“Letting Go” @ La Casa De Maria

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I recently hosted a retreat with Indira Shekerjian at La Casa De Maria in Montecito, California the weekend of September 22 & 23. This was our second retreat together,  we first teamed up with Megan McCarver for a sold out weekend at White Lotus in Santa Barbara, May 2011. I’ve been to LCDM a number of times over the past few years as a guest yoga teacher for a series of retreats held by Dorothy James.  As a satisfied guest, I always desired to hold my own retreat there someday.

The theme for our weekend., “Letting Go” was based on certain aspects of the Fall Equinox where there is a perfect balance between “day and night,” the “sun and  moon.“ This is also applicable to the literal definition of Hatha Yoga: Ha”–sun, “tha”–moon,  and Yoga –“to yoke.”   Through the practice of yoga we strive to strengthen  and reinforce the connection and balance between the mind and body.   Therefore, it seems appropriate that as nature shifts into balance, we too, should try to do the same.  Furthermore, Pantanjali advises us in the Yoga Sutras to observe the niyama, Santoshacontentment (2.42)  and  abhyasa vairagyabhyampracticing non-attachment (1.12).    Indira pointed out in our group discussion, that we typically  start off the year making our “to do lists” and then over the ensuing months, keep pushing the agenda.  But, do we ever stop to see what we’ve accomplished? Is it enough?  As the year winds down, what can we “let go of?”

This welcoming center provided the appropriate setting for deep reflection.  LCDM is spread out over 26 acres covered with large shady oak trees—there’s even a towering 500-year-old eucalyptus tree on the property.  An eclectic assortment of  old Spanish Mission Style structures are situated around the estate. Each dwelling built at various times, has its own unique traits. For example, The Immaculate Heart Center, a stoic stone mansion built by a wealthy businessman in 1930, evokes the style and craftsmanship of an old world European manor, its rooms filled with antiques old paintings and religious artifacts.  Other facilities on the property include comfortable and soothing Retreat Rooms; Casa San Yasidro, a dormitory that accommodates more than 20 people, mostly youth groups; and there are houses, Casa Teresita and La Casitafor smaller groups or individuals.  The center has been undergoing renovation with an emphasis on energy conservation. While most of the buildings are being outfitted with solar panels, they still retain their historic charm.

The food is simply excellent whether you’re eating meals prepared by a private chef at the Immaculate Heart Center, or cafeteria food at LCDM, it’s all fresh gourmet mostly vegetarian/vegan fare that ‘s made primarily from produce grown on the property or from nearby organic farms.  A large orchard of fruit trees and a sizable garden further support the Center’s direction towards environmental sustainability.

This interfaith center has an interesting history  dating back to the Chumash Indians who once inhabited it, planting many of the trees, then later over the years privately owned.   The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, A Roman Catholic religion purchased the property in 1940 and after breaking away from the Catholic Church in the 1960s & 70s, turned the estate into a non-profit organization.  What I like most about the center is that it’s off the radar for popular yoga retreat destinations.  It’s a retreat and conference center that harmoniously hosts many types of groups and non-profit organizations,  with “programs focused on meditation, spirituality, personal growth, community service, environmental awareness, education and art.”  Many individuals also go there for silent retreats, to write or create.

I also experimented with a new retreat format–an intimate sized group of 10-12 people and the option to spend the weekend or come up for one day.  Most traditional yoga retreat centers typically require twenty people minimum, putting pressure on teachers to get these numbers when in fact they may be happy with around 12-15.  This format  gave everyone the opportunity to connect in a profound way that isn’t possible in larger groups bringing a lightness and calmness to the weekend that proved to be refreshing.

Our group of eleven people occupied the cavernous “Lounge,” one of the meeting rooms on the property, with lofty wood beamed ceilings and a grand stone fireplace. In all, they had an excellent time participating in a well-rounded program of yoga, restorative and meditation classes and a provocative workshop and discussion led by Indira and I.  Everyone also had ample free time to hike, swim read, draw or simply take a nap!

Nevertheless,  LCDM is a good place for serious heartfelt discussion and contemplation. You’re given a rare opportunity to move inward and connect to your innermost self in a supportive environment that encourages you to open up,  reveal and  “let go.” We were all graciously taken care of.  I’ve finally found a “retreat home” and I hope you and others will join me there sometime in the future.

