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Zen in Japan


3 Nov 2002
Although I have been a Buddhist for nearly 20 years now, the first Buddhist tradition I had joined was the Buddhist Meditation Club at my University. From there I traveled to Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, CA to meet Grand Master Hsing Yun. After several months living in the monastery, I took full ordination (Triple-Platform Ordination) under the Master and became a Bhikshu (monk) in the Fo Guang Shan tradition. I was transferred to Pei Hai Daochan, North of Taipei, and went through monastic "boot camp" there. Returning to Hsi Lai Temple I began teaching Buddhism, and Buddhist meditation, to our non-Mandarin speaking members.

In my second year I requested to go to Hawaii to study under Robert Aitken Roshi (founder of the Diamond Sangha). After a sesshin with him I determined to return to lay life, and travel to Japan to practice under the late Yogo Roshi, Master of the (Soto-shu) Daiusan Saijo-ji monastery near Odawara.

After a summer in his care I returned to Hawaii and began my practice as a "Hiso Hisoku" ("not monk, not lay" ... a term coined by Shinran Shonen, founder of the Jodo Shinshu). I began my Shin study as I continued in my Zen practice.

Since then I have studied and practiced nearly every denomination of the Buddha窶冱 Dharma still in existence, and some of the past not still in existence. I have been an Internet teacher of Buddhism for nearly 10 years now.

Back in the summer of '94, my wife to be and I traveled to Japan together. It was my first trip to Japan, and the first time I had returned to Asia since leaving the priesthood. The Soto Mission of Hawaii sent me to meet with Aoyama Roshi of the Nisodo monastery (in Nagoya), and Murioji temple (near to Nagano ). The plan was for me to reenter monastic life as a Soto monk at the Daiusan Saijoji training center (near to Odawara) under the tutelage of Aoyama's teacher, Yogo Roshi (whom has since passed).

We spent our first week with my wife's family, then the second week we spent in Nagoya with Aoyama Roshi. She is a very kind nun, with a soft smile that always seemed to make us feel at home. Her monastery was of moderate size, very neat and clean, with the nuns working seemingly round the clock on the upkeep and tending to daily business. On the way to the monastery each morning, I remember passing the Sumo wrestlers in training. They would be running up and down the street that led to the monastery.

As I was not fluent in Japanese, my wife to be would translate for Aoyama and I, while we had our daily tea and red bean pastry in the meeting room at Nisodo. The week we were in Nagoya gave us many opportunities to meet with the Roshi, as I came to understand more what Japanese Buddhism was about.

When the week had come to an end, in our last meeting with Aoyama Roshi at Nisodo, she invited my wife to be and I to join her at her remote temple in the Japanese Alps (the retreat where Aoyama does all her writing. We gratefully accepted her invitation and after a week back with my wife's family, we then traveled with Aoyama and her senior nun to Murioji.

After settling in our separate quarters, my wife to be and I began to explore the compound. The first thing we noticed was that there was a statue of Amida Buddha on the main shrine in the temple. We asked the senior nun about it, and she told us that this used to be a Jodo Shinshu temple in the past, but was given to Aoyama by the laity. Aoyama Roshi is a very well known tea master in Japan. She had built a new teahouse in the back of Murioji, where she comes to give private lessons to the best of the best students whom she had chosen. All Zen Masters have to choose between archery, calligraphy or tea ceremony to be their focus of practice. And to be a teacher of tea ceremony, one has to have 20 years of practice.

As we made our way around the temple, I kept noticing these little statues and plaques. I had never seen anything like them in my studies of Buddhism, so we asked the senior nun what they represented. She said they were Kami (Shinto deities) which were the protectors of the temple. I was familiar with the concept because the monastery I was ordained in (Taiwanese) also had statues of the four Lokapala (Guardian Kings) at the front entrance. The senior nun then explained how the kitchen Kami helped protect from fire, and the bathroom kami helped protect from injury, etc. I felt a little strange about this conceptuality, and had many questions about how Shinto and Buddhist teachings were able to live together in apparent harmony.

