Dogen, Dharma and Discipline in Japan’s Zen Heartland

National Geographic Traveler

THE WAKE-UP BELL RINGS AT 3:20AM and within minutes I’ve shot up, changed out of my pyjamas, rolled up my futon, folded my sheets and am standing outside the bedroom ready for inspection. After a cursory assessment by a stern-faced monk I am asked to take off the tiny silver ring I’m wearing on my right hand: “No adornments, please.”

At 3:30am, I’m desperately trying not to fall behind. Padding blearily at the back of a line slicing through a succession of maze-like corridors in single file, I’m doing my best to keep step with the person in front of me while not tripping over my robes or losing the standard-issue footwear on a stair.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting upright and crossed-legged on a round, black cushion on top of a wooden platform. I’m facing the wall, a dark wooden panel, my eyes half-closed, heart beating from the early-morning workout and the sheer effort of just keeping up. I hear the footsteps behind me of a man brandishing a long wooden ‘discipline’ stick, and I know I am to stay completely still for the next 30 minutes. A bell rings three times somewhere in the distance, and I break out in a rash of goose bumps before the room is plunged into silence. All I have to do now is breathe. And not move an inch.

It may sound like boarding school or boot camp, but in fact I’m embedded and motionless among the dark wooden beams and latticed paper panels of the Sodo (monks’ training hall) in Japan’s oldest Sōtō Zen temple.

In a world when the term ‘Zen’ has been adopted to evoke anything vaguely associated with a chilled-out state of new-age relaxation and ease, it might come as a shock to learn that the regime for trainee priests here at Eiheiji, Japan’s first and oldest Sōtō Zen centre, is closer to Fort Benning than a weekend spa retreat. “Eiheiji is severe,” writes one matter-of-fact Buddhist blogger; “Eiheiji is undiluted Zen.”

Japan has no shortage of Zen temples for the inquisitive visitor looking for quiet day’s contemplation: there are over 15,000 from the Sōtō school alone, with another 6,000 pertaining to the Rinzai sect. Their sheer numbers can almost be desensitizing in cultural clusters like Kyoto and Kamakura where many of the Zen temples, though excellently preserved, have been all but emptied of their original function, and now stand stoically as hoards of tourists pass through their gates brandishing cameras and small change for luck offerings. As a Zen practitioner myself, I was a little put out by the feeling that as a tourist in Japan, I would only be skimming the surface of these incredible, sacred institutions.

Having developed a critical case of sightseers fatigue after days spent binge-gawping at the best and most impressive of Kyoto’s Zen temples (I knew I’d had enough when I found myself yawning at the famed rock garden in Ryonaji and finally completely dishonored myself by falling asleep on the steps of Sanjusangendo, the sacred temple of the 1,000 Buddhas), I decided I needed something more to really engage with Japan’s Zen tradition: I needed to get away from the tourist trail and visit a working temple to see the monks’ practice first hand. A place where I could sit, eat and walk in the company of monks, and where I wouldn’t be allowed to fall asleep on the temple steps.

Eiheiji was the perfect choice, and I discovered through my own Zen teacher back in Europe that they were open to taking visitors, by arrangement. Flung far from the crowds of Kyoto and Tokyo, there’s more to this temple than picture-perfect manicured gardens and photo-op statues of the Buddha: to adherents of Sōtō Zen (myself included), the temple is the very source of the practice, established by the founder of the Sōtō school, Eihei Dōgen Zenji, in 1244. Think the Vatican or Mecca, and you’ll get some idea of its significance. It shares the status of international headquarters of Sōtō Zen with Sojiji, another more modern temple on the outskirts of Tokyo, but what sets Eiheiji apart even from its administerial twin is the fact that it is Master Dōgen’s original temple. Its been standing here on the exact spot of its foundation among the forested mountains of the Fukui prefecture – known for their harsh winters and heavy snowfall – for 800 years, and though the buildings have been reconstructed over time, life inside the temple for its 200-or-so trainee priests follows more or less the same strict rules and rhythms that were laid out by the master in the 13th century.

Given Eiheiji’s reputation for severity, it was with a dash of trepidation that I entered through its gates the previous day. Just hours earlier I’d been traipsing under the myriad electric cables that weave a tangled awning over Tokyo’s streets, illuminated by epileptic neon signs and incandescent hoardings. I had shouldered through the throngs of Tokyo Central station, dragging a wheelie bag, clutching maps, rail passes and guide books, before boarding a Shikansen (bullet train) to the town of Fukui.

From there it was a short jaunt on the quaint one-carriage Echizen railway manned by a uniformed driver and hostess in white gloves that personally greeted every passenger on the train and wished them a pleasant journey. The tiny train ran through rural villages and miniature-backyard paddy fields as far as Eiheiji-guchi station from where I made the final leg of the voyage to the temple gates by bus.

