Day 14 & 15: A day in the life of a zen monk

An overnight field trip took us to Kamakura, a town of temples about an hour and a half from Tokyo. We stayed at the Engaku-ji temple, which is a Buddhist temple with about 25-30 practicing monks and several daily visitors.

Getas, traditional Japanese slippers worn by
monks at all times. 

After experiencing yet another delay caused by a train accident, we reached Kamakura in the afternoon and were shown our rooms. The first thing we were asked to do is change into geta, traditional Japanese slippers. We were then taken on a tour of the temple complex. The monk who was guiding us told us to walk in two lines with our hands placed on our stomach. The idea was that our arms shouldn’t swing on our side. On the tour, we saw the daily life of a monk. The monks eat, sleep and meditate in one room, which is common to many of them. There is no concept of privacy and everyone does things in the presence of other people. Everything was built the traditional Japanese way in an attempt to preserve tradition. All the rooms had tatami flooring, including our living quarters. The food was cooked using firewood (we were told that was helpful during the 2011 Fukushima disaster when electricity became temporarily unavailable). The temple complex was pretty huge. There was a zen garden, multiple buildings, preserved relics and places of worship. I don’t think we saw all of it.

The visitors quarters, where we meditated and ate. The
boys also slept here. 

After the tour, we went back to the visitor’s quarters (which was to be the place where we spent most of our time) to eat. Their eating rituals are very interesting. The men and women sat in two rows facing each other and wooden tables were placed in front of us. Two monks came and served the food. We were first handed three black bowls of different sizes wrapped in white napkins with chopsticks and a tiny handkerchief. We had to unwrap the napkin and place the chopsticks and three bowls next to each other on the table with minimal noise. Then, the two monks started serving the food. They would extend their hand for the bowl, which is when we were to bring our hands together in gratitude and then hand our bowl to them. They would fill the bowl with food and when we wanted them to stop we had to slide our hands together. For dinner, we had rice, miso soup and pickle. The rice was traditional Japanese sticky rice with seaweed in it. The miso soup had lots of vegetables in it. The pickle included a radish that we were asked not to eat right away. All the food was vegetarian, which is a Buddhist tradition. We started eating after everyone had been served. (It took a while for everyone to be served because each of the three dishes were served one by one, which meant the two monks going down the row of wooden tables thrice.) Just before we started eating we were asked to place a few grains of rice in front of our bowls on the table. These would be collected later and placed on the roof for the birds. The food was delicious and surprisingly filling. The monks came back twice for re-fills and we were repeatedly told to finish every bit of food that we took. We had to eat in silence and hold the bowl in our left hand while we ate with our right.

After we finished we were asked to wipe our bowls with the radish and then eat the radish. A kettle of hot water came around, with which we had to fill one of our bowls. We then cleaned the other two bowls using the hot water. The water would be transferred to the second bowl in which the first bowl would be cleaned. We had to drink this water and whatever remain morsels of food were left. When they meant finish your food, they really meant it. We used the little handkerchief to clean our chopsticks and wipe our bowls dry. We wrapped the bowl back to the form they’d been given to us in and put them on shelves behind us. They were to be used for breakfast the next day.

We were instructed to go take a bath. The women went first and had 25 minutes to use the communal bath. The communal bath is another Japanese tradition, in which you wash yourself with soap and water first, using a hand shower, and then you get into a hot tub of water (which also includes other people) in which you soak to relax. This was my first time using a communal bath and it was weird at first for all of us. But it turned out to be a really fun and relaxing experience.

After the bath we went to do zen meditation.We were told some general guidelines about posture (sitting up straight with crossed legs) and focusing our mind on our breathing (count your breaths). The monk then made a loud song by banging two bricks together (it made us all jump the first time) to mark the start of our meditation. We did 10 minutes at a time. He would end each session by ringing a bell and then banging the bricks together. I think we spent about an hour and a half doing several 10 minute long meditation sessions, but I’m not sure, because another thing about Zen Buddhism is not having too many clocks around. In the middle of meditation, we were served hot tea and a sweet which tasted like chalk with sugar. The last 10 minute session was an outdoor session in which sat on the deck of one of the little cottages of the temple complex. It was next to a zen garden and we could hear the frogs in the water croaking as we meditated.

Instead of water, we drank cold green tea

At 9 pm, it was bed time. We asked for water and were told that drinking water wasn’t safe, so they’d have cold green tea sent to our room. I learnt later that replacing water with green tea is fairly common. The next morning we were woken up at 4 a.m. for chanting. We were handed sheets with Kanji characters on them and taught their english pronunciations. We chanted for a few minutes and then did more meditation. This time, it was easier to focus, and my legs didn’t hurt as much as they had sitting cross legged the previous night. Breakfast was served at 5:30, which included plain rice porridge. To be honest, I couldn’t eat much of it. The eating ritual was the same again and we ate in silence.

The Zen garden by which we meditated at night

After breakfast, we had to do our share of community work by cleaning. Some of us cleaned dishes, some cleaned the living quarters and others swept the courtyard. We were thankful for half an hour of rest after that. We went for a second tour of the temple afterwards. While we were sitting next to the same zen garden by which we had meditated the previous night, my friend explained to me the Chinese origin of zen buddhism and its spread in Japan. A Zen garden is composed of rocks and water. Rocks in chinese culture represent permanance while water represents impermanence. But the two concepts are two sides to the same coin and are not diamterically opposed to each other. A zen garden embraces the complementary nature of the two.

As a part of the tour we watched a short film about the monastery. Several new monks arrive at the monastery every spring. But many of them are turned down because some of the monks who show up just do so to get food and shelter. The temple likes to ensure genuine interest of monks in Zen Buddhism. They also like to see perseverence, which means that monks are expected to not give up if rejected once.

Meeting with the abbot

After the meditation we walked over to meet the abbot of the monastery. The abbot had a constant smile on his face and he looked very peaceful and unworried. His expression reminded me of the Dalai Lama’s when I’d seen him in Dharamsala a few years ago. We had a question-answer session with him. The session deserves a separate blog post. But some of the interesting things that came up were Buddhist belief in following the natural order of things and being mindful of nature, enlightenment and how it’s all about recognizing oneself, hardships of life in the monastery and how it prepares you for other hardships in life. I learnt that monks get to see their families twice a year. They typically spend about three years in training and then leave the monastery to go to their own temples. Another random fact about Buddhism is that Buddhists believe in ghosts and afterlife, and they think that even when a person dies, he or she continues to exist as a ghost.

Spending a day in the monastery taught me so much about Zen Buddhism. Although I wouldn’t choose such a life myself, I can appreciate those who do. Most of all, I admire the ability of these monks to distance themselves from modernization and technology (especially in an advanced country like Japan) and continue to preserve traditional culture. The control they have over their emotions and mind is incredibly powerful and very useful in real world situations. If these monks were to step out of the spiritual world to enter the life of an ordinary human being, they’d without doubt be much better and more successful at it.