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A 5-Day Retreat at Hokyo-ji, a Soto Zen Monastery

Yes, I realize this is an obscenely long post, but DEAL WITH IT.

Brian and Eimi-sensei built up the tension for Hokyo-ji so much that, by the time we arrived, I was ready to call us badasses for making it through the first day. Much to my confusion, however, I did not feel like dying of mortification in the slightest -- despite the fact that training at Zen monasteries feels very much like how I imagine military boot camp. Hey Dad, you think you were a badass swimming through a pool full of sharks? Well, I did a few hundred prostrations the other day and sat in seza position every time there was a table in front of me. Beat THAT. I bet I've venerated more ancestors than you have and I've definitely eaten more takuan pickles. YEAH. BE proud.

So basically, we were lead to believe that the food was going to be made out of arsenic and pond scum and we'd never ever figure out the eating routine or how to use the oryoki (Soto eating utensils/bowls set) anyway and starve and we'd be beaten bloody if we so much as swallowed in the meditation hall. Well, good news: it was NOT that bad. It was not bad in any way, shape, or form.


We took the train on the morning of the 12th to a town called Ono in Fukui prefecture. On the way we passed Lake Biwa and many Princess Mononoke-worthy mountains. In fact, I knew the universe would not forgive me if I didn't listen to Princess Mononoke music while I gaped at them. So I did.


Three monks met us at the station, promptly ushered us into a couple of SUVs, and proceeded to drive us up a narrow mountainside road. The entrance to Hokyo-ji was flanked by Jizo (bodhisattva responsible for children and travellers) statues and a small Shinto shrine dedicated to the Kami of the mountain -- the reason for this is that every time a Buddhist temple is built, it is acknowledged that the land already belongs to a Kami, so a shrine is a way of gaining/confirming the Kami's approval of the temple.


Hokyo-ji's grounds are GORGEOUS. Okay? Gorgeous. No, you still don't understand. YOU. HAVE. NEVER. SEEN. This level of gorgeosity. Towering trees; hundreds of cracked little stone boxes of Jizos and other bodhisattvas and Buddhas scattered liberally around the place; everything that should be covered in moss IS. And the inside was no exception, although I almost hesitate to call it "inside" -- the architecture of the temple makes it almost unnecessary to distinguish between inside/outside. During the day all the doors and windows (of which there are more than walls) are open, so that there's a constant breeze wandering through the place and dragonflies are always flitting in and out without a second thought. I couldn't help but roll my eyes every time I walked through the hallway leading to the zendo (meditation hall) because of the view out its giant windows. I'm like, "Dude. No view is that good. PLEASE." And when I saw the view of the fog-shrouded mountains from the front courtyard? "PSH. THAT is a BACKDROP." You know you've reached critical Gorgeosity Processing Capacity when everything is so pretty you refuse to accept that it hasn't been Photoshopped. I swear I spent 50% of my time in between activities at Hokyo-ji hanging out a window or sitting on a step staring intently at the view and TRYING TO FORCE MYSELF TO ACCEPT that it existed on the same plane of existence as me.

Japan_Month_1_504.jpgJapan_Month_1_505.jpgJapan_Month_1_565.jpgJapan_Month_1_554.jpgJapan_Month_1_552.jpg(Top left is the building where the kitchen and eating rooms are located, as well as a shrine for Idaten, the kitchen god. Top right is the Zendo where the monks meditate).

The monks were all very welcoming and helpful, and not frowny and yelly like the Rinzai ones. There were eight of them, not including the Abbot, Docho Roshi. The first day we learned such things as how to wash our feet, how to brush our teeth, how to wash our face, and how to eat food substances out of vessels with utensils. All things we figured we already knew how to do. HA. HA. HA. That is all I have to say about that.

Gaze upon my bowls, ye clumsy, and despair.

