Guest Contributor: Tom Monaghan on Zen at Hosenji Temple

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 Temple

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.

Zazen

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.

All about Zen - Brad Warner's classic 'Sit Down and Shut Up'

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 line between zenspeak and real insight is perilously thin, but Thich Nhat Hanh is on the right side of it...

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.

Hall of a Thousand Buddhas

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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7 Comments

  • Yoshi Inoue
    September 13, 2013 - 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this Tom! I was planning on going to stay at Hosen-ji for a couple of months next year. But I don’t think I will go now after reading your post. I really like Zen ideas, but I am not sure if I like the practice of self-discipline. I like Alan Watts style zenspeak… That is to say, it’s all a joke. Maybe it is a funny one. Maybe it is not. But I like the his Zen approach to life – which is undefinable and definitely not serious. I think I am going to try out Vipassana Meditation Centre in Chiba. Here is the link: http://www.jp.dhamma.org/index.php?id=1124&L=0

    Right, I better get back to work…

  • Chris
    September 17, 2013 - 2:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, Tom! Were you inspired to maintain a meditation practice after this? Or did they fail to convince you about long-term practice?

  • Tom Monaghan
    September 17, 2013 - 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments. Yoshi I have a friend who did that course and she seemed to enjoy it, if that’s the word. I don’t want to put you off Hosen-ji – I would say I came back more refreshed than if I had just been at a beach or something, for sure. It was a bit of a shock at first, as I was expecting a laid back commune sort of place. But once adjusted I actually began to appreciate the rhythms and routines, the early starts, the taciturn head monk correcting you, etc. The strictness of it all made it pretty immersive. At the very least, it was a fascinating experience of a particular philosophical way of life!

  • Tom Monaghan
    September 17, 2013 - 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Chris – in truth I’m quite persuaded about the benefits of meditation practice, even though I don’t do it regularly, so in a way it didn’t really change my personal views. It was interesting to do it so intensively in such a setting, though. I can’t imagine doing it every day for over 3 hours, like the monks there, because it was simply a difficult thing to do! But they seemed pretty expert at it, and as I say speaking to them casually they were totally down to earth just young guys. I’m considering returning to Hosenji or finding similar places in Japan soon.

  • Yoshi Inoue
    September 18, 2013 - 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Tom, I’m glad you had a positive experience at Hosen-ji. Yes, you did put me off Hosen-ji, and probably any other Zen temple in Japan. But this is due to my lack of research – it is not your fault at all ha. I expected Hosen-ji to be some kind of a retreat centre where one can focus on zazen, and zazen alone, with minimum instruction. I am sure that the monks at Hosen-ji would tell me that meditation and discipline are interdependent. But I don’t know where to draw the line between tradtion/culture and philosophy/technique… Why did you feel the strictness immersive? Do you think there was any point in focusing all your attention to hold your chopsticks at 45 degree angle? I wonder if this ties in with occupational therapy… By the way, I am currently doing something that, frankly, I do not give a shit about. But I somehow find the routine rather therapeutic. However, I would go crazy if, like Sisyphos, I were told that this is the only thing I must do for eternity. Perhaps meditation is an aid to the never ending task (state) of living…? I don’t know Tom. What do you think?

  • Tom Monaghan
    September 21, 2013 - 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Great questions, Yoshi. To the chopsticks question, I don’t think it was anything about tradition. There were so many tiny rules you could get wrong, and you had to do everything at the same time as everyone else, it seemed to me the purpose was to make sure you were concentrating and focused, in the ‘present moment’, all the time as you were eating, that you noticed every spoonful that went in your mouth and thus appreciated it. This was pretty instructive to someone like me, who is prone to gulping down mountains of senbei after work before realising what I’m doing. Regarding occupational boredom – when I was meditating regularly I found it much easier to tolerate interminable Japanese style formal meetings, and I probably did my job better, too. I could concentrate happily on usually tedious tasks like making lesson materials. I think we spend a lot of time being ‘bored’, daydreaming and flitting from task to task (or is it fear of being bored?). It feels nice just to concentrate on one thing, however banal, and do it well. I think meditation makes you comfortable with silence and inactivity, and helps focus your attention, so boredom (I wonder how you’d define boredom? A lack of attention to what’s before you?), isn’t really a problem. That was definitely something I appreciated, and I might take up regular meditation again looking at all my after-school meetings scheduled for next month…do you think it would help with your job?

  • Yoshi Inoue
    September 21, 2013 - 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I think you hit the nail on the head describing boredom as a lack of attention. Although, from my perspective, boredom is specifically when you’re dissatisfied with the present moment – focusing on ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. I think some meditation techniques (e.g. Centering Prayer) can direct your consciousness to be more detached (or attached to God), allowing you to be a witness of your own stream of consciousness. I don’t meditate regularly enough to know its effect though… I am very interested in the effect of psychedelic / dissociative drugs for the above purpose. I see a huge potential in this area. I think some drugs like LSD and Ketamine should be legalised for scientific research (to start with…).

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