One of the main interests I had before leaving was to have experience in a Zen monastery. I have always been fascinated by this form of Buddhism, so famous in Western literature. Before arriving in Japan, in reality, I didn’t know much of it, except that it derives from Chinese Buddhism Chan and that it is divided into various schools with different peculiarities. Unlike what we Westerners may think, the reality in Japan is surely different and this experience was fundamental to understand it. There are few monasteries that accept foreigners for quite long periods without asking for exorbitant amounts of money. Because nowadays Zen temples are money machines, with few exceptions. Like the one I was lucky enough to find.
As you can read in my biography, I have a past as a monk in Italy, 7 years of intense life meditating every day and experiencing a hard asceticism (without renouncing to the contact with people, fortunately). They have signed me for years, in which I studied many other religious and spiritual forms and they left me a deep interest in every human attempt to probe the “divine”, the mystery, the ineffable. One of the reasons that prompted me to undertake this journey is precisely the desire to experience reality on my skin that I had purely studied in books to touch their essence and learn something new. I am not looking for a new religion to embrace, far from me any interest in institutionalized religions and spiritual groups that often take the form of sects. But I am convinced that every reality of this type hides some interesting elements that can be useful in everyone’s personal journey.
To get an idea of what Zen is, I highly recommend reading this article: Zen Buddhism: Origins.
The Joman-ji temple in Shikoku
“The most important point in the study of the way is zazen. Therefore the disciples should focus solely on zazen and not be confused with other things. The path of the Buddhas and patriarchs is only zazen. Don’t worry about anything else.”Dogen
During my first trip to Japan in 2015, I was amazed by how much religion had become a pure business. In tourist places like Kyoto, the Koyasan, Nara (just to name a few) temples and shrines are real money machines. Sleeping in a temple costs from 70€ a night upwards. Attending to any course, meditation, ikebana, traditional Japanese writing, cooking and so on has exorbitant prices. Buy anything, a rosary, a typical object of Buddhism or Shinto the same. To walk on the famous pilgrimage of the 88 temples in Shikoku you have to buy clothes on purpose and for every stamp you get in the temples you pay dearly. The various religious festivities always involve a conspicuous amount of money: for example, Obon Dori in Kyoto, during mid-August, establishes the lighting of bonfires that are used to guide the souls of the dead towards the sky. Practically the wood with which the bonfires are lit is sold by its weight in gold and those who buy more will help their loved ones reach the sky and the temples become real screaming markets…
Finding a monastery
Considering this scenario, finding a monastery that would accept foreigners for a long period of time without ripping them off has been nothing but a Herculean task. On the Internet, there are mainly temples for tourists with the aforementioned prices. I then contacted a guy I had met thanks to Couchsurfing in 2015 and who had hosted me at his home. He was a Buddhist monk for 3 years but then he quit when he realized that being a monk in Japan is like doing a job. He then left the monastery, got married and is now a farmer in Fukutsu, Kyushu, devoting himself to Buddhism in a private way. When he found out that I had been a monk, he was in a transport of joy and wanted to know everything about my experience.
Remembering his past, I contacted him asking if he knew of any monastery that could do for me. He gave me the contact of someone who could help me, so I sent an email. I was told that they do not do this kind of service, but to try to contact other monasteries; he also passed me the link to a Forum, practically an online Buddhist sangha (community), according to the Soto school. I signed up and by dint of asking, a Japanese monk passed me some links including those of a Shikoku monastery called Joman-ji. The only contact on the website was a phone number and how to reach the temple. I called them several times, without ever answering the phone. In the end, I did ask a Japanese friend to try to call them and he managed to talk to them. He got the e-mail and I could talk to the head monk directly.
The head monk of the monastery is a relatively young monk named Koya Tamura, born in 1979. Originally from Tokyo, as a child, he felt the call to monastic life. This was the beginning of his monastic path, despite the initial aversion of his mother’s uncle, the only monk of the family. He graduated in Letters (specializing in Buddhist and Indian philosophy) at the University of Tokyo in 2003, learning Sanskrit and Korean. He then took a specialization in the same faculty in 2012. He completed his training as a monk in the Enji temple of Omotoyama.
He is an extremely cultured person, with a good level of English, but above all, who really cares about Zen and its precepts. He immediately opened the doors of his monastery saying that I could go whenever I wanted and stay as long as I wanted, without having to pay anything. I could not believe my eyes when I read his answer, having received only negative or with many zero answers. So, after my experience at the Mickey House Language Exchange Café, I headed to the Shikoku with a long journey by night bus, a train and 50 minutes on foot in south Japan.
