Since coming to Japan I have been perpetually surrounded by Buddhist temples and have taken an interest in diving more into it and learning about it. Classes went on a week vacation and I was giving the opportunity to spend three nights at a Buddhist temple atop a mountain.
One of the friends I have made here has lived a monastic life for over four years and recently come out of it. After lending me some books to read she invited me to one of the temples she lived at over the break.
The temple is Soto Zen and has only been accepting people for about six years and is very open to foreigners. There were around three nuns and six monks, including my friend and out of them there were four foreigners.
I packed light for the seven-hour overnight bus ride from Nagoya to Okayama. I was informed to pack warm clothes but as we arrived and rode in a taxi up the warm mountain side, it wouldn’t be until later that I would understand the gravity of that statement.
As we arrived and walked across the rain drenched muddy ground, we were greeted by a monk who showed me the personal room they had set up for me.
Waiting for me on the table was a daily schedule and a chant book. They were also nice enough to give me a space heater for sleeping.
This was an unusual time for the monastery as there was only one monk there as the others were out chanting for people at their homes. The event lasted for the duration of my stay so there were periods were there was only me and one other person at the monastery.
The day began as soon as we got there, my friend was assigned to cook and as I dropped my things off I was tasked with heading out to do what I love most… manual labor. They gave me an ax and a handsaw to chop and saw wood in half for the next 1.5 hours. I really do enjoy manual labor, it beats sweeping a floor or cooking for ten people. Although I was lucky not to injure myself with my history of clumsiness involving sharp objects.
As lunch time came and then dinner I realized that although the food was basic it was pretty good. There was always some sort of soup and either rice or rice gruel. Lots of vegetables were prepared and sometimes tofu but never meat.
Meals are eaten in silence and exceptionally fast. My stomach was even in a little pain on the last day from trying to keep up with their pace. There is also a specific process to follow for eating. Bowls and food are passed through a series of bows and very few words if any. At the end of the meal, one of the bowls is filled with a little tea and you clean it using chopsticks to move around a slice of pickle to get all the leftover food. Once all the food is collected in the tea you just drink all of it.
Following the meal was something far different than my dormitory life. Almost in unison everyone finished the chant and fell into a rhythm of cleaning. They all moved into place from washing and drying to sweeping the floor without words except for me asking what to do of course.
The daily routine was waking up at 4 am and practicing zazen at 4:20 for forty minutes. Zazen is meditation done in half lotus while staring at a wall and thinking of nothing or rather thinking of not thinking. after the forty minutes there is a ten-minute slow walk and then a ten-minute break. Once the break is over there is another forty minutes of zazen. It was here that I realized why I needed warm clothes. 4 am on a mountain in a monastery without insulation, built in an old wooden style is pretty cold.
the area for zazen is a hall you walk into with an area for laypeople and anyone that has to leave early. The main room is for the nuns and monks to practice and is called a Sodo. There is a series of drum beats and bell ringing to indicate that it’s over.
Zazen was difficult and painful on my knees from sitting half lotus but it was an overall enjoyable experience. As the session came towards an end and the pain started to set in, I was distracted by the early morning sunlight that shined in through the large windows behind everyone. In that moment the sound of birds chirping and knowing that I was up before them and seeing the sunlight slowly feel the room occupied my mind.
It is important to note that this monastery was not about teaching scripture. Zen is about doing and living. Staying at a monastery is simply about practicing Zen and thus the act of Zazen is vital, along with accomplishing daily responsibilities.
After Zazen, there was morning service, where they included me in performing the chanting despite getting off rhythm more than a few times. During the chanting everyone seats in Seiza, which was vastly more painful than half-lotus.
After morning service there was a quick breakfast and then an hour break before work tasks were delegated, a.k.a, I went to chop more wood and they went out to perform their chanting duties for the event except for one or two.
It was good to get out of not just the college life but of the routine of life in the city. It never crossed my mind that I was in another country on a mountain, it was just about the moment and enjoying the quiet that was around me.
Only worrying about simple tasks like chopping wood and making dinner on time was a refresher from pouring over homework day after day. I left my phone behind and wifi so I could truly get away and wouldn’t be tempted.
more about the rest of my experience coming soon, including my first time using a Japanese style group bath.