I just spent about a week staying and practicing Buddhism at the Sōgen-ji Rinzai Zen temple and monastery in Okayama City, Japan. Sōgen-ji is known for its long-time abbot, Shodo Harada Roshi, who many people have told me is one of the few great living Zen masters. I had heard of Shodo Harada Roshi for years before my visit, since he is the longtime teacher of my teacher Ryoshin Paul Haller (the abbot of the SF Zen Center), and of Soryu Forall (the Dharma heir of my teacher Shinzen Young). Harada Roshi also apparently has written a few books and offers yearly retreats at the One Drop Zendo on Whidbey Island in Washington State near Seattle, which some of my Zen friends have apparently attended.
Someone told me years ago that the best way to get to know Harada Roshi before visiting Sōgen-ji, would be to start by sitting a sesshin (meditation intensive) with him in Washington, and initiating a relationship with him that way. This may have been ideal advice, since, while I was here at his temple in Japan, his scheduling officer, a white (American I think) woman, would not let me see him for an interview. I was shocked and put off by her bluntness when she told me, “Why would he want to see you? You’re not his student. The only reason he let you come and visit at all is out of respect for your teacher Paul Haller.”
I did however notice that students with beginner-level Zen/Buddhist practices were accepted to do interviews with Harada Roshi. This may, however, have to do with the Japanese idea of having exclusively one spiritual teacher. Apparently, traditionally, in Japan, if one takes on a Zen (or otherwise Buddhist) teacher, one is expected to give a full commitment – to do everything the teacher asks of one, and to stick with that teacher until they pass on (and then to also continue on with their Dharma heir as one’s full commitment teacher). Unlike in America, in Japan it is apparently considered out of bounds to question a teacher too much, or to have more than one Buddhist teacher, or to try to switch teachers. So, I am guessing that I got le neg grande because I already have a number of Buddhist teachers, all of whom are still alive.
Without having any private discussions with him, I still found it interesting to observe and watch Harada Roshi as he moved around the temple. The Rinzai school is known for its emphasis on energy, spirit, and vitality, and Harada Roshi certainly seemed to walk and chant with intense, velocity, and force. And as with other aged Rinzai teachers that I have met, he is a short li’l dude. The origin of this may be that the traditional Zen training for child monks sixty years ago apparently provided them with a lot more meditation and physical labor than it did food or sleep.
I had been told that people dropping in to do the monastic schedule at Sōgen-ji, as I did, are expected, after about three weeks, to commit to a stay there for a full year, or to leave. Some of the other monks that I talked to while there had been there for a year or longer, but a few had been there just a couple months and were apparently planning to leave soon.
Some of the students were Japanese, a couple were North American, but most were European. They generally talked English when socializing, most with various European accents. I found them to be, like many Buddhists from the West, a little emotionally odd, cold, and serious, but generally sincere, good-hearted, and friendly.
[last picture – the monks gearing up to do takuhatsu, or begging rounds]
I spent much of my time while at the monastery in the meditation hall, which was tucked away to the side of the sprawling monastery grounds. The meditation sitting cushions in the meditation hall seemed ratty and frayed, by my standards. We not only meditated in this hall, but also, at night, put the sitting cushions up in some overhanging cubbards and took down some futons, and slept in the hall too. Meditation hall sleeping is a traditional East Asian monastic practice that I had heard about for years, but had never before personally experienced. At first, I found it disconcerting, but I eventually got used to it.
The meditation sitting schedule for the monastery is announced as formally being “three sesshins (meditation intensives) per month – a seven day and two three days”. This would be an rigorous and hard-ass challenge by the standards of the Zen monasteries that I have practiced in America, where each day of a sesshin is an endurance test. But one of the three day “sesshins” took place during my week at Sōgen-ji, and it did not seem that intense or challenging – we spent a lot more time out in the open air moving around and working and less time in the hall meditating in stillness than we would have in the sesshins that I have attended at Zen temples in America.
Each night that I was at Sogen-ji, we would sit in meditation for three hours each night after dinner, with breaks every forty minutes or so to do brisk walking meditation in a weaving pattern around the inside and outside of the building. One night during the “sesshin”, before the time we would usually take our first break, the normal resident monks all got up from their sitting cushions and departed, going to the main building to have their “sanzen” interviews with Harada Roshi.
This left me on my cushion, sitting next to a Japanese guy who was also not a formal student of the Roshi’s.
It seems that no one had given much thought to him and me, and we just sat there without moving, minute after minute, one hour passing into the next. My crossed legs started to hurt and then fell asleep, as circulation cut off. I didn’t enjoy the intense pain I was feelings, and felt annoyed and left out by being apart from the rest of the community. But I also knew that, in Zen monastery, the expectation is that one does what one is scheduled to do, and fully experiences how it feels to do so, rather than doing things “your way”. So, I sat there, sitting still with and opening to the pain, boredom, and confusion, going deeper and then deeper still, discomfort dissolving into waves of bliss before hardening into pain again.
After a while, one by one, as they finished their interviews, the other students eventually came back. After what seemed like an eternity, long past the point where I felt like I was going to explode, to my great relief, the timekeeper rang the bell to end the evening’s three hours of practice. I had a profound experience of relief as I stumbled up and almost toppled over on my weakened bloodless legs, proud of myself for my endurance.
Besides sitting in meditation, the daily schedule at Sōgen-ji, like so that of so many monasteries, involved hours of mindful, silent physical work out in the fresh rural-feeling air. Each crisply cool morning before breakfast, we raked and swept the monastery’s many walkways and their surroundings, which I found refreshing and contemplative. For a few warm days in a row, we also had a project of raking, weeding, and clearing brush in the steep banks overlooking a serene lake behind the monastery. We were instructed to work in silence, but in truth there was plenty of conversation.
One work task that some of the more senior monks were expected to perform was “toilet tamping”, or scooping buckets of shit out of the monastery’s outhouses’ basins, and then carefully carry the buckets across the monastery grounds to fertilize a remote garden. At first I was baffled why the monastery couldn’t afford a plumbing system, but it eventually became clear to me that this was an well-funded monastery in the middle of a first-world country, and with many affluent patrons, so of course they could afford toilets. I figured out that the ancient traditional practice of toilet tamping had been kept on for intentional reasons – carrying buckets full-to-the-brim of shit strongly invites a monk to both be mindful, careful, and aware, and also to develop an open even-keeled equanamous experience with natural sensations of disgust and revulsion that most anyone would feel towards the task.
Only visiting for a week, I was not asked to do any toilet tamping myself. But I did get to work with feeling meditatively even-keeled with sensations of disgust and revulsion when I was sent to the pickling shack. Like much traditional Japanese food, the monastery cuisine was heavy on pickled vegetables, many of which were fermented on the monastery grounds in an unrefrigerated shack that was thick with slimy mold.
Generally, though, when pickled vegetables were served at the monastery meals, they were, like the rest of the food served, delicious. I think that most of the food that we ate was donated before it was cooked up. At Sōgen-ji, each of the monk monks took a turn being cook for the day – this contrasts with most Buddhist monasteries and retreats that I have attended, where a few monks or staff did all the cooking (and most of the rest didn’t). After each meal, everyone besides the cook washed, dried, and put away dishes together.
We ate at a long table in the middle of the kitchen, with the most senior people at one end serving themselves first. They then passed the pots and platters of food down the table, in decreasing order of seniority, ending with me at the other end. When Harada Roshi was on the grounds and joining us for the meal, he sat at the senior end of the table, holding court and looking regal, bad-ass, and slightly amused.
The monastery was a campus of large, ancient, and impressively solid buildings, structures, and cemeteries set amidst spacious grounds of panoramic ponds/lakes and rich, profound, primeval feeling forests.
There was a large hill/small mountain rising steeply to the rear of the grounds, with several mysterious stairways leading up through the trees to what I was told were hiking trails with breathtaking views.
The front of monastery consisted of a path of a few hundred yards out to a road that ran through the suburbs a half hour bus ride outside the main area of downtown Okayama City, a mid-sized regional metropolis.
I feel regret that this is the only Buddhist monastery that I have taken the time to stay at during my time here in Japan. There are several other monasteries that I know about that are open to Westerners, purportedly have strong genuinely spiritual practice and teachers, and where friends have stayed at in the past. I had intended to visit at least one other of them. There were a number of days when I intended to pack up my stuff and leave my hotel room in Osaka and take a train out to one of the other temples, but inertia and resistance to the new got the better of me and I stayed put. High on the list of possible destinations had been (1 & 2) the Soto Zen temples Bukkoku-ji (Harada Sogaku, teacher) and Hosshin-ji (Harada Sekkei Roshi, teacher), both in the town of Obama, North of Kyoto, (3) the Rinzai Zen temple Gyokuryu-ji in Gifu-ken (teacher Shinzan Miyamae Roshi), and (4) Shogo-ji (no teacher) on Kyushu Island.
[black and white pictures borrowed from here – thank you]