EARTH ETHICS, Summer 1993


Recently I had an opportunity to visit a number of the gardens and precincts of Daitokuji Zen Temple in Kyoto. It had been 17 years since I had last visited them, and 25 years have passed since my first wonderful exposure to them.

It was amazing the transformation in spirit which intensive tourism had brought within the temple precincts. Walls which gave shelter to the gardens had been ripped out to give tourists faster access. Loudspeakers under the verandas gave an intrusive speech to each tour group. Visitors were being strongly pressured to buy a tea ceremony. Monks were selling autographs and joking boisterously with the visitors. Ash trays were lined up along the verandas inviting people to smoke - in spite of "no smoking" signs, and cigarette smoke filled the air. Lounges to accommodate chattering tourists had been installed next to "National Treasure" gardens . Gift shops cluttered the precincts. Tour groups were rushed through in huge numbers.

Many of the planted gardens were literally dying from generations of Zen perfection in their cleaning and maintenance. For generations, even the most minute speck of "dying" organic matter had been raked, swept, and taken away instead of being allowed to compost and turn into new soil. Topsoil literally doesn't exist any more in many gardens (great for moss perhaps, but not for trees or a healthy natural community).

These problems are not unique to Daitokuji. Similar situations exist at many other temples and shrines. I watched more than 350 students pouring in and out of the famous Ryoanji Temple's rock garden in less than 15 minutes. That temple recently destroyed their most beautiful garden - the moss garden around the corner from the "famous" rock garden - to build an unneeded bridge to a new temple building next door I saw elaborate drainage systems being installed around the roots of trees in many gardens to try to save them. The problem was not drainage, but that we had allowed all the life of its soil be removed.

In all fairness, I also discovered one small garden at the Ryogen-in whose raking pattern had been subtly changed, making the garden much more powerful, and the only place of living energy I felt in the parts of the precincts I visited. That living tradition is essential, but seems rare today.

I was saddened by this for several reasons. Several of the gardens and their precincts are, or should be, National Treasures. Their damage, the risk of their destruction by fire, and the deterioration of people's experience of them does not speak well of the stewardship we give to the precious heritage we have been given. The impression that visitors receive is that the only god worshiped in temple precincts today is the god of money and tourist dollars. There is no sense of a living spiritual tradition. Being able to take ourselves lightly is good, but what I felt was something quite different.

Quite a few years ago, I found a similar situation with the cathedrals of Europe,. I discovered then that there is a vital difference between tourism and pilgrimage, and the cumulative impacts they impart to both the people and the places involved.

Sitting in the gardens at Daitokuji, and wondering about their fate, I realized that there are ways that we can respond to tourism from a spiritual base. We can require that where it impacts our own lives, our actions, and the places for which we have responsibility, it be transformed into something conforming with and transmitting spiritual values. If we fail to do that, we fail to acknowledge the rightness of what our own experience shows us. If we fail to support our beliefs in our own lives, those beliefs become hollow and dead - something to be "believed in" rather than to be "KNOWN!!!".

What can we do? In this particular case, I started by writing a letter to the Temple, sharing my concerns and the possibilities I saw for changing that particular situation. I'm sure the list can be expanded and improved upon, but here are things that came to my mind as I left Kyoto:

* Smoking should be prohibited in temple compounds, and that prohibition enforced.

There are proven health hazards in smoking for smokers and non-smokers alike. When we add in its potential fire hazard, and its impact in diverting and diffusing a person's attention, there is no reason it should be allowed in this situation.

* Silence should be required of both visitors and temple personnel in the gardens and adjacent areas.

It is extremely difficult to experience the gardens amidst the chit-chat of visitors and the spiels of tour guides. The restraint of silence focuses us into a different mindset, much as the long entrance walkway to the Saihoji garden gives visitors an opportunity to leave the outside world behind and prepare for their experience of the garden.

* No commercial group visits should be permitted. Individual visitors should be permitted only with a reservation, and in limited numbers.