Our first meal in Murioji was very interesting. I had been a vegetarian for the two years of my monastic practice prior to this, and had difficulty with letting go of this idea that monks and nuns should not eat meat. Aoyama explained to us that we should be more like Shakyamuni Buddha was, and eat what the laity offers us, having no preference between veggie, fruit, rice or meat. This was a bit hard for me to swallow, but it did go down (even the tiny little silver fish on a bed of white rice). We ate like this, five small meals a day (everyday).

While at Murioji we learned many things about the way Soto Zen is practiced in Japan. The primary focus seems to be on the "Kitchen Sutra" (aka. 窶徼he teachings for the cook窶?. This is a teaching that was given by the master who brought Ts窶兮o-tung-tsung to Japan, Dogen Zenji. The Kitchen Sutra seems to be the guide that many Japanese Soto Zen Buddhists now follow more closely than Dogen's primary teaching of 窶彜hikantaza窶 (sitting meditation only). The "teachings for the cook" is Dogen窶冱 instruction on how to practice mindfulness meditation (Skt., smriti; Pali, sati; aka. satipatthana).

After our weeks at Murioji temple had come to an end, Aoyama Roshi was ready to recommend me to her teacher. She sent me to Odawara (near Yokohama) by train, and gave me directions on how to catch a bus up to the third largest Soto Zen training center in the world. Daiusan Saijoji was a massive compound, of the likes I had only witnessed once (while at the Fo Guang Shan in Kaoshung, Taiwan). The path led from the bus stop through a forest of huge trees up to the monastery gates. I was to attend a weeklong sesshin with about 50 other men, and had arrived a few hours too early. So I sat in the woods and took in the nature for a while till I decided to go ahead and enter the monastery.

Once I entered the monastery gates I was awestruck. What a magnificent place. I had a walkabout to see as much as I could before heading to the sign-in desk for the sesshin. This mountain that the monastery was built on was very famous, as I came to find out, for its Tengu (mountain spirit) named Doriyo. As the myth goes, a young monk came to settle upon this mountain many centuries ago, he was determined to build a temple there but soon found that he could not do it on his own. This is when he met the long nosed, winged, tengu named Doriyo. After receiving the teachings of the monk, Doriyo was so moved that he vowed to help build Saijoji with his magical feats of strength and energy. Doriyo then lifted a huge boulder and threw it to the center of the clearing stating this will be the foundation. Today if you visit this monastery you will see the boulder wrapped in protective Shinto ropes sitting in the middle of the compound. Nearby there is a well, with water that is said to have miraculous healing powers. People come from all over Japan to fill their plastic jugs with this water, and take it home with them. At the top of the compound there is a shrine for Doriyo where It becomes clear that he has been elevated from Tengu status, to that of Bodhisattva. The monks referred to him as Doriyo Bosatsu. Giant Gettas (wooden slippers) adorn the outside of the shrine. Some were as big as a golf cart. Then on down the path I found a shrine to the shichi fukujin (the seven gods of the Shinto pantheon). The deity of wealth was a favorite shrine for the tourists. In the excitement of the crowd I found myself clapping my hands together and ringing the bell for this deity as well.

Suddenly I noticed my watch. I was about to be late for my check-in. So I rushed down the hill, trying not to look as if I were running. I checked in and they sent me to the office of the Abbot of Saijoji. He was a very scholarly and professional monk who spoke English quite well. He explained that he understood that I had the intention to become a monk there, and told me a story of another young American whom had also made a similar journey several years ago. As it seems, the Abbot had dissuaded him from becoming a monk there due to his lack of Japanese language speaking ability. Yet admitted that the young man was back in Japan at that time, and was living at the Abbot's home with he and his wife.

After he had finished his story, the Abbot introduced me to Itadaki-san, a 30 something, Japanese monk who spoke perfect English, and was temporarily practicing at the monastery, before transferring to Hawaii. Itadaki had a very honest way about him, very sincere and dedicated. It was then that I found out the Abbot had put me in his care for the duration of my stay at Daiuzan Saijoji. The week spent in sesshin was similar to the ones I had spent in Zen temples of the USA. But the atmosphere was something that really added to the experience. The huge tatami floored formal meeting rooms and tea hall, the massive hondo (main shrine), and the ancient zendo (for sitting meditation) were really something to behold.

At the end of the sesshin I was called to meet with the Grand Master of Saijoji, Yogo Roshi. I remember his appearance to be quite distinctive, but almost indescribable. You could really feel his presence when in the same room with him. I think he had wanted to speak with me on his own, without a translator, but one of Aoyama's nuns sat in on the meeting anyway. His English was understandable, yet when he would need a definition of some concept he was trying to get across to me, he would nod to the nun and she would translate. By the end of the meeting I was made aware that he had accepted me into the Sangha (order of monks), and that I should return to my wife to be's family home and put all my affairs in order before returning to Saijoji to continue my monastic practice. Aoyama Roshi had had a tailor come and fit me for my robes, and I was sewing my own kesa at the time.

I thanked Yogo Roshi, and did as he had requested. I traveled back to my wife's village and offered my appreciation to them, and said what I thought would be my last goodbye for the two year period of my training.

My first job while practicing at Saijoji was to clean the running boards outside the monk窶冱 quarters with a hand rag. I was taught to stretch the rag out between two hands and in a crouched position, run with the rag pressed to the boards, from one end of the plank to the other, and back again. I did this till I became quite winded, and my guardian came out to tell me to get ready for breakfast. Later in my stay at Saijoji I graduated to step sweeper. Our ritual from early morning to late night, was full of grounds keeping, chanting while in seiza (sitting on calves and feet) position, on tatami in the Hondo; zazen practice in the Zendo; and ceremonies for Doriyo Bosatsu, in his shrine.

While in practice at Saijoji that summer, I was faced with many of my own demons. After a few weeks I began to feel the isolation, that not speaking more than basic Japanese, was causing me. The many young monks that were practicing there could speak some English, and a few tried to befriend me in between activities, but I still felt like a stranger in a strange land. In hindsight, I guess I was. Before and after the ceremonies held for Doriyo Bosatsu, we would sit in the monks rest house and smoke cigarettes together. At night my guardian would invite me for a beer, and to chat about things from life in Hawaii, to the teachings of Dogen.

One night, my guardian invited one of the monks to join us in drinking. He was an older monk, in his early 70窶冱 I think. He was a retired Japanese military officer, with service in WWII. This monk obviously took issue with having an American monk practicing at Saijoji, and (unbeknownst to me) my guardian was offering him this opportunity to let me know about it. After a few drinks he became very heated, slamming his fist down on the table shaking our drinks, and cigarette ashes about. The translation I got was that he was angry that I was there, claiming that I could not even speak his language, and would be a burden for all the monks. Quite shaken, and a bit tipsy, I asked to be excused and went to my chamber to sleep.

All the next day I could not shake the words of the Abbot when I first arrived, and the older monk from the night before. I swept and swept on that day, but could not sweep away the feelings I was having. I guess I had convinced myself that I had become a burden, and began to feel very bad about being there. I remember crying as I made my three prostrations before the bathroom Kami, then wiping my eyes as I entered the room to take my soak in the tub. I did not want any of the other monks to know how I was feeling, so I tried not to make any eye contact. For several days after, I recall struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of the chanting in the Hondo, I remember taking my legs in and out of seiza position many times. At night, in the Zendo, I remember rocking back and fourth quite a bit, as I could not seem to set my mind at rest. Seeds had been planted, which I became aware were leading to the unraveling of my practice, and a further disturbance to my fellow practitioners.

Those evenings I remember sobbing on my futon. Trying not to make any noise. I held my hand to my mouth as the tears poured forth. I had failed... and was in process of resigning myself to the fact. Many thoughts arose of my alternatives. I had no home, job or best friend (my wife to be) back in Hawaii. After all our expenses in Japan, I think I had about $200 American dollars, and a few Japanese yen, left to my name. I thought of how disappointed my wife to be and her family would be in me, not to mention all the people who had a vested interest in me; from the Soto Mission in Hawaii, to Aoyama Roshi and Grand Master Yogo Roshi, there in Japan.

I really wanted to make it work... but was unable to convince myself that it was worth all the trouble I was certain to be causing my fellow practitioners. Feeling like the Black Sheep of the monastery, I determined to request an audience with Yogo Roshi. In the meeting I asked the guardian monk to interpret for me that I had become painfully aware that my presence there was creating a great imposition and disruption for the monastery as a whole. Yogo Roshi attempted to assure me that this was not the case, but at that point I was determined to leave. Once he was convinced of my resolve, he called for one of the monks to bring him a shikishi with his calligraphy on it. When the monk returned he handed it to the Roshi. He inspected it, and when presenting it to me, Grand Master Yogo Roshi smiled sweetly, and said something like 窶徇eza-me-yo窶 which means, 窶彙e awake and aware窶?

I returned to the family home of my wife to be. As kind and compassionate a people they are, they allowed me to stay in their guest home. They are a Jodo Shinshu family, with a Butsudan (Buddhist Shrine) in their living room. It was from speaking with my father-in-law to be that I came to learn about the teachings of Shinran Shonen. I learned about how Shinran had been a monk in Hieizan monastery (the spiritual hub of Japan just outside of Kyoto [a Tendai monastic compound]). Yet had some problems with the goings on in his order, and left monastic life only to find Honen Shonen in Kyoto. Honen taught Shinran about the "Nembutsu Only" path, and encouraged Shinran to marry, and live a life of a lay-minister. Fascinated and intrigued by this story, I determined to study as much as I could about the teachings of the Jodo Shinshu.

My wife to be suggested that on her father's day off, he might take us to Hieizan and Kyoto in order for me to see the many temples, and visit the Honzan (headquarters and main temple) of the Higashi Hongwangi. The kind fellow her father is, he agreed, and on his next day off he took us on the grand tour of the Kyoto-fu. We visited Hieizan first. He took me to the place where Shinran had stayed while he was a monk in Hieizan. There is no building there, but a signpost that says "this is where Shinran Shonen resided." We found huge billboards along a path through Hieizan that explained the stories of Dogen, Nicheren, Shinran, Honen, etc. whom had first started out there.

After leaving Hieizan, we made our way down to Kyoto. We visited the Golden Temple (Kin-kaku-ji), the Silver Temple (Gin-kaku-ji), and many other temples before ending up at the Higashi Honzan. I was most fascinated by the fact that at one point in the building of the Hondo (main shrine) for this temple, that they could not find ropes that were strong enough to lift the center beam. So all the laywomen of the temple shaved their heads in order to use the hair to make a rope which would lift the center beam to its current standing. I looked in the bookstore for anything of Shinran's writings in English, but unfortunately I was unable to locate even one copy of the Tannisho, let alone the Kyogyoshinsho in English. My wife to be asked a minister in the main office of the temple if he knew where to get the Tannisho. He said we might find a copy of Dr. Bloom's translation at a bookstore there in Japan, but when finding out I was from Hawaii, the minister suggested that I should visit the Nishi (Honpa) Hongwanji Betsuin in Honolulu, to meet Al himself. In the meantime I was taught to simply recite "Namu-Amida-Butsu."

When my visa was about to expire, my father-in-law to be drove me to the Nagoya airport; from there I flew back to Honolulu. I stayed with some friends for a few weeks and then found a job. Then I returned to the Soto Mission of Hawaii and they gave me a small room to lodge in till I could save enough to get my own apartment. The Bishop, at that time, was a very compassionate and wise monk, who Yogo Roshi had been a student with during their early monastic training back in Japan. I remember the Bishop going out into the parking lot in front of the mission, every morning, to sweep up rubbish. I had a good job as a claims adjuster for a Hawaii insurance company downtown, and saved money quite quickly due to the compassionate allowance of me to remain in the mission, just doing chores around the temple, without being required to pay any rent. I kept in touch with my wife to be, and asked her when she would join me again there. I had the intention to marry her, and she was still as dedicated to me. As I was just having the opportunity to meet my teacher (Rev. Alfred Bloom) at the Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin, she was planning to return to Hawaii.

In the days to come, I was blessed with a wonderful wife to whom I was married on that New Years Eve, and gifted with one of the most profound teachers I have ever had the good karma to come in contact with.
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That is great reading. Thank you. I try to learn from other experiences, not just mistakes, and I feel more enlightend. Thank You.
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