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Japan: In the Spirit World

A Zen Romance: One Woman’s Adventures in a Monastery

by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Kodansha, 258 pp., $25.00

Zen Buddhism,” declared Time magazine in 1958, “is growing more chic by the minute.” This was then, of course: the era of Kerouac, Snyder, Watts, and the Dharma Bums. These days most people go to Japan for other reasons: money, fashion, architecture, sex. I’m not sure when the promise of spiritual enlightenment first attracted foreigners to Japan. Long before the Beats in any case. Lafcadio Hearn visited a Buddhist temple in Yokohama in 1890. It was his first day in Japan, and he started off on the wrong foot. He mistook a bowl of water, offered for his refreshment by a hospitable priest, for a begging bowl, and dropped a few coins in it—one of many cross-cultural misunderstandings.

It is easier to pinpoint when Japan acquired its reputation for sexual license. Western travelers were either shocked or delighted by Japanese libertinism. Ian Littlewood, in whose sharp and amusing guide to cultural myths and misunderstandings I found the story of Hearn’s faux pas, mentions several instances of both. A sixteenth-century Florentine traveler named Francesco Carletti was outraged by the readiness of Japanese men to use their sisters and daughters as merchandise. Japan, he wrote, “is more plentifully supplied than any other with these sort of means of gratifying the passion for sexual indulgence, just as it abounds in every other sort of vice, in which it surpasses every other place in the world.”

In 1615, the commander of a British trading fleet sent to Japan for the East India Company brought back (strictly for personal use, one presumes) a stack of pornographic books and paintings. Upon discovery, the collection was publicly burned. Another Englishman, named Richard Cocks, had been left in command of a trading post in Hirado, where he enjoyed the company of a succession of Japanese “wives.” Since he was not sent out there to enjoy himself, let alone with native women, a senior colleague in Batavia complained to the East India Office that Cocks was “miserably given over to voluptuousness.” Cocks was called back to London in 1624 to explain his conduct, but died on the way.

Nothing much had changed when the first Americans, led by Commodore Perry, stepped ashore in 1853. A young officer named John Henry Prebble recorded what they saw: “The inhabitants crowded the hill, and beckoned us on shore, and by the most unmistakable signs invited our intercourse with their women. One female went so far as to raise her drapery and expose her person to us. They are either a very lewd and lascivious people, or have catered before this, to the passions of sailors.”

The open delight taken by Japanese in politically incorrect pornography continues to startle foreign visitors, and the rich variety of nightlife ensures that Japan’s reputation as a sexual playground remains high. No doubt the recent reports of Mitsubishi’s alleged “sex parties” in, of all places, Normal, Illinois, helped to confirm the lewd image as well. But it seems a long way from all this to the rigors of the Zen monastery. Spiritual enlightenment and sexual indulgence are indeed connected in some cults and sects, but Zen is not one of them. And yet… One of Arthur Koestler’s insights into Japan was to call it “a country of stoic hedonists, of Spartan sybarites.” Koestler observed how Japanese behavior fell into two extremes: extreme social discipline, relieved by bursts of extreme, bibulous hedonism. If Confucian ethics form (or used to form) the basis for social hierarchy and order, Zen was a traditional release. Although not exactly hedonistic, Zen was a cult of spontaneity, a way to dissolve self-consciousness, an assault on dogma and rationalism, a discipline, in a way, of merry pranksters—hence its attraction to Beats, Californian acid-heads, and other spiritual pleasure seekers.

Since I was myself inclined to hedonism without the stoicism, Zen never held much attraction for me during the time I lived in Japan, in the 1970s. Being whacked by monks with sticks was not my idea of fun. Living in Tokyo, the modern capital of glitz, I tended to associate Zen freaks with Kyoto, the old capital, where foreigners went to see “traditional” Japan or, as they liked to put it, “the real Japan.” They were the kind that wore kimonos, kneeled on the wooden floors of monasteries, practiced archery, or the art of making tea, or whatever. In short, I liked to affect a metropolitan air of lofty disdain toward such types. No doubt, I would have done so had I met Deborah Boliver Boehm, who was in Kyoto in the 1960s, wore a kimono, did Zen, Noh, Indian dancing, tea, calligraphy, and so on. And I would have been wrong, for she is one of the wittiest observers of the Japanese scene that I have read.

Boehm was not so much a Zen freak as a Zen groupie. She liked the discipline, and she liked the monks. “What I wanted to be,” she writes, perhaps a touch greedily, “was a woman—preferably the only woman—in a monastery full of fascinating men.” (She tried a nunnery, too, but that wasn’t her style.) In the prologue to her book she describes a dream in which she has an erotic encounter with one of the monks, named Zan-san: “…I was wearing no underwear, and Zan-san’s trousers had magically dematerialized, although he still wore his kimono-style jacket…. ‘Ah,’ I sighed…. ‘Ahhh,’ echoed Zan-san, and I thought that was the most profound conversation I had ever had with another human being.”

