opened his mouth slightly and exhaled the longest, steadiest, slowest breath. Minutes later he opened his eyes, “Your breath can go across the world and come back to you. In
Buddhism, the Universe is very big but your heart is just as big. The world, your heart, the same.”

Did he know? My first trip to Asia had my mind in chaos. The distance separating me from my world was like a lump of indigestible mochi stuck in my gut. This trip was a dream come true and yet it was making everything feel like a dream. “Am I really here?” I did as I was told. I
exhaled for a long time. My mind’s eye watched my breath go northeast, across the Pacific, over the mountains, the prairies, the lake, and around the table with my family, through the city with my friends. Then, I inhaled it all back into my newly-infinite heart, deeply. I became present. The distance became manageable, the mochi a little softer.

I opened my eyes and the cinematic mist had lifted. The man before me was a monk and we were inside a temple but this was no dream. It was his world and I was in it. He led us out of the temple and into the kitchen where his wife had breakfast on the table and the family’s
miniature dachshund waited, tail wagging. I sat down, famished. After all, my breath had just traveled across the world and back.

With the Iwatas, Anna, and the dog

With the Iwatas, Anna, and the dog

Inside the temple just after the transformative meditation

Inside the temple just after the transformative meditation

Outside the temple with Mrs. Iwata

Outside the temple with Mrs. Iwata


During the two years I spent teaching English in Japan, I became a master of the “jiko shokai” which is Japanese for “self-introduction”. The self-introduction is a weirdly important and (no surprise – because almost everything is) formal part of Japanese culture. All shiny, new employees must stand in front of their new boss and co-workers and explain themselves politely while wearing their very best black suit. I too was required to perform said task in a variety of staff rooms and once even at city hall for then-mayor of Osaka. However, because of my total lack of Japanese language skills it was completely acceptable for me to get up there and pronunciation-ally butcher the few fill-in-the-blank sentences I had been instructed to memorize before I moved to the land of the rising sun. My first year in Japan, when I was still new, not only was it acceptable, but I was actually often praised for introducing myself like this (or at least I hope it sounded something like this):
“Good morning. It’s nice to meet you. I am Vanessa. I come from Canada. Please be kind to me and help me. Thank you.” Not exactly gripping stuff but I kid you not this won me smiles and got me in good graces.

Then there were the jiko shokai I gave to students; the ones I mastered. I never did learn enough Japanese to beef up my staff room self-intro much, but when it came time to win over classrooms full of Japanese teenagers I was graciously permitted to use my native language, and visual aids. Japan is a rather ethnically and culturally homogenous place where many families share similar structure, traditions and experiences. I soon discovered that the way to pique the interest of these students was to bring up all the things about myself that made me different from almost everyone they knew. Having a tan complexion and curly hair was a good jumping-off point. Then there is the fact that I have several siblings, I speak two languages fluently (neither being Japanese), my dad is one of 15 brothers and sisters, and I’ve traveled to more than 20 different countries. By the time I started my third academic term there, I knew just how to combine these random facts, the accompanying photo evidence, and a confident delivery so that it all added up to me being as fascinating as a pop star. Students wanted pictures with me, they baked me sweets, one fan-girl-student wrote down the date of my anniversary with my boyfriend. Once, a student even touched my butt because she just could not help herself. That’s when I hired the bodyguard. I was a wiz at introducing (read: selling) myself as supercool and I did my best at maintaining this image because it made it that much easier to keep the kids engaged in my lessons.

Now, as I sit here thinking about how to introduce myself on my blog, my impulse is to make a PowerPoint presentation to tell you about my unique hobbies, my favourite food, my last vacation, and show you pictures of my family at Christmas. That probably won’t make you want to touch my butt and keep reading my blog though, will it?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained/Why the blog?

It’s funny how even the simplest platitude, when offered as advice or encouragement at the precisely correct moment by the correct person, can kick-start a wonderful new chain of reasoning that may even result in an “Aha!” moment and then, potentially, a new action. And, hopefully, that action holds within its energy a positive reaction. Sometimes a platitude isn’t a platitude at all, but a mantra.

