On Friday we left Kyoto via train to the small town of Kameoka, nestled in the mountains of rural Japan. The ride there featured spectacular views, the pristine mountains covered in the new-fallen snow, with rivers running blue through the valleys. After a lunch break and a cab ride, we arrived at our lodging for the next two nights, Jotokuji Monastery, located at the base of one of the mountains which encircle Kameoka. We were given the full monastic experience, participating in chanting and meditation, taking meals in silence, and sleeping on futons on the floor, all without any heating in the buildings, which required ample use of multiple layers of clothing and heat packs to stay warm. The zen master, Roshi Hozumi Gensho, led us through the various rituals and procedures the first time, after which we were expected to know them well enough to do them without instruction. At the monastery, our waking hours were spent chanting, meditating, and eating ritualized meals.
We began each morning with a wake-up bell at 4:45, and began the morning program at 5:05 with a service of chanting. The service consisted of eleven group chants, with three interludes provided by the monks leading the service. As we chanted, one of the monks would ring bells at specific points and would beat a drum in rhythm with the text. While we could not understand the words, as they were entirely in Japanese, the experience was still a transformative one. In joining our voices in chant, all else seemed for a time to pass away, Time and Form giving way to a deeper Something beyond our knowledge or perception.
We meditated several times a day; twice on the first evening, four times on the next day, and once the morning that we left. Our meditations were split between meditating in the main hall of the monastery in which we were staying and meditating in the Zendo hall at Tokoji Temple, a short walk down the road. We would meditate anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour in silence, focusing the mind and breath to confront the Self. When we meditated in our monastery, we would sit facing the large windows, which look out on the mountain beyond. We also had a couple of sessions of Standing Zen, which involved raising and lowering our arms in time with our breathing to focus our energy before a period of meditation. To say that zazen, or seated meditation, could be painful would be a bit of an understatement. Not being used to sitting in Half-Lotus position for extended periods at a time is wont to cause a number of aches and pains previously unknown to the human body. Overall, however, meditation is a deeply contemplative experience, allowing for personal exploration on a level not ordinarily experienced by most.
We were given three meals a day, each highly ritualized and conducted in silence. We were provided a set of five bowls and a set of chopsticks each, along with rags with which to clean them. We sat on cushions on the floor around a long table, and food was passed from one end of the table to the other, each person taking only what they could eat, as leftovers were not allowed. The food was vegetarian, in accordance with the First Precept of Buddhism (harm no life), and generally consisted of a rice dish, miso soup, and a cabbage dish. One meal a day, we would take a few grains of rice, pass them in a circle over our hands, and give them as an offering for the fish. One of the bowls each meal was reserved for a small bit of pickle, which was used with hot water at the end of the meal to clean the bowls and eaten afterward. It took us a bit to get the routine down, but by the end of our stay we were champions of the Zen meal.
Our stay in Jyotokuji Monastery gave us deep insight into the daily routines of Zen monks, as well as exposure to meditative practices. The beauty of our surroundings also enhanced the experience, taking us to new spiritual heights, from exploring in the Shinto shrines tucked into the woods, to watching the mist roll down the mountains at daybreak. We leave the monastery physically exhausted, yet spiritually awakened, transformed and renewed, ready for new adventures.