Now this kind of thing has a long tradition in male writing about the exotic East. Western males are forever penetrating the mysterious, voluptuous, submissive Oriental female. Pierre Loti, in his quest for “a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes…not much bigger than a doll,” set the tone. He found one, through his laundryman in Nagasaki, but discarded her as soon as he grew bored: “I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could: given me your little face, your little curtseys, your little music….” No wonder Jean Cocteau called Loti a “painted China goat.” But there were many, many others. Tennyson expressed the Orientalist desire in his poem “Locksley Hall.” He longed for “yonder shining Orient,” for “There the passions cramp’d no longer shall have scope and breathing space;/I shall take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.”

Western males have celebrated the attractions of Oriental men, too. Much rarer is the same from a female perspective. This alone would make Boehm’s book worth reading. But it is not an exercise in female soft porn. For all her erotic dreaming, Boehm keeps her virginity intact until the end. She is constantly attracted, constantly on the brink, but the final act never comes. This is because she is what she calls a “ideological virgin.” In her own description, Boehm is a natural girl, an organic girl, a vegetarian Arizona girl. And back in the US she had decided that birth control was unnatural. This ruled out, as she puts it, “a sporting approach to physical relationships.” But it didn’t keep her from engaging in “passionate romances, or from spending a great deal of time pondering the mysteries of sexual conjugation.”

What she did, in effect, was to pour all her sexual energy into interior decoration, clothes, food, dancing, and, of course, religion. Her descriptions of Kyoto and Tokyo, and the way she dresses, and lives, drip with lush sensuality. She covers the sliding doors of her apartment with handmade rice paper in a “deep, dusty rose. When the sunlight, or the lamplight, or the candlelight shone through the newly-papered screens, the rooms were filled with a lambent rosy glow; it was like being afloat in a glass of mulled wine.” Or, one might add, like living in a womb.

Then there is the Zen temple itself: the “green velour of mossy gardens,” the “swoop and luster of dark-tiled roofs,” and “the work-of-art monks themselves, with their ambient glow, fine faces, and timeless costumes.” Boehm asks herself whether she would have loved Zen if it hadn’t been so beautiful. She knows the answer: of course she wouldn’t. Even the excruciating discomfort of Zen meditation sessions—the beatings, the cramped legs—are described lovingly, as physical pleasures. Her thighs are covered in “lavender lotus-bruises,” her shoulders feel tight, she can hardly walk, yet she asks to be hit by the monks, again and again, and writes in her diary: “The peculiar intimacy of beneficent violence.”

Fortunately, these confessions are leavened with wit. Boehm is very self-aware, at least with thirty years of hindsight. She knows exactly what she was up to. People who make a fetish of a particular race, or nation, or culture are often possessive lovers. Boehm displays the peculiar proprietary attitude of the Japanophile. One day in Kyoto she sees two bearded, beaded American Zen freaks, heavily “into satori,” and the like. Boehm is horrified by their chatter, and feels “sullied” by her contact with “American Zen,” “as if I had just visited a pornographic bookstore….” The image is a little odd, and shows an un-Japanese attitude to pornography, but I recognize the particular brand of snobbery: they are fakes, she is the real thing; Zen, Japan, belong to her alone.

Alexander the Great was perhaps the original Orientalist. He not only conquered the Orient but wanted to inhabit it, wear its royal robes, marry its women, worship its gods, and be worshiped as an Oriental god himself. A distinguished British China expert once told me that when he made love to a Chinese woman, he felt as though he was, as he put it, “fucking China.” Boehm describes the same kind of thing in regard to Zen. “When you’re madly in love with a person, or a place or a phenomenon, your desire to invade that existential air-pocket transforms you into a giant anemone of need…with thousands of tiny tentacles waving pathetically in the air while you shriek: ‘Like me! Love me! Let me in!”’

It doesn’t work of course. What she wants is out of reach, not to be possessed, an illusion. Her hymen remains unbroken, and so does the mystery of Zen. No matter how many hours she meditates, how many times she gets beaten, how many koans she attempts to unravel, Zen is still inscrutable: “I was never completely able to transcend my analytical ‘Western lobe’; and in the end, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to.” Here, too, Boehm is firmly planted in a Western literary tradition. Most accounts of personal discovery set in the Orient end on this note: veil after veil is lifted, only to find another veil. Or, if you prefer a more Buddhist simile: layer after layer of an onion is peeled until you end up with…nothing. The problem, I think, is not the inscrutability of the East, but the confusion of the Western traveler. Often, by peering into apparent mysteries too deeply, we miss what is on the surface. Zen, and indeed much of Japanese art and culture, does not pretend to be deep; on the contrary, it celebrates the surface of life, what meets the eye, hence its aesthetic genius.

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