Overloaded by your to-do list? Not enough time to yourself? Drowning in work and assignments? Instead of booking a week in the sun or drowning your sorrows, why not escape it all and become a Zen Buddhist monk: meditate in beautiful surroundings, experience a Zen lifestyle and discover the key to inner peace – sounds like a fun bank holiday weekend, right?
Hosenji is a small Buddhist temple in the quiet, commuter town of Kameoka, a short train ride west into the hills from Kyoto. Here they welcome anyone to come and experience a ‘Zen lifestyle’ for a day, a month, or even years. When I visited back in February, I was surprised to find myself the only non-Japanese person out of about 30 guests – testing the hell out of my rudimentary Japanese…
A popular misconception is that Zen is about relaxation. Zen practice might eventually lower your stress levels, but life at Hosenji was a far cry from lying on a sofa listening to recorded birdsong. At the temple the keyword was ‘discipline’. You had to follow dozens of tiny rules precisely, from stepping over the threshold into the zendo (meditation room) in pairs, left foot first, to holding your right hand over your left in front of your chest as you walked in silence from place to place. Even mealtimes involve a series of precise movements, co-ordinated with others: placing your chopsticks at 45 degrees just off the table edge and ‘offering’ a grain of rice by placing just one on a communal plate before you start eating.
I was particularly inept at the latter, spending long, embarrassed minutes trying to transfer sticky Japanese rice from chopsticks onto a plate. A room full of monks looked on in disapproving and total silence.
Except for the middle-aged abbot, the other monks were mostly young men. During free time after lunch and in the evening, they were relaxed and chatty. Many were singers or actors, and one shyly revealed that he had been a member of the famous Japanese X-factor-style boy band, ‘JANNY’s’.
Once it was training time, though, these colourful personalities turned into the strictest of teachers. From hands in your pockets to eating too fast, they pick you up on every mistake and correct you firmly. It felt like being back in school. Criticism never felt harsh or personal, though – they want you to try hard, they clearly believe they are helping you, and eventually it works.
The core of Zen practice is of course zazen (meditation). Each session lasts 25 minutes plus a five minute break. Three consecutive sessions in the morning at sunrise are followed by three at sunset. The lotus position was slow agony for my back and legs – I have never done yoga and rarely find myself in anything other than the ‘sitting on a chair’ position. It was also a mental challenge. Have you ever tried to sit completely still, in a room so silent everyone can hear you breathe? Not only that, but you must not follow your thoughts and daydream. Instead, you calm your inner monologue – ideas and fantasies – and simply concentrate on your silent breathing in and out.
Easier said than done: there were moments when I felt a strong urge to run out of the room screaming. At various times, it felt inspiring, tedious, infuriating, energising, calming and exhausting.
In the end, despite the pain of it, I did become more aware of the thoughts running through my head. When I left the temple I naturally noticed and found myself concentrating on numerous small details around me, from the carving of a wooden door to the trees in someone’s garden.
These things I would probably not have noticed otherwise, my attention distracted by daydreaming about how many sights I had to see in one day or what I had to get done when I returned home. I also found uncharacteristic reserves of patience waiting for the train or just wandering around, and felt in no rush to ‘get stuff done’.
A weekend of calming the constant chatter inside my head produced this small change in perspective – a slightly heightened awareness of what’s actuallly going on.
The popular Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says, “when you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life”. It may sound a little ‘Zenspeak’ and cryptic at first, but I began to understand what he meant.
The discipline I experienced in the temple perhaps holds other, more obvious lessons. Particularly for a recently graduated humanities student, having such a strict schedule with people telling you what to do was unfamiliar and stressful. But once I had mastered the rituals, even mealtimes felt like completing a sudoku and I began to look forward to testing myself – the abbot’s motto, in fact, is ‘life is training’.
I found a certain character-building gratification in the structured routines and early starts, and after one gruelling session of zazen, chants and chores, simply chatting over green tea and biscuits during free time was unexpectedly satisfying and enjoyable. It opened my mind to the common-sense observation that a certain discipline magnifies the pleasure from even the simplest rewards. This is something I’m prone to forget in my normal weekday evening routine, here in Japan, of snacking on rice crackers and biscuits.
While staying in the temple, I befriended a tough-looking guy called Gym (the ‘G’ was for ‘gently’, he gruffly informed me). On the last day, he invited me to lunch and we spent a pleasant afternoon together drinking beer in cheap bars, visiting an onsen hot spring and doing a touch of sightseeing. Many practicioners of zazen say they notice an improvement in their personal relationships as their practice develops patience and empathy. After a weekend of zazen, both Gym and I were so composed that the topics of conversation came naturally. We could appreciate the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas without worrying about where we were going to go next or what the time was.
That said, perhaps the beer and onsen played their part – and perhaps they are a valid alternative to Zen austerities, firmly planted in what my no-nonsense mother would tell me was the ‘normal world’ and leading to their own brand of inner peace and enlightened thinking.
But before starting down that slippery slope, I think I have more to learn yet from the quiet, simple lives of the Hosenji monks.
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