A Trip to Kamakura with Tomoko Kawahara

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Friday of that week, June 29, Tomoko Kawahara took me to Kamakura–we had been working so hard during the training that we never had time to spend any social time together. Many people had mentioned that I would like Kamakura, a seaside community that features nearly forty shrines and temples, notably the Great Buddha of Kamakura. We took a number of trains there and  finally ended up approximately an hour outside of Tokyo. Once there we paid for a trolley to take us to the local spots. Our first stop was an organic restaurant on Yuigahama Beach for a lunch of tempeh with tomato sauce, and assorted vegetarian dishes.

After walking on the beach we strolled up to the view the Great Buddha at the Kotoku-in Temple.  As usual, before entering the grounds you cleanse at a purification fountain and then proceed. There seemed to be hundreds of people on the Temple grounds on this hot, sunny day. The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Daibutsu) is massive (13.35 meters/43.8ft tall  and weighs approx. 93 tonnes/270,000 lbs).  It is one of the most famous icons of Japan as well as its tallest bronze Buddha and I was very impressed that this icon has existed on this site unharmed since the 1252.  The original Buddha was made out of wood in 1243 and later destroyed and the various halls that housed the Buddha over the centuries succumbed to various natural disasters.   The current bronze statue was cast to replace it and may have been gilded which would have a magnificent sight to see. The statue is hollow and Tomoko said that it is believed that “going inside the Buddha will let you start a new.”  At first I wasn’t sure–I couldn’t imagine walking through the Buddha in the heat with dozens of school children.  However,  I said, “I am returning to L.A.  and could use a new start, let’s go inside.”

From there we strolled along a cheerful, quaint street through  town, passing a small temple, Shū Genji, which was built to commemorate Shijokingo a faithful believer of the religion Nichiren who was persecuted in 1271.  This temple, a former residence made of wood was modest in size surrounded by a brushy garden.

After a quick snack of  matcha  gelato we took the trolley to another stop nearby to see the hilltop Jojuin Temple (c. 1219),  surrounded by 262  pale blue, lavender, pink & white hydrangea bushes on a slope overlooking the ocean.  Jojuin is also referred to as the “Hydrangea Temple” and we were fortunate to be there for peak blooming season.  “262” is the number of Chinese characters used in Hannya-shingyo Sutra. 108 steps lead up to the temple–“108” is the number of tolling bells on New Years eve. The temple grounds had various statues commemorating prominent Buddhist priests associated with this compound.

As we walked toward the train station, we stopped by the Gokurakuji Temple which was built-in Fukazawa in 1259 by the Buddhist priest Ryokanbo Ninsho and then moved to Kamakura around 1262. After and  crouching down to enter the wooden gate we walked down a shaded path toward a very interesting complex  of ornately carved wooden structures.

From there we took the trolley back to the train station and transferred to a bus that would weave its way through Kamakura to the amazing Hokokuji Temple.  Founded by Tengan Eko (Buddhist name Butsujo-Zenji) who was a representative of the Zen literary movement known as Gozan Bungak, this sanctuary flourished as the family temple of both the Ashikaga and Uesugi clans.  A magical and vast  garden of 2,000 Mōsō Bamboo trees dominates the property which is the reason why this complex is commonly referred to as the “Bamboo Temple.”    We decided to rest for a while at the tea house (Kyūkōan) and had fresh matcha tea under a canopy of bamboo overlooking a small waterfall.  A leisurely tour of the temple grounds revealed surprising highlights:  carved stone reliquaries, statues decorated with red hats, deep blue tinged hydrangea, a cave of tombs (Yagura), and a thatched roof bell tower.

Once back at the train station, I saw  trees decorated with colorful ribbons of paper and origami. I can’t remember the specific story associated with the decorated trees that Tomoko told me, but they were delightful and whimsical, so I took a picture.

