99 Problems

When I lost my hat in snowy Kyoto on the second day of the trip, I purchased the cheapest one I could find in the Shijidori shopping area as replacement. The script on the hat read "99 problems." This phrase soon became a running joke not only because it echoed the title of one of Jay-Z's songs, but mostly because we used this phrase as the theme of the course and, at times, were counting the little mishaps that occurred here and there. It did not help that the diviner at the local Mazu temple in Yung Shue Wan on Lamma island diagnosed that I was surrounded by problems and traps. However, while we did encounter a series of minor snags that kept me on my toes (yet did not lessen the wonderful experience all of us had on the trip) it did make me think about the role of problems in our lives.

Over the course of our trip, we did run into a number of nuisances. On the second day, one of the students got sick and had to miss two days of the program. On January first, we were surprised by a snow storm on Mt. Hiei that forced us, first, down the mountain earlier than we had planned and, later, to walk through the snow storm for a mile or two as the bus was no longer able to complete its route. We found out the hard way just how many MTR stations in Hong Kong are not wheel chair friendly. Because of new year, some temples in Kyoto on our program closed earlier and we were not able to visit them. One of the students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong who accompanied us on our trip to Nanhuasi to experience monastic life in the PRC found out that her passport had expired and we had to wait for one hour until she received a temporary one.

But these minor nuisances did not take anything away from our wonderful trip. On the contrary, they helped us grow as a group. We came to know each other better and to rely on each other. We found out that shared happiness really is double happiness. These inconveniences also made us more aware of the fragility of life, the predicament of human existence, and that success and failure are often separated by a few seconds, a missed bus, or a moment of inattention. They made us value what we did experience even more: The hospitality of and friendship with our new friends in Japan, Hong Kong, and the PRC who lent us their time, expertise, and language skills. The warmth of the Japanese style bath in the youth hostel after a one hour walk in the snow storm. The taste of simple food after a day of meditation, chanting, and other activities in low temperatures.

And then there is the number, 99. Even though we joked about keeping tap, for me the symbolic character of this number really struck home. 99 is one short of one hundred, one of the number symbolizing completion and perfection. As much as we want to, our lives, our travels, our activities are never perfect. There is always the proverbial cloud or rainy day. This predicament is actually reflected in Japanese aesthetics. In the past, Japanese artists, by and large, eschewed the pretense of perfection. Accomplished potters tended to leave a mark in their work--Japanese tea bowls are famous for their deliberate dents designed to indicate that perfection is an elusive goal. This predicament of imperfection also means that there is no trip without mishaps, no work without mistakes, no life without shortcomings. Buddhist thinkers and texts usually emphasize that perfection is an unreal(istic) ideal and encourage us to embrace and find happiness in imperfection.

This is what I was reminded again by the above mentioned inconveniences and by my hat. Of course, this does not mean that I always responded to moments like these with equanimity and patience. As embarrassing as it is, my responses fell often short off my lofty ideals. I did get impatient when we were unable to find elevators in train stations, when the snow storm struck, and when I was battling a minor cold. Thus, the "99 problems" also highlighted my personal shortcomings often in an unflattering way. But I also realized that in the same way in which the nuisances passed, my own shortcomings are not what define me. Most of all, we received the gift of wonderful experiences; we had the privilege of being able to travel, making new friends overseas, and encountering a multitude of cultures, religious practices, and views. The nuisances we encountered as well as my own shortcomings that were revealed in my response to them served as reminders that the world we inhabit is one of imperfection and that as much as we may try, we all are a work in process: the process of self-cultivations is an ongoing one and never completed. And this is a good thing because the other side of incompletion is that tomorrow is another day.

When I was asked to write the final blog of our trip, I was thinking about a topic to focus on. There were many obvious choices: the openness of my students towards new views and practices, the importance of shifting cognitive frames to intercultural and inter-religious understanding, the intense discussions we had after visiting the peace museum in Hiroshima, the amazing art in the temples of Nara, Kyoto, and Hong Kong as well as the caves of Dunhuang to which we were introduced by the special exhibit in the Hong Kong heritage museum and the expert guidance of Dr. Irene Lok, or the fact that traveling together with students from different countries and universities opened our eyes to the possibility that our view might not the only one. All of these experiences were important to us and have exciting implications. But it was the seemingly random writing on my 300 Yen hat that reminded me of the old zen adage that "seeing things as they are," fleeting yet full with possibilities and life, is not only the key to a successful trip but also to a deeper understanding of life itself.

Professor Kopf in the infamous "99 Problems" hat.
The class at Hong Kong's Big Buddha.
The class with the Zen Master at our first monastery.