Monk for a day

Janet Pocorobba and a motley crew of weary Tokyoites spend 24 hours shadowing Sojiji’s monks

What impresses me most about Sojiji is its scale. The swooping, pteradactyl-wing roofs. The shadowy, cavernous interior that spirals in on itself, room after room, hall after hall. The austerity of the monks-black-robed, barefoot and bald.

I've come to Sojiji for a zazenkai, a meditation session, sponsored by the Maple Club of Tokyo. For a nominal JY3000, we will stay for 24 hours to participate in all aspects of temple life: meditation, lectures, meals, and physical labor. We meet at the station, where the Maple Club leader, a housewife dressed like a teenager, waves us over like a mother hen summoning her chicks. My fellow Zenmates are a German Mercedes-Benz salesman, a balding Japanese man with youthful cheeks, two backpackers and an assortment of English teachers, including my colleague, Magda, and myself.

We troop to the temple in a cold drizzle and follow our leader, who, like a tour-bus guide points out statues and rocks-momentarily interrupting her well-rehearsed spiel on Buddhist art. The rain pitter-patters on the roofs as we wind through pine groves and moss gardens. Many have come on a lark, curious to see what goes on behind the Buddhas and incense. Others hope for an elixir for their Tokyo-weary bodies and spirits. I am somewhere between the two. A mere five minutes and we are in a sacred silence, far from Tokyo.

Way of the Soto
Sojiji is one of the main temples of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism (the other is in Fukui). The Zen Master Dogen brought the Soto teachings to Japan from China in the early 13th century, which offered an alternative to the Rinzai teachings popularized by another master, Eisai, at that time. The chief difference between the Rinzai and Soto schools is the method used for achieving satori: the Rinzai sect uses koan, or short riddles, to provoke a sudden, direct enlightenment, whereas the Soto school relies on deep zazen, or meditation, for a gentler epiphany. We settle in and head for our first activity. Our green vinyl slippers swish us along winding corridors and halls to a 30-mat room, where we sit and wait for the head priest.

He enters in billowy burgundy robes and sits before us. He has a kind but severe face. As he speaks, a young acolyte next to him translates. When the master pauses, the acolyte pops up on his knees, tilts his head to one side and, rubbing the top of his head, searches for the words in English. Despite his efforts, I only vaguely grasp the meaning, which seems to involve four views of water, hungry ghosts and fish. I soon give up and concentrate instead on the priest's face, handsome and expressionless until he smiles and his whole being radiates through his cheeks, crinkling up against his eyes in pure mirth.

Locked in lotus
Evening brings the first meditation. The zendo meditation hall has an austerity that is softened only by the sweet smell of aged cypress, musky incense, and an enormous statue of the Kannon, Goddess of Mercy. We assemble onto raised tatami platforms around the perimeter and center of the room, each mat facing a shoji panel. Since Soto Zen requires open-eye meditation, our task is to stare at the shoji and focus for 40 minutes. We are encouraged to sit lotus-style or in any other posture that provides good, clear breathing. Our hands are cradled in a mudra, left over right with thumbs touching. After we bow to fellow meditators and to our zabuton cushions, we climb onto the mat, taking care not to touch the wood on the border, as this 3x2 straw rectangle is where training monks eat their meals (and sleep).

Wordless, a gong signals the beginning of the zazen, and a stick of incense is lit to measure time. I stare at a tiny tear in the shoji and listen to people breathing, coughing. The jikijitsu roams the room looking for slackers. He carries his bamboo keisaku, or stick, in front of him like a flag and walks slowly and deliberately among us, his shadow appearing and receding on the white paper panels. Occasionally he stops and I hear robes swishing in ritual bows, followed by the whir of the stick cutting the air and slapping onto someone's neck. Involuntarily, I straighten, wanting to avoid the bamboo crack. I soon lose touch with my body; my head detaches and floats away. A gong ends the session and we ease our locked legs out of position, like insects slowly emerging from a chrysalis. We end with a walking meditation, a short silent shuffling that brings our tingling feet back to life.

As we exit the zendo, we notice a foreign monk in traditional robes and decide to question him. He is an amiable, gap-toothed Norwegian who is delighted to make Zen more accessible for us. Our questions come fast. "Who shaves your head?" "How do we quiet our mind?" "Why do we get whacked?" His answers come rapidly, too. "We shave each other." "Let thoughts come, but let them go again." "The stick is not punishment, but is to help you maintain focus and proper position for stillness and concentration." He has a frothy laugh, but is deadly serious, too. As he talks to us, his large farmer hands are in an unconscious mudra. He shows us how to ask for the stick, with hands in prayer and head bowed and tilted to the jikijitsu.