The silence at Eiheiji – punctuated as it is by the sound of running water and framed by the stately cryptomeria cedars towering overhead – is almost unnerving after so much movement. There’s a sign written in Japanese characters at the temple’s Dragon Gate to give visitors and trainees pause for thought: “The tradition here is strict: no one, however wealthy, important or wise, may enter through this gate who is not wholehearted in the pursuit of truth.” I try to absorb the importance of this statement, a stamp of sincerity that is impressed upon all acolytes when starting their training, stripped as they are of every material possession, save the exact amount of money needed to cover their funeral fees should they die whilst in training.

Life here is definitely no cakewalk: “Never in my life had I encountered such severity,” attests Kaoru Nonomura, a salaryman who opted to spend one year training in Eiheiji and subsequently recorded his memoirs in the Japanese bestseller, ‘Eat Sleep Sit’. In his book, Nonomura outlines the various penuries imposed on the monks: sleep deprivation, manual labour, clobberings, harsh reprimands and malnutrition, recalling some kind of grim barracks procedure. The similarities are rife: the trainees are given a hard physical and psychic initiation in order to break their egos and instill a disciplined, communal spirit. The difference is, of course, that the monks are not training for combat; they are learning the principles of practice of Sōtō Zen that will qualify them to lead enlightened, compassionate and spiritually resonant lives.

The good news is that as a visitor you are by no means obliged to undergo a beating for the privilege of staying the night. In 24 hours you’ll meditate, eat, take a traditional bath, witness the ceremony and be sent on your way the next morning, having barely dipped your toes into the disciplinary mire. But the reason to go to Eiheiji is that it’s a rare chance to get a taste of the real methods of Sōtō Zen where the purest tenets of Dōgen’s teachings can still be seen first hand.

“There are three positions when you are in a Zen temple,” Ju-ichi tells me as we kneel on the tatami mats in my otherwise empty room, “sitting, standing and walking.”  We must always definitely be doing one of the three, and when moving around, the hands, instead of being thrust into the pockets or swinging by one’s side, are to be held at chest level, with the right hand eclipsing the left fist in a position called shasshu. “And please,” he adds, glancing at his watch, “do not move from your room until I come to get you.”

Ju-ichi has been at Eiheiji for over a year now. He’s one of the only monks here that appears to speak English, and I really appreciate the chance to talk with him as most other trainees that I encounter in the corridors freeze into a deep bow with their eyes firmly fixed to the floor as visitors pass by. There’s no room here for idle chit-chat.

Because of his English skills, Ju-ichi has been assigned the job of taking care of visitors at the temple, although instances of Westerners coming here are very few. Work at a Sōtō Zen temple is considered of paramount importance to the practice, and novice monks are famously given hours of hard chores to execute in order to help them along the road to enlightenment. One of the most dreaded jobs for newcomers is the cleaning of the corridors, where the doubled-over monks run up and down at speed, brandishing large cloths that polish the floors to a gleaming finish that doesn’t leave so much as a speck of dirt after a temple tour taken in white socks. It’s a wholehearted, complete way of working that chimes with Dōgen’s directions for a life where practice and illumination are one and the same thing.

I study Ju-ichi carefully for signs of duress or fatigue from the infamous Eiheiji tribulations, but he gives off nothing more than an air of light and cheery politeness, coupled with a concern that my demanding visitors’ schedule of eating, bathing, sitting, and touring (with a little sleeping thrown in for good measure) be executed to the letter. His devotion to the precise punctuality of each of these activities comes over as a touching show of hospitality, especially his patience with my clumsy ignorance of most of the standard rules, procedures and etiquette. He’ll politely whisper ‘gassho’ (bow) when a temple elder of whom I am entirely unaware passes by, or when I’m about to storm into the toilets with complete disregard for the statue of Ususama, the bathroom god, standing outside.

Back in the dusky visitors’ Sodo, a bell rings twice to signal the end of zazen, the morning meditation, and I realize that I’ve lost both of my legs. The most fundamental part of Zen practice, zazen, or ‘just sitting’, involves solely sitting on a zafu (cushion), facing the wall with the back straight and legs folded in full- or half-lotus position. This straightforward undertaking of awareness and concentration on the present moment is at the heart of Zen practice.

Dōgen wrote tomes about the simple act of sitting, which he called “the gateway of truth to total liberation.” In the Fukanzazengi, an important text outlining the instructions for practicing zazen, he gives the following advice: “Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.”

The only designs I have at this very moment is to regain use of my legs and keep up with the monks who are almost leaping from their cushions and readying for another fast procession to the ceremonial hall. An onslaught of pins and needles follows me as I get to my feet, grappling to keep my balance and have faith that my legs will carry me in the single file that quickly builds back up to the speed of a bullet train moving through the labyrinthine corridors and endless stairwells of the temple complex.

It’s 4:30am and already the morning ceremony is underway.