The monastery is located in Tokushima prefecture, far from the main city. The nearest train station is Awa-Kainan and from there it takes about 50 minutes on foot (but there is also a bus that stops nearby). Joman-ji is surrounded by greenery, at the foot of a hill in which various animals live, such as snakes, monkeys, fallow deer. In the evening the animals enter the temple grounds, some even inside the buildings… This is the oldest Zen temple in all of Shikoku, founded in 1295 by Keizan Jōkin Zenji also known as Taiso Josai Daishi, one of the founders of Soto Zen Buddhism together to Dogen.
It has had considerable importance in the past in the surrounding area. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, like most Japanese temples. Thanks to the commitment of the previous abbot, Tetsuya Otsuki, who collected various funds, it was rebuilt and expanded after years of inactivity. Koya himself, who took office in 2011 at the age of 32, continuing the tradition of his predecessor, is committed to taking care of the monastery and continuing to work on it to improve it.
Few know that Japanese monks can marry, a practice introduced for several centuries and regularized not long ago. Koya, also, is married to Masan, a Buddhist nun with whom he had a beautiful 4-year-old daughter. During my stay in the monastery, in addition to the aforementioned family there was only one other monk, temporarily sent to Joman-ji to do three months of training to prepare to be the head monk in his grandfather‘s monastery in Kyushu. The other monks were temporarily absent: Mumon, an American who has lived for several years in Japan, a nun who was sent to a female monastery for training, another monk who was also engaged in a training and a boy who, in due to Asperger’s syndrome, he was moved and placed in a condition more aligned with his situation.
Living Zen in Joman-ji
“Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”Qingyuan Weixin
Wake-up call and Zazen
Wake-up call very early, at 4.30 am. The monks, apart from Koya and the family, sleep together in the Sodo, the building where Zazen is practised. Just 20 minutes to prepare, in silence, and at 4.50 you start the meditation, which lasts an exact hour. It is performed sitting cross-legged on a round cushion which in turn rests on a larger square and squashed one, so even the feet are not on the hard. Everyone is facing the wall, with eyes open. The concept is that of not focusing on one point but having an overall vision, also opening the other senses, such as hearing, touch, smell and listening to everything simultaneously. Forgetting about thoughts: don’t follow them, don’t get distracted, but don’t even try to stop them, because it’s also a distraction and loss of energy. The breath must be natural, not forced or controlled in any way. Koya, in this, follows Dogen‘s teachings of “just sitting” and letting the satori come by itself.
At the centre of the Sodo is the statue of Bodhisattva Manjusri: considered the meditator par excellence, more than the figure of a saint who really existed or a divine or angelic being, it is an “archetype“, energy, a model to imitate and to develop in ourselves. This, in fact, taught me Koya: that Zen Buddhism does not give much importance to gods, spirits, demons or whatever, as to what they can symbolize for us and awaken in us through the right use of them as “means” of growth (and not objects of veneration).
After the meditation, we proceed to the Zazen breakfast. This is done while sitting cross-legged on the pillow, but no longer facing the wall but towards the centre of the room. One of the monks prepares brown rice porridge, accompanied by pickles and gomasio. All while sutras are sung. The meal is consumed very slowly, chewing many times, paying attention to food and feeling it descend into the stomach.
It is a contemplation of the act of eating, according to the teachings of Buddha, who claimed that we must rediscover the simple daily gestures by making them slowly, bringing awareness into every act. Learn to give time even to apparently less important things (when, on the other hand, eating is a fundamental thing but which we now take for granted). For me it was an important exercise as I tend to eat fast; doing it every morning it came naturally to me to apply it also during the rest of the day.
After breakfast, we proceeded to the other building, called Hondo, where the sutras are recited, more or less around 7. Although Zen gives much more importance to the Zazen practise than to the scriptures, it does not deny them and indeed makes them a daily use, in the case of Joman-ji twice a day. The sutras are sung, accompanied by instruments such as drums, Tibetan bells, cymbals. More than a chant it is a dirge, a monotonous litany, in which the syllables chase each other without ever pausing (in fact, it is not clear where sentences begin and end) and are in archaic Japanese or Chinese (the Japanese canon refers to the Chinese one).
I was given a booklet in English with the translation and pronunciation of the words in romaji (Latin characters) but, despite this, it was really difficult to keep up with them with chanting. The same difficulty was to remember all the gestures to be made, the movements during the rituals, even those of entering and leaving the room. Ritualism is still very strong, despite the spirit of Zen being the opposite, fortunately, Koya and the other monks were quite lenient with my mistakes.
Work and leisure time
Once the sutras play is over, one engages in various kinds of work: cleaning, tidying up, gardening, helping out with whatever is needed. I remember that once Koya needed a hand for a move: a former medical clinic was being demolished and the owner gave the monastery furniture and things that could be used. So we went there on more rounds and using a lent truck because there was a lot of stuff to take. It reminded me a lot of the old days of when I was a monk! Moving furniture from houses were very common in my community. In fact, compared to these Zen monks, my practical skills were much more developed and I was very helpful.
