A two-day retreat at Myoshin-ji, a Rinzai Zen-do
01.09.2012 - 02.09.2012
Although a variety of events have conspired to keep me from writing this post for two weeks -- no free time, lost USB drive, forgot travel journal, kidnapped by brigands -- today I say Fuck it I am ad-libbing this thing.
Two weekends ago, the eight of us plus Brian-sensei headed off to Myoshinji, a Rinzai Zen monastery where a two-day retreat for lay practitioners was being held. I would really like to describe it to you in rich and vivid detail, you know, set the scene so you could be just as in the moment as I was. Well what actually took place is that everything happened so comically fast, I am going to have to provide you with weird, disconnected, blurry details and you will have just as good an idea of what went on as I did while I was experiencing it. I would say close your eyes and let your imagination take over, but that would be awkward because then you couldn't read the screen, and you would probably just be watching The Last Samurai behind your eyelids and I'm sorry but that would be wrong.
5-something PM. Arrive at Myoshin-ji. Find that we are late because Brian had to stop and explain everything along the way as we were walking, such as "This is a rock and the inscription says Myoshin-ji" when there was in fact "Myoshin-ji" written in romanized letters under the Japanese. Try to put on awkward straw sandals as quickly as possible. Find that they are designed so that they can be worn on either the left or right foot and as a consequence feel horrible on both. Run up stairwell while attempting not to let shoes make flip-flop noise. Enter meditation hall, shooed insistently by stern old ladies who thrust teacups at you. Rush to find a seat on meditation platform. Sit down only to notice there is a monk zipping by with a cloth to dust the platform in front of you. Barely finish noticing that before noticing that there is another monk running at you with a teapot. Accept tea, notice everybody is prostrating selves. Prostrate self. Unaware that the people who know what they are doing have stopped bowing, look up to see old lady frantically miming drinking at you. Drink tea. Meditate for thirty minutes. Get rushed out of hall to attend information session.
Attend information session which is conducted in Japanese with Brian translating. Information session is patently unhelpful, both to us and to the bewildered Japanese teenagers also there for the first time. Get shown to small room which you are sharing with Alex (another girl from the program) and a terrifying lay woman who has been practicing at Myoshin-ji since the Buddha was an embryo. Attempt to decipher shouting and gesticulating of several lay women who do not speak English. Establish awkward Japanglish communication system. More yelling and commotion ensues from which we understand that we are all late for meditation again. Run back to hall, this time entering through a different door. Perform Three Prostrations so fast I swear nobody could have been doing it right but it didn't matter because if you're doing it slow enough to be right you're doing it wrong. Lots of clappers and bells happen. Thirty more minutes of meditation. Monk with large bamboo stick (keisaku) begins stalking around room.
At this point time slowed down to the point where I could actually notice things other than incomprehensible shouting and blurred Japanese people. The meditation hall was dark and totally silent. Across from me was a really intense layman wearing a track suit who could sit full-lotus with the pros. I swear he never twitched a muscle the whole time and I never saw him crack a smile the whole two days. While counting breaths and staring at a spot on the floor, I noticed a huge cockroach skittering around down there and briefly wondered if I should come up with a plan of action (inaction?) in case it decided to crawl up on me. It didn't.
The monitor walked with a strange cadence that was, oddly enough, perfectly suited to the stillness of the hall. If he had just sauntered around at a normal walking pace, it would have ruined the entire atmosphere of the place. Instead, he would step forward very quickly with one foot and then freeze, looking to either side while balancing on the ball of his foot, before taking a step with the other. In this way he was able to look individually at every meditator on each side of him and determine whether they needed to be whacked with the keisaku. Now in this lay retreat, nobody really got whacked unless they specifically requested it to help them focus (unless they were actually falling asleep or their posture was truly egregious). But even before we arrived at Myoshin-ji, I had decided to ask to be struck. I wanted to know what it felt like, and besides, getting thrashed by a Zen monk is not a thing that everybody gets the opportunity to experience. So when he came around to my side of the room, I put my hands together in a gassho to indicate I wanted to be hit. He stopped in front of me, held up the keisaku horizontally, and we bowed to each other. Then I leaned over till my head touched the platform, hugging myself with my arms.
