by Alec Siegel
I’m bent over the sink washing dishes from dinner when the bald Buddhist monk walks up to me.
“What religion are you?” he asks.
The question hangs in the air as I mindlessly scrub a miso soup bowl.
Kei-san, a monk of four years and proprietor of the Setsukeian Guest House, located in the hills of Nantan, Japan, did not ask me this question as dish time small talk. Let me rewind.
There were five of us at dinner: four volunteer farmers (three Americans and one Frenchman) and Kei-san. Dinner started unusually early, at around six-thirty. After dinner-beef stuffed cabbage, rice and miso soup-we cleared the plates off to the side,and he motioned for us to gather around.
He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled some bubbles, connected them with lines, and jotted down some Japanese characters. “Kei-san here,” he said, pointing to a small dot at the bottom of the page. He had sketched a family tree.
In Japan, Kei-san said, showing appreciation and respect for one’s ancestors is a central part of the culture, something that is ingrained in most Japanese people and is practiced both inside and outside the home.
The four of us nodded, waiting for more, for a larger point, for the nugget of Buddhist wisdom we had hoped to collect. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then switched gears altogether.
“Christian, Jewish, Islam, no religion. All OK,” he suddenly said, his round face scrunched up, each word delivered with urgency, as if Buddha himself had used him as a conduit.
Eventually he comes back to his core message: culture and tradition and customs are important, very important. So important in fact that he spells each word out on top of his family tree.
“In Japan there are two religions,” he said, “very hard for foreigners to understand.”
He jots the word “Buda” (Buddha) at the top right of the page, and “god” at the top left. He connects the two with a straight line. In Japan, an ancient religion called Shinto colors the religious outlook of a majority of the country. “God” is the universe and everything in it-humans, trees, rice, fruits, vegetables, etc. It does not indicate a creator or deity with any specific name or form. The lesson ends as abruptly as it began, and we are dismissed for our nightly chores.
I’m on dish duty, so as the other three sort rice from their rice husks at the dinner table, I head to the kitchen, stewing over what he had just said.
Do I appreciate my ancestors enough? Can’t we all-Jews, Muslims, Christians, every living human being-live by the words “All OK”?
Before I could mull these questions over any further, Kei-san burst into the kitchen and looked at me with a wide grin, far from the stern and meditative caricature of a Buddhist monk.
“What religion are you?”
I pull out the Star of David necklace from under my shirt and launch into an explanation of my Jewish upbringing, and how I identify as a cultural and ethnic Jew, but religiously I’m a bit up in the air. I’m talking in circles, trying to convey a complex concept to a Japanese monk with a puzzled look on his face.
I’m rounding out my “cultural Jew” dissertation, using chopsticks to show how Jewish identity can be separated between a culture and a religion, when he suddenly laughs, signals for me to stop, and pats me on the shoulder.
“Christian, Jewish, Islam, no religion. All OK,” he said.