Another type of work was collecting the branches and other remains of pruning made by the workers of the municipality in the monastery forest. Drap up, cut, split the wood. The work, however, was not constant but was alternated with break times. I would say that more or less it was 50% work and 50% break, then it depended on the days, which gave me time to devote myself to personal things (like writing). Coming from a community where we worked like mules, I was surprised to see how much the life of the Zen monks (at least of this monastery) is decidedly quieter and respectful of people’s natural rhythms.
9 am meeting
Every morning at 9 am, except for other mandatory commitments, there was a meeting in the dining room of all the monks, often attended also by Masan with the children. Yes, because in addition to her daughter, Koya and his wife kept a two-year-old boy who had lost his mother and whom his father was unable to look after on his own because of work. During this meeting we drunk a tea and ate a few cookies, talking about everything. I took the opportunity to ask questions about the Buddhist religion in Japan, not just Zen, and how the monks live. Koya was always so helpful and cultured that it was a pleasure to talk to him. After the meeting, work continued, always taking a break, until lunchtime, which was usually 12.
Prepared by one of the monks or sometimes by Masan, it was consumed together, after having chanted specific sutras. It is simple, healthy food, all homemade (no ready meals). The Zen monks are not obliged to be vegetarians, and in fact most monks are not, but Koya is keen to follow an animal-free diet, though not strictly (he told me once that the food offered they eat it whatever it is, and it happens that the laypeople do not know about the monks’ vegetarianism and offer them meat or fish). Lunch is also a moment of sharing and is consumed slowly. Once finished, the dishes are washed and a long break follows before the afternoon work activities, which are like those in the morning.
At 4 pm the bell was rung to call the monks to recite the evening sutras. Different from those in the morning (where, for example, you remain standing while in the evening you are sitting) but more or less of the same duration, perhaps slightly longer.
Shower and dinner
At 5 pm one of the monks (in this case it was me) lit the wood-burning stove so as to have hot water for the shower, while the other prepared dinner. During the evening meal, Koya and her family were not present, but they were together in their home (which is just outside the monastery). In fact, it was just me and the other monk, who didn’t speak English very well. Despite this, we had some interesting conversations and it turned out that he too is a heavy metal monk, just like me. Then one evening we listened to some metal songs: he goes really heavy with thrash bands and scream and growl songs. It was interesting (and fun) for me to meet another monk with a passion for metal! All those who have known me have always seen these two combinations as totally strident between them when it is not always the case. In fact, the rhythm, which in some sutras becomes maddening, of the drums during the recitation is reminiscent of that of the heavy metal drumming.
Zazen and sleeping time
After dinner, which usually started at 6 pm, there was another long break until 8.30 pm when Zazen was practised at night, this time half an hour. Once the meditation was over, the silence continued until morning meditation. Getting up early, it wasn’t unusual to go to sleep at 9 pm, maximum at 10 pm! As you can see the meditations are “only” two a day, which is strange for me since it is at the centre of Zen philosophy of life. Koya told me that traditionally there were 4 meditations a day for 2 hours each (during which you could get up, walk a little to move your aching body but maintaining a meditative state and start meditating again). In a temple, the Tenryu Shiseizen-ji of Fukui, they still do this. But in most temples, however, many do not even do meditation, giving more importance to rituals…
Every 5 days, you have a day off. The monks have the opportunity to leave the monastery and go shopping, to engage in personal activities. So, during our “day off” we did not practice Zazen (while we chanted the sutras, who knows why), we woke up “later” (at 6 am) and even the jobs were limited. We went back for the sutras chanting around 5 pm. I called it the “cheat day“, as those who do diets and sports so seriously. In those days they can eat whatever they want, breaking the rules. This cheat day reminds me of this day off for the Buddhist monks: they can do everything (or almost) what the other days is not allowed. As if being monks were not a state but, precisely, a job and as such provides a day off… So they go out, eat meat (some drink alcohol), devote themselves to social relations and so on.
“Which is more important: to be successful, or to find some meaning in your effort to be successful?”Shunryu Suzuki
Although mine was a relatively short experience, 10 days, I investigated a lot to know how monastic life is experienced today in Japan. First of all, the average Japanese is not a believer. Although Japan identifies itself as a Buddhist state, almost no Japanese identifies itself as a member of a specific religion, be it Buddhist or Shinto. They participate in festivals, ceremonies and rituals EXCLUSIVELY by tradition and certainly not by belief. Some rituals are done at the temple (Buddhism), others are done at shrines (Shintoism). And, apart from these two religions, other “new” traditions are followed, such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, getting married in the church (many Japanese get married in the Western manner, renting a fake church and doing a rite similar to our Christian, for pure fashion).
