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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)


A two-day retreat at Myoshin-ji, a Rinzai Zen-do

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.

Naia's Memory:


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!

Posted by Niadra 21:04 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto meditation lay retreat training zen rinzai zazen myoshinji monaster zendo Comments (5)


Or, "why does everything about me make so much more sense in Japan"

The 26th was our first totally free day. Nevertheless, shameless try-hards that we all are (god I hate Broadwater slang), we got up at 7 AM having slept about 5 hours to go see another shrine! It was by far the best thing that had happened to me on this trip. I mentioned before that I had been kind of frustrated with my lack of ability to fully grasp and respond to everything I was seeing -- well, this was the first time I felt something close to the full impact of the situation.

Kamigamo-jinja is a huge Shinto shrine complex, starting with the obligatory huge torii gate and including spacious grassy grounds and buildings of various sizes. I didn't even get to see much of the main building because we wandered through a market that was happening on the grounds this particular day. Everything was handmade Japanese crafts, art, and food or drinks. It was pretty amazing, but also very familiar since arts and crafts fairs are a thing that happens all the time at home.


Two of the other girls and I, having walked through the bazaar, wandered up a narrow path leading up through small torii gates to a smaller, quiet shrine away from the main structures. There was no one else around, and it was right on the edge of a small cliff. Looking out from the cliff in one direction you could see the shrine grounds, and in the other direction was a crowded urban residential area. But still it felt totally silent in front of that shrine.


It was everything I needed to see and more. That finally got through to me. I really felt I had to make an offering, so I put some yen in the offertory box, rang the bell, and bowed to pray. My head was a mess. It was all white noise. I had no idea what I wanted to say to the Kami, except "Thank you for letting me find you here." I think it was all I really could have said. I stayed like that for a while, then sat down and just stared. There were three small shrines, one of which I recognized as being dedicated to Inari because of the fox statues (Inari was originally responsible for the rice harvest, but is now also seen as a Kami for business and commerce). I took a lot of pictures. I realized as I was sitting there something I hadn't even considered before. And that was that I think my main intention in coming to Japan was to touch the Kami.


Anyway, I've been trying to write this post forever, but every time I tried something happened and by now my blog is so far behind what is actually happening to me that I'd like to paraphrase a few things in order to write my next post about our Zen retreat.

In a nutshell, here are things that have been going on, as things are wont to do:

-We began practicing zazen meditation at our hostel a few days after starting the program. We get up at 5 AM and begin meditating together in the butsuma (Buddha Room) at 5:30 for about forty minutes, followed by sutra recitations.
It fucking hurts. That is most of the information I can give you about zazen because I am mostly preoccupied with disciplining myself not to move even though my left leg is so far asleep I am having phantom limb syndrome in a limb that is (supposedly) still attached to my body. Also, do you know how much spit your mouth decides to make when your brain knows you aren't supposed to swallow because it makes too loud of a noise in the meditation hall? The answer is seven. I'm sorry, I know it doesn't make sense, but this is my brain on Zen.
Also, I really enjoy chanting sutras, but I have to admit that we are all pretty bad at it. Maybe it's that we're not fluent in Japanese, maybe it's that we're not monks, maybe it's that our voices are simply not deep and sonorous enough, but it is kind of like a bunch of forgetful kindergarteners trying to say the pledge of allegiance.

-Kyoto-Yodobashi. It is an electronics mall. A mall full of electronics. Like eight floors of them. There are two whole floors just of flatscreen HD TVs. And I tell you something: even the shittiest ones are a hundred times better than any TV in the US ever, even though they are made by the same Japanese companies. I just thought I should inform you all that Japan purposely keeps us in the dark ages and laughs about it.

-I would like to speak in further praise of group bathing, following my experience of a traditional Japanese public bathhouse. It was nothing short of a perfect fusion of indulgence and hilarity. There was NO ONE in the whole place but us and a large number of old naked Japanese ladies who stared at us in unrestrained disbelief as we threw our clothes off and proceeded to be young English-speaking foreigners in THEIR bathhouse (supervised by Eimi-sensei, one of our program directors, but that hardly mattered to the old ladies). You could tell by the stares and the utter lack of any other gaijin that we were in the RIGHT KIND OF PLACE.
The baths were kind of a bigger and more decadent version of our hostel's bath. There were lots of little shower heads ranged around the walls and you sat on little stools in front of low mirrors and made sure you were DAMN WELL SPARKLING CLEAN before getting into one of six large baths -- three variously hot ones, one hot one with indigo-colored violet/chamomile-infused water, one ice-cold one (my favorite, no one else's), and one natural sulfur bath the color of milk.
The old ladies retaliated for our presence by terrorizing us at every opportunity. One came over and rapped me on the head really hard when I let my hair touch the water.
We felt SO GOOD when we got out of there. I felt like I had just been issued a new body. I do not think the timing of this was a coincidence, as the next day was when we left for our two-day Rinzai Zen retreat at Myoshinji. The difference between how we felt after these two activities is the funniest joke ever.

-I guess I really haven't said anything about what our classes are like, but the truth is they are far from the most interesting thing about this program and it really wouldn't entertain you to hear about them. They mostly exist to provide us with historical and social context for the things we experience, and also to teach us enough Japanese for us not to implode in delicate social situations. The classes I take/audit are Theory and Practice of Buddhism in Japan; Japanese Religions; Beginning Japanese; and Japanese Society and Cultural Traditions.

NEXT TIME: Getting hit with sticks and doing everything in fast-forward at a Rinzai monastery!

Posted by Niadra 20:37 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto meditation house spa bath japanese shrine public shinto zen jinja rinzai kamigamo zazen kami Comments (2)

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