This is just the sort of thing that happened to me several months ago. I was at my parent’s house just outside Toronto video chatting with my two dear friends who live in Japan. I had recently returned from living there for two years myself and was telling them about my plans for the near future. To sum up said plans briefly: my boyfriend (an American I’d met while living in Osaka) would soon be returning to Japan from a 3-month boat trip around the world on which he was volunteering as an English teacher. After spending a couple of weeks there, he would be coming up to Canada to meet my family and then I would be going down to California to meet his. Then, we hoped I’d be able to move to California for a while so that we could test out our relationship on the mainland.

Suffice it to say I was wary of what was to come. Could we export this ex-pat romance? And if so, how? We hadn’t been imported from the same nation or even the same coast. Nationality aside, would we even work outside the charmed lives we had in Japan? We had lived together for 6 months in Osaka but it hadn’t been without its bumps, would those bumps become mountains once we got off the island? I had all these concerns in spite of the fact that when it had been time for him to set sail we’d both affirmed that we wanted to stay together. Months later, I still felt the same way. And, through the limited amount of communication we’d had (a couple of detailed emails at the start, a few SEVERELY choppy phone calls in the middle, and the one and only video chat towards the end), as far as I knew he still felt the same way, too. Absence makes the heart grow more insecure and I had this terrible feeling we might be doomed, that when we finally laid eyes on each other after nearly 4 months we’d realized we’d lost it somewhere across the Pacific…or the Atlantic.

For the most part I kept my fears of distance breaking our bond to myself and instead vented my fears by telling those around me I was worried that maybe we wouldn’t get along in a new lifestyle or that maybe the issue of our nationalities might get the better of us, what with my lack of a Green-card or work-visa-getting career.

So there I was, telling A&P, the two people I’d consulted about everything that mattered over the last 24 months, about how there was a strong chance I’d be moving to California come the New Year. “But I mean who knows really? Maybe it won’t work out,” I heard/saw myself saying to them through the interweb, “but we’ve got to give it a try or we’ll never know.” I’d uttered these words a lot over the last few months, “we’ve got to give it a try or we’ll never know.” They may have sounded optimistic to the outside world but the more I said them the more they sounded like a sad attempt to convince myself to do something that would likely end in heartbreak. P, with whom I share a few personality traits, likely sensed that I needed reinforcements and said, “You know what they say Bane: nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Um, wow. Off went a million synapses that had never gone off when I’d been trying to pep myself up with one-liners, and at the end of that conversation I felt a new optimism burgeoning inside me.

Now my referring to P’s words of encouragement as a platitude or one-liner may sound disparaging but it’s certainly not meant to be. It’s just a simple truth that expressions of this nature (i.e.: “this too shall pass”) are textbook examples of canned advice. Now, P’s a very intellectual guy and he wasn’t saying this in a cheesy cheerleader way. He said it wryly and he said it because what else can you genuinely say to your friend when you know just as little as they do about what the future holds? Once the words hit my ears I think the exact sound my brain made was “Duh!” Of course I have to go out on a limb and take a chance if I expect something good to happen. The answer to how my sailor and I will transplant our Asian-grown love to the Americas isn’t going to reveal itself to us without some action on our part. Duh, duh, duh! Thank you, P! This was my mantra up until the day I boarded the plane to come and live here for 6 months. It’s my mantra even now as the future is still rather undefined.
For those who are wondering, our love has been thriving in its new climate. I think we’re stronger than ever and most of those bumps have been leveled out. Our relationship is like a plant… and like a road.

Now, this finally brings us to the blog. I want to be a writer. That’s pretty much the long-and-short of it. I’d love to have a career writing about life(style), travel, and/or art. It’s an old dream but a new era in my life, so I think the time could be right to give it a real go. To tell the truth I feel pretty insecure about it, but “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” While I’m here I can’t work for money but I can work on my craft and this seems like a good place to start.

Here’s to venturing!