Eiheiji’s 200 monks are kneeling in perfectly aligned rows on either side of the altar in the Hatto, the ceremonial hall. They’re chanting the Heart Sutra, one of the oldest and most fundamental texts in Buddhism, before moving onto other key sutras and a long list of the names of the patriarchs that have directly transmitted the dharma – Buddha’s teachings – over the last 2,500 years. The sound of the monks’ deep incantations accompanied by a drum beat and the occasional bell is absolutely mesmerizing, and I try and join in with my own alto croaks as I am ushered to also kneel in the visitors section of the hall.

Ceremonies in Zen temples last for hours, and take up the best part of the morning. As all sensation slowly departs again from my kneeling legs, I watch as the monks get up and perform prostrations, towards the altar, and towards the middle of the room. Two other monks appear from the back of the hall and race between the rows, holding aloft a lacquered tray containing a number of sutra books. As they run through the lines, each monk reaches out and picks up a book with timing so precise, it gives the impression of an impeccably choreographed routine. I gasp at the fluidity of it all – not a single dropped book – and almost want to applaud when the monks distributing the sutra books reach the end of the rows and come to a sudden, smooth stop, holding the trays up high and slowly turning around with a dancers’ control and grace.

At 8:30, it’s finally time for breakfast. My disappointment at not being able to sit with the monks and eat their traditional morning meal of plain brown rice soup in a precise ceremony involving the oryoki (the special monks’ bowl set) quickly dissipates when, kneeling upon a tatami mat in a private room in front of a low lacquered table, I am presented with a tray of at least a dozen small dishes and bowls containing morsels of food of every shape and colour imaginable.

Ju-ichi chants the meal sutra (“We regard greed as the obstacle to freedom of the mind; we regard this meal as medicine to sustain our life…”) before I begin to tentatively poke a chopstick at the foodstuffs in front of me. Though it’s not the trainee monks’ daily gruel, this is shojin-ryori, traditional temple food that has developed within the Zen tradition since monks returning from China introduced it to Japan in the 13th century. No animal products are used in the preparation of shojin-ryori, and neither are any strong herbs and spices, garlic being a particular temple no-no.

Some elements of the meal are familiar, such as a chunk of sautéed tofu, a green bean, a slice of melon and a bowl of miso soup; however, scanning the remainder of the collection of edibles in front of me, I’m at pains to recognize the white jelly-like lump or the extremely thick and sticky soup-like dish. I later learn that the former is called goma-dofu and is in fact a lump of smoked starch flavoured with white sesame, while the latter is chawan-mushi, steamed yam with vegetables.

Ju-ichi has tiny dents in his lower lip and ear lobes where I presume studs and earrings once lay embedded. I ask him about his life before coming to Eheiji and he tells me he was a hairdresser, first in Tokyo, and then in New York. Which was where he learnt English. The initial formality of his role as temple host has broken down somewhat over the 24 hours that I’ve been here, and he slowly – if not completely willingly – began to cave in to my excessive and I’m sure inappropriately personal questioning.

As my time to leave approaches, I start to get brave with my inquiries: I ask him if he’s married to which he shyly replies no. Does he ever think about getting married? “Yes, of course!” To a nun? He laughs heartily. No, not to a nun; definitely not.

The question of marriage for Zen priests in Japan is a normal one, the management of temples being very much a family affair, with priesthood typically passed down from father to son. Sons of priests become ordained as monks – usually in their early twenties – go to train at a monastery for up to three years, and return home to take over the family business.

It turns out that Ju-ichi, in his early thirties, is older than most of the novices who come here straight after finishing school or university. Whereas most Zen temples that have travelled from the east and settled in the west tend to be centres for people with a spiritual calling who practice Zen in spite of other obligations in their lives, in Japan, donning the straw sandals and knocking on the doors of an institution like Eiheiji is considered a shrewd investment in the future, much like learning the skill of hairdressing. This is the way that Ju-ichi explains to me his journey from the glitzy salons of the city to the quiet, disciplined confines of this training school.

“My uncle has a temple in the north of the country, and he has no children,” he tells me, making no mention of any spiritual incentives per se. “One day he will need somebody to take over from him.” A career move; it was that simple.

The visitors schedule sets the time of departure at 10am and you get the feeling that lingering any longer will not be appreciated. As Ju-ichi walks me to the temple gate I awkwardly present him with the traditional gift I had been advised to give monks at the temple. As no one had actually said what that gift should be, I spent hours sweating over what one gives a Japanese monk who has forsaken all worldly goods. The internet counseled some perplexing and temple un-friendly national gifts like frozen steak, cufflinks and imported scotch, and in the end I decided on a tin of traditional English toffee.

We go through the gift-giving motions of refusal and insistence before he finally takes the box from me and a cab pulls up. We wish each other luck and goodbyes, knowing we’ll never meet again. My cab pulls away and the giant cedars recede into the distance as tiredness suddenly sets in along with that peculiar feeling of having lived a month in the space of a day. I can only take my hat off to Ju-ichi and his 200 colleagues for whom a year here might even feel like half a century.

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