A Conversation with Preston Houser
Zen Buddhist, shakuhachi player and truly original thinker!

Preston Houser–anarchist, critic, editor, father, hiker, nomad, paranoid, humanist, poet, scholar, musician, teacher, writer, yoga enthusiast, and Zen Buddhist. "I mostly hover in the Biblical extremes of alpha and omega: anarchy creates everything, then Zen annihilates it (Brahma and Shiva)–designations in between are pretty fictitious except parenthood which is hugely heroic but only to oneself. Only music actually transcends recognition and effacement. Unlike media, I achieve realization but exhibit no potentiality–a man without ‘angles.’ Travel throughout the world, including several apocalyptic weeks in Tibet and India back in ’85. Affiliations: an American passport, but nationality never really instructs or resolves. Have written for Kyoto Journal (books) and Kansai Time Out (music) mostly because respective editors Ken Rodgers and Dominic Al-Bahri are so forgiving. Essays in two books: Invitations to Tea Gardens and The Courtyard Garden (both by Mitsumura Suiko). Forward to Marc Keane’s Japanese Garden Design. Participated in Kyoto Gardens: A Virtual Stroll Through Zen Landscapes CD-ROM (Mercury). I live in Kyoto and teach literature at Baika Women’s College in Ibaraki City."

KVG: What brought you to Japan?

PH: I grew up on the west coast near San Francisco. The Asian presence is very strong in the Bay area. When I was in college I became interested in Asian art and Buddhism, especially Zen. So it just seemed like the natural next step to come to Japan. Like many foreigners, I came at first with the intention of staying a year or two. That was in 1981. One thing led to another and here I am twenty years later.

I came specifically to Kyoto to continue my Japanese language studies. I also came to get deeper into Zen and to pursue my interest in music. When I left America, I had been playing in a professional rock and roll band, as a guitarist, for about ten years. Rock and roll, however, is a young person’s vocation. It was time to move on, so I ordered a shakuhachi kit from Monty Levenson, a well-known shakuhachi maker and affectionado in California.

I found the shakuhachi fascinating. The late Yamaguchi Goro was the best player in Japan when I arrived. I saw him in concert at the Kaburenjo in Kyoto. It was some of the most angelic music you could imagine.

KVG: So you found a teacher in Kyoto?

PH: Almost instantly. I was sitting [meditating] at Rosen-an, a subtemple in the Daitoku-ji Zen complex. There were a couple of other Westerners sitting zazen there and I expressed an interest in shakuhachi lessons. One of these guys said he was scheduled to have a lesson the very next afternoon, and asked me to join him. The teacher’s name was Kurahashi Yoshio. His father Kurahashi Yodo was a student of Jinyodo, the man who collected the body of shakuhachi music connected with Zen. I have been studying with Kurahashi Sensei ever since.

KVG: Has Kyoto changed a lot over the past 20 years?

PH: Probably the biggest change I have noticed is that the foreigners that came around the time that I did came with an entirely different purpose. Our reason for being here was to study some form of art or craft, for cultural enrichment.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most people came to Japan with more economic interests in mind. This is unfortunate and it has, in a way, influenced the cultural landscape we now live in. Young people in the first world appear much more superficial now.

When I first came to Kyoto, it seemed like everyone knew everyone. There was a very strong sense of comraderie. When we saw a fellow foreigner on the street we said hello. Nowadays we don’t. We just seem to look through each other.

A few years ago I happened to sit down at a table with a couple of young foreigners in a bar. Naturally, one of the first questions they asked was how long I had been in Japan. When I answered 15 years, they were utterly unimpressed. In fact, that was the start and the end of our conversation. After that they simply ignored me as if I had nothing to offer them. I found that a bit disturbing. But I guess that is the flow of generations.

KVG: How was your youth different?

PH: I grew up in a different era. Totally different. My "wonder years," when I came of age, were bordered by Kennedy’s assasination and Nixon’s resignation. For me, the Beat and the Hippie movements of the late 1950s and the 1960s very much embodied the idea of a cultural movement that could be built upon as a potential vehicle, large or small, for social change. I feel that we really have not had a meaningful social movement in the West since the early 1970s. This may explain the plight of youth today.

KVG: Do you think that idealism is a good thing or a bad thing in young people or people in general?

PH: Ideology is the inability to entertain more than a single agenda. In reality, as you mature you come to realize, if you keep an open mind, that life is driven by a kalidescope of conflicts and forces. When idealism or ideology takes over the first thing that is sacrificed is the allowance for multiple viewpoints or perspectives.

If we have learned anything in the last 50 years, then it is that totalizing world views are not as informative as tribal systems that existed in the past. Things have multiple meanings and our world view must allow for a place for all things: heroes, harlots, heathens, saints. India of the distant past and today is like that.

KVG: What do you think about young people today?

PH: The post-war generation has been taught how to waste without guilt. Everything is disposable now. Nothing seems to have a deeper material meaning. It’s all optional. I find this a bit frightening. Gary Snyder said, "True affluence is not needing anything." What are you lacking at this moment? This is the point.

Today’s world, and not just for the young, is one that has no meaningful place for rhetoric, or complex ideas. In my opinion, TV is the one of the worst forces we have today. It offers endless potentiality and zero chance for any kind of realization. It is passiveness dressed up in a very powerful, surface-level form of seduction.

I also feel that young people in all affluent cultures have lost the ability and the need to analyze. Kids seem to buy their way through life now. Its all superficial and there seems to be a studied aversion to thought, discourse, or experience.

I have played the shakuhachi at many Japanese schools and nearly always members of the audience say that this is the first time they had ever seen the instrument or heard the natural sound of the flute. These are young Japanese adults and yet they seem to have only superficial contact with their own culture.

KVG: What are your favourite Kyoto places or images?

PH: For me, the Mikaeri Bosatsu statue at Eikan-do is one of the most exquisite three dimensional objects I have ever seen. It continues to inspire me. That gesture of looking behind seems to embody the Boddhisattva ideal. A divine being showing true compassion for those struggling through life. If you have ever taken a bunch of children or students anywhere, you find yourself doing the same thing, continually looking back. That’s what the future is about.