He taps you on the shoulder once, first, to let you know he's about to strike you. Then he winds up like a baseball player and SMACKS THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF YOU. Twice. Then he does it to the other shoulder, twice. I have to say, I was wondering how much it would hurt, having heard the colossal cracking noise it makes. So yes, my discovery was, it hurt a fucking LOT. I straightened up we bowed to each other and he moved on, and it was the strangest thing: I. Felt. So. Much. Better. There was no more pain in my legs and the sting in my shoulders faded to almost nothing after a couple of minutes. And I could FOCUS. It was insane. The only thing is, I then proceeded to make the uncomfortable realization that the keisaku is kind of like coffee. It totally helps you wake up and focus, but it works so well, after a few minutes you're like "Man I need another one of those." There was a short break after which we meditated again and I asked for the keisaku that time too. The moral of the story is that I want a monk to follow me around with a keisaku every time I have to focus on anything, for the rest of my life. I am a little bit disturbed at how big a fan of it I was. And yes, you may now commence the BDSM jokes.
Then everything started to speed up again. The army has nothing on Rinzai temples in terms of efficiency. Scary old Japanese ladies start barking at us again, we brush our teeth and pee with a speed born of fear. The lay women are briefly super-impressed with us when they tell us we will have to wake up at 5 AM and we respond that we've been doing that every day for two weeks. Then we dive into some very thin bedrolls (these pillows do not have beans; I feel cheated. Instead they feel like they are semi-full of awkward pubic hair or something) and hit the lights. Alex and I have silent fits of hysterical laughter (for no particular reason) on the floor until the intense old laywoman comes back and gets in bed. About 20 minutes after we get in bed I open my eyes to see that the laywoman is sitting bolt upright in bed, her spine at a 90-degree angle to her legs, presumably meditating but all my sleep-confused brain can think is "JAPANESE HORROR MOVIE" (I mean give me a break my spine doesn't even do that). Then I got to sleep and wake up again, open my eyes; laywoman is walking across the room naked and squeaks when she sees me and I go "MAH! Gomen nasai" and hide under my blanket. After she is clothed she awakes us by turning the light on to its brightest setting and shouting "OHAYOGOZAIMASU" as if she were Thor, God of Thunder.
Then we go to the meditation hall, grab our zabuton (the round meditation pillows) and sutra books, and proceed out the door and across the temple complex in a long, silent line behind the priest, wearing yet another type of sandal that is designed to torment both feet equally. The moon is still out, and for some reason there are a ton of people out walking their dogs at 5 AM. It is a bizarre and surreal scene. Tramp through parking lots and cut across lawns of buildings that don't look like they belong in a temple complex at all. Then we come to the Buddha Hall where we meditate some more and chant some sutras none of us can read because the sutra books they gave us are in hiragana. I become confused and think we're leaving at one point because there is a bathroom break, and when I follow people back I end up walking around the Buddha Hall three times behind some guys who are obviously doing it for a reason but I just follow them because I don't know what the hell is going on. More sutras. One enthusiastic man points enthusiastically upward for our benefit and I notice that the ceiling is Fucking. Amazing. It's a giant painting of a Chinese dragon hundreds of feet square, and it is so incredible I basically gape at it for the rest of sutras.
Then it is breakfast. The time we had all been warned about, because if you drop your chopsticks you have to burn them and make a donation to the monastery. These people have got fear down to an art. It makes me tired just thinking about describing the whole process of eating breakfast here, so this will be choppy:
Everything is done at 5x its normal speed!
Do not eat until you have donated some grains of rice gruel to the hungry ghosts!