I have rarely found people on a group tour really connecting with the places they visited. Time is usually limited, there is too much interaction between the people on the tour, and many of them are not really interested in the places they are visiting. There are reasons for exceptions, but they should be carefully worked out.

* Visitors should be admitted for a minimum visit of an hour and a half. (Hold their shoes hostage!)

It takes time to soak up the spirit of a place. A person trying to cram ten tourist spots into a day never focuses on any of them. An hour and a half at one garden is a far more precious experience than ten minutes a piece at several gardens. If a person can't figure out how to do nothing for an hour and a half, they're not ready to visit a garden.

* Offer visitors tea and steaming towels - make them guests.

When we give and welcome with a different attitude, people respond in kind, and a different relationship develops.

* Offer tea ceremonies, zazen, or what ever talks or introductions you wish, - but don't charge for them.

A 90 minute visit can include several things - the basic issue is the willingness to commit a significant amount of time to one thing, one place. Use the opportunity to connect with people, learn from them, share what we have to offer, instead of picking their pockets. Selling salvation doesn't fly.

* Let people know fully what their entrance fees are being used for.

The image one gets after standing for an hour by the ticket booth for a temple or garden is of temple staff inside at their computers playing the stock market with the revenues from entrance fees. People feel different about fees if they know how much goes to maintenance, training, good works, or sake parties. Open finances open minds.

As I traveled in Japan on that visit, the issue of how we relate to places we visit was constantly on my mind. On part of the visit I was traveling with a Lummi indian friend, who had brought his flute and spirit drum. He would stop, at each waterfall, temple, or shrine, and offer a prayer in song or music. It was his offering, and felt right. For me to do the same would not have felt right - it would have been giving his offering, not my own.

A Japanese friend explained one interesting aspect of money offerings made at temples. The name of the 5-yen coin is "go-en", which has a double meaning of "connection" as well as a monetary unit. "Go-en" were given to the temples - more as a sign of offering and relationship than as a monetary contribution.

As I traveled, I did find many ways to turn my visits to places into something other than tourism. Offering prayers, leaving offerings - of a go-en and a couple of red maple leaves, if nothing else; sitting darshan, giving a bit of time in upkeep of neglected places - each left the place, myself, and other visitors changed.

At the Ryogen-in, my son and I sat for over an hour at the wonderful but forgotten interior garden, relishing its beauty and energy and honoring its gift. People came by, looked at us, looked at what we were looking at. Their eyes widened, and they sat down, one by one. By the time we left, more than a dozen people had stopped and joined us in a special experience, at a place they would otherwise have overlooked. At another neglected but lovely place that we returned to several times, we saw our lonely maple leaves and go-en joined by more and more offerings. It felt like we were replanting seeds - in both people and places, which left all of us a bit transformed in their wake.

There are many ways, beyond our individual actions as visitors that can transform tourism and how we enhance or destroy the sacredness of places. We start, of course, with becoming more conscious of our attitudes and practices as travellers and visitors. We can change the management and control of visitor practices at sacred places. We can find ways to control view impacts, electromagnetic fields, and other disturbances which affect sacred places. We can find ways to express the special spirit of a place in facilities for visitors instead of building generic hotels, restaurants, and visitor facilities. That special spirit of places, such as winter cities, rain forests, etc. can be enhanced and expressed in activities, how we build, and what we restrain from doing. We can restore the spiritual core of our individual and institutional actions. And we can modify attitudes and practices concerning tourism, and eliminating many of its externalized costs.

Walking through a town and hearing the sounds of bells and drums ringing from the visits of pilgrims instead of the sounds of tour busses and cash registers, speaks to everyone that the spirit is rising,. It says to all that we and our world are sacred, and that we live and love the fullness that is life. It is the actions of each of us that create the path that our future will follow. As I went along, and as I ended that trip, I gave my prayers for a healing of the the wounds in our spirits and our places from a world that is forgetting what sustains life. And I saw those prayers themselves begin to form their own answer.

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© March 1993