The women had two surprises: we had been told by Brian and Eimi that we were going to have to meditate outside of the zendo, because women were not allowed in the room where the monks traditionally slept as well as meditated (although they don't sleep there now); we were also told that we would be sleeping somewhere at Hokyo-ji. But on arriving we were told that we would be sleeping at a lay retreat center a little down the road -- a huge building where we had all the feral geckos and cold showers to ourselves, plus a beautiful view of the stars. But! We were also allowed, despite our gender -- as far as I know, for the first time in Hokyo-ji's history -- to meditate in the zendo with the monks and the male students. That was pretty exciting, to put it mildly. As Docho Roshi later told us, he had left the matter to a vote among the monks, and the majority voted to let us in the zendo. Score one for AWESOME MONKS.


The next day, the 13th, I only had time for a Cliffnotes version of a journal entry. I include the highlights here:

-Woke up at 3:30 AM, driven to temple complex by monk in SUV. Morning zazen rocked. Didn't budge an inch the whole time.
-Breakfast iffy. Monks very helpful but Buddha bowls and utensils and cloths entirely too complicated and rituals too random.
-Samu (work/cleaning) disappoints Brian because the monks have us pulling weeds instead of cleaning toilets. Brian asks if they will make us clean the toilets. Monk asks "....why??" We don't end up cleaning the toilets.
-More meditation for AN HOUR AND 20 MINUTES. Legs do not fare well.
-Sutra recitations for morning service and dozens of prostrations. Chanting much more fun with monks present.
-Snack and tea AMAZING BANANA CAKE AND GRAPES DONATION from parishioners
-More sutras, not enough room for prostrations and everybody gets too friendly
-Free time and I wander around the grounds gaping at the MOST BEAUTIFUL BEAUTY that looks like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke had a supermodel baby covered in moss and mountains and Jizo statues and tadpoles
-Monks make jokes. Language barrier does not prevent me realizing that these dudes are awesome.
-Dinner is least stressful meal because they have to pretend to the Buddha that they are not actually eating after noon
-More meditation that goes far too long and I have to meditate on pain and imagine my mind and my pain as bickering roommates inhabiting the dormitory of my body and that helps sort of but is a really weird image
-It bothers me that a group of people so obsessed with perfection of ritual would wash dishes with cold water and no soap and also no attention to detail.
-Back to our place and shower in the bathroom that sounds like an abattoir because of all the screeching resulting from showers that fluctuate wildly between arctic and searing
-Alex tries to save a gecko and it bites her. We name it Percival in retaliation.

This is what you see when wake up at a Zen retreat center at 3:30 AM. Only not blurry, because you are not a frustrating camera trying to operate in the dark.


I wrote this journal entry while sitting on the steps of the Buddha Hall looking out at a perfectly-preserved Edo-period peasant hut that for some reason Hokyo-ji has on its grounds, situated against the backdrop of the mountains, their peaks blurred by roiling clouds. You could almost pretend that the last 400 years never happened (if you're good at ignoring telephone poles).


During morning zazen, Docho Roshi unexpectedly broke the dark and silence in the zendo to tell us a story about how he came to be a Zen monk. I guess you could say it was a Dharma talk. He told us that when he was 19 or 20, his close uncle died, and he studied dozens of religions looking for answers. He couldn't understand through his grief how people could still want to talk to each other and laugh when death was so inexorable and interaction with others makes you lose your true self. He told us that silence and zazen were the best ways to know ourselves and stay connected.

After the usual sutras and breakfast, Alex, Jake, Addie and I were taken with two monks and Ray -- a former monk who spoke English and had come to stay at Hokyo-ji to facilitate our visit -- to do takuhatsu. Takuhatsu is the tradition of alms-collecting begun by the Buddha himself, which originally consisted of "begging" door-to-door for food, but which now consists of going from shop to shop and house to house in the town, chanting sutras and accepting money donations. However, they still wear the traditional Japanese takuhatsu garb -- black robes, a large straw hat, and wicked straw sandals that rub your feet raw and don't extend under your toes and suck up any water you walk over.

Japan_Month_1_580.jpgJapan_Month_1_583.jpgJapan_Month_1_581.jpg < This is the little shrine by the front entrance for Idaten, the kitchen deity. They chant him the Hannya Shingyo every morning. I guess he likes that.