In all, we saw five temples that day and it would take several trips to see them all.  I asked Tomoko what the difference was between a “temple” and “shrine” and with a little more investigation I found that one is “Buddhist “and the other “Shinto.” “Shinto” (Kami Nomchi—“the way of the Gods”) is a religion indigenous to Japan that worships nature. Originally people prayed to the great natural phenomena such as mountains, wind,rain, trees, rivers, fertility and powerful deities that inhabit heaven and earth.  Distinguishing characteristics of “Shinto Shrines”–are a Tori Gate, such as the grand ones featured at the Meiiji Shrine. In addition, there is a purification fountain near the entrance to cleanse your mouth and hands before prayer.

“Buddhism”  (Bukkyō) made its way into Japan in the 6th century via China and Korea. Predominant details of “Budhhist Temples” are:  the presence of the color red as evident with the Senso-ji Temple ( or a red gate (Yukuimon) and other items); an image of Buddha; and a large incense burner placed in front of the temple. Smoke created by the burning of incense is said to have healing properties. In addition, a pagoda is on the premises.

My trip to Kamakura was the perfect final sightseeing adventure to summarize my experiences in Japan and I ‘m no expert on the subject, but I could see first hand that influences of Shinto are pervasive in almost every aspect of Japanese life and culture–the naturalness of the structures, food and even clothing; respect for people, animals and towards all living things; traditions and celebrations.  Furthermore, there is relatively little crime in Japan and people are generally good spirited and very kind. Nevertheless,  these two religions—Shinto and Buddhism–coexist and complement each other which creates a harmonious balanced life.

 

Gotanda

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In contrast to Shibuya is the neighborhood in which I am staying, Gotanda,  and in my opinion reflects a real Japanese community.  Over these three months here, I’ve come to realize that Tokyo is not Shibuya but more like Gotanda, a balanced mix of residential and business and a small city within a city. I’ve now explored the quiet streets, walked along the river and eaten in many of the petite restaurants and cafes.  It’s relatively quiet for an urban environment and when I walk home from the station or class, I feel grateful that I’m staying here and not in Shibuya.  One day, in search of a park, I walked all the way to Meguro and back.  It took me all day, but it was one of the best days I’ve spent here. The photos depict the contrast of the imagined Tokyo and the real.

Sightseeing: The Zoo in Ueno Park

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A few weeks ago, Charlottte Tanaka, Mikoto, Goto Hisako and Ryu Imaizumi invited me to go with them to the zoo in Ueno Park.  I hadn’t been to a zoo in years and was really looking forward to it and 4 1/2 -year old Ryu was particularly excited.  We took the JR LIne to this vast park, which is very similar to New York’s Central Park, in scale and for the presence of prominent museums.  Shortly after entering the zoo, we  saw the panda bears and then continued on to see an elephant, bears, a towering giraffe, penguins and a menagerie of variegated wildlife.  A powerful storm quickly moved in forcing us to run for cover and take a monorail through lush, green, treetops in search of an area to wait out the downpour.  The four of us had snacks under a pavilion overlooking a sweeping lake covered in waterlilies. Finally the rain stopped and we were able explore a bit longer until a classical melody played over the speakers indicating closing time.  Similarly, throughout Tokyo, a nursery rhyme is amplified at 5:00 p.m. each day, Tomoko Kawahara said that this is a signal “for all little children to go home because their parents are waiting for them.”  After leaving the zoo, Ryu wanted to see the bullet trains “Shinkansen” and we were able to get passes at the train station to go below and see them arrive and depart.  Ryu was so thrilled to be there with the trains–and so upset when we had to leave.  In all, it was great to spend the day experiencing life’s simple pleasures through the eyes of a child.

Sightseeing: Senso-Ji Temple

Two of my students, Kasumi (“Lotty’) Tanaka and Hisako Imaizumi and her son Yu, took me on an excursion to Asakusa to tour the Senso-Ji Temple Grounds.   The sun had finally come out  after a few days of rain so we were able to spend considerable time touring the grounds.  The Senso-Ji Temple is the oldest temple in Japan and dates back to 628 A.D. It was built to honor the Bodhisattva Kannon—a figure highly regarded in Buddhism which is believed to have been sent to relieve human misery on earth.  Many Japanese believe that their hopes and pleas will reach this deity, which is evidenced in the various methods available on the grounds for prayer— to bless, request good fortune or to eliminate illness and vessels for ritualistic cleansing.  I took so many pictures that I created a slide show to share this rare experience.

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