Most Japanese don’t have the slightest notion of what they are doing when attending a ceremony. I was lucky enough to take part in an Omikoshi, a traditional Shinto festival, in which we carry a hoist with a divinity inside to make them “blessing” the neighbourhood and be “greeted” by its inhabitants. Who invited me to participate, who has been living in that neighbourhood for several years and who is part of the organization, did not even know what divinity there was inside. Just to say…
Since the monks can marry (centuries) the concept of vocation is quite rare. Monk becomes the son or grandson of another monk, willing or not. In Japanese culture, the family has great power over the lives of children, not only in the families of the monks but in general. Thus, one of the sons MUST succeed to the father or grandfather. So it is also for the monk who was training at Joman-ji. He had worked as an editor in a manga publishing house when his father told him that his grandfather was too old to look after the temple and that it was his turn to succeed him. According to him, he says he is happier now than he was before (he has been a monk for 5 years) and the training he was doing was just what he needed to become a head monk of his grandfather’s monastery.
Koya, on the other hand, is one of those rare cases of a genuine vocation and, I have to tell the truth, one really feels the difference. He is in fact quite critical with this Japanese system (and he has confessed to me that he will not push his daughter to follow his path) but it is also true that the monks are decreasing in number from year to year and if the children or grandchildren do not do so, they will end up disappearing completely. What is certain is that, with this system, being a monk is more a job than a vocation (maybe that’s why they were allowed to marry…). Masan told me that there are many boys who are training in the central monastery in Yokohama and who escape taking a flight to Brazil or other distant countries. Most are stopped at the airport but get from the family to choose another path.
Funeral rites, death and enlightenment
The main role of the monk is to perform the rituals: there are several that concern the sphere of personal life but surely the most important are the funeral rites. In fact, they are the main source of income for monasteries. The attachment and respect of the average Japanese towards parents and older relatives is very high. This means that when they pass away, the living devote to them a lot of attention and do everything for their souls (which they don’t believe, but anyway, you never know). Japanese Buddhism has a peculiarity, not shared by Buddhists from other nations: when someone dies, a rite is celebrated (very long because for Buddhism the soul of the departed remains on earth for 49 days) so that the deceased is “baptized” to Buddhism, as if embracing this belief for the first time, in fact, he/she is given a new Buddhist name.
In this way, he/she is as if he/she started his/her life from scratch and, since a dead person cannot sin because, precisely, he/she is dead, he/she automatically reaches enlightenment, satori or nirvana, if you prefer. In short, it becomes free from the cycle of births, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Pretty cool, eh! Among other things, the name of the deceased is chosen by the officiating monk: long names are believed to be better than short ones. Since the celebration of the ritual is a free offer, the greater the offer, the longer the new name will be…
Practically the Japanese have solved the problem by making everyone become Buddha at the time of death. Stuff that makes the other Buddhists horrified, because the purpose of existence that is precisely that of reaching the Buddhahood is thwarted. When I raised this question to Koya, that one person can do the worst things in life then, thanks to the funeral, he/she becomes Buddha anyway, he gave me strange reasoning that, in all honesty, I could not understand. Ultimately, according to him, this does not discourage personal commitment during life (I don’t know how). Not all temples have a cemetery and therefore not all perform funeral rites. Joman-ji does not do them, for example. The funds come from the headquarters and the rest are donations from private individuals.
Ultimately I was very happy to have this experience. The monastery is very beautiful, in a peaceful area surrounded by nature, full of animals and lots of energy. Koya, his family and other monks are exquisite people who have fully integrated me into their daily lives. Of course, the language was sometimes a problem as only Koya spoke English well. So, if I was fine and everything was going well, why did I leave after 10 days instead of staying 4 weeks as I planned? First of all, I come from a very different monastic experience, decidedly “stronger”, where a lot of meditation was practised, strong asceticism and intense work, obedience was militaristic and there were no day-offs or days of freedom.
Living at Joman-ji was a bit of a vacation for me, a light experience. But this also had its positive sides, like having time to devote to my things (writing, for example). From a teaching point of view, such as meditation techniques, it was a bit disappointing for those who already have an experience like me. In the end, you learn all you need to know in one day, just put it into practice every day (which is not easy). Moreover, on the one hand, I felt that I was doing something that belonged to my past and that no longer concerned me. I found myself, after a while, to count the days
Finally, a strange thing happened: Koya had to leave to attend ceremonies to the north of the Shikoku for 6 days (and not having someone to speak English was not easy) and the internet stopped working throughout the monastery, preventing me from writing my articles (which require web searches). This last event, I took it as a sign and I decided to leave, without regrets. However, I recommend the experience at Joman-ji to all those who feel attracted to this discipline and who do not have too much experience in it or are newcomers: they will not be disappointed!
I remind you that it is always possible to finance my trip and therefore my articles! Thanks!