After we had puzzled our way through tying on the sandals, we piled into two SUVs again and drove down the mountain to the town. Jake and I were alone in a car with a monk named Kosho who didn't speak a whole lot of English. He told us in Japanese we were going to chant the Hannya Shingo (Heart Sutra), and then it was like an awkward car sing-along where only one person knows the words. Every once in a while we would feebly interject "hannya haramita shingyo" or "gya tei gya tei hara so gya tei!" But essentially we had to leave the merit-generating up to the expert.

Then we all parked, split into groups, and went around from door to door. As we walked we would sort of chant loudly and wordlessly, presumably to alert people of our presence. It was 7:30 so a lot of the shops weren't open yet, but a lot of people were up and about (trust the Japanese to not lie in till 8 AM like SOME lazy people we all know). Stopping in front of a house, we would stop and chant a disaster-preventing Dharani (chant for which the original meaning of the words has been forgotten). Eventually, someone would come out of the house and give a donation, and we would hand them a leaflet from Hokyo-ji. If nobody came out of the house, the monk would pronounce a benediction anyway and we'd leave a leaflet in their mailbox and move on. People on the street were very curious about the gaijin doing takuhatsu. I was reasonably convinced that most of the people who approached us on the street to give money were really doing so to get a closer look at us. One lady leaned over to peer under my straw hat. We asked Ray if people ever get annoyed having monks chanting outside their doors. He said a lot of people do. I know I'D appreciate it, even if it was at 7:30 in the morning, but that's just me.

After takuhatsu the monks drove us to a little wooded area with pure stream water to drink and a little hut where Jakuen Zenji, the founder of Hokyo-ji (~800 years ago), apparently liked to visit. There we sat on stumps or the ground and had tea and snacks with the monks and Ray, who translated for us. Kosho (the Hannya Shingyo car-chant-along monk) was very talkative and did a hilarious impression of Ben when the monks woke him up that morning. Kosho asked us all our hobbies, and when we asked him what his were, he said "being one with myself." He then explained that whatever our hobbies were -- athletics, writing, art, etc. -- whenever we work to become skilled at something, we become distanced from our true self. This made a lot of sense in my mind. It made me think of how I present a different facet of my personality to cater to the people I'm with, and how in large groups I feel uncomfortably incapable of being my true self, even in the privacy of my own head -- although I don't I necessarily want to commit to the opposite practice of silence and distance. Still, I had the most incredible sense of respect for his words, because they were so obviously full of experiential wisdom. Watching this big, tall, fun-loving-uncle-type guy sitting on the ground, perfectly at ease in his monk's robes and our presence; his perfectly contented expression as he talked, set against this unreal backdrop of tall, straight trees, burning with late-morning sunlight -- it was profound to realize what an incredibly COMPLETE person he was. I mean, this was a guy who five minutes earlier had been singing to himself in a baritone "Tiny Kangaroo Dance!" (Apparently a song he used to sing when he was three), and doing flailing impressions of people in our group. Oh, and in the car, asking me what the English word for "yatta" was, so we ended up saying "yay" about everything until the car stopped. And in the clearing, we kept seeing these little frogs everywhere and every time one hopped up all the monks would point and advise us sternly, "don't eat!"

So anyway the moral of the story is that monks are the coolest, because they can be profound one second and hilarious the next and also they get to live at Hokyo-ji which makes them the winners in my book. Also, in the kitchen later when we were washing dishes, one of the monks asked us "Why your teacher talks SO LONG?!" I nearly died.

Kitchen, where non-self and non-soap are one and the same.
Dining hall, with oryoki stashed on a shelf above the table.