Never ever put your chopsticks down until the head priest is done eating!
Do not put any of your food into a different little bowl than the little bowl it came in! (Head priest broke this rule!)
Do not ever let your chopsticks point toward someone else!
Do not make noise when you eat your excessively crunchy takuan (daikon radish pickle)!
Yes everything is pickled in Japan. DEAL WITH IT!
Eat ALL THE THINGS because if you do not you are a bad person!
Remember all complicated hand gestures for asking/refusing/stopping the influx of more food, because you will not talk!
Whatever you do, DO NOT BE THE LAST PERSON LEFT EATING! No one wants to be that guy.
Accept the fact that the people who serve food and wipe tables will do everything running and you will have to cling to your little table to keep them from accidentally taking it with them as they whizz by!
Fortunately for us we have been having zen breakfasts every morning since we arrived in Japan, just with slightly less rigid rules, so we were pretty ready. The turning point for me was when I realized you actually CAN drink the rice gruel. Before that I was panicking because they made it so watery at Myoshin-ji that I was struggling to figure out how chopsticks could ever actually do the trick.
After breakfast time slowed down to normal speed again. There was a farewell tea at which all the lay participants introduced themselves and we presented a gift to the officiating monks and were allowed to ask them some questions. Suddenly everybody was nice instead of glaring at you. It was otherworldly.
The strange thing about this whole experience, I realized after we stepped out of the temple blinking, dazed, and physically unbalanced, was this: I had not been stressed out at any point during this whole experience. I, who have in the past, through sheer force of will, contracted high fevers to get out of summer camp. I was fine the whole time. I just drifted through it. Even when Japanese people were yelling instructions at me and I was just standing there trying to figure out what the hell they were saying, even when naked old ladies were squeaking at me, even when I was getting hit with sticks and watching cockroaches scurry across the floor in front of me... nothing. I just remember observing everything with a detached air of interest. "Oh, some intense lady is yelling at me and pointing and I have no idea what she wants me to do? That's really interesting; I'm sure the situation will resolve itself momentarily." And you know what? It always did. So now I understand why Rinzai Zen demands that you do everything so fast. There is really no time to be anywhere but in the moment. I'm not sure if I exactly agree with this approach to life, but I definitely understand the reasoning behind it now. So I guess next time I'm freaking out internally because I'm at a fencing tournament and experiencing performance anxiety, I will hearken back to this and probably paste that terrifying laywoman's face onto my first opponent. And I'll be all "YO I'm not afraid of you!" But also "Thank you for prodding me along." Because that's the thing -- no one there was the least bit cruel. Through the scowls and raised voices and wild gestures you could easily sense that no one was trying to humiliate you. They just didn't hold your hand every step of the way, and they didn't sugar-coat anything. And I will always be extremely grateful for that experience.
Back to the present:
So, that was a long post, and totally unpolished because I am writing at Rinzai-speed to get this done. Yeah. But I had a lot more even than that to say; there just isn't ever enough time.
Tomorrow we're leaving for Hokyo-ji, a Soto Zen monastery, for a five-day retreat. This time we are training not with lay practitioners but with the monks themselves, and it is going to be much longer and harder than Myoshin-ji. Soto practice does not insist everything be done in fast-forward, but it places much more emphasis on complicated ceremonies for every daily action, so we'll have a lot to memorize. Also I'm pretty sure getting hit with the stick (in Soto called a kyosaku instead of a keisaku) is not on an optional basis at this place... but let's be totally honest I am more than okay with that. We'll be working in the garden there and also walking out with the monks to collect alms from people (which I am UNREASONABLY excited about -- anybody can attend a lay Zen retreat if they really want to but how many people get to go out and 'beg' with monks? I'll tell you who -- only people who have Eimi-sensei's mad connections with every important person in Japan. I think she is secretly related to the imperial family).
And now, some pretty pictures of Myoshinji's grounds and gardens:
See you in five days!