Meal fit for a monk
After zazen, we file into the dining room (our converted 20-mat sleeping room) where we chant the Heart Sutra (luckily printed on our chopsticks wrapper) before starting the simple repast. Rules allow no talking, just eating, being careful to pick up and put down each dish with two hands (slower, more thoughtful eating). Dinner is simple monastery fare-miso with tofu and wakame, an Autumn stew with konnyaku, fried tofu, carrots, rice and pickles. Etiquette requires that we finish everything but a single pickle. At the end, a monk pours hot water into our dishes and we mop the bowls clean with hashi and pickle, then discard the water and eat the pickle, allowing for no waste whatsoever.

There is another zazen after dinner, followed by baths. At 9pm lights are out. There are fifteen women in my room, tossing and turning in the dark quiet punctuated by the sound of slippers or hushed voices. At 3:30am, I receive a miraculously effective and peaceful wakeup call: the lights turn on and a monk says gently "Ohayo Gozaimasu." I spring up, energized, and soon begin shivering in the midnight cold.

More meditation
We can see our breath as we enter the zendo for 4am zazen. As we sit, I hear a monk running through the temple ringing a hand bell. It is the waking call of a new day. I picture him, cherub face and shiny head, robes flying behind him as he races through the passageways, his bare feet slapping the wooden floors like fish. I decide to seek "help" in staying awake and supplicate to the jikijitsu. He bows to me and raises his bamboo pole, looking like a killer in the shoji shadows. I tense and he comes down expertly on the nerve between my neck and shoulder. A sharp twinge travels down my spine, though less of pain than refreshed alertness. Encouraged, I ask again.

After zazen, we attend the monks' daily service in the main hall, dramatically draped in purple curtains and gold streamers. We sit chattering on the sidelines and watch the procession of monks in saffron, crimson and black. They bow ceremoniously, bending at the waist and then to the floor, arms out, palms up, three times in a row. A large gold Buddha, nestled among lacquer and gold trays of incense and offerings, watches. Four acolytes remind me of the monks in "Dojoji," the Kabuki/Noh plays that feature temple priests. They scurry to serve the high priests, their tabi a white blur under their robes. They bring prayer books stacked and latched together in heavy brocade cases (there are 600 sutras). They hold three cases together, then toss them in the air and catch them like jugglers. They kneel before the priests and flip the pages of each accordion-paged book back and forth in front of their eyes like a blackjack dealer. Then they rise, charge "Ho!" like linebackers, and touch the books to their heads. As flawless as any acrobatics in kabuki.

Second time around
Breakfast is simpler than the evening meal, and we are served okayu, a watery rice gruel topped with sesame seeds, salt and pickles. By 7am, we are outside with straw brooms and rakes to clean the temple grounds alongside the monks, still barefoot with their sleeves tied up. The autumn sun is hot, and it is a pleasure to be outside in the sunlit courtyard, away from the dark, damp inner world of the temple.

After work and 45 minutes of free time, we return, starving, and are happy to find tea and cookies laid out for us. We snack with the Norwegian monk again, who tells us that he teaches English a few hours a week to support his wife and child and plans to open a Zen temple in his homeland someday.

The 8:30pm zazen is harder than 4am. I am so tired that I ask for the stick three times-I love pain!-and enjoy it every time. There is a last lecture on "oneness." I fight to keep awake until 10:30pm, when we return to gather our things and get ready to go.

It is in leaving Sojiji that I realize the power of my experience there. I wander out with the group, some of us stopping in the gift shop for omiyage and incense, others off to grab coffee, hamburgers, cigarettes. We wave, promising to send photos. On the train, I am eager to get back to my routine. As I look around, it feels odd that people are not bowing their heads and clasping hands when they meet each other. I watch the Buddha-like faces as I whiz back to Tokyo and my life there, everything now tinged with the sacred.

Months later, I see the Norwegian monk on his begging circuit in front of Shinagawa station. My first instinct is to run up to him and greet him, since he was so open and friendly at the temple. I stop myself, feeling foolish and selfish. I let him chant in peace. I drop a coin into his bowl and he bows slightly, the brim of his hat covering his face, but not his lips, which are curled in a smile.

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