Evening zazen that night was great. I was in a lot of pain, but after our discussion with Kosho I decided to try and meditate on the self. At first I got some really weird mental images -- I was trying to trace my idea of myself over time when I suddenly saw me holding a five-year-old version of myself affectionately in my lap. Then, somewhere, a bell rang twice and I took her face in my hand and turned it both ways and realized that she was bruised and dead. That was unpleasant, but it improved from there.
The shooting pains in my legs got really bad. For some reason, though, meditation is more productive for me when I'm in pain. I continued to try and trace my self. Somewhere in the course of my meditation, I managed somehow to incorporate the pain I was feeling into my conception of myself, so it became a part of me -- pretty much the opposite of what I was trying to do yesterday by imagining my pain as a temporary inhabitant of my body, separate from myself, sure to go away soon. This time, though, I surrendered to the pain in my legs and hips and relaxed into it. The hurting didn't go away, but somehow I became comfortable WITHIN it, and when the bell was rung, I really didn't want to move.

When I came out of this meditation, I felt like I had been given some kind of necessary jolt. I became a slightly different person entirely, and I think that's stayed with me. I finally felt like I was really THERE at Hokyo-ji, and the mountains didn't seem too perfect to be anything but a backdrop anymore. The view out the windows was beautiful, but it was REAL and present to me. I felt genuinely peaceful and happy and glad to be where I was. Sure, my legs hurt all the time and I got a max of 5 hours of sleep a night, but I realized that Hokyo-ji is the first place I've ever managed to feel completely at home after only a day of being there. Who would have thought that that one place would be a ZEN TEMPLE where you have to bow to a bodhisattva before you can so much as enter the bathroom and some of the stairs you have to go up sideways for reasons unknown to me and every meal is like disassembling and rebuilding a rocketship and you aren't even allowed to walk with your arms hanging at your sides?


This day was one of the most amazing, by far. The night before, our whole sangha of 8 decided that, in order to get the most out of our experience as possible and get into the true spirit of Zen, we would spend the day not saying a word unless it was entirely necessary (e.g., "What time is the evening service tonight"). Being silent among other silent people really heightens all your senses and keeps you in the moment. And I began to really understand Soto Zen's founder Dogen's teaching that practice and Enlightenment are one and the same. The most boring daily task at Hokyo-ji, done in silence, feels like a profound spiritual experience.

On this particular day I came to appreciate Hokyo-ji even more than before. In silence I could experience the miracle of the place to the greatest extent yet. I not only noticed the beauty of the architecture and geography more keenly, but also the beauty of their community. The whole day I was just filled with an overwhelming sense of fondness for the monks: joking, laughing, serious, chanting, meditating, everything -- and the temple: creaking floorboards, lingering smell of incense, strenuous ritual, difficult-to-open doors, everything. Just as I feel sullied and horrible when I'm surrounded by hateful, negative people, in the presence of the people at Hokyo-ji I felt peaceful and purified. Despite the fact that we could never have mastered all the necessary decorum required from us over just five days, I never felt stressed out when I did something wrong and was corrected. The correction was done with all compassion and understanding. Also, prostrations and sutras just started to feel FUN (something Docho Roshi, the Abbot, had previously claimed about the Oryoki at breakfast).

This is the Buddha Hall, where the magic happens; and by magic I mean "a lot of fucking prostrations and sutras."

While group II went to do takuhatsu, we were taken to the Zazen Rock in the back of a tiny truck by a sarcastic 37-year-old monk named Shingen who was not what I would call a safe driver. He stopped on the side of a mountain road and we got out to walk the rest of the way up to the cliff where the rock was located. The four of us broke our vow of chatter-less-ness to talk to Shingen, because after all he was a badass and we only had one more day to enjoy him. Along the way he would stop and show us things, make jokes, teach us vocabulary, and ask about where we lived. He picked up an angry praying mantis and handed it to Alex. Then he made us eat a plant (still no idea what it was). He told us he decided to become a monk after travelling all around Asia and the States and finding no answers.


The view from that mountain road was incredible, leading far down into a valley and up to high mountains swathed in churning clouds.


We took a narrow path through trees up to the Zazen Rock, where Hokyo-ji's founder apparently meditated regularly for 19 years. It was smaller than I expected, but the five of us could comfortably fit onto it and look down on the incredible view it afforded. In the valley below we could just make out the roof of the retreat center where the girls slept.


We asked Shingen questions about Zen and life and such, and he did impressions of Brian scolding Jake and Eimi-sensei talking on the phone and took pictures of us on the rock. I noticed at one point he had one of the Shinto protective amulets (omamori) I had noticed for sale in the Buddha Hall. I guess it's true what they say -- you really can't separate Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.

On the way back to Hokyo-ji Shingen stopped in front of the gates and conspiratorially told us we should hang out there for a while because midday sutras were at 11:00. Yes, we skived off the midday service with a monk. THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT.

After finishing our last full day at Hokyo-ji, I had SUCH FEELINGS. Namely, the feeling of I DON'T WANT TO LEAVE. I didn't want to part with such wonderful peace. It was the first time I've felt that kind of contentment -- the kind that isn't in danger of being taken away any second, because it isn't based on sense-pleasures. But what really puts the icing on the cake is that now that I've left, I don't want to go back. I miss it, but I'm okay with not going back. This may be the first time in my life that I've been able to feel love without attachment.

The next part of this story is fairly intensely personal, and not just for me, so I'm going to have to gloss a little. That evening, we had personal interviews with Docho Roshi where we were allowed to ask him a question. That was probably the most stressful part of our retreat, because there was so much specific, ritualistic etiquette for meeting with him that we were doomed from the beginning to forget something. It was also the first time we had talked to him face-to-face (although we weren't actually supposed to meet his eyes).
I'll be honest: I bumbled through the etiquette. I was incredibly tense. When I started speaking my voice shook. Halfway through his answer, I was sobbing. He seemed to be expecting that and had a box of tissues covered with a crocheted puppy-shaped cozy at the ready. I was mortified. I had a formal interview with a Zen master, told him something intensely personal, heard in return something intensely personal about him, was given advice, and CRIED MY FUCKING EYES OUT. Yes. That happened. My life is absurd.I cried to a Zen master about my life. And then he said "presento," and smacked me on the shoulder with the kyosaku. It was beautiful.

Later that night, there was a little "party" where we presented gifts to the monks and we all shared our reasons for being there (the monks as well as us students). The monks' stories were fascinating -- despite the fact that most Zen clerics in Japan today are the sons of priests, bound by family obligation to live the religious life, every one of these men was there by choice and not a single one for reasons other than the spiritual. One had been a policeman, one a school teacher, one a volleyball player, and one was sent to Hokyo-ji by his master to train because he kept falling asleep during zazen (TOO perfect). Then, unexpectedly, they gave us all a present: locally-made cloth folders inside which was written a certification that we had trained at Hokyo-ji, plus the same Shinto amulet I saw Shingen with earlier that day. It was the best thing they could have given us (aside from that smack with the Stick of Encouragement). I have rarely been that moved by people I'd only known for five days.

The next day we had breakfast and sutras and samu (work practice) as usual, but we had to leave by the late morning to catch our train. We had only half an hour to run around the place taking pictures, because it was forbidden to take any photos until that point (for which I'm grateful, or I would have gone mad being torn between my need to take pictures and my knowledge that that would have been an incredibly shallow and unfulfilling way to spend my time there). But god, it wasn't enough time. Here are some more photos of the interior and grounds I managed to take:


Then they rounded us up to take a group photo with the monks and Docho Roshi. Then they stood in front of the main gate and waved us off as several monks drove us off for the last time in their ridiculous SUVs. In front of the train station, we took extremely silly pictures with Kosho and Shingen.

Kosho explained the towel over his head and the weird facial expression thusly: "Bodhidharma!" (The first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, usually depicted as a terrifically grumpy Indian man).

Then we talked to them up till the last minute when our train came. Everyone felt so strange to be separated from them and from Hokyo-ji that our vow of silence sort of extended until we were far away on the train. At some point while I was sitting staring out the window I realized I was still holding my hands in my lap in hokkai join, the meditation mudra.

And I thought, oh. That's why I'm not sad. I'm taking Hokyo-ji with me, forever.
Last view of Hokyo-ji from the back of the car.

Posted by Niadra 20:38 Archived in Japan Tagged japan train monk monastery soto zen zazen zendo hokyo-ji hokyoji fukui biwa sodo cleric docho